Reading Systematic Theology with Wayne Grudem – Was it necessary for Christ to die? Did Christ’s entire earthly life earn any saving benefits for us? The cause and nature of the atonement. Did Christ descend into hell?

This post is part of a 50+ post series from the classic work by Wayne Grudem (PhD, Cambridge), Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. The aim of each post is to provide an overview of each chapter in the book and related resources for each topic.

Synopsis of Chapter

In his chapter on the atonement, Wayne Grudem defined it as “the work Christ did in his life and death to earn our salvation.” In essence, it was the way God saved people through the death of his Son, Jesus. 

Grudem covers several aspects of the atonement including the cause and necessity of the atonement. There is an extended section on the nature of the Evangelical understanding of the atonement. In addition, he reviews other views on the atonement that others accept instead of the traditional and Reformed position. Grudem also includes a section of whether Jesus descended into hell following the crucifixion. Finally, he reviews the extent and application of the atonement.   

The Cause & Necessity of the Atonement

To begin, it’s important to understand why God orchestrated the atonement. The primary causes were two-fold: the love and justice of God. In one way, God loved people and desired to save them (John 3:16). But equally important God aimed to demonstrate his justice by punishing sin in a substitute sacrifice (Romans 3:25). So both elements were at work in the atonement. 

But was the atonement necessary? After all, God did not save the sinning angels who fell during Satan’s rebellion (2 Peter 2:4). So it is clear God did not have to save anyone. And yet, because of his great love for human sinners he saved some.

It also seems the atonement could not be accomplished any other way. In other words, God could not have just forgiven sinners without punishing a surrogate or else he would be considered just. Similarly, he could not have seen the sacrifice of a lamb or a cat as sufficient, because nothing else was of like-kind as a human (Matthew 26:39). Instead, only a human being would be the same kind as other human beings and only God could have accomplished this glorious work in the God-man, Jesus Christ.  

The Nature of the Atonement

There are two aspects of the atonement that are applied to believers in Jesus: Christ obedience for us in fulfilling the requirements of the law and Christ sufferings for us in death.

In the first aspect, Christ obeyed the law perfectly for us. Sometimes called his “active obedience,” Jesus fulfilled all the requirements of the old covenant (Matthew 3:15). And since Jesus fulfilled those requirements, those who have faith in him will receive the benefits of that righteousness. Paul said, “for as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” (Romans 5:19).

In the second aspect, Jesus suffered and died for us. Sometimes called his “passive obedience”, Christ suffered to pay the penalty for our sins. There are several ways Jesus suffered and died for believers. 

  • Christ suffered throughout his life.
    Isaiah called him a “man of sorrows” (Isaiah 53:3). 
  • Christ suffered a horrendous death in a Roman crucifixion.
    Mark tells us, “and they crucified him.” (Mark 15:24).
  • Christ suffered in bearing the sins of his people.
    Isaiah said, “and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6).
  • Christ suffered in being abandoned by God.
    Matthew records, “Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”(Matthew 27:46).
  • Christ suffered by bearing the wrath of God.
    Paul tells us Jesus was the one “whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood” (Romans 3:25). ‘Propitiation’ means something that appeases the wrath of God.

There are other elements that Scripture reveals about the atonement. For one, God required the punishment. Not Satan. Not other people. God himself “put him to grief” (Isaiah 53:10). Second, the atonement was final. As Jesus was dying, he declared “it is finished” (John 19:30). No other payment would need to be made. Third, Christ’s death should be considered as “penal substitution.” In this way, Jesus took on the penalty (penal) of sin in our place (substitution) so we would not have to pay the penalty ourselves in eternal hell. 

Other Views of the Atonement

There are several other views of the atonement that have held sway throughout church history. Each has been taught by various teachers, but none have been held as expansively as “penal substitution.” 

For one, the “Ransom to Satan Theory”’ suggests that Jesus paid to redeem believers from Satan. This concept has no direct Scriptural support. Another theory, the “Moral Influence Theory” describes the atonement as a teaching example to draw from us a grateful response, not as a substitution for sins. A similar theory, the “Example Theory” teaches that Jesus shows how we should trust God as he did. A final theory, the “Governmental Theory” argues that laws were broken and someone needed to die to show God was serious about sin. All of these alternative theories deny the direct penal substitution of the atonement that the Scriptures teach in many passages (1 John 2:2).

Did Christ Descend into Hell?

Part of the atonement relates to whether Jesus descended into hell after the crucifixion. The Apostle’s Creed, a post New Testament creed, teaches “he descended into hell.” This phrase suggests that Jesus visited hell immediately after his crucifixion.  As helpful as the Apostle’s Creed is as a summary of early Christian doctrine, this phrase about Christ’s trip to hell was not in the earliest versions of the creed. 

In addition, Biblical support for Jesus’ descent to hell is not concrete. For instance, when Peter preached on the Day of Pentecost, the King James Version of the verse says, “because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.” (Acts 2:27). This Greek word in this verse (hades/ᾅδην) could mean hell, but it does not have to mean hell. We must always weigh these less clear verses with other more clear verses when Jesus said to the thief on the cross, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Jesus, as a man, could not be in both hell and heaven at the same time.

The Extent of the Atonement

On how extensive the atonement is, evangelicals typically agree that the atonement is reserved for Christians. In other words, most evangelicals reject universal atonement, i.e. all people will be saved. 

However, they tend to disagree on how the atonement is applied to believers. In one camp (Arminian), they support the idea that Jesus died for the whole world, not just Christians (see John 3:16). In the other camp (Reformed), they support the idea that Jesus only died for Christians. So which is it?

It can be a difficult question to answer from the Scripture because of other verses that speak of God’s concern for the world, but it seems that the Reformed perspective edges out the Arminian perspective. In so many verses we see how Jesus died for a specific group of people, not everyone. 

  • Jesus “the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).
  • Paul spoke of the “church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).
  • Jesus loved “the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). 
  • Paul wrote how “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8).
  • And again Paul wrote to the church when he said, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written” (Galatians 3:13) 

Application: Jesus Died for Sinners Individually

In theology, we can get so wrapped up in particular verses supporting themes that the application gets lost at the end. So it’s important to step back and consider the reality behind these doctrines. In this case, we must remember that Jesus died for sinners (Romans 5:8).

If you are a believer, Christ died for you. It was a costly, painful, and yet personal death that had very real power to reconcile you to God and connect you to the author and source of life. While we were dead in our sins and estranged from God, Jesus died for us personally. This is a glorious truth resulting in peace and fellowship with God.  

“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:23-26)

Special Terms

  • active obedience
  • atonement
  • blood of Christ
  • consequent absolute necessity
  • example theory
  • general redemption
  • governmental theory
  • Impute
  • limited atonement
  • moral influence theory
  • particular redemption
  • passive obedience
  • penal substitution
  • propitiation
  • ransom to Satan theory
  • reconciliation
  • redemption
  • sacrifice
  • unlimited atonement
  • vicarious atonement

Resources: Wayne Grudem

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