Jesus’ Substitutionary Atonement in Salvation

Atonement is a very important concept in the Bible. In the OT, the word atonement translates the Hebrew verb kaphar (כָּפַר) which means to “cover over, pacify, propitiate, [or] atone for sin.”[1] Theologically, it means “to bring together in mutual agreement, with the added idea, in theology, of reconciliation through the vicarious suffering of one on behalf of another.”[2] The animal sacrificial system—which was part of the Mosaic Law—taught that sin must be atoned for. The idea of substitution was clearly taught as the sinner laid his hands on the animal that died in his place (Lev 4:15, 24; 16:21). The innocent animal paid the price of death on behalf of the guilty sinner.

Sacrificial LambThe animal sacrificial system under the Mosaic Law taught that God is holy, man is sinful, and that God was willing to judge an innocent creature as a substitute in place of the sinner. The animal that shed its blood gave up its life in place of the one who had offended God, and it was only through the shed blood that atonement was made. A life for a life. The animal sacrificial system under the Mosaic Law was highly symbolic, temporary, and pointed forward to the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. The Levitical priests would regularly perform their temple sacrifices on behalf of the people to God, but being a symbolic system, the animal sacrifices could never “make perfect those who draw near” to Him, for the simple reason that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb 10:1, 4). For nearly fourteen centuries the temple priests kept “offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins” (Heb 10:11), until finally Christ “offered one sacrifice for sins for all time” (Heb 10:12), and through that one offering “perfected for all time those who are sanctified” by it (Heb 10:14). What the Mosaic Law could never accomplish through the sacrifice of symbols, Christ did once and for all time through His substitutionary death on the cross when he died in the place of sinners.

Christ our Hope in Life and DeathJesus’ death on the cross was a satisfactory sacrifice to God which completely paid the price for our sin. We owed a debt to God that we could never pay, and Jesus paid that debt in full when He died on the cross and bore the punishment that rightfully belonged to us. In Romans 3:25 Paul used the Greek word hilasterion (ἱλαστήριον)—translated propitiation—to show that Jesus’ shed blood completely satisfied God’s righteous demands toward our sin, with the result that there is nothing more for the sinner to pay to God. Jesus paid our sin-debt in full. The Apostle John tells us “He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world” (1 John 2:2; cf., 1 John 4:10). Jesus’ death on the cross forever satisfied God’s righteous demands toward the sins of everyone for all time! God has “canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Col 2:14). Regarding Christ’s death, J. Dwight Pentecost states:

You can be adjusted to God’s standard, because God made Christ to become sin for us. The One who knew no sin, the One in whose lips had never been found guile, took upon Himself our sin in order that He might bear our sins to the cross and offer Himself as an acceptable substitute to God for us—on our behalf, in our place. And when Jesus Christ identified Himself with sinners and went to the cross on their behalf and in their place, He was making possible the doctrine of reconciliation. He was making it possible for God to conform the world to Himself, to adjust the world to His standard so that sinners in the world might find salvation because “Jesus paid it all.” You can be adjusted to God, to God’s standard, through Christ, by His death, by His cross, by His blood, and by His identification with sinners.[3]

In the NT, the idea of substitution is observed in the use of two Greek prepositions. The first is the preposition huper (ὑπὲρ), translated “for,” which means “in behalf of, for the sake of someone.”[4] The idea of Jesus dying as a substitute in the place of sinners is seen in Romans 5:8 where Paul wrote, “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” The second preposition that denotes substitution is anti (ἀντὶ), also translated “for,” which expresses the idea “that one person or thing is, or is to be, replaced by another, instead of, in place of.”[5] The preposition anti (ἀντὶ) is seen in Jesus’ statement, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matt 20:28). According to Robert Lightner:

The biblical view of the Savior’s death is that he died to satisfy the demands of the offended righteousness of God. The Savior died in the sinner’s place. This is an essential, indispensable truth in evangelicalism. It is true that Christ died for the sinner’s benefit, but that does not fully describe the nature and purpose of his finished work. He gave his life in the sinner’s place. He died as the sinner’s substitute. The strongest expression of Christ’s substitutionary death is given with the Greek preposition anti, translated “for.” Christ himself used this word when he said, “even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matt 20:28; cf. Matt 26:28; 1 Tim 2:6). Christ died in the sinner’s place. He died instead of the condemned.[6]

Jesus’ atonement for sins is the basis for reconciliation, because God has judged our sins in the Person of Christ who died on the cross in our place. The death of Christ has forever satisfied God’s righteous demands for our sin and it is on this basis that He can accept sinners into heaven. The blood of Christ is the only coin in the heavenly realm that God accepts as payment for our sin-debt, and Christ paid our sin debt in full. That’s good news!

Because Jesus’ death satisfied God’s righteousness demands for sin, the sinner can approach God who welcomes him without reservation. God has cleared the way for sinners to come to Him for a new relationship, and this is based completely on the substitutionary work of Christ. God has done everything to reconcile humanity to Himself. The debt that was owed to God was paid in full by the blood of Christ.

Dr. Steven R. Cook

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[1] Francis Brown, S.R. Driver and Charles A. Briggs, The New Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius Hebrew-English Lexicon (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers 1979), 497.

[2] G. W. Bromiley, “Atone; Atonement,” ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979–1988), 352.

[3] J. Dwight Pentecost, Things Which Become Sound Doctrine (Grand Rapids, Mi., Kregel Publications, 1965), 89.

[4] William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 1030.

[5] Ibid., 87.

[6] Robert P. Lightner, Handbook of Evangelical Theology: A Historical, Biblical, and Contemporary Survey and Review (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1995), 194.