As a follow-up to yesterday’s post, I’m following Zach’s comment to post my chart on the atonement from chapter 6 of Don’t Stop Believing. Click on this link (atonement theories) to see the chart, which I’ll discuss below.
My main point is that the various atonement theories are not like a set of golf clubs, each one equally valuable depending on what type of shot is needed. There are three-four main theories (depending how sharply you separate moral influence from the example theory), and the four arms of the cross supplies a handy model for how they relate.
The cross is aimed:
1. Downward, toward Satan: Christus victor provides the big picture. Why did Jesus die? To defeat sin, death, and Satan.
2. Upward, toward God: Penal substitution explains how Jesus defeated sin, death, and Satan. Jesus absorbed the Father’s wrath in our place so that we, like him, will rise again.
3. Sideways, toward us: moral influence and example theory supply the application. The cross is God’s greatest act of love and Jesus did leave us an example, that we should follow in his steps. But this is the frosting on the cake. Without the cake (Christus victor) and the flour which makes the cake (penal substitution), the frosting has no place to go. It’s just a pile of sugar. So Christ’s example is pointless if he doesn’t actually defeat sin, death, and Satan by bearing our penalty in our place. In that case he died for nothing, and we’ve got a real case of divine child abuse.
To recap: penal substitution explains how the cross saves, Christus victor explains why the cross saves, and the double-sided moral influence and example theory explain what we should do in response.