One Sunday, a few months ago, I was in our kitchen getting ready to go to church when I heard a pop and a shoosting sound upstairs. I thought that was weird, but houses make noise. But when the shoosting (shoosting is a very technical hydrology word) continued, I knew I had a problem. And as soon as I walked upstairs, that was confirmed. The water line to our master bathroom sink had popped and was shoosting water all over the bathroom by the Niagara full. It was a completely random occurrence, one that could have happened at any time (apparently, either whoever installed our water line didn’t secure the line properly or it just loosened up over time). Thankfully, I was able to shut off the line, dry most of the floor and still get to church on time. But (and this is the point), had I not gone upstairs to investigate, had I not been home, had it happened at another inconvenient time, we could have had a disaster. Water would have soaked the bathroom cabinets and then flooded the upstairs (ruining walls and floors in the process). It would not take long, then, for the surge to find the stairway and come cascading down into the kitchen (more disaster). Within hours, the flood would have caused a giant sinkhole which would have both swallowed our house and provided a tunnel to the surface, allowing the Molemen to attack. But thanks to my fast action, I saved humanity (you can thank me when you see me next).
We just celebrated Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday. Without these two days, we would still be stuck in our sin; but as a result of Jesus’ cross work and resurrection, we have been given new life, the forgiveness of sins, and the promise of heaven. This we all know, but how this happened is a bit fuzzy. We can ask the question this way: Exactly how did Jesus’ death on the cross accomplish our salvation? More technically, what is the nature of the transaction that secured our redemption? Now, throughout the history of the church, scholars have debated this question by offering up four different theories of the atonement. I offer all four of them for your consideration. And when I say “I offer them,” please know I am simply putting my stamp on material I stole from Scot McKnight (A Community Called Atonement).
Our first view is called the recapitulation theory of atonement. In this view, Jesus became like us in every way (both in our mortality and in our sinful condition) so that he could redeem us in every way. St. Irenaeus said it this way, Jesus “became what we are in order to enable us to become what he is.” The strength of this view is obvious: Jesus just didn’t die for us; He also lived for us. And in his life, he identified with us fully. This act of identification (Jesus with us) opens the door so that in Jesus’ death we could be identified fully with him (not as divine, but as redeemed), for in his death we have been incorporated into him and receive all the blessings of sonship (think of all the expressions of being “in Christ.”). Scot McKnight writes:
“The celebratory note here is redemption in the sense of being rehumanized and reunited with God. This means we are reconciled.”
Our second view goes by two names. Some call it “the ransom theory of the atonement,” and some, wanting to emphasize Christ victory, call it, “Christus Victor.” Regardless of what we call it, this view wants to underscore how Jesus enters into enemy territory to redeem us. We are bound by sin. We carry death around with us wherever we go. Satan and his minions seek to work us woe. But Jesus enters into our plight; and through his obedience to the Father and through his death on the cross as one of us, he defeats all of our enemies. In the cross and resurrection, Jesus defeats death, sin and Satan and sets us free. The old hymn, “I Will Sing of My Redeemer” (Philip Bliss, 1878) tells the story of Christ’s victory this way: “I will tell the wondrous story/How my lost estate to save/In His boundless love and mercy/He the ransom freely gave/Sing, oh sing, of my Redeemer,/with His blood, He purchased me/On the cross, He sealed my pardon,/paid the debt, and made me free.” In his death on the cross for us, Jesus defeats all his (our) enemies and, as the hymn says, sets us free. Back to Scot:
“The celebratory note here is liberation and victory. This means we are liberated and redeemed.”
We call the third approach “the satisfaction theory of the atonement.” As sinners, we stand guilty of profaning the glory of God. Everything we have touched has turned to shame. Everything we do is tainted with our sin. Everything we are falls short of God’s glory, and there is nothing we can do to heal our fallen state. We can never satisfy God’s righteous demands. And so, God sends his son to become one of us, so that as the perfect God-man he can satisfy all God’s righteous requirements. And he meets these demands with a super abundance. Scot says,
“The celebratory note here is that God is satisfied with himself and he is satisfied with Christ and therefore he is satisfied with us in Christ. This means we are justified.”
The most common view today is called substitutionary atonement. We often describe it this way: We owed a debt to God for our sin that we could not pay. God could pay the debt, but he did not owe it. So, God became man and took on our flesh so that, as our representative, he could completely pay our debt for us. But here’s the thing to remember: Jesus’ death didn’t just pay our debt, it also enriched us in every way. For in the cross, Jesus not only took our sin upon himself, but he gave us his righteousness so that we could become dearly loved children of God. That’s the gist of this approach, but we need to highlight two important nuances. First, we understand that Jesus’ death is a penal substitute: Jesus bore our punishment (penal) on the cross so that we would no longer have to come under condemnation. Jesus died our death. He took our punishment. He bore the full weight of our sin and its consequences. Isaiah says this most poignantly (Is. 53:4-6):
“Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
Note all the “transfer” language in those three verses. This is what Jesus did for us. But there is a second aspect we need to see. Jesus’ death is also a propitiation. Jesus bore God’s wrath away from us and satisfied all of God’s righteous demands. By acting as our substitute on the cross, Jesus propitiated the wrath of God so that we could be reconciled to God. Paul in Romans 5 (vs. 9) says: “Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!” As a result of our rebellion, we are rightfully subject to God’s wrath, but as a result of Jesus dying for us, God’s wrath has been satisfied (propitiatory penal substitution). Scot writes:
“The celebratory note here is instead of us. That is, Jesus shoulders the consequences of our sin so we don’t have to, and his death ended the punishment. This means we are justified and reconciled.”
There they are, the four main theories of the atonement. And yet, we are nowhere any closer to declaring which one is right than we were when we started. And for good reason. See, each theory solves only one part of our “problem.” Go back to my original story. My bathroom has flooded and has left a big mess. I can call a plumber to stop the leak, but that doesn’t fix my other problems: the water-logged carpet, the drenched cabinets, the wet and moldy wallboard, the sagging ceilings or the issue of the Molemen. A plumber solves one issue, but not all of the issues. So it is with us. The recapitulation theory solves the problem of our fallen human condition, but does nothing to remedy our other sin-saturated predicaments. And that would be true no matter which theory we would choose. One theory solves one problem, but our plight is far more complex than just one problem. See, my problem is not only that I am a sinner, but I also fall short of God’s glory. I am also a slave to sin and to death and subject to Satan’s wiles. I also deserve my punishment. I have violated God’s righteous law and have come under his judgment (death and wrath). And therefore, I need an atonement theory that meets all these needs! Or to put it another way: if one atonement theory won’t do, maybe what I need is all four atonement theories. After all, we are complex beings with a complex sin problem; and therefore, it makes sense that we would need a complex atonement.
And that is why we have so many seemingly “conflicting” verses about the atonement. Mark talks about the atonements as if it was a ransom (Mark 10:45):
“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Paul talks about it in terms of incorporation into Christ (Col. 2:13-15):
“When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”
John talks about the victory of Jesus over all his enemies (Revelation 17:14):
“They [Satan and his minions] will wage war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will triumph over them because he is Lord of lords and King of kings—and with him will be his called, chosen and faithful followers.”
And again, Paul talks about it as Christ rescuing us and reconciling us (Colossians 1:13-14):
“For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”
And Colossians 1:18-20:
“And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”
And we could give even more examples, but we don’t need to, because the point is clear.
We have a big and complex sin problem. Jesus’ atonement provides a thorough and complete salvation. Our job is to embrace the expansiveness of God’s redemption and to rejoice in the fullness of God’s love and grace. So when someone asks you to pick your favorite theory of the atonement, just tell them, “No, thank you, I’ll take them all.” After all, the atonement and its accomplishment are not only heaven sent; but if we meditate on them for a millennium or two, we will not have made even the slightest dent. My theory of the atonement is that it is far greater than I will even be able to comprehend; and I need every ounce of complexity because my sin is greater than I can bear, but God’s grace is greater still. Spurgeon said it perfectly: “I have a great need for Christ; I have a great Christ for my need.”
Thanks for reading.