Christ Our Substitute: The Value of the Substitutionary Doctrine of the Atonement


Theological Musings / Wednesday, January 4th, 2017

I'm writing this just a few days after Christmas, a time when it is common to reflect on the Incarnation of Jesus. 

But for the past 3 years of my life, I have been reflecting on and writing about Jesus' death.  Specifically: the Atonement, the Christian belief that Christ died for our sins and in so doing somehow made us right with God.

While this is a central Christian tenet, and one that...dare I say...all but the very fringe denominations at the outskirts - or the fringe members of the mainline denominations - would acknowledge, it is not so often talked about.

After all, we can't really talk about sin in​ our culture anymore, can we?  Sin implies that we've done something wrong, that there is some standard beyond our own values and our own patched-together belief system that can pass judgement on us.

The term "sin" seems outdated, antiquated, no longer needed.

But what we seem to have lost in jettisoning this notion of sin...this sense that we are somehow wrong with God​, that the way that we are living is not in fact perfectly fine as long as we are 'not hurting anybody'...is the reality of our estrangement from the Divine.

Sin is less about doing bad things (it is about doing bad things, don't get me wrong, but that's not the foundation of the matter) and more about being estranged from God.​

We are groping in darkness, seeing 'through a glass darkly'.​

We don't yet see things clearly. We're squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won't be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We'll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us!

1 Corinthians 13:12

This mucking about in the darkness is part of what it means to be estranged from God.

That we're sinful means that we're broken somehow, that we can't quite see straight.​  That we can't quite be really, ridiculously happy and fulfilled all on our own.  There is always something missing.

Which brings us back to the atonement...

Literally at-one-ment, a reconciliation between us and God, a making one.  Perhaps also a coming home.

A finding of what was missing, a setting of the break that occurred between man [sic] and God.

person kneeling at a cross

Now specifically regarding the substitutionary doctrine of the Atonement...  What struck me as an academic was how logically consistent it is.  

It fits.  

It works.

​Now, don't get me wrong...this is not a majority opinion at the moment.  In fact, whenever I mention that I find value in "the substitutionary theory of the Atonement", or especially "the penal substitutionary theory of the Atonement", I get shocked looks, mostly from well educated academics and theologians.

The idea that Christ, who was sinless, who was innocent, could be punished in our place is legitimately suspect.  C.S. Lewis asks "How could punishing an innocent person absolve the guilt of the guilty?"

But what I've also learned from Lewis is the great value of the substitutionary theory of the Atonement...dare I say even the penal substitutionary view?​

What the notion that Christ died in our place, died a death that we deserve, captures is ​that we cannot return to God on our own.  There is something missing that we cannot fix under our own steam.

The Atonement is not about punishment.  It is not about appeasing an angry deity.  It is about fixing something that is broken in the universe: setting a broken bone.​

Which brings us back to sin.

Sin, for Lewis (following Augustine) is fundamentally about pride.  And pride is fundamentally about self-sovereignty, about trying to make ourselves the measure (of good and evil, of right and wrong, of truth and falsehood) when in fact we are not thusly sovereign.​

We are dependent creatures trying to take the position of Creator, trying to set up as though we had created ourselves.​

Anselm (the champion of the penal substitutionary theory of the Atonement) says that in doing this, in setting our own wills above the will of God, we have robbed God of the dignity owed to Him.

Lewis, reviving Anselm, says that we have usurped the position of our Creator.

In either case, what it comes down to is that we are trying to fit into a place in which we simply do not fit.

In order to solve this problem, to mend the rift that we created in the order of the universe, we need to submit ourselves in humble obedience to our Creator.  This, again, is a commonplace Christian belief.

But enter, again, the academic in me who is fascinated by how all this works.

What we owe to God is obedience because that is what we were created for.  We were created for relationship with our Creator, which necessarily involves submitting our wills (our created  and dependent wills)​ to the one, sovereign will of God.

Of course, we cannot lay down our self-will by an act of self-will (that would just result in more 'self-will-ing').  And so, we needed someone who is fully God, and thus could accomplish this act​, and fully human, and thus needed to do so.

This is what I find so valuable in the substitutionary understanding of the Atonement.​  It is not that God is displeased with us and need appeasing.  It is that we are trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, so to speak, and simply cannot do it.

Christ takes on human nature and submits it to a voluntary death, the ultimate submission of self-will, and offers that act up in our place.

Not only did He die so that we need not (speaking here of the spiritual death, the death of our souls...another theological tangle), but He died because we could not.​  Even if we wanted to accept our place as dependent creatures, we could not lay down our attempts at self-sovereignty under our own steam.  That would just be repeating the very problem.

Back to the broken bone example: it is only God, the Divine Physician, who could set the break, but it is only a human being who could offer up the arm, so to speak.  It was only Christ, in our place, who could both submit to the cure and be subject of the cure.

Thus, Christ our substitute.

Once the bone has been set, we can then begin the longer process of healing.

Because, from God' point of view, human beings are not separate - humanity is like one single, growing organism - ​and because Christ is above all, this cure could spread to the rest of us.

It is now about accepting the cure, about allowing the bone to heal, about welcoming Christ into the very heart of us and allowing Him to transform what is broken.

But you can't get there without the substitution, without the physical and mystical death of all humanity in the One who was above all.​

And thus concludes my musings on the value of the substitutionary theory of the Atonement.  Without it, we may still retain the notion of Christ as moral exemplar,​ perhaps even the idea of God as love, but we lose that peculiar truth that self-will is foreign to the true nature of a creature simply by definition: we did not create ourselves.  

We cannot fix ourselves.


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