In last Thursday’s post we discussed the meaning of atonement and looked at two proposed theories. As Easter quickly approaches, we will continue with the same theme this week.
First we will look at another popular theory that, while not completely incorrect, does not do the atonement complete justice. Then, we will survey the theory of penal substitution, a theory that has great biblical merit.
The Ransom Theory
The ransom theory of the atonement is very popular among Christians and has been labeled the “classic” or the “standard” view of the atonement going back to the time of the early church. Origen, who lived in the second and third centuries AD was a leading proponent of the view, which suggests that “The death of Christ was a ransom paid to Satan to satisfy any claims Satan had against man.”
In his commentary on Romans, Origen writes,
Now it was the devil who held us, to whose side we had been drawn away by our sins. He asked, therefore, as our price the blood of Christ.
For Origen and others, this idea was based on Jesus’s words in Mark 10:45, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life—a ransom for many.” Erickson summarizes Origen’s thought process by asking, “To whom was this ransom paid? Certainly not to God. He would not pay a ransom to himself. Rather, it must have been paid to the evil one, for it was he who held us captive until the ransom, namely, the soul of Jesus, was paid.”
The problem with this theory is that the Bible never explicitly states to whom the ransom was paid. Should we view the death of Jesus as a ransom? He did, so yes, we should too. But should we view it as a ransom paid to Satan? Not necessarily…
In his commentary on Mark 10:45, Brooks states, “The word translated ‘ransom’ was often used in secular Greek to refer to purchasing the freedom of a slave or a prisoner of war. The emphasis was on the price that was paid.” Jesus paid the ultimate price—He gave His very life on the cross. But we go astray when we claim that price was paid to Satan. More important than who the ransom was paid to is who the ransom was paid for. Jesus gave His life as a ransom “for many.” Jesus died for you and for me. Jesus died for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2).
The importance of the doctrine of the atonement cannot be understated. Because of its shear magnitude, it is difficult to explain with just a single theory. Erickson explains how the entire Bible is needed to build a complete theory of the atonement. “The doctrine of the atonement relies heavily upon the perspective of several background doctrines. The doctrines of the nature of God, the status of the law, the human condition, Christ, and the Old Testament sacrificial system have great influence on a view of the atonement…Therefore, we may understand the atonement to involve sacrifice, propitiation, substitution, and reconciliation in the relationship of God to humanity. It is the penal substitution theory that best describes this relationship for the atonement” (italics added).
God is loving, merciful, gracious, and forgiving. At the same time, He is also holy, perfect, and just. In His justice, God cannot let sin go unpunished. This is where the metaphor of a law court comes into play. God is a just judge, and all mankind must plead guilty before Him. Romans 3:23 makes it clear that we have all sinned. Romans 6:23 also tells us that the penalty for our sin is death. But there is more to that verse. It goes on to say that the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus.
Jesus took the sins of the world on His shoulders and carried them to the cross, where He died. And He did not die because He deserved it, He died for you and for me, to satisfy the wrath of God towards our sin. Jesus, the innocent lamb without stain or blemish, died for us—guilty humans deserving of that death. He was and is our substitute.
Ryrie puts it this way: “Christ the sinless One took on Himself the penalty that should have been borne by man and others.” He died in our place. Because of Him, we can be declared righteous, we can be seen as holy in the eyes of our Maker. But this justification is not automatic. It comes only by a confession of faith. Romans 10:9-10 tells us, “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. One believes with the heart, resulting in righteousness, and one confesses with the mouth, resulting in salvation.”
Jesus died for the sins of the whole world, but the powerful and life-giving effect of His death will only be applied to those who have faith. The extent is universal, but the salvific effect is only for those who believe in Him.
Do you believe?
 Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed., (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1998), 810.
 Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth, (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1999), 355.
 Origen, Commentary on Romans 2:13.
 Erickson, Christian Theology, 811.
 Ryrie, Basic Theology, 355.
 James A. Brooks, Mark, New American Commentary vol. 23, (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 1991), 171.
 Erickson, Christian Theology, 818.
 Ryrie, Basic Theology, 356.