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“The Atonement” for the Layman’s Dictionary of Theology

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Introduction


In the following position paper, we will attempt to explain in a rather simplified manner the atonement actioned for us by Jesus Christ, debunk some incorrect theories of the atonement and what it means for us as believers from a Biblical perspective. Finally, we examine what the implications are when we correctly understand the atonement from this newly understood Biblical perspective.





Unbiblical theories of the atonement:



In the first part of our position paper, we will look at several different unbiblical/incorrect theories on the atonement.



i. Ransom to Satan Theory


According to Enns (1997:319), this theory ascertains that because the world and its inhabitants were enslaved by Satan, a ransom had to be paid to him in order to purchase our freedom. This view is false because it by implication makes the Devil the one who benefits from the atonement, something refuted by scripture.



ii. Recapitulation Theory


This theory ascertains that Christ’s life paralleled the life of Adam in every way, including the experience of iniquity. Too much emphasis is placed here on the life of Christ and therefore the atonement is semi-abandoned as the means for salvation. Although we follow the example of His life, it was not until His death that salvation was made available (Enns 1997:319-320).



iii. Commercial Theory


God had been dishonoured by the scourge of sin, and this honour had to be restored somehow, enter Jesus, via His death God could now receive once more His due honour, rewarding Christ for His sacrifice, this reward is credited to us, the reward of forgiveness (Enns 1997:320). Sounds great, but it does not sufficiently portray the full story of the requirements that are to be met in order to fully pay the penalty of sin.



iv. Moral Influence theory


This theory amplifies the love of God as means of salvation, in other words, it portrays a picture that God’s love was displayed emphatically on the cross to the extent that we are won over by His love and the sacrifice of Christ (Enns 1997:320).



v. Accident Theory


This theory, in essence, portrays the death of Christ as a colossal accident that served no purpose at all. Albert Schweitzer, one of the advocates of this theory, explains that “Christ became enamoured with His messiahship”, in other words, He became infatuated thereby, and in the midst of His journey of kingdom proclamation things got out of hand, and He was killed (Enns 1997:320-321).



vi. Example (Martyr) Theory


Here Christ is to be seen as no more than a man that set us an example of obedience, this obedience should now inspire us to be as He was, and live as He lived. It ascertains that there is no penalty to be paid for sin, therefore the atonement is pointless. If there is no penalty, there is by implication no need for any payment (Enns 1997:321).



vii. Governmental Theory


This theory states that Christ did die to pay a penalty, but not to pay the penalty of our sins, to fulfil the law on our behalf, rather as Enns (1997:321) explains this was to be a symbolic payment in order to adhere to the administrative requirements of God’s law. This symbolic payment enables God to change somehow and set aside the very requirements that He put in place, and in doing so He may forgive sinners.



The Biblical meaning of the atonement:



Having looked at several different incorrect theories, let’s now turn our attention to the Biblical meaning of the atonement, doing so in light of two subdivisions: explanation thereof, and the implication thereof.



a) Explanation:



To explain the Biblical view of the atonement we will examine the matter within the framework of 4 subdivisions: Sacrifice, Propitiation, Substitution, and Reconciliation.



i. Sacrifice


The law clearly requires that there is to be a sacrifice made in order for anyone to enjoy the benefits of forgiveness. The blood of animals served as that means, however, scripture is clear that this process would be perpetual in nature and by no means a permanent solution. Christ becomes our sacrifice; however His sacrifice, His blood was to be poured out once, for all (Heb. 10:10).



ii. Propitiation


In more understandable terms, propitiation in light of God’s wrath means an appeasement thereof. God’s wrath towards the sinner is soothed because of the offered sacrifice. In the Old Testament (Lev. 4:35) the offering was presented according to the requirements set forth, and upon the acceptance thereof, God’s anger or wrath towards the sinner ceased because of making payment. Again, Christ’s death served the same purpose, the appeasement of wrath; however it was not to be continuous, but once-off in nature, nullifying forever the wrath of God towards the Christian (Erickson 1998:829-830).



iii. Substitution


The penalty of our sins required that we would pay therefore with our very lives (Rom. 6:23), and even then, we would come up short of God’s holy standard. Paul says that God substituted our sin with Christ’s righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21), He received our sin, and we received His righteousness, He received from us that which He could not ever have, and gave us that which we could never get. He took our place; He became our substitute (Erickson 1998:830).



iv. Reconciliation


We were once considered enemies of God (Rom. 5:10), but through the atoning work of Jesus Christ we are now reconciled to God (Col. 1:21), experiencing His favour and His blessing towards us (Erickson 1998:832-833).



b) Implication:



i. The penal-substitution theory aligns itself with the Biblical evidence that man is incapable of saving himself, prompting God to make the ultimate sacrifice of His Son, had this not been the only way to achieve this, God would simply not have done it (Erickson 1998:839).



ii. All aspects of God’s nature is clearly understood and given proper emphasis, His holiness demands penalty to be paid for sins, His love prompts Him to provide that payment (Erickson 1998:839).



iii. Salvation is by grace through faith alone (Eph. 2:8), faith in the atoning work of Jesus Christ, work that actioned a once-for-all payment of sin, not the inferior payment that was provided by the blood of animals (Erickson 1998:839).



iv. The believer may experience the assurance of salvation based on Christ’s atoning work, this in spite of changing emotions and feelings, the work is everlasting in nature, not subject to change (Erickson 1998:839).



v. We must adequately respond to the gift of salvation in light of its true immensity. It is not to be considered cheap, something that was provided easily. It required the ultimate sacrifice, and our response should be one of devotion and utmost love (Erickson 1998:839).




Conclusion


As we complete this academic paper, my prayer is that you as the reader can say that by examining the above content, you now understand the atonement in a way that enables you to apply it correctly to your life. May you continue to grow in this and other areas surrounding salvation, and may the Lord continue to enlighten you on your Christian journey; a journey that is not only life-long but eternally-long.




Works Cited



Enns PP 1997. Moody handbook of theology, 319-328. Electronic edition. Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems.



Erickson MJ 1998. Christian theology (2nd ed.), 519-539. Grand Rapids: Baker.



Written by Dwain Donovan Stewart


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