Recently, I attended a mainline church here in St. Louis and heard the children’s sermon in which the children were instructed that the cross showed us how much God loved us, and that Jesus shows us the right way to live. Nothing else was said: nothing about the atonement, nothing about what Jesus was doing there (except a possible inference that He was somehow setting an example of self-sacrifice) and certainly nothing about how we actually go about being like Jesus apart from emulating a certain niceness which is desired of all Christian boys and girls.
Louis Berkhof has something to say about this in his Systematic Theology (pg.387-388). He speaks directly to the Example Theory of the Atonement.
This theory was advocated by the Socinians in the sixteenth century, in opposition to the doctrine of the Reformers, that Christ vicariously atoned for the sin of mankind. Its fundamental principle is, that there is no retributive justice in God which requires absolutely and inexorably that sin be punished. His justice does not prevent him from pardoning whom He will without demanding any satisfaction. The death of Christ did not atone for sin, neither did it move God to pardon sin. Christ saves men by revealing to them the way of faith and obedience as the way of eternal life, by giving them an example of true obedience both in His life and in His death, and by inspiring them to lead a similar life. This view really establishes no direct connection between the death of Christ and the salvation of siners. Yet it holds that the death of Christ may be said to expiate the sins of man in view of the fact that Christ, as a reward for His obedience unto death, received power to bestow eternal life on believers. This theory is objectionable for various reasons.
- It is really a revival and concoction of several ancient heresies: of Pelagianism, with its denial of human depravity and its assertion of the natural ability of man to save himself; of the adoptionist doctrine, with its belief that the man Christ was adopted to be the Messianic Son of God on account of His obedience; of the Scotish doctrine of an arbitrary will of God; and of the emphasis of some of the early Church Fathers on the saving efficacy of the example of Christ. Consequently it is open to all the objections that militate against these views.
- It is entirely un-Scriptural in its conception of Christ as a mere man of exceptional qualities; in its view of sin, in which the character of sin as guilt, so strongly emphasized by the Word of God, is entirely ignored; in the one-sided emphsasis on the redemptive significance of the life of Christ; and in its representation of the death of Christ as a martyr’s death, while failing to account for the unmartyrlike anguish of Christ on the cross.
- It fails to account for the salvation of those who lived before the incarnation and of infants. If the life and suffereings of Christ merely save men by their exemplary character, the question naturally arises, how they who lived prior to the coming of Christ, and they who die in infancy can derive any benefit from them. Yet there is clear Scriptural evidence for the fact that the work of Christ was also retrospective in its efficacy, and that little children also share in the benefits of His atoning death.
- Moreover, while it is perfectly true that Christ is also represented as an example in Scripture, He is nowhere represented as an example after which unbelieving sinners must pattern, and which will save them if they do; and yet this is the necessary assumption of the theory under sonsideration. The example of Christ is on which only His people can follow, and to which even they can make but a slight approach. He is our Redeemer before He can be our example.
And so we see that some folks deal with the idea of infants being saved in this fashion by saying that children are born morally neutral or predisposed to good works. That’s a fair enough assertion, but what does one do with passages such as Romans 3 or Ephesians 2:1-3? Do some who would presuppose this view do so inconsistently, assuming a form of union with Christ for the believing and/or baptized child, but neglecting to think through exactly how such a union would be achieved…or even moreso, assuming the universal brotherhood of man, say that all are already united to Christ and therefore Christus Exemplar is all that remains since the idea of Christ as Redeemer is rendered redundant?
These reflections are mostly for me to more clearly conceptualize the Exemplar view. If I’ve caricatured the view at all (or if Berkhof has done so), I’d be interested in hearing as such. I don’t want to dismiss things I don’t understand.