Substitution… the basis of atonement

A Series on What is Atonement: Part 2

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Author's Bias | Interpretation: conservative | Inclination: dispensational | Seminary: none

Most agree that through Jesus, our representative, God is identifying with us and our sin. But is His death a substitute for our punishment or an example of how human beings should live? To whom was the crucifixion of Jesus Christ directed towards? Was it purely objective and intended for the judicial requirements of God? Or was it subjective and intended for the relationship with human beings?

Authors of the New Testament indicate that Jesus died for sinners and convey the sense of substitution. Two Greek prepositions are found that define this concept: "anti" and "hyper".

A preposition is a word placed before a noun or object that qualifies or produces an adverbial phrase. For grammarians, the case, or syntactic relationship or position of the noun, affects the meaning of the preposition and ultimately the meaning of the sentence.

The preposition "anti" (Strong's #473) affects the meaning of an object in two possible ways: a) to set one object against another, and b) to indicate a substitution or exchange as one object given or taken in return for another.

An example of the first meaning of "anti" is "Antichrist" ("antichristos" in 1 John 4:3), which is a person who would knowingly or ignorantly promote himself as a rival to Jesus Christ or a theology that is blatantly against all that He represents.

Of the second meaning of "anti", there are several examples that convey the sense of substitution with "in place of" or "instead of." In comparison to the other preposition "hyper", "anti" produces a stronger sense of substitution.

But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of (anti) his father Herod, he was afraid to go there… (Matt 2:22)

You have heard that it was said, "AN EYE FOR (anti) AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR (anti) A TOOTH. (Matt 5:38)

Never pay back evil for (anti) evil to anyone… (Rom 12:17)

When used within the context of the crucifixion of Christ, the preposition "anti" is used twice, and for the first century Christian the death of Christ clearly meant substitution. By Jesus' own words the apostles understood that the life of Christ was given in exchange for the lives of many human beings:

just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for (anti) many. (Matt 20:28)

For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for (anti) many. (Mark 10:45)

These verses convey an objective aspect to atonement; Jesus gave His life as a ransom and a substitute to God.

The preposition "hyper" (Strong's #5228) conveys both a sense of substitution "in place of" and representation "on behalf of" or "for the benefit of".

The sense of substitution can be seen in these examples of the New Testament:

For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of (hyper) my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, (Rom 9:3)

Agonized by the rejection of the gospel by his Jewish kinsman, Paul, in heartfelt desire for their salvation, wished that he were cursed and cut off from Christ in exchange (substitution).

whom I wished to keep with me, so that on your behalf (hyper) he might minister to me in my imprisonment for the gospel; (Phil 1:13)

In his letter to Philemon, Paul casts Onesimus as a fellow Christian slave. If Onesimus were kept by Paul, he would have served as Philemon's substitute.

While the above examples show that "hyper" denotes substitution, critics argue that when referring to atonement, "hyper" conveys only the sense of representation "on behalf of" or "for the benefit of".

The following verses are examples of this: Luke 22:19-20; John 6:51; John 10:11, 15; Romans 5:6, 8; Romans 8:32; 2 Corinthians 5:14-15; Galatians 2:20; Ephesians 5:25; 1 Thessalonians 5:9-10; and 1 John 3:16.

And when He had taken some bread and given thanks, He broke it, and gave it to them, saying "This is My body which is given for (hyper) you; do this in remembrance of Me." And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, "This cup which is poured out for (hyper) you is the new covenant in My blood." (Luke 22:19-20)

"I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he shall live forever; and the bread also which I shall give for (hyper) the life of the world is My flesh." (John 6:51)

"I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for (hyper) the sheep." (John 10:11)

even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for (hyper) the sheep. (John 10:15)

For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for (hyper) the ungodly. (Rom 5:6)

But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for (hyper) us. (Rom 5:8)

He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for (hyper) us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? (Rom 8:32)

For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for (hyper) all, therefore all died; and He died for (hyper) all, that they who live should no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf (hyper) (2 Cor 5:14-15).

I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for (hyper) me. (Gal 2:20)

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for (hyper) her. (Eph 5:25)

For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for (hyper) us, that whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with Him. (1 Thess 5:9-10)

We know love by this, that He laid down His life for (hyper) us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. (1 John 3:16)

These verses convey a subjective aspect to atonement; Jesus is sacrificing Himself for human beings.

Other New Testament passages using "hyper" in reference to atonement also denote representation "on behalf of"; however, Jesus Christ is associated with sin and suffering.

The following verses substantiate this observation: 1 Corinthians 15:3; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 1:4; Galatians 3:13; Ephesians 5:2; 1 Timothy 2:5-6; Titus 2:14; Hebrews 2:9; Hebrews 10:12; 1 Peter 2:21; 1 Peter 3:18; and 1 Peter 4:1.

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for (hyper) our sins according to the Scriptures. (1 Cor 15:3)

He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf (hyper), that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2 Cor 5:21)

Who gave Himself for (hyper) our sins, that He might deliver us out of this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father. (Gal 1:4)

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for (hyper) us--for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree." (Gal 3:13)

And walk in love, just as Christ also loved you, and gave Himself up for (hyper) us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma. (Eph 5:2)

For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for (hyper) all, the testimony borne at the proper time. (1 Tim 2:5-6)

Looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus; who gave Himself for (hyper) us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds. (Tit 2:14)

But we do see Him who has been made for a little while lower than the angels, namely Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that by the grace of God He might taste death for (hyper) everyone. (Heb 2:9)

but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for (hyper) all time, SAT DOWN AT THE RIGHT HAND OF GOD, (Heb 10:12)

For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for (hyper) you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps. (1 Pet 2:21)

For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for (hyper) the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit. (1 Pet 3:18)

Forasmuch then as Christ hath suffered for (hyper) us in the flesh, arm yourselves likewise with the same mind; for he that hath suffered in the flesh hath ceased from sin. (1 Pet 4:1)

This reference to sin and suffering connects Jesus Christ to the Old Testament sacrificial laws.

After their freedom from slavery in Egypt, God teaches the nation of Israel the process that one would do to atone for intentional (i.e. Lev 1:1-17) and unintentional sins (Lev 4:1-35). In both instances, God requires the confession of sin onto an unblemished animal, its sacrifice and burnt offering.

Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the sins of the nation of Israel were expiated. The sacrificial ritual required two male goats that were physically perfect in age and condition. One goat was slain and its blood and flesh were offered as a substitute payment of the nation's sin. The other goat (scapegoat) received the sins of the nation and was released to the wild to signify that sin left the Hebrew nation (Lev 16:1-34).

The Old Testament sacrificial system clearly used animal sacrifices as a substitute for the atonement of human beings (Lev 17:11). Implicit in this is an understanding of God's judicial penalty of death for sin. An earlier example in Genesis specifically portrays this substitution in Abraham's offering of Isaac (Gen 22:1-14).

In his prophecy of the Messiah, the Old Testament prophet Isaiah provides the significance of the Messiah's sacrifice within the context of the Levitical sacrificial laws (Isaiah 53:1-12).

The Servant's sacrifice was for iniquity (Isa 53:5, 6, 11), transgression (Isa 53:5, 8) and sin (Isa 53:12).

The Servant's offering was a guilt offering (Isa 53:10).

The death of the Servant was substitutionary in nature, and it was in substitute for human beings (Isa 53:5, 11, 12).

The New Testament authors certainly understood the crucifixion of Christ within the context of the Old Testament sacrificial system: the sacrifice of an unblemished animal takes the place of the sinner, and its blood makes atonement.

For Christ to be the unblemished animal, He had to be sinless, and both apostles Peter and Paul indicate that (2 Cor 5:21 and 1 Pet 2:22-24; 3:18).

John the Baptist referred to Jesus as the "Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!" (John 1:29).

When seen from this perspective of the Old Testament sacrificial system, the understanding of Christ's crucifixion takes on an objective function; it was intended to satisfy the judicial requirement of God.

Yet while the New Testament authors wrote of similarities to the Levitical sacrificial system, they also developed the idea of Jesus Christ being of a high priestly office (Heb 7:11-28) and how His sacrifice was something above and beyond.

Instead of the sacrifice of an unblemished animal, the high priest offers Himself for the sins of human beings (Heb 7:27-28). Instead of the lid of the Ark as the place of propitiation, Jesus Christ Himself is the mediator of the new covenant (Heb 9:11-15).

For the Believer, no more animal sacrifices were necessary for the atonement of one's sins.

While the preposition "hyper" does denote representation "on behalf of" or "for the benefit of", when used in reference to Christ's work of atonement, it implies substitution and takes into account the context of the Old Testament sacrificial system and Jesus' own use of the Greek term "anti".

Jesus' use of "anti" sets forth the idea that His substitution had an objective function as a "ransom" for God's judicial purpose.

Associated with the Old Testament sacrificial law provides further imagery of this objective function of Christ's crucifixion; Jesus suffering in the place of human beings the penalty that God would have placed on us. Jesus experienced the full weight of God's wrath that had accumulated since Creation.

Jesus' penal substitution was a propitiation.

And while the use of "hyper" informs the reader about the objective purpose of substitution, its use also depicts a subject purpose in Jesus' sacrifice and reconciling result for man.

Jesus' penal substitution was a demonstration of God's love and justice.

Jesus' penal substitution was very personal; He exchanged His life for each one Believer.

Scripture reveals that Jesus died as a substitute for sinners. However, over the history of Christianity, this thought has not always been the case. Several theories viewed the purpose of the crucifixion differently, and were discredited because they failed to take into account the biblical passages regarding Christ's work in salvation:

They ignore the biblical passages that show how the guilt of sin can be removed from human beings.

They ignore the biblical passages revealing Christ work of earning forgiveness and salvation for human beings.

They ignore the biblical passages regarding God's absolute justice and requirement of holiness for all who come into His presence.

This table summarizes the major concepts behind these historical theories:

Theory (Founder) Why Christ Died Theological Problems
Ransom to Satan
(Origen: 185-254 A.D.)
Jesus died as the ransom Satan required to redeem human beings. God did not require payment of sin. Satan has the power to demand payment for sin from God.
Moral Influence
(Abelard: 1079-1142)
The death of Jesus demonstrated how much God loved human beings. It was an example of divine empathy for human suffering and death. God did not require payment for sin. A teaching example of how much God loves human beings.
(Socinus: 1539-1604)
The crucifixion of Jesus provided an example of how human beings should trust and obey God even if it means death. God did not require payment for sin. A teaching example of how human beings should live.
(Gortius: 1583-1645)
Jesus died to show that when God's law is broken, there must be some penalty to pay. Jesus did not die for the sins of human beings. God did not require payment for sin. As God is omnipotent, He can set aside the penalty for sin and forgive sins.

Why is substitution the basis of atonement?

From an objective perspective, His substitution was sacrificial and paid God's judicial price in full. He stood in the place of human beings, represented us and bore the total penalty of our sins. This view of Christ's death is often called the theory of "penal substitution" or the theory of "vicarious atonement."

From a subjective perspective, His substitution imputed His righteousness upon us. His atonement brought us into God's favor and reconciled our relationship with Him. Jesus' sacrifice was individually for each one of us and a supreme demonstration of God's love.

"A true Christian is a man who never for a moment forgets what God has done for him in Christ, and whose whole comportment and whole activity have their root in the sentiment of gratitude."

John Baille

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