Is there an overarching model of the atonement?

Penal substitutionary atonement has come under significant attack within evangelical circles in recent decades. Defenders of its legitimacy have often argued that it is the dominant or overarching biblical concept of the saving work Jesus accomplished in his death, even when they grant that it is one of many biblical derived theories which complement one another.

Many critics of penal substitution have been equally sweeping in their denunciation, not simply lowering its importance but denying it altogether. Objections include the charge

  • that penal substitution is inherently unjust because an innocent person is penalized and the guilty go free
  • that the doctrine of divine retribution is unbiblical and portrays God sadistically or hypocritically, since Jesus urged us to turn the other cheek when offended
  • that it is too legalistic a framework to properly represent God’s relationship with his creatures
  • that it sets the Father against the Son in a form of child abuse, or at least that it portrays God as violent, which fosters violence at the human level [In a review article, I examined Stricken by God?, a book including numerous essays that voiced this concern.]
  • that it is incoherent unless universal salvation occurs, because the penalty for sin would be exacted twice, on Christ and on the unrepentant sinner.

Excellent responses to all these criticisms have been made, and I won’t repeat them here, but I believe that substitution or representation is fundamental to a biblical understanding of Christ’s work, and I think that a penal aspect of that representation, Christ’s bearing the punishment that sinners deserved, is widely attested in the New Testament and prefigured in the Old Testament sacrificial system. It is, in my view, one model that can not be excluded from an adequate explanation of the atonement, indeed it is a very prominent concept.

I notice that critics of penal substitution tend to favor an imitative/moral influence theory, the governmental theory, or the Christus Victor theme. These all represent very valuable aspects of the New Testament’s teaching concerning the atonement. We are exhorted to imitate Christ’s sacrificial love. We acknowledge that God did demonstrate his righteous disapproval of sin and exemplify its punishment in the suffering of Christ. And we are forever thankful that Christ has overcome the evil one who holds us in bondage through our disobedience to God’s law, which gives him a legitimate claim on us (1 Jn 3:8; Col 2:15; Heb 2:14). These accomplishments of Christ’s work I affirm with gratitude.

A large problem occurs, however, when Christus Victor, moral government, or moral example are presented as explanations of Christ’s work to the exclusion of penal substitution, because the latter is essential to all three of those aspects of Christ’s work. If the death of Christ was unnecessary to satisfy God’s justice, it can not serve as a useful model for us to follow, and subjective reconciliation is inseparable from objective reconciliation. We must not confuse God’s method of saving people with our experience of being saved. The moral government theory puts an emphasis on the rectoral justice of God at the expense of his retributive justice, severing the connection between sin and punishment. It fails on its own principle because “public justice” can not be maintained by the punishment of an innocent person, and it provides no ontological reason for the death of Christ, but only a demonstrative one, which is very inadequate. The liberating victory of Christ over the evil one is inexplicable apart from a clear explanation of the ground upon which Satan holds us in his bondage, namely, that we are under God’s condemnation because of our violation of God’s own law (cf., Col 1:13; 2:14-15).

Penal substitution is an essential aspect of the atonement, but the question I put on the table in my title for this post is whether one of the theological  models of the atonement is most comprehensive. Quite commonly, evangelicals propose that penal substitution has that place, and they find evidence of this in that it is not possible to explain how the other models work, apart from Christ’s satisfying the Father’s justice on our behalf.

We might be best not to identify any one of them as primary, but to stress the greatness of Christ’s atoning work which is demonstrated in the many facets that the various biblical metaphors present, to which  theories of the atonement try to do justice. On the other hand, if there is a  model that can be viewed as comprehending the others to some extent, I think that it is probably Christ’s victory. A brief but persuasive case for this approach was summed up by Michael Bird, a couple of years ago. Here is the essence of his argument in that post:

 I agree that CV [i.e., Christus Victor] and PSA [i.e., Penal Substitutionary Atonement] go together because Jesus is only Christus Victor because he is also Agnus Dei. PSA deprives the Satan of his key weapon: accusation against the saints! However, I think CV is the most comprehensive model of the atonement for several reasons:

1. Canonical: The first and last intimations of the atonement in Scripture are about the victory of Jesus’ death (Gen 3:15; Rev 12:11).

2. Historical: CV appears to have been more popular in Church History as a model for the atonement than any other. Though PSA can be found in the fathers as a minor key, CV can be found among the Reformers as a minor key too.

3. Biblical Theological: CV links together a lot more themes than PSA does. CV brings together kingdom, atonement, resurrection, and new creation.

4. Pauline: Note how Romans 8 and 1 Corinthians 15 both start off with the sacrificial nature of Jesus’ death, but then climax in affirmations of divine victory! PSA is the basis for CV, but CV is then the goal of PSA.

I like the words of John Calvin on the subject: “Finally, since as God only he could not suffer, and as man only could not overcome death, he united the human nature with the divine, that he might subject the weakness of the one to death as an expiation of sin, and by the power of the other, maintaining a struggle with death, might gain us the victory … But special attention must be paid to what I lately explained, namely, that a common nature is the pledge of our union with the Son of God; that, clothed with our flesh, he warred to death with sin that he might be our triumphant conqueror (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 12:2-3).

Calvin also wrote: “And so, by fighting hand to hand with the power of the Devil, with the horror of death, he won the victory over them and triumphed, so that now in our death we should not fear those things which our Prince has swallowed up” (Institutes II.16.11).

A faithful representation of the New Testament teaching regarding salvation requires that we affirm that the salvation of sinners in all ages of human history is accomplished only by the death and resurrection of Jesus (Acts 4:12; 1 John 2:2). It is effective in the justification of all who believe in Jesus because we are united to Christ through baptism in/with the Spirit, and by means of this incorporation into Christ we die to sin and rise again to new life. The penalty due to us as sinners has been borne by Christ, in our place, and so we are justly declared not guilty and will eventually be transformed into the image of God, that is, the likeness of Christ, which was the original state of Adam and Eve. Creation will no longer suffer the consequences of human sin, and the shalom of God’s kingdom will be reestablished upon a renewed earth and heaven. God will be all in all, once again we will flourish under his loving rule. God’s victory over all his enemies will be complete, and all of this will have been brought about by the work accomplished by the Son. He took our nature upon himself, as second Adam, to deliver us from the bondage begun in Adam and reenforced in the lives of all his descendants by their own acts of disobedience.

As we used to sing in the male quartet of which I was a member in my Bible College days,

Oh, victory in Jesus,
my Savior forever,
he sought me and bought me
with his redeeming blood.
He loved me ere I knew him,
and all my love is due him;
he plunged me to victory
beneath the cleansing flood.

(written by Eugene Monroe Bartlett Sr., in 1939)


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

6 replies on “Is there an overarching model of the atonement?”

Hi Dr. Thiessen,

The denomination in which I serve (Evangelical Covenant) chooses not to insist on one atonement metaphor as the overarching or controlling metaphor, although historically it has leaned towards CV. It’s good to hear that we’re not “unique” in this sense. It seems these days that PSA gets the most attention, focus, and coverage.

I’d be interested in some follow-up comments on this statement in the post: “substitution or representation is fundamental to a biblical understanding of Christ’s work, and I think that a penal aspect of that representation, Christ’s bearing the punishment that sinners deserved, is widely attested in the New Testament and prefigured in the Old Testament sacrificial system.”

I recently read a little book by Christian Eberhart (Associate Professor of NT at Luther Theological Seminary in Saskatoon) — The Sacrifice of Jesus — which argued quite convincingly that the OT sacrificial system was not substitutionary and the one place it *may* have been so (the “scapegoat”) does not actually involve sacrifice.

Just curious if you’ve heard this argument before and how you would respond to it. (Hopefully this is not an unfair question.)

You raise a very important question, Marc, and I doubt that consensus will be reached on its answer before the Lord returns. Wesleyan theologian Ray Dunning describes the meaning of sacrifice as “one of the most debated questions in biblical theology.” Proponents of both the moral government and the moral example theories frequently deny that the sin offering in the Old Testament was substitutionary or penalty bearing. I haven’t read the book you mention, but where I have met that reading of the OT sacrifices for sin, I have had the strong sense that it was agenda driven. For various reasons, some people have found the concept of penal substitution objectionable, they rightly discern that there must be clear analogy between Christ’s atoning death and the OT sacrifices, and so they read those sacrifices in non-representational terms. They might make the same complaint of the way that those sacrifices have been understood within the long Christian tradition of a penal substitutionary atonement. All I can say is that, to date, the OT texts look to me to be very clear that the sin offerings were expiatory, substitutionary, and penal in character. They were established in view of sin, guilt, the wrath and curse of God.

One of the intriguing thing about the work you cite from Eberhart is that it is substitution he protests. By contrast, Joel Green and Mark Baker, who completely reject the penal character of Jesus’ death, nevertheless affirm substitution. By contrast, I find the substitutionary nature of the sacrifice vividly demonstrated in the way the sacrifice was brought by individuals who had sinned. They would provide the animal, lay their hands on its head and kill it (Lev 1:3-5; 4:28-29; 8:18-19; esp. 16:21-22; cf. Num 27:18-21). The animal was then considered unclean, as seen in the burning of the pots in which the sacrificial animals were boiled (Lev 6:28) and by the removal of the sin offering carcass from the camp (Lev. 16:27-28). The verb kaphar, “make atonement”, was used more than 100 times in the Old Testament and, in sacrificial contexts means to propitiate God’s wrath, expiate sins, and restore fellowship between God and sinners, as best I can tell. Isaiah 53:4-6 (“the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all”) is a text that I hear as gloriously declarative of Christ’s death as substitutionary sin bearer for sinners. J. S. Whale has pointed out that Isa 52-53 makes 12 clear statements that the penalty is borne by the Servant instead of others.

I hear the substitutionary nature of Christ’s sacrifice very clearly in the language used to describe it in the NT.
-Mk 10:45: a ransom anti pollon – where anti with the genitive case is understood as a preposition of substitution signifying “instead of” or “in the place of”

-the Lord’s Supper: my body and blood hyper hymon , “for you” (Lk 22:19) or peri pollon (Mt 26:28) – hyper connotes both representation and substitution, and Christ’s death put an end to the Mosaic covenant sacrifices

-cf. 1 Cor 15:3; Rom 5:6, 8; 8:3, 32; 1 Cor 5:7; 2 Cor 5:21 (made to be sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God; in this way, God reconciled the world to himself [5:19]); Gal 1:4; 2:20; 3:13 (Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us); Titus 2:14; Eph 5:2; Jn 1:29; 1 Pet 2:24; 3:18; Heb 7:27; 10:5-9.
Probably Eberhart is well aware of these texts, and of the way they have traditionally been read. So he likely has alternative interpretations of them. In this, as in other controversial areas, each of us has to soak ourselves in Scripture, often with the help of others who have greater exegetical expertise than we do, and weigh the alternative readings. None of us approaches the texts without presuppositions, but we have to hold those presuppositions themselves provisionally, allowing Scripture to revise them. There are a number of theological topics on which I have come to hear Scripture differently than I used to, but so far penal substitutionary expiation through Christ’s death is not an area where this has happened to me.

Establishing a hierarchy of truths in regard to theological truths is very necessary. I wouldn’t make the penal substitutionary theory one of the essentials of orthodoxy. On the other hand, I have often been troubled by other beliefs, that are more important in my hierarchy of truths, which are lost when penal substitution is removed from atonement theology. I have heard theologians who are dismissive of penal substitution describe Christ’s death as though it were simply a tragic deed done by evil people, without any discernible divine intention. The doctrine of the Trinity itself is often threatened by these alternative theories, and there I think we do have an extremely serious problem.

Dr. Tiessen, do you have atonement book recommendations that deal with the issue you address in this post? Thank you.

Jason, I wish I could help but no book comes to mind. Books that give first place to the Christus Victor theme frequently go so far as to deny penal substitution. They offer Christ’s victory as an alternative theory to penal substitution. On the other hand, perhaps because of this “threat,” books which give preeminence to a penal substitutionary understanding often have little to say about the importance of Christ’s victory, though few would deny it.

What I have done is to affirm the importance of our acknowledging that Jesus died in our place, bearing the penalty of our sin, but to suggest that this was God’s means to achieving his victory over the powers of evil. Thus, the overarching framework from which we should view the incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, session and return of Christ, is God’s gracious undoing of the terrible results of the disobedience of the first Adam, who was tempted by the Serpent, restoring creation through the obedience of the second Adam. What looked like the moment of ultimate triumph for Satan, whose activity in the life and death of Jesus was very explicit, was in fact the moment of God’s great victory. The head of the serpent was crushed when the legal demands, which gave Satan right to hold sinful humans in bondage, were satisfied by God himself on behalf of his people, whom he incorporates into Christ by the Spirit.

So the books that trumpet Christ’s victory and the books that trumpet penal substitution are all very helpful, we just need to put these aspects of Christ’s work in proper relationship.

Perhaps some other reader of this thread will be able to suggest a book that does this for us, in the same direction that I (and Michael Bird) have taken.

Thanks Dr. Tiessen. Have you seen/read the following books on atonement: The Nature of Atonement: Four Views (one of the views supported is PSA); and Pierced for our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (Jeffery, Ovey, Sach). I have not read either, though they look like promising resources regarding atonement theories.

I am aware of both books Jason, but regret to say that I have not read either of them.

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