Isaiah (Part 42): Atonement Breakdown (Prep for Ch 40-66)

10/20/2012 10:58


Several theories of the atonement have been advanced over the centuries of this present age. A few of the more notable ones include the following:

  1. Recapitulation theory – Irenaeus, one of the 2nd century church fathers, articulated this theory that argues Jesus succeeded where Adam failed. The emphasis is on the sinless life of Jesus in obedience to God, reversing the course that Adam set. The atonement in this view concentrates, then, more on the life of Christ than the cross and his death.
  2. Ransom theory – In the 3rd century, Origen emphasized Christ’s payment as a ransom (Mt 20:28). Who held the prisoners? Origen understood the captor to be Satan, and therefore Christ offers his life in exchange for us. The trick is on Satan, though, who didn’t realize that Jesus would be able to rise from the dead.
  3. Satisfaction theory – Anselm believed that God’s offended honor was more than man could pay. Only God could satisfy. Yet to avail to man, the satisfaction had to come from man. Thus, Jesus, the God-man, satisfied God’s offended honor through his obedience even to death. That honor given, more than he was obliged to give, left surplus for the rest of the human race.
  4. Moral Influence theory – Abelard, in the 12th century, offered this idea that Jesus’ death was an example for us, but not that it was a requirement in order for God to forgive.
  5. Acceptance theory – John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham advanced this idea that Christ’s atonement through death was not the only way restoration could be made, but it was the arbitrary decision of God.
  6. Penal Substitution theory – The Reformers took Anselm’s satisfaction theory and revised it, emphasizing the payment that had to be made satisfying God’s justice and allowing mercy to replace his wrath.
  7. Governmental theory – In the late 16th century to beginning of the 17th century, Hugo Grotius devised this theory that argues Christ’s death did not pay the penalty for human sin but showed what sin deserved. By other means, God extends mercy showing his control of creation, managing restored order according to his response to faith and rebellion.
  8. Christus Victor – This is a fairly recent theory (circa 1931) that deemphasizes penalty and wrath in favor of the idea that Jesus allowed himself to be executed to defeat the power of evil and release humanity from its hold. This is very similar to the ransom theory without personifying evil in Satan.

Each of these theories has points to commend it (with the possible exception of the Acceptance theory). We see elements of the atonement in each. The problem comes in that each either takes on something not quite right or ignores/deemphasizes something necessary. Although the Christus Victor theory is growing in popularity today, by far the theory most prevalent is the one based in the Reformation—the Penal Substitution theory. A more detailed description of this theory follows: Penal substitutionary atonement refers to the doctrine that Christ died on the cross as a substitute for sinners. God imputed the guilt of our sins to Christ, and he, in our place, bore the punishment that we deserve. This was a full payment for sins, which satisfied both the wrath and the righteousness of God, so that He could forgive sinners without compromising His own holy standard.

Reviewing this statement, we may find nothing with which we disagree, and that is usually because we grew up believing this idea of the atonement. The theory is strongly linked to its sister theory—Calvinism—also developed from Reformation thinking. At center in Calvinism is the doctrine that the atonement was accomplished only for those whom God would restore to relationship. And we can well see how this fits into Calvinist thinking. If Jesus died for everyone and the unrepentant are sentenced to death for their sin, is not the sin paid for twice—once by Christ and once by the unrepentant individual? If I saw you at a table across a restaurant and I called the manager over and told him I’d pay for your meal and then that manager allowed you to pay for your meal as well, we would think that something dishonest lived in that manager. But is that not the same problem in insisting that Christ has paid for the sins of the whole world yet believing that the unrepentant also pays for his/her sin?

As a faith electionist, I do not believe in a limited atonement (aka particular redemption). And when confronted by this argument of double payment for sin, I respond with my Disney World example. Suppose I want to treat everyone in my city to a day at Disney World. I go to the Disney World management and ask them to close their doors to the public for one day and allow only my guests in. But my payment for this is not on the basis of counting all the people who will come and then pay the standard rate for each. I ask what it would cost to rent the park for a day. They inform me that they take in an average of $5,000,000 a day. So I offer them $5,000,000 to rent the park for a day, and they agree. Now I invite all the citizens of my town to spend the day at the park. Most come. As they approach the gate, the official says, “You may enter because the price has been paid for you.” I did not pay a specific price for that person, but I paid for the park so, in that sense, I paid for that person’s admission. Some in my city refused to come. That they didn’t come did not make my payment ineffectual. I paid to rent the park, and that was effectual even though some people chose not to come.

This explanation satisfies my faith electionism without resulting in double payment of sin for the unrepentant. But in claiming this kind of explanation, I have just denied the Penal Substitution theory of the atonement. That theory emphasizes individual sin placed on Christ who died for it. My example did not. I realize if I claim the Penal Substitution theory, I must claim limited atonement as well. If I cling to my faith electionism, I must reject Penal Substitution.

This led me to examine the Penal Substitution theory in more detail. I find three areas of difficulty with it. The first is in the area of forgiveness. We say that God forgives us for our sins. What do we mean? To forgive means to pardon, to absolve, to say, “I no longer consider you as guilty or as owing anything.” But how is this pictured with God. We say that God forgives us our sins…as long as they are paid for? This is not forgiveness in the classical sense. Let’s say, for example, I owed you $10.00. My friend, who owes you nothing, says that he will pay the $10.00 to you from his own pocket. You take the money and no longer consider me owing you anything. Would you say you forgave my debt? Not really. You didn’t really forgive my debt. You still required payment, satisfaction, from someone else. The debt wasn’t forgiven, but rather paid for.

Now consider this: instead of my friend getting involved, let’s say that you yourself decided to pay my debt. So you pulled out your wallet, took out $10.00 and gave it to yourself. In that case, we can say, yes, you forgave me because you covered the debt. You didn’t really require the debt to be paid, but you stopped considering me as owing you anything. But, in that case, although you did forgive me, was the debt really paid just because you pulled $10.00 out of your wallet and gave it to yourself? No, there was forgiveness, but no real payment.

So which does God do? Does he require payment, so there really is no forgiveness? Or does he forgive, in which case there is no real payment. Just in looking at the nature of God in truth, love, and beauty, it would appear that of the two scenarios postulated, God being a God of love, would forgive without requiring payment. But if that is true, if God could forgive without sending Jesus to the cross, why did he go? What was the necessity of the cross? And, more peculiar still, what does God mean in Hebrews 9:22b when he says that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness?

So, based on forgiveness, it is plain to see why penal substitution developed to demand payment for sin, but penal substitution fails to explain how, if payment is demanded, we can still consider God to have forgiven sin.

Another concept shoring up the penal substitution theory is the Bible’s frequent characterization of God’s anger with sin. We know sin is rebellion against God, and that’s not simply a personal affront. It is rebellion against who God is—truth, love, beauty in ultimate form. And that’s what makes sin so odious. Choice against God means a choice FOR falsehood, anger/hatred, and ugliness. God meets that with wrath and separation.

One of the most curious statements we spout, as if we know what we’re saying, is “God loves the sinner but hates the sin.” What does that mean? What is sin without a sinner? Is it possible? Is it a thing you can hold or pass around? It is what you hold within, show to the world, and act out. But the penal substitutionist believes that God’s wrath is directed at an impersonal force so that, if sin is forgiven, he must still lash out (punch somebody) so that his wrath can find release—so that he can be satisfied. That picture does not find foundation in a personal God of truth, beauty, and love. God is not irrational, so his anger cannot be irrational. God is not impersonal so his anger cannot be directed impersonally to strike a concept rather than someone embodying the concept. So striking against anyone just to satisfy his anger is not an idea built on the foundation of truth, love, and beauty.

Perhaps more than anything, the Penal Substitution theory was born in an attempt to see God as being just (Romans 3:26). God speaks often in his Word about the justness of judging the rebellious. So, believing justice to require punishment we argue that Jesus must receive punishment for our sins or else justice would be lost. But let’s say I stole $1000 from you, was caught, and was flogged for it. In completing my punishment, the law says justice was done—I received the due punishment for my crime. Everyone’s happy now, right? Well, I had stolen $1000 from you, and you are still out the $1000. Are you happy about that? Do you believe justice was done? The Roman concept of justice was of the retributive kind, but the Hebrew concept related more to taking a wrong situation and making it right. Therefore, justice is more than mere punishment.

With these difficulties facing us, we cannot simply embrace the Penal Substitution theory without offering quite a bit more qualification in order to understand the atonement correctly. We’ll talk about a stronger, more biblical approach to the atonement next time.