The Atonement as Substitution — Excerpt from my The Atonement: A Biblical, Theological, and Historical Study of the Cross of Christ (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2019), 197–98
As Easter Sunday approaches, today we consider the nature of the atonement as a substitutionary sacrifice. Friday’s post will look at the atonement in connection with the resurrection of Christ.
Many theologians consider substitution to be the controlling theological category that defines the atonement and explains essentially how it works. Older works on the atonement sometimes use the adjective “vicarious,” meaning “substitutionary.” The theme of the atonement as substitutionary in nature is clearly present in both the Greek and Latin church fathers. (See J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, rev. ed. [New York: Harper Collins, 1978], 380–89.)
Many modern writers criticize penal substitution as inadequately addressing the changed relationship that occurs at salvation. But earlier theologians were well aware of this and located the change that occurred as grounded in and initiated by the cross (positional sanctification) but then worked out in the believer’s life (progressive sanctification).
Another false dichotomy is revealed in the question: “Was the atonement representative or substitutionary?” The biblical answer is both. You can have representation without substitution, but you cannot have substitution without representation. There is no doubt that Jesus acted as the representative of humanity in His incarnation and crucifixion. As Culpepper points out, the NT concept of representative atonement is based on the OT concept of corporate personality. “Both the Son of Man and the Suffering Servant in both Old Testament prophecy and the New Testament fulfilment are representative figures.” (Culpepper, Interpreting the Atonement, 70–71.) Second Corinthians 5:14–15 illustrates representation: “One died for all, therefore all died.”
More than fifty years ago, Leon Morris addressed this issue quite well. To say that the cross was representative but not substitutionary was in vogue at the time. Morris believed that representation language in lieu of substitution was problematic first because it “suffers from lack of accurate definition.” Placed in atonement contexts, representation and substitution mean virtually the same, as can be demonstrated from a dictionary. Where the two can be distinguished, there is little reason to prefer representation over substitution. The key distinguishing factor appears to be the element of “personal delegation of responsibility.” Humanity has not delegated Christ as our representative; rather, God appointed Him to make atonement for our sins. Morris concludes that as long as this distinction is kept in mind, and as long as substitution is not denied, the concept may be useful. (Leon Morris, The Cross in the New Testament, 407–09.)
Leonard Hodgson believes that both concepts are found in the NT: “We do not have to choose between so-called substitutionary and representative doctrines as though they were mutually exclusive alternatives. . . . [T]here is truth in saying that Christ suffered in our stead (ἀντί ἡμῶν [anti hēmōn]) and truth also in saying that He suffered on our behalf (ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν [hyper hēmōn]). (L. Hodgson, The Doctrine of the Atonement, 142.)
But some atonement passages simply cannot be limited to a “representation” category and are more accurately described as substitutionary (e.g., 2 Cor 5:21; Gal 3:13; 1 Pet 2:24). Jesus not only did something “representatively” for people, He did something for them as their substitute, as is clearly brought out in passages like 1 Pet 3:18, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God.” Christ’s death on the cross was a substitutionary death in which He represented us. We have already seen how this is stated in Isaiah 53. The only way sin can be expiated is if it is borne on our behalf by a substitute.