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What is the substitutionary atonement?

Question: "What is the substitutionary atonement?"

The “substitutionary atonement” refers to the fact that Jesus Christ died on behalf of all sinners. The Scriptures teach that all men are sinners (read Romans 3:9-18 and Romans 3:23). The penalty for our sinfulness is death. Romans 6:23 reads, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

That verse teaches us several things. We are all going to die and spend an eternity in hell as payment for our sins. Death in the scriptures refers to a “separation.” Everyone, of course, will die, but some will live in heaven with the Lord for eternity, while others will live a life in hell for eternity. The death spoken of here refers to the life in hell. However, the second thing this verse teaches us is that eternal life is available through Jesus Christ. This is His substitutionary atonement.

Jesus Christ died in our place when He was crucified on the cross. We deserved to be the ones placed on that cross to die because we are the ones who live sinful lives. But Christ took the punishment on His own self in our place. “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 Corinthians 5:21). He took our place as a substitute for what we rightly deserved.

“And He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed” (1 Peter 2:24). Here again we see that Christ took the sins we committed onto Himself to pay the price for us. A few verses later we read, “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit” (1 Peter 3:18). Not only do these verses teach us about the “substitute” that Christ was for us, but also that He was the “atonement,” meaning He satisfied the payment due for the sinfulness of man.

One more passage that talks about the “substitutionary atonement” is Isaiah 53:5. This verse talks about the coming Christ who was to die on the cross for our sins; it is very detailed, and the crucifixion happened just as it was foretold. Notice the words as you read it. “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.” Notice the substitution. Here again we see Christ paid the price for us!

We could not pay the price of sin on our own. Or if we did, we would simply be punished and placed in hell for all eternity. But Christ took the initiative to come to earth in the form of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, to pay for the price of our sins. Because He did this for us, we may now have the opportunity to not only have our sins forgiven, but the opportunity to spend an eternity with Him. In order to do this, we must place our faith in what Christ did on the cross. We cannot save ourselves; we need a substitute to take our place.

Recommended Resource: Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ by John Piper.

Related Topics:

What are the various theories on the atonement?

What is the meaning of Christian redemption?

What is the Ordo Salutis?

What is justification?

What is propitiation?

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What is the substitutionary atonement?