Carl Ferdinand Howard Henry (1913–2003) was an American theologian in the conservative evangelical tradition.1 Born on Long Island and trained as a journalist, Henry served as the first editor of Christianity Today from 1956 to 1968. Henry earned two doctorates, including a PhD in theology from Boston University. The capstone work of his career was the six-volume series God, Revelation, and Authority, published in stages from 1976 to 1983.2 A treatment primarily of epistemology and the biblical revelation of God, the series established Henry as “the dean of evangelical theologians” of the second half of the twentieth century in the estimation of former colleague Kenneth Kantzer, founding dean of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.3
Though Henry passed away in 2003, his contributions live on, as theologians in the upper echelons of the academy continue to ponder his contributions on such subjects as propositional revelation, foundationalism, the kingdom, and the relationship between church and society.4 Indeed, we are witnessing something of a Henry renaissance in our time. Gregory Alan Thornbury just published a slim yet muscular work entitled Recovering Classic Evangelicalism: Applying the Wisdom and Vision of Carl F. H. Henry,5 and G. Wright Doyle recently published Carl Henry—A Theologian for All Seasons: An Introduction and Guide to Carl Henry’s God, Revelation and Authority.6 The Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding will hold a symposium in 2013 on Henry’s life and thought.7
It is right to pay attention to Henry’s major contributions, as an increasing number of scholars are. In doing so, however, we would be unwise to neglect other areas of his scholarly work—for example, his positions on ethics or eschatology or the atonement. This is not true only of Henry, of course; there is much value in examining Barth’s doctrine of the Spirit, for example, or Jonathan Edwards’s understanding of baptism. A historical-theological curiosity may justly animate such investigation, as may an earnest and appropriate desire to fill out contemporary understanding of leading scholars of the past. If we ought not to confine our study of figures like Henry to their subsidiary views, neither should we ignore them.
This article examines Henry’s conception of the atonement to exhume it from its long sleep and to critically engage it. Though GRA is not a full-fledged systematic theology and though Henry did not cover the doctrine of the atonement in one full section, his understanding of the cross-work of Christ crops up in numerous places in this text. If Kantzer is correct that Henry is the most significant conservative theologian of his era, then it is no small thing to think critically about his doctrine of the atonement in our own age—when penal substitutionary atonement is contested ground—even if this must involve a systematic doctrinal reconstruction of the kind Henry did not offer himself.8 This article pieces together Henry’s doctrine by working primarily with GRA, observing that Henry believed that the atonement was (1) disclosed by revelation, (2) the central focus of history, (3) the fulfillment of the OT, (4) the manifestation of God’s saving love, (5) the payment for sin and absorber of divine wrath, (6) the engine of the kingdom, (7) the satisfaction of God’s wrath and ground of reconciliation between God and man, and (8) the foundation of ethics.
In reconstructing Henry’s doctrine of the atonement in a logical format, this article shows that Henry vigorously rearticulated the classic model of penal substitution. It also reveals, perhaps surprisingly, that Henry linked the atonement inextricably with ethics. He reformulated the moral-influence theory of the atonement along objective grounds rather than the subjective grounds that former theologians staked out. In this area Henry made a contribution, generally unnoticed, to a properly complex evangelical understanding of the atonement. After examining this contribution, the article concludes by noting how Henry’s theological work on the atonement matters today.
1. An Eight-Part Synthesis of Henry’s Doctrine of the Atonement
1.1. Disclosed by Revelation
The foundation of Henry’s theological program is propositional revelation. Henry vividly illustrates the significance of revelation:
By the unannounced intrusion of its omnipotent actuality, divine revelation lifts the present into the eternal and unmasks our pretensions of human omnicompetence. As if an invisible Concorde had burst the sound barrier overhead, it drives us to ponder whether the Other World has finally pinned us to the ground for a life-and-death response. Confronting us with a sense of cosmic arrest, it makes us ask whether the end of our world is at hand and propels us unasked before the Judge and Lord of the universe.9
The Bible had pride of place in Henry’s theology. To understand truth about God, oneself, and the world, one must know this “omnipotent actuality.” This description of revelation makes clear that Henry viewed revelation as a personal communication from a personal God, without which humankind would know nothing of God and his mind.
The Scripture discloses truth about all kinds of spiritual and theological matters. The Bible thus dictates the truth about the matter of Christ’s atoning work. Revelation discloses the content and significance of the Savior’s sacrifice:
Christianity manifests its superiority by providing valid propositional information: God is sovereign, personal Spirit: he is causally related to the universe as the Creator of man and the world: he reveals his will intelligibly to chosen prophets and apostles: despite man’s moral revolt he shows his love in the offer of redemption: he is supremely revealed in Jesus Christ in once-for-all incarnation: he has coped decisively with the problem of human sin in the death and resurrection and ascension of the incarnate Logos.10
Henry believed that Scripture has core content. The gospel, of which the atonement is a central part, represents the Bible’s fundamental message. Scripture tells man the story of his past; Scripture promises man the only hope of his future, the “offer of redemption” grounded “in the death and resurrection and ascension” of Jesus Christ.
1.2. The Central Focus of History
Henry covered many matters in his body of writing, particularly his capstone work GRA, but he considered the atonement, with the resurrection, to mark the central point of history. Disclosed in revelation, “Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection are the turning point of the ages.”11 Various scriptural voices testified to this reality. The NT epistles, for example, “all emphasize the substitutionary death of God’s only Son upon the cross as the high point of God’s love and in no way obscure the fact that God no less than man is reconciled by the mediatorial work of Christ.”12 The work of Christ on the cross marks “the high point of God’s love” in his history of dealings with mankind. God’s love displayed was no incidental matter in Henry’s view but was the divine answer to the central problem of human existence: sin. Sin had existed since the fall of Adam and Eve in Henry’s view and would continue to exist until Christ’s return. Accordingly, “That rude cross outside Jerusalem,” Henry argues, “becomes the central reference point in history.”13 No other event compared to the crucifixion of Christ. The death of the Savior fundamentally reshaped not only the lives of fallen sinners (see §1.8 below) but world history.14
1.3. The Fulfillment of the Old Testament
Henry believed that the cross-work of Christ stood not only at the center of history, but at the center of Scripture. All that came before the crucifixion points to it; all that comes after the crucifixion takes shape from it. In a number of sections in GRA, Henry discusses how Christ and his atoning work form the center of the Bible and the fulfillment of the OT. He does so in both specific and general terms. For example, Henry gives considerable attention to how Christ fulfilled specific OT prophecies. Reflecting on Isa 53, which foretells the coming of a “suffering servant,” Henry contends,
At every turn Jesus set his life, death and resurrection in the context of Old Testament promise and prophecy. In the prophecy of the suffering servant (Isaiah 53) who dies for others Jesus saw the vicarious dimensions of his own substitutionary self-giving (Matt. 20:28). In the Isaian prophecy the servant can in no way be identified merely with Israel, since Israel is to benefit from the servant’s work. Christianity insists that “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures (1 Cor. 15:3, KJV) and that Israel’s holy God is propitiated only by the redemptive work of the incarnate sacrifice Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:21–26).15
The theologian believed not only that the death of Christ fulfilled the OT, but that the death of Christ fit the specific categories of the OT sacrificial system. This system required a personal sacrifice for the sins of the people, a requirement met by the suffering “substitutionary self-giving” of Christ. Henry’s conception of the atonement, which we are developing logically, clearly fits the “penal-substitution” model or theory. As Henry’s citation of Paul’s letter to the Romans shows, this model, propounded by Isaiah, became the emphasis, albeit an enlarged one, of Paul and the NT apostles.16
Even as Christ fulfilled Isa 53 and other prophetic passages, so he met the demands of the OT law. Henry muses regarding Christ’s incarnation,
Christ models human nature resplendent with the very will and law of God (John 1:14; 2 Cor. 4:6). He alone truly keeps covenant, and in doing so fulfills God’s righteousness redemptively for contrite sinners whether Jew or Gentile. By his resurrection the crucified Jesus reverses the undeserved death of the cross; he is victor over the pretensions of self-assertive sinners and over the hollow authority of arbitrary rulers. By vindicating righteousness he validates all legitimate rights. Jesus Christ mediates the new and final covenant between God and man: once again human rights and responsibilities are seen to stem from the justice and justification of God who openly declares his will for humankind.17
In Henry’s conception of Christ’s ministry, Jesus “fulfills God’s righteousness redemptively” for sinners. The only man to “truly keep covenant,” Jesus met the just demands of God’s holy law, a feat that removed the sting of the law and enabled the merits of the Savior’s obedience to become the sinner’s merit before God. Henry believed in both the active and passive obedience of Christ and considered each necessary for the full salvation of the sinner.18
In sum, then, Jesus fulfilled the Messianic prophecies of the OT and perfectly met the demands of the OT law. Henry did not, however, view Christ merely as the divine answer to a select but weighty group of types and institutions of the OT. In Henry’s reading of Scripture, the person and work of Jesus fulfills more than a few passages.19 As the atoning Messiah promised by writers of old, Jesus of Nazareth represents “the climax and comprehensive fulfillment of the entire Old Testament.”20 The one whom the OT authors never saw was the one they always awaited.
1.4. The Manifestation of God’s Saving Love
In Henry’s view, the love of God and the atonement of Christ possessed an unbreakable connection. One could not speak of the atonement without reference to divine love; neither could one speak of divine love without reference to the atonement. God had manifested his love for his people at various points and in various ways, though none of these demonstrations compared to the gift of Christ as a substitute. Henry synthesized passages from all corners of the NT to show that love was the motivation of the atonement:
It is for you the Lord’s body was given and his blood shed (Luke 22:19–20); “this is my body,” said Jesus, “which is broken for you” (1 Cor. 11:24, KJV). He the Holy One who died “for all” (2 Cor. 2:14, KJV) is made “to be sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21, KJV). He sacrificed himself “for our sins” (Gal. 1:4, KJV). The Son of God “loved me, and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20, KJV). He was “made a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13, KJV). Christ “suffered for us” (1 Pet. 2:21, KJV); Christ “laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16, KJV); Christ “loved you and gave himself up on your behalf” (Eph. 5:2, NEB).21
God dealt with sin, Henry averred, out of love. He could have responded to human sin by acting merely out of wrath. This would have been just. But God chose to intervene in the sinful world of men in a personal way. This personal intervention, of course, did not mean simply that God became involved with the salvation of humanity. God sacrificed his own Son for humanity. Henry did not see the atonement only in forensic terms, as if the death of Christ was little more than a logically necessitated transaction. It was a transaction, but this transaction was rooted in love:
Jesus Christ is the meaning of divine agapē; where he is ignored the love of God is also ignored. And when Christ’s death for sinners is considered marginal then God’s love in Christ loses its central focus. In the New Testament the high point of the divine agapē is found on Mount Calvary.22
In the cross, divine love and divine righteousness meet:
The witness of Scripture is that divine love and divine righteousness, already united in the simplicity of God, find their historical meeting ground in the reality of justification by faith. The Psalmist (85:10) says anticipatively of messianic substitution on the cross: “Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” If there is in God no divine perfection of justice distinguishable from sheer benevolence then there need be no justification—indeed, there can be no justification. As an act of the sovereign there may be pardon that restores an offender to favor by remitting penalty, but no declaration is possible that can satisfy the demands of justice. The warp of the biblical doctrine of justification is love, its woof is righteousness or justice.23
Henry found this linkage of righteousness and love throughout the pages of Scripture:
The author of Hebrews declares that Noah was already an “heir of the righteousness which is by faith” (Heb. 11:7) even as Paul declares that Abraham shared in “the righteousness of faith” (Rom. 4:13, kjv). The principle of justification by faith is constantly stressed by Paul, and centrally so in the epistles to the Romans and to the Galatians. Though “none is righteous, no not one” (Rom. 4:7), the substituted righteousness of the Redeemer’s holy love and propitiatory death is imputed by the God of holy love on the occasion of the sinner’s personal faith (Rom. 4:16).24
As Henry saw things, both “the Redeemer’s holy love and propitiatory death” came to sinner through the instigation of “the God of holy love.”25 When a sinner expressed “personal faith” in Christ, in other words, Henry believed that God imputed the righteousness of Christ to them, clearing them of guilt and justifying them in his holy visage. The theologian set justification through imputation in the context of divine love.26 The Father sent Christ to the cross because of his love. He applied the accomplishment of Christ’s cross-work to the sinner because of his love. The atonement, then, was nothing if not a work of divine love, the primary manifestation of the kindness of God to a sinful race.
1.5. The Payment for Sin and Absorber of Divine Wrath
In Henry’s view, the central problem with which the atonement dealt was sin. The Father sent Christ as a substitute, one who would not only suffer for sin but die to pay the full penalty for it. In paying this penalty, Christ defeated sin, allowing the sinful to go free and experience transformation.
Some in Henry’s day argued that mankind could have fellowship with God through right conduct and a devoted heart. Such thinkers, Henry contended, minimized the gravity of sin and thus offended the justice of God.27 Sin stood as a massive barrier between God and man in Henry’s eyes, a barrier that required a decisive, punctiliar, divine blow to fall. The death of Christ, he writes,
symbolizes the staggering judgment to which man is doomed, and his crucifixion by professed devotees of God’s will exposes the deceit that deludes those who think they fully keep the law. However much Scripture speaks about God’s holy love and mercy, and of God’s provision of his Son as the penitent sinner’s righteous substitute, Scripture focuses first and foremost upon God’s transcendent righteousness that rewards moral creatures according to their works and requires reparation for sin.28
Henry continues, outlining how Christ paid the price of sin and defeated it:
Not from ourselves, but only from the just and justifying God known in his revelation, only from his prophetic-apostolic disclosure crowned by the gifted Redeemer, and henceforth now only from the objective literary deposit of Scripture can we gain both this bad news and this good news about and for ourselves. . . . Though our iniquities “deserve to be rewarded” (cf. Ps. 103:8) with unmitigated judgment, God mercifully spares us on condition of faith in the righteous Redeemer. Incomparable grace remains what it is even though some reject it.29
Mankind could not presume upon the mercy of God in Henry’s mind. The natural “iniquities” that humans commit deserve and call forth “unmitigated judgment.” The death of Christ, however, absorbs the full force of this judgment. In the process, it defeats sin and Satan decisively.
1.6. The Engine of the Kingdom
The matter of God’s defeat of sin, a key point within Henry’s theology of the cross, leads effortlessly into the theologian’s understanding of how the kingdom of Christ factors into the crucifixion. For Henry, the cross advances the work of God’s kingdom in a profound way. Christ’s death not only accomplishes the salvation of individuals, but actually redeems the cosmos:
God has much more in mind and at stake in nature than a backdrop for man’s comfort and convenience, or even a stage for the drama of salvation. His purpose includes redemption of the cosmos that man has implicated in the fall.30
On this same point, Henry says elsewhere with force,
Jesus in his own person is the embodied sovereignty of God. He lives out that sovereignty in the flesh. He manifests the kingdom of God by enthroning the creation-will of God and demonstrating his lordship over Satan. Jesus conducts himself as Lord and true King, ruling over demons, ruling over nature at its fiercest, ruling over sickness, conquering death itself. With the coming of Jesus the kingdom is not merely immanent; it gains the larger scope of incursion and invasion. Jesus points to his release of the victims of Satan, and to his own devastation of demons and the demonic, as attesting that ‘the kingdom of God has come upon you’ (Matt. 12:28). He reveals God’s royal power in its salvific activity.”31
The death of Christ, in Henry’s words, “conquer[ed] death itself” even as it defeated Satan. In Henry’s economy, one could not pick and choose between kingdom and cross. The two were ever bound together, preeminently so in the death of the Son. When Christ ascended to the full height of His “salvific activity” by rising high on a cross at Calvary, He showed the full weight of His “royal power,” his kingly splendor. The king was the Messiah; the Messiah, in a way that overturned prevailing notions on the matter, was the king.
Theologian Russell D. Moore comments that this reality meant for Henry that “evangelicals cannot divorce personal salvation from its creational context, as a restoration of the rule of humanity in the image of God, or from its Christological focus on Jesus as the goal of creation.”32 The crucifixion was a multidimensional reality for Henry. It was not only the payment for sin and the means by which God’s wrath against his people was assuaged, but was also the cosmic renewal agent for all of fallen creation, the engine of the kingdom.
1.7. The Satisfaction of God’s Wrath and the Ground of Reconciliation
In the economy of salvation Henry proposes, God’s love in the face of mankind’s sin brings about the payment for and defeat of sin. This payment and defeat, in turn, propitiates God’s wrath. Because Christ paid the price of sin and thus defeated sin, God’s just wrath in the face of sin is assuaged. Henry summarizes,
According to the New Testament, sinful mankind has no right to expect from God anything other than wrath, any judgment other than rejection and eternal punishment. But God’s righteousness and wrath, it declares, are related in a surprising way to his love, a way that fallen mankind could never have conceived or perceived apart from God’s gracious self-revelation. The righteous Judge himself, in the gift of the holy Christ as voluntary Suffering Servant, provides in the alienated sinner’s stead a substituted righteousness which he offers “from faith to faith” (Rom. 1:16, 3:21–26).33
Because the price of sin is paid, God’s wrath is assuaged. As impossible as it sounds to those who recognize the depth of human depravity, God and man may meet, know one another, and love one another. In the traditional theological language, once the wrath of God is satisfied, reconciliation between God and man takes place. Some in his day focused too much, Henry thought, on the “manward” aspect of reconciliation in which man, through the atoning death of Christ, discovers free and clear access to the Almighty:
The Christian doctrine of atonement is distinguished, then, by two important considerations. For one thing, the sacrifice is both provided by God and offered to God; God offers himself in the gift of his Son to achieve a just and merciful forgiveness of sinners. It is God himself who makes the complete sacrifice.34
That there is a Godward as well as manward aspect of reconciliation is integral to New Testament teaching. That Christ’s death removes God’s enmity against man—that a new relation exists of God toward the sinner no less than of the sinner toward God—is at the heart of the doctrine of salvation. Nowhere is the fact stated more succinctly than in 2 Corinthians 5:17 ff.: “God . . . reconciled us to himself through Christ . . . be reconciled to God.”35
In Henry’s mind, God’s righteous offering (i.e., Christ) satisfied the demands of God’s holy standards.36 This made it possible for God to offer and have fellowship with his fallen creation. Once the wrath of God is appeased, the sinner may know and approach the Lord:
Jesus liberates the sinner from the dread wrath of God. Divine love and mercy open a way of escape from divine wrath: Christ’s substitutionary, propiatory death provides deliverance from both the present wrath and the wrath to come. We are justified by his holy life and substitutionary death (Rom. 5:9); all who turn to Christ in faith are no longer enemies (Rom. 5:10) under divine condemnation (Rom. 8:1). Messiah took upon himself the wrath of God, bearing it in himself and in our stead. To receive Christ is to be free from wrath; to reject Christ is to remain under the wrath.37
Without the sacrifice of Christ on man’s behalf, man must meet “the dread wrath of God” in its full force, on its own terms, so to speak. No hope presents itself in the face of this encounter. Man cannot approach God; he cannot meet God. He will find himself engulfed in a torrent of God’s holy wrath. But Christ’s “holy life and substitutionary death” make it possible for God and man to meet. Because of the propitiation of Christ, God is reconciled to man; man is reconciled to God.
1.8. The Foundation of Ethics
Thus far we have explored the logical flow of Henry’s doctrine of the atonement. §§1.1–7 synthetically present the twentieth-century theologian’s conception of penal substitution, a conception that includes some significant work on the matter of the kingdom and how it plays into the atonement.38 Though it must be pulled together to some degree, Henry’s doctrine of the cross includes another clever—and generally unrecognized—wrinkle on the matter of how Christ’s death undergirds ethics.39
In a little-known essay entitled “Christian Ethics as Predicated on the Atonement” in his 1957 book Christian Personal Ethics, Henry reworked the moral-influence theory along substitutionary lines. That is to say, he infused the moral-influence theory with an objective character that previous advocates of the moral-influence model had not.40 In this final section of the outline of Henry’s doctrine of the atonement, we examine the theologian’s unique linkage of atonement and ethics.
For Henry, the background of morality, of ethics, was the atonement. On this note he begins his essay with a characteristically bold tone:
The indispensable background for the doctrine of the good life, if forged in Christian dimensions, must always be the fact of a divinely provided redemption. Ethics is not primarily a matter of human relationships, but is fundamentally a man-to-God relationship. The question which Christian ethics poses in view of man’s failure in sin is not “What works must we do to become righteous?” Such an inquiry can only come from a profound misunderstanding of the moral situation. Rather, the question is, “How can we as sinners be considered righteous?” The Christian answer is that by redemption man becomes rightly related to the will of God.41
For Henry, ethics was not simply the adjudication of moral behavior. It was this, but it was more. He counted God as the foundational reality of the world. He considered sin as a fact of human existence. He thus could not abstract ethics from God or from the reality of indwelling sin. The fundamental moral question of human existence, then, was this: “How can we as sinners be considered righteous?” To this question, Henry suggests an answer both simple and profound: “redemption,” in back of which is the atonement of Christ.
Some theological ethicists, Henry avers, bypassed the matter of redemption by appealing to the loving nature of the Father. Henry has strong words for those who argue along these lines:
God maintains a relationship to his rational and ethical creatures not only of a beneficent Father, but also of a righteous moral governor, with a concern for the authority of his laws and the rectitude of his creatures.
The guilty sinner owes more than future obedience; his debt includes satisfaction for past sin. Our Lord’s mission included the payment of man’s penal debt; he met the Divine displeasure against sin, and to be our Redeemer, it was not possible that the cup of death should pass from him, though he had lived a sinless life. Hence the Christian community has always recognized it to be a perversion for one to regard his work as that only of a moral example.42
With these words Henry rejects all conceptions of the moral-influence theory that do not find their grounding in the cross-work of Christ. God, Henry argues, is indeed a “beneficent Father,” but he is equally “a righteous moral governor.” The existence of sin and the subsequent “Divine displeasure” with it made it impossible for mankind to live virtuously and pleasingly before the Lord without “the payment of man’s penal debt.” Much as Christ’s death on the cross called for admiration and emulation, Henry effectively argued, it could never secure these responses in a God-pleasing way without the efficacious work of the Savior.43
The moral-influence theory as historically articulated had no foundation to undergird it in Henry’s mind, for it had no engine by which sinful mankind might change his heart and live virtuously. A theory of this kind could not truly influence the sinner in a subjective sense without an objective, transformative work in the heart secured by the atoning death of Christ. Henry makes this clear in a subsequent section:
By giving justification a subjective turn, it takes away the sinner’s assurance of absolute acceptance with God on the basis of Christ’s death. It thus violates the biblical position that in the work of justification God alone acts on the condition of faith in Christ, whereas in the work of sanctification the regenerate sinner cooperates with the renewing activity of the Holy Spirit. But internally it faces an equally profound difficulty. The theory views the death of Christ as the supreme example of Divine displeasure against sin, calculated to move the minds of men to an abhorrence of evil. But that the sinless Christ should be made such an object of displeasure seems a violent contradiction of the nature of God and an intolerable anomaly in his moral government of the world.44
Instead of bifurcating ethics from the atonement, as Henry believed proponents of the moral-influence theory had done, he argued that the two came as a bounded whole. The atonement, he effectively argued, creates Christian ethics. One cannot choose one or the other:
Christianity is a religion of redemption, and it is equally an ethics of salvation. Christian salvation is no unmoral and unspiritual scheme. From start to finish, in and through the atonement, its ideal life is a life of vital ethical experience through a living union with Christ. While it may be true that examples can be found of those who presume on Divine goodness by living a life of unholiness while they fool themselves with the hope that they will escape the consequences of their sins through Christ’s sacrifice, this is not characteristic of the evangelical temper. Note the sobering word of James: “show me your works and I will show you your faith” (Jas. 2:18). The atonement is regarded as God’s counter-stroke to sin. While the penal theory does not start out with the subjective significance of the atonement, nonetheless it firmly insists that the atonement must directly touch and transform the moral life of man.45
Where the atonement does “touch and transform” the sinner by divine intervention, Henry argues, a subjective work takes place. The “living union with Christ” that all the children of God possess through the indwelling power of the Spirit makes possible the transformation of the heart and mind such that once-ruined sinners become obedient (though imperfect) worshippers of the living God. Henry spelled out this idea more extensively in Christian Personal Ethics as he argued that the cross
establishes a causal connection between redemption and the good life. The spiritual development of the justified sinner and his “growth in grace” is an extension of perfect reliance upon Christ, whose death gains our pardon and whose resurrection life imparts those influences of the Spirit which are basic to sanctification. “If . . . we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son,” the great Apostle writes, “much more, being reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (Rom. 5:10). The one unitary outflowing of supernatural grace secures both the justification and the sanctification of the sinner. Faith in Christ involves union with him, union with him in his deliverance of us from the Father’s wrath, and union with him as the inward principle of the Christian life.46
Here Henry reinforces his refashioning of the moral-influence theory by noting the “causal connection” between the cross and the Christian life. He makes explicit the ground of this connection, noting that it is Jesus’ “death [that] gains our pardon” and the “resurrection life” driven by “those influences of the Spirit which are basic to salvation” that actually brings forth virtue as an emulation of Christ and his holy life in the redeemed. Henry offers further scriptural grounding for this claim that the biblical authors root their calls to holiness (subjective behavior) in the objective work of the cross:
[N]ote the appeal Paul makes for purity in 1 Corinthians 6:13ff. He does not say, “If you commit fornication you are accursed.” Indeed he does say many times that fornicators and murderers will never enter the kingdom of God. However, passages relating to this (e.g., 1 Cor. 6:9, 10) refer to unbelievers, not believers. These passages simply do not say that a believing man is accursed if he falls into sin. Such a statement would be false. Paul does not appeal, therefore, to the principle of condemnation when exhorting the believer, for it just does not apply. Rather, he says, “Do you not know that you were bought with a price?” (1 Cor. 6:19f.). It is granted that fornication is utterly opposed to God’s holy will. But the highest reason to abstain from such an abominable act is not fear of condemnation. It is love for Christ.47
The passage Henry cites seems to make the strength of his assertion immediately clear. The exhortations to moral living Paul directs to the Corinthians proceed from his understanding that the people who will hear and obey these exhortations are transformed by the redeeming work of Jesus and thus able to live in a holy manner. Paul, as with numerous other scriptural authors Henry cites, does not call his charges to follow Christ out of a mere emotive sense, however powerful such may be. Instead, he makes his call to holiness on the grounds of God’s objective work in the hearts of his Corinthian audience.
To summarize: In Henry, the foundation of ethics is the atonement, the means by which repentant sinners acquire the vision and ability to live virtuously and honor God. It is not too much to say, reciprocally, that the ultimate aim of the atonement is the God-glorifying transformation of fallen mankind.48 Henry’s clever reappropriation of a historic model of the atonement helps inform the present-day emphasis on holy living common in various theological and denominational circles. Where Christians are interested in living a holy life, they will find much ground for motivation in the moral influence model, especially (and only) if it is grounded in the objective, finished work of Christ, as Henry’s formulation clearly was.
2. Three Strengths of Henry’s View That Commend It to Modern Usage
2.1. Three Strengths
The first strength of Henry’s doctrine of the atonement is that its central model is that of penal substitution (with the person and work of Jesus forming the core of all Scripture).49 Starting with the protoevangelium in Gen 3:15 and moving to Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac in Gen 22, the day of atonement in Lev 16, the suffering servant passage of Isa 53, the “good shepherd” passages of John 11, the capstone summary of penal substitution in Rom 3–5, and closing with the discussion of justification in Gal 2, the biblical authors from various angles locate the center of the atonement in penal and substitutionary categories.50 One could go to a plethora of passages in Scripture that in some way present penal substitution as the center of Christ’s atonement, but for the interest of space, Rom 5:6–8 serves nicely as a summary: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”51
A second strength is Henry’s synthesis of cross and kingdom, staunchly biblical themes that some Christians struggle even today to reconcile. Some emphasize the kingdom; others emphasize the atonement. Henry’s writing is blissfully free of such unbiblical divergence. In his writing, Jesus is the king of the spiritual kingdom, and his death accomplishes the decisive victory of his kingly rule.52 To conceptualize this, the kingdom seems to provide the framework for the entirety of Christ’s person and work within which the death of Christ, featuring penal-substitution at the core, is the center.53 Henry’s theological work on this point helps us to dive back into the Scripture and see how closely connected the cross and kingdom truly are.54 It avoids unhelpful dichotomies even in the present day between “kingdom” people and “cross” people, showing that truly scriptural Christians cannot be one without the other.
A third major strength of Henry’s model is his linkage of the atonement with ethics. As noted previously, Henry’s helpful refashioning of the moral-influence theory gives this theory needed objectivity and restructures ethics along more robustly biblical lines. Henry’s doctrine shows us that we cannot isolate the death of Christ from the life of the believer as is sometimes the case. Those who do so are left to wonder, “What hath Gologotha to do with Arimathea?” Instead, we should gladly look to the cross on a daily basis, and find there profound motivation for holy living and self-sacrifice. If Jesus emptied himself for us, so we can empty ourselves for our families, churches, and neighbors.
2.2. Relevance for Today
Henry shows that the atonement, the engine of the kingdom, drives the resurrection life, forming its ontological ground and its motivating principle. The foregoing is relevant for our modern day, in which ethics and living like Jesus are hot topics and are sometimes pitted against rich, thick theology.55 In the writing of some modern commentators, the atonement and ethics are approached in what one could call a “neo-moral-government” way. In this thinking, we follow Jesus, who loved people and showed them a better way and who made a way for us to know God through his death, which seemingly tipped God’s scales in our favor. This view attempts, it seems, to avoid the visceral nature of substitutionary sacrifice.
While Jesus certainly did love people and show them a better way, he did so preeminently in his death on the cross. The crucifixion meets the central need of the sinner—forgiveness and freedom from wrath—even as it forms the objective ground for God-honoring living. However persuasively this reworked view of Jesus is urged upon us, we do far better to hew closely to the faithful evangelical thinking of theologians like Henry. The true foundation of a God-honoring life, in Henry’s mind and in the evangelical tradition he served, is the cross of Christ. It is wise, and not merely sentimental, to look to the cross and be at once profoundly moved and ethically influenced to live self-sacrificially for God’s glory.
This is sorely needed material in contemporary intra-evangelical discussions of the relationship between grace and obedience. In a day and age that rightly celebrates the finished work of Christ on our behalf, it is possible to so emphasize what is sometimes called the “done-ness” of Jesus’ death that we lose sight of what we could call the “do-ness” of the life the cross creates. In apprehending the benefits of Christ for us extended through the cross and realized by Spirit-wrought union with the Savior, we could overlook the biblical fact that Christ saves us to transform us.56 We are not redeemed only to treasure the cross, magnificent and spiritually central as such meditation is, but are enabled through the Spirit to take it up in a life of ongoing, upward, and yet unfinished obedience.57
If we lean on Henry on this point (and I commend such dependence), Christ, and no other substitute, is the death-killing, life-giving influence that alone can impel us on an ongoing basis to think and act in God-glorifying ways.
Carl F. H. Henry contributed greatly to the church’s conception of various doctrines: revelation, the kingdom, and the doctrine of God. While his work in these areas is widely known and referenced, Henry’s doctrine of the atonement is unfairly neglected. By a fresh treatment of his thought on subjects like the atonement, we are poised to appreciate his fresh work in integrating cross and kingdom and in grounding the moral influence view of the atonement, a model sometimes ignored or underemphasized by conservative evangelicals, in the substitutionary model. Clearly, on this and many other matters, we owe Henry a debt.58
Just one more comment is needed, without which this reconstruction would be incomplete. Carl Henry did not only write about the atonement, as many do from various perspectives. He also preached the cross all over the world. His autobiography memorably recounts many of these remarkable opportunities, but the story about Henry that most sticks with me is one shared by a Fuller Theological Seminary alumnus with historian George Marsden.59 Henry, it seems, sometimes showed up to a Saturday morning seminar looking rather haggard. Later, the student and his classmates learned that on a regular basis, Henry ventured out on Friday night to the streets of Los Angeles, telling the poor and needy of Christ and his cross-work and helping them find shelter.
This anecdote does not tie up every theological knot. It does show, however, that Carl Henry believed in what he preached, and that he put his doctrine to work. As we carefully analyze his doctrine of the atonement, considering its insights, we should also remember his example, and consider the relationship between our own theology and practice. In so doing, we may find ourselves, perhaps without initially intending to do so, extending Henry’s influence.