The atonement is the work that Christ did in his death to earn our salvation. For the past two weeks my family and I have been considering it in our family Bible reading time, guided by Wayne Grudem’s discussion of it in Chapter 27, “The Atonement,” of his Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1994). Here I’m sharing part of what we’ve considered in our family reading.
In my last post I identified two causes of the atonement–the love of God and the justice of God–and four aspects of Jesus’ suffering on the cross–physical pain and death, the pain of bearing sin, abandonment, and bearing the wrath of God. In this post, I’ll identify four aspects of the atonement–sacrifice, propitiation, reconciliation, and redemption–and four views of the atonement other than the one presented here–the ransom to Satan theory, the moral influence theory, the example theory, and the moral government theory.
Aspects of the Atonement
The New Testament uses different terms to describe different aspects of the atonement. Grudem identifies these four:
1. Sacrifice. “He has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26).
2. Propitiation. “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). As I noted in my last post, propitiation is the removing of wrath by the offering of a gift.
3. Reconciliation. “God…through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconcilation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:18-19).
4. Redemption. “for even the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45; Jesus was speaking). A ransom is the price paid to redeem someone from bondage.
Theories of the Atonement
The view of the atonement presented here is generally known as the theory of penal substitution or the theory of vicarious atonement. “Penal” refers to Jesus’ bearing a penalty when he died and “substitution” refers to his being a substitute for us when he died. “Vicarious” refers to Jesus’ taking our place. Although it is the view most generally held, several other views of the atonement have been put forward in the history of the church, four of which Grudem describes and argues against. They are:
1. The Ransom to Satan Theory. It holds that the ransom which Jesus paid (see “Redemption” above) was paid to Satan.
2. The Moral Influence Theory. It holds that Jesus died on the cross to show us how much God loves us, enticing us to love Him and thus obtain salvation from Him.
3. The Example Theory. It holds that Jesus died on the cross to provide an example to us of how much we should love God if we are to obtain salvation from Him.
4. The Moral Government Theory. It holds that Jesus died on the cross to demonstrate to us that God requires a penalty to be paid when His laws are broken. Jesus’ dying on our behalf allows God to forgive us our sins while preserving the moral government of the universe.
Grudem’s main criticism of each of the four theories is that it doesn’t account satisfactorily for the many Bible passages which refer to Christ as a sacrifice and propitiation.
God the Father required Jesus to pay the penalty for our sins. Isaiah prophesied, “The LORD has laid on him [the Lord’s servant] the iniquity of us all” (53:6, ESV; all Biblical quotations are taken from the ESV). Paul told the Corinthians, “For our sake he [God] made him [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
The New Testament often refers to Christ’s blood in connection with our salvation. For example, Peter writes, “You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:18-19). This shows the connection between Christ’s death and the sacrifices of the Old Testament, their pointing forward to his death.
Although Calvinists maintain a limited atonement in which Jesus’ death atones for the sins of only those chosen to follow God (see my November 17, 2012, “Calvinism and Arminianism” post), such passages as John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whosever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life,” clearly show that Jesus died on the cross with the intention of saving everyone. However that doesn’t mean that everyone is going to be saved, the same passage’s specifying that salvation is limited to “whoever believes in him [Jesus].”
As we conclude this chapter on the Atonement, we may have many feelings of amazement, thanksgiving, and joy for what God has done. We may well stand awed and amazed at a love and grace in Jesus Christ so immeasurable as to compel Him to suffer and die for a sinful world–for people like you and me. We can never be thankful enough that our Lord was willing to go all the way, even to bearing our condemnation, that we might be saved. Let us together rejoice with joy unspeakable that through His great act of reconcilation we will live eternally in His presence.” (Rodney J. Williams, Renewal Theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1996. Volume 1, page 370)