Words of Life – “Atonement” (Part 3)

Victory in Jesus, my Savior forever!
He sought me and bought me with His redeeming blood
He loved me ‘er I knew Him and all my love is due Him
He plunged me to victory beneath the cleansing flood!

In recent weeks, we’ve been studying the meaning of the word “atonement” and the role it plays in our Christian faith. To review, we found that the Hebrew word for atonement implied cleansing or purification. In Israelite culture, it primarily signified maintaining conditions suitable for God’s presence to dwell in the tabernacle or temple among sinful humans.  The Greek connotation was less consistent; signifying a range of meanings from cleansing, to appeasement, to mercy,  and propitiation. The focus, however, remained similar; reconciliation between man and God. Last week, we highlighted two of the most popular modern perspectives on how Jesus’ death on the cross brought about this atonement. Today, we’ll look at two much older explanations for what happened on the cross.

Ransom Theory

The Early Church Fathers I Never Saw as a Protestant Pastor - The Coming Home Network

Among the oldest explanations of what happened on the first Good Friday is “the Ransom Theory.” This interpretation is detectable within the New Testament writings of the Apostle Paul, though the  theory is not not explicitly articulated until early Church Fathers, Origen and Gregory of Nyssa in the second and third centuries. Ransom theory was further developed by theologians such as Augustine of Hippo in the fourth century and Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th century. In its most basic form, Ransom Theory asserts  that humanity was held captive by sin, death, and the devil due to the Fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Mankind is thus separated from God, subjugated to the power of darkness, and enslaved to the sinful passions of the flesh. In this view, God’s justice demands that He pay a ransom to redeem (or “buy back”) humanity from the forces of evil. This ransom took the form of God himself, in the form of a man, suffering and dying on the cross.

Stone Knife and Stone Table - The Cobalt Jade Website

This view, like Penal Substitution discussed last week, may sound very familiar to anyone who has read C. S. Lewis’ beloved tale, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe (or has seen the film bearing the same name.) In this epic adventure overflowing with Christian allegory, the sacrifice of Aslan the lion serves as a central and pivotal moment in the narrative. Aslan, who represents Christ, willingly offers himself as a ransom to the White Witch, Jadis, in exchange for Edmund’s life. However, as Aslan himself explains:

“If the Witch knew the true meaning of sacrifice, she might have interpreted the Deep Magic a little differently. For she would know that if a willing victim who had committed no treachery died in a traitor’s stead, the Stone Table would crack and death itself would begin to unwind.”


― C.S. Lewis; The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

Aslan’s words seem to echo a passage from the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church:  

“None of the rulers of this age understood it. If they had known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”


― 1 Corinthians 2:8

It is easy to see how this version of Ransom Theory might have evolved into the later, more narrowed, interpretations, though it provides a slightly more robust view of the cross than either Penal Substitution or Satisfaction Theory. To continue with the Lewis’ allegory, Aslan’s sacrifice not only saved Edmond’s life, but also nullified the witch’s claim on him and set in motion the events that would lead to her ultimate defeat. The same is true of Calvary. Jesus, the true image of the Father (Heb 1:3) and over whom death had no rightful claim (Acts 2:24), nevertheless subjected himself to the cross as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45, 1 Tim 2:5-6). In doing so, he broke the power of the forces of darkness and redeemed us out of our slavery to sin and death (Hebrews 2:14-15); welcoming us into His kingdom of light (Col 1:13-14).

What Does the Bible Say about the Babylonian Captivity?

This theory becomes all the more convincing when we take second temple Jewish culture and beliefs into account. At the time of Paul’s writings, Judea and the rest of lands once called “Israel” were under Roman rule. The great Exile which began with the “Babylonian Captivity” in 586 BCE was still in effect. Not all Israel had returned. In fact, ten tribes had been dispersed among the nations and lost their distinct identities entirely. The presence of God which had once filled the temple had been absent ever since Ezekiel described His departure prior to Israel’s fall to Babylon (Ezekiel 10:18-19). Jews all across the land were awaiting and praying for a second Exodus; an expectation often referred to using the language of “redemption” or “deliverance.” 

Unlike the Egyptian bondage, however, Israel’s current exile was the faithful execution of God’s own divine Judgment (Deuteronomy 28:63-68) and they knew it. For this reason, many rabbis (especially Pharisees like Paul) had come to the conclusion that this Redemption would be contingent upon the forgiveness of Israel’s sins. Paul builds on this pre-existing theme by broadening the scope of the exile beyond Israel and their Pagan overlords; redefining it as the state of all humanity in bondage to spiritual slave masters (Romans 6:16-18, Colossians 1:13-14). Similar themes are also articulated by the Hebrew writer in Hebrews 2:14-15. It is no accident that Paul conflates the concepts of “redemption” and “forgiveness of sins” as though they were one and the same (Ephesians 1:7, Colossians 1:13-14, Romans 3:23-24). In describing the significance of communion, N. T. Wright puts it this way:

“Instead of Passover pointing backward to the great sacrifice by which God had rescued his people from slavery in Egypt, this meal pointed forward to the great sacrifice by which God was to rescue his people from their ultimate slavery, from death itself and all that contributed to it (evil, corruption, and sin). This would be the real Exodus, the real “return from exile.” This would be the establishment of the “new covenant” spoken of by Jeremiah (31:31). This would be the means by which “sins would be forgiven”—in other words, the means by which God would deal with the sin that had caused Israel’s exile and shame and, beyond that, the sin because of which the whole world was under the power of death.”


― N.T. Wright, Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters

We discussed this a bit last week, but the picture of atonement and covenant portrayed by the Lord’s Supper becomes all the more vivid when viewed under Ransom Theory.

One concern with the Ransom Theory, however, is that it seems to portray God as making a deal with the devil which many find unpalatable and contradictory to the character of God. While the idea of Jesus paying a ransom for the redemption of mankind finds strong support in scripture, so does another very old theory of atonement which portrays Christ, not only as a sacrificial ransom, but also as a conquering and liberating King; Cristus Victor ―that is the Victorious Christ! This is my personal favorite way of thinking about the cross of Calvary. 

Cristus Victor ― the Victorious Christ!

Cristus Victor is exciting. It’s triumphant and jubilant. This view of the cross not only accounts for the things we’ve been focusing on in the present study, but also intertwines with dozens of other threads and themes across the Christian tapestry. It is rooted in the earliest of Christian traditions and was articulated by theologians such as Irenaeus of Lyons and Athanasius of Alexandria in the second and third centuries.

8 Bible Verses on Christ's Descent into Hell - Taylor MarshallAs with the Ransom Theory, Cristus Victor depicts humanity ensnared in sin, death, and the clutches of dominion of darkness. Unlike the Ransom Theory, however, Cristus Victor does not present the crucifixion as compliance with the demands or claims of the dark powers. Instead it sees Jesus’ death as the infiltration of their very stronghold. The resurrection, then, is Jesus’ triumphant emergence out of the domain of darkness having plundered its depths and confiscated the keys to death, hell, and the grave. This perspective can be seen in beloved hymns like Victory In Jesus, Up From the Grave He Arose, and even Handel’s Messiah. The concept of Cristus Victor is also the foundation for the somewhat controversial theological teaching; “the Harrowing of Hell” in which Jesus, after his crucifixion and before his resurrection, descended into the realm of the dead, known as Hades or Sheol, to proclaim victory over sin and death and to free the righteous souls who were awaiting redemption (Ephesians 4:8-10, 1 Peter 3:18-20)

Victorious King, Jesus Christ (borrowed Photo) | Jesus, Jesus christ, ChristAtonement, under Cristus Victor, transcends merely appeasement of God’s wrath or the meeting out of divine justice. Rather, it embodies the ultimate defeat of sin and evil, the rescue of humanity, and their welcome into the sanctuary of the Kingdom of Light. Within the safety of God’s kingdom they find clear water to wash away the filth and grime of their captivity. They find healing for their wounds and rest for their souls. Ultimately, they also find eternal purpose as they are adopted as sons, daughters and heirs; restored to the royal and priestly role for which they had been created.

The main difficulty with this view is that it can be difficult to see the role “faith” plays in personal salvation or how the cross results in the forgiveness of sins. These are important concerns that warrant further exploration. For the question of faith, it is helpful to establish a better understanding of the Greek word ‘pistis’ which is usually translated in the New Testament as “faith” or “belief”. These translations, however, can give the unfortunate and misleading implication that Christian salvation is based on affirming the truthfulness of certain biblical claims. This is not the case. Rather, pistis carries with it the notion of a covenant relationship; a bond of loyalty, devotion, and trust between two or more parties. 

Faith and Forgiveness

One of the best pictures of this in our society is the covenant of faith between a husband and wife in marriage (which is also a very common biblical metaphor for the relationship between Christ and the Church). While pistis can be used to refer to simple belief, an holistic and exegetical approach to scripture leaves little room for doubt that the saving faith described in the Bible is a covenant, not a set of affirmations. With Christ in view as the victorious King who has triumphed over the dark powers, faith takes on a connotation of allegiance or vassalship. Jesus’ death and resurrection broke death’s claim on humanity and granted us the freedom to choose which kingdom we will serve; ― that is where we will place our faith, our loyalty, our devotion. Will we remain willingly in service to the kingdom of death? Or will we enter into covenant with the King above all kings? 

Understanding Sin and Evil - Cain and Abel - An Oracle of SinLikewise,  the question of “forgiveness of sins” requires us to better understand the biblical notion of “sin.” We must differentiate between what the apostle Paul often calls “sin” (singular) and “sins” (plural) or what John calls “sin which leads to death” and “sin that does not lead to death.” The bible uses a plethora of words that we would consider synonymous with “sin”, but careful study of these words reveals that they tend to fall into two categories. On the one hand; words like transgression, trespass, wrongdoing, offense, and sins (plural) often refer to individual misdeeds, lapses in judgment, or failings due to foolishness or the weakness of the flesh. On the other hand, words like Iniquity, Wickedness, Lawlessness, Unrighteousness, and Sin (singular) often denote a life characterized by willful rebellion against God. Furthermore, Sin (singular) is often personified or described as if it were a living and dangerous entity. 

How, then, does this explain the meaning of “forgiveness” in the context of Cristus Victor? It means that in scripture, the word “sin” can refer to any action which “misses the mark” or falls short of the divine image we are called to reflect (I’ll call this “sin” or “sins” with a lowercase “s”), bit it can also be a reference to the dominion of darkness itself (for this, I’ll use “Sin” with a capital “S”). With this in mind, Jesus’ sacrificial death and resurrection defeated the dominion of Sin and condemned Sin itself (Romans 8:3-4). This act of grace freed us from the bondage of Sin and allows us to “walk in the Light” where the blood of Christ continually cleanses us from all sin. This is why the induction of a believer into the kingdom of God involves baptism. This symbolic washing is more than just a ritual. It constitutes the initial cleansing of the new Christian’s sins and his pledge of allegiance to the Kingdom of light against the dominion of Sin as Dr. Michael S. Heiser explains in reference to 1 Peter 3:21:

“The word most often translated “appeal” (eperotema) in verse 21 is best understood as “pledge” here, a meaning that it has in other material.  Likewise the word “conscience” (suneidesis) does not refer to the inner voice of right and wrong here as it does elsewhere.  Rather, the word refers to “an attitude or decision that reflects one’s loyalty” or “conscientiousness,” a usage that is also found in other contexts. Baptism is not what produces salvation. It “saves” us in that it first involves or reflects a heart decision: a pledge of loyalty to the risen Savior. In effect, baptism in New Testament theology is a loyalty oath, a public avowal of who is on the Lord’s side in the cosmic war between good and evil.”


― Dr. Michael S. Heiser, Baptism as Spiritual Warfare

Thus, the forgiveness of sins found in the cross involves both a one-time initial rejection of the dominion of Sin and subsequent baptismal pledge of loyalty to Christ the Victor as well as the ongoing purification that sanctifies and transforms us through our fellowship with the Messiah in His Kingdom of Light. This perpetual atonement is necessary since, while Sin was defeated at the cross, we who remain in the flesh continue to suffer Sin’s influence in its corruption of the flesh as Paul laments in his Letter to the Romans:

15 For I don’t understand what I am doing. For I do not do what I want—instead, I do what I hate. 16 But if I do what I don’t want, I agree that the law is good. 17 But now it is no longer me doing it, but sin that lives in me. 18 For I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh. For I want to do the good, but I cannot do it. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but I do the very evil I do not want! 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer me doing it but sin that lives in me.”


― Romans 7:15-20

And now, after three weeks of study on the concept of Atonement, what does this “church word” mean? It is simply this: “God’s dealing with humanity’s sin problem through the death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus; the Messiah.” Theologians can and will continue to argue over precisely how Jesus death and resurrection resulted in atonement, but the truth is that the Gospel isn’t a theological system or a settled science. The gospel is a story. It’s a message of love and sacrifice, of forgiveness and suffering, of death and victory, of rescue and adoption. We proclaim the good news about the Son of God who is now the King above all kings who offers atonement through His own power and on His own terms. Like Paul, we will, of course, continue to struggle with the Sin that lives within us for as long as we draw breath upon the earth, but a day is coming, when Sin and Death and the spiritual forces of evil will be forever consigned to oblivion.  In the purifying fire of the Lord’s Judgment, every trace of the kingdom of darkness will be utterly consumed. 

No photo description available.Until then, we proclaim the gospel of the victorious King of Glory! The gates of Hell have not withstood His onslaught. They lay smashed and broken; trampled under the feet of myriad believers who were once in bondage behind their dark and dreadful structure. For the one who finds himself a prisoner to the dominion of death; caged in by the elemental forces of this age like wealth, power, pleasure, and prestige; in Christ, there is rescue. He has already vanquished your captors and made a path for your escape. He has already given himself in ransom for your freedom! He has already paid the debt for your sins with his own blood and He has already died that you might live! In Him there is victory! In Him there is forgiveness! In Him there is salvation and full Atonement!

Grace be with you!

This post draws heavily on the work of N. T. Wright; especially, his 2016 book, "The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus's Crucifixion" which I highly recommend.

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