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Archive for the tag “Cross”

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?


The Atoning Work of Christ: The Christus Victor Theory

What is Christus Victor?

While there are different versions of the Christus Victor view, the main idea is that mankind has been held captain by sin, Satan, and death and that Christ came to defeat those evil forces so that we might be reconciled to Him. In each of the different authors who I will present, you will see some slight variations, but in general, this is the outline of the Christus Victor view.

Although this viewpoint is rare in the protestant tradition, one pastor who supports  this view is Greg Boyd of Woodland Hills Church. In the book The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views, Boyd contributes a chapter to defend and explain the Christus Victor view. Boyd emphasizes that Satan has dominion over this world and is holding us captive. Therefore, salvation, in part, is deliverance from Satan.  Boyd analyzes Acts 26:17-18 which states:

“I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (NRSV).

In light of this passage, Boyd states that because God has set the Gentiles free from the power of Satan, “they would be in a position to ‘receive forgiveness of sins’ as well as a place among the community that is set apart (sanctified) by God. Salvation clearly involves forgiveness of sin, but this forgiveness is itself rooted in a person getting freed from Satan’s grip” (Boyd, The Christus Victor View of the Atonement, 3).

Salvation is not necessarily from God’s wrath or hell, rather, salvation is something that affects the whole of creation. Christus Victor, as presented by Boyd, is not about “my personal salvation”, it is about the salvation of the entire world of which we are only a small part (4).

Even Christ’s life was part of this conquering of Satan and evil powers. Boyd gives numerous examples of this, for instance, when Christ heals on the Sabbath he is “waging war against the powers and exposing the systemic evil that fuels religious legalism and oppression. He was conquering evil with love” (5).

“Everything about Jesus’ life must be understood as an act of defiance against the powers, precisely because everything about his life was an act of self-sacrificial love” (5).

While in the penal substitution view, Christ died as our substitute and took God’s wrath upon Himself in our stead. In the Christus Victor view, Christ died as our substitute and took upon himself all the natural consequences of sin that we would have experienced, that is: death and suffering.

While the Christus Victor view is often presented as the idea that God bought off Satan – that Jesus was the ransom payment to the devil, Boyd states that this idea of ransom in scripture is not meant to be taken literally.  “The word ‘ransom’ simply means ‘the price of release’ and was most commonly used when purchasing slaves from the slave market. Hence, the Christus Victor model can simply take this to mean that Christ did whatever it took to release us from slavery to the powers” (6).

I do want to make mention of one other person who has greatly influenced the rise of Christus Victor, that is Gustav Aulén who wrote in 1931. His book is considered a classic and he provides a historical analysis arguing that the traditional viewpoint of the Church Fathers is the theory of Christus Victor and that it wasn’t until Anselm’s theory of Penal substitution that Christus Victor became less known. Aulén’s book is well worth the read.

Where did it originate?

Although in the first several centuries after the time of Christ, there was no theory called “Christus Victor,” strong elements of the view can be seen throughout the Church Fathers from as early as the 3rd century if not before. Some of the Fathers that presented this view of the atonement were Irenaeus, Gregory of Nyssa, Athanasius, and Origen, to name a few.

For this post, I intend to focus mainly on Gregory of Nyssa’s  (335-395 AD) explanation of the atonement found in The Great Catechism because more than the other fathers, he delves into this idea “tricking” Satan which is often one of the biggest criticisms of Christus Victor.

Gregory’s line of thought starts out by acknowledging that man has been deceived by “the great advocate and inventor of vice,” Satan (XXI). The Devil spread the glamour of beauty over the hook of vice, and man, in his ability to freely choose, took the bait. Man became “fettered prisoners” and in “bondage of slavery” to Satan (XV). God, having made man in his image took pity on mankind and desired to free them from their plight.

Gregory goes on to describe Christ and his great miracles and how when Satan saw that Christ had such power, he “saw also in Him an opportunity for an advance, in the exchange, upon the value of what he held. For this reason he chooses Him as a ransom for those who were shut up in the prison of death” (XXIII). In exchange for mankind who were captive by sin and death, Satan accepted Christ as a ransom:

“In order to secure that the ransom in our behalf might be easily accepted by him who required it, the Deity was hidden under the veil of our nature, that so, as with ravenous fish, the hook of the Deity might be gulped down along with the bait of flesh, and thus, life being introduced into the house of death, and light shining in darkness, that which is diametrically opposed to light and life might vanish; for it is not in the nature of darkness to remain when light is present, or of death to exist when life is active” (XXIV).

And so, what then, is atonement for Gregory? It is the Christ victorious in that He triumphs over Satan so that life is brought to those who were once doomed to die, it is cleansing for those who were once polluted with sin.  He does this by paying a ransom to Satan which Satan eagerly receives not knowing that Christ is God.

The main critique of course, is that in veiling the deity of Christ, God deceives Satan. This seems to go against God’s character. Gregory later defends his case against this notion, but I will not be going into depth on it here. The reason being, that the Christus Victor theory works perfectly well without God having deceived Satan. As Boyd says, the idea of ransom in scripture was likely not meant to be taken literally.

The idea of the atonement for Gregory continues even further and does not stop merely at Christus Victor but we’ll look at his ideas as well as other Church Fathers ideas on this in the next blog posts.

What was the cultural context?

St. Gregory was, of course, influenced by the culture around him, and wrote The Great Catechism mainly as a logical explanation of belief so that Christians could defend their faith. Gregory was largely influenced by another Church Father, Origen, who also held to the belief that the ransom could not have been paid to God (because God was not holding sinners captive) so the ransom had to have been paid to the Devil.

What did the cross achieve under this view?

Christ lived a life of love to actively fight against the forces of evil, Christ died to fulfill the law of sin and death, and in his resurrection, he defeated sin death, and Satan so that they no longer hold power over us. We, in participating in that death, are able to live in participation in the life of Christ.

Which scriptures support this view?

1 Corinthians 15:24-26 – Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

Romans 5:17-19 – If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous

Romans 6:9-11 – We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Acts 20:28 – Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son.

Hebrews 2:14-15 – Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.

All Scripture was taken from the NRSV.

What are some common criticisms?

  • It makes sin an objective force outside of man’s nature, eradicating personal guilt and need for forgiveness and  grace.
  • Satan is given too much power, even an equal to God.
  • In some versions of Christus Victor, God seems to deceive Satan which would go against the good character of God.
  • This view puts too much emphasis on Christ as Divine rather than Christ as human.

This blog post is the third blog in a series on the different atonement theories. My first post on “penal substitution” can be found here. The second post, on “moral influence theory” can be found here. The next post, on the recapitulation theory can be found here. Please feel free to comment below with thoughts, criticisms, or opinions in regards to the posts.

The Atoning Work of Christ: Penal Substitution

In this series, I intend to post several blogs in regards to the  different theories of the atonement of Christ. The first blog introduces the most common view among protestants: penal substitution. Let me preface these posts by saying, I know very little. I am in the process of learning so what I post is merely my limited understanding. I trust that through you, the readers, the works of the church, and my community, that over the course of my life time I will gain a deeper understanding of the mystery of the cross.

 What is penal substitution?

We all know it well. It is taught in protestant churches and in most every protestant book written about the gospel.

In his book, Living the Cross Centered Life, the well known author, CJ Mahaney talks about the divine dilemma:

“For God, the divine dilemma comes about because He isn’t indifferent to any of this sinfulness on mankind’s part. He is, in fact, righteously and furiously opposed to every bit of it. He cannot simply overlook or excuse it. In light of His holiness and justice, He has no alternative but to punish sin and punish the sinner (62).”

And yet scripture also tells us that God’s desire is to save. This puts God in a predicament – the divine dilemma.  The only person who can save us is a God-Man, someone who is perfectly sinless and also fully human.  “No one else could do it. Only Jesus Christ, truly God and fully man, could be our substitute and make this sacrifice…He paid the price you and I owed to the innocent offended party, God our Creator and Judge (Ibid, 72).” In order for the wrath and righteousness of God to be satisfied, God imputed the guilt of our sins onto Christ, who then bore the punishment we deserve.

John Stott puts it simply: “Divine love triumphed over divine wrath by divine self-sacrifice (Ibid., 55).”

Where did it originate?

It is generally thought that the atonement theory of Penal Substitution originated in all its grandeur in the work of a theologian named Anselm called Cur Deus Homo (Why God became Man), written in 1098.

In this book he argues that man, in sinning, dishonors God and “[i]t is impossible for God to lose his honor, for either the sinner pays his debt of his own accord, or, if he refuse, God takes it from him. For either man renders due submission to God of his own will, by avoiding sin or making payment, or else God subjects him to himself by torments, even against man’s will, and thus shows that he is the Lord of man, though man refuses to acknowledge it of his own accord (Book 1, XIV).” And as Mahaney also suggests, it is only this God-Man, Jesus, who can pay the debt as a substitute for humanity. Anselm elaborates:

“And this debt was so great that, while none but man must solve the debt, none but God was able to do it; so that he who does it must be both God and man. And hence arises a necessity that God should take man into unity with his own person; so that he who in his own nature was bound to pay the debt, but could not, might be able to do it in the person of God (Ibid., Book 2, XVII).”

What was the cultural context?

Why was it that Anselm held this view of the atonement? Why hadn’t we seen this view to any great extent in previous writings? Well let’s look at the cultural setting from which Anselm arose.

Anselm lived within a feudal society where relationships were based on exchange of holding land for service. A lord was someone who held land and a vassal was a person who would be given possession of the land in exchange for protection of the lord and providing some sort of service.  The vassal was always bound by an oath, made publicly to his master. The relationships between the people can be seen in the graphic below.


Under this system, if a vassal offended his lord by breaking this oath, it was felony and the most series civil crime one could commit ( The vassal would then have to offer something to satisfy the lord. It was seen as “improper if a lord did not demand redress from a guilty vassal or take revenge against another lord who had in some way offended him (Mark Baker, Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross, 20).”

We can easily see, that in this society, it made complete sense for Anselm to promote an idea where God, being offended, demanded payment for the sin and that He could not merely forgive man without a payment being made. It also made sense that judgment would be necessary if payment was not made.  The one difference, of course, is that the lord (God) made the payment on the vassal’s (mankind’s) behalf by becoming one of us.

What did the cross achieve under this view?

Now, because Christ has paid the price, if you have faith in the crucified work of Christ the God incarnate, you can have your sins forgiven and have eternal life with Christ. Christ died, so that I don’t have to die.

What scripture supports this view?

Hebrews 2:17 – Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.

Romans 3:24-25 – And are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.

1 John 2:2 – He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

All Scripture taken from the ESV

What are some common criticisms?

Here are some of the most common critiques from those opposed to this theory of the atonement:

1. It is not representative of the early church

2. It is based on the culture of that day (feudalism) or the human court system, which is not representative of God’s justice.

3. It makes God out to be an evil child abuser.

4. If the debt was paid – how did God freely forgive, since forgiveness is something that is offered freely with no restitution made?

The next post in this series which summarizes the Moral Influence Theory can be found here.

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