Substitutionary Atonement—How Vital is it?

Substitutionary Atonement
—How Vital is it?

W. Ross Hastings

Mr. W. Ross Hastings resides in Kingston, Ontario. Although still young in years, Mr. Hastings is a gifted teacher of God’s Word and, midst his manifold responsibilities, is studying toward a Ph.D. degree.

We are delighted that our brothel accepted an invitation last fall to become a member of our “Food for the Flock” committee.

This is his first article to appear in the magazine.

An issue which is at the cutting edge of evangelical theology is that of the significance of the atonement of Christ. As those of the Protestant heritage, we consider the doctrine of substitutionary atonement to be central and fundamental to our faith. In view of the constant and vigorous onslaught of more liberal theologians, it is essential that we are able to give a strong Biblical defence of this doctrine. Thus it is hoped that this short article will serve both to introduce this defence and stimulate further study.

With reference to the atoning death of Christ, the concept of substitution is inclusive enough to be viewed as the unifying, integrating principle of the atonement. The major words used in the New Testament to describe the atonement in its marvellous, varied aspects, all have at their core the basic idea of substitution. The terms redemption, propitiation, reconciliation and justification will be considered briefly.

It will hopefully become apparent, that in relation to His death, the title “My Substitute” for the Lord Jesus is extremely apt, and conducive to our worshipful appreciation of Him.

I. Redemption

According to classical Greek writings, Rabbinic writers and the Old Testament, the basic idea of redemption is the paying of a ransom price to secure a liberation. The word applied to a variety of circumstances such as the freeing of slaves, or prisoners of war, or of a man under sentence of death because his ox had gored a man: but always there was the payment of a ransom to secure the liberation.

In New Testament terms, redemption involves liberation from a man’s captivity and slavery to sin (John 8:34), and from the curse (Gal. 3:13) and death sentence (Rom. 6:23) in which sin has placed him, to a state of freedom from sin (John 8:34-36; Rom. 6:6-22) and its death sentence (Rom. 8:2; 2 Tim. 1:10). Further, the redeemed experience the inestimable liberty of the indwelling of the Spirit of God (Gal. 3:14) and the inestimable privilege of son-ship (Gal. 4:5). This liberation has been accomplished by the payment of a price, and it is Christ who has paid it (Acts 20:28; Eph. 1:7; Mark 10:45) by giving Himself (Tit. 2:14) and shedding His blood (Eph. 1:7).

Various Greek words are used in the New Testament for this redemption process and a careful study of these words (which may be divided into the lutron group — lutron, lutroo, lutrosis, apolutrosis and antilutron; the agorazo group —agorazo, exagorazo; and peripoioumai) in their contexts, will reveal that the price paid for redemption was substitutionary in character.

II. Propitiation

If sin places us under bondage and death from which we are redeemed, sin also evokes the wrath of God for which there must be propitiation. Propitiation is the means of the averting of that wrath. Christ on the cross propitiated the wrath of God (His eternal recoil against sin), and rendered God propitious to His people.

There are four undisputed references in the New Testament to propitiation in the context of the atoning death. These are Hebrews 2:17 (verb hilaskomai) John 2:2; 4:10 (noun hilasmos) and Romans 3:25 (hilasterion). The weight of evidence from first century koine is that the words refer to the process of the averting of the wrath of God, and not to expiation. Contextual arguments also favour this interpretation. Romans 3:25 is exemplary. The opening section of Romans is fraught with the wrath of God (1:18; 2:5; 3:5) against the sin of man. Thus when Paul deals in 3:21-26 with the atonement, one of the terms in which he describes it is propitiation. In other words, Christ Jesus was set forth as the means of the averting of that Divine wrath, and the substitionary implication is obvious. The Son endured the fury of God for our sin, and hence His heart-rendering cry, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken Me?”

III. Reconciliation

In addition to causing bondage and the wrath of God, sin has the further consequence of alienating man from God, and reconciliation is the removal of the ground of that alienation. Biblical reconciliation does not primarily consist of the putting away of our submissive enmity or hostility to God. As W. Hoste aptly comments: “Men may repent, but this does not remove past guilt.” Every passage in the New Testament which refers to reconciliation in connection with the atonement makes it abundantly clear that it is “by the death of His Son,” “in one body by the cross,” and “through the blood of His cross” that peace is made; and not by a change in man’s attitude to God.

For the sake of brevity, we will highlight one of these words and encourage your personal study of the others. The basic word lutron is found in only one New Testament statement: “For the Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life a ransom (lutron) for many (anti pollon)” (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45). The exegetical evidence that the “ransom saying” portrays a substitutionary concept is very strong. Both the intrinsic meaning of lutron and that of anti (see Dana & Mantey), in addition to the use of the aorist tense, as well as the general context of the verse, show conclusively that a substitutionary transaction is implied. Even scholars who are opposed to substitutionary atonement, and who insist that this passage means only that Christ’s obedience has benefitted mankind in an exemplary way, admit that the grammr of the saying points to a substitutionary concept (Buschel, Wheeler Robinson).

Substitution is again a key aspect. It is the vicarious sin-bearing of Christ which has brought reconciliation into being. 2 Corinthians 5:19-21 makes this clear. Reconciliation consists of God “not reckoning their trespasses unto them” (v. 19), and this is possible only because “He hath made Him to be sin for us” (v. 21).

IV. Justification

Justification, that act by which God declares righteous, appears to involve both the death (Rom. 3:24; 5:9) and resurrection of Jesus (Rom. 4:25). In terms of His death, justification is “by His blood” and “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus”; and inasmuch as we have shown redemption to be substitutionary, so is justification. Indeed, one author comments: “Justification and substitution stand or fall together.” As Calvin says, “Our acquittal is in this that the guilt which made us liable to punishment was transferred to the head of the Son of God” (Isa. 53:12). I would hasten to add that justification not only involves the removal of our guilt in a vicarious way, but the declaration of our positive righteousness, which righteousness is by faith in Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:22).

This substitutionary aspect of justification is vital, for only by it is God’s own righteousness vindicated, and as Forsyth so aptly writes: “Justification is the justification of God as well as that of man.” He is both “just and the justifier of Him which believeth in Jesus.”

It is thus clear that all the major aspects of the atonement are in essence substitutionary. It should be further noted that the concept of a vicarious atonement is not uniquely Pauline, but pervades the whole New Testament. The substitutionary nature of the evangeline ‘ransom paying’ (Matt. 20:28; Mark 1:45) has already been referred to. Denney’s remark is fitting: “If we find the same thought in St. Paul, we shall not say that the evangelist was Paulinized, but that St. Paul has sat at the feet of Jesus.” The Petrine writings (1 Pet. 2:24; 3:18; 4:1), as well as those of John (1 2:2; 1:29; 10:11; Rev. 5:6-14), also abound with allusions to an atonement conceived as substitutionary.

V. Moral Implications

A substitutionary atonement has been criticized both for intellectual and moral reasons. For those with the former problem, Denney is again profoundly relevant: “In their very immensity we are assured that God is in these things.” We recognize that the love and wisdom of God, and the grief and sufferings of the Son and many other aspects of the cross are too great to be fathomed by finite minds, but they only lead the believing soul to worship as it meditates on their depth. As regards the moral aspect, nothing is more conducive to moral, holy living, than a keen awareness of the infinitely costly and vicarious death of Christ, and our identification with it (Rom. 6:3, 5; Gal. 2:20). The New Testament writers seldom refer to it without making reference to a resultant moral obligation. “You were bought with a price,” says Paul, “therefore glorify God with your body.”

The truth of substitution is a family truth, and as those for whom He died, we need to adore His all-availing work on the cross and rejoice in the personal note—“the Lord Jesus is MY Substitute.”

1. J. Denney, The Death of Christ.

2. J. Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied.

3. L. Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross.

4. R. W. Dale, The Atonement.

5. P. T. Forsyth, The Work of Christ.