Essential Luther - Lesson 5

Luther's View of the Atonement

Luther presents his view of the atonement in the form and shape of the theology of the cross. In the cross and resurrection, God is bringing about something new. Christ did not come to give us a new law. Christ came into the closed circle of law and death by being born under the law, then dying and being raised from the dead to redeem those who were under the law. We get what Jesus has to offer by going through the cross ourselves, not just accepting theories about the cross.

Gordon Isaac
Essential Luther
Lesson 5
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Luther's View of the Atonement

I. Different views on the atonement.
    A. Classic (dramatic) view of the atonement
    B. Anselm's view
    C. Abelard's view
II. Luther's view on the atonement
    A. Contrast with views of Scholastic theologians
    B. Controversy among scholars
    C. Luther's view of the atonement is conditioned by his theology of the cross
    D. The resurrection is of great importance to the significance of the cross.
    E. Luther's view of the atonement unified the three major views that were previously proposed.

  • The joy and promise of reading Luther. Luther has keen theological insights and expresses them using wit and lively word pictures. Luther's innovative thoughts are a result, not only of profound wrestling with theological ideas, but with Scripture itself. Luther uses polemic language, which was common in his time.

  • Some of the historical milestones that took place in the life of Martin Luther.

  • Luther has an unusual presentation of the nature of the theological task and a unique way of going about it. When discussing sin, Luther says that our problem is not just a moral lapse, but it's our spiritual presumption that is our greatest and worst of sins. Theology for Luther is our being grasped by the Word of God, not just a speculative academic pursuit.

  • Justification by faith is the central, foundational doctrine of Christianity and is unique compared to other religions. It is the manner in which we continue to walk with the living God. To Luther, it is more than just a doctrine, it is a death and a resurrection joining us to the living Christ. 

  • Luther presents his view of the atonement in the form and shape of the theology of the cross. In the cross and resurrection, God is bringing about something new. Christ did not come to give us a new law. Christ came into the closed circle of law and death by being born under the law, then dying and being raised from the dead to redeem those who were under the law. We get what Jesus has to offer by going through the cross ourselves, not just accepting theories about the cross.

  • Luther's treatise on Christ's Passion was used by common people to focus their meditation on the significance of this period of Christ's ministry. Luther urges people to be sensitive to what the Spirit might speak to them as they pray through Scripture passages. Luther's writings are sprinkled with short dialogues that help us deal with everyday matters according to the gospel.

Martin Luther used wit and lively word pictures to communicate his keen theological insights. His innovative thoughts are a result of his wrestling with Scripture as well as thoughtfully considering current theological teachings.

Essential Luther

Dr. Gordon Isaac


Luther's View of the Atonement

Lesson Transcript


Thank you for clicking on to the essential Luther. In our short presentations, we are attempting to give what is really important for understanding Luther's theology. We've gone from talking about the promise of Luther in rather general terms and how he speaks about theological formulations, his colorful sayings, his ability with rhetoric to form and shape the content of the gospel message in powerful, memorable ways. We've also talked about Luther's Road to the Reformation and some of the personal steps that took place in his own life, leading him to reformation theology in opposition to Roman Catholic structures. The major structural shift that took place also in his presentation of justification by faith. We've also taken a look at Luther's view of theology. So in each of these sessions, we've attempted to move forward just by steps, something of the nature of Luther's theological framework. In this session, I'd like to deal with Luther's view of the Atonement. I'd like to talk with you about how Luther conceives of this and how he presents it in the form of the shape of the theology of the cross. We've already entered into Luther's thinking on this point in some ways, but I'd like to bring it home to you a bit more firmly in this area of atonement. Now, as you might know from reading outside, the doctrine of the Atonement is dealt with in various ways. There are at least three major theories of the view of the atonement, and there are more that could be enumerated as well. The first of the three views of the atonement is what one might call the dramatic or the classic view of the atonement. In this view, the work of Christ is viewed as a piece of cosmic warfare in which Christ goes against the enemies that are arrayed against Christianity, against Christians of all kinds.


He is the one who goes up against the devil on the cross. He dies at the hands of the devil, but lures him in, as it were, because as the Son of God having a divine nature, he cannot be held by the bonds of death. And so he breaks through those bonds, defeating the devil and thus winning salvation for his people. This is a view of the atonement that uses rather visceral, earthy kind of language. It's one that talks about a great battle. It talks about breaking through the ribs of the great Leviathan, the monster that would come against the goodness of God. It's one that one will find in some of the early church fathers in particular. The second view of the atonement is a view that is known primarily being created by Anselm Saint Anselm. Lived in a feudal society. And so he depicted atonement in relationship to his surroundings. And he said that God was like a king whose honor had been violated. And thus, because God's honor had been violated, means a way needed to be found in order to restore his honor and his position of authority and right response to his people. But the violation to his honor was such that it was difficult to find a means of restoring that honor. So Anselm, in his book, Why did God Become Man? Goes through the process where he asks the question, What can be done in order to restore the honor of God? He took a look at angels to see if there was an angel who might be worthy perfect enough in order to do this work of restoration. Well, he looked about and decided that no, there was no angel that was really able to do that.


He then looked at humankind and said, You know, there's really no one of the human race who would be able to restore the justice of God, either because humans are falling because of their sin, they're unable to do that kind of work. Then finally, he said, that is the reason why God had to become man in Jesus, taking on human flesh, but also possessing the divine nature. He alone was able to restore the honor of the Father. And so his view of the substitution or atonement is one which is one wide favor now, and particularly in evangelical circles in which I happen to run. This is something that one will find in many Confessions of Faith, and there's great emphasis upon the substitution or atonement. Much is made of that. We'll come back to that in a little while. The third view of the atonement was propounded by one Peter Abelard, who was a contemporary of Saint Anselm. Peter Abelard was a brilliant lecturer at the University of Paris, a philosopher of great note and a theologian of no small ability. Peter Abelard stated the atonement in yet another way, and he said, You know, really what's going on in the Atonement is this. It's not so much a cosmic battle. Neither is it a matter of restoring God's honor. Really, what we have in the Atonement is this We see the person of Jesus in his humility, coming and meeting the great crowds of people who hear his teaching and who desperately need the kind of guidance and the winsome grace that he shows in his interactions with humanity. It's this Jesus that we see who is so full of the presence of God that He is willing to even lay down his life for others.


And so when we see the great devotion of Jesus that he has to the Father, we are won over by the heart. When we see this wonderful example of Jesus following after, as he does hard on the trying to follow after the Father. And so when we see Jesus doing these wonderful actions, extending forgiveness in the most desperate of circumstances and helping others in their dire need, we see one who really shows us who God is all about, and therefore we're one over from the heart and we follow after Jesus because He is such a wonderful example. These three forms of the Atonement are ones that have the greatest currency within the history of the Christian faith. Now, as I say, there are more that could be enumerated slight variations of these three. But nonetheless, these are the three basic views of the atonement. Now that in Luther studies, the question has arisen What view of the atonement does Luther have? Now, clearly we've already seen that Luther has been fighting against certain fixed positions of the scholastic tradition. He fights against feeds, clarity for matter, and the whole medieval scheme that basically says we're saved on the basis of our. Faith, which is formed by good works. He fights against this tendency also within the medieval time frame to defend Christ from any accusations. You remember in the book of Galatians it actually says that Christ became a curse on our account, that he might save us. Well, it's interesting to note how some of these medieval theologians wrestled with some of these issues. Jerome and others say that Paul was not speaking in earnest here. He did not literally mean that Christ became a curse, but he was just using some high blown rhetoric in order to illustrate his point.


But Luther says, you know, this argument from Jerome is not particularly convincing. It seems that here they seem to speak in a subtle way that is very pious and it defends the honor of Christ. But if we are too careful to defend the honor of Christ in his action of laying down his life to claim his own here on Earth, then we do Christ a disservice and we actually undermine the work of Christ in his saving actions. By doing so, they deprive us his saving work and they draw attention away from the for us of the work of Christ. And Luther is, as you know, is very famous for this phrase Christ did this for us. It's not enough just to know the historical circumstances of Christ, his life, his ministry, his death in the cross, and his resurrection. Even the devil's recognize that truth, and they blaspheme God in spite of it. But when Luther talks about the four of us, you say, We need to know that that was done for us and it must be appropriated through faith at living faith. So he claims that when Jerome and others say that Christ did not really become a curse for us, that they made Christ not only useless to us, but also a judge and a tyrant who is angry because of our sins and who dams sinners. So we find that Luther in his wrestling with the question of the atonement and how it is that Christ's work achieves this for us. We find him fighting against the fixed positions of the scholastic traditions. In his commentary on Galatians, he puts it in a rather stark way. The truth of the Gospel is this that a righteousness comes by faith alone without the works of the law.


The falsification or corruption of the gospel is this that we are justified by faith, but not without the works of the law. The false apostles preach the gospel, but they did so with this condition attached to it. The scholastics do the same thing in our day. They say that we must believe in Christ and that faith is the foundation of salvation. But they say that this faith does not justify unless it is formed by love. This is not the truth of the gospel. It is falsehood and pretense. The true gospel, however, is this works or love are not the ornament or perfection of faith, but faith itself is a gift of God, a work of God in our hearts, which justifies us because it takes hold of Christ as the Savior. Human reason has the law as its object. It says to itself this I have done this I have not done. But faith in its proper function has no other object than Jesus Christ, the Son of God who was put to death for the sins of the world. It does not look at its love and say, What have I done? Where have I send? What have I deserved? But it says, What has Christ done? What has he deserved? And here, the truth of the Gospel gives you the answer. He has redeemed you from sin, from the devil and from eternal death. Therefore, faith acknowledges that in this one person, Jesus Christ, it has the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Whoever diverts his gaze from this object does not have true faith. He has a fantasy and a vain opinion. He looks away from the promise and at the law, which terrifies him and drives him to despair. So, Luther, in fighting against the fixed positions of the scholastic tradition, wants to set out the atonement of Christ in a very different manner.


It was very close to the Gospel, wasn't it? To say that we're saved by faith. But you also need works. It's very close. And that is always the challenge, isn't it, presenting the gospel. But whenever something is added to the gospel, a gospel, and in a situation like that, one loses the entirety of the gospel. And that is what Luther fights for so tenaciously, so boldly and so provocatively, the gospel and the gospel alone. That's why he talks about justification, Solar Day, no additions, no subtractions. Justification. Solar payday. Now then, it's interesting when we ask the question what view of the atonement does Luther hold? There's a tremendous amount of controversy that's taken place within Luther scholarship on this topic. There are several who claim, including Paul Althouse and some others, that Luther's view of the atonement is really the vicarious satisfaction theory of Saint Anselm, so that Luther, quite often in his writings, can use that terminology of satisfaction. Christ makes satisfaction for us as sinners. Christ has merited our salvation. Christ has satisfied or fulfilled the demands of the law and therefore has brought us salvation, etc.. He can use that kind of terminology. So on that basis, Althouse and several other Luther scholars have claimed that Luther holds to the vicarious satisfaction theory. On the other hand, certain Swedish Luther scholars, including Gustav Allen, assert that Luther holds to the dramatic or the classic view of the atonement, as they call it, the Christus Victor motif. Gustav Allen claims that Luther in his Galatians commentary, talks about those forces arrayed against the Christian and he says it's sin, death and the devil. But Allen points out and underlines the fact that in his 1535 Galatians commentary, Luther also in a provocative way, adds the law as one of those forces that needs to be overcome if we are to win to salvation.


So for Luther, then salvation is one from sin, death, the devil and the law. And Gustav Alleyne claims that the radical position that Luther holds is to say quite contrary to certain other important proponents of Christian theology, that the law itself is not eternal, but that the law will have an end. And the thing that brings the law to an end is when the gospel is fulfilled. For then, we, as the redeemed people of God, will fulfill the law without being told that we must do that. And so Gustav Allen and some others assert that Luther holds to the Christmas victor motif. I think one thing that needs to be said is that Luther's view of the atonement is conditioned by his theology of the cross. Luther rejects the idea that God is one who could be bargained with in a commercial fashion or satisfied with a mere payment. And we need to recognize that for Luther, the theology of the Cross, the reality of the resurrection cannot simply be fitted to an already existing system of meaning, which is looked upon as being somehow eternal in the terms of the theology of the cross. It's important to say that we cannot simply understand the cross by using the system of the law and the idea that God must be paid as though God were a kind of celestial and eternal bookkeeper. The point, rather, is that in the cross and resurrection, God is bringing about something absolutely new, something that is to put to an end the old, including our old ways of thinking and acting as well. The cross is not to be understood by means of another system. The cross is its own system. The cross and resurrection in itself brings about something entirely new.


That, to begin with, is what is meant by a theology of the cross. But how does the event of cross and resurrection bring something new? To see this, we must go back to our idea of the law as a voice. The law is a voice which speaks to us and accuses us. The voice of the law tells us that we do not measure up. But it doesn't give us the power to to measure up. We need to recognize that the voice of the law, when it comes to us, puts us into something of a closed circle. It confronts us everywhere we turn in this life. The law in this sense is not a ladder to heaven. It is not a possibility by which we can understand God as He is in heaven. But it is an impenetrable wall around our existence. It does not offer us a way out, but it tells us rather the opposite. There is no exit, and this is punctuated in the end by the inexorable fact of our human death. A Theology of the Cross seeks to say that Christ came into this closed circle of law and death. He was born under the law to redeem them that are under the law. And how does he bring this about? Only by dying and being raised again. He does not come to bring some more law. He does not come saying, Come on now, people, be nice. He does not fit into any of our known schemes of meaning or our laws. That is why, in the end, he must die. He comes only to die. And Luther taught this when he said that God reveals himself in Christ under the form of opposites. Exactly the opposite from what we in our systems would expect.


He comes in loneliness and humility, and he dies the death of a criminal. He does not buy off God. He simply dies. He is beaten, spit upon, ridiculed and nailed to a cross and killed. He suffers the total and ultimately meaningless destruction that is death. And in the end, he cries. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? And he enters the dark nowhere of death. So a theology of the cross, when we apply it to this matter of atonement, has a particular way of doing its business. A theology of the Cross affirms in the first instance that he was not doing anything else in his death but dying. He wasn't paying God or giving us an example or any such thing. He was dying painfully, excruciatingly. Really. A theology about the cross makes it seem as though he were really doing something else, as though his death had some other meaning than just death. It is as though and I suspect this is the real reason for such theology, we cannot bear the thought of a down to earth death and cover it over with some other meaning. So we don't really have to look at it for the frightening thing about death is that ultimately it has no meaning. It is the triumph of meaninglessness. It is the cessation of life. It is darkness. It is the nothing. That is what happened to Jesus. He was crucified, dead and buried, for it is in the view of the theology of the cross. Only the resurrection that gives his death significance. He rose from the dead. He conquered the grave, the meaninglessness. And he became the first fruits of the new. What we have to do with is an end and a new beginning.


He broke through the closed circle and brought new life to light in his resurrection. Without the resurrection, the cross has no importance for us. And it's significant that the resurrection by comparison is not really important for the various theologies about the cross, even in the supposedly more orthodox system of vicarious satisfaction. The resurrection is not really an operating part of the theology involved. For if you say that the logic of the matter demands that God be satisfied, then everything depends on Jesus punishment and death, but not on the resurrection. There's no need for a resurrection, really. One could just as well say that the Son of God suffered and was killed to pay the debt. And that's all there is to that. What need is there for anything more in a theology of the cross? However, the resurrection is all important. It's only the resurrection that snatches. Victory from defeat brings about something really new and consequently enables us to look on the cross as a real death for in theology of the Cross. The cross and resurrection is the way the law is, not the way the cross is. Jesus, we might say, is his own system, as he put it himself. I am the way, the truth and the life. What this means for Luther is that one does not get what Jesus has to offer merely by accepting certain theories about the cross that, as we would say, is a mere spectator theology. The point is rather that one must actually go through the cross oneself. Most theologies are little more than detours around the cross. A theology of the Cross insists that one must go through it for the cross, and the resurrection is the way. So we need to recognize that for Luther and his understanding of the atonement, we have really a theology of the cross that is at work here.


Notice how death and resurrection go together for Luther. This really is something if if you did a study and took a look at many of the statements about atonement that may appear in various kinds of publications or pronouncements from time to time. One of the things that you will find consistently and this is something that I find fascinating, is that resurrection, people just don't know what to do with it. And it becomes a tag on at the end of one's theology. There was something took place, I believe it was in 2000. It was a celebration of the gospel and there were many evangelicals. It was something that happened spontaneously. But this is one of the things that I noticed about the presentation. There was a very strong emphasis upon the need for the vicarious satisfaction through the the vicarious atonement of Christ. This was set out clearly in this celebration of the gospel. But then when it came time to talk about resurrection, it really had no power and had no force because all of the energy had been placed in the article above it. And there was no intrinsic connection with the doctrine of the Atonement and resurrection, precisely because it wasn't really a theology of the cross that was being set out in that presentation. And so it is that I think we need to take a look to see what it is here that is going on. One of the things that we need to say that in understanding the atonement in a theology, the cross is really a very different matter than understanding atonement as some kind of isolated doctrine or as a theory about the atonement. What Luther is really attempting to get to do when he speaks of atonement is to hold together these things which we have broken apart.


Usually these three main types of the atonement, as I outlined them at the beginning of our time, the vicarious satisfaction tree, the victory idea that Christ won the victory over all man's adversaries, and the idea that Christ's death was an inspiring example or set forward in various ways and former days, it was more or less assumed that Luther held the idea of vicarious satisfaction. More recently, many are claiming that Luther held the victory idea. It's rather difficult to pin Luther down to any of these views since he uses terminology which suggests sometimes one and sometimes another idea. Some would say that this indicates an inconsistency in his thinking. It would be foolish, I suppose, to expect of Luther a consistency which comes to a theology only after long centuries of reflection. On the other hand, our puzzlement over what he meant may result in part, at least from our own lack of understanding, our attempts to force on him an either or, which doesn't mean injustice. It might be that he had a view of the atonement large enough to hold together what we have let fall apart. I like the suggestion of Gerhart Furness because he says something like This is the case in our understanding of Luther on the Atonement. For him, what was important was not the various ideas or pictures of the atonement one might employ, but rather the distinction between a theology of the cross and a mere theology about the cross. For if one looks on the cross and resurrection as that end a new beginning, which is also my end and new beginning, in which life under the law ends because life in Christ has begun, that is, atonement or oneness with God has begun. Then one can throw together words and images which only puzzle a theologian of glory.


One can, for instance, as Luther did, use language which sounds like vicarious satisfaction language. Luther abounds with statements to the effect that Jesus satisfied the wrath of God or bore the curse of the law. At the same time, Luther vehemently rejects the idea that God is one who can be bargained with in commercial fashion. But what does all that add up to? It means that Luther understood these things differently than we do. He would never have dreamt of saying that God could be bought off according to some scale of value. God's Majesty was much too great for that. It is rather that man, having sinned, has fallen under divine wrath and the curse of the law and needs to be rescued. And the rescue cannot take the form merely of a transaction in which God supposedly is paid for something he's lost. Because that would mean that we would then be confronted with a doctrine to be believed if we want to be saved. God's action would result only in a new doctrine, not in a new life. In other words, we would still be under obligation to do something that is believe or crank up our faith to the stick. In point or some such. But if Jesus death had been merely a payment to God, he would not have done enough wrath and law would not have been satisfied in actuality. They are not satisfied actually, until they end, until we don't feel or hear them anymore. Until God acts to put the old Adam to death and to raise up a new one. Therefore, it is not because God needed someone more expensive to pay the debt that he sent his son, but because he wanted to put an end to the old and start something new.


Satisfaction or fulfillment in Luther's terms means truly bringing to an end. Filling up, stopping the fulfillment of the law, he says, is the death of the law. The truth, therefore, is that Luther rejected the usual ideas of vicarious satisfaction because in the end he found them too trivial. This is shown in his criticism of the doctrine that Saint Anselm developed. Saint Anselm said that God had two choices to repair the damage done to His honor by sin. He could either punish man or he could demand satisfaction. Saint Anselm reasoned that if God took the first course and he punished man, that would mean the destruction of man and consequently the end of God's plan for his creation. Therefore, God, according to Saint Anselm, took the second course that a satisfaction he arranged for someone worth more than all the weight of man's sin, the God man, to make satisfaction, to pay the price instead of man. From this kind of thinking arose the idea of vicarious satisfaction. Jesus as a substitute payment to God. Who makes it possible for a man to go on living. Luther, however, rejected this idea and chose instead the first course that of punishment. Anselm said that would mean destruction. Luther said, in effect, That's right. That's just what it does mean. Jesus was destroyed in our place. He entered the darkness of that punishment and forsaken us. To do battle and wonder of wonders emerge victorious. It's not a transaction, but a battle between life and death that is joined. Nor is he, strictly speaking, a substitute for us. That idea is too trivial, as though he goes through it all instead of us in such a way as to leave us untouched or uninvolved. Rather, as we have said, he dies in our place.


He identifies himself with us by entering absolutely into that place where we must die. He does not die instead of us, but rather ahead of us, bringing it forward to us. His absolute identification with us puts to death the old Adam in us so that his death is our death. He dies ahead of us to bring us life here and now. This identification with him in death leads to identification with him in the new resurrection life. The death and resurrection of Christ leads not merely to a doctrine about atonement, but to an actual accomplishment of atonement. Looked at in this way. It's apparent that there is no real difference between so-called different pictures or theories of the atonement. Jesus satisfied the wrath of God or bears the curse of the law or suffers the punishment. At the same time, he wins the victory over the demons and death. It is all of a piece, indeed, since his life, death and resurrection are ours. It is quite possible also to speak of him as our example. All the views come together and the language is virtually interchangeable. As long as we are talking about a theology of the cross and not merely about the cross, what is ruled out as only that kind of thinking that detracts from the real down to earth death of Jesus by translating it into a theory about something that took place in heaven. For once again, only the God who comes down to earth can really help us. Only the one who dies. The death that we must die and yet is not conquered by it can save us. Anything else, however pious or orthodox it sounds, is useless and vain.