My goal in this short essay is not to deny the idea that Jesus procured some immediate thing with his atonement. However, I do want to push back against what I believe is an extremely harmful notion many hold in regard to the death of Jesus - the notion that his death absolutely had to procure something in order to be worthwhile. Some Christians understandably want to protect the importance of Jesus and his work, and they believe that a theology such as the Moral Influence Theory of the atonement undermines the work of Jesus. This MIT declares that Jesus didn't owe Satan or God anything, but died only as a positive example for future Christians. Such a notion is abhorrent to many Christians today who believe that the MIT would take away the power, importance, and necessity of Jesus's work.
While I don't adhere to the Moral Influence Theory alone, I do think that moral influence is an extremely important part of the work of Jesus. Unfortunately, because so many Christians want to protect one facet of the atonement which they think is central, they are willing to pendulum swing and deny the importance of the moral example Jesus was setting for us in his work of cross. It is my goal in the rest of this piece convince you of the importance of holding moral influence as one vital facet of your atonement theology.
In order to defend the idea of the cross as moral influence, I think one must first understand why the MIT is generally looked down upon by many brands of Christians. Many Christians take extreme issue with the notion that the death of Jesus was an example for humanity, with many relegating his death as a mere stepping stone – a pragmatic act – to procure our salvation. This dismissal of the MIT is done for two primary reasons.
- The MIT is viewed as humanistic in that rather than resolving some legal or spiritual issue on behalf of humanity, as does a PSA or the ransom position, the MIT often regards the power of transformation as lying within humanity’s hands. There wasn’t any problem outside of humanity that needed resolved for them, but rather they just needed a little boost of encouragement to do the right thing.
- The MIT is viewed as pointless because it doesn’t seem to procure any actual thing. Whereas on a PSA approach Jesus purchased our freedom from the just wrath of God, and under a ransom approach Jesus bought us out of enslavement to Satan, the MIT doesn’t seem to procure anything. It provides humanity with a picture of the potential they have within themselves, but it doesn’t actually resolve any of the animosity between humanity and God and/or Satan.
Addressing the Humanism of the MIT
The first objection to the MIT is grounded in how one views the problem of sin. Generally, a PSA, ransom, and Christus Victor approach to the atonement view the problem of sin as a relational problem with an entity outside of humanity. On PSA, there is a relational divide between God and humanity and on a ransom model Satan is an antagonistic impediment to peace. The MIT model, however, recognizes that there is also a problem internal to humanity. Taken on its own apart from a blending with other models of the atonement, the MIT can certainly be humanistic. However, when combined with other models, the MIT is integral to understanding humanity’s problem as represented in the curse in Genesis. Wasn’t the first evidence of the curse humanity’s recognition of their nakedness – a first looking to self rather than looking outward? While humanity’s dissonance with self isn’t our only problem, it is certainly true that we, in our selves are broken: how we view ourselves, how we interpret ourselves, how we self-deceive, etc.
While other models of the atonement may also be true, and likely are true, as sin fractures relationships wherever they exist – certainly the MIT is also valid. Isaiah tells us that our hearts our deceitful and we struggle to know even ourselves. Paul tells us that he does what he doesn’t want to do and doesn’t do what he wants to do. James tells us that wars begin because of evil desires within us. And John tells us that the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life war within us. Christians may all believe this, but what does the example of Jesus have anything to do with all this?
The book of Hebrews perhaps gives us our most clear answer, though we can find support throughout the scriptures. Hebrews tells us that we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, and it is this cloud which witnesses points us to Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith. While the book of Hebrews often points to the sacrifice of Jesus and what he procures for us through his role as high priest, it also frequently points us to Jesus as a co-experiencer and example for us. And it is through community – which Hebrews tells us not to forsake – that we see the example of others and are edified by them as they follow the example of Jesus.
Isn’t this in fact what the central command of the Christian faith is – to make disciples? What is a Christian but a little Christ – one who mimics Jesus’s example? Discipleship, or making fellow examples of Jesus, is central to what it means to be a follower of Christ. This concept is exhibited all throughout the New Testament, but perhaps nowhere clearer than in Philippians 2 where Paul calls us to follow the example of Jesus in the emptying of ourselves – in kenosis.
This means that the example of Jesus isn’t just some nice story, or a plot point in a story that gets us to the important stuff. The example of Jesus is what gives us our purpose, our orders, and our courage. Because Jesus experienced what we did and prevailed, we can have hope in trials and temptations. Because Jesus trusted God in obedience, even unto a foolish death on the cross, so I can trust that integrity and obedience will prevail in the end. The example of Jesus guides me and empowers me to live like him. To say that example isn’t at the core of the work of Christ is to deny that Christianity is about discipleship, that faith is divorced from works (or fruit), that integrity, hope and moral courage can be done outside of community, and that edification in community is not grounded in the crux of Jesus’s life.
The denial of moral influence as a significant aspect of Christ’s work not only undermines so many central concepts found in the New Testament, but it also reeks of Gnosticism. While Calvinists and Arminians alike would proclaim the importance of the Spirit in conversion and sanctification, they’d be fools to deny the importance of external influences. We know through wisdom literature, through neuroscience, through psychology, and through experience that humanity works on more than just a spiritual level. We work on a physical level as well. To argue, then, that the moral influence of a revered leader isn’t significantly influential in shaping one’s behaviors is to deny the physical and treat it as obsolete.
Addressing the Vacuity of the MIT
The other major reason for which the MIT is dismissed lies in its seeming vacuity. To those who hold to other theories of the atonement, it makes little sense why Jesus would go through all he went through simply to provide an example. On PSA, Jesus pays a price to obtain peace with God. He covers our sins and assuages God’s wrath. On the Christus Victor model, Jesus purchases us from the clutches of Satan. But on the MIT, what does Jesus obtain? He doesn’t actually obtain anything through his work. He merely obtains potential. His example could influence some to follow him and live holier lives.
On Arminianism the MIT isn’t that difficult to argue, since what Jesus obtains in his work in most of their theories is a limitless potential as well. But even on Calvinism which holds to limited atonement, the MIT can fit quite nicely alongside other theories of the atonement. I think this can best be seen in looking at one of Calvinism’s most highly touted books when it comes to an apologetic for why Calvinists evangelize: “Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God.” In that book J.I Packer lays out a case for evangelism alongside God’s sovereignty. He covers many different angles, but the pertinent one here is that God has chosen to bring about his ends by incorporating us into his means. He graciously allows us to participate in his work and uses our interactions to bring about good in the world. While God could just snap his fingers and bring all the elect to a saving knowledge of him, he instead uses us as his messengers to declare the message of the gospel which is the means to bring God’s elect to himself. God uses a message to elicit a desired response.
I think we get a glimpse of how something like this might play out in real life when we read Acts 27. In that passage Paul finds himself on a ship in the middle of a great storm. Yet as all around him are fearful and consider abandoning ship. Paul declares to them that nobody will die because God, through an angel, had promised that none should be lost. Yet not much farther in the passage Paul sees some men trying to sneak off the ship as they apparently don’t believe Paul’s declaration of salvation. Paul says to a centurion, “unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.” Now wait just a second. God promised that not a soul would be lost, yet Paul says that souls would certainly be lost without a particular action? Apparently the salvation of those on the ship was dependent upon their actions, but their actions to remain on the ship (or force others to remain) was dependent upon the message of guaranteed salvation which Paul gave. The message provided the courage and course of action that the men on the ship otherwise would not have had, and therefore was the very thing which led them to right action and salvation. Yes, they were saved by remaining on the ship, but they remained on the ship because God used a message to elicit this action.
Let’s think of this concept in light of our discussion on the Moral Influence Theory. While it might be true that on this theory the work of Jesus doesn’t necessarily procure anything in the moment, it’s not necessarily true that his example doesn’t procure the future actions of some/all humanity. Just like Paul’s message on a storm-tossed ship led to certain actions which God foreknew would follow from the message, so could it be if the work of Jesus was intended as moral influence. The life, struggle, temptation, suffering, and vindication through resurrection of Jesus could be a message humanity needs in order to provide them with the promise, hope, and moral courage they need to follow the example of Jesus and run to God. Just because the MIT isn’t transactional in nature and doesn’t involve immediate procurement doesn’t mean the theory lacks substance. We see God grounding his call for response and action in his example time and time again. Most famously, his use of the phrase “I am the God who brought you out of the land of Egypt” is a phrase centered around example. God frequently points to his character and his actions in the past in order to elicit a response of obedience and faithfulness in the present.
Problems with Jettisoning the MIT
Beyond the power of the MIT as a core theory of the atonement, particularly when coupled with other theories, I also feel it important to address some problems which arise when the MIT is either downplayed in importance or jettisoned altogether. The root problem I see in dismissing the MIT is consequentialism.
The moral ethic of consequentialism is, as I see it, the bane of Christianity’s existence. It is the moral ethic which causes the most moral compromise, loss of testimony, flirtation with the world, and loss of integrity. We excuse immoral actions as justifiable so long as they produce an outcome we deem to be a “greater good.” We may do evil that good may abound.
One reason Christians deny the MIT is because they think the atonement has to be actually and/or immediately valuable. When Jesus died, he had to have actually done something. He paid for our sins or he ransomed us from Satan. This ability to only see the value in immediate consequences is indicative of consequentialism. We can’t imagine that God would have sent Jesus to express his love for us simply because that’s who God is – love. Jesus’s incarnation and death couldn’t possibly have been enacted if it didn’t get God anything. He couldn’t possibly have done it just because it’s in his character to love enemies and seek and save the lost, right?
A downplaying of the MIT is, in my opinion, tied very much to a consequentialist ethic. All moral actions are transactional in some way and have to obtain a better result in order to be valid. Yet we know that such thinking is not only morally reprehensible, as it undermines the very definition of integrity (i.e. doing the right thing because it’s the right thing, regardless of consequences), but also because we see God perform certain actions only because they exhibit his character, and not because they accomplish anything. God’s patience with the Canaanites for 400 years is a prime example. God waited to judge them because God is patient and didn’t want to judge too quickly. He wanted his judgment to come at a point after which he had given them every opportunity to repent, and at a time when the justice of judgment would be clear. That’s just who God is.
We also recognize that our own personal actions are to be governed by moral rightness rather than our moral rightness being governed by outcomes. Perhaps the clearest example of this lies in martyrdom. The Christian knows that the right thing to do is to never deny Jesus, and this holds true whether our deaths and stories are ever known by another, or whether our deaths bring about the conversion of our murderers or not. We proclaim Jesus as Lord no matter what. To deny that God himself doesn’t follow a course of action simply because it’s in line with his character, regardless of the outcome, is to deem us more moral than God, in that God is always a consequentialist whereas we sometimes are not.
Perhaps it would be best to close with an analogy from a beloved depiction of God in parable form. I can't imagine the prodigal father's expectant waiting on the return of his son was dependent upon his patient longing and waiting actually procuring anything. He spent his time waiting and looking because that's what a loving father does. Likewise, I can't imagine that God's plan of the cross was pure and cold calculation enacted only because enemy love and a torturous death procured something. Rather, that's the lengths to which a God who is love would go to demonstrate who he is to win back those he loves. This question of how we ground the cross is vital to our understanding of who God is. I don't think God foregoes planning and calculation, but neither do I think planning and calculation are the core of what explains God's actions. Rather, God's character is central. That’s what is at the heart of the Moral Influence Theory, and I think jettisoning that aspect of Christ’s work leads us to some dark depictions of who God is.