The Atonement of Christ is the sacrificial work of Jesus for sinners. In his death on the cross, Christ atoned for the sins of humanity such that God is satisfied and reconciliation is accomplished for all who will be redeemed. The obedience and death of Christ on behalf of sinners is the ground of redemption.
Necessity of the atonement
As stated above, Jesus’ death satisfied and reconciled sinners to God. Yet, in order to fully appreciate the doctrine of the atonement it must be made clear why the atonement was necessary.
Theories of the atonement
•The Ransom Theory: The earliest of all, originating with the Early Church Fathers, this theory 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.
•The Recapitulation Theory: Originated with Irenaeus (125-202 AD). He sees Christ as the new Adam, who systematically undoes what Adam did. Thus, where Adam was disobedient concerning God’s edict 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. See main page on Recapitulation theory of atonement
•The Satisfaction (or Commercial) 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. “Anselm offered compelling biblical evidence that the atonement was not a ransom paid by God to the devil but rather a debt paid to God on behalf of sinners.”^^ Anselm’s work established a foundation for the Protestant Reformation, specifically the understanding of justification by faith. See main page on Satisfaction theory
•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 Reformed 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. See main page on Penal substitution theory
•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. Formulated by Peter Abelard (1079-1142) partially in reaction against Anselm’s Satisfaction theory, this view was held by the 16th century Socinians. Versions of it can be found later in F. D. E. Schleiermacher (1768-1834) and Horace Bushnell (1802-1876). See main page on Moral Influence theory
•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 view was formulated by Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) and is subsequently found in Arminianism, Charles Finney, the New England Theology of Jonathan Edwards (the younger), and Methodism. See main page on Governmental theory of atonement
•The Declaratory Theory: A version of the Moral Influence theory, wherein Christ died to show men how greatly God loves them. This view held by Albrecht Ritschl (1822-89).
•The Guaranty Theory: Reconciliation is based not on Christ’s expiation of sin, but on His guaranty to win followers and thus conquer human sinfulness. This view held by J. C. K. von Hofmann (1810-77).
•The Vicarious Repentance Theory: by John McLeod Campbell (d. 1872). It assumes that a perfect repentance is sufficient to atone for sin. In his death, Christ entered into the Father’s condemnation of sin, condemned sin, and by this, confessed it.
•The ‘Christus Victor’ or Dramatic Theory: by G. E. H. Aulén (1879-1977). The atonement is viewed as divine conflict and victory over the hostile powers that hold humanity in subjection. This is a modified form of the classic Ransom theory with the emphasis on Christ’s victory over evil. See main article Christus Victor.
•The Accident Theory: Christ’s death was an accident, as unforeseen and unexpected as that of any other victim of man’s hatred. This view is usually found outside of mainstream Christianity.
•The Martyr Theory: Christ gave up His life for a principle of truth that was opposed to the spirit of His day. This view is usually found outside of mainstream Christianity.