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Technically speaking, substitutionary atonement is the name given to a number of Christian models of the atonement that all regard Jesus as dying as a substitute for others, 'instead of' them. It is expressed in the Bible in passages such as 'He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness,'[1 Pet. 2:24] and 'For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.'[1 Pet. 3:18] (although other ways of reading passages like this are also offered).
There is also a less technical use of the term 'substitution' in discussion about atonement when it is used in 'the sense that [Jesus, through his death,] did for us that which we can never do for ourselves'.
There are a number of differing theories that come under the umbrella term 'substitutionary atonement'. The four best known are the Early Church Fathers' ransom theory; Gustaf Aulen's demystified version of the ransom theory, called Christus Victor; Anselm of Canterbury's satisfaction theory; and the Reformed period's penal substitution theory. Care should be taken when one reads the language of substitution in, for example, Patristic literature, not to assume any particular substitution model is being used but should, rather, check the context to see how the author was using the language.
Types of substitutionary theories
Four best known models
Ransom and Christus Victor theory
The ransom and Christus Victor theories present Jesus as dying to overcome (supernatural) powers of sin and evil. In this model, the devil has ownership over humanity (because they have sinned) so Jesus dies in their place to free them. The doctrine is that Jesus gave himself as a ransom sacrifice in behalf of the people. (Matthew 20:28) This is known as the oldest of the theories of the atonement, and is, in some form, still, along with the doctrine of theosis, the Eastern Orthodox Church's main theory of the atonement.
Satisfaction and penal substitution
The widest held substitutionary theory in the West is the penal substitution model. Both the penal theory and Anselm's satisfaction theory hold that only human beings can rightfully repay the debt (to God's honour [Anselm], or to God's justice [penal substitution]) which was incurred through their wilful disobedience to God. Since only God can make the satisfaction necessary to repay it, therefore God sent the God-man, Jesus Christ, to fulfil both these conditions. Christ is a sacrifice by God on behalf of humanity, taking humanity’s debt for sin upon himself, and propitiating God’s wrath.
Other substitutionary models
There are a number of other substitutionary theories of the atonement besides the four described above. A few are listed below:
- Governmental theory: Initially introduced by Hugo Grotius (17th century. Other proponents include John Miley, Albert Barnes, Charles Finney, J. Kenneth Grider, the New Divinity (or 'Edwardean Divinity') school, and possibly Jonathan Edwards [although this is debated].) The theory states that God is 'ready to forgive, and needs only to have such an arrangement made that He can do it safely as to His government'. 'Every act of rebellion denounces the law. Hence, before God can pardon rebellion, He must make such a demonstration of His attitude toward sin....' Jesus' death did this—it demonstrated God's hatred of sin—and thus God's law (his rule, his government) is upheld (people see that sin is serious and will lead to death), and God forgives people who recognise this and respond through repentance. The governmental theory rejects the notion of penal substitution, but is still substitutionary itself in that Christ, in his exemplary sufferings, substituted for believers and the punishment they would otherwise receive.
- John McLeod Campbell (The nature of the Atonement ): 'Campbell rejects the idea of vicarious punishment [...And] Taking a hint from Jonathan Edwards, ...develops the idea that Christ, as representative and complete man, was able to offer a vicarious repentance to God for men.'
- Horace Bushnell (The Vicarious Sacrifice ): Bushnell rejected penal substitution and, instead, speaks of Christ as 'my sacrifice, who opens all to me'. 'Beholding Him with all my sin upon Him', he says, 'I count Him my offering....'
- Vincent Taylor (The Cross of Christ ): '...in St. Paul's teaching Christ's death is substitutionary in the sense that He did for us that which we can never do for ourselves, but not in the sense that He transfers our punishment to Himself...' (p. 31). While rejecting as pagan the notion that Jesus' death propitiates the Father (p. 91), he talks of Jesus' sacrifice as vicarious, representative and sacrificial (p. 90), and says that for Jesus 'sacrifice is a representative offering in which men can share, making it the vehicle or organ of their approach to God' (p. 21). Taylor called this theory the 'Sacrificial Theory' (p. 104).
- F. W. Camfield (‘The Idea of Substitution in the Doctrine of the Atonement’ in SJT I  282-293): in his 1948 paper, Camfield spells out 'a non-penal view of substitution'.
Meaning of the Doctrine
The word atonement is a theological term that is used to describe some act that pays for or erases one's sins and transgressions. The word often is used in the Old Testament to translate the Hebrew words kipper and kippurim, which mean 'propitiation' or 'expiation'. The word occurs in the KJV in Romans 5:11 and has the basic meaning of reconciliation. In the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible or Tanakh), atonement was accomplished by the sacrifice of specified animals such as lambs to pay for one's sins.
The word atonement encompasses Christ’s work of redemption on behalf of his people. The center of Christ’s work, to which the whole New Testament expounded, was Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross. Christ’s death is the very heart of the Christian faith.[Heb. 9:11ff]
A distinction is often made between substitutionary atonement (Christ suffers for us), and penal substitution (Christ punished instead of us) which is a subset or particular type of substitutionary atonement. Both affirm the substitutionary and vicarious nature of the atonement (that Christ did His work in place of something required of us), but penal substitution goes beyond this general statement to specifically state that the substitution is of Christ's punishment instead of our punishment.
A central component of substitutionary atonement is the element of Jesus' intention to die on the cross as a substitute. Supporters cite the statements by Jesus in John 3:14-18 and 12:27-33. This is in comparison with theories that Jesus' death was unanticipated by Jesus and/or purely the fault of the Romans and/or the Jews alone. The following quotes provide some views on the nature of the atonement; they come largely from the Protestant interpretations and/or the specific theory of penal substitution, and do not necessarily express the whole spectrum of beliefs that may be properly termed substitutionary atonement.
- The very idea of atonement is something done, which, to the purpose of supporting the authority of the law, the dignity and consistency of divine government and conduct, is fully equivalent to the curse of the law, and on the ground of which, the sinner may be saved from that curse…a less degree or duration of suffering endured by Christ the Son of God, may, on account of the infinite dignity and glory of his person, be an equivalent to the curse of the law endured by the sinner. —Jonathan Edwards Jr.
- His sufferings were in the place of the penalty, not the penalty itself. They were a substitution for the penalty, and were, therefore, strictly and properly vicarious, and were not the identical sufferings which the sinner would himself have endured. There are some things in the penalty of the Law, which the Lord Jesus did not endure, and which a substitute or a vicarious victim could not endure. Remorse of conscience is a part of the inflicted penalty of the Law, and will be a vital part of the sufferings of the sinner in hell—but the Lord Jesus did not endure that. Eternity of sufferings is an essential part of the penalty of the Law—but the Lord Jesus did not suffer forever. Thus, there are numerous sorrows connected with the consciousness of personal guilt, which the Lord Jesus did not and cannot endure. —Albert Barnes
- If free pardon is to be extended to penitent sinners, some great measure must be substituted for the punishment of sinners that will uphold the moral government of God at least equally as well as the pronounced consequences would have done. —Gordon C. Olson
- Atonement is, properly, an arrangement by which the literal infliction of the penalty due to sin may be avoided; it is something which may be substituted in the place of punishment. It is that which will answer the same end secured by the literal infliction of the penalty of the law… The atonement is the governmental provision for the forgiveness of sins, providing man meets the conditions of repentance and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ. —Harry Conn
- The atonement is a governmental expedient to sustain law without the execution of its penalty to the sinner. —Charles G. Finney
Belief in the Doctrine
Many but by no means all ancient and modern branches of Christianity embrace substitutionary atonement as the central meaning of Jesus' death on the cross. These branches however have developed different theories of atonement. The Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholics do not incorporate substitutionary atonement in their doctrine of the Cross and Resurrection. The Roman Catholic Church incorporates it into Aquinas' Satisfaction doctrine rooted in the idea of penance. Most Evangelical Protestants interpret it largely in terms of penal substitution.
Many of the Church Fathers, including Justin Martyr, Athanasius and Augustine incorporate a theory of substitutionary atonement into their writings. However, the specific interpretation as to what this suffering for sinners meant differed to some extent. It is widely held that the early Church Fathers, including Athanasius and Augustine, taught that through Christ's vicarious suffering in humanity's place, he overcame and liberated humanity from sin, death, and the devil. Thus, while the idea of substitutionary atonement is present in nearly all atonement theories, the specific idea of satisfaction and penal substitution are later developments in the Roman Catholic church and in Calvinism.
Key Bible texts
Christian doctrine holds that Christ's coming and sacrifice was portended by, among others, the Prophet Isaiah approximately 700 years before Jesus was born. These prophesies can be found in Isaiah 52:7-53:12. Luke 4:16-22 reports Jesus saying that the prophesies in Isaiah were about him. The New Testament explicitly quotes from Isaiah 53 in Matthew 8:16-18 to indicate that Jesus is the fulfillment of these prophesies. Although various Christians read them in different ways (some in non-substitutionary ways), the following Biblical passages are sometimes put forwards as key texts by proponents of substitutionary atonement theories:
He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.[Isaiah 53:1-12]
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.[2 Cor. 5:21]
All who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, 'Cursed be every one who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, and do them.' [...] Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, 'Cursed be every one who hangs on a tree.'[Galatians 3:10,13]
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.[1 Peter 2:24]
For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.[1 Peter 3:18]
Now My soul has become troubled; and what shall I say, 'Father, save Me from this hour'? But for this purpose I came to this hour. 'Father, glorify Your name.' Then a voice came out of heaven: 'I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again.' So the crowd of people who stood by and heard it were saying that it had thundered; others were saying, 'An angel has spoken to Him.' Jesus answered and said, 'This voice has not come for My sake, but for your sakes. Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. 'And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.' But He was saying this to indicate the kind of death by which He was to die.[John 12:27-33]
And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read. And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. And He opened the book and found the place where it was written, 'THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME, BECAUSE HE ANOINTED ME TO PREACH THE GOSPEL TO THE POOR. HE HAS SENT ME TO PROCLAIM RELEASE TO THE CAPTIVES, AND RECOVERY OF SIGHT TO THE BLIND, TO SET FREE THOSE WHO ARE OPPRESSED, TO PROCLAIM THE FAVORABLE YEAR OF THE LORD.' And He closed the book, gave it back to the attendant and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, 'Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.'[Luke 4:16-22]
- Acts of Reparation to Jesus Christ
- Atonement in Christianity: main article for all Christian atonement theories
- Penal substitution: a specific form of substitutionary atonement
- J. Carter, The Letter to the Hebrews (Birmingham: CMPA), p. 83: after quoting 1 Peter 2:24, 'He was there as our representative, partaking of the nature that was common to us all – a nature under sentence of death because of sin.'
- Mark M. Mattison, The Meaning of the Atonement: in a section entitled Isaiah 53 and 1 Peter 2:24, '...it is possible that Jesus "bore" or "carried away" our sins from us not by becoming our substitute, but by becoming our sin offering.'
- Vincent Taylor, The Cross of Christ (London: Macmillan & Co, 1956), p. 31. Compare J. I. Packer: 'It would ... clarify discussion if all who hold that Jesus by dying did something for us which we needed to do but could not, would agree that they are regarding Christ’s death as substitutionary, and differing only on the nature of the action which Jesus performed in our place and also, perhaps, on the way we enter into the benefit that flows from it.' ('What did the Cross Achieve? The Logic of Penal Substitution' )
- Mark David Baker, Proclaiming the scandal of the cross (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006): '...many assume that "substitutionary atonement" is merely a shorthand way to refer to "penal substitutionary atonement." [...] Substitution is a broard term that one can use with reference to a variety of metaphors.'
- D. Flood, 'Substitutionary atonement and the Church Fathers' in Evangelical Quarterly 82.2 (2010), p. 143: 'It is not enough to simply identify substitutionary or even penal themes in the writings of the church fathers, and assume that this is an endorsement of the Reformed understanding of penal substitution. Instead, one must look at how a patristic author is using these concepts within their own understanding of the atonement and ask: what salvic purpose does Christ bearing our suffering, sin, and death have for this author? Rather than simply ‘proof-texting’ we need to seek to understand how these statements fit into the larger thought-world of an author. In short, it is a matter of context.'
- J. K. Mozley, The doctrine of the atonement (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1916), p. 94-5: 'The same or similar words may point to the same or similar ideas; but not necessarily so, since a word which has been at one time the expression of one idea, may, to a less or greater extent, alter its meaning under the influence of another idea. Hence it follows that the preservation of a word does not, as a matter of course, involve the preservation of the idea which the word was originally intended to convey. In such respects no doctrine demands more careful treatment than that of the Atonement.'
- Gustaf Aulen, Christus Victor (1931) (London: SPCK), p.143: 'The history of the doctrine of the Atonement is a history of three types of view, which emerge in turn. The classic idea emerges with Christianity itself, and remains the dominant type for of teaching for a thousand years.
- Vincent Taylor, The Cross of Christ (London: Macmillan & Co, 1956), p. 71-2: '...the four main types, which have persisted throughout the centuries. The oldest theory is the Ransom Theory...It held sway for a thousand years.
- "Atonement." The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2008
- Schreiner, Thomas R. in James Beilby and Paul R. Eddy (eds.), The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views. InterVarsity Academic, 2006. ISBN 0-8308-2570-3
- For: Allen C Guelzo, Edwards on the Will (Wesleyan University Press, 1989), pp. 135: '...it is plain that Edwards had no hesitation about putting his imprimatur upon the New Divinity doctrine of the atonement [i.e. the governmental theory]; to the contrary, he pledged his own reputation on its appearance'. Against: Mark A Noll, 'New England Theology' in Walter A. Elwell (ed.) Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Baker Academic, 2001): 'Edwards, by contrast, had maintained the traditional view that the death of Christ was necessary to take away God's anger at sin.' Middle view: The American Presbyterian Church, 'The Governmental Theory of the Atonement': 'Generally, Edwards is acknowledged as the father of this [the governmental] theory, as developed and held in New England, without having held it personally. That is, it is recognized that this theory constitutes a logical development of his theological speculations, but that Edwards was too orthodox to pursue them to such heretical conclusions, although his disciples, being more consistent, generally did so.'; Edwards A. Park, The Atonement (Boston: Gongregational Board of Publication, 1859), p. ix: 'the Governmental theory ... is called " Edwardean," partly from the fact that certain germs of it are found in the writings of the elder Edwards...'
- Charles G. Finney, 'On the Atonement'.
- Dean Harvey, 'The Atonement': '[God] needed to do something that would demonstrate His justice, that He hated sin as much as when He had pronounced the penalty, and loved obedience because it was the way of duplicating His character in this world.'
- Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: WM B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1940), p. 573-5
- Dean Harvey, 'The Atonement'
- Dr J. Kenneth Grider, 'The Governmental Theory: An Expansion' (1994), p. 1: 'Whereas Calvinists boldly teach that Christ paid the penalty for us--that He took our punishment--and believe their view to be Biblical, it is altogether opposed to the teaching of Scripture.'
- Dr J. Kenneth Grider, 'The Governmental Theory: An Expansion' (1994): 'The governmental theory is also substitutionary. According to this theory, what Christ did became a substitute for something else that would otherwise occur. ... But there is substitution also in the governmental theory--substitution of a different sort. Here there is a double-dimension substitution. There is substitution in the sense that something Christ did substituted for something that would have been required of the finally impenitent. But then, there is a substitution of the guiltless Christ's suffering for the punishment that those who repent and believe would have received in eternal hell'.
- Vincent Taylor, The Cross of Christ (London: Macmillan & Co, 1956), p. 73-4
- Vincent Taylor, The Cross of Christ (London: Macmillan & Co, 1956), p. 75
- J. I. Packer, 'What did the Cross Achieve? The Logic of Penal Substitution' (1973)
- "Yom Kippur - The Atonement Today." Web: 13 Feb 2009. Yom Kippur - The Atonement Today
- Edwards, Jonathan Jr. "The Necessity of the Atonement." Web: 14 Feb 2010 The Necessity of the Atonement
- Barnes, Albert. Barnes New Testament Notes. "Commentary on Galatians 3:13," c.1865. Web: Christian Classics Ethereal Classics. Albert Barnes "Commentary on Galatians 3:13"
- Olson, Gordon C. The Truth Shall Make You Free. Bible Research Fellowship, Inc. (1980) ASIN: B000JFUAOW p.95
- Conn, Harry. Four Trojan Horses. Mott Media (MI) (June 1, 1982) ISBN 978-0-88062-009-3 pp.80-81
- Finney, Charles C. The Oberlin Evangelist; July 30, 1856; "On the Atonement," p. 2
- "Doctrine of the Atonement." Catholic Encyclopedia." http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02055a.htm
- Johnson Alan F., and Robert E. Webber. What Christians Believe: A Biblical and Historical Summary. Zondervan, 1993, pp. 261-263.
- Substitution in Suffering by John Miley (Arminian/Methodist)
- Penal Substitution by Greg Bahnsen (Calvinist/Reformed)
- Nonviolent Atonement and the Victory of Christ Nonviolent Atonement by Brad Jersak (Orthodox/Anabaptist)
- The Concept of Atonement in 1 John
- The Concept of Atonement in Hellenistic Thought and 1 John
- The Concept of Atonement in Early Rabbinic Thought and the New Testament Writings
- Targum Isaiah 53 and the New Testament Concept of Atonement
- The Concept of Atonement in the Gospel of John
- Jesus' Death for Us: A Sacrifice