A request was submitted to me to write my thoughts about the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. I think it’s important to understand that there can be multiple definitions of substitutionary atonement, only some of which I believe are proper illustrations.

The first idea may be something along the lines of : “Rather than pouring out his wrath and obliterating me, God the Father killed Jesus instead.” As someone who believes the Bible supports a nonviolent morality, I don’t think this model is appropriate. It seems to be a crude formulation implying that God the Father gave the death penalty to Jesus and somehow this means God can now forgive us since he’s killed an innocent person. Such a view appears obviously immoral.

Furthermore, such a view creates a strong separation between the persons of the Trinity. It comes across as if the Father has a unique will that wishes to destroy humanity in wrath. But the Son has a different will to save humanity (from the Father?). “Penal substitution” is often the title given to this view. I, nonetheless, reject it.

On the other hand, if one defines substitutionary atonement along the lines of “Jesus lived the life I never could on my behalf,” I am open to such a formulation. We can give a fuller explanation by using N.T. Wright’s exposition of Pauline justification and covenant theology.

God established a covenant with humanity in which both parties have to abide by certain terms of agreement. When humanity maintain’s our side of the covenant, we are said to be “justified.” When God is faithful his side of the covenant, he is said to be “righteous.” Unfortunately, humanity fails at keeping our side of the arrangement. Thus, the question remains of how we are to receive justification.

The answer is found in Jesus i.e. God incarnate. God takes on a truly human nature, and lives a human life that faithfully fulfills our side of the covenant, and through his self-sacrificing love, he overcame evil. By placing our faith in Jesus, we are adopted into this justified state. The substitution occurs because Jesus fulfills the covenant that humanity never could, and thus atones for our sins.

Such a formulation is closer to how I conceive of substitutionary atonement. I appreciate the written request, and I’m always happy to take reader question. Email me at experitmentaltheology@gmail.com