Was the Atonement Really Necessary?

Was Christ’s Atonement Necessary?

The following is the first part of a two-part post on the first chapter of a book by John Murray called Redemption Accomplished and Applied.


Dr. Murray was a Scottish theologian and a long-time professor of theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA. Murray is remembered as being one of the outstanding theologians of the 20th century. Murray’s work in ‘Redemption’ is a gold mine for a thinking Christian.

Chapter 1 of Redemption discusses the necessity of the atonement.  Was it absolutely necessary that the Son of God should have to suffer and die, or was it God’s pleasure to purchase our salvation in this manner for other reasons? Could God have accomplished our salvation apart from the suffering and death of His Son?

This might at first seem a trivial philosophical puzzle with no practical import to Christian life and doctrine, but as I try to demonstrate below, the answer to this question can have a profound impact on all of our view of salvation.  The cross is central to the Christian message, so our understanding of the nature of that central element has a profound impact on what we believe about God and life.

The Loving Nature of God

In our study of the will (see Luther’s Bondage of the Will), we’ve learned that human beings make decisions based on their will, and that will is necessarily bound (John 8:34 – ‘slave of sin’) by nature (human nature is a ‘sin nature’).  The reason sinners sin, for example, is because sinners are born with a ‘sinful nature’.  What is the nature of God?  We cannot know God’s nature, because we cannot understand it.  We are simply unable to comprehend the incomprehensible (Rom 11:34).  So, whatever we know about God, we know by what has been revealed, explicitly and implicitly, through God’s revelation of Himself to man – the Bible.  We can’t fully comprehend God’s nature, but we can apprehend characteristics of God’s nature based on what the Bible teaches us.

One chief characteristic by which God has been revealed to man, in the context of atonement, is: Love.

He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.
(1 John 4:8)

Note that John teaches us here, not merely that God loves, but rather that God IS love.  God’s nature is love, so whatever God wills must be loving.

God’s Loving Nature –> God’s Will and Pleasure to Save

Although we understand it is God’s will to save, we must remember that God is under no compulsion to save anyone.  It is the very nature of grace itself that it cannot be obligated or deserved (Rom 11:6).  Murray teaches that despite the fact that God is loving, we must recognize that “it is not inherently necessary …that he should set such love as issues in redemption and adoption upon utterly undesirable and hell-deserving objects.  It was of the free and sovereign good pleasure of his will …that he chose a people to be heirs of God…” [Murray:10].

“[God] predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, To the praise of the glory of his grace”
(Eph 1:5-6)

From what we have learned about the loving characteristic of God’s nature, we understand that God’s love is the CAUSE of our redemption through Christ.  But, we must ask, why does that redemption have to come about by the sacrifice of the Son of God?

Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.
(Acts 20:28)

Was the Atonement Necessary?  Two Views…

Dr. Murray asks the question the following way: “Why did God become man?  Why, having become man, did he die?  Why …did he [have to] die the accursed death of the cross?” [Murray:11]. Historically, the church has provided two different answers to these questions: that of Thomas Aquinas, which view is by theologians called “hypothetical necessity” and that of Anselm of Canterbury, called “consequent absolute necessity”.

Hypothetical Necessity (Thomas Aquinas)

The view of Saint Thomas Aquinas is that God could have saved his elect apart from the incarnation, suffering, and death of the Son of God.  As God is Almighty and can do anything, He could forgive sin apart from such a blood sacrifice.  So why would God chose this method?  He chose it because it is “the way in which grace is more marvellously exhibited” [Murray:12].

As I thought about this view from the father of medieval Roman Catholic theology, I thought it may explain some confusing statement that evolved into modern Roman dogma.  For example, the doctrine that faithful Muslims, for example, may be ultimately saved by God, so long as they are faithful to what they understand about God.  How could anyone such a doctrine when the Scriptures so clearly reveal the absolute necessity of faith in Christ for salvation?  I think it is an application of Thomas’ doctrine on the atonement – it is not absolutely necessary.

“The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.”
– Roman Catholic Catechism, para 841.

Note: As an aside, this philosophy probably accords more closely with Jewish and Muslim views of God – that he can forgive sin, only because He desires to do so, without any penal satisfaction whatsoever.

This doctrine is also closely related to that of classic dispensationalists who believe that Christ came, ‘primarily’, to offer a temporal earthly kingdom to the nation of Israel.  Had Israel accepted the kingdom offer, the millennial age would have been ushered in and God would have converted all of Israel; presumably, apart from any effectual sacrifice of atonement by the Son of God. Clearly the classic dispensational view denies the ‘absolute necessity’ of the cross.

Another popular modern dispensational view can be closely aligned with Aquinas: the ‘age of accountability’.  This doctrine, which is totally lacking in Scriptural support, is a denial of original sin, election, the necessity of the new birth, AND a denial of the necessity of the atonement.  The theory is that if a person passes away before they are old enough to understand the gospel, they are ‘automatically’ saved. I’ve heard some argue, based on this tradition, that everyone is born in a state of grace and then falls away – a heretical denial of original sin.  Some have even gone further, so as to apply this teaching to ‘anyone’ not having heard the gospel message.

I’m sure there are other applications of this theory to Christian life, doctrine, and practice, but these three serve as example of how our view of the atonement can radically impact our understanding of the gospel.

The ‘Other’ View

In the next post, we’ll look at the view of Anselm of Canterbury. This view states that the incarnation, sacrificial death, and suffering of the Son of God was absolutely necessary for God to save His elect.


3 thoughts on “Was the Atonement Really Necessary?

  1. Pingback: Was the Atonement Really Necessary? - christianfamiliesnetwork.com - christian families network

  2. Pingback: Was the Atonement Really Necessary? (part 2) « Abraham's Seed

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