Why Did Jesus Die? Part 4: Realizing Atonement
Updated: Jun 26
Subscribe to keep up with each new post in this series.
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
~John 13:34 NRSVA~
We have talked about three significant models of atonement. They show how Jesus can act on our behalf, deal with the penalty for sin, and accomplish victory over evil. It is good to know that we will not be condemned before Christ's judgment seat and that all evil's claim to us has been removed, but does the atonement accomplish anything in our lives practically? Our fourth model, moral influence, provides an answer for us.
Before we dive into moral influence, though, we need to learn a couple of theological terms: objective and subjective. Simply, "the objective features of Christ's work deal with problems outside of us, most commonly with regard to divine justice or satanic might" while "the subjective implications of atonement deal with problems that are in some way internal to us, as evidenced by our fearful mistrust of God and our bent toward disobedience" . Thus far, we have focused on the objective aspects. With moral influence, we are dealing with the subjective side. It was necessary to discuss the objective side first. We needed to define what Jesus actively accomplished on the cross and show how it is an act of love. Once we are grounded in the reality of Jesus' accomplishments on the cross, we can see it at work in our lives. Without the objective elements, it is impossible to see how Jesus' death is an act of love that should influence us. Throwing one's life away as a demonstration of love is not itself a sign of love unless it is an actual sacrifice to save someone else (see Part 2).
The most famous teacher of the moral influence model was a controversial medieval theologian named Peter Abelard. While I won't go into the details of his biography here, it is sufficient to say he was quite a complex and polarizing character! Par for the course, his teaching on moral influence was also controversial. Other theologians accused him of teaching that Jesus' death was only a moral example which, if true, was problematic. Our problems with sin are deeper than a need for an example (Part 2). Jesus, as the Son of God, is not just any example of self-sacrificial love. If that was all He was, He would be one among many. Fortunately, Abelard did not teach that Jesus was merely an example. Others misrepresented his views, and he did include objective aspects of the atonement . He emphasized that Jesus' atonement provides an example of love that kindles love in us in response . The Holy Spirit and the sacraments enkindle that love . Beholding Jesus' act of love transforms us to show that same love in our lives. He echoes St. Paul, who presented the changed lives of Christians as signs of Jesus' victory over evil:
You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life .
Modern psychology confirms Abelard's theory which highlights the power of story. Stories impact our minds, breaking through our preconceptions and egos to provide a fresh way of looking at the world. The story of Jesus' crucifixion and its accomplishments shows us self-sacrificial love, breaking through our natural tendency to prioritize our own needs and comforts and inspiring self-sacrificial love in us . Yet, if this is our only model of atonement, we would miss what makes Jesus unique. There are many stories of self-sacrifice and forgiveness. What is unique about Jesus is how, in His death, He deals with our guilt for sin and triumphs over evil in ways no other act of self-sacrifice love does . Jesus' sacrificial love stands above all others and draws us into a new way of living He opened for us, following His example.
But the cross's moral influence is more than drawing us to love as He did. His death also reveals the weight of sin and unmasks it for what it is. That is why, in his mosaic of atonement, McNall identifies moral influence with the hands. It is motivated by the blood of the heart (penal substitution, which grounds why Jesus' death was an objective act of love). There are two hands, one to beckon us towards a new way of life and the other to restrain our evil tendencies . In the crucifixion, we see the weight of human sin for what it is. Jesus prays from the cross, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing" . Not even Jesus' executioners understood the injustice of what they were doing, but on the cross, Jesus unveils the full depths of violence in the human heart that is willing even to kill God to maintain power, security, and independence.
When we talk about the cross's moral influence or Jesus' example, we are not only saying the atonement is a picture of self-sacrifice we should obey or a display of how horrible our sin is so that we no longer sin. We do not look at the cross, learn something about how to behave, and then go our own way to live in line with what we learned. The atonement accomplishes freedom from evil (see Part 3), and God applies that work to us. God does not simply achieve the forgiveness of sins we already committed, get Satan out of our way, and then say, "Alright, go your way and be better". God is actively involved in our lives. God does the transformation and continues to work in us. He does not leave applying the atonement up to us, but actively works to apply it to us. Here, the Holy Spirit gets involved.
I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances .
Notice how God moves from removing Israel's uncleanness and guilt (atonement) to empowering them with His Spirit to obey. The atonement does not just remove the guilt of our sin: through the Holy Spirit, God works to remove sin from our hearts and lives completely.
We spoke earlier about how, when we see Jesus' act of love for us, it kindles in us that same love in return. Enkindling love in human hearts is Scripturally associated with the Holy Spirit . "Hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us" . Our response of love to Jesus' death is a sign of the Holy Spirit working within us. It is not our natural response to seeing Jesus. "Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says ‘Let Jesus be cursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit" .
When we recognize the role of the Holy Spirit, it keeps us from thinking we need to apply the atonement to ourselves on our own . Jesus' death does not just achieve the objective results of the atonement (removing our punishment, freeing us from Satan) and leave the subjective components up to us. Jesus said, "I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing" . The Spirit is how Jesus abides in us. "And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you....On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you" . The Spirit, uniting us to Christ's death, transforms us to restrain our sinful desires and enkindle a life of self-giving love.
Despite a lifetime of walking with Jesus and making progress in various sinful patterns, I continue to find this dynamic at play in my life. While working on this series, I have been regularly confronted with areas of unforgiveness in my life, specifically towards spiritual leaders I believe have failed me. My wife and I were already talking about the ways past church hurts impacted my present attitude as we look for a church community together. She has pointed out ways bitterness and unforgiveness continue in my heart and are reflected in short-tempered dismissiveness towards church leaders that remind me of those I still carry disappointment, hurt, and anger towards. Yet while reflecting on the cross, it shed new light on my heart. Jesus was falsely charged and crucified by religious leaders. He understands the pain of religious leaders' failings. In fact, He understands it more deeply than I do and can easily identify with me. He prayed for their forgiveness even as He suffered. Yet those individuals who crucified Him were people who clung to what they thought the Messiah would look like and so rejected Him. He did not match their expectations and so they killed Him. They acted out of anger and bitterness towards a man they perceived as a threat to them. When I see the crucifixion, I see just how horrid it is to cling to unmet expectations, anger, and bitterness. The violence of the crucifixion reveals how ugly my heart is. On the flip side, I see Jesus pouring out His life to forgive me for all the ways I have failed to follow Him and the failures of those same faith leaders I remain angry with. Jesus poured out love on me that I did not deserve and bore the cost of my sin. He also defeated the sin committed against me. Meditating on that opens up the possibility to share the forgiveness Jesus gives me and recognize the love Jesus shows those who failed me. I am still somewhere in the middle of this process. The power of moral influence does not happen overnight. And when I have dealt with this sinful pattern, there will be another one for the cross to transform. But Jesus' death drives the transformation.
One of my favorite Scripture passages combines the moral influence of the atonement with Jesus' resurrection and baptism:
What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus .
Here, baptism unites us to Jesus. Earlier, we saw in John 15:5 that the Holy Spirit is how we abide in Jesus. The Holy Spirit unites us to Jesus, and baptism begins this relationship. When I find the most success in battling sin, it was when I reflect on these verses and see that Jesus achieved for me the ability to say "No" to temptation, that baptism separated me from the temptation's power, and that the Holy Spirit gave me the ability to say "No". All I had to do was live in accord with the reality that Jesus created. The temptation is not so big or challenging in light of the cross. I am not on my own battling sin. Jesus already defeated it and, through the Holy Spirit, guides us to live free of it. Jesus is not merely an example but lived the life He is calling us towards on our behalf (see Part 1). He has walked the path for us and made it possible for us to walk it.
To sum up, Jesus' death impacts our lives and transforms us. It shows us how evil humans can be and where our sin leads. It shows the weight of it as Jesus bears the penalty for it. Yet Jesus' self-sacrifice to free us from sin, evil, and death shows us the depths of God's love. It enkindles love in us. We learn to love God in return and that love flows into our relationships with the other human beings God created. Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus' death turns us from our sinful tendencies and leads us to follow Jesus' pattern of love, not out of a sense of guilt, but out of love and gratitude for who God is. The only thing left for us in this series is to try to summarize everything we have learned so that we can provide one cohesive answer to the question, "Why did Jesus die?"
In the comments, how has Jesus' death transformed your life? How has it revealed sin in your life? How has it given you freedom from sin in your life? What areas of this model encourage you? What areas still challenge you?
 McNall, Joshua M. The Mosaic of Atonement: An Integrated Approach to Christ’s Work. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019), p. 185.
 For a fuller defense, see McNall, pp. 254-257.
 McNall, p. 253.
 Ibid. p. 257.
 Eph. 2:1-10 NRSVA.
 McNall, p. 261.
 Ibid. pp. 264-265.
 Ibid. pp. 317-318.
 Luke 23:34 NRSVA.
 Ezekiel 36:25-27 NRSVA.
 McNall, pp. 291-292.
 Romans 5:5 NRSVA.
 1 Cor. 12:3 NRSVA.
 This would be the ancient heresy of Pelagianism. See McNall, pp. 297-298.
 John 15:5 NRSVA.
 John 14:16-17, 20 NRSVA.
 Romans 6:1-11 NRSVA.