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Views on Atonement

Origen (185-254) “Ransom to Satan”

This is a very old view that many of the early Church Fathers taught.

The primary concern of this Patristic theory was to find a solution for the question as to how Christ delivers us from the power of Satan. 

“The removal of guilt and the restoration of the divine life were not contemplated by the Fathers. The structure of this theory rested upon certain passages of Scripture in which man is represented as being in bondage to the Prince of darkness. The object of redemption was to deliver humanity from that bondage, this deliverance being accomplished by Christ when He offered Himself as a ransom to Satan. In this offering He broke the bonds of Satan, inasmuch as He was both divine and without sin, and could not be held as a subject in Satan’s power” (Richard Herman Seume, “Divine Propitiation: Part 1" BibSac V99 #394-Apr 42-199).

The death of Christ was a ransom paid to Satan by God.

The idea is simply that mankind was held captive by Satan, but Christ took our place. 

He traded Himself for us -- something which Satan eagerly agreed to.  

However, it was all a deception that tricked Satan because Christ was not able to be held by him.

Satan is “baited” by Jesus’ humanity, but caught on the “hook” of His deity.

The Bible speaks of a ransom being paid, but it’s silent as to whom the ransom was paid (cf.  Matthew 20.28, 1 Timothy 2.6.).

Matt. 20:28 “just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many."

Notice, the passage does speak of Christ being a ransom, but the reader must insert the person of Satan into the passage.

Men such as Augustine and Irenaeus taught this in various ways as well.

In recent years, C. S. Lewis (i.e., Aslan) and the Seventh-Day Adventists. It is also a popular idea in some Word of Faith groups.

It is interesting to note that this theory (in various forms) was the prevailing view in the Church for the first 1000 years!  

We have to be cautious when considering the doctrine of atonement, when coming from a Protestant and Reformed viewpoint.  We can easily read our times back into history and fail to see what was thought and believed. Was Augustine a heretic because he argued that Christ’s death was a ransom to Satan?

Irenaeus (130-202) "Recapitulation”

Christ recapitulated in Himself all the stages of life including what belongs to us as sinners.

This resulted in Him reversing all that Adam did.

He did what Adam could not do.

This idea is built off of Romans 5 where Jesus is connected to Adam and how He undid the destruction Adam wrought in his sin.

This is not commonly taught today as a stand-alone idea; rather it is usually added to other views.

Anselm (1033-1110) “Satisfaction”

This is the idea that sinful man robbed god of His honor. We owe Him honor and submission.

No man could ever satisfy this debt to God; so God sent His son to satisfy His honor and demands.

“This theory of the atonement can be briefly expressed as follows: the sin of man a free creature is an infinite offence as it is an offence against the majesty of God. Man ought to give back the honor he has taken away and because of the insult ought to give back more than he has taken away. In other words, he must make satisfaction for his sin or be punished. But man is unable to make satisfaction for his sins as he already owes God everything including complete obedience and the amount to pay is infinite. Only the Word of God is capable of offering due satisfaction in virtue of his personal dignity and humanity. This he does freely in his death, thereby meriting a great reward which is given in the form of salvation to those for whose sake the Word had become man” (John Williams, “Karl Rahner On The Death Of Christ” JETS, 14:1, Winter, 1971, p.  41).

Anselm’s work on this subject is the first time in Church history where the nature of the atonement was seriously defined.  

It is important to understand this.  The early church had many other battles it had to define and fight, so the nature of the atonement did not become a major issue early on.

There is much here that is correct and should not be ignored.

There’s an aspect of the death of Christ that seems to indicate a satisfaction/appeasing of wrath.

However, it’s still incomplete in that it doesn’t deal with the idea of substitution, where Christ lay down His life in our place for our sin.

In other words, it doesn’t deal with the issue of justice.

It’s not that God is just offended, rather, He also demands true justice for sin.

This was the dominant view until the reformation.

Example (Socinian) Theory:

Christ’s death becomes an example that should inspire mankind to follow him and live and even die in the same way.

It fails to see a need for sacrifice, or the fulness of what sin has wrought in creation. It doesn’t see Christ’s death as part of God’s sovereign plan.

Rather, it simply sees that it was due to Christ’s philosophy (i.e., His teaching) and His willingness to die for it, that it shows His sincerity.

Very common in various liberal theologies because at its core the death of Christ is designed to show us an example of how we should live and die.  It does not deal with sin in any substantive way. Very man-centered. Again, nothing to do with true justice.

Abelard (1079-1142) "Moral Influence Theory"

Christ’s death was not to remove sin; rather it was to show the fullness of God’s love to man.

His display of love should cause man to come to God and reform his life.

This results in being liberated from sin.

The problem here is that it doesn’t consider the reality of sin and the justice of God.  It fails to recognize that God is holy and just and as such that He must punish sin.

A popular saying many have heard is directly connected to this: “I asked Jesus, ‘How much do you love me?’ And Jesus said, ‘This much.’ Then He stretched out His arms and died.” (unknown author)

Often used in altar calls.

Hugo Grotius (1539-1609) "Governmental Theory"

“The Death of Christ was a Propitiation for the sins of men because it was a revelation of the righteousness of God on the ground of which He can remit the penalties of sin; because it was an act of submission to the justice of those penalties on behalf of mankind”  (“Divine Propitiation: Part 1" BibSac V99 #394-Apr 42-202).

In other words, Christ didn’t die on behalf of mankind. Rather, the death on the cross was to demonstrate how much God hates sin. It displayed both God’s hatred of sin, and love of righteousness. It displayed the hatred of a just king or governor, and therefore what sin deserves.

This was developed in reaction to the Socinian view (i.e., that Christ’s sacrifice was a positive example to follow). Rather, Grotius would say His death demonstrates what we can’t do, and that we fall short.

The key problem with this view is that it is completely void of scriptural evidence.  

It’s nothing more than a very sophisticated philosophical argument.  

Further, it focuses only upon the negative aspect of Christ’s death.  In this view, Christ’s work forgave sins, but it fails to see that there was much more accomplished in His death.

Penal Substitutionary View

Christ as the sinless God/Man took upon Himself the full penalty that should have been borne by man.

Our sin was literally placed upon Him and He suffered and died in our place.

The penalty for sin must be met. Christ met this in our place (substitute).

This view has the most exegetical evidence to support it.  However, this does not mean that it is the only aspect of the atonement; rather, it seems to be the ‘primary’ one.

“The view of Christ's death presented here has frequently been called the theory of "penal substitution." Christ's death was "penal" in that he bore a penalty when he died. His death was also a "substitution" in that he was a substitute for us when he died. This has been the orthodox understanding of the atonement held by evangelical theologians, in contrast to other views that attempt to explain the atonement apart from the idea of the wrath of God or payment of the penalty for sin. . . . This view of the atonement is sometimes called the theory of vicarious atonement. A "vicar" is someone who stands in the place of another or who represents another. Christ's death was therefore "vicarious" because he stood in our place and represented us. As our representative, he took the penalty that we deserve” (Grudem, Theology).

The Challenges

Often, debates arise about salvation and the work of Christ, but without first understanding the framework of theology that’s behind the debates.  This results in a lot of heat but not a lot of light.

Ultimately, this ends up promoting division and “tribalism.”

In good theology, there is more of a “both/and” (as opposed to “either/or”).

We should accept aspects of some of these views but when you do a careful examination of the passages that actually talk about the death of Jesus the final view rapidly rises into preeminence. 

Here’s where we begin to stumble because the hard work of exegesis is often not done.  We grab hold of our favorite theologian or preacher and take their quotes as if they are scripture.  Every side of this debate is guilty of this act.

There’s common issue that arises when we interview people for baptism. We often hear that they affirm that Jesus died for them or for their sins.  But when we ask them what that means they’re usually unable to give any clear statement on what that means. Doesn’t mean they are not a Christian, but it does mean they lack a lot of key data.

Even worse is when you see some pastors ask people to raise their hand if they want Jesus and then they count that act as a statement of saving faith!

A fruitful and fun study is to see how the NT writers use the various prepositions to bring out the intent of the death of Christ.

Anti primarily is used to mean “instead of” or “in the place of.”  

Matthew 20:28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for [instead of] many."

Huper when used with the genitive carries similar ideas of anti but also gives the idea of “on behalf of.”

 "For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.  7 For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die.  8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." (Rom. 5:6-8 NAU)

"Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us." (Gal. 3:13 NAU)

One thing to think about are the implications of this with regard to the non-elect. If the atonement is dealing with the issue of justice on behalf of people, is God guilty of requiring a double-payment for sin?  For example, what do passages like John 3.18; 36, 16.9; and 1 John 5.10 (We did this in another podcast “Traditionalists”). What do those mean if we reject that Christ died for the non-elect?

This again highlights a common error we, as humans, tend to commit in our minds.  We like “neatness” of meaning and purpose, so when we find something that works well overall, we tend to ignore some of the details that don’t fit well in that scheme.  

The problem arises when we have two or more groups that come up with a specific and absolute meaning that appears to be at odds with one another.  

The substitutionary position has the best biblical data to support it, however, to make the walls around this point too rigid is to do disservice to the Word and what it does say [there’s a lot more going on than only penal substitution).

A second take-away is to study the atonement in more detail (Recommend: Murry’s Redemption Accomplished and Applied. Morris’ Apostolic Preaching of the Cross. Deals w/ propitiation vs. expiation [ἱλασμός]).

It will deepen our worship.

It will make your singing much more rich when you come to certain phrases in songs.

It will make your reading of Scripture deepen.

It will make your evangelization more urgent.

It will make your prayers more biblical - they be more coated with thankfulnessful for what Christ has actually done for you.

It’s a rich doctrine and one worthy of your time and meditation.


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