What are the different theories of the atonement?
The atonement offered by Jesus Christ is the central historical and theological point of the entire Bible, even of all history. However, it is not completely understood because of the different descriptions of atonement in the Old and New Testaments, the various understandings throughout church history, and its root in the Old Covenant sacrificial system.
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The brief summarizations below offer a broad survey of atonement theories. Two critical and necessary aspects of atonement are the sinfulness of man and the substitutionary nature of atonement. If a theory does not include these truths, it is deficient and likely heretical.
Ransom to Satan: This view sees people as in bondage to Satan and in need of ransom. Christ pays the ransom price by His death and then declares victory over Satan by His resurrection. However, the focus on Satan instead of God requiring a payment makes this view para-scriptural. This view has very little, if any, support in the Bible. The truth is that God's justice demands payment. Sinners do not owe Satan, we owe God.
Recapitulation Theory: This view holds that Jesus reversed the course of disobedience in humans to a course of obedience. It states that Jesus recapitulated all the stages of human life, thus reversing the course set by Adam. This is not supported by Scripture, nor by observation (clearly humans are not on a course of obedience to God).
Dramatic Theory: This theory holds that Jesus' atonement was the winning shot in a cosmic contest between good and evil. His victory released people from Satan's bondage, providing the avenue of redemption for those who are on His side.
Mystical Theory: Those who believe in this theory say each person will have a "god-consciousness" awoken when they understand Christ's atonement as Jesus' victory over His own sinful nature. In this theory, the lack of "god-consciousness" is what separates each person from God, not sin. The Bible, however, teaches that Jesus was the perfect God-man without a sin nature or sin (Hebrews 4:15) and that the gap between people and God is caused by sin.
Moral Influence Theory: This theory is based on God's love. However, it teaches that people will respond to God because of the love Jesus showed by going to the cross. The underlying problem people have spiritually is a lack of love, this theory says. However, the Bible teaches that people are dead in their sins, not just existing without love (Ephesians 2:1). God, the Bible shows us, requires justice for our sin and Christ's atonement is the only true, acceptable sacrifice for that rebellion.
Example Theory: While Jesus did provide us an example of how to live a holy life on earth, this theory takes His example to the extreme saying that His death on the cross was simply a final lesson in faith and obedience for people. Those who hold to the Example Theory believe people are spiritually alive, but dull. The Bible tells us that people are spiritually dead and that God requires payment for our sins. Jesus provided that payment by His sacrifice on the cross.
Commercial Theory: The atonement of Jesus earned Him a reward from God, this theory proposes. When Jesus received the reward, He passed it on to people because He didn't need it. The death of Jesus showed God, they say, great honor and Jesus' gift in response was for man to have His reward of honor with God. This theory once again misses the truth of the sinfulness of men and women, and their spiritual deadness. Our greatest need is new life, which is only available in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Governmental Theory: This theory holds that Christ's atoning sacrifice provided us proof that God holds the law in high regard and that sin needs payment or justice. Jesus' death provided God a reason to forgive people who repent and accept His substitutionary death. Because Jesus paid the penalty for our sin, it is possible for people to seek God's legal forgiveness if they accept His death as payment for their own sin. The problem here is that this theory shows that Jesus suffered to show that a penalty had to be paid for the breaking of God's laws, instead of seeing that Jesus paid the penalty for the real sins of people.
Penal Substitution Theory: This view aligns best with what the Bible teaches about sin, man's rebellion, and how Jesus' death on the cross atoned for that rebellion. It shows that Jesus was a vicarious, substitutionary sacrifice that met the demands of God's justice. This payment for man's sin brought forgiveness, the possibility of righteousness, and the avenue for reconciliation with God. This theory shows that everything about men and women is corrupted by sin—mind, will, and emotions. People are depraved and spiritually dead. Christ's death paid the penalty for that corruption and people can accept His death as substitution for their own payment for sin, in faith.
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