During a coffee break at a conference, I passed by some young pastors who were discussing the Atonement, a topic covered by the speaker at the session we had just attended. One of them said rather forcefully that he seldom mentions the substitutionary work of Christ anymore in his sermons. Instead, he said, he talks about how Christ encountered "the powers" of consumerism, militarism, racism, super-patriotism, and the like.

I fought the temptation to join their chat. But I was troubled by what I had heard. A few hours later, searching for something to listen to on my rental car's radio, I came upon a Christian station airing a recording of a man who was telling the story of his spiritual journey to a group of fellow business folks.

The man recounted a time when he was increasingly successful in his business dealings, while increasingly dissolute in his personal lifestyle: drinking heavily, unfaithful to his wife, distant from his children, his marriage headed toward divorce. His wife and daughters were active in church life, but he never attended.

One Saturday evening, after he had downed several martinis, his 10-year-old daughter pleaded with him to come to church the next morning. Her singing group was going to participate in the service, and she wanted her father there. He reluctantly agreed, something he greatly regretted the next morning when he woke up with a hangover. But he kept his promise.

In that service, he said, he heard for the first time in his life that he was a guilty sinner who needed salvation, and that Jesus had taken his sin and guilt upon himself on the Cross of Calvary. The man wept as he heard the sermon, and he pleaded with God to take away his burden of shame. From that point on, his life took a new direction.

I would have loved to have asked the young pastor at the conference what he thought about that testimony. Suppose, for example, the man whose story I heard had gone instead to that young pastor's church that morning, and heard a sermon about how Christ has on Calvary encountered "the powers" of consumerism, militarism, racism, super-patriotism, and so on. I don't think that such a message would have effected the life-transforming change that took place.

This is not to say that every sermon preached has to be an invitation to bring our guilt to the Cross of Calvary. Nor is it to deny that Christ's redemptive work has real implications for our lives as consumers and citizens. The fact is that the Bible presents the work of the Cross as a many-faceted event, setting forth a variety of images for the Atonement: self-giving love, the forgiveness of enemies, payment of a debt, the ransom of captives, victory over the demonic principalities and powers, and so on.

Article continues below

Theologian Scot McKnight gives us an excellent image for how to see this diversity of atonement images. In his fine book A Community Called Atonement: Living Theology, he says that together these images serve like a bag of golf clubs: Different clubs are needed for different situations. A skilled golfer will know when it is appropriate to use the driver or the wedge or the putter.

I would not have worried about the comment that I overheard from the young pastor if he were simply celebrating having a golf bag full of theological clubs, and resolving to use the victory-over-the-powers club more effectively in appropriate situations. Instead, he said he "seldom" talked anymore about substitutionary atonement. To me, that sounded like a basic mistake in theological golfing.

Whatever the pastor's intention, his remark expresses a mood increasingly prevalent among younger evangelicals. They often show a genuine discomfort with substitutionary themes, favoring a Christus Victor approach.

'Liberating' the Cross

Atonement theories are our theological responses to the question of what happened on Calvary. What important transaction, or transactions, occurred during the hours that Jesus hung on the cross?

Much of traditional Christianity has strongly emphasized how the work of the Cross was a kind of intra-Trinitarian transaction. Jesus offered himself "up" to the Father; he paid a debt that we humans could not pay on our own; he hung in our place, offering himself as a sacrifice for sin.

We must think carefully about how we reach specific individuals and groups with the gospel. We should not assume that we have to present the whole theological picture all at once to unbelievers.

This way of viewing the Atonement came under sustained attack by Protestant liberalism in the early 20th century. Harry Emerson Fosdick was fond of referring to traditional atonement theory as advocating a "slaughterhouse religion." In his famous 1922 sermon "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?" he argued that such a perspective was a case of "pre-civilized barbarity," requiring that Jesus "placates an alienated deity" in order to save us.

Harsh verdicts along these lines have been reissued in recent years by some radical feminist theologians, who see the idea of a father punishing his son as promoting intra-family violence. An extreme version comes from Joanne Carlson Brown, who argues that the deity of traditional atonement theology is a "bloodthirsty God" who rules over a pervasively patriarchal system. "We do not need to be saved by Jesus' death from some original sin," she argues. "We need to be liberated from this abusive patriarchy."

Article continues below

In their efforts to "liberate" the Cross from traditional views, theological liberators typically move toward a view of the mission of Jesus that relies heavily on "moral example" motifs. The Cross is a revelation of something that is understood in predominantly moral terms. Jesus' "Father, forgive them" shows us what it is like to love our enemies. The suffering of Jesus is a depiction of God's unconditional acceptance of human beings—a display of divine benevolence that should inspire us to properly embrace both friends and enemies. The Christus Victor perspective, like the older liberal "moral influence" view, typically places a strong emphasis on imitating Jesus. But, while the liberal view tends to reduce the meaning of the Atonement to moral imitation, the Christus Victor view has a strong "supernatural" tone. The Cross is not just about a more loving humanness, but is also a decisive encounter with evil. The human authorities who collectively crucified Jesus represented the political, economic, military, and religious forces of the day. They were in fact acting in the service of spiritual "principalities and powers," who did all they could to destroy the Son of God. But Jesus "accepted powerlessness" (here I am using the highly influential formulation of Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder) and refused to employ the coercive-violent means by which we, in our fallenness, want to "make things happen." The Resurrection, on this understanding, is God's display of the victory of Jesus over the powers and what they represent.

Initial Attraction

There is no denying that the Scriptures clearly set forth the idea of Christ's victory over demonic powers. The apostle Paul highlights this aspect of Christ's mission in Colossians 2, which says that we no longer must remain captive to "the elemental spiritual forces of this world," because the Son of God has "disarmed the powers and authorities, [making] a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross" (Col. 2:8, 15).

And there are certainly times when this depiction of the work of Calvary can be an effective initial presentation of the Good News. Young Life workers have testified to seeing teenagers turn to Christ from a fascination with witchcraft, vampires, and the like by hearing the wonderful message that the Cross sets us free from the forces of evil. Similar testimonies come to us from believers worldwide who proclaim the gospel in animistic cultures.

Article continues below

It is always important to think carefully about how we reach out to specific individuals and groups with the gospel. We should not assume that we have to present the whole theological picture all at once to unbelievers. People come to Christ for many reasons. This is not unlike human love relationships. Ask a person long married what first attracted them to the person who was to become his or her spouse. Most of us would be embarrassed to give the details. That does not make those initial attraction factors bad. They are what bring people together. But once we are together, other factors need to take over if the relationship is to be sustainable for the long haul.

It is the same with coming to Christ. While any aspect of atonement theory is fair game in witnessing to others, we must also think about what is necessary for a more mature, biblically faithful understanding of the nature of our salvation. This is why we cannot rely completely on the Christus Victor motif. While it is an important biblical message, and one that is often the most appropriate way of introducing people to the gospel, by itself it is not enough to capture the full meaning of Christ's atonement.

That we need more is made clear by the very same passage in Colossians. Paul prefaces that strong portrayal of Christ's "disarming" of the forces of evil with this equally bold assurance: As people who "were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God [has] made you alive with Christ." The Savior has "canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross" (Col. 2:13-14).

Our burdens of shame and guilt have been nailed to the cross. Evangelicals have always insisted on that message as central to proclaiming the gospel. Again, a variety of images capture this emphasis—debt-repaying, ransom, sacrifice, enduring divine wrath against sin. But all these images have this in common: They point us to the fact that on the cross of Calvary, Jesus did something for us that we could never do for ourselves as sinners. He engaged in a transaction that has eternal consequences for our standing before a righteous God. N. T. Wright is well known for prodding evangelicals to think new thoughts about Pauline theology, but he is very clear on the need to preserve the classic evangelical emphasis on the meaning of the Atonement for individual sinners. At Calvary, Wright says in The Crown and the Fire: Meditations on the Cross and the Life of the Spirit, "Jesus, the innocent one, was drawing on to himself the holy wrath of God against human sin in general, so that human sinners like you and me can find, as we look at the cross, that the load of sin and guilt we have been carrying is taken away from us."

Article continues below

Diluting Our Guilt

Theologian Geerhardus Vos captured a central concern of atonement theology in a sermon on Jesus' announcement, in Luke 19:10, that "the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost." We cannot properly grasp the Savior's redemptive mission, said Vos, unless we understand what he came to save us from. If you dilute lostness, he argued, then you dilute the seeking and the saving. If we have a reduced understanding of our sinful condition, then we also have a reduced Savior.

This is precisely the problem with limiting the nature of the Atonement to a moral example. It sees Jesus primarily as presenting us with a moral lesson, one that he taught by embodying forgiving love. Here our lostness is something like our wandering without an accurate map. Our fundamental problem is ignorance. Our sinfulness—willful rebellion against our Creator—is not acknowledged.

The Cross is indeed a display of violence toward Jesus. No atonement theory can avoid that fact.

Christus Victor also runs the risk of downplaying our sinfulness. It is easy to depict "enslavement" to rebellious spiritual powers in terms of victimhood, rather than to acknowledge our own guilt.

While our sinful condition can contain elements of ignorance and victimhood, those factors cannot fully account for our guilty state before God. Adam and Eve were not merely clueless or victims. The older theological term for their posture was "ethical rebellion": disobedience, initiated by the deliberate turning of their wills against the designs of the Creator. And, to cite another formulation: "In Adam's Fall we sinned all." If we are held captive to principalities and powers, it is because of choices for which God holds us responsible. Only Christ's atoning work can deliver us from the consequences of those choices. And that deliverance required taking upon himself the burden of our sin and guilt.

Article continues below

But what of the charge that the intra-Trinitarian transaction—Jesus "satisfying" the Father on our behalf—glorifies violent abuse? Of course, the Cross is indeed a display of violence toward Jesus, and no atonement theory can avoid that fact. The Christus Victor perspective explains that the violence inflicted upon Jesus was caused by the demonic principalities and powers, and that God allowed this in order to demonstrate that the powers were unable to destroy the Son. The "moral influence" theory, on the other hand, emphasizes the ways in which Jesus suffered violence at human hands—with the redemptive significance of that suffering showing forth in the way that Jesus selflessly forgave his enemies. Thus, while the divine satisfaction theory may be unique in seeing Jesus as directly experiencing the wrath of the Father, all of the views see Jesus as taking suffering upon himself in order to fulfill a divinely ordained redemptive mission.

But those of us who want to retain the notion of the Savior experiencing the divine wrath against sin have to be very careful in how we depict the punishment inflicted on the cross. Here, the late John Stott speaks wisely. In his great work The Cross of Christ, he warns us against adopting any picture of the Atonement where God the Father is seen as "a pitiless ogre whose wrath has to be assuaged." The Father and the Son were united together "in the same holy love which made atonement necessary." While the words satisfaction and substitution must never "in any circumstances be given up," Stott argues, we must also be clear that "[t]he biblical gospel of atonement is of God satisfying himself by substituting himself for us."

Charles Wesley had it exactly right:

Amazing love! How can it be
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

Richard Mouw is president of Fuller Theological Seminary.

Related Elsewhere:

Previous articles in the Global Gospel Project include:

Proof of a Good God: 'Crucified Under Pontius Pilate' | Why this 'factoid' from the Nicene Creed is key to ending our nightmares about God. (April 5, 2012)
Vicarious Humanity: By His Birth We Are Healed | Our redemption, it turns out, began long before Calvary. (March 9, 2012)
A Purpose Driven Cosmos: Why Jesus Doesn't Promise Us an 'Afterlife' | Jesus Christ embodies the meaning of life, the goal of history, and the pattern of the future. (February 24, 2012)
Jesus and the Goodness of Everything Human | Why it matters that God became the human prototype. (January 27, 2012)
Learning to Read the Gospel Again | How to address our anxiety about losing the next generation. (December 7, 2011)
Why We Need Jesus | Reason and morality cannot show us a good and gracious God. For that, we need the In-carnation. (December 2, 2011)
Making Disciples Today: Christianity Today's New Global Gospel Project | Introducing the magazine's new five-year teaching venture. (December 2, 2011)

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.