The sacrifice of Jesus at Calvary clearly represents an atonement for human sin within the Bible. This was prefigured in the Day of Atonement of Leviticus 16 and in the Suffering Servant passage of Isaiah 53:5-6. Aspects of fulfilment are described in the Gospels (Luke 22:19-20, John 6:53-54), in Paul’s letters (Rom. 5:8, 1 Cor. 15:3), and in the General Epistles (e.g. Heb. 9:12-14, 1 Pet. 2:24).
But what form does this take? Theories describe Jesus’ atoning death in various ways, but each needs to respond to common objections. Was it a substitution, given that He became sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21)? This causes some to question the nature of God’s love which then needs to be balanced with an understanding of his holiness. Was it a ransom (Mark 10:45)? Payment for sin could not be made to the Devil, but payment simply needed to be made. Was it a moral identification with human suffering (Heb. 4:15)? This view needs also to be balanced with the problem of human guilt. Was it primarily a victory over death (Col. 2:15)? If so, that victory needs fuller explanation.
The simple solution is to see that all these partially valid descriptions of the atonement are incomplete on their own. They all add a biblically-affirmed point of understanding. The substitutionary theory, though, has fallen into disfavour by some who reject the idea of a penalty being imposed on Christ. Nevertheless, Old Testament stories, such as the Genesis 22 substitution of a ram for Isaac’s life, serve as a clear typology, and such use of these stories is validated in 1 Cor. 10:6,11. God is fully loving, but is also fully just, and his justice demands a price be paid for sin in order to conquer death. Jesus could minister God’s love by taking the punishment we deserved, thus satisfying the holiness of a perfect God by being a sinless and like-for-like substitute. This is an important viewpoint which is usually misunderstood rather than truly being invalidated.
Harmonising biblically-based views enriches many elements of biblical teaching. It sometimes also assists in addressing points of theological tension. (Consider its possible usefulness in addressing matters of eschatology to at least some degree). As tempting as it is to apply this approach more widely, this methodology will not always be equally relevant. For starters, not all theories or opinions on biblical doctrines can be validated, and some may be contradictory. Perhaps, though, the key to understanding truth is in deepening the basis for any viewpoints we hold and in then discussing these in an informed manner, and open-mindedly – sometimes with people who disagree.
Conversations that sharpen our understanding of why we believe what we do are surely most beneficial. Theological differences within orthodoxy enrich and stretch us for a sharper and more fruitful ministry.