It is very common in modern theology to talk about different ‘theories’ of what Christ’s death on the Cross accomplished. Indeed, a couple of weeks ago I talked about the way this was really a mistake that leads us to miss the various angles or aspects of the one, grand work of atonement Christ accomplished on the Cross. Just as there are various, equally important dimensions to God’s character, so there are to Christ’s salvation.
Back in the day, Herman Bavinck was also dealing with a context where a proliferation of atonement ‘theories’ were being offered up to replace older conceptions. This often provoked a sort of agnostic response that the New Testament only provided some facts about the death of Christ upon which various conflicting interpretations could be easily offered and chosen. Bavinck, instead, responded that, “Holy Scripture does not relate to us the bare fact of the death of Christ in order then to base the interpretation and appraisal of it to everyone’s own taste but from all angles puts that fact in the light of the Word.” Essentially, all of the different theories of Christ’s death find their basis in the New Testament alongside each other and ought to be maintained side by side, mutually determining each other, not ruling the others out in our theology as well.
Bavinck then goes on to show us what he means but that, and what solid, biblical atonement theology ought to look like. (Yes, this is a longish quote, but worth every minute):
The first thing this study teaches, we may say, is that the Scriptures continually view the suffering and death of Christ from a different perspective and in each case illumine another aspect of it. Like the person, the work of Christ is so multifaceted that it cannot be captured in a single word nor summarized in a single formula. In the different books of the New Testament, therefore, different meanings of the death of Christ are highlighted, and all of them together help to give us a deep impression and a clear sense of the riches and many-sidedness of the mediator’s work. In the Synoptics, Christ appears on the scene as a preacher and founder of the kingdom of God. That kingdom includes within itself the love of the Father, the forgiveness of sins, righteousness, and eternal life; and Jesus, in his capacity as Messiah, ascribes to himself the power to grant all these benefits to his disciples. Just as he has power to heal the sick, so he also has the authority to forgive sins. By this combination of powers, he proves that he is the complete Savior of his people. For that reason, too, there is no way of gaining admission into that kingdom and no participation in those benefits except by faith in his name. For it is he himself who gives his life as a ransom for many and who, in his death, breaks his body and sheds his blood to inaugurate and confirm the new covenant with all its blessings (Matt. 20:28; 26:28). In the Acts of the Apostles, the death of Christ is especially presented as an appalling crime that was inflicted on Christ by the hands of lawless men but was nevertheless from eternity included in the counsel of God (Acts 2:23; 4:28; 5:30). Therefore, God also raised him from the dead and exalted him as Lord and Christ, Ruler and Savior, in order, in his name, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:36; 4:12; 5:31).
For Paul, Christ’s death on the cross was originally the great offense, but when it pleased God to reveal his Son in it, that cross became for him the crown of Jesus’ messiahship and the only means of salvation. For on that cross God made him to be sin and a curse for us in order that in him we would have wisdom and righteousness, sanctification and redemption, salvation and eternal life (Rom. 3:24; 1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13). The Letter to the Hebrews describes Christ especially as the perfect and eternal high priest who was not only himself sanctified (perfected) through suffering (2:10; 5:9) but by his one perfect sacrifice put away the sins of his people (7:27; 9:26; 10:12) and is still continually at work as high priest in heaven, continuing and completing the purification, sanctification, and perfecting of his own (7:3, 25; 8:1; 9:14; 10:12ff.). Peter pictures Christ’s suffering as that of a lamb without blemish or spot; and in that suffering he not only bore our sins and redeemed us from our futile way of life but left us an example that we might follow in his steps (1 Pet. 1:18f.; 2:21f.). And John makes Christ known to us both as the lamb and the lion, as the life and the light, as the bread and the water of life, as the grain of wheat that, dying, bears fruit, and as the good Shepherd who gives his life for the sheep, as the Savior who gives life to the world, and as the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last, and so on.
So, indeed, one can find in the New Testament different appraisals of the person and work of Christ, which, however, do not exclude but rather supplement one another and enrich our knowledge. Just as in the old covenant there were diverse sacrifices and the promised Messiah was repeatedly presented under different names, so this many-sidedness in the description carries over into the New Testament and even markedly increases. The death of Christ is a paschal offering, a covenant offering, a praise offering as well as a sacrifice; a ransom and an example; suffering and action; a work and a ministry; a means of justification and sanctification, atonement and consecration, redemption and glorification; in a word, the cause of our whole redemption. Similarly, in theology various “theories” occur side by side, and in the preaching of the church, now one and now another aspect of the work of Christ is in the limelight. None of the above-mentioned mystical and ethical views, accordingly, are untrue as such; on the contrary, they are all based on data contained in Holy Scripture.
Christ, by his incarnation, in his person indeed brought about the union of God and humanity and is, as such, God’s representative to us and our representative to God: the Immanuel who as prophet makes God known to us and as priest consecrates himself on our behalf to the Father. He is the Son, the Word, the Image of God who shares with the Father in the same essence and attributes, and at the same time the Son of Man, the true human, the head of humankind, the second Adam who became like us in all respects, entered into our community of sin and death and bore our sorrows and diseases. He came on earth to fulfill a vocation, to found the kingdom of heaven, to confirm the new covenant in his blood; and in order to do that, he submitted to the will of the Father, became obedient unto death, and pronounced the “Amen” on the righteous judgment that God executed upon death in his suffering and dying. He became the faithful witness (Rev. 1:5), made the good confession before Pilate (1 Tim. 6:13), and became the high priest of our confession (Heb. 3:1). His suffering, therefore, was not only an atonement for our sins and a ransom for our redemption, but in his death the believing community was crucified with him, and in his resurrection this community itself arose from the grave. Christ was never alone; always he stood in fellowship with the humanity whose nature he had assumed. Just as all die in Adam, so they are again made alive in Christ and called to follow in his footsteps. All these elements, which come one-sidedly to the fore in the above-mentioned conceptions of Christ’s death, can be found in Scripture. What matters above all, now, is not to neglect any of them but to unite them into a single whole and to trace the unity that underlies them in Scripture. We can even say they are all inspired by the commendable ambition to link the suffering and death of Christ as closely as possible with his person. For this suffering and death were in fact not “something objective” that can be separated from his person and life and put in a category by itself. Christ’s suffering and death were not his “lot” but his deed. He had power to lay down his life as he did to take it up again (John 10:18). His death was the consummation of his obedience (Phil. 2:8).
—Reformed Dogmatics Volume 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ, pp. 383-384
Of course, for those who know the atonement theology, even this still doesn’t exhaust what Scripture (or Bavinck himself) says about the death of Christ in terms of the defeat of Satan, the powers of sin, and so much more. All the same, you can see Bavinck drawing out dimension after dimension of Christ’s accomplishment on the cross on our behalf, laying them side-by-side in a beautiful, seamless whole.
After reading something like this, I wonder at our tendency to want to single out, separate, or deny part of Christ’s great work on our behalf. No, instead, we must strive in our preaching and teaching to maintain every thread of the marvelous tapestry given us in the New Testament so that the glory of Christ Crucified and Risen may be gloried in, experienced, and wondered at all the more.
Soli Deo Gloria