The moral example theory (also called moral influence) was first proposed by Pierre Abelard. During the Reformation it was advocated by the Socinians. Today it is often advocated by liberal groups such as Unitarians.
The moral example theory states that Jesus’ life and death served as an example to humanity. Jesus’ life was meant to persuade us to love him, and to follow his example. The key to understanding this theory is to recognize that atonement is not directed toward God to satisfy His justice, rather it is directed toward man to motivate him to do the right thing.
Roger Olson writes:
God, according to Abelard, does not need to be reconciled to humanity. God already loves us. Our problem is that we do not realize this and because of our sin and ignorance live in alienating fear of God. The cross of Jesus is an act of God’s love that inspires new motive into our actions so that we see how much God loves us and we begin to love in return.(1)
Articulating the moral example theory, philosopher Hastings Rashdall wrote:
The great question for us now is, Do we believe in that love of God which Christ taught by His words, and of which His followers saw in His voluntary death a crowning manifestation? And remember that even belief in the love of God will do us no good unless it awakes answering love in ourselves — unless it adds to our hatred of the sin which separates us from God and increases our love of other men. (2)
Observe that what’s important to Rashdall is not what Jesus objectively accomplished, rather, it is what Jesus taught, what his followers saw, and the response that it brings about in us. This is what matters in moral example theory.
The moral example theory is commonly accepted by liberal leaning Christians. Other groups find the theory helpful as one aspect of the atonement, but inadequate in its own right.
- Doesn’t explain why Jesus had to shed his blood.
- Neglects the exclusivity and divinity of Jesus.
- Implies that we can obtain salvation on our own merits.
Verses Used to Advocate:
- Then [Jesus] said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. -Luke 9:23.24
- To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. -1 Peter 2:21
Examples in Music and Literature
- When I Survey, (by Isaac Watts). Hymn that emphasizes the effect on the observer surveying Jesus on the cross.
- Lord I Lift Your Name on High (by Rick Founds) “You came from heaven to earth, to show the way, from the earth to the cross, my debt to pay.” The first phrase is representative of moral example while the second is phrase is substitutionary.