The Nature of the Atonement

by Louis Berkhof

The doctrine of the atonement here presented is the penal substitutionary or satisfaction doctrine, which is the doctrine clearly taught by the Word of God.


In the discussion of this view several particulars should be stressed.

1. THE ATONEMENT IS OBJECTIVE. This means that the atonement makes its primary impression on the person to whom it is made. If a man does wrong and renders satisfaction, this satisfaction is intended to influence the person wronged and not the offending party. In the case under consideration it means that the atonement was intended to propitiate God and to reconcile Him to the sinner. This is undoubtedly the primary idea, but does not imply that we can not also speak of the sinner’s being reconciled to God. Scripture does this in more than one place, Rom. 5:10; II Cor. 5:19,20. But it should be borne in mind that this is not equivalent to saying that the sinner is atoned, which would mean that God made amends or reparation, that He rendered satisfaction to the sinner. And even when we speak of the sinner as being reconciled, this must be understood as something that is secondary. The reconciled God justifies the sinner who accepts the reconciliation, and so operates in his heart by the Holy Spirit, that the sinner also lays aside his wicked alienation from God, and thus enters into the fruits of the perfect atonement of Christ. In other words, the fact that Christ reconciles God to the sinner results in a reflex action on the sinner, in virtue of which the sinner may be said to be reconciled to God. Since the objective atonement by Christ is an accomplished fact, and it is now the duty of the ambassadors of Christ to induce sinners to accept the atonement and to terminate their hostility to God, it is no wonder that the secondary and subjective side of the reconciliation is somewhat prominent in Scripture. This statement of the objective character of the atonement is placed in the foreground, because it represents the main difference between those who accept the satisfaction doctrine of the atonement and all those who prefer some other theory.

Now the question arises, whether this conception of the atonement is supported by Scripture. It would seem to find ample support there. The following particulars should be noted:

a. The fundamental character of the priesthood clearly points in that direction. While the prophets represented God among men, the priests in their sacrificial and intercessory work represented men in the presence of God, and therefore looked in a Godward direction. The writer of Hebrews expresses it thus: “For every high priest, taken from among men, is ordained for men in things pertaining to God,” 5:1. This statement contains the following elements: (1) The priest is taken from among men, is one of the human race, so as to be able to represent men; (2) he is appointed for men, that is, to be active in the interests of men; and (3) he is appointed to represent men in things pertaining to God, that is, in things that have a Godward direction, that look to God, that terminate on God. This is a clear indication of the fact that the work of the priest looks primarily to God. It does not exclude the idea that the priestly work also has a reflex influence on men.

b. The same truth is conveyed by the general idea of the sacrifices. These clearly have an objective reference. Even among the Gentiles they are brought, not to men, but to God. They were supposed to produce an effect on God. The Scriptural idea of sacrifice does not differ from this in its objective reference. The sacrifices of the Old Testament were brought to God primarily to atone for sin, but also as expressions of devotion and gratitude. Hence the blood had to be brought into the very presence of God. The writer of Hebrews says that the “things pertaining to God” consist in offering “both gifts and sacrifices for sin.” The friends of Job were urged to bring sacrifices, “lest I,” says the Lord, “deal with you after your folly.” Job 42:8. The sacrifices were to be instrumental in stilling the anger of the Lord.

c. The Hebrew word kipper (piel) expresses the idea of atonement for sin by the covering of sin or of the sinner. The blood of the sacrifice is interposed between God and the sinner, and in view of it the wrath of God is turned aside. It has the effect, therefore, of warding off the wrath of God from the sinner. In the Septuagint and in the New Testament the terms hilaskomai and hilasmos are used in a related sense. The verb means “to render propitious,” and the noun, “an appeasing” or “the means of appeasing.” They are terms of an objective character. In classical Greek they are often construed with the accusative of theos (God), though there is no example of this in the Bible. In the New Testament they are construed with the accusative of the thing (hamartias), Heb. 2:17, or with peri and the genitive of the thing (hamartion), I John 2:2; 4:10. The first passage is best interpreted in the light of the use of the Hebrew kipper; the last can be interpreted similarly, or with theon as the object understood. There are so many passages of Scripture which speak of the wrath of God and of God as being angry with sinners, that we are perfectly justified in speaking of a propitiation of God, Rom. 1:18; Gal. 3:10; Eph. 2:3; Rom. 5:9. In Rom. 5:10 and 11:28 sinners are called “enemies of God” (echthroi) in a passive sense, indicating, not that they are hostile to God, but that they are the objects of God’s holy displeasure. In the former passage this sense is demanded by its connection with the previous verse; and in the latter by the fact that echtroi is contrasted with agapetoi, which does not mean “lovers of God,” but “beloved of God.”

d. The words katalasso and katalage signify “to reconcile” and “reconciliation.” They point to an action by which enmity is changed to friendship, and surely have, first of all, an objective signification. The offender reconciles, not himself, but the person whom he has offended. This is clearly brought out in Matt. 5:23,24: “Therefore if thou bring thy gift before the altar, and there remember that thy brother hath aught against thee; leave thy gift there before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother (which in this connection can only mean, reconcile thy brother to thyself, which is objective), and then come and offer thy gift.” The brother who had done the supposed injury is called upon to remove the grievance. He must propitiate or reconcile his brother to himself by whatsoever compensation may be required. In connection with the work of Christ the words under consideration in some instances certainly denote the effecting of a change in the judicial relation between God and the sinner by removing the judicial claim. According to II Cor. 5:19 the fact that God reconciled the world to Himself is evident from this that He does not reckon unto them their sins. This does not point to any moral change in man, but to the fact that the demands of the law are met, and that God is satisfied. In Rom. 5:10,11 the term “reconciliation” can only be understood in an objective sense, for (1) it is said to have been effected by the death of Christ, while subjective reconciliation is the result of the work of the Spirit; (2) it was effected while we were yet enemies, that is, were still objects of God’s wrath; and (3) it is represented in verse 11 as something objective which we receive.

e. The terms lutron and antilutron are also objective terms. Christ is the Goel, the liberator, Acts 20:28; I Cor. 6:20; 7:23. He redeems sinners from the demands of God’s retributive justice. The price is paid to God by Christ as the representative of the sinner. Clearly, the Bible abundantly justifies us in ascribing an objective character to the atonement. Moreover, strictly speaking, atonement in the proper sense of the word is always objective. There is no such thing as subjective atonement. In atonement it is always the party that has done wrong that makes amends to the one who was wronged.


a. The meaning of the termvicarious atonement.” There is a difference between personal and vicarious atonement. We are interested particularly in the difference between the two in connection with the atonement of Christ. When man fell away from God, he as such owed God reparation. But he could atone for his sin only by suffering eternally the penalty affixed to transgression. This is what God might have required in strict justice, and would have required, if He had not been actuated by love and compassion for the sinner. As a matter of fact, however, God appointed a vicar in Jesus Christ to take man’s place, and this vicar atoned for sin and obtained an eternal redemption for man. Dr. Shedd calls attention to the following points of difference in this case: (1) Personal atonement is provided by the offending party; vicarious atonement by the offended party. (2) Personal atonement would have excluded the element of mercy; vicarious atonement represents the highest form of mercy. (3) Personal atonement would have been forever in the making and hence could not result in redemption; vicarious atonement leads to reconciliation and life everlasting.

b. The possibility of vicarious atonement. All those who advocate a subjective theory of the atonement raise a formidable objection to the idea of vicarious atonement. They consider it unthinkable that a just God should transfer His wrath against moral offenders to a perfectly innocent party, and should treat the innocent judicially as if he were guilty. There is undoubtedly a real difficulty here, especially in view of the fact that this seems to be contrary to all human analogy. We cannot conclude from the possibility of the transfer of a pecuniary debt to that of the transfer of a penal debt. If some beneficent person offers to pay the pecuniary debt of another, the payment must be accepted, and the debtor is ipso facto freed from all obligation. But this is not the case when someone offers to atone vicariously for the transgression of another. To be legal, this must be expressly permitted and authorized by the lawgiver. In reference to the law this is called relaxation, and in relation to the sinner it is known as remission. The judge need not, but can permit this; yet he can permit it only under certain conditions, as (1) that the guilty party himself is not in a position to bear the penalty through to the end, so that a righteous relation results; (2) that the transfer does not encroach upon the rights and privileges of innocent third parties, nor cause them to suffer hardships and privations; (3) that the person enduring the penalty is not himself already indebted to justice, and does not owe all his services to the government; and (4) that the guilty party retains the consciousness of his guilt and of the fact that the substitute is suffering for him. In view of all this it will be understood that the transfer of penal debt is well-nigh, if not entirely, impossible among men. But in the case of Christ, which is altogether unique, because in it a situation obtained which has no parallel, all the conditions named were met. There was no injustice of any kind.

c. Scriptural proof for the vicarious atonement of Christ. The Bible certainly teaches that the sufferings and death of Christ were vicarious, and vicarious in the strict sense of the word that He took the place of sinners, and that their guilt was imputed, and their punishment transferred, to Him. This is not at all what Bushnell means, when he speaks of the “vicarious sacrifice” of Christ. For him it simply means that Christ bore our sins “on His feeling, became inserted into their bad lot by His sympathy as a friend, yielded up Himself and His life, even, to an effort of restoring mercy; in a word that He bore our sins in just the same sense as He bore our sicknesses.”[Vicarious Sacrifice, p. 46.] The sufferings of Christ were not just the sympathetic sufferings of a friend, but the substitutionary sufferings of the Lamb of God for the sin of the world. The Scriptural proofs for this may be classified as follows:

(1) The Old Testament teaches us to regard the sacrifices that were brought upon the altar as vicarious. When the Israelite brought a sacrifice to the Lord, he had to lay his hand on the head of the sacrifice and confess his sin. This action symbolized the transfer of sin to the offering, and rendered it fit to atone for the sin of the offerer, Lev. 1:4. Cave and others regard this action merely as a symbol of dedication.[The Scriptural Doctrine of Sacrifice, pp. 129 f.] But this does not explain how the laying on of hands made the sacrifice fit to make atonement for sin. Neither is it in harmony with what we are taught respecting the significance of the laying on of hands in the case of the scape-goat in Lev. 16:20-22. After the laying on of hands death was vicariously inflicted on the sacrifice. The significance of this is clearly indicated in the classical passage that is found in Lev. 17:11: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you to make atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh atonement by reason of the life.” Says Dr. Vos, “The sacrificial animal in its death takes the place of the death due to the offerer. It is forfeit for forfeit.” The sacrifices so brought were pre-figurations of the one great sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

(2) There are several passages in Scripture which speak of our sins as being “laid upon” Christ, and of His “bearing” sin or iniquity, Isa. 53:6,12; John 1:29; II Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13; Heb. 9:28; I Pet. 2:24. On the basis of Scripture we can, therefore, say that our sins are imputed to Christ. This does not mean that our sinfulness was transferred to Him — something that is in itself utterly impossible — but that the guilt of our sin was imputed to Him. Says Dr. A. A. Hodge: “Sin may be considered (1) in its formal nature as transgression of the law, I John 3:4; or (2) as a moral quality inherent in the agent (macula), Rom. 6:11-13; or (3) in respect to its legal obligation to punishment (reatus). In this last sense alone is it ever said that the sin of one is laid upon or borne by another.”[Outlines of Theology, p. 408.] Strictly speaking, then, the guilt of sin as liability to punishment was imputed to Christ; and this could be transferred, because it did not inhere in the person of the sinner, but was something objective.

(3) Finally, there are several passages in which the prepositions peri, huper, and anti are used in connection with the work of Christ for sinners. The substitutionary idea is expressed least by the first, and most by the last preposition. But even in the interpretation of huper and anti we shall have to depend largely on the context, for while the former really means “in behalf of,” it may, and in some cases does, express the idea of substitution, and while the latter may mean “instead of,” it does not always have that meaning. It is rather interesting to notice that, according to Deissmann, several instances have been found on the inscriptions of the use of huper with the meaning “as representative of.”[Light From the Ancient East, p. 153.] We find a similar use of it in Philemon 13. In such passages as Rom. 5:6-8; 8:32; Gal. 2:20; Heb. 2:9 it probably means “instead of,” though it can also be rendered “in behalf of”; but in Gal. 2:13; John 11:50, and II Cor. 5:15 it certainly means “instead of.” Robertson says that only violence to the text can get rid of that meaning here. The preposition anti clearly means “instead of” in Matt. 2:22; 5:38; 20:28; Mark 10:45. According to Robertson any other meaning of the term is out of the question here. The same idea is expressed in I Tim. 2:6.

d. Objections to the idea of a vicarious atonement. Several objections are raised against the idea of vicarious atonement.

(1) Substitution in penal matters is illegal. It is generally admitted that in cases of a pecuniary debt payment by a substitute is not only permissible, but must be accepted and at once cancels all further obligation on the part of the original debtor. However, it is said that penal debt is so personal that it does not admit of any such transfer. But it is quite evident that there are other than pecuniary cases in which the law has made provision for substitution. Armour in his work on Atonement and Law mentions three kinds of such cases. The first is that of substitution in cases of work for the public benefit required by law, and the second, that of substitution in the case of military service required in behalf of one’s country. Respecting the third he says “Even in the case of crime, law, as understood and administered by men in all lands, provides that the penalty may be met by a substitute, in all cases in which the penalty prescribed is such that a substitute may meet it consistently with the obligations he is already under.”[p. 129.] It is perfectly evident that the law does recognize the principle of substitution, though it may not be easy to cite instances in which innocent persons were permitted to act as substitutes for criminals and to bear the penalties imposed on these. This finds a sufficient explanation in the fact that it is usually impossible to find men who meet all the requirements stated under (b) above. But the fact that it is impossible to find men who meet these requirements, is no proof that Jesus Christ could not meet them. In fact, He could and did, and was therefore an acceptable substitute.

(2) The innocent is made to suffer for the wicked. It is perfectly true that, according to the penal substitutionary doctrine of the atonement Christ suffered as “the righteous for the unrighteous” (I Pet. 3:18), but this can hardly be urged as an objection to the doctrine of vicarious atonement. In the form in which it is often stated it certainly has very little force. To say that this doctrine makes the innocent suffer the consequences of the guilt of the wicked, and is therefore unacceptable, is tantamount to raising an objection against the moral government of God in general. In actual life the innocent often suffer as a result of the transgression of others. Moreover, in this form the objection would hold against all the so-called theories of the atonement, for they all represent the sufferings of Christ as being in some sense the result of the sins of mankind. Sometimes it is said that a moral agent cannot become reasonably responsible for any sin, except by doing it personally; but this is contradicted by the facts of life. One who hires another to commit a crime is held responsible; so are all accessories to a crime.

(3) God the Father is made guilty of injustice. It appears that all the objections are really variations on the same theme. The third is virtually the same as the second put in a more legal form. The doctrine of vicarious atonement, it is said, involves an injustice on the part of the Father in that He simply sacrifices the Son for the sins of mankind. This objection was already raised by Abelard, but loses sight of several pertinent facts. It was not the Father but the triune God that conceived the plan of redemption. There was a solemn agreement between the three persons in the Godhead. And in this plan the Son voluntarily undertook to bear the penalty for sin and to satisfy the demands of the divine law. And not only that, but the sacrificial work of Christ also brought immense gain and glory to Christ as Mediator. It meant for Him a numerous seed, loving worship, and a glorious kingdom. And, finally, this objection acts as a boomerang, for it returns with vengeance on the head of all those who, like Abelard, deny the necessity of an objective atonement, for they are all agreed that the Father sent the Son into the world for bitter suffering and a shameful death which, while beneficial, was yet unnecessary. This would have been cruel indeed!

4. There is no such union as would justify a vicarious atonement. It is said that, if a vicar is to remove the guilt of an offender there must be some real union between them which would justify such a procedure. It may be admitted that there must be some antecedent union between a vicar and those whom he represents, but the idea that this must be an organic union, such as the objectors really have in mind, cannot be granted. As a matter of fact the required union should be legal rather than organic, and provision was made for such a union in the plan of redemption. In the depths of eternity the Mediator of the new covenant freely undertook to be the representative of His people, that is, of those whom the Father gave unto Him. A federal relationship was established in virtue of which He became their Surety. This is the basic and the most fundamental union between Christ and His own, and on the basis of this a mystical union was formed, ideally in the counsel of peace, to be realized in the course of history in the organic union of Christ and His Church. Therefore Christ could act as the legal representative of His own, and being mystically one with them, can also convey to them the blessings of salvation.

3. IT INCLUDES CHRIST’S ACTIVE AND PASSIVE OBEDIENCE. It is customary to distinguish between the active and passive obedience of Christ. But in discriminating between the two, it should be distinctly understood that they cannot be separated. The two accompany each other at every point in the Saviour’s life. There is a constant interpenetration of the two. It was part of Christ’s active obedience, that He subjected Himself voluntarily to sufferings and death. He Himself says: “No man taketh my life from me, I lay it down of myself,” John 10:18. On the other hand it was also part of Christ’s passive obedience, that He lived in subjection to the law. His moving about in the form of a servant constituted an important element of His sufferings. Christ’s active and passive obedience should be regarded as complementary parts of an organic whole. In discussing it, account should be taken of a threefold relation in which Christ stood to the law, namely, the natural, the federal, and the penal relation. Man proved a failure in each one of these. He did not keep the law in its natural and federal aspects, and is not now in a position to pay the penalty, in order to be restored in the favor of God. While Christ naturally entered the first relation by His incarnation, He vicariously entered only the second and third relations. And it is with these that we are particularly concerned in this connection.

a. The active obedience of Christ. Christ as Mediator entered the federal relation in which Adam stood in the state of integrity, in order to merit eternal life for the sinner. This constitutes the active obedience of Christ, consisting in all that Christ did to observe the law in its federal aspect, as the condition for obtaining eternal life. The active obedience of Christ was necessary to make His passive obedience acceptable with God, that is, to make it an object of God’s good pleasure. It is only on account of it that God’s estimate of the sufferings of Christ differs from His estimate of the sufferings of the lost. Moreover, if Christ had not rendered active obedience, the human nature of Christ itself would have fallen short of the just demands of God, and He would not have been able to atone for others. And, finally, if Christ had suffered only the penalty imposed on man, those who shared in the fruits of His work would have been left exactly where Adam was before he fell. Christ merits more for sinners than the forgiveness of sins. According to Gal. 4:4,5 they are through Christ set free from the law as the condition of life, are adopted to be sons of God, and as sons are also heirs of eternal life, Gal. 4:7. All this is conditioned primarily on the active obedience of Christ. Through Christ the righteousness of faith is substituted for the righteousness of the law, Rom. 10:3,4. Paul tells us that by the work of Christ “the righteousness of the law is fulfilled in us,” Rom. 8:3,4; and that we are made “the righteousness of God in Him,” II Cor. 5:21.

According to Anselm Christ’s life of obedience had no redemptive significance, since He owed this to God for Himself. Only the sufferings of the Saviour constituted a claim on God and were basic to the sinner’s redemption. Thinking along somewhat similar lines Piscator, the seventeenth century Arminians, Richard Watson, R. N. Davies, and other Arminian scholars deny that the active obedience of Christ has the redemptive significance which we ascribe to it. Their denial rests especially on two considerations: (1) Christ needed His active obedience for Himself as man. Being under the law, He was in duty bound to keep it for Himself. In answer to this it may be said that Christ, though possessing a human nature, was yet a divine person, and as such was not subject to the law in its federal aspect, the law as the condition of life in the covenant of works. As the last Adam, however, He took the place of the first. The first Adam was by nature under the law of God, and the keeping of it as such gave him no claim to a reward. It was only when God graciously entered into a covenant with him and promised him life in the way of obedience, that the keeping of the law was made the condition of obtaining eternal life for himself and for his descendants. And when Christ voluntarily entered the federal relationship as the last Adam, the keeping of the law naturally acquired the same significance for Him and for those whom the Father had given Him. (2) God demands, or can demand, only one of two things of the sinner: either obedience to the law, or subjection to the penalty, but not both. If the law is obeyed, the penalty cannot be inflicted; and if the penalty is borne, nothing further can be demanded. There is some confusion here, however, which results in misunderstanding. This “either . . . or” applied to the case of Adam before the fall, but ceased to apply the moment he sinned and thus entered the penal relationship of the law. God continued to demand obedience of man, but in addition to that required of him that he pay the penalty for past transgression. Meeting this double requirement was the only way of life after sin entered the world. If Christ had merely obeyed the law and had not also paid the penalty, He would not have won a title to eternal life for sinners; and if He had merely paid the penalty, without meeting the original demands of the law, He would have left man in the position of Adam before the fall, still confronted with the task of obtaining eternal life in the way of obedience. By His active obedience, however, He carried His people beyond that point and gave them a claim to everlasting life.

b. The passive obedience of Christ. Christ as Mediator also entered the penal relation to the law, in order to pay the penalty in our stead. His passive obedience consisted in His paying the penalty of sin by His sufferings and death, and thus discharging the debt of all His people. The sufferings of Christ, which have already been described, did not come upon Him accidentally, nor as the result of purely natural circumstances. They were judicially laid upon Him as our representative, and were therefore really penal sufferings. The redemptive value of these sufferings results from the following facts: They were borne by a divine person who, only in virtue of His deity, could bear the penalty through to the end and thus obtain freedom from it. In view of the infinite value of the person who undertook to pay the price and to bear the curse, they satisfied the justice of God essentially and intensively. They were strictly moral sufferings, because Christ took them upon Himself voluntarily, and was perfectly innocent and holy in bearing them. The passive obedience of Christ stands out prominently in such passages as the following: Isa. 53:6; Rom. 4:25; I Pet. 2:24; 3:18; I John 2:2, while His active obedience is taught in such passages at Matt. 3:15; 5:17,18; John 15:10; Gal. 4:4,5; Heb. 10:7-9, in connection with the passages which teach us that Christ is our righteousness, Rom. 10:4; II Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:9; and that He secured for us eternal life, the adoption of sons, and an eternal inheritance, Gal. 3:13,14; 4:4,5; Eph. 1:3-12; 5:25-27. Arminians are willing to admit that Christ, by His passive obedience merited for us the forgiveness of sins, but refuse to grant that He also merited for us positive acceptance with God, the adoption of children, and everlasting life.


There are many circles in which this doctrine of the atonement is not popular. There always has been opposition to it, and in our day the opposition is particularly strong. The main objections are the following:

1. SUCH AN ATONEMENT WAS ENTIRELY UNNECESSARY. Some hold that such an atonement was entirely unnecessary, either because sin is not guilt and therefore does not call for an atonement, or because there can be no obstacle to the free forgiveness of sin in God, who is our heavenly Father and is essentially a God of love. If a man can, and often does, forgive the penitent without demanding and receiving satisfaction, God, our perfect exemplar, surely can and will do this. This is the common objection of all those who advocate a purely subjective theory of the atonement. It may be answered, however, that the Bible certainly teaches us to regard sin as guilt; and because it is guilt, it makes man subject to the wrath of God and renders him liable to divine punishment. Moreover, the idea of a universal Fatherhood of God, in virtue of which He loves all men with a redemptive love, is entirely foreign to Scripture. And if God is a Father, He is also a Judge; if He is a God of love, He is also a God of justice and holiness. There is no one attribute in God which dominates and determines the expression of all the other divine perfections. And, finally, it should not be forgotten that what man can do as a private individual, he is not always able to do when acting in the capacity of a judge.

2. SUCH AN ATONEMENT WOULD DEROGATE FROM THE CHARACTER OF GOD. Closely connected with the preceding objection is that which holds that such an atonement would derogate from the character of God: from His justice, because He punishes the innocent for the guilty; from His love, because He acts as a stern, severe, and relentless being, who demands blood to appease His wrath; and from His pardoning grace, since He demands payment before He can or will forgive. But Christ voluntarily took the place of sinners, so that this substitution involved no injustice on the part of God. If God had been actuated by strict justice only, and not by compassionate love and mercy as well, He would have left the sinner to perish in His sin. Moreover, it is entirely incorrect to say that, according to the satisfaction doctrine of the atonement, the love and the pardoning grace of God could not flow forth until satisfaction was rendered, because God Himself provided the ransom, and by giving His Son already gave evidence of His infinite love and pardoning grace. His love precedes even the repentance of sinners and calls this into action.

3. SUCH AN ATONEMENT ASSUMES AN IMPOSSIBLE TRANSFER OF WRATH. It is pointed out that this doctrine of the atonement holds that God transferred His wrath against the sinner to the Mediator, which is unthinkable; and that He also transferred the punishment of the sinner to Christ, which is manifestly illegal. In answer to this it may be said, however, that the wrath of God does not partake of the nature of personal vindictiveness, such as we witness among men, and which they would find it hard to transfer from the object of their hatred to a perfectly innocent person. It is God’s holy displeasure against sin, a displeasure to which the sinner is also exposed as long as the guilt of sin is not removed. It is also quite natural that, when the guilt of sin as liability to punishment was transferred to Jesus Christ, the wrath of God against sin was similarly transferred. Moreover, it cannot be said that the transfer of the punishment to Christ was manifestly illegal, because, as a matter of fact, He identified Himself with His people. He made satisfaction as the responsible Head of a community for those who in union with Him constituted one legal corporate body. This responsible union was constituted, says Hodge, (a) by His own voluntary assumption of the legal responsibilities of His people, (b) by the recognition of His sponsorship by God, and (c) by His assumption of our nature.

4. SUCH AN ATONEMENT IS NOT TAUGHT IN THE GOSPELS. Some are of the opinion that the Bible teaches no vicarious atonement or, if the Bible does, the Gospels certainly do not. And after all, it is what Jesus taught, and not what Paul said, that counts. We need not enter upon a lengthy discussion of this matter, since we have already shown that there is abundant proof for a vicarious atonement in Scripture. It is true that it does not stand out so clearly in the teachings of the Gospels as in those of the Epistles, but this is due to the fact (to express it in the words of Crawford) “that the purpose of our Lord’s personal ministry in His life and death were not so much the full preaching of the atonement, as the full accomplishment of the atonement in order to the preaching of it.”[The Atonement, p. 385.] Yet even the Gospels contain sufficient evidence for it, Matt. 20:28; John 1:29; 3:16; 10:11; 15:13; Matt. 26:27; John 6:51.

5. SUCH A DOCTRINE IS IMMORAL AND INJURIOUS. It is also claimed that this view of the atonement is immoral and injurious in its practical tendency. It is said to undermine the authority of the moral law, and to weaken, if not destroy, the force of our obligations and inducements to personal holiness. This objection was already made to the doctrine of free grace in the days of Paul. The charge is not true, however, for this theory more than any other upholds the majesty of the law, and in no way minimizes the obligation of the redeemed sinner to render full obedience to the law. On the contrary, it offers several incentives to personal holiness, by emphasizing the exceeding sinfulness of sin, by displaying the unspeakable love of God and of Jesus Christ, and by the assurance of divine aid in the struggle of life, and of the acceptance of our imperfect services in Christ.

V. Divergent Theories of the Atonement

Since the atonement is clearly something objective, something that has a Godward direction, strictly speaking only those theories can come into consideration here that represent the work of Christ as intended primarily to ward off the wrath of God and divine punishment from sinners rather than to change the sinner’s attitude to God from one of hostility to one of friendship. Theories that are entirely subjective and conceive of the work of Christ exclusively as bearing on the sinner’s moral condition might, in strict logic, be left out of consideration altogether. They might conceivably be considered as theories of reconciliation, but can hardly be regarded as theories of atonement. Miley argues that there really can be no more than two theories of atonement. He points out that the atonement, as an objective ground for the forgiveness of sins, must answer to a necessity which will naturally determine its nature. This necessity must lie, either in the requirement of an absolute justice which must punish sin, or in the rectoral office of justice as an obligation to conserve the interests of moral government. In the first case one arrives at the satisfaction theory; in the second, at the governmental theory, which is preferred by Miley and finds great favor with the Methodists in general. Alfred Cave ascribes an objective character also to the theory of the early Arminians, in which the death of Christ is regarded as a substitute for the penalty imposed on sinners; and to the theory of McLeod Campbell, which finds the real significance of the work of Christ in His vicarious repentance. And it is undoubtedly true that both of these do contain an objective element. But in addition to these there are several purely subjective theories. Though these are not, strictly speaking, theories of atonement, yet they call for consideration, since they are considered as such in many circles. The following are the most important theories:


There were two theories in the early Church that call for brief mention.

1. THE RANSOM-TO-SATAN THEORY. This is based on the singular notion that the death of Christ constituted a ransom paid to Satan, in order to cancel the just claims which the latter had on man. Origen, one of the chief advocates of this theory, held that Satan was deceived in the bargain, since the outcome proved that he could not stand in the presence of the holy Christ, and was not able to retain his hold on Him. This theory found favor with several of the early Church Fathers, though they did not always state it in exactly the same form. It proved to be rather tenacious, for the echo of it was still heard in the days of Anselm. Yet it was found to be so incongruous that it gradually disappeared for lack of intelligent support. Mackintosh speaks of this theory as the exoteric theory of the early Church.

2. THE RECAPITULATION THEORY. Irenæus, who also expresses the idea that the death of Christ satisfied the justice of God and thus liberated man, nevertheless gave great prominence to the recapitulation theory, that is, to the idea, as Orr expresses it, “that Christ recapitulates in Himself all the stages of human life, including those which belong to our state as sinners.” By His incarnation and human life He reverses the course on which Adam by his sin started humanity and thus becomes a new leaven in the life of mankind. He communicates immortality to those who are united to Him by faith and effects an ethical transformation in their lives, and by His obedience compensates for the disobedience of Adam. This, according to Mackintosh, was the esoteric theory of the early Church.


The theory of Anselm is sometimes identified with that of the Reformers, which is also known as the satisfaction theory, but the two are not identical. Some seek to prejudice others against it by calling it “the commercial theory.” Anselm stressed the absolute necessity of the atonement by grounding it in the very nature of God. According to him sin consists in the creature’s withholding from God the honor which is His due. By the sin of man God was robbed of His honor, and it was necessary that this should be vindicated. This could be done in either of two ways: by punishment or by satisfaction. The mercy of God prompted Him to seek it in the way of satisfaction, and more particularly through the gift of His Son, which was the only way, since an infinite satisfaction was required. Christ rendered obedience to the law, but since this was nothing more than His duty as man, it did not constitute any merit on His part. In addition to that, however, He also suffered and died in the performance of His duty; and since He as a sinless being was under no obligation to suffer and to die, He thus brought infinite glory to God. This was a work of supererogation on the part of Christ, which merited, and also brought, a reward; but since Christ as the Son of God needed nothing for Himself, the reward was passed on to sinners in the form of the forgiveness of sins and of future blessedness for all those who live according to the commandments of the gospel. Anselm was the first to work out a rather complete doctrine of the atonement, and in many respects his theory points in the right direction. However, it is open to several points of criticism.

1. It is not consistent in its representation of the necessity of the atonement. It ostensibly does not ground this necessity in the justice of God which cannot brook sin, but in the honor of God which calls for amends or reparation. He really starts out with the principle of “private law” or custom, according to which an injured party may demand whatever satisfaction he sees fit; and yet argues for the necessity of the atonement in a way which only holds on the standpoint of public law.

2. This theory really has no place for the idea that Christ by suffering endured the penalty of sin, and that His suffering was strictly vicarious. The death of Christ is merely a tribute offered voluntarily to the honor of the Father. It constitutes a supererogatory merit, compensating for the demerits of others; and this is really the Roman Catholic doctrine of penance applied to the work of Christ.

3. The scheme is also one-sided and therefore insufficient in that it bases redemption exclusively on the death of Christ, conceived as a material contribution to the honor of God, and excludes the active obedience of Christ as a contributing factor to His atoning work. The whole emphasis is on the death of Christ, and no justice is done to the redemptive significance of His life.

4. In Anselm’s representation there is merely an external transfer of the merits of Christ to man. It contains no indication of the way in which the work of Christ for man is communicated to man. There is no hint of the mystical union of Christ and believers, nor of faith as accepting the righteousness of Christ. Since the whole transaction appears to be rather commercial, the theory is often called the commercial theory.


This theory was first advocated by Abelard in opposition to Anselm, and since his day found many ardent supporters. The fundamental idea is always the same, though it has assumed different forms at the hands of such men as Young, Maurice, Bushnell, Stevens, David Smith, and many others. The fundamental idea is that there is no principle of the divine nature which necessarily calls for satisfaction on the part of the sinner; and that the death of Christ should not be regarded as an expiation for sin. It was merely a manifestation of the love of God, suffering in and with His sinful creatures, and taking upon Himself their woes and griefs. This suffering did not serve to satisfy the divine justice, but to reveal the divine love, so as to soften human hearts and to lead them to repentance. It assures sinners that there is no obstacle on the part of God which would prevent Him from pardoning their sins. Not only can He do this without receiving satisfaction, but He is even eager to do it. The only requirement is that sinners come to Him with penitent hearts. The following objections may be urged against this theory:

1. This theory is contrary to the plain teachings of Scripture, which represents the atoning work of Christ as necessary, not primarily to reveal the love of God, but to satisfy His justice; regards the sufferings and death of Christ as propitiatory and penal; and teaches that the sinner is not susceptible to the moral influence of the sacrificial work of Christ until the righteousness of Christ has become his own by faith.

2. While it is undoubtedly true that the cross of Christ was the supreme manifestation of the love of God, it can be regarded as such only from the point of view of the penal substitutionary doctrine of the atonement, according to which the sufferings and death of Christ were absolutely necessary for the salvation of sinners. But according to the moral influence theory they merely served the purpose of making an impression on man, which God might have done in many other ways; and therefore were not necessary. And if they were not necessary, they were indeed a cruel manifestation of God’s love, — a contradiction in terms. The sufferings and death of Christ were a manifestation of God’s love only, if it was the only way to save sinners.

3. This theory robs the atonement of its objective character, and thereby ceases to be a real theory of the atonement. It is at most only a one-sided theory of reconciliation. In fact, it is not even that, for subjective reconciliation is only possible on the basis of an objective reconciliation. It really confounds God’s method of saving man with man’s experience of being saved, by making the atonement itself to consist in its effects in the life of the believer, in union with Christ.

4. Finally, this theory fails on its own principle. It is undoubtedly true that necessary suffering, that is, suffering for some saving purpose which could not be realized in any other way, is apt to make a deep impression. But the effect of a voluntary suffering, which is entirely unnecessary and uncalled for, is quite different. As a matter of fact, it is disapproved by the Christian conscience.


This theory was advocated by the Socinians in the sixteenth century, in opposition to the doctrine of the Reformers, that Christ vicariously atoned for the sin of mankind. Its fundamental principle is, that there is no retributive justice in God which requires absolutely and inexorably that sin be punished. His justice does not prevent Him from pardoning whom He will without demanding any satisfaction. The death of Christ did not atone for sin, neither did it move God to pardon sin. Christ saves men by revealing to them the way of faith and obedience as the way of eternal life, by giving them an example of true obedience both in His life and in His death, and by inspiring them to lead a similar life. This view really establishes no direct connection between the death of Christ and the salvation of sinners. Yet it holds that the death of Christ may be said to expiate the sins of man in view of the fact that Christ, as a reward for His obedience unto death, received power to bestow eternal life on believers. This theory is objectionable for various reasons.

1. It is really a revival and concoction of several ancient heresies: of Pelagianism, with its denial of human depravity and its assertion of the natural ability of man to save himself; of the adoptionist doctrine, with its belief that the man Christ was adopted to be the Messianic Son of God on account of His obedience; of the Scotist doctrine of an arbitrary will in God; and of the emphasis of some of the early Church Fathers on the saving efficacy of the example of Christ. Consequently it is open to all the objections that militate against these views.

2. It is entirely un-Scriptural in its conception of Christ as a mere man of exceptional qualities; in its view of sin, in which the character of sin as guilt, so strongly emphasized by the Word of God, is entirely ignored; in its one-sided emphasis on the redemptive significance of the life of Christ; and in its representation of the death of Christ as a martyr’s death, while failing to account for the unmartyrlike anguish of Christ on the cross.

3. It fails to account for the salvation of those who lived before the incarnation and of infants. If the life and sufferings of Christ merely save men by their exemplary character, the question naturally arises, how they who lived prior to the coming of Christ, and they who die in infancy can derive any benefit from them. Yet there is clear Scriptural evidence for the fact that the work of Christ was also retrospective in its efficacy, and that little children also share in the benefits of His atoning death.

4. Moreover, while it is perfectly true that Christ is also represented as an example in Scripture, He is nowhere represented as an example after which unbelieving sinners must pattern, and which will save them if they do; and yet this is the necessary assumption of the theory under consideration. The example of Christ is one which only His people can follow, and to which even they can make but a slight approach. He is our Redeemer before He can be our example.


The governmental theory was intended to be a mean between the doctrine of the atonement, as taught by the Reformers, and the Socinian view. It denies that the justice of God necessarily demands that all the requirements of the law be met. The law is merely the product of God’s will, and He can alter or even abrogate it, just as He pleases. While in strict justice the sinner deserved eternal death, that sentence is not strictly executed, for believers are set free. For them the penalty is set aside, and that without strict satisfaction. Christ did indeed render a certain satisfaction, but this was only a nominal equivalent of the penalty due to man; something which God was pleased to accept as such. If the question is asked, why God did not remit the penalty outright, as He might have done, the answer is that He had to reveal in some way the inviolable nature of the law and His holy displeasure against sin, in order that He, the moral Ruler of the universe, might be able to maintain His moral government. This theory, first advocated by Grotius, was adopted by Wardlaw and several New England theologians, and is also supported in such recent works as those of Dale, A. Cave, Miley, Creighton, and others. It is open to the following objections:

1. It clearly rests upon certain false principles. According to it the law is not an expression of the essential nature of God, but only of His arbitrary will, and is therefore subject to change; and the aim of the so-called penalty is not to satisfy justice, but only to deter men from future offenses against the law.

2. While it may be said to contain a true element, namely, that the penalty inflicted on Christ is also instrumental in securing the interests of the divine government, it makes the mistake of substituting for the main purpose of the atonement one which can, in the light of Scripture, only be regarded as a subordinate purpose.

3. It gives an unworthy representation of God. He originally threatens man, in order to deter him from transgression, and does not execute the threatened sentence, but substitutes something else for it in the punishment inflicted on Christ. And now He again threatens those who do not accept Christ. But how is it possible to have any assurance that He will actually carry out His threat?

4. It is also contrary to Scripture, which certainly represents the atonement of Christ as a necessary revelation of the righteousness of God, as an execution of the penalty of the law, as a sacrifice by which God is reconciled to the sinner, and as the meritorious cause of the salvation of sinners.

5. Like the moral influence and the example theories, it also fails to explain how the Old Testament saints were saved. If the punishment inflicted on Christ was merely for the purpose of deterring men from sin, it had no retroactive significance. How then were people saved under the old dispensation; and how was the moral government of God maintained at that time?

6. Finally, this theory, too, fails on its own principle. A real execution of the penalty might make a profound impression on the sinner, and might act as a real deterrent, if man’s sinning or not sinning were, even in his natural state, merely contingent on the human will, which it is not; but such an impression would hardly be made by a mere sham exhibition of justice, designed to show God’s high regard for the law.


The mystical theory has this in common with the moral influence theory, that it conceives of the atonement exclusively as exercising influence on man and bringing about a change in him. At the same time it differs from the moral influence theory in that it conceives of the change wrought in man, not primarily as an ethical change in the conscious life of man, but as a deeper change in the subconscious life which is brought about in a mystical way. The basic principle of this theory is that, in the incarnation, the divine life entered into the life of humanity, in order to lift it to the plane of the divine. Christ possessed human nature with its inborn corruption and predisposition to moral evil; but through the influence of the Holy Spirit He was kept from manifesting this corruption in actual sin, gradually purified human nature, and in His death completely extirpated this original depravity and reunited that nature to God. He entered the life of mankind as a transforming leaven, and the resulting transformation constitutes His redemption. This is in effect, though with differences of detail, the theory of Schleiermacher, Edward Irving, Menken, and Stier. Even Kohlbruegge seemed inclined to accept it in a measure. It is burdened, however, with the following difficulties:

1. It takes no account of the guilt of man. According to Scripture the guilt of man must be removed, in order that he may be purified of his pollution; but the mystical theory, disregarding the guilt of sin, concerns itself only with the expulsion of the pollution of sin. It knows of no justification, and conceives of salvation as consisting in subjective sanctification.

2. It rests upon false principles, where it finds in the natural order of the universe an exhaustive expression of the will and nature of God, regards sin exclusively as a power of moral evil in the world, which involves no guilt and deserves no punishment, and looks upon punishment as a mere reaction of the law of the universe against the transgressor, and not at all as a revelation of the personal wrath of God against sin.

3. It contradicts Scripture where it makes Christ share in the pollution of sin and hereditary depravity, and deduces the necessity of His death from the sinfulness of His own nature (not all do this). By doing this, it makes it impossible to regard Him as the sinless Saviour who, just because of His sinlessness, could take the place of sinners and pay the penalty for them.

4. It has no answer to the question, how those who lived before the incarnation can share in the redemption of Jesus Christ. If Christ in some realistic way drove out the pollution of sin during the time of His sojourn on earth, and now continues to drive it out; and if the salvation of man depends on this subjective process, how then could the Old Testament saints share in this salvation?


This theory of McLeod Cambell is also called the theory of sympathy and identification. It proceeds on the gratuitous assumption that a perfect repentance would have availed as a sufficient atonement for sin, if man had only been capable of an adequate repentance, which he was not. Now Christ offered to God, in behalf of humanity, the requisite repentance, and by so doing fulfilled the conditions of forgiveness. His work really consisted in the vicarious confession of sin in behalf of man. The question naturally arises, how the death of Christ is related to this vicarious repentance and confession. And the answer is that Christ, by His suffering and death, entered sympathetically into the Father’s condemnation of sin, brought out the heinousness of sin and condemned sin; and this was viewed by the Father as a perfect confession of our sins. This condemnation of sin is also calculated to produce in man that holiness which God demands of sinful humanity. This theory labors under the following difficulties.

1. It can readily be understood that Christ as man could enter sympathetically into our afflictions and temptations, and into the feeling of our infirmities; but it is not at all clear how the incarnation enabled Him to enter into a fellow-feeling with us with respect to our sins. He was sinless, a total stranger to sin as a corrupting power in His life, and therefore could hardly identify Himself in a moral sense with sinners.

2. While it may be admitted that, according to Scripture, Christ did sympathize with the sinners whom He came to save, this sympathy is certainly not represented as being the whole or even the most important part of His redemptive work. All the emphasis is on the fact that He vicariously endured the penalties that were due to sinners and met the requirements of the law in a life of obedience. Yet this theory, while recognizing the retributive justice of God and the demerit of sin, denies the necessity and possibility of penal substitution, and asserts that the work of Christ in behalf of sinners consisted, not in His suffering for them, but in the vicarious confession of their sins.

3. The theory proceeds on erroneous principles, namely, that sin does not necessarily make men liable to punishment; that the justice and holiness of God did not, as a matter of course, call for an objective atonement; and that the only necessity for redemptive help followed from the inability of man to repent in true fashion.

4. Finally, a vicarious confession, such as this theory implies, is really a contradiction in terms. Confession is something altogether subjective, and to be valid must be personal. It is the outcome of a personal consciousness of sin, and is also personal in its effects. It is hard to see how such a vicarious repentance can release others from the obligation to repent. Moreover, this theory has no Scriptural foundation.


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