Atonement Theories

In this lesson Mike discusses the various ideas down through history that various teachers have had concerning the meaning of atonement as well as the one vital work of the Holy Spirit in the plan of salvation.
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Intercession/Mediation – H. Nichols

A. Two main goals in human history in which the Holy Spirit was active in accomplishing, in the service of man's Salvation:

  1. The cross of Christ
  2. The glorification of the church

B. In the Old Testament period the Holy Spirit was active in preparing the way to the cross.

  1. Creation - Forming the actual creation into its final format (hovered=vibrate, Genesis 1:1) Sustained (the creation after the fall from sin, Job 34:14-15; Psalms 104:30).
  2. Nation of Israel - Empowered them to be the chosen people of God. Gifted the leaders, inspired the prophets, enabled their miraculous survival.
  3. Ministry of Jesus - Filled Him with the Holy Spirit to speak from the Father, to perform miracles, to fulfill prophecy and raised Him from the dead.

All of this activity by the Holy Spirit over centuries of time led to God the Father's first goal being achieved – the death of Jesus on the cross. Goal #1 = the cross.

The Significance of the Cross

We've said that the first goal of the Godhead/Trinity was the cross. The question at this point is, "What's the significance of this?" "Why is the cross so important?" The cross of Jesus is important because it accomplishes what we refer to as "atonement". This is not a word we use in normal conversation. We hear it at church and in sermons but are not always sure about its meaning. Over the centuries there have been many theories developed to explain its exact meaning and application. For example:

1. Ransom Theory (A kidnapping term)

Who gave Himself as a ransom for all...
- I Timothy 2:6

This was an expression (ransom) borrowed from the slave trade. It was the price paid for a slave's freedom. The early patristic writers (1st-5th century) believed that Jesus' death on the cross was a price paid to the devil in exchange for the souls of sinful men and women. Of course, there is no scriptural support for this interpretation.

2. Moral Influence Theory – Peter Abelard (Benedictine Monk)

Abelard's theory was that Jesus died to show man how wicked they were. Once they recognized this it would "influence" them to turn to God. Abelard argued that Jesus' death was not a ransom, but a blinding flash of God's love which through sheer ethical and moral power, would persuade men to repent.

This theory, however, completely ignored the Biblical concept of God's justice and His righteousness which required an accounting for sin already committed. In other words, it is good that men turn from sin and turn to God, but what about justice and punishment for wrongs committed? Who and how are these offenses, and the damage/hurt caused, taken care of? In other words, how is God's justice satisfied?

For the wages of sin is death,
- Romans 6:23a

3. Substitutionary/Satisfaction Theory (Luther/Calvin)

Their explanation said that Jesus died on the cross in our place. He suffered a death that we, as sinners, deserved to suffer. This idea was the most developed theologically. They stressed the point that the cross was a payment, but the revolutionary idea for that time was that God, Himself, made payment for sin on the cross. The dominate belief at that time when Catholicism was the major religious influence was that the sinner had a part to play in his redemption through various religious exercises (saying the rosary, pilgrimages, going to mass on certain days, etc.). Although, it was all wrapped up in Catholic pomp and ceremony, given Latin terms and mystery (candle lighting, holy water etc.) it was basically a system of salvation by works and the Protestant reformation was largely a reaction and rejection of this trend in the Catholic church.

4. The Martyr Theory (Modern Liberal Theologians)

This theory, explaining the cross and atonement, said that Jesus was a great martyr dying for Godly principles. They gave Jesus and His death credit for the Christian movement just as Martin Luther King is credited with the civil rights movement in the U.S., however this theory also denied His deity.

5. The Just/Justifier Theory (Most Developed/Biblically Accurate)

for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
- Romans 3:26

Speaks to the reason for Christ's death on the cross and the essential meaning of atonement.

The Just and the Justifier explained:

A. The Just

  • God's perfect holiness and justice (He is the giver, keeper, and executor of the Law)…demands that wickedness, sin, and the violation of His Law be punished.
  • Death (separation of the soul from the body and separation of the soul from God) is that punishment.
  • The deity of a just God requires Him to carry out the demands of His Law – no exceptions or else the law is compromised and made void.

B. The Justifier

  • God is love (I John 4:8)
  • God's perfect love compels Him to save the lost sinner.
  • His love for mankind moves Him to find a way to rescue sinful mankind without compromising His just Law.

C. The plan of atonement permits Him to fulfill His perfect justice and His perfect love both in a single act.

  • The dictionary defines the word atonement as, "a reparation for a wrong or injury."
  • Some synonyms for the word atonement are, restitution, redemption, amends, expiation, propitiation, and the Bible uses these various words when speaking of what Jesus accomplished with His death on the cross.

The atonement allows God to be both the Just and Justifier at the same time. Vicarious atonement is when someone other than the guilty party pays the price that the Law demands for sin – death.

  • Someone might say, "Why doesn't God just forgive everybody, after all, He is God and can do what He wants?"
  • The answer to this is that saving mankind with a blanket forgiveness only solves half of the problem.
  • Who or how is the debt required by God's own perfect Law paid?

A preview of this dilemma is demonstrated in Daniel 6:13-23. In this story of Darius, king of the Medes made a law condemning to death anyone not worshipping his image (this was a political maneuver to consolidate his power and throne over a diverse population). Daniel, a Jewish exile in Babylon, who was favored by the King for his wisdom and service to the crown, refused to bow down as this would violate God's prohibition about worshipping idols and images. Daniel was eventually charged with a capitol offense by other officials of the king jealous of his favor with the monarch. Darius the king was faced with an impossible dilemma – how to save someone he favored without jeopardizing the integrity of his law (if he let this one go, who would take the law seriously?) If you weakened the law of the king, you weakened the king and the stability of his kingdom which rested on the law.

13Then they answered and spoke before the king, "Daniel, who is one of the exiles from Judah, pays no attention to you, O king, or to the injunction which you signed, but keeps making his petition three times a day." 14Then, as soon as the king heard this statement, he was deeply distressed and set his mind on delivering Daniel; and even until sunset he kept exerting himself to rescue him. 15Then these men came by agreement to the king and said to the king, "Recognize, O king, that it is a law of the Medes and Persians that no injunction or statute which the king establishes may be changed." 16Then the king gave orders, and Daniel was brought in and cast into the lions' den. The king spoke and said to Daniel, "Your God whom you constantly serve will Himself deliver you." 17A stone was brought and laid over the mouth of the den; and the king sealed it with his own signet ring and with the signet rings of his nobles, so that nothing would be changed in regard to Daniel. 18Then the king went off to his palace and spent the night fasting, and no entertainment was brought before him; and his sleep fled from him. 19Then the king arose at dawn, at the break of day, and went in haste to the lions' den. 20When he had come near the den to Daniel, he cried out with a troubled voice. The king spoke and said to Daniel, "Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God, whom you constantly serve, been able to deliver you from the lions?" 21Then Daniel spoke to the king, "O king, live forever! 22My God sent His angel and shut the lions' mouths and they have not harmed me, inasmuch as I was found innocent before Him; and also toward you, O king, I have committed no crime." 23Then the king was very pleased and gave orders for Daniel to be taken up out of the den. So Daniel was taken up out of the den and no injury whatever was found on him, because he had trusted in his God.
- Daniel 6:13-23
  1. Verse 14 – The king tried to find a loophole to save Daniel but couldn't.
  2. Verse 15 – A law is a law, no exceptions.
  3. Verse 18 – The king prayed for a solution because he had no way of keeping his law and saving his friend!
  4. Verse 22 – Daniel was saved by God because he obeyed God's higher law, even if it meant his death.
  5. Verse 23 – Faith was the basis for victory.

So, what Darius couldn't do – Be just and merciful at the same time – God accomplished through vicarious atonement. He was just in that he satisfied the demands of His law – death for disobedience. He was merciful in that he sent His Son in the flesh of man (man couldn't do it) to vicariously (in the place of someone else) suffer death (demand of the Law) as payment (atonement) for the sins of all mankind. Like the preview we saw in Daniel – Jesus was saved (resurrected) because he was innocent.

Because of the cross:

  1. Justice – the Law was satisfied
  2. Mercy – sinful man is saved

Another question – what does this have to do with the Trinity?

Answer: There has to be a Trinity/dynamic Godhead

- No Trinity – No Jesus – No vicarious atonement – no forgiveness – no salvation – no eternal life – no gospel – no hope.

Summary: Q&A

Q: What does all this discussion about the cross and atonement have to do with the Holy Spirit?

  • A: The cross is the answer to the question, "What exactly does the Holy Spirit do?"
  • A: Because in the end He really does one thing.

Q: I thought the Holy Spirit did a lot of things in relation to man (maintain the creation, the Jewish nation, the ministry of Jesus, etc.)

  • A: True He does all these things but all of them are directly related to one major thing.
  • A: They are the spokes in a wheel whose hub is the cross of Jesus Christ.

Take away this hub and the spokes are not connected, and the wheel cannot function and makes no sense.

Q: So, the Father initiates the plan of salvation, vicarious atonement and elects or chooses the Son; the Son reveals the plan and fulfills the required atonement with His death on the cross, burial and resurrection – what, then, does the Holy Spirit do in this plan of salvation?

  • A: The Holy Spirit raises up the cross of Christ before all men.
And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.
- John 12:32

All of the activity of the Holy Spirit from the creation until the very moment of the cross and forward until the second coming of Jesus at the end of the world is connected to the raising up of the cross of Christ, whether it's done externally in the world or internally in one's heart.

This raising up of the cross of Christ until He returns is what the Holy Spirit does with regard to the Godhead's plan of salvation.

Discussion Questions

  1. What does the cross and atonement have to do with the Holy Spirit?
  2. Where does the Holy Spirit fit in?
  3. What does the Holy Spirit do in the plan of Salvation?
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