5 Theories of the Atonement

The Ransom Theory

Main Point: In the Cross, Jesus delivers us from the powers of evil by paying a ransom price to the devil.

Main Proponents: Gustaf Aulén

The first major theory of the atonement, the ransom theory of atonement originated in the early Church, particularly in the work of Origen. The theory teaches that the death of Christ was a ransom sacrifice, usually said to have been paid to Satan, in some views paid to God the Father, in satisfaction for the bondage and debt on the souls of humanity as a result of inherited sin. The Christian philosopher Robin Collins summarized it as follows: Essentially, this theory claimed that Adam and Eve sold humanity over to the Devil at the time of the Fall; hence, justice required that grace pay the Devil a ransom to free us from the Devil’s clutches. God, however, tricked the Devil into accepting Christ’s death as a ransom, for the Devil did not realize that Christ could not be held in the bonds of death. Once the Devil accepted Christ’s death as a ransom, this theory concluded, justice was satisfied and God was able to free us from Satan’s grip.

The Moral Influence Theory

Main Point: There is no necessary payment for sin; the cross simply shows us how much God loves us in order to persuade us to love God.

Main Proponents: Peter Abelard; Horace Bushnell

The Moral influence theory of the atonement is a doctrine in Christian theology related to the meaning and effect of the death of Jesus Christ. In this view, the purpose and result of Christ’s death was to influence mankind toward moral improvement. This theory denies that Christ died to satisfy any principle of divine justice, but teaches instead that His death was designed to greatly impress mankind with a sense of God’s love, resulting in softening their hearts and leading them to repentance. Thus, the Atonement is not directed towards God with the purpose of maintaining His justice, but towards man with the purpose of persuading him to right action. Formulated by Peter Abelard (1079-1142) partially in reaction against Anselm’s Satisfaction theory, this view was held by the 16th century Socinians. Versions of it can be found later in Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) and Horace Bushnell (1802-1876). It was largely taught in liberal Christian circles.

The Governmental Theory

Main Point: Though there is no necessary payment for sin, the cross demonstrates God’s justice when the law is broken in order to persuade us to turn from our sin.

Main Proponents: Hugo Grotius

The governmental theory holds that Christ’s suffering was a real and meaningful substitute for the punishment humans deserve, but it did not consist of Christ receiving the exact punishment due to sinful people. Instead, God publicly demonstrated his displeasure with sin through the suffering of his own sinless and obedient Son as a propitiation. Christ’s suffering and death served as a substitute for the punishment humans might have received. On this basis, God is able to extend forgiveness while maintaining divine order, having demonstrated the seriousness of sin and thus allowing his wrath to “pass over.” This view is very similar to the satisfaction view and the penal substitution view, in that all three views see Christ as satisfying God’s requirement for the punishment of sin. However, the government view disagrees with the other two in that it does not affirm that Christ endured the precise punishment that sin deserves or paid its sacrificial equivalent; instead, Christ’s suffering is seen as being simply an alternative to that punishment. In contrast, penal substitution holds that Christ endured the exact punishment, or the exact “worth” of punishment, that sin deserved; the satisfaction theory states that Christ made the satisfaction owed by humans to God due to sin through the merit of His propitiatory sacrifice). It is important to note, however, that these three views all acknowledge that God cannot freely forgive sins without any sort of punishment or satisfaction being exacted.

The Satisfaction Theory

Main Point: The cross satisfies the honor of God through the sacrifice of the Son of God.

Main Proponents: Anselm

Anslem believed that humans could not render to God more than what was due to him. The satisfaction due to God was greater than what all created beings are capable of doing, since they can only do what is already required of them. Therefore, God had to make satisfaction for himself. Yet if this satisfaction was going to avail for humans, it had to be made by a human. Therefore only a being that was both God and man could satisfy God and give him the honor that is due him. The classic Anselmian formulation of the Satisfaction View needs to be distinguished from Penal Substitution. Penal Substitution states that Christ bore the penalty for sin, in place of those sinners united to him by faith. Anselm, by contrast, regarded human sin as defrauding God of the honor he is due. Christ’s death, the ultimate act of obedience, gives God great honor. As it was beyond the call of duty for Christ, it is more honor than he was obliged to give. Christ’s surplus can therefore repay our deficit. Hence Christ’s death is substitutionary in this sense: he pays the honor instead of us. But that substitution is not penal; his death pays our honor not our penalty.

The Penal Substitution Theory

Main Point: At the cross, Jesus fully pays the penalty of sinners in their place in order that His righteousness might be credited to them.

Main Proponents: Martin Luther; John Calvin; Reformers

Penal substitutionary atonement refers to the doctrine that Christ died on the cross as a substitute for sinners. God imputed the guilt of our sins to Christ, and he, in our place, bore the punishment that we deserve. This was a full payment for sins, which satisfied both the wrath and the righteousness of God, so that He could forgive sinners without compromising His own holy standard. The Penal-Substitution Theory of the atonement was formulated by the 16th century Reformers as an extension of Anselm’s Satisfaction theory. Anselm’s theory was correct in introducing the satisfaction aspect of Christ’s work and its necessity; however the Reformers saw it as insufficient because it was referenced to God’s honor rather than his justice and holiness and was couched more in terms of a commercial transaction than a penal substitution. This Reformed view says simply that Christ died for man, in man’s place, taking his sins and bearing them for him. The bearing of man’s sins takes the punishment for them and sets the believer free from the penal demands of the law: The righteousness of the law and the holiness of God are satisfied by this substitution.

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One Reply to “5 Theories of the Atonement”

  1. thans don for the summary. it was very helpful. i wish the church would communicate more clearly that although true truth is objective there also exists levels of grey. that its not either or. for example we know that christ justifies us through faith but how exactly that justification works is less clear. we tend to juxtapose the former with the latter and give them the same truth value which i think ends up confusing people-in a world where we are constantly given paradigms of the subjective interprative nature of truth-when they are confronted with varying interpratations (here for instance of the atonement). we dont have to be all or nothing like the relativist (all is relative, nothing is objective) or like the fundamentalist (all my church doctrine is objective nothing is interpretation) but rather can adhere to different levels of confidence in the doctrines we teach

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