The Atonement – Part Three

Through the ages, Christians have agreed that Christ is the Son of God; that he was sent down to us to reconcile our relationship with the Father, a relationship which was broken by Adam’s choosing to transgress and disobey God’s specific command.  They also agree that humans cannot do anything themselves to re-establish this relationship, a perfect and holy sacrifice must be made and that the Father and Son worked together to bring forth such reconciliation.[1]

The “atonement is the cornerstone of all theology, being the ‘stone that the builders rejected’ which has now become the cornerstone (Matt. 21:42; Mark 12:10; Luke 201:17; Acts 4:11; 1 Peter 2:7; quoting Psalm 118:22),”[2] and although Christians agree in the centrality of the cross they disagree on what the reconciliation to God means and how it was achieved.[3]

There are various views on the atonement of Christ and what it means: the Christus Victor, the Satisfaction view, the Subjective view, the Moral Government view and the Penal Substitution view to name a few.  As mentioned in the introduction, for the purpose of this paper I will be analyzing the three most popular views among Evangelicals today: the Christus Victor, the Moral Government, and the Penal Substitution views.

The Christus Victor View

            The Christ Victor view is mostly based on the New Testament and argues that Jesus’ death and resurrection defeated Satan setting us free from his oppressive rule.  Paul calls Satan in 2 Corinthians 4:4 “the god of this world.”  Having come into the world, Christ came with the purpose of destroying “the works of the devil.”[4]

This view was popular in the early church until the 11th Century when Anselm’s satisfaction view became popular.[5]  This view has as a theme the unifying ministry of Christ (his life, teachings and ministry) as his weapons against Satan, while the Penal Substituion and Moral Government views isolate Jesus’ death and resurrection from the rest of his ministry on earth.  The Christ Victor view has one aspect that makes it more faithful to the New Testament than the others: a focus on the resurrection as the ultimate victory so that we could be saved.

Critics of this view argue that is has an imbalanced focus, focusing heavily on how Jesus’ defeats Satan; is overly speculative, because the Bible does not gives us details on Christ’s defeat of Satan through the cross and resurrection; and finally that the Christ Victor view gives Satan too much credit, that God had to go to extremes to defeat him.[6]  This view has among its recent supporters Gustaf Auten, Thomas Finger and Gregory Boyd.[7]

The Moral Government View

            Hugo Grotius was a 17th Century Reformer who opposed the Penal Substitution View, whose opposition developed the Moral Government view.  He argued that Jesus’ suffered God’s wrath was a demonstration from God against sin, not a literal punishment of Christ on behalf of human kind taking away their sins.  Such demonstration was necessary to teach us of the consequences of sin and to inspire us to holy living.[8]

The Biblical argument for this view is God’s love and the forgiveness that He freely offers (Matt. 10:8; Lk. 15:11-32).  Boyd and Eddy state that God does not consider people holy because of what Jesus did; He desires holy living, which is the reason why Christ died on the cross.  It also claims that in Romans 3:25b-26 we find the meaning of the atonement: “This [Jesus’ crucifixion] was to show god’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.  It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”[9]  This is consistent with the teachings that God wanted “to raise a people to walk in His ways,” His willingness to forgive those who repented and were faithful, as well as the teachings in the Old Testament that sacrifices were required because of the sins of the people.

Those who opposed this view argue that this view conflicts with Scripture passages that speak of Jesus bearing our sins, and that it undermines God’s justice, allowing sins to go unpunished.  Recent adherents to this view are Gordon Olson and George Otis Jr.

The Penal Substitution View

            This view came to light in the 16th Century with John Calvin and Martin Luther.  The Penal Substitution View argues that Jesus took upon himself the punishment that humanity deserved for their sins.  This is the most popular view among Evangelical Christians.

J. I. Packer, a proponent of this view, states that “both Testaments, …confirm that judicial retribution from God awaits all whose sins are not covered by a substitutionary sacrifice: in the Old Testament, the sacrifice of an animal; in the New Testament, the sacrifice of Christ.”  He further states that “the measure of God’s holy love for us is that ‘while we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ and that ‘he …did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all (Rom. 5:8; 8:32).”[10]

One of the arguments raised against the Penal Substitution View, is that our responsibility for our sin is not transferable, in the sense that we cannot be punished for each other’s sin (while being able to suffer the consequences of each other’s sin).  A second objection is God is capable to forgive without requiring that a penance is made.  Yet another claims spitefulness from God towards Christ when meeting the punishment (the cruelty of a death on a cross).[11]

The Penal Substitution View is heavily based on Scripture.  In the Institutes, Calvin quotes passage after passage from the Scriptures pointing to Christ as our substitute (Rom. 3:24, 25; 1 Pet. 1:18, 19; 1 Tim. 2:5, 6; Col. 2:14; Gal. 2:21; Lev. 18:5; Acts 13:38, 39).[12]  Paige Patterson says that “Jesus’ death on the cross provided the just payment for sin, enabling God to be true to his own nature and yet still provide justification for the sinner.”[13]

Objections to this view include: limiting God, encourage sinfull living, transfer of guilt, and sets the Father against the Son.  Some argue that the Penal Substitution view implies that God is not free to forgive sinners if he desires to; that because Christ has already paid the price for our sins, humanity is left with the false impression that there are no more consequences for our sins.  Others argue the transference of guilt and pinning the Father against the Son destroying the unity of the Trinity.


                [1] R. C. Sproul, Essential Truths of the Christian Faith (Wheaton: Tyndale, 1992), 174.

                [2] Paul F. M. Zahl, A Short Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids:Eerdmans, 2000), 52.

                [3] Boyd and Eddy, Spectrum, 114.

                [4] 1 John 3:8.

                [5] Boyd and Eddy, Spectrum, 123.

                [6] Ibid 124.

                [7] Ibid, 114.

                [8] Ibid, 115.

                [9] Ibid, 125.

                [10] J. I. Packer, “Penal Substitution Revisited,” in In My Place Condemned He Stood: Celebrating the Glory of the Atonement, J. I. Packer and Mark Dever (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007), 23-24.

                [11] W. E. Vine, Collected Writings of W. E. Vine (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997), Libronix Digital Library System (accessed December 16 2010).

                [12] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2008), 342.

                [13] Paige Patterson, “The Work of Christ,” in A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin, David P. Nelson, and Peter R. Schemm, Jr. (Nashville: B&H, 2007), 564.

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About Bárbara

I am a Christ follower, wife, mother, missionary, and Online Instructor for LU Online teaching Introduction to Missions. My family and I serve at Living Bread Ministries; planting churches among the desperately poor in South America. I have an MA in Intercultural Studies from LBTS. My passion is to see the Lord Jesus worshiped among the poor and needy and to see lives transformed by the power of the Gospel.
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