More False Atonement Doctrine: The Moral-Example Theory

This entry is part 5 of 13 in the series Pastoral Soteriology

(A continuation of the series, A Pastoral Soteriology.)

Jesus noted, “wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it (Mat 7:13).  To that end, it should be no surprise that there are so many erroneous theological theories in relation to each properly determined and biblical one.  Continuing the pursuit of a good and valid atonement theory, today’s post once again yields only a failed attempt which resembles nothing more than man recasting God in his own image.

The Moral-Example Theory

The moral example theory was proposed by Pelagius (354-420 AD), himself an opponent of the concept of original sin, believing that sin was a matter of choice rather than an ingrained and universal affliction.  Pelagius further believed that it was possible for man to live a sinless life within himself.  His atonement “theory” certainly did not fall far from the tree.

A scriptural basis for Pelagius’ moral example theory is noted to be found in I Peter 2.

1 Peter 2:20-21 (NIV)
20 But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. 21 To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.

The essence of the moral example theory rests on the notion that sin is to be understood as a choice of mankind rather than a fixed condition.  While it is true that individual sins may be chosen or not, it is not true that the state sin itself can be elected.  Rather, as has already been revealed in this series, sin is an inherent condition of man which transcends his own will.  Man is sinful- despite his best efforts. 

Yet, Pelagius- and his atonement theory- are based upon the incorrect assessment that what man requires from salvation is more in line with the presentation of a proper model to follow than the restoration of a fallen nature.  The moral example theory, as one may expect, holds that Christ’s life and death were exemplary in nature rather than substitutionary and vicariously applied to man’s sinful account.  According to this theory, Christ inspires man to lift himself out of depravity and encourages him toward the right behavior which he is presumed to be capable of performing.  Jesus’ example in humility, righteousness and obedience unto death are sufficient in this theory to properly propel man into his own righteous stead.

This is a seriously flawed postulate.  It is not even close to a biblical model of Christ’s redemptive work.

While it is true that Jesus’ life was an example to those who follow him, scripture in no way affirms – or even hints- that man is capable to lift himself up by his bootstraps.  In fact, scripture emphatically denies such self-sufficiency.

Ephesians 2:8-9 (NIV)
8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God– 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.

Clearly, it is “not from yourselves” that one finds salvation, but rather through faith in what Christ has done on behalf of man.  It was his work, not our own, which sufficiently satisfies God’s demand for justice and renders his wrath toward sin as having been expiated. 

In short, this theory of atonement does nothing to deal with the true issue of salvation.  One is saved from something, as noted earlier.  He is saved from sin and from the penalty of sin.  There is no moral example available – including that of Christ- which can reverse the course of history and render a man’s sinful actions from the past as if they had never occurred.  This justification comes only through punitive means.  It was Jesus vicarious death on the cross which removed sins and satisfied God’s righteous justice, not his example of good living.

Paul notes,

Romans 3:25 (NIV)
25 God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished–

If the moral example theory had any merit, Romans 3:25 would have none.  Clearly, Paul notes that the sins committed beforehand must be paid.  Man does not simply “correct” himself and render the guilt of his past as forgotten.  Indeed,

Isaiah 53:5 (NIV)
5 … he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.

For sin to be rendered as justified, a punishment must be paid, or God is simply not just.  This is what Christ provided on the cross.  While  1 Peter 2:21 rightly defines Christ’s suffering as “an example, that you should follow in his steps,” it in no way indicates that one can simply model Christ’s actions and attain salvation.  1 Peter was written to believers who had already received salvation by grace through faith.  Christ’s exemplary model was presented to those who had formerly received redemption; it was not the course by which one was to achieve it.

The moral example theory offers nothing to provide atonement for the sins of mankind.  If this theory is followed as truth, the one who subscribes to it dies in his sins; regardless of how wonderfully righteous he may live from that point on.  His sins committed beforehand are left unpunished without the provision of Christ’s substitutionary blood offering.  His guilt remains.

Interestingly, although Pelagius was condemned as a heretic for his unsound theories, people today are flocking back to this very unbiblical system of reckoning atonement.  A popular mantra of the modern emergent movement – which largely subscribes to this very theory of atonement– is essentially that “being Christian is to be doing the things Jesus did.”  As Tony Campolo, a strong advocate of this baseless theology, claims,

When it comes to what is ultimately important, the Muslim community’s sense of commitment to the poor is exactly in tune with where Jesus is in the 25th chapter of Matthew. That is the description of judgment day. And if that is the description of judgment day what can I say to an Islamic brother who has fed the hungry, and clothed the naked? You say, “But he hasn’t a personal relationship with Christ.” I would argue with that. And I would say from a Christian perspective, in as much as you did it to the least of these you did it unto Christ. You did have a personal relationship with Christ, you just didn’t know it. And Jesus himself says: “On that day there will be many people who will say, when did we have this wonderful relationship with you, we don’t even know who you are. . . ” “Well, you didn’t know it was me, but when you did it to the least of these it was doing it to me.”
Interview by Shane Clairborne (online source):  (emphasis mine)

By grossly misrepresenting Matthew 25, Campolo is content to embrace a works-based salvation of “Jesus-imitation.”  Not only so, but he takes the liberty of setting aside the entirety of the remainder of scripture for his false premise, thereby elevating Muslims – who reject Jesus as God’s singular provision of atonement – to that of Christians who have heeded the words of Christ.  Did Jesus not say, whoever does not believe [in Jesus] stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son? (John 3:18)”  Did he not say “no man comes to the father but through me? (John 14:6)”  Did Peter not declare, “there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved? (Acts 4:12)”  Yet, this modern adaptation of the moral example theory claims that simply following the methods of Jesus – even while rejecting him as God’s unique provision for atonement – is sufficient for salvation.

Surely Pelagius would be proud.  His heretical teachings have resurrected in large numbers today, with everything from bad country and western songs to man-centric pseudo-theologians claiming that “if you’re good enough” you’ll get into Heaven; even if you were expecting 72 virgins to meet you at the gate.

The moral example theory – in its ancient and modern manifestations – is nothing more than a complete rejection of Jesus’ own words wrapped in a self-adulating container.  While scripture clearly calls believers to follow Jesus’ example, it should be noted that one is first a believer, and then a follower of Christ’s example.  No one will find salvation by the mere emulation of Christ’s works.  To all who presume to put the cart before the horse, Jesus made no concessions.

Matthew 7:22-23 (NIV)
22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

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