In preparation for Easter, which is quickly approaching, Haden has begun to examine and debunk several theories regarding Jesus’s death (or supposed lack there of). In conjunction with this, I would like to walk us through some of the theories surrounding the atonement.
First, we must define what we mean by atonement. Atonement has to do with death—the death of someone or something in order to make reparation. Below are a few definitions of atonement from various biblical and theological dictionaries.
The New Dictionary of Biblical Theology states:
‘Atonement’ may be defined as God’s work on sinners’ behalf to reconcile them to himself. It is the divine activity that confronts and resolves the problem of human sin so that people may enjoy full fellowship with God both now and in the age to come.
The Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary defines “atonement” as the:
Biblical doctrine that God has reconciled sinners to Himself through the sacrificial work of Jesus Christ. The concept of atonement spans both Testaments, everywhere pointing to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus for the sins of the world.
Finally, the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology begins its entry on atonement this way:
The expression make atonement is frequent in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, but rare in the rest of the Bible. The basic idea, however, is widespread. The need for it arrives from the sinfulness of humankind, a truth made plain throughout Scripture but infrequent outside the Bible.
Before jumping in to some of these theories, Ryrie’s opening statement in his chapter “Theories of the Atonement” seems fitting. He writes, “As one would expect, various views of the Atonement, both true and false, have been propagated throughout church history. A study of these, even in summary manner, should do two things: it should help prevent one falling into the same errors others have made, and it should help one to state the truth more precisely because of errors that have been made.”
The Atonement as Example (Socinian Theory)
The first theory we will look at was developed by Faustus and Laelius Socinus in the sixteenth century. Appealing to 1 Peter 2:21 (“For you were called to this, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in His steps.”), it was claimed that the main purpose of Jesus’s death was to serve as an example. Erickson sums up this view when he states, “The real value of Jesus’ death lies in the beautiful and perfect example of the type of dedication we are to practice.”
Ryrie adds this explanation of the theory: “Christ’s death did not atone for sin, but revealed faith and obedience as the way to eternal life and inspiring people to lead a similar life.”
According to Scripture, does Jesus’s death serve as an example? Sure. 1 Peter 2:21 (and the entire book of 1 Peter) speaks to the suffering of believers, and just as Christ suffered on the cross, so His followers will experience suffering. But is it right to minimize the purpose of Christ’s death to a mere example? Absolutely not! Erickson points out that just three verses later Peter writes, “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, so that, having died to sins, we might live for righteousness; you have been healed by His wounds” (1 Peter 2:24). Jesus’s death was much more than an example. It was (and is) the death for our sins. It was (and is) the gateway to righteousness. It was (and is) the avenue for healing.
Erickson concludes, “The Socinian view, of course, must come to grips with the fact that numerous portions of Scripture seem to regard Jesus’ death quite differently. They speak of ransom, sacrifice, priesthood, sin bearing, and the like.”
The Moral Influence Theory
This next theory of the atonement is similar to the example theory in its suggestion that the purpose of Christ’s death was to influence people. Yet instead of influencing them to follow Jesus’s example, it influences them to love as God loved. This view was first developed by Peter Abelard, who “emphasized the primacy of God’s love and insisted that Christ did not make some sort of sacrificial payment to the Father to satisfy his offended dignity. Rather, Jesus demonstrated to humanity the full extent of God’s love for them…So the major effect of Christ’s death was on humans rather than on God.”
Ryrie’s summary of the moral influence theory reads, “Death of Christ was not an expiation for sin but a suffering with His creatures to manifest God’s love. This suffering love should awaken a responsive love in the sinner and bring an ethical change in him. This, then, liberates from the power of sin.”
Here I will ask a similar question as I did above: Does the death of Jesus on the cross demonstrate God’s love to us? Absolutely! I have stated many times in sermons and other lessons that no one has ever shown a greater love. In fact, 1 John 3:16 tells us, “This is how we have come to know love: He laid down His life for us. We should also lay down our lives for our brothers.” In this sense, His love both influences us and serves as an example for us to follow.
So what is wrong with the moral influence theory? It may not suggest anything wrong, but when it comes to the death of Jesus, it does not say enough. While highlighting the love of God, it downplays some of His other qualities. “The advocates of the moral-influence theory hold that God’s nature is essentially love. They minimize such qualities as justice, holiness, and righteousness.”
“Atonement” is a theological word used to refer to the death of Christ and what it accomplished. There are many different theories surrounding the atonement, and the ones examined here both assert that His death served to influence mankind or to set an example for others to follow. Both of these notions can be backed by Scripture, yet neither of them grasp the full meaning of Jesus’s sacrificial death. He didn’t die just so that others would follow His example and become morally upright people. He died to set men and women free from their sin. He died so that we could be forgiven. He died so that our broken relationship with our Creator could be mended. When thinking and speaking of Christ’s death, we must be careful not to minimize its effect.
 R.W. Yarbbrough, “Atonement,” New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner, eds., (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 388.
 Russell D. Moore, “Atonement,” Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Chad Brand, Charles Draper, and Archie England, eds., (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), 139.
 L.L. Morris, “Atonement,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed., Walter A. Elwell, ed., (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 113.
 Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth, (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1999), 355.
 Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed., (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1998), 801.
 Ryrie, Basic Theology, 356.
 Erickson, Christian Theology, 802.
 Ibid., 803.
 Ryrie, Basic Theology, 356.
 Erickson, Christian Theology, 803.