Theory of the atonement that I would like to discuss first is the Moral Influence Theory. Briefly stated this theory describes the purpose of Jesus’ life and death as being an example set forth for us to follow. Those who promote this theory tend to emphasize the love of God that is demonstrated in the death of Christ and that radical obedience to God is likely to bring us into conflict with the rulers of this world and yet we are still to be obedient, obedient even unto death.
The idea that Christ is our example is clearly taught in Scripture. Jesus Himself tells us to take up our cross and follow Him. 1 John 3:2 says “we know that when He appears we shall be like Him.” We are also told in Romans 8:29 that “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son”. It is God’s purpose from the foundation of the world that we be made like His Son, Jesus. In His suffering, He sets a pattern and example for us to follow “Christ suffered for us, leaving us an example, that we should follow in His steps… When he was reviled He did not revile in return” 1 Peter 2:21,23.
These are all wonderful truths that, if we allow them to take root in our hearts, will transform us. If we take seriously the call to be imitators of Christ, we will humble ourselves as He did (Phil. 2:3-8), we will serve one another as He did (John 13:12-15), we will endure suffering with patience as He did (1 Thess. 1:6), and we will walk in love as He did (Eph. 5:1-2). It is a high and holy calling that raises our eyes from the world around us and fixes them squarely on Christ, in whom we find joy unmatched by anything else in existence.
Yet, there are those who promote this theory to the exclusion of the others. While, on it’s surface, this understanding of the atonement is in no way contradictory to other theories, some stress that Jesus was just an example and nothing more. Jesus did not in any way pay for our sins or restore honor. According to them, man is not forgiven because of anything that Jesus did but because of what we do. If we begin following Jesus’ example then God will forgive us. Our own righteousness is what saves us. But anyone who argues for such an understanding of this theory is preaching a form of Pelagianism.
For those who hold exclusively to this theory and specifically deny others, there is also the question of the uniqueness of Christ. If all we needed was an example then isn’t it unnecessary for Christ to come? We have many examples of righteous lives. Look at John the Baptist’s life. He too was utterly obedient to God, even to the point of death. Is his life and death atoning for us? And if not, why not, when all we needed was an example? Sadly, many would deny that Christ is necessary and would argue that good examples among other religions are also atoning for people following that religion.
But, if we intend to affirm the whole council of God given to us in the Scriptures then we cannot possibly agree these ideas. Jesus says “No one comes to the Father except through me” John 14:6. Clearly, “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” Acts 4:12. This is because, as Scripture clearly states, Jesus did do something on the cross that no else can do. He is our passover lamb, dying in our place (1 Cor. 5:7).
Attempts to cut this theory off from the rest, fail primarily because to do so is to deny major themes in Scripture. However, coupled with the other theories this one highlights aspects of Jesus’ life and death that are important to us to keep before us and that strengthen us in our own times of trial. “Since, therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking” 1 Pet. 4:1. We can have courage, knowing that we are not abandoned and that “we do not have a great high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” Heb. 4:15. Jesus knows your struggles and, in love, rescues us from death, that in Him our joy may be complete.