Today is Good Friday. What’s so good about the day Jesus of Nazareth was nailed to the cross? Of course, many of us would say, “He died for our sins and that makes it Good Friday.” As soon as we begin thinking or talking about why Jesus died we begin engaging in atonement theology. Here’s what I walk students through in Wesleyan Theology class regarding atonement theories. Each has its strengths, and each has its criticisms, but all have been expressed historically by the church.
Jesus our Ransom – This view essentially states that because of the Fall humanity was sold into slavery to sin and death. A price had to be paid in order to ransom humanity from the grips of sin and death. Jesus’ sacrificial death paid that price, “The Son of Man came … to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)
Jesus as Substitute – The substitutionary atonement theory says that we have run-up such enormous debts with God that we will never be able to pay up. In a great act of mercy, Christ pays in our behalf what we, in our sin, can never pay. God provides the only sufficient payment for our sin – God’s own good Son, who suffers and dies the death we deserved.
Jesus as Moral Influence – Christ’s death is not so much a substitute for our justly deserved penalty or a ransom for our indebtedness but rather, by his suffering, is an empowering moral influence upon us.
Jesus as Victorious Conqueror – Christ didn’t just inspire us to live better lives; he accomplished our liberation from the power of sin and death. In the Christus Victor theory, Christ is the hero who went head-to-head with Satan and death and, not only on the cross but also in resurrection, won.
Jesus as Vicarious Healer – The vicarious healer theory states that Christ cures what is wrong with us. On the cross Christ worked healing for our sin-sickness and, through the Holy Spirit, continues to render therapy whereby we are changed into beings closer to what God intended in creating us in the first place.
Toward a Wesleyan Atonement Theory – First, none of these theories, though having biblical support, are fully wrought in Scripture. Second, each of these theories, though having their own troubles, provides a glimpse into the reality of the atonement.
John Wesley once said,
I believe three things must go together in our justification: upon God’s part, his great mercy and love; upon Christ’s part, the satisfaction of God’s justice by the offering of his body and shedding of his blood, ‘and fulfilling the law of God perfectly’; and upon our part, true and living faith in the merits of Jesus Christ. (The Principles of a Methodist)
One Wesleyan scholar summarizes the position well, “The main point of atonement is that there remains no reason for us to fear that the guilt of our sins bars renewed relationship with God. God has mercifully transcended that barrier in Christ. Therefore, Wesleyan atonement can be described as a Penalty Satisfaction explanation, which has a Moral Government purpose and a Christus Victor effect.” (Randy Maddox, Responsible Grace, 109)
On this day let us recognize the depths of our depravity, the due penalty of death, and the hopelessness of making it on our own. Let us also remember that the Holy Spirit has preveniently touched our depravity, that Jesus has shown us a better way, and “praise God who keeps on giving us the victory through Jesus.” (1 Cor 15:57)