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:
- The problem that Jesus’ death addresses.
- How Jesus’ death fixes the problem.
- What depiction of God sits in the background of the theory.
- What metaphor best summarizes the theory.
- Some of the biblical texts that support the theory.
- Each theory’s strengths as I see them.
- 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 seventh theory.
SEVENTH: Jesus’ death as EXAMPLE; the “moral influence” theory.
- Problem: we do not know how to live good lives.
- Jesus’ death is the perfect example of love, forgiveness, etc., which we are to imitate.
- God is our teacher and leader who wants us to live rewarding, healthy lives.
- Metaphor: students following a master’s example.
- Textual support:
- Matt 16.24-25: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will find it.”
- 1 Pet 2.20-21: If you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.
- Phil 2.5-8: In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
… he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!
- There may not be a huge number of passages that support this view, but the ones that support it are EXPLICIT in their support. Of all the atonement theories, this is perhaps the one that the New Testament teaches most clearly and unambiguously.
- Clear connection between Jesus’ death and the Christian life.
- Positive picture of God.
- Narrow focus on how the cross speaks to the Christian life, but no information about how the cross makes us Christian.
- Does not address the seriousness of sin and sinful nature.
- Implications beyond individual redemption (e.g., social) are indirect, weak.
Pastoral use? OF COURSE. For both Paul & Peter, this is a primary tool for addressing Christians who are mistreating each other, refusing to forgive, being self-centered, demanding their own way, etc.