The Christus Victor theory of the Atonement. Whence the Victory?
In a March 21, 2022, article on the Christianity Today on-line website, Bonnie Kristian wrote a piece entitled, “What Atonement Theories Tell Us About Our Politics.”
I’m not concerned today with the “political” dimension to her article. My focus is her endorsement of Christus Victor. She rightly points to the risen Christ, whom we celebrate at Easter, and then asks the question: “But how did our salvation take place, exactly?” She then mentions what she believes are “the three most popular models throughout church history—Christus Victor, satisfaction theory, and penal substitution.” That in itself might be questioned, but that’s not my concern.
If you’re not familiar with Christus Victor, it is the model of atonement which, according to Kristian, speaks of “Jesus redeeming us from oppressive powers—sin, death, the Devil—to whom we’d bound ourselves by our own treachery. Christ ‘disarmed’ those powers and triumphed over them on the cross (Col. 2:13–15). God became incarnate, as Irenaeus wrote, that ‘He might kill sin, deprive death of its power, and vivify man.’”
She then briefly describes the emergence of the satisfaction theory as articulated by Anselm. One colossal error is her contention that penal substitution “arose 500 years later alongside the modern legal system.” This is patently false. There is substantial evidence, widely documented, that penal substitution is not only pervasively biblical but was affirmed by the early church fathers. I list the many articles where you can find the evidence in my book, A Dozen Things God Did With Your Sin (Crossway). You can find the material on p. 43.
Kristian says, “I can easily explain penal substitution because we know how a courtroom works. Penal substitution is immediately intelligible in the world of the Reformation, Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Industrial Revolution.” May I suggest instead that we can easily explain penal substitution because it is everywhere in the biblical text. It is not dependent on the emergence of legal procedures in the western world. It is profoundly biblical.
She continues by affirming that Christus Victor is “most convincing to me,” contending that “A God who crushes evil we’re helpless to defeat and who frees us from striving is good news in a culture preoccupied with institutional corruption.”
She does concede that “Some Christus Victor proponents . . . are too eager to dispense with notions of personal sin.” She is profoundly on target in saying that. But this brings me to my primary concern.
Kristian asks, “how did our salvation take place?” If we were in bondage to the powers of evil, and we were (!), what was it that put us in that predicament in the first place. On what basis did Satan gain his authority over our lives? What claim did he have on sinful men and women? The answer, quite simply, is unforgiven sin. We stood guilty and justly condemned in the sight of God.
That being the case, the way in which Christ triumphed over Satan and set captives free from tyranny, fear, and death was by suffering in the sinner’s stead and enduring and exhausting in himself the righteous wrath of God that our sin provoked. My point is that people who advocate Christus Victor rarely if ever proceed to explain how the death of Jesus defeated the devil. They simply assert that he gained victory for us over the enemy. But they don’t explain how or on what basis that occurred.
The apostle Paul, on the other hand, is quite clear on “how” the substitutionary death of Jesus secured victory over the Devil. It was “by becoming a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13). It was “by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him [or better yet, in “it”, that is, in and by means of the cross]” (Col. 2:14-15).
Jesus triumphed over demonic forces by means of what he accomplished on the cross when he became a curse for us and came under the wrath and condemnation of God. He disarmed Satan and his demons and put them to open shame by paying the “debt” we owed for our failure to honor and obey God. This debt, says Paul, “stood against us with its legal demands.” It required payment. And that payment was the punishment that divine justice required for our sinful and idolatrous ways.
Advocates of Christus Victor often point us to 1 John 3:8 where we are told that “the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.” That is so very, very true. Praise God that Jesus defeated and unraveled the works of Satan and overcome him and set us free from his nefarious clutches. But how did Jesus do this? Did he wave some magical wand of mercy and dispense with the Devil? Did he look at our bondage to Satan and the reason for it and simply decide to “let bye-gone’s be bye-gone’s”? No.
Twice John explained how the death of Jesus secured our freedom from Satan. Jesus won our victory because “he is the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 2:2). Simply put, Jesus satisfied the wrath of God and the demands of divine justice by enduring in our place the penal consequences of our sin. He says it again in chapter four, there declaring that “in this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10).
This is precisely what the apostle Paul said in Romans 3:24-25, namely, that we “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Rom. 3:24-25).
As I have said many times, all the many theories or models of atonement contain an element of truth. We are truly triumphant over the Devil and have been set free from his authority and power. We find in the death of Jesus an example for us to follow. His self-sacrifice exerts a tremendous moral influence on our lives, demonstrating for us how to endure unjust suffering. The moral government of God over the universe is vindicated and demonstrated in the death of his Son in our place. The foundation is laid for the renewal of the image of God in man, damaged by the Fall, because of what Jesus secured for us in his dying and rising.
But all these many things are true for one and only one reason. They are true, they are secured and guaranteed to all who have faith in Jesus because he dealt with the one primary issue that alienated us from God and gave Satan authority to rule our lives: sin and guilt. It was because Jesus died as a penal substitutionary sacrifice, satisfying the wrath of God that our personal guilt provoked, that we can rejoice in all the other things that come our way through the gracious gift of God. Without penal substitution as the foundational dimension of what transpired at the cross, all hope of triumph over Satan is shattered. His death for us is hardly an expression of true love if it doesn’t address the greatest threat to the eternal welfare of our souls, namely, our sin and guilt.
Praise God for penal substitutionary atonement! Apart from it, there is no gospel; there is nothing of good in the news we proclaim if Jesus has not fully and finally removed from us the wrath of an infinitely holy God whose righteous claims we spurned and defied and mocked.
That, dear friend, is “how” Christ triumphed over the enemy. He is first the Victor over sin and guilt, and thereby set us free from the clutches and claims of the Devil.