Christians affirm that through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God forgives sinful human beings and restores them to right relationship with himself. However, when asked to explain exactly how this atonement occurred, they have offered a variety of theories. A gracEmail subscriber requests more detail concerning these different explanations.
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Moral influence. This view was made popular by Peter Abelard, a French philosopher/theologian who offered it as an alternative to the satisfaction theory proposed by his older contemporary, Anselm of Canterbury, and to the ransom theory that many had favored for nearly 1,000 years. As Anselm saw it, Jesus did not die to appease anyone — whether God (as in the satisfaction theory) or the devil (as in some versions of the ransom theory) — but rather to change the hearts and minds of sinners. Jesus did this by the “moral influence” of his overwhelming and undeserved self-sacrificing love. Jesus’ love unleashed a spiritual power — an influence — that is more than a mere example. It is certainly true that God’s goodness leads sinners to repentance (Rom. 2:4). However, like any other explanation of the atonement, this one does not contain nearly the entire picture.
Christus Victor. Although held by some from earliest times and championed by the reformer Martin Luther, this view gets its name from the title of a book by G.E.H. Aulen, who died in 1977. A form of the ransom theory, this explanation sees the atonement in terms of cosmic conflict between Christ and Satan. By his sinless life, death and resurrection, Jesus conquered the devil and set sinners free. So far as it goes, that principle is certainly biblical (see passages such as Colossians 2:13-15 and Hebrews 2:14-15). But like all atonement explanations it gives only a partial story and is incomplete by itself.
Penal substitution. While Luther focused on Jesus’ death as the act by which God conquered Satan and redeemed humankind (a form of the earlier ransom theory), his fellow-reformer John Calvin saw Jesus’ death primarily as the punishment (“penal”) which Jesus accepted in the place (“substitution”) of sinners. This explanation resembles Anselm’s satisfaction theory, with Jesus’ death satisfying God’s justice rather than his honor. It is the most popular understanding of the atonement among evangelicals today, many of whom consider it the only way to tell the gospel. A key element of this theory is the transfer of sin from the sinner to Jesus, whom God then punishes in place of the sinner, and the transfer of Jesus’ perfect righteousness from Jesus to the sinner, whom God then blesses in place of Jesus. We will consider this view further in the next gracEmail.