The Moral Influence Theory of Atonement
In a book entitled Magnificent Obsession, a story is told of a wealthy, worthless, intoxicated young man who cared for no one but himself. He wasted his life in dissipation. Eventually, however, his life was transformed by a series of related incidents. While on a sailboat he was knocked into the water by the boom. He was rescued from unconsciousness by people nearby. They were told there was an inhalator across the lake that might save his life. They rushed there, returned with it, and successfully saved his life with that equipment.

Meanwhile, the owner of the inhalator, Dr. Hudson, had a mild cardiac arrest while swimming. His caretaker rowed to where he was, dived in for him, and pulled him out. He rushed to the house to get the inhalator, but it was gone. In desperation there was little he could do. Dr. Hudson died. This doctor was an important, influential brain surgeon whose life had been a blessing to many. His life had been sacrificed for the life of a worthless young man through a chain of circumstances. When the young man learned that another man's life had been sacrificed for his, his life was changed. He studied the life of Dr. Hudson. His life turned outward to helping others rather than merely pleasing himself. For encouragement he would always turn to the writings of Dr. Hudson.

This story does a fair job illustrating the moral influence theory of atonement. According to this theory, Jesus did not die to save anyone in a direct manner and His death did not satisfy the demands of law or justice. Rather, this theory suggests His death was a powerful example of how much God loves us and how much He hates sin. The moral influence theory affirms that the willing death of God's Son was the very best way God could make an impression upon sinful mankind. Some are changed by that impression, and, due to His example, they become the kind of people God would have them to be.

There is some truth in this theory. The death of Christ is an example according to I Peter 2:21 - "For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow in His steps." The cross does show us the amazing love of God in a dimension that is perhaps impossible any other way. The cross does have a powerful influence upon people for good. Jesus said - "And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself" (John 12:32). It is sometimes the case that the cross--and nothing else--is able to soften the hearts of certain sinners and bring them to their knees in repentance.

Let me hasten to state, however, that there are some significant problems with this theory. The crucifixion of Christ was more than just an inspirational example. His execution was more than a martyr's death. Throughout the centuries the death of other human beings has inspired and motivated others to accomplish great things. So, this theory, by itself, cannot separate or distinguish Jesus' death from other deaths that have motivated people to righteousness. It is true that the suffering of Christ should motivate us to godly living (II Cor. 5:14), but the moral influence theory does not explain how Jesus' death atones and why the deaths of other great men do not atone. What makes Jesus' death different? The answer will partially come in the other theories of atonement we will consider in our next two lessons. The primary problem with the moral influence theory is that it simply does not say enough about atonement itself.

Jesus certainly was an example, but His death has an actual effect upon our salvation beyond the power of a positive example. Rather than just a subjective influence, there is a real objective effect of the blood of Jesus upon one's salvation. If the moral influence theory were pressed too far, it would imply that salvation is by works of man's merit. It would suggest that Jesus' death was only the catalyst which started man in the right direction, but that it was man himself who saves himself by changing and living a reformed life. There is more to being saved than just righteous living (cf. Acts 10:1-6; 11:13,14). One final criticism of this theory is that it does not take sin seriously enough. It implies Jesus' death was not a punishment for sin that had to be paid. Instead it suggests that it was merely the best way in which God could influence man to be good.

We will consider another theory of atonement in our next lesson.