© Copyright Rosemary Bardsley 2002


The phrase substitutionary atonement does not occur in the Bible, but the concept underlies the Biblical teaching about salvation from beginning to end. What do these words mean? What is their significance today? Can we leave them aside as relics of a bygone era? Or are they an essential component of our knowledge of Jesus Christ and his salvation?

We know what 'substitute' means. We substitute margarine for butter, and most recipes turn out much the same. Or we think of the sports field, where one player substitutes for another, fulfilling his role, and the game goes on. A substitute takes the place of another. It stands for the other, instead of the other, doing what the other would normally do, filling the role the other would normally fill. Whatever was the desired outcome, it is achieved by the substitute, instead of being achieved by the original.

'Atonement' is not so commonly understood. To 'atone' is to make amends, to make reparation for some offence or injury done to another. The word means literally 'at one'. Atonement then is the action by which previously divided parties are reunited. In a religious setting, 'atonement' is the process of making peace, or achieving reconciliation, between man and his god/gods. In the Bible 'atonement' refers to the action decreed by God for the re-establishment of a positive relationship between man (the sinner) and himself (the holy God).

This Biblical concept of substitutionary atonement is based on a number of significant Biblical teachings:

[1]God's holiness

Firstly, God's holiness is so pure and perfect that neither sin nor the sinner can survive in his immediate presence (Exodus 33:21-23). This awesome purity and otherness of God is depicted in Scripture by descriptions of brilliant, dazzling light and glorious radiance (Isaiah 6:1-7; Ezekiel 1:25-28; Matthew 17:1,2; Acts 9:1-4; Revelation 1:12-18). In the presence of such holiness even the godliest of men are overcome. In the presence of this holiness even our righteousness is filthy (Isaiah 64:6).

[2] Our sinfulness

Secondly, standing in stark contrast to the holiness of God, is the sinfulness of man. This sinfulness is not merely a matter of our many individual sins, but, more importantly, the basic orientation of our hearts and minds: we are sinners. From the original rejection of the authority of God in Genesis 3 our mindset has been one of rebellion against him (Romans 1:18-31; 3:9-18). Even when we appear to be religious the god or gods we worship are those we have made for ourselves, either with our hands or with our thoughts, gods we can manage and manipulate. It is out of this foundational sin in which we reject God that all specific acts of sin originate.

[3] Separation from God

Thirdly, all of this sinfulness and sin bars our entry into the presence of God (Isaiah 59:2,3), incurs his wrath (Romans 1:18), and holds us captive to an inescapable and fatal punishment (Genesis 2:17; Romans 5:12; 6:23). We, like the servant in Jesus' parable, stand before the King with a massive, unpayable debt, and nothing with which to pay (Matthew 18: 21-35). Utterly destitute. Utterly incapable of making good our standing in his presence. It is an impossible situation.

[4] God's amazing love for us

Fourthly, the amazing and incredible thing in all of this is that God, the holy One, still wants us, the sinners, to live (John 3:16; Ezekiel 33:11; 2 Peter 3:9). In an act of extreme love he provides a way of escape. As we saw in the study on justification, God's action in the death of Jesus Christ enables him to do two things at once: to remain true to his justice and holiness, and at the same time to acquit and accept the sinner (Romans 3:25b-26).

He does all of this by means of substitutionary atonement: the action in which reparation for our sins is made on our behalf by a substitute. When Jesus Christ died on the cross he was taking the punishment for our sins. He died for us. We could almost say: he died as us. The Old Testament anticipates this action of Jesus Christ in the role of the Passover lamb (Exodus 12:) where the lamb dies instead of the firstborn in the house; and in the regular Hebrew sacrifices (Leviticus 1 to 7) and the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16) where animals die as substitutes for sinners. The Old Testament also makes direct prophecies of the death of Jesus Christ as a substitute for sinners (Isaiah 53:4-11).

The New Testament teaches that substitutionary atonement is the key significance of the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. Paul calls this death 'a sacrifice of atonement' (Romans 3:25); he says that 'Christ died for the ungodly', and 'Christ died for us' (Romans 5:6,8; italics added) where the 'for' means 'instead of' or 'in the place of'. So effective is this substitution that Paul teaches that the believer died with Christ: his death was our death; when he died, we died (Romans 6:1-11; 7:1-6; 2 Corinthians 5:14; Galatians 2:20; Colossians 2:12,20; 3:3). We must never understand the 'for' in 'Christ died for us' to be merely a kind act, such as drying the dishes for someone, or buying a gift for someone. It is far, far greater than that. It is the 'for' of substitution. In this substitutionary 'for' Jesus Christ took that all what was ours - all the sin, guilt, condemnation, wrath, judgement, punishment, rejection by God, separation from God, death. He took it all. As Peter wrote: 'He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree' (1Peter 2:24). As Paul wrote: 'God made him who had no sin to be sin for us' (2 Corinthians 5:21).

That is not all that is involved in this substitutionary atonement. By this death Christ wiped out our debit balance. That in itself leaves us at zero. But he does not leave us there and say, 'Okay! You're on your own now. I've wiped out your sin debt, now you make good your own righteousness, you build up for yourself that one hundred percent goodness that God requires of you one hundred percent of the time. The ball's in your court.' God knows, even if we don't, that such a salvation would not last, even for an hour.

In this incredible exchange in which Jesus takes what is ours, he also gives us what is his. The New Testament expresses it this way:

'For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!' (Romans 5:10).

'If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection' (Romans 6:5).

'In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus' (Romans 6:11).

'It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God - that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption' (1 Corinthians 1:30).

'God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God' (2 Corinthians 5:21).

' ... giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light' (Colossians 1:12).

' ... he has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation' (Colossians 1:22).

' ... you have been given fulness in Christ ... ' (Colossians 2:10).

' ... your life if now hidden with Christ in God' (Colossians 3:3).

  • He took our sin: he gives us his righteousness.
  • He was rejected by God: we are accepted.
  • He bore our condemnation: we are free from accusation.
  • He took our guilt: we are given peace with God.
  • He was cursed for us: we are blessed in him.
  • He died: we live.

In this way Jesus Christ, our substitute, made atonement for our sin. In this way God reconciled us to himself.

This act of God in Christ Jesus, this substitutionary atonement, makes two things clear and certain:

  1. the sheer impossibility that we could ever save ourselves, and
  2. the sheer impossibility of those who genuinely trust in Christ ever losing their salvation.
For your study: Read through the study again, looking up all the references, and make a list of truths that impact you. Discuss the impact of these truths on your relationship with God and your perception of your salvation.
For deeper thought: how does this truth of substitutionary atonement indicate the impossibility of salvation ever being lost by those who are genuine believers in Jesus Christ?