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 known for a long time that the early Christians had never heard of a "substitutionary" atonement. They did not use terms like "died in our place" when discussing Jesus' death on the cross.
This theory is also known as the "satisfaction" or "penal substitution" theory of the atonement. The terms suggest that Jesus "satisfied" God's requirement for justice and substituted himself for our punishment. He thus "paid the penalty" for our sins.
The early Christians didn't think in these terms, either.
The ideas of satisfaction and penal substitution, in which Jesus takes a punishment that was due for our sins in our place, are both unknown to the early churches and surprisingly lacking in Scriptural support. The satisfaction theory was introduced by Anselm, the Roman Catholic bishop of Canterbury, in the eleventh century, then developed into the penal substitution theory by Thomas Aquinas about 150 years later. Despite the novelty of their ideas, Thomas Aquinas was so respected as a theologian that the substitutionary atonement theory has become the standard of Christian thought in the west ever since. (To this day, the Eastern Orthodox churches have a much more early Christian understanding of the atonement.)
For 20 years I have known that:
I knew that the Scriptures and the early Christians did not support a substitutionary atonemnet. Finding an alternative in the Scriptures and in the writings of the early Christians has been much more difficult.
I have been told repeatedly, by those who ought to know, that the early Christians believed in the "ransom" theory of the atonement. Despite their assurances, neither my reading of the early Christians nor my reading of Scripture seemed to back up that theory, either. It seemed more like "ransom" was just one of several analogies used to explain what Jesus did on the cross.
Unfortunately (in this instance), I am a westerner. Like most other western Christians, I like my Christian doctrines to be tidy and logically explicable with as few loose ends as possible.
Many Christian doctrines are not so, and the atonement may be the least tidy and logically explicable doctrine of all.
Thus, it took me a very long time before I realized that the reason I could understand neither the Scriptures nor the early Christians on the subject of the atonement is because both tell us only what was accomplished by the atonement. How it was accomplished is simply too much for any of us to understand. For this reason, how is not explained in Scripture nor in the tradition of the church.
So on this page, we will discuss two things:
The real purpose of the atonement is directly stated in Scripture a number of times, so it will not be difficult to establish. When I am done, however, if you are a westerner like I am, you will ask, "How does that work? What is the mechanism that makes that happen?"
I don't know! As far as I can tell, no one else knows, either!
But there is no doubt that the Scriptures—and afterwards the church for a thousand years—say exactly what the atonement accomplished.
Perhaps the best direct explanation of the atonement is found in Paul's letter to the Romans. This should not surprise us, as this is the only letter in the New Testament specifically written to defend and carefully explain the Gospel.
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.
Let's define our terms once again.
"Penal substitution" refers to the idea that Jesus died in our place, taking our punishment. Often, when we want to illustrate penal substitution, a prisoner on death row is used as an analogy, even though there's no real equivalent in life. (Prisoners on death row are not allowed to go free, even if someone offers to die in their place.)
Nonetheless, those who believe in a substitutionary atonement use death row prisoners as an analogy. If someone were to be put to death in their place, then they would go free. Their punishment would be paid, though not by themselves, but by a substitute. Thus, "penal substitution."
That, they say, is what Jesus did for all of us. Death was the wages for our sin (Rom. 6:23), and Jesus, who was not a sinner, died to receive the punishment for our sins.
This idea is also called the "satisfaction" theory because it asserts that's God's righteous requirement for justice was satisfied by Jesus' death.
Here are the reasons that the substitutionary theory of the atonement fails.
The section above gives a thorough scriptural description of the purpose of Jesus' death. When we understand the atonement in this way, all the verses of the New Testament begin to fall into place. The verses on grace, faith, and works all fall smoothly into place.
The substitutionary atonement, on the other hand, leaves us with all sorts of confusing verses. How can we be judged according to our works if Jesus paid for all our sins? 2 Corinthians 5:10 not only says we will be judged by our works, but it emphasizes that both good and bad works will be judged.
How can this be if our bad works were all already punished by Jesus' death?
In Revelation 3:4-5 Jesus says to "a few" in the church in Sardis that they will walk with him in white. The reason, he says, is that they have not defiled their garments. Because of this they are "worthy."
How can this be if the sins of all Christians were paid for alike? How could some have defiled garments and some not have defiled garments?
1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Galatians 5:19-21, and Ephesians 5:5 all give lists of sins that, if practiced regularly, will keep Christians from inheriting the kingdom of God. Many churches today teach that "inheriting the kingdom of God" has nothing to do with going to heaven and only to do with experiencing the kingdom of God on earth. I think it is obvious to anyone trying to believe the Scriptures—rather than trying to defend tradition—that this interpretation is false. Even if it were true, however, they are admitting that Christians are receiving a punishment of some sort for their sins. How could this be if the penalty of our sins has been paid?
Scripturally, the "paid penalty" or "penal substitution" theory just doesn't work.
The substitutionary atonement removes all mercy from God. Sin must be paid for, even if an innocent person must die. It can never be simply forgiven.
As a result, it is almost as though Jesus died so that God himself would be saved. Prior to the atonement, he was unable to show mercy but had to punish even the most trivial of sins with eternal torment in hell. After the atonement, however, he can simply forgive the most horrible of sins. A glorious salvation indeed!
Back in the 1980's a book called Evangelism Explosion circulated widely among Christians. Churches of all denominations used it to teach evangelism to their members.
At the heart of Evangelism Explosion was an outline of the Gospel. One of its points was, "God is merciful and wants to forgive sin, but he is holy and he must punish sin."
This was not seen as heresy. Most Christians would say, "Oh, yes; of course this is true." But let's look at what it says!
God wants to forgive sin, the book and our modern Gospel tells us. But sin must be punished. This raises some questions, doesn't it?
The Scriptures don't agree that God must do anything.
Scripturally, God wants to forgive sin; therefore, if a person turns from their sin and does righteousness, then he does forgive sin.
God does not have to punish sin. He can do what he wants, and he makes it clear repeatedly and often that what he wants is to forgive the sins of the repentant!
This was God's pronouncement about himself when he revealed himself to Moses. In fact, it was the very first thing he said about himself when he walked by.
It must be important.
It is not true that God must punish sin. He will not clear the guilty, which is a good, merciful, and kind trait. He will, however, clear the repentant without requiring that someone die, which is also an excellent trait.
We call that trait mercy, and contrary to the teaching of the substitutionary atonement, God had it, in abundance, even before Jesus died.
In fact, it was the mercy of God, who wanted us to repent, that made him willing to give up his own Son on our behalf. While we were yet sinners, his mercy was being shown to us. He was going to sacrifice his Son so that we could be empowered to repent and obey in hope.
He did not need punishment to turn his wrath from us. He needed repentance, the exact thing that every good father would need from his children.
God will not only have mercy on the wicked that forsakes his way, but he will "abundantly" pardon. This God of abundant pardon is our God, not the unmerciful, bound god of the substitutionary atonement who must produce a punishment for sin against his will.
Jesus' death was not a penal substitution. No substitute was needed. Jesus' death was a sacrifice meant to ransom us from our slavery to sin. Though it "pleased" God to bruise him (Is. 53:10), and it was a "joy" for Jesus to give himself (Heb. 12:2), it was not because our God delights in punishment! Instead, he was "pleased" to send his Son to sacrifice himself and thus purchase us to God with his own blood, delivering us from our slavery to sin.
Once again, the mechanism through which this happens is beyond my understanding. It appears to me to be beyond the understanding of everyone who has addressed the subject in writing. There is no doubt, however, that this is what Jesus' death really accomplished, according to the Scriptures.
It should not surprise us that the mechanism of the divine plan of redemption would be a mystery to us, above our understanding. In fact, it should surprise us if it were not!
It is enough for us to know how the divine plan applies to us and what God is asking of us. That much, he has made clear. Let us, then, understand the atonement in the scriptural sense rather than clinging to a substitutionary atonement—not invented until the eleventh century and not formalized until the thirteenth—that leaves us with numerous clashing, "difficult" verses.