Current controversy over the nature of Christ’s atonement for sin points to a truth many younger evangelicals may not know, i.e., the substitutionary nature of Christ’s death on the cross was a major issue in the Conservative Resurgence that took place within the Southern Baptist Convention in the last quarter of the twentieth century.
The issue of biblical inerrancy stood at the forefront of Southern Baptist debates during those years of conflict and controversy, but other issues drew major concern. Moderates and conservatives in the Southern Baptist Convention were divided over controversial issues, including abortion rights, the exclusivity of the Gospel, and the nature of the atonement. As might be expected, most of these debates followed the same or very similar lines of division. As in the Reformation of the sixteenth century, to be divided over the formal principle of the authority of the Bible was, inevitably, to be divided over the material principles of doctrine as well.
In its earliest phase, modern theological liberalism developed open antipathy to the substitutionary nature of the atonement. Theologians such as Friedrich Schleiermacher, the father of theological liberalism, rejected the claim that the death of Christ is substitutionary or vicarious. Christ did not die in the place of sinners, bearing the wrath of a righteous God, Schleiermacher insisted. Instead, Christ’s death and resurrection demonstrated God’s love so that human beings might rightly love him. Albrecht Ritschl proposed a similar form of the moral influence theory of the atonement—Christ died as a revelation of the depth of God’s love toward sinners.
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