There are three common theories of the Atonement. We will briefly review 2 of them and then look at the scriptures and the writings of the early church fathers for a better understanding.
- The Satisfaction Model
The Satisfaction Model (Objective or Latin or Vicarious Atonement): This is the view that most Christians are very familiar with when it comes to the Doctrine of Atonement. According to this view, Jesus Christ provides propitiation for God’s judgment to reconcile sinners with God. The Objective atonement occurs in this model as to change God’s attitude toward sinners, as once we were God’s enemies. Vicarious atonement is the view within Satisfaction Model that Jesus is the substitutionary sacrifice who died in our place.
This theory was first penned by Anslem, Archbishop of Canterbury in the 11th century. Essentially this theory of atonement was not the original understanding of the work of Christ from the early Church but instead was an extension of the medieval culture that Anselm lived in.
In his book, Cur Deus Homo (Why God man?), Anselm seeks to understand the divine logic of the atonement. He is concerned about utilizing tools of logic and learning to articulate his faith (and I cannot argue with that necessity), he said “I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand.”
A summary of Anselm’s argument in Cur Deus Homo
- The human race has offended God’s honor and therefore has incurred an infinite debt.
- It would be unfitting and unjust for God to accept humans as they are.
- Redemption requires repaying the infinite debt, which fallen humanity cannot do
- It is unfitting that no human being should attain the goal for which humanity was created. Otherwise God would have pointlessly created humanity
- Therefore, in creating humanity, God freely obligated himself to complete his work in humanity
- Only God can repay the debt, humanity ought to repay it; therefore the one who does it must be both divine and human (that is, a God-man).
- In order to redeem those who fell through Adam’s sin, the God-man must be a descendant of Adam, not a new sort of creature or a human from another “race.”
- Since the God-man is a good greater than the evil of all sins, his voluntary death can make recompense for all sins if it is given for their remission
Biblical Material in support of the Satisfaction Theory (Sampling)
- Isaiah 53:4-5 (KJV) “Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.”
- Mark 10:45 (KJV) For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.
- John 1:29 (KJV) The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.”
- 1 Peter 2:24 (KJV) Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed.
- 1 John 2:2 (KJV) And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.
- Isaiah 53:10 (KJV) Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.
- Colossians 1:19-20 (KJV) For it pleased the Father that in him should all fullness dwell; And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven.
- Isaiah 53:6 (KJV) All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.
- Mark 10:45
- 2 Cor 5:21
At first glance it would seem that Anselm was on to something. My only concerns are these:
- Is it scripturally accurate to elevate God’s honor above God’s willingness to forgive?
- Why is a compassionate and forgiving God considered unjust when He is willing to forgive?
- Is it an uncontested scriptural fact that man’s debt was to God and if so why would God pay himself? Is that a ransom?
- 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 believed 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 worded 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.
Is this correct? Many Muslims point out rather appropriately, God is punishing an innocent person. Is that morally good for God to do that?
- The Classic (or Ransom) Model
This theory is documented in the Writings of the early Church and reflect what was understood by those who spoke Greek, thought in Greek and lived at a time that was closer to the Apostles.
Did God forgive mankind their debt that was owed to God, or did someone pay it for us? The Satisfaction model simply states that God could not simply forgive our debt but rather teaches that Jesus paid the debt for us. So God, the Father did not forgive us our debt but received payment from someone else. The Satisfaction model therefore teaches that God is not merciful to us but must satisfy justice through payment. Also, how could God, under the satisfaction model, ever accuse mankind of sin seeing that God had received payment in full?
In Contrast, the Classical or Ransom Model teaches that God the Father actually forgave our debt. Which view is correct? Matthew 18:21-27 – Forgiveness – Did the King forgive the Servants debt or did someone else pay the debt. If God cannot and will not simply forgive our sins due to the need for Justice, then why should we be under the same obligation to forgive others? The Bible specifically teaches that if we don’t forgive others then He will not forgive us.
But if Jesus paid our debt, under the Satisfaction model, then how could the King rightful reinstate the servants debt in Matthew 18 when it had been paid in full? He could not because the debt was paid in full.
To whom was the debt or ransom paid?
The Satisfaction and Classical model teach that Christ was the ransom for our sins.
- Matthew 20:28 –ransom
- 1 Tim 2:6 -ransom
Under the satisfaction model the ransom was paid to the Father. When someone is kidnapped, to whom is the ransom paid? Under the Classical model the ransom was paid to Satan and not the Father. In the Garden, rather than to listen to God, Mankind chose Satan to be their master. As a result, the whole of mankind came into captivity under Satan and Death.
Psalm 68:18 (KJV) Thou hast ascended on high, thou hast led captivity captive: thou hast received gifts for men; yea, for the rebellious also, that the LORD God might dwell among them.
Isaiah 49:21-25 (KJV) Then shalt thou say in thine heart, Who hath begotten me these, seeing I have lost my children, and am desolate, a captive, and removing to and fro? and who hath brought up these? Behold, I was left alone; these, where had they been? Thus saith the Lord GOD, Behold, I will lift up mine hand to the Gentiles, and set up my standard to the people: and they shall bring thy sons in their arms, and thy daughters shall be carried upon their shoulders. And kings shall be thy nursing fathers, and their queens thy nursing mothers: they shall bow down to thee with their face toward the earth, and lick up the dust of thy feet; and thou shalt know that I am the LORD: for they shall not be ashamed that wait for me. Shall the prey be taken from the mighty, or the lawful captive delivered? But thus saith the LORD, Even the captives of the mighty shall be taken away, and the prey of the terrible shall be delivered: for I will contend with him that contendeth with thee, and I will save thy children.
2 Timothy 2:25-26 (KJV) In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth; And that they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, who are taken captive by him at his will.
This is why Satan could offer Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, because they were his to give.
Matthew 4:8-9 (KJV) Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.
2 Corinthians 4:2-5 (KJV) But have renounced the hidden things of dishonesty, not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully; but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost: In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them. For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake.
Satan was willing to release mankind if he could have the Son of God instead. The captivity means that Satan knew that God has proclaimed the judgment on him of the lake of fire. In order to counter this judgment, Satan made man a servant to him, knowing that God would need to Judge man differently. Therefore if Satan always controlled man in this manner, he would never enter the lake of fire, because he would be the controller of death through sin.
When Satan saw the coming of Christ, he was provided the opportunity to accept God as a payment for man’s servitude to Satan. So Satan would have to release any man who freely wished to be released from his dominion because Christ paid that ransom. Satan believed that God would reconcile man in Hades, which He did with those who are on the paradise side of Hades, but He did not remain there. Satan believed that this was a win -win for both God and man. God gets to be reconciled with man and Satan remains on earth without the possibility of eternal judgment in the lake of fire.
Satan did not understand that because Jesus was not the seed of Adam and did not sin, death could not contain him because Hades was for those who sin only.
This is made evident with the ransom theory of atonement and no other theory of the blood atonement lays claim to this concept of paying Satan a ransom. The Bible specifically teaches that Jesus was a ransom. Does it make sense that when a child is kidnapped, that the parents pay themselves a ransom?
There are some that suggest that the ransom theory described God in an immoral light. That is to say that God “tricked” Satan and that would be an immoral act. Is it immoral for God to put all his enemies under his footstool? Do you presume that Satan had a choice in accepting this?
What Scriptures confirm this? Let’s take a look:
“Grace be to you and peace from God the Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ, Who gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us from this present evil world, according to the will of God and our Father:” – Galatians 1:3-4 (KJV)
Notice the word “deliver.” Were we delivered from the wrath of the Father or from the forces of Darkness? This scripture clearly says “this present evil world” so who is the god of this world?
“How God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost and with power: who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil; for God was with him.” Acts 10:38 (KJV).
Now who was oppressing us? The devil that is Satan was oppressing us and that oppression was a form of captivity that Satan demanded recompense for.
“In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth; And that they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, who are taken captive by him at his will.” 2 Timothy 2:25-26 (KJV)
This is why the scriptures refer to Christ’s atonement as mankind being purchased with the blood of Christ.
“Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.” Acts 20:28 (KJV)
Purchased? Who did he purchase the church from, The Father? Does that make sense? Does it really make sense that the parents pay themselves when their children are kidnapped?
“Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil;” Hebrews 2:14 (KJV)
Under the satisfaction model the penalty was paid to the Father but under the Classical Model the penalty of sin is death which is the natural consequence of sin and Satan ruled this world with his power of temptation and vice. Sin was more like a disease that no son of Adam could be cured of until Christ came.
When reading the scriptures, it is very difficult at times to see a definitive understanding of which model of atonement is correct. The proponents of the satisfaction model look at the same scriptures as has been laid out her and use them to justify the satisfaction model. The determining factor is to use history as commentary. What did the early church believe about the working of Christ? Those who live closer to the time and culture of Christ have a unique perspective. A perspective that is untarnished from 2000 years of twisted human thinking.
“But Christ is our redemption because we had become prisoners and needed ransoming. I do not enquire as to His own redemption, for though He was tempted in all things as we are, He was without sin, and His enemies never reduced Him to captivity” – Oregin Volume 9, 318
“This slain lamb has been made, according to certain hidden reasons, a purification of the whole world, for which, according to the Father’s love to man, He submitted to death, purchasing us back by His own blood from him who had got us into his power, sold under sin. And He who led this lamb to the slaughter was God in man, the great High-Priest, as he shows by the words: “No one taketh My life away from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again.” – Oregin Volume 9, pg 377
“He did indeed show Himself to be long-suffering in the matter of the correction of man and the probation of all, as I have already observed; and by means of the second man did He bind the strong man, and spoiled his goods, and abolished death, vivifying that man who had been in a state of death. For as the first Adam became a vessel in his (Satan’s) possession, whom he did also hold under his power, that is, by bringing sin on him iniquitously, and under colour of immortality entailing death upon him. For, while promising that they should be as gods, which was in no way possible for him to be, he wrought death in them: wherefore he who had led man captive, was justly captured in his turn by God; but man, who had been led captive, was loosed from the bonds of condemnation.” – Irenaeus Volume 1, pg 456
“We –who were but lately created by the only best and good Being, by Him also who has the gift of immortality, having been formed after His likeness (predestinated, according to the prescience of the Father, that we, who had as yet no existence, might come into being), and made the first-fruits of creation –have received, in the times known beforehand, [the blessings of salvation] according to the ministration of the Word, who is perfect in all things, as the mighty Word, and very man, who, redeeming us by His own blood in a manner consonant to reason, gave Himself as a redemption for those who had been led into captivity. And since the apostasy tyrannized over us unjustly, and, though we were by nature the property of the omnipotent God, alienated us contrary to nature, rendering us its own disciples, the Word of God, powerful in all things, and not defective with regard to His own justice, did righteously turn against that apostasy, and redeem from it His own property, not by violent means, as the [apostasy] had obtained dominion over us at the beginning, when it insatiably snatched away what was not its own, but by means of persuasion, as became a God of counsel, who does not use violent means to obtain what He desires; so that neither should justice be infringed upon, nor the ancient handiwork of God go to destruction. Since the Lord thus has redeemed us through His own blood, giving His soul for our souls, and His flesh for our flesh,  and has also poured out the Spirit of the Father for the union and communion of God and man, imparting indeed God to men by means of the Spirit, and, on the other hand, attaching man to God by His own incarnation, and bestowing upon us at His coming immortality durably and truly, by means of communion with God,–all the doctrines of the heretics fall to ruin.” – Irenaeus, Against Heresies: Book V , Volume 1, pg 527
“Ignatius replied, ‘I mean Him who crucified my sin, with him who was the inventor of it,  and who has condemned [and cast down] all the deceit and malice of the devil under the feet of those who carry Him in their heart.’ – Ignatius, Volume 1, pg 129
It would seem that at least the Ransom Theory of atonement is the original understanding of the scriptures.