Big theological terms can be embarrassing. Either you don’t know what they mean (and therefore feel dumb) or you use one that no one else understands (and therefore feel silly). A lot of these words are useless to the average Christian, but there are some theological terms that every Christian benefits from understanding, such as “substitutionary atonement.” This term is theological parlance for how Christ on the cross achieved salvation for sinners, revealed the character of God, and conquered evil.
Obviously this is a big term for a big topic, that great writers spent entire books expositing. The most popular book in modern time was written by John R.W. Stott, who went to be with the Lord earlier this month. In his masterpiece, The Cross of Christ, he biblically unpacks the substitutionary atonement. If you want to begin to plunge the depths of the cross, Stott’s book is a great place start.
For now, let me briefly explain what substitutionary atonement means. Just remember, this is only the surface.
The biblical story is that God created man to enjoy perfect relationship with him. However, man rebelled against God by sinning. The cost of this rebellion is death–eternal separation from God. But the story doesn’t end there. God lovingly promised to save sinners from the consequences of their sin to enjoy relationship with him once more… but this caused a serious problem: how can God forgive treasonous rebels like us?
If God is truly just, then he must punish sinners for their rebellion. A just God can’t just let us off the hook. So how can he forgive sinners and remain just?
The answer came in the person of Jesus Christ. While on Earth, Jesus lived a perfectly obedient life, and therefore did not deserve punishment or death. Yet, Christ willingly substituted himself for us on the cross; he paid the penalty for our sin – death. His death propitiated God’s wrath – appeased his righteous anger against sin. By his blood he atoned for our sins.
Why? So that God “might be both just and the justifier” (Rom. 3:26, emphasis added).
On the cross, God proved that he was just by punishing our sin. But also, God was our gracious justifier, because he himself bore the punishment for our sin. Paul writes, “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). Christ became a curse so that we could become sons and daughters of God (Gal 3:13-14). He substituted himself for us.
The idea of substitution, Stott says, lies “at the heart of both sin and salvation.” The substitionary atonement is key to our understanding of ourselves and who God is. Stott writes,
The essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for man. Man asserts himself against God and puts himself where only God deserves to be; God sacrifices himself for man and puts himself where only man deserves to be. Man claims prerogative that belong to God alone; God accepts penalties that belong to man alone. . . As we stand before the cross we begin to gain a clear view both of God and of ourselves, especially in relation to each other. Instead of inflicting on us the judgement we deserved, God in Christ endured it in our place.
This is what we mean when say “substitionary atonement”. What this “term” represents is the hinge of history, the core of the cross, the revelation of God’s glory, and the crux of our lives. This is one big term that veils a gloriously beautiful reality – one that rightly moves our hearts, minds and souls.