Atonement Theories

This is an ongoing study of mine, but for the purpose of communicating where I’m at with these ideas, what I myself accept or reject as an ‘atonement theory’- (which is an attempt to understand what occurred for us when Jesus died on the cross), this article is written. As is said, “Right believing leads to right living”- Joseph Prince, and so a proper understanding of the Gospel of the Grace of God is in the highest order, so as to no longer waste valuable amounts of time struggling with sin and the law, wandering in the wilderness. A proper view of atonement theory, and several of them are simultaneously true (or untrue), it is in our deepest interest to understand these things- and so in that spirit I offer this below.

Admittedly, it is currently only a skeletal structure and not a complete treatment nor definition of each theory- and is thus introductory, but I’m kind of expanding it as I dig deeper into each theory and it’s merits or demerits against scripture and tradition. 

Note: Governmental Theory, or Moral Government Theory held my beliefs for years, along with Penal Substitution Theory (which I no longer embrace), and because I so appreciate the work of Charles Grandison Finney who promoted it- I’m still working out where (or if) it fits in- so that section may be changed to ‘acceptable’, or reinforced- but right now it’s in the ‘rejected’ category.


1. Ransom Theory – ‘Paid to God’ as Irenaeus taught – as being bought back by Christ’s blood. But ransomed or redeemed from what? From:

1) the curse of the law (Ga 3:13),

2) our vain lifestyle or behavior (1Pet 1:18-21), and-

3) redeemed_to_God from all nations, from the earth, from among men (Rev 5:8; 14:3; 14:4). This last scope of redemption concerns us bodily, that is, in terms of resurrection and translation (Rom 8:23; Eph 1:14; 4:30)

But, to whom is the ransom paid? Not to the devil, as taught by some Patristics (Origen). But paid to God (Ps 49:7; 1Tim 2:5-6; Mt 16:24-26).

2. Christus Victor (or Dramatic) Theory– in that all evil powers were dramatically defeated at the cross, this includes sin, death and the devil, as well as the penalties and curse of the law.

3. Shared Atonement Theory (2Cor 5:14-15; Ga 2:20; Rom 6:6).

4. Recapitulation Theory (Irenaeus).

5.  Moral Influence Theory.

Both the Ransom Theory, Christus Victor Theory and the Recapitulation Theory are each considered ‘Patristic’- that is, as taught by the Church Fathers.


1. Ransom theory – ‘Paid to Satan’ as Origen taught.

2. Satisfaction (or Commercial) Theory – (Anselm of Canterbury, 1033-1109 C.E.). Which developed and expanded into….

3. Penal Substitution Theory (Evangelicals; Calvinists, 16th century reformers).

4. Governmental Theory (?) insofar as it teaches that Christ suffered for humanity in order that God could forgive apart from punishment while still maintaining divine justice (Evangelicals; Arminians; Charles G. Finney; etc).


1. The words ransom and redemption are based on the same Greek word λύτρον- lutron, and it’s related words: apolutrosis, antilutron, etc… and means ”  something to loosen with, that is, a redemption price (figuratively atonement): – ransom.” – Strong’s G3083.

2. The difference then between the ‘redemption theory’ versus the ‘ransom theory’ comes down to, not whether we’ve been ransomed or redeemed, but it is asked negatively, ‘From what or whom have we been redeemed?’- it wasn’t from the wrath of God. Again, positively, ‘To whom was the ransom paid’- it wasn’t to Satan. Compare the ‘Ransom’ versus the ‘Redemption’ theories listed above for the answer.

3. I’m doing further research on the governmental theory, as it partially rings true with me, not that Christ suffered as penal substitution, but it treats the governmental aspects of atonement, which the other theories either do not adequately touch on, or misrepresent altogether.


Helpful links to assist our discussions:

Invite Leon to Speak
Atonement Theories
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