There is an intriguing pattern in the New Testament letters of Paul and Peter, James and John.  They speak without ceasing about Jesus Christ the Son of God.  But when the survey of what they say about him is undertaken, the results are surprising.  They say almost nothing about the life he lived, the deeds he performed, or the words he spoke.  But in this survey two facts about Jesus Christ stand out in bold relief.  Jesus Christ died and was raised from death. (I Corinthians 15:3-8)

The New Testament writers, however, do more than narrate the bare facts.  They speak about the significance of his death and resurrection.  He died “for us” (Romans 5:6-8). He died “to do away with sin” (I Peter 2:24). His death “procured life for us.” (Ephesians 2:1-10).

We are creatures, however, of great curiosity.  The question is asked, “How does His death bring about our redemption?”  The answers have been many and varied.

If, as the song writer sings, “love is a many splendored thing” it is even more so when we think of the love of God manifest at the cross.   The significance of His death is as multifaceted as the rarest diamond.  But even the rarest gem of a thousand facets is still three dimensional, and all the opinions given throughout the past two millennia can be contained in three great responses to the question.

1.            Jesus’ death changed our circumstances.

The most ancient theory has been called the “Ransom Theory.”  It arises from the words found in the Gospels, “He gave his life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28. Mark 10:45.)  We were held hostage by our foes.  We could not escape on our own.  Jesus came and by his death rescued us from tyranny. Christ, at great cost to Himself, purchased our freedom.  (I Corinthians 6:20).

The great reformer, Martin Luther painted the picture of Christ the warrior who fights on our behalf and by the power on his life, death and resurrection defeated our foes.  The theory is called “Christus Victor” – Christ the conqueror.   Jesus came to wage war with sin and Satan, death and hell.  His entire life from birth to resurrection was a contest against evil.  In his life, but particularly in his death, Jesus plundered Satan’s domain, and all that had held humanity captive was itself taken captive. (Ephesians 4:8)  Satan was defeated, the power of sin was broken, hell was invaded and the power of death was broken.   His resurrection was proof that the victory had been won for us! (Colossians 2:13-15)

This version say that we are victims needing to be rescued.  A change of circumstances is needed if we are to be free. Our foes need to be defeated.

2.            Jesus’ death changed God’s dealings with us.

But there have been reasons to hesitate in the interpretation just offered.   We are not simply victims; we are perpetrators of foul deeds and serious crimes.  We are sinners who have broken God’s law, spurned His affection, and damaged his creation.  Our sin has earned us God’s wrath.  But how can we avert God’s righteous wrath?  Jesus is the answer to that crucial question.  He bore the punishment that was due to us.  The Father punished the Son with the suffering that sinners deserved.  When Jesus “descended into Hell,” He went to suffer the hell we all deserved.  Since He had no sins of his own, however, after suffering the penalty for our sins, he was raised from death. The sacrifice He made was acceptable to God who was satisfied and sinners can now be forgiven. (Isaiah 53:10-12)  The name given to this view is “the Penal Satisfaction theory”.

This rather punitive view left many uneasy and so the metaphor was changed.  Anselm of Canterbury said we have robbed God of His honor. We have nothing with which to pay the debt. We are bankrupt, but Jesus honors the Father with His perfect obedience, so He has no debt of his own to pay.  And then He offers the Father the free gift of his own life, to pay man’s debt.  Since Jesus is divine, His payment has infinite merit.  God is satisfied with the payment, and we are free.  (Matthew 18:21-35) This has earned the name “the Commercial Satisfaction theory.”

But the discomfort remained.   Another attempt was offered.   God cannot maintain respect for His laws unless the pardon for sins is accompanied by an adequate exhibition of His justice.  God is not vindictive, but he must uphold the law, lest others take law-breaking lightly.  Therefore He punished His own Son rather than us.  That way He remains “both just and the justifer” (Romans 3:26) and demonstrated at the very same time His justice and His mercy.  Justice is now seen to be done which frees God to do what He has wanted to do all along; forgive us of our sins. This has been called “the Governmental Theory.”

All of these views have one thing in common. The death of Christ changed the way God deals with those who have broken the law.

3.            Jesus’ death changes us

A thousand years ago a man named Abelard offered another alternative to this great question.   He said that God loves us.  He has always loved us.  God tried to tell us that in a thousand ways.  But sinful humanity is inclined not to believe that or trust God.  So “God demonstrated His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)  God knows that it will take the very life and death of His son to convince us how horrible sin is, and how much He loves us.  So He sent His only begotten Son to live a life of love, and then to die at our hands.  Two things were made clear that day.  On the one hand, the sin of the cross underscores our deep, irrational sinfulness.  On the other hand the love of the cross declares beyond all doubting that God loves us.  This demonstration of our sin and His love softens our hearts towards God. This leads us to repent and trust in God.

The death of Jesus Christ then does not change our circumstances, or God’s way of dealing with us, so much it changes how we deal with God and our sin. If you need a name for this view it has been called “the Moral Influence theory.”


All three perspectives hold significant truth.  They need to be held in balance and in humility.  We are both perpetrator and victim.  We are distrustful and impenitent. We need to be redeemed from all such evils.  The truth is greater than any one metaphor we can choose.  This, however, we can know for sure: in His death is our life.

Think it Through …

The thoughts laid out for us are but a thumb nail sketch of a long and vigorous debate.  If you have some leisure you may want to read Gustaf Aulen, Christus Victor, (SPCK, 1931) for a discussion of the various views held throughout the history of the church.

Various hymns in our hymnal carry each of these ideas.   Can you identify which view of atonement is held by the author of each of these hymns and songs?

  •  “A Mighty Fortress is our God”
  • “Arise, My Soul, Arise”
  • “Beneath the Cross of Jesus”
  • “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”
  • “There’s a Sweet and Blessed Story”
  • “Jesus Paid it all”
  • “Man of Sorrows What a Name”
  • “Victory in Jesus”

For The Small Group Leader…

Which of these views of the atonement have the most appeal to you?  Why do you think so? Which one leaves you the most uncomfortable?  What is there in the idea that makes you feel this way? Are there good Biblical foundations for each of them?

There has been considerable variations on the meaning of the line in the Apostle’s Creed which reads “He descended into hell/hades.”  If he went to hell/hades (intimations of such an idea may be found in I Peter 3:18-4:6), what was he doing there?  Harrowing hell as part of his triumph over evil?  Suffering the consequences of our sinfulness?  Evangelizing those who had died before his coming, and therefore asserting that the atonement was for all humanity, past, present and future?

Take Action

One of these theories of the atonement underscores the great power of God.

One of these theories emphasizes the holiness and the justice of God.

One of these theories alerts us to the profound love of God.

All three tell us of something crucial about God.  Which characteristic in God do you find brings you the most comfort?  Which one causes you to feel afraid or uncomfortable?

These three views tell us something about humanity.  One perspective reminds us that we are hurt and helpless without God’s help.  Another perspective tells us that we are criminals needing forgiveness from God.  The third view point reminds us that our relationship with God has broken down because of our distrust of God.  Which perspective on yourself do you tend to identify with most?

Published n Light and Life , March-April, 1999.

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