The Substitutionary Theory of Atonement
During World War II an enemy submarine approached a fleet of ships in the North Atlantic. The captain of one vessel spotted the white mark of a torpedo coming directly at his ship. His transport was loaded with literally hundreds of young soldiers on the way to the European front. He realized they would not have time to maneuver to avoid the torpedo. He grabbed a loudspeaker and cried out, "Boys, this is it!"

Nearby, however, a small escorting destroyer also observed the torpedo. The captain ordered, "Full speed ahead!" His ship steamed into the path of the torpedo. The destroyer was blown up. Every man on it was lost. The captain of the troop transport ship sadly commented, "The skipper of that destroyer was my best friend." One verse in the Bible now has an even deeper meaning for that captain - "Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one's life for his friends" (John 15:13).

This illustration is centered around the notion of substitution. There are several theories of the atonement which concentrate on substitution. The principle idea is that man cannot pay for his own sins. Sin requires infinite payment since God's honor has been offended. Sin is so serious that it deserves the death penalty. Jesus came into the world, not just to be an example that would influence us, but to literally take our place and be a substitute for us. His sacrificial suffering was the penalty of death that we all deserve! In this manner God can forgive sinful mankind and remain both loving and just.

In substitutionary theories, the death of Christ is not only directed at man who comprehends the love demonstrated and is influenced by the example, but it is also directed at God. It is not that God needs to be paid off, per se, but God would not be just if He winked at sin. Many Scriptures point to the concept of Christ taking our place as a substitute. Consider I Peter 3:18, for instance - "For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God..." (cf. II Cor. 5:14,21; Isa. 53:5).

Of all the theories we have examined, this is the best. There are few problems associated with it, if any. The chief difficulty would be in certain concepts omitted in a study of atonement. Some do raise objections to a substitutionary theory, however. Some affirm that such a theory is unjust and immoral. They cannot accept the idea of an innocent victim suffering for another.

The solution to this alleged difficulty is to remember that it was Jesus who died on the cross, and He went there willingly. He was not forced to die, but He chose to submit to the Father's will (John 10:17,18). We must not think of God as an unjust Father who made His innocent Son suffer against His will for someone else.

There is a second part to the solution. Realize that we are dealing with four parties: (1) the criminal, (2) the offended party, (3) the judge (or law), and (4) a substitute. The criminal is easy to identify. It's you and me; it's mankind in general. The other three parties, though, are all one person--the Lord Jesus Christ. As deity, Christ is the offended party. Our sin is against Him. Likewise, He is the judge and our substitute. Why would it be unjust if Christ required Himself to be a substitute, so that He might execute justice with love?

Consider an illustration specifically on this point. In Scotland a man was taken before a judge, and he cautiously looked up at the judge to see if there was any mercy in his eyes. To his surprise he recognized the judge. The judge was an old friend of his, a classmate from the university. He relaxed and figured he would get off free. He was sorely disappointed though. The judge gave him the maximum fine for his misdemeanor. As soon as the judgment was declared, however, the judge left his bench and paid the fine. He informed the man that the demands of the law had been satisfied. He said, "I paid your fine and you are free." Who could say this was unjust? An innocent person was not forced to be a substitute for the guilty man. Rather, the judge who declared the judgment was himself the one who paid the fine. Rather than injustice, it was an expression of love and grace. Is this not similar to the love of God expressed in Jesus' voluntary sacrifice of Himself? Because of Jesus' deity, any accusation of injustice in a substitutionary theory can be dismissed.

All of the theories of atonement we have considered recently teach valuable truths about the meaning of the death of Jesus. Their primary shortcoming is that they are only partial views. The most complete of them all would be the substitutionary theory. The final conclusion of this matter is that Jesus Christ is the only means and hope of our salvation. As Peter declared in Acts 4:12 - "Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved." Praise God that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6)!