the background of salvation

Written by Dan King

Christ-follower. husband. father. author of the unlikely missionary: from pew-warmer to poverty-fighter. co-author of activist faith: from him and for him. director of family ministry at st. edward's episcopal church. president of fistbump media, llc.

January 17, 2011

[serialposts]There are many ideas regarding the antoning work of Christ, beginning with the necessity of it. But regardless of your view on the necessity of the atonement, one thing that’s clear is that God didn’t have to save anyone. He chose to save because He loves (John 3:16).

There have been many different theories regarding atonement throughout history. It’s good to understand the truth and weaknesses regarding these theories so that you can avoid falling into heresy when determining your views. The major theories of atonement are:

Ransom Theory (Origen)

  • Main Idea: Ransom paid to the devil
  • Truth: A costly price was paid
  • Weakness: Senseless debate over “to whom was the price paid?” (to the devil)

Satisfaction Theory (Anselm)

  • Main Idea: Satisfaction rendered to God’s justice
  • Truth: Christ’s death was full satisfaction for our sins
  • Weakness: Too rational, and neglects revelation/faith; more than God’s honor at stake

Moral Influence Theory (Abelard)

  • Main Idea: An answering love securing redemption
  • Truth: Christ’s death was the supreme revelation of God’s love
  • Weakness: Christ’s death does more than influence sinners, it saves them

Example Theory (Socinus)

  • Main Idea: An imitation of Christ’s teaching and example bringing redemption
  • Truth: Christ in His obedient death left an example for us to follow
  • Weakness: No substitutionary death

Governmental Theory (Grotius)

  • Main Idea: Manifestation not satisfaction of divine justice
  • Truth: God is a moral governor who always acts in the best interests of His subjects
  • Weakness:  Undercuts justification of the sinner by a righteous God

Dramatic Theory (Aulén)

  • Main Idea: Victory of Christ over evil powers
  • Truth: Christ’s death was a warfare with Satan and a victory
  • Weakness: Christ’s death is more than just a drama

Penal Substitution Theory (Calvin) – most commonly held by evangelical believers today

  • Main Idea: Christ paid the penalty due to each of us as sinners; Christ dies in our place as a substitute
  • Truth: Christ by His death did make full satisfaction for our sins; He did seek to elicit the love and gratitude of the believer; He did provide an example for believers to follow
  • Recent criticism: Some say this position could be viewed as unethical or unjust, and that God certainly would’ve been able to forgive humans without a substitutionary punishment

The New Testament uses four words to describe the various aspects of various aspects of the salvation of Christ: sacrifice, propitiation, reconciliation, and redemption. Here are a few observations about each one of these aspects:

Sacrifice deals with the need that is created by our guilt (being guilty of the sin that separates us from God). There are four characteristics of the sacrifice that we see in the Old Testament:

  1. The sacrifice was to be without blemish (this is why it was important that Jesus was ‘without sin’)
  2. The offerer was to lay his/her hands on the sacrifice as a means of transferring the guilt (it seems to me that there is the need to approach Jesus)
  3. The victim was to be slain (as in Jesus’ death on the cross)
  4. It was in connection with the peace offering given to the priest and worshipers in a meal of fellowship (as we should celebrate and fellowship with Christ and each other)

Propitiation deals with the need to cover our sin in relation to the Lord. It is an answer to the issue of God’s wrath. In a sense we are protected from the God’s “fixed, controlled burning anger against sin.”

Reconciliation deals with the bringing back together of two parties that were separated from each other. With the entrance of sin, God’s presence departs. With our salvation God reconciles us back to him. It’s something that He does, not us. Some of the best passages regarding this aspect of atonement are found in:

Redemption is the answer to our bondage to sin and Satan. This refers to the freedom that is experienced when one becomes a Christian.

There are three major views regarding the extent of the atonement. I have strong feelings on what I believe about all this, but it’s where I have the most questions too…

  • Unrestricted universalism – This is the idea that everyone will eventually be saved. There seems to be pretty strong evidence in the Bible that there will be some who (based on their own decisions and actions) will spend eternity separated from God. I wonder why some would hold this view… Is it because they simply cannot imagine a God who would let people perish? What does this view do as it relates to justice? What if someone murdered your spouse or children? Would you feel the same way about that person?
  • Qualified universalism (Arminian view) – This is the idea that God planned to save all men, but some will not receive it because of a failure to believe. This seems to be the most balanced perspective to me, because I have a hard time believing that there are ANY excluded from God’s plan to draw ALL men unto Him.
  • Particularism (Calvinist view) – This is the idea that God only intends to save ‘the elect’. Now I’ve got nothing but mad love for my Calvinist friends, and the theology seems to be pretty solid. However, I wonder how those who subscribe to this view deal with the idea that only some may be saved. Is it all predetermined? Do human choices really matter? How do you deal with the free will of man? Does this mean that evangelism should only focus on certain people?

I have some thoughts on how I would deal with these questions and differences, but I’d be really interested to hear other people’s perspectives. Please feel free to discuss and/or ask questions below in the comments…


  1. Ryan

    My question to you is, what is the cause of the belief? Is it something in yourself or regeneration by God. Think of the implications of the cause being something in yourself.

    • @bibledude

      The cause of my belief in God? That’s a REALLY interesting question… The implication of it coming solely from inside myself is definitely huge. But I’m not sure if that’s possible. I don’t deny that I have felt needs, but also realize those needs in the presence of God.

      I wonder if that question is like asking what is the cause of my relationship with my wife. I have needs that I’m trying to fill, but I cannot even conceive of how to fill them if she didn’t exist or if I wasn’t aware of her presence (or that of any woman).


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the background of salvation

by Dan King time to read: 5 min