Session 4a: Atonement - Historical Survey

by Administrator 13. February 2016 08:07
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength  ~Mark 12:30

Writing about Session 4: Atonement - Historical Survey, Bryan Carlton shares his thoughts on one of the discussion questions.

Discussion question #9: How was your thinking challenged the most by the lesson?

As believers, atonement is something that is very important to us. It is the work of Christ in dealing with the problem posed by the sin of man, and in bringing sinners into a right relation with God. Many of the early church fathers tried to come up with ways to explain why Christ died on the cross and what exactly it was that His death accomplished.

The first of these was the Recapitulation Theory. It was formulated by Irenaeus – a Greek father of the early church. This theory says that Christ lived the perfect life that Adam could not live – He “recapitulated” (or re-did) all the stages of human life and obeyed the law perfectly. And because of this perfect life, we can have salvation. Several scriptures speak to this very point – Romans 5:12,14,17, and 19 all speak to the fact that sin entered through one man’s disobedience (Adam) and how through one man’s obedience (Jesus Christ) many will be made righteous.

What Irenaeus said was not false – just incomplete. If we think of the atonement merely as Christ coming to re-do a life that Adam could not do, the Cross becomes unneeded - Christ could’ve died a natural death and still atoned for our sins. This theory did not last long in the early church.

The second theory was the Ransom to Satan theory. This one was surprising to me, as it was hard for me to think that someone thought that we were “owned” by Satan. This theory was followed by the early church fathers Origen and Gregory of Nyssa.

The theory states that because of Adam’s sin, all of humanity was sold into bondage to Satan who had “legal” rights to them. With Christ’s death, he made payment to Satan, buying everyone back and thus making salvation possible. There are Bible verses that speak of Christ being a ransom (Mark 10:45) or Christ “buying” believers (1 Cor 6:20) or people being children of the devil (Matt 13:38, John 8:44, 1 John 3:8-10).

Right away this theory should set off some alarm bells with a believer. The ransom never had to go to Satan, as it was not Satan who was offended by our sin – but the one true Holy God. It is His wrath that needed to be satisfied. It also shows that God isn’t all powerful as all He can do is pay this ransom to Satan – nothing else could be done to bring salvation to His chosen people.

Lastly, it minimizes sin, and minimizes the wonderful grace and mercy that God shows us – He apparently doesn’t need to forgive us, just rescue us. This theory held on a little longer than the previous one, but by 1100 it was not a theory that was widely held on to.

The third theory of the atonement is the Satisfaction Theory. This one is still held today by the Roman Catholic church. It says that man’s sinfulness wounded God’s honor and that God – out of necessity – sent Christ to restore His honor. Christ was both God and man, and restored God’s honor with His death on the cross. With that death, Christ got a reward He didn’t need since He had everything. This reward of salvation is offered to man in the form of merit and grace.

While this theory rightly places the focus upon God – realizing that it is He who needs to be satisfied – there are still several points that make it incorrect. The theory states that God “needed” to do this. That would mean that God lacked something – which would instantly make Him not God.

Thankfully our great God lacks nothing, and didn’t need to save us – he did so out of His own mercy and grace. It also places the focus on God’s damaged honor – not God’s breached righteousness. As you can see, this theory still doesn’t hold up – sadly, the Roman Catholic church still believes it today.

Theory number 4 is a liberal theory that is followed still by many mainstream denominations today. It is the Moral Example Theory. This theory says that Christ came just to be our example – that His death on the cross was not required and has not atoning value. It is only an example for us to follow so that we would know how to live and turn to Christ in love.

While it is true that we should all desire and strive to be like our savior Jesus Christ, this theory neglects the seriousness of sin. It shows God as a loving God – which is true – but fails to mention that He is a just God that requires a payment for sin. The Bible teaches that without the shedding of blood, there can be no atoning for sin (Hebrews 9:22). The mainline denominations that follow this theory are sadly growing because of this false view of God and atonement.

The final historical theory of the atonement is the Governmental Theory. It was developed by a man named Hugo Grotius. He believed that Christ did not bear our punishment but suffered as an example – thus the law was honored and sinners were pardoned. Grotius envisioned God as a ruler who made a law that whoever sins should die. Since God didn’t want sinners to die He relaxed this rule and accepted the death of Christ instead. Christ’s death was a “nominal” (small/not the full cost) substitute.

This theory makes the atonement optional – God could’ve done it another way. In the Bible we see Christ pray 3 times for the cup of wrath to pass from Him (Matt 26:39) if there was another way. Christ knew there wasn’t – God included this prayer in the Bible so that we would know there was no other way for our sins to be atoned for.

All of these theories were interesting to me as several of them I had not heard of. The Ransom to Satan theory was the most surprising to me – and the Moral Example theory was followed by the church I grew up in. Reading through and learning about these theories shows me how important it is to study God’s word thoroughly - reading the verses in context and comparing them to other verses to mine their true meaning. Only then can we truly understand the doctrines of the Bible as they are supposed to be.

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Theology

Comments (2) -

Frances Sloan
Frances Sloan
2/15/2016 3:12:56 PM #

Thank you Bryan! You provided a great summary of each of these theories. It is no wonder there are so many false paths one could follow. Maybe it wasn't part of the question, but did you mention which theory is correct?

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Steve Sloan
Steve Sloan
3/10/2016 2:12:59 PM #

Excellent summary Bryan. What amazed me about most of  these theories is that they sort of built  on each other over time as the thinkers in the church continued to have a better understanding of Christ and God's word. Only a truly good God would provide the means to discover Him though intellectual development over time.

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