What is the substitutionary atonement?

One question throughout the ages has been regarding the atonement of Jesus Christ. Did Christ’s death on the cross simply make a way for mankind to merit the graces of God ourselves? Was Christ’s death on the cross solely a demonstration of His love, and therefore setting an example for us to follow? Or was Christ’s death on the cross the full payment for our sin? Before we can answer this question, let’s first discuss the definition of “substitutionary atonement.”

Substitutionary atonement simply means that someone or something takes the punishment for someone else. In other words, a person or an animal takes the punishment in the place of the one deserving the punishment. Is there any biblical basis for this idea? Consider this:

“And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.” – Genesis 22:13

Abraham was about to sacrifice his son Issac on the altar, but a ram was substituted in his place. This is one of many examples of how the Old Testament foreshadowed events to come (e.g. the sacrifice of Jesus Christ).

What can we find in the New Testament to suggest that Jesus Christ took our place when He suffered and died on the cross?

“Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.” – Isaiah 53:4–6

“Who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification.” – Romans 4:25

“For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” – 2 Corinthians 5:21

“Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed.” – 1 Peter 2:24

Jesus Christ not only bore our sins on the cross, but His work on the cross was propitiatory. In other words, His work on the cross appeased the wrath of God toward us.

“Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.” – Isaiah 53:10–11

“Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God” – Romans 3:25

“And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” – 1 John 2:2

“Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” – 1 John 4:10

Conclusion

The Scripture clearly teaches that Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was two-fold: He took our punishment in our place; and by doing so, He appeased God’s wrath. The Scripture does not suppport any other views of the atonement, such as Jesus’ death was solely a demonstration of love or that He was simply making a way for us to merit our own salvation. Are we able to be saved by our own merits or by the keeping of God’s law? No we cannot. What did the Apostle Paul say?

“I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.” – Galatians 2:21

 

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Is “saved” an evangelical term?

What does it mean to be “saved”? Where did the term “saved” come from? When people hear the word “saved,” they often think of the TV preachers asking if they’re “saved.” Is the term biblical?

“Saved” comes from the word salvation, as in having salvation. Salvation, meaning eternal life, is a major theme throughout the Bible. So the question is, what are we saved from? Believers are saved from the righteous judgment of God. You may say, “But I’m a good person!” For God’s judgment to be righteous, it must mean that we deserve His judgment. Is that the case? Let’s go to the Scripture and see.

First of all, we have to understand the attributes of both God and man.

Attributes of God and Man

God…

  • …is righteous:

“The LORD is righteous in all his ways, and holy in all his works.” – Psalms 145:17

  • …is holy:

“For I am the LORD your God: ye shall therefore sanctify yourselves, and ye shall be holy; for I am holy” – Leviticus 11:44a

  • …is perfect:

“Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” – Matthew 5:48

Man…

  • No one is righteous:

“As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one” – Romans 3:10

  • No one does good:

“They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one.” – Romans 3:12

  • All have sinned:

“For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” – Romans 3:23

The Transgression of Sin

Have you ever told a lie? I sure have. What does the Scripture say about liars?

“But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.” – Revelation 21:8

The point is that any sin, regardless of it’s severity, is enough to condemn a person to hell. God demands perfection, as he is perfect. Nothing short of perfection is worthy of eternal life in heaven. So being “saved” means just that – we are saved from God’s righteous judgment on us sinners. How does a sinner ever meet the standard that God sets for eternal life? How can a sinner ever be “perfect”? The answer is imputation.

Imputation is basically transferring something to another person. Consider the consequence of Adam’s fall on all of mankind:

“Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” – Romans 5:12

The death and sin was imputed to all of mankind through the fall of Adam. In other words, all of mankind became stained with sin because of Adam’s transgression against God. What is the good news in all this? The good news is that Jesus has provided our escape from this sin:

“But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.” – Isaiah 53:5–6

“Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.” – Romans 3:24–26

“For if by one man’s offence death reigned by one; much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ.) Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.” – Romans 5:17–19

By the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, He appeased the wrath of God in our place. His sacrifice was propitiatory. In other words, Jesus took the judgment of God for our sins in our place. In all of history, God has demanded a blood sacrifice for sins. And without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sin (Hebrews 9:22). Jesus was the sacrificial lamb (John 1:29)

Imagine you are on trial for a crime. You are found guilty, and the penalty is death. But Jesus comes along and takes the penalty in your place. As a result, you get to live. This is exactly what Jesus has done. This is what it means to be “saved.”

What does the Bible say about false prophets?

What does the Bible have to say when it comes to false prophets? In Matthew 7, we see these words:

“Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” – Matthew 7:15

This is a warning from Jesus himself – to beware of false prophets. What is interesting about this statement? Notice how He says “in sheep’s clothing.” What is so special about sheep? And why does Jesus use this terminology?

Sheep are symbolic of true followers of Christ, as Christ is the good shepherd. False prophets, by this definition, will not be easily recognizable. They will outwardly have all of the trademarks of true Christians: caring, genuine and sincere in appearance, knowledgeable of things relating to the faith, etc. They may appear to be Christians, but what are they in reality? Jesus tells us, “but inwardly they are ravening wolves.”

In 2 Corinthians 11 Paul writes of false prophets, calling them “false apostles”:

“But what I do, that I will do, that I may cut off occasion from them which desire occasion; that wherein they glory, they may be found even as we. For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works.” – 2 Corinthians 11:12–15

Paul makes reference to “false apostles…transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ.” He also mentions “for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light.” With deception of such magnitude, how are true Christians to recognize the “wolves in sheep’s clothing”?

“Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.” – Matthew 7:16–20

The saying “you can judge a tree by the fruit it bears” holds true. What type of fruit are these false apostles/prophets bearing? In 1 John 4, we are given yet another command:

“Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world. Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world.” – 1 John 4:1–3

James is warning us not to believe every spirit, but test it to see if it is from God. Paul made reference to “angels from heaven” bringing false gospels in Galatians 1:

“I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.” – Galatians 1:6–9

Paul forewarned us that some will come, even supernatural beings and apparitions, that will deliver perversions of the gospel of Christ. What is to be said from all of this? The Scripture is clear: If anyone, even an “angel from heaven,” should appear and bring a false gospel, let him be accursed (damned). With such stern words from Paul, we get a feel of the seriousness of the satanic deception in the world.

Narrow is the Way

We see another warning from Jesus:

“Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” – Matthew 7:13–14

Jesus tells us that many will enter through the wide gate leading to destruction, but few will follow the narrow path leading to life. How can this happen? The tragic reality is Satan is the master deceiver and many will be deceived into believing lies, whether they be false gospels or false Christs.

“Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” – Matthew 7:21–23

Jesus tells us here clearly that not everyone who professes to be a Christian will be admitted into heaven. He even goes as far as saying that some of those professing “Christians” will have prophesied in His name, cast out devils, and have done many wonderful works in His name. But, they missed the mark. What mark did they miss? They missed the gospel.

The Remedy for Deception

It is clear from the Scripture that we must decipher between good and evil fruit, as well as to test the spirits to determine whether or not they are from God. How is a Christian to do this? By what measuring stick do we measure? The answer: Scripture.

The Scripture is the “yard stick” by which all teachings, doctrines, and dogmas (i.e. the fruit) are measured. If they do not measure up to the Word of God, they are discarded. Not only is the Bible our measuring stick, but it is also where we find the true gospel of Jesus Christ. What is the gospel of Jesus Christ?

The gospel is a gospel of simplicity (2 Corinthians 11:3). Where can we find the gospel in the Bible? See 1 Corinthians 15:

“Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures” – 1 Corinthians 15:1–4

The gospel is the fact that Jesus Christ, being both fully God and fully man, died for our sins. Being sinless, without spot or blemish (1 Peter 1:19), He was offered as the perfect sacrifice once, for all sins forever (Hebrews 10:12). He bore our sins on the cross (1 Peter 2:24). Eternal life is a gift (Romans 6:23) and cannot be merited or earned (Ephesians 2:8–9), as our righteous acts are filthy rags before God (Isaiah 64:6). All those who realize that they are sinners (Romans 3:23) and trust in Christ’s finished work on the cross (Hebrews 10:10–12) will have eternal life (John 3:16).

Speaking of eternal life, can a Christian know with certainty that he/she has eternal life? Yes, they can.

“These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God.” – 1 John 5:13

 

Is salvation through faith alone?

A great question in the Christian faith has to deal with the mechanics of our salvation. How does it work? To begin this discussion, we first have to understand that we are saved by God’s grace. To take this a step further, the Scripture tells us that we are saved by grace through faith:

“For by grace are ye saved through faith . . .” – Ephesians 2:8a

To understand that we are saved by grace through faith is important. We cannot say that our faith saves us, because it doesn’t. God’s grace is what saves us, but it is through our faith that His grace is applied. And more importantly, faith in what? Faith in Jesus Christ. More specifically, faith in what Jesus Christ did for us. Namely, His shedding of blood for the atonement of our sins. We see this in 1 Corinthians 15:

“Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures” – 1 Corinthians 15:1–4

Is it safe to say that we are saved through faith alone? Is this what the Scripture teaches? The belief in faith alone for salvation, also known as sola fide, has been challenged by many throughout the centuries. Many say that Scripture does not teach salvation through faith alone. With that said, let’s go to the Scriptures themselves and see what light can be shed on this subject:

“For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.” – Romans 1:17

“Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe” – Romans 3:22a

“Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” – Romans 5:1–2

Given the above verses, it seems quite clear that we are in fact justified by faith. Why do Christians, such as myself, insist we are saved by faith alone, even though the scriptures do not explicitly say “faith alone?” Put simply, it is for emphasis that it is by faith and nothing else.

Faith vs. Works

What are works? Works are basically something a person has to do; an action. There are many that claim that a person is not justified by faith alone. Okay, so if justification is not by faith alone, then logically speaking it is by faith plus something else. What is this “something else?” If the “something else” is something that a person has to do, an action on their part, then by definition it is a work. This sums up to a belief in justification by faith and works, which is explicitly against Scripture. This is exactly why biblical Christianity uses the phrase “faith alone.” It is to emphasize that justification is by faith, not by faith and works, so there is no confusion or misinterpretation.

What does the Scripture say about faith and works?

“Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” – Romans 3:20

“Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” – Romans 3:27–28

“For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” – Romans 4:2–5

“Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.” – Galatians 2:16

“I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.” – Galatians 2:20–21

“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” – Ephesians 2:8–9

It is quite clear that we are saved by faith and not by works. Throughout Scripture, there is an overwhelming contrast between faith and works. Biblically speaking, they are in fact opposites. As you can see, salvation is by faith alone without works.

What about verses that teach works? James 2:24?

“Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.” – James 2:24

At first glance, it seems that this piece of Scripture flies in the face of all of the preceding text. Is there a contraction in God’s Word? Of course not. As with any biblical text, responsible biblical exegesis requires that we look at the context:

“What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.” – James 2:14–24

When looking at the context, what is James saying? Notice how he begins with “though a man say he hath faith.” Sure, a man can say he has faith, but if nothing changes in his life, is his faith alive? It is true, faith without works is dead. Why? True, saving faith results in regeneration, being “born again” (John 3:7). We are made a new creature in Christ (Galatians 6:15). However, it is important to understand that works are the result of salvation, not the cause. So James’ statement that a man is justified by works, and not by faith, is true. It is true in the sense that works are a necessary fruit of regeneration/salvation.

I’d like to add that James makes another great point. He says, “Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?” His point is that a superficial knowledge or acknowledgement of Christ will not save a person, as the devil himself acknowledges Christ. But true, saving faith is more than a mere acknowledgement or knowledge of Christ. It is the placing of complete trust in Christ’s finished work on the cross, acknowledging Him as Lord and Savior, and coming to repentance.

Is salvation really that simple?

Is getting saved really as simple as putting faith in Jesus Christ? Yes, it is. Even Paul warned of the possibility of straying from simplicity:

“But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. For if he that cometh preacheth another Jesus, whom we have not preached, or if ye receive another spirit, which ye have not received, or another gospel, which ye have not accepted, ye might well bear with him.” – 2 Corinthians 11:3–4

Is there any biblical proof or examples from the Bible that would show such simplicity? Take a look:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” – John 3:16

“And brought them out, and said, Sirs, what must I do to be saved? And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.” – Acts 16:30–31

“That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.” – Romans 10:9

“For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” – Romans 10:13

In conclusion, we cannot merit or work for our salvation. Our righteous acts are filthy rags before God (Isaiah 64:6). Eternal life is a free gift, and being a gift it is completely unearned and undeserved.  If we had to merit or work for our salvation, the free gift ceases to be a gift.

“For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” – Romans 6:23


Updated: 01/27/2017