One of the questions that has always bothered me, partly because I know that it should be easy to answer, is why did Jesus have to die for the forgiveness of my sin? I don’t doubt that I am a sinner in need of forgiveness. My question has more to do with why the Father required the death of His Son to be able to forgive me. I am a father of three children who have been known to “sin” occasionally. When they confess and repent of their misdeeds, I don’t demand they kill a goat in order to deserve my forgiveness. I don’t break off our relationship for eternity because of their sin. My love for them leads me to forgive them. If I am a weak and broken man and yet capable of this level of love, then why can’t God love and forgive in the same way? Why is forgiveness so hard for God?
This is the crucial question of the atonement, a word which means reconciliation between God and mankind, and it is the crucial question of faith. All other beliefs converge at this point. If we think of God as very holy and righteous and demanding, then mankind will not be able to satisfy God very easily. In fact, something will have to be done on mankind’s behalf for us to be made right with a holy God. But, if God is an indulgent, permissive, grandfatherly figure, then forgiveness will be much easier for God. But if that is the case, then why the cross?
In the same way, our view of mankind impacts how we understand the atonement. If mankind is basically spiritually intact, then we can be made right with God will a little bit of effort on our part, perhaps some motivation and inspiration through the life of Christ. But if mankind is totally depraved and unable to do what is right now matter how hard they try, then atonement must be a more radical work.
Christians for hundreds of years have been wrestling with this question, and coming up with different ways to explain the atonement and what exactly happened on the cross. While church history is not to be our guide, it is helpful to read what generations before us have understood about matters of faith so that we can try to understand it more ourselves. There have been five primary theories about the atonement in church history.
The first theory is the Example Theory. According to this theory, Jesus’ death affected forgiveness for all persons, and I do mean all. But more importantly, His death provided a perfect example of the life we are to lead. The Bible says, “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2.21). In this view, mankind is perfectly capable of doing God’s will, they just needed an example of what total love looks like and the inspiration to live such a life. In the words of Millard Erikson, according to this view,
All that was possible for God and mankind to have fellowship is that man have faith in and love for God. For God to have required something more would have been contrary to His nature, and to have punished the innocent (Jesus) in the place of the guilty would have been contrary to justice. Rather, God and mankind are restored to their intended relationship by our personal adoption of both the teachings of Jesus and the example he set in life and especially in death
The primary problem with this theory is the vast amount of Scripture that teaches us that Christ died in our place and for our sins.
Which leads us to the second theory, the Moral Influence Theory. In this theory, the atonement was a demonstration of God’s great love for us. Christ did not die to make some sort of sacrificial offering to the Father to satisfy His wrath. Rather, Christ died to demonstrate the full extent of God’s love for mankind. The problem was that mankind feared God, and this fear kept mankind from drawing near to God. Through the cross, this fear is defeated and our souls are healed so that we can accept God’s great love for us. Thus convinced of God’s great love, mankind can repent and their sin and are inspired to love and trust such a great God.
The third theory is the Divine Justice Theory. Unlike the first two theories, this theory emphasizes the seriousness of sin and the holiness of God. God is the Ruler of the Universe, and as a Ruler, He cannot just overlook violations of his law for it would bring moral confusion upon His creation. Christ’s death was not a punishment for sins, nor was His death a substitution for our sins, but in this theory, Christ’s death served as a deterrent to sin by impressing upon mankind the gravity of sin. Seeing the end of sin, which is death, mankind is drawn to repentance which allows the Father to forgive our sins. The major problem with this theory is the scant biblical evidence for it. Isaiah 42.21 is the one verse often cited, “The Lord was pleased for His righteousness’ sake, to magnify His law and make it glorious,” but it hardly provides enough support for the entire theory.
The fourth theory is the Ransom Theory. In this theory, which was the standard view of the church throughout history, there was and is a cosmic struggle between the spiritual forces of good and evil. Satan is the governing power in this world, and mankind has become enslaved to this unfit ruler by their own free choice to sin. In the atonement, mankind was “bought with a price” (see 1 Corinthians 6.20) and Jesus “gave his live as a ransom for many” (see Mark 10.45). Satan released his rightful hold on mankind in exchange for the death of Christ. Satan was quick to accept a prize that he thought he could hold, only to find out that he could not keep Christ in the grave. The ransom was paid, mankind was freed, and the resurrected Christ is now the reigning King of Kings. The unique element of this theory is that the primary impact of the atonement was not upon God nor upon mankind but upon Satan.
The fifth theory is the Satisfaction Theory. In this theory, Christ died to satisfy a principle in the very nature of God. He did not make a ransom payment to Satan, but His death restored the honor of God. While the ransom theory was developed during a time of royal empires, the satisfaction theory was developed during the historical period of the feudal system. Justice and law were seen as more of a personal matter, and violations of the law were thought of as offenses against the person of the feudal overlord. In this theory, sin is failing to render God his due honor. Since nothing less than total obedience is required, when the subjects fail to give what is required, there is nothing more that can be given to compensate for God’s lost honor. For mankind to be made right with God, compensation or satisfaction must be provided by someone greater than mankind. But for that satisfaction to avail for mankind, it must be made by mankind. Hence, the incarnation was a logical necessity. God became flesh and died for our sins to satisfy the lost honor of God and to make forgiveness of sins possible.
What do we do with all of these theories today? Is any one theory right? Are they all right?
To arrive at my own theory of the atonement, I begin with a biblical understanding of the nature of God. God is complete holiness and love, which means that sin is repulsive to His nature but His love compels Him to do something about the problem. He is both just and the one who justifies at the same time (see Romans 3.26). The Law was and is an expression of His divine nature, a sort of transcript of the nature of God. To violate the law means to rebel against the very nature of God. Which means that sin is rebellion, and rebellion against the King of Kings has consequences. The Bible teaches us that there is nothing mankind could do to save themselves (see Ephesians 2.8-9), which is why God instituted the sacrificial system of the Old Testament. Through these sacrifices, sins were atoned for as a substitution for the sinner. The sins were transferred from the sinner to the sacrifice, and the sin was atoned for.
So, in the New Testament, Jesus is the lamb of God who takes away our sin. His death was a sacrifice (see Ephesians 5.2) and His death was in our place and for us (see Romans 8.32). His death satisfied the rightful wrath of God against the rebellion of mankind (see Romans 3.25). And through His death, we have been reconciled with God (see 2 Corinthians 5.18). So, any theory of atonement must rightly include sacrifice, propitiation, substitution, and reconciliation.
Each of the five theories above present a piece of the atonement puzzle. Christ’s death was a demonstration of God’s love. Christ’s death does impress upon us the gravity of sin. Christ’s death did liberate us from the power of the kingdom of darkness. Christ’s death did satisfy the honor of God.
But the best theory of atonement that brings together all of these truths is the Substitutionary Atonement Theory. In this theory, mankind is powerless to save ourselves. God’s love and justice worked together to both require the payment for sin and to provide the payment for sin. Christ death was a substitution for our death, which was required because the wages of sin is death (see Romans 6.23). God made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf so that we might become the righteousness of God through Him (see 2 Corinthians 5.21). God’s holiness demanded justice, and God’s love provided the payment.
In the end, is all of this thinking about the atonement even necessary? Can’t we just be content to say, “Christ died for our sins”?
It is very important for Christians to think deeply about the atonement, if for no other reason, to avoid the false teachings of our day. There are many today who hold to the theory that Christ’s death was nothing more than an example to follow and an inspiration to live a life of love. For them, sin is not that big of a deal, and holiness takes a back seat to “trying to live a life of love and goodness.”
There are many today who see the death of Christ as a demonstration of God’s love for us and nothing more. God loves you, so relax and live your life as you see fit because in the end, God loves us all. Again, in this view, sin is not a divine problem to be solved but just some unhealthy things to avoid down the road of life. We just need to drink deeply of God’s love for us and to seek out the good things He has in store for us today.
Those who see the death of Christ as a payment or satisfaction for sin get closer to the truth, but any theory that is void of the important truth that Christ died in my place has missed the full gospel message.
So why is forgiveness so hard for God? Perhaps the words of Ephesians 2 are needed to remind us of what exactly happened when we all sinned and fell short of the glory of God.
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—3among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Ephesians 2.1-3 ESV)
When we sinned, we didn’t just “do a few bad things.” We rebelled against the King of Kings. We followed Satan (the prince of the power of the air). We joyfully carried out the desires of our sin nature. And we brought spiritual death into our souls. As a result, we became objects of God’s wrath.
In the atonement, something had to be done, not only to satisfy the wrath of God, but also within us. Our spiritual death needed to be brought back to life. Which is why the apostle Paul continued the “before picture” of Ephesians 2 with the “after picture,”
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—6and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2.4-10 ESV)
In the “after justification picture,” mankind was made alive in Christ, liberated from the power of the kingdom of Satan and brought into the kingdom of God, and made a follower of Christ to do the good works which He has already prepared for us to do.
The atonement was much more than just an example to follow or a demonstration of God’s love. The atonement was much more than just restoring the honor of God or paying a ransom to Satan. In the atonement, mankind has been made right with God in that our sins are forgiven and our dead souls have been reborn. And all of this is open to any who would believe in the name of Jesus. As Paul wrote,
21But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom 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. 26It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3.21-26 ESV)