The Atonement of Christ is the sacrificial work of Jesus for sinners. In his death on the cross, Christ atoned for the sins of men such that God is satisfied and reconciliation is accomplished for all who will be redeemed. The obedience and death of Christ on behalf of sinners is the ground of redemption.
Necessity of the atonement
As stated above, Jesus' death satisfied and reconciled sinners to God. Yet, in order to fully appreciate the doctrine of the atonement it must be made clear why the atonement was necessary.
Theories of the atonement
- The Ransom Theory: The earliest of all, originating with the Early Church Fathers, this theory claims that Christ offered himself as a ransom (Mark 10:45). Where it was not clear was in its understanding of exactly to whom the ransom was paid. Many early church fathers viewed the ransom as paid to Satan.
- The Satisfaction (or Commercial) Theory: The formulator of this theory was the medieval theologian Anselm of Canterbury (1034-1109), in his book, Cur Deus Homo (lit. â€˜Why the God Manâ€™). In his view, Godâ€™s offended honor and dignity could only be satisfied by the sacrifice of the God-man, Jesus Christ. Anselm offered compelling biblical evidence that the atonement was not a ransom paid by God to the devil but rather a debt paid to God on behalf of sinners. Anselmâ€™s work established a foundation for the Protestant Reformation, specifically the understanding of justification by faith. See main page on Satisfaction theory
- The Penal-Substitution Theory: This view was formulated by the 16th century Reformers as an extension of Anselmâ€™s Satisfaction theory. Anselmâ€™s theory was correct in introducing the satisfaction aspect of Christâ€™s work and its necessity, however the Reformers saw it as insufficient because it was referenced to Godâ€™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 manâ€™s place, taking his sins and bearing them for him. The bearing of manâ€™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. See main page on Penal substitution theory
- The Moral-Example Theory (or Moral-Influence Theory): Christ died 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 Anselmâ€™s Satisfaction theory, this view was held by the 16th century Socinians. Versions of it can be found later in F. D. E. Schleiermacher (1768-1834) and Horace Bushnell (1802-1876).
- The Governmental Theory: God made Christ an example of suffering to exhibit to erring man that sin is displeasing to him. God's moral government of the world made it necessary for him to evince his wrath against sin in Christ. Christ died as a token of God's displeasure toward sin and it was accepted by God as sufficient; but actually God does not exact strict justice. This view was formulated by Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) and is subsequently found in Arminianism, Charles Finney, the New England Theology of Jonathan Edwards (the younger), and Methodism. See main page on Governmental theory of atonement
- The Declaratory Theory: A version of the Moral Influence theory, wherein Christ died to show men how greatly God loves them. This view held by Albrecht Ritschl (1822â€“89).
- The Guaranty Theory: Reconciliation is based not on Christ's expiation of sin, but on His guaranty to win followers and thus conquer human sinfulness. This view held by J. C. K. von Hofmann (1810â€“77).
- The Vicarious Repentance Theory: by John McLeod Campbell (d. 1872). It assumes that a perfect repentance is sufficient to atone for sin. In his death, Christ entered into the Father's condemnation of sin, condemned sin, and by this, confessed it.
- The 'Christus Victor' or Dramatic Theory: by G. E. H. AulÃ©n (1879â€“1977). The atonement is viewed as divine conflict and victory over the hostile powers that hold humanity in subjection. This is a modified form of the classic Ransom theory with the emphasis on Christâ€™s victory over evil.
- The Accident Theory: Christ's death was an accident, as unforeseen and unexpected as that of any other victim of man's hatred. This view is usually found outside of mainstream Christianity.
- The Martyr Theory: Christ gave up His life for a principle of truth that was opposed to the spirit of His day. This view is usually found outside of mainstream Christianity.
Sufficiency of Christ's person and his atoning death
The deity of Christ establishes the infinite intrinsic value of his person. Since Jesus Christ is the God-man, truly God and truly man, his death is also of infinite intrinsic value and all-sufficient as a sacrifice. The book of Hebrews clearly says that the sufficiency of Christ's death negated the need for additional sacrifices. The biblical word translated once for all (Greek ephapax in Rom. 6:10; Heb. 9:26, 28; 10:10) is clearly a contrast with the Old Testament yearly sacrifice on the Day of Atonement and declares the complete sufficiency of Christ's death.
The infinite intrinsic value and all-sufficiency of Christ's death is a doctrine maintained in the Reformed tradition. The Canons of Dort, which is the historical statement of the so-called "five points of Calvinism" formulated at the Synod of Dort (1618-1619), state:
- This death of the Son of God is the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sins, of infinite value and worth, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world. This death is of such great value and worth because the person who submitted to it is not only a true and perfectly holy man, but also the only-begotten Son of God, of the same eternal and infinite essence with the Father and the Holy Spirit, for these qualifications were necessary for our Savior. Further, this death is of such great value and worth because it was accompanied by a sense of the wrath and curse of God, which we by our sins had deserved. (Second Head, Articles 3 & 4).
John Owen (1616-1683) echos the same position, â€œIt was then the purpose and intention of God that his Son should offer a sacrifice of infinite worth, value, and dignity, sufficient in itself for the redeeming of all and every man, if it had pleased the Lord to employ it to that purpose. . . Sufficient we say, then, was the sacrifice of Christ for the redemption of the whole world, and for the expiation of all the sins of all and every man in the world.â€ (Works, vol. 10, pp. 295, 296)
The Design (or intent) of the atonement
The issue with most non-Calvinists is the doctrine of a definite atonement (or limited atonement). This is not so much a question of the "sufficiency" of Christ's death as it is a question of the design (or intent) of Christ's death.
Did Christ intend to accomplish redemption, propitiation and reconciliation for every man? Did He intend to make salvation possible for all men? Reformed theology maintains that, though Christ's death is of infinite value and is sufficient to redeem every man (had this been God's intention), the true intention of Christ's death was to accomplish effectively the full salvation of the elect, and the elect only.
Calvinism: The design of the atonement was to redeem the elect.
- Main page: definite atonement
Arminianism: The design of the atonement was to make all men savable.
- Main page: universal atonement
- Erroneous Theories of the Atonement by William W. Sasser
- Atonement of Christ by James Petigru Boyce
- Atonement, some basics, by Peter Leithart
- Atonement in Narrative Context, by Peter Leithart
- Who tells the best atonement story?, by Scot McKnight
- D. A. Carson on the Extent of the Atonement
- Did Christ Die for Us or for God?
- The Biblical Doctrine of the Atonement (many resources)
- God's Provision, Man's Need (includes a useful chart & glossary)
- Historical Opinions as to the Nature of Christ's Atoning Death by Gordon Olson (excellent brief overview)