Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on the atonement.

The Scriptures give us a robust revelation about all that Jesus accomplished on the cross. As we go about seeking to categorize all of the various dimensions of the cross, we discover that there are both vertical and horizontal dimensions to Jesus’ work. The vertical dimensions are foundational; the horizontal are consequential. The vertical dimensions include Jesus’ defeat of Satan (Gen. 3:15; John 12:31; Col. 2:15), His propitiating the wrath of God (Rom. 3:25; Heb. 2:7; 1 John 2:2; 4:10), His atoning for our sin (Heb. 1:3; Rom. 4:7–8), His breaking the power of sin (Rom. 6:9–14), His securing the new heavens and new earth (Heb. 2:5–11), and His overcoming the world (John 12:31; 16:33). The horizontal dimensions include His becoming the example of self-sacrificial living (Rom. 15:2–3; 1 Peter 2:21) and His reconciling men to one another, thereby making peace for those who formerly lived in hostility with one another (Eph. 2:14).

When men pervert or deny the biblical teaching concerning the vertical nature of the cross, it inevitably leads to a false gospel. When men put horizontal aspects of the cross in the place of the vertical, it ultimately leads to a false gospel. We must diligently study the biblical teaching about the work of Jesus—especially with regard to what is foundational (vertical) and what is consequential (horizontal). We must also be students of the historical development of the doctrine of the atonement and its related dimensions. In this short series, we will consider the historical development and the biblical teaching about the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the cross in order to emphasize that the vertical must have precedence over the horizontal dimensions.

In the final decade of the eleventh century, Anselm, the archbishop of Canterbury, wrote his magnum opus, Cur Deus homo (Why the God-man?). Nearly a thousand years later, this work remains the seminal defense of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. In it, Anselm argued that the main thing Jesus accomplished on the cross—the thing for which the eternal Son of God became incarnate and was crucified—was substituting Himself for His people in order to atone for their sins. Anselm’s treatment of substitutionary atonement captures the essence of the biblical teaching on the atonement and set the standard for theologians through the Reformation and down to our own day.

There have been, however, numerous theologians who have challenged Anselm’s work and leveled attacks on the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. Some of these attacks have been quite forthright and others more subversive. While Anselm focused on the objective nature of the atonement, Peter Abelard—the medieval French scholastic theologian and philosopher—gave primacy to a subjective understanding of the atonement. Abelard taught that Jesus’ death on the cross was chiefly exemplary, “functioning primarily as an example of obedience to the will of God, or of Divine love, which inspires a response in the human heart of love for God that transforms the person.”1 Throughout the medieval period of the church, the Anselmic and the Abelardian understandings of the death of Jesus stood as the two competing views.

In the late nineteenth century, the German theologians Friedrich Schleiermacher and Albrecht Ritschl challenged the classical Anselmian doctrine of substitutionary atonement. What Jesus accomplished on the cross was, for Schleiermacher, nothing other than the mystical union of Christ and believers, effecting reconciliation. It was not that the Son of God satisfied God’s demands in the place of sinners, but that He “suffered with us in priestly compassion, and upheld his holiness and blessedness down into the deepest sorrow, even to death on the cross.”2

Ritschl went further by suggesting that “what Jesus achieved by his moral obedience was not some effect in God—a change of God from being angry to being gracious—nor did he bring about the redemption of believers from Satan’s power or from death. On the contrary, what he obtained was that all who, like Christ, make God’s will their own may in communion with him lay aside the sense of guilt, unbelief, distrust.”3 Liberal theologians and pastors have followed the lead of Schleiermacher and Ritschl in rejecting the satisfaction of God’s demands on sin and sinners provided in substitutionary atonement and embracing a variety of “theories” that might stand in the place of the Anselmian understanding.

In 1930, Gustaf Aulén, professor of theology at the University of Lund in Sweden, delivered a series of lectures that were later published under the title Christus Victor. Aulén took issue with Anselm’s conclusions, particularly Anselm’s rejection of the idea of Christus Victor—that Jesus paid a ransom to the devil when He hung on the cross. Aulén was zealously seeking to undermine Protestant theology, going so far as trying to intimate that Martin Luther held to a Christus Victor view of the atonement. Aulén ultimately appealed to such early church theologians as Origen and Gregory of Nyssa to substantiate his contention that Christ paid a ransom to the devil on the cross.

Interestingly, Anselm gave considerable treatment to the claim that Jesus had to pay the devil in order to free men from his power. Toward the close of Cur Deus homo, he explained: “As God owed nothing to the devil but punishment, so man must only make amends by conquering the devil as man had already been conquered by him. But whatever was demanded of man, he owed to God and not to the devil.”4

Anselm was, of course, referring to the victory that Christ gained over Satan as the representative of His people. In this, we see that Anselm believed that what Jesus accomplished on the cross was more than simply substitutionary atonement. This is instructive, as Protestants have sometimes mistakenly reduced what Jesus accomplished in His death on the cross to the work of substitutionary atonement alone.

Anslem was most interested in keeping the substitutionary nature of Jesus’ death at the forefront of the understanding of the atonement. He wrote, “Without satisfaction, that is, without voluntary payment of the debt, God can neither pass by the sin unpunished, nor can the sinner attain that happiness, or happiness like that, which he had before he sinned; for man cannot in this way be restored, or become such as he was before he sinned.”5

No matter how many voices tempt us to move away from the truth of the substitutionary atonement of Christ—either by explicit or implicit teaching—we must hold firmly to it as the central dimension of the cross. In the next post, we will consider in more detail the biblical teaching on the doctrine of substitutionary atonement and how it satisfies God’s just demands.

This article first appeared at TableTalk and is posted here with permission of the author.

  1. Steven R. Cartwright, Abelard’s Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2011), 44n175. ↩︎
  2. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 3, Sin and Salvation in Christ, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2006), 353. ↩︎
  3. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 3:354–55. ↩︎
  4. Anselm, Cur Deus Homo (Oxford, England: John Henry and James Parker, 1865), 112. ↩︎
  5. Anselm, Cur Deus Homo, 42. ↩︎