[Editor’s Note : This article is the eighth in a series on “The Person and Work of Christ.”]
No event of time or eternity quite equals the transcending significance of the death of Christ on the cross. Though other important undertakings of God could be mentioned, such as the creation of the physical world, the incarnation of Christ, the resurrection of Christ, His second coming, and the creation of the new heavens and the new earth, no one event is more far-reaching in its implications than the death of Christ. Accordingly, throughout the history of the church devout minds have found this subject worthy of deepest meditation.
A faithful student of Christology cannot escape the responsibility of a careful study of this doctrine. Its proper understanding is the heart of gospel preaching as well as systematic theology, and without it other doctrines of Christology have no relevance either to human needs or to a vital hope. Everything that is essential to salvation depends upon the suffering and death of Christ.
Like other important doctrines of Christian faith, the suffering and death of Christ can only be understood partially and surpasses ordinary human understanding. It requires a Spirit-taught mind to enter into the wonders of its meaning as it partakes of the infinity of the nature of Christ Himself. In the cross of Christ God is supremely revealed in His holiness and righteousness in their greatest historic revelation, set over against the love of God which prompted the sacrifice of Christ. The infinite wisdom of God revealed in the divine plan for the death of Christ is another evidence of the omniscience of God. No human mind would ever have devised such a way of salvation and only an infinite God would have been willing to give His Son to accomplish it.
The death of Christ has been disputed in two major areas by those who reject the Scriptural revelation: (1) Some liberals affirm that Christ died but did not literally rise from the dead, thereby casting doubt upon the significance of His death. (2) Some few have held that Christ did not actually die and was merely revived. In this case both the death and resurrection of Christ are in question. Either of these two positions are destructive to Christian faith.
The Biblical record of the death, of Christ is a complete presentation both from the prophetic and the historic standpoints. Many passages in the Old Testament as well as in the Gospels predicted the death of Christ, such as Psalm 22, Isaiah 53, Mark 8:31, Luke 9:22, and similar references. If one accepts the Biblical testimony, it is unavoidable that one also accepts the fact of the death of Christ. All the Gospels and all of the epistles either state or assume the fact of His death (cp. Matt 27:32-66; Mark 15:21-47; Luke 23:26-56; John 19:16-42; Rom 5:6; 1 Cor 15:3; 2 Cor 5:15; Rev 5:9).
The Biblical testimony, of course, is confirmed by the history of the church and the fact of the existence of the church itself. Historically, the Biblical doctrine of the person and work of Christ are essential to explain the existence of the church. Without the death of Christ there would be no sacrifice for sin, no salvation, no resurrection, and all the other elements that form the content of Christian faith from the beginning. The fact that the Christian church was able to endure centuries of persecution and survived centuries of neglect and opposition is difficult to explain apart from the system of theology stemming from belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God who actually died, rose, and ascended into heaven.
In order to have an accurate understanding of the theology relating to the death of Christ, it is necessary first of all to define the terms used in the Bible and in theology relating to the atonement. The following important words are worthy of careful definition.
Atonement. This word is used in three different senses. Biblically the word is found only in the Old Testament where it means to cover, that is, put sin out of sight. In the Authorized Version, the word atonement is found in Romans 5:11, but it should have been translated reconciliation. The Old Testament concept of atonement is not found in New Testament revelation. Etymologically the word is a combination of the syllables at-one-ment, meaning to be made at one, i.e., to reconcile. This meaning is somewhat archaic, however, and seldom is meant when the word is used in modern English. Theologically, the word atonement is used to include all which Christ accomplished by His death. It has by usage come to be a technical word meaning something more than the Old Testament concept and more than its etymological background. The theological usage therefore should be considered normal on the basis of the hermeneutical principle that usage determines the meaning of words. It is not proper, therefore, to refer to atonement theologically in the same sense as the word was used in the Old Testament, i.e., a temporary covering of sin. Some writers prefer not to use the word in the theological sense because of possible confusion with the Old Testament doctrine.
Expiation. Though not a Biblical word, expiation is properly used to represent the Biblical idea of bearing a penalty for sin and therefore pays the penalty demanded by the moral law which was transgressed. Inherent in this definition is the concept of sacrifice and judicial suffering, though it is not necessarily substitutional in character.
Forgiveness. Though sometimes considered only an emotional change whereby the party injured ceases to feel resentment against the guilty party, in its theological use it represents the removal of charges against the sinner on the ground of proper satisfaction. Forgiveness on the part of God always has a judicial basis, not an emotional basis, and represents an attitude of God based upon the satisfaction of His righteousness in some way.
Guilt. As used objectively in theology, the word guilt represents a just charge against a sinner for any kind of sin or transgression, whether a breach of conduct, violation of law, a sinful state, a sinful nature, or the fact that sin has been imputed. It regards the one who has thus fallen short of the highest divine standard as justly liable to a penalty. In popular usage it is sometimes limited in its application to nets which constitute a violation of moral law rather than to a sinful state, sinful nature, or the imputation of sin. A true concept of guilt must of course be based upon, Biblical revelation as to its nature.
Justice. Derived from the Latin justus, this word represents the strict rendering of what is due in the form of merited reward or proper punishment. As administered by God, it is in keeping with His faithfulness, righteousness, and the standards of His holiness. When God forgives it is on the basis of satisfied justice. The grace of God is another aspect of God’s justice in that it is made possible by the work of Christ on behalf of the sinner.
Justification. In popular usage this word means showing proper grounds for. In theological context, however, justification is the judicial act of God declaring one to be righteous by imputation of righteousness to him. It is a matter of declaration rather than experiential transformation, and is therefore not primarily concerned with sin as such, nor with forgiveness of sin, but with the sinner’s lack of righteousness without which he cannot be accepted by God. It is totally judicial and not experiential. A believer in Christ is justified at the moment of his faith in Christ as his Savior. All believers are equally justified because it is based not on their works, but on the work of Christ on their behalf for which they have qualified by faith.
Penalty. The natural and judicial results of sin can be represented by the word penalty. The suffering caused by the penalty must be of a kind and nature sufficient to be retribution for sin. In the case of Christ, His suffering was forensic, that is, representative and infinite in value and therefore sufficient to pay the penalty for the sins of the whole world. Sometimes penalty may be considered in less than a judicial sense as is illustrated in the chastening of a believer who, though justified by faith, is permitted to suffer by God with a view to his sanctification.
Propitiation. Though understood by some to be synonymous to reconciliation, and by others such as C. H. Dodd limited to the idea of expiation, in its theological usage propitiation has in view the satisfaction of all of God’s righteous demands for judgment on the sinner by the redemptive act of the death of Christ. It is not experiential, but is a judicial aspect of the death of Christ by which the demands of a holy God are fully met. This important aspect of the death of Christ will be considered in full later.
Ransom. When used in relation to the death of Christ, the word has reference to the price paid by Christ on the cross by which redemption was wrought. The ransom was paid to God, not man or Satan, and is an expression relating to the act of redemption.
Reconciliation. In human relations, this word means to restore harmony between the parties estranged. In its theological meaning, reconciliation refers to the work of God in transforming man’s position and state so completely that no barrier to fellowship with God remains. It reconciles man to God by elevating man to God’s level morally. It has in view man’s judicial standing rather than the state of his conduct. The act of reconciliation is the application of the death of Christ to the individual believer by the power of the Spirit, changing his status from that of condemnation to complete acceptability to God. Further discussion of this important subject will be considered later.
Redemption. As will be pointed out in later discussion, the work of redemption was accomplished by Christ in His death on the cross and has in view the payment of the price demanded by a holy God for the deliverance of the believer from the bondage and burden of sin. In redemption the sinner is set free from his condemnation and slavery to sin.
Remission. Coming from a Latin word meaning to send back, this word is used, in reference to a sending away of sin in the sense of forgiveness, pardon, and relinquishment of punishment due. For all practical purposes, it may be considered synonymous theologically to the idea of forgiveness. Some Greek words in the New Testament are translated “forgiveness” or “remission” interchangeably.
Righteousness. Though used in various senses in the Bible and in theology, the basic concept of this word is that of conforming to a moral standard. The quality of being right or righteous is first of all a relative attribute of God. Through the death of Christ, righteousness may be imputed to the believer giving a believer a righteous standing before God which is described in Scripture as justification. The word is also used of the limited righteousness of the natural man which is unacceptable to God and also in reference to moral acts prompted by the Spirit of God which are recognized by God as conforming to His standards. As used in the Bible, it is primarily in reference to justification by faith, that is, the imputation of righteousness to the believer in Christ.
Sanctification. In its broad sense, sanctification is the act of God setting apart someone or something to holy use. Sanctification may be positional, i.e., a sanctification resulting from relation to that which is holy, as may be illustrated in the fact that a Christian is positionally sanctified in Christ. Sanctification may also be experiential in the sense that the grace of God by the power of the Spirit influences the life of a Christian causing his character and manner of life to be transformed to conform to the divine pattern. This is a progressive experience which continues throughout life. Sanctification may also be considered as that which is absolute, the ultimate perfection of the believer in heaven. Positional sanctification, i.e., the setting apart of a believer to God’s holy use, and the ultimate sanctification of the believer in heaven are absolute and not subject to degree in contrast to experiential sanctification which is relative and only partially realized in this life. In heaven absolute and relative aspects of sanctification are brought to the same infinite plane of perfect conformity to the will of God.
Satisfaction. Used as a synonym for propitiation, the concept of satisfaction is that the moral requirement of God has been completely met by the death of His Son on behalf of the believer and is therefore a satisfied or propitiated God (cf. definition of propitiation).
Substitution. The doctrine that Christ suffered in the sinner’s place as his substitute is represented in the theological term substitution. An equivalent term is vicarious which has reference to one who serves as an alternate for another, that is, as his substitute. Orthodox Christianity has recognized the doctrine of substitution though the word itself does not appear in the English text. The concept of substitution is plainly involved in the Scriptural revelation of the death of Christ on behalf of the sinner. Christ was “the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). As a substitute for sinners, Christ died on the cross accomplishing the believer’s propitiation to God for the guilt of his sin and supplying the believer’s lack of righteousness by His own act of doing the Father’s will. The act of substitution makes it possible for God to justify the believer on the ground that he has been represented in Christ.
R. W. Dale in his famous work The Atonement cites Turretin as declaring that the atonement is “the richest treasure of the Christian Church” and a pivotal doctrine of the Christian faith. Dale writes: “Francis Turretin,—the greatest of Calvinistic theologians—in the first of his celebrated dissertations on the Satisfaction offered by our Lord Jesus Christ for the sins of men, speaks of the doctrine of the Atonement as ‘the chief part of our salvation, the anchor of Faith, the refuge of Hope, the rule of Charity, the true foundation of the Christian religion, and the richest treasure of the Christian Church.’ ‘So long,’ he says, ‘as this doctrine is maintained in its integrity, Christianity itself and the peace and blessedness of all who believe in Christ are beyond the reach of danger; but if it is rejected, or in any way impaired, the whole structure, of the Christian faith must sink into decay and ruin.’“1
In general, one’s understanding of the doctrine of the atonement depends on whether he regards the death of Christ as primarily being concerned with the sinner and his need of righteousness or whether the necessity of the atonement is to be found in the demands of God’s justice which requires punishment of sin in keeping with God’s moral government of the universe. If both of these attitudes toward the atonement be considered, a number of different views can be seen in the history of the church though some of them, as Berkhof points out, are theories of reconciliation rather than theories of atonement.2 In order to examine the wide divergence of the theology of the atonement, a summary of the various views will be considered.
Substitutional atonement. This point of view, variously described as vicarious or penal, holds that the atonement is objectively directed toward God and the satisfaction of His holy character and demands upon the sinner. It is vicarious in the sense that Christ is the substitute who bears the punishment rightly due sinners, their guilt being imputed to Him in such a way that He representatively bore their punishment. This is in keeping with the general idea of sacrifices in the Old Testament and is explicitly taught in the New Testament in such passages as John 1:29, 2 Corinthians 5:21, Galatians 3:13, Hebrews 9:28, and 1 Peter 2:24. It is further sustained by the use of such prepositions as peri, huper, and anti, which in numerous contexts support the idea of a divine substitute for the sinner in the person of Christ on the cross. A. A. Strong’s reference to “ethical atonement”3 which satisfied God’s holiness is similar to this point of view which is expounded at some length by Louis Berkhof.4
Payment-to-Satan theory. One of the theories which was advanced in the early church by Origen and taught by Augustine and other early fathers was that the death of Christ was paid to Satan in the form of a ransom to deliver man from any claims which Satan might have upon him.5 Though others besides Origen followed this teaching in the early church, in the course of the history of the church it faded from view and ceased to have any substantial adherents. In modern times it has been held only by certain sects.
Recapitulation theory. This point of view championed by Irenaeus is based on the idea that Christ in His life and death recapitulates all phases of human life including being made sin in His death on the cross. In so doing, He does properly what Adam failed to do. Irenaeus also regarded the suffering of Christ on the cross as satisfying the divine justice of God, but considered this only one phase of the total picture.
The commercial or satisfaction theory. One of the first well-organized theories of the atonement was offered by Anselm in the eleventh century in his classic work, Cur Deus Homo? His teaching springs from the concept that the necessity of the atonement arises in the fact that God’s honor has been injured by sin.6 God could satisfy His honor by punishing the sinner or by accepting a suitable substitute. Being a God of love and mercy, God provided through His Son the satisfaction that was required. Christ in His life on earth perfectly kept the law of God but, as this was required of Him in any case, it did not constitute a satisfaction of the honor of God on behalf of sinners. Christ went further and died on the cross for sin which He did not need to do for Himself. As this was in the nature of a work of supererogation, the benefits of it were applied to sinners who had fallen short of attaining the righteousness of God. God’s honor was thus vindicated and the sinner saved from the penalty of sin.
Objections to this view are principally that more than God’s honor has been violated. While Anselm supported the substitutionary character of the death of Christ, he falls short of recognizing properly that a penalty was involved and his view is somewhat similar to the Roman Catholic doctrine of penance rather than a true Biblical doctrine of propitiating a righteous God.
The moral influence theory. This point of view which has had much support in modern liberal theology was first introduced by Abelard7 in opposition to the commercial theory of Anselm. It proceeds on the premise that God does not necessarily require the death of Christ as an expiation for sin, but has rather chosen this means to manifest His love and to show His fellowship with them in their sufferings. The death of Christ therefore primarily demonstrates the love of God in such a way as to win sinners to Himself. The death of Christ does not constitute a satisfaction of divine law, but rather demonstrates the loving heart of God which will freely pardon sinners.
Liberal and neo-orthodox theologians today adopted in one form or another the moral influence theory of Abelard. Actually no new view of the atonement has arisen in the twentieth century, and existing opinions can be found in one or more of the classic theories which have emerged from the past. The general disposition outside of orthodoxy itself has been to consider the death of Christ as something less than penal and not vicarious in the strict sense of the term. It is rather that Christ in His death is, on the one hand, a demonstration of the love of God and, on the other, reveals God’s hatred of sin. Right-wing liberals and neo-orthodox scholars tend to support the moral influence theory while left-wing and extreme liberals regard the death of Christ as little more than an example or mystical influence.
Orthodox Christianity has always opposed this point of view as being quite insufficient to explain the many Scriptures which present the point of view that the death of Christ is a propitiation of a righteous God and that His death is absolutely necessary to make it possible for God to justify a sinner. Though Christ’s death is a demonstration of the love of God and should soften human hearts, it seldom does this apart from a saving work of God.
Theory of Thomas Aquinas. Among the various combinations of the views of Anselm and Abelard was that of Thomas Aquinas, often considered the norm for Roman Catholic theology. He countered the assertion of the necessity of the atonement by contending that God was under no necessity to offer atonement and could have allowed men to go unredeemed. He recognized, however, the historic fact that God had in Christ offered a satisfaction for sin and to some extent went along with Anselm in holding this sacrifice sufficient and applicable to those who were joined to Christ in the mystical union of Christ and His church.
Theory of Duns Scotus. The contribution of Duns Scotus to theories of the atonement lies principally in the contention that there is no absolute necessity for the atonement as far as the nature of God is concerned, and that the demands for an atonement for sin proceeds entirely from the will of God. He held that it was God’s prerogative to decide whether an atonement was necessary in the first place and, having determined that it was, He could have chosen an angel or any sinless man to have effected a sacrifice for sin. For him the main point was that God had accepted the sacrifice of Christ as sufficient whether it was or not. The theory of Duns Scotus has generally been considered quite inadequate by orthodox theologians who prefer to find a necessity for the atonement in the nature of God rather than the will of God. In modern theology there have been few if any adherents to this position.
The example theory. As the title of this teaching indicates, this theory holds that Christ in His death was merely our example. Like the moral influence theory, it denies that there is any principle of justice which needs to be satisfied in God and that therefore the death of Christ was not necessary as an atonement for sin, but is rather a means of divine revelation which characterized the obedience of Christ in dying on the cross. The origin of this point of view is usually traced to the Socinians who are the forerunners of the modern Unitarians. Like the moral influence theory, it is actually a denial of many Scriptures which teach to the contrary, and is a restatement in various form of a number of heresies which plagued the early church. It was based upon Unitarian teachings which affirm human ability and oppose the doctrine of human depravity. In its Unitarian form it also denied the deity of Christ. Though it is true that Christ in His death was our example in many ways, this did not constitute the efficacy of His death. It provides no solid basis for the salvation of saints who died before Christ, nor does it have in itself the power to redeem in the Scriptural sense of the term. It assumes also that Christ is an example to those who are still unsaved, whereas Scripture makes very plain that the example of Christ is for those who have already been redeemed by His death.
Mystical experience theory. As an outgrowth of the mysticism of Schleiermacher, Ritschl, and others, the teaching was advanced that the death of Christ is to be understood best as exercising a mystical influence upon the sinner.8 Though similar to some extent to the moral influence theory, it is considered more than an ethical influence, and represents the influence of Christ upon mankind in general. Some of the advocates of this position did not question that Christ Himself had a sin nature, but they held that through the power of the Holy Spirit He gained victory over it and in His own experience of sanctification culminating in His death became a transforming power in mankind.
Like other false views of the atonement, the mystical experience theory bypasses many Scriptures which plainly state man’s hopelessly sinful estate and his utter need of a supernatural work of God to relieve him of his just punishment for his sins. It does not provide the divine grace and enablement to lift him out of his present sinful state and bring him into right relationship to God. It involves a false view of the person of Christ and usually denies His sinless perfection. Like the moral influence theory, it does not provide for those who lived in Old Testament times.
The governmental theory of Grotius. This point of view represented a compromise between the example theory and the orthodox view normally held by Protestant reformers. Adherents trace the necessity of the death of Christ to the government of God rather than to an inexorable law of divine justice. They argue that inasmuch as God’s divine government is the product of His will, He can alter it as He wishes, but must in the end uphold the principle of the divine government. Hence, the death of Christ was considered in the form of a nominal payment, a recognition of the principle of government which normally punishes sin, but it did not, according to this view, actually constitute a penal expiation. Christ deferred to the law by dying, but the actual penalty of this law is then set aside inasmuch as the principle of government has been recognized. This interpretation, which was considered to avoid some of the harsher doctrines contained in the concept of the penal and substitutionary atonement, had a natural attraction for those who did not want to go to the extreme of the Socinian position. It was adopted by the Calvinist Wardlaw9 as well as the Arminian Miley,10 and had quite a following in New England theology in our own country. The principal objection to this teaching is that it does not satisfy the Scriptural representation of the death of Christ. It seems to make an unnecessary division between the government of God and the nature of God from which the government comes.
The theory of vicarious confession. This teaching is based upon the idea that God would forgive man if he could perfectly repent of his sins and confess them to God. Because man is unable to provide an adequate repentance, he is not able naturally to offer a true confession and Christ on behalf of man by His death demonstrated the awfulness of sin which is accepted by God as a completely adequate confession. This theory, like many others, falls short of a true and adequate explanation of Scriptural revelation on the death of Christ. Confession of sin in itself is not vicarious. Like other views, it does not provide for a true penal satisfaction of the righteous demands of God. In any case, one man cannot confess or repent for another, though substitution in other cases may be valid. This view often attributed to McLeod Campbell has not attracted many modern adherents and is actually without a true Scriptural foundation.11
The only point of view which completely satisfies Scriptures bearing on the death of Christ is the substitutional or penal concept of the atonement as embodied in numerous passages unfolding the doctrines of redemption, propitiation, and reconciliation. Christ in His death fully satisfied the demands of a righteous God for judgment upon sinners and as their infinite sacrifice provided a ground not only for the believer’s forgivness, but for his justification and sanctification. While certain aspects of other theories can be recognized as having merit, they fall short of establishing the true justice of God in exacting the penalty of the death of His Son. The substitutionary character of the death of Christ is further borne out in great doctrines which describe the substance of His work upon the cross such as justification, redemption, propitiation, and reconciliation. An examination of the Scriptural revelation concerning these doctrines will further substantiate the concept of substitutional atonement.
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1 R. W. Dale, The Atonement, p. 2; cf. Francisci Turretini: De Satisfactione Christi Disputationes, Geneva, 1667. Opera, IV, 1.
2 L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p. 384. Cf. also Berkhof’s excellent discussion of the theories of the atonement, pp. 367-91.
3 A. A. Strong, Systematic Theology, pp. 750-71.
4 Berkhof, op. cit., p. 361-83.
5 L. W. Grensted, A Short History of the Doctrine of the Atonement, pp. 32-55.
6 Cf. George C. Foley, Anselm’s Theory of the Atonement, 327 pp.
7 Robert Mackintosh, Historic Theories of Atonement, pp. 139-48.
8 Grensted, op. cit., pp. 329-38.
9 Ralph Wardlaw, Systematic Theology, pp. 358-72.
10 John Miley, The Atonement in Christ, 351 pp.
11 John McLeod Campbell, The Nature of the Atonement, pp. 124-25.