Last week we read about the crucifixion of Jesus in Matthew 27. What we want to do now is talk about the meaning of His death: why did Jesus have to die? What did the cross accomplish? This discussion has been underway for some two thousand years, so of course different interpretations have emerged. That does not mean they are all correct, of course, but we want to look at them this week to expose you to them, so you’re not taken by surprise if you hear a classmate, professor, colleague, friend, or preacher say something different than what you understand to be the meaning of Jesus’ death.
Before we continue, let me qualify this from the outset and say that I of course will not be able to cover every single verse or aspect of the cross in one blog post or podcast episode. Our goal here is to look at the three main ways the cross has been interpreted–and then, we’ll look to scripture to unpack the effects of Jesus’ death on the cross.
First we are going review the three major theories of atonement. (If the word “theory” sounds odd to you as a way of interpreting the cross, just realize that all we mean by that here is different interpretations that have found a sizable audience, and again–not all of them are created equal.) The word atonement broken down becomes “at–one–ment.” It means becoming one with something; in this case, humanity is made right (or united) with God by way of Jesus’ death on the cross.
Moral Influence Theory: Jesus Inspires Us
In Moral Influence theory, Jesus dies from our sins but not for our sins. That is: yes, Jesus really died on the cross, but according to this interpretation, Jesus died primarily as an example of God’s love for us—an example that is so powerful that it should soften our hearts and move us back to God. Jesus’ death here impacts humans in such a way as to influence or inspire them to live better, kinder lives.
Peter Abelard (1079-1142) developed this perspective. At its heart, Moral Influence Theory is a subjective theory, as opposed to being objective. That is, it is largely based on personal experience, point of view, and opinion.
This view is prevalent on campus, both in the hallways and in the classroom. It is more common in “mainline” Christian denominations (but certainly not all of them). It falls short of the fuller Biblical picture and often leads to statements like, “Yeah, the resurrection doesn’t really make or break my faith. Whether Jesus was raised from the dead or not, He’s a great example that inspires me.” Again, this falls far short of the scriptural witness.
Satisfaction Theory: Jesus Paid the Price
Now let’s talk about the most common view among evangelical Christians, often referred to as penal substitution. Here, Jesus pays the penalty for our sins, the debt that we owe God. Accepting the punishment due to us, via the cross, Jesus steps in as the substitute on our behalf.
Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) proposed this theory in such terms. Anselm lived in a feudal system and used the metaphor of God being our feudal lord whom we have dishonored and need to repay. We can’t afford pay it, of course, so that’s where Jesus comes in to die for our mistakes and in so doing, pay the debt we owe our feudal lord.
John Calvin, the Reformation theologian who lived much later, modified this theory to fit his own context, stating it terms of legal, courtroom imagery with God as judge. We are criminals who stand guilty, and the good judge must punish the guilty, of course (or else the judge could not be called good!). Jesus steps in and bears the punishment for us on the cross, paying the full price for the sins of the whole world.
Note: critics have raised the question: “Isn’t this cosmic child abuse, if the Father is killing His own son?” This is why understanding Jesus himself biblically really matters, as Anselm and Calvin both knew: Jesus is the very Word of God in the flesh; He and the Father are one. Let’s also add here that Jesus fully, willfully chose to die for the world; the Father did not force Him into it. (John 10:15-18)
The Satisfaction theory is an objective in that it does not rely on a matter of a hearer’s opinion; it involves real offense and a real debts being paid that would be required for unholy, unrighteous people to be united a Holy and righteous God. Jesus died not just from our sins, but also for our sins. He accomplished something that made a concrete impact on the world that would not have otherwise been possible.
Romans 3:21-26 especially makes clear how Jesus’ death brings fulfillment to some of Israel’s key turning points in history. We are now justified or made right with God by faith in His son, just as Abraham was justified by faith. Jesus has also become the hilasterion or mercy seat, the plate that covered the ark of the covenant, which is where God had priests atone for sin in the tabernacle on the Day of Atonement.
Key passages: Romans 3:21-26, Heb. 9:5, and Galatians 3:13.
Further reading: Lev. 16:2, 13-15; John 1:29, 2 Cor. 5:21, Heb. 9:29, and I Pet. 2:24
Christus Victor (& Ransom Theory): Rescuing Humanity & The Cosmos
This view of the cross emphasizes Jesus’ victory over sin, death, and Satan. When Jesus died on the cross, He rescued humanity from the clutches of the powers of evil and our slavery to sin. Just as Israel was enslaved in Egypt to Pharoah, the world is enslaved to sin and the powers of evil. Jesus on the cross initiates a new Exodus as it were, rescuing us out of bondage to sin an evil and delivering us into a new life.
Irenaeus (130-200AD) helped develop this cosmic interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’ death. Christus Victor is a modification of what’s called Ransom Theory, which more closely highlighted the exchange of souls out Satan’s domain and into God’s domain/rule/kingdom, via the death of Jesus. They’re similar enough that for our purposes today, they are mentioned together. Christus Victor is thoroughly Biblical and is complimentary to Satisfaction theory. Victory over death also is apparent in the resurrection of Jesus, which is our subject for next week, so we will save some of the discussion for then. As for now, here are some verses related to Christus Victor, and a link to read more about it.
Col. 1:13 [God] has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son…
Col. 2:13-15 And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, 14 erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.
Victory Verses: Colossians 1:13, 2:13-15; Ephesians 1:20-23
Ransom Verses: Matthew 20:28, Mark 10:45
The Cross Overcomes All The Effects of Sin
Both the Satisfaction theory and Christus Victor work toward overcoming the full effects of sin, which effects not just humanity, but all of creation’s relationship with God. Because sin entered the world, everything is cursed, from humans to animals and the ground of the earth itself (Gen. 3:14-19). Jesus, on the cross, inaugurated God’s New Creation project to make all things new again. We’ll talk a bit more about that next week, but for now, let’s look at how scripture speaks of Jesus’ death having victory over all of the broken aspects of the world: theological, sociological, ecological, and personal.
Theological and Sociological: Mending Our Relationship with God and Neighbor
Ephesians 2:14-28 Eph. 2:14 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.
Ecological: Mending The Earth & All Creation
Rom. 8:18-21 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
Personal: Mending Us
Matt. 11:28-30 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Phil. 4:4-7 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
The Cross and Hope for The World
After Jesus’ death, the world was never the same. His death paid the price of our sins and set us free from slavery to sin and death and evil powers; this has given us the promise of eternal life with God and set the cosmos back on the right trajectory of shalom with its creator. We can have hope in this, thanks not only to the cross, but also on account of Jesus being raised from the dead. And even though we wait with eager longing for our bodies to be resurrected like His, we live now in the confidence of knowing Jesus currently sits enthroned as God’s Anointed King and has authority over all powers. The Holy Spirit comforts us as we pursue God’s mission of proclaiming all this good news to a broken world that needs the hope God gave us in Jesus.
I hope this week’s post/episode has been helpful as you think about how to engage the campus for the sake of the gospel. Next week, we will look at Matthew 28 or concepts therein. Until then, blessings to you, and happy Thanksgiving.