What is the substitutionary atonement?
One question throughout the ages has been regarding the atonement of Jesus Christ. Did Christ’s death on the cross simply make a way for mankind to merit the graces of God ourselves? Was Christ’s death on the cross solely a demonstration of His love, and therefore setting an example for us to follow? Or was Christ’s death on the cross the full payment for our sin? Before we can answer this question, let’s first discuss the definition of “substitutionary atonement.”
Substitutionary atonement simply means that someone or something takes the punishment for someone else. In other words, a person or an animal takes the punishment in the place of the one deserving the punishment. Is there any biblical basis for this idea? Consider this:
“And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.” – Genesis 22:13
Abraham was about to sacrifice his son Issac on the altar, but a ram was substituted in his place. This is one of many examples of how the Old Testament foreshadowed events to come (e.g. the sacrifice of Jesus Christ).
What can we find in the New Testament to suggest that Jesus Christ took our place when He suffered and died on the cross?
“Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.” – Isaiah 53:4–6
“Who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification.” – Romans 4:25
“For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” – 2 Corinthians 5:21
“Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed.” – 1 Peter 2:24
Jesus Christ not only bore our sins on the cross, but His work on the cross was propitiatory. In other words, His work on the cross appeased the wrath of God toward us.
“Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.” – Isaiah 53:10–11
“Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God” – Romans 3:25
“And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” – 1 John 2:2
“Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” – 1 John 4:10
The Scripture clearly teaches that Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was two-fold: He took our punishment in our place; and by doing so, He appeased God’s wrath. The Scripture does not support any other views of the atonement, such as Jesus’ death was solely a demonstration of love or that He was simply making a way for us to merit our own salvation. Are we able to be saved by our own merits or by the keeping of God’s law? No we cannot. What did the Apostle Paul say?
“I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.” – Galatians 2:21