More Problems With Payment

Various biblical words and phrases convey the idea that a payment was involved in the atonement; “ransom,” “redeem,” “you are brought with a price,” to name just a few. It is imperative to interpret these words in light of the overall teaching of the Word on salvation.

The payment theory, which is sometimes referred to as the satisfaction theory, [1]The background of the Latin (Satisfaction) theory may truly be called legal—although this school of thought has claimed many adherents, not all theological thinkers have accepted this concept. Dr. Gustaf Aulen in the opening paragraph of his classic work, Christus Victor, states: “My work on the history of Christian Doctrine has led me to an everdeepening conviction that the traditional account of the history of the idea of the Atonement is in need of thorough revision.” The fruits of Dr. Aulen’s study serve to un derscore this dissatisfaction with the “traditional account.” Gregory of Nazianzus rejects the idea of ransom (from a legal standpoint) altogether; he will not allow that a ransom was paid to the devil, nor yet to God, for, as he says, “We were not in bondage under God.” He prefers to use the idea of sacrifice. N. Rashdall, in his book The Idea of Atonement in Christian Theology, finds repeated occasion to express his lively condemnation of the phraseology of a transaction with the devil; such a theory is, he says, hideous, and cannot be taken seriously. Similarly, A.E.N. Hitchcock, in an article, “A Modern Survey of the Atonement,” distinguishes four main theories. He rates as the least acceptable the Ransom Theory. Of Ritchel, Aulen states, “We know that his estimate of the Anselmian Satisfaction Theory was the lowest possible.” originated by and large with Anselm of Canterbury. “He clearly taught an ‘objective’ atonement, according to which God is the object of Christ’s atoning work, and is reconciled through the satisfaction made to His justice.” [3]Gustaf Aulen, Christus Victor, Macmillan, p. 2. This theory results from his confusion of the difference between an allegory and a metaphor.

An allegory is a story created to portray a spiritual truth. It can be taken literally with the details pressed for meaning. A religious metaphor on the other hand, while also meant to con vey a spiritual truth, is not to be taken in a literal, physical way. “You are bought with a price” is a good example of a metaphor which is very often interpreted as an allegory. Furthermore, in this particular passage the word price can be translated honor.

Wherever … analogies from legal procedure are em ployed, they are usually assumed to prove the presence of the ‘objective’ or ‘judicial’ view of the atonement … there is need, therefore, of the greatest caution in the exegesis of the language used of the atonement. [2]Ibid., pp. 8,9.

Christ has not redeemed us by giving His life as a ransom for our sins in order that He might release us for God never kept man captive in sin. On the contrary, it was He who wanted to make man free.

The Scriptures frequently describe the atonement in language of a figurative character; and the literal construction (interpretation) which has been put upon this language has, no doubt, sometimes … misled the honest inquirer. We are informed by the pen of inspiration, that Christ ‘hath purchased’ the Church ‘with his own blood.’ Christians are said to be ‘bought with a price.’ … These and many other passages of similar import, are often pressed into a literal exposition, while their figurative character is entirely overlooked. When the Scriptures tell us, that Christ ‘hath purchased’ the Church, or that believers ‘are bought with a price,’ they do not intend to teach us that salvation of sinners through atonement is a pecuniary transaction, regulated according to the principles of debt and credit; but that their salvation was effected, in the moral government of God, by nothing less than the consideration—the stipulated consideration of the death of his beloved Son.

To these figurative expressions are super added others of human origin—such as: “Christ has paid our debt—has answered the demands of the law, and satisfied the justice of God in our behalf.” If we say that Christ has paid our debt, it is true only in a figurative sense; and can mean no more nor less than this, that the sufferings of Christ accomplished the same purpose, in the divine administration, which would have been accomplished by our rejection and punishment.

‘Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.’ We need no other proof than that suggested in this passage, that Christ did not pay the debt, or literally suffer the penalty of the law for his people. He prepared the way for our debt to be remitted; or in plain language, dispensing with all metaphor, he made it consistent and proper and honorable for sin to be forgiven according to the prescribed terms of the gospel. [4]Nathan S. Beman, The Atonement in Its Relation to God And Man, Newman–1844, pp. 94–95,106. Dr. Nathan S. Beman

The truth is, Christ paid no man’s debt. It is true, indeed, that our deliverance is, in Scripture, some times called a redemption; and this word refers to the deliverance of a prisoner from captivity, which is often effected by the payment of a sum of money. Christ is also called a ransom, and we are said to be ‘bought with a price.’ But it must be remembered that these are figurative expressions. They are designed to communicate this idea, that as payment of money as the price of liberty is the ground on which prisoners are released from captivity, so the atonement of Christ is the ground on which sinners are pardoned, or set free from a sentence of condemnation. These passages, thus understood, appear intelligible and consistent; whereas, understood literally, they would contradict other plain declarations of the Word of God. It is evident, therefore, that these are metaphorical expressions, and were never designed to be taken in a strictly literal sense. [5]Caleb Burge, An Essay On The Scripture Doctrine of Atonement, Reprinted by Bible Research Fellowship, pp. 490–491.

There is a very real sense, however, in which salvation did cost something. There was a very high price for the Father to pay. The cost was His Son’s life. C.S. Lewis comments:

It costs God nothing, so far as we know, to create nice things: but to convert rebellious wills cost Him crucifixion. [6]C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Macmillan, p. 179.

There is another aspect to this cost factor. It is discovered in the spiritual equation that intimacy is proportional to grief. The more you love someone the deeper you can be wounded. Simply because God deeply loves us and wants us back, and has expressed His willingness to take us back with open arms, does not mean His forgiveness is without cost.

In the first place, it isn’t always that simple to forgive other people. If someone hurts you in a small way and apologizes, it is easy to accept the apology. But the greater the wrong or the injury, the harder it is to forgive. If a husband is unfaithful to his wife but comes back and asks forgiveness, she may be willing to forgive; but the forgiveness will not be an easy or casual thing. it will cost a great deal. It will hurt. For the essence of forgiveness is that you accept the wrong or the injury that has been done to you; you bear the consequences of it without retaliation and without being bitter or resentful. [7]Colin Chapman, Christianity on Trial, Tyndale, pp. 489, 490.

The danger lies in the redefining of God’s personal effort and sacrifice (in the atonement) to indicate some type of commercial transaction. If we accept the premise that Jesus literally purchased our salvation with His blood, this approach not only portrays God as vindictive and bloodthirsty and totally incompatible with biblical forgiveness, it also presents another grave difficulty. If Jesus literally paid for our sins with his blood (a paid debt is no longer a debt), and He died for the sins of the entire world, then we can come to only one conclusion, universalism, which means the whole world will be saved. If salvation is basically a legal transaction, then I have no debt or obligation remaining and my ignorance of this situation would not alter the fact.

An alternative offered by proponents of the Commercial Transaction Theory is that of a limited atonement. This view holds the same premise as the universalists that the atonement was an exact, literal payment for sin, but concedes that not all are being saved. Therefore, the atonement was not made for all but was limited to the “elect.” Since the concept of a limited atonement is conspicuously absent from the scriptures, we can only view this theory as the product of man’s presumption. This doctrine of election is clearly refuted in the following scriptural revelations:

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only be gotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. John 3:16 (NASB)

And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world. 1 John 2:2 (NASB)

Behold, I stand at the door and knock, if any one hears My voice and opens the door. I will come in to him, and will dine with him, and he with Me. Revelation 3:20 (NASB)

This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. Timothy 2:3–4 (NASB)

We also have the problem of knowing whether or not we happen to be one of those fortunate enough “elected” to salvation. How dreadful to be commanded to repent under the penalty of death with only the possibility that an atonement was made for you.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. The background of the Latin (Satisfaction) theory may truly be called legal—although this school of thought has claimed many adherents, not all theological thinkers have accepted this concept. Dr. Gustaf Aulen in the opening paragraph of his classic work, Christus Victor, states: “My work on the history of Christian Doctrine has led me to an everdeepening conviction that the traditional account of the history of the idea of the Atonement is in need of thorough revision.” The fruits of Dr. Aulen’s study serve to un derscore this dissatisfaction with the “traditional account.” Gregory of Nazianzus rejects the idea of ransom (from a legal standpoint) altogether; he will not allow that a ransom was paid to the devil, nor yet to God, for, as he says, “We were not in bondage under God.” He prefers to use the idea of sacrifice. N. Rashdall, in his book The Idea of Atonement in Christian Theology, finds repeated occasion to express his lively condemnation of the phraseology of a transaction with the devil; such a theory is, he says, hideous, and cannot be taken seriously. Similarly, A.E.N. Hitchcock, in an article, “A Modern Survey of the Atonement,” distinguishes four main theories. He rates as the least acceptable the Ransom Theory. Of Ritchel, Aulen states, “We know that his estimate of the Anselmian Satisfaction Theory was the lowest possible.”
2. Ibid., pp. 8,9.
3. Gustaf Aulen, Christus Victor, Macmillan, p. 2.
4. Nathan S. Beman, The Atonement in Its Relation to God And Man, Newman–1844, pp. 94–95,106.
5. Caleb Burge, An Essay On The Scripture Doctrine of Atonement, Reprinted by Bible Research Fellowship, pp. 490–491.
6. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Macmillan, p. 179.
7. Colin Chapman, Christianity on Trial, Tyndale, pp. 489, 490.

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