Moral Influence Theory

“Christ Carrying His Cross” by unknown author. Picture source: pravmir


More than that, I even consider all things to be loss because of the surpassing greatness of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for the sake of whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and consider them dung, in order that I may gain Christ and may be found in him, not having my righteousness which is from the law, but which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God on the basis of faith, so that I may know him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death, if somehow I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already received this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on if indeed I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ.
Brothers, I do not consider myself to have laid hold of it. But I do one thing, forgetting the things behind and straining toward the things ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Therefore as many as are perfect, let us hold this opinion, and if you think anything differently, God will reveal this also to you. Only to what we have attained, to the same hold on.

Become fellow imitators of me, brothers, and observe those who walk in this way, just as you have us as an example.

For many live, of whom I spoke about to you many times, but now speak about even weeping, as the enemies of the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction, whose God is the stomach, and whose glory is in their shame, the ones who think on earthly things.

For our commonwealth exists in heaven, from which also we eagerly await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our humble body to be conformed to his glorious body, in accordance with the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.

So then, my beloved and greatly desired brothers, my joy and crown, thus stand firm in the Lord, dear friends.”
– Philippians 3:8-21;4:1 (LEB)

“Become imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.”
– 1 Corinthians 1:11 (LEB)

“Therefore I exhort you, become imitators of me.”
– 1 Corinthians 4:16 (LEB)

“Whoever says that he ·lives [abides; remains] in God must ·live [L walk] as ·Jesus lived [L he walked]
– 1 John 2:6 (EXB)

“For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his footsteps”
– 1 Peter 2:21 (LEB)

This is my commandment: that you love one another just as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this: that someone lay down his life for his friends.
– John 15:12-13 (LEB)

‘Then Jesus said to his disciples,
“If anyone wants to come after me,
let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”‘
– Matthew 16:24 (LEB)

‘Then Jesus spoke to them again, saying, “I am the light of the world! The one who follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”’
– John 8:12 (LEB)


‘Within Christianity, there are several theories of the meaning of the Cross and Resurrection. I think no single theory can fully account for this great mystery, but that each theory gives us a lens that together paint an impressionistic picture. We hear a lot about penal theories of the atonement, from Calvinistic friends, but this is also a theory that, under some forms, is present within Catholic Tradition. And we hear about Christus Victor, which is very important.

The one that isn’t very much in odor of sanctity (ha ha), as far as I can tell, is Moral Influence: the idea that Jesus went to the Cross to exemplify the meaning of morality and influence men’s morality. Moral Influence, as best as I can tell, is under suspicion in many orthodox and/or traditional circles, because it is seen as essentially trivializing the Cross, as making it have no transcendental meaning, and instead a pure historical meaning. It has been used by some progressive Christians to advance a Jesus whose divinity is obscured (if not denied) and whose Gospel is reduced to a moralistic or political message.

Despite that, and with the all-important caveat that I don’t believe Moral Influence is the full story, I do believe it is part of the story. And here’s why.

That is clearly part of the work of the Cross. It seems to me incontrovertible from the Gospel that, at least in part, the Cross really is intended by Jesus to serve as a moral example. When Jesus says “greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends,” you can almost hear Him add “…and I’ll show you.” Clearly, when a Christian contemplates his moral duty, he should look first to the Cross. I don’t think you can deny that moral influence is part of the meaning of the Cross. I don’t think anybody would disagree with this, but I do think we sometimes tend to take it for granted when we talk about the Mystery of the Cross, and I don’t think Jesus likes it.

[Removed “Moral Influence does change the world” from this republication because I do not agree with that view on the Moral Influence Theory.]

The moral example is stronger in the context of Christ’s Divine Sonship.
I might be caricaturing a little bit, but there’s a sense of, well, people give up their lives for truth/their/friends all the time–if Moral Influence is true, then why is the Cross special? And the answer is: because of Who is on the Cross. If I give up my life for you, while subjectively I am giving up a lot, objectively, in the grand scheme of things, I’m not giving up much. For starters, I know I’m going to die at some point anyway, so why not do it with some panache and meaning (this is a way of thinking that is a little alien to the contemporary West, but wouldn’t have been to most of our forerunners). The difference with Christ is, of course, that he is the Word of God, only-begotten of the Father, dwelling with Him in all eternity. For Jesus to die on the Cross means to give up literally everything. It is literally impossible for us to imagine the “delta”, the difference, between the bliss of the Son living in perfect harmony with the Father in the Trinity, and the suffering of the man Jesus on the Cross.  What Jesus “gives up” on the Cross is more than we can ever give up, more than we can even imagine. This is the moral example set by the Cross: Jesus doesn’t just say “give everything”, he says “give more than everything.” Jesus didn’t just die, He died on the Cross, after scourging and humiliation. I find this to be a mystery impossible to contemplate too much.

Moral Influence Theory emphasizes the gratuitous nature of Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross. Y’all know I have a big of a bone to pick with Penal Substitutionary Atonement, and my main problem with it is that–and, as you know, this is another of my hobbyhorses–it portrays Jesus and God’s actions within a framework of necessity. God’s justice has to be satisfied by punishment of sin, so Jesus had to die to provide satisfaction or else God would have had to condemn us all. Moral Influence, on the other hand, is all about the gratuity of Jesus’ love for us. If we keep in mind what I just wrote above about the unimaginable, absolute, despoilment and pain that Jesus experienced on the Cross, being the Son of God and being deprived of everything, then how much greater is this gift if we think that Jesus did it not because He had to, but just because He wanted to. More than that, just to show uswhat love looks like.

This theme of the gratuitousness and the generosity of God is an important one, one that we can’t look at enough, and it is particularly present through Moral Influence Theory. Again, I don’t believe it’s the whole story. But I think it’s part of the story and we need to look at it more.’

Source: Patheos (Inebriate Me)
Original Title: In Defense Of Moral Influence Theory

Author: Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry


I personally think that this theory has little or no way of being refutable and it seems to have the biggest advantage of having a practical consequence upon being believed. I agree with what Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry wrote above: “I don’t believe it’s the whole story. But I think it’s [definitely] part of the story and we need to look at it more.’


Now, God’s heart yearned over man in his transgression, prompting Him to desire man’s deliverance from the consequences of that transgression.  How was this deliverance to be effected?  Something must be done which would make a similar impression upon the mind of man as to the importance of keeping the Law and the evil of breaking it as the infliction of the penalty due would have done; and which would at the same time awaken in him a sense of the shame and guilt of his transgression, and a desire to cease from his disobedience.  This was done by the life and death of Jesus Christ, so that now every sinner who will, on God’s terms, accept the deliverance provided for him, may go free.”
-William Booth, The Atonement of Jesus Christ (this book is actually Moral Government Theology, not Moral Influence Theology)

In the Moral influence theory this would mean: “due to the impression the sacrifice of Jesus made on the sinner’s heart, the sinner is now influenced so that he will try his best to live a perfect live in the eyes of God.”

Source: unknown


moral-influence-theory-bible-verses-conclusion1.docx (Microsoft Word)
moral-influence-theory-bible-verses-conclusion1.doc (Microsoft Word 97-2003)
moral-influence-theory-bible-verses-conclusion1.odt (Open Document Text)
moral-influence-theory-bible-verses-conclusion1.pdf (Adobe Reader)

Read also ‘3 Quotes from “Should Christians Be Encouraged to Arm Themselves?”‘, ‘What Does it Mean to be “Holy”?‘ by Gregory Boyd and especially “The Imitation of Christ” by Thomas A Kempis for more on following Jesus example.

For other theories on the atonement:
Read “Moral Exampler” (by Aric Clark).
Read “Ransom Theory“.
Read “What Happened on The Cross?” by ReKnew.


2 thoughts on “Moral Influence Theory

  1. Well… Jesus didn’t HAVE to do anything. Even with respect to the penal substitute theory… He didn’t HAVE to die… either way and in all circumstances… it was a CHOICE to save mankind… and if you have studied the Sanctuary in Leviticus and Numbers you will see that as you have stated, that all theories of the Cross have validity. The penal substitute theory acknowledges that there is a price to pay for forgiveness… without it… there is no forbearance and what to say of guilt? and why then does the whole sanctuary rotate around the Most Holy Place where the law is the foundation of the throne and mercy and law forever together? It removes all sense of the Cross to deny the aspect of the broken law demanding the death of the transgressor… it must stay a component of the Cross.


    1. I would say that with the concepts you provide, the Governmental Theory of the Atonement triumphs the Penal Substitution Theory by far! I am now most convinced that the Governmental Atonement View, is the view that is closest to Scripture! 🙂


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s