Substitionary Atonement: A Response

And here I thought a discussion on Limited Atonement would spark objections.  Apparently any discussion on the nature of Christ’s atonement, specifically as it pertains to His substitutionary atonement is sure to bring out the objectors.  Since it required a lengthy response that was related to part 2 of the post, I decided to publish the comment anonymously with the response.  It’s significant to note that not 1 Scripture reference is made to support any of the claims.

From the comments on A Survey of the Cross: The Atonement , Part 1:

It seems rather obvious that the atonement was not substitutionary in the sense that Jesus took our punishment in our place. He was not our penal substitute, but our righteousness substitute, if you will. Hebrews seems to make it clear that, in the ceremony, Jesus is represented by both the priest (Son of God; mediator) and the goat (Son of Man; likeness of sinful flesh) that is slain. The goats in general represent man.

Jesus offered the sacrifice on behalf of the people–all of them. The atonement was for everyone. Only those, however, who identified with the slain goat, go into the presence of God with the priest. Those who do not are identified with the goat that bears the sins and is sent off into the wilderness. The Jews identified their salvation in the goat that carried the sins into the wilderness. They were wrong, as evidenced by the fact that they did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah.

The Passover is the image of our escape from judgment. It is from man’s perspective, and we see Jesus as a lamb going to slaughter. The Atonement is our reconciliation with God. It is from God’s perspective. The only people (goats) he sees is the goat he chose–Jesus Christ. Our only access to heaven is that goat; our identity in him. He sees the priest and the sacrificed goat. Jesus was not our substitute in punishment. He was our substitute in righteousness. We must be sacrificed with Christ (the image of baptism–buried and raised with him). The deal was we sin, we die. That happens. The deal with Jesus is not that we don’t die, but that we avoid the “but after this, the judgment.” Jesus died the “first death” so that we could avoid the “second death” that comes with judgment. That is the Passover. Jesus’ righteous, sacrificial life along with the sacrificial death is the atonement; it is the justification the Father needed to resurrect man. He is justified resurrecting perfect Jesus, and he is justified raising those who belong to Jesus (those who surrendered their lives to him and made him their Savior and Lord) and restoring them and the rest of the kingdom to Jesus, just as he restored everything to Job, who is the picture of that.

I am hoping this truth is reflected in your “Part 2.” It really is disturbing reading all the messed up theories on line. The Bible is pretty self-explanatory.

Thanks for the comment.   Though you point out some truths, they seem intermingled with a lot of confusion or at best an incomplete view of the atonement.  It would seem that the majority of your response is a product of eisegesis, or reading into Scripture.  Hebrews does not infer that the goats from Leviticus 16 represent man nor is there any suggestion in the Levitical atonement that it was for everyone.  In fact, just the opposite, clearly stating that it was for “the people of Israel”, not any other nations (Leviticus 16:16, 21, 34).  The definite article “the” in front of “people” denotes it is a specific group of people, i.e. Israel.  One can’t create a parallel for universal atonement where it doesn’t exist in the passage.  I would argue on this basis that the parallel to the atonement of Jesus would likewise be “limited”, but that discussion for another day.    Additionally, there is no need to make distinctions between 2 groups of Jewish people who’ve identified with a particular goat offering as this destroys the definition of a propitiatory, atoning sacrifice, but more on that in a minute.

I don’t mean to be rude or overly disparaging, but I must take issue with your response for several reasons, primarily being because it is a blatant denial of the Substitutionary Atonement of Jesus Christ.  This is unsurprising, given the nature of this belief particularly within liberal theological streams, but likewise because the post to which you are replying has not yet made the connection between the Old Testament atonement as outlined in Leviticus and Christ, other than a brief look at the definition of atonement as provided by multiple sources.  So you’ve made a quantum leap in your assumptions from the very start and provided your own interpretation as to what “Part 2” of the atonement discussion should say.  But to the point, a denial of Christ’s Substitutionary Atonement is quite simply a smack in the face of the orthodox Christian belief, but more importantly it is a failure to recognize the central truths of the Gospel.   It would seem (though I am open to correction) that your belief draws in part from the “Moral Influence of Atonement Theory” that would align itself as a polar opposite of Penal Substitutionary Atonement.

That aside, let’s look briefly at what the Bible has to say about Christ’s substitution beginning with John 11:50 as Caiaphas, the high priest, prophesies of Jesus’ death, “You know nothing at all.  Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.”  Note he says here, “for the people”, which is nothing if not substitutionary language.  Even if we were to examine the Greek word “for”, hyper, we would still see the definition as being “for the sake of” or “on behalf of”, which would do little to alter the substitutionary meaning.  Another such passage that speaks to the substitutionary nature of atonement is Romans 5:8, “But God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  Again we see the same language of dying in place of or as a substitute.  Why would there be any need for Christ to die “for us” if death were not the requisite punishment for sin?   The Apostle Paul gives a gospel summary for us in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 utilizing again this same language , “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that He was buried , that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.”

I suspect your objection has less to do with the word “substitution”, as indicated in your statement of Christ as a “righteous substitute”, and more to do with what kind of substitution Christ made.  To answer this we need look no further than Galatians 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’”  Here we see that Christ redeemed His people from the curse due to them because of their disobedience to the law and became a curse Himself.  Again note this is substitutionary language, “becoming a curse for us”.  But what of this curse?  Is this some sort of voodoo witchcraft curse that was due believers?  Not all, the curse is none other than the justice of God poured out through His wrath as the eternal punishment due to sinners.  The infinitely worthy Son of God endured the wrath of God due to His people and by His blood satisfied or appeased the wrath of God towards all those who have ever or will ever believe.  This we see as typified in the slain goat of Leviticus whose blood was sprinkled on the mercy seat as a propitiation or “atoning sacrifice” to appease the wrath of God (more on propitiation in upcoming posts).  In actuality the blood of this goat did nothing to remove or atone for sinners, but instead was a typification or foreshadowing of the perfect sacrifice of Christ which was to come (Hebrews 10:4).    

Secondly from our levitical system outlined in the post, we see a “scapegoat” being mentioned.  While you seem to make an eisegetical mistake by reading in a distinction made between the Jewish people who identified with one “goat” or the other, the passage from Leviticus is quite clear, that BOTH goats were required for the people of Israel.  One group did not pick a goat to be slain for them while another group picked a goat to take away sin.  No both are necessary, the satisfaction of God’s wrath and the expiation or removal of sin, thus the definition of propitiation. I will grant that the Bible does not tell us what becomes of this scapegoat, other than it is set free, so my “implication” that it too would die goes too far in its inference, as we are only told it is lead to the wilderness (Leviticus 16:22).  As Charles Spurgeon asserts , the death of the first goat represents the substitutionary death of Christ and upon completion of that, the effect was the removal of sin, which we see typified in the scapegoat.   As a side note it should be mentioned that nobody other than the high priest entered into the “presence of God” as you say.  As part of his priestly duties he made intercession to God for the people.  Likewise, as we’ll look at in upcoming posts Jesus fulfills the role of High Priestly intercession by not only prayer, but through the mediation of the new covenant.  It may sound like semantics but it is not with Christ that believers enter the presence of God, but through Christ.

If Jesus was only a righteous substitute then there would have been no need for His death.  He simply could’ve lived perfect and imputed that sinless nature to believers.  Instead His life of perfect obedience was necessary as well as His substitutionary death.  If as a substitute Jesus did not pay the penalty that was owed to sinners, then that debt is left to be paid and we’ve not only assaulted the meaning of atonement, but subsequently Christ the Redeemer and the ransom paid, .  The sins of believers do not magically disappear without a just payment, namely death, and in the believers case that was fully satisfied in the death of Christ.  As Hebrews 9:22 emphatically states, “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin.”  Jesus’ atonement, as a blood sacrifice, had to both satisfy God’s wrath AND remove sin, thus completely reconciling the sinner by faith to God.  In doing this, God was able to be both “just and the Justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” Romans 3:26  There is a penalty to be paid for sin and we can either pay it ourselves or look to the One who paid it for us.  We cannot simply pick and choose which parts of the atonement appeal to us because we like or dislike various aspects and then use other typifications of Christ’s death (i.e. Passover) to prop up our views.  Although the atonement will never be fully understood this side of heaven, rest assured “Christ died for sinners, of whom I am chief.”

“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.” 1 Peter 3:18

6 thoughts on “Substitionary Atonement: A Response”

  1. Sorry for the back post. I was searching “substitutionary penal atonement” because I’m always struck that I never seem to come across the passage of Scripture that explains it. And I found your blog.

    You write, “Why would there be any need for Christ to die “for us” if death were not the requisite punishment for sin?”

    The fact of Christ dying “for us” is not the *answer* to the question of atonement, as you seem to suggest. Rather the ambiguity of that phrase is the whole reason why people debate the question of atonement. There is nothing about “for us” that obviously means “God would have killed us, but God killed Jesus instead.”

    For example, I could say (hypothetically) that my father died “for me” by working himself into the grave so that I could go to college. I could say that a soldier killed in war died “for us” by putting himself in harm’s way in order to keep our country safe. Neither of those would be a direct, his-life-for-my-life, exchange.

    So with Jesus. Several texts say he died “for our sins” without explaining what that means. The substitutionary atonement view indeed uses Scripture, but it’s hardly stated and explained in any one place of Scripture –– rather you have to choose different passages from different places in order to make the case. The reason people disagree is not because they think the don’t realize the word “propitiation” occurs in Scripture. Rather, it’s because Scripture presents at least a couple of different ways of looking at what Jesus’ death “for us” means, and they think other ones are better explained and/or more important.

    So for example: in Romans 5–6, I think Paul has a different idea of what it means that Jesus “died for us,” which is different than penal substitutionary atonement. Paul says that we are slaves to sin, whose wages are death (Rom 6:23). Because of our sinfulness, of course, we are also objects of God’s wrath (Rom 1:18, etc.). Christ was not subject to sin or death, but he voluntarily died in order to overcome death (Rom 6:9-10). The reason this was “for us” is that now through baptism, we share in Christ’s death, so that we are set free from the power of sin, and it will not longer be able to lead us to death. In this process we become holy and righteous, so that when Christ returns to judge the world, we will not be objects of his wrath. Thus Jesus “died for our sins” (1 Cor 15:3).

    I would imagine (forgive me if I’m wrong) that you read Romans 5–6 specifically through the lens of substitutionary atonement, and thus assume that the “wages of sin” refers to the wrath God owes us because of our sin. In theory that’s possible, but notice that Romans 5–6 never actually says that. Rather, sin is presented as a power that dominates us and enslaves us (Rom 6:6, 12-13). If we serve sin, we will receive sin’s wages, which are death. If we are set free from sin through baptism and union with Christ, we will receive the gift of God, which is eternal life. In this setting, death and wrath don’t seem to be exactly the same thing; death can kill us even apart from the wrath that God will bring when Christ returns.

    You might say that since that doesn’t quite fit with substitutionary atonement (which also has some biblical support), that I’m just twisting the meaning of the Bible. I would submit that these passages are indeed difficult to fit together, and that *that’s why people disagree*. We can choose to interpret Romans 5–6 so that it fits with substitutionary atonement if we want to, but I don’t think that does justice to what Paul actually says here––it seems like eisegesis to me. Or we can choose to downplay Paul’s brief mention of “hilasterion” in Rom 3:25 in order to fit with the reading of Paul I’ve presented. The key is that both of those readings are based on the choice of the interpreter rather than “simply reading the Bible carefully.” It should not surprise us, then, that Christians disagree.

    For what it’s worth, I don’t see substitutionary atonement in Hebrews either, since the second goat is never discussed in Hebrews. If you read Leviticus 16, the first goat whose blood gets sprinkled (the one talked about in Hebrews 9:6-7) is never said to be a substitute for the people. Nor is the second goat said to die for the people –– rather, a more natural assumption is that the sins are being symbolically sent out from among the people, never to be heard of again. Though the goat presumably dies, I don’t see the text having any interest in saying that it’s death replaces the people’s death. The OT doesn’t (to my knowledge) present the sacrificial system as penal substitution, and neither does Hebrews. I suppose we can read that into Hebrews if we want to, but it’s absolutely not required in order for Hebrews to make sense. Jesus died to offer a sacrifice that atones for our sins, so we aren’t guilty of those sins. We may get free from punishment in the deal, but that doesn’t mean it’s because Jesus’ death was punishment.

    To me, the most reasonable conclusion is that there’s some mystery here, and that God wants to present a lot of different ways of thinking about what Christ’s death did, and not just one. If that is the case, then trying to subsume all of them under penal substitutionary atonement is less biblical, not more biblical.

  2. Scott, Would I be correct in assuming that you disagree with both the substitutionary aspect of atonement, as well as the penal aspect? It at least appears that way from the questions you raise. The sticking point in most all of the objections I’ve heard raised against both of those aspects of Christ’s atonement always seems to focus on the “for us”, i.e. that Jesus died “for us”. The problem I have with understanding these objections is what is ambiguous about “for us”? For instance, in Galatians 3:10-14 Paul writes the following:

    “10 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” 11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” 12 But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— 14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.”

    We have as an example, “for us” occurring in this passage at verse 13. In context Paul states that Christ became a curse for us. To begin to understand what that means, we need to look up a couple verses to find out that “everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law” is under a curse. I submit that this is everyone who has ever lived, apart from Jesus Christ, who was the only one who DID abide by all things written in the law. Following along, Christ redeemed “us” (in Paul’s context it is a direct application to believers), from that curse by becoming a curse for us. This is not ambiguous. There is an exchange here and it is a one for many exchange. The curse was on all mankind and through Christ’s redemption the curse was lifted from God’s elect and placed on Christ. This is what Paul means when he says “by becoming a curse for us”. How do we know that Christ was then cursed? Because Paul supports his argument by quoting Deuteronomy 21:23 (the law) which says, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”. There is simply no way around this. A great exchange of the curse took place, from those who were cursed under the law to the One who became the curse in fulfillment of the laws demands (Col. 2:14). This is the substitutionary nature of the atonement.

    The second aspect, penal, arises out of this same passage in the form of an unanswered question, namely “What is this curse?” We must ask, is it merely physical death? Did Christ die to save His people from a physical death? Clearly this is not the case, as we see death every day. In this passage from Galatians, Paul is stating that to “rely on the works of the law” places all those who do so under a curse. Similarly, Paul presents a nearly identical statement in Romans 4:14-15, “14 For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.” Here, Paul contrasts adherence to the law with faith and “the promise” with wrath. Simplifying, obedience to the law negates faith and results in wrath, whereas in faith the promise of eternal life is fulfilled. Justification cannot come by obeying the letter of the law, but instead justification comes by faith alone (Galatians 3:11). What then comes by the law? Wrath. We may now ask, what was the curse of the law that Christ redeemed us from? Wrath. Who’s wrath? As the Lawgiver and the Judge of the law it is God’s wrath that Christ redeems His people from. Here we have the penal aspect of Christ’s atonement, namely propitiating the wrath of God “for us”, that is, believers.

    Scott, it is helpful to view other passages of Scripture to make a particular passage more lucid, as in the case above. But surely Galatians 3 can stand on its own as an example of not only substitutionary atonement, but the penal aspects as well. I agree that there are various descriptors that the Bible uses to describe Christ’s atonement, but all involve a transaction. He redeemed a people. Paid a Ransom for them. Became a curse for them. Died for them. Gave Himself for them. Loved them. Was bruised for them. If you take out the “for us”, not only have you stripped away the power of Christ’s atoning blood from all those to whom it is applied, but they neither have their sins forgiven nor do they have Christ’s righteousness applied. If that is the position you take, then the question becomes, “Why did Christ need to die at all?” It all then becomes unnecessary and the sin of everyone could have just been wiped away by the mighty hand of God. Without “for us” that is what you are left with and it is no good news at all.

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful response. You ask if I disagree with the “substitutionary” aspect of Jesus’ death, in addition to the “penal” aspect. I think would agree on some kind of substitution, but probably in a different sense that you describe. I do have some thoughts on Galatians 3 that I’m still trying to sort out in my head, but here’s a couple of thoughts I’d be interested in your response to:

    First, on the question of substitution, I don’t think the OT sacrifice are exactly substitutes for the sacrificer. They were indeed killing an animal to atone for their sins, but the substitution wasn’t direct. In other words, the transaction wasn’t a matter of: I deserve to die, but this animal will die in my place––there were capital crimes that required death, and in those cases a sacrifice couldn’t get you out of your punishment. Rather, in cases of ordinary sin, God simply declared that an animal sacrifice was price to set things right. So it’s not “the animal’s death for mine,” but instead it’s “here’s the price to redeem my sin.” This is why a person could be “ransomed” at times by paying money (e.g., Exod 30:11-16), even though nothing dies when you pay money, so there’s not a direct substitute.

    Second, let me see if we mean the same thing by “penal.” My understanding is that penal substitutionary atonement argues that Jesus actually was punished, that he actually was the object of God’s wrath. This would be different than merely saying Jesus underwent something horrific, or paid some great price, in order for us not to receive God’s wrath. In other words, my understanding is that the clencher for penal substitutionary atonement is that what happened to Jesus was punishment for him, and not just a way of averting punishment for us. I don’t think I agree with that atonement theory, but am I at least describing accurately what’s at stake?

  4. Hi Scott, thanks for the follow-up. I apologize for the delay, I’ve been extremely busy and unable to post much recently.

    First, in response to your question of OT sacrifice, I’m curious to know if this is the driver behind your view? Meaning, does the OT sacrificial system define your views of Christ’s sacrificial atonement? If so, then we are coming at this from 2 different directions and that will help us understand each other. If not, it will still be helpful to understand what’s going on in the OT. The OT sacrificial system, most (I hesitate to be dogmatic due mainly to my own lack of knowledge) all of it, from priests to animal sacrifices, is typology. By that I mean it is a very real requirement by God for the people of Israel, but it is also symbolic of what would take place in Christ. Because the OT sacrificial system is a type, there is a danger in trying to draw exact parallels between the OT and NT. [An example would be the 2 goats on the Day of Atonement from Leviticus 16, certainly there were not 2 Christ’s. Though I submit the two goats may represent two aspects of Christ’s own atonement, namely propitiation and expiation (there may be more implications here, but that for a separate post).]

    What we need to do instead is use the NT to help us better understand the OT. Hebrews is an excellent book to start with because it draws heavily on the OT types and points to their NT counterpart in Christ. In Hebrews, what we see is that these OT sacrifices didn’t actually remove the sins of anyone, but they were instead pointing ahead to a greater sacrifice, namely Christ. (Hebrews 10:4) We can also see this in John the Baptist’s language from John 1:29 as he declares concerning Jesus, “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Here in the Baptist’s language we may almost immediately think of the Passover lamb from Exodus, again which was a type of a coming sacrifice. It is interesting that you mention redemption and ransom, both of which are words used to describe other aspects of Christ’s atonement. Your example of paying money (Exodus 30:11-16) without death, doesn’t necessarily correspond to Christ, in the sense of actual money. However, the “currency” that Christ used to ransom His people was His own blood. (Rev. 5:9) Likewise, it is Christ’s blood that provided redemption for His people (Eph 1:7). So, basically, in order to understand Christ’s atonement we have to understand the progressive revelation of God in His Word and take that which has been revealed under the New Covenant, i.e. the New Testament, to help us understand how sacrifices worked under the Old Covenant, i.e. in the Old Testament.

    Secondly, the basic idea of penal substitutionary atonement can be summed up by saying that Jesus Christ took upon Himself the sins of the world (1 Corinthians 5:21) and though He never sinned Himself, He took the punishment due to all sinners who place their faith in Him (Romans 3:24-25). He actually did avert or perhaps better stated absorb the punishment that was due to sinners, namely the wrath of God.

    If you’d like a good resource on penal substitutionary atonement, I recommend Pierced For Our Transgressions by Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach. Also, I’ve written several articles that address the subject which you should be able to find in the search box (see also articles on propitiation).

    For the glory of His Name,
    John

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