The Perfect Atonement

A. W. Tozer once wrote, “The atonement in Jesus Christ’s blood is perfect; there isn’t anything that can be added to it. It is spotless, impeccable, flawless. It is perfect as God is perfect.” That is a true statement, but many people are wondering: “What is ‘atonement’?” In the next few weeks I’m going to be preaching on the atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross and what that concept relays to the unrepentant sinner and to reconciled believers.
Before we can understand the Christian orthodox view of the atonement of Jesus Christ, we have to understand that there are several competing theories – some historic, some modern – of the atonement:
  1. The Ransom Theory: This earliest theory, originating with the Early Church Fathers, claims that Christ offered himself as a ransom (Mark 10:45). Where it was not clear was in its understanding of exactly to whom the ransom was paid! Many early church fathers viewed the ransom as paid to Satan, which I think is patently absurd.
  2. The Recapitulation Theory: Originated with Irenaeus (125-202 AD). He saw Christ as the new Adam, who systematically undoes what Adam did. Thus, where Adam was disobedient concerning God’s command concerning the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, Christ was obedient even to death on the wood of a tree. Irenaeus is the first to draw comparisons between Eve and Mary, contrasting the faithlessness of the former with the faithfulness of the latter. In addition to reversing the wrongs done by Adam, Irenaeus thinks of Christ as “recapitulating” or “summing up” human life. I don’t think this theory says anything about the need of Man for redemption or God’s holiness and justice to demand Christ die on the tree.
  3. The Satisfaction Theory: The formulator of this theory was the medieval theologian Anselm of Canterbury (1034-1109), in his book, Cur Deus Homo (lit. Why the God Man). In his view, God’s offended honor and dignity could only be satisfied by the sacrifice of the God-man, Jesus Christ. The problem with this theory is that it speaks of God’s honor and dignity being somehow in need of satisfying rather than His holiness and justice being satisfied. This view undermines the need of Man’s redemption and reconciliation to God.
  4. The Moral-Example Theory (or Moral-Influence Theory): Christ died to influence mankind toward moral improvement. This theory denies that Christ died to satisfy any principle of divine justice, but teaches instead that His death was designed to greatly impress mankind with a sense of God’s love, resulting in softening their hearts and leading them to repentance. Thus, the Atonement is not directed towards God with the purpose of maintaining His justice, but towards man with the purpose of persuading him to right action. This theory is insufficient.
  5. The Governmental Theory: God made Christ an example of suffering to exhibit to erring man that sin is displeasing to him. God’s moral government of the world made it necessary for Him to evince His wrath against sin in Christ. Christ died as a token of God’s displeasure toward sin and it was accepted by God as sufficient; but actually God does not exact strict justice. This theory is insufficient.
  6. The Penal-Substitution Theory: This view was formulated by the 16th century Reformers as an extension of Anselm’s Satisfaction theory. Anselm’s theory was correct in introducing the satisfaction aspect of Christ’s work and its necessity, however the Reformers saw it as insufficient because it was referenced to God’s honor rather than his justice and holiness and was couched more in terms of a commercial transaction than a penal substitution. This view says simply that Christ died for man, in man’s place, taking his sins and bearing them for him. The bearing of man’s sins takes the punishment for them and sets the believer free from the penal demands of the law: The righteousness of the law and the holiness of God are satisfied by this substitution.
The Penal-Substitution Theory is the one I find most sufficient to explain our Holy Father’s demands for justice based upon His very nature of complete holiness. This view also takes into account the idea of Propitiation, that Christ stepped between God the Father and Mankind to take the punishment rightly due us. Of course, this then introduces another question: how limited or unlimited is Christ’s atonement? Is it sufficient to cover all of Mankind regardless of the fact that many, if not most, will reject Him? Or is His atonement limited, meaning only those chosen by God in advance can receive this atoning work?
Well, I don’t plan on convincing diehard Calvinists of my position, but suffice to say that the Bible has ample evidence that Christ’s atoning work on the cross is absolutely and completely unlimited in potentiality, but limited in actuality. In other words, God “so loved the world” in total that He sent His Son. The verse doesn’t say, “For God so loved the elect…” Elsewhere in Scripture it’s clear that God does not desire ANY man or woman to be apart from Him, but fortunately He didn’t create automatons, He is sovereign enough to allow free agents limited freewill to choose Him. So Christ’s atonement is potentially unlimited because His death and resurrection are sufficient to cover a multitude of sins for all Mankind, but in actuality only applies to those who choose to believe in and receive His gift of eternal life.
Don’t get hung up on this. The unlimited/limited aspect of the atonement has been and will be debated until Christ returns! It’s a non-essential belief in the pale of orthodoxy. Note that I’m not saying that atonement is non-essential, I’m saying the aspect of limited/unlimited is non-essential. And that’s not to say it’s unimportant; I’m saying it’s non-essential for salvation, but still important enough for us to discuss and debate in the spirit of Christian brotherhood. However God woos, draws, and brings us unto Himself is completely an act of sovereign grace, so if you feel His presence today, understand that He’s drawing you close, but you must choose. Choose Jesus Christ today, and allow His atoning work on the cross be actualized in your life today. Amen.
In Christ,
Pastor Branden T. Robertson