One of the important doctrines I have studied recently with the feeling that orthodox theologians have ignored in the doctrine of the atonement is Christus Exemplar. I reject the Moral Influence Theory of the atonement (birthed by Abelard centuries ago) that says Christ died to give us an example of how much he loves us and how we are to love others. In Abelard’s theory, there is no objective purpose of the cross. It is purely subjective. This view has been adopted by liberals theology and is nothing more than heresy. Christus Exemplar is not that.
I will not go into great detail here into defending it, but Scripture is clear that the root work of the cross is substitutionary, but that does not mean that the only motif or purpose of the cross is substitution. Christus Victory, when properly understood, is valid as is Christus Exemplar. If we deny substitution, Christus Exemplar becomes nothing more than Abelard’s heresy.
I have found as a pastor the power of this doctrine. The work of Christ on the cross redeems us and at the same time we as Christians are to never to leave the cross and resurrection. Christus Exemplar assures that we do just that.
I want to quote John Piper in a book he wrote called Fifty Reasons Why Jesus Came to Die (read online here). One chapter is dedicated To Call Us to Follow His Example of Lowliness and Costly Love. He quotes from 1 Peter 2:19-21, Hebrews 12:3-4, and Philippians 2:5-8. Piper writes:
Imitation is not salvation. But salvation brings imitation. Christ is not given to us first as model, but as Savior. In the experience of the believer, first comes the pardon of Christ, then the pattern of Christ. In the experience of Christ himself, they happen together: The same suffering that pardons our sins provides our pattern of love.
In fact, only when we experience the pardon of Christ can he become a pattern for us. This sounds wrong because his sufferings are unique. They cannot be imitated. No one but the Son of God can suffer “for us” the way Christ did. He bore our sins in a way that no one else could. He was a substitute sufferer. We can never duplicate this. It was once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous. Divine, vicarious suffering for sinners is inimitable.
However, this unique suffering, after pardoning and justifying sinners, transforms them into people who act like Jesus—not like him in pardoning, but like him in loving. Like him in suffering to do good to others. Like him in not returning evil for evil. Like him in lowliness and meekness. Like him in patient endurance. Like him in servanthood. Jesus suffered for us uniquely, that we might suffer with him in the cause of love.
Christ’s apostle, Paul, said that his ambition was first to share in Christ’s righteousness by faith, and then to share in his sufferings in ministry. “[May I] be found in [Christ], not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ . . . that I may . . . share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Philippians 3:9-10). Justification precedes and makes possible imitation. Christ’s suffering for justification makes possible our suffering for proclamation. Our suffering for others does not remove the wrath of God. It shows the value of having the wrath of God removed by the suffering of Christ. It points people to him.
When the Bible calls us to “endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:10), it means that our imitation of Christ points people to him who alone can save. Our suffering is crucial, but Christ’s alone saves. Therefore, let us imitate his love, but not take his place. (92-93)