TheoThought 300

David W. Hegg


Substitutionary Atonement


Introduction: What does it mean when we say “Jesus Christ died for our sins?” The answer is framed by orthodox theologians in terms of vicarious, substitutionary atonement. That is, when Jesus died on the cross, he did so in the place of sinners, and the effect was a saving benefit for those sinners. He died in our place and for our good.


1. Definitions


Atonement: The concept of atonement is found frequently in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. The phrase “to make atonement” is found in connection to the sacrifices prescribed by God as the payment due from the sinner to the God whose law he or she has broken. Atonement, by means of a sacrifice or at times the payment of money, re-establishes the sinner as acceptable before God, the demands of the law having been fully satisfied.



• Substitution: The concept of substitution in the area of atonement is seen frequently in the Old Testament law. In the case of a firstborn child, the law specified that he could be “redeemed” by offering a “substitute” to the Lord in the place of the child. More dramatically, on the Day of Atonement, the sins of the people were symbolically transferred to the scapegoat, who was then sent away into the wilderness.


• Vicarious:  While close to “substitution” in meaning, it also carries the idea of benefit. A vicarious substitution is one in which the benefit gained by the substitute is imputed to the one for whom substitution was made.


• Vicarious, Substitutionary Atonement: In his death on the cross, Jesus was God’s substitute for sinners who thus fully receive the benefit of his death.


2. Old Testament Basis


Leviticus 1.1-4   The LORD called Moses and spoke to him  from the tent of meeting, saying,  2 “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them,  When any one of you brings an offering to the LORD, you shall bring your offering of livestock from the herd or from the flock. 3   “If his offering is a burnt offering from the herd, he shall offer  a male without blemish. He shall bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting, that he may be accepted before the LORD.  4  He shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it shall be  accepted for him  to make atonement for him.


Leviticus 4.13-20    “If the whole congregation of Israel sins unintentionally  and  the thing is hidden from the eyes of the assembly, and they do any one of the things that by the LORD’s commandments ought not to be done, and they realize their guilt,  14  when the sin which they have committed becomes known, the assembly shall offer a bull from the herd for a sin offering and bring it in front of the tent of meeting.  15 And the elders of the congregation  shall lay their hands on the head of the bull before the LORD, and the bull shall be killed before the LORD.  16 Then  the anointed priest shall bring some of the blood of the bull into the tent of meeting,  17 and the priest shall dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle it seven times before the LORD in front of the veil.  18 And he shall put some of the blood on the horns of the altar that is in the tent of meeting before the LORD, and the rest of the blood he shall pour out at the base of the altar of burnt offering that is at the entrance of the tent of meeting.  19 And all its fat he shall take from it and burn on the altar.  20 Thus shall he do with the bull. As he did  with the bull of the sin offering, so shall he do with this.  And the priest shall make atonement for them, and they shall be forgiven.


Leviticus 16.1-34: The Day of Atonement (see vs. 34):   The LORD spoke to Moses after  the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near before the LORD and died,  2 and the LORD said to Moses, “Tell Aaron your brother not to  come at any time into the Holy Place inside the veil, before the mercy seat that is on the ark, so that he may not die. For  I will appear in the cloud over the mercy seat.  3 But in this way Aaron shall come into the Holy Place:  with a bull from the herd for a sin offering and  a ram for a burnt offering.  4 He shall put on  the holy linen coat and shall have the linen undergarment on his body, and he shall tie the linen sash around his waist, and wear the linen turban; these are the holy garments.  He shall bathe his body in water and then put them on.  5 And he shall take from  the congregation of the people of Israel two male goats for a sin offering, and one ram for a burnt offering.


Lev. 16.6   “Aaron shall  offer the bull as a sin offering for himself and shall  make atonement for himself and for his house.  7 Then he shall take the two goats and set them before the LORD at the entrance of the tent of meeting.  8 And Aaron shall cast lots over the two goats, one lot for the LORD and the other lot for Azazel.  9 And Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the LORD and use it as a sin offering,  10 but the goat on which the lot fell for  Azazel shall be presented alive before the LORD to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to  Azazel.


(Note: Azazel, in Hebrew means “entire removal”; in English translations this is usually translated “scapegoat”, and while this is a proper understanding of the action here begin taken, it fails to incorporate the intrinsic understanding that the sins of the people, upon being imputed to the animal, are “entirely removed” from their account before God.”)


Lev. 16.11   “Aaron shall present  the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. He shall kill the bull as a sin offering for himself.  12 And he shall take  a censer full of coals of fire from the altar before the LORD, and two handfuls of sweet incense beaten small, and he shall bring it inside the veil 13  and put the incense on the fire before the LORD, that the cloud of the incense may cover  the mercy seat that is over the testimony, so that he does not die.  14 And  he shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the front of the mercy seat on the east side, and in front of the mercy seat he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times.


Lev. 16.15    “Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering that is for the people and bring its blood  inside the veil and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it over the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat.  16 Thus he shall  make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins. And so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their uncleannesses.  17  No one may be in the tent of meeting from the time he enters to make atonement in the Holy Place until he comes out and has made atonement for himself and for his house and for all the assembly of Israel.  18 Then he shall go out to the altar that is  before the LORD and  make atonement for it, and shall take some of the blood of the bull and some of the blood of the goat, and put it on the horns of the altar all around.  19 And he shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times, and cleanse it and consecrate it from the uncleannesses of the people of Israel.


Lev. 16.20   “And when he has made an end of  atoning for the Holy Place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat.  21 And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall  put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness.  22 The goat shall  bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and  he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness.


Lev. 16.23   “Then Aaron shall come into the tent of meeting and  shall take off the linen garments that he put on when he went into the Holy Place and shall leave them there.  24 And he shall bathe his body in water in a holy place and put on his garments and come out and  offer his burnt offering and the burnt offering of the people and make atonement for himself and for the people.  25 And  the fat of the sin offering he shall burn on the altar.  26 And he who lets the goat go to  Azazel shall wash his clothes and  bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp.  27  And the bull for the sin offering and the goat for the sin offering, whose blood was brought in to make atonement in the Holy Place, shall be carried outside the camp. Their skin and their flesh and their dung shall be burned up with fire.  28 And he who burns them shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp.


Lev. 16.29   “And it shall be a statute to you forever that  in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall  afflict yourselves  and shall do no work, either  the native or the stranger who sojourns among you.  30 For on this day shall atonement be made for you  to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the LORD from all your sins.  31  It is a Sabbath of solemn rest to you, and you shall  afflict yourselves; it is a statute forever.  32  And the priest who is anointed and  consecrated as priest in his father’s place  shall make atonement, wearing the holy linen garments.  33 He shall make atonement for  the holy sanctuary, and he shall make atonement for the tent of meeting and for  the altar, and he shall make atonement for  the priests and for  all the people of the assembly.  34 And this shall be a statute forever for you, that atonement may be made for the people of Israel  once in the year because of all their sins.” And Aaron  did as the LORD commanded Moses. 


Summary: In the Old Testament system of sacrifices God demonstrates his acceptance of a “vicarious, substitution” whereby the infractions of one can be atoned for by another. In the case of the Old Testament people, the substitute was an animal. Yet, this prepared the way for the coming of the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world.


3. New Testament Texts


The writers of the New Testament viewed the death of Jesus Christ as a vicarious, substitutionary atonement, set against the backdrop of the Old Testament sacrificial system, as seen in the following:


John 10.10, 11: The thief comes only to steal and  kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. 11  I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd  lays down his life for the sheep.


2 Corinthians 5.21:  For our sake he made him to be sin  who knew no sin, so that in him we might become  the righteousness of God.


Galatians 1.3, 4:    Grace to you and peace  from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,  4  who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present  evil age, according to the will of  our God and Father,


Galatians 3.13: Christ  redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written,  “Cursed is everyone who is hanged  on a tree”—


Titus 2.14:  who gave himself for us to  redeem us from all lawlessness and  to purify for himself  a people for his own possession who are  zealous for good works.


Hebrews 9.12: he  entered  once for all into the holy places, not by means of  the blood of goats and calves but  by means of his own blood,  thus securing an eternal redemption.


1Peter 2.24:  He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we  might die to sin and  live to righteousness.  By his wounds you have been healed. 


1 Peter 3.18:   For Christ also  suffered   once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous,  that he might bring us to God, being put to death  in the flesh but made alive  in the spirit, 


4. How Do We Benefit From the Death of Christ?


The New Testament is clear that Jesus Christ was put forward as a “substitute” for sinners in his death on the cross. But, was it vicarious? What benefits accrue to those for whom Christ was a substitute?


The Scriptures confirm that those for whom Christ was a vicarious substitute on the cross are, as a result, reconciled to God, justified by his grace, and granted the indwelling presence of God the Spirit who grants them new live and works in them a progressive sanctification. It is foundational to our understanding of salvation to recognize that all these blessings are secured for us, and granted to us experientially as a result of the work of Jesus Christ. We are the recipients of all God’s blessing in and through our Savior.



Eph. 1.3    Blessed be  the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing  in the heavenly places,  4  even as he  chose us in him  before the foundation of the world, that we should be  holy and blameless before him.




Eph. 2.1-5    And you were  dead in the trespasses and sins 2  in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following  the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in  the sons of disobedience—  3 among whom we all once lived in  the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body  and the mind, and  were by nature  children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.  4 But  God, being  rich in mercy,  because of the great love with which he loved us,  5 even  when we were dead in our trespasses,  made us alive together with Christ— by grace you have been saved—


Titus 3.5 he saved us,  not because of works done by us in righteousness, but  according to his own mercy, by  the washing of regeneration and  renewal of the Holy Spirit,  6 whom he  poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior,


1Pet. 1.3    Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!  According to his great mercy,  he has caused us to be born again to a living hope  through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead




Rom. 5.10: For if  while we were enemies  we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by  his life.


2 Cor. 5.18: All this is from God,  who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us  the ministry of reconciliation;  19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling  the world to himself,  not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us  the message of reconciliation.


Eph. 2.15: by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in  ordinances, that he might create in himself one  new man in place of the two, so making peace,  16 and might  reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.


Col. 1.22: (And you) … he has now reconciled  in his body of flesh by his death,  in order to present you holy and blameless and  above reproach before him,




Rom. 3.24  and are justified  by his grace as a gift,  through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,  25 whom God  put forward as  a propitiation  by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in  his divine forbearance he had passed over  former sins.


Rom. 5.8 but  God shows his love for us in that  while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  9 Since, therefore,  we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from  the wrath of God.


1 Cor. 1.30 And because of him  you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us  wisdom from God,  righteousness and  sanctification and  redemption,


Gal. 3.13 Christ  redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written,  “Cursed is everyone who is hanged  on a tree”—


Col. 1.13 He  has delivered us from  the domain of darkness and transferred us to  the kingdom of  his beloved Son,  14  in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.


Heb. 9.12 he  entered  once for all into the holy places, not by means of  the blood of goats and calves but  by means of his own blood,  thus securing an eternal redemption.


1 Pet. 2.24  He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we  might die to sin and  live to righteousness.  By his wounds you have been healed. 




Titus 2.14  who gave himself for us to  redeem us from all lawlessness and  to purify for himself  a people for his own possession who are  zealous for good works.


Eph. 5.25    Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and  gave himself up for her,  26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by  the washing of water  with the word,


1 Cor. 1.30 And because of him  you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us  wisdom from God,  righteousness and  sanctification and  redemption,


Heb. 9.14 how much more will  the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit  offered himself without blemish to God,  purify our  conscience  from dead works  to serve the living God.


Heb. 13.12 So Jesus also  suffered  outside the gate in order to sanctify the people  through his own blood.


1 John 1.7 But  if we walk in the light,  as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and  the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 


Summary: So far we have see that Jesus Christ took our place, as our substitute, and died the death we should have died. As a result, God has imputed the benefits of Christ’s death to us so that, in a very real way, he has accepted Christ’s death as though it were ours.


But … some have posed serious objections to this view of the cross …



5. Objections to the Doctrine of Substitutionary Atonement


Review: When we look at the substitutionary nature of the atonement, we are also recognizing it as propitiation. As a reminder, propitiation means “satisfaction”. Understanding Christ’s death as propitiatory means that one benefit of his death that accrues to believers is that the righteous wrath of God has been fully assuaged, fully satisfied on their behalf.


Down through history some have attempted to dismiss the substitutionary nature of the atonement by a) dismissing the idea of God’s wrath, or b) by suggesting that the substitution idea distorts the true nature of justice, or c) by suggesting that any father who would punish his son for the transgressions of another is engaging in “cosmic child abuse.” These objections are answered as follows:


a) The reality of the wrath of God: That sin is a transgression of God’s law is clearly seen in Scripture, as is the fact that God’s righteous wrath hangs over all lawbreakers:


Psa. 32.5    I  acknowledged my sin to you,   and I did not cover my iniquity;   I said, “I  will confess my transgressions to the LORD,”   and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.


John 3.36  Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life;  whoever does not obey the Son shall not  see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.


Rom. 1.18   For  the wrath of God  is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.


Rom. 5.9 Since, therefore,  we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from  the wrath of God.


Eph. 5.3   But  sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness  must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints.  4 Let there be  no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking,  which are out of place, but instead  let there be thanksgiving.  5 For you may be sure of this, that  everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous ( that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.  6  Let no one  deceive you with empty words, for because of these things  the wrath of God comes upon  the sons of disobedience. 


b) The justice of God’s justice:


Is. 53.1-10     Who has believed what he has heard from us?    And to whom has  the arm of the LORD been revealed? 2  For he grew up before him like a young plant,    and like a root out of dry ground;    he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,   and no beauty that we should desire him. 3   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. 4     Surely he has borne our griefs   and carried our sorrows;   yet we esteemed him stricken,    smitten by God, and afflicted. 5   But he was pierced for our transgressions;   he was crushed for our iniquities;   upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,    and with his wounds we are healed. 6   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. 7    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. 8  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? 9  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. 10    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.


Rom. 9.14   What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.


c) The cross as the work of the Tri-une God:


Recently, Stephen Chalke and Alan Mann wrote this:


“The fact is that the cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse—a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed. Understandably, both people inside and outside of the Church have found this twisted version of events morally dubious and a huge barrier to faith. Deeper than that, however, is that such a concept stands in total contradiction to the statement: "God is love". If the cross is a personal act of violence perpetrated by God towards humankind but borne by his Son, then it makes a mockery of Jesus’ own teaching to love your enemies and to refuse to repay evil with evil (Steve Chalke and Alan Mann, The Lost Message of Jesus, [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003], pp. 182-183).


The biggest problem with this view, that the doctrine of vicarious, substitutionary atonement amounts to “cosmic child abuse” is that it is determined to separate the three persons of the Trinity in suggesting that the Father made the son do something he didn’t himself determine to do. But, the Father did not make the Son go to the cross; he went willingly, knowing this was his role in accomplishing the plan of the Godhead to glorify himself through the rescue of sinners.


John 10:17,18  For this reason the Father loves me,  because  I lay down my life that I may take it up again. 18  No one takes it from me, but  I lay it down  of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and  I have authority to take it up again.


6. Ramifications of the Vicarious, Substitutionary Atonement when Understood Together with the Doctrine of Propitiation


Note: As I have stressed throughout this class, decisions made along the way will determine the options available later. In this case, the serious question before us is this: For whom was Christ a vicarious substitute if by this he propitiated (assuaged, satisfied) the wrath of God for their sins?


To answer this question we must ask two additional questions:


1) What are the effects of the cross on creation?


It is apparent from Scripture that the cross had more far reaching effects than just the salvation of those who believe:


a: The vanquishing of Satan:


Heb. 2.14   Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise  partook of the same things, that  through death he might  destroy  the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil,  15 and deliver all those who  through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.


b: The restoration of authority to Christ:


Matt. 28.18 And Jesus came and said to them,  “All authority  in heaven and on earth has been given to me.


Phil. 2.9  Therefore  God has  highly exalted him and bestowed on him  the name that is above every name,  10 so that at the name of Jesus  every knee should bow,  in heaven and on earth and under the earth,  11 and  every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is  Lord, to the glory of God the Father.


c: The redemption of creation:


Rom. 8.19 For the creation waits with eager longing for  the revealing of the sons of God.  20 For the creation  was subjected to futility, not willingly, but  because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that  the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  22 For we know that  the whole creation  has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 


2) For whom did Christ die savingly?


While it is clear that certain effects of the cross are to be found beyond the salvation of those who believe, the question of the recipients of the saving effects has been a controversial one throughout the history of the church.


But: If Christ has fully satisfied the wrath of God as a vicarious substitute, then those for whom he was a substitute no longer have the wrath of God hanging over them. This leaves us with 3 options:


1) Christ died savingly as a propitiatory substitute for every individual who has ever lived, in which case all will be saved (Universalism).


2) Christ died as a substitute for every individual who ever lived, but his death did not accomplish redemption, but only made it possible. When they add their faith to his work it then becomes propitious and the wrath of God is satisfied. (Arminian)


3) Christ died savingly as a propitious substitute for all those who would ever believe (the elect), in which case the elect will be saved.


7. Significant Texts


Texts supporting Particular Redemption:


Matt. 1.21 She will bear a son, and  you shall call his name Jesus,  for he will save his people from their sins.”


John 6.37  All that  the Father gives me will come to me, and  whoever comes to me I will never cast out. 38 For  I have come down from heaven, not to do  my own will but  the will of him  who sent me. 39 And  this is the will of him who sent me,  that I should lose nothing of  all that he has given me, but  raise it up on the last day. 40 For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who  looks on the Son and  believes in him  should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” … 65 And he said, “This is why I told you  that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”


Heb. 9.12 he  entered  once for all into the holy places, not by means of  the blood of goats and calves but  by means of his own blood,  thus securing an eternal redemption.


Heb. 10.11   And every priest stands  daily at his service,  offering repeatedly the same sacrifices,  which can never take away sins.  12 But when Christ  had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he  sat down at the right hand of God,  13 waiting from that time  until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet.  14 For by a single offering  he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.


Texts supporting Universal Redemption:


John 1.29   The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold,  the Lamb of God, who  takes away the sin  of the world!


John 3.16   “For  God so loved  the world,   that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not  perish but have eternal life.


1John 2.2  He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but  also for the sins of the whole world.


Conclusion: The clear teaching of Scripture affirms that Jesus Christ’s death on the cross was not necessitated by his own sin. Rather, as God the Son, he willingly took on humanity in order to fulfill the divine plan of redemption. To accomplish the plan, it was necessary for him to offer himself as a vicarious substitute for sinners and endure the righteous wrath of God in their place and for their benefit. As a result, all for whom Christ was a vicarious substitute now are seen by God as having satisfied the demands of the law concerning their sin. His wrath has been propitiated, their sins forgiven, and their eternal future secured.








Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Walter A. Elwell, ed;(Baker, 1984)


Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem; (Zondervan, 1984)


The Christian Faith, Michael Horton; (Zondervan, 2011)


From Heaven He Came and Sought Her, David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson, eds;

(Crossway, 2013)


Redemption Accomplished and Applied, John Murray (Eerdmans, 1955)




Substitutionary Atonement of Jesus Christ: Matt Slick




Simon Cathercole


R. C. Sproul




John Piper