The title for this study is taken from the familiar hymn “Man of Sorrows”, in which the hymn writer first poses the question of all questions: “Can a sinner truly be made right with God?” and then, having believed the Bible’s answer of “Yes”, he excitedly concludes: “Hallelujah! What a Saviour!”
In Family Instruction Hour during the Fall of 2013 we explored the fullness of Christ’s work on the cross by surveying the six historical views of the atonement.
The Recapitulation Theory
Proponent – Irenaeus was a western church father who lived in the 2nd century AD (d. 202). He was hearer of Polycarp, who was a disciple of the Apostle John.
Scripture – “That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him.” (Eph. 1:10)
Summary – Christ came as the “Second Adam” to establish solidarity with mankind and retrace Adam’s steps so that mankind might recover its original condition.
Strength – This view helps us appreciate the biblical parallels between the first and second Adam: virgin birth, representation, temptation, the tree, sixth day, posterity, etc.
Weakness – This view, especially in its Eastern Orthodox formulations, emphasizes participation more than substitution; potentially confusing the once-for-all nature of the atonement.
The Ransom-to-Satan Theory
Proponent – Origen was a brilliant scholar, theologian, and apologist. He lived from AD 184-254 and is claimed as a church father in both Eastern and Western traditions.
Scripture – Ephesians 4:8-10 (Christ descended into Hades), Acts 2:24 (Hades could not hold Christ), Colossians 2:15 (Christ triumphed over Satan).
Summary – In the fall, Satan gained a just claim over man, Christ came to annul this right through his death, the Devil was deceived in the deal and his house was plundered.
Strength – This view rightly magnifies Christ as the Victor over sin, death, the devil, and hell (John 12:31, Hebrews 2:14-15, Revelation 1:18, etc.)
Weakness – This view is based on some sanctified speculation over what exactly occurred in the underworld during the time between Christ’s death and resurrection.
Satisfaction of God’s Honor Theory
Proponent – Anselm of Canterbury was a benedictine monk who lived from AD 1033 to 1109. He is regarded as the founder of scholasticism and originator of the ontological argument.
Scripture – “And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.” (Philippians 2:8)
Summary – Disobedience robs honor from God, the very nature of God requires that his honor be vindicated, so Christ came to restore God’s honor through the ultimate act of obedience.
Strength – This view rightly emphasizes the primacy of God’s honor, the nature of sin as a debt of obedience, and the place of merit in the covenant of works.
Weakness – The very concept of a voluntary act of supererogation which merits a reward which can be shared with others smacks of medieval scholasticism.
Moral Influence Theory
Proponent – Peter Abelard was a medieval scholastic theologian who lived from AD 1079-1142 and who was not impressed with the Satan-ward or God-ward views of the atonement.
Scripture – Romans 5:6-8 (God’s Love Demonstrated) and Luke 7:47 (Man’s Love Motivated)
Summary – Christ’s sufferings and death were intended mainly to soften man’s heart and to assure him that God is eager to forgive and be reconciled.
Strength – This view rightly emphasizes the emotive nature of Christ’s death. The very thought of his sufferings should move us to penitential tears.
Weakness – This view rejects the concepts of sin as debt, God as requiring satisfaction, and Christ’s death as propitiatory. Modern liberals have therefore resurrected this view.
Satisfaction of God’s Justice Theory
Proponent(s) – During the 15th and 16th centuries, the debate over justification required a reexamination of the nature and purpose of the atonement.
Scripture – “But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed… that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:21-26)
Summary – Man’s sin must be punished, God willed to save some men, so Christ bore God’s wrath against their sin on the cross as an act of penal substitution.
Strength – This view “reconciles” the seemingly incompatible attributes of God’s Justice and God’s Mercy as they were simultaneously made manifest at Calvary.
Weakness – This view is somewhat “legal” in its scope and may not appeal to those who prefer more individual and experiential aspects of theology.
The Moral Government Theory
Proponent – Shortly after the reformed view of the atonement was developed, Dutch jurist and Arminian Hugo Grotius set for a modified version of the Moral Influence Theory.
Scripture – “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.” (Romans 5:12-21)
Summary – Christ’s death appeased God’s justice in general terms so that man could be justified on the graciously “relaxed” grounds of repentance, faith, obedience, etc.
Strength – This view affirms God’s sovereignty as the governor of all men, and somewhat accounts for the seriousness of sin and hypothetical necessity of Christ’s death.
Weakness – This view denies that Christ’s death was an act of penal substitution for actual individuals. It essentially leaves us with just another morality-based religion.