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John Murray:

Redemption from sin cannot be adequately conceived or formulated except as it comprehends the victory which Christ secured once for all over him who is the god of this world, the prince of the power of the air . . .

[I]t is impossible to speak in terms of redemption from the power of sin except as there comes within the range of this redemptive accomplishment the destruction of the power of darkness.

(Redemption--Accomplished and Applied, p. 50)

Colossians 2:14-15 is a key verse in this regard.

Paul lists two results of Christ’s work on the cross: (1) Christ disarmed the rulers and authorities, and (2) he publicly shamed them.

How? By triumphing over them in himself.

So how does Christ bearing God’s wrath for sinners, taking their sin as a substitute, constitute a victory over Satan?

George Smeaton (1814-1889), Professor of Exegetical Theology at New College, Edinburgh, provides the answer.

Sin was (1) the ground of Satan's dominion, (2) the sphere of his power, and (3) the secret of his strength; and no sooner was the guilt lying on us extinguished, than his throne was undermined, as Jesus Himself said (John 12:31). When the guilt of sin was abolished, Satan's dominion over God's people was ended; for the ground of his authority was the law which had been violated, and the guilt which had been incurred. . . .

[A]ll the mistakes have arisen from not perceiving with sufficient clearness how the triumph could be celebrated on His cross. (The Apostles' Doctrine of the Atonement (Edinburgh, T. & T. Clark, 1870), 307-308; my emphasis and numbering)

In other words, Satan’s power is based on sin and guilt; Christ’s death meant the ultimate death of sin, guilt, and death itself; and thus Satan was ultimately defanged by Christ’s atoning work.

As Smeaton says, “it was on God's part at once a victory and a display of all God's attributes, to the irretrievable ruin, dismay, and confusion of satanic powers.”

So it’s not Christus Victor (Christ defeating his enemies) instead of propitiation (Christ bearing God’s wrath)–rather, it’s Christus Victor because of propitiation. Both are gloriously important, but only in that order.

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16 thoughts on “Propitiation as the Ground for Christus Victor”

  1. Josh C says:

    I believe you mean Colossians 2:14-15 (not 3). I just taught on this great connection. Also, Hebrews 2:14-15 is another key text that really connects these two. Without the issues of propitiation, Christus Victor could have simply involved God annihilating the Devil, no cross necessary.

  2. Justin Taylor says:

    Thanks, Josh, for the correction and for pointing to Heb 2, another crucial passage on this theme.

  3. pduggie says:

    It needs, though to be spelled out why “The wrath of God against sin” entails entanglement in Satans dominion and kingdom.

    Frequently, God’s judicial wrath is portrayed as a purely god-oriented matter: God is angry; God is at enmity with us until propitated. We should be afraid and condemned by the law.

    Why do all those things entail satanic oppression?

    And how does god’s decision to propitiate his own wrath relate to the oppressed-by-satan status we find ourselves under as a result of his wrath? Is he a righteous deliverer from our oppressor? Or a righteous deliverer…from his own wrath?

    It needs sorting out.
    But the why is propitiation important for solving an “oppression” problem w.r.t. Satan?

  4. Ryan Reynolds says:

    Thanks again my friend for the wonderful, useful, needful work you make available on this website and in general. I just finished with “Idols of Heart and Vanity Fair” by David Powlison, which extremely blessed and spoke to me. I love your insight, remarks, conclusions, and topics. It’s truly a remarkable joy, an expression of thankfulness, and resting comfort to know that you work in step with the Spirit to serve, help, and benefit the body of Christ. In the step with the Spirit, I mean, because the work you have had your hand in has been aligned with my life, circumstance, and spirit….”because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” Romans 8:27. Thanks for sending Mr. Kapic that email as well, much respect and appreciation towards him. Praise Jesus, God bless!

  5. Fred Sanders says:

    Exactly so. And as long as we’re talking Latin, let’s be sure to interpret Christus Victor as Agnus Victor, since it was the Lamb who did the conquering?

    (See Henri Blocher, “Agnus Victor: The Atonement as Victory and Vicarious Punishment’ in John Stackhouse, ed., What Does It Mean to Be Saved? : Broadening Evangelical Horizons of Salvation (Baker, 2002))

  6. Justin,

    Thanks for drawing attention to Smeaton. If only more readers knew of him and read his remarkable books on the atonement and the Holy Spirit.


    Blocher’s chapter is superb. Again, if only it was more widely known and read, I think it would go a long way in clarifying the matter.

  7. J. B. Hood says:

    “So it’s not Christus Victor (Christ defeating his enemies) instead of propitiation (Christ bearing God’s wrath)–rather, it’s Christus Victor because of propitiation. Both are gloriously important, but only in that order.”

    Awesome, JT. I think I say something similar to this in the latest WTJ.

  8. Justin,

    I have not done a thorough study of this passage, but at least at first glance the language of Rev. 12:9-11 seems to point this direction. In that passage the celebration of the saints’ victory over Satan is described. It seems telling that Satan is there described as “the accuser” — making a connection to the fact of the sinner’s guilt as the source of his influence over them.

    Even more directly it says, “they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb…” [which echoes what Fred Sanders mentioned above]. How else could the blood of the Lamb be the means of overcoming Satan/the Adversary-Accuser if not because of what the cross accomplished as propitiation?

    (And are there likely echoes of God’s redemption/rescue of his people, Israel, from Pharaoh — a redemption accomplished by blood and by power?)

    Doug Phillips

  9. Paul says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is one Stott’s main points in The Cross of Christ.

    That said, I can’t get my mind around this concept: “Christ’s death meant the ultimate death of sin.”

    I can understand guilt and death itself being being put to death through the cross. Sin, though? How did it get put to death if it is still in the world? Is related to the “already, but not yet” concept which would also need to be applied to the death of death and guilt?

  10. Jon Dansby says:

    Roger Nicole presented 3 excellent sessions at a Desiring God conference years and years ago. In one of them he gave a biblical screen through which an atonement theories must pass if it is to be “the one theory to rule them all.” He showed that penal substitution alone passes every test. Other theories present wonderful truths, but cannot account for enough to be a unifying theory.

    It’s fun (for theology nerds) to run each theory through the 4 questions. But if your heart is tuned rightly, it’s also a great exercise in enjoying the immense wisdom and power of the cross.

    Here’s Nicole’s screen:
    1. How does this view manifest the unity between the sacrificial system of the OT and the sacrifice of Christ?
    2. How does this view account for the fact that OT believers were saved through JC, whom they contemplated in the divinely ordained prefigurements? (A belief that cannot satisfy this question demands a salvation outside of Christ or that OT believers were not saved).
    3. How does this view give account of the sublime perfections of God that are in the atoning work of the cross? Specifically, His holiness, His justice and His love. (these words occur again and again in the biblical description of what He has done)
    4. How does this view account for passages like Isa 53; Mt 20:28; Mk 10:45; Rom 3:23-25; 2 Cor 5:18-21; Gal 3:13; Tit 2:14; 1 Pet 2:24-25, etc. This view, if it wants to be biblical, must account for all of these verses equally.

  11. David says:

    Fantastic post. I’ve been thinking about Colossians 2:14-15 for a long time, and Smeaton’s passage really helps me pull those thoughts together. Roughly same organic connection between Christus Victor and propitiation appears in Colossians 1:13-14: “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness (Christus Victor) and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

  12. Jeremy Treat says:

    This is a key distinction in avoiding the reductionism of atonement debates. Here’s a few thoughts:

    1. Interestingly, different people use this same synthesis (Penal Substitution is the how/means for Christus Victor) to argue for the primacy of either view. Blocher seems to say that Penal Substitution is primary because it’s the means for Victory. Whereas Hans Boersma argues that Christus Victor is primary because it’s the end of Penal Substitution. It raises the question: Does the Bible require us to declare primacy?

    2. How you define the problem will determine your view of atonement (the answer). Is the root problem our sin (which results in bondage) or is it that we’re in bondage (resulting in sin)? The latter reverses the biblical order, making humans victims of Satan rather than enemies of God. Robert Sherman is a recent example of someone who makes this mistake.

    3. Our understanding of how Christ reconciles “all things…by the blood of the cross” (Col 1:20) must include his defeat over the “domain of darkness” (1:13) and “rulers and authorities” (2:15).

  13. I think 1 John 3:8 ties Penal Substitution and Christus Victor together nicely: “The devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.”

  14. Dave G says:

    Another verse I would turn to in order to make the case that Christus Victor is a result of propitiation is 1 Cor 15:56. “The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law.” Those who emphasize Christus Victor (e.g. Eastern Orthodox types) often emphasize the cross as a deliverance from death rather than a deliverance from sin. I’ve even heard it said that the great divide between east and west is that the east views mankind’s fundamental problem as death, whereas the west views mankind’s fundamental problem as sin. 1 Cor 15:56 demonstrates that, in fact, sin is a more fundamental problem, because it’s why death is a problem!

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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