Fundamental Christian Theology, Vol. 2

By Aaron Hills

Part V - Soteriology

Chapter 4


In beginning the discussion of the conflicting theories of the Atonement we may say, in a general way that two colossal facts confront us in reference to which all certainly should be agreed.

1. We are all sinful and have a tendency to sin.

2. We can be saved only in a deliverance from sin and a moral harmonization with God. Without these facts there is no need of an atonement, and no call for the redemption which Christ professes to bring. How the salvation is brought about-the explanations or theories about it we will now try to set forth.

The theories are many. Dr. Hodge names: 1. The Doctrine of the Early Fathers; 2. The Moral Theory; 3. Governmental Theory; 4. The Mystical Theory; and 5. The Satisfaction Theory. Professor Crawford names fifteen theories or modifications of theories.


It was intended only as a solution of the question how Christ delivers us from the power of Satan. It contemplated neither the removal of guilt, nor the restoration of divine life; but simply our deliverance from the power of Satan. It was founded on those passages of Scripture which represent man as in bondage to the prince of darkness. The object of redemption was supposed to be to deliver mankind from this bondage. This could be done only by some way overcoming Satan, and destroying his power to hold men as slaves. This Christ has done and so has become the Redeemer of men.

The theory, in the course of time, took three different forms.

1. "The first appealed to the old principle of the rights of war, according to which the conquered became the slaves of the conqueror. Satan conquered Adam and thus became the rightful owner of him and his posterity. Hence he is called the God and prince of this world. Christ offered Himself as a ransom to Satan. Satan accepted the offer, and renounced the right to retain mankind as his slaves. Christ, however, broke the bonds of Satan, whose power was founded upon the sinfulness of his subjects" (Hodge, Theology, Vol. II, p. 564).

2. "The second theory regarded Christ as a conqueror. As Satan conquered mankind and made them his slaves; so Christ became a man, and in our nature, conquered Satan; and thus acquired the right to deliver us from our bondage and to consign Satan himself to chains and darkness" (p. 565).

3. "The third form of the theory was that as the right and power of Satan over man is founded on sin, he exceeded his authority when he brought about the death of Christ, who was sinless; and thus justly forfeited his authority over men altogether." This general theory that Christ's great work, as a Redeemer, was to deliver man from bondage to Satan, and that the ransom was paid to him and not to God; or that the difficulty in the way of our salvation was the right which Satan had acquired to us as slaves, which right Christ, in some way cancelled, was very prevalent for a long time in the Church. It is found in Irenaeus, Origen, Theoderet, Basil, Cyril of Jerusalem, Augustine, Jerome, Hilary, Leo the Great and others (see Hagenbach's History of Doctrine, Vol. I, pp. 345-351).

The Scriptural foundation for such a doctrine was very slight. It is true that men are the captives of Satan, and under his dominion. It is true that Christ gave Himself as a ransom; and that by the payment of that ransom we are free from bondage to the prince of darkness. But it does not follow that the ransom was paid to Satan, or that he had any just claim to his authority over the children of men. We may admit all that the Scripture teaches. But that gives no ground for the doctrine that Satan had any claim in justice to hold mankind as his slaves; or that Christ offered Himself as a ransom to the prince of this world. This doctrine was opposed by Gregory of Nyssa, and has long since passed into oblivion" (Hodge's Theology, Vol. II, p. 565).


This is the dominant theory in many quarters at the present time. It is in great favor with all liberal theologians, and advocates of the so-called New Theology. It is now a fashionable fad to talk flippantly about the "sacrificial theory of Atonement," and the "Gory theory," and the "slaughter-house theology of blood," and to speak patronizingly of the moral influence of Christ. Fashionable worldliness in schools and churches is getting too nice to believe that they have been "redeemed by the precious blood," of the Son of God.

The moral influence theory concerning the work of Christ rejects all idea of expiation, or the satisfaction of any kind of justice by vicarious suffering, and attributes all the efficacy of His work to the moral effect produced on the hearts of men by His character, teachings and life. The assumption is that there is nothing in God's nature or in His government which demands that sin should be punished, unless a substitute for the punishment can be found. If that be the case then there would be no need of an expiation or atonement in order to forgiveness. All that is necessary for the restoration of sinners to the favor of God is that they should cease to sin. All that Christ, as the Savior of men, therefore, came to accomplish was a moral reformation in the character of men.

This dangerous error, like many another, is of course a half truth. It is a fact that God's relation to moral beings and His feelings toward them are determined by their character. It is also a fact that He repels sinners, and holds communion with the holy, and that Christ came to restore men to holiness and thus to favor and fellowship with God. But it is also true that to render the restoration of sinners to holiness possible it was necessary that the guilt of their sins should be expiated by an atonement, as a substitute for penalty, in the interest of moral government.

Some of the advocates of this view of the work of Christ do indeed speak freely of the justice of God, but in a peculiar way. They recognize Him as a just Being who everywhere and always punishes sin. But this is done only by the operation of eternal laws. Holiness from its nature produces happiness; and that is its reward. Sin from its nature, produces misery; and that is its punishment.

This is the view presented by Dr. John Young, in his "Life and Light of Men": "There is no such attribute in God (rectilineal justice). But the inevitable punishment of moral evil always and everywhere is certain nevertheless. The justice of the Universe is a tremendous fact, an eternal and necessary fact which even God could not set aside. There is an irresistible, a real force springing out of its essential constitution whereby sin punishes sin. This is the fixed law of the moral universe, a law in perfect harmony with the eternal will, and which never is and never can be broken. God's mercy in our Lord Jesus Christ does not in the least set aside this justice; what it does is to remove and render non-existent the only ground on which the claim of justice stands. Instead of arbitrarily withdrawing the criminal from punishment, it destroys in his soul that evil which is the only cause and reason of punishment, and which being removed punishment ceases of itself" (pp. 115, 116).

The same doctrine is taught by Dr. Bushnell, who says of Christ: "His work terminates, not in the release of penalties by due compensation but in the transformation of character, and the rescue, in that manner, of guilty men from the retributive causations provoked by their sins" (Vicarious Sac., etc., p. 449).

This doctrine of Moral Influence Salvation takes many forms:

1. In the first form, the work of Christ in the salvation of men is confined to His office as teacher. Men were ignorant of the nature of God, and of moral law, and of the results of sin. He introduced a new and higher form of religion by which men were redeemed from the depressing darkness, and degrading superstitions of heathenism.

2. The Marturial Theory. This theory, while it retains the idea that the real benefit comes from the teaching of Christ, yet ascribes His title of Savior principally to His death. But he saves us not as a sacrifice but as a martyr to His prophetic mission. By His death His doctrines were sealed with His blood. Thus He attested His sincerity and gave assurance of the truths which He taught-the love of God. His willingness to forgive sin, the reality of future blessedness in the life to come.

3. The Future Life Theory. According to this view, the death of Christ fulfilled its chief office as pre-requisite to His resurrection, that He might thereby more fully disclose the reality of a future life. Such disclosure is for the sake of its helpful religious influence in the present life. Men are inclined to be secular and worldly and to lose all thought of the future in the charms and cares and ambitions of the present. The certainty of a future life is needed to break the spell, and bring men to a normal life in view of the realities of eternity.

4. Self-sacrificing Love Theory. This view holds that Christ saves, not by His doctrine, nor by His martyr's death, nor by His revelation of a future life, but by the influence of His self-sacrificing love. This they say is the key with which Christ unlocks human hearts. If men cannot be reclaimed by a love which manifests itself by gentle words and deeds of kindness and offers of mercy to the undeserving, all made at the complete sacrifice of self, such as the world had never before seen, then their case must be hopeless. As such self-immolating love as Christ exhibited had never before been seen, and never can be seen again, He is the Savior by way of eminence. Others who become inflamed by His spirit and imitate Him are, in their more limited sphere, and up to the measure of their devotion, saviors too, and are helping to lift up humanity and make the world better. But, Christ is above all, and the pre-eminent Savior! He, more than others, by His matchless self-sacrifice, lends to cure the selfishness of men.

5. The Manifestation of God Theory. According to this theory the mission and work of Christ consisted in revealing God to humanity. By His Incarnation Jesus made a revelation of the nature of God, and His disposition toward the race. His disciples said: Lord, show us the Father and it sufficeth us." He answered, "He that hath seen me, hath seen the Father." In Jesus' tender affection and sympathy they had a revelation of the compassionate love of God. In His merciful kindness to sinners they saw God's willingness to forgive. They saw in Jesus what encouraged them to lay aside their servile fear of God, and cherish in its stead a reverent faith. And so there came to the world through Christ the salutary influence of a moral lesson, and a revelation of the nature of God.

All these popularly named moral influence theories of the atonement are based upon one common idea, viz., that the only difficulty in the salvation of sinners is, to secure their repentance, or, as others say, our own moral disabilities; that nothing is required on God's part as a condition of forgiveness-nothing in the interests of the moral universe, except as provided for in the condition of repentance.

The only necessity is in man. "He is ignorant and needs higher religious truth; of feeble motility to duty, and needs its lessons in a more impressive form; of strong secular tendency, and needs the practical force of a revealed future life; selfish, and needs the helpful example of self-sacrificing love; in a servile fear of God and needs the assurance of His fatherly kindness. So Christ comes in all these forms of needed help." If men will repent they can be forgiven. No antecedent provision is required to make this forgiveness safe and wise. The work of Christ consists then in inducing this repentance, in reconciling sinners to God. "God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself, not reckoning unto them their trespasses" (2 Cor. 5: 19). The repentance of the sinner furnishes all the satisfaction to God and to the universe that is demanded. The idea is not admitted that any danger to God's moral government can arise from the forgiveness of the penitent. "This is the view held by Socinians generally and by all who discard the deity of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is also the view of those who regard the penalty of the law as limited to the natural consequences of the transgression, not involving any positive penalty inflicted by God Himself. This is essentially the view of Dr. Bushnell in his 'Vicarious Sacrifice.' He was no Unitarian or Socinian, but a believer in the Supreme Deity of the Savior. He however, discarded the idea of a positive infliction of evil; and limited the penalty of the law to the reaction of sin, upon the sinner's soul, in accordance with the laws of his being. There could, of course, in this view, be no direct pardon or remission of the penalty. The action of the laws of the sinner's nature is not to be set aside. The sinner must put away his sin, and thus escape the evil of present sin; and the manifestation of the love of God in Christ will gradually lift him out of the evil of his past sin. He outgrows it under the grace of God; and this is forgiveness" (Fairchild's Theology, pp. 211, 212).

Such is the view. elaborately presented, by Dr. Bushnell in his work "On Vicarious Sacrifice." Then as Dr. Hodge observes, "toward the end of the book he virtually takes it all back, and lays down his weapons, conquered by the instincts of his own religious nature, and by the authority of the Word of God" (Hodge, Vol. II, pp. 569, 570). He says: "In the facts (of our Lord's passion) outwardly regarded, there is no sacrifice, or oblation, or atonement, or propitiation, but simply a living and dying thus and thus. The facts are impressive; the person is clad in a wonderful dignity and beauty; the agony is eloquent of love; and the cross a very shocking murder triumphantly met. And if then the question arises, how we are to use such a history so as to be reconciled by it, we hardly know in what way to begin. How shall we come unto God by help of this martyrdom? How shall we turn it, or turn ourselves under it, so as to be justified and set in peace with God? Plainly there is a want here, and this want is met by giving a thought-form to the facts themselves. They are put directly in the moulds of the altar, and we are called to accept the crucified God-man as our sacrifice, an offering or oblation for us, our propitiation; so as to be sprinkled from our evil conscience, washed, purged, purified, and cleansed from our sin. Instead of leaving the matter of the facts just as they occurred, there is a reverting to familiar forms of thought, made familiar partly for this purpose; and we are told, in brief, to use the facts just as we would the sin offerings of the altar, and make an altar grace of them, only a grace complete and perfect, an offering once for all. ... So much is there in this, that, without these forms of the altar, we should be utterly at a loss in making any use of the Christian facts, that would set us in a condition of practical reconciliation with God. Christ is good, beautiful, and wonderful. His disinterested love is a picture by itself. His forgiving patience melts into my feelings. His passion rends open my heart, but what is He for, and how shall He be made unto me the salvation I want? One word -HE IS MY SACRIFICE, opens all to me, and beholding Him, with all my sin upon Him, I count my offering. I come unto God by Him and enter into the holiest by his blood" (pp. 534, 535, 537, 545). In spite of his theory, dear Dr. Bushnell's heart craved a Savior who made an expiatory and propitiatory sacrifice for his sins. His heart was sounder than his head, when he wrote from its compulsion-"HE IS MY SACRIFICE."

Comments on Moral Influence Theory.

1. All that gives this theory any worth is the truth in it that tits the correct theory even better than it does this. The positive part of it is true and of vast importance. We gladly admit that the Son of God did exert, and does exert a great influence on us all.

By His doctrines He brought us needed light; by His death He taught us fidelity at any cost; by His resurrection He brought life and immortality to light; by His self-sacrificing love He revealed the divinity of unselfishness; by His whole life He revealed the seeking love of God. We needed it all. It is also true that one of the great difficulties in the way of our salvation is our own obdurate impenitence and insensibility to divine influences. It is also blessedly true that the work of Christ is the most potential uplifting influence the earth has ever felt, and without it men will not repent. In this view, the work of Christ is absolutely essential. But all these gain increased force under a more complete and more Scriptural theory of atonement yet to be stated.

2. The theory is incomplete and inadequate. It does not provide for the necessities of the divine government. "God has a moral government in the world; and one of the forces in this government is the penalty announced against the transgression. To offer pardon simply on the ground of penitence, would tend to subvert the government. Human government would break down under such conditions; why not the divine government? The subjects of the two governments are the same beings. It is a moral government; a government of motives, not of power; and penalty is one of these essential motives. These motives must greatly fail, if nothing is required for the remission of sin but simple repentance. It is sometimes said that such an arrangement would be safe in a human government, if there were certain knowledge on the part of the government that repentance were sincere. This is a misapprehension. The danger is that men would commit crime under the impression that they could repent at will. If the Governor of the State had omniscience, we should not think it safe for him to pardon every penitent criminal. The danger arises, not chiefly from the one that is pardoned, but from the influence upon others who are propense to crime. This necessity of penalty to government is overlooked, or underestimated, in the Moral Influence Theory. The doctrine that natural consequences constitute the entire penalty of the law does not seem to be well sustained. God's positive disapprobation of sin must in some way be expressed" (Fairchild's Theology, p. 213).

3. This theory leaves out entirely the main idea in the Scriptural doctrine of atonement. The Bible represents Christ as a priest, as offering up Himself as a sacrifice for the expiation for our sins, as bearing our sins in His own body on the tree, as having been made a curse for us, as giving Himself a ransom for our redemption, as redeeming us by his precious blood. All this is represented as essential before the soul can even be approached with an offer of pardon. Before this atonement is made, souls are judicially dead, under the penalty of the law. While thus under the curse of the law, all the moral influences in the world would be as unavailing as a doctor's prescription to heal the dead.

4. Neither does this theory meet the demands of the human reason and the conscience. If we know anything, we know that we are the subjects of a moral government, and that we have broken its laws, and that we deserve to be punished for it. Yea, the soul of every heathen on the globe anticipates that punishment. This consciousness of our desert of punishment under the government of God is as real and as indestructible as our consciousness of pollution. We know that something must make due amends to the government as an expiation, or we must face the penalty. Dr. Hodge well observes: "No form of religion, therefore, which excludes the idea of expiation, or which fails to provide for the removal of guilt in a way which satisfies the reason and the conscience, can be suited to our necessities. St. Paul declared that the old Jewish sacrifices could "never take away sins," or "as touching the conscience, make the worshiper perfect" (Heb. 9: 9 and 10: 11). But, in order to any soul rest in this world or any world, the burden of those "sins must be taken away," and "having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience" (Heb. 10: 22).

No such religion of moral influence has ever been successful among men to give rest to burdened hearts. It is because Jesus has been a propitiation for our sins and for the whole world, that a sorrowing, sin-cursed humanity can come to Him and find rest.

5. The idea that there is no forgiveness with God, and no remission of penalty for past sins, and no salvation until the sinner works himself around into God-likeness and holy living is something appalling. It might do for very nice people to entertain themselves temporarily with such a theory; but it is not the Gospel for the slums. The people there and in heathendom, want an immediate and potential salvation that can bring peace to their conscience, and lift the burden, from their hearts before they take another step toward eternity.

Dr. Hodge well says: "We should be now and always in hell, if the doctrine of Dr. Young were true, that justice by an inexorable law always takes effect, and that sin is always punished wherever it exists, as soon as it is manifested, and as long as it continues. God can and does render sinners happy, in spite of their sin, for Christ's sake, remitting to them its penalty, while its power is only partially broken; fostering them and rejoicing over them until their restoration to spiritual health be completed. Anything that turns the sinner's inward regard 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. . . . The moral theory of the atonement presents no rational, because no Scriptural, ground of a sinner's hope toward God. He must have a better righteousness than his own. He must have some one to appear before God in his stead, to make expiation for sin, and to secure for him, independently of his own subjective state, the full pardon of all his offences, and the gift of the Holy Ghost" (Hodge's Theology, Vol. II, p. 572).

6. This Moral Influence Theory changes the whole plan of salvation. The ground of our acceptance with God is not our own goodness as the result of Christ's influence over us, but it is "the Lamb of God Who taketh away the sin of the world." Christianity is one thing if Christ is a sacrifice for our sins, our High Priest and atoning Savior; but it is a very different thing if He is only a moral reformer, a great teacher, or even a martyr for truth. We must have a divine Savior, great enough to bear our iniquities, and provide a substitute for the penalty of our sins, and make us right with God.

Bushnell's Later View

Dr. Bushnell grew dissatisfied with his two volume exposition of the Atonement, and began to feel that there might be something in God after all that demanded an Atonement. So he wrote, as a supplement, another work. "Forgiveness and Law," he says: "I now propose to substitute for the latter half of my former treatise a different exposition, composing thus a whole of doctrine that comprises both the reconciliation of men to God and God to men" (p.33).

The new theory alleges that God's nature is man's. We have retributive sentiments, disgust and resentment against the turpitude and wrong of sin. This feeling is useful and must not be extirpated. In order to forgive, it must be mastered and yet must somehow remain. We acquire a forgiving spirit toward the wicked by sacrificing for them.

So God must have a keen sense of the sinner's ill-desert; of the wrong he has done. There can be no proper forgiveness; he maintains, that is, restoration to the favor of God, without an abatement, on God's part, of this hard, stern, condemnatory feeling. So God must propitiate himself in cost and suffering for our good. This He did in the sacrifice of the cross. God lays Himself out for the sinner's salvation; comes into the world in the incarnation, and suffers and dies in the work of the redemption of men. Thus His feelings soften toward them; His tenderness goes out with His sacrifice for sinners, as we feel tender toward those for whom we have toiled, and suffered.


1. How utterly unlike John 3: 16 this astounding theory sounds. It puts the cart before the horse. There the forgiving love of God inspires and originates an atonement; but here an atonement, self-inflicted, overcomes a revengeful indisposition to forgive. The forgiving love was the CAUSE of the atonement, not the RESULT of it.

2. We do not properly think of God as struggling with His own feelings, as having a difficulty to obtain His own consent to do what he judges is best to do. Such a struggle belongs to human imperfection and limitation, not to the divine perfection. In a perfect and holy being, the feelings are always subordinate and submissive to the moral reason. That God has any such struggle to do right and behave Himself is unthinkable. It is a dream of speculative theology.

3. It is not true, even of all human natures, that they must work themselves into a state of willingness to forgive. "There are gracious loving natures ever ready with a spirit of forgiveness, without any self-atonement in charities to the offender. Self-propitiation in a sacrificing charity to the offender is not 'with all natures the necessary correlate of forgiveness,' and with error in the premise the conclusion is fallacious" (Miley II, p. 117).

4. Remember, too, that Dr. Bushnell's theory has no reference whatever either to retributive justice, or public justice. He does not admit the necessity of atonement on the ground of either. His theory simply is that God has some unfortunate feelings of resentment toward sinners that He must work off, before He can bring Himself to forgive! It contradicts the Scriptures, Old and New. They reveal a God of transcendent love-"A God, merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in loving kindness and truth; keeping loving kindness for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin" (Ex. 34: 6, 7). Divine love, in the absence of all other hindrance, will wait for no placation of personal wrath, to go forth in mercy to the wrong doer in freest, fullest forgiveness. The theory therefore does not touch the real difficulty that calls for the atoning sacrifice of Christ.

The necessity of the atonement concerns the profoundest interests of moral government, and hence arises in the very perfections of God as a moral ruler, not in His personal resentment against sin. And the sacrifice of Christ exactly meets the necessity, making it now safe and honorable and just for God as the Infinite Moral ruler, to offer to forgive sin.

Dr. Bushnell's theory admits of no such exalted necessity commensurate with the greatness of the atonement. It is a view belittling and degrading to God, making Him in His resentments toward sin more human than divine. It is simply another form of the Moral Influence Theory, ruling out every form of God's justice, whether retributive or rectoral and that is a fatal fault.

III. The Mystical Theory. This agrees with the moral view- to which it is related in this respect, it represents the design of Christ's work to be a subjective effect in the sinner. It produces a change in him. It overcomes the evil of his nature and restores him to a state of holiness.

The two systems differ as to the means by which the inner change is effected. According to the Moral Influence Theory, it is by the exhibition of truth, and the exertion of moral influence upon the mind of man. According to the mystical theory, it is brought about by the mysterious union of God and man, of divinity and humanity. Some have held that Christ was the typical or ideal man with some kind of mysterious relation existing between us and Him by which we receive a redemptive influence working our renovation. Others, after the doctrine of Realism, make Christ the generic man, of which we are personal forms, and so we are affected by Him. Still others hold to a mystical union of Christ with the human soul such that it brings to us redeeming and saving efficiency. It makes little of justification, and objective reconciliation to God but makes everything of His subjective work in the heart. It holds up the results of the atonement without the atonement itself. "While the Reformers/' says Hodge, "held to the great objective truths of the Bible, to a historical Christ, to the reality and necessity of His obedience, and satisfaction as something done for us and in our place, i.e., to an objective redemption and justification, a class of writers soon appeared who insisted on what they called the Christ within us, and merged the objective work of Christ into a subjective operation in the souls of His people. . . . The real value of the blessing received from Christ, was the change effected in the soul itself; and that change was not referred to the work of the Holy Spirit, so much as to the union of the divine nature with our nature, in view of the incarnation" (Vol. II, p. 585).

Of course, there is a moral and spiritual union between believers and Christ effected by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, taught abundantly in the New Testament (John 17: 22, 23). But this was run by philosophic speculation, into a realistic oneness which sometimes became pantheistic, entirely beyond the teaching of the Word. It still remains a blessed truth of Scriptures and of all evangelical theology that in our salvation there is a LIVING VITAL UNION WITH CHRIST.

In conclusion we may say that whatever form of the Moral Influence Theory is adopted, it is but a partial truth, and breaks down in the vital facts of Scripture, and in the supreme necessities of the soul. It is, in scientific accuracy, no theory of atonement at all. It lacks the very essentials of a true doctrine of atonement. It simply cannot explain multitudes of passages of Scripture. According to it, Jesus saves only as others do, by exerting a good influence. His Deity is not an essential necessity. The Doctrine of the Trinity may be consistently rejected by its adherents, who really reject the reality of the atonement and the necessity of it.

Of course such a theory saps the spiritual vitality of the churches and ministers who adopt it. It cannot be preached with soul-winning power. "The doctrine of a real atonement for sin gives the fullest recognition to the moral influence of Christ, and represents its greatest possible force. Indeed such an influence is the very life and power of all evangelistic work. And the real moral power of the cross is with the churches to which it is a real atonement for sin. Through all the Christian Centuries such an atonement has been the persuasive power of the Gospel. It is the living impulsion of all the great evangelistic enterprises of today. And, as the history of the past throws its light upon the future, the persuasive power of the Gospel in winning the coming generations to Christ must be in the moral pathos of a real atonement in His blood (Miley, Vol. II, p. 128).