atonement theories

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post, I’m following Zach’s comment to post my chart on the atonement from chapter 6 of Don’t Stop Believing. Click on this link (atonement theories) to see the chart, which I’ll discuss below.

My main point is that the various atonement theories are not like a set of golf clubs, each one equally valuable depending on what type of shot is needed. There are three-four main theories (depending how sharply you separate moral influence from the example theory), and the four arms of the cross supplies a handy model for how they relate.

The cross is aimed:

1. Downward, toward Satan:  Christus victor provides the big picture. Why did Jesus die? To defeat sin, death, and Satan.

2. Upward, toward God:  Penal substitution explains how Jesus defeated sin, death, and Satan. Jesus absorbed the Father’s wrath in our place so that we, like him, will rise again.

3. Sideways, toward us:  moral influence and example theory supply the application. The cross is God’s greatest act of love and Jesus did leave us an example, that we should follow in his steps. But this is the frosting on the cake. Without the cake (Christus victor) and the flour which makes the cake (penal substitution), the frosting has no place to go. It’s just a pile of sugar. So Christ’s example is pointless if he doesn’t actually defeat sin, death, and Satan by bearing our penalty in our place. In that case he died for nothing, and we’ve got a real case of divine child abuse.

To recap:  penal substitution explains how the cross saves, Christus victor explains why the cross saves, and the double-sided moral influence and example theory explain what we should do in response.

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  1. But which one is the wood, which one is the iron, which one is the wedge, and which one is the special edition Barth & Sons’ GoldenPutter?

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  3. The atonement theories section of Don’t Stop Believing is very helpful. The link to the .doc is appreciated.🙂

  4. Dear Mr. Wittmer:
    Glory to Jesus Christ!

    I am glad you stated that Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) is a theory of the atonement. Many Protestant Christians view PSA as the gospel, not realizing that PSA is only a theory. After all, PSA is not explicitly stated in scripture. The deep inner workings of the atonement remain a mystery.

    The Church, in the ancient Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed states the following about Jesus Christ and the atonement:
    “…Who for us men and our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man; And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried; And the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; And ascended into heaven…”

    In your view, do we need a theory describing the “how” of the atonement and if so, then why? In your view, is it enough to simply believe what the above creed states about the atonement or is it necessary for one to embrace PSA in order to be saved?

    I believe PSA is not only a flawed theory, but also an invalid and heretical one. PSA is bad theology and historically it is a late development in doctrine.

    PSA is bad theology because it:
    Requires the unchangeable God to change: As you know, God does not change. . James 1:17 “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.” Malachi 3:6a “For I, the LORD, do not change;…”.

    If God was not wrathful towards man before The Fall, but became wrathful after The Fall, then clearly God has changed. This is true if we accept the definition of the word “change” as found in any legitimate English Dictionary. Furthermore, it is the act of a created being (man) who is the cause of this change in God; Adam and Eve sin and then God’s disposition towards them changes. Also, according the PSA theory, we see that if a person prays “the sinner’s pray” and “accepts Jesus as their personal Saviour”, God’s disposition towards them changes. Before praying this prayer, God is wrathful towards them, but after the prayer is said, God is not wrathful towards this sinner. In fact God now sees this person differently. God the Father views this sinner as He view’s His Son Jesus Christ-perfectly righteous! And again, it is the act of a mere creature which causes the omnipotent, changeless God to ………change. (This is also a legal fiction, since man remains a guilty sinner. Man is only declared to be righteous while in fact, man remains intrinsically unchanged. When God the Father looks at us after the “sinner’s prayer”, He doesn’t see us, he sees Jesus….i.e. God cannot look at us as were truly are ).

    Divides the perfect oneness and unity of Trinity by opposing the wrathful Father against His merciful Son: (The Father pouring out His wrath upon the Son and turning away from Him since He cannot look upon sin). But the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are One in essence and undivided. There can be no conflict, no tension, and no division or opposition between them

    PSA makes sin a problem for God:
    God loves us and He wants to forgive us but He cannot because His divine justice demands punishment of the guilty sinner, who has broken God’s divine law. There are several problems with this line of thought. First God is bound by necessity to act according to divine justice. So when man sins, God MUST punish that sin. But here is the error: God is forced to act by something outside of Himself, i.e., His creature who has sinned. God is not free to act as He chooses and is therefore bound by necessity which is greater than God. This necessity is caused by the actions of something outside of God.

    Another problem is that the tension between God’s love and justice creates an internal conflict within God. But by definition, this cannot be so, since God is a perfect being without any inner conflict.

    PSA makes God the One from whom we must be saved! If God is not appeased by blood, then the human race is eternally damned. God’s need for blood in order to appease His wrath is the same as that seen in many pagan gods. Please think about this question: Does God need anything? Clearly the answer must be no…….. God does not need anything. But if God needs to be appeased in order to forgive, then God has a need and is not really God. (Or if God’s wrath must be satisfied, in order to restore perfect moral order, then God has a need. This is the influence of Plato on Western Christianity). Not only that but if God must be appeased, then He truly does not forgive us our sins, as we are told by God Himself to forgive others. If your friend offends you and you forgive him, do you require that he appease or pay you for his offense against you?

    Makes salvation extrinsic to man: By legal fiat, man is declared righteous but he remains essentially unchanged. There is not true union between God and man…
    no AT–ONE-MENT…ATONEMENT. (Man being in union with God…one with God).

    Further, I believe your view of God’s wrath is flawed and anthropomorphic and your view of God’s love is incorrect and insufficient.

    The wrath of God is the experience of the unrighteous in the presence of God’s love; the unrighteous experience the presence of God as torment. God is eternal, unchanging love and it is the experience of His presence which will be different for the righteous and unrighteous. Please see Romans, chapter one for a basic definition of God’s wrath.

    Let’s briefly look at God’s love by looking at what Jesus says about God the Father’s love, and the Father’s treatment of both the just and unjust. Matthew 5:43-48 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you] 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? 48 Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.

    Please note Mr. Wittmer, that what makes God perfect in this passage is the manner in which He treats both the just and unjust…those who hate Him and those who love Him… God treats both the just and the unjust the same. God is love and God loves mankind with a perfect, other directed, self denying, self-giving, love. And Jesus tells us to imitate the Father and to be perfect as He is perfect.

    If time permitted and my understanding was greater, I could explain that a proper understanding of the atonement begins with a correct understanding of The Fall. I assume we differ in our understanding both of what man fell from and into what man fell. Let me briefly state the following regarding The Fall.
    The PSA view of The Fall:
    In PSA, death is seen as a punishment from God for Adam and Eve’s disobedience. In other words, death is from God…God kills the first Adam for disobedience. Those who hold to PSA may as well simply translate Genesis 2:15b as “… but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it, I will surely kill you.” But death is not properly viewed by a judicial punishment from God. Death is an ontological reality resulting from the absence of communion with God, the One who is life. Adam and Eve died because they were no longer participants in the life of God. It is only in God that “… we live and move and have our being…” Acts 17:28.

    I have much to learn and I often error. But based on my current level of understanding, I truly believe what I have written here.

    Respectfully Submitted,
    Craig Stephens
    “I believe, O Lord, and I confess that thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, who didst come into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.”

  5. Thanks for the link to the document. Please note, however, that the text box for “Moral Example” is not tall enough, hence the bottom line “and liberal theologians” is not visible.

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