The Thoughts and Adventures of Sarah Harris

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The Atoning Work of Christ – Concluding Comments

Concluding this series is not easy. There is so much more to know and understand. The more I know the less I know, it seems.

Let’s first do a quick recap on the atonement theories that have been presented:

Penal Substitution: Man sins against God. God is justly angry at the sins of His creation and man is condemned to separation from God. God becomes man and dies as our substitute so that mankind does not have to die. “Divine love triumphed over divine wrath by divine self-sacrifice” – John Stott

Moral Influence: Man is sinful. God becomes man in order to reveal Himself to mankind so that they can follow Him as an example of how to live a Christian life. He reveals Himself to us and teaches us about His character by coming to live and die as one of us.

Christus Victor: Mankind is held captive by sin, Satan, and death. God became man, lived, died, and rose again in order to defeat these evil forces and free mankind from captivity. We have victory with Christ.

Recapitulation:  In Adam all have sinned. God becomes man, thus uniting God with mankind. As God lives on earth as the second Adam he does right in every instance that Adam previously did wrong. Christ recapitulates all of humanity and we are redeemed by His life, death, and resurrection. Christ defeats sin and death and redeems mankind through unity with Christ incarnate.

There are many positive aspects we can gain from all of these theories. In fact, my current professor said, it is better to look at these as images rather than theories. C. S. Lewis  explains further in Mere Christianity:

“The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. Theories as to how it did this are another matter. A good many different theories have been held as to how it works; what all Christians are agreed on is that it does work. I will tell you what I think it is like. All sensible people know that if you are tired and hungry a meal will do you good. But modern theory of nourishment – all about the vitamins and proteins – is a different thing. People ate their dinners and felt better long before the theory of vitamins was ever heard of: and if the theory of vitamins is some day abandoned they will go on eating their dinners just the same. Theories about Christ’s death are not Christianity: they are explanations about how it works. Christians would not all agree as to how important those theories are. My own church – the Church of England – does not lay down any one of them as the right one. The Church of Rome goes a bit further. But I think they will all agree that the thing itself is infinitely more important than any explanations that theologians have produced. I think they would probably admit that no explanation will ever be quite adequate to the reality” (55, emphasis mine).

This is not an either/or situation. Every one of these images says something true about God and I believe there is much we can learn from each one. The truth of the matter is that we cannot even begin to grasp how God was able to atone for our sins. We know that He did. And these different images help us understand, if only a little, what has occurred.

I do think some images are more helpful than others. And perhaps the ones that are helpful to me are not helpful for you, and visa versa. The two that make the most sense to me are Recapitulation and Christus Victor, which I like to think of together as one image. I believe that these images provide us with a greater sense of what it means to be a Christian more so than the other theories.

Moral influence theory leaves Christian life in a state of moral achievement and legalism. Penal substitution leaves us thinking that since Christ paid the price to God for our sins, we are now free to sin ever more. Of course, Christians would never say that, but there definitely does not seem to be much reason in this theory for me to live a godly life. Sanctification seems to lose it’s ties to the atonement. Why live a holy life if my sins are already paid?

On the other hand, Christus Victor and Recapitulation teach us that since Christ united humanity with God through the incarnation, Christians now have a clear goal in mind. That is, through communion with God (which occurred when we were reconciled to him) we are given freedom be truly human (as Christ exemplified in His life) and to live according to God’s will, no longer bound to sin. Rather than a religion based on laws and morals, Christianity is for the purpose of reconciling the world to God. As Jens Zimmermann states in Incarnational Humanism:

“Our propensity [is] to seek security in rules for the Christian life, which is probably why even today “how-to-do-Christianity” seminars prevail in evangelical churches over actual gospel proclamations. For Bonhoeffer such an attitude is an abrogation of responsibility and a failure to enjoy the liberation effected by Christ to be fully human before God. Slaves need rules and lack initiative, but sons and daughters of God freely and responsibly enact what they know to be their Father’s will: the reconciliation of the world with God for the sake of true humanity” (278).

Lewis explains the atonement by showing that mankind needed to repent but that because man is bad they are unable to repent. However, with God’s help, they would be able. That is, if God put into us a bit of Himself. “We now need God’s help in order to do something which God, in His own nature, never does at all – to surrender, to suffer, to submit, to die. . . . God can only share what He has: this thing, in His own nature, He has not. But supposing God became a man – suppose our human nature which can suffer and die was amalgamated with God’s nature in one person – then that person could help us. He could surrender His will, and suffer and die, because He was man; and He could do it perfectly because He was God. You and I can go through this process only if God does it in us” (58).

We can see that in the “Lewisian” version of recapitulation, meaning for Christianity is formed even after justification. Because we are united with Christ and share in His life, we are now free to live in surrender to His will. Sanctification is in direct correlation to justification under this viewpoint.

Now, not to say that Lewis was promoting this view against all others. He clearly states: “Such is my own way of looking at what Christians call the atonement. But remember this is only one more picture. Do not mistake it for the thing itself: and it does not help you, drop it” (59).

My purpose then in researching, reading, and posting these different atonement theories was twofold. One, so that I could gain a better understanding of what Christ did for me and how it affects my life, and two, so that we as Christians would not dogmatically hold onto a view as absolute fact but would be willing to understand the atonement from a new and different perspective than perhaps we are usually do.

Please feel free to comment below with your own thoughts on the different theories. Which theory do you find most helpful and why? Do you hold onto one theory as dogma or do you find them all to be useful means of exemplifying the atonement? Are there other theories not mentioned that you find helpful?

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5 thoughts on “The Atoning Work of Christ – Concluding Comments

  1. Fred Uberseder on said:

    Sarah, thank you for this series. Its well written clarity has been very helpful. As one who came of faith 25 yrs ago in the very reformed, calvinist, PCA, I have only ever known the penal substitution theory. Recent “awakenings” in my life have caused me to question it. It is helpful to know that in terms of church history it is a more recent theory. A particular adherence to one theory can indeed become quite dogmatic and cause one to filter “believer vs non-believer” through that lense. A whole new world in knowledge of who God is and who we are in Him opens up when these lenses are removed. I now find moral influence and recapitulation quite helpful in my quest to seek His kingdom and His righteousness. http://www.dogfencelife.blogspot.com

    • Fred, thank you for taking the time to read and comment! I’m glad you found the series helpful. In a way, this series was written so that I myself would have a better understanding of the different views. The series has helped me to have a fuller and less dogmatic understanding then I once did. Having grown up in a southern baptist church my whole life thinking that the penal substitution theory was the only theory, it was not until about a year ago that any of the other views were introduced to me and I responded in a very dogmatic way. It seemed to be challenging a paradigm I held to my entire life and it took me some time to adjust and be willing to discover other viewpoints. Thus, I appreciate your willingness and desire to learn about other viewpoints. Not to say that there isn’t room for dogmatism is some things (such as God incarnate) but I don’t think the atonement is not one of those things. I would encourage you to continue reading about the different theories – read the Church Fathers (especially Ireneaus), Anselm, Abelard, as well as contemporary theologians. Although I would like to say that I gave each theory a fare look, bias is inevitable even in my attempt at an unbiased take on the views. Many blessings to you in your journey!

  2. Sarah,

    Thanks a lot for your recent traffic at my blog. It warms my heart to see others wrestling through the plurality of atonement theories present in the Christian tradition. I remember a Good Friday homily by my priest last year that was excellent on this point. In it, he said the multitude of theories is exactly what we ought to expect from an action like Christ’s–something so wild and loving, not a single theory can capture it entirely. Instead, we need the plurality in order to see the Event of Christ from different angles. He ended calling for even more theories of the atonement, something I find especially interesting.

    You may also enjoy the work of my friend, Ron Roper, who has done some detailed research on what he calls a “premial atonement.” His blog, though awkwardly formatted at times, is here:

    http://premialatonement.wordpress.com/2012/03/11/welcome-to-the-launch-of-the-premial-atonement-blog/

    Peace on your journey!

    • Dean,

      Thank you for your comment! I enjoyed reading your blog post on substitutionary atonement. It seems this topic is rather popular right now, for which I am glad. For the majority of my life I was under the assumption that the only theory for atonement was penal substitution. In fact, I didn’t realize there was any debate at all. I’m really not sure how I made it through at a Christian University without hearing otherwise. When I heard about Christus Victor a little over a year ago, I started studying the different theories and realized that Christ’s atonement is much more complex than I previously thought.

      Thank you for the link to your friends blog. I’m looking forward to reading quite a few of his posts. It looks like he’s wrestled with this topic to a much greater extent than I have.

      Blessings!

  3. Anonymous on said:

    Sarah,

    Thanks for this explanation of atonement models. I am preparing a Bible study for some highschoolers and found your series to be very helpful.

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