Erroneous Theories of the Atonement

Loraine Boettner

Loraine Boettner

As might have been expected, this great comprehensive doctrine of the atonement which lies at the very heart of the Gospel has not been allowed to go unchallenged. Numerous "theories of the atonement" have emerged from time to time and have been more or less prominent in the Church. Practically all of these with small variations can be included under three main heads: (1) The Moral Influence Theory; (2) The Governmental Theory; and (3) The Mystical Theory.

THE MORAL INFLUENCE THEORY

The most widely held and the most influential of the erroneous theories of the atonement is the moral influence theory. It denies that Christ died to satisfy any principle of divine justice, and holds that His death was designed primarily to impress men with a sense of God's love and thus soften their hearts and lead them to repentance. According to this view the crucifixion was a dramatic exhibition of suffering intended to produce a moral impression in awe-stricken spectators. It represents Christ as suffering for us as a loving father or mother suffers for an ungrateful son or a wayward daughter and with the purpose of moving us so that we will turn and repent. The atonement is then conceived of as directed not toward God, with the purpose of maintaining His justice, but toward man, with the purpose of persuading him to right action. Christ's work on the cross is then made to be an impressive proclamation to the world that God is willing to forgive sin on the sole condition that men turn from it. His suffering and death is explained as merely that of a martyr in the cause of righteousness, and as the natural consequence of His having taken human nature upon Himself. He is then supposed to have shared in the woes and griefs which human living naturally involves, and His suffering was not an atonement or an expiation in any true sense of the word, but a supreme example of self-sacrifice. And we in turn are to be inspired by His example so that we too become willing to bear our crosses and give our lives in the service of some good cause, perhaps even in martyrdom, and thus work out our own salvation.

The moral influence theory holds that while Christ may have had a great influence in persuading us to walk in the way of the cross, the way of service and self-sacrifice, it is after all our walking in it and not Christ's walking it which really saves us. This means that in the final analysis we are saved by our own efforts, not by Christ's blood. Christ is then not our Saviour in any true sense of the word, but only a friend and example; and the world has had as many saviours as it has had good men and women. It is the same old notion that sinful man can save himself. It is basically the religion of naturalism, decked out in new garments and dishonestly making use of Christian terminology.

This theory rests on the assumption that God is love and only love; and, holding that repentance is the only requirement for forgiveness, it denies the existence of any law which demands that sin shall receive its just punishment. This is really the root of the whole modern assault upon the doctrine of the atonement. Dr. Warfield has very effectively analyzed and exposed this one-sided emphasis on the attribute of love, and we can do no better than to quote his words:

"In the attempt to give effect to the conception of indiscriminate and undiscriminating love as the basal fact of religion, the entire Biblical teaching as to atonement has been ruthlessly torn up. If God is love and nothing but love, what possible need can there be of an atonement?... Well, certainly, God is love. But it does not in the least follow that He is nothing but love. God is Love: but Love is not God and the formula 'Love' must therefore ever be inadequate to express God. It may well be -- for us sinners, lost in our sin and misery but for it, it must be -- the crowning revelation of Christianity that God is love. But it is not from the Christian revelation that we have learned to think of God as nothing but love. That God is the Father of all men in a true and important sense, we should not doubt. But the indiscriminate benevolencism which has taken captive so much of religious thinking of our time is a conception not native to Christianity, but of distinctly heathen quality. As one reads the pages of popular religious literature, teeming as it is with ill-considered assertions of the general Fatherhood of God, he has an odd feeling of transportation back into the atmosphere of, say, the decadent heathenism of the fourth and Fifth centuries when the gods were dying, and there was left to those who would fain cling to the old ways little beyond a somewhat saddened sense of the benignitas numinis. The benignitas numinis! How studded the pages of those genial old heathen are with the expression; how suffused their repressed life is with the conviction that the kind Deity that dwells above will surely not be hard on men toiling here below! How shocked they are at the stern righteousness of the Christian's God, who loomed before their startled eyes as He looms before those of the modern poet in no other light than as 'the hard God that dwelt in Jerusalem'! Surely the Great Divinity is too broadly good to mark the peccadillos of poor puny man; surely they are the objects of His compassionate amusement rather than of His fierce reprobation. Like Omar Khayyam's pot, they were convinced, before all things, of their Maker that 'He's a good fellow and 'twill all be well."

"The query cannot help rising to the surface of our minds whether our modern indiscriminate benevolencism goes much deeper than this. Does all this one-sided proclamation of the universal Fatherhood of God import much more than the heathen benignitas numinis? When we take those blessed words, 'God is Love,' upon our lips, are we sure we mean to express much more than that we do not wish to believe that God will hold man to any real account for his sin? Are we, in a word, in these modern days, so much soaring upward toward a more adequate apprehension of the transcendent truth that God is love, as passionately protesting against being ourselves branded and dealt with as wrath-deserving sinners? Assuredly it is impossible to put anything like their real content into these great words, 'God is Love,' save as they are thrown out against the background of those other conceptions of equal loftiness, 'God is Light,' 'God is Righteousness,' 'God is Holiness,' 'God is a consuming fire.' The love of God cannot be apprehended in its length and breadth and height and depth -- all of which pass knowledge -- save as it is apprehended as the love of a God who turns from the sight of sin with inexpressible abhorrence,, and burns against it with unquenchable indignation. The infinitude of His love would be illustrated not by His lavishing of His favor on sinners without requiring an expiation of sin, but by His --- through such holiness and through such righteousness as cannot but cry out with infinite abhorrence and indignation ---still loving sinners so greatly that He provides a satisfaction for their sin adequate to these tremendous demands. It is the distinguishing characteristic of Christianity, after all, not that it preaches a God of love, but that it preaches a God of conscience.. . And a thoroughly conscientious God, we may be sure, is not a God who can deal with sinners as if they were not sinners. In this fact lies, perhaps, the deepest ground of the necessity of an expiatory atonement.

"And it is in this fact also that there lies the deepest ground of the increasing failure of the modern world to appreciate the necessity of an expiatory atonement. Conscientiousness commends itself only to awakened conscience; and in much of recent theologizing conscience does not seem especially active. Nothing, indeed, is more startling in the structure of recent theories of atonement, than the apparently vanishing sense of sin that underlies them. Surely it is only where the sense of the power of sin has profoundly decayed, that men can fancy that they can at will cast it off from them in a 'revolutionary repentance.' Surely it is only where the sense of the heinousness of sin has practically passed away, that man can imagine that the holy and just God can deal with it lightly. If we have not much to be saved from, why, certainly a very little atonement will suffice for our needs. It is, after all, only the sinner that requires a Saviour. But if we are sinners, and in proportion as we know ourselves to be sinners, and appreciate what it means to be sinners, we will cry out for that Saviour who only after He was perfected by suffering could become the Author of salvation" -- Studies in Theology, p. 294 f.

The advocates of the moral influence theory are never tired of ridiculing the idea that God must be propitiated. They give no hint of the Scripture doctrine of the subjective effects of sin on the human heart by which it is alienated from God and unable to respond to any appeal of right motives however powerful. They see no impassable gulf between the holy God and sinful man, and, consequently, they see no reason why satisfaction should be made to divine justice. If, as they say, God is continually reaching out His arms from heaven toward man, and the whole difficulty is in inducing men to permit themselves to be pardoned, why, then, of course, there can be no need for an atonement, and in fact the whole idea of atonement is reduced to absurdity. But the Scriptures teach, on the one hand, that the justice of God must be vindicated, and on the other, that an internal action of the Holy Spirit upon the human heart is necessary before man can comprehend spiritual truth, or repent, and that this gift of the Spirit has been purchased for the believer by the sacrifice of Christ. Paul very explicitly grounds the necessity for the atonement, not in the love of God, but in His righteousness or justice, declaring that the ultimate purpose of the atonement was "that He might be just, and the justifier of him that hath faith in Jesus," Rom. 3:26.

The history of the doctrine of the atonement shows how very difficult it is to maintain belief in the Deity of Christ in connection with the moral influence theory. On the basis of this theory the example of a human Christ who, supposedly, is nearer to us, serves as well or even better than a divine Christ. Most modern books on the atonement refuse to impute to man either the sin of Adam or the righteousness of Christ, and so they logically deny both the fall of the race in Adam and the redemption of the race in Christ. They see in Jesus only a great teacher and friend, and consequently their religion tends downward toward the level of humanism.

The far-reaching effect of the moral influence theory and the thoroughness with which it disrupts the whole Christian system has been well stated by Dr. A. H. Strong, who declares that

"logically it necessitates a curtailment or surrender of every other characteristic doctrine of Christianity -- Inspiration, sin, the Deity of Christ, justification, regeneration, and eternal retribution. It requires surrender of inspiration; for the idea of vicarious and expiatory sacrifice is woven into the very warp and woof of the Old and New Testaments. It requires an abandonment of the Scripture doctrine of sin; for in it all ideas of sin as perversion of nature rendering the sinner unable to save himself, and an objective guilt demanding satisfaction to the divine holiness, is denied. It requires us to give up the Deity of Christ; for if sin is a slight evil, and man can save himself from its penalty and power, then there is no longer need of infinite suffering or an infinite Saviour, and a human Christ is as good as a divine. It requires us to give up the Scripture doctrine of justification, as God's act of declaring the sinner just in the eyes of the law, solely on account of the righteousness and death of Christ to whom he is united by faith; for it cannot permit the counting to man of any other righteousness than his own. It requires a denial of the doctrine of regeneration; for this is no longer the work of God, but the work of the sinner; it is no longer a change of the affections below consciousness, but a self-reforming volition of the sinner himself. It requires a denial of eternal retribution; for this is no longer appropriate to finite transgression of arbitrary law, and to superficial sinning that does not involve [a change in the moral] nature." -- Systematic Theology, p. 730.

We readily acknowledge that the surpassing love of God as displayed in the death of Christ on the cross should cause men to forsake their sin and return to God; but the fact of the matter is that this kind of an appeal does not and cannot touch the unregenerate heart. The experience of New England Unitarianism and of present day Modernism makes it perfectly clear that the moral influence theory of the atonement is morally powerless,-- and that for the reason that it puts man back on the plane of the so-called natural religions. It takes from Christ His own garment (the garment which the writer of the book of Revelation says is "sprinkled with blood," which has inscribed on it His name, "King of Kings and Lord of Lords," 19:13, 16), and puts on another, divests Him of His glory, and proceeds to proclaim, not the Gospel of the New Testament, but a man-made gospel, which has no power to move sinners to repentance. The convicted sinner knows that he is guilty and polluted, and that he has a debt to be paid to divine justice. And not until he is convinced that Christ has paid that debt for him can he think hopefully of reforming his life.

Furthermore, it should be realized by all that a tragedy gotten up for the transparent purpose of affecting our feelings, having no inherent principle or necessity in itself, necessarily defeats itself and produces only disgust. An unjust punishment is a crime in itself. To hang an innocent man for the good of the community is both a crime and a blunder. Only when the hanging is justified by the ill-desert of the person can it be seen by all the community as either just or necessary.

The moral influence theory furnishes no proper explanation of the suffering and death of Christ, but rather makes absurd if not even criminal His voluntary acceptance of such suffering and death in the very prime of His manhood. Furthermore, if He died simply as a martyr instead of the sin-bearer for His people, it is utterly impossible to explain why in His deepest suffering He was utterly forsaken by the Father.

THE GOVERNMENTAL THEORY

The governmental theory of the atonement holds that because of His absolute sovereignty God is able to relax at will the demands of the law and to forgive men freely without any expiation or sacrifice for sin, but that in order to preserve a fair degree of discipline and respect for law so that men shall not be encouraged to believe that they can commit sin with impunity, He must at the same time give some exhibition of the high estimate which He sets upon the law. The primary purpose in the suffering of Christ then was, not to satisfy any eternal principle of divine justice as the satisfaction view holds, nor to break down man's opposition to God by a manifestation of His love as in the moral influence theory, but to secure man's reformation by inducing in him a horror for sin through the awful spectacle of Christ on the cross. With that spectacle before their eyes men were to be made to understand what a serious thing sin really is, that it will not be allowed to go unpunished, and so induced to maintain respect for divine government even in the face of repeated acts of executive clemency. The governmental theory does not hold that Christ suffered the precise penalty which was originally attached to the law, nor even an equivalent of that penalty, but something much less, which God in His sovereignty is at liberty to accept as a substitute for that penalty. Having given this exhibition of His displeasure with sin, God is now able to offer salvation on much easier terms than those originally announced. Instead of demanding perfect obedience He now demands only faith and a reasonable degree of good works, all of which is, of course, worked out by the person himself. There is, therefore, a vast difference between this theory and the satisfaction view which holds that we are saved solely through the perfect obedience of Christ, which obedience conforms to the high demands which were originally set forth as the condition of salvation.

The element of truth in the governmental theory is that the death of Christ actually is a warning that sin shall not be allowed to go unpunished, and that the orderly government of the universe can continue only as men do have respect for law. But we hold that the primary object of punishment is not to instill devotion to the idea of government, or to an abstract idea of law, but the satisfaction of divine justice, and that righteousness must be done for its own sake, because it is right. No deeply convicted sinner feels that his controversy is with government or law as such, but that he is confronted with an intensely personal problem, that he is polluted and undone, and in antagonism to the parity of a personal God,-- "Against thee, thee only, have I sinned," said the truly penitent David when he saw his sin in its true light, Ps. 51:4; and the humble publican cried out, "God, be thou merciful to me a sinner," Luke 18:13.

The governmental theory makes no provision for, and in fact it denies the possibility of, the imputation of the sinner's guilt to Christ or of Christ's righteousness to us. It therefore represents God as unjust in that He punishes an innocent person merely for the sake of the impression that it will make on others. Ill-desert must always go before punishment. Unless the punishment is right and just in itself it can work no good to society. This theory fails to recognize the extreme heinousness of sin, and assumes that sin can be adequately punished with a penalty less than that which God Himself originally set against it. But if that is true and if God in His sovereignty is at liberty to assign whatever value He pleases to every created thing presented to Him, then the blood of bulls and goats could just as well have taken away sins,-- the sufferings of Christ were superfluous, and He died in vain. This theory assumes that man has the power to change his moral nature at will and that to accomplish this he needs only to be surrounded by good influences, whereas the Scriptures teach that he needs a complete change of nature, or regeneration, which benefit was purchased for him by Christ and can be made effective only through the power of the Holy Spirit. And finally, the light view of sin which this theory holds fails utterly to show forth the deep love of God for His people; for it has no adequate understanding of the cost involved when God Himself -- not a mere man, but God himself in the person of Christ -- took our place on the accursed tree.

The governmental theory is, of course, an inconsistent and unstable theory, and it is held by only a comparatively small number of people. It was invented by a prominent Dutch theologian and jurist of the seventeenth century, Hugo Grotius, who approached the subject from the judicial standpoint. He held that in the forgiveness of sin God is to be regarded primarily as a moral governor or ruler who must act, not according to His emotions or desires, but with a view to the best interests of all of those under His authority. The work of Christ was thus conceived of as purely didactic, and the cross was but a symbol, designed to teach, by way of example, God's hatred for sin.

The governmental theory is sometimes called the "intermediate view." It is not as seriously in error as is the moral influence theory. which conceives of the whole purpose of the atonement as designed to influence man, while this theory acknowledges that it is in part directed toward God in that it is designed to maintain respect for His law. But in principle the two are not essentially different, for each denies any necessity of satisfying divine justice and each holds that the primary design of the cross was to produce an effect in man.

THE MYSTICAL THEORY

There is one more theory that we must mention, generally known. as the "mystical theory." In this theory the human race is looked upon as a mass or unit or organism rather than as individuals, and the seeds of death and corruption which were introduced into the race through the sin of Adam are counteracted and overcome by the principles of life and immortality which Christ is supposed to have introduced into the race through His incarnation. Redemption is regarded as having been accomplished not by anything that Christ taught or did, but by the incarnation in which Deity was infused into or united with humanity. According to some advocates of this theory, in the incarnation, Christ assumed human nature as He found it, that is, fallen human nature, and not only kept it from sinning but purified it by the power of His own divine nature; and men are saved as, by faith, they become partakers of this purified humanity. According to others, the original depravity which the race inherited from Adam was supposed to have been gradually overcome during the earthly life of Jesus until at the time of His death human nature was restored to its original glory and fellowship with God. According to some, humanity is finally to be deified. Redemption is thus conceived of as terminating physically on man in that the transforming essence of Deity was put into the mass of humanity as leaven into a lump of dough. Christ is regarded as having taken into union with Himself not a real and separate human body and soul, but humanity as a generic substance; and the result was a blood brotherhood in which Christ's inner spiritual life was communicated to man, awakening in him the dormant God consciousness and enabling him to overcome the sensuous world consciousness.

The mystical theory has never been held by a large number of people, although it has persisted since the early Greek Fathers and has been held by widely separated groups. Its strength lies in the fact that it lays stress on an important truth, namely, the fact that all believers are in a true sense united with Christ and partake of a new nature. But we hold that this union is made effective, not through the incarnation, but through the work of the Holy Spirit, and in individuals rather than in humanity as a mass. This theory is also commendable in that it ascribes redemption to divine grace and emphasizes the importance of holy living.

But there are serious objections against it. In the first place it contradicts the plain teaching of Scripture. It asserts that Christ's suffering and death form no essential part of His redemptive work, while the Scriptures strongly emphasize His suffering and death as the basis for the remission of sin. Nowhere in Scripture are we told that Christ became incarnate in order that He might infuse divine life into humanity. Rather we are told that He assumed human nature in order that in it He might suffer the penalty which was due to His people and thus free them from the obligation which rested upon them.

The mystical theory is essentially pantheistic in its tendency. Its assertion that divine life was infused into the human in order to purify and lift the human to the divine breaks down the fundamental distinction between God and man, and leaves the way open for a pantheistic interpretation of life. Its logical corollary is that ultimately the entire human race which has lived since the time of Christ will be transformed and restored to holiness and God.

It leaves unexplained the redemption of the saints who died before the time of Christ, since the subjective and somewhat mechanical process through which redemption is supposed to have been accomplished could not have affected them. Some of its advocates have gone so far as to say that there was no salvation before the time of Christ and that all of the patriarchs perished.

In concluding this study we should observe that each of the erroneous views errs by defect. Each substitutes for the chief aim of the atonement one which is subordinate and incidental. But at no time in the history of the Church has any one of these been able to displace the doctrine of "satisfaction," either in the creeds or in the hearts of believers. In the final analysis no one of them makes any provision for the satisfaction of divine justice, and therefore offers nothing that can honestly be called an atonement. The burden of the apostolic preaching was not that Christ's death was designed primarily to move men by a transcendent display of God's love, nor that it was designed to induce respect for some general or abstract principle of law, nor that all mankind was to be reunited to God by some mysterious union of the divine and human, but rather that He "was delivered up for our trespasses and was raised for our justification" (Rom. 4:25). Very few earnest Christians can ever be persuaded to believe that the life and death of Christ was only "a liturgical service, a chant and a dirge, to move the world's mind; a pageant with a moral."

Neither the moral influence nor the governmental nor the mystical theory finds any support in the sacrificial system of ancient Israel. In no instance is there the slightest indication that any Old Testament sacrifice was ever designed to produce a moral influence on the offerer, or to teach a general respect for law or government, or to illustrate the infusion of the divine nature into the human. Always the immediate and primary end sought in sacrifice was forgiveness; and the effect is said to be "to make atonement for sin," Lev. 4:20, 26, 31; 6:30; II Chr. 29 .24.

The fact of the matter is that the satisfaction view sets forth much more profoundly and effectively the elements of truth which each of these theories embraces, while at the same time it refutes and excludes their erroneous elements. In revealing to us the infinite love of God for His people and showing at what great cost our redemption was purchased it far excels the moral influence theory in producing in us the particular moral effect which that theory was designed to produce, while at the same time it avoids the error of assuming that the sufferings of Christ were designed primarily to influence men rather than to satisfy divine justice. In revealing to us the true nature of the law of God as a transcript of the divine nature, which therefore is perfect and holy and immutable, it far excels the governmental theory in producing respect for that law, while it avoids the errors of assuming that punishment laid on an innocent person can of itself produce a good reaction in human society. And in revealing to us how we are legally and representatively united with Christ so that our sin and punishment becomes His while His righteousness and inheritance and glory becomes ours, it far excels the mystical theory in portraying the true nature of our union with Him, while it avoids the error of assuming that sinful human nature is cleansed by an infusion of divine life such as that theory supposes to have occurred at the incarnation.

CONCLUSION

Quite often we hear it said that it makes little difference what "theory" of the atonement we hold. The fact of the matter is that it makes all the difference in the world. If when we contemplate the cross of Christ we see there the eternal Son of God who loved us and gave Himself for us, who assumed the curse and bought us with His own most precious blood, we shall have the supernatural Christian faith which is set forth in the Scriptures. But if in the suffering of Christ we see only a noble example of self-sacrifice which we in turn are to emulate as well as we can and so work out our own salvation, we shall have only a man-made naturalistic religion such as has deluded so many multitudes down through the ages.

With so much of the world in confusion and men's souls so sorely tried as they are today, this certainly is no time to talk of bloodless atonement. The truly penitent soul, conscious of the burden of sin and guilt, cries out for redemption and refuses to be satisfied with anything else. Others may build on the sands of human speculation if they wish. We are convinced that Christ's death is the only means of salvation, and that where it is unknown or neglected or rejected the soul perishes. The distinction is indeed vital. It is the most momentous that can confront any person.

That the doctrine of the atonement has been neglected and obscured in our day is very evident. Only rarely do we hear a sermon or see an article printed on it. Yet it is the very heart of the Christian message and without it the Gospel is powerless. The minister who neglects it either because of a lack of spiritual experience or because of intellectual difficulties associated with it, becomes hesitant and ineffective or eccentric and sensational,-- and that for the very simple reason that his message will then be seriously lacking either in spiritual depth or in intellectual background. In either case it cannot be taken seriously by either minister or hearers. No doubt much of the lack of spiritual power and warmth so frequently charged against the religious life of our day is due in large measure to the neglect of this cardinal truth in so many churches. We do not mean to imply that it has been lost from the hearts of the Christian community. For, as Dr. Warfield has said,

"It is in terms of the substitutive atonement that the humble Christian everywhere still expresses the grounds of his hope of salvation. It is in its terms that the earnest evangelist everywhere still presses the claims of Christ upon the awakened hearer. It has not even been lost from the forum of theological discussion. It still commands powerful advocates wherever a vital Christianity enters academic circles; and, as a rule, the more profound the thinker the more clear is the note he strikes in its proclamation and defense." -- Studies in Theology, p. 287.

While the satisfaction view was in substance the view held by the Church from the earliest days, it was not analyzed and set forth in systematic form until the eleventh century, when Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, set it forth in his epoch-making book, Cur Deus Homo. Since that time it has been an essential part of the creeds and doctrines of all Christian churches, Catholic and Protestant.

At the time of the Reformation the Protestant theologians put the strongest emphasis on the doctrine of the atonement. Calvin in particular in his Institutes worked it out broadly in all of its implications. The result was a dynamic and evangelistic faith. A return to that emphasis probably would do more to re-vitalize the Church and to restore its evangelistic zeal than anything else that could possibly be done. The hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church has been quick to realize that their main hold on the minds and hearts of the plain people through all the centuries has been the Mass, which is the visible re-enactment, by the use of symbols, of the suffering and death of Christ. Even the pagan religions, with their elaborate temple services and systems of sacrifice, are witnesses to the fact that something more than a lovely system of ethics or a winsome example of fine behaviour is needed to lift the burden of sin from the human soul.

The doctrine of the atonement thus emerges as a vital doctrine in the Christian system. On no other basis than that of Christ's redemptive work is any one warranted in calling himself a Christian. In all other systems one's entire relation with Christ, the ground of His acceptance with God and therefore the entire nature of his religious life, is different. The validity of Christianity as a God-given supernatural system of redemption from sin is bound up with the truth or falsity of its distinctive doctrine of the atonement. We are living in a day when many things pass for "Christianity." But Christianity has a fixed and definite doctrinal content as certainly as Mormonism, Mohammedanism, and Christian Science have their fixed and definite doctrinal contents. At a minimum Christianity involves (1) acknowledgment of one's sin; (2) sorrow for that sin; and (3) trust in Christ as one's only Redeemer from sin. The doctrinal content of Christianity has been fixed by Christ, either personally or through His Apostles, and has been unchangeably recorded in the Bible. For any one to call himself a Christian only because it is popular to do so, or because he approves of the general moral or social life that is found in a Christian community, is as dishonest and unethical as it would be for him to call himself a Mormon or a Mohammedan only because he likes certain outward features in one of those systems. We are not at liberty to call anything "Christianity" unless it conforms to the system of doctrine that was established by Christ Himself.

Top of page

[Jesus Christ][Home]