The personal relevance of the atonement

“Theo Geek” Andrew raises an important point when he discusses A spectator’s view of the atonement. He quotes someone (“a poster on the internet” – I wish he would acknowledge his sources) complaining that the Christus Victor model of the atonement is irrelevant, and he notes that the same could be said of the penal substitutionary model. Indeed.

As I have mentioned before, there are several valid models of the atonement; Andrew lists some of them. Each of these describes well one aspect of the atonement, but none of them is complete and adequate in itself. For the atonement is more profound than can be fully described in human words. But the model which is most relevant for any individual is the one which meets their felt needs.

Do you feel defeated by evil forces stronger than you? Or did you before you were a Christian? Then Christus Victor is the model you need.

Do you feel that you are trapped or in bondage? Or did you? Then ransom from Satan is the model you need.

Do you, or did you, feel guilty because of your sin? Then PSA is the model for you.

Do you, or did you, feel ashamed because you have let down your Lord? Then you need the satisfaction model.

Do you, or did you, feel lost in a moral maze? Then you need a moral exemplar – etcetera etcetera.

In fact, apart from Christ all of us are defeated, in bondage, guilty, ashamed and lost, and so all of these models, and more, apply to all of us. But the model which speaks most to us is the one which applies most immediately to our personal situation and feelings. So let us not insist on narrowing down the atonement to a one size fits all simple doctrine. Let us instead acknowledge the rich and all encompassing nature of what Christ has done to meet the needs of each one of us.

0 thoughts on “The personal relevance of the atonement

  1. Pingback: Threads from Henry’s Web » Blog Archive » Expressing the Multifaceted Nature of the Atonement

  2. I agree that no single model is complete or adequate, but is the primary significance of the atonement the way it makes me feel or the way it speaks to me? For instance, what previously held me back from approaching God wasn’t that I lacked confidence (that was a good thing for me under the circumstances!), but that such a thing was impossible for me. Surely the most significant and relevant thing to me in the atonement is the objective fact that it has completely changed my status in relation to God. All the likewise good psychological and subjective corolloraries of this change in status flow from that. I need confidence, but the atonement’s role wasn’t to give me confidence or make me feel better, but to bring me into a right relationship with God, which would allow amongst other things allow me to receive such benefits.

  3. Si, in principle you are right. It would be wrong for anyone to claim that the model of the atonement which is most personally relevant is the primary significance of the atonement. This applies just as much to those for whom PSA feels especially relevant because their primary need was related to guilt and fear of punishment. Yes, the primary significance of the atonement is indeed the objective fact that we have a relationship with God which otherwise we did not have. That is what underlies all the models and ties them together as different models of the same reality.

  4. Thanks, Peter. I would tend to agree. Although I think models such as “soft penal sub” and “Christus Victor” are close to/at the heart of any telling of the atonement, there is a time and a place for emphasising different aspects and using different models, as the Holy Spirit leads. If I were sharing the gospel with someone, and they were telling me how much of a failure they felt, I would not feel compelled to launch in to a monologue on the wrath of God.

    I do feel as this is the point Steve Chalke was trying to make, although perhaps he made a bit of mess of making it.

  5. Alastair, thanks for bringing in the relevance of this to evangelism, which I had intended to do. I am currently doing Bill Hybels’ course “Just Walk Across the Room”, the study for my church’s home groups. One of the best parts of it, and part of the background for my thinking in this post, is that in personal evangelism we must first listen to the other person and find out where they are, and then talk to them in a way which fits their situation. We shouldn’t just have a prepared talk, complete with our favourite presentation of the cross, which we trot out to everyone whatever their personal actual and felt needs.

  6. How do you think the apostles explained the reason for our Lord’s death? Do you think they put up different models to suit the occasion?

    What did Peter say to the crowd on the Day of Pentecost? You killed the Christ! This was effective in causing many to repent. The message was simple. You sinned against God. You killed Jesus. It was a very personal message and the people were cut to the heart.

    This is true today. No matter who we are or where we are in time and space, we killed God’s Son. Our sins caused Him to die. If it were not for our sinfulness and His desire to turn us from evil, the Son of God would never have come. The evidence which followed the resurrection is the proof that Jesus was all that He claimed to be. We are guilty and need to be told. We need to repent in godly sorrow for all our sins against God and man, turning to Christ.

    It is not simply a matter of belief. Repentance matters and is biblical. Without it, there is no salvation.


    Norman McIlwain

  7. Norman asked:

    How do you think the apostles explained the reason for our Lord’s death? Do you think they put up different models to suit the occasion?

    Yes, I do. Of course they cannot do this in a personal way in sermons, as we have recorded in Acts. We don’t have many records of the apostles’ one to one evangelism, although we do of Jesus’. But we know that Paul adapted his presentation to his audience, both from his own explanation (1 Corinthians 9:19-23) and from his example, as we see by comparing his approaches in Thessalonica and in Athens in Acts 17.

    Peter’s stark message “You killed Jesus”, and of course the other side of it “God raised him from the dead”, was right for when and where he preached it, in Acts 2-5, to Jews in Jerusalem who only a few weeks earlier had claimed responsibility for just that (Matthew 27:25). I don’t think it was ever put so unsubtly again, except when Stephen preached it (Acts 7:52) and was killed for it. By Acts 10:39 Peter (cf Paul in 13:27-29) is preaching, accurately, that the people of Jerusalem, not his audience, killed Jesus.

    But I do note it is never God who killed Jesus, that is not 1st century teaching but a 21st century error.

  8. Thank you, Peter. Your points are well taken. However, different modes of presentation and different models of the atonement are two different things.

    Let us take the ‘ransomed to the devil’ idea. I simply can’t envisage the apostles raising that one! It presents the devil as having power over God and legitamacy – rights according to God’s own law. It is a false doctrine – no matter how many are or have been – throughout history – fooled by it.

    The different models, as you say, may have elements of truth and seem convincing when presented in a certain way, but they also conflict.

    Jesus didn’t ransom Himself to the devil and we should never teach that He did. It’s not biblical. Can someone believe this and still be a called and chosen child of God? – Yes. Even error can be used to establish saving faith. The Lord calls us by various means and in various ways, but we are then expected to grow in the grace and knowledge of God, as the Spirit leads.

    In conclusion, I would say: Different presentations? – Yes. Conflicting gospels of the atonement? – No. I think most Christians will agree that there can only ever be one true Gospel.

    I would sincerely like to hear from you what you believe this to be.



  9. Norman, I am surprised to read such a clear rejection of the “ransomed to the devil” idea. But I wonder if you misunderstand the model.

    No one seriously suggests that Jesus actually paid a price which benefited the devil in exchange for us prisoners being set free. The most that can ever be claimed is something like a prisoner exchange, but a temporary one. It is a bit like fooling some kidnappers into accepting a hostage exchange so that they take a new “hostage” who is in fact secretly armed to the teeth to destroy them and escape.

    The Bible clearly teaches that we were captive to sin and the devil and have been set free or redeemed by Jesus: Acts 26:18, Romans 6:18, 8:23, Colossians 1:13,14, 2 Timothy 2:26, Hebrews 2:14,15. It states that Christ defeated the devil and destroyed his work: Mark 3:26, 1 John 3:8. The darkness on the cross symbolised that Jesus submitted himself to the powers of evil on the cross. I realise I am proof texting here; I could go into more detail but there is no room in a comment.

    I agree that we need different presentations of the atonement but not conflicting models. But sometimes the conflict is only apparent, because of our limited understanding of what is really happening. It was long believed that there was a conflict between light being particles and being waves, but now it is realised that these are two different models of a more profound reality. And similarly with the atonement.

  10. I will reply more fully tomorrow. Where I am, it is now 11.30 pm.

    Actually, I was remembering the words of Gregory of Nazianzus who rejected this kind of idea in the early 4th century.

    Now, to bed. Good night.


  11. Thank you, Norman. I hope you are having a good night. Meanwhile I have started to look at your website. It is good to have someone with your knowledge and experience to debate this with.

    The problem with models, whether light as particle or wave, whether atonement as PSA or ransom from Satan, is when these models are pushed too far. There will always be things which cannot be explained by any one model. PSA cannot explain why it is just for God to forgive us, and when it tries to by invoking the Father punishing the Son it gets lost. The ransom theory cannot explain what was given to Satan as a ransom, and gets lost when people try to speculate on that. But I still see them a different valid models of the profound truth, if used carefully and not presented as the full explanation.

  12. Dear Peter,

    Thank you again. I look forward to our discussions.

    The quote I was thinking of when I wrote earlier about the ‘ransom theory’ is given below:
    Gregory of Nazianzus (329/330-389):

    ‘… I ask to whom was this offered, and for what cause? If to the Evil One, fie upon the outrage! If the robber receives ransom, not only from God, but a ransom which consists of God Himself, and has such an illustrious payment for his tyranny…’ Oration 45: 22

    The full statement can be read in context @,_Oration_45:_Second_Paschal_Oration

    It is an interesting passage and supports views I hold in some respects (which is probably why I remember it!).

    Yes, Gregory of Nyssa and others advanced a more elaborate version of the theory – along the lines you suggest. However, the ransom was still thought to have been offered to the devil, howbeit for deceptive purposes – this is what G. of Nazianzus focuses upon in his rejection of it. Many have also realized that to suggest God would plan to deceive (no matter the perceived benefits) is really to attribute a lie to the Almighty. God doesn’t lie (Tit. 1:2). That should be the end of it.

    None of the verses you referred to support this theory, although I know creative attempts are made to deduce this notion from what we read in them. Jesus offered His life to God. Satan took His body and took away His life. Jesus certainly didn’t offer it to him.

    The sins of man have kept him in prison, separated from God, along with the prince of this world. Satan doesn’t hold the keys to let us out. He is in prison, himself. Man is enslaved to him because of the power of sin. This is the hold he has on us before we come to faith in Christ. Unredeemed mankind abides in a kingdom of darkness, led by the prince of darkness. The light of Christ shining into our hearts is what we need to escape. It is the power of God setting the prisoners free, turning sinful man back to God. Notice the need for repentance in some of the passage you have quoted:

    Acts 26:18: ‘…to turn them from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins …’ (NKJ).

    2 Tim.2:25-26: ‘…if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth, and that they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, having been taken captive by him to do his will’ (NKJ).

    Without repentance, there can be no salvation. We need to turn towards God in our hearts in response to the Gospel of Christ. When we do, the offering that He made to God on our behalf is accepted for us and we are covered with His righteousness – set free from sin, death and the devil. The ransom – the payment made to obtain our release – was the life Jesus offered up to God, the Father. A truly righteous life is what we cannot give, because of sin. It is the debt we cannot pay. Thank God that Jesus – THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS – has paid that debt for us!

    Norman McIlwain

  13. I wish he would acknowledge his sources)

    The quotation on Andrew’s blog is from the Ship of Fools thread entitled ‘Christus Victor’. It would be hard to point to it and hard to cite as posters are, for the most part, anonymous. That was posted by ‘Johnny S’, if I recall correctly.

    If it helps in any way!

  14. Pingback: Speaker of Truth » The Gospel is not just about guilt and forgiveness

  15. Norman, I’m sorry I was slow moderating your comment and slower responding to it.

    Thank you for the quote from Gregory of Nazianzus. I have skimmed the whole article. It is clear that he believed in some version of the ransom theory. I don’t think we have to say that God lied to the devil for the ransom theory to work, just that the devil didn’t know the whole truth. Compare the version in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where the witch simply didn’t know about the deeper magic which meant that Aslan would come back to life.

    I don’t want to claim that this ransom theory is the whole truth of the atonement any more than PSA is. Both theories have their shortcomings if pressed to explain every detail. But that does not imply that either is invalid.

  16. Peter wrote: ‘It is clear that he believed in some version of the ransom theory.’

    Gregory of Nazianzus believed in some version of ‘a’ ransom theory. He certainly didn’t accept that it was a ransom to the devil.

    If we willingly give ourselves to sin and the devil then we are slaves of sin and the devil. Sin has resulted in man’s separation from God. Sinners are, as it were in prison – separated from God. The devil does not hold the keys to let people out! He is in this prison himself, along with those under his sway. It is a debtors prison and what we owe to effect release we cannot pay. God demands that we offer up righteous lives. This ‘debt’ the Lord has paid for all who turn to Him in faith. God accepts this gift on our behalf, if we are Christ’s. This was the ransom that Jesus is said to have given His life to pay.

    Norman McIlwain

  17. Thank you, Norman. Nevertheless the Bible does teach that the world is in the power of the evil one, but Christian believers have been released from this power, 1 John 5:18,19. Those who sin are “of the devil” and “children of the devil”, but Christ came to destroy the works of the devil, 3:8,10. Compare also Acts 10:38 where Peter speaks of Jesus healing “all who were under the power of the devil” (TNIV), presumably referring to the sick rather than the especially sinful. There are various biblical models of what happens here, maybe not all entirely consistent. But there is in passages like these a biblical basis for this idea that becoming a Christian means being released from the devil’s power, and so for the ransom from the devil model of the atonement.

  18. Thank you, Peter.

    Yes, those who follow a life of sin are ‘of the devil’. I don’t dispute this. However, our release from this captivity was not dependent on the devil exercising any power to let us go on receipt of a ransom. For this reason, the ransom payment of our Lord’s life could not have been made to the devil. He did not engage in an exchange of prisoners. The devil’s power and hold over mankind was destroyed – as you rightly note. What is this power? – It is the power of sin bringing death. Justification and forgiveness in Christ frees mankind from the condemnation of sin. All who turn to Christ turn away from sin to practise righteousness as His disciples. Their lives are no longer characterised by sin. (This is not to say that there will be no sin, of course.)

    A ransom is a gift that is given to effect release. The devil has no part in our release at all.

    If we concede that the above is true, then how should we understand the fact that Jesus was ‘delivered up’ and that as ‘a lamb silent before its shearer’ He put up no resistance – like (as you say) Aslan in the story by C.S. Lewis?

    At the time of the crucifixion, God’s protection of His Son was lifted and I suppose this is why the assumption is made that Jesus was at this point ransomed to the devil. Not so. You don’t do deals with the devil (Faust, notwithstanding!). God made no transaction with the evil one – whatever the devil may have thought! Can I suggest that the devil may have believed that he would cause Jesus to sin and curse His creation – as he thought Job would have cursed God? Satan delighted in putting God’s Son to the test. This was his chance to strike back at the One he hated. The ordeal that our Lord endured revealed the power of God’s love for mankind. It was the power of love over hatred, righteousness over evil – and it was His righteous life that was offered up to God for our sakes. In trying to overcome the Son of God with violence, that bitter assault achieved the opposite of that intended. His blows against God turned back against himself. Each nail that was hammered in drove his own destruction that much closer. The power of sin was destroyed.


    Norman McIlwain

  19. God made no transaction with the evil one – whatever the devil may have thought!

    Indeed! We were released from being under the power of the devil not because the devil was bought off with a ransom, but because he was defeated and the hold he had on us because of sin was broken. He didn’t release us voluntarily. Nevertheless, in some sense, according to the Bible, Jesus gave his life as a ransom to set us free. The price was paid, not for the devil’s benefit, but to defeat him.

    I suppose someone who supported the war in Iraq would say that American and British troops gave their lives to set Iraqis free from Saddam Hussein, and even that in some senses their lives became a ransom to set the Iraqis free. But of course no deal was made with Saddam, and he didn’t benefit, rather the opposite! I would suggest that the situation with Jesus’ death was rather similar – except better justified and in the long run more successful!

  20. Kirk your “gospel” has to many gates. The gospel of God has been perfected for man. For this reason the gospel of God only has one small narrow gate. For as it is written “the Sabbath is made for man not man for the Sabbath.” There are no models of atonement respective to human thought for God does not respect persons. Is this clear?

  21. Theodore, I am not sure that I understand you. But if you mean that the atonement is too deep a mystery to be understood by human thought or described properly by human models, I agree. Our best models are only crude approximations to a truth which is far deeper than we can fully grasp.

  22. No. The true reason why Jesus was crucified can be fully understood but only by the faith of continuing in his words. I have already stated to you what the true reason for Jesus’ crucifixion is. He became the sin each man must repent of to become one with God regarding that his crucifixion is the sin of murder caused by bloodshed. This small narrow gate is only found by a few but it is not mysterious. McIlwain is close but chooses not to understand that the law Repent has been added so that the trespass of Jesus murder is increased upon all men by this new law. ref. Rom. 5:20 & Heb. 7:12. This new law narrows the gate down to the faith of repenting of the one sin of Jesus’ murder for the forgiveness of ALL sins. If there had been any prior comprehension that this one word could have been added to the law of God Jesus would not have been crucified. 1 Cor. 2:7-9.
    Now do you understand?

  23. Kirk I asked you a question and isn’t it commanded “Give to the one who asks you”?
    Are you slow on the uptake or is there some other reason?

  24. Dear Mr Jones,

    In my country only sportsmen, school children and criminals are addressed by their surname with no title. I am none of these. If you call me Peter or Mr Kirk and ask me politely, I might reply to your question. If you presume to insult me and order me about on my own blog, I will simply ignore you, and unless your further comments have anything to add to the subject of this post I will delete them.

    Yours faithfully,

    Peter Kirk (Mr)

  25. Pete I did not issue the command. See Mt. 5:41&42. There is also the other one “Love your enemy.” Common to this contemporary churches’ hierarchy is that it will not obey any of Jesus’ commands. Answer the question ‘Now do you understand?’ By the way I am not from your country nor are your social constrictions impressive.

  26. Thank you, Theodore, for being a little more polite. I accept that different countries have different standards of politeness. I leave others to judge whether you are being polite by the standards of your own country, which I assume to be the USA as that is where you are posting from.

    I agree with you that it is deplorable that many in the church do not take seriously many of Jesus’ commands including “Love your enemy”. But I don’t see the relevance of that to this post. As for the command “Give to the one who asks you”, that applies to material things, not answers to questions.

    Nevertheless, I will answer your question “Now do you understand?” I now understand better what you are teaching. And I agree that God calls us to repent of our sins which include our complicity in the death of Jesus. Of course “Repent!” was the call of Jesus before he died, so it can hardly be restricted to repenting of his death. What I do not accept is that your particular understanding of repentance has the central place for our salvation which you seem to assign to it.

    I do not wish to discuss this issue in greater depth here. I will feel under no obligation to reply to any further comments from you, and may delete any such comments which do not contribute to understanding of the subject matter of this post.

  27. If any person can be born of God by repenting of sins or confessing to be a sinner, inviting Christ into his life, giving his heart to Jesus, his life to Christ, changing his life style etc., if he could be born of God by these things, it is not necessary for the crucifixion of Jesus to have taken place. The construction of this narcissistic philosophy can only occur by changing the word sin in Jn. 16:8 by adding the letter ‘s’ or ‘ner’ to this word and there by disobey the Lord’s command “Do not add or subtract from my words.”, to diminish the meaning of the word sin to make it mean less than what he meant by saying this word. Isn’t it evident to you by the scriptures that the law is not put into place to produce righteousness but is instituted by authority to teach you that sin is exceedingly sinful? For this reason Jesus having been made by God to be Lord and only to him is given all authority, ascended back to his father, made the high priest, necessitating that there also be new law in regard to the sin of his crucifixion. For there cannot be a conviction of the trespass against the Lord’s body without the law showing that the crucifixion of Jesus is exceedingly sinful. Therefore it is by the law of the new covenant perfected by the shedding of the Lord’s blood that righteousness from God, apart from law, can only be obtained by the faith to obey the last command of Jesus first for the forgiveness of ALL sins. The only Way this command can be obeyed is by repenting of the Lord’s murder. So then you are in error for the sin is committed first then the law, so that the first is last, regarding that the sacrifice of every first born is a horror. Ez.20:26
    Now “speaker of truth” do you understand?

  28. Yes, Theodore, now I understand that you are a false teacher who denies the truth of the gospel.

    The sin in John 16:8,9, if it is not just generic, must be the explicitly mentioned one of not believing in Jesus.

    Please do not comment further on this post.

  29. Is it necessary to remind you again of what will happen if you simply repeat questions on this blog, and all the more so if you add insults to them? This is your final warning. Any more comments from you on this post, unless I judge them of particular interest, will be deleted. The same applies to any insulting or off-topic comments anywhere else on this blog.

    If you really want to know what my gospel is, read the rest of this blog, and refrain from commenting.

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