Moral Exemplar or Holy Substitute?

“Because our minds are so poor and frail, we rightly discuss the theories of the atonement. But we must always remember that the atonement is not a theory. It wasn’t a theory that died for us on the cross. It was a man who took our very physical nature himself in his own body.”[1] Ultimately, when discussing any theological issue, the reality that must overwhelm us is that we are contemplating truths that in their fullness are beyond us; our minds cannot grasp the depths of the Incarnation, the Trinity, etc., nor can our words completely encapsulate their reality. The God Whom we so often discuss is the living God, Whose holiness and glory and being and thoughts are beyond the reckoning of man. However, as Christians, we do believe that our great and awesome God has revealed solid and inviolable truths to us in words human beings can understand through the inspiration of His holy word. One cannot say that we know nothing about God and His plan of salvation – if this were so, it would spell the end of Christianity and humanity would remain in the gospel-less dark, eventually plunging to their ultimate destruction in hell. Likewise, one cannot simply ignore the teachings of Scripture once revealed and develop theories that are contradictory to what we find there; if the Scriptures are the revealed word of God, then necessarily they are the “most complete exposition of all that pertains to a saving faith, and also to the framing of a life acceptable to God; and in this respect it is expressly commanded by God that nothing be either added to or taken from the same.”[2] Thus, though all of our theological theorizing cannot be said to be wholly infallible, nor said to be the fullest representation of the reality, we can say that these theories are either true or false depending on their substantive foundations in the word of God; that is, if a theory can be shown to be contrary to the teaching of the whole of inspired Scripture, we might rightly say that this theory is godless philosophizing, having nothing to do with the revealed truths of God, and is all of man’s sin-warped intellect. The opposite is likewise true; if we might show that a theory is in keeping with the teachings of the whole of Scripture interpreted by the whole of Scripture[3] then we might justly say that this theory is true in keeping with revealed truth. We see this played out in the differing theories of the atoning work of Christ.

Charles Hodge writes, “The two great objects to be accomplished by the work of Christ are (1) the removal of the curse under which mankind labored on account of sin; and (2) their restoration to the image and fellowship of God. Both of these are essential to salvation.”[4] Both of these teloi are biblically sound, reflecting what man has lost (and incurred) in the first Adam, and what the second Adam has come to restore (and to bear). So biblically essential are these, testified by the whole of Scripture, that should one be missing, the salvation of human beings is incomplete, and an incomplete salvation is no salvation at all. Multiple theories of the atonement have arisen throughout the history of the Church, and for the most part, those which have been presented have either ignored one (or, as we shall see, both) of these essentials, or have subordinated one of these essentials to the other. “It was characteristic of the early Greek church to exalt the latter, while the Latin made the former more prominent.”[5] A theory that has completely ignored both of these teloi is what has been termed the “Moral Theory” or “Moral Influence Theory.”[6] This theory “rejects all idea of expiation, or of the satisfaction of justice by vicarious punishment, and attributes all the efficacy of [Christ’s] work to the moral effect produced on the hearts of men by his character, teachings, and acts.”[7] Through this moral effect, the work of Christ produces moral people, and through their morality they obtain reconciliation with God, Who capriciously expunges their immoral past, no necessity being present to propitiate His righteous wrath against human sinfulness. The Moral Influence theory was most famously championed by Peter Abelard, but since his time has found numerous adherents, taking different forms over time. In whatever form it has taken, however, it has been built on an unbiblical doctrine of God, particularly concerning His justice, and also a completely unbiblical and rather naïve understanding of the effects of sin on the human will. Hodge recognizes three different forms that this theory has taken over time. The first form represents Christ merely in His role as Teacher. “He introduced a new and higher form of religion, by which men were redeemed from the darkness and degradation of heathenism.”[8] Attempting to retain the biblical teachings of salvation by the blood, the cross, and the sufferings of Christ, the second form pays a passing nod to the death of Christ as a kind of seal of the doctrines which He taught in His life. Thus, the salvation that Christ has shown in His death is not the salvation of a vicarious atonement, but the salvation of moral character through the strong example of martyrdom. “He died for us. By his death his doctrines were sealed with blood.”[9] A third form which this theory has historically taken focuses primarily on the death of Christ, but not simply as a seal of His other-worldly doctrines, but as the supreme example of self-sacrificial love. “Other men, who through love submit to self-denial for the good of men, are within their sphere and in their measure, saviors too”[10] according to this theory; however, Christ has preeminence as the martyr par excellence. Any biblically-minded Christian recognizes the many faults of this theory of the atonement. First, “the Scriptures teach that [the] expiation of guilt is absolutely necessary before the souls of the guilty can be made the subjects of renewing and sanctifying grace.”[11] A biblical theology recognizes that human beings are not morally neutral, awaiting a good example to follow; indeed, the biblical model recognizes that the human problem is not simply that we commit sins, but that we are sinners. The Moral Theory assumes that human beings would be inherently capable of following the moral example of Christ; the biblical model recognizes that without Christ-bought expiation and the subsequent sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, man is an enemy of God and only restrained in his evil by the common grace of God. Thus, the Moral Theory recognizes neither the guilt or nature of human sin as affirmed in Scripture; it is a retelling of the old Pelagian lie. Second, the Moral Theory doesn’t recognize that God, because He is just, must punish sin; His nature is not at war with itself, and His justice is not somehow undermined by His love. Berkhof writes, “This theory robs the atonement of its objective character, and thereby ceases to be a real theory of the atonement. It is at most only a one-sided theory of reconciliation. In fact, it is not even that, for subjective reconciliation is only possible on the basis of an objective reconciliation.”[12] The Moral Theory objectively leaves human beings under the just condemnation of God. “We cannot be at ease with God and think easily about him with the breach our sin creates. We cannot go to him in prayer, call on him for help, or expect peace with him unless reconciliation takes place. It is important to understand just how deep, wide, and far-reaching is the gulf between God and us.”[13] A final objection against this theory (though there are many more which might be raised) is the nature of Christ’s example. Assuming this theory is true, what example does Christ provide for us as a whole? Christ lived according to His teaching, and was killed for it. Can His death, apart from its propitiatory character, really be seen as self-sacrifice, as something worthy of emulation? No, rather, it is as Horatius Bonar writes, “an example of the complete triumph of evil over goodness, of wrong over right, of Satan over God – one from whose history we can draw only this terrific conclusion, that God has lost control of His own world… that the utmost that God can do is to produce a rare example of suffering holiness, which He allows the world to tread upon without being able effectually to interfere.”[14] Without its propitiatory and expiatory character, the cross of Christ is simply a tragedy to be feared, and presents only an example for suicides. It is a purposeless death, not an imitable self-sacrifice on behalf of others.

The biblical and Reformed perspective of the atonement seeks to recognize the purpose of the work of Christ as has been revealed to us through the inspired words of Scripture; this view of the atonement is known as Penal Substitutionary Atonement. The Westminster Confession of Faith states that “The Lord Jesus, by his perfect obedience and sacrifice of himself, which he through the eternal Spirit once offered up unto God, hath fully satisfied the justice of his Father, and purchased not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for all those whom the Father hath given unto him.”[15] Biblically considered, the question at hand in any view of the atonement must be “How might man who is sinful be fully reconciled to an infinitely holy and just God?” Or, as Bonar asks, “How may I, a sinner, draw near to Him in whom there is no sin, and look upon His face in peace?”[16] The answer given by Scripture, and echoed in the Reformed confessions, is that we might only come before our infinitely holy God through the work of our divine Mediator acting as our propitiation upon the cross. “According to this doctrine the work of Christ is a real satisfaction, of infinite inherent merit, to the vindicatory justice of God; so that he saves his people by doing for them, and in their stead, what they were unable to do for themselves, satisfying the demands of the law in their behalf, and bearing its penalty in their stead.”[17] The end of Christ’s atoning work is the reconciling of sinful man to God and of God to sinful man, the fullest expression of God’s love in justifying sinners without thereby injuring His own just nature. “God’s interposition in behalf of man must be a confirmation, not a relaxation of law: for law cannot change, even as God cannot change nor deny Himself. Favor to the sinner must be also favor to the law.”[18] Man, in his sin, stands as the enemy of God; in the courts of heaven he has been found guilty according to the law, and the just punishment for the infinite offense of sin is eternal death and hell. A guilty man cannot reconcile himself; he cannot change that which he has done or expunge the guilt of his actions. In a perfectly just court, the guilty are punished according to their crime, and the punishment of sin is death.[19] “It is as the unrighteous that we come to God… unable to remove that unrighteousness, or offer anything either to palliate or propitiate.”[20] Before the just Judge, a guilty sinner, standing alone, is condemned, helpless to save himself. Note the difference between this doctrine and that of the Moral theorists; man is no moral Switzerland, but a guilty and condemned rebel, who continues in his rebellion against the law of his sovereign God should there be no action taken from outside of himself on his behalf. This action is precisely what our loving God does take, however, in sending His Son to be incarnate of the virgin Mary, to act as the Mediator between God and man, our Substitute in the heavenly courts. Christ, Who lived a perfectly sinless, perfectly righteous, perfectly obedient life before the Father, having not the sin nature we possess from our father, Adam, stood in our place condemned, bearing our sins and our guilt before the just Judge. “The things that He did not do were laid to His charge, and He was treated as if He had done them all; so the things that He did do are put to our account, and we are treated by God as if we had done them all.”[21] The language of imputation is used here to describe the legal transaction – the sins of the elect are imputed to Christ, and punished in Christ at the crucifixion; the righteousness of Christ is imputed to the elect, reconciling us to the Father. Upon the cross, Christ acts as our perfect Sacrifice/Satisfaction, propitiating the wrath of God. “If a man does wrong and renders satisfaction, this satisfaction is intended to influence the person wronged and not the offending party. In the case under consideration it means that the atonement was intended to propitiate God and to reconcile Him to the sinner.”[22] In the vicarious death of Christ, the wrath of God is poured out upon Christ for our sins; the separation from God that was meant for us, was instead suffered by Christ. “He was forsaken by God the Father… by suspending the joy and comfort and the sense and fruition of full felicity. Such things can have no other adequate cause except in vindicatory justice demanding from Christ a most full satisfaction for us.”[23] Christ propitiates the wrath of God toward us by bearing our sins and suffering their just penalty. And His perfection is imputed to us; that is, “it becomes ours in law; ours for all legal ends; ours as efficaciously as if it had been from first to last our own in very deed.”[24] Thus, God is able to justly forgive us, while at the same time, justly punishing sin. For the elect, united to our Substitute by faith produced in us by the Holy Spirit, that which has been imputed to us, that is, Christ’s righteousness, is imparted to us, in the work of the Spirit conforming us to the image of the Son. This Substitutionary Atonement, therefore, satisfies the justice of God, removes the curse of sin, and restores the elect to fellowship with God, thereby effecting a full salvation while at the same time reflecting the character of God as presented to us through biblical revelation.

The Doctrine of the Atonement is a central doctrine of Christianity; to hold and live out of a wrong understanding of this doctrine means not only adhering to a deviant form of Christianity, but denying Christianity altogether and embracing another religion. Concerning the Moral Theory, Hodge writes, “Anything that turns the sinner’s regard inward on himself as a ground of hope, instead of bidding him look to Christ, must plunge him into despair, and despair is the portal of eternal death.”[25] Essentially, what the great Princeton theologian is recognizing is that the heart of the gospel is substitutionary atonement, and that to deny this is the denial of the gospel itself, the denial of life, the denial of Christianity, and the embracing of eternal death. “[The Moral Theory] evidently changes the whole plan of salvation. It alters our relations to Christ, as our head and representative, and the ground of our acceptance with God: and consequently it changes the nature of religion.”[26] The clear biblical message is one that points us out of ourselves to the person of Christ as our Substitute. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”[27] Recognizing Christ as our Substitute, justly condemned in our place, is the key to understanding Christ as ransom, as victor, and yes, as example par excellence of the love of God. However, the primary understanding of the atonement which justifies and informs all other biblical images must be that of propitiatory, penal substitution. “So satisfied is [the LORD] with this divine law-fulfilling, and with Him who so gloriously fulfilled it, that He is willing to pass or cancel all the law’s sentences against us; nay, to deal with us as partakers of or identified with this law-fulfilling, if we will but agree to give up all personal claims to His favor, and accept the claims of Him who hath magnified the law and made it honorable.”[28] May the cry of the elect be always, “The LORD my righteousness!”




[1] Sinclair Ferguson, “Christ, the Sin-Bearer”, Atonement, ed. by Gabriel N.E. Fluhrer (Philipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2010), 113.

[2] The Second Helvetic Confession, I.II.

[3] The Westminster Confession of Faith, I.IX.

[4] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 2 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2011), 563.

[5] Ibid.

[6] In this paper, I follow Hodge’s designation of “Moral Theory” as encapsulating both the “Moral Influence Theory” and the “Example Theory”, as Berkhof divides them.

[7] Ibid., 566-567.

[8] Ibid., 568.

[9] Ibid., 569.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 571.

[12] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2005), 389.

[13] John R. De Witt, “The Nature of the Atonement: Reconciliation”, Atonement, 22.

[14] Horatius Bonar, The Everlasting Righteousness (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1993), 98-99.

[15] WCF, VIII.V.

[16] Bonar, 1.

[17] Hodge, 563.

[18] Bonar, 12.

[19] Romans 6:23

[20] Bonar, 76.

[21] Ibid., 84.

[22] Berkhof, 373.

[23] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, trans. George Musgrave Giger, ed. James T. Dennison, vol. 2 (Philipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1992), 434-435.

[24] Bonar, 97.

[25] Hodge, 572.

[26] Ibid.

[27] 2 Corinthians 5:21

[28] Bonar, 81.

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