Doctrine of Christ (part 13)

November 27, 2011     Time: 00:36:58

We have been talking about the work of Christ and how Christ’s death achieves our redemption and reconciliation before God. We’ve seen that down through history there have been quite a number of distinct theories of the atonement to explain how this is accomplished. We finally come to our last section, which is to give some assessment of these various theories.

Assessment of the Theories of Atonement

Before we look at specifics, I think it is worth emphasizing the distinction between the doctrine of the atonement and theories of the atonement. The doctrine of the atonement is something that every Christian must be committed to. This is what is taught in the New Testament: that through Christ’s atoning death, we are reconciled to God, our sins are forgiven, and our sins are atoned for. But there isn’t any particular theory of the atonement that has been endorsed by the Christian church. You won’t find any of the early creeds affirming a particular theory of the atonement. What that means is that there is scope here for latitude in developing a theory of the atonement. So one cannot be dogmatic about this. One will insist that, yes, Christ died for my sins; through his death I am reconciled to God. But whether that looks like a ransom theory, a satisfaction theory, a penal theory – that is going to be a question of the theory of the atonement, and that is always subject to revision and rethinking.

Having said that, let’s take a look at some of these theories more specifically. First, you remember, was the so-called Ransom Theory of the atonement – or the Christus Victor model – which conceived of Christ’s atoning death as a payment that was made to Satan. Through our fall into sin, human beings had come to be in the control and rightful domain of Satan. God paid the life of Christ as a sort of ransom to rescue us from Satan’s dominion, much as someone might pay a ransom to some terrorists to free some hostages they had taken. Sometimes the theory would emphasize that God in so doing actually tricked Satan because Satan didn’t realize that Christ could not be held. Being the divine Son of God, he traded himself for the hostages, but then Satan couldn’t keep him, and he broke the bonds of Satan, death, and hell, and so Satan was left in the end empty handed.

What might we say about this theory of the atonement? I think that we have to agree that a positive feature of this theory is its emphasis on Christ’s victory. It has this strong, victorious element to it. Christ is the conqueror of death, sin, hell, and Satan. That is something that is certainly a New Testament emphasis and one that Christians ought rightly to employ. But notice what this model lacks. The model lacks any element of moral guilt for sin. There is nothing in this theory that speaks of our being sinful and therefore guilty before God and somehow that problem of guilt needing to be dealt with. Instead you just have this sort of cosmic rescue operation. But there isn’t any element of guilt; there isn’t any element of substitution; Christ doesn’t die in our place. It doesn’t have any of those moral elements that would seem to be vital to a full orbed theory of the atonement. So in the end, although this model has, I think, some positive features that we will want to preserve in any final theory we come up with, still it isn’t complete. It doesn’t have some of the central elements that a good theory of the atonement ought to have, particularly these moral elements.1


Question : Doesn’t that really elevate Satan’s power and position – that God would have to pay something to Satan?

Answer : Yes, actually I should have mentioned that as well as a point of critique. So thank you for mentioning that! Part of the problem with this Ransom Theory is that it seems totally misdirected. It is directed toward Satan rather than God. Surely, what the atonement in the New Testament is about is how Christ offers himself as a sacrifice to God the Father. It is God-directed, or Father-directed. We are reconciled to the Father. But here the whole theory seems to be skewed in a really unfortunate way in that the sacrifice of Christ’s death is offered to Satan rather than to God the Father. Yeah, that is a really good point that I should have mentioned. Thank you for reminding us of that! The whole orientation of the theory seems to be wrong, doesn’t it?

Question : You had mentioned something about this theory I had not heard, and that was some say that Satan was tricked by God. I don’t know that I’ve actually heard that. Is that part of what the church fathers had come up with?

Answer : Yes, yes, that is! That is in some of the church fathers. Remember I gave the illustration, or the fathers did, of a fish hook that is embedded in a juicy piece of bait, and Satan, seeing the bait, seizes it, not realizing it has this deadly hook in it, which is Christ – or the second person of the Trinity. He sees the man Jesus and thinks, “Well, I’ve got him!” And it turns out to be the Logos, the second person of the Trinity, that he has really got, and he can’t hold on to him. So Satan is, as it were, caught by God like an angler with this hook in his mouth. That element of deception is definitely part of the model in the hands of some of these fathers.

Question : My question is more towards Satan, and you were saying being tricked . . . Satan being a fallen angel as in Psalms 103, there is no path back once you have fallen from an angel. But why does it constantly seem like God has something to prove with Satan by allowing these arbitrary conversations, bets throughout time, instead of just fixing the problem?

Answer : I would say this has something to do, I think, with the motif of human freedom in the world. God didn’t want a world of robots or puppets who would respond to his love in a sort of scripted and mechanical way. So he allows there to be a world that is infected with creaturely evil. That can be creaturely either on the angelic realm, as you said, or on a human realm. There might even be other sorts of intelligent creatures in the universe, other extraterrestrial life, and it would be an open question as to whether or not they have also fallen into evil. So I would see it as sort of a grand, cosmic drama that is being played out over the course of human history in which, in the end, God will be victorious over Satan and the rebellious angels and will conquer death and sin and will bring a multitude of people freely into heaven. But the price of human freedom, of doing this freely, or of creaturely freedom, would be allowing this sort of rebellion and sin and evil to go on – at least temporarily.

Followup: They explain that man is who carries sin because he is from Adam and that the angels will follow God’s will throughout. In doing that, how do the angels have the free will to leave him . . . or Satan and the angels to follow him for his army if they are not entitled to the free will that man has and if sin is only derived from man from being from Adam?

Answer : Now we are getting into realms of speculation where there’s not chapter and verse in the Bible that you can quote in answer to those kinds of questions. Therefore, we can only conjecture about our answers to that sort of question. Here is what I think would be a plausible answer – I don’t know if this is true – we are talking here about things we can only speculate about – but here would be a plausible

Answer : in creating these angelic beings, God created them at a certain distance, so to speak, from himself2 – not a physical distance, but a kind of diminished vision of his glory and magnificence and power, lest their free wills to rebel be overwhelmed. So it is a kind of epistemic distance which allows for creaturely freedom. Then, once that decision has been made on the part of these angelic beings, it seems that then they are sealed in that decision. So there isn’t any redemption offered on their behalf – or God knew that none of them would in fact repent and believe anyway – whereas with human beings, we still find ourselves at this sort of epistemic arms-length from God, in which rebellion against God is still possible. But eventually I think that is going to be removed for us, too, when we die and go to be with Christ. Then we will see God and his full glory, magnificence, and loveliness. The vision will be so overwhelming that, in effect, the freedom to sin will be removed for us as well. So in heaven, you don’t have to worry, “Oh, well, maybe someone will sin and fall out of heaven.” They will be sealed in that decision by the vision of God in the same way that the angels are kind of sealed in the opposite way to rebel against him. So that, at least for me, is enough to say that that would be a plausible scenario and make sense.

Question : Doesn’t Scripture also say that the powers and rulers of this world would not have crucified Christ if they had known the plan of salvation? That’s in Scripture, too, I think.

Answer : Right, I think that is 1 Corinthians 2:8, where it said that none of the rulers of the world understood this. They didn’t know what was going on or they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. That does seem to suggest that God, in one way, pulled a fast one on them. So that element, I think, is again something that could well be Scriptural. But we don’t want to orient the atonement toward Satan, as was pointed out here. The orientation is to God the Father.

What about the Satisfaction Theory? You remember St. Anselm thought of human sin as being an offense to God, and, in particular, it was an offense to the majesty and the honor of God – that God’s own creatures would turn their heel against him and in effect spit in his face and turn their backs on him. Therefore, they find themselves owing this unpayable debt to this infinite God whom they have offended, and they are utterly incapable, being sinful creatures themselves, to discharge this infinite satisfaction that they owe to God. Therefore, God, taking on a human nature in Christ and living a sinless life, has no satisfaction of his own to render but offers his life to God as a satisfaction for the debt that human beings owe to God and thereby merits for them reconciliation and eternal life.

What might we say about this satisfaction model? Well, I think it is very positive in being God-directed. You notice the shift here. No longer is the atonement directed at Satan; now it is directed to God the Father. It is God who has been maligned and insulted and dishonored. So the atonement that Christ achieves is God-directed. It also is superior to the ransom view in that it emphasizes the ethical dimension of sin. We are sinful and guilty before God, and that is why we have rendered offense to him. So it also has this moral dimension that was missing from the ransom theory. The emphasis on our unpayable debt is also, I think, a positive emphasis. It shows why the atonement of Christ was necessary. This was a debt which was so great that none of us could possibly hope to pay it.3 Therefore, it underlines the necessity of the incarnation, which was Anselm’s goal. That is why God became a man. You can see that there needs to be some satisfaction rendered for sin and therefore the incarnation and death of Christ becomes necessary. So it is God-directed, it has a strong ethical emphasis, it emphasizes the unpayable debt that we owe to God, and it underlines the necessity of the incarnation.

Nevertheless, I think that the model still remains weak in that it emphasizes the model, or the notion, of satisfaction as opposed to substitutionary punishment. Christ doesn’t bear, on this view, the penalty for our sin; rather, God is like a king whose honor has been in some way sullied and whose honor needs to be restored, and so there is this sort of recompense, or restitution, that needs to be paid to God, and that’s what Christ’s death achieves. But this seems to miss out the emphasis in the Scripture on Christ’s death as a sacrifice for sin – that God laid on him the sin of us all, so that we might be freed from sin. So this use of satisfaction, I think, is in the end not as biblically sound as the notion of substitutionary punishment.

And then, of course, this leads to the whole notion of the treasury of merit, where Christ accrued all of this supererogatory merit that we can avail ourselves of and that the saints also pay into this treasury of merit. Then God can apply these merits to us in salvation, and it leads to this whole notion that came to be dominant in the Roman Catholic Church of salvation through merit – through the merit of good works, if not your own, at least the merits of Christ’s death and the merits of the saints. That really is the result of this satisfaction theory – that is where it comes from. Remember we said that it is rooted in the sacrament of penance where, in addition to sincere confession and contrition, there needs to be a satisfaction accompanying that in order to show the recompense to God that you are willing to give. So, I think, it has that feature to it that is less than satisfactory – no pun intended!


Question : I guess just a comment on the Catholic view of it – of having this treasury of merit, how you have to gain other people’s merits and you have to earn your salvation. If we look in New Testament times, there was a group called the Judaizers who sort of believed in this “faith plus” view of salvation. It is like, you have to have faith but you also have to accept circumcision and you have to do all these other things for salvation. If we look in Galatians 5 here and Paul says that if you accept circumcision, if you do this kind of works-based salvation, well, then Christ is of no advantage to you. You are lost, you are severed from Christ – you who would be justified by the law, you have fallen away from grace. I think it is important that we understand that we are not saved through this kind of . . .

Answer : Right, this is the traditional, strong Protestant emphasis of salvation by grace alone. That is the hallmark of the Reformation – that it is not by works, it is by grace. Now as we will see when we get to the doctrine of salvation and talk about the Catholic view of justification, the Catholic will agree with that. He will say, “Ah, but it is only through the grace of God that these meritorious works are performed! It is God working in you, or through you, to do these works that then merit eternal life. So it all redounds to grace,” he’ll say. So it gets to be very subtle here, and whether or not that is going to be acceptable, we can talk about later. But I think that your emphasis on salvation by grace alone is one that we should hold to and insist on.4

Question : The Satisfaction Theory sounds like two things. One, it sounds like appeasing an angry God. And, two, it sounds like we are turning God back to us rather then God turning us back to him.

Answer : I hear you, and often the Satisfaction model is criticized in that way. People will say the picture that Anselm has of God is of a sort of angry, Oriental despot whose honor has been offended and who demands some kind of satisfaction for his honor – that kind of thing. And they think that that is petty and tyrannical. I don’t feel all that comfortable with that critique, quite honestly. I think it is easy to caricature the view that way, but it does seem to me that in virtue of who God is – as the Creator of all, the greatest conceivable being, goodness itself – that human sin and rebellion is a terrible dishonor to God. It is like going up to God and spitting in his face. It is a terrible, terrible insult and dishonor, and it is not inappropriate to think that creatures somehow owe God something for having so rudely and blasphemously reacted to him in that way. Do you see what I mean? So you can look at it in this unsympathetic light, but perhaps as part of a broader theory that will incorporate as well some of these other elements, we don’t want to give up on the idea that we have deeply offended God’s honor in virtue of our rebellion against him. I think that we have! We do want to keep the idea that this is an act of God’s love to save us – Anselm would say that, too – and God is not just being petty and jealous about his honor here. He wants to save us, and that is where the idea of dying for sin will help. I mean, it’s not just his honor that is offended – it is that sin has estranged us from God and needs to be paid for. That will help to balance out, maybe, these negative elements that you are sensing in it.

Question : I truly believe this – God is not surprised by my sin. He said that before the foundation of the Earth that he would have Jesus die for my sin right off the bat. He built people with the ability to sin, or to choose, and he knew right off – he said they are going to fail instantly. Therefore, what would be the loving God thing to do? I would give them a way to separate themselves from eternal death on Earth, so he took them out of the garden so they could not eat of the tree of life and live forever in their sin nature. And he said, I will have my Son out of love die so that they can join me in heaven eternally. Not out of anger, but out of love. When Jonah was tossed off the boat, the whale didn’t show up out of God’s anger – he showed up as a rescue, he showed up as a way to save Jonah from drowning. We need to look at that. God is nothing but doing what’s best for us because he knew we were going to fail. He could have made us all robots where we would never have failed, and we would have all said the right thing all the time. That was not his plan. He designed the game. We cannot go past “Go” and collect two hundred dollars – it’s his game. We do what he says to, and he says this is what is. But it is not out of anger – it is out of compassion.

Answer : That is absolutely right, and that is consistent with Anselm’s view. God, whose honor has been insulted and defamed in this way, is under no obligation whatsoever to save human beings. The reason he does it is out of his love. So we want to emphasize that and preserve that. That certainly belongs here. It is the love of God which would cause him to reach down in so dramatic a way to mount this rescue operation to save human beings.

Question : I just wanted to say something about the Satisfaction Theory. We Protestants, I think, tend to overemphasize the passive obedience of Christ’s work, and we de-emphasize, I believe, his active obedience – his passive obedience being his death on the cross, which I don’t want to downplay at all – it is extremely important! But at the same time, we almost never talk about his active obedience and how he lived a sinless life and by obeying the law that, in a sense (and I want to be real careful when I say this), there is almost a treasury of merit that Christ gives to us. Not only does he provide that atonement. . . that propitiation to God, but he also does give us. . . he almost in a sense gives us the ability to be righteous through his obedience – not through ours but through his.5

Answer : Yes, I think I understand what you are saying. There is a doctrine that we will talk about when we get to the doctrine of salvation – just as my sins are imputed to Christ, so his righteousness is imputed to me. There is kind of a forensic transaction there that takes place whereby I am credited – my account is credited – with his righteousness. You are saying, in that sense, there is this merit; but it is very different from saying that I have thereby earned salvation. That is not the idea. We’ll pick that up later.

Followup : Christ earns it for us, essentially.

Answer : Yeah.

All right, let’s go on to the next theory, which is the Penal Theory. I think that this theory is closest to Pauline ideas – to the ideas in the New Testament. On this theory, you’ll remember, Christ is liable to punishment on our behalf and therefore is punished in our place. The penalty for our sins was laid upon him so that we don’t need to be punished instead. This does seem to capture this notion that we saw in the New Testament of Christ’s death as a sacrificial offering. Remember we saw that the word for sin, when it says Christ died “for our sins” in the New Testament, is the usual rendering of “sin offering” in the Greek Old Testament. That refers to Christ’s death as both a hilasterion, that is to say, an expiation, as well as a propitiation of God’s justice – he both removes our sin and he also reconciles us to God. So the idea of Christ’s death as a sacrificial offering to God, whereby our sins are laid on him, seems to be captured most clearly by this idea of the Penal Theory.

Now the big problem with this theory is: how can one person literally take the guilt of another person and be punished in his place? That is the biggest challenge facing this theory. How could, if I commit a crime, say – well, I won’t name a crime! – say I did something that was really wrong! How could Dennis go to the court and say, “I’ll pay the penalty in Bill’s place. Send me to prison or execute me,” and then I would somehow be free of the guilt? That just doesn’t seem to make sense. How could an innocent person become guilty and pay the penalty for somebody else’s? That is the biggest challenge facing the Penal Theory.

I’ll say something about that in just a minute, but let me say something in the meantime about the remaining two theories.

First, the Moral Influence view, which says that through the cross of Christ we see God’s active, self-giving love and that motivates us in turn to give our lives in love and sacrifice for others. Well, certainly, this is good in emphasizing the self-giving love of God. It has a strong emphasis upon God’s love in sacrificing for us. But notice there is no element of God’s justice and judgment in this model. There is nothing about Christ’s being punished for our sins. Nothing about the wrath of God being poured out. God has become just a sort of loving, fatherly figure who has no justice, holiness, or wrath at all upon sin. So on this Moral Influence view, when you think about it, nothing really happens at the cross. There is no debt that is paid, there is no sin laid upon Christ, no substitutionary atonement – there is not really anything that happens at the cross other than the crucifixion of this man Jesus of Nazareth.6 Any power the event has is just through its influence, as others look at it and are inspired to do good deeds. So the view, I think, is just completely inadequate to a robust doctrine of the atonement as we find it in the New Testament, which thinks of Christ’s death as a sacrificial offering to God.

Finally, the existential view of the atonement associated with certain mid-20th century existentialist theologians – in this view I can’t find any positive thing at all to commend it. It seems to me that the cross of Jesus Christ, the crucifixion, shows the exact opposite of what Rudolf Bultmann thought it did. Remember Rudolf Bultmann says that the meaning of the cross is that we can live authentic, meaningful lives in the face of the finitude of death, and that is what it shows. To me, it shows just the opposite! What the cross shows is the futility and the tragedy of life – that this best of all persons should end his life in such a brutal and callous manner on a Roman cross, that this young man should be slaughtered for nothing. What this shows, I think, is just the utter meaninglessness and futility of life, not that it is full of significance and victory. On Bultmann’s view, there really is no need for Christ at all. You don’t need to have Jesus Christ in your life in order to say that I am going to live bravely in the face of death and find meaning and significance where I may. Any atheist can do that! So this has actually led to some Bultmannian disciples adopting what Schubert Ogden has called a Christ-less Christianity. This is a Christianity in which you just get rid of Jesus Christ all together because he is superfluous. You just live bravely and authentically in the face of death. So this is really the undoing of Christianity, not, I think, an adequate model of the atonement.

Let me conclude with a couple of words about the Penal Theory. It seems to me that what will be key to a viable Penal Theory of the atonement is going to be the idea of imputation. That is to say, an act whereby the responsibility for an act committed by one person is imputed, or laid upon, another person. What you find is that this concept of imputation is really common in different areas of life. For example, I was talking to an insurance salesman once, sharing the Gospel with him about the death of Christ on our behalf. And he said, “Oh, I understand that! That’s imputation!” I was startled to hear a theological word on the lips of this insurance salesman. And I said, “How do you know about imputation?” And he said, “Oh, we use imputation all the time in the insurance industry!” And I said, “You do?” And he said, “Yeah! For example, sometimes I might write a policy for an automobile owner whereby, if somebody else drives his car and gets in a wreck and hurts somebody, the responsibility for that accident will be imputed to the owner of the car, the owner of the policy. So even though he wasn’t driving, the responsibility is imputed to him according to this policy.”

Well, now, if that makes sense, it seems to me that opens a door for understanding Christ’s death to be a death that is on our behalf, whereby our sin or responsibility for sin is imputed to Christ, and he then discharges the penalty for that. So we can think of Jesus Christ as our proxy or our representative. For example, in Congress we have certain representatives that vote on our behalf – or at least they claim to and are supposed to! When our elected representatives go to Congress, they are actually discharging a democratic function. They are representing the people’s will by voting on behalf of them. So even though you don’t get to vote, they vote in your place – they are your representative.7 Or, for example, you may get these notices, as we do, in the mail where they say there is going to be a stockholders’ meeting of these Fidelity funds, and here is a proxy notice for you to sign, and if you’ll sign this, then there will be a proxy at this meeting who will vote on your behalf. So even though I don’t get to go and vote at the meeting myself, my proxy votes in my place, and what he does counts as my vote, my decision.

Now in exactly the same way it seems to me we can think of Christ as our proxy or representative before God, so what God metes out to him is meted out to me. My sins are discharged and the penalty for them is paid in virtue of the punishment that he endures as my proxy. If that makes sense, and I think it does, then that enables us, I think, to have a model of the atonement of Christ that would be a kind of Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory.

So I think our full theory of the atonement will embody elements from all of them – well, not all of them! – but from many of these different theories: the victory and triumph of the Christus Victor model, the infinite debt that we owe God, the God-directedness of the Satisfaction Theory, and then the notion of Christ’s substitutionary, vicarious death on our behalf of the Penal Theory and the motivating love of God from the Moral Influence Theory. And all of these would be facets of this single diamond, which is the Christian doctrine of the atonement.8


1 5:01

2 10:16

3 15:01

4 19:58

5 25:27

6 29:59

7 34:55

8 Total Running Time: 36:57 (Copyright © 2012 William Lane Craig)