Category Archives: atonement theories

Musings on the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant and its Relation to the Atonement.

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant is recorded in Matthew 18:23-35.

Here it is in full (NIV):

“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

“At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

The parable is not completely analogous to the atonement, because there is no mention of another person (like the king’s son) paying the debt for the servant, or the cost of that act. The king simply forgives the debt himself. And the parable only deals with one person, so it doesn’t address the universal aspect of the atonement. But still, I think we can gain insight here into how, when, and why God forgives us.

First, the King directly cancels the servant’s debt. It is a personal act. In this way, it is analogous to the satisfaction theory of atonement. What God did was a complete payment for sin, that is individually appropriated. This aspect of the parable doesn’t align well with the governmental view of atonement, that some Arminians hold to.

Secondly, the cancellation of the debt was conditional in two ways. The king forgave the servant’s debt only after the servant begged for mercy (condition #1), and when the servant did not forgive someone else in need (condition #2), the king reinstated the debt. That doesn’t align with the Calvinistic view that the atonement is automatically applied, and can’t contain a “double jeopardy” clause – IE that a debt that has been paid can’t be reinstated(1). Apparently from God’s view, a debt can reinstated, even if it has previously been forgiven. God’s forgiveness is not based solely on the cancellation of a debt, it requires that we ask for it, and it requires that we forgive others who ask that of us.

So the atonement is both direct (a cancellation for our individual debts), and conditional (dependent on us asking and forgiving others). At least that is what this parable seems to imply.

(1) For a good explanation of the problems with the Calvinist double jeopardy view, see this article on the Arminian Perspectives blogs.


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Atonement Series: Moral Example

Moral Example View
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.

(1) The Story of Christian Theology, by Roger Olson, p 328-29
(2) Principles and Precepts, by Hastings Rashdall, p126.


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Atonement Series: Governmental View

The Governmental View

The governmental theory of atonement (also called moral government) was first proposed by Hugo Grotius, one of the Remonstrants. Other proponents include Johnathan Edwards Jr, John Miley, and Charles Finney.

In some respects, the governmental view is eclectic – it incorporates aspects from several theories. It focuses on the suffering of Jesus, God’s love, and man’s reconciliation with God. Governmental proponents hold that Jesus suffered on behalf of humanity.

As Governor, God was displeased with the sin of man. By accepting the suffering of Jesus, God is able to forgive those who believe, reconcile them to Himself, and maintain justice and order. The real objective element in [governmental] atonement is not that something was offered to God, but that God made the offering.” “…God made the atonement.” (1)

Unlike the satisfaction view, the governmental view does not teach that Jesus paid the penalty to God for the sin of particular individuals. There is a component of substitution in the theory, but it has a corporate focus (church, those who believe, the wider community).

Explaining the governmental view, J Kenneth Grider wrote:

…Christ suffered for us. Arminians teach that what Christ did he did for every person; therefore what he did could not have been to pay the penalty, since no one would then ever go into eternal perdition. Arminianism teaches that Christ suffered for everyone so that the Father could forgive the ones who repent and believe; his death is such that all will see that forgiveness is costly and will strive to cease from anarchy in the world God governs. This view is called the governmental theory of the atonement. (2)

While some Arminians hold the the governmental view, it is a mistake to attribute the view to all Arminians.

The Governmental view is often held by Wesleyans, Charismatics, and Open Theists. It should be noted that Wesley himself did not hold to the view.

Criticisms of the Governmental View

  • No direct payment for the sin of individuals.
  • It’s not clear what Jesus actually accomplished, or why his death was required.

Verses Used to Advocate

  • For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! -Romans 5:10
  • All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. –2 Corinthians 5:18,19
  • It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. – 1 Corinthians 1:30
  • The Prodigal Son (The father forgives the son without requiring the payment of his debt) -Luke 15:11-32

Examples in music and literature:

  • I couldn’t come up with any good examples. Suggestions welcome!

(1) The Work of Christ, Chapter 4: Reconciliation, Atonement, and Judgment, by P.T Forsyth
(2) Arminianism, by J Kenneth Grider


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Atonement Series: Satisfaction / Substitution

Satisfaction Theory
The satisfaction theory was first articulated by Anselm. Anselm rejected the idea that the Satan had a legal right to humanity that God must pay (as the ransom theory argues). Anselm proposed instead that that humanity owes a debt to God because of our sin. To appease God’s honor, this debt must be repaid. However, humanity is unable to pay it. Understanding this, Jesus fully paid the debt on our behalf through his suffering and death on the cross. Jesus was able to fulfill this role because he became human as us, yet lived a perfect life. Thus he was uniquely able to satisfy God’s demand.

Penal Substitution Theory
The penal substitution theory is similar to satisfaction theory. It was proposed by John Calvin and other Protestant reformers. Instead of focusing on God’s honor, it focuses on God’s justice. This theory states that Jesus died on the cross as a substitute for mankind, taking our place. God imputed our sin to Jesus, and imputed the righteousness of Jesus to us.

Most conservative Christians hold to the satisfaction view. This includes Catholics, Reformed, and many Arminians.

Criticisms of Satisfaction / Substitution

  • Some think that God ought to be able to forgive without requiring repayment.
  • It seems counter intuitive to punish the innocent and release the guilty.
  • If our debt has already been paid, does this give is a license to continue sinning?

Verses Used to Advocate

  • God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. –2 Corinthians 5:21
  • Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” -Galations 3:13
  • God presented [Jesus] as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. Romans 3:25,26
  • We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. -Isaiah 53:6

Examples in music and literature:

  • Nothing but the Blood of Jesus (Robert Lowry) What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
  • Peace Child (Don Richardson) A missionary tells a story about a primitive tribe where the chief gives his son to his enemies to bring peace.


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Atonement Series: Ransom / Christus Victor

The Ransom Theory
The ransom theory is the oldest atonement theory. It is sometimes called the classical theory or the bargain theory. It was developed and articulated by early church fathers such as Irenaeus, Origen, and Augustine. The ransom theory holds that when Adam and Eve sinned, they placed themselves under the dominion of Satan. To free humanity, Jesus gave himself as payment to Satan. Satan agreed to the deal, and put Jesus to death in place of humanity. Yet since Jesus was without sin, Satan overstepped his bounds. Jesus rose from the dead, liberated humanity, and conquered Satan and his kingdom.

In explaining the Ransom Theory, Pope Gregory the Great wrote:

matching deceit with deceit, Christ frees man by tricking the devil into overstepping his authority. Christ becomes a “fishhook”: his humanity is the bait, his divinity the hook, and Leviathan [Satan] is snared. Because the devil is proud, he cannot understand Christ’s humility and so believes he tempts and kills a mere man. But in inflicting a sinless man with death, the devil loses his rights over man from his “excess of presumption,” Christ conquers the devil’s kingdom of sin, liberating captives from the devil’s tyranny. Order is reinstated when man returns to serve God, his true master.” (1)

Christus Victor (Christ the Victor)
The Christus victor theory is closely tied to the ransom theory. It was articulated by Swedish theologian Gustaf Aulen. Aulen argued that payment to Satan is not the focus of the classical theory. Rather, the focus is on Jesus liberating humanity from the power of death and sin.

The Eastern Orthodox church holds to the ransom view. Many in the Western church find it helpful, but most do not accept it as a stand alone view.

Criticisms of the Ransom Theory:

  • Not enough focus on God
  • makes God a debtor to Satan.
  • Tricking Satan seems to imply deceit on God’s part.

Verses Used to Advocate the Ransom Theory:

  • For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. 1 Timothy 2:56
  • You were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body. 1 Corinthians 6:20
  • For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many –Mark 10:45
  • For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. -Colossians 1:13-14

Examples in music and literature:

  • The Champion (Carmen) – Jesus defeats Satan in a cosmic battle represented by a boxing match.

(1) Quoted from The Story of Christian Theology, by Roger Olson, page 323


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Theories of Atonement

I’m going to do a short series on the theories of atonement. The week before Easter seems an appropriate time to do this. During this season we are particularly aware of the sacrifice that Jesus made on our behalf.

How is it possible that God can forgive us of our sins and reconcile us to himself? It is possible only through the person of Jesus, and by his death and ressurection. But how did these acts make reconciliation possible? This is what atonement explains.

Interestingly, the word “atonement” is not native to the English language. It was proposed by William Tyndale, who recognized that English did not have a word that adequately describes the concept. He proposed the word “at-one-ment”. The word describes two things: the forgiveness of sins, and the reconciliation of man to God. These concepts are married together in the word atonement.

I’m doing this series in part as a way to educate myself, and to help clarify my own thinking. Reader comments and insights are welcome! For those who are curious, I believe that the penal substitution theory best explains the concept of atonement, however, I also believe that all of the theories are valuable and can help contribute to our understanding of what Jesus did for us.

Coming up…


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