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The Work of Christ


In this lesson, we will look at the significant post-reformation developments concerning the work of Christ, specifically, his atoning sacrifice.


A. Theologians and Theories Emphasizing the Objective Nature of Christ's Atoning Death


Perhaps the best example of this tradition is found in 19th century America among Reformed theologians.


1. William G. T. Shedd (1820-1894) - Shedd followed the reformers by insisting that the atonement of Christ was grounded in God's justice. Contrary to Grotius, Shedd argued that divine justice is not an arbitrary appointment of the divine will, easily rescinded or abrogated, but is a necessary and intrinsic quality constitutive of the being of God:


"Retributive justice is necessary in its operation. The claim of the law upon the transgressor for punishment is absolute and indefeasible. The eternal Judge may or may not exercise mercy, but he must exercise justice" (Dogmatic Theology, II:436).


However, Shedd points out that whereas sin necessitates punishment, it need not fall upon the sinner:


"Hence, in every instance of transgression, the penalty of law must be inflicted, either personally or vicariously; either upon the transgressor or upon his substitute. The remission of penalty under the Divine administration is not absolute, but relative. It may be omitted in respect to the real criminal, but, if so, it must be inflicted upon some one in his place. . . . [T]he exercise of justice, while necessary in respect to sin, is free and sovereign in respect to the sinner. Justice necessarily demands that sin be punished, but not necessarily in the person of the sinner. Justice may allow of the substitution of one person for another, provided that in the substitution no injustice is done to the rights of any of the parties interested" (I:373; cf. also II:451).


2. Charles Hodge (1797-1878) - Hodge differs only in emphasis, placing more stress on the concept of covenant in the atonement. Just as God ordained for Adam to stand vicariously as the covenantal or federal head of his people, such that his action (the fall) and its consequence (guilt and death) become that of his posterity, so also Christ stood vicariously as the covenant head of those who by divine election were so related to him. His action (obedience) and its consequence (righteousness) are likewise imputed to those whom he represented.


Other American theologians who followed suit were A. A. Hodge (1823-86; son of Charles), Benjamin B. Warfield (1851-1921), and more recently Leon Morris.


There were also a number of Scottish theologians who embraced the doctrine of penal substitution.


3. George Smeaton (The Doctrine of the Atonement as taught by Christ Himself [1868] and The Doctrine of the Atonement as taught by the Apostles [1870]) - He clearly argues for penal substitution:


". . . the sufferings of Christ were penal in their character, or, in other words, that they were judiciously inflicted in the execution of a law which demanded punishment on the sins of men" (183).


It should be noted that Smeaton, on occasion, appears to endorse the concept of acceptilation:


"All that it very much concerns us to be assured of is, that the sufferings of Christ were deemed sufficient in the judgment of God to satisfy his justice, to expiate our guilt, and to obtain for us eternal redemption" (176, 185).


4. James Denney (1856-1917) - Denney wrote several important treatises, among which were The Death of Christ (1902), The Atonement and the Modern Mind (1903), and The Christian Doctrine of Reconciliation (1917). Denney placed more emphasis on Christ's passive sufferings and less on his obedient life than his American counterparts:


"If He had not died for us, He would have done nothing at all" (CDR, 274).


"The work of reconciliation, in the sense of the NT, is a work which is finished, and which we must conceive to be finished, before the gospel is preached" (DOC, 101).


In other words, Christ has done something outside of us and apart from our cooperation, into the benefits of which we are now able to enter through faith. Commenting on 2 Cor. 5:14-15,


"Plainly, if Paul's conclusion is to be drawn, the 'for' must reach deeper than this mere suggestion of our advantage: if we all died, in that Christ died for us, there must be a sense in which that death of His is ours; He must be identified with us in it; there, on the cross, while we stand and gaze at Him, He is not simply a person doing us a service; He is a person doing us a service by filling our place and dying our death" (Commentary on 2 Corinthians, 194-95).




"It is a death in which the divine condemnation of sin comes upon Christ, and is exhausted there, so that there is thenceforth no more condemnation for those that are in Him" (Studies in Theology, 108).


Concerning the word "substitution" he writes:


"It declares that God forgives our sins because Christ died for them; and it maintains unambiguously that in that death of Christ our condemnation came upon Him, that for us there might be no condemnation more. This is the truth which is covered and guarded by the word "substitution"" (Studies in Theology, 126).


I mention in passing R. W. Dale, an English theologian who used the terminology of penal substitution while deviating from its intended meaning. He calls both the imputation of our sin to Christ and Christ's righteousness to us 'a legal fiction' (The Atonement, lxiii). According to Culpepper, Dale's theory is "an attempt to restate the doctrine of penal substitution in such a way as not to offend the moral sensibilities of modern man" (Interpreting the Atonement, 109).


B. Theologians and Theories Emphasizing the Subjective Nature of Christ's Atoning Death


Subjective theories of the atonement are those which envision the focus or aim of Christ's sufferings to be the human soul rather than God himself.


1. F. Schleiermacher (1768-1834; so too, Albrecht Ritschl; 1822-1889) - Schleiermacher denied the objective focus of Christ's death and insisted that no barrier to reconciliation with man (such as the demands of divine justice) exists in the heart of God. Christ's death terminates entirely upon humanity. He emphasized not what Christ does for us but what he does in us, namely, bringing us into a deeper consciousness of complete dependence on God and thus participation in His life.


2. Horace Bushnell (1802-76) and Hastings Rashdall (1858-1924) - Bushnell openly denies any form of substitution in Christ's death and articulates an updated version of Abelard's moral influence theory:


"On the other hand, we are not to hold the Scripture terms of vicarious sacrifice, as importing a literal substitution of places, by which Christ becomes a sinner for sinners, or penally subject to our deserved penalties. That is a kind of substitution that offends every strongest sentiment of our nature. He cannot become guilty for us. Neither, as God is a just being, can He be anyhow punishable in our place - all God's moral sentiments would be revolted by that" (Forgiveness and Law, 79).


"By the previous exposition Christ is shown to be a Savior, not as being a ground of justification, but as being the Moral Power of God upon us, so a power of salvation. His work terminates, not in the release of penalties by due compensation, but in the transformation of character, and the rescue, in that manner, of guilty men from the retributive causations provoked by their sin" (449).


Rashdall (The Idea of Atonement in Christian Theology, 1919) advocates a similar view. Note his comments on Acts 4:12,


"There is none other ideal given among men by which we may be saved except the moral ideal which Christ taught by His words, and illustrated by His life and death of love; and there is none other help so great in the attainment of that ideal as the belief in God as He has been revealed in Him who so taught and lived and died" (463).


C. Theologians and Theories Emphasizing the Victorious Nature of Christ's Atoning Death


We focus here on but one man, Gustaf Aulen (b. 1879), theologian at the University of Lund in Sweden. His most famous work was Christus Victor in which he argued for what has come to be known as the "Classic" theory of the atonement:


"Its central theme is the idea of the Atonement as a Divine conflict and victory; Christ ' Christus Victor ' fights against and triumphs over the evil powers of the world, the "tyrants" under which mankind is in bondage and suffering, and in Him God reconciles the world to Himself? (4; special appeal is made to 1 John 3:8).


In effect, Aulen resurrects the patristic theory of the atonement, but modifies it by eliminating the crude imagery of Christ's blood as a ransom to Satan. He focuses on the victorious conflict of Christ against the powers of evil. His view is thus dualistic, but in this sense:


"It is used in the sense in which the idea constantly occurs in Scripture, of the opposition between God and that which in His own created world resists His will; between the Divine love and the rebellion of created wills against Him. This Dualism is an altogether radical opposition, but it is not an absolute Dualism; for in the scriptural view evil has not an eternal existence" (5).


D. The Theory of Vicarious Confession and/or Repentance


There is one theory of the atonement that defies classification. It was articulated by John McLeod Campbell (1800-1872) in his book The Nature of the Atonement (1856). It may well be that Campbell embraced this theory principally to maintain his belief in the universal extent of the atonement, for he believed the penal substitutionary theory logically entailed restricting the benefits of Christ's sufferings to the elect. He says this concerning John Owen's Death of Death in the Death of Christ:


"As addressed to those who agreed with him as to the nature of the atonement, while differing with him as to the extent of its reference, this seems unanswerable" (1873, 4th ed., 51).


Some contend Campbell derived his theory from Jonathan Edwards, who wrote:


"It is requisite that God should punish all sin with infinite punishment; because all sin, as it is against God, is infinitely heinous, and has infinite demerit, is justly infinitely hateful to him, and so stirs up infinite abhorrence and indignation in him. Therefore, it is requisite that God should punish it, unless there be something in some measure to balance this desert; either some answerable repentance or sorrow for it, or other compensation" (Essay on Satisfaction for Sin, NY ed. I:583).


Yet Edwards rejected the possibility of an "answerable repentance," for repentance is possible only by those who have sinned, and whatever degree of repentance someone might produce, it is as nothing in comparison with the injury, done by him in sinning.


Campbell begins by affirming that Christ suffered as an atoning sacrifice but not as a penal substitute:


"The sufferer suffers what he suffers just through seeing sin and sinners with God's eyes, and feeling in reference to them with God's heart. Is such suffering a punishment? Is God in causing such a divine experience in humanity inflicting a punishment? There can be but one answer" (117). And that answer is No.


"While Christ suffered for our sins as an atoning sacrifice, what he suffered was not - because from its nature it could not be - a punishment" (101).


He then argues, contrary to Edwards, that Christ himself offered an adequate sorrow, confession, and repentance for sin. He explains:


"That oneness of mind with the Father, which toward man took the form of condemnation of sin, would in the Son's dealing with the Father in relation to our sins, take the form of a perfect confession of our sins. This confession as to its own nature must have been a perfect Amen in humanity to the judgment of God on the sin of man. . . . That response has all the elements of a perfect repentance in humanity for all the sin of man, --- a perfect sorrow --- a perfect contrition --- all the elements of such a repentance, and that in absolute perfection, all except the personal consciousness of sin; and in that perfect response in Amen to the mind of God in relation to sin is the wrath of God rightly met, and that is accorded to divine justice which is its due, and could alone satisfy it" (117-18).


God's justice is thus satisfied, not by Christ enduring the penalty of the law, but by his perfect confession of sin on our behalf. Christ uttered forth in his life and death a heart-felt 'Amen!' to the assessment of God against human rebellion:


"We feel that such a repentance as we are supposing would be the true and proper satisfaction to offended justice, and that there would be more atoning worth in one tear of the true and perfect sorrow than in endless ages of penal woe" (125).


[For a more positive assessment of Campbell's concept of atonement, see Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark)