“I don’t get how it works!” That’s the statement one of our cfCollege students made a few weeks ago at our weekly Bible study. He knew that, because of the cross, our sins have been forgiven and we are brought back into relationship with God. But how, exactly?
Have you ever wondered that? How does what Jesus did back then affect me now? How does it work?
Theologians through the ages have proposed many answers to that question in what are known as “Theories of Atonement.” Here are just a few of them:
- Moral influence: Jesus died to bring about a change in humanity, largely through his example inspiring men and women to live lives of sacrificial love.
- Ransom: Jesus died as a ransom, paying our debt—the price for our release from bondage to Satan.
- Satisfaction: Jesus died in order to pay back the injustice of human sin and to satisfy the justice of God—his death satisfies the debt of God’s honor that our sins affronted.
- Christus Victor: Jesus died in order to defeat the powers of evil (sin, death, and Satan) so mankind would be freed from their bondage.
- Penal Substitution: Jesus was punished (penal) in the place of sinners (substitution) in order to satisfy God’s wrath against human sin.
- Recapitulation: Jesus recapitulates, or repeats, the history of humanity in his own life, death, and resurrection. Because He succeeded where Adam, and all others after him, have failed, Jesus re-writes (or “re-rights”) our story, renewing all that was destroyed and regaining all that was lost.
Lively debates happen as to which of these theories is “the fairest of them all” or “the one to rule them all.”1 While those conversations have their place, it seems to me that all of these atonement theories, and others besides, highlight important aspects of the work of Christ in rescuing us and reconciling us to God. No single biblical image or word or phrase or explanation can capture the full depth and richness of what Christ has done on the cross. We need them all. I like the way Fleming Rutledge says it:
“The Old and New Testaments give us images—drawn from many sources—making a kaleidoscopic, inexhaustibly rich storehouse from which to draw meaning and sustenance for all times in all generations. No one image regarding the significance of the cross can do justice to the whole; all are part of the great drama of salvation. The Passover lamb, the goat driven into the wilderness, the ransom, the substitute, the victor on the field of battle, the representative man—each and all of these and more have their place and the cross is diminished if any one of them is omitted.”2
During this season leading up to Good Friday and Easter, I want to encourage you—as you read Scripture, hear sermons, or listen to worship songs—to pay special attention to how the cross and what Jesus accomplished there are described. Let the multifaceted descriptions draw you into the richness and beauty of what Christ has done for us through the cross.
Though a lifetime is not enough to exhaust all that the cross means for us, and though we may never be able to fully explain just how the cross works, it does work! Sins forgiven. Relationship with God restored. Life eternal. And much, much more. That’s worth celebrating this Easter season and all the year round.
1Michael Bird, What Christians Ought to Believe: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine through the Apostle’s Creed (Zondervan, 2016), p. 132.
2Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Eerdmans, 2015), p. 7.