The history of the various theories of the atonement is made up of various views on the main biblical themes of ransom, redemption, propitiation, substitution, and Christ as moral example.


The history of the various theories of the atonement is made up of differing views on the biblical themes of ransom, redemption, propitiation, substitution, and Christ as moral example. While the example theory is operative in Scripture, it is not the substance of what was accomplished in the atonement, but itself derives from the rest of the themes. Early theologians expressed an understanding of the substitutionary nature of the atonement quite clearly, but it took more time for different themes to become more explicit in the theology of the church. These theologians also developed themes such as recapitulation, ransom, and Christ as victor over opposing powers. In the medieval ages, Anselm continued to develop a theory based on substitution, redemption, and propitiation, while Abelard suggested an alternative viewpoint based on the moral influence of the atonement event. The tradition of the Reformers emphasized ransom, satisfaction, propitiation, and substitution, and linked the whole of salvation to this event. Later theologians, such as Walter Rauschenbusch, rejected much of the Reformer’s theology on the atonement and emphasized only the moral view.

Biblical Themes

In the biblical discussions of the atoning work of Christ, several key ideas are used to give a comprehensive understanding of the way in which we are rescued from sin and its consequences by the death of Christ. One idea is ransom (Mark 10:45; 1 Tim. 2:5–6; cf. Job 33:24, 28; Ps. 49:7–8). From the interchange of words for ransom and redemption, we learn that these two concepts are closely related. They speak of a price to be paid that is deemed sufficient for the release of a captive or a slave from those who have captured or have legal right to him (Num. 25:48–55; cf. Rom. 3:24–25; Eph. 1:7). Propitiation is elemental to the price of ransom and redemption. This indicates that the ransom given by Christ that brings redemption to sinners is exacted through Christ’s enduring divine wrath (1 John 4:10). God’s pre-temporal love for sinners made the incarnation and wrath-bearing necessary as means to achieve his purpose of redemption. This wrath is an expression of fitting justice to be inflicted for the sins of those for whom he died, who by this death are delivered from “the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:10). We find Paul stating this succinctly in writing that this propitiation is a demonstration of God’s “righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26).

This work of Christ is also presented in Scripture as substitutionary in nature. Its voluntary nature, essential for its truly substitutionary effect, can hardly be separated from its substitutionary character. Jesus himself set the theme by teaching that he would die in the stead of his people, his sheep (John 10:15, 17, 18; Matt. 1:21; Rom. 4:25; Gal. 1:4; 2:20; 2 Cor. 5:21; Eph. 5:25; Col. 2:14; Titus 2:14; Heb. 2:17; 9:26, 28; 1 Pet. 3:18).

The death of Christ also is set forth as an example. Though some in the history of this doctrine have gravitated to this idea as the primary power of Christ’s death, Scripture does not present it as the substance of what was accomplished in his death. Rather, the objective substance itself serves as a model of how completely we must commit ourselves to the will of God (1 Pet. 2:21). If Christ can be patient and joyful (Heb. 12:1–2) in going to a death that involved unmitigated divine wrath, we as his redeemed ones should be patient and joyful in suffering for his sake. The example theories as discussed below lose their motivational power unless founded on true substitutionary propitiation.

All of these ideas are prominent in the history of theories about the atonement. The different concepts have been alternately set forth as the leading idea around which the other aspects were synthesized as contributing factors. These views propose that something objectively substantial in Christ’s death is necessarily connected with forgiveness and acceptance before God. The death of Christ is seen as materially effecting the sinner’s forgiveness of sin and release from the enslavement to sin and susceptibility to divine wrath. Another view, a minority stream of thought, focuses on the subjective impact the death of Christ has on the sinner to create a desire to repent of sin, to love God, and to serve him faithfully; God needs nothing else for his gracious reception of such a returning sinner. Both the moral example theory and the moral government view fall within this framework.

Historical Development

A remarkably clear statement on the substitutionary view of the atonement came in an early Greek Apology that we know as the Epistle to Diognetus. He asserts that Christian revelation and Christian redemption make Christianity superior to paganism and philosophy. This apologist says “He did not hate us or reject us, or bear a grudge against us; instead, he was patient and forbearing; in his mercy he took upon himself our sin; he himself gave us his own Son as a ransom for us, the holy one for the lawless, the guiltless for the guilty, ‘the just for the unjust,’ the incorruptible for the corruptible, the immortal for the mortal. For what else but his righteousness could have covered our sins? In whom was it possible for us, the lawless and ungodly, to be justified, except in the Son of God alone? O the sweet exchange, O the incomprehensible work of God, O the unexpected blessings, that the sinfulness of many should be hidden in one righteous man, while the righteousness of one should justify many sinners!” (Epistle to Diognetus, in The Apostolic Fathers, 256-57).

Justin Martyr (ca. 100–165) saw clearly in Scripture that there was no salvation without the death of Christ and faith in him. He believed that Christ suffered the curse of the human race, for “the Father of the Universe willed that His Christ should shoulder the curses of the whole human race, fully realizing that He would raise him up again after his crucifixion and death.” This should lead anyone who sees this truth to bewail his own iniquities. No longer do we look to the mere shadows of the sacrifices of goats and sheep, “but by faith through the blood and the death of Christ who suffered death for this precise purpose.” (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 13) He was crucified as a “sinless and just man” and by his “sufferings are healed all those who approach the Father through Him.”

Irenaeus (ca. 130–202) sought an understanding of the atonement that blended the redemptive value of the incarnation with the redemptive power of the cross. Not only has man “become a partaker of immortality” in the incarnate Christ, but he benefits from the moral transaction “to destroy sin and redeem man from guilt.” Our slavery to sin and the bondage of death made incarnation and suffering necessary to achieve a just salvation. G. W. H. Lampe points to the restoration of man to the likeness of God through the Incarnation, and the incorporation of man into Christ’s obedience” as central to his thought (Cunliffe-Jones, A History of Christian Doctrine, p. 48). Christ’s saving work is accomplished by recapitulating the reversal of Adam’s disobedience by his own perfect obedience. Irenaeus believed that Christ recapitulated “the long line of the human race, procuring for us a comprehensive salvation, that we might recover in Christ Jesus what in Adam we had lost, namely, the state of being in the image and likeness of God” (Irenaeus Against Heresies III. 18.1 in The Ante-Nicene Fathers). Three elements constitute recapitulation: Christ’s obedience gave us righteousness, his ransom delivered us, and his resurrection restores our immortality. The ransom was not a matter of conceding “rights” to the devil but rather of God’s performing his salvation in a just manner, according to his own just threat that sin would bring death.

Later, Gustav Aulen (1879­–1978) in a series of lectures published as Christus Victor would point to the ransom theory in its defeat of Satan as the primary biblical emphasis and the classic Christian view. He rescued it from post-Irenaeus developments of defeat-by-deceit and payment to Satan of a just claim, but he was not enthusiastic about the Reformed understanding of substitution and its concomitants (see Gustav Aulen, Christus Victor; H. D. McDonald The Atonement of the Death of Christ, p. 258–265).

Tertullian (ca. 160–220) believed that in Adam’s sin “he has infected the whole human race by their descent from him, transmitting to them his own damnation.” Tertullian taught that the phrase “children of wrath,” meant that “sins, the lusts of the flesh, unbelief, anger, are imputed to the nature that is common to all men.” Every soul, therefore, has its “status in Adam until it receives a new status in Christ.” This comes through the redemptive work of Christ. Tertullian says that the “death of Christ … is the whole essence and value of the Christian religion” because in Christ’s death “the Lord ransomed him from the angelic powers who rule the world, from the spirits of iniquity, from the darkness of this world, from eternal judgment, from everlasting death (from Tertullian’s The Testimony of the Soul, Against Marcion, and On Flight in Persecution, in Early Christian Fathers, pp. 116, 128, 129).

Anselm investigated the purpose of the incarnation and the death of Christ in his book Cur Deus Homo (“Why the God-Man”). The problem as stated by Boso, Anselm’s interlocutor, is that “sinful man owes God a debt for sin which he cannot repay, and at the same time that he cannot be saved without repaying it” (Anselm, “Why God Became Man,” in A Scholastic Miscellany: Anselm to Ockham, p. 146). Anselm argued that God’s honor must necessarily have sufficient satisfaction if he is to show both justice and mercy. The Son of God took full humanity and lived in perfect righteousness under the law of God to honor his Father’s holiness, and paid the debt of death he did not owe as a punishment for sins he did not commit. Anselm viewed it as “rational necessity,” that man’s redemption and restoration “can be accomplished only through the remission of sins, which a man can gain only through the Man who is himself God and who reconciles sinful men to God through his death.”  Our just debt to God as creatures and our moral debt to God as sinners would be impossible to fulfill apart from the way established by infinite wisdom: “Thus it was necessary for God to take manhood into the unity of his person, so that he who in his own nature ought to pay and could not should be in a person who could [whose life] was so sublime, so precious, that it can suffice to pay what is owing for the sins of the whole world, and infinitely more” (176). When contemplating this with Boso, Anselm draws the discussion to a succinct conclusion: “To whom would it be more fitting for him to assign the fruit and recompense of his death than to those for whose salvation … he made himself man, and to whom … by dying he gave an example of dying for the sake of justice? For they will be his imitators in vain if they do not share in his merit.” (180).

Peter Abelard (1079–1142) shifted discussions of the atonement from objectivity to subjectivity—from necessary requirements of the justice and wrath of God to an affecting influence on the human spirit. McDonald credits Abelard with initiating the moral influence view of the atonement, which he indicated could “be better spoken of as the theory of emotional appeal of divine love.” With no satisfaction of his holiness as manifested in law, with no objective realization of retribution, God pardons the sinner based only on the incipience of love toward God as the sinner observes the loving devotion of Christ to his Father. According to Abelard, the manner in which God demonstrated his justice in the death of Christ was “to show forth his love to us, or to convince us how much we ought to love him who ‘spared not his own Son’ for us.” Abelard identified the grace of God, the justice of God, and the righteousness of God with love (Abelard, “Exposition of the Epistle to the Romans,” A Scholastic Miscellany, p. 279, 283). Christ’s perfect love as the perfect man completes what may be lacking in our love and the merit of his love infuses ours so we are forgiven and received by the Father (McDonald, The Atonement of the Death of Christ, pp. 174–180).

Luther certainly believed in the subjective effects of the atonement but based this solidly on a rich understanding of the objective Godward impact of the death of Christ. In a sermon on Easter Sunday, Luther pointed to Christ’s sacrifice in terms of ransom, satisfaction, propitiation, and implied substitution. His hearers needed to consider “the greatness and terror of the wrath of God against sin in that it could be appeased and a ransom effected in no other way than through the one sacrifice of the Son of God. Only his death and the shedding of his blood could make satisfaction. And we must consider also that we by our sinfulness had incurred that wrath of God and therefore were responsible for the offering of the Son of God upon the cross and the shedding of his blood.” He emphasized its substitutionary aspect when he reminded the congregation to be aware “why God spared not his own Son but offered him a sacrifice upon the cross, delivered him to death; namely, that his wrath might be lifted from us once more” (Martin Luther, Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, 4.1:190, 191).

Calvin, in like manner of Anselm, based his discussion of the atoning work of Christ on the orthodox understanding of the person of Christ. His view employs the themes of sacrifice, redemption, satisfaction, reconciliation, propitiation, and ransom while focusing on the aspect of substitution. “In Christ,” he observed, “there was a new and different order, in which the same one was to be both priest and sacrifice. This was because no other satisfaction adequate for our sins, and no man worthy to offer to God the only-begotten Son could be found. Now, Christ plays the priestly role,” Calvin continued, “not only to render the Father favorable and propitious toward us by an eternal law of reconciliation, but also to receive us as his companions in this great office” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 1:502). Referring to Isaiah 53:6–10, 2 Corinthians 5:21, Galatians 3:13–14, and 1 Peter 2:24, Calvin summarized, “The Son of God, utterly clean of all fault, nevertheless took upon himself the shame and reproach of our iniquities, and in return clothed us with his purity” (510). Calvin calls the substitutionary work of Christ one in which in order to “cleanse the filth of those iniquities [he] was covered with them by transferred imputation.” He fell under the curse for us, bore our sins, and changed the cross from a tragic instrument of shameful death into a “triumphal chariot.” Only by seeing Christ as a sacrificial victim could we believe with assurance “that Christ is our redemption, ransom, and propitiation” (510–511).

John Owen brought the Reformed understanding of substitutionary atonement to its most precise and mature development in his work The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. There he proposed that in this death, Christ actually effected reconciliation with God, justification, sanctification, and adoption. “The death and bloodshedding of Jesus Christ hath wrought,” Owen summarized, “and doth effectually procure for all those that are concerned in it, eternal redemption, consisting in grace here and glory hereafter” (John Owen, The Works of John Owen, 10:159.) In order to secure this, the Father sent the Son as the only agent capable of effecting the end of redemption and the Father laid upon him “all the punishment that was due to sin either in the severity of God’s justice, or according to the exigence of that law which required obedience.” His sacrifice was intended and effected for all of those, and those only, whom the Father had given him: “It is evident that every one for whom Christ died must actually have applied unto him all the good things purchased by his death” (181).

Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918) represents a kind of view of the atonement that may be classified as moral influence, or in some presentations of it, moral government. This revisits Abelard’s basic model. For Rauschenbusch the Anselmic tradition “offends our Christian convictions,” by “wiping out the love and mercy of God,” and is “alien from the spirit of the gospel” (Walter Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel, 242–43). Jesus’s devotion to the honor and principles of justice established by his Father, without wavering and in the face deadly opposition, should influence us also to work for justice in this world. “Jesus did not in any sense bear the sin of some ancient Briton who beat up his wife in B.C. 56, or some mountaineer in Tennessee who got drunk in A.D. 1917. But he did in a very real sense bear the weight of the public sins of organized society, and they in turn are causally connected with all private sins.” For his opposition to these public sins Jesus was killed. They were the “active agents in the legal steps which led to his death.” The evil projected onto society by religious bigotry, graft and political power, corruption of justice, mob spirit and action, militarism, and class contempt. His contradiction of these six social sins insured the he would die for our sins (248-58).

Further Reading

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