Most theories of the atonement begin with two facts:
- There is something wrong with us.
- But God's love makes it right.
And as you study this week's lesson, you will need to remember both facts.
Unless you're Eastern Orthodox, after all, you probably think of the atonement in one of two ways:
- Christ's death pays the price for our sins.
- Christ's death shows how much God loves us.
The first is often called "the Satisfaction Theory of Atonement," while the second is often called "The Moral Influence Theory."
The first says atonement is external and objective, i.e. God acts to change our status with Him so that we are declared righteous (even though we're not); the second says it is internal and subjective, i.e. we are transformed by our knowledge of God's love until we are "safe to be saved."
Unfortunately, the first raises questions about the way God makes things right . . . while the second tends to downplay the fact there's something wrong with us.
- Unless we're careful, after all, Anselm's "Satisfaction Theory" can easily turn God into a monster -- a heavenly child abuser who forgives us only because He can punish Jesus.
- Unfortunately, Abelard's "Moral Influence Theory" makes it all too easy to trivialize our sins -- to view them as honest mistakes of ignorance that are easily set right with a little help from Uncle Arthur's Bedtime Stories.
In short, both views are models of the atonement -- and like all models, they achieve clarity only by leaving out certain facts.
That's why both views of the atonement are so popular -- and both views may be needed by you (and your Sabbath School class).
If you're naturally brash and confident, for instance, then you may want to remember the great strength of Anselm's theory, i.e. there really is something wrong with us.
But if you tend to worry and fret about your relationship with God, then remember the great strength of Abelard's theory, i.e. God's love really does make everything right.
Yes, brash or fretful, confident or fearful, you still need the atonement . . .
Whatever that atonement may be.