THE MEANING OF THE ATONEMENT
There’s a technical meaning of “atonement” related to the OT sacrificial system, and the “covering” of sin until that sin could be taken away by the sacrifice of the Messiah. In that sense, it would be wrong to speak of the death of Christ as the atonement, because His death doesn’t just cover our sins.
Nevertheless, there is a more general sense. We are using it in the broader sense.
There has been significant historical debate on what the atonement of Christ actually accomplishes. None of these is necessarily true to the exclusion of the others, there may be elements of truth in each of them.
RECAPITULATION THEORY: shows up very early in church history (Irenaeus). Christ is the second Adam, He assumes the role of the first Adam. But He succeeds where the first Adam failed. Recently revived and called Christus Victor. (N.T. Wright; Brian McLaren; Rob Bell; Dallas Willard)
RANSOM THEORY: Origen and others. The death of Christ is a ransom payment. In the Fall, Adam sold himself to Satan, who gained ownership of the human race. Christ had to pay a ransom price to get the human race back from Satan.
SATISFACTION THEORY: Anselm expressed this in his work, Why the God Man? The death of Christ is a satisfaction, or propitiation, rendered to God’s justice (though this is not the way Anselm phrased it). This is very similar to Calvin’s later theory, though they didn’t do the same thing with it. (Anselm viewed God as a medieval monarch and sin as an insult to his honor. We tweak this to deal with God’s justice instead.)
MORAL INFLUENCE THEORY: Abelard held this position. Christ’s sacrificial death functions primarily as an exhibition of the love of God. Christ dies on the cross so we can see how overwhelmingly God loves us. As we perceive this, it awakens within us an answering love. The whole point of the atonement is to get us to love God, because loving God is what ultimately brings us to Him. (Picked up by Protestant liberals and became dominant theory of atonement within liberalism; denies total depravity)
EXAMPLE THEORY: Socinus (post-Reformation heretic in Europe; rationalist trying to re-cast Christianity in his contemporary terms). The teachings and death of Jesus provide us with a pattern or example. Following his pattern will bring us to redemption. Sometimes combined with the moral influence theory. Also becomes wildly popular with theological liberals. Best exemplified in modern times by Charles Sheldon (a theological liberal) in the little work, In His Steps, from whence we get the “WWJD” craze.
GOVERNMENTAL THEORY: Hugo Grotius, in the wake of The Remonstrans: The death of Christ is an exhibition of divine justice and displeasure with sin. In principle, God could just overlook sin. He doesn’t have to have a sacrifice in order to forgive sin. But if God had simply overlooked sin people wouldn’t understand what a bad thing sin was. So God did want some kind of example, and the death of Christ served that purpose. After Edwards (not because of Edwards), this view begins to creep into New England theology.
PENAL SUBSTITUTION THEORY: God as a moral lawgiver and judge cannot simply overlook the transgression of His justice. Guilt produces effects. A just person recoils form guilt. Guilt produces pollution, it alters the moral balance of the universe, and the only way it can be corrected (fixing what guilt breaks) is through retribution. God has an obligation to visit guilt with retribution. He can by no means clear the guilty. He cannot simply overlook guilt. Even as humans, we expect that a judge is going to deliver justice, and justice means retribution. Reformation is not justice. Reparation is not justice. Retribution is justice. Our guilt called for retribution. Christ became our substitute and absorbed the penalty that we deserved.
How do we evaluate these theories? There are two theological issues that help bring these theories into focus. We can ask two questions here.
1: Upon whom does the atonement terminate? In other words, who changes because of the atonement, or who is the focus of the atonement? Toward whom is it directed? Uncertain? The devil? Humanity? God? If it is God, this puts penal substitution in an entirely different class than all the others. It is the only one that can really speak of God being propitiated.
2: What does this theory assume about human nature and the nature of sin? Any view of the atonement that leaves out propitiation has to assume that sin is a mere imperfection that’s either excusable or reformable. In other words, they all assume that either the atonement doesn’t really have anything to do with our sins, or God is capable of overlooking our sins, because sin really doesn’t get dealt with (except in the governmental theory, where it is death with as an object lesson….but that’s still not really dealing with it). Only in penal substitution do you see human beings as genuinely lost and under condemnation because of their sin. Though each theory contains some kernel of truth, if you don’t have penal substitution, satisfaction, propitiation, then you really don’t have atonement. If you stop with any of them, or all of them together, you don’t have a complete, correct view of the atonement. It’s the same as asking “What is marriage?” and replying, “Marriage is a joint banking account.” That may be part of it, but it’s not near the complete picture.
Isaiah 53:4-6 is as clear a statement of penal substitution as could possibly be formulated. (Please look these passages up, and do so slowly and reverently. These are precious and sobering words. After reading them, it would be entirely appropriate to pray a prayer of thanksgiving to God for our great salvation.)
Mark 10:45 states substitution in two different ways. Christ gave the ransom standing in our place.
2 Cor. 5:15 Rom. 5:6-8 1 Cor. 15:3 Matt. 20:28 1 Pet. 2:21-24
At this point let’s drop the “theory” and simply state that penal substitution is the atonement.
Penal substitution does not mean that Christ had to suffer the exact penalty that we would have had to pay. Christ did not have to spend eternity in hell to pay for our sins (or our sins would have never been paid for!). He had to pay an equivalent penalty, and that depends on the sin-bearer.
Why does God get so upset about even my little sins? What’s the big deal? Can’t He let us off for the little stuff? The reason sin is so heinous is because it is judged not by the value of the sin, but by the value of the one whom it was committed against. Even our pagan society recognizes the differences between someone stomping on a mosquito versus a yippy dog versus a baby. The object (or person) sinned against is increasingly greater.
The least offense committed against God is of infinitely greater consequence than the worst thing you can do to another human being. This is why David, who committed adultery and murdered Uriah, could pray Psalm 51:4 to God. It’s not that he didn’t sin at all against anyone else, but David’s offense against God was so great that his offenses against these others paled in comparison.
This is why God is justly outraged by even what we perceive as the smallest violations of His moral law. Incidentally, even in human courts, when a human is convicted, do we leave it up to the criminal to decide how serious the offense is and what the penalty should be? Of course not! We want the person who judges the offense to be someone who has never done it. This person sees it in a very different light from the person who has. We’re the offenders! We’re the sinners! We don’t get to sit back and accuse God of being a celestial grump, or killjoy, because He gets upset about the “littlest” stuff.
The only way we, as finite persons, could pay an infinite penalty would be to suffer it over an infinite period of time. But an infinite person can suffer an infinite penalty over a limited period of time. Which is why it’s so important that our sin be paid for by an infinite person. That’s why the deity of Christ is so important. And to bear our guilt, He has to be one of us. That’s why His humanity is so important. What we would be required to suffer extensively, Christ suffered intensively. It was not infinite in duration but in degree. So we speak of Christ suffering an equivalent penalty, not an identical penalty.