The “Judge Judged in Our Place”: Substitutionary Atonement Reclaimed
Over the years of teaching theology I have discovered that many young, ardent, passionate Christians are rebelling against traditional evangelical understandings of the atoning death of Jesus Christ without fully understanding them. Often, even usually, conversation reveals that their ideas of substitutionary atonement are distorted. This distortion often arises from sermon illustrations and folk religion.
Without wanting to enshrine substitutionary atonement as the only way of understanding the work of Christ on the cross for us, I do wish to clarify substitutionary atonement doctrines and teachings. To be blunt, I think substitutionary atonement is often chopped down as a straw person (to use inclusive language).
Having read numerous high level theological books and articles about substitutionary atonement, I understand it to mean the following (in broad brush strokes): Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, God the Son, voluntarily suffered the judgment of God on sin that we deserve and suffered it in our place. He did this in order that he, God, together with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, could forgive us and justify us righteously. Without his suffering he could not forgive righteously; without it forgiveness would be indulgence. The cross event is a work of love that includes a work of justice (and wrath).
What many people miss when they “picture” substitutionary atonement is that Jesus Christ was not just an “innocent man” on whom God took out his wrath; he was God the judge judging himself in our place thereby judging our sin and making it possible to forgive without neglecting holiness.
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Sometimes I have to wonder whether critics of substitutionary atonement (which can take various forms) have forgotten the incarnation. They often talk about substitutionary atonement as if it says that God is a wrathful deity of hate who demands his “pound of flesh” and wants nothing more than to send us all to hell for being sinners, but Jesus Christ, the innocent and perfect man, got in his way so that the wrath God wanted to take out on us with punishment was inadvertently diverted onto this innocent sacrifice—the perfect man Jesus.
That is a distorted view of substitutionary atonement that may be preached from pulpits and written in low-level devotional and theological books, but it is not the theology of Anselm or Calvin or the Puritans or John Wesley or Charles Hodge or any number of great theologians who interpreted the cross event as substitutionary sacrifice. All of them began with the assumption that Jesus Christ was God as well as human, that he was, as Karl Barth put it, the divine judge being judged by himself in our place. No separation between the Father and the Son. Distinction, yes, but no separation. The incarnation and Trinity mean that the decision to go to the cross was made by the Son together with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
This elucidation of substitutionary atonement leaves many questions unanswered and advocates of substitutionary atonement have disagreed about the details. For example, advocates of the traditional so-called “penal substitution theory” often imply, if not say outright, that on the cross Jesus Christ suffered the punishment of (not only for) every person God decided to save (either all people or the elect only). Advocates of the governmental theory argue instead that on the cross Jesus Christ suffered a punishment equivalent to that deserved by every sinner in order to demonstrate how seriously God takes sin as he offers forgiveness to everyone.
Having read numerous theologians of substitutionary atonement I think I can safely say that no two of them express it exactly alike. Details of difference emerge in every one of them—from other advocates of substitutionary atonement. (Of course this may not be the case with a theologian who is merely re-stating or parroting an earlier advocate of substitutionary atonement.) How many different models of substitutionary atonement are there? I have no idea, but I suspect many. But they all share in common the idea that in order to forgive sins righteously and maintain his holiness God himself had to suffer the punishment deserved by sinners—death as separation from God—and he did this out of a motive of love even though justice required it.
Now, one can embrace substitutionary atonement and at the same time regard Christ’s work on the cross as “ransom,” “conquest (over Satan and death),” “moral example and influence,” etc. The only conflict occurs when someone says that Christ’s death on the cross was only one of these to the exclusion of the others. And that is happening among many young evangelical Protestants largely because they have misunderstood substitutionary atonement as portraying God the Father as wrathful and not loving and Jesus Christ as an “innocent man” on whom God took out his wrath.
Recently I re-read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics and was surprised to see something I had missed the first time I read it some years ago. Throughout the book (which is, of course, a collection of papers left behind by Bonhoeffer edited by his friend Eberhard Bethge) Bonhoeffer refers repeatedly to Christ as a sacrificial substitute who suffered death in our place and for us. Karl Barth also strongly believed in substitutionary atonement (as did Emil Brunner). Whether these theologians believed in “penal substitution” might be debated, but it seems to me that dropping “penal” from “penal substitution” changes little. (But I would suggest it anyway as the phrase is jarring to modern ears and is not really necessary as “substitution” says it sufficiently.)
If a person rejects substitutionary atonement I only care about two things: 1) Has he or she grappled sufficiently with the New Testament identifications of Jesus Christ with the “Suffering Servant” of Isaiah? and 2) Has he or she really understood traditional, historical substitutionary atonement correctly? I often find these tasks not yet finished by those who out of hand reject substitutionary atonement—often because they cannot seem to escape the distortions that surround it in folk religion and some pulpit preaching about the cross.
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