Atonement, pt 5

Why did Jesus die? What did his death achieve?  When we attempt to answer those questions, we are discussing “atonement”.

These questions have spawned a great deal of discussion over the past 2,000 years. Different Bible writers, including Jesus himself (I call Jesus a “Bible writer” because he is the source of the material attributed to him in the gospels), have explained the significance of his death. And their explanations do not completely agree.

This is part of an ongoing brief survey of ten theories of the atonement, ten explanations for what Jesus’ death achieved. For each theory, I will describe:

  1. The problem that Jesus’ death addresses.
  2. How Jesus’ death fixes the problem.
  3. What depiction of God sits in the background of the theory.
  4. What metaphor best summarizes the theory.
  5. Some of the biblical texts that support the theory.
  6. Each theory’s strengths as I see them.
  7. Each theory’s weaknesses as I see them.

I will conclude each post with my view of how the theories should be used pastorally.

Here, I describe the sixth theory.


SIXTH: Jesus’ death RESTORES MORAL ORDER; this is the “governmental” theory, an unfortunate name.  This view was first proposed by Hugo Grotius, the father of international law, in the early 1600’s.  (Interesting: both Calvin and Grotius were lawyers, and we see that vocation in their views of the atonement.  More on that later.)

This view is a variant of the substitutionary view (#4), and can supplement it without the extreme individualism, excesses, and harsh picture of God that penal substitution (#5) sometimes paints.

Roger Olson is a modern exponent of this view.  Olson says, “The cross is … God lovingly taking on himself the display of his righteousness in order to uphold his righteous government of the universe” by not condoning sin.  “The cross vindicates God’s decision to forgive sinners by demonstrating his abhorrence of sin.”

  1. Problem: sin threatens the universe’s moral order.
  2. Jesus’ death reestablishes the moral order by meeting justice’s requirement.  He does not receive our specific punishment, but receives the equivalent, a penalty that makes punishing us unnecessary.
  3. God is the ruler who saves the universe from moral chaos, which would have been the result of our rebellion, in a way that demonstrates love for us.  Olson again: “The cross does not change God from angry to loving, from wanting to destroy us to wanting to forgive us.  It expresses the true character of God as both loving and just.”
  4. Metaphor: civil courtroom, where a great injustice is dealt with. The focus is more on the injustice being made right than on punishment.
  5. Textual support:
    1. Many of the passages that support substitutionary atonement can also be mustered here:
      1. Mark 10.45 (para Matt 20.28): “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
      2. Gal 3.13: Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.”
      3. 1 Tim 2.5-6: there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people.
    2. Rom 3.26: God wants to be “to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus Christ.”
    3. Rom 5.12-21 (“in Adam”/”in Christ”) and 6.1-14 (“baptized into the likeness of his death”) can both easily be read this way (but I think they fit Jesus’ death as expiation [#8] better).
    4. Heb 9.15: Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, … now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.
    5. Isa 42.21: The Lord was pleased, for his righteousness’ sake, to magnify his law (justice) and make it glorious.
  6. Strengths:
    1. Picture of God that balances love and his desire to uphold righteousness.
    2. Takes sin and its cosmic effects seriously.
    3. Not as individualistic as #4 or #5.
    4. Implications for the Christian life; God has begun setting the universe to rights, and calls his image-bearers to be agents of his program.
  7. Weaknesses:
    1. Little attention to individual responsibility for sin; unbalanced in this way.
    2. Little explicit biblical support; Paul makes sense when read this way, but there are few passages that unambiguously promote this view.

Olson’s summary:

This view “take[s] the best of the Penal Substitution theory while leaving the worst of that theory behind. And, unlike other theories such as Christus Victor and Moral Influence, it takes into account the New Testament’s language about Jesus as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah and our sin and guilt—as separating us from God.”

Pastoral reflection: I’ve said from the outset that no single theory of the atonement is sufficient on its own.  In the Bible, the Holy Spirit has given us several pictures of what the cross of Jesus accomplished: Jesus’ triumph over dark powers (Christus victor), Jesus paying my price (general substitutionary atonement), etc.

We now have dealt with enough theories to compare them functionally.  In pastoral settings, as you deal with people’s various needs, you want to be able to appeal to multiple understandings of the cross:

  • When people feel guilt and shame over their individual acts of sin, which alienate them from God, show them how Jesus serves as their substitute.
  • When people feel like they are failures because of the dark powers that rule over them and the events of their lives, show them Jesus who defeats all the dark forces of the universe through his death, burial, resurrection, and ascension.
  • When people feel despair because the world is chaotic and unjust, show them how God through Jesus begins to set the moral order of the universe to rights, and how followers of Jesus are supposed to live as agents of that correction.

I think that, of the views we have seen so far, these three (Christus victor, general substitution, and governmental) have great pastoral value when used in a balanced way.  Together, they covers the weaknesses and “blind spots” of the others in isolation.

We will also see great pastoral potential in the next two theories, moral influence and propitiation, and perhaps one theory beyond those.

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