I. What Does Substitutionary Atonement Mean?
As far as academic phrases go, substitutionary atonement can be intimidating! But this phrase shouldn’t be avoided.
Because “substitutionary atonement” is an essential doctrine of our faith.
This article will break down the meaning of substitutionary atonement ( sometimes referred to as “penal substitutionary atonement”). And I will explain why it matters to modern-day Christians.
Let’s start with the word “substitution.” To substitute is to take the place of another person. The next word, “atonement,” conveys the idea of “covering,” canceling, or wiping away. In this instance, atonement refers specifically to the covering of sin.
So, if we put those two phrases together, we can get an idea of what substitutionary atonement means. It involves an innocent party taking the punishment of a guilty party.
Now, let’s talk about why it matters.
II. Why is Substitutionary Atonement Necessary?
God, by his very nature, is holy and just. God hates sin (Rom. 1:18; Rom. 2:8; Rom. 5:9; Eph. 5:6). And he cannot simply overlook sin (Hab. 1:13).
But all humans are sinful (Rom. 3:23), and nothing we can do measures up to God’s perfect standard.
So is the situation hopeless? No!
Because of God’s love for us, he wants to forgive us. However, only God himself can rectify our hopeless dilemma because we are in sin. So, God instituted a sacrificial system of substitutionary atonement.
Whew! That’s a mouthful. To put it in simpler terms:
- God created and commanded a process for his people that involved sacrifice
- And this sacrifice required the shedding of blood
- The sacrificial shedding of blood atoned for or covered human sin
To better understand this, let’s look at some specific examples. We’ll start with the Old Testament before moving on to the New Testament. In the New Testament, we’ll see how all of this relates to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.
III. Old Testament Substitutionary Atonement
We first see substitutionary atonement in the Old Testament in animal sacrifices. These instances include:
- God sacrificing innocent animals to make covering garments for Adam and Eve after the Fall (Gen. 3:21).
- The Israelites covering their doorposts with lamb’s blood. God told them to mark their doors to distinguish themselves as his people. So the “destroyer” would “pass over” their homes. This doorpost blood from the Passover lamb spared them from the last plague against Egypt (Ex. 12:3-12).
- The sacrificial system of shedding the blood of innocent animals. Regular and repeated sacrifices atoned for the people’s sins (Lev. 4:14-21).
The Old Testament sacrifices were a form of substitutionary atonement. That is evident even in God’s instructions for making the sacrifices. For instance, before each sacrifice, the priest would lay his hands on the animal. This act symbolized a transfer of guilt (Lev. 1:3-4).
Animal sacrifices may seem cruel to our twenty-first-century sensibilities. But God is clear. Blood sacrifices are necessary for the atonement (covering) of sins.
In Leviticus 17:11, God says to Moses,
“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.”
IV. Substitutionary Atonement in the New Testament
The preceding discussion might lead you to ask, “Why did Jesus have to shed his blood? After all, God already had a system of sacrifice worked out?”
The answer is there was a problem with Old Testament sacrifices. These sacrifices were never permanent. They had to be continuously repeated because they couldn’t permanently atone for human sin nature. (Heb. 10: 4, 11-13).
But they did foreshadow Jesus’ once-forever sacrifice for our sins (1 Cor. 5:7; Heb. 10:12–13),
What’s a sin nature?
It is an inherited propensity to sin that means every human will inevitably sin.
Why do we have a sin nature?
Basically, since Adam and Eve first sinned in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3), every human inherits a sin nature (Rom. 5:12-15; 1 Cor. 15:22).
And this sin nature means that humans would experience three deaths (separations), specifically:
- Separation from God (spiritual death)
- Physical death (when our soul and physical body separate)
- Eternal separation from God in hell (unless he intervened)
But in his perfect timing, God sent Jesus into the world (John 3:16). The Holy Spirit miraculously conceived Jesus in the womb of the Virgin Mary (Matt. 1:18).
Therefore, Jesus is fully God (Col. 1:15; Col. 1:19) and fully human. Yet, despite being tempted in every respect as we are, he remained sinless. (Heb. 2:17; 4:15).
V. Why Is Jesus’ Sinlessness Important?
As a sinless human, Jesus did not experience the three separations of sinful humans. For example, he did not have to die.
Yet, Jesus chose to die as our substitute (John 10:15; Luke 22:19-20; Rom. 5:8). He chose to sacrifice his life for us. His death gave us an opportunity of avoiding eternal death in hell (the third separation referenced above).
But how could Jesus do that?
Since Jesus had no sin of his own, he could take on our sin (2 Cor. 5:21).
- Jesus was the ultimate Old Testament Passover lamb who needed to be “without spot or blemish” (Ex. 12:5).
- Both John the Baptist and Paul liken Jesus’ sacrifice to the Old Testament Passover Lamb (John 1:29; 1 Cor. 5:7).
So, why is Jesus’ death important? And why was it even necessary?
The answer is that only the shedding of blood by the sinless “Lamb of God” could bring atonement for our sins (John 1:29).
“Under the law, almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb. 9:22)
By dying for our sins (Matt. 20:28), Jesus became a sin sacrifice, taking all of God’s punishment for every sin ever committed (1 Cor. 15:3-4; 1 Pet. 2:24).
VI. The Just Died for the Unjust
Essentially, the just (Jesus) died for the unjust (humans). Not only did he die, though. He also rose again, and Jesus’ resurrection proves God accepted the payment for our sin.
In this way, Jesus died on our behalf. Because of his death, “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb. 10:10).
- Paid once and for all the debt that we owe God for our sins (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45)
- Liberated us from God’s punishment for our sins (Titus 2:14; 1 Pet. 1:18–19)
- Appeased God’s anger towards our sins (1 John 2:2)
- Healed our broken relationship with God (Eph. 2:16)
- Changed God’s perception of Christians. We are no longer his enemies because Jesus’ righteousness covers us (2 Cor 5:21)
VII. Summary of Substitutionary Atonement
Jesus’ substitutionary atonement is essential to our salvation. In sum:
- “Christ died for our sins” (1 Cor. 15:3)
- “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21)
- “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18)
- God’s justice was satisfied. God was both “just and the justifier” of unjust humans who place their faith in Jesus (Romans 3:26)
VIII. What’s Your Next Step?
God loves us but hates sin.
But only he could resolve the problem of restoring humans into a right relationship with him. And his choice was to allow Jesus to sacrifice himself in our place. When we consider the shed blood, pain, and injustice Jesus suffered, it should make us sick of our sins. And we should never second-guess God’s love for us again.
God did the unimaginable from a human perspective. God the Father sent God the Son (Jesus) to take on human form. And despite being sinless, he subjected himself to death. An unjust, humiliating, and painful sacrifice meant to save humankind.
If you have placed your faith in Jesus, you are saved and can walk away from sin forever.
If you are a Christian, take a moment to thank God for this gift. I encourage you to take time to read through the various accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion, as well (Matt. 27:1-66; Mark 15:1-47; Luke: 23:1-56; John 18:28-19:42).
Allow that imagery of his sacrifice to linger in your mind. And as you ponder, realize that he did that for you!
No matter how pummeling the criticisms of others. Or how condemning the critique of your mind, remember this. You are saved if you trust in Christ’s death and resurrection. His shed blood proves that God loves you an infinite amount.
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- Norman L. Geisler, Ronald Rhodes Conviction without Compromise (Eugene OR: Harvest House, 2008), 103-109.
- Stanley J. Grenz, David J. Guretzki, Cherith F. Nordling, Pocket dictionary of theological terms (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999) 90, 120.
- Martin H. Manser, Dictionary of Bible Themes: The Accessible and Comprehensive Tool for Topical Studies (London: Martin Manser 2009).
- D. Moore, “Atonement,” in Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, ed. C. Brand, et al. (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), 139–144.
- Daniel G. Reid, et al., In Dictionary of Christianity in America (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990).
- Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1999), 329–342.