Atonement Wars: The Peace of John Wesley (by Wesley Walker)

Atonement Wars: The Peace of John Wesley (by Wesley Walker) December 14, 2015

Wesley Walker is a seminarian at Liberty University School of Divinity and an active member in the Anglican Church in North America. His personal blog can be found here.

In Christian circles, what Christ’s death on the cross accomplished is an oft debated topic. Generally, Christians fall into two camps.

On one side are those who advocate Penal Substitution. Proponents of this perspective argue that Christ paid the penalty in the place of sinners to satisfy God’s sense of justice. It is through this transaction that humanity can experience justification.

The Christus Victor camp, arguing against Penal Substitutionary understandings of the Atonement, claims that through sin, humans in their natural state belong to Satan. Christ, by dying on the cross, paid a ransom to the Devil. However, death could not hold him and he rose again, thereby vanquishing Satan, death, and sin. One of the weaknesses in modern articulations of Christus Victor is that its definition can change to mean different things to different people. The rudimentary definition above is the one that would be attested to by the consensus of Church Fathers.

The thing is, both positions offer valid contributions to a holistic understanding of the Atonement. A fantastic synthesis of these two perspectives can be discovered in Wesley’s sermon “Awake Thou that Sleepest.”

This sermon, first delivered in 1742, speaks mainly about the concept of regeneration. It is based on Ephesians 5:14 (NRSV) which states, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” While the sermon isn’t about the Atonement specifically, it is helpful in demonstrating Wesley’s understanding of the theological impacts which stem from Christ’s death.

The framework Wesley operates in uses four main images: darkness, sickness, Satan as a captor, and death. Darkness and sleep are used to mean the state of unregenerate humanity: “By sleep is signified the natural state of man” (I.1).

The second term, sickness, is common in Eastern Orthodox theology. This stands for the pervasiveness of sin, which is especially devastating when one is unaware of its presence, festering inside and preventing one from experiencing life as it was meant to be. The fact that Wesley appropriates the vocabulary of the Eastern Fathers shows his familiarity with that tradition, meaning he had intimate knowledge with their atonement metaphors.

The Devil as a captor is mentioned in I.3. “He [the Sleeper] says, ‘Peace! Peace!’ while the devil, as a strong man armed is in full possession of his soul.”

All of these themes lead to death, which is defined as an estrangement from God (I.8). “The natural man,” he claims, “does not receive the things of the Spirit of God” (I.11).

The only way, then, for the soul to experience life is to “hearken to the voice of the Son of God” (I.9). By responding to Christ, one avoids the “mighty tempest of God’s judgment” (II.1). The most logical explanation is justification signals the satisfaction of God’s wrath. This is especially true given the later claim (II.6), “Were God, while I am yet speaking, to require it of you, are you ready to meet death and judgment? Can you stand in His sight, who is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity? Have you put off the old man, and put on the new? Are you clothed on with Christ?” The outpouring of God’s saving work at the hands of his Son is that “Christ shall dwell in your heart by faith” (III.2).

What then, is the best way to articulate Wesley’s synthesis of the Atonement based on this sermon? Basically, the ubiquity of sin in humanity gives Satan a “legal deed” to our souls. The result of Satan’s ownership is death, probably because it is understood that all this stems from the rupturing of humanity’s relationship with God.

The only way for one to be rescued from this predicament is for Christ’s substitutionary death to be applied to them (I.9).

So in the end, this isn’t so much an either/or issue so much as a both/and. Wesley’s argument tracks quite well with Hebrews 2:14-15, 17, “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and set free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.”

Humanity’s sin caused separation from God (death) and handed Satan the title deed to our souls. In the Incarnation, Christ took on flesh and sacrificed himself which satisfied God’s wrath because our identification with the Devil and sin required it. There is plenty of room for both themes in orthodox theology and Wesley’s work is magnificent at demonstrating that.


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  • gingoro

    Yes! I have held both a substitutionary and a Christus Victor position for a long time as I felt it best represented what I read in scripture. It was helped by an essay I read a long time ago that said in effect: The great Christian words are not either/or but both/and. Also I have Eastern Orthodox friends, read an Orthodox blog and other Orthodox writings and this contact has broadened my understanding of the Christus Victor interpretation.

  • Casey Voce

    I guess my concerns are just the same as those of Anselm way back when. The ransom theory seems to count God and Satan as equal players under some sort of “Cosmic Constitution”. Christ defeats Satan by being a better lawyer.
    Obviously, I’m firmly in the substitution camp. What I’ve read of the ransom theory, I’m sure I’m not understanding. Are there any good books geared to people with these questions?

  • danaames

    “The Christus Victor camp, arguing against Penal Substitutionary
    understandings of the Atonement, claims that through sin, humans in their natural state belong to Satan. Christ, by dying on the cross, paid a ransom to the Devil… The rudimentary definition above is the one that would be attested to by the consensus of Church Fathers.”

    This is incorrect. The Greek Fathers did not believe that Christ paid a ransom to the devil. See St Athanasius’ “On the Incarnation” and St Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 45, from the latter a quote:

    “To Whom was that Blood offered that was shed for us, and why was It shed? I mean the precious and famous Blood of our God and High priest and Sacrifice. We were detained in bondage by the Evil One, sold under sin, and receiving pleasure in exchange for wickedness. Now, since a ransom belongs only to him who holds in bondage, I ask to whom was this offered, and for what cause? If to the Evil One, fie upon the outrage! If the robber receives ransom, not only from God, but a ransom which consists of God Himself, and has such an illustrious payment for his tyranny, a payment for whose sake it would have been right for him to have left us alone altogether.

    “But if to the Father, I ask first, how? For it was not by Him that we were being oppressed; and next, On what principle did the Blood of His Only begotten Son
    delight the Father, Who would not receive even Isaac, when he was being offered by his Father, but changed the sacrifice, putting a ram in the place of the human victim?

    “Is it not evident that the Father accepts Him, but neither asked for Him nor demanded Him; but on account of the Incarnation, and because Humanity must be sanctified by the Humanity of God, that He might deliver us Himself, and overcome the tyrant, and draw us to Himself by the mediation of His Son, Who also arranged this to the honour of the Father, Whom it is manifest that He obeys in all things? So much we have said of Christ; the greater part of what we might say shall be reverenced with silence…. (XXII)

    “We needed an Incarnate God, a God put to death, that we might live. We were put to death together with Him, that we might be cleansed; we rose again with Him because we were put to death with Him; we were glorified with Him, because we rose again with Him. (XXVIII)”

    The Fathers generally understood the ransom as being offered to humanity itself, in our state of death. When I first understood this, it literally took my breath away – wondrous! The quote from section XXVIII is all about God desiring our union with him, and refers also to how St Gregory saw Christ as the Type of Adam, recapitulating Adam, bringing everything into himself so that he can redeem everything. “What is not assumed is not saved.” (Epistle 101)

    I’m not going to argue whether Wesley truly did understand our problem as Satan having been given the “title deed” to our souls; I don’t really know his work. But if that’s the case, he did not get that understanding from the consensus of the Fathers.


  • Percival

    The Ransom theory is not the same as Christus Victor, and Penal Substitution is not the same as Substitutionary Atonement. It is quite possible to hold up Christus Victor and Substitution while denying classical Ransom Theory and the Penal aspect of atonement.

  • Aaron Lage

    I believe you’re correct… though it would be difficult to explain all that in one post. Well said.

  • Percival

    The Greek Fathers were quite right in opposing this kind of ransom theory, where the ransom is paid to Satan to get back what he stole. I believe that the ransom language in the Bible is best applied to Death (Hades, the Grave) which while not personal is sometime personified. (See Revelation 20:14 where Hades and Death are 2 entities)

    Theologically speaking, sin should not be uncoupled from death. Death is sin when it is full-grown. Many theological errors arise when we ignore the tight Biblical linkage between the two ideas.

  • Richard

    “The Fathers generally understood the ransom as being offered to humanity itself, in our state of death. ”

    This line struck me very sharply in that it reflects something very similar to Rene Girard’s Mimetic understanding of the Atonement – that the demand for sacrifice comes from humanity, not the Creator. It’s remarkable to me if this is truly the EO understanding of Ransom theory (I defer to you on this Dana – thank you for your contributions here)

  • danaames

    Happy to be of help, Richard 🙂

    Yes, it really is the EO understanding. That’s one big reason (of several) why I ended up knocking at the EO door 7 years ago, asking to be let in.

    I sometimes feel like I’m sort of a pest, beating the drum for EO so much – evangelistically, one might say… It’s just that I’ve found beauty and theological richness and depth there, all centered on Christ, that I never knew existed… I’ve been hanging around here for nearly the whole time Scot has had the blog – his kind indulgence keeps me coming back.

    Merry Christmas!