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Atonement Heresies

John MacArthur provides brief explanations of “spurious theories of the atonement” that “offer some kind of false alternative to the truth that Christ's death was an offering to God meant to satisfy and placate His righteous anger against sin,” most of which “deliberately attempt to eliminate, as much as possible, the offense of the cross“.


There’s the moral influence theory—the belief that Christ’s death was merely an example of personal sacrifice and self-giving love and not at all the payment of a redemption price. This is the view most theological liberals hold. For reasons that should be obvious, their perspective on the atonement inevitably breeds works-oriented religion. If Christ’s work is merely a model to follow, and not a substitutionary sacrifice, salvation must somehow be earned through one’s own effort.

The ransom theory (a belief that was common in the post-apostolic era in the first century) is the notion that Christ’s death was a ransom paid to Satan for the souls of the faithful. There’s no biblical warrant for such a view, of course. It was originally based on a misunderstanding of the biblical term ransom, which simply means “redemption price.” But this view fails to take into account all the biblical data. Scripture makes abundantly clear that Christ’s death on the cross was “an offering and a sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2; cf. Heb. 9:14).

The governmental theory was proposed by Hugo Grotius, a Dutch legal expert from the early seventeenth century. He said the cross was not a ransom at all; it was merely a vivid symbolic display of God’s wrath against sin—and therefore it stands as a public vindication of God’s moral government. Grotius’s view was adopted by American revivalist Charles Finney. It was shared by other leading New England theologians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And has been brought back into the limelight recently by a certain class of radical Arminians. They typically favor this view because it does away with the idea that Christ died as anyone’s substitute—a truth they consider unjust (even though Scripture stresses the fact that Christ voluntarily took that role).

Another opinion that has been steadily gaining popularity for the past quarter century is the Christus victor theory. This idea is favored by many new-model theologians (including most of the architects of the now-failed Emerging Church movement). In their view, Christ’s death and resurrection signified nothing more than His triumph over all the foes of fallen humanity, including sin, death, the Devil, and especially the law of God. They want to scale down the significance of Christ’s atoning work to a very narrow spectrum of what He actually accomplished. It is certainly true enough that Christ “wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us,” and “disarmed principalities and powers” (Col. 2:14-15). But the theme of victory over the enemies of the human race simply doesn’t do full justice to everything the Bible says about the cross. It’s a man-centered and severely truncated view of the atonement.

Those who adopt the Christus victor theory favor triumphal language, and they eschew biblical terms like sacrifice for sin or propitiation. Most who hold this view would emphatically deny that Christ offered Himself to God on the cross. At the end of the day, this is just another unbiblical view that pretends to exalt and ennoble the love of God by overturning and eliminating the law’s demand for justice.

All those theories attempt to sidestep the biblical principle of propitiation. Most of them do it on purpose, because they are rooted in a skewed view of divine love. People are drawn to these views by a common false assumption—namely, that God’s mercy is fundamentally incompatible with His justice. They believe God will forego the demands of justice in order to forgive. They conclude that divine righteousness needs no satisfaction; God will simply set aside His own righteousness and erase whatever debt is owed to His justice because of sin. Given those faulty presuppositions, the death of Christ must then be explained in terms that avoid any suggestion of retributive justice.

The doctrine of penal substitution is the only view that incorporates the full range of biblical principles regarding atonement for sin.

—John MacArthur, The Gospel according to Paul (Thomas Nelson, 2017), 78–80.

Posted 2018·07·05 by David Kjos
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Posted in: Atonement · John MacArthur · The Gospel according to Paul

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