"Emmanuel: God With Us"

29 Atonement

by Hubert F. Sturges, www.everlastingcovenant.com, December 2013

And he shall lay his hand upon the head of the sin offering, and slay the sin offering in the place of the burnt offering. And the priest shall take of the blood thereof with his finger, and put it upon the horns of the altar of burnt offering, and shall pour out all the blood thereof at the bottom of the altar.... and the priest shall make an atonement for him, and it shall be forgiven him. Leviticus 4:29-31

“My covenant,” the covenant made by God for human beings, has given human beings assurance and security all through history. In the fullness of time, Jesus confirmed this covenant by His sacrifice on the cross. People often ask, “What did Jesus do for humanity on the cross?” The answer is:

1. He demonstrated true humility. Fully divine, He became fully human, giving up His glory to come to earth as a common man, as a servant (Col 2:9; John 1:1-4; Isa. 53:2; Phil. 2:7, 8).
2. He revealed the Father to human beings, reestablishing face-to-face communication (Exod. 34:6, 7; John 1:18; 14:9).
3. He gave His presence to human beings as our redeemer and friend (Luke 12:4; John 15:15).
4. He provided grace to change people’s lives (Heb. 4:16; 2 Peter 3:18).
5. He prepared His disciples to become apostles and to form His church once He ascended (Matt. 10:1-14).
6. He opened the way to “the throne of grace” where people can “find grace to help in time of
need” (Heb. 4:16; 10:20). 7. He took upon Himself our sin and our punishment for sin.

In a few words, through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, we are ransomed, redeemed, and reconciled to God.

Leviticus 4

The sacrifices for sin in the Old Testament were symbolic of the true sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. The sinner brought a kid of the goats or a lamb to a place near the altar of burnt offering. He transferred his sin to the animal when “he shall lay his hand upon the head of the sin offering, and slay the sin offering” (Lev. 4:29). “And the priest shall take of the blood thereof with his finger, and put it upon the horns of the altar of burnt offering, and shall pour out all the blood thereof at the bottom of the altar. “| and the priest shall make an atonement for him, and it shall be forgiven him” (Lev. 4:30, 31). By laying his hand on the head of the animal, and slaying it, the sinner confesses his sin. In a distinct and separate action, the priest ministers the blood to “make an atonement for him, and it shall be forgiven him.” A crucial point is that the sin offering is a single ceremony, in two distinct steps.

There are some who believe that all aspects of the atonement were completed at the cross. To believe this is to create problems regarding pardon for sins after Calvary and the need for a judgment. To believe the Bible teaching that Jesus mediates His blood for sinners in the heavenly sanctuary solves many of these problems.

Theories of the Atonement

Through the everlasting covenant, God reconciles sinful humanity to Himself. With this as a background, there are a number of theories of the atonement, each with variations. In studying these theories, one can see that there are Bible verses that can be applied to nearly every one. Yet, to discover truth, one must put the whole picture together, allowing all aspects of truth to fit naturally. A key issue is whether Jesus’ atonement at the cross is complete or whether there is a further step to atonement in Christ’s heavenly ministry.

Ransom Theory

This view of atonement teaches that when Adam and Eve sinned, they sold humanity to the devil; thus, justice required that the devil be paid a ransom to purchase humankind’s freedom and release us from enslavement. The Bible does use the term “ransom” (Mark 10:45; 1 Tim. 2:5, 6), and it describes redemption as our being “bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6:20). People generally think of ransom as a price that a person pays to secure the release of a loved one when kidnapped.

However, there is no scriptural support for the idea that either God or human beings owe anything to Satan. (On the contrary, throughout Scripture, we see that God is the One who required a payment for sin.) True, the sinner is a slave to sin, but this is only because of his choice. God put enmity between the seed of the woman and Satan, giving the sinner a new probation and freedom to choose to serve Him. Satan does not “own” humanity or any part of God’s creation. Paying the devil off would not release human beings from his control. Satan’s power over the sinner can exist only through the sinner’s own choice; when the sinner submits to God, the devil must flee (James 4:7).

Origen, an Alexandrian scholar, was an early proponent of the ransom theory of atonement. He taught that Adam and Eve sold humanity to the devil. Justice required that grace pay a ransom, with Jesus taking humanity’s place. God tricked Satan in that Christ could not be held by death. With this, is the concept of the redemption, or “buying back,” of humanity. The church taught this for 1,000 years. Since then, the theory has had few supporters.

Moral Influence Theory

The moral influence theory of the atonement teaches that the purpose and work of Jesus Christ was to promote positive moral change for humanity. It teaches that atonement demonstrates God’s love, bringing people to love and repentance. This moral change came through the teachings and example of Jesus, the Christian movement He founded, and the inspiring effect of His crucifixion and resurrection.

According to this theory, human beings are spiritually sick and in need of help but capable of accepting God’s forgiveness when they see His love for humankind poured out through Jesus’ giving Himself on the cross (Gal. 1:4; 2:20; Eph. 5:25; 1 Tim. 2:6; Titus 2:14). This theory denies that Christ died to satisfy divine justice, but teaches rather that He died to inspire humankind with a sense of God’s love, softening their hearts and leading them to repentance. It ignores the true spiritual condition of human beings, dead in transgressions and sins (Eph. 2:1), and it denies that sin is a debt requiring payment (Matt. 6:12).

Thus, the Atonement does not focus on God, with the purpose of maintaining His justice, but on humankind with the purpose of persuading human beings to right action. 1 Moral Influence is a subjective, personal, and localized view. It says nothing about God’s dealing with sin on a cosmic level (1 Cor. 4:9; 1 Peter 1:12). It says nothing about God’s initiative in the work of grace and leaves humans to form their own character, which leads to legalism.

Satisfaction Theory: Christ Took the Sins of Humanity

In the view of Anselm of Canterbury, the first two theories were inadequate. He suggested that human beings owed God a debt of honor. This debt creates an imbalance in the moral universe, which could not be satisfied by God’s simply ignoring it. In Anselm’s view, the only possible way of repaying the debt was for a divine being to act as a human being on behalf of human beings and repay the debt of honor owed to God. Therefore, when Jesus died, He did not pay a debt to Satan but to God the Father.

Penal substitution is a variation of this theory. It portrays the atonement of Christ as a vicarious, substitutionary sacrifice that satisfied the demands of God’s justice for sin. Thus, Christ died on the cross, taking the penalty for sin (the penal part) in the sinner’s place (the substitution part), thereby satisfying the demands of justice so God can justly forgive sins. Penal substitution states that God gave himself in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ, to suffer the death, punishment and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for humankind’s sin.

The doctrine of the Trinity is essential in this view. It stipulates that God took the punishment upon Himself rather than putting it on someone else. The doctrine of union with Christ affirms that by taking the punishment upon Himself, Jesus fulfils the demands of justice. His resurrection completes this process and is the basis for the renewal and restoration of righteousness.2

Those who hold this view believe that every aspect of human beings--mind, will, and emotions--has been corrupted by sin and that we are totally depraved and spiritually dead. Thus, Christ’s death paid the penalty for sin, and through faith, human beings can accept Christ’s substitution as payment for sin. This view of the atonement aligns most accurately with Scripture in its view of sin, human nature, and the results of the death of Christ on the cross. Its weakness is that it sees sin only in legal terms, when sin is more than a violation of law.3

God so Loved the World

Jesus is the Lamb “slain from the foundation of the world.” This is the essence of the plan of salvation and the everlasting covenant, which God made before the creation of this world and which became effective after sin. Through His sacrifice on the cross, Jesus exercised His authority and ownership over all creation. He permitted Satan to demonstrate to the universe that, in sin, there is slavery and death. Contrarily, in the law of God, there is freedom, creativity, love and eternal life (James 1:25; 2:12). Through the atonement He will restore all that Adam lost by sin.

To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. (2 Cor. 5:19)

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)

Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father. (John 10:17, 18)

Why would God love this world? A master craftsman, who has put heart and soul into a project and brought it to completion, will love what he has made. By nature a woman will love her child no matter what it is like simply because it is her child. When God looked at what He had made--what He had given “birth”--in creating this world, He saw “it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). When sin entered the world, God would not give it up. He created this earth to last into eternity, and He was prepared to do whatever necessary to make it a success.

In the everlasting covenant, the Creator of this earth, the only begotten Son of the Father, came to earth. He gave up the beauty and the position He enjoyed in heaven, the power that He held, and the praise of millions of created beings. He would become a human being that He might live as a servant. He would even accept death. Jesus did this so “whosoever believeth in him Gshould not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Jesus died for the sins of every human being. He died for you and for me!

Jesus Loves Even Me

Jesus “had compassion” on the people (Matt. 20:34). He suffered with them in their sickness and pain. Both occasions that He cleansed the Temple, He flared in anger at evil men desecrating the house of God. When Mary washed Jesus’ feet with perfume, He deeply appreciated her action. This memory was an encouragement to Him on the cross.

At the last supper, Jesus appointed the bread and juice as symbols of His crucifixion and as a memorial to Him. When Peter denied Him during the trial, one look from the Saviour conveyed His disappointment and pain, such that Peter rushed out weeping bitterly. At the seaside after the resurrection, Jesus significantly asked Peter three times if He loved Him. He did this so Peter would know that Jesus had forgiven him for thrice denying Him and had reinstated him.

The actions and attitudes of God’s people still affect Jesus Christ today. In the new earth, we will learn more of what redemption cost Jesus. His sacrifice on the cross will reach deep into the soul of each person, providing an emotional bond with the Savior that will provide a barrier against sin that will never be crossed again.

Restoring the Bond of Faith

A Christian must understand that his relation with God is paramount. “Without faith it is impossible to please Him” (Heb. 11:6). Faith is commonly defined as belief and trust in God. In addition there must be an emotional commitment or love for God and His truth. The faith relationship can be broken only by sin. In fact, “whatsoever is not of faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23). The nature of a human being is described by the statement from Genesis: “The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Gen. 2:7). The breath of life is part of his being. In sin and separation from God, there is nothing but death.

Jesus gave Nicodemus a beautiful expression of the everlasting covenant: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). God gave His only begotten Son to die for the sins of men. However, Jesus also came and lived among humans for thirty-three years. He gave them His presence, His example, and His love. He became a friend to the human family.

When humans sin and break the bond of faith, pardon for sin requires renewed faith and love for God and our fellow human beings. When Jesus came and died for us, He won a victory for us over sin and Satan (1 Cor. 15:57; 1 John 5:4).

Does love demand that someone must be punished to forgive someone else? No! It does not! This is a classic wrong question! God will not and Satan cannot punish Jesus. Rather, Jesus willingly paid a debt caused by sin. Sin causes death. One small sin opened the gate to all the sin, disease, and death that we have today. Every sin separates from God, and only the death of the sinner or the Lawgiver as a substitute can meet the penalty, but only the death of the Lawgiver can reopen the way to eternal life.

Why does God demand that someone has to die because of a broken law? This question ignores the holiness of God and assumes that the law of God is no more important than human laws and that sin is trivial. However, sin shows separation from God, and it brings death (Rom. 6:23; Isa. 59:2). Even in what one might consider to be small sins, there is pride, rebellion, disobedience, and selfishness, which are evidences of the sinful nature. It is only by God’s grace that a person can be changed and receive eternal life.

The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross offers complete atonement for all who believe (Lev. 4).This atonement must be completed by Christ’s priestly ministry in the heavenly sanctuary4 Neither step alone is complete and effectual.

Sinners are guilty, condemned to die (Rom. 5:12), and slaves to the sinful nature. Jesus came to release the bonds of sin (Isa. 61:1). By grace and with the sinners’ consent, sinners partake of the divine nature and overcome the sinful nature (2 Peter 1:4-8). In Christ, sinners are free and do not need to sin! 5 In short, sinners do not pay a ransom to Satan. Through the cross of Calvary, Jesus removes the condemnation and reconciles sinners to God (Rom. 8:1; Heb. 4:16; 2 Cor. 5:18).

Since God is all-knowing and all-powerful, why does He not just deal with sin directly and forgive all sinners without Christ’s having to be crucified? For God to do this would trivialize sin. A person who understands the holiness of God will quickly see that there is no small sin. Sin-no matter how big or small-is a blot on the perfection of God’s creation and cannot be permitted. To trivialize sin is to bring disorder into the government of God and open the way for the recurrence of sin.

While the old serpent has “bruised the heel” of the Redeemer in Jesus’ suffering on the cross, the Redeemer will ultimately bruise the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15). Both sin and Satan will be destroyed (Rev. 20:10, 14, 15). In the new earth, cleansed and purified of sin, Jesus will live forever among the redeemed.


1. Peter Abelard (1079-1142) promoted the moral influence theory in reaction to Anselm’s satisfaction theory. The sixteenth century Socinians held to a version of the moral influence theory. Versions of it can be found later in Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) and Horace Bushnell (1802-1876). Liberal Christian circles tend to hold this view today (http://www.theopedia.com/Moral_Influence_theory_of_atonement, accessed 8/4/12; see also Richard Fredericks, “The moral influence theory: its attraction and inadequacy,” available at http://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/1992/ March/the-moral-influence-theory, accessed 8/4/12). Some historians claim that the moral influence theory was one of the earliest theories of the atonement and that it was popular in the early church. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Moral_influence_theory_of_atonement, accessed 8/4/12.

2. Jesus died for humankind’s sin, supporting the concept of penal substitution, also called Vicarious Atonement (Isa. 53:4- 6, 10, 11; Matt. 26:28; Rom. 3:23-26; 1 Cor. 15:3; 2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 1:4; 3:10, 13; Eph. 1:7; 5:2; Heb. 10:12; 1 Peter 2:24; 3:18; 1 John 2:2). His death on the cross also supports the concept of the power of the cross (Matt. 28:18; John 17:2; Rom. 14:9; Rev. 5:9).

3. Besides these, scholars have put forward various other views of the atonement. Because the Bible reveals many truths about Christ’s atonement, it is difficult to find any single theory that fully explains the richness of the atonement. In the atonement, we find many interrelated truths concerning the redemption that Christ has accomplished. Much of what we can learn about the atonement needs to be understood from the perspective of God’s people under the sacrificial system of the old covenant. The following are summaries of these additional views of the atonement:

Recapitulation theory pictures the atonement as reversing the course of humankind from disobedience to obedience. It theorizes that Christ’s life recapitulated all stages of human life, reversing the course of disobedience initiated by Adam. This theory is not scriptural. The view originated with Irenaeus (AD 125-202), who saw Christ as the new Adam, systematically undoing what the first Adam had done.

Dramatic theory (Christus Victor) pictures Christ as securing the victory in a conflict between good and evil and as winning humankind’s release from bondage to Satan. The purpose of Christ’s death was to ensure God’s victory over Satan and provide a way to redeem the world out of its bondage to evil.

Example theory sees the atonement as providing an example of faith and obedience to inspire people to be obedient to God. Adherents of this view hold that humans are spiritually alive and that Christ’s life and atonement were simply an example to inspire human beings to live a similar life of faith and obedience. This theory and the moral influence theory both deny that God’s justice requires payment for sin in Christ’s death on the cross. Example theory fails to recognize every human’s true spiritual condition and that God’s justice requires payment for sin beyond the capability of each.

Commercial theory conceives of atonement as that which brings infinite honor to God. It portrays God’s giving Christ a reward that He did not need so that Christ could pass that reward on to humankind. Adherents believe that, because humanity’s spiritual condition dishonors God, Christ’s death, which brought infinite honor to God, can be applied to sinners for salvation. This theory denies the true spiritual state of unregenerate sinners and their need of an entirely new nature, available only in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).

Governmental theory emphasizes God’s high regard for His law and His attitude toward sin. Adherents evaluate humanity’s spiritual condition in having broken the law of God. Christ’s death allows God to forgive the sins of those who repent and accept Christ’s substitutionary death, but the theory is not clear about Christ’s death paying the penalty for sin. Hugo Grotius developed this theory in response to the Socinians, who held to a moral influence theory. For more on the subject, see Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology, available at http://www.gotquestions.org/atonement-theories. html, accessed 8/4/12.

4. Hebrews 4:15; 5:6, 9; 9:28; 10:12-14; 12:24 describe Christ’s priestly ministry in the heavenly sanctuary.

5. 1 John 2:1; 3:5-9, 24; 2 Peter 1:4-8; and Romans 8:1, 2. Texts about freedom from sin are John 8:32, 33, 36 and Romans 6:7, 18, 22 support the idea that Christians do not need to sin.