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Analyzing the Atonement: Moral Influence Theory

Unlike our previous Atonement pieces, this one is going to be on the lighter side. The Moral Influence Theory doesn't real stand on its own in history. In most places it was combined with the Recapitulation Theory. However, in more recent modern days, the attraction to a non-divine Jesus and His "example for us" has grown.

In a very real sense, the Moral Influence Theory is the crux for the Social Gospel movement. As the church stands against the Moral Influence Theory, "our Jesus" will become increasingly rejected. The Moral Influence Theory is not a typical "book chapter verse" argument. Instead, it is just a large scope perspective on Christ's teaching.

Gospel Teaching

The major point in the Moral Influence Theory is the teaching of Jesus Christ. Outside of a few scant references by John the Baptist about Jesus "being the lamb of God", the Gospels seemingly project Jesus Christ as a straightforward morality teacher. While this may be rejected in theory by the conservative church, it is accepted in exegetical practice.

Throughout much of church history, Jesus Christ has been seen outside of His religious context. This has led many to see Christ's teachings as timeless principals that are examples for the rest of mankind. Though Christ's teaching is certainly applicable, it is only applicable as it relates to us "in Christ". Paul's letter to the Ephesians does a great job of demonstrating that the "social ethics" of Christianity (Ephesians 4-6) stem from the theology of Paul that finds its root "in Christ." Though the authorship of Ephesians is questioned by liberals who affirm the Moral Influence Theory, the conservative church should know better. 

This is why it is frustrating to see and hear casual churches teaching through the Gospels as if Christ is simply a proverbial "be practical" teacher. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus is in the lineage of John the Baptist as a "crazed prophet". He comes in the religious context of prophets predicting the eventual destruction of Jerusalem because they have not understood that covenant faithfulness includes the outpouring of covenant relationships. The "moral teaching" of Christ is part of judging and not entirely prescriptive. The modern church must recognize this.

Judgment on Works

This is section of the argument that will actually utilize specific Biblical texts. There are certainly some important references throughout the Scriptures that point to a judgment based upon moral deeds. Paul is not shy in his proclamation that there will be a judgment of our works (Rom 2:6-11; 1 Cor 3:12-15). One of Christ's greatest "eschatological" passages mentions works only (Matt 25:31-46)! 

For modern Christians who are taught "justification by faith alone,"  this can often be discomforting. The attempts to twist the text into saying something else have varied in their ridiculousness. The truth is that these passages all speak of a general judgment based upon our works with little to no indication of some "covering of Christ" or "substitution". Only a proper answer to this texts can fully kill the "influence" (pardon the pun) of the Moral Influence Theory.

Such an answer cannot be given here. In brief, these texts are often misunderstood as Paul wasn't a Jew. There is nothing in the Old Testament law that gives credence to the idea that man can stand before God in judgment based upon his moral behavior. The extensive holiness laws of the Torah make it clear that some form of purification was necessary for everything. To ignore the application of the Levitical sacrifices is to make Paul one of the least theological Jews in history.

What we see develop throughout the rest of the Old Testament is the continued revelation of how that sacrifice will impact the judgment. The judgment never changes and the imagery and description stay consistent throughout the Scriptures. But the standard remains the same and the provision found in God remains the same.


This theory has little value to the conservative church. Wrestling with it can improve theology but will never be a mind-altering new reality. The church should recognize its calling to mimic Christ and live in concern for the world around us. But we do not need to accept a full-blown atonement theory to accomplish it.

Editor's Note: This blog post was written in 2013 and would receive significant revision in both personal understanding and representation. Any e-mails should be directed to TorreyGazette@gmail.com.

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