Critics of Moral Influence Theory generally only complain that there has to be more to it, that people hearing Jesus’ words and learning about how he lived just isn’t enough for atonement or salvation. But here’s the rub: these critics happy with Satisfaction or Substitution Theory de-emphasize Christ and underestimate or undervalue the fact that atonement is an experience of God and salvation is what results from it through the transformation in that encounter. In these cases, we don’t care how Jesus saves but only that he does, and all emphasis here is on the consequences of God’s wrath. So, this is the good news and that’s it.
We can’t pretend to care about Jesus — his life, his message — because these critics have admitted necessarily that Christ is not what atonement is about. That’s in the very same way that a boat is necessary for water-skiing but water-skiing isn’t about the boat. Jesus is in this case, a means to an end. This entails objectifying Jesus as a possession which, if you “have Jesus”, you get something you desire (necessarily more than the means of gaining it).
To answer these folks, the question that’s begging is why exactly the experience of God’s presence in the world, and the natural human draw to participate in it by doing the good, and seeing Jesus as exemplar as the fullness of life and the fullness of our humanity revealed, and as the very image of the nature of God and his intent … why this is not sufficient for atonement or salvation? Why does there need to be more? Scripture is clear and replete in affirming that grace and faith — God’s presence in the world and the draw toward the good, which is God — are the only means to salvation. If it’s just that Jesus must be a new replacement for traditional Jewish legalism, then no replacement has been made at all. This can’t be the case, for to say that Jesus ended legalistic, economic, transactional systems of sin and propitiation is to say that nothing really ended at all. In Satisfaction and Substitution, Jesus is eternality the scapegoat, because it is on us, they say, to “choose Jesus”. If the cross in fact does away with these systems, then salvation cannot be contingent to our consent, just as through Adam, our damnation wasn’t either.
At last, it is an experience of God through participation in the good, known clearly through Jesus the Nazarene, that leads us to the clearest understanding we can have of ourselves and our relation to God and what he wills.
If it turns out that a theory like Moral Influence actually lead us into an interest in Christ, and if it turns out theories like Satisfaction and Substitution induce no interest in knowing Christ himself, then indeed some theory is insufficient. One simply must ask what matters about any of them and which centers around Christ as an end unto himself; worth experiencing.
Just a thought.