The Nature of the Atonement: What Jesus Was Doing At His Cross

David Burchard Doctrine Leave a Comment

Christian, do you know the word, “atonement”? Atonement is a theological word that means “reparation for a wrong or injury”. In Christianity, when considering this wrong/injury, we find the Bible pointing the accusative finger to man, universally, as committing wrong against God himself. The finger is pointed at Adam, and it is pointed at you and I as those who are guilty. What is the word for the wrong for which man is guilty? Sin—“all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). When considering reparation for sin, we must look to one place, the “cross on which the Prince of glory died”(Watts, When I Survey). Knowing that all men are sinners in need of atonement, Scripture calls all men to look to the cross of Christ, where God provided atonement.

One of the most important questions to be wrestled with in systematic theology, and the question that we will consider here, is one of what the Bible teaches regarding the nature of this atonement that God provided.  What was the nature of Jesus Christ’s work on the cross nearly 2,000 years ago?

As a means of answering this question well, I will begin by briefly surveying three theories of the atonement: the satisfaction theory, the moral influence theory, and the governmental theory. Then, trusting that God knows best the nature of the atonement that he provided, we will consider what God says in two Old Testament passages and one New Testament passage. In so doing, it will be clear that the heart of the atonement is penal substitution, Christ dying in the place of sinners, taking the punishment due sinners. It is my humble prayer that the clear teaching of Scripture on the nature of the atonement will be a delight to you, be to your eternal benefit, and shape your preaching of the gospel with each of your remaining breaths.

Three Theories: Satisfaction, Moral Influence, and Governmental

The satisfaction view of the atonement may be attributed to Anselm (1033-1109), who served as Archbishop of Canterbury. He saw the need for atonement rooted in man’s offending God’s honor, much like the honor of a feudal-overlord could be offended by another. In what way does man offend God? In sin, which Anselm defines as “not rendering to God what is His due”, namely, the entirety of who we are. In sinning, we are actually stealing from God that which is rightfully his, and thus dishonor him (Cur Deus Homo). God will not tolerate anything less than the full satisfaction of his offended honor, for he is good, just and right. “Nothing is less tolerable…than that the creature should take away from the Creator the honor due to him, and not repay what he takes away” (Cur Deus Homo). So the situation for sinful man is as follows: you owe God the entirety of your will, your life, your affection, your worship…your absolute everything. Up to this point you have sinfully robbed him of all that he is due. If you from this point forth lived in perfection, it would not satisfy the honor of God, for you would simply be giving him what you owe him, not paying him back for your robbery, or the obvious interest that must accrue for taking so egregiously from one so worthy as God. This is a serious dilemma for you, as “God upholds nothing more justly than he doth the honor of his own dignity” (Cur Deus Homo). You must give him what you cannot give him—satisfaction. Only man ought to make satisfaction for man’s offense; only God is able.

It is in this dilemma that Anselm finds joy in the incarnation of Jesus, who is fully God, and thus able to make satisfaction, and fully man, rightly in a position to make satisfaction for man. At the cross, Jesus “performed a unique work, for he gave himself up to death—not as a debt (since he was sinless and therefore under no obligation to die) but freely for the honor of God” (Stott, Cross of Christ 119). Though all the sins of every sinner, including you and I, when added up are the most horrendous pile of God-dishonoring vileness, the greatness, worth, and value of the perfect life of Jesus, the God-Man, is so immense that in his sacrificing it on the cross, sufficient reparation to the “offended honor of God” is made that all who repent and believe are forgiven (Stott 119).

The satisfaction theory has a twofold strength. First, Anselm does well to articulate sin’s offensiveness to God and this offense to the need for atonement. Second, he places correct importance on the incarnation, that Christ, forever the Second Person of the Trinity, took on flesh in the incarnation and is fully God and fully man. This places him in the unique position to be able to serve as the atoning Mediator between God and man. To briefly state what I consider to be the weakness of the satisfaction theory, while Anselm quite admirably deals well with much Biblical information, he does seem to be influenced by the feudal, honor-bound medieval context in which he found himself—to the point of introducing an emphasis foreign to the Bible. Because of this, he does not seem to view Christ as paying for actual sin in a legal sense, but rather simply paying a debt for an offended honor. Yes, God’s name will be vindicated in the punishment of sin, either at the cross or in hell; but he vindicates himself at the cross by punishing sinners for actual sins in Christ.

A second notable view of the atonement is the moral influence theory. Those who hold this view believe that, while people may be sinners, “God does not require the payment of a penalty for sin” (Wellum, SBTS Lectures). If God does not require the payment of a penalty for sin, then what was going on at the cross? According to this view, the cross was a demonstration of divine love for humanity. How? At the cross, Jesus identified with the sufferings of humanity to such an extreme extent that he went all the way to the point of death; horrific and public death on a cross. “[To those who hold such a view], the power of the cross lies not in any objective, sin-bearing transaction but in its subjective inspiration, not in its legal efficacy (changing our status before God) but in its moral influence (changing our attitudes and actions)” (Stott 217). The power of the cross is thus a motivational power, as sinful and selfish people gaze upon the self-giving Jesus at Calvary and are transformed to turn away from sinful living and turn to Christ-loving lives.

Peter Abelard of Paris, who lived from 1079-1142, is often considered to be the most famous advocate of this view. Nevertheless, it is his disciple, Peter Lombard, who would become bishop of Paris in 1159, who provides us with the following statement of the position from his work, Book of Sentences: “So great a pledge of love having been given us, we are both moved and kindled to love God who did such great things for us; and by this we are justified, that is, being loosed from our sins we are made just. The death of Christ therefore justifies us, inasmuch as through it [love] is stirred up in our hearts” (Stott 218, emphasis added). Dr. Hastings Rashdall is a 20th century exponent of the moral influence view of the atonement. In The Idea of Atonement in Christian Theology, Rashdall writes, “God can only be supposed to forgive by making the sinner better [by inspiring him with a view of Jesus on the cross to live a life of love instead of sin], and thereby removing any demand for punishment” (The Idea of the Atonement in Christian Theology). For Rashdall, our forgiveness from God rests in our love and our repentance, that was inspired by the cross, not on Christ’s work on the cross itself. The cross is necessary, but only insofar as it motivates our change and love which merits salvation.

Surely the cross is a demonstration of divine love, as is made clear in 1 John 4. And certainly Christ in his death sets an example for his people, as Peter states in 1 Peter 2. Unfortunately, that is the extent to which this theory draws from Biblical truth. God does require a payment of a penalty for sin. The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). Furthermore, if Christ dies to simply inspire, then his death is incoherent, as the New Testament is clear that we are dead in our sins and do not seek God (Ephesians 2:1, Romans 3:11). To inspire the dead is to do nothing. This view must be abhorred as heretical, a sappy iteration of justification by works, and useless for the salvation of sinners.

Arminian theologians contend for a third theory of the atonement, the governmental view. This view begins with the belief that God is the lord and governor of the universe, “who stands above the law” (Wellum, SBTS Lectures). God is a good ruler and thus gives his law, the morally upright code by which man’s society is put into good order. Humans universally have disobeyed God’s law. Failure to perfectly obey God’s law deserves the punishment of death. Unless God relaxes the demands of the law, God cannot forgive sinful man, who is then left without hope or help in the world. That said, God, as the governor of all, is above, and not constrained by, the law and able to “relax it by his own [free] choice” (Wellum). According to the governmental view, God does just that, and forgives sinful man for his glory and their good in salvation.

The question then naturally arises for the governmental theorist, what then is the purpose of the cross, if God simply at his own behest can relax the law and forgive sinners? As Dr. Stephen Wellum explains, in the governmental theory the cross has an objective and a subjective purpose. Objectively, at the cross God “upheld the moral governance of the universe”, ruling for that which is good and against that which is bad. Subjectively, the cross is demonstration and motivation, demonstration of “God’s hatred of sin” and motivation to people “to repent of sins” and live righteous lives (Wellum).

Hugo Grotius, who died in 1645 having been a student of Jacob Arminius, was the first to teach this view. He says in his Defense of the Catholic Faith, “God was unwilling to pass over so many sins, and so great sins, without a distinguished example”, namely, the cross, to display the great weight of the wickedness of sin and his displeasure in it (Stott 122). In so doing God upholds right moral order. P.T. Forsyth, who studied theology in the 20th century, held to this view of the atonement as well. Of God’s moral governance of the universe, Forsyth said, “God’s moral order demands atonement wherever moral ideas are taken with final seriousness, and man’s conscience re-echoes the demand” (Stott 122). And so, while God relaxes the law to forgive repentant sinners, Christ is crucified to uphold the moral order.

The governmental theory can be applauded for its recognition of the Lordship of God over the universe, the universal sinfulness of mankind in transgressing the law, and the requirement of death for sin. That is the extent to which I am free to speak positively of this view. Governmental theorists stray from the Biblical testimony in divorcing the law from the Law Giver. Furthermore, God does not relax his law in order to forgive sinners. Romans 3:21-26 and 8:1-4 are abundantly clear that God went to astronomical lengths to not simply justify, but to be just and fulfill the righteous requirements of the law while doing so. While proponents of this view claim to affirm the necessity of the atonement. They do not. This view sadly makes the cross ineffectual and superfluous—a horrendous claim when one considers that the Father crushed the Son there.

Penal Substitutionary Atonement in the Old and New Testaments

Having considered the above theories of the atonement, finding them lacking as the answer to what is the nature of the atonement, let us turn to three passages in the Bible, Exodus 12, Isaiah 52:13-53:12, and 1 Peter 2:21-25, to see the Scriptural teaching of penal substitutionary atonement.

Due to space constraints, I will refrain from including the entire text from Exodus, but I trust that you will take the time now to read Exodus 12. There you will find one of the most well-known stories in the Bible, that of the Passover, the 10th plague in Egypt, and the Exodus of God’s people from slavery. Speaking to Moses and Aaron, God forewarns them of his impending judgment. “I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgement” (v. 12). Every firstborn in every family was to die. Graciously, God tells Moses and Aaron of the one way for his people to escape death—namely, in the death of a substitute. Each family was to take a male lamb without blemish (v. 3-6). On the fourteenth day of the first month they were to kill the family’s lamb, consuming completely its flesh that night along with unleavened bread and bitter herbs (v. 8). With the blood of the lamb, they were to mark the doorposts and lintel of their home (v. 7). The blood of the lamb that marked such homes was a sign of salvation. “The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt” (v. 13). God promises salvation for those covered by the blood of the lamb. He promises to spare those households from his deadly wrath that was to come upon the land. Upon hearing this news from Moses and Aaron, “the people of Israel went and did so; as the LORD had commanded Moses and Aaron, so they did” (v. 28).

God was true to his word. “At midnight the LORD struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt” (v. 29). The firstborn of every family in the land was struck down that night, except for those families upon whose doorposts dripped the blood of the lamb. This sacrificial lamb served as the substitute for the firstborn. Instead of the firstborn bearing God’s wrath, the lamb was slain, securing pardon and salvation.

It is clear that the lamb was a penal substitute, in the place of another taking the penalty they deserved. But what does this have to do with the atonement, Christ’s death on the cross? Christ was to come and die centuries later, after all. That is true, but a time gap between the Passover and the death of Christ does not mean there is no significant connection. Exodus 12 is simply a preview of what Jesus would do for God’s people on the cross. This is made strikingly clear in the New Testament. Upon seeing Jesus, John the Baptist twice declares, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” (John 1:29, 31). In Revelation, the Apostle John sees Christ as “a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain” (Revelation 5:6). Paul draws a direct connection from the substitutionary passover lamb to the substitutionary work of Jesus, writing in 1 Corinthians 5:7, “For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed”, namely, on the cross as the sacrifice of atonement, a far greater sacrifice than merely an unblemished lamb. Preaching on Exodus 12, Mark Dever said it well:

“You and I need deliverance from bondage to sin and from the fatal judgement of God, and that deliverance will come only through the blood of the firstborn lamb without blemish. Just as the Passover lamb was a substitute for sinners, so too is the Lamb of God. All this was done for Israel so that they—and we—would see and know that God’s people would be saved by a substitute.”

If this were all God said regarding the atonement he provided at the cross of his Son, it would be sufficient to establish the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. But God reiterates this truth throughout the Bible, as we will see in Isaiah and 1 Peter.

It is important to know that Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is also about Christ, the suffering servant. In 52:13, Isaiah establishes that he is talking about the Lord’s servant. In 53:3, this servant is identified as a man. In 52:13, he is identified as divine, as God, the one who is “high and lifted up”. Is it a stretch to conclude that the servant is God from this phrase? I think not. “High and lifted up” appears three times in the ESV; all three times are in Isaiah (6:1, 52:13, 57:15). In 6:1 and 57:15, it is clear that Isaiah is using the phrase in reference to God, “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up” and “thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy” respectively. It is the most reasonable reading of the phrase then to conclude Isaiah uses it in reference to the Divine in ch. 52 as well. And so the suffering servant in this passage is both God and man; who but Jesus Christ is such a person?

And what shall Jesus do according to Isaiah? He shall die. Isaiah says of him that “he was pierced”, “crushed”, wounded and “marred”, “cut off out of the land of the living”, and “stricken”. He shall die willingly. “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth” (v. 7); “he poured out his soul to death (v. 12). And he shall die according to the Father’s will. “It was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief” (v. 10).

Why shall Jesus die? Isaiah is clear that Jesus the suffering servant will die, his will and the Father’s unified, in the place of God’s people for the sin of God’s people. He will die as their substitute to pay the penalty required for their sin. Notice the clear and repeated substitutionary language throughout the passage. “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (v. 4). “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities” (v. 5). “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (v. 6). “He was…stricken for the transgression of my people” (v. 9). “His soul makes an offering for guilt” (v. 10). “He shall bear their iniquities” (v. 11). “He poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors” (v. 12). Isaiah refuses to speak in ambiguous terms. God’s people are transgressors. God will crush all sinners. But Jesus will die as the substitute for these people, bearing their death sentence, being crushed by God for their sin, not his own, in their place. Penal substitutionary atonement is prophesied in the Old Testament.

The prophetic claim found in Isaiah that Jesus would die on the cross as a penal substitute for God’s people is affirmed in Peter’s explanation of Christ’s work in 1 Peter 2:21-25. In verse 21, Peter is explicit that, “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” The atoning work of Christ on the cross does in fact set an example for Christians to follow. Peter however, in contrast to moral influence theorists, continues to write through the end of the chapter; and in verse 24 we find his crucial statement of the heart of Christ’s cross work. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds we have been healed.” Peter is in agreement with Isaiah, even quoting from Isaiah 53:5 in his clear statement of penal substitutionary atonement. Take careful note of the first clause in verse 24. Jesus bore what was ours; he bore our sins. Bearing our sins, he died “on the tree”, the cursed punishment of death that is due to sinners. Calvin comments on this verse, “Being fixed to the cross and offering himself a victim for us, [Jesus] took on himself our sin and our punishment.” He continues and writes, “Christ made himself before his tribunal a surety and as one guilty for us, that he might suffer the punishment due to us” (Calvin, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles). Jesus died in the place of God’s people, paying the penalty of death for the sins of God’s people.


Though smarter men, many of whom with more steadfast character, have held alternative views of the atonement, including the satisfaction theory, the moral influence theory, and the governmental theory, these views must be rejected by the Christian as falling short of the Biblical account. Penal substitution is the heart of the atonement, the very nature of Christ’s work on the cross. It is not a theory of many. It is the truth. Mark Dever, while preaching on Isaiah 52:13-53:12 affirms this. “Penal substitution is presented in Scripture as reality. God has substituted someone for us to take the penalty that we deserve” (Dever and Lawrence, It is Well 49). Stott writes famously in The Cross of Christ, “We strongly reject every explanation of the death of Christ which does not have at its center the principle of satisfaction though substitution, indeed divine satisfaction through divine substitution.” He continues, “The biblical gospel of atonement—the reparation for sin—is of God satisfying himself by substituting himself for us” (Stott 159). It is my prayer that the above consideration of both the Old and New Testaments will convince you of penal substitutionary atonement; and that from this understanding of the cross you will preach the gospel well to the very end.

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