Home > Articles > Exposition

Read Time: 11 minutes

This is the second in a series of articles in which we re-examine fundamental principles of God’s plan in salvation. In the first article, as a starter, we studied Jesus’ work today, looking at what he is doing in our present time. We discovered that Biblical concepts turn some of the views of popular Christianity back on their head. For example, we discovered that every time the idea of mediator is presented, it is with Jesus being God’s mediator, bringing the new covenant from God to us. It is never used with the idea of Jesus being our mediator, pleading with God on our behalf. In fact, we discovered that God is already on our side – he doesn’t need Jesus to plead with him to be gracious towards us. The problem is not with God. It is with us. It is our limitations and our weaknesses that occupy Jesus in his work. He intercedes day by day in our lives, and stands beside us as counsellor in our daily battle against sin.

As we continue to study the biblical concepts of salvation, we will see this turn-around phenomenon repeatedly. Mankind has a strong desire to find excuses; in effect, to turn the blame away from himself and back on God. Again and again we shall discover that biblical teaching gets turned around by man, removing the focus from our need to change and grow, and supposing that God is the one who needs to be different.

Parable and metaphor

The turn-around phenomenon is not the only barrier we have in understanding the atonement, as the salvation process is often called. Another barrier comes from misunderstanding the metaphors and allegories that the Bible introduces for the purpose of helping us understand salvation. When these are understood metaphorically, they are indeed very helpful. When, however, they are taken as literal, they can become problematic.

To see how this could happen, consider the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Some Christians take this to be a literal description of life after death, and take it as evidence of the immortality of the soul. This “doctrine” leads to all sorts of problems, not least that it contradicts the weight of Scripture elsewhere. If however the parable is understood as a parable, as an allegory intended to convey a specific teaching (in this case, that even the resurrection would not be sufficient to convince those who choose not to believe), then the problematic implications disappear.

It’s important to see metaphor as metaphor, symbol as symbol and parable as just that – parable, not the reality itself. When I was learning the gospel – and for quite a long time afterwards – I kept asking people, ‘Why did Jesus have to die?’ All the answers I received were in terms of metaphors, or as allegorical parallels. It was very hard to find grounded explanations about the death of Jesus.

In retrospect, I was hoping to be educated in some core principles that would be sufficient to build an understanding of salvation. If they existed, these core principles should have enabled me to understand the atonement really well. Ideally they would have been “self-evident truths,” things which make sense in and of themselves.

In fact, these core principles do exist, and are taught throughout Scripture. Our goal over this series of articles is to extract and understand them. We will look at the atonement – but without the metaphors, parables and symbolisms. That is not to say that parables and symbols are not useful or important. Not at all! They have great value when understood for what they are: symbols, parables and metaphors. But it is only when we have understood the underlying principles that we can put the parables etc. back in place.

This is a large task. It will take us the rest of this series of articles just to look at the core principles. Maybe you’d like to take the task of re-examining the parables and metaphors as homework when we’re done?

Reader beware

There is something else that we have to be careful about. When we come across words or phrases in scripture, we may have a particular interpretation of very many of them which our minds impose on them immediately, regardless of whether or not they are there in the words themselves.

Let us consider an example. Suppose I say that I believe in God. We all know what it means. It means I have an intellectual acceptance of the existence of God, that God is there – that God is a real being. Now suppose I say that I believe in the President. Suddenly, it means something completely different! This time it’s not about an intellectual assent that the man is there, it’s much more about trust: do I trust this man to do things that are good for the nation?

You see the distinction? The words: ‘believe in’ (God or the President), are exactly the same for each statement, but we lay on top of them a particular contextual understanding. We have a similar tendency to do that with phrases in Scripture. So as we continue this study, we will try to step back from our own contextual understandings, and ask: “What do the words actually say?” We must be aware that we often interpret them based on our preconceptions, and that those preconceptions may not be what the text actually says in reality.

In particular, a phrase that comes up quite a lot in connection with salvation is “believe in the Lord Jesus.” What does that mean? Does it mean intellectual belief in his existence? Or practical trust in his capability to save? Which of them is critical for salvation? For the moment, we’ll leave that as a question to be mulled over in our minds.

Tread reverently

One final note of preamble. Exploring the reasons for Jesus’ death is very challenging. Historically it has caused all sorts of problems – communities have been split on this issue. Yet we are talking about the death of God’s son. This is holy ground; this is really holy ground that we’re walking on. We have to come to this ground with great compassion, with great love for one another and with a great sense of our inadequacy before our Father, who has done so much for us and has given so much of Himself, and in which He was joined by His son. For us to sit and dissect it academically, and then argue, debate and divide over it goes against everything that Father and Son have been doing for us. Thus, these articles are offered simply as meditations on the topic. They are not intended to be absolute. Their goal is to stimulate thought, and to enrich our understanding of the tremendous work the Father has done for us.

Let us take off our shoes and bow down before the majesty of our Father and the glory of his Son as we contemplate this subject.

Why did Jesus die?

So, back to the earlier question: Why did Jesus have to die? This is the question with which I struggled for such a long time. When we ask ourselves a question, we should examine whether we have some hidden assumptions in the question. It turns out that I had. There’s an assumption in the question that says: “He had to die.” Maybe the assumption is right, or maybe not. Either way, the question becomes cleaner without it. So, let’s ask a simpler, plainer question which doesn’t have that assumption in it, namely, “Why did Jesus die?” This is the question we will study.

Why did Jesus die?

This is such a central question that surely we ought to be able to give a really plain and simple answer to it.

Popular Christianity

There is a verse drawn from Hebrews, which could lead us – because of preconceptions – to have a particular view of the notion of salvation.

Because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. (Heb 10:13, NIV)

We could very easily understand that phrase to say that there’s some magic that took place at the death of Jesus Christ. That by one sacrifice, at that one moment ofCalvarywhen Jesus died, we were made perfect. This understanding is a fundamental doctrine of evangelical Christianity, which teaches that Christ died precisely to enable God to accept us.

I had a friend at University who said it was vital for Christ to be sinless to gain salvation, but it’s not so important for us to be sinless, because we are saved by faith, not by works. You know what I found most scary about that? It seemed plausible! That’s really scary, because it suggests that we could ‘sin so that grace may abound’!

This popular ‘doctrine’ of salvation is called substitution, or equivalently, substitutionary salvation. Substitution is the theory that God had established some legal requirements about sin and death, and that Christ’s death satisfied God’s legal requirements. “He bore the punishment, that was due to us,” the substitutionist would say, “so that we are free from this obligation of sin and death.”

I once came across a great allegory or parable to describe substitution. Before we share it together, I would ask you just one thing: at the end of the parable, please don’t stop reading! The parable provides a powerful allegory, and it is critical to dissect it together afterward. If you were to leave with only the parable in your mind, it could lead you down some erroneous paths! Here’s the parable:

The parable of the circus

The circus was coming to town and a father with two sons said: “The circus is coming next weekend. If you boys behave yourselves well, we’ll all go to the circus and have a good time.” The older son behaved himself impeccably throughout the week – a wonderful example of behaviour. The same, unfortunately, could not be said of the younger boy. At the end of the week, the father, assessing the situation, said to the younger son, “I would dearly love to take you to the circus, but your behaviour simply hasn’t merited it. I’m afraid that I’m going to have to live by my word and not take you to the circus.” The younger son is absolutely devastated, and there is an impasse: what can be done?

In fact, the impasse is complete. The father can’t simply say: “You know what? I’m going to simply forget what I said – you can come to the circus after all!” It would completely negate what the father had said. What can be done?

Then the older son comes to the rescue. He says: “Father, I will bear the punishment of the younger son; I will stay home from the circus so that you may take him to the circus. Your word is upheld and we shall achieve what we wanted to accomplish.”

Christ a substitute?

I find this a very moving story. It captivates me because of the individual sacrifice of the older son. It is very compelling. It even has clear parallels in scripture, withJudah offering himself in Benjamin’s place, for example.

Our evangelical friends would say that this parable reflects the process of salvation. We have done everything that merits death. God has said in his righteousness, that sin leads to death. We have sinned – it leads to our death. And we would die because God can’t simply reverse his word and say: “You know what? Let’s forget all about that sin stuff. Come into glory after all.”

God is at an impasse until, according to the evangelicals, Jesus says to the Father: “I will take the punishment, the death that is due. I will bear it. Your justice will be vindicated, and you will still be able to accept people into glory.”

The main attraction of substitution is that it is very simple and easy to understand. As a young man, I found it was the only explanation of the process of salvation that made any sense to me. It was only over time that I began to see its shortcomings and limitations and, indeed, to see the horror that is contained in the doctrine.

It is that set of observations that we’ll explore together now, identifying some of the problems in the doctrine of substitution.

Substitution is unjust

The first problem of substitution is one of justice. Since when is it a mark of justice to punish the wrong person? The whole notion of substitution is based on the idea that the justice of God has to be upheld, and so He does what? He punishes the wrong man! Do you see how it erodes the very core of the idea of justice? The Bible never considers it just or right to punish the wrong person. Isaiah’s prophesy, for example, is strident with condemnation about taking bribes, about allowing the guilty to go unpunished, and about punishing the innocent. Does it make sense that God might then go and do so Himself?

Death is everlasting

The second problem with substitution is that the penalty is wrong. The penalty of sin is death, not dying. The penalty of sin is eternal separation from God, it is eternal destruction, oblivion – for ever. That punishment has not been borne by Jesus. Because Jesus is no longer dead, he has not borne the true penalty of sin. He tasted death, certainly. He experienced the agonies of death, went into the grave and was dead for three days. But if he was supposed to be bearing our punishment, God should have left him dead. Did God then change his mind and decide not to punish him with the punishment that was due to us after all? In terms of the parable, it’s as if the father says to the son: “You stay at home and I’ll take the younger brother,” and then, halfway to the circus he telephones home and says: “You know what? Come after all!” He’s not bearing the punishment. It’s really important to recognise this. It causes the legal theory of substitution to fall apart.

Anything left to forgive?

Here’s a third problem: this one is to do with forgiveness. Suppose Bob owes me five bucks. I keep saying: “Come on, Bob, you owe me five bucks. Pay up! Pay up!” Then Alice hears this and says to me, “You know what, I’ll give you the five bucks that Bob owes you.” Would it be fair for me now to go to Bob and say: “I forgive you your debt!” Not at all! Alice has already paid the debt; there’s nothing to be forgiven. It’s all been dealt with. So, if Jesus has paid the debt, if he has satisfied the legal requirement, where is the need for forgiveness? There’s no role for it at all; the debt has been paid! Yet scripture says again and again and again that we come to God through forgiveness. We have to conclude, therefore, that there is a real debt outstanding! God says: “I forgive!” But if it’s been paid, there’s nothing left to forgive.

Shifting the blame

There’s a fourth problem for the notion of substitution: the problem of focus. We began this article noting our great tendency to focus on God as the one with the problem. It’s a natural human endeavour to say: “You know what? It’s not really our fault! It’s really God’s fault – Jesus is our mediator, trying to sort things out with God…”

We turn everything around. Mankind is doing the same with a doctrine like substitution. In substitution we say: the real problem with salvation is that God got Himself in a legal fix; that Jesus had to die to get God out of the legal problems. “The problem is not with me, it’s with God!” Given this human tendency, it’s easy to see how doctrines like substitution could come to be developed.

Origin of the substitution theory

The development of the substitution doctrine is well established historically. The first atonement theory of the Catholic church came from Origen in the third century. He believed that the devil had gained formal ownership over us, and that God had to pay a ransom to the devil to buy our release. Jesus was that ransom, but once the devil released his claim on us, God then raised Jesus from the dead to get him back, too.

In the eleventh century, Archbishop Anselem ofCanterburycompletely recast the theory of atonement. He replaced the Ransom Theory with a Satisfaction Theory, in which God has been dishonored, so His righteousness has to be satisfied. The death of Jesus was his method for satisfying His honor. The satisfaction theory quickly became the standard understanding of the Catholic church, but it itself was replaced by Luther and Calvin et al in the Protestant movement by the substitution theory. Penal Substitution, as it is properly called, replaces the honor aspect of satisfaction with the legal theory we have explored above.

Notice that all of these variants place God as the reason for the death of Christ. This is human thinking par excellence.

The reality: We are the ones in need of change

The real problem, of course, is not with God, the problem has never been with God. The real issue, the real problem is with us! It is our satan sitting here, in my heart, in your heart! That’s where the challenge is, the rebelliousness of the human being. That’s where the work of salvation has to be focused.

In my own personal explorations, I was alerted to this while reading ‘Brethren in Christ’ by Alan Eyre. In that book, there was a little phrase about a brother Bernard Ochino back in the fifteen hundreds or so. Alan Eyre explains how this believer offended the Catholics “by denying that Christ died as a substitute and by demonstrating that the real purpose of the death of Christ was not to change God, but to change us!” And it was, for me, one of those ‘Of course! Of course!’ moments. The death of Christ was not to deal with God’s difficulties; it was to make me different! It was to change me! And that’s not just a ‘me-centred’ thing, of course. It’s saying: “The problem is here with me, and whatever the death of Christ was designed to accomplish, it was designed to accomplish it by changing me, where the problem actually lies.


In the next article, we’ll explore the impact of bringing the focus of the death of Christ back onto us, the ones it is supposed to affect. In the meantime, we’ll close this article with a couple of final observations about substitution.

Because it is so pervasive around us, substitutionary salvation is one of those teachings that can influence our thinking, even if we don’t take it on board wholesale. Elements of it can creep in and affect our understanding. We have to remain on our guard against it.

Take for example the word ‘propitiation,’ a word that the Protestant translators of the AV used. Look in a dictionary, and you’ll see that the meaning of “propitiation’ is ‘appeasement.’ This choice of word would be okay if substitution was a true doctrine, if the death of Christ is about appeasing God. But it is not.

Appeasement conjures up a picture of a parent furious with a child, who somehow finds some way to make the parent happier: “Would you like me to give you something?” with the unspoken, “to make you less angry with me.” But remember everything we learned about the present work of Jesus. Salvation starts with God, not from us! It is from Him, and it works toward us.

The death of Christ is not about appeasement. The Biblical picture of our relationship with God in Christ is that God is reaching out to us, wanting a response. The picture we should have in our minds is of a parent ‘disciple-ing’ a child; disciplining a child in the rich sense of that word: training a child. ‘Propitiation’ should be taken out of our vocabulary!

John Launchbury

(With many thanks to Paul Launchbury for his help in the development of this article.)

View all events
Upcoming Events