Yesterday, we began a review of four of the major theories of the atonement. Remember, we are trying to answer the question, “why is forgiveness so hard for God?” Or, in other words, what is the primary problem that had to be solved through the atoning work of Christ. The first theory (Atonement as Example) said that the primary problem was that we needed an example of pure love to follow. The second theory (Moral Influence) said that the primary problem was our fear and ignorance of how much God loves us. The cross was a great demonstration of God’s love that would open us up to God’s love for us and inspire us to trust and obey Him. The last two theories are:
3. Ransom Theory. This was the predominate theory within the early church. Jesus stated in Mark 10.45 that He came to give His life as a ransom for many. To whom was this ransom paid? Since Satan was the prince of this world, and sinners are separated from the kingdom of God by their sins, it makes sense that we are held captive by the ruling forces of darkness. Jesus was offered as a ransom to the ruler of this world in exchange for humanity. Satan accepted the bargain not realizing that he would not be able to keep Jesus. The resurrection foiled Satan’s plans. Jesus liberated us from bondage to Satan. In this theory, God is holy and just, mankind is powerless to save ourselves, and the impact of the cross was primarily upon Satan. (Closely related to this theory is the Christ the Victor theory. In this theory, the primary work of the atonement was the defeat of death and evil through the resurrection. In the atonement, Jesus defeated the spiritual forces of darkness and liberated mankind from bondage.)
4. Satisfaction Theory. In this theory, Christ died to satisfy a principle within the nature of God Himself. Sin is mankind’s failure to give unto God what is due, our obedience and allegiance. Our rebellion and transgression dishonored God, and even if we perfectly obeyed the law from this point forward, that would only be giving God what He deserves. It could not make up for our past transgressions. Since mankind was powerless to do anything about their shortcomings, God had to act in a way to satisfy His own honor. But, in order for this to avail for mankind, the gift had to come from humanity. So, God became flesh and offered His incarnated self as a sin offering. In this theory, God is holy, mankind is powerless, and the primary impact of the cross was upon the nature of God.
What is the value of looking back at what Christians from previous generations thought about the atonement? By doing so, it helps us to sort out what took place on the cross. It’s not that one theory is right and that the others are wrong. Instead, they each explain an aspect of the atonement. Yes, Christ’s death on the cross was an example of pure love, but it is so much more. Yes, Christ’s death does demonstrate God’s amazing love for us, but it is so much more. Yes, Christ’s death did liberate us from bondage to the spiritual forces of darkness, but it is so much more. Yes, Christ’s death satisfied the offended nature of God, but it is so much more. Yes, Christ died in my place, but it is so much more. The atonement is all of these theories, and more.
A correct understanding of why forgiveness is so hard for God must take into account that God is holy, and His wrath is revealed against all godlessness and wickedness (Romans 1.18). But it must also take into account that God is love, and in His great love He did something about the sin problem (Ephesians 2.4). It must take into account that mankind, as a result of our sinful rebellion against the sovereignty of God and our transgression of His holy commandments, was dead in our sins and doomed to be objects of Gods’ wrath (Ephesians 2.1-3). It must take into account that we were helplessly held in bondage by the dark forces of this world.
Forgiveness is so hard for God because sin is much more serious than we can even begin to imagine. Forgiveness is so hard for God because what is at stake is the very glory of God, the holiness of God, the eternal sovereignty of His reign over all of creation. Forgiveness is so hard because the eternal purpose of God is to bring everything under the Lordship of Christ in the fullness of time. Forgiveness is so hard for God because He is Love and Mercy and desires to save and to rescue the perishing.
And so we go back to Hebrews 9.22, “the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” We are both cleansed and forgiven through the atoning work of Christ. Forgiveness is so hard for God because we need to be both cleaned and forgiven. If we really think deeply about the atonement, we will be awed by all that was accomplished by Christ on our behalf on the cross. To the glory of God.