In any church or Christian website one will, sooner or later, be told words to the effect that Jesus died for our sins. If pressed to explain exactly what that means or how that happened, most of us who are believers will offer one of two reactions:
1) A blank look…
2) An explanation that Jesus died to pay the death penalty for sin so that God’s fairness is not compromised on the one hand, yet salvation for sinners who repent is possible on the other. The idea is that Jesus took our punishment in our place in order to satisfy God’s requirement both for a sinless life and for the death of a person who sinned. To (over)simplify, you substitute a non-sinner for a sinner, and you have an even trade. Since Jesus is God, His life is worth more than the sum of all merely human lives.
Throughout church history, thinkers who are much smarter and deeper than I am have offered theories to explain how Jesus’ death and resurrection work to produce our salvation. Below, courtesy of the Wikipedia, are the most influential theories offered during the last two millennia about how Jesus’ life, death and resurrection save us.
Historic theories of the Atonement
The Ransom Theory: The earliest of all, originating with the Early Church Fathers, this theory claims that Christ offered himself as a ransom (Mark 10:45). Where it was not clear was in its understanding of exactly to whom the ransom was paid. Many early church fathers viewed the ransom as paid to Satan.
The Recapitulation Theory: Originated with Irenaeus (125-202 AD). He sees Christ as the new Adam, who systematically undoes what Adam did. Thus, where Adam was disobedient concerning God’s edict concerning the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, Christ was obedient even to death on the wood of a tree. Irenaeus is the first to draw comparisons between Eve and Mary, contrasting the faithlessness of the former with the faithfulness of the latter. In addition to reversing the wrongs done by Adam, Irenaeus thinks of Christ as “recapitulating” or “summing up” human life. (Based largely on Romans 5:12-21)
The Satisfaction (or Commercial) Theory: The formulator of this theory was the medieval theologian Anselm of Canterbury (1034-1109), in his book, Cur Deus Homo (lit. Why the God Man). In his view, God’s offended honor and dignity could only be satisfied by the sacrifice of the God-man, Jesus Christ. “Anselm offered compelling biblical evidence that the atonement was not a ransom paid by God to the devil but rather a debt paid to God on behalf of sinners.” Anselm’s work established a foundation for the Protestant Reformation, specifically the understanding of justification by faith.
The Penal-Substitution Theory: This view was formulated by the 16th century Reformers as an extension of Anselm’s Satisfaction theory. Anselm’s theory was correct in introducing the satisfaction aspect of Christ’s work and its necessity, however the Reformers saw it as insufficient because it was referenced to God’s honor rather than his justice and holiness and was couched more in terms of a commercial transaction than a penal substitution. This Reformed view says simply that Christ died for man, in man’s place, taking his sins and bearing them for him. The bearing of man’s sins takes the punishment for them and sets the believer free from the penal demands of the law: The righteousness of the law and the holiness of God are satisfied by this substitution.
The Moral-Example Theory (or Moral-Influence Theory): Christ died to influence mankind toward moral improvement. This theory denies that Christ died to satisfy any principle of divine justice, but teaches instead that His death was designed to greatly impress mankind with a sense of God’s love, resulting in softening their hearts and leading them to repentance. Thus, the Atonement is not directed towards God with the purpose of maintaining His justice, but towards man with the purpose of persuading him to right action. Formulated by Peter Abelard (1079-1142) partially in reaction against Anselm’s Satisfaction theory, this view was held by the 16th century Socinians. Versions of it can be found later in F. D. E. Schleiermacher (1768-1834) and Horace Bushnell (1802-1876). (See main Wikipedia page on Moral Influence theory for more information.)
The Governmental Theory: God made Christ an example of suffering to exhibit to erring man that sin is displeasing to him. God’s moral government of the world made it necessary for him to evince his wrath against sin in Christ. Christ died as a token of God’s displeasure toward sin and it was accepted by God as sufficient; but actually God does not exact strict justice. This view was formulated by Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) and is subsequently found in Arminianism, Charles Finney, the New England Theology of Jonathan Edwards (the younger), and Methodism. (See main Wikipedia page on Governmental theory of atonement for further information.)
Comments About the Theories
The Scriptures themselves do not offer a definitive explanation of how Jesus’ death works for the benefit of believers. Each of the theories above, however, offers a helpful perspective on the meaning of Jesus’ death “for” our sins. Within that range of ideas there will probably be one that makes sense to almost anyone wondering why Jesus had to die.
The theories above each try to say something about how Jesus’ life, death and resurrection function to advance salvation. Many of them are conditioned by the times the author lived in. For instance, the Satisfaction theory was largely conditioned by the Medieval feudal ideals of honour due to a lord and fairness in commercial transactions. God is seen as the ultimate lord of the earthly manor and must be honoured accordingly. Disobedience is an insult to God’s honour, and restitution for the dishonour must be made in order to satisfy an angry God.
Because they are at least somewhat rooted in the circumstances and ideals of their times, they tend to make more sense to people in similar circumstances. In our times, the Penal substitution theory is probably the most popular way of explaining Jesus role in our salvation.
Each of theories above, however, also has weaknesses.
The Moral influence theory, for instance, does not really explain why Jesus’ death was necessary, except to be an example. It is certainly true that Jesus’ obedience all the way to death is a good example for believers, but is that all? What about the connection to the Jewish sacrificial system?
Many of the later theories are actually attempts to address the weaknesses of one or more of the previous theories, so I won’t go into detail here. Because the most popular theory at present is the Penal Substitution Theory, some comments are probably in order.
Penal Substitution Theory
The Penal Substitution Theory offers vast improvements in understanding over previous theories in that it seems to answer the scriptures. It offers a more complete account of how the ancient sacrificial system was a necessary prelude to Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins. Jesus offers a more complete sacrifice, since animals are not really an equal substitute for human life. This accords well with statements made in the book of Hebrews that the blood of bulls and goats cannot take sin away. It also shows that God is a just God who does not mess around with sin. Sin needs to be taken care of permanently, which Jesus’ death does. (Jesus is God, so His life is worth more than all human lives put together, so the trade is more than fair, as far as God’s justice is concerned.)
An interesting potential flaw in the theory is the question of whether a transaction, no matter how fair, actually allows God to “forgive” sin. Is it really forgiveness if the debt is paid for by someone else? In fact, how do we know that sin is actually a “debt”? Jesus uses forgiveness of debt as an analogy for forgiving sin, but the forgiveness is initiated by the compassion of the debt-holder, not the offer by someone else to pay the debt on behalf of the debtor.)
This is not to say that the theory is “wrong,” but rather that it is not complete enough to account for every aspect of what seems to be involved in Jesus’ work on our behalf. Jesus came to fulfill the entire Old Testament’s worth of types, analogies and promises. It was a job truly worthy of God in the flesh. So far, no analogy or theory has been able to completely describe why Jesus had to die for our sins and how His death actually “atones” for our sins while still involving God “forgiving” sins. That may be why the Bible itself does not really offer a comprehensive theory, but rather all of the various types, characterizations, rituals, sacrifices and stories of redemption are there to give us clues that we can latch onto for our own understanding.
As an example, Matthew and Peter both look at Psalm 53 to provide insight about redemption. In 1 Pet. 2:24 Peter sees Jesus’ “stripes” as the whipping he received as He was hanging on the cross to heal spiritual sins (satisfaction, penal substitution?). Mattthew (8:14-17) seems to see Jesus’ “stripes” as the healing Jesus did during His ministry (moral influence?) while being defamed by His adversaries . Is Peter necessarily more theologically astute than Matthew? Probably not. They were looking at different aspects of a very large phenomenon, and were probably both correct.
The information and opinion above was actually presented over two services at Wascana Fellowship. In the discussion that followed the second half of this presentation, members expressed a variety of views about how Jesus’ sacrifice helps us be saved. That is probably as it should be. For instance, Marion expressed a unique and helpful way of looking at Jesus’ work that also accounts for both forgiveness and fairness.
To paraphrase, she sees Jesus’ death as an offering by God on our behalf, which buys our freedom from “the powers and principalities” or “the power of sin” (take your pick) in order to give us the freedom to choose Christ as Lord. Without that prior freedom, bought for us by our “kinsman redeemer,” (a biblical type based on OT law) it would not be possible to even choose Him.
Elaborating in a way that I hope does justice to her view: Once we have that freedom from sin, it makes no sense to go back and obey the sinful impulses. That would be serving a different lord, dishonouring Christ (a satisfaction theory idea). Choosing Christ means following His commands (through the Spirit) and living by His example (ideas found in moral influence and governmental theories).
Perhaps the sacrificial offering “works” not so much as a payment in lieu of human life as rather a sign of contrition on the part of the sinner. As we appear before a merciful God, we come bearing the (obviously metaphorical) blood of Jesus Christ as a token of repentence. God accepts the token as an intent to live faithfully in the new covenant with Him and actually forgives the sin.
There are really many ways to picture in our minds the release from sin offered by God through the self-sacrifice of Jesus and the entry into new life through symbolically or spiritually or mystically participating in Jesus’ death and resurrection. What we really appreciate is the reality of Jesus’ ministry, sacrifice and resurrection. If we know that those actually happened, we can theorize from a position of confidence in the reality of our salvation.