Throughout church history, there have been various views and theories that conceptualize the nature of Christ’s work on the cross. Because the atonement runs to the very heart of the Gospel, it’s important for us to know how people throughout the history of the church have understood the work of Christ, and to be able to test each by Scripture. Today, I want to briefly survey and evaluate some of the main theories of the atonement.
The Ransom Theory
First, there is what is known as the ransom, or classic, theory of the atonement. Also termed Christus Victor, this theory regards Christ’s atonement as accomplishing a victory over the cosmic forces of sin, death, evil, and Satan. Proponents of the ransom view believe that in the cosmic struggle between good and evil and between God and Satan, Satan had held humanity captive to sin. Therefore, in order to rescue humanity, God had to ransom them from the power of Satan by delivering Jesus over to him as an exchange for the souls held captive. Proponents of the ransom theory often appeal to Jesus’ statement that He came to give His life as a ransom for many (Matt 20:28; Mark 10:45).
Though Christ did give His life as a ransom for many, and though His death did indeed disarm the powers of darkness (Col 2:15), rendering powerless the devil who had the power of death (Heb 2:14), this view of the atonement affords more power to Satan than he actually has. Satan has never been in any position to make demands of God. Instead of this, Scripture makes it clear that Jesus paid the price on behalf of sinners to ransom them from the just punishment of God’s holy wrath (Rom 5:9). In the deepest sense, Jesus saved us from God, not merely the power of sin and Satan.
The Satisfaction Theory
Second, the satisfaction theory, championed chiefly by Anselm of Canterbury, supports the idea that Christ’s death made a satisfaction to the Father for sin. However, taking a cue from the paradigm of feudalism that characterized society at that time, Anselm focused more on the notion of making satisfaction for God’s wounded honor rather than the appeasement of His righteous wrath.
Now again, it is certainly true that God’s glory is belittled when sin is committed. Indeed, sin is synonymous with failing to honor
God by giving Him thanks (Rom 1:21) and falling short of His glory (Rom 3:23Open in Logos Bible Software (if available)). Thus, any adequate theory of atonement will vindicate God’s righteousness and restore His honor.
But Christ accomplished this vindication of righteousness in a particular way: by becoming a substitute for sinners, vicariously enduring in His body the punishment that was justly due to us (1 Pet 2:24). By setting forth Jesus as a propitiation of holy wrath, God has displayed Himself as both just and justifier of the one who has faith in Christ (Rom 3:26).