Having established that the substitutionary atonement made possible by Jesus' death on the cross is the great jewel of our faith, we will turn to examine twelve glorious sides of that jewel that together shine forth the glory of God. In an effort to make these points personally relevant to you, each of the remaining chapters will be written in the form of a letter to individuals who are very dear to me, their pastor. Some have sinned greatly and others have been sinned against greatly. Some are young and some are old. Some are male and some are female. Some are Christians and some are not. What they each need is what every person desperately needs—a proper biblical understanding of and personal faith in what Jesus has accomplished for them on the cross.

Answers to Common Questions about Substitutionary Atonement

What does "substitution" mean?

"Substitution" refers to a person or thing acting or serving in place of another. Biblically, the concept of substitution was first practiced not by God but by human beings. When our first parents chose to disobey God and believe the lies of our Enemy, they chose to substitute themselves for God in an effort to become their own gods. Subsequently, to save sinners God had to reverse that tragic substitution and did so by becoming a human being and dying in our place to atone for our sins.

In his marvelous book, The Cross of Christ, John Stott insightfully explains this fact:

"The concept of substitution may be said, then, to lie at the heart of both sin and salvation. For the essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for man. Man asserts himself against God and puts himself where only God deserves to be; God sacrifices himself for man and puts himself where only man deserves to be. Man claims prerogatives which belong to God alone; God accepts penalties which belong to man alone."4  

Therefore, the concept of substitution beautifully shows forth the love and mercy of God, who is willing to endure the worst for us and give the best to us—namely, himself as our only God and Savior.

Does not substitutionary atonement portray God as angry and vengeful?

Inevitably, substitution does mean that God is punishing human beings according to their sins. This concept is increasingly unpopular, as it has been overshadowed by accepting people as they are, forgiving what they do, and forgetting the evil they have done and the pain they have caused.

Interesting, however, is the proclivity of people to reverse their position when the proverbial shoe is on the other foot. What I mean is this: when I sin against someone, I want them to accept me, forgive me, and let me off the hook, because that is what sinners want. As long as we view the cross only from the perspective of sinners, this is all we will see. However, when we or someone we love is sinned against, we cry out for justice because that is what victims want. For example, a father who learned that his young daughter had been sexually abused by his brother told me he "wanted blood." This, precisely, is the perspective of God, who has never sinned against anyone but is continually sinned against by everyone and is truly the greatest victim in all of history. While he is not to be pitied, such injustice must be acknowledged.

Some will protest that such a desire for blood and justice is primitive. But what is the appropriate response to someone who deliberately sins, shows no remorse or repentance, and maintains ongoing devotion to doing evil? The hard truth is that our sin hurts God and hurts the people that God made and loves. Like anyone who truly loves, God takes it personally when harm is done, precisely because he is loving, not because he is unloving.

Sadly, what to do with sinners has led to a political tug-of-war between the right and left. The right generally prefers retribution, which punishes sinners with such things as prison time and capital punishment but usually bypasses rehabilitation and diminishes community responsibility for correction. The left generally prefers rehabilitation, which seeks to improve sinners with such things as therapy and medication but usually bypasses punishment and diminishes personal responsibility for sin. You can see more of this in C. S. Lewis's great essay on the humanitarian theory of punishment.