The “Heart” of the Atonement (Part 2): The Christus Victor Model

Sacrificial Lamb betterThe atoning work of Christ is a many splendid reality. It has many facets and angles to its beauty. Which ever way you turn the diamond of his crucifixion you will see something new and worthy of worship and praise. It is because of this reality that I have, in recent months, been so hesitant to speak of a singular “heart” to the atonement. It frustrates me when theologians want to boil down the totality of Christ’s work on the cross to the doctrine of penal substituionary atonement. Don’t misunderstand that frustration. I love the doctrine of PSA. I believe it to be important. I am even going to go on later in this series and argue that I do think it holds a central role, but I fear we move too quickly to that doctrine and in so doing lose the myriads of truths found in the accomplishments of Christ’s death for sinners. It is worthy of our time to know and study all the angles of the atonement. When we examine the cross from all its diverse perspectives we catch a more full glimpse of the beauty of the atonement.

The Bible uses a variety of images to explain the atonement. Theologian John Driver has categorized ten motifs: conflict/victory/liberation; vicarious suffering; archetypal (i.e., representative man, pioneer, forerunner, firstborn); martyr; sacrifice; expiation/wrath of God; redemption; reconciliation; justification; and adoption-family (quoted in The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views, ed. by Beilby and Eddy, 11). Others have combined or broken apart those motifs to create shorter or longer lists, but the lists are generally the same. Wayne Grudem explains that the variety of motifs respond to the variety of needs we have as sinners. According to Grudem we have four basic needs:

1. We deserve to die as the penalty for sin.

2. We deserve to bear God’s wrath against sin.

3. We are separated from God by our sins.

4. We are in bondage to sin and to the kingdom of Satan. (Systematic Theology, 580)

In response to these needs the Bible explains the accomplishments of Christ’s death in a variety of ways and that allows us, then, to explore a variety of models for the atonement. We will look in this series at six that have deep roots in the Scriptures: victory, redemption, sacrifice, propitiation, expiation, and example.

We may begin by examining Christ’s work on the cross through the language of Christus Victor. “Christus Victor” is a Latin phrase that simply means “Christ is victor.” It’s the language of conquering king. Throughout the Gospels Jesus is depicted as being at war with Satan. He is victorious over him in the initial temptation narratives (Matt. 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13), he casts out demons in His earthly ministry (Matt. 8:16, 28-32; 9:32-34; 17:18). And while the New Testament records that Satan is the “ruler” of this world (1 John 5:19; 2 Cor. 4:4; Eph. 2:2), Jesus has come “to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8; see also John 12:31). This happens throughout Jesus’ life and ministry but it also happens, in an even more pronounced and profound way, at the cross.

The cross is a declaration, if perhaps an upside down one, that Christ is the conqueror of Satan, sin, death, and hell. In Galatians 1:4 Paul states that Jesus “gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age.” That is, Christ died for our sins in order that He might rescue us from the evil age. That was His purpose in dying, states Paul. The apostle paints a similar picture at the end of 1 Corinthians 15:

When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:54-57)

He encourages them to see the cross as conquering of death and sin, and as an accomplishment of the victory of God for us.

Perhaps the most significant and useful passage to explore on this subject is that of Colossians 2:13-15. Here the apostle not only speaks of Christ’s death as dealing with our sin, but also as “disarming the powers and authorities.” The language is the very language of a conquering king. So Paul writes:

And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.

Here Christ is depicted like a King returning from the field of battle with the rulers and officials of the foreign nation being drug behind Him. In ancient cultures when a King won a great battle there would be a triumphant processional back into the city. In tow would be the kings and rulers of the conquered nation. They would be exposed to humiliation and shame. The language Paul is using here clearly parallels such events. The cross is Jesus’ victory over Satan and the forces of this evil age! In the words of Michael Bird, “The cross is a kingdom event that forever shakes the spiritual forces of this age with the power of the age to come” (Evangelical Theology, 395).

This is such an important aspect of the atonement for us to grasp. As we grasp more fully this aspect of the atonement we find freedom to fight sin, hope for victory over our struggles, and confidence in the coming Kingdom. Because of Jesus’ work on the cross I am “dead to sin, and alive to God” (Rom. 6:11). Sin no longer has dominion over me (Rom. 6:14-23). We have already been delivered from the domain of darkness (Col. 1:13), and one day the “God of peace will…crush Satan under your feet” (Rom. 16:20). If we do not see the cross as the victory of Christ over Satan, death, sin, and hell we will miss out on one of the great and glorious truths of the atonement. This doctrine is glorious. It motivates our spiritual fight, and instills hope for the future. We need to see and celebrate the cross as the victory of Jesus!

Ultimately this model cannot stand alone. We need further detail to see how exactly Christ destroys the work of the devil. The devil is a liar and an accuser, as such Christ’s death must explain how his accusations and lies no longer have power. For that to be made clear we need to see Christ’s death also as canceling the record of sin that stands against us. The Christus Victor model cannot stand alone, but it should not be ignored! His victory is of crucial importance to our spiritual lives. As Stuart Townend and Keith Getty sing “And as he stands in victory, sin’s curse has lost its grip on me” (In Christ Alone).  That is a truth we need to know and celebrate. Reflect on Christ’s victory as an aspect of the atonement.

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