“But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8
Jesus died for me. This is a basic, core teaching of Christianity. But we can and should go much further than just that. What does it mean that Jesus died on the cross? Why was it necessary for Jesus to die for me? What did His death accomplish, that was not possible in any other way?
In Luke 22:42, Jesus prayed for the Father to “remove this cup from me,” if there was any other way. But there was no other way that our salvation could be accomplished. As Romans 3:26 states, there was no other way that God could be both “just” and the “justifier” of sinful human beings. The theological term that is often used to describe this transaction, what Jesus accomplished, is Atonement Theory.
Now, if we just look at this English word, we can see “at one ment,” and get the idea of unity and harmony. Jesus died to restore our relationship with God so that those who were separated from Him by their sins could enter back into that original communion.
But the biblical Greek and Hebrew words, which are commonly translated as “atonement,” often have more going on. Those words, in the original languages, have meanings like to expiate, to cleanse, or to purge. These words are discussing taking away and dealing with impurity. Similar to the way that Old Testament sacrifices were pictures of the cleansing that sinners needed (though, as Hebrews 10:4 teaches, those sacrifices could not in actuality accomplish what they represented).
Back to our original question, what did Jesus accomplish in the atonement, when He died for me? Throughout church history, our answers to that question have grown. An early explanation was the “Christus Victor” or “Ransom” theory of the atonement. This theory explains that Jesus came to battle against sin, Satan, and death, and by His life and death, Jesus conquered and set us free from these enemies.
God's Word speaks in these terms in passages like Matthew 20:28: “even as the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Or Hebrews 2:14-15: “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” Even Question 1 of the Heidelberg Catechism alludes to this, when it states, “He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.”
A second view of the atonement is what is called the “Moral Influence” theory. This theory states that in Jesus' death on the cross, we have an incredible display of God's love for us. This display, they might argue, in turn, stirs up our love for Him.
Some passages that point to this are the statement in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world,” or Jesus' words in John 15:12-13: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”
Of course, the incredible sacrificial love of God, displayed at the cross, should stir us up to love and serve Him with all of our lives. However, some have errored here, pushing the idea that Jesus is merely giving us an example to follow, to the point where they claim that sinners naturally will respond to this display. To hold such a view denies many other parts of Scripture, which focus on the hopelessness of our fallen human condition, apart from God's intervention and action.
In contrast, the primary understanding of the atonement among protestant believers has always been the “Penal Substitutionary” theory. This theory recognizes that human sin has left us all guilty before God, and deserving of His wrath and judgment. For God to remain righteous and just, that sin must be punished, and the debt paid in full (Romans 3:26).
As Hebrews 10:4 teaches, the blood of goats and lambs could not accomplish this, for those animals did not commit these sins. Only a human can justly pay the price for human sin. Yet only a sinless person could bear the punishment for another. A second problem with trying to pay for an offense against the eternal God is that only the eternal God can complete that task, and pay the debt in full. It would take an eternity for any of us to pay for one sin of our own.
Yet, both of these critical qualifications, perfect sinless humanity and true divinity (Heidelberg question 15), were met by our savior Jesus Christ. Therefore, on the cross, Jesus could act as our Substitute, fully paying for all of our sins, cleansing us from every stain on our account, while uniting us to our Father forevermore.
So, which theory is the correct one? Who is right and who is wrong? To the extent that all three of them reflect what is taught in Scripture, each is important. Yet all three of these atonement theories only begin to describe all that Christ has done for His people. Each tells one-piece or aspect of the story, of all that Christ did and suffered upon the cross. Jesus paid the price for my sin, absorbing the wrath of God against me with his broken body and shed blood. Jesus conquered sin and death through the cross and now reigns victoriously over them. I am called to take up my cross and follow Jesus, to suffer righteously as he suffered, and to follow his example. What a display of love Jesus accomplished for me!
At the same time, we should ask if there is a proper order to understanding these ways of viewing the atonement. Indeed there is. Historic Protestantism has typically recognized that Penal Substitutionary Atonement is fundamental and primary in understanding the cross. It is the heart of the gospel.
The Christus Victor motif would logically follow, as it highlights the new life and the victory that Christ brings to His people and to the whole universe. Finally, it is only those cleansed in Christ and enjoying new life in Him who may then set about the work of emulating Him, for it is only those who have the Holy Spirit applying the sanctifying benefits of Christ to their hearts.
In our denomination right now, most of our theological conversations seem to be related to the 2021 Human Sexuality Report, and especially homosexuality. This is understandable, as we have witnessed radical changes in our culture over the last decade on this topic.
The LGBT community was once closeted and ostracized in our world. We now have greater understanding and compassion for these brothers and sisters, but the pendulum has swung far the other way. Today, culture celebrates and promotes the LGBTQ community, which has placed pressure on churches to conform. Churches and denominations have been battling out where they will stand on these matters, and if they too will change with the times? In light of that, how big of a deal are these atonement theories?
In reality, I think atonement theory may be a bigger deal than the Human Sexuality Report in the CRCNA today. Synod 2020 had overture 12 on its agenda: “Declare Denials of Penal Substitutionary Atonement as Heresy and Instruct Classes to Guard the Reformed Confessional Teaching of the Cross.” Section 2, point 3 stated in the overture, “A minister in good standing in the CRCNA explicitly denies Penal Substitutionary Atonement in his preaching and yet was sustained in his classical examinations even though his views on the atonement were directly addressed.”
For the last number of years, we have permitted this denial about what Jesus has done to be preached and proclaimed under our denominational banner. Both the atonement and our understanding of sexual sin are issues central to the Gospel and salvation. We all must be willing to submit to the clear teachings of Scripture in every area of our life. But with all of the scripture and reformed confessions pointing to this aspect of the atonement, if we could not act and bring discipline to a pastor that denies so much of what Christ died to do, what then is the value of our denominational unity?