Substitutionary Atonement and the Gospel

One of the many gospel foundations that’s under attack and scorn is the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ. Whether it’s seeing the crucifixion as “divine child abuse” or otherwise dismissing the death of Jesus as wholly unnecessary for our forgiveness, these are among the ways in which the atonement is under attack.

To understand why this is, we need to back up a bit, prior to the crucifixion, and ask why the death of Chris was necessary? Our sin and separation from God are the reason. Denying the necessity of the death of Jesus comes back to a denial of either our sinfulness, or that this is the God-ordained way to overcome our sin. To dismiss the sinfulness of mankind is foolish on two counts. First, Scripture repeatedly and clearly presents our natural condition as sinful and at enmity with God because of our sin. Genesis 6:5 has always struck me for the way it describes our sinfulness in a way that leaves no wiggle room. “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” The modifiers alone show this: only every intention, only evil and continually evil. It isn’t just Genesis, but Paul quotes extensively from the Psalms in Romans 3 when he is laying out the universal guilt of all mankind.

None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.” Rom 3:11-12.

And that is just the half of it.

Consider your own experience. As you look at the world around, do you see evidence that mankind is essentially good and wants to choose the right? Or, do you see evidence of fractured relationships, violence, oppression and hate? An honest assessment must admit that human beings, left to themselves, choose the wrong path.

But God loves us!

You might admit these things are true, and yet doubt that the way our separation with God is bridged is only by the death of Jesus. After all, God is love, and love covers a multitude of sins, does it not? Indeed, God is love, but the unmistakable message of the New Testament is that out of love, God has given his Son to die in our place. It is not love only that is the basis of our salvation, but that the giving of Jesus comes from God’s love for us. This doesn’t mean that the death of Christ isn’t necessary. When the angel announced to Joseph that Mary was to have a son, he said “You shall call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins.” Jesus means “God is salvation” not “God is our example.” We didn’t need a good example, or someone to show us how to live by the Golden Rule. On the contrary, because sin is so heinous and offensive to God’s justice, the only way to overcome the enmity Scripture says natural man has to God is through the death of His Son. In the Old Testament, animals were sacrificed (by God’s command) and God told Israel, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.” Lev 17:11. When we come to the New Testament, the writer to Hebrews picks up this theme and identifies that these animal sacrifices were never sufficient, they only pointed forward to the one true and all-sufficient sacrifice, that of Jesus on the cross.
“Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” Hebrews 9: 25-26.

The substitution of Jesus in our place, the place of sinners, satisfied God as a full and complete payment of our guilt. If we dismiss this, we dismiss what God has set forth as the only way of peace, the only way for sinful humanity to have a relationship with the living God. The death of Jesus was not a plan B, nor something that mankind did, subverting God’s will. Paul puts it at the very heart of the gospel: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,” 1 Cor 15:3. It was for our sins, and in our place—our substitute—that Jesus died. Was God satisfied with what He did? The resurrection is the Father’s loud Amen.

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