The Doctrine of Substitution

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Last Thursday evening Pastor John Svendsen mentioned the late John Stott’s The Cross of Christ as one of the best books on the doctrine of substitution — and one of those books every Christian should read. The book is certainly a masterful treatise on the glories of the cross.

In chapter 7, Stott looks at the four principal New Testament images of salvation.

  • The shrine (propitiation[1])
  • The market (redemption)
  • The court of law (justification)
  • The home (reconciliation)

This beautiful chapter on “The Salvation of Sinners” ends with a masterful summary of the four images[2]:

First, each highlights a different aspect of our human need. Propitiation underscores the wrath of God upon us, redemption our captivity to sin, justification our guilt, and reconciliation our enmity against God and alienation from Him. These metaphors do not flatter us. They actually expose the magnitude of our need.

Second, all four images emphasize that the saving initiative was taken by God in His love. It is God who has propitiated His own wrath, redeemed us from our miserable bondage, declared us righteous in His sight and reconciled us to Himself. Stott shows that texts like 1 John 4:10Luke 1:68Rom. 8:33; and 2 Cor. 5:18 teach this precious truth.

Third, all four images plainly teach that God’s saving work was achieved through the blood-shedding, that is, the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ. Again, Stott reminds us of the most important texts that make this point: Rom. 3:25Eph. 1:7Rom. 5:9;Eph. 2:13Col. 1:20.

Both Testaments, then, confirm that judicial retribution from God awaits those whose sins are not covered by a substitutionary sacrifice: in the Old Testament, the sacrifice of an animal; in the New Testament, the sacrifice of Christ. He, the holy Son of God in sinless human flesh, has endured what Calvin called ‘the pains of a condemned and lost person’ so that we, trusting him as our Saviour and Lord, might receive pardon for the past and a new life in him and with him for the present and future.  –J.I. Packer

The chapter concludes with a much needed word for our day. Everyone who marginalizes the doctrine of substitution by calling it a “theory,” everyone who minimizes this doctrine by making it just one aspect of the atonement, everyone who shies away from this teaching in a misguided effort to rescue the love of God, everyone who undermines this essential truth by refusing to declare it confidently in plain, unambiguous terms, should pay careful attention to this concluding paragraph:

So substitution is not a “theory of the atonement.” Nor is it even an additional image to take its place as an option alongside the others. It is rather the essence of each image and the heart of the atonement itself. None of the four images could stand without it. I am not of course saying that it is necessary to understand, let alone articulate, a substitutionary atonement before one can be saved. Yet the responsibility of Christian teachers, preachers and other witnesses is to seek grace to expound it with clarity and conviction. For the better people understand the glory of the divine substitution, the easier it will be for them to trust in the Substitute.

Is there more than one thing to say about the atonement? Absolutely! Are there a variety of implications and applications that can be drawn from the cross of Christ? Of course! But none of them make sense if Christ did not die in our place to assuage the wrath of God. Substitution is not a theory — one suggested idea that may or may not be true. Substitutionary atonement is the hope of sinners, the heart of the gospel, and the good news without which all other news regarding the cross is null and void.

The above was adapted from a post on the Gospel Coalition website by Kevin DeYoung. You can view it here.

[1] Propitiation means the turning away of God’s wrath by the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

[2] Pgs. 198-199.

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The Doctrine of Substitution

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