Atonement models


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Abelard (A.D. 1079–1142) first advocated this theory that has since been taught by modern liberals such as Horace Bushnell and others of a more “moderate” liberal stance. The moral influence view was originally a reaction to the commercial theory of Anselm. This view taught that the death of Christ was not necessary as an expiation for sin, rather, through the death of Christ, God demonstrated His love for humanity in such a way that sinners’ hearts would be softened and brought to repentance.
The weaknesses of the moral influence view are obvious. The basis for the death of Christ is His love rather than His holiness; this view also teaches that somehow the moving of people’s emotions will lead them to repentance. Scripture affirms that the death of Christ was substitutionary (Matt. 20:28), and thereby the sinner is justified before a holy God, not merely influenced by a demonstration of love.

Paul P. Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1989), 320.


The theory that emphasizes Christ’s victory over Satan is sometimes called the ransom theory, or the devil-ransom or dramatic theory. Because of our sin we are under Satan’s domination. But because God loves us, He offered His Son to the devil as a ransom price to set us free. The evil one was more than glad to make the exchange, but he didn’t know that he could not keep Christ in Hades, and with the Resurrection he lost both the ransom and his original prisoners. That this transaction involved God in deception, because He surely knew the outcome, did not trouble the church fathers. To them it merely meant that God was wiser and stronger than Satan. The humanity of Jesus was the bait that concealed the hook of His deity, and the devil took it. The fault was his, not God’s.
After Anselm this view disappeared, but in recent years a Swedish theologian, Gustaf Aulen (1879–1978), revived the positive aspects of the theory in his classic work Christus Victor. He emphasized the biblical truth that the death of Christ did defeat the devil (Heb. 2:14; Col. 2:15; Rev. 5:5). Death and hell have been conquered (1 Cor. 15:54–57; Rev. 1:18). The seed of the woman has crushed the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15). Seeing the Atonement as the victory over all the forces of evil must always be a vital part of our victorious proclamation of the gospel. We must not discard that truth while rejecting the idea that God cunningly deceived Satan into his defeat.

Daniel B. Pecota, “The Saving Work of Christ,” in Systematic Theology: Revised Edition, ed. Stanley M. Horton (Springfield, MO: Logion Press, 2007), 339.


The recapitulation theory, advanced by Irenaeus (A.D. 130–200?), taught that Christ went through all the phases of Adam’s life and experience, including the experience of sin. In this way, Christ was able to succeed wherein Adam failed.
The element of truth is that Christ is known as the Last Adam (1 Cor. 15:45), however, Christ had no personal encounter with sin whatsoever (1 John 3:5; John 8:46). The theory is incomplete in that it neglects the atonement; it is the death of Christ that saves, not His life. ?

Paul P. Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1989), 319–320.

Recapitulation theory. This point of view championed by Irenaeus is based on the idea that Christ in His life and death recapitulates all phases of human life including being made sin in His death on the cross. In so doing, He does properly what Adam failed to do. Irenaeus also regarded the suffering of Christ on the cross as satisfying the divine justice of God, but considered this only one phase of the total picture. See notes at Rom 5:19

Bibliotheca Sacra: A Quarterly Published by Dallas Theological Seminary (Dallas, TX: Dallas Theological Seminary, 1955–1995).

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PT 2


Anselm (1033–1109) propounded a theory that gave shape to nearly all Catholic and Protestant thought on the subject down to the present. In part aimed at Jews of his day who denied a true Incarnation, he wrote his treatise Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man). In it he offered one of the first well thought-out theories of the Atonement, usually called the satisfaction theory. He said that in their sinning, people insult the honor of the sovereign, infinite God. Insult to a sovereign head cannot go unpunished and demands satisfaction. But how could that be achieved by us if the sovereign head is the infinite God? At the same time, God’s love pleads for the sinner. How shall the apparent conflict in God find resolution? We commit the sin and therefore must render the satisfaction. But because only God could do so, and we alone must do so, only a God-man could satisfy the insult to God’s honor and pay the infinite price for forgiveness.
The satisfaction theory has much to commend it. It focuses on what God requires in the Atonement and not on Satan. It takes a much more profound view of the seriousness of sin than do the moral-influence and ransom theories. It proposes a theory of satisfaction, an idea that is a more adequate explanation of the biblical materials.
But the satisfaction theory has weaknesses as well. God becomes a feudal lord whose vassals have gravely dishonored Him, and He cannot let that go unpunished if He is to preserve His position. What Anselm failed to take into account, however, is the possibility that a sovereign could be merciful without jeopardizing his superior station. The theory seems to imply a real conflict between the attributes of God, which the Bible disallows. Then it also takes on a quantitative dimension: Since sins are virtually infinite in number and infinite in nature—because they are against an infinite God, the sacrifice must also be quantitatively and qualitatively infinite. Although this explanation should not be totally rejected, the biblical emphasis is not on a commercial transaction but on the action of a loving and gracious God. We are not simply bystanders who receive indirect benefits from a transaction that takes place between God and His Son. We are the purpose of it all. Although Anselm’s theory has weaknesses, they do not negate its underlying thrust, that is, an atonement that renders satisfaction.

Daniel B. Pecota, “The Saving Work of Christ,” in Systematic Theology: Revised Edition, ed. Stanley M. Horton (Springfield, MO: Logion Press, 2007), 340–341.

Grotius (1583–1645) taught the governmental theory as a reaction to the example theory of Socinius. The governmental theory served as a compromise between the example theory and the view of the Reformers. Grotius taught that God forgives sinners without requiring an equivalent payment. Grotius reasoned that Christ upheld the principle of government in God’s law by making a token payment for sin through His death. God accepted the token payment of Christ, set aside the requirement of the law, and was able to forgive sinners because the principle of His government had been upheld.
Among the problems with this view are the following. God is subject to change—He threatens but does not carry out (and in fact changes) the sentence. According to this view God forgives sin without payment for sin. Scripture, however, teaches the necessity of propitiating God (Rom. 3:24; 1 John 2:2)—the wrath of God must be assuaged. Also, substitutionary atonement must be made for sin (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Peter 2:24).


Reflecting the basic thought of the Reformers, evangelicalism affirms the idea of penal substitution to explain the meaning of Christ’s death. It states that Christ bore in our place the full penalty of sin that was due us. That is, His death was vicarious, totally for others. This means that He suffered not merely for our benefit or advantage, but in our place, in our stead (Gk. anti, “instead of,” as in Mark 10:45 and 2 Cor. 5:14).
The New Testament never uses the expression “penal substitution,” but of all the various theories it appears to represent most adequately the teachings of the Bible. It takes the Bible seriously in its depictions of God’s holiness and righteousness as they find expression in His judicial wrath. It takes fully into account what the Bible says about our depravity and consequent inability to save ourselves. It takes literally those statements that say typologically (in the sacrificial system), prophetically (in direct announcement), and historically (in the New Testament record) that Christ “took our place.”
We must express the view carefully, for not all agree with the penal-substitution theory. Some objections must be answered, such as the following.
1. Since sin is not something external, can it be transferred from one person to another? To do so would, in fact, be immoral. Seeing it, however, not as a mechanical transfer of sins but as Christ’s identification with us, a sinful race, lessens the intensity of the objection. Other than in sinning, Christ became one with us. Could it, then, also be said that God’s transferring to us the righteousness of Christ is immoral? We need to understand, as well, that God himself is the sacrifice. In Jesus, God assumed the guilt and bore the penalty.
2. The penal-substitution theory implies a conflict in the Godhead. Christ becomes a loving Savior who must tear forgiveness from the closed fist of a wrathful Father. God’s righteousness stands above His love. The fact remains, however, that the Scriptures clearly exclude this two-pronged objection. The Father loved the world so much that He sent the Son. John says, “This is love; not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10). John 3:36 says, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.” Love and wrath appear together in relationship to God’s sending Jesus. One is not above the other.
3. The penal-substitution theory minimizes God’s free grace in implying He would not and, in fact, could not forgive unless appeased by a sacrifice. Although the objection touches a truth, it fails in that it does not recognize that Christ’s atoning work is God’s forgiveness. In it God shows that He is forgiving and does forgive. Those who object to the theory of penal substitution need to recognize the implications of such a decision. Who bears the penalty for sin, Christ or us? We cannot have it both ways. Is Christianity a redemptive religion? If not, where does our hope lie? If so, substitution is implicit.

Daniel B. Pecota, “The Saving Work of Christ,” in Systematic Theology: Revised Edition, ed. Stanley M. Horton (Springfield, MO: Logion Press, 2007), 342–343.

The above are the opinions of the various authors and there may be variations between how the the proponents hold the theory and the various authors

but it is a good general introduction