Christ died and rose for our salvation. But what does that mean? How does it work?
The biblical doctrine of the atonement has been the subject of discussion and debate in many Christian settings lately, including the Mennonite Brethren. Although atonement is about “getting together again,” the tragic irony is, these discussions sometimes drive us apart. And where there are controversies, there is often a great deal of miscommunication. Too often, in our attempts to be faithful to the Bible’s authority on this central aspect of our faith, we end up speaking past each other, shrinking the Bible’s teaching to one narrow theory, or quickly charging others with unfaithfulness to Scripture.
Recent books, articles, and conversations have convinced me that many people are unclear about these issues. My goal in this article is to help us understand what is going on in the doctrine of the atonement. I pray it will be helpful in clarifying our communication, perhaps even help us “get together again.”
What does atonement mean?
Although “atonement,” both in the Bible and in theological discussion, has many facets, the meaning of the word itself is pretty clear – it is about parties becoming “at one” (i.e., at-one-ment happens). The word is usually used to talk about the restoring of the relationship between God and people, and that is the focus of this discussion, though the Bible also speaks of the restoration of all creation.
There are many aspects to a restored relationship with God, and as a result discussions about the atonement can also become complicated. Theologians have put a great deal of effort into working out precisely how the death and resurrection of Jesus accomplish “the atonement.” Unfortunately, defenders of various views sometimes use the word “atonement” as though it meant their view! When I use the word “atonement,” it means simply “becoming reconciled with God.”
Christ’s death on the cross and his resurrection are not the atonement, they are the means of the atonement. Theories about how this all works are also not the atonement, they are simply theories. (The word “theory,” commonly used in this context, should be understood to mean “a way of explaining”; a model.) What seems clear in Scripture is that there is more than one way to talk about what happens through the cross and resurrection of Jesus.
What brings about atonement?
Here the Bible is very clear: Christ accomplishes the atonement, and most centrally through his death and resurrection. On the basis of Christ’s salvation work, we can be reconciled to God.
Even Old Testament saints were reconciled “through Christ’s work,” though they lived before it was accomplished. Their reconciliation with God sometimes involved animal sacrifices and sometimes did not (e.g., Leviticus 4:26; Psalm 32:1-2; Isaiah 6:7).
In New Testament times, we can also be reconciled with God without fully understanding how Christ’s finished work accomplishes the atonement. We are called to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ! We are clearly taught, “Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
As soon as we probe further, asking “and how does that work?”, we find the Bible gives diverse responses, and theologians formulate diverse theories and doctrines.
What are “atonement theories”?
This may be oversimplified, but the main “atonement theories” proposed throughout church history (including Mennonite history) can be differentiated like this:
- “Ransom theories” focus on the fact that humans (along with the rest of creation) are enslaved to the wrong master, until, through Jesus’ death, they are set free. The dominant image here is “manumission” – the act of setting slaves free. God ransomed Israel from Egyptian slavery, setting them free. So also, through Jesus’ death, we are set free from slavery to sin and death. Some texts speak of Jesus “buying us” so we can be made slaves of a new master, our Lord Jesus Christ (see 1 Corinthians 7:23; Colossians 1:13; 1 Timothy 2:6; Revelation 5:9).
- “Combat theories” focus on the fact that through Jesus’ death and resurrection God won the decisive victory over the “evil powers,” sin (not merely personal sins, but sin as a power), death, and (behind all of these) the devil. The Latin expression Christus Victor is often used to speak of this (see 2 Timothy 1:10; Hebrews 2:14; 1 John 3:8). Some theologians combine these first two theories into one theory.
- “Penal satisfaction theories” focus on the penalty for sin that God’s righteousness demands, and on the fact that Jesus “took our place,” satisfying God’s demand for justice (see Isaiah 53:5; Romans 3:25; 5:9; 1 John 2:2). This is probably the most widely accepted theory among many conservative evangelicals today, but it has not been the most widely accepted theory by the church through much of its history.
- “Moral influence theories” focus on how Jesus, by willingly accepting even death as an expression of love, leads others also to choose a life of love and self-sacrifice in response (1 John 4:10,11,19).
Why pluralize “theories” above?
The four categories above are not four theories, but four types of theories. There are variations on a theme, sometimes even contradictory claims, within each of them.
- Ransom theories sometimes speculate on who was “paid off” to set us free from slavery. Did God pay Jesus to the devil? Did God trick the devil by taking the payment back again in the resurrection? Early church theologians often wisely stopped short of working out all the details. It is an image, after all, a metaphor, not an exact explanation of some salvation mechanism.
- Combat theories sometimes focus mostly on the death of Jesus, emphasizing how Jesus exposed the futility and helplessness of the systems of evil and behind them, God’s ultimate enemy (cf. Colossians 2:15). Others focus mostly on the resurrection as the place where death and the ultimate death-dealer, Satan, are decisively defeated.
- Penal satisfaction theories emphasize God’s just demands and the dire consequences of rebelling against them. Jesus’ “atoning sacrifice” builds a bridge across the gap that our sin creates between humanity and God. Sometimes the focus is on how Jesus’ death covers our sin and changes us; sometimes it is on how Jesus’ death satisfies God’s honour and changes God’s disposition toward us.
- Moral influence theories highlight the way Jesus served as a model of love, challenging us to live up to that ideal. This view is inadequate as a theory of the atonement. Nevertheless, we neglect important biblical teaching if we do not emphasize the “modelling” function of Christ’s sacrificial death. Christ’s death was not only “in our place,” it was also a visible demonstration of how we also are to respond to others (1 Peter 2:21).
Because I consider moral influence inadequate as a theory of the atonement, and because it is better to see our modelling ourselves after Jesus’ example on the cross as part of the discipleship that follows atonement, I will leave this category of atonement theories out of the rest of this discussion.
In what sense is Jesus our substitute?
The Bible presents the atonement through Jesus’ death on the cross as a “substitutionary atonement.” When Jesus died for us, he died to take our place, to do what we could not do, to accomplish what we could not accomplish. This is the most important point I want to make in this essay: All the major atonement theories present Jesus as our substitute.
- Ransom: We could not buy back our own freedom from slavery to sin and death, so Jesus paid the price and set us free (free to be Christ’s slaves). Jesus did what we could not do; in paying the price, he was our substitute.
- Conquest: We were too weak to defeat our enemies (and of course God’s); only God acting in and through Jesus could defeat the power of sin and death, could defeat the arch-enemy, Satan, and therefore deliver us from Satan’s dominion. Jesus did what we could not do; in overpowering the enemy, he was our substitute.
- Penal Satisfaction: The penalty for sin is death; if we had needed to pay for our sins, death would have been our final fate. But Jesus paid the penalty for us; he became our substitute.
So why does it get confusing?
First, many who prefer the penal satisfaction theory call it “substitutionary atonement.” That is unfortunate, because all three main theories are about the atonement and all present Jesus as our substitute. To charge those who favour other theories over penal satisfaction with denying “substitutionary atonement” is just plain wrong.
Second, because some theologians defend only one theory, arguing that only one can be right, they typically highlight the positive aspects of their chosen theory and exaggerate problems with the ones they reject. That makes it difficult for ordinary Bible readers to know “who’s right.” It is hard even to know what the main theories are, for they are described so differently by their supporters and by their critics.
The Bible majors on images, symbols, and narratives, while we split hairs over philosophical concepts and formulas.
But doesn’t the Bible clearly favour “penal satisfaction”?
Those who favour this theory often claim it is the central picture, the main storyline, what “really happened.” Other images are not rejected but interpreted within the penal satisfaction framework.
What I find in Scripture is a strong focus on all three of the major theories (or types of theories) and references to many more symbols and images besides these.
Some respond, “But does the Bible not say over and over again, ‘Christ died for our sins’ (implying penal satisfaction)?”
The answer is that it does not.
Most of the verses in the New Testament that say, “Christ died” end with something like “for the ungodly” or “for us” or “for all” or “for the brother” (e.g. Romans 5:6,8; 2 Corinthians 5:14; 1 Corinthians 8:11). Only a few refer to sins, and when they do, they sometimes explicitly define a theory of the atonement other than the penal satisfaction theory. A clear example of this is Hebrews 9:15: “He has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins … “
Moreover, the Old Testament sacrifice most closely associated with Jesus’ death on the cross is not the “sin offering” but the “Passover lamb.” And that sacrifice was not to atone for Israel’s sins; it was a substitute for the firstborn. God accepted Israel’s Passover sacrifice and thus defeated their enemies (combat theory) and rescued them from slavery (ransom theory). Yes, Jesus died for our sins. But Jesus also died to defeat sin, and to set us free from sin.
What really happened is that God accomplished the atonement through the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is something
like an innocent party paying a legal debt for the guilty, something like a victorious warrior defeating sin and death, something like a new master ransoming someone out of slavery. Out of these images and metaphors we construct theories and doctrines.
But the theories and doctrines need to be responsive to all the biblical images and metaphors in order to offer a balanced statement of what God did through Christ.
Some suggest the penal satisfaction theory must be the main theory, because Jesus’ death is portrayed as a sacrifice. But not nearly all sacrifices in the Bible have to do with removing sin. The Passover sacrifice was more about combat and liberation than about paying the penalty for sin. Some animal sacrifices were acts of thanksgiving and praise. Some were part of a cleansing ceremony. Some celebrated covenant-making.
When sacrifices were about sin, the focus was on removing the sin or satisfying God’s justice, more than appeasing God’s wrath. Outside the book of Hebrews, Jesus’ death is called a sacrifice very rarely – once in Romans 3:25 where a form of penal satisfaction may be in view, once in 1 Corinthians 5:7 where a ransom theory is implied, and once in Ephesians 5:2 where neither theory is clearly present (compare Ephesians 5:2 with Philippians 4:18).
Where do we go from here?
We dialogue about these things by trying to communicate as clearly as possible. We listen charitably to one another and refrain from crying “heresy” when someone appears to reach conclusions we have questions about. We go back to the Bible and see what it says. We allow the Bible to use a variety of metaphors and images of the atonement. I think we are better off if we accept the best of all the theories than if we limit Scripture by pressing all its claims into narrowly defined boxes. “Jesus died for us!” That is the main thing. What is the best concise statement on the atonement I can find anywhere? It’s the article on salvation our denomination has adopted in our Confession of Faith.
It encourages us to accept the breadth and depth of the whole witness of Scripture to this central aspect of our faith.
Timothy Geddert is professor of New Testament at MB Biblical Seminary, based in Fresno, Cal.
ATONEMENT will be the subject of one of the workshops at the MB study conference in October. Other workshops are Christ as our Peace, incarnational living, the ethics of patience, a book discussion, and an exegetical workshop. Leaders to be announced.
Interested to know more about this story? See:
- B.C. addresses tension around theological diversity from the June 2010 MB Herald
- MB seminary professor apologizes for remarks from the April 2010 MB Herald
- Rich content, too little time mark study conference on Christology from the December 2009 MB Herald
- “Atonement: a conversation with Mark Baker & Doug Heidebrecht” audio file from the October 2009 Study Conference on Christology
- Notes from Mark D. Baker’s talk on “How does the Cross Save?” from the October 2009 Study Conference on Christology
- “Cross of Christ” conversation from the MB Forum