This page is also available in: Español
Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
How are we saved? What is the moral influence view of the cross?
For centuries Christians have attempted to explain how Jesus’ death on the cross saves us. We call these explanations “theories of the atonement.” One of them is known as the “moral influence theory” of the atonement. I will summarize its content, its strengths, and, finally, offer an evaluation of it.
1. Summary of Its Teaching: There are slight variations of the moral influence theory, but among its central aspects we find the following ideas. First, the cross is understood to be the supreme revelation of God’s love. There, God identified Himself with us to the point of going through what we all experience, namely, death. Second, the manifestation of God’s love was so full that as a result we are transformed by it. That is called “the moral influence of the cross.” The voluntary death of Christ on the cross awakens in us love toward God; it changes our attitude toward Him and moves us to exemplify His love in our lives.
Obviously, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this understanding of the saving efficacy of the cross. Scripture attests that the cross is the most glorious manifestation of the sacrificial love of Christ toward sinners (e.g., John 3:16), and His death should move us to manifest the same quality of love in our lives. But some significant weaknesses in this theory limit its usefulness.
2. It Denies a Central Aspect of the Atonement: One of the fundamental problems of the moral influence view is that it rejects the substitutionary nature of Christ’s death. The idea that God had to kill the innocent instead of the guilty in order to save us is considered a violation of justice. Yet the witness of Scripture is that Christ died as our substitute (e.g., Isa. 53; Mark 10:45; 2 Cor. 5:21). In the atonement God Himself voluntarily assumed responsibility for our sin. This is a glorious manifestation of divine grace, not an injustice. Atonement is God’s work for us; it is a matter between Him and us. No third party is involved.
3. Narrow View of the Human Predicament: The moral influence view presupposes that the human tragedy of sin is located in misinformation about God. We do not need deliverance from the power of sin, but from our ignorance about His loving character. Humans, it is argued, view God as a tyrant who imposes on them arbitrary demands and disciplines them. The cross saves by changing their understanding of God. Such opinion does not square with the biblical view of sin and its impact on humans. Sin is intentional rebellion against God, which has separated us from Him. It is not simply solved by a change in us (a subjective atonement), but by a divine intervention that removes barriers and brings reconciliation (objective atonement).
4. Separation of Judgment From Love: When the atonement is circumscribed to God’s work in us, His judgment against sin is considered incompatible with His love. This, as we have argued on other occasions, makes love a synonym for divine indifference. Judgment against sin means that God takes our actions seriously because He cares about us. But more than that, it means that He was willing and able to assume that judgment against us on the cross. God’s wrath is an expression of divine love; it reveals a God who cares for us to the point of showing us how painful sin is for Him.
5.Love and the Cross: Perhaps the fundamental question is how the cross reveals love. The moral influence theory argues that it shows love in that Christ, the Innocent, died there identifying Himself with us; but not dying in our place. But many other persons died on crosses. Why is the cross of Christ a revelation of the love of God, but not the others? Yes, the Sinless One died there, but there is more. He died for sinners to save them through His atoning sacrifice (Rom. 5:8; 1 John 4:10).
Christ’s death is indeed the greatest revelation of God’s love because on it “God was reconciling the world to Himself … not counting men’s sins against them,” but rather making “him who had no sin to be sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:19-21, NIV).