Christ died and rose for our salvation. But what does that mean? How does it work? The biblical doctrine of the atonement has been the subject of discussion and debate in many Christian settings lately. Although atonement is about “getting together again,” the tragic irony is these discussions sometimes drive us apart. And where there are controversies, there is often a great deal of miscommunication.
Too often, in our attempts to be faithful to the Bible’s authority on this central aspect of our faith, we end up speaking past each other, shrinking the Bible’s teaching to a single viewpoint, or quickly charging others with unfaithfulness to Scripture. My goal in this article is to help us understand what is going on in the doctrine of the atonement. I pray it will be helpful in clarifying our communication, perhaps even helping us “get together again.”
What does atonement mean?
“Atonement,” both in the Bible and in theological discussion, has many facets. But the meaning of the word itself is pretty clear—it is about parties becoming “at one” (i.e., at-one-ment happens). The word is usually used to talk about the restoring of the relationship between God and people, and that is the focus of this discussion.
There are many aspects to a restored relationship with God, and as a result, discussions about the atonement can also become complicated. Bible scholars and theologians have put a great deal of effort into working out precisely how the death and resurrection of Jesus accomplish “the atonement.” Unfortunately, defenders of various views sometimes use the word “atonement” as though it means their view of how it works. The conversation is usually clearer if we use the word “atonement” simply to mean “becoming reconciled with God” and not also to label a particular conviction about how this works.
Christ’s death on the cross and his resurrection are not the atonement, they are the means of the atonement. Theories about how this all works are also not the atonement, they are simply theories. (The word “theory,” commonly used in this context, should be understood to mean “a way of explaining”; a model.)
What brings about atonement?
Here the Bible is very clear: Christ accomplishes the atonement and most centrally through his death and resurrection. On the basis of Christ’s salvation work, we can be reconciled to God.
Even Old Testament saints were reconciled “through Christ’s work,” though they lived before it was accomplished. Their reconciliation with God sometimes involved animal sacrifices and sometimes did not (e.g., Leviticus 4:26; Psalm 32:1-2; Isaiah 6:7).
In New Testament times, we can also be reconciled with God without fully understanding how Christ’s finished work accomplishes the atonement. We are called to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. We are clearly taught, “Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). As soon as we probe further, asking “and how does that work?,” we find the Bible gives diverse responses, and theologians formulate diverse theories and doctrines. Let’s be clear: We are saved by Jesus and specifically by his death and resurrection; we are not saved by believing the correct doctrine of the atonement.
What are “atonement theories”?
The main “atonement theories” proposed throughout church history can be differentiated like this:
“Ransom theories” focus on the fact that we are enslaved to the wrong master until, through Jesus’s death, we are set free. The dominant image here is “manumission”—the act of setting slaves free. God ransomed Israel from Egyptian slavery, setting them free. So also, through Jesus’s death, we are set free from slavery to sin and death. Some texts speak of Jesus “buying us” so we can be made slaves of a new master, our Lord Jesus Christ (see 1 Corinthians 7:23; Colossians 1:13; 1 Timothy 2:6; Revelation 5:9).
“Combat theories” focus on the fact that through Jesus’s death and resurrection God won the decisive victory over the “evil powers,” sin (not merely personal sins, but sin as a power), death and (behind all of these) the devil. The Latin expression Christus Victor is often used to speak of this (see 2 Timothy 1:10; Hebrews 2:14; 1 John 3:8). Some theologians combine these first two theories into one theory.
“Penal satisfaction theories” focus on the penalty for sin that God’s righteousness demands, and on the fact that Jesus “took our place,” satisfying God’s demand for justice (see Isaiah 53:5; Romans 3:25; 5:9; 1 John 2:2). This is probably the most widely accepted theory among many conservative evangelicals today, but it has not been the most widely accepted theory by the church through much of its history.
“Moral influence theories” focus on how Jesus, by willingly accepting even death as an expression of love, leads others also to choose a life of love and self-sacrifice in response (1 John 4:10,11,19).
Why pluralize “theories”?
The four categories above are not four theories but four types of theories. There are variations on a theme, sometimes even contradictory claims, within each of them.
- Ransom theories sometimes speculate on who was “paid off” to set us free from slavery. Did God pay Jesus to the devil? Did God trick the devil by taking the payment back again in the resurrection? Early church theologians often wisely stopped short of working out all the details. It is an image, after all, a metaphor, not an exact explanation of some salvation mechanism.
- Combat theories sometimes focus mostly on the death of Jesus, emphasizing how Jesus exposed the futility and helplessness of the systems of evil and behind them, God’s ultimate enemy (cf. Colossians 2:15). Others focus mostly on the resurrection as the place where death and the ultimate death-dealer, Satan, are decisively defeated.
- Penal satisfaction theories emphasize God’s just demands and the dire consequences of rebelling against them. Jesus’s “atoning sacrifice” builds a bridge across the gap that our sin creates between humanity and God. Sometimes the focus is on how Jesus’s death covers our sin and changes us; sometimes it is on how Jesus’s death satisfies God’s honor and changes God’s disposition toward us (sometimes referred to as satisfying God’s wrath).
- Moral influence theories highlight the way Jesus served as a model of love, challenging us to live up to that ideal. This view is inadequate as a theory of the atonement. Nevertheless, we neglect important biblical teaching if we do not emphasize the “modelling” function of Christ’s sacrificial death. Christ’s death was not only “in our place,” it was also a visible demonstration of how we also are to respond to others (1 Peter 2:21).
Because I consider moral influence inadequate as a theory of the atonement and because it is better to see our modelling ourselves after Jesus’s example on the cross as part of the discipleship that follows atonement, I will leave this category of atonement theories out of the rest of this discussion.
In what sense is Jesus our substitute?
The Bible presents the atonement through Jesus’s death on the cross as a “substitutionary atonement.” When Jesus died for us, he died to take our place, to do what we could not do, to accomplish what we could not accomplish. This is the most important point I want to make in this article: All the major atonement theories present Jesus as our substitute.
- Ransom: We could not buy back our own freedom from slavery to sin and death, so Jesus paid the price and set us free (free to be Christ’s slaves). Jesus did what we could not do; in paying the price, he was our substitute.
- Conquest: We were too weak to defeat our enemies (and of course God’s); only God acting in and through Jesus could defeat the power of sin and death, could defeat the arch-enemy, Satan, and therefore deliver us from Satan’s dominion. Jesus did what we could not do; in overpowering the enemy, he was our substitute.
- Penal Satisfaction: The penalty for sin is death; if we had needed to pay for our sins, death would have been our final fate. But Jesus paid the penalty for us; he became our substitute.
So why does it get confusing?
First, many who prefer the penal satisfaction theory call it “substitutionary atonement.” That is unfortunate, because all three main theories are about the atonement and all present Jesus as our substitute. To claim that those who favor other theories more than penal satisfaction are “denying substitutionary atonement” is just plain wrong.
Second, because some theologians defend only one theory, arguing that only one can be right, they typically highlight the positive aspects of their chosen theory and exaggerate problems with the ones they reject. That makes it difficult for ordinary Bible readers to know “who’s right.” It is hard even to know what the main theories are, for they are described so differently by their supporters and by their critics.
The Bible majors on images, symbols and narratives, while we split hairs over philosophical concepts and formulas.
But doesn’t the Bible clearly favor “penal satisfaction”?
Those who favor this theory often claim it is the central picture, the main storyline, what “really happened.” Other images are not rejected but interpreted within the penal satisfaction framework.
What I find in Scripture is a strong focus on all three of the major theories (or types of theories) and references to many more symbols and images besides these.
Some respond, “But does the Bible not say over and over again, ‘Christ died for our sins’ (which for many readers implies penal satisfaction)?”
The answer is that it does not.
Most of the verses in the New Testament that say “Christ died” end with something like “for the ungodly” or “for us” or “for all” or “for the brother” (e.g. Romans 5:6,8; 2 Corinthians 5:14; 1 Corinthians 8:11). Only a few refer to sins, and when they do, they sometimes explicitly define a theory of the atonement other than the penal satisfaction theory. A clear example of this is Hebrews 9:15: “He has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins.”
Moreover, the Old Testament sacrifice that is most closely associated with Jesus’s death is not the “sin offering” but the “Passover lamb.” And that sacrifice was not to atone for Israel’s sins; it was a substitute for the firstborn. God accepted Israel’s Passover sacrifice and thus defeated their enemies (combat theory) and rescued them from slavery (ransom theory). Yes, Jesus died for our sins. But Jesus also died to defeat sin and to set us free from sin.
What really happened is that God accomplished the atonement through the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is something like an innocent party paying a legal debt for the guilty, something like a victorious warrior defeating sin and death, something like a new master ransoming someone out of slavery. Out of these images and metaphors we construct theories and doctrines. But the theories and doctrines need to correspond to all the biblical images and metaphors in order to offer a balanced statement of what God did through Christ.
Some suggest that “Penal Satisfaction” must be the main theory because Jesus’s death is portrayed as a sacrifice. But not nearly all sacrifices in the Bible have to do with removing sin or with paying its penalty. The Passover sacrifice was more about combat and liberation than about paying the penalty for sin. Some animal sacrifices were acts of thanksgiving and praise. Some were part of a cleansing ceremony. Some celebrated covenant-making.
When sacrifices were about sin, the focus was on removing the sin or satisfying God’s justice, more than appeasing God’s wrath. Outside the book of Hebrews, Jesus’s death is called a sacrifice very rarely—once in Romans 3:25, where a form of penal satisfaction may be in view, once in 1 Corinthians 5:7, where a ransom theory is implied, and once in Ephesians 5:2, where neither theory is clearly present (compare Ephesians 5:2 with Philippians 4:18).
Where do we go from here?
We dialogue about these things by trying to communicate as clearly as possible. We listen charitably to one another and refrain from crying “heresy” when someone appears to reach conclusions we have questions about. We go back to the Bible and try to take all its metaphors and images seriously. I think we are better off if we accept the best of all the theories than if we limit Scripture by pressing all its claims into narrowly defined boxes. “Jesus died for us!” That is the main thing.
What is the best concise statement on the atonement I can find anywhere? It’s the article on salvation our denomination has adopted in our Confession of Faith. It encourages us to accept the breadth and depth of the whole witness of Scripture to this central aspect of our faith.
Tim Geddert is professor of New Testament at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California. He is member of the U.S. Conference Board of Faith and Life. This article was also published in the MB Herald, the magazine of the Canadian Conference of MB Churches.
Confession of Faith Article 5: Salvation
We believe that God is at work to accomplish deliverance and healing, redemption and restoration in a world dominated by sin. From the beginning, God’s purpose has been to create for himself a people, to dwell among them and to bless them. Creation and all of humanity are without hope of salvation except through God’s love and grace. God’s love is fully demonstrated in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Throughout history, God has acted mightily to deliver people from bondage and draw them into a covenant relationship. Through the prophets God prepared the way of salvation until finally God reconciled the world to himself by the atoning blood of Jesus. As people place their trust in Christ, they are saved by grace through faith, not of their own doing, but as a gift of God. God forgives them, delivers them from sin’s bondage, makes them new creatures in Christ, empowers them by the Holy Spirit and seals them for eternal life. When sin and death are finally abolished and the redeemed are gathered in the new heaven and the new earth, God will have completed the plan of salvation.
Though Jesus entered a world ruled by sin, he chose not to submit to its allure and broke its domination. Through his obedient life, his death on the cross and his glorious resurrection, Christ triumphed over Satan and the powers of sin and death, opening the way for all people to follow. Convicted by the Holy Spirit, people turn from sin, entrust their lives to God, confess Jesus Christ as Lord and join the family of God. All who receive Christ are born again, and have peace with God, and are called to love one another and live at peace with their neighbor. Those whom God is saving no longer live for themselves for they have been set free from sin and called to newness of life.
Exodus 6:1-8; Exodus 15:2; Exodus 20:2; Psalm 68:19-20; Isaiah 43:1; Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 10:45; John 1:12; John 3:1-21; John 13:34-35; John 16:8-11; Romans 3:24-26; Romans 5:8; Romans 12-21; Romans 8:18-25; Romans 10:9-10; I Corinthians 1:18; II Corinthians 5:14-21; Ephesians 1:5-10; Ephesians 1:13-14; Ephesians 2:8-9; Colossians 1:13-14; Colossians 2:15; Hebrews 2:14-18; Hebrews 4:12; Hebrews 5:7-9; Hebrews 9:15-28; Hebrews 11:6; I John 4:7-11; Revelation 5:9-10; Revelation 21:1-4.