Many parts of life are like a kaleidoscope. You hold the tube up to your eye, give the end a twist, and the same pieces take a new shape. You can do this several times before you see the same configuration of shapes again.
It’s not exactly like that, but the theology of the atonement has many different shapes to it. That shouldn’t surprise us with something so awesome and majestic. The atonement is what took place at the crucifixion of Christ. There are a few different “theories” of exactly what took place at the atoning moment. The two dominant theories of the atonement are substitutionary penal atonement and Christus Victor. We’ll look at one this week and the other next week.
At the heart of substitutionary penal atonement is that Christ stood in our place, hence, substitution. To give a little bit more direction to the idea, there is another word that hones in on the central theme of substitution, or what actually makes the atonement “substitutionary.”
Vicarious. adj. Done on behalf of another or in the place of another.
In the atonement, Christ died to satisfy the wrath of God against rebellious sinners. We weren’t just saved from our sin, but we were saved from the necessary fate of all those in active rebellion against the Creator: eternal separation from the mercy and grace of God.
In Romans 5, Paul goes to great lengths to identify the vicarious nature of Christ’s sacrifice. He says, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (vv.6-8).
Notice: Christ died for the ungodly, and again, Christ died for us. The Greek word used is hyper, which quite literally means “on behalf of” or “for the sake of”. Christ died on the cross on our behalf and for our sake. He bled and died to satisfy divine justice on evildoers. And because of his perfectly obedient life, he was in fact able to die for us.
In 1 Peter 3:18 we read, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.” The righteous died for (or hyper) the unrighteous. It was through dying and being resurrected that his righteousness became ours.
Later, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” The vicarious nature of the atonement was such that by dying on our behalf, our sin became his and his righteousness became ours.
The Old Testament sacrificial system did not take away sins. It simply reminded the people of their sin and God’s holiness, as well as look forward to the day that God would once and for all deal with sin decisively.
The author of Hebrews tells us, “For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb. 10:1-4).
If the sacrifices in the tabernacle and the temple were effective, they would only have had to have been offered one time. The blood of animals, however, are not sufficient for the task. There would have to be another.
Later in v.10, Hebrews tells us, “And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” Finally, there was an offering or a sacrifice that could do what the blood of bulls and goats could not. There was perfect blood that could satisfy a just God’s wrath against evil and offer pardon for guilty sinners. “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (v.14).
Through the vicarious nature of the atonement, Christ is the final offering for sin. There is nothing more to be done. The vicarious work of Christ is how we understand, among other kaleidoscopic realities, the redemption of our souls.
While that may be central and primary is seeing why Christ had to die, Scripture itself speaks of other effects of the atonement. To Christus Victor we turn our attention next week.