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What are the theories of the atonement?

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Atonement literally means "at one-ment" with God. It is the way in which the guilt-punishment chain produced by the violation of God's will is broken, as well as the resulting state of reconciliation that occurs with God because of Christ's work on the cross. Concerning this, Paul says: "More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation" (Romans 5:11).

Historically, a number of theories have been offered as to what the atonement and Christ's finished work actually meant and/or achieved. The most common have been the following:

• Recapitulation – Christ went through all the stages of human life, resisted all temptations, died and arose a victor over death and the devil, making all benefits of His victory available to us.
• Ransom – Christ's death was paid to Satan to purchase human beings who were captive in sin, and who are then set free.
• Moral example – Christ's death provided an example of faith and obedience that inspires others to be obedient to God.
• Moral influence – Christ's death was not a moral example to humanity, but a demonstration of God's great love for people. Christ's death inspires human beings to begin to live rightly.
• Government – stresses the law of God and says God has the right to punish sin but it is not mandatory that He do so since love is His main attribute.
• Mystical – God became man so that man may become God. God and man become mystically united in the Person of Christ.
• Optional-satisfaction – allows for but does not require satisfaction of God's justice for the sinner. God could have freed man in another way for nothing is impossible with God.
• Necessary-satisfaction – it was necessary for God's offended justice and honor to be satisfied by a penalty that only Christ could pay.
• Penal Substitution – builds on the necessary-satisfaction theory, but adds that because God's absolute justice has been violated, a substitution for sins had to be made by the sinless Son of God.

The proposal that appears to best match what Scripture portrays is the penal substitution theory. The biblical evidence supporting this position can be found in numerous places.

First, is the idea of the substitute sacrifice displayed in the account of Abraham, Isaac, and the ram (a male lamb – signifying Jesus, the Lamb of God; cf. John 1:29) found in Genesis 22:9-13.

Next, is the substitute Passover lamb described in the account of Israel's exodus (Exodus 12:1-13). Following on its heels is the description of the substitute sin offering described in Leviticus 4:1-7.

One of the most famous pieces of supporting evidence is that of the substitute criminal found in Isaiah 53:4-6, where it describes Jesus as being "pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed." Peter likely had this in mind when he wrote: "He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed" (1 Peter 2:24).

Besides this account from Peter, the New Testament speaks to Jesus being substituted for sinful humanity numerous times. For example, Paul writes: "He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?" (Romans 8:32).

These and other Biblical passages show the unique linkage between God's mercy and justice. In every religion/faith in the world, other than Christianity, the deity/god in question dispenses mercy at the expense of its justice. For example, in Islam, if Allah grants mercy to a person, he does so by weighing their good against their bad, overlooking the crimes they have committed, and never requiring any payment for those committed crimes.

Christianity is different than all other faiths. In Christianity, God dispenses mercy through His justice. The truth is, all have sinned against an eternal God and deserve Hell. But because God is love, He provides mercy and a way to escape eternal punishment.

But, God is also just. Someone has to pay for sin, and Jesus willingly took that punishment for those who put their faith in Him. Jesus died for sinners, but He also died to satisfy God's justice. This is clearly laid out by Paul, who says:

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom 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. It 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)

Paul is unmistakable; Jesus died for God's people but He also died for God to satisfy God's punishment for sin. Christ died in the place of others for God's justice, which supports and validates the penal substitution theory of the atonement.

Related Truth:

What is the meaning of substitutionary atonement?

Why did Jesus have to die?

How is Jesus the Lamb of God?

What is justification according to the Bible?

What is Christian redemption? What does it mean to be redeemed?

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