Theories of the atonement

Several theories of the atonement have been propounded throughout church history. We will consider the major ones an explain why only the last one mentioned is Scriptural while the rest are false.

(1) "Christ fully identifies with man and as partaker of our sufferings sets us the perfect example of self-sacrifice to God."

What is said above is true as far as it goes. But when you apply such a declaration in reference to the whole purpose of the atonement, then it becomes a gross misrepresentation.

Certainly, Christ identifies with man to such an extent that he became incarnate and tabernacled among us. Purposing to save man he identified with man, partaking of the same flesh and blood. He is described as our great high-priest, able to sympathise with weak and sinful men. He also partook of our sufferings, being born in poverty and endured temptation, privation, slander and every sort of trail imaginable. He is the "man of sorrows and acquainted with grief." Ultimately his obedience to the Father's will lead him to suffer upon a cross.

Thus his whole attitude, behaviour and dependency upon God is placed before us as a model for us to imitate. "For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow his steps" (1 Peter 2:21). Yes, there we find the perfect picture for us, what it means to be wholly consecrated to God.

But this theory of the atonement fails not because of what it proposes but because of what it leaves unsaid. For the apostle, continuing his thoughts, gives us the true significance of Calvary immediately afterwards: "Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed" (v.24).

The atonement, therefore, effected the removal of sin by sacrifice. It is not our self-sacrifice that earns forgiveness and salvation.

(2) "The great atoning fact is our acceptable faith and repentance induced by the sight of Christ's death on the cross."

Our faith and repentance are never said to atone for personal sins. Rather they are described as gifts from the risen Christ (Philippians 1:29; Acts 5:31), and instrumental means of salvation, i.e., by faith we become partakers of Christ and flee to him for salvation.

But salvation itself was wrought by Him. "He by himself made purification for sins" (Hebrews 1:3). There is nothing for us to do in order to complete or make salvation whole. It is rather the blood of Christ that atones (Romans 5:11), i.e., brings reconciliation with God.

In the Bible we are never told and it is never intimated that when people hear about Christ's death they will feel sorry and turn to God, and in this very act they enact salvation for themselves. If this were so, then salvation belongs to man, rather than God.

(3) "Christ satisfied God's justice by His sympathetic identification with our sins and vicarious repentance of them."

Almost every false theory has a ring of truth around it; upon examination it is found out for what it really is - the fabrication of the human mind rather than God's interpretation of Calvary. Indeed Christ identified with sinners (not with our sins) to such an extent that he submitted to John's baptism.

But it is a wholly foreign idea to Scripture to say that he vicariously repented of our sins. On the contrary, we have to repent of our own sins. Repentance is a saving grace, given from above; but man has to repent, not Christ. Repentance, in other words, is man's duty and responsibility. "Repent ye, and believe the gospel," Christ preached. Christ died a substitutionary death, the just for the unjust; in the application of his atonement, the Spirit then works repentance in us, having given us a new heart in regeneration.

Finally, Christ satisfied God's justice, not by vicarious repentance but by the shedding of his blood (Romans 3).

(4) "Our sight of Christ's atoning sufferings deter us from sinning, thereby enabling God to forgive our sin without endangering His moral government of the world."

Such sentiments originated in the mind of Hugo Grotius (1583-1645). Known as the Governmental theory of the atonement, this theory agrees with the first three in holding that the divine nature does not need to be propitiated.

It holds instead that God, in order to maintain respect for His law, made an example of His hatred of sin in the death of Christ. The bearing of suffering on the part of Christ supposedly takes such a hold on the hearts of men that they repent; and since repentance is the only condition to forgiveness, God secures the salvation of the sinner by the death of Christ. God is satisfied with less than is expected, so to speak.

But this theory does not explain why this Example must be an innocent Person; it does not explain the intensity of Christ's sufferings (Mark 15:23; Luke 22:44; Matthew 27:46); and it denies the fundamental aspect of the atonement, i.e., that of making a satisfaction to the holiness of God.

(5) "Christ propitiated God's wrath and expiated our guilt by completely fulfilling the demands of His Law in both its precept and its penalty."

I mark out this sentence as containing, in its gist, a true and balanced statement of the Atonement.

Christ's death demonstrated God's love and justice simultaneously. God's attributes, being a harmonious whole, were honoured on Calvary, and vindicated for time and eternity. The propitiation of God's wrath by Christ is a revelation of God's love for a sinful world (John 3:16).

By God's own initiative, Christ came not only to show us the way to the Father, but the actually and really deliver from wrath and the bondage of sin, and justify us by his blood. "In this is the love of God manifested, that He sent his Son to be a propitiation for our sins" (1 John; also Romans 3).

God's law had to be honoured. God could never accept something less. This, Christ did by his perfect conformity to the law: "I have not come to destroy the Law and the prophets; but to fulfil them." But, in dying as a substitute, he had to endure the penalty of the same law, which is death.

Thus, what was impossible for us to do, Christ did on our behalf and as our representative. The following elements come to the fore in Scripture, when it speaks of Christ's atonement:

1. All men are sinners.

2. All sinners are in desperate peril because of their guilt.

3. Salvation takes place only because God in his love wills it and brings it about.

4. Salvation depends on what God has done in Christ.

5. Both the Godhead and the manhood of Christ are involved in the process.

6. Christ was personally innocent.

7. While the importance of the life of Christ is not to be minimised, central importance is attached to His death (active and passive obedience).

8. In His death Christ made Himself one with sinners. He took their place (2 Corinthians 5:21, Galatians 3:13; Hebrews 9:28; 1 Peter 3:18, etc.).

9. By his life, death, resurrection and ascension Christ triumphed over Satan and sin and every conceivable force of evil (Colossians 2).

10. Christ secured a verdict. He accomplished salvation powerfully, but also legally. God is able to justify sinners on the basis of his death (Romans 3:26).

11. In his death Christ revealed the nature of God as love (1 John 4:10; Romans 5:6,8,10).

12. These events demand from us a response: God commands all men everywhere to repent (Acts 17). Evidently Christ's death was substitutionary, vicarious, and penal. This is where the whole weight of prophetic and apostolic testimony falls.