Why did Jesus have to die?… and what liberal and some emerging theologians and Muslims have in common

There are multiple things that Christ accomplished for us when he died on the cross. He “paid” our sin debt (Romans 3:25-26), “cleansed us” from defilement (1 John 1:9), defeated the powers of darkness (Colossians 2:15), reversed the curse of death (Galatians 3:13), gave us a model for how to love others and overcome injustice (1 Peter 2:21), and demonstrated to us how much God loves us (Romans 5:8), just to name a few. Theologians call these the “theories of the atonement.”

In recent years, the 1st of those, the penal substitution “theory of the atonement” (the idea that Christ satisfied the wrath of God by taking upon Himself the penalty for our sin, thus paying our sin debt) has fallen out of favor with more sophisticated theologians (read: liberal and some ’emerging’; also on popular books like The Shack). They believe that “penal substitution” is based on a Westernized justice theory that modern man has progressed beyond. God does not demand that justice be served in forgiving our sins, they say, so Christ didn’t have to die to pay any sin debt. He was stopping the curse of death, demonstrating His love for us, and defeating Satan. To believe that Jesus died to pay a debt to God’s justice, they say, makes God sound barbaric and guilty of cosmic child abuse (demanding Christ die so that He could forgive). Ironically, this is exactly what Muslims say.

This, of course, goes directly against the teaching of passages like Romans 3:25-26 and Isaiah 3:5-6. And, as Jim Belcher points out in his book Deep Church, “penal substitution” is ultimately the basis for all the other “theories of the atonement.” They are only true because Christ died for our sins.

The penal model forms the foundation of the Christus Victor model (Christ’s victory over the principalities and powers at the cross). Christ’s victory is gained… through penal suffering.’ (How can victory be gained if sin is not first atoned for? How can we start to live in the kingdom if our sins are not first forgiven and we are given new power to live in the service of and obedience to the kingdom?) (p. 116)

I think this is a great paragraph… How did Jesus defeat the powers of sin and death? By paying for our sin. How did He ransom us? By paying our sin debt. How did He stop the curse? By satisfying it in our place. Why was His death a demonstration of love? Because He paid a debt we could never pay.

This point is one I also try to make in my new book Breaking the Islam Code. In that book, I suggest that presenting the death of Christ in terms of cleansing, rather than forgiveness, is better when sharing Christ with Muslims. Muslims are reminded every time they wash and pray of their defilement before God, and presenting to them that Jesus’ blood can wash their hearts clean resonates with them more immediately than does the idea that Jesus’ paid a sin-debt). That does not imply, however, that “cleansing” is in contrast to, or eclipses, “penal substitution,” because the reason Jesus’ blood cleanses us from sin is because Jesus paid our sin debt. If you won’t think me too egotistical, I’d like to quote myself…

I want to be careful implying that cleansing and forgiveness are two fundamentally different things. They are not. When 1 John 1:9 says that we are “cleansed” to have fellowship with the Father, this happens by the faithful and just forgiving of our unrighteousness. It is because Jesus paid our sin debt that we can be cleansed and have fellowship with God again. What I am saying is that emphasizing that we are cleansed, and that we can through this cleansing stand in God’s presence again, has more appeal to the Muslim than simply saying that Jesus settled our outstanding accounts at the register of God’s justice.

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  1. Brian   •  

    Thanks JD, Great post.

    It sounds like you are simply changing analogies (not theology) to accomodate culture.

    Where the traditionally Western culture is very merchant/commerce oriented, the “paid a sin-debt” describes well the mechanism of salvation, the traditionally Eastern/Muslim culture, however, better identifies with the analogy of cleansing to describe the same truth.

    Am I understanding you correctly, or are these “theories” distinct from each other? (In your view, are they two descriptions of the same idea, or are they seperate, complimentary ideas?)



  2. WesInTex   •  

    J. D.,
    Thanks for the insight. I am beginning a series on “Why the Cross?” this sunday and thinking in much of the same line as you mention here. I may have to change my schedule just a bit and end with His substitutionary atonement as the bases for all other “views.” Thanks again.


  3. Chris Krycho   •  

    It strikes me that the main problem with the resurgence in the Christus Victor model is that it’s been raised as a replacement for penal substitution instead of a consequence of it. The model itself, seen in the light of penal substitution, is actually a very good one, and one that I think does deserve a good deal more attention in evangelical churches. Just not at the expense of penal substitutionary atonement!

    Highlighting the relationship to Islam lays out a very effective pattern: taking a concept that is familiar, putting it in gospel terms, and then tracing that back to the atonement at the cross. That seems like a very good summary of how to handle the gospel in a “missional” sense to me. Thanks for the insight.

  4. Theodore A. Jones   •  

    “I have come that they might have life.”
    The the doctrines of salvation that have the theoretical base of alleging that the crucifixion of Jesus is a direct benefit are in error. They are actually alleging that from the sin of murder caused by bloodshed, a disobedience of the law, has resolved all of your other issues of offenses of that same law if you believe it has.
    This is the logic of “I can have my cake and eat it too”, yeah right. This idea, even though it is preached 24/7, has the negative outcome of only a few find it. We must consider the fact that a false explanation(s) of why Jesus was crucified were preached and most people think they are true. But the only way of differentiating what is a false explanation about Jesus crucifixion is to learn what is true by continuing in his word about his crucifixion.
    Prior to Jesus’ crucifixion he taught that the outcome of crucifying him is not a positive outcome. He says that murdering him induces his father to kill everyone as a act of vengeance. One only needs to read the parable of the Tenants to understand what God’s intent actually is. And we have this statement of Jesus “When he comes he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin.” If what you teach about the crucifixion of Jesus having resolved all issues of retribution by God relative to sin is true. Then these two instructions of Jesus are false, but they are not.
    God does not declare anyone righteous by the commission of any sin. “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13 According to God’s promises made to Jesus that his body would not see decay and that he is a priest forever after the order of Melchisedec, a priest not made with hands. Jesus made a change of the law by adding to it for an intercession after his crucifixion. “For when there is a change of the priesthood it creates the necessary act of also making a change of the law.” Heb. 7:12 Therefore no man will be declared righteous by God without making the direct confession to God that he is sorry Jesus’ life was lost by bloodshed when he was crucified. And be baptized into this Way of faith for the forgiveness of past sins. However it is past sins that are forgiven and only upon the faith to make this confession with your mouth known to God. For since it is the law that God must be obeyed this Way in regard to the sin of crucifying Jesus. The man who refuses to comply to this law upon hearing about it, or in this case reading, commits a violation of the law that spurns his birthright to become born again of God. Any man disobeying this particular law cuts himself off from the justice of the grace God affords by this law which has been added and commits a sin against God that is not forgivable. He does not escape the vengeance of God of being punished by serving the penalty of eternal death. For that man does not deem it acceptable for him to obey the Lord in regard to the fact that his crucifixion is an accountable offense of the law from each man too by God’s oath.
    “And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And I will demand an accounting (by an addition to the law) from EACH man too, for the life of his fellow man in regard to the sin of crucifying Him.”

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