I went looking for easily understandable definitions of various theories of the Atonement of Christ and found the following at GotQuestions.org. I have included here the introductory paragraphs, the definitions of the three most prevalent in today’s church, and the names of the nine theories presented in the online article located here.
Question: “What are the various theories on the atonement?”
Answer: Throughout church history several different views or theories of the atonement, some true and some false, have been put forth at different times by different individuals or denominations. One of the reasons for this is that both the Old and New Testaments reveal many truths about Christ’s atonement, so it is hard, if not impossible, to find any single “theory” that fully encapsulates or explains the richness of this doctrine. Instead, what we discover as we study the Scriptures is a rich and multifaceted picture of the atonement as the Bible puts forth many interrelated truths concerning the redemption that Christ has accomplished. Another contributing factor to the many different theories of the atonement is that much of what we can learn about the atonement needs to be understood from the experience and perspective of God’s people under the Old Covenant sacrificial system. Since having a correct view of the atonement of Christ is a key to understanding much of the Bible, even a survey of the differing theories of atonement can be beneficial.
The atonement of Christ, its purpose and what it accomplished is so rich that volumes have been written about it, and this article will simply provide a brief overview of many of the theories that have been put forth at one time or another. In looking at the different views of the atonement, we must never lose sight of the fact that any view that does not recognize the sinfulness of man and substitutionary aspect of the atonement is deficient at best and heretical at worst.
Moral Influence Theory: This view sees the atonement of Christ as demonstrating God’s love which causes man’s heart to soften and repent. Those that hold this view believe that man is spiritually sick and in need of help and that man is moved to accept God’s forgiveness by seeing God’s love for man. They believe that the purpose and meaning of Christ’s death was to demonstrate God’s love toward man. While it is true that Christ’s atonement is the ultimate example of the love of God, this view is also heretical because it denies the true spiritual condition of man and denies that God actually requires a payment for sin. This view of Christ’s atonement leaves mankind without a true sacrifice or payment for sin.
Governmental Theory: This view sees the atonement of Christ as demonstrating God’s high regard for His law and His attitude towards sin. It is through Christ’s death that God has a reason to forgive the sins of those who repent and accept Christ’s substitutionary death. Those that hold this view believe that man’s spiritual condition is as one who has violated God’s moral law and that the meaning of Christ’s death was to be a substitute for the penalty of sin. Because Christ paid the penalty for sin it is possible for God to legally forgive those who accept Christ as their substitute. This view falls short in that it does not teach that Christ actually paid the penalty of the actual sins of any people, but instead His suffering simply showed mankind that God’s laws were broken and that some penalty was paid.
Penal Substitution Theory: This view sees the atonement of Christ as being a vicarious, substitutionary sacrifice that satisfied the demands of God’s justice upon sin. In doing so Christ paid the penalty of man’s sin bringing forgiveness, imputing righteousness and reconciling man to God. Those that hold this view believe that every aspect of man, his mind, will and emotions have been corrupted by sin and that man is totally depraved and spiritually dead. This view holds that Christ’s death paid the penalty of sin for those whom God elects to save and that through repentance man can accept Christ’s substitution as payment for sin. This view of the atonement aligns most accurately to Scripture in its view of sin, the nature of man, and the results of the death of Christ on the cross.
Ransom to Satan
If you have read the previous Battle Cry posts concerning “What IS the Gospel?” here (Part 1) and here (Part 2), it won’t be difficult to correctly identify the Atonement theory this B4B strongly supports. That, however, is irrelevant if what this blogger supports is not the theory most strongly supported in Scripture. I do think it safe to conclude that the Moral Influence and Governmental theories have influenced the modern/postmodern church for decades and are the prevailing theories behind the ‘seeker-friendly’ and quite popular gospel spoken of here.
Next, we will try and and answer a most important question: “Once we have realized that Christ died for OUR SIN in OUR PLACE, what do we do with that knowledge – what does it really mean to believe it?