Christus Victor is the element of the atoning work of Christ that emphasizes the triumph of Christ over the evil powers of the world, through which he rescues his people and establishes a new relationship between God and the world.
Although the language of vicarious satisfaction to describe the atonement is more prevalent among evangelicals today, a somewhat different metaphor to describe elements of Christ’s atoning work has come to be called the Christus Victor view, which is Latin for “Christ the Victor.” This view, which characterizes much of the language of the New Testament and early church fathers like Irenaeus, brings out the themes of the victory of God in Christ over the evil powers of the world, mainly Satan. By defeating the evil powers that oppose God, Jesus Christ rescued his people from Satan and established himself as the rightful king of the cosmos. This view is not exclusive to the penal substitutionary view, as can be seen by the presence of both in the writings of figures such as Martin Luther and John Calvin. This view was brought into discussion again in contemporary times by Gustaf Aulén, an early-20th century Swedish theologian.
“Christus Victor” [Latin: Christ the Victor] became a technical term in the twentieth-century discussion of Christ’s atonement for sinners as a result of the exploration of historical “atonement motifs” by Swedish systematic theologian Gustaf Aulén (1879–1977), professor at the Universities of Uppsala and Lund and then bishop of Strängnäs. His work Christus Victor, published in 1931, advanced an analytic framework for presentations of Christ’s atoning work. He clearly advocated the superiority of the Christus Victor theme over those of Vicarious Satisfaction (Anselm) and Moral Example (Abelard). He used Irenaeus as his prime example of this “classical” motif, dominant among the ancient church fathers and revived, in Aulén’s somewhat over-simplified reading, by Martin Luther.
A History of Christus Victor
Aulén described the central theme of his “dramatic” atonement account as “the idea of the Atonement as a Divine conflict and victory; Christ—Christus Victor—fights against and triumphs over the evil powers of the world, the ‘tyrants’ under which mankind is in bondage and suffering, and in Him God reconciles the world to Himself” (see Aulén, Christus Victor, 4). Aulén summarized this view of the atonement, as understood in the patristic period, on the basis of Irenaeus’s formulation of it. This cosmic drama with its “victory over the hostile powers brings to pass a new relation, a relation of reconciliation, between God and the world.” Because the hostile powers were executing the will of God the Judge, “the triumph over the opposing powers is regarded as a reconciling of God Himself; He is reconciled by the very act in which He reconciles the world to Himself” (Christus Victor, 5). Christ came to bind the strong one; he “spoiled his goods, and annihilated death, bringing life to man who had become subject of death” as a result of Adam’s giving himself into Satan’s possession in response to the devil’s deceit and promise of immortality (Christus Victor, 19–20). Irenaeus closely connected sin and death (cf. Rom. 6:23a). Irenaeus judged God’s reclamation of his human creatures only right and just since the devil “cannot be allowed to have any rights over men; he is a robber, a rebel, a tyrant, a usurper, unjustly laying hands on that which does not belong to him.” Yet God executes this justice in a just manner, through the death of Christ (Christus Victor, 27–28). Aulén did not exclude the concept of Christ’s death as a ransom in Irenaeus, and he admitted that Luther proclaimed the vicarious satisfaction, without sufficiently recognizing how important such passages are for Luther.
Old Testament Teaching
Scripture depicts God as combatting his own enemies and those who afflict his people. The Old Testament writers spoke of God’s victory over the enemies of the people of Israel and of individual believers. The liberation of Israel from Egyptian tyranny caused the people to sing a song of victory that celebrated God’s triumph in their behalf (Exod. 15:1–21); his freeing them from slavery in turn formed the cornerstone of his covenant with the people (Exod. 20:2). The celebration continued (Ps. 136:10–15) as Israel subdued other nations under the Lord’s leadership (Ps. 47:3). The individual psalmist had seen the defeat of his foes in his own life and rejoiced that God’s enemies are scattered and destroyed (Ps. 92:8–11). God enables his people to resist their enemies and trample on their foes (Ps. 44:5). God’s conquests can serve as judgment (Gen. 19:25, 29; Deut. 23:29; Amos 4:11; Jer. 50:40; Isa. 63:3–6) as well as the basis for the peace of those who are faithful to him (Jer. 50:33–39). His final victory shall overturn and shatter the enemies who have opposed him (Hag. 2:22).
New Testament Teaching
In the New Testament, Jesus confronted and conquered Satan by using God’s Word when tempted in Matthew 4. This account does not employ the language of victory, but clearly the devil left the scene the loser, beaten off and beaten down by the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God. In Ephesians 6:10–17, that sword forms part of the armament that believers have to combat “rulers, authorities, the powers of this great world, and spiritual forces of even in the heavenly realms.” The text again does not speak explicitly of victory, but it is clear from all of Paul’s letters that Christ leads his people to triumph on the basis of his resurrection. In 2 Corinthians 2:14, the apostle speaks of the triumph experienced in course of daily life in the Lord in terms of the Roman emperors’s custom of leading conquered leaders of hostile forces through the streets in a victory parade. Paul links that kind of triumph with the resurrection of believers experienced in baptism, as described in Colossians 2:11–15. Thus, John speaks of believers overcoming the devil, connecting that victory with God’s Word that dwells in them (1 John 2:13–14). Jesus promised that his disciples would be given authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome the power of Satan (Luke 10:19). Although Paul did not use “victory” terminology in Romans 7, he spoke of being set free by “the law of the Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus” from “the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2) after depicting the captivity to the “old written code” (Rom. 7:6) that allowed the “law of sin” to place him in captivity (Rom. 7:23, 25). Despite experiences of the struggle, the apostle was certain of victory and liberation in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1).
Christ’s victory also empowers those born of God to overcome the world through faith in Jesus as the Son of God (1 John 5:4–5). Christ has overcome the world and therefore his people are at peace (John 16:33). In Revelation, John looks to the victory of the Lamb who as Lord of lords and king of kings has defeated the beast and his adherents, and the Lord brings his chosen and faithful believers with him in this victory (Rev. 17:12–14). John calls the faithful “those who overcome.” They have overcome their accuser, Satan, by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony (Rev. 12:11), and they have the promise of blessings of all kinds (Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:21).
The apostle Paul also used victory as the description of Christ’s resurrection; in coming again to life from his tomb, he conquered death. That victory meant victory over sin and the condemnation of God’s law as well (1 Cor. 15:51–56), for death is the only fair wage for sinning, and God’s condemning law passes its judgment on violations of any kind (Rom. 6:23a). Paul thus confesses that Christ’s saving work frees people from their sins and from the tyranny of Satan and all other evils.
Martin Luther and Christus Victor
Martin Luther’s writings certainly offered Aulén texts on which to base his judgment that the Wittenberg reformer had revived the patristic model of atonement by victory over all God’s and his people’s enemies. However, Luther also used the language of vicarious satisfaction, re-creation or rebirth, and incorporation into God’s family as ways of proclaiming the atoning work of Jesus. His Large Catechism explained the second article of the Apostles Creed essentially as Christ’s combat with and victory over the devil. He described his state as sinner; he had been “captive under the power of the devil. I was condemned to death and entangled in sin and blindness … the devil came and led us into disobedience, sin, death, and all misfortune. As a result, we lay under God’s wrath and displeasure, sentenced to eternal damnation, as we had merited it and deserved it. There were no resources, no help, no comfort for us until this only and eternal Son of God, in his unfathomable goodness, had mercy on us because of our misery and distress and came from heaven to help us. Those tyrants and jailers have now been routed, and their place has been taken by Jesus Christ, the Lord of life, righteousness, and every good thing and every blessing. He has snatched us, poor lost creatures, from the jaws of hell, won us, made us free, and restored us to the Father’s favor and grace. As his own possession he has taken us under his protection and shelter, in order that he may rule us by his righteousness, wisdom, power, life, and blessedness. …” (Book of Concord, 434–435).
In his Galatians lectures of 1531, Luther repeated a theme he had used for over a decade, that of the “magnificent duel” between Christ and Satan, in which Christ resisted Satan’s power and won “a victory over the Law, sin, our flesh, the world, the devil, death, hell, and all evils; and this victory of his he has given to us. Even though these tyrants, our enemies, accuse us and terrify us, they cannot drive us into despair or condemn us. For Christ, whom God the Father raised from the dead, is Victor over them, and he is our righteousness” (Luther’s Works, 26:21–22). This victory of the Savior means that he “takes away the law, kills my sin, destroys my death in his body, and in this way empties hell, judges the devil, crucifies him, and throws him down into hell. In other words, everything that once used to torment and oppress me Christ has set aside; he has disarmed it and made a public example of it triumphing over it in himself” (Luther’s Works 26:160–161; cf. Col. 2:15).
The sinner’s conscience has been liberated from the condemnation and then freely serves God, as Luther had outlined in On Christian Freedom eleven years earlier (Luther’s Works 26:158, 31:344). The liberated conscience therefore knows that Christ has decisively confronted the accusation of the law. “The accusing law now hears this law [of liberty in Christ] say: ‘You shall not bind this person, hold him captive, or make him guilty. But I will hold you captive and tie your hands, lest you hurt him who now lives to Christ and is dead to you.’ This knocks out the teeth of the law, blunts its sting and all its weapons, and utterly disables it.” It remains a condemning law for the wicked but not for those who belong to Christ (Luther’s Works 26:161–162). Luther continued to proclaim Christ as the conqueror of all the believer’s enemies. In preaching on John 3:16 in 1538, he told the Wittenberg congregation that sinners have been snatched out of damnation and brought to eternal life through Christ’s victory over hell, death, and Satan’s power (Luther’s Works 22:354–356).
John Calvin and Christus Victor
John Calvin also put the concept of Christ’s victory over all the opponents of believers to use in his Institutes even though he more prominently employed vicarious satisfaction language to describe Christ’s atoning work. The Genevan reformer’s presentation of the atonement affirmed that “since neither as God alone could he feel death, nor as man alone overcome it, he coupled human nature with divine that to atone for sin he might submit the weakness of the one to death; and that, wrestling with death by the power of the other nature, he might win victory for us. … clothed with our flesh he vanquished death and sin together that the victory and triumph might be ours” (Institutes II.xii.3). God had planned this victory of Christ from Eden: “Since we must acquire victory through Christ, God declares [to Adam and Eve, in Genesis 3:15] in general terms that the woman’s offspring is to prevail over the devil” (Institutes II.xiii.3). Part of the believer’s knowledge of God recognizes that even though unclean spirits may “combat [believers], ambush them, invade their peace, beset them in combat, and also often wary them, rout them, terrify them, and sometimes wound them, yet they never vanquish or crush them.” Christ has humbled Satan, crushed his head, and assures his elect of their victory in the end. They live relying on that victory (Institutes I.xiv.18).
The message of victory over all that holds human beings captive continues in the twenty-first century to address many who perceive at least some aspects of their lives in bondage. Christ’s victory over sin through his sacrificial death and his resurrection “for our justification” (Rom. 4:25) offers those who feel shame and guilt over misdeeds release and liberation from the chains that bind them to past failures to live as faithful people of God. To those who are evaluating their lives on the basis of their own performance, to any standard of their own achievement that, in all honesty, they do not reach consistently, Christ’s victory means that their ultimate worth is determined by his love and acceptance. That allows them to deal realistically with their gifts and talents, their sometimes difficult situations that retard their ability to perform, their frustrations with hindrances within themselves and from others. To those who have been entrusted with the care of those who cannot contribute in measurable ways in our competitive world, such as the aging or the physically or mentally challenged, Christ’s victory ends the captivity to standards of worth that God does not use in regarding his own as worthy of love and acceptance. To those who live in the shadow of fears and anxieties of every kind, Christ’s triumph demonstrates his love that casts out all fear. The proclamation of Christ as victor continues to be a significant part of the good news Christians proclaim to the world.
- Gustaf Aulén, Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of the Atonement
- Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, eds., The Book of Concord
- John Calvin, Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion
- Martin Luther, Luther’s Works