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The Cross and the Atonement

During the first decade of the twenty-first century, a number of prominent leaders in the emerging church movement asserted that the doctrine of substitutionary atonement is tantamount to “cosmic child abuse.” At a time when men and women were finally starting to see the need to condemn every form of abuse that had been tolerated in our culture, the allegation seemed to be a powerful argument with which to drive people away from the longstanding teaching of the Christian church on the sufferings of Christ. The question of the atonement is not, however, settled by aspersions cast by contemporary theologians but by biblical exegesis and theological coherence.

While Jesus frequently taught His disciples about the certainty and necessity of His death on the cross (Matt. 16:21Mark 8:31Luke 9:22; 17:25; 22:22), He only explicitly tied those aspects of His death on the cross to its meaning on three occasions—in Mark 10:45, in the Good Shepherd discourse (John 10), and at the institution of the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:19–20). In these places, Jesus taught the substitutionary nature of His death for the forgiveness of the sins of His people. 

When we move from the Gospels to the Epistles, an explicit articulation of the substitutionary nature of the death of Christ appears. When one considers the many instances in which the Apostles explain the death of Christ, it is incontrovertible that the doctrine of substitutionary atonement is the Apostolic doctrine of the atonement. In what is perhaps the clearest exposition of the death of Christ, the Apostle Paul teaches the vicarious sacrifice of the Savior when he declares, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). Likewise, the Apostle Peter explained that Jesus “himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24). 

Behind the Apostolic interpretation of the death of the Savior is the Old Testament teaching on the atonement. The prophet Isaiah, in speaking of the Suffering Servant, foretold of the sufferings that Jesus would undergo in the place of His people: “He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (Isa. 53:5). All of Israel’s prophets alluded to the substitutionary nature of the work of the Redeemer when they spoke of the work of redemption. This, of course, also has its foundation in the nature of Old Testament sacrifice. 

In his Reformed Dogmatics, Herman Bavinck explains the significance of the old covenant sacrificial system for seeking to understand the sacrifice of Christ: 

The New Testament views Christ’s death as a sacrifice and the fulfillment of the Old Testament sacrificial cult. He is the true covenant sacrifice; just as the old covenant was confirmed by the covenant sacrifice (Ex. 24:3–11), so the blood of Christ is the blood of the new covenant (Matt. 26:28Mark 14:24Heb. 9:13f.). Christ is a sacrifice (θυσια, זֶבַח), the sacrificial victim for our sins (Eph. 5:2Heb. 9:26; 10:12), an offering (προσφορα, δωρον; מִנְחָה קָרְבָּן; Eph. 5:2Heb. 10:10, 14, 18); a ransom (λυτρον, ἀντιλυτρον; Matt. 20:28Mark 10:451 Tim. 2:6) and therefore denoting the price of release, a ransom to purchase someone’s freedom from prison, and hence a means of atonement, a sacrifice by which to cover other people’s sin and so to save them from death. He is a payment (τιμη, 1 Cor. 6:20; 7:23; 1 Peter 1:18–19), the price paid for the purchase of someone’s freedom; a sin offering that was made to be sin for us (2 Cor. 5:211 John 2:2; 4:10); the paschal lamb that was slain for us (John 19:361 Cor. 5:7), the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and is slain to that end (John 1:29, 36Acts 8:321 Peter 1:19Rev. 5:6; etc.). He is an expiation (ἱλαστηριον, Rom. 3:25), a sacrifice of atonement (θυμα), a curse (καταρα, Gal. 3:13) who took over from us the curse of the law, like the serpent in the wilderness lifted high on the cross (John 3:14; 8:28; 12:33) and like a grain of wheat dying in the earth in order thus to bear much fruit (John 12:24).1


When I was in seminary, I had a professor who would tell the students that the most important parts of speech when studying the Old Testament in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek are the pronouns, conjunctions, and prepositions. The doctrine of the substitutionary atonement is seen most clearly in the Scriptural use of the prepositions associated with the death of Christ. For instance, in Galatians 2:20, the Apostle Paul says, “The Son of God . . . loved me and gave Himself for me.” When Jesus teaches His disciples about His forthcoming death, He says, “The Son of Man did come not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Geerhardus Vos explains the importance of understanding these prepositions:

Besides ὑπέρ, ἀντί also appears, which always means “in the place of” (Matt. 20:28Mark 10:45). Obviously, ἀντί in no way excludes ὑπέρ. That Christ gave Himself as a substitute for His own is not only well understandable along with the fact that He gave Himself for their benefit but also directly includes the latter consideration . . . in more than one place ὑπέρ itself has the full force of ἀντί (cf. 2 Cor. 5:20–21Philem. 132 Cor. 5:14). Here, too, we again have the same result: What Christ did as priest, He did as the substitutionary Surety of believers and, precisely for that reason, did before God and not toward man.2


On one occasion, Jesus explained the nature of His death under the figure of the Shepherd laying down his life for the sheep. In that discourse, Jesus taught that His forthcoming death was voluntary. He said: “I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again” (John 10:17–18). He went on to say that He had received the command to lay down His life for the sheep from His Father. However, the perfect harmony that He had with His Father was manifested in His laying down His life for His people of His own accord. It is for this reason that any insistence of divine child abuse must be rejected wholesale. The Son of God eternally loved His own and willingly laid down His life for His people in order to save them from the eternal wrath of God. 

Whatever other dimensions belong to the work of Christ crucified, on this much we must be settled: The principal work of Jesus on the cross was atoning for the sins of His people by standing in their place and bearing the consequences and judgment of their sins. Jesus was constituted a sinner—though without any sin of His own—by the imputation of the sins of God’s people to His own person so that He might bear that sin in His body on the tree and receive the just punishment for those sins. In doing so, Jesus atones for the sins of all those for whom He died, removing their guilt and providing the basis of forgiveness for their sin. When we come to understand this in our hearts, we sing: “Bearing shame and scoffing rude, in my place condemned he stood. Sealed my pardon with his blood. Hallelujah! What a Savior!”

  1. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 3, Sin and Salvation in Christ, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2006), 338–39. ↩︎
  2. Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 3, Christology, eds. and trans. Richard B. Gaffin, Jonathan Pater, Allan Janssen, Harry Boonstra, Roelof van Ijken (Bellingham, Wash.: Lexham, 2014), 100. ↩︎

*This post was first published at Tabletalk Magazine in June of 2018.

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