Ritschl went further by suggesting that “what Jesus achieved by his moral obedience was not some effect in God—a change of God from being angry to being gracious—nor did he bring about the redemption of believers from Satan’s power or from death. On the contrary, what he obtained was that all who, like Christ, make God’s will their own may in communion with him lay aside the sense of guilt, unbelief, distrust.” Liberal theologians and pastors have followed the lead of Schleiermacher and Ritschl in rejecting the satisfaction of God’s demands on sin and sinners provided in substitutionary atonement and embracing a variety of “theories” that might stand in the place of the Anselmian understanding.
In 1930, Gustaf Aulén, professor of theology at the University of Lund in Sweden, delivered a series of lectures that were later published under the title Christus Victor. Aulén took issue with Anselm’s conclusions, particularly Anselm’s rejection of the idea of Christus Victor—that Jesus paid a ransom to the devil when He hung on the cross. Aulén was zealously seeking to undermine Protestant theology, going so far as trying to intimate that Martin Luther held to a Christus Victor view of the atonement. Aulén ultimately appealed to such early church theologians as Origen and Gregory of Nyssa to substantiate his contention that Christ paid a ransom to the devil on the cross.
Interestingly, Anselm gave considerable treatment to the claim that Jesus had to pay the devil in order to free men from his power. Toward the close of Cur Deus homo, he explained: “As God owed nothing to the devil but punishment, so man must only make amends by conquering the devil as man had already been conquered by him. But whatever was demanded of man, he owed to God and not to the devil.”
Anselm was, of course, referring to the victory that Christ gained over Satan as the representative of His people. In this, we see that Anselm believed that what Jesus accomplished on the cross was more than simply substitutionary atonement. This is instructive, as Protestants have sometimes mistakenly reduced what Jesus accomplished in His death on the cross to the work of substitutionary atonement alone.
However, Anslem was most interested in keeping the substitutionary nature of Jesus’ death at the forefront of the understanding of the atonement. He wrote, “Without satisfaction, that is, without voluntary payment of the debt, God can neither pass by the sin unpunished, nor can the sinner attain that happiness, or happiness like that, which he had before he sinned; for man cannot in this way be restored, or become such as he was before he sinned.”
No matter how many voices tempt us to move away from the truth of the substitutionary atonement of Christ—either by explicit or implicit teaching—we must hold firmly to it as the central dimension of the cross. In the next post, we will consider in more detail the biblical teaching on the doctrine of substitutionary atonement and how it satisfies God’s just demands.
Editor’s Note: This post was first published on June 22, 2018.