Substitutionary Atonement of Jesus Christ

 by Matt Slick

There are differing views on the atonement of Christ that have been offered throughout the history of the Christian church. Not all of them are biblical.  The correct position is the Substitutionary Atonement position since this means that Christ took our place, which is clearly taught in Isaiah 53:4-6; 2 Cor. 5:21; and 1 Pet. 2:24.  Following is a list of various theories with their problems cited:

  1. Ransom Theory
    1. This theory holds that the price that Jesus paid was made to Satan.  The problem with this view is that there is no scriptural basis for it. This view was held by Origen (185-254). This theory mistakenly assumes that we are to be ransomed from Satan. But the truth is that we have broken God's law and it is to God that a payment must be made.  Furthermore, there are no references in the Bible that we were ransomed from the devil.  Instead, the sacrifice was made to God.
      1. Eph. 5:1-2, "Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; 2 and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you, and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma."
  2. The Moral Influence View
    1. This says that God did not need a payment for breaking his law, and that the death of Christ was an example of how much God loved us.  Peter Abelard (1079-1142) held this position. This view fails to take into account the many verses that speak of Jesus dying for our sins.
      1. Gal. 1:4, "who gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us out of this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father."
      2. 1 Cor. 15:3, "For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures."
      3. 1 Pet. 3:18, "For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit."
  3. The Governmental Theory
    1. This says that God did not have to require a payment for sinners, and that God could have forgiven people simply by choosing to do so without any payment of penalty.  If this is so, then why did Christ need to die at all?  This means that Christ made no payment and did not die for anyone's sins.
  4. The Example Theory
    1. This also denies that God requires a payment for breaking his law and Christ's death on the cross was an example of how we should trust God completely even to the point of death. This theory also fails to deal with the many Scriptures that speak of Christ dying for sin.

Vicarious Atonement

In opposition to the above views, CARM's position is the one known as "vicarious atonement."  The word "vicarious" means substitute.  Therefore, Christ was a substitute for others in that he took their place and suffered their punishment. It was also a legal act whereby Christ fulfilled the law and lawfully paid the penalty of sin.

Is it biblical to say that Christ took our place and suffered our punishment?  Yes it is.  First of all, we see vicarious sacrifice in the Old Testament.

Genesis 22:13, "Then Abraham raised his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the place of his son."

Notice that the ram was offered in place of Isaac.  This was a substitutionary sacrifice which is exactly what "vicarious" means.  Further, we see a prophecy of the atoning work of Christ in Isaiah.  Notice the substitutionary language:

Isaiah 53:4-5, "Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried; yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. 5 But He was pierced through for our transgressions.  He was crushed for our iniquities.  The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him and by His scourging we are healed."

We see in the above verses in Isaiah that Jesus was prophesied to bear our sorrows, to be smitten of God (which is what is due us, the sinners), and that our chastening fell upon him.  Can it be any clearer?  What was due to us because of our sinfulness is what fell upon Christ.  He was our substitution.

  • 2 Cor. 5:21, "He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him."
  • Rom. 4:25, "He who was delivered up because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification."

Clearly, Jesus was a substitution in that he was made sin on our behalf.  Just as the RAM was offered as a substitute for Isaac, Christ was offered in substitution for us.  This is why the Bible says he became sin on our behalf, that he was delivered because of our transgressions, that he bore our griefs, carried our sorrows, was pierced for our transgressions, and was crushed for our iniquities.

Jesus did what we could not.  He took our place and bore our sins in his body on the cross (1 Pet. 2:24) and made propitiation for our sins.

  • Rom. 3:25, "whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith.  This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed."
  • 1 John 2:2, "and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world."
  • 1 John 4:10, "In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins."

The word propitiation "properly signifies the removal of wrath by the offering of a gift."1 Propitiation properly deals with the wrath of God. The wrath of God is due to the legal requirements of punishing the sinner.  Remember, the sinner is someone who has broken the law of God, hence, the legality of punishment; and since Jesus is our propitiation and turns away the lawful wrath of God, we have further evidence that Christ's sacrifice was to avert God's righteous wrath against us, the sinners. Since the law of God must be met and cannot be ignored, it is proper that the law be fulfilled.  Jesus is the one who fulfilled the law and never sinned (1 Pet. 2:22).  But, he bore our sins in his body on the cross (1 Pet. 2:24) and became sin on our behalf (2 Cor. 5:21) thereby suffering the penalty of sin, which is death.

Christ's death was a legal payment

In addition to Christ's atonement being vicarious, it was also legal.  Legality deals with the law.  Sin is breaking the law of God.  When a law is broken, a punishment is incurred.  There is no punishment without law, and there is no law without punishment.  When a person is sentenced to time in prison, this is done based upon the requirements of the law.  The required sentence upon one who breaks the law of God is death.

2 Cor. 1:9, "indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves in order that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead."

Paul tells us that we had a "sentence of death."  This sentence is due to our breaking the law of God.  Therefore, we were legally guilty before God because we broke his law.  Furthermore, when Jesus was on the cross, he said "It is finished!" (John 19:30). In Greek it is, "tetelistai," and it was a legal term.

"The sixth word or saying that Jesus spoke from the cross was the single Greek work tetelestai which means 'It is finished.' Papyri receipts for taxes have been recovered with the word tetelestai written across them, meaning "paid in full."  This word on Jesus’ lips was significant.  When He said, "It is finished" (not "I am finished"), He meant His redemptive work was completed.  He had been made sin for people (2 Cor. 5:21) and had suffered the penalty of God’s justice which sin deserved."2

Jesus knew the culture, and he specifically used that word "tetelestai," which was used in legal statements in ancient Israel when a legal debt had been fully paid.  Why was this necessary legally?  Because sin only has power because of the law (legality) of God.  The law has a punishment, and the punishment is death.

  • 1 Cor. 15:56, "The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law."
  • Rom. 6:23, "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."

The whole atoning work of Christ was a legal action where Jesus substituted himself for sinners and paid the legal requirement of the punishment of sin--death.  This is what the scriptures teach, and this is the position of CARM.

 

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  • 1. The New Bible Dictionary, (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.), 1962.
  • 2. Walvoord, John F., and Roy B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, (Wheaton, Illinois: Scripture Press Publications, Inc.), 1983, 1985.

 

 

 

 
 
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