Christianity Today makes available a short article by Richard Mouw, summarised nicely in its tagline: ‘Each atonement theory highlights a truth about the Cross – but none more so than Christ's substitutionary death.’
Mouw begins by describing overhearing a young pastor’s comment that he ‘seldom’ talked any more about substitutionary atonement, preferring instead to talk about about how Christ encountered ‘the powers’ of consumerism, militarism, racism, super-patriotism, and the like.
He goes on to highlight different attempts to ‘liberate’ the cross from what, to some, looks like abuse and bloodlust, leading to a turn to ‘moral example’ and ‘Christus Victor’ as the main ways of understanding the atonement.
Yet, in spite of their potential significance for witnessing to others, he says, ‘we must also think about what is necessary for a more mature, biblically faithful understanding of the nature of our salvation’. By itself, for instance, the Christus Victor motif ‘is not enough to capture the full meaning of Christ’s atonement’.
As Mouw says:
‘Our burdens of shame and guilt have been nailed to the cross. Evangelicals have always insisted on that message as central to proclaiming the gospel. Again, a variety of images capture this emphasis – debt-repaying, ransom, sacrifice, enduring divine wrath against sin. But all these images have this in common: They point us to the fact that on the cross of Calvary, Jesus did something for us that we could never do for ourselves as sinners. He engaged in a transaction that has eternal consequences for our standing before a righteous God.’
Borrowing from Geerhardus Vos, Mouw notes the significance of the issue of how we understand the human problem: ‘If we have a reduced understanding of our sinful condition, then we also have a reduced Savior.’
He goes on:
‘This is precisely the problem with limiting the nature of the Atonement to a moral example. It sees Jesus primarily as presenting us with a moral lesson, one that he taught by embodying forgiving love. Here our lostness is something like our wandering without an accurate map. Our fundamental problem is ignorance. Our sinfulness – willful rebellion against our Creator – is not acknowledged. Christus Victor also runs the risk of downplaying our sinfulness. It is easy to depict “enslavement” to rebellious spiritual powers in terms of victimhood, rather than to acknowledge our own guilt.’
He concludes by saying that those who want to retain the notion of Jesus experiencing divine wrath against sin ‘have to be very careful in how we depict the punishment inflicted on the cross’. Drawing from John Stott, he commends an understanding of the Father and Son being united together ‘in the same holy love which made atonement necessary’.