The Doctrine of the Atonement in the Developing Church
April 16th, 1975 @ 7:30 PM
1 Timothy 2:3-7
THE DOCTRINE OF THE ATONEMENT
IN THE DEVELOPING CHURCH
Dr. W. A. Criswell
1 Timothy 2:3-7
4-16-75 7:30 p.m.
The white accouterment I can take on and off, but I sure cannot take off my white head, which is, I look upon as a crown of glory. And all of you sweet women who dye your gray hair, I do not know why you do it. I think it is the prettiest hair in the world.
Well, there could hardly be anything as wonderfully interesting as the study in which we are engaged. The last Wednesday night that I lectured was the doctrine of the atonement as it was presented, as it is presented by John and by the author of the Book of Hebrews. We are leaving now the Scriptures, and we are going to look at The Doctrine of the Atonement in the Developing Church. First, we shall consider the patristic doctrine of the atonement, that is, how the church fathers, who lived in the centuries following the death of Christ and the apostles, how the church fathers looked upon the meaning of the death of Christ. And this patristic, this church father division that we study tonight is from John the apostle, about 100 AD, to Anselm, who died in 1109 AD. Now we are entering a study of systematic, dogmatic theology. The study now will include the whole scope of biblical theology in the light of standards and principles. And we will draw in the study now upon all of the Scriptures.
The question that we face is how does the death of Christ save us? How does the cross of Christ deliver us from the penalty and power of sin? Now the first thing we notice when we study the church fathers is this, the question was not the central question that consumed the attention of the early church doctrinarian leaders. The central question to the early church fathers was the nature of the person of Christ. And in those early centuries, the church and the whole civilized world was consumed in controversies over what Christ was. Was He God? Was He man? Was He God-Man? Was He deity? Was He divine? Was He human? The Christological controversies consumed in unbelievable turmoil and maelstromic, tornadic proportions the entire Christian world. But at the same time the question of the atonement was also discussed. And it is that part of it, though as I say, that was not the central thing that consumed the attention of the early Christian church, but there are many things that they said about atonement, and that will be our study.
In the centuries that followed the death of the apostles there were two great types of theology developed. One was developed in the Greek Church, the Greek-speaking church, the Eastern Church, and the other type of theology was developed in the Western church, the Latin-speaking church. And as time went on the leader of the Latin Church became the bishop of Rome, whom we know of as the pope. And the leader of the Greek Church, the Eastern Church, became the patriarch of Constantinople. In the West they called the leader of the church a pope. In the East they called the leader of the church a patriarch.
Now the Greek Church, the Eastern Church, interpreted theology in the light of Alexandrian philosophy. The background of the theology that developed in the Greek Church was Greek philosophy, and especially Platonic idealism. I so well and poignantly remember in studying philosophy, the learned and gifted professor who was our teacher, in talking about Plato and in our reading the philosophy of Plato, he said, “Young gentlemen, you don’t need to be materialists, secularists, just-this-worldliest, in order to be intellectually acceptable.” Plato was an idealist.
I could give you an illustration of the idealism of Plato. Plato said that the only things that were real, that last, that endure, are ideas, that all of the other things are transient. And he would illustrate it like this: a chair can be this chair, but it is ephemeral, it is temporal; it is there, it will be kindling wood some other day, a chair, a chair, a chair. You have, there is a kind of a chair; here is a chair, this is a chair. Every one of them, Plato would say, are temporal and will some day pass away. But the idea of the chair is eternal; it is spiritual and it never passes away.
So Platonic idealism is that the only realities that exist are spiritual realities. They are nous realities. They are idea realities. They are mind realities and not temporal, worldly, physical things and possessions. Now that would be, I think, a good illustration of the idealism of Platonic philosophy. You don’t have to be a materialist in order to be intellectually acceptable. The greatest philosophical thinker of all time, Plato, was an idealist.
Well, it was along lines like that that Greek philosophy, that Greek theology developed. Now in the Western world, theology took a different turn, a different kind of development. The Latin Church, the Western church, interpreted theology in the light of Roman law. Everything, in Latin theology, was seen in terms of government, of law, and of justice. And it led itself to Aristotelian realism, Platonic idealism, the wonderful background of Greek theology and the realism of Aristotle, the background of Latin theology.
So with that introduction, we are going to look at patristic theology as they looked upon the meaning of the death of Christ, how the death of Christ saves us. One of the things, and this is the first one, that we find in patristic theology is their tremendous emphasis upon the incarnation. And they taught that redemption of our lost humanity came to pass through the incarnation of Christ. The early fathers made much of the incarnation, and in their view, Christ bestowed life and power through His incarnation. In His active obedience to His Father in heaven, such as the purity of His life, the setting before us of a perfect example, the pristine teaching that fell from His lips; and in taking our nature to secure the ability to die for us, Christ became our Savior.
Now that is, I think, a wonderful thing. Whenever anyone belittles or scorns or rejects the virgin birth of our Lord [Matthew 1:20-25], and the incarnation of deity [John 1:14], to an old patristic theologian, to a man of God who lived back there in those centuries, he would say that denying the incarnation of Christ, denying the virgin birth of Christ, you deny His saviorhood and His ability to deliver us from our sins [Matthew 1:21]. And in that I completely concur! I don’t think we can emphasize too much the glory of the incarnation of our Lord. “The Word was made flesh, the Word was made flesh, and the Word was God” [John 1:14, 1]; that is the ableness of Christ to save us [Hebrews 7:25]. And we are going to look at it a little later, that He was God manifest in the flesh [1 Timothy 3:16]. Now that is a part of patristic doctrine.
In their theory of the atonement, for a thousand years, and this is an amazing thing, for a thousand years, all of those old church fathers believed in the ransom theory, the payment of a ransom to Satan to deliver us from our sins. Now they based the theory on two texts in the Bible. In Matthew 20:28 is says, “The Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for many.” The other text is in 1 Timothy, second chapter, beginning at verse 3:
For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior;
Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.
For there is one God, and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus;
Who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time.
Whereunto I am ordained a preacher, and an apostle . . .
[1 Timothy 2:3-7]
He gave Himself a ransom for us. Now in using those texts, that the death of Christ was a ransom paid for us, they developed that theology of the ransom theory against a background of the day in which they lived. They looked upon the conflict between good and evil and interpreted that conflict in the prevailing Egyptian and Persian philosophies that led them to picture a personal conflict between Jehovah and Satan: Satan had hold of man. He got us. And God set a trap for Satan, they called it a “snare,” who let loose of man to get hold of Christ. But Satan could not hold Christ. He had to let man go in order to get hold of Christ. And when he lost Christ because he could not hold Him, he had already let man go, therefore, both escaped. Satan was defeated, and man was delivered. In that ransom theory they believed that the ransom was paid to Satan. God bought off Satan. God out witted him. God outsmarted him. Now the theory, the ransom theory, the patristic theory of a thousand years, emphasized the depths of the depravity of man, sold to sin, sold to Satan, and his helplessness to extricate himself from the hold of Satan. That part of it was good. There is no doubt but that needs to be emphasized, that we are sold under sin, that Satan has got a hold of us. And that part of it was fine. The theory started among the Eastern fathers; then it was followed by the Latin fathers and held tenaciously by them until the days of Anselm. Thus the theory prevailed for the first one thousand years of the church age, the ransom theory that God paid Satan a ransom for our deliverance, and the ransom He paid was the death of Christ.
Now, we are going to look at some of the weaknesses of that ransom theory. First, it rests upon a false, dualistic assumption. There are not two all-powerful beings in this world; there is just one, and that one is God. Dualism is a philosophy that is anti-Bible, anti-Christian, and anti-Christian theological. We do not in any wise begin to accept philosophical dualism; that is, good and evil are there eternally, and one is as strong and as able as the other. There are two in this world. No! There is one great Someone in this world. It is not Satan, Lucifer, the devil, the dragon; nor is it the spirit of evil. There is one Somebody great in this world; and that Somebody is God Almighty, who is bringing this world, even through tears and trouble, to a wonderful deliverance and consummation [1 John 4:4].
So the weakness of the ransom theory is that it rests upon a false, dualistic assumption of God and Satan. Now, the fathers confused the popular thought-forms of expression in their day with the content and principle of the term “ransom.” Ransom, of course, is a popular word, referring to the buying back of a slave or a captive. But the principle in atonement goes much, much deeper than just the thought of buying somebody back.
The ransom theory also has a false view of Satan. On one hand it grants the power of Satan to accomplish the death of Christ; then on the other hand denies his ability to understand that he is dealing with Almighty God. So the ransom theory, though for a thousand years held tenaciously by the church, both, in the East where it was developed, and finally in the West, has in it some woeful weaknesses, chief of which is a wrong view of the purpose of God and the love of God and the moral necessity found in God for our deliverance.
Now I could not leave the patristic views without saying that some of those church fathers had some marvelous interpretations of the meaning of the death of Christ. Some of the fathers presented the doctrine that Christ substituted Himself for all men by offering to God the expiatory and propitiatory sacrifice, which blots out the sins of the world. That is a great, great doctrine, that the death of Christ is expiatory; that is, in itself it takes sin away [Hebrews 9:28]; that it is propitiatory; that is, it renders God favorable to us who will accept His love and grace in Christ Jesus [Romans 3:24-25].
Now Justin Martyr said—he was one of those early, early fathers; Justin Martyr said that the Father God willed that His Christ should take upon Himself the curses of all for the whole race of man. This would be the doctrine of vicarious suffering, that He suffered for us in our behalf [2 Corinthians 5:21]. The great Greek father Origen saw in Christ’s death a sacrifice to save the race of mankind [1 John 2:2]. Now he was a Greek philosopher, so he looked upon it like this: Greek heroes sacrificed to save some; Christ sacrificed Himself to save the whole race.
Eusebius, the great church Greek historian who lived in Caesarea, Eusebius combined the idea of penal substitution with the idea of expiatory sacrifice [Hebrews 9:28]. What do you mean by “penal substitution”? All right, let me give you an instance, right here. We have a dear divisional leader in our church, named Millie Kohn, and she came to me and said, “I want you to hold a service for our Juniors, that they might be saved.”
So, I said, “Millie, how would you like me to present it for the children, to make appeal to the children?”
And she said, “I would like for you to tell that old story that you think would be too used and too common and too well-known to repeat, but to the children it will be new, and I would like for you to tell them that story.” Do you remember what that story is? Somebody has been stealing lunches at the school—country school—and the teacher gathers them all together, and they make a rule. Whoever is found stealing the lunch will be beat with thirty stripes. As the days passed a lunch was stolen, and when they found out who it was, it was a little famished, emaciated, stricken, poverty-stricken boy. So the rule had to be upheld; justice had to be done, they had passed it. So the day came to administer the punishment, and they took off the little ragged shirt of that little skinny boy. And when they looked upon him, he was hungry, and poor, and needy, and to receive thirty stripes.
And as they looked upon him, a great, big, strong boy said to the teacher, “Let me suffer in his stead. I will take the stripes. And he can go free.” So the big boy stood over the little, skinny, emaciated, hungry lad. And the thirty stripes that should have fallen upon the little fellow fell upon the big boy. That is what you mean by “penal substitution.” The law is upheld, justice is administered, but somebody suffered instead of the one who had done the wrong.
Now that was the theory, the doctrine that Eusebius taught; so all of those days and centuries past, remembering that the great overwhelming, overriding theory of atonement was the ransom theory, that God paid it to Satan in order that we might be saved [1 Timothy 2:6].
Now that continued until the days of Anselm. Anselm was the illustrious, gifted, mighty archbishop of Canterbury in England. He was born in 1033 AD and died in 1109 AD. And Anselm promulgated and propounded a theory of the atonement of Christ, how the death of Christ saves us, that completed surplanted the patristic ransom theory of atonement and did so until the days of the Reformation.
The Anselmic theory of atonement followed the Latin-type of patristic thinking, namely, that of law and government and justice. He developed, therefore, in the atonement a system of merit. As I go on, some of you will be very sensitive to the kind of theological atonement in merit that Anselm developed and that is believed by one of the great denominations of the world, today.
His theory, Anselm’s theory reflects the background of his own day. For example, the blood money by which a murderer made pecuniary compensation for his crime: if a man killed your husband, according the law of the day, there was a sum that the man had to pay you because he killed your husband.
Another example of the background of the day of Anselm is found in the idea of offended honor, which was a vital part of feudalism. God is thought of as great sovereign feudal Lord, whose offended honor must be avenged and upheld. Anselm looked upon sin as terribly serious. Now that is the one common thing you will find in all these ancient doctrines. No time, nowhere do you find a patristic father or a later theologian who ever looked upon sin as being something of peccadillo, light, a pimple; always it is terribly serious. And Anselm wrestled with the problem of how man is to escape his punishment. When a man sins, how is it that he can escape the judgment and the justice of Almighty God?
Now after the days of Anselm, patristic theology with its ransom theory passed away. Anselm ushered in in 1100 AD a new day of thinking. This is the view of Anselm. This is Anselm’s theory of the atonement that prevailed for several hundred years: one, sin produced the need. Sin is looked upon, in the thinking of Anselm, as defrauding God of His honor. God’s honor is the supreme concern of the universe. God dishonored, it is not to be thought of, much less actually done. Yet, a man dishonors God when he disobeys God’s law. Now, again, sin in the view of Anselm, is a debt that is depriving God of the honor that is His due. God demands perfect obedience, respect, and reverence. He is the great King and feudal Lord. And when we disobey Him and do not give Him perfect reverence and obedience and respect, we defraud Him of the honor due His name.
Now God’s honor must be satisfied and upheld. As the great King, it must be done. Now first, sin produced the need. Now man, man is bankrupted by sin. He is utterly unable to render satisfaction to the great Lord God. Being unrighteous he dishonors God, and he cannot pay the price that is God’s due. So God provides what man could not render. Why could not satisfaction be provided, be accomplished without death, without atonement? Because the conception of God’s righteousness demands death for sin. Anselm believed that God made that a part of the fundamental law of the universe, that sin demands death, that justice demands death.
And in that, he was certainly preaching the Book. Ezekiel 18:4 says, “The soul that sins shall die,” and Romans 6:23 says, “The wages of sin of death.” And you have heard me say so many times in this pulpit that it is God Himself that has linked that chain together, sin and death. Now that is the basis upon which Anselm built his theory of atonement, that there is something in the righteous nature of God that makes that principle forever viable, that sin demands death.
Now the debt of sin was contracted in the first Adam. All of us are a part of that debt. And it was paid fully in the second Adam [Romans 5:14-18]. God had to pay the debt in man. It had to be done down here in us, in this instance in Christ in the incarnation [Romans 7:4; 1 Peter 2:24], else redeemed man would have been the servant of man, instead of God. “He paid it all. All to Him I owe.” It was a debt that Christ, God, paid for us in our behalf [Galatians 3:13].
And by His death, Christ acquired an infinite merit which was more than sufficient to discharge the infinite debt. And I have an observation here that is my personal observation, concerning this subject of Anselm’s doctrine that Christ, in His death, won so great merit for us that it is more than sufficient to pay all the debt of mankind. Whatever was lacking in us, all of us, is more than made up in the infinite merit that Christ won for us in His death [1 Peter 1:18-19]. And my observation is this, that the worth, the merit, the efficacy in the death of Christ is found in who He was, God incarnate [John 14:10]. It is because He is deity, He is God, He is the great Creator and the All-in-all; it is because of who He was that His death is so meritorious for us. There could be ten thousand heroes to die, but all of the merit of them together would not be sufficient to deliver us from our sins. But the merit in the death of Christ lies in who He is [1 Peter 1:18-19].
That is why a moment ago I made the observation that when we deny the virgin birth [Matthew 1:20-25], and when we deny the incarnation [John 1:1, 14], we are laying the groundwork for the whole destruction of the Christian faith and the atonement of our Lord. It is because of who He is, it is because it is deity born in human flesh, that we have that ableness in Christ to save us [John 1:1,14].
Now, and we must hurry, may I remark on the strength of the view of Anselm? Number one: it dealt the death-blow to the old doctrine, the old patristic theory that God paid a ransom to Satan to redeem man. Anselm introduced a new era, and the old patristic doctrine of the ransom theory passed away.
Number two: he grounded—now this is the strength of his view—he grounded the atonement in a necessity existing in God, a moral necessity in God. The patristic doctrine grounded the necessity in Satan. In the patristic ransom theory, Satan is central. Satan is in control. Satan is in the saddle. He has us. But Anselm placed God in control! He placed God in the center! He placed God in the saddle, and that is good!
Number three: Anselm laid strong emphasis upon the objective element of the atonement. The cross is of eternal significance! And now, may I make an observation on that? I think it is wonderful when a man preaches an objective view of the atonement, not of “me” and “mine,” not of “us” and “ours,” but of Him, always in Him!
I have observed people, as you know, for forty-eight years as a pastor, and here is what I think about us: the more you subjectify your religion, you turn it inward—you examine yourself, and you examine yourself, and you examine your faith: “Ah, did I have the right faith?” And you examine your repentance: “Ah, did I repent right?” And you examine your belief: “Ah, did I believe right?” And you examine your confession: “Ah, did I confess right?” And you examine the whole circumstance of your conversion, of your life, and you just live in yourself, and you get full of doubts. “Lord, Lord, Lord, did I believe right? Did I repent right? Did I confess right? Did I get right? Did I? Did I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I?” And you just live in the “I, I, I, I.” And you get bogged with yourself, and you just live in a morass. The more you think about yourself, the more you are going to get bogged down, because you are looking at a sorry somebody when you are looking at yourself. I do not care who you are. Now, you may say, “Pastor, you do not know me. I am just . . . .” Well, that is all right. That is what you think. That is what you think.
But as I was preaching last Sunday; against the pure white holiness of God all of us are dirty gray, we just are. And when you preach atonement—that is, the forgiveness of our sins, the deliverance of us from the power of sin and Satan [Colossians 1:13]—when you preach it, in ourselves, in ourselves, in ourselves, you just get so confused and lost—you are going to be unhappy all the days of your life.
I love for a man to preach an objective atonement. It is in Him. It is in Him. It is in Him. Look, my brother, live! Look to Christ and live! It is recorded in His Word, Hallelujah! It is only that you look and live! Something outside of myself, something beyond myself, somebody different from myself, look to Jesus; look and live [John 3:14-15; Numbers 21:8-9]. Believe and be saved; trust! [Acts 16:30-31]. I like that.
Now that is why I say to our minister of music, “I love for you to sing objective hymns.” When you stand up here and sing about yourself, and you sing about us, that is all right, I do not have any particular objection to it. I just do not like it. I love for you to stand up here and sing songs that are objective, that glorify Him. And I gave the choir an example; and brother, they have been singing it ever since:
Worthy is the Lamb that was slain,
to receive honor and blessing and riches and glory.
[“Worthy is the Lamb that was Slain,” George Frederic Handel]
Now that is marvelous! And when you come and listen to songs like that, it does something for your soul; it helps you get out of the littleness and bogged-down-ness of your life, and it elevates you, looking up to Jesus.
I like an objective atonement. I like an objective song of praise. And I like an objective servant. There are many, many, many, many, modern preachers who are what I call, “problem preachers.” Every Sunday, they will stand in the pulpit and preach about some personal problem. They get their text and their ideas from psychology. They are just baptized psychologists. They are psychologists with a DD. And they stand there in the pulpit, all their lives. And there is no telling how many of those preachers are here in Dallas. I listen to them from time-to-time, always the same kind of a sermon, a problem—you have got a problem in your heart. You have got a problem in your head. You have got a problem in your home. You have got a problem in your business, you have problem the— and then just on and on. Brother, we have all got problems! He doesn’t have to run out of things to talk about. He talks about our problems and our problems.
Well, why isn’t that a good way to preach? I will tell you exactly why. You go listen to a preacher like that, and you will go away and say, “Well, uh, you know, I didn’t realize I had that problem, but I have sure got it!” And then you will get to thinking about yourself, and you will think up more problems you have got. And then you go back next Sunday, and he has got a new one. “Well, I’ve got that one, too!” It’s like a, it’s like a fellow who decided to be an obstetrician, and the friends in the medical school said, “What is the matter with you? You’re going to be an obstetrician?” and he said, “Every time I study about a disease, I think I’ve got it, and so I’m going to be an obstetrician.”
That’s exactly the way it is about problem-preaching. You get to talking about your problems, and they multiply. You don’t solve them. You just don’t. They just multiply, and multiply, and multiply, and multiply. What we need is to get out of ourselves and to look to Jesus. And when the man in the pulpit will hold up the Lord, “Look, look!” there are ten thousand problems that are solved just by looking to Him.
I sometimes think of Simon Peter walking on the water. He was doing great as long as he looked at Jesus. But the Book says he took his eyes off of the Master and began to look at the wind and the waves, and in fear he began to sink [Matthew 14:28-30]. As long as he looked to Jesus he walked on the water, but when he took his eyes away, he began to sink. I think we are all that way. Keep your eyes upon the Lord, and a thousand problems will take care of themselves if you will do just that. Now Anselm emphasized the element of obedience in Christ’s work, by which He acquired merit for all the race—just like this, a man earns enough for himself and for others too. That’s what Christ did, a meritorious system.
All right, now the weakness of it: the system is built upon the theory of the loss of God’s honor. Now that is debatable, whether God could lose His honor or not. It is built upon the penal system of feudal law; it is institutional.
Third: it does not emphasize the love of God for man, only God’s justice. And fourth: it views sin as quantitatively. It views sin quantitatively, as those just this much to be paid for by this much. And it establishes—this is final—it establishes the fallacy of supererogation. Now that is a word that encompasses a thousand things in theology; that is, supererogation is going beyond the realm of duty and having something left over for others. That theory opened the door to all the fallacies of penance and the merit system, the sale of indulgences and all of the rest of those things whereby if you do so-and-so, you get that much merit for it. And if you do this-and-so, you get that much more merit for you. And if you do thus-and-so, it is that much more merit for you.
The Anselmic theory laid the foundation for that supererogation theory that you get merit for doing this and merit for doing that. Christ had a merit for all that He did, and little beside. And we get merit for what we do. So we balance our sins against the merits of having done good. Having done evil, we do penance for it, in order to overcome it. And all the floodgates that followed after is found in Anselm’s theory.
Now next Wednesday night, we are coming to the Reformation. There was a tremendous, a tremendous revolt against that meritorious system of penance and good works balancing the evil that we did. And that will be the discussion next Wednesday night, when we talk about the theories of the atonement, how the death of Christ saves us, as the Reformers preached and delivered it to the world.