Theories of the Atonement – Moral Influence (example) Theory

The next theory we will look at is the Moral Influence or example theory. This has also been referred to as the “Subjective” theory. This set of theories deals with the subjective need of all people to know and be transformed by God’s love. These theories emphasize that Christ’s death on the Cross demonstrates God’s love so dramatically that we are deeply moved and our mindset is changed. Being thus convinced of his love we are now able to share it with others.  Some commonly used Scriptures used in support of this theory are:

Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:13)

In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:10-11)

But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)

For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves… (2 Cor 5:14-15 emph mine)

In truth the atonement has a larger goal than just forgiveness of sins and escape from hell.  Salvation is a huge concept, and should not be limited to a hedge against eternal calamity.  Through the reconciliation that Christ has revealed, God now invites us into a tranformative relationship now.  This reality should impact every aspect of our personal, family, vocational, communal, and ecclesiastical lives!

According to this theory, the real problem is not so much our sins or God’s holy wrath…but the inward alienation from God that man has experienced within himself by living in sin. Furthermore, sin has created a world of division, strife, racism, and war. Man’s inward shame, alienation, and strife can be changed by seeing that God’s heart is for him and not against him.

There is tremendous value to much of this theory.  Indeed the love of God is supremely revealed in the Cross.  Perfect love casts out fear… Sin has  tarnished and alienated us from God and created a world of false doctrine and false thinking about God, as well as strife-filled relationships towards other people.  The love of the cross brings God’s heart of love for us back into focus and motivates us to walk in love.

The earliest major proponent of this theory was Peter Abelard (1079-1142)  He totally rejected the superstition of the more ridiculous aspects of the Ransom theory. Click here to read about the Ransom Theory.

As with the Ransom Theory, there are some problems with the Influence Theory.  The main problems are:

  • In spite of huge Scriptural evidence about the very real problem of the guilt of sin, this theory almost entirely side-steps the issue of sin and the sin nature. And similarly, there is no warning or concern about God’s wrath or coming judgment. God is apparently too kind to judge. (And thus many humans could perceive themselves as too good to need actual saving!)
  • Thus, the Moral Influence Theory… has little influence over those who have no realization of sin or guilt.  Consider the example of a man jumping into a river to save someone…but no one is actually drowning in the river! Onlookers see the man jumping in…but there’s no one in the water needing saving.  This act of love and heroism would have very little actual influence.  Only if you perceive yourself to be actually drowning in the water does this theory have real influence!
  • Pits some of God’s clearly revealed attributes against each other: By emphasizing God’s love and kindness and avoiding justice, righteousness, holiness, wrath.
  • Tends to produce “works righteousness”, as the emphasis is on motivation and not regeneration and sanctification. People just need to get over their feelings of alienation and go on with their lives, to see Jesus as a great example and try to live more like him.
  • This theory can easily be hijacked and used to promote political and social agendas that eclipse the actual Person and mission of Jesus Christ and His bodily return and coming earthly kingdom.  Instead, people use this theory to promote socialism, liberation theology, and other agendas that actually lose the real power and importance of the gospel.
  • Disregards literally scores of texts in both OT and NT.

More atonement theories to come in future posts.

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