Christus Victor

If you have ever wondered how Jesus defeated Satan on the cross then you could do worse than listen to Sinclair Ferguson’s lecture on “Christus Victor” at the Highland Theological college. You can find it on this page. In it he gives a superb defence of the penal substitutionary view of the atonement.

You need to be prepared, though. This is an academic lecture, and you may need to listen two or three times to get all of it, but I think it is well worth the investment of time.

Christus Victor

9 thoughts on “Christus Victor

  1. John says:

    Without wanting to be too pedantic, I have to point out that Christus Victor is hugely different to penal substitution as a model for the atonement. If Ferguson doesn’t make this clear then I wouldn’t trust what he says too far, I’m afraid.

    ‘Christus victor’ uses military language and imagery, with Christ winning the victory over sin, death and the devil, removing their power and effects.

    Penal substitution uses legal language, with Christ replacing us as the person who takes the punishment for sin. Importantly, penal substitution does nothing to remove the power of death, sin or the devil; only the way of satisfying them has changed.

    pax et bonum

  2. Stephen says:

    Interesting, but I really must stop blogging! I keep throwing things up which I need to defend yet don’t have time to.

    Forgive me if I fend you off for a while. I’ll try and get back to you later…

  3. John says:

    I know that the atonement is something of a hot potato within evangelical circles ATM, and I look forward to hearing what you’ve got to say when you’ve got some free time 🙂

    pax et bonum

  4. Alastair says:


    I am not sure that I agree with you. Penal substitution can, I believe, be regarded as an aspect of Christus Victor. Christus Victor is the primary theme in the biblical doctrine of the atonement.

    There need be no opposition between military language and imagery and forensic language and imagery. I look through Isaiah, for example, and I see these two types of language happily flowing together.

    History is a legal battle and a holy war between God and Satan. These are two ways of looking at the same thing. Satan wishes to bring the people of God under condemnation. God seeks to justify/vindicate them. This vindication takes the shape of action in history. For God to justify His people against the devil, He must intervene to deliver and establish them.

    When the people of God called Him to judge them (e.g. Psalm 7:8), they were expecting a concrete deliverance. This would be their justification/vindication. This would demonstrate that God acknowledged them as His people. Military deliverance is justifying.

    If God never acted to deliver His people there would be no declaration of justification. If Christ had remained in the grave He would have remained in the place of condemnation. Christ’s justification (and ours in Him) took the shape of conquering Death and Hades and bringing Christ up from the dead.

    God’s actions in the holy war against Satan are to be understood as judicial judgments and not mere acts of power. When the Father pours forth the fury of His wrath on His Son, Israel’s representative Messiah, He is making a judicial judgment, condemning Sin in the flesh of Christ. However, it is also a military victory against the power of Sin.

    When God acts in the holy war He must do so justly. This is how the legal battle element fits in.

  5. John says:

    I totally agree, Alastair, that the two are compatible – indeed, that’s partly my point. The two use different language to produce different images of the atonement. Neither is really accurate by itself but, together, they give necessary balance.

  6. Patrick says:

    I attended the local ETS meeting in Louisville, KY where S. Ferguson gave a lecture with the same title. I assume it is the same one being discussed here. In it Ferguson was addressing the view of “Christus Victor” as defined by Aulen in his famous book. I have not read the book but Ferguson’s lecture indicated to me that Aulen was opposing or at least undermining the penal substitutionary view by his view of Christus Victor.

  7. Stephen says:

    I should perhaps correct what I wrote in my post. Ferguson does not use “penal substitution” but rather “propitiatory substitution”. I am not settled in my own mind these are identical or not.

    In his lecture, Ferguson shows that there can be no victory without propitiation. Essentially he shows the answer to the question the early Fathers struggled with and failed to answer biblically, “By what means did Christ win the victory on the cross?”.

    I’m not sure whether you are arguing that the language used to frame the doctrine (Christus Victor/military or Penal/legal) has developed in the history of the doctrine and have therefore somehow become incompatible, or whether in the bible presents alternative views. I think Alastair deals with the latter pretty well, and shows that they are compatible. In my mind it is not a question of balance (a good liberal word, always used to weigh up “tensions”!) but of aspect.

    Anyway, Ferguson is well worth the listen!

  8. Stephen says:

    Sounds like a similar lecture. Ferguson does mention Aulen, though only briefly. I had never heard of him before.

    He saw both the Abelardian and Anselmian views as historical accretions and wanted to return to a much earlier view. So, yes, Aulen did seek to undermine the propitiatory sacrificial view.

  9. John says:

    “I’m not sure whether you are arguing that the language used to frame the doctrine has developed in the history of the doctrine and have therefore somehow become incompatible,”

    Not at all – I think that both are reasonable ways to try and understand the atonement; each has its advantages and disadvantages. The models are compatible largely *because* they use different language and imagery.

    “or whether in the bible presents alternative views.”

    The problem with the atonement, I think, is that the Bible presents us with a fact (Christ died to save us from our sins) rather than a theory. We then have various attempts in the NT to try and unpack this fact into its implications for us and also various ways to try and understand *how* it worked. (And the NT models – all of them – should, of course, be important for our own thoughts.) The important thing when trying to understand it is not to lose sight of the fact itself.

    “In my mind it is not a question of balance (a good liberal word, always used to weigh up “tensions”!) but of aspect.”

    I agree to a great extent – “balance” isn’t a way to arrive at truth but a tool to deal with disagreement. In discussing theories of the atonement, we try to build the best models we can, but always have to remember that they are simply models, and that all of them have faults or limitations. Other models can then help us to see past those limitations. Whether we call this balance or aspect is secondary, I think, provided that we are trying to achieve the same end of understanding what Christ did for us 🙂

    pax et bonum

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