What Must Be Denied to Reject Substitutionary Atonement

There has been some online chatter recently on the subject of whether Jesus Christ’s death on the cross was necessary and criticizing the doctrine of substitutionary atonement (that by dying on the cross Jesus took the punishment we deserved and paid for those sins so that we could escape punishment). Theopedia defines penal substitutionary atonement this way: “the doctrine that Christ died on the cross as a substitute for sinners. God imputed the guilt of our sins to Christ, and he, in our place, bore the punishment that we deserve. This was a full payment for sins, which satisfied both the wrath and the righteousness of God, so that He could forgive sinners without compromising His own holy standard.”

It bothers some people that God demands sin be paid for in order to accept people. Rejection of this crucial doctrine isn’t new and I’m sure the list of opponents is long (although Alan JonesHarry Emerson Fosdick, and Brian McClaren who called the cross “false advertising for God” are on the list). But those arguments require that much of the Bible be ignored or rewritten in order to miss the clear scarlet thread that weaves it way through the entire collection of books that makes up the Bible. I’ve done a small search for specific references to Jesus’ death and the topic of salvation to illustrate how frequently it is mentioned. This is barely touching the subject but I hope it is useful. 

The earliest indication in the Bible that the “wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23)” is in Genesis chapter 3. After Adam and Eve sin by disobeying God’s command he tells them what the consequences are for their sin. Each are cursed, along with the entire human race and the pure fellowship they had had with God is broken. But we can see a hint of what is to come in verse 21 when the Lord makes a coat of skins to cover each of them. Implicit in that statement is that the Lord killed animals to make a covering for Adam and Eve.

The account of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, who is spared by a ram provided by God, in Genesis 22 also points to the future Messiah: Jesus who would be the sacrifice for all those who believe.

Lamb’s blood on the doorposts and lintels protected those who placed their faith in God from the angel of death that would strike down every firstborn son in Exodus 12. And of course there is in the entire sacrificial system that is detailed in Leviticus 1-7 which required animal sacrifices for worship, to atone for sin, and for thanksgiving.

With just a cursory search of scripture I found many more references to what the blood of Christ accomplished. I’m sure there are many I haven’t included here.

Matthew 20:28 “even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Romans 3:20-26 “For by works of the law no human being[c] will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.  It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

1 Corinthians 2:1-2 “And I, when I came to you, brothers,[a] did not come proclaiming to you the testimony[b] of God with lofty speech or wisdom.  For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

1 Corinthians 15 “Now I would remind you, brothers,[a] of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand,and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. 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.  Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time…” (1-6)

Galatians 3:10-14 “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.’  Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’[d]  But the law is not of faith, rather ‘The one who does them shall live by them.’ 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’—  so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit[e] through faith.”

Ephesians 1:7 “ In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.”

1 Timothy 1:15 “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.”

Titus 2:11-14 “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ,  who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.”

Hebrews 1 says that Jesus made “purification for sins.”

Revelation 1:5 speaks of Jesus Christ as “him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood.

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2 Responses to What Must Be Denied to Reject Substitutionary Atonement

  1. I admit I have a hard time understanding the issues here, perhaps because I have a hard time understanding how anyone can interpret Christ’s Crucifixion as anything other than an atonement for our sins, since that’s scripturally blatant! What do these other people think the Crucifixion was supposed to mean?

    On the other hand, I’ve noticed a tendency among ardent defenders of substitutionary atonement to argue that it’s-that-interpretation-and-that-interpretation-only. A lot of great Christian thinkers have had a lot of other thoughts over the centuries (and I am definitely not an expert on this), such as the “Christus Victor” view (Christ, in his death, conquered hell, death, and the grave), the “recapitulation” view (Jesus became the New Adam, the new “head” of humanity, to redeem the wrong that Adam had done and give us all new life over the death of original sin) — and in my thinking, these aren’t mutually exclusive or contradictory at all, and are all scripturally supported. Why couldn’t Jesus’s death have done all of those things? It literally rocked the fabric of the universe, and became the pivotal moment of all history. Why limit it to only one understanding?

    I also don’t really understand the nuances of the difference between the Catholic understanding and the Reformed understanding. I know that we reject the idea of extra nos imputation (the idea that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us and covers our sins, and his righteousness is then judged instead of ours) — but to me that’s not at all crucial to Christ bearing the guilt of our sins and He being our sacrifice for them. This is what the Catechism says about it:

    1992. Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men. Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith. It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy. Its purpose is the glory of God and of Christ, and the gift of eternal life (cf. Council of Trent [1547]: DS 1529):

    But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus. (Rom 3:21-26)

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