Recently there has been lots of talk in some segments of the evangelical community about whether Christ died to save us from our sins or from the power of the devil. The argument goes that there are two theories of the atonement in Christian history and maybe in the New Testament itself. One is the penal satisfaction theory that says God’s justice demanded payment for our guilt and that Christ became a substitute to pay the penalty in our place, thus saving us from God’s wrath. The other theory is known as Christus Victor (Christ the Victor). It says Christ came to save us from the power of the devil. Christ did battle with the devil on the cross and freed us from his dominion. Some are arguing that we need to replace the penal satisfaction theory with the Christus Victor theory of the atonement.
I say there is no need to choose between them. Both are taught in the New Testament and in fact, they form one unified theory of the atonement. Yes, we are born under the dominion of the devil and we need to be rescued from him. But the power the devil has over us is our sin and guilt. We were turned over to his reign as the punishment for our sin. It is our guilt that binds us to Satan and gives him authority over us. Thus Christ died to rescue us from the devil, but he does that by paying the penalty for our sin as our substitute. Once we are forgiven of our sins by faith in Christ’s work on the cross, we are freed from Satan’s power, dominion and authority. We do not have to choose between these two theories on Christ’s work. They are one beautiful, glorious picture of the gospel. See Colossians 2:13-15
From a church history point of view, I think the Christus Victor theorists are right that their understanding of the atonement has not received its due emphasis in parts of evangelicalism. In powerfully preaching Christ’s substitutionary work, some evangelicals have neglected to proclaim we have been rescued from Satan by the work of Christ. The renewed emphasis in Christus Victor has been a healthy addition to Christian spirituality among evangelicals, filling out the New Testament testimony in our preaching.
On the other hand, I think some are promoting Christus Victor as a replacement for the penal satisfaction theory. They do not like a God of justice and wrath that must punish sin. They do not like the emphasis on human sin in general. Instead of viewing humans as sinners, they want to look at humans as victims of external forces. Humans are basically good and have been trapped by the devil and thus need a champion to rescue them.
I certainly do think we need a champion to rescue us from the devil, but it’s our fault that we need rescuing and it’s only by dealing with our fault that Christ can deliver us. The rest of the biblical testimony will not support doing away with penal satisfaction. The whole OT sacrificial system that prefigures Christ’s atonement was put in the place for the removal of sin by the punishment of a substitute. Christus Victor adds context and depth to that theory but does not replace it. We must continue to embrace God as a God of justice who must punish sin, while at the same time rejoicing that he came to this earth as our champion to rescue us from our sin, and thus from Satan’s power, by his substitutionary sacrifice for our guilt upon the cross.