(Editor’s note: Several months ago, a friend of mine posted a link on Facebook to an article about Cristus Victor. I commented that I had written a paper about the topic when I was in Bible College. She replied, “So what were your conclusions?” I told her I would blog about it, because a two sentence answer would not do the topic justice. I apologize for the delay, and also that this answer may still be too brief, but here is my initial response.)
In 1930 a German theologian named Gustaf Aulen wrote a book arguing that the early church had a particular understanding of the atonement of Christ known as Christus Victor. In short, Christus Victor is the idea that Christ’s atonement defeated sin and death. Aulen argued that in the eleventh century, Anselm brought about a revision in the church’s theology with his substitutionary theory of atonement, which teaches that Christ’s death was a transaction by which God ransoms his people and buys us back from death. Aulen rejected the idea that all humanity was subject to Satan because of Adam and Eve’s sin, and therefore rejected the idea that the cross was necessary to ransom us.
Simply put, I think that this is not a case of either/or but of both/and. While Aulen brought back into focus the victory of the Lord Jesus Christ over Satan’s power, he missed the full picture of the Gospel. Does Christ bring us victory over sin? Absolutely! Is that the only thing that Christ’s atonement did? No.
The Bible clearly teaches that sin and death entered the world through the sin of Adam. The only one who can offer perfect atonement for sin – satisfying God’s wrath, leading to forgiveness and peace with God – is God himself, because only God is perfect, and therefore only God can perfectly restore the soul from the power of the sinful nature. Christ shed his blood to bring this atonement. He died to put to death the sinful nature, crucifying sin and making a spectacle of Satan. He rose again to give us new life, allowing us to be born again. He is no longer in the grave, and so death no longer has power. When we are found in Christ, we are born again into him. The power of the ascension is the power to say, “No,” to sin, because Christ Jesus has power and authority over Satan, having put all things under his feet.
Is the cross necessary to ransom us from the power of sin? Yes it is. Does the cross also bring victory? Yes it does. In fact, without the victory of the cross we would not be able to be born again. Satan would still have power over our lives and we would still be slaves to the sinful nature.
It is my conclusion therefore that the Gospel includes the theology of the penal and substitutionary atonement, as well as the victorious aspects of Christus Victor. You cannot have one without the other. It is also my conclusion that the church has lost touch with the true Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, and today only teaches half-truths. It has missed the power of the Gospel, and while claiming to belong to Christ denies him by its actions. There is no victory over sin in the church today. Why is that?