Is Substitutionary Atonement Necessary?


If you reject the premise that Jesus’ death is in place of our death, then you are rejecting everything that the Christian faith has espoused for two thousand years from the Original Disciples to the New Testament Authors to the Apostolic Fathers to the Early Church Fathers. The cornerstone teaching that Jesus came to save sinners is unmatched, unprecedented and unparalleled to any other religion or Christian doctrine conceived since Jesus walked the earth. To make Jesus’ sacrifice anything less is to demean the work of Christ and therefore a person runs the risk of failing to know the true Christ. If your understanding of Jesus is wrong, then you are no different than any false teaching that portrays Jesus in any other fashion, from the early Gnostics to today’s Jehovah’s Witnesses, World Mission Society Church of God or Mormons.

A quick note of semantics. Some people reject the phrase substitutionary atonement probably because of the way someone else described it to them. There is a movement among some Christian thinkers that we need to transcend this archaic and barbaric teaching. These people say it is out of context for today; this teaching was necessary for the religious views at the time but is not needed now. To make this simple, substitutionary atonement is a human-made phrase to describe a biblical concept that the New Testament authors didn’t need to spell out for us. It was assumed, and only later in church history was it written down because people started to confuse what Christ did like people are today. It is the same reasoning for the use of the word Trinity, it is not a word found in scripture, but the foundation of who God is in scripture is one God in three persons of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. It’s how the New Testament authors explained God. It’s how Jesus explained God, as recorded in the gospels.

Let’s start with Paul who gave us the first church creed, found in his first letter to the Corinthians. “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, (1 Corinthians 15:3). A creed is a written confession of an oral belief. Paul says he is passing on to them what he received to be true about our faith, and his first statement is that Christ died for our sins. He says the same thing in his first letter to Timothy, his protégé, about Jesus, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the worst” (1 Timothy 1:15). One final example out of many, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us,” (Galatians 3:13a). This one is a clear example of substitutionary atonement. Jesus redeemed us, or atoned for our sins, by becoming a curse for us, or in our place which means he is a substitute for us.

Why did Jesus need to die for our sins? Our sins are what have kept us from getting to God. The entire picture painted in Genesis is that Adam and Eve rebelled, and God removed them from paradise. Their sin separated them from God. Why does sin do this? It requires more than the simple response, “Because God said so.” However, the reality is that God did say so, “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine,” (Exodus 19:5, NIV). God will repeat this to every leader from Moses to Jesus to John, keeping God’s commands is essential to express our love for God. Jesus says, “If you love me, keep my commands” (John 14:15, NIV). Later in John’s life, he writes to believers in Asia Minor, “We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. 4 Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. 5 But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: 6 Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did” (1 John 2:3-6).

The bible makes it clear, doing what Jesus did is the highest moral aim we must undertake. Here is what enables us even to begin doing this task, it is the fact that Christ died in our place so that there is nothing we must earn. We are free to become like Christ out of complete gratitude for what Jesus did on the cross for us. We are not becoming like Christ for Christ’s sake; we are becoming like Christ because it is God’s best design for us. Living outside of God’s design is what broke us in the first place and banished us from paradise.

Therein is our answer to “Why does sin separate us from God?” It is because we are no longer the good design he originally made. God made man and woman and said that it was good (Genesis 1:31). We bare this same goodness that God is, his image. When Adam and Eve chose to disobey God, it was not good because they were no longer functioning as God had made them, which was in his likeness. It’s not arbitrary, this consequence of our sin, it’s a matter of God’s essence. Sin is cancer to our bodies; it is the opposite of who God is. Sin is anything that goes against God’s very nature of goodness, love, holiness, justice, humility, patient and the list goes on. God made us perfect, and when we sinned, a cancer was born, and our bodies became infected. God could have dealt with this infection in a moment, but it meant killing the host. You and your soul are inseparable, therefore when you sin, and your soul is contaminated, it needs cleansing. When we sin, we separate ourselves from God in the sense that we cannot be where God is because God cannot sin. If you want to be with him, then your sin must be removed. We have one of two options; God could remove the sin by removing the soul and thus casting aside the broken parts of his creation. However, since he desires that we should live, with our soul intact, he provided another way for removing our sin, and that was with the cure. Jesus’ blood has procured the antibodies that destroy cancer in our soul. When our bodies die, our soul lives on and can be with God because Jesus’ blood inoculated us to the disease of sin and death (Although our soul will reunite with our perfected body at the second coming of Jesus).

Isn’t blood barbaric? Many people who reject substitutionary atonement ask this question. My response is this, ask a doctor in a trauma room, a paramedic at the scene of a car crash, or a deployed soldier who has experienced combat. Is blood barbaric? Spilled blood is gruesome, barbaric, and gut wrenching because we all know the life source that sustains us is the blood coursing through our veins. Is the need for Jesus’ blood to cover our sins archaic? People need blood transfusions daily to live, when did this idea of blood replacement become obsolete or unneeded? Blood was, is and always has been the source of life.

Jesus willingly gave up his source of life, cancer free, type o-negative, universal donor blood transfusion. Your blood is clean; your life is clean because he shed it all on the cross. How is this barbaric, if it is love? The Jews didn’t sacrifice him; they executed him. We didn’t sacrifice him, Jesus willingly sacrificed himself by submitting to the Roman execution of crucifixion. One life for another life. He atoned for our sins, he paid the debt our sin owed, he justified us in God’s sight and we can be with him. The greatest sign is the Holy Spirit dwelling within us. Wherever we go, God is with us, and it was only possible because we are made Holy through the blood of the lamb. It was a one-time event that never will happen again.
“For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13). This same text repeats in Acts 2:21 and both are a quote from the prophet Joel in the Old Testament, “And everyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be deliverance, as the LORD has said, even among the survivors whom the LORD calls” (Joel 2:32).

Saved from what? From the judgement our sin deserves. God could have done this on day one, judge our soul, remove our soul along with its sin and cast us away. Instead, he chose to provide a cure so that he can touch us without God overpowering us by his perfection. That is the real secret. God knew that if he made Adam and Eve stay in the Garden, his perfection would overcome their sin and they would not be able to stand before him. His righteousness conquers all unrighteousness. He had to make us righteous so that this would not happen. We caused the problem, and God fixed it.

If you reject that your sin has separated you from God; you are saying you are just fine on your own and you do not need Jesus. If you believe Jesus died for everyone and everyone receives salvation than God is forcing himself on everyone. He is forcing himself on those who reject him; this is not loving. You have a choice, Jesus died so that we might live but you must believe it and then act on it. Jesus as our substitute is simple and imperative. Our sin separated us, and now we have been bought back. If Jesus is not our substitute, then his death was to no avail. What a shame to place that upon Jesus. What a mockery of his execution, to say it is not needed. He did it because it was the only way, so don’t change what he did. He did it for the worst of us, which is all of us.

In Truth & Love,
Matthew J. Diaz

THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

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