We all struggle to get terms that work and the word ‘substitution’ with regard to Jesus’ death could work to some extent. For there is a strong ‘in our place’ element within passages, though the over-individualisation of that concept does not do the NT justice. He tasted death for everyone; he dies for the Jewish nation. In both of the previous statements we have a corporate element, a participation by Jesus in a corporate journey, with the end result that something corporate might come forth, a royal priesthood, a new people, indeed new creation. This corporate rather than personal element is visible (I suggest) in all passages, it only being our individualised West that somehow sees death for ‘sins’ being some crude accumulation of my sin + yours + this person + that person… all of which can lead to an idea of Limited Atonement, seeking to answer the question of whose sins did he die for. That is the world of simple transaction – x amount paid for, those whose sins are paid for go free.

A big challenge to ‘substitution’ if defined in too tight a way can be illustrated by 2 Cor. 5:14,15 (emphases added),

For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.

‘For all’ could be understood as ‘in our place’, dying so that we do not die, but the latter part says he was also raised for us (same term ‘for’: huper). If we press the term ‘substitution’ with the clear meaning of something replacing what would have taken place otherwise (I order a product from the supermarket and when it arrives the product has been substituted / replaced by another product) we run into huge problems with the statement regarding that Jesus being also raised ‘for us’. This would imply that Jesus is raised so that we will not be raised? I think not!!!! We cannot press the language to be ‘in our place’ in that strong substitutionary sense.

We have to move beyond the ‘for’ word and not reduce it to mean a rigid ‘in my place’ and if we insist on using the ‘substitution’ word we have to use it carefully, and I suggest that probably we should rather think more along the lines of Jesus participating in our journey, going there for us, on our behalf. This for me is consistent with how I understand the activity of God… God travels with us, walks our journey (three leave Eden, three again visibly pick up that journey on the road to Emmaus). Jesus does this for us, both in terms of death on our behalf for that is our journey and then opens up the future (through resurrection) so that we can follow his journey, he being the guarantee for our future. Indeed it is not simply he dies our death, but opens the way so that we can die his death, and as a result experience his resurrection – crucified with Christ, buried and raised with / in him. He does this for us, so that we can die with him. That is not substitution but an invitation to an identification and participation with him, all made possible because he identified and participated in our journey.

I certainly do not see any traffic moving in the direction of Jesus punished in our place, but the Triune God willingly taking on the consequences of our rebellion. Identification with us; participation in our journey; but substitution – no; and penal substitution a definite no!

The big issue with the idea of God punishing Jesus is what this would reveal of God. Restorative justice (as opposed to punitive justice) is not something that has been recently invented, but seems to be the very heart of God with respect to justice. Punitive justice calls for ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’, it calls for the death penalty for the murderer, yet God comes to protect the murderer (Cain), in spite of all that we read of the punishment fit for the murderer in the later books of the law. He likewise does the same with regard to Cain #2 (Barabbas), allowing him to go free, with the blood of Abel #2 calling out for forgiveness. God is not looking to uphold the law as if we are guilty and Jesus satisfies the requirement of the law. God is looking to heal, to restore the relationship. The law remains broken in that sense, but the guilty go free, forgiveness being the label over the door that leads to freedom, not ‘paid for’.

This is probably where the more eastern expressions of the church have a huge advantage over us. We have so focused in on the individual, law and guilt and the solution we come up with is the law is upheld with Jesus dying in our place. If we think more relationally and turn a focus on shame and sickness of soul we will press in deeper to areas of cleansing and restoration; after all the Scriptures seem to focus in on that the first humans felt ashamed, knowing they were naked. It does not come across as guilt being the central issue. Restoration of relationship not restoration of God’s honour, not a visible demonstration that law, right wrong has to be upheld.

Shame means we cannot turn our face to God. Something deep inside has to take place. Guilt (which is present in the Scriptures) emphasises the falling short of what we were meant to be, and I essentially would wish to suggest that the falling short is centred in on a failure to be truly human, and as a result not to treat others as human (we should also add in a reference to the planet, the habitation for humans, and for them as stewards of it). The glory of God is revealed in the cross, for there we see God unveiled; the glory that could be seen in Jesus, glory full of grace and truth, was revealed publicly at the cross. In stark contrast the falling short of the glory of God – failing to be human – is revealed there too, for it was we who killed the Author of Life.

Thus shame and guilt are dealt with at the cross as we respond by faith that he dies for us.

The resurrection is not about ‘raised back to the previous state after a temporary kenosis‘, the Jesus who died is the one who is raised, establishing in the face of death, indeed through death a path for all who wish it to travel, a path to true humanity, or as Paul says ‘one new humanity in Christ’ no longer defined by any previous category. ‘In Christ’ says it all, and ‘in Christ’ cancels all other previous categorisations. Those in Christ no longer will claim any definition as giving them a place of power and superiority (Gal. 3:28), and they will live that out ‘no longer seeing anyone according to the flesh’.

The resurrection of Jesus is God’s affirmation that the first-born of all creation, the forerunner for us all has overcome. Never succumbing to any level of ‘falling short’, yielding his spirit to God, praying forgiveness for us. The resurrection is not a return to superior power way of living, it is the affirmation of an unbroken way of living, the God way, of outpoured love.

Through the cross we begin to tread that path. Sanctification is the onward journey, not one of conquering all the right / wrong rules, but the path way of love. (Future) resurrection will make that all permanent.

Substitutionary? Not in the classic sense of the word. Only in the sense that the cross opens a path that can be substituted for the common path of humanity (new path for old). He died for (huper) us.

2 thoughts on “Substitutionary?

  1. Thank you for this Martin. The whole penal substitution thing was one of my son’s big quarrels with Christianity, to the point of declaring that if he wanted any kind of God it wouldn’t be the Christian one as the concept of punishing your son for what someone else did wrong was one he found abhorrent (he has opted for none). Whilst it was evident that any concept of Trinity was lacking there, I have for some years been unable to respond to the part of his argument which I recognise as valid. With a background in the evangelical wing of the church, this is the first time I’ve seen it addressed.

    1. Thanks Sheila. Yes it is such a shame that the penal substitutionary view is presented as the biblical view. It can be legitimately presented as one view among others, but also when it does not have a strong historical background among the early writers it really needs to be dialled down. It is easy to present – though hard to explain all the ‘so if that is the case…’ a divided Trinity; an angry God / Father punishing the loving Son (wonder why not many people can really believe Jesus will take them to the Father, and why a lot of people would rather not make that journey).
      I can understand the issues your son had!

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