The issue of atonement is fresh on my mind and I want to lay out two key theories in the doctrine of the atonement. A friend of mine and I often argue about which of these two theories takes precedence and I am going to write about them in the order in which I prefer.
The most important theory on atonement, the most biblical, the most necessary, and all too often the most despised is called Penal Substitutionary Atonement. To speak about this effectively it is important to look at each word in the phrase. Penal: refers to something judicial. If you are familiar with the Old Testament you are probably aware of the sacrificial system instituted by God through the Levites, the priests. In this system something must be sacrificed to remove the sins of God’s chosen people. A living creature had to be penalized to remove sin. The author of the book of Hebrews writes this,
“Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” Hebrews 9.22
The word Substitution simply means that Christ took the punishment that was due to us, those who believe. Paul tells us that the wages of sin is death. Christ, the sinless one, took our sins upon himself and suffered the wrath of the Father that was due to us. When you think of the cross think of what Jesus suffered. Kicks, slaps, punches, a crown of thorns, spit, nakedness, betrayal, injustice, abandonment, torture, lashings, carried his own cross-beam to the mount, ridicule, pierced hands and feet, mocking, and then to top it off, the curse of God’s judgment.
Atonement refers to the remission of sins mentioned in Hebrews. Because of the work of the cross we can enter into eternal life washed by the blood of the Lamb. Jesus bore our punishment for us, this is why Paul writes,
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” 2 Corinthians 5:21
The second atonement theory has a fancy Latin name, Christus Victor. In this atonement theory Christ, through the cross, overcame death and the power of the devil. In Genesis we read the first promise of the Gospel,
“The LORD God said to the serpent,
‘Because you have done this,
cursed are you above all livestock
and above all beasts of the field;
on your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat
all the days of your life.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.'” Genesis 3.14-15
This is a promise that the serpent will be crushed, and I affirm, that upon on the cross, Christ overcame Satan and death. The implications of this are great. People, especially Americans, assume they are free absolutely, but what people fail to realize is that they serve one of two masters. A life of unrepentant sin leaves one’s will bound to sin, shackled and unable to make good decisions. For example, when a man looks at a picture of a woman in a swimsuit he is enticed, he wants a little more. If, in his heart and mind he does not repent and flee from that lust it will lead to greater things, eventually pornography. One sin slides into another sin, and the more often a person does this the easier it is to sin. The other option is to live your life for the glory of God through the cross of Christ. God’s ways are paths to fulfillment. Think about it: The creator of the universe, the one who upholds the atoms of this physical world by the power of His word, says “live for me and in my ways because I know whats best for you” and we turn to look at Him and say, “what do you know?! I will live how I want to live!” And my only response to people who live the way of sin is this: How is that going for you? Christus Victor frees us from the fetters of sin.
The first theory, Penal Subsitution is necessary because it is our door to everlasting life. Christus Victor is great because we can live a life progressively distant from sin. Paul writes,
“And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” Colossians 2.13-15