Thank you Jesus!

What did Jesus do to save us?  The importance of this question is one that has a real possibility to be understated.  It is a question that has been asked for all of church history, and theologians have debated it for centuries.  The reason is because it is the eternal question with eternal significance.  The nature of the question lies within the very nature of the Gospel itself.  Within the scope of this paper we briefly look at how Gregory the Great, Anselm, and Albrecht Ritschl answered the question.  In addition a look into how John Calvin modified Anselm’s theory will be discussed, and a look at the Moral Influence theory of atonement looked at along with it must be rejected.

Gregory the Great was the last of the Latin doctors of the church and was the first Pope to use the phrase “Servant of the servants of God[1].”  He believed Augustine was the greatest church father and he applied the soteriology of Augustine in a synergistic nature[2].  Synergism coordinates the human will and divine grace as both being factors in conversion[3].  This played heavily into how Gregory answered the question presented.  To get the grace needed one had to be crucified with Christ.  This meant having an attitude of extreme repentance, doing penance, self-denial (of most if not all bodily pleasures), partake in the sacraments of the church, and do works of love[4].  He also started to formalize the medieval doctrine of purgatory.  In his view Jesus died on the cross for the sins of man.  Faith was needed, but man had to constantly show that he was in a state of penance.  According to Scholar Roger Olson, “His theology had the effect-perhaps unintended-of destroying any sense of assurance or security about salvation for most medieval Christians[5].”

A few centuries later Anselm asked “Cur Deus Homo?  i.e. Why did God become man[6].”  Anselm saw the atonement in a way different then the popular Ransom theory.  Anselm believed that, for the atonement to be sufficient, then Christ had to be human and divine[7].  In regards to this theory Paul Enns writes, “God chose to resolve the matter (of sin) through satisfaction by the gift of his son[8].”  Since the honor of God was restored through the sacrifice of Christ sinners reap the reward of forgiveness of sins through faith.

From Anselm and Gregory the Great we now turn to 19th century liberal Protestant theology.  One of the leaders in this brand of theology was an individual by the name of Albrecht Ritschl.  He said to separate Christianity from science and separated it into two basic truth claims.  The claims in question are judgment of fact and judgment of value[9].  According to Ritschl Christ saved us by giving us the Kingdom of God on Earth.  This is done by humanity uniting themselves in love without a teaching about Heaven, Hell, or the afterlife.  In essence Christianity, according to Ritschl, is reduced to a system of moralism[10].  His system could be summed up by saying that the sacrifice of Christ changed men’s moral attitudes and caused them to accept God’s rule in their lives[11].

As previously discussed, in Anselm we find the Satisfaction theory of atonement.  Since man sinned then a sacrifice had to be made by a human, but the whole human race is tainted by sin.  The only acceptable sacrifice was Christ who was fully God and fully man.  Through Christ honor was restored to God.  The Protestant reformer John Calvin looked to modify Anselm’s theory.  John Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, put forth the Penal Substitution theory of atonement.  This development stated that Christ died in our place, and he was punished where we should have been punished.  In regards to this John Calvin writes, “clothed with his righteousness, we can bravely surmount all the insults of the world: and as he replenishes us liberally with his gifts, so we can in our turn bring forth fruit unto his glory[12].”

What did Jesus do to save us?  Three individuals were looked at, and three theories were briefly discussed.  In regards to the theories of atonement touched on it is clear that evangelicals must reject the moral influence theory.  The theory is inadequate to describe the atoning work of the savior.  In regards to this the Franklin Johnson states, “The theory makes the death of Christ predominantly scenic, spectacular, an effort to display the love of God rather than an offering to God in its nature necessary for the salvation of man[13].”  In this theory Christ dies not to free man from the penalty of sin, but to bring about a new system of morality.  There is nothing about repentance, God’s holiness, God’s Justice, or God’s mercy in this theory.  The atonement and salvation are not a moral exercise because a proper confession comes before salvation[14].  Christ died for the sins of man, not to be a martyr for a morally superior society, though that should be a result of true conversion.

I now leave you with a few passages from scripture that help answer this question.

John 10:11- “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

Galatians 3:13-“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.”

Isaiah 53:4-6- “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.  But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray;     we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

1 Peter 3:18- “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.”

2 Corinthians 5:21- “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

1 Peter 2:24- “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.”

Jesus died for our sins and his finished work on the cross is perfect.  When we trust him by faith we are clothe in his righteous robe.  Thank you Jesus for this awesome gift that I do not deserve.


[1] Erwin Fahlbrusch et al, ed., Encyclopedia of Christianity, vol. 2, (Boston, MA: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 471.

[2] Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1999), 287.

[3] Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 3, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1910), 786.

[4] Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1999), 288.

[5] Ibid, 289.

[6] Fred Sanders and Klaus Issler, eds., Jesus in Trinitarian Perspective (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 2007), 157.

[7] Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1999), 323.

[8] Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2014), 334.

[9] Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1999), 548.

[10] Ibid, 548.

[11] J.D. Douglas and Philip Comfort, eds., Who’s Who in Church History (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale Publishers, 1992), 574.

[12] “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” Calvin College, accessed June 24, 2016,

[13] Franklin Johnson, The Fundamentals, ed. R.A. Torrey and A.C. Dixon, vol. 3, (Los Angeles, CA: Bible Institute Of Los Angeles, 1917), 68.

[14] Malcolm B Yarnell, The Formation of Christian Doctrine (Nashville, TN: B&h Academic, 2007), 191.

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