Punish my substitute? Sounds like a sweet deal to me

[The following is a section from the Gospel book where I’m trying to deal with the concept of “substitution” in the atonement. I’d love to hear what you think about how I’ve approached this one.]

Swap Jeans

How well do you think this would work as a threat: “If you don’t behave, I’m going to spank your brother?” I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure this would make me want to misbehave even more. Not only am I not going to be punished for this, but you’re going to punish him instead? Outstanding! Sign up me.

I actually use this threat with my high schools guys sometimes. If one of them is acting up, I’ll tell him that if he doesn’t start behaving, I’m going to beat up one of the other guys. They usually stop for a second and then laugh at how absurd that sounds. It’s such a stupid threat that it makes them pay attention just long enough for me to get them back on track. Punish someone else for what I’ve done? That’s just dumb. It doesn’t make any sense.

If you think about it, punishing another person for my actions isn’t just dumb; it’s unjust. Think about all the stories we’ve heard in the last few years of people who were on death row, about to be executed for some crime, and then it was discovered that they were actually innocent (of that crime at least). Every time that happens, the country is outraged. We were all set to kill these men for crimes someone else had committed. That’s not just. It’s not right.

But isn’t that exactly what God did with Jesus? According to Paul, Jesus “gave himself up for us” as a “sacrifice for God.”[i] In other places, he says that Jesus “died for our sins.”[ii] He even goes so far as to say that though Jesus himself “knew no sin,” God “made him to be sin” so that his people could be made righteous. Elsewhere, we find Peter talking about the “just” dying for the “unjust,”[iii] and in Isaiah we have a promise that someone would come and be “crushed or our iniquities.”[iv]

Unity Cross by Gwen Meharg

How can this make any sense? If we’re the ones who sinned, how does punishing Jesus accomplish anything? Isn’t that like getting angry at someone you work with, and then coming home and taking it out on your kids?

And yet we know something deeper must be going on here. The Bible makes it clear that God is a God of justice and righteousness: “His work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.”[v] God is so concerned about justice, that he routinely commands his people to live just and fair lives.[vi] So we must be missing something here. If it’s unjust, God wouldn’t do it. If God did it, then it’s not unjust. Those are our only options.

The problem is that we’re probably looking at Jesus’ death the wrong way. It’s not as if God suddenly reached the point where he was ready to fix the whole sin problem, so he looked down at Palestine and thought, “Hmmm, that carpenter looks nice. I think I’ll kill him.” And then, after killing some random person, he went on to forgive the rest of us. That would be unjust.

This is different. Jesus isn’t just some carpenter; he’s the second Adam.

In an earlier post, I argued that Adam and Eve’s sin impacted all of us because we were “all in it together”? Although it’s hard for us to understand, their actions in the Garden affected us all. Standing at the beginning of the story of humanity, their decision shaped the story for everyone who followed. Every human since then has been “in Adam.” That means that we are in the family that Adam began, part of the story he created. And, as we’ve emphasized throughout this book, being “in Adam” means being east of Eden, in the darkness of the fall.

So what we need is another Adam, someone who can start a new story—one with a much better ending.

And that’s exactly what we have with Jesus. He’s the “last Adam” who has come to include all of us in a new story, a new humanity.[vii] Jesus didn’t replace us when he died for us on the cross, as though God just picked some random victim to abuse, he included us in his death on the cross so that we might experience the new life of being “in Christ.” Everyone who belongs to Jesus died with him on the cross.[viii] But we died with him so that we might be raised with him into the new life of the people of God.[ix]

Our problem is with thinking that Jesus was just our “substitute” when he died on the cross. He didn’t just take our place, but he made a place for us within him so that we might all be included in his death and the blessings that flowed from that act of loving faithfulness.

That’s why the New Testament places such strong emphasis on the fact that God’s people are now “in Christ.” Jesus is the “last Adam” who has come to bring life and recreate humanity after God’s image.[x] Both “Adams” made decisions that affected everyone, but in very different ways. All of those who are “in Adam” experience sin, death, and condemnation; but those who are “in Christ” receive grace, righteousness, and forgiveness.[xi] Or, as Paul says elsewhere, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”[xii]

If you want to sink your teeth into this one, I strongly recommend spending some time reading Ephesians 1. Just notice all the times that Paul emphasizes that God’s people are “in Christ” or “in him,” and consider the tremendous blessings that come as a result of being a part of that new family, that new story.

The good news is that Jesus included all of God’s people “in him.”

[i] Ephesians 5:2

[ii] 1 Corinthians 15:3; cf. Galatians 1:4

[iii] 1 Peter 3:18

[iv] Isaiah 53:5

[v] Deuteronomy 32:4

[vi] e.g. Deuteronomy 16:20; Leviticus 19:36; 1 Kings 10:9

[vii] 1 Corinthians 15:45

[viii] Romans 6:8; Galatians 2:20

[ix] Ephesians 2:4-6

[x] 1Corinthians 15:45

[xi] Romans 5:12-21

[xii] 1 Corinthians 15:22

[This post is part of our series on the Gospel. Please feel free to check out the posts and let me know what you think.]


About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on November 14, 2011, in Christology, Gospel and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 28 Comments.

  1. Simply but profoundly the Death of Christ is a vicarious death or expiation. It is HE by whom, as by a sacrifice, sin is expiated. Here we must note the OT and the Septuagint. In moral order and regard, it is the very Person of Christ, Who as the Lamb of God, sin is fully expiated! (John 1: 29 ; 36-37 / Ex. 12:3 ; 25:18-22 / Lev. 25:9 ; Num. 5:8, lxx / Rom. 3:25)

    • Nick: Indeed Anselm’s so-called Satisfaction ideas move quite easily towards basic Penal ideas and theories. We simply cannot make this tight logic as you appear to be making. It is here also that we must note Grotius, again there are echoes of the penal view in both. And then there is also the dominance of Augustine in both Catholic and Reformed theology. Here the conception of sin was deeply affected by Augustinian ideas, in both Catholic and the Reformed. And we can see this in Aquinas certainly also! We don’t have the room here (open blog), to get to all of this, but we can make our general points. But, yes, I am certainly Reformed in my soteriology, but more a Reformed Anglican, note Ussher here and the Irish Articles 1615. But generally so. Note too I was raised Irish Roman Catholic, and have also been Anglo-Catholic. But now I am generally Reformed as an Anglican, but I also like some of the American Federal Vision. Just giving some of my backdrop and life, etc. We don’t argue or live in a vacuum.

      Btw, I would disagree about Calvin and the Active Obedience, but that is another subject and blog.

      PS..I am not really making hard argument here. The open blog cannot sustain such in my opinion, and is often a poor place. 🙂

  2. Good post. I think the main difficulty blocking people from seeing us as “in Christ” is that they subscribe to the unbiblical atonement concept known as Penal Substitution. This article shows why PSub is unbiblical.

    • And the following link would be something of the classic Protestant or Reformational position of the Atonement, which is of course closer to the penal, and comes out of Anselm, and the Satisfaction theories, and here we can note Tertullian first used the term “satisfactio”. We can see some great Protestant theolog’s and men: R.W. Dale, James Denney, P.T. Forsyth, R.C. Moberly…to name a few. Best, we must note that there is really no absolute dogma of the Atonement. The Church, at its Councils, has never made a definite pronouncement with regard to this doctrine. Simply, the doctrine of the Atonement is more dependent on the experience of Christian men and people than almost any other basal or central truth of the Christian faith. Here even St. Paul can speak…Gal. 2:20! And we are on safe ground when we insist that we must approach the Cross from the point of view of experience, a living even emotional and regenerative experience! In the end, the ultimate is better to experience the Atonement than understand it! And of course here is both faith & love!


      • Robert. This has to be the best comment I have read from you ever.

      • Craig: Thanks mate, I have worked often on this subject for many years, simply one of the most profound in Holy Scripture, for here is our Christ Jesus, HE is the great value of the Atonement!

      • Fr Robert,

        An incorrect view of the atonement can lead to serious problems (e.g. soteriology). For example, Penal Substitution necessitates Limited Atonement, yet nobody until Calvin taught Christ died for only some rather than all men. In fact, Sola Fide hangs on whether Penal Substitution is true or not. Worse yet (yes, it gets worse), the so called Reformers were right to point out that since man deserves hellfire, that this punishment must have been transferred to Christ, and they (and Protestants following them) teach the Father dumped His Wrath upon His Son such that He suffered the equivalent of an eternity in hell. (See These Quotes if you don’t believe me)

        Also, St Anselm didn’t teach Psub, but rather Satisfaction, which is precisely how the Biblical evidence points to in the link I gave in my first post.

      • Nick,

        It is not quite that simple, the Satisfaction theories simply move toward the so-called Penal theories. Here we can see that there is a satisfaction to God in the death of Christ, but it is given to God by His / Christ’s vicarious obedience and his self-identification with the will and purpose of God. And this is the “objective” element in the atoning work of Christ. And quite simply the efficacy of the death of Christ is a spiritual influence, independent of our interpretation or theory. So “The Satisfaction of God” in the end belongs to both God and Christ Incarnate and Atoning!

        Finally, this is not really a Catholic verses Protestant aspect, for again Anselm is seen in both, and as I noted Tertullian, who was/is certainly “catholic”, first used the term “satisfactio” for Christ and the Atonement, but both Christ’s person and His death.

      • Btw Nick,

        There are many now (like myself) who believe that Calvin did not really teach a “limited” atonement, but that the Atonement of Christ was quite sufficient for sin, and was a complete expiatory sacrifice. Note, the limitation is for Calvin in those who come to Christ for sin and salvation, which is finally efficient for the Election of Grace, alone.

      • I’m confused on the argument you’re making here:
        “It is not quite that simple, the Satisfaction theories simply move toward the so-called Penal theories.”

        Satisfaction theories “move towards”? This implies they are not the same as Psub, or at the very least don’t necessitate it. Scripture’s own term for ‘atonement’ never employs a vicarious punishiment, so it’s hard to see how Scriptures understanding of ‘atonement’ can “move towards” Psub.

        p.s. Side issue: I have not looked into Calvin closely enough to see if he advocates Psub or if this came from the next generation, but I do know Calvin never believed in “Christ’s Active Obedience” and saw the Cross as sufficient.

  3. I like the emphasis you have made about being in Christ. On a side note; earlier this year I had a trying time with my son, who was then 11. He was digging his heels in about not helping clean up the garden, was sent to his room, told to clean it up and 3 hours later he still hadn’t done it. I was really praying about wisdom to deal with what was going on and the following came to mind.

    I told him son, this rebellion needs to be punished. I produced a large plastic cooking spoon and gave it to him. I said, son, I love you, like you and yet I cannot allow this rebellion to go unpunished. However I will take your punishment and you will punish me for your rebellion.

    I had him strike my hand 6 times with the spoon, each time commanding him to do it harder. I then told him son, if the room isn’t cleaned up within 15 minutes, I will come in again and take your punishment. When I came in, it was spotless. And he also went out and did what he was supposed to do in the garden without having to be prompted.

    • Craig,

      I have several essay papers I have written on the Death and the Atonement of Christ (from years back), perhaps I should clean them up, and publish them? I have been asked a few times about doing such. However, the subject is itself so profound. And one feels so small before this grand reality and subject!

      I have always been one that appreciates the visible of the crucifix! Even Barth had a picture, above his desk, of the Crucifixion from the Isenheim altar in Colmar France. I have this pic also on my blog.

      Oh to teach our children the values of Christ crucified, risen & ascended, and the eternality of God’s reign!

    • Fascinating. I’ve never heard of someone using that particular approach, but I can see where it would make quite the impact!

  4. Sorry for the slow response. But the point of the post actually isn’t to reject the idea of substitution. The idea is to strengthen the notion of substitution by giving it a more robust theology of “in Christ.” So it isn’t that he’s not my substitute, but that he’s more than just a substitute. I think the substitutionary aspect of the atonement is critical and irreplaceable, I just think it needs a stronger framework than I often see.

    And Nick, I’m going to have to disagree with how you’ve unpacked the history of the atonement here. It simply is not true that penal substitution only developed after Calvin. Regardless of whether you agree with it, it’s not difficult to find in the church fathers the concept of Christ taking our place on the cross and receiving the penalty of sin that was justly ours.

    • Amen there Marc, the Death and Atonement of Christ is always simply radical obedience, in both satisfaction and substitution, and this is Christ’s perfect radical obedience for US! As the older theolog’s have said, the Death of Christ is first Godward and then manword, for humanity. And again, Amen to our Church Fathers, who saw that the moral necessity of Christ’s Death, yielded satisfaction to the love of the Father, through Christ’s unswerving obedience even to the Cross. Simply but profoundly Christ offered to God the sacrifice of perfect obedience, “The Lamb of God”! We will worship and sing praise to this for eternity! 🙂

  5. Btw, I think we should thank our brother Marc, he has been hitting some of the most profound theological and biblical marks, in so many of his posts! Here, Here! This is what the best of the blog is all about! 🙂

  6. @Fr Robert,
    Anselm and the Satisfaction theory specifically exclude the idea punishment can be transferred. That’s why I’m saying there is to ‘bridge’ or ‘roadway’ from Satisfaction to PSub: each addresses the atonement on different grounds.

    You said: “it’s not difficult to find in the church fathers the concept of Christ taking our place on the cross and receiving the penalty of sin that was justly ours”
    Could you cite some examples? And by examples, something that says more than Christ “died for us” because this is valid in Satisfaction as well. None the less, I’m confused you would assert this given that your original post was based on the fact “in Christ” is to mean you shared in the cross (and thus it wasn’t transferred), just as Paul says “I am crucified WITH Christ”.

  7. Nick, I think you will find it was Augustine who first coined the idea of PSA.

    • Hi Craig,
      Could you give me some proof of this? I’ve looked into various quotes by Augustine by those alleging this very thing but saw nothing compelling.

      Remember, if we deserve hellfire (not just physical death) for our sins, then Jesus would have had to endure the Father’s Wrath and hellfire in our place – that’s not something I see any Father even hint at. And, moreover, if Jesus took the physical punishment of death in our place, then Christians couldn’t legally endure death themselves, yet we do.

      • I can’t quote him directly. Which is why I said I think… I don’t have an issue with PSA, though I do lean more towards a Vicarious theology. The one major issue I have with the PSA is how its often portrayed that God turned away from Jesus on the cross when he became sin, because he is a Holy God.

        Psalm 22 forbids such a doctrine.

    • @Craig, @Nick,

      Good point with Augustine, as later Anselm made it one of his basic principles that there was a “necessitas” at the heart of the work done by Christ! And the only real adequate basis for a theory of the Atonement must be found in the nature of God Himself! Btw, the Satisfaction Theory is often itself called the Substitutionary View, but certainly there are many different theories here in the “substitutionary”. But again, it was Tertullian who first used the term “satisfactio”, which btw, moved into the language of the Church. This is no simple subject certainly, and we should not seek to diminish the great mystery here! And as Marc has noted the Atonement is much more than just the “satisfactio”, and the penal. But for me at least, no other word except “substitution” can adequately express the relation of the work of Christ to what I can recognize as my salvation. As Paul wrote in Gal. 2:20…”who loved me and gave himself for me.”

  8. Nick, you seem to be saying that if the early church fathers didn’t have a fully developed “doctrine” of penal substitution, then they couldn’t have had any concept of penal substitution. That’s a little like saying that Justin Martyr couldn’t have had any concept of the Trinity because he didn’t have a fully Nicene doctrine of the three persons in one substance. All you need for a concept of penal substitution is the idea that there is some consequence of sin that affects all fallen humans and that somehow Jesus takes that upon himself on the cross. That concept isn’t hard to find in the early church, though they certainly haven’t worked through all the details/implications like you’ll find in later theologians.

    For example, Justin Martyr refers to Christ taking “the curses of all” upon himself on the cross (Trypho 64). To me, that’s a rough concept of penal substitution. There is a consequence (curse) and that Jesus takes in our place (substitution). Granted, it’s a far cry from what we usually call the doctrine of penal substitution, which fills in a lot more gaps than this. But that’s how the history of doctrine works.

  9. And my comment about not rejecting substitution in my post is that I’m saying Jesus absolutely stood in my pace (substitution) on the cross, but he didn’t do so in a way that excluded me (e.g. he doesn’t simply push me out of the way and take the bullet for me). His is an inclusive substitution (language, or at least English, fails us here) in that he stands in my place and precisely by doing so creates space for me to participate in his death and resurrection. Some have argued that “representation” would be a better word here. I don’t agree both because I don’t think it’s any better at conveying a robust sense of “in Christ,” and because I think substitution conveys the biblical notion better.

  1. Pingback: The Adam Family « He Dwells: the Blog

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