Over the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to broaden and deepen our understanding of sin and salvation by looking at the variety of metaphors the Scriptures use to describe them. While it wasn’t really my intention for it to be an all-out attack on models of substitutionary atonement, since that is the dominant understanding in Western Christianity, in many places to the exclusion of all others, it was inevitably going to represent a foil for this project. And indeed, I think this exercise has demonstrated that substitutionary atonement at best represents only a small fraction of the picture of how the Bible understands the problem of sin and how God has acted to resolve it. At worst, it misunderstands sacrifice, misrepresents Judaism, and offers a false picture of God, while promoting the idea — contrary to the teaching of Jesus — that violence is redemptive. But beyond all that, I am convinced that one of the biggest failings of these models of atonement is that they actually undermine the importance of the idea of substitution (or something very much like it) in Paul’s writing.
There is no doubt that there is some form of ‘substitution’ in Paul. The metaphor of redemption, for example, revolves around someone else paying money we don’t have. And, if we assume the ‘atoning sacrifice’ interpretation of hilasterion in Romans 3.25, Christ ‘substitutes’ for the sin sacrifice prescribed in Leviticus 6. So, there are ideas of substitution at work in Paul’s talk of the cross, but these are in the economic and ritual spheres; they are not penal, i.e., legal — the whole point of this passage is that this is done apart from the Law. There is a new law in town, and it operates on faith (which is not about intellectual assent but showing up faithfully in relationships). But it’s not good enough to stop here when thinking about how substitution works in Paul.
The first additional nuance we need to explore is how Paul uses the language of substitution to describe Jesus as a representative:
Those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. . . .One man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. (Romans 5:17–18)
Here, it’s less that Jesus takes our place than it is that we are represented in what he does. Likewise, in 2 Corinthians, Paul writes: “one has died for all; therefore all have died” (5.14). This is similar to how Hebrews calls Jesus the “initiator” or “pioneer” of our faith (12.2) — He goes where no one has gone before, but we follow in his steps. To use a contemporary metaphor, Jesus “shatters the glass ceiling” for us. So in addition to economic and ritual substitution, we have in Paul the additional layer of representation. Jesus doesn’t just stand in for us, but acts on our behalf so that we can follow.
But this isn’t all. What Paul really seems to be getting at with his substitution language is the idea of interchange.* The redemption image isn’t just Jesus paying money we don’t have, but a free man using his freedom to become enslaved in order to free us. Likewise, the faithful son takes on our estranged condition in order to reconcile us to the father. He takes on our condition in order that we take on his. As that famous saying of the Church Fathers put it, “God became man that man might become God.” This idea of a sort of ‘double substitution’ (where Jesus stands in for us and we stand in for Jesus) better fits Paul’s extensive language of participation:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. (Romans 6.3-8)
Paul’s understanding of salvation is participatory. We are baptized “into” him, we die and rise “with” him” and “united with him.” Elsewhere, he writes that in Christ God “will give life to your mortal bodies” and that “if we suffer with him… we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8.11, 17), and he “giv[es] us his Spirit in our hearts” (2 Corinthians 1.22). As Stephen Finlan concludes: “It is not a matter of Christ taking the believer’s place, but of the believer sharing Christ’s place.” And again, “For Paul, Christ is the great transporter and transmitter. He transports sin and death out of our lives, and transmits life and goodness into them” (Sacrifice and Atonement, 88 & 93).
And so, among the many other ways substitutionary atonement misses the mark, it also minimizes what Paul was actually saying when he used substitutionary language. For Paul, Jesus wasn’t just like the scapegoat of old, taking on our sin and then going off into the wilderness; rather, in taking away our sin, he gives us his holiness; in embodying our death, he gives us his life; in taking on our humanity, he gives us a share in his divinity. This is the heart of the Christian message of transformation: A renewed humanity that participates in the divine life, in and through Jesus, the pioneer of our life of faith.
* See the writings of Morna Hooker and Stephen Finlan for this helpful language.