I've waited a very long time to discuss the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ on the cross. It has come up in almost every teaching I have done on salvation, so I have touched on it a lot, but a thorough discussion has been difficult for one main reason.
I have taken down almost everything on this page, though the long section below is useful, and I left it. The problem with what I wrote had a lot to do with terminology rather than substance. That was pointed out to me in an insulting email filled with misinterpreted verses; nonetheless, the email pointed out the problem with the way I worded things. I am rewriting the page offline, and I will upload it when done (today is June 10, 2019).
In Romans 7 we are told that the problem with the Law of Moses, and the reason that it needed to be superseded with a new covenant, lies not with the Law itself, but with us. Sin dwells within our body. As a result, when the Law tells us not to covet, we covet all the more!
We miss the importance of this thought if we only think of Romans 7 in theological terms; however, when we think in terms of a real God and a real judgment at which we will all appear, the problem with our disobedience to the laws of the Almighty hits home. One day each of us will answer for our disobedience, and Paul is telling us what we all know: We're not very good at obeying God, no matter what form in which we receive his laws.
The point of the Law, says Paul, was to include everyone under sin so that everyone would be reliant upon the mercy of God. The Jews are included under sin because they received the Law, but they did not obey it. The Gentiles are included because their conscience is a law to them, the creation testifies of the glory of the Creator, and they neither obeyed their conscience nor honored God (Rom. 1:19 - 2:16).
This is a problem. It's an eternal problem, and thus it is a big problem.
Paul concurred, crying out on our behalf, "Oh, wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from this body of death?" (Rom. 7:24).
There are two ways in which we could be delivered from the problem described in Romans 7. God could simply grant us an escape from the judgment, despite our disobedience. Or, God's mercy could come to us in the form of a grace that would deliver us from the power of sin so that we could obey God.
Modern Christians tend to believe that God did the first (or both). Early Christians believed that God did the second.
Logic tells us that those who came later are much more likely to have deviated from apostolic truth than those who lived in their time and spoke their language, but the scriptural evidence is heavily on their side as well:
Thus, the entire description of our deliverance from the law of sin and death concerns deliverance from the power sin has over us, not from a change in the judgment. God really is delivering us from "this body of death."
Romans 8:3-4 says that when God sent his Son as an offering for sin, he "condemned sin in the flesh." He did not condemn the judgment; he condemned sin in th flesh. Finally, Romans 8:4 says that the result of Jesus' death is that "the righteous requirement of the Law may be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit."
The description of what was accomplished by the atonement doesn't get any clearer than that!
There are many other verses that say the same thing:
Over and over, the Scriptures say that the purpose was to change us, not the judgment.
We need to pause to discuss the judgment here.
One of the main reasons that Christians today believe that Jesus' death changed the way we will be judged is because they have a horrific view of the judgment. They have been taught that even one imperfection will cause a person to be cast into hell.
No one can be satisfied with such a judgment, believe it is fair, nor have any hope that they might pass such a judgment, despite the grace brought to us by Jesus' death! Of course we believe that such a judgment needed to be changed!
Fortunately, There is not, nor has there ever been, any such judgment. God is not like that.
The only passage that can even be construed to teach such a things is James 2:10, which says that a person who has broken one law is guilty of breaking the whole law. That verse, however, is pulled grossly out of context. James is trying to stop Christians from judging one another. Therefore, he reminds them that anyone who breaks the law is a lawbreaker. One lawbreaker, he points out, has no right to judge another lawbreaker.
None of that, however, suggests that God sends people to hell for breaking just one of God's laws!
Instead, we read that God is merciful, even to lawbreakers. When David committed adultery and murder together, he said:
How true that he will not despise such offerings! Through Ezekiel he tells us that if we who are wicked will turn from our wickedness and do righteousness, all our wickedness will be forgotten, and we will live because of the righteousness which we have done (18:21-22).
It would be good for us to remember that it is an old covenant passage that first tells us that there are people to whom the Lord will not impute sin—even if in minor points they are lawbreakers like everyone else. Abraham was such a man; David was such a man. Both were such men as long as they lived in repentance, even though they lived under the old covenant and before Jesus' death.
In other words, God was already merciful, and the judgment was already just and fair—not demanding perfection from humans who cannot be perfect—even before Jesus died. Jesus did not have to save God, as though his death made God merciful for the first time. He did not have to rescue the judgment. He had to rescue us.
Let's drive this point home just a little deeper.
Today we commonly quote Romans 3:23, "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God," as one further proof that just one sin will disqualify us at the judgment unless that sin is "paid for" by a sacrifice. A look through Romans 3 will show you, however, that the problem is not one sin. The problem is much more extensive than that:
It is the fact that we are ongoing sinners that makes us fall short of the glory of God. It is simply not true that just one sin will cause us to be condemned at the judgment.
In the Scriptures, there are those that are known as righteous, and there are those that are known as wicked. It is clear that the righteous are not perfect. They are, however, "holy." They have turned their life over to God, their life is marked by righteousness, and the mercy of God is upon them.
Contrary to what we are told, it is possible to be seen as righteous and clean in the sight of God. King David, who later had to repent of grave sin to maintain this place of cleanness and righteousness with God, wrote these words.
The problem is, King David was the exception, both among kings and among the Israelite population in general. No one in the entire Israelite army had enough faith to go up against Goliath except David. From this we see that no one among all the men of Israel had walked with God the way David had.
The need of Israel was not that God would be more merciful or that his judgment would be more lenient. The need among the Israelites was that there would be more Davids who would walk with God.
And thus the purpose of Jesus death was to empower us to walk with God.
God promised throughout the Scriptures that those who repent would have life. He was not looking for payment for their sins, but repentance and turning back to God.
God was looking for obedience and repentance. The problem, as Romans 7 explains, is that we cannot produce it.
The Gospel saved us from our inability to produce obedience and repentance. ("What the Law could not do, God did.") It did not change the fact that obedience and repentance are required.
As you can see, the need for repentance did not change under the new covenant, nor did the need to do good works. What changed is that Jesus' death provided a new route to good works. As Paul put it, "We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works" (Eph. 2:10).
Jesus death broke the power of sin in us. It "condemned sin in the flesh," and it allowed us, by the Spirit, to put to death the deeds of the body.
Despite that fact that Galatians is a new covenant letter, written to Christians and emphasizing faith in Jesus, Paul tells us that we will still reap what we sow. If we sow to the flesh, growing weary in doing good, our sowing to the flesh is not "paid for." We will reap destruction.
Ongoing sin is not "paid for" by Jesus' death and our faith. Jesus' death and our faith bring us into grace (Rom. 5:2), and grace teaches us to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts (Tit. 2:11). Thus, we no longer walk in unrighteousness. We may not be perfect, but our lives are marked by obedience to God and not disobedience.
I think it would be very difficult to be any clearer than that! Jesus' righteousness is imputed, but it is imputed to those that practice righteousness.
Note, too, that we are warned not to let ourselves be deceived about this!
In other words, a life marked by repentance and obedience will obtain the same blessing that Abraham and David had even before Jesus' died:
Jesus died to empower us to live in that wonderful state of righteousness that those who believe can experience. John describes it perfectly in these words:
If we walk in the light, we can live in a constant state of deliverance and forgiveness. We can be among those who live by grace—grace being that power that overcomes our slavery to sin, a power to which we are given access by faith (Rom. 5:2)—and thus be among those to whom the Lord will not impute sin (Rom. 4:5-8).
This is the blessedness that Jesus death has brought us to. He did this not by changing the judgment or God, who was already full of mercy and needed no payment for sin from those willing to repent, but by changing us so that we would have "a broken heart and contrite spirit," the sacrifices with which God is pleased. Under grace, we become "his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works" (Eph. 2:10).
This section, on the real meaning of the atonement, has been very long already, but we are discussing a topic that has been confused and changed over the course of history. It's difficult to keep it short.
The point of Jesus' death is to deliver us from sin. This includes both delivering us from the power of sin, and it includes the forgiveness of sins.
God has always been merciful. We have seen that the Scriptures say over and over that God does not require sacrifice to forgive sins.
Nonetheless, Jesus' death is clearly tied to the forgiveness of sins in the Scriptures.
This passage does not specifically mention Jesus' death, but it leaves little doubt that the Gospel itself brings mercy for past sins. If faith in the Gospel brings forgiveness, then that forgiveness was supplied by Jesus' death.
Not surprisingly, Jesus' own words back this up:
Obviously, Jesus himself felt that his blood brought forgiveness. God was merciful before the atonement, but in some way Jesus' blood brought remission of sins.
The reason that I'm being so careful with this is that the penal substitution theory has gained so much acceptance in modern Christianity that it has hijacked the whole idea of the forgiveness of sins. It has been ingrained into our consciousness that if we mention forgiveness, it must mean that Jesus "paid the penalty" for our sins. We've talked about the problems with that above, and we will put it to the rest it deserves in the next section.
The idea behind the forgiveness of sins that we find in Scripture is that when we believe in Christ—which includes within itself repentance and baptism—we enter into a new relationship with God. We enter the new covenant that has been sealed for us by Jesus' blood, and part and parcel of that new covenant is a fresh start, the forgiveness of sins.
The idea of entering into this new covenant, and with it the forgiveness of sins, is everywhere found in the new covenant writings. The idea that a payment had to be made to God because a punishment was due to us and had to be paid is nowhere found.
Let's take a look at some verses that are construed to teach the idea of a "paid penalty." You will quickly see that none of these verses directly teach such a thing. All of them are interpreted just as easily in the way I'm describing here.
The difference, however, is that there are many verses that make the penal substitution or satisfaction theory untenable, whereas there are no verses that make the idea described on this page untenable. In fact, the entirety of the New Testament falls right into place when we read these Scriptures is the way I'm describing.
Let's begin with 1 John 2:2:
The problem here is the word "propitiation." Only John uses it, and everyone wants to define it to fit his theology.
There is no doubt, however, that in some way this word—the Greek is hilasmos—suggests that God was appeased or in some way satisfied by the sacrifice of Jesus. Of course, there can already be no doubt from the rest of Scripture that God accepted Jesus's sacrifice of his own life and considered it a purchase price that purchased those of us who believe, so that we now belong to God, not ourselves (1 Cor. 6:20; 2 Pet. 2:1).
This verse does not, however, say that there was a punishment due us that Jesus paid in our place.
Keep in mind as we go on that the word "atonement" is literally from at-one-ment. Jesus' death made us "at one" with God, and thus "atonement" is a very similar word to reconciliation. The idea behind all these verses, including the two in 1 John (the other is 4:10) that mention propitiation, is that we are reconciled, or put on good terms, with God.
Going on, let's look at 1 John 1:7-9 to clear up some terminology. Keep in mind that these are the verses right before 1 John 2:1.
Here I want you to note the difference between the words "forgive" and "cleanse" in these verses. If we confess our sins, God forgives our sins, but he also cleanses us.
It seems to me that there is a difference between forgive and cleanse here, with "forgive" referring, obviously, to forgiveness, and "cleanse" referring to deliverance from sin.
This may not be the case. It is no stretch to think that cleansing contains both the idea of forgiveness and deliverance; both are tied to Jesus' death in Scripture.
Finally, we need to address the prophecy in Isaiah 53, which has the most "substitutional" terminology of all. In this case, I'm going to use the New American Standard Bible because I think it is the best modern translation available. Using King James English that is now 400 years out of date hardly seems the best thing to do for a study like ours.
I picked only the verses in Isaiah 53 that had strongly substitutionary terminology.
No one can deny that this passage says that it was because we transgressed, we committed iniquities, and because of our guilt that he was punished. Yet, this is nothing more than what we have already said on this page. There is no need to add penal substitution to what we have already said to make these passages fit.
Our iniquity fell on him. He carried away our sins. He was pierced because of our transgressions, not because of his own. His Father was pleased to crush him and to put him to grief on our behalf, all so that "he will see his offspring."
All of these statements are true. Jesus suffered, and our Father was pleased to crush him so that Jesus could be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. He died so that he could say, "Here am I and all the children that the Lord has given me" (Heb. 2:14).
We just need a new perspective.
Let us finish up by showing why there is such a need for a new perspective. Besides what we have said above, there are even more reasons that penal substitution fails as a theory of the atonement.
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