Substitutionary Atonement (SA) is a flawed understanding of the Gospel, in my opinion. SA says that Christ died in the exact place of every believer so they don’t have to.
The Bible says believers were crucified with Christ. “With” is different than “in the place of.”
As an example, when Christ was crucified, two thieves were crucified too. Listen to how the Bible talks about this:
Then were there two thieves crucified with him, one on the right hand, and another on the left
These thieves were crucified with Christ. By “with” it is meant that they were also crucified alongside of Christ! In no way would we take “with” here to mean “Christ died in place of those two thieves.”
So, later, when Paul says in Galatians 2:20, “I am crucified with Christ,” there is no way Paul is saying “Christ was crucified in my place so I don’t have to.”
Yet the Church has taught this idea of substitution for about 600 years. Wrong doctrine leads to wrong living. What we believe determines what we do. We want to get our thinking right so our lives are right.
We can now observe trends in the church since SA was invented and has taken root, and quite frankly, I’m not impressed.
SA has led to several flawed outcomes:
- Calvinism. It is particularly seen in the completely anti-biblical notion of Limited Atonement as we’ve discussed. Calvinism is wrong, and it’s wrong because it’s based on a faulty notion of the Gospel. Calvinism is SA; SA is Calvinism.
- Easy-Believism. It’s great to talk about how some guy 2,000 years ago did some painful thing for me and all I do is believe it like a fairy tale, and then reap the benefits. If Christ did it all for me and it’s all about Him, then I’m basically inconsequential. Who cares? I believe the story so I’m done.
- Health and Wealth. Christ took all the bad stuff, all we get are the blessings. Christ did the suffering so we could live it up. My increasing bank balance proves the degree to which I believe in Jesus Christ. Suffering and death are far removed from health and wealth doctrine.
- Biblical Illiteracy. If Christ did the dying and the raising and I have nothing to do with anything, then in what sense do I need any instruction about anything? Who cares what I do if all that matters is what Christ did? If I’m not crucified with Him, then I am not raised up with Him to new life, so who needs instructions about how to live a new life? The Bible becomes irrelevant.
- Let Go and Let God. Christ does it all, we passively sit by and let all the stuff Christ did take care of everything. We idly sit by, being stoic and victorious in our happy thoughts. Christ does the suffering; we do the sitting and smiling.
The Bible does not teach that Christ died in your place. The Bible says Christ died for you, and, if you believe His Gospel, you are crucified, buried, and raised up with Christ. This looks like a loss of all things related to your old way of life. It looks like an actual death takes place, old things are passed away. There is then a new life identified with Christ’s resurrection life. We need to be taught this new way of life by the Spirit, who mortifies the deeds of the body and instructs us in what to do so spiritual fruit results.
Today’s evangelical Gospel is completely passive to the believer. It’s all about what some guy did 2,000 years ago and we just sit and soak up the benefits.
The New Testament does not speak this way.
There is a fight to be fought, a race to be won. There is an enemy to resist. There is supposed to be sacrifice, suffering, and cross carrying. There is a life-giving love for others, including enemies. There is a humility and a service, the mind of Christ, that lays down life for the benefit of others.
This new way of life is only possible through the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the power of His Spirit working in us. There is no way we can do this on our own. But this in no way means we don’t have something to do with it! There are tons of commands in the New Testament, things we’re supposed to do, and there’s a coming judgment to assess how we did with what we were given.
SA is a passive understanding of the Gospel: what someone else did in your place that you have no part in. The New Testament speaks of the Gospel as being vital, alive, incredibly active and life-changing. There is power here, power at work in the believer. It’s not simply a historical fact that we intellectually are cool with.
This is life! This is power! This is something exhilarating and life altering! The Gospel makes things happen to you. It rebirths you, raises you up to new life, gives you resources to defeat and put to death the affections and lusts of the old way of life, and come alive to new life in Christ.
There’s so much here, and I think SA completely undermines it and gives believers the idea that the Gospel is just a cute story we believe about some historical figure and since I’m in the club that likes that story, I’ll just carry on like before, happy I’m in the right club.
The Gospel is not a passive acceptance of a story. It’s a new way of life! A life we get by joining in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ!