I imagine when a person comes to identify themselves as a Christian there is at some level an acceptance that Christ died for your sins and that you knew you needed to have faith in Him to enter a place called heaven. Something that comes less easy to understand is how and why it had to be Christ’s death which opened this freedom for you? So if that can be confusing as a Christian just imagine how confusing it can be for someone who knows nothing about Christianity? This post concerns the work of Christ. This work of Christ is more traditionally known as the Atonement, or for those who prefer the softer breakdown of at-one-ment.
When dialogue begins amongst people trying to evangelize others of the Gospel of Jesus, or individuals who of their own efforts start asking honest questions of eternal consequences for moral behavior, moral obligation, ultimate purpose, etc, inevitably there comes around this idea of Jesus dying for the sins of the world. Well what does this really mean? Raised within a Roman Catholic household as a youngster I knew Jesus died for me, but what I didn’t apprehend was what His death really effected for me? The atonement and various theories and motifs surrounding it, attempt to deal with how Christ’s death on the cross gained us access to our Holy God. How could one man’s death take away the punishment of our sins, past, present, and future, and why did it have to be a death? Why couldn’t God have chosen any number of avenues to repair our relationship with Him? Doesn’t a death seem kind of barbaric, especially one like crucifixion?
This post will attempt to briefly introduce some motifs and the historically popular theories of the atonement presented since the early church fathers, and what we as Biblically-faithful Christians can be confident in understanding as far as how Christ’s death repaired our relationship with God. Before we go there I encourage folks reading this post to first visit the posts on sin and forgiveness, and even the justice post, as I believe these posts lay a sound framework for what will be discussed ahead.
As with most truths we discover in the New Testament, a foundation for the atonement has already been laid in the Old. The idea of atonement, such as the Day of Atonement (what became, in a somewhat mistranslated way, Yom Kippur; more appropriately a day of purgation, “yom hakippurim”), comes to us in the book of Leviticus as God’s prescription to the people of Israel to engage with their covenant fidelity, and more specifically, cleansing the people of their unintentional sins. There is an important distinction here because in this process it is the Hebrew people who do the work of the reconcialiation, or at-one-ment God desires. Chapter 16 is where we have the offering of sins for the people where two goats are presented as well as a bull. This is the once-a-year ritual where the High Priest enters God’s sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, making purification of the sanctuary itself, and for the people of Israel. The bull is sacrificed for the High Priest and his house, and then, by way of casting lots, one of the goats is sacrificed for the sins of the people of Israel, the other goat, later termed the scapegoat (or goat for Azazel), has the sins of the people placed on itself through a ritual performed by the High Priest, and then that goat is led into the desert, carrying away the sins of the people. Both the blood of the bull and goat was sprinkled within the sanctuary to purify the sanctuary as well.
It is worth mentioning this ritual does appear, at least in the eyes of the Hebrew people, to remove their sins. However, it is an annual sacrifice, repeated every year by the High Priest, for the atonement of the people. It is also not a replacement for the constant sacrifices which take place throughout the year for Israel’s intentional sins. It’s not hard to imagine the great slaughters of animals which took place on a weekly and annual basis via the people of Israel. Many in today’s societies would find this sort of sacrifice very appalling and unnecessary. While it is sometimes hard to look at ancient cultures without the lens of a 21st century looking glass, a person in the first millennia BC in the Promised Land would see this as relatively normal and fulfilling covenant fidelity to their God. Fortunately for all of us today this ancient prescription to the Israelite people was meant to be a picture of how mankind could never fully pay the penalty for sins, as Hebrews reminds us in chapter 10:4 “(F)or it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (NRV)
So why go back this far and bring up what many would see as a rather archaic, disgusting, and even offensive sacrificial system? Isn’t this just another one of many early tribal religions trying to appease a blood-thirsty deity who can never be fully be appeased? Well interestingly no, among a number of reasons this ritual has been presented to the reader is to show that God desires a whole relationship with His people, He sees sin as an abomination which leads to a fracture of that relationship, an abomination worthy of punishment, and which merits a cost (in this case lots of animals which were undoubtedly very valuable for economic reasons among the Hebrew people). It is also to inform the reader that the Bible is a progressive revelation, a continuing story of God’s salvific work and faithfulness, culminating in the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Now for generations the Lord commanded this of the Israelites until when? Well, until Messiah came to permanently take the punishment of sin away (Heb 10:12). For Christians, this is where Jesus enters into the story.
Now let’s not get confused here when we say Messiah was to come to take away sins. This didn’t mean we no longer had the capacity to sin. We still sin and will continue to sin as long as we have free will. What Messiah did was take away the punishment of this sin (recall the “Sin” post where wherever there is an infraction, a penalty is implied), meaning the Israelites, ourselves, nobody no longer has to pay a penalty to reconcile ourselves to God. God did this through Christ.
So it is with this clarity that we now look to the various historical motifs of how Jesus accomplished this and how he rendered these Old Testament sacrifices instantly and completely void.
If we first look at motifs, we are looking at distinctive repetitions which help us understand a theme that is being conveyed to the reader. In the case of Jesus, we have a number of different motifs which help us understand His mission to the cross. Here we have to go to the Bible. The two main motifs I want to focus on are substitutionary sacrifice and love.
It seems clear throughout the Gospels Jesus had an understanding that it was necessary for Him to sacrifice Himself to save others. The following are places in the Gospels where Jesus identifies Himself in some way as having to die to save others.
Gospel of John-3:16, John 10:11 & 17, 15:12
Gospel of Mark-10:45, 14:24
Gospel of Matthew-26:27-28, 39-44
Gospel of Luke-9:21, 12:49-51, 17:25, 18:31-33, 22:19-20, 42, 24:26
Now what makes up a strong atonement theory has varied across a colorful spectrum over the centuries for Christian believers and thinkers. Aspects and stand-alone atonement theories or motifs which have been cultivated, popularized, and misinterpreted over the centuries (in relative chronological order) are the following:
Christus Victor: The Christus Victor, or Ransom Theory, was popular in the early church with church fathers such as Irenaeus and Origen, lasting around 900 years until Anselm began developing his Satisfaction theory of the atonement. This theory dealt with the idea that Christ’s death paid a ransom that set us free from our bondage to sin. But to whom is the payment paid? Unfortunately, many thought this payment had to be paid to Satan, which then leads to a philosophical dilemma in regards to Satan having power over God, which is logically impossible. Many would come to later understand the payment had to be made to God, which is where propitiation will come into play with later substitution theories.
Another aspect of this theory defended by some of the early church fathers is that Christ’s death wasn’t necessary to free us from our bondage to sin. That is to say, God could have done any number of things to reconcile His people to Himself. They believed Christ’s death set us free, but they didn’t believe that His incarnation and death were necessary to do this.
Satisfaction: The Christian philosopher Anselm (d. 1109) was the first medieval Christian philosopher to really develop a robust doctrine of the atonement. While taking aspects of Christus Victor, Anselm felt atonement was much more than God defeating Satan. He felt humanity’s sins really had true consequences, and that reparations had to be made to satisfy God’s demands of divine justice.
Moral influence: This theory was cultivated most by the 12th century logician and theologian Peter Abelard. Abelard described the atonement as a process of contrition in the believer’s heart toward Christ’s death. Christ’s death should change our hearts in a way we seek to have a special relationship with God and better understand God’s love for us. This view does not promote the idea Christ’s death actually effected anything in regards to punishment for sin and our separation from God based on moral choices. This view does nothing to better understand how God’s justice needed to be satisfied, if at all, and leaves the seeker wondering if Christ just died to effect some sort of a moral change in our behavior?
Penal substitution: This theory was developed by Protestant reformers in a way which acknowledged what Anselm had to say about Christ’s death being a satisfaction of God’s divine justice, but taking it in a direction where Christ’s death satisfied the punishment, or penalty (poena) that was due us, and therefore satisfied God’s justice under the idea that punishment was necessary for the reconciliation of our sinful, fallen, moral condition. Not only did Christ take on our punishment willingly, he actually was declared to have taken on our sinful condition (imputation). So while still being innocent and free of the stain of sin in His physical life, He had to be declared guilty from a judicial standpoint to ensure He could properly take the punishment we deserved and effect the salvation and reconciliation of humanity God so desired.
Governmental: This view is typically associated with Hugo Grotius who developed this in defense of the attacks by Faustus Socinus. While perhaps misunderstood, Grotius does support a retributive form of God’s justice through punishment of Christ. He saw God’s purpose in Christ’s death as twofold: to demonstrate God’s divine retributive character of justice in regard to sin, and to exempt us by any further punishment by remission of this sin.
There is much more which can be said of all of these theories, but I encourage the reader to dig deeper to better apprehend these viewpoints, their strengths and weaknesses, especially in regards to their Biblical data, and hopefully come to the realization that a strong atonement theory can take aspects of many of these while still being true to the Biblical data we possess.
Through research of my own I have developed a belief that any atonement theory which wants to be faithful to the biblical data has to include the idea of penal substitution; i.e. that God inflicted upon Christ the suffering which we deserved as the punishment for our sins, as a result of which we no longer deserve punishment.
Now by saying “inflicted” instead of “punished” we are leaving open the question of whether God punished Christ on behalf of our sins. Christians are divided over this and it needn’t be a division which separates our communion with each other. So a middle ground approach would be to say Christ endured the suffering which would have been our punishment had He not taken our place. So in a penal substitution viewpoint you can hold that God punished Christ, but it doesn’t require it. Minimally what you are saying though is Christ endured the punishment that was our just deserts.
One of the reasons I think penal substitution has to be a central component of an atonement theory is there is so much biblical data supporting it. Look at the verses that speak of Christ bearing our sins upon the cross, or taking away our sins. One of my favorite verses in Col 2:13-15 (see also Rom 5:6-10, 6:10, 1 Cor 15:3, Gal 1:3-5, 2:20, Heb 2:9 & 17, 5:7-9, 9:11-14 & 26, 10:12, 1 Pet 1:18-19, 2:24, 3:18, 1 John 1:7, 2:2, 4:10). The suffering servant in Isaiah 53 is rife with substitution language and was a favorite among the early church on the Old Testament evidence for a suffering Messiah. In regards to Isaiah 53 ask yourself, with the hindsight of knowing what Jesus did, who else could be this suffering servant, Moses, or one of the early Old Testament heroes for the faith? Pretty unlikely when you look and study these verses. You can imagine how these verses just popped out in the eyes of the disciples and early church leaders after having witnessed the death and resurrection of Christ!
Another reason I like penal substitution is it really helps a person acknowledge that true law, or the way to right living, is a precept by God. Now this can take us down a rabbit hole into philosophy of law which we’ll try to avoid here, but it certainly makes sense that while many governments of the world today prescribe to some sort of a rule of law (whether founded on man or God), that God would judge us in some sort of a similar fashion. As we learned in other posts, if God exists, true right and wrong have to exist. And so Christ having to suffer a penalty that we deserved is in our reality judged rightly by God.
Now that should lead a person to ask numerous questions about how this works, why Christ, and so on. Let’s try to unpack these one at a time. The fact that our sins need to be judged was dealt with in the post on Sin, so I won’t regurgitate it here. But please recall what the wages of our sins are (Romans 1:32, 6:23)? Remember this is spiritual death, separation from God we are talking about here, not physical death.
So maybe the first question is why couldn’t we pay the penalty to God? Why did it have to be Christ?
I understand that no imperfect human being could pay the punishment for their own sins, much more those of the world. It would have to be a perfect human, yet divine, who could pay the penalty for such a large amount of infractions toward God. And how else was God really supposed to show how much He loves us, but by dying for us? We’ve spoken about this in past posts as well. Is there a greater act of love than a person laying down their life to save another? Our inability to pay this penalty on our own account might have been rejected merely on this possibility alone. And it makes a beautiful example of how God can carry out divine justice, yet still grant divine mercy to us.
How could God have punished or inflicted punishment justly on an innocent Christ? After all, if Christ was sinless, as all Christians need to affirm, God could not have condemned Christ, right?
Well, not so fast. Critics of penal substitution generally overlook the doctrine of imputation of sins. Even though Christ is personally without moral fault, he was judged legally guilty (in the eyes of divine justice) by God and so could be found legally condemned, which brings us to the idea of imputing our sins on Christ. Francois Turretin was a strong defender of this idea in his response to Socinus. Essentially the doctrine of imputation of sin states Christ was not infused with our sin, but imputed, and therefore was counted legally guilty for our sakes (2 Cor 5:21).
So one may then ask how can Christ take our place and be found guilty like this?
Thankfully this is where some examples of our worldly jurisprudence can offer us help. Ever hear of the idea of vicarious liability?
In both civil and criminal law there are cases of vicarious liability. Based on a principle of “let the master be answerable”. This idea states the master is responsible for the acts of his servants, in the course of their service. It is now a widely accepted notion that employers are held responsible for acts by their employees. Numerous examples abound like the owner of a bar who is held liable for one of his or her bartenders serving alcohol to minors, a hotel owner paying the penalty for a manager who allows the solicitation of prostitution within the hotel, unbeknownst to the owner, the United States Government taking legal responsibility for something an employee is accused of doing, and on and on. These are instances where the employee is truly guilty and yet is not being held liable for the crime. And many times that matter can come down to sheer payment, whereby the person liable (owner, corporation, etc) takes on financial responsibility because the damages are too great for an employee to pay.
This principle applies everywhere in medicine too. For example a chief surgeon’s subordinate botches something during surgery, the chief surgeon is held liable for the acts of the nurse or subordinate. It’s not transferred, it is replicated in the employer. So the responsibility of someone else can be imputed to a supervisor. And in these cases justice is still served, though some may argue different; but at the end of the day the person who did the crime is still guilty, it’s just someone else pays the penalty. So it is seems well within God’s judicial character to punish Christ as our substitute, declaring Him legally guilty, and demanding he pay the penalty for sins in our stead.
Why did Christ have to suffer and die to pay this penalty?
There are some Christians, notable ones such as Augustine and others, who felt Christ didn’t necessarily have to die to reconcile ourselves to God, but that it could have been done a myriad of other ways. So as I promise not go down the road of what is logically necessary, I think we need to ask ourselves how God could have truly shown us the damage of our sins AND His love for us if Christ hadn’t died on the cross? And I think this is where proponents of non-penal substitution theories would really have to do some reaching. We are talking about all of humanity’s offenses here, some of which in our own jurisprudence we call for the death of the guilty party. How could reconiciliation for all of this have really been made any other way? Yet, as mentioned above, even more difficult is the Bible provides such strong evidence that this is exactly why Jesus came.
So while someone’s death for our sins may not seem palatable or possible for the large majority of our 21st century world, it does seem likely and very plausible from the evidence we’ve just provided on God’s justice, hatred of sin, and infinite love that Jesus Christ did exactly that.
Before we close we have to reference the resurrection of Christ as also a necessary fixture in atonement theory. For Christ’s resurrection is a ratifcation or validation of not only who He was and claimed to be, but also that the penalty was paid in full and death could no longer hold him (Acts 2:24). Similar to a criminal who serves their crime and is set free, they can longer be punished, Christ served the sentence we deserved, in full, and no longer could death hold Him. He had to be set free. Without the resurrection event the death of Christ would have seemed like any other crucifixion and would not have sparked the sudden and forceful subsequent movement of His followers which would forever change the world. As Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 15:19 regarding if Christ was not rasied from the dead,…”we are of all people most to be pitied.” (NRV)
It is my prayer that you continue your search for truth in this life, truth in how we are imperfect, how that imperfection has led to a fracture in our relationship with God, truth in that while that fracture is costly God has made reparations through the offering of Himself in Jesus, and truth in that all you have to do is welcome Him into your heart and accept this greatest act of forgiveness, mercy, and love.
For further recommended reading and slightly different views on the centrality of penal substitution regarding the work of Christ:
-J. I. Packer. What Did the Cross Achieve?: The Logic of Penal Substitution. Article. (08/20/2019).
-William Lane Craig. The Atonement. (Cambridge University Press, 2018).