A Cosmic Moral Influence Theory: The Power of the Atonement for Sanctification in the Theology of Dallas Willard

[I presented this paper at the “Experiencing Life with God” conference last week at the Dallas Willard Center in Santa Barbara, CA (Westmont College).]

For this paper, I’m mostly attempting to synthesize and constructively build on

  • the first two chapters of the Divine Conspiracy, “Entering the Eternal Life Now” and “The Gospels of Sin Management”
  • The Spirit of the Disciplines, Ch. 3, “Salvation is a Life”
  • his discussion of divine retribution and hell in Renovation of the Heart

But more than any of these sources, the most succinct presentation of Willard’s understanding of the atonement that I’ve found is actually in an interview he did with Gary Moon for the Conversations Journal in 2010, so that’s largely what I’m drawing from for Willard’s thoughts in what follows.

To begin, I think it’s helpful to first briefly outline what Willard finds advantageous about each of the three major traditional theories of atonement, as well as their shortcomings:

  1. First, the Ransom Theory — The benefit of this theory is that it emphasizes victory, liberation, freedom from something, from sin, death, Satan… even from political or social oppression. The weakness, though, is that too much power given over to the enemy, however construed. God has to negotiate in a kind of dualistic arrangement, even if God is the greater power of the two.
  2. Secondly, the Satisfaction Theory (and specifically a penal substitutionary version of the satisfaction theory seems to be what Willard most has in mind) — appears to deal most effectively with the problem of justice. This is why it’s so attractive for so many. Anselm articulates a version of the theory most famously, but you can see it the Church Fathers as well, even in Athanasius. And of course, it’s biblical in many ways (arguably). But Willard notes that the penalty or punitive nature of this atonement theory is exactly the part of it that creates a problem, namely, because it makes God out to be the one who does not have to forgive. Just as much, as we all have probably seen especially in some of its cruder and popularize forms, it tends to divide and separate the agency, character and personality of the Father and the Son from each other so much that they seem like different Gods. Willard insists, however, that every theory can (and should) be substitutionary, not just this one, but not necessarily substitutionary in only a vicarious way. I’ll come back to this.
  3. Thirdly, there is the Moral Influence Theory — which invites us to participate in and see Jesus’s life as exemplary for our own. This is its greatest strength and appeal. Conversely, though, in terms of its weakness, the moral influence theory often divorces Jesus from his christological and cosmic significance and divine or incarnational nature as the second person of the Godhead. Christologies like those of Schleiermacher, for instance, follow this pattern and become adoptionistic at best, and almost always lacks a robust faith in the resurrection. In other words, God is not the one who goes to the cross for our sake any more, but rather, Jesus as God’s elect human goes to the cross for our behavioral instruction and perhaps inspiration — while Willard, by contrast, obviously maintains that, on the cross, God is doing something for us that we cannot do for ourselves, and enabling a kind of life which, apart from his power, we could not live.

Now, Willard is careful to make clear that no one theory says it all, and all of them belong and are faithful so far as they go. He also believes that problems arise when people cling to them too tightly in an effort to grasp what cannot be grasped. We simply do not know exactly how the atonement works. Willard says. It is a mystery, and he’s quite adamant about this. Christians believe in the objective truth that somehow, Christ died for us, and for our sins, according to the Scriptures, but that this is not meant to be fully understood.

Nevertheless, it is actually the moral influence theory that I wish to claim is Willard’s preferred model for how we should understand the atonement — not a moral influence theory in the liberal Protest sense, but a robust, cosmic, incarnational, Trinitarian, participatory and even substitutionary moral influence theory. Instead of penal substitution, Willard’s conception of what Christ is doing for us in his death is a participatory or invitational substitution. In Christ, God does what we can’t, and for our salvation, but not to save us from the cross as a punishment per se, but rather, to empower us precisely for a life of cross-bearing.

And here one might think of Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship, with his assault on cheap grace, for example, but I think Willard is actually doing something a bit different from Bonhoeffer — and the difference is important, especially for how we imagine and live into the journey of sanctification (although it’s worth mentioning that Bonhoeffer likely matured and changed in his thinking about this by the time he was writing in prison).

Here’s what Willard says in the second chapter of The Divine Conspiracy about the problem with accusing people of relying on cheap grace:

Many are distressed about this disjunction between faith and life, but they remain firmly pinned to it by their ideas about salvation. Many others are angry about such a view of being Christian because to them it seems irresponsible. They contemptuously refer to it as “cheap grace” or fire insurance. Some people actually reject Christianity because of it, while others insist that faith in Christ is a matter of righteous living in the social arena, standing up against social evils in behalf of love and justice. But, to be quite frank, grace is cheap from the point of view of those who need it. This is why attacks on cheap grace never make much difference. To try to rule out unheroic Christianity by making grace expensive will only add to confusion about matters of vast importance…

The quote comes in the context of what Willard previously refers to as a “bar code” view of the way God sees us now that Christ has vicariously died for us. On the contrary, if the “bar code” view of the atonement is that God now sees us as if we have not sinned (even while we continue to often shamefully and secretly manage our sin — i.e., Willard’s famous notion of the “gospel of sin management”), Willard contends that God in fact still meets us and sees exactly where we are in our sin and gives us the power, through Jesus’s incarnation, life death and resurrection, to join him in cruciformity so as to become free by God’s grace from that sin — every minute and hour of every day. I think of the metaphor he used once in an interview with John Ortberg talking about saints as those for whom grace is like jet fuel to a 747 at takeoff. Saints, paradoxically, burn and use much more grace than sinners do.

You know, another theologian who I admire and have learned a great deal from is Stanley Hauerwas. But Hauerwas is very fond of saying — even though he’s being deliberately polemical when he says this — that just about the last thing he wants Christians to have is a personal relationship with Jesus. And I get why he says this, and he certainly has a point! But I ultimately still disagree. Willard has helped me immensely in this regard. Because the intimate and personal relationship with God is what makes us feel safe to invite God into the darkest and most shameful places in our lives. There is healing power in the personal relationship.

So while satisfactionary theories may provide a sense of “justice accomplished” for some, they also can produce guilt-based motivation for behavioral change. Whereas, the kind of motivation operative in Willard’s vision of the atonement is the power that comes from not just a place of gratitude for what God has done for us — yes, this is still there and very significant for Willard — but also its power derived from, and these are my words, the beauty, lure and goodness of the life in the Kingdom of God that we see in Jesus’s example, and the Holy Spirit’s opening us up to encounter and live in to that kind of life. I think this is what Willard means when he says that salvation is a life, and that atonement is not just for justification — or that justification is more than forgiveness. As you all know, atonement literally means “at-one-ment,” or in this case, union with God in Christ by the power of the Spirit, and that’s a lot bigger than exemption from paying a price.

Thus, to conclude, I suggest that Willard’s working and practical, discipleship and formation or sanctification-based understanding of the atonement follows a cosmic — which is to say, based on the Creator God — participatory, Trinitarian, incarnational, and mysterious, moral influence model. Or, in short, a cosmic moral influence theory, that gives us the power we need for sanctification.


Originally published at William A. Walker III.