Adventist Media Response and Conversation

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Moral Influence Theory and the Adventist World Magazine

In the most recent edition of The Adventist World Magazine there is an article by Angel Manuel Rodriquez under the section Bible Questions (page 40). Before I get to the subject of the article there is something peculiar about the article. That is, the article is entitled “The Revelation of Salvation” and is meant to answer this question which appears at the top of the page:

Question: How are we saved? What is the moral influence view of the cross?

If you click on the link for the December 2007 articles under the section Bible Study you don’t find the current article instead you find Christianity's Great Mystery. However if you happen to check on a different language edition such as Spanish there you find under the Bible Study section: La revelación de la salvación. As we are already halfway through December I don’t think the correct version is intended to be linked to for whatever reason.

To save myself time I am going to use the Google translation from the above link rather then retyping the article. I am actually impressed with the Google translation though I will change many of things to better reflect the English version, as I am sure that most Adventists do have access to this magazine since it is sent out free to Adventists in North America there should not be much confusion caused by using a translated version. This article seems quite long since it includes the full text of Rodriguez’s article (blue font), but please take the time to read it even if it takes several sessions to get through it.

It begins well enough however no atonement theory is complete until you factor in the resurrection which is the proof that God can do what He promises even to raise the dead. Interestingly enough Rodriquez does not talk once about forgiveness in his summary of moral influence theory which is something that Jesus offered on the cross even to those who tortured and were killing Him, probably he means those things to be covered under the heading of love but the specifics add to the meaning of what love is. When one is willing to forgive then one is not saddled with the problem of punishing and that is where Rodriguez begins to really go off track, under the heading 2.

The Revelation of Salvation

By Angel Manuel Rodriguez

QUESTION: How are we saved? What is the theory of the moral influence of the cross?

For centuries, Christians have sought to explain how the death of Christ on the cross saves us. We call these explanations "theories of atonement." One is known as the "theory of the moral influence" of the atonement. I will summarize its contents, strengths and finally make an assessment of this position.

1. Summary of teaching: There are slight variations of the theory of moral influence, but basically is based on the following ideas. First, it is understood that the cross is the supreme revelation of God's love. There, God was identified with us to the point of going through all that we all experience, namely death. Secondly, the manifestation of divine love was so full that as a result transforms us. That is called "the moral influence of the cross." The voluntary death of Christ on the cross awakens in us the love of God, it changes our attitude toward him and prompts us to exemplify his love in our lives.

It is obvious that this understanding of the effectiveness of saving the cross is nothing bad. The Scriptures testify that the cross is the most glorious manifestation of the love of sacrificial love of Christ toward sinners (for example, John
3:16), and his death should prompt us to express the same quality of love in our lives. But this theory has significant weaknesses that limit its usefulness.

2. It denies a central aspect of the atonement: One of the fundamental problems of the theory of moral influence is rejecting the Substitutionary nature of the death of Christ. The idea that God had to kill the innocent rather than guilty, to save us, is considered a violation of justice. Yet the witness of Scripture is that Christ died in our place (Isa. 53; Mark 10:45; 2 Cor. 5:21). In atonement, God Himself so voluntarily assumed responsibility for our sin. This is a glorious manifestation of divine grace, not an injustice. Atonement is God’s work for us, it is a matter between him and us. Nobody else is involved.

This argument amounts to nothing more then an appeal to tradition. The Substitutionary view of the atonement came out of the Middle Ages Satisfaction view of the atonement. Unfortunately people have merely assumed that the Substitutionary view is what is meant by certain Bible verses. In fact the Substitutionary view is being read into those verses. Not that there is not substitution involved in the New Testament view. For there is a Substitutionary view in such verses where Jesus is referred to as the second Adam however those have nothing to do with what has become known as the penal/Substitutionary Atonement. (see Church History of the Atonement)

Isaiah 53 is often the prime piece of evidence the Substitutionary believers uses, however it is but a foreshadowing of Christ and most of things we use to say it is Substitutionary are not used by anyone in the New Testament. A foreshadow is rarely accurate in details and you can see that from reading Isaiah 53, however we often ignore the inaccuracies and focus only on what seems to fit our presupposition. That in fact is what the other texts also do. For instance 2 Cor 5:21 is a paradoxical statement and if you take it out of the context of rest of the chapter it seems to mean that Jesus became sin and we became the righteousness of God. The chapter tried to explain how Jesus became sin by being put to death. The sting of sin is death (1 Cor 15:56 ) and “the death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. (Rom 6:10 NIV) We cannot understand the paradoxical statement unless we allow the previous verses to interpret how it is used.

2 Cor 5: 14 For Christ's love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. 16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (NIV)

Jesus died for all that all may become new creations raised as new people to live for God; Compelled by the love of God who does not count men’s sin against them. How did Jesus then become sin? By being put to death the ultimate end of rebellion against God because You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this. (Acts 3:15 NIV) We become the righteousness of God as we being a new creation point others to be reconciled with God.

Those who often quote 2 Cor 5:21 practically never address what it can mean they simply assume that it refers to a Substitutionary transfer where Jesus becomes sin and we become Jesus. Of course not really, only it appears that way to God because for some reason He no longer knows what is real we become hidden behind Christ who apparently is no longer sin but is righteous and God only sees Jesus. It is a confused view and unworthy to be assumed as a starting point to understand atonement. Clearly the moral influence view does not need to point to such a contrivance as the “central aspect of atonement.”

3. Narrow View of the Human Predicament: The theory of the moral influence presupposes that the human tragedy of sin lies in the fact that we have misinformation regarding God. We do not need to be free from the power of sin, but our ignorance of its His loving character. Humans, it is argued, see God as a tyrant who imposed arbitrary demands and disciplines them. The cross saves by changing their understanding of God. Such opinion is not consistent with the biblical perspective of sin and its impact on human beings. The sin is a deliberate rebellion against God that has separated us from him. It is not simply solved with a change in us (an subjective atonement), but through divine intervention that removes barriers and produces reconciliation (objective atonement).

You will notice that in Rodriguez’s summary of the moral influence theory he did not mention it’s view of sin. Sin is the attitude of people toward others and God. The Bible goes so far as to say: …everything that does not come from faith is sin. (Rom 14:23 )

But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe.

Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. (Gal 3:22-23 NIV)

The answer to the sin problem then must be faith which is another way of saying trusting God. From that all of our actions change and as 2 Cor 5:16 above says we no longer look at things from the worldly point of view. Indeed we were separated by sin from God but the love of Christ compels us to be reconciled with God. We have learned from childhood John 3:16 but for some reason when we get to talking about atonement we suddenly forget the love of God that whoever believes may be saved. Instead the Substitutionary view seeks to muddy the waters with clever and deceptive bookkeeping practices in heaven.

Rodriguez only hints as this cosmic bookkeeping scam by cryptically saying: It is not simply solved with a change in us (an subjective atonement), but through divine intervention that removes barriers and produces reconciliation (objective atonement).

Yet it was God who is the active agent in tearing down our barriers to God. Did God have to do something to knock down His own barriers between Himself and us? If so then the sacrifice of Christ was not for us but to change God. But that would make no sense for God to do the sacrifice to Himself only to change Himself a God who does not change. It is why I think that the Penal/Substitutionary atonement theorists resort to innuendo and vague statements. When pressed to specifics the theory looks silly which is why it is so clouded with trite but wonderfully religious sounding sayings.

4. Separation of Judgment From Love: When the atonement is limited to the work of God in us, his judgment against the sin is incompatible with his love. As we have said on other occasions, this makes love synonymous with the divine indifference. Judgment against sin means that God takes seriously our actions because he cares about us. But also, it means He was willing and able to assume that judgment against us on the cross. The wrath of God is an expression of divine love; reveals a God who is interested to the point of showing us how painful sin is for Him.

As we saw above what is God’s judgment against sin (at least those who are reconciled)? Not counting men's sins against them. What kind of judgment is there against sin? Sin does not exist outside of the person, there are results of sinful actions but the sin was a consequence which is lost in time. What kind of judgment can be executed upon David for his infidelity with Bathsheba 200 or 4,000 years after he made his choices and actions? In number 3 Rodriguez says that sin is deliberate rebellion against God. That is an attitude problem of a person it is not something that can exist apart from the thinking individual.

Here in the space between his point 3 and 4 he disagrees with himself. Judgment against sin can only occur within a person so the work of atonement has to be limited to God working in us. Since God is not the problem and sin is only a problem in thinking people. You will not find any verse in the New Testament which says that God poured out His wrath on Christ, nor will you find anywhere that says Christ paid our penalty for sin. Yet these are common Christian expressions based upon the Substitutionary atonement theory rather then upon what the Bible says. Since the New Testament does not say these things the Substitutionary atonement proponent has to go to the more vague foreshadowing statements of Isaiah. But if those statements were meant to be used that way surely some New Testament writer would have used them because they did quote several verses from Isaiah that were applied to Christ; yet never about suffering our penalty or the wrath of God.

5. Love and the Cross: Perhaps the key question is to know how the cross reveals love. The theory of the moral influence asserts that it is a demonstration of love because Christ, the Innocent, died identifying Himself with us, but not to die in our place. But many others died on crosses. Why is the cross of Christ a revelation of the love of God, but not the other? Yes, the Holy died there, but there is more. He died for sinners, to save through His atoning sacrifice (
Rom. 5:8, 1 John 4:10).

I think Rodriguez was just trying to fill space with this point. The moral influence is based upon the idea of what is God like, not what a human being or someone else is like. Does God forgive and accept us, will God raise the dead to life, is God worthy of our trust and worship? So His death answered our questions about God, a sacrifice that brings us together with God, that is atonement, that is reconciliation. Certainly he died for sinners, for the whole world because all involved were sinners and sinners are the ones in need of reconciliation with God. Only God can reveal the character of God, God could have sent an angel to pretend he was God and the effect would have been the same as if God had done it Himself but that would be inconsistent with His character. For what good is salvation if we find that once given eternal life we find that God has lied to us?

The death of Christ is indeed the greatest revelation of God's love, because it "God was in Christ reconciling the world, not taking into account the sins of men against them," but rather making, "Him who knew no sin to be sin for us" (2 Cor.

Finally a point we can agree upon at least once you remove dross that seems to always get inserted into those verses. We may never fully understand all that God did for us to reconcile us but we need to at least be honest with the reason we do present. Because what we say, we are saying about God, and making Him appear confused and less just then humans will not help us lead others to be reconciled and after all that is our mission.


al said...

"For centuries, Christians have sought to explain how the death of Christ on the cross saves us." So we have "theories" to suggest answers to these question, but I thought the gospel was suppose to simple enough for a child to understand? Simple and profound vs. complex and confused. Looks to me most of these theories would vanish if people would accept Jesus as The God who came to be with us. God’s character / law, blooming in the mist of satanic law, showing the contrast. Good vs. evil, love one another, do unto others, God is love, I have gone to prepare a place for you, ask and it will be given, God with us, well, even a child can begin to grasp this and it will grow and deepen their whole life. To the theologians who perpetrate theories of confusion – come out of Babylon.

Herb Douglass said...

Ron is correct. Why Jesus died should be understood by both child and professor. Each would express his/her understanding differently, obviously. Throughout the history of Christianity, more than a few explanations for Christ's death have confused Christians and surely many non-Christians who have found some of the supposed atonement theories to be "vile" and "unacceptable" to a reasonable person. And I agree! Each theological system emanating from seminal theologians is derived from that theologian's philosophical understanding of the character of God. The problem is that each theological-philosophical system uses the same texts, defining them within their particular theological-philosophical system. That, in itself, a cause of wonder and ridicule for non-Christian. It seems that when a person has understood God in terms of our Heavenly Father and Jesus as our Healer/Savior (same word in Greek) and not as a Calvinistic judge, for example, only then can one find harmony and common sense in understanding all the appropriate biblical texts. Probably one of the key questions that sort out the many theories of the atonement is: What does God want to accomplish in His plan of salvation? When all is said and done, what really settles the sin problem so that the universe is forever secure! Herb Douglass

Gerald M. Reynolds said...

For me, one of the clearest statements on the topic of reconciliation/atonement perceptions in sacred Scripture is from Christ Himself. Generally, would it be fair or accurate to suggest that many Christians look to the Apostle Paul for their theological understanding of atonement concepts, rather than to Jesus Christ? That would seem to make Paul out to be a better theologican than the Son of God/Son of Man Himself! I find that incredible. So I read in Jesus' midnight interview with Nicodemus that "as Moses lifted up the serpeant in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life." Immediately, that directs my cache memory to engage and I go back in time to the story in Numbers 21 and how God, by removing His protective care over the rebellious Israelites, allowed the natural consequences of their being in that wilderness to suffer the consequences of venomous vipers envenomation. Moses was instr5ucted by God to make a brass serpeant, put it on a pole, and set the pole up in the middle of the encampment. Then he was instructed to urge the people to simply look at that brass serpeant and they would be healed or saved from the consequences of the serpeants' stings. Some believed and some didn't. Those who didn't died! Those who believed and looked did not die! So simple, even a child can see that! But that is not the end. Jesus later told three stories. I recognize that when we as limited humans tell a parable we cannot expect the story to have but one or two main points, However, when Jesus, who is equally God as He is equally man, told stories they had far more points of truth in them than we have yet grasped! In these stories, there is a sheep and a shepherd, a coin and the woman who owns it, and a father with two sons to whom these sons belong. In each of htese stories, there is some kind of separation that occurs between the shepherd and his sheep, the coin and the woman who lost it, and the father whose youngest son made a great big fool of himself by leaving home with half of his father's fluid assets! So ask yourself the questions: At any time during the period of separation, did the sheep cease to belong to the shepherd, the coin belong to the woman, or the son cease to be the father's own son? The answer seems so obvious. Simply "No!" In that case would there need to be some kind of legality by document or contract, verbal or written, restoring the sheep as being legally owned by the shepherd, the coin by the woman? Not at all. In two of these cases, notice that the posessive pronoun "my" is used in the story of the sheep and the son.
"I have found MY sheep," and in the story of the wandering son,"This MY son was dead and is alive!" What this says to me is that the notion of a legal justification, a legal reconciliation, a legal atonement, regardless of how or where it takes place, does not come from above in heavenly places, but by an adversary that seeks to force a need for painful punishment and retribution on the children of his enemy because he hates God. If one looks into the background behind Archbishop Anselm's Cur Deus Homo one would find the he was trying to give theological support to positions for doctrines developed during the 7th, 8th, and 9th centuries that were proposed and advanced but in reality are no- where found in Scripture. The notions include the concepts of purgatory, an never ending hell fire for punishment for sin, the need for baptism for the immortal souls of infants, and the idea of an immaculate concepton so that Jesus could be born without the taint of original sin, among other teachings that came into being during that earlier time period. The tragedy is that Christianity has largely bought into his thesis rather than search the Scriptures for ones self and find the Truth as it is in Jesus the Messiah.

Doug Hackleman said...

For a pithy comparing and contrasting of the "Loma Linda" view of the atonement--or the "demonstrative view"--and traditional, forensic or substitutionary approaches see the article "Worlds Apart" at by clicking on the "Articles" navigation button.

Graeme Sharrock (CHIREX) said...

I wonder of anyone besides me is interested in thinking about these various theories of atonement and salvation in the context of world religions and cultures, not just the intra-spective world of Christian theology? If so, send me an email