The Atonement as Divine Healing

image The Suffering and Glory of the Servant

See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.

Just as there were many who were appalled at him— his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness— so will he sprinkle many nations, and kings will shut their mouths because of him.

For what they were not told, they will see, and what they have not heard, they will understand.

Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?

He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground.

He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.

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.

He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away. And who can speak of his descendants? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken.

He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.

After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.

Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. (Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12)

The Healing view of Atonement roots itself in this passage from Isaiah and the scriptures that orbit around it that see the atoning work of Christ in terms of the restoration of Shalom to the whole of God’s people. God the Healer is not satisfied to only redeem humankind from their sinful separation from His holiness, He also intended the atonement to restore the physical ailments that result from our corruption of the world. Shalom, the well being, wholeness, and peace that were characteristic of the newborn world is what God envisions for His redeemed. Jesus models the Physician through His healing and teaching ministry and initiates our restoration to Shalom through His sacrifice.

The Healing paradigm is a minority view that is often subsumed under other more dominant theological positions. Many are able to accept atonement for sin but demur at the idea of including physical ailments. Proponents say that the other views are too narrow in their scope; God had a much more comprehensive restoration in mind in reconciling humanity to Himself. They embrace a holistic view of the predicament of mankind that describes us as sin-sick and the sickness is comprised of both a spiritual and a physical component and this dual-corruption infects our economic, political, social and environment systems. Restoration is needed: Have you rejected Judah completely? Do you despise Zion? Why have you afflicted us so that we cannot be healed? W hoped for peace but no good has come, for a time of healing but there is only terror. O Lord we acknowledge our wickedness and the guilt of our fathers, we have indeed sinned against you. (Jer 14:19-20). Holistic healing of body and soul is in view in light of the biblical affirmation of the connection between sin, sickness, and well-being.

The theology of this view can be examined by a systematic approach to the Scriptures but the outline of this school of thought is most easily understood by outlining the Suffering Servant passage. I won’t approach this line by line but rather, thought by thought.

  • 52:13 The Savior/Healer will be lifted up and exalted. Jesus as the Physician was lifted up on the Cross and exalted in His resurrection.
  • 52:15 He will cleanse the nation and His mission and atoning actions will be seen by all.
  • 53:3 The Savior will be despised of men and will be a man of sorrows. Note that the Hebrew word used for sorrows includes physical and mental pain.
  • 53:4 The Savior took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows. In view is the recognition that disease is often a result of sinful living as a consequence of Original Sin.
  • 53:5 The Savior was pierced for our transgressions (sin) and crushed for our iniquities (evil). The punishment visited upon Him resulted in our Shalom and healed our infirmities. Note the impression of holistic redemption inferred from this verse.
  • 53:10 The guilt offering was the Lord himself; substitution is in view here.
  • 53:11 This singular sacrifice of the the Savior brought the satisfaction that so many animal, etc. sacrifices had not in the past.
  • 53:12 The Savior bore the sin on behalf of many and now He stands as the intercessor for transgressors.

We can refer to Malachi for a summary:

But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. (Mal 4:2)

Conclusion

The healing view of the atonement attracts adherents on two fronts. First, the believer can be assured of the forgiveness of their sin and that they can reconciled in their relationship with God. Second, with holistic healing in view, humankind can be certain that God desires good for us; He desires Shalom. Though the believer’s life will be fraught with travail and struggle, the notion that ultimately there will be Shalom provides the necessary encouragement to persevere. Though the outline in this article was developed around an outline in Isaiah, the healing ministry of Jesus is found throughout the Gospels (note that fully one third of Mark is devoted to healing). The atonement brought by Christ solves our most fundamental plight as the corrupted children of the Garden. We are reconciled (Rom 5:10-11), our sins are forgiven never to be held against us (2 Cor 5:18-19) and we have an intercessor (Rom 8:34). The additional benefit that must not be overlooked is the satisfaction of our holistic need for physical and mental healing by this same act. Much like the paralytic man in Matthew 9, humanity is forgiven and given a hand up from our ailments. 

 

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The Christus Victor View of Atonement

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“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.” (Mk 10:45)

It will surprise many readers to discover that the Penal Substitution theory of atonement is a more recent development in the history of the Church and her doctrine. The theory that lays claim to being the standard view for many centuries prior to the Protestant Reformation was the Christus Victor (Christ the Victor) theory in which the atonement was seen as victory over Satan and the forces of evil. The central theme of this classic view is that Christ—Christus Victor—fought against and triumphed over the evil powers of the world to which humankind was in bondage. His demise overcame the hostile spiritual powers and, as a result of His sacrifice and victory, captive sinners were freed and given eternal life. This interpretation (known variously as the Classic, dramatic, or ransom theory) was the dominant church view for 1,000 years and remains the view of some contemporary theologians.

Christus Victor is a complex theory as viewed through the Scriptures. The reader must first see the motif of spiritual warfare that winds its way throughout the Bible. If this motif is placed in a primary position, the entire narrative of the Bible is viewed as the story of God’s ongoing battle with spiritual and human agents who oppose Him and threaten harm to His creation and His ultimate victory. The OT view that what occurred in the spiritual realm affected human history is encapsulated in Job 1-2 (Ps 82; Daniel 10). Yahweh is portrayed as continually at war with these forces and it is through his strength alone that chaos is held at bay. There is an acute awareness that the earth is held hostage to these evil forces such that only a radical move by God would be able to overcome them. Jesus spoke to the belief that Satan was the ruler of this world (John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11). [This should not be understood as Satan higher in order than Jesus. Instead, he is to be viewed as the functional lord of this world.] Satan is portrayed as possessing ‘the kingdoms of the world’ (Luke 4:5-6; 1 John 5:19) and as having authority over them. Paul attributed the fundamental evil of the world’s systems (Gal 1:4) to this rule. Viewing the atonement through this prism logically sees Jesus as overcoming this rule and restoring control to the Trinity.

Ireaneus interpreted this motif by seeing Adam’s disobedience as placing humanity under the dominion of Satan. Rising from the dead, Christ conquered Satan releasing sinners from his control. This victory was foreseen in the great proto-evangelism of Genesis 3:15: …he will crush your head. Ireaneus wrote “Redeeming us with his blood, Christ gave himself as a ransom for those who had been led into captivity.” (Ireaneus, Against Heresies) Origen followed suit in this belief maintaining that because of sin, human beings were bound by Satan. He said that as a ransom payment for these souls, Satan demanded the blood of Christ. As God handed over Christ, Satan released his hostages. Later patristic writers such as John of Damascus took umbrage with the trade of the precious blood of Christ to Satan suggesting that what the devil received was an empty shell of Christ, tricking him.

The Theological Advantage of the Christus Victor View

Proponents of this view of atonement suggest that it is the superior theory because all of the other views are encompassed within its framework. It further offers that there is no temptation for people to suppose that they are participating in the kingdom when there is no evidence of the kingdom in their lives in contrast to the individual outlook of the western Church. Its focus is on the demonic dimension of fallen social structures. Theologically, the advantage proposed of the Christus Victor view is that it solves multiple problems simultaneously. Through the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the All-Wise God was able to:

  • Defeat Satan and his cohort (Heb 2:14; 1 Jn 3:8)
  • Reconcile all things to Himself (2 Cor 5:18-19; Col 1:20-22)
  • Forgive our sins (Acts 13:38; Eph 1:7)
  • Healed our sin-corrupted nature (1 Pet 2:24)
  • Poured His Spirit on us and empowered us to live in relation to Himself (Rom 8:2-16)
  • Gave us an example to follow (Eph 5:1-2; 1 Pet 2:21)

Those who apply this theory of atonement see that it encompasses the variety of atonement views under a single theory where the others tend to emphasize one or two of the above points but not all of them.

Conclusion

Christ releasing humanity from the bondage of sin and Satan lies through His sacrifice is core of the Christus Victor view of atonement. It is a theory that spans the whole of the Bible from Genesis 3 to Revelation 20 and it was the dominant view of the early church. This theory is most often proposed as the framework into which the other narrower views can be organized because it covers such a wide range of theological issues. It also encourages the Christian to take seriously the devil, an idea which has fallen from favor in the modern Church.

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The Penal Substitution View of Atonement

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The dominant view of the Atonement among modern Evangelicals is the Penal Substitution view. Simply defined, this view says that God the Father, because of His immeasurable love for humanity, sent His Son to die to satisfy the demands of his justice. In doing so, Jesus Christ took the place of sinful humanity and once and for all was the atonement for all our sins. There are several key elements that support this theory but at its core is the notion that sin results in the just penalty of death (Rom 6:23) and that, in love, Christ died in our place (Rom 5:8). His death took the penalty for our sin (Rom 3:25-26) satisfying the demands of the Father’s justice.

Historical Development of the View

Early church fathers such as Clement of Rome, Ignatius, and Athtanasius included the idea of vicarious sacrifice in their understanding of the atonement but it was Augustine who synthesized the various themes into a comprehensive view of the Atonement. The penal substitution view became fully developed with the Protestant Reformers starting with Luther and then Calvin who formalized the ideas of Augustine into a cohesive whole.

We can use Calvin’s structure to understand the different aspects of vicarious sacrifice as he organized the idea through the use of three key theological concepts. Propitiation portrays Christ’s work in its Godward aspect. Through His sacrifice as our substitute Christ satisfied the demands of a just God: “The meaning, therefore, is, that God, to whom we were hateful through sin, was appeased by the death of his Son, and made propitious to us.” (Ref Rom 5:11 Calvin, Institutes II, xvii, 3). The idea of redemption encapsulates the humanward focus of Christ’s work on the Cross. (“Death held us under its yoke, but he in our place delivered himself into its power, that he might exempt us from it. This the Apostle means when he says, “that he tasted death for every man,”” (Heb. 2:9) ibid, II, xvi, 7). Lastly, to speak of reconciliation is to bring into view both the Godward and humanward aspects of Christ’s work. His death and resurrection serves to reconcile those who were previously separated by enmity and unholiness. (“These words (1 John 4:10) clearly demonstrate that God, in order to remove any obstacle to his love towards us, appointed the method of reconciliation in Christ.”, ibid II, xvii, 2).

Calvin also made a significant contribution to the understanding of atonement through his exegesis of Christ’s mediatorial work in the three offices of prophet, king, and priest. (cf. Institutes II 15:1-6) As prophet, Jesus proclaimed the grace of God and He assists the Church in her proclamation of the gospel message. Jesus the King rules over, guides, and protects the Church and as Priest, He expiated her sins by His sacrifice and even now intercedes on her behalf. We must remember that Calvin’s use of Church represents the New Testament view of the Church as the whole body of redeemed believers and not the organization itself. To those outside of the Church, he represents these three offices in name only.

The Necessity of Sacrifice

The violence of this view of atonement has been a challenge to theologians through the centuries and many, especially in modern times, have tried to posit alternative theories that move away from the theory. Why sacrifice was needed by God is necessary to understand in order to grasp penal substitution and this section will outline the conditions that form the answer. First, one must accept the sinfulness of humanity and how seriously God considers that sin. All humanity is sinful and in rebellion toward God (Rom 3:23). How seriously does God view our repeated failures, regardless of severity? Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden for one sin because His standard is perfection. James 2:11 reminds us that we are evaluated in the same light; a single sin brands us as a lawbreaker (cf Gal 3:10). Humanity requires atonement because of our sin and the fact that it makes us the enemies of God.

Cannot God simply forget about sin? To answer this question requires that we view sin correctly, as an affront to the very character of God. Our sin is not impersonal. The requirements of holiness are not externally imposed. Rather, the norms of the law express God’s character, the beauty and holiness of His person. Because sin violates God’s law (1 John 3:4) it is so heinous because it is personal rebellion against the person of God. To restate this idea, your sin is a personal attack against the person of God, not just an infraction against an arbitrary set of rules that He composed. The personal nature of sin defiles the holiness of God and it requires retribution. His judgment of sin represents His personal anger at sin (Jer 2:13) and human rejection of His lordship.

Sin, by its personal nature, must be atoned for by sacrifice. Therefore, if humanity is to be redeemed there must be a penal substitute if we are to avoid the punishment our sin invites. Into this world, God sent Jesus Christ to be the sacrifice that would take on our sins (Isa 53, cf. Lev 16:21-22 to view the substitution in practice.) Only the appropriate sacrifice is acceptable to the Holy demands of justice and Christ alone fulfills that requirement (Rom 3:25-26) and removes the curse of sin (Gal 3:10-14). Through His sacrifice believers are redeemed (Mk 10:45).

Conclusion

Penal substitution does not represent all that needs to be said about atonement but it is often seen as the foundation of all other theories of atonement because it focuses its attention Godward. It seeks to explain how human beings are reconciled to God and the reasons for the initial discord. God is holy and righteous and must judge the rebellion of those who sin against His Lordship. His love desires to redeem them but his justice requires payment of the appropriate penalty. Christ is the only appropriate substitute unless we are to stand for judgment on our own merits.

Atonement – The Greatest Human Need

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“But how can a mortal be righteous before God?” Job 9:2

“The atonement is the crucial doctrine of the faith. Unless we are right here it matters little, or so it seems to me, what we are like elsewhere.” Leon Morris The Cross in the New Testament

For many, bringing up the doctrine of atonement leads to a discussion of whether or not its scope is limited or unlimited. Atonement as a theological topic often ends there, though occasionally the mention of alternative view leads to a vehement exhortation that penal substitution is the only acceptable view on the matter. For something so critical to the Christian life, there is scant consideration of the depth and breadth of views on how and why Christ performed this sacrificial task on our behalf.

My next set of doctrinal posts are going to explore the wide range of views that the Church has held at various times in its history on the doctrine of atonement. Many people will discover that there numerous ways that Christians have understood atonement beyond the most commonly expressed view of Evangelicals, penal substitution. It is important to keep in mind that the various emphases and approaches to understanding atonement may differ on their constructions they all come to the same conclusion: the work of Jesus Christ on the cross reconciled a sinful people and a holy God.

Atonement, in all of its theories and views, is specifically the reconciliation with God over the problem of sin. 1 John 2:1-2 summarize the idea well:

My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

As reconciled people we are at peace with God rather than continuing to be His enemies. Christ’s death has removed the enmity between us and has appeased the wrath of God. The propitiation full satisfied every one of the righteous demands of God, a necessary transaction as His holiness does not allow God to simply overlook our sin. As redeemed humans, Christ has purchased us out of bondage to sin and we become His servants. His sacrifice was the act that allowed us to be declared righteous, pardoning us and ending our separation from God. As John Wesley wrote, “Nothing in the Christian system is of greater consequence than the doctrine of atonement.”

 

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