Theories of the Atonement – Substitution Theory (p.1)


We will now take a look at what some have referred to as the Objective theories of the atonement.  This includes the Satisfaction theory and the Penal Substitution theory. Both are very similar.

The Substitution theory holds that the Bible teaches that Jesus suffered on behalf of sinners the punishment, curse, and death due to fallen humanity as the penalty for rebelling against a gloriously good, holy and just God. Here are numerous key verses (and entire chapters) that reflect this idea:

Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him… 10 But the LORD was pleased To crush Him, putting Him to grief; If He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, And the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand. 11 As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied; By His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, As He will bear their iniquities. (Isaiah 53)

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world. (1 John 2:1-2)

…being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus;  whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; 26 for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Rom 3:24-26)

Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.  (Heb 2:17)

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

While the Ransom theory claimed that something had to be paid to Satan for mankind’s redemption, the Substitution theories state that the debt for sin was actually owed to God.  It was God who had been sinned against, whose holiness and justice had been spurned.

St. Anselm of Canterbury (12th century) threw off the superstition of the Ransom paid to Satan theory. And he began to teach that there was a debt owed to the honor and majesty of God.  This has been called the Satisfaction theory of the atonement.  Anselm felt that it was actually possible for God to forgive sin without punishing anyone. But he suggested that for God to do so would be a disgrace to His public honor.  Therefore Jesus Christ, God’s Son, willingly died in  the place of sinners, absorbing the punishment we deserved (hence, “substitute”). But Jesus did this to restore God’s public honor.

Understanding the cultural background in St. Anselm’s day helps explain this theory.  It was a day of lords and peasants, of kings and subjects.  If a king was rebelled against and simply forgave his enemies, without some public display of punishment, then the kingdom would likely go into anarchy. People would no longer fear the king.  Even though a king could out of his own goodness forgive at will, He had to punish a substitute so that His public honor would not suffer. This made perfect sense in that culture.

Several hundred years later, the reformers like Calvin and Luther, developed the Substitution theory even farther, into what is now widely known as the Penal Substitution theory. “Penal” simply means “legal punishment”.  Christ became our legal substitute on the cross by taking on Himself the just penalty owed to a holy God due to our sin.

We will pick up from here next time!

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