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  • Writer's picturePastor Bill

How does Jesus’ death on a cross save sinners?

The various answers to this question are what theologians call ‘Atonement Theories.’

Historically there have been many ways to answer this question, but three theories have been most widely held. Here they are in a nutshell.

Theory #1: Substitution

  • God is righteous and almighty. God gave us a law with threats of punishment for those who violate the law.

  • Sinners must be punished or God would be dishonored and the system would break down.

  • So… to punish sinners and preserve God’s honor, all human sin is placed onto the shoulders of the perfect sinless human who deserves no punishment: Jesus. Jesus pays the price as a substitute for everyone else. Sin is punished. Sinners are set free. And God’s honor is preserved.

Theory #2: Ransom

  • When people commit sin, they become indebted to the Devil. ‘We are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves,’ as we sometimes confess.

  • God offers to trade Jesus (God’s only Son and Heir) as a ransom of sinful humanity. The Devil thinks “if I trade the Only Son for humanity, I will soon have everything again anyway!”

  • So the Devil makes the trade, the debt is paid, and humanity is freed from it’s debt. But the Devil isn’t strong enough to hold Jesus. So while he descended into Hell he soon rises again having destroyed the gates of Hell in the process. Therefore we are liberated from “Sin, Death & the Devil,” to borrow a phrase from Martin Luther.

Theory #3: Moral Example

  • Jesus reveals the heart and will of God.

  • Jesus also reveals how a human should live.

  • In his moral example, we are liberated from world’s sinful example and free to accept and share God’s love and forgiveness.

None of these theories are perfect. All of them have some Biblical support and contradictions.

Finally, the cross is a mystery that somehow accomplishing God’s work of salvation.

You can read more about atonement theories in the book: Making Sense of the Cross by David J. Lose, Copyright 2011 Augsburg Fortress.


Pastor Bill

April 4, 2022

©️ 2022, Pastor Bill Bernau.

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