2003 Shepherd's Conference, A Ministry of Grace Community Church 818.909.5530.  © 2003 All Rights Reserved. Grace Community Church. A CD, MP3, or tape cassette copy of this session can be obtained by going to www.shepherdsconference.org



The Nature of the Atonement
(Handout – Study Notes)


Phil Johnson

Executive Director, Grace to You


For more of Phil's sermons and messages go to: www.SwordandTrowel.org



This seminar will explore the meaning of the atonement itself, and examine some dangerous corruptions of this vital doctrine.


I.                    Substitutionary Atonement Addressed

a.       One of the “fundamentals” of the faith

b.      At the start of the fundamentalist movement (end of the 19th century) this doctrine was one of the main battlegrounds

c.       Many modern evangelicals seem to be of the opinion that it doesn’t really matter what view of the atonement you hold, as long as you believe that in some sense Jesus’ death atoned for sins.

d.      This erosion of commitment to a right understanding of the atonement is one of the main reasons the whole evangelical movement today is in serious trouble.


II.                 Three Wrong Views of the Atonement and their Hazard to the Gospel

a.       The Ransom Theory

                                                              i.      Origen developed this theory

                                                            ii.      View:  Satan was tricked into accepting Christ’s death in exchange for the souls of sinners, not realizing that Christ would rise from the dead.

                                                          iii.      Based on a misunderstanding of Mark 10:45 and 1 Timothy 2:6; defines “ransom” in these verses as a fee paid to Satan to purchase the release of sinners

                                                          iv.      Revival of this view in recent years by various charismatic teachers, especially Kenneth Copeland, Kenneth Hagin, and others in the word-faith movement

1.      They teach that Christ purchased ransom for sinners by literally suffering in hell

2.      They surmise that when He died He descended into hell and suffered there in order to render a payment for sin to Satan

                                                            v.      What’s wrong with this view?

1.      Scripture does not imply that Satan has any legitimate claim on sinners

2.      Satan is not the one who must be satisfied before sinners may be redeemed

3.      Biblical word ransom simply means “redemption-price”; it does not necessarily imply a price paid to Satan.

4.      Scripture teaches that Christ’s atonement was a sacrifice to God

a.       Ephesians 5:2

b.      Isaiah 53:10 (“The Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief; if He would render Himself as a guilt offering.”)

b.      The Moral Influence Theory

                                                              i.      Peter Abelard (12th century) developed this theory

                                                            ii.      Abelard’s view:

1.      Christ’s death was an example for believers to follow, a radical expression of love that influences sinners morally and gives them a pattern to follow but does not actually pay any price on their behalf

2.      God’s justice demands no actual payment for sin

3.      God’s justice is subjugated to His love

                                                          iii.      What’s wrong with this view?

1.      Bernard of Clairvaux, a contemporary of Abelard, noted that if Christ’s death was merely an example, then the actual work of salvation is still the sinner’s task to perform

2.      The Council of Sens in 1141 declared Abelard a heretic

                                                          iv.      This view resurfaced during the Reformation in the teaching of the Socinians

1.      They insisted that God’s predominate attribute is His love, which virtually cancels out His wrath

2.      Therefore God is inclined to pardon sinners without demanding any payment

3.      They taught that Christ’s death served as an example of obedience and love to believers, pointing the way to life

                                                            v.      There has been a revival of this view in modern times among evangelicals who adhere to Open Theism—see John Sanders’ book The God Who Risks

                                                          vi.      Major Problem with this view?

1.      This view makes the atonement nothing more than an example and as a result there is no real propitiatory aspect to Christ’s death

2.      If sinners are “redeemed” by following an example of Christ, then “salvation” is reduced to moral reform motivated by love—and salvation is by works

3.      Abelard’s argument for this view is that divine forgiveness is so lavish that it renders a payment for sin unnecessary

4.      But Scripture says that “without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22); divine forgiveness is rooted and grounded in a blood atonement

c.       The Governmental Theory

                                                              i.      This view was devised by Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) during the Arminian controversy in Holland

                                                            ii.      The view:

1.      It stated that God Himself requires no payment for sin, but that public justice did require some token or display of how much God despises sin.

2.      Christ was sacrificed to display to the world what God’s wrath against sin looks like.

3.      The atonement accomplished nothing objective on the sinner’s behalf. Redemption therefore is primarily a subjective issue hinging completely on the sinner’s response.

                                                          iii.      Modern revival of this view

1.      Embraced by several New England theologians in the 17th and 18th centuries, including Charles Finney and Albert Barnes

2.      Promoted through groups like Youth With A Mission (YWAM) and popular Christian authors and speakers, such as Jed Smock (“Brother Jed”), a well-known campus evangelist, and George Otis (see his message entitled “The Atonement” at http://www.concentric.net/~for1/otisa.htm)

3.      Man-centered revivalism is linked with this theory. See Web site www.revivaltheology.com

4.      Popular among Charismatics, especially in the Assemblies of God

                                                          iv.      Major problems with this view

1.      Defines salvation in terms of what the sinner must do leading to perfectionism, moralism, or other works-based forms of religion

2.      Redefines the significance of the cross: rather than emphasizing what Christ objectively accomplished there, people who hold to this view must define the cross in terms of how it can subjectively change the human heart


III.               The True Doctrine of Atonement: Christ’s Death as a Penal Substitution

a.       Doctrine of Atonement taught in Scripture

                                                              i.      Christ’s death was a substitution for sinners

                                                            ii.      God imputed the guilt of their transgressions to Christ and then punished Him for it

                                                          iii.      This was a full payment for the price of sins, to satisfy both the wrath and the righteousness of God, so that He could forgive sins without compromising His own holy standard

b.      This doctrine was an essential part of Christian doctrine from the beginning

                                                              i.      Anselm of Canterbury focused his efforts to understand this doctrine

1.      He wrote Cur Deus Homo? (Why Did God Become Man?)

2.      This offered compelling biblical evidence that the atonement was not a ransom paid by God to the devil but rather a debt paid to God on behalf of sinners

                                                            ii.      Anselm’s work established a foundation for the Protestant Reformation, specifically the understanding of justification by faith

c.       Biblical texts that prove this view

                                                              i.      Isaiah 53

1.      vs. 5-6 speaks specifically of the imputation of the sinner’s guilt to Christ

2.      vs. 8-9 states that Christ was punished for others’ sins and He Himself was innocent of any wrong doing

3.      vs. 10 underscores the fact that it was God who exacted the penalty for sin

4.      vs. 11 highlights the principle of substitution, alongside the notion that this is a penal substitution

                                                            ii.      Other verses that underscore the substitutionary nature of the atonement

1.      2 Corinthians 5:21

2.      Galatians 3:13

3.      1 Peter 2:24

4.      1 Peter 3:18

5.      1 John 2:2

d.      Scripture teaches that divine justice is perfectly fulfilled in the atoning work of Christ

                                                              i.      Romans 1:17

                                                            ii.      1 John 1:9

                                                          iii.      He doesn’t merely set aside justice and forgive us out of the sheer abundance of His mercy; He forgives because it is an act of justice to do so (Romans 3:26).

IV.              The Extent of the Atonement

a.       Limited Atonement: everyone “limits” the atonement in some way

                                                              i.      Arminians limit the efficacy of the atonement

                                                            ii.      Calvinists believe the atonement is unlimited in its efficacy and limited only in its design

1.      We believe the atonement accomplishes precisely what God sovereignly designed it to accomplish—no more, no less

2.      God’s ultimate purpose in the atonement was the salvation of the elect

b.      True Calvinism does not teach the atonement is limited in its sufficiency (See the Cannons of the synod of Dordt of 1619)

c.       It is the design of the atonement—the eternal purpose of God—that is limited. God’s saving purpose is focused on the elect in particular

d.      Because the atonement is substitutionary it must apply to particular people

                                                              i.      Example of Pharaoh and Judas, suffering for their own sins in hell

ii.                  The substitutionary aspects of Christ’s death belong to the elect alone 


For more of Phil's sermons and messages go to: www.SwordandTrowel.org

Added to Bible Bulletin Board's "Shepherd's Conference Collection" by:

Tony Capoccia
Bible Bulletin Board
Box 119
Columbus, New Jersey, USA, 08022
Our websites: www.biblebb.com and www.gospelgems.com
Email: tony@biblebb.com
Online since 1986