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Substitutionary atonement

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Christ Carrying the Cross 1580

El Greco's Jesus Carrying the Cross, 1580.

Substitutionary atonement is a doctrine in Christian theology which states that Jesus of Nazareth died – intentionally and willingly – on the cross as a propitiation, or substitute, for sinners. This doctrine presents Jesus' death as a supreme act of love for mankind, in order to bring people into a relationship with God. It stresses the vicarious nature of the crucifixion as being "instead of us". This vicarious and substitutionary nature of the atonement is expressed in Scripture verses such as "He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness," (1 Pet. 2:24) and "For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God," (1 Peter 3:18).

The doctrine is not accepted by the Eastern Orthodox churches, who normatively teach John Cassian's doctrine of theosis. Substitutionary atonement is particularly stressed by Protestant and evangelical churches. In the Roman Catholic tradition this doctrine is balanced by the duty of Roman Catholics to perform Acts of Reparation to Jesus Christ[1] which in the encyclical Miserentissimus Redemptor of Pope Pius XI were defined as "some sort of compensation to be rendered for the injury" with respect to the sufferings of Jesus.[2] Pope John Paul II referred to these Acts of Reparation as the "unceasing effort to stand beside the endless crosses on which the Son of God continues to be crucified".[3]

Meaning of the Doctrine

The word atonement is a theological term that is used to describe some act that pays for or erases one's sins and transgressions. The word often is used in the Old Testament to translate the Hebrew words kipper and kippurim, which mean “propitiation” or “expiation.” The word occurs in the KJV in Romans 5:11 and has the basic meaning of reconciliation. In the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible or Tanakh), atonement was accomplished by the sacrifice of specified animals such as lambs to pay for one's sins.

The word atonement encompasses Christ’s work of redemption on behalf of his people. The center of Christ’s work,to which the whole New Testament expounded, was Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross. Christ’s death is the very heart of the Christian faith.

A distinction is often made between substitutionary atonement (Christ suffers for us), and penal substitution (Christ punished instead of us) which is a subset of substitutionary atonement. Both affirm the substitutionary and vicarious nature of the atonement, but penal substitution offers a specific explanation as to what the suffering is for: punishment.

A central component of substitutionary atonement is the element of Jesus' intentions to die on the cross to pay for the sins of mankind, as stated by Jesus in John 3:14-18 [1] and John 12:27-33 [2], as compared with theories that Jesus' death was unanticipated by Jesus and/or purely the fault of the Romans and/or the Jews alone.

“The very idea of atonement is something done, which, to the purpose of supporting the authority of the law, the dignity and consistency of divine government and conduct, is fully equivalent to the curse of the law, and on the ground of which, the sinner may be saved from that curse…a less degree or duration of suffering endured by Christ the Son of God, may, on account of the infinite dignity and glory of his person, be an equivalent to the curse of the law endured by the sinner.” Jonathon Edwards Jr. (The Necessity of the Atonement, p. 7)

“His sufferings were in the place of the penalty, not the penalty itself. They were a substitution for the penalty, and were, therefore, strictly and properly vicarious, and were not the identical sufferings which the sinner would himself have endured. There are some things in the penalty of the Law, which the Lord Jesus did not endure, and which a substitute or a vicarious victim could not endure. Remorse of conscience is a part of the inflicted penalty of the Law, and will be a vital part of the sufferings of the sinner in hell - but the Lord Jesus did not endure that. Eternity of sufferings is an essential part of the penalty of the Law - but the Lord Jesus did not suffer forever. Thus, there are numerous sorrows connected with the consciousness of personal guilt, which the Lord Jesus did not and cannot endure.” Albert Barnes (Commentary on Galatians 3:13)

"If free pardon is to be extended to penitent sinners, some great measure must be substituted for the punishment of sinners that will uphold the moral government of God at least equally as well as the pronounced consequences would have done." Gordon C. Olson (The Truth Shall Make You Free, p. 95)

“Atonement is, properly, an arrangement by which the literal infliction of the penalty due to sin may be avoided; it is something which may be substituted in the place of punishment. It is that which will answer the same end secured by the literal infliction of the penalty of the law… The atonement is the governmental provision for the forgiveness of sins, providing man meets the conditions of repentance and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ.” Harry Conn (Four Trojan Horses, p. 80-81)

“The atonement is a governmental expedient to sustain law without the execution of its penalty to the sinner.” Charles G. Finney (The Oberlin Evangelist; July 30, 1856; On the Atonement, p. 2)

Belief in the Doctrine

Many but by no means all ancient and modern branches of Christianity embrace substitutionary atonement as the central meaning of Jesus' death on the cross. These branches however have developed different theories of atonement. The Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholics do not incorporate substitutionary atonement in their doctrine of the Cross and Resurrection, the Roman Catholic church incorporates it into Aquinas' Satisfaction doctrine rooted in the idea of penance, and Evangelical Protestants interpret it largely in terms of penal substitution.[4]

Many of the Church Fathers, including Justin Martyr, Athanasius and Augustine incorporate a theory of substitutionary atonement into their writings. However, the specific interpretation as to what this suffering for sinners meant differed to some extent. It is widely held that the early Church Fathers, including Athanasius and Augustine, taught that through Christ's vicarious suffering in humanity's place, he overcame and liberated humanity from sin, death, and the devil.[4] Thus, while the idea of substitutionary atonement is present in nearly all atonement theories, some argue that the specific idea of satisfaction and penal substitution are later developments in the western Catholic Church and in Calvinism.[5]

Key Bible texts

Christian doctrine holds that Christ's coming was portended by the Hebrew Prophet Isaiah approximately 700 years before Jesus was born. These prophesies can be found in Isaiah 52:7 [3] through Isaiah 53:1-12 [4]. Luke 4:16-22 reports Jesus saying that the prophesies in Isaiah were about him. [5], and the New Testament explicitly quotes from Isaiah 53 in Matthew 8:16-18 [6] to indicate that Jesus is the fulfillment of these prophesies.

  • Isaiah 53:3-12 [7] - 3 He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. 4 Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. 5 But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. 6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. 7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. 8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? 9 And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. 10 Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. 11 Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. 12 Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors. (ESV)
  • 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." (RSV)
  • Galatians 3:10, 13 - "All who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, 'Cursed be every one who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, and do them.' [...] Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us - for it is written, 'Cursed be every one who hangs on a tree'" (RSV)
  • 1 Peter 2:24 - "He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness."(RSV)
  • 1 Peter 3:18 - "For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God" (RSV)
  • John 12:27-33 [8] 27 " Now My soul has become troubled; and what shall I say, ' Father, save Me from this hour'? But for this purpose I came to this hour. 28 "Father, glorify Your name " Then a voice came out of heaven: "I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again." 29 So the crowd of people who stood by and heard it were saying that it had thundered; others were saying, "An angel has spoken to Him." 30 Jesus answered and said, "This voice has not come for My sake, but for your sakes. 31 "Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. 32 "And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself." 33 But He was saying this to indicate the kind of death by which He was to die.
  • Luke 4:16-22 [9] 16 And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read. 17 And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. And He opened the book and found the place where it was written, 18 "THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME, BECAUSE HE ANOINTED ME TO PREACH THE GOSPEL TO THE POOR. HE HAS SENT ME TO PROCLAIM RELEASE TO THE CAPTIVES, AND RECOVERY OF SIGHT TO THE BLIND, TO SET FREE THOSE WHO ARE OPPRESSED, 19 TO PROCLAIM THE FAVORABLE YEAR OF THE LORD." 20 And He closed the book, gave it back to the attendant and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Him. 21 And He began to say to them, "Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."


  1. Ann Ball, 2003 Encyclopedia of Catholic Devotions and Practices ISBN 087973910X
  2. Miserentissimus Redemptor Encyclical of Pope Pius XI
  3. Vatican archives
  4. 4.0 4.1 "Doctrine of the Atonement." Catholic Encyclopedia."
  5. Johnson Alan F., and Robert E. Webber. What Christians Believe: A Biblical and Historical Summary. Zondervan, 1993, pp. 261-263.

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