Nothing But the Blood
"I've just been told that I'm too Atonement-centered."
My sister in Christ was serious, humble, and a little confused. I said, "What do you mean 'too Atonement-centered'?" I had never heard the charge.
A Christian friend told her that she talked too much about Christ's death, which dealt with our guilt due to sin. I responded that knowing and accepting this truth was the only way to a relationship with God, and that I didn't think it was possible to be "too Atonement-centered."
Few other doctrines go to the heart of the Christian faith like the Atonement. Congregations sing at the top of their lungs: "My sin, not in part but the whole, has been nailed to the cross, so I bear it no more, praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!" ("It Is Well with My Soul"). The priestly work of Christ separates Christianity from Judaism and Islam. Not surprisingly, the Cross has become the symbol for our faith.
Still, God's work on the Cross leaves us with plenty of questions. In fact, there have always been a few Christians who question whether we need the Atonement, including, in recent years, some evangelicals who have challenged the dominant understanding of Christ's death on the Cross as the substitute for our sins.
At stake is nothing less than the essence of Christianity. Historically understood, Christ's Atonement gives hope to Christians in their sin and in their suffering. If we have any assurance of salvation, it is because of Christ's Atonement; if any joy, it flows from Christ's work on the Cross. The Atonement protects us from our native tendency to replace religion with morality and God's grace with legalism. Apart from Christ's atoning work, we would be forever guilty, ashamed, and condemned before God. But not everyone these days sees it that way.
Christians have understood the Bible's abundant Atonement language and imagery by means of various theories. J. I. Packer, in his classic 1973 lecture, "The Logic of Penal Substitution: What Did the Cross Achieve?" outlined three sets of theories, or visions. Each vision sees humanity's main problem differently, and each theory explains how Christ's death solves that problem.
The first set of theories argues that humanity's main problem is that we are trapped and oppressed by spiritual forces beyond our control. Christ's death, then, is seen as a ransom that frees us from captivity. His death and resurrection defeats the evil spiritual forces. These theories are generally summarized under the heading of ransom theory or Christus Victor (Christ the Victor).
The second set of theories deals with the subjective need of all people to know God's love for us. These theories emphasize that Christ's death on the Cross demonstrates God's love so dramatically that we are convinced of his love and are now able to share it with others. This set includes the moral-influence theory of Abelard, among others.
A third set of theories assumes that our main problem is God's righteous wrath against us for our sinfulness, which puts us in danger of eternal punishment. These theories argue that Christ's perfect sacrifice for our sins is necessary to satisfy God's righteousness. Christ's death bore a divine penalty that we deserved. By taking our penalty upon himself, God satisfied his own correct and good wrath against us. Theories in this set, such as the satisfaction theory and the penal-substitution theory, emphasize how Christ represents us.
The new wave of criticism has targeted this last set of theories, especially the view of Christ as a penal substitutea theory long central for most Protestant groups, especially evangelicals. The criticism follows a path laid by others throughout history, from Abelard to Socinus to Schleiermacher to C. H. Dodd. In 1955, English Methodist theologian Vincent Taylor noted the "clearly marked tendency to reject theories of substitutionary punishment." Roman Catholic dissenters have turned from emphasizing the cultic rituals of sacrifice to the ethics of imitating Christ's sacrifice. In Lutheran circles, Gustav Aulen's Christus Victor (1931) led the charge to replace a substitutionary understanding of the Atonement with what he called the "classical" understandingChrist as liberating us from spiritual forces who have enslaved us.