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© Rosemary Bardsley 2005, 2014

The phrase substitutionary atonement does not occur in the Bible, but the concept underlies the Biblical teaching about salvation from beginning to end. What do these words mean? What is their significance today? Can we leave them aside as relics of a bygone era? Or are they an essential component of our knowledge of Jesus Christ and his salvation?

We know what ‘substitute’ means. Cooks substitute margarine for butter, and most recipes turn out much the same. On the sports field, one player substitutes for another, fulfilling his role, and the game goes on. A substitute takes the place of another. It stands for the other, instead of the other, doing what the other would normally do, filling the role the other would normally fill. Whatever was the desired outcome, it is achieved by the substitute, instead of being achieved by the original.

‘Atonement’ is not so commonly understood. To ‘atone’ is to make amends, to make reparation for some offence or injury done to another.  The word means literally ‘at one’. At-one-ment then is the action by which previously divided parties are reunited. In a religious setting, ‘atonement’ is the process of making peace, or achieving reconciliation, between man and his god/gods. In the Bible ‘atonement’ refers to the action decreed by God for the re-establishment of a positive relationship between man (the sinner) and himself (the holy God).   


This Biblical concept of substitutionary atonement is based on a number of significant Biblical teachings:

A.1 God’s holiness

God’s holiness is so pure and perfect that neither sin nor the sinner can survive in his immediate presence [Exodus 33:21-23]. This awesome purity and otherness of God is depicted in Scripture by descriptions of brilliant, dazzling light and glorious radiance that accompanied the Lord when he appeared in visions.

Task #1: Check out these Scriptures
How does the vision of the glory of the holy God impact humans?

Isaiah 6:1-7


Ezekiel 1:25-28


Matthew 17:1,2


Acts 9:1-4


Revelation 1:12-18


In the presence of such holiness even the godliest of men are overcome. In the presence of this holiness even our righteousness is seen to be filthy:

‘All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
 we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.
No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you;
 for you have hidden your face from us and made us waste away because of our sins.
[Isaiah 64:6-7]

A.2 Our sinfulness

Standing in stark contrast to the holiness of God, is the sinfulness of man. This sinfulness is not merely a matter of our many individual sins, but, more importantly, the basic orientation of our hearts and minds: we are sinners. From the original rejection of the authority of God in Genesis 3 our mindset has been one of rebellion against him and rejection of him [Romans 1:18-31; 3:9-18]. Even when we appear to be religious the god or gods we worship are those we have made for ourselves, either with our hands or with our thoughts, gods we can manage and manipulate. It is out of this foundational sin in which we reject God that all specific acts of sin originate.

A.3 Separation from God – God’s judgment and wrath

All of this sinfulness and sin bars our entry into the presence of God [Isaiah 59:2,3], incurs his wrath [Romans 1:18], and holds us captive to an inescapable and fatal punishment [Genesis 2:17; Romans 5:12; 6:23]. We, like the servant in Jesus’ parable, stand before the divine King with a massive, unpayable debt, and nothing with which to pay [Matthew 18: 21-35]. Utterly destitute. Utterly incapable of making good our standing in his presence.  It is an impossible situation.

This concept of the judgment and wrath of God upon sin, and the concurrent alienation from God because of sin, are essential presuppositions behind the concept of atonement.  We have already noted in the previous study that God is just [righteous], and that his law is equally just. By that just law sin must be punished. By that just law sin must result in separation from God.

Note that the very act of sin – of rebelling against/rejecting God – is separation from God. Sin thus automatically initiates and implements the condemnation/judgment that it legally incurs. At one level, sinners do not have to wait for the ‘judgment day’ to feel the impact of God’s wrath upon sin; rather, in the very act of sinning we incur the judgment on our sin. In Romans 1:18 Paul speaks of a present tense revelation of the wrath of God; Genesis 2:17 speaks of dying on the very day sin is committed; Jesus spoke of people being ‘condemned already’ because they have not believed in his name [John 3:18], and of the wrath of God remaining on those who do not believe in him [John 3:36]. God’s wrath and judgment on sin are a present reality from which sinners have to be rescued, not just a future judgment that we have yet to face.


Task #2: Research task
Look up the concept of God’s ‘wrath’ and/or ‘anger’ in a concordance. From an analysis and discussion of these references answer the questions below.

What kinds of human actions or attitudes attract the wrath/anger of God?




What adjectives or images are used to describe God’s wrath or anger?




What was done, or could have been done, to turn it away, according to the Scripture?




For comment on God’s wrath see quote from Leon Morris in section C below.

A.4 God’s amazing compassion

The amazing and incredible thing in all of this is that God, the holy One, still wants us, the sinners, to live.

Task #3: What do these verses teach about this amazing compassion?

Exodus 34:6

Ezekiel 33:11

John 3:16

2Peter 3:9


Embedded into God’s eternal and righteous law is the means by which his wrath can be averted from the sinner. In an act of extreme compassion he provides a way of escape.  As we saw in the study on justification, God’s action in the death of Jesus Christ enables him to do two things at once: to remain true to and enforce his justice, and at the same time to acquit and accept the sinner [Romans 3:25b-26].

A.5 God’s fundamental mercy

Although the wrath of God is real, and upon all mankind, yet he is also a God of great mercy. Thus the Scripture portrays God as one who is ‘slow to anger’ and who provides a way of escape for those who are under his wrath. The provision of atonement comes from the very heart of God, and reaches its climax and ultimate expression in Jesus Christ, where God himself is both the sacrificial offering and the mediatorial high priest who presents the offering. There is no dichotomy between the Father and the Son, or between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament. The one God extends to the sinner the means by which his wrath can be turned away. This is the way of atonement. As Morris points out in the quote in C below, God’s mercy has the final word.

Task #4: What do these verses teach about God’s mercy?

Exodus 34:6

Psalm 85:2f

Psalm 100:5

Isaiah 48:9

Micah 7:18



He does this by means of substitutionary atonement: the action in which the just penalty for our sins is taken and borne on our behalf by a substitute. When Jesus Christ died on the cross he was taking the punishment for our sins, and in doing so bore on our behalf the wrath of God. He died for us. We could almost say: he died as us. The Old Testament anticipates and symbolically predicts this substitutionary action of Jesus Christ and the atonement achieved by this death in several different prophetic shadows or symbols.

Task #5: Study these Scriptures. Apply the three questions to each passage.

Who or what substituted for whom?    
What was escaped by this substitution?    
What indication is there that atonement was involved?

Genesis 22:1-14



Exodus 11:5-7; 12:1-13



Leviticus 4:1-5:13



Leviticus 16



Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12




From the references above the concept of a substitute dying in the place of another is extremely strong. The concept of atonement for sin [the turning away of God’s wrath and just judgment on sin] is also strong. The Levitical laws demonstrate that this opportunity to avoid the law’s just condemnation has always been in place. It is not contrary or additional to God’s law, rather, it is part of God’s law. It might even be possible to say that it is a fundamental intention of the law. By God’s law, not only is sin identified and exposed, but the way to escape from the condemnation via God’s mercy is also set forth and available. This is not just by means of the repetitive sacrificial rituals laid down by the law, but, more significantly, by means of the one final and ultimate sacrifice of Christ, once for all, to which they all pointed, and from which they, mere shadows or copies, took their meaning and their power.


C.1 The death of Christ for us

The New Testament teaches that substitution is a key significance of the death of Jesus Christ on the cross.

Task #6: Discussion task
Read these verses and discuss [1] how they convey the concept of substitution, and [2] how they communicate atonement – the turning away of God’s just wrath and judgment on our sin.

Romans 5:6,8

Romans 6:1-11


Romans 7:1-6

2Corinthians 5:14


2Corinthians 5:21


Galatians 2:20

Galatians 3:13

Colossians 2:12,20

Colossians 3:3


1Peter 2:24

Paul teaches that ‘Christ died for the ungodly’, and ‘Christ died for us’ where the ‘for’ means ‘instead of’ or ‘in the place of’. So effective is this substitution that Paul teaches that the believer died with Christ: his death was our death; when he died, we died. We must never understand the ‘for’ in ‘Christ died for us’ to be merely a kind act, such as drying the dishes for someone, or buying a gift for someone. It is far, far greater than that. It is the ‘for’ of substitution. In this substitutionary ‘for’ Jesus Christ took that all what was ours - all the sin, guilt, condemnation, wrath, judgment, punishment, rejection by God, separation from God, death. He took it all. As Peter wrote: ‘He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree’. As Paul wrote: ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us’.

Leon Morris comments on the concept of substitution:

‘… while the many-sidedness of the atonement must be borne in mind, substitution is at the heart of it. … redemption is substitutionary, for it means that Christ paid that price that we could not pay, paid it in our stead, and we go free. Justification interprets our salvation judicially, and as the New Testament sees it, Christ took our legal liability, took it in our stead. Reconciliation means the making of people to be at one by the taking away of the cause of hostility. In this case the cause is sin, and Christ removed that cause for us. We could not deal with sin. He could and did, and did it in such a way that it is reckoned to us. Propitiation points us to the removal of the divine wrath, and Christ has done this by bearing the wrath for us. It was our sin which drew it down; it was He who bore it.

‘And so we might go on. The richness of the New Testament teaching on this subject centres on Christ, and again and again the key to the understanding of a particular way of viewing the cross is to see that Christ has stood in our place. … Was there a price to be paid? He paid it. Was there a victory to be won? He won it. Was there a penalty to be borne? He bore it. Was there a judgment to be faced? He faced it. View man’s plight how you will, the witness of the New Testament is that Christ has come where man ought to be and has met in full all the demands that might be made on man.’ [p404-406 The Cross in the New Testament]

C.2 The death of Christ as a sacrifice for sin

As we saw in the Old Testament the concept of substitution is an intrinsic part of the concept of sacrifice. When the Bible speaks of atonement it almost always is also speaking of sacrifice. When the sinner placed his hands on the head of his offering he was indicating that that sacrificial animal was taking his place. The sacrificial animal died in the place of the sinner. This concept is brought to its final expression in the New Testament in the death of Jesus Christ as a sacrifice for sin.

Task #7: How do these verses describe the death of Jesus Christ?
[Note: see below for the meanings of the Greek words used in these text]

Romans 3:25 - hilasterion

1Corinthians 5:7 - thuo

Ephesians 5:2 - thusia

Hebrews 2:17  - hilaskomai

Hebrews 7:27 - thusia

Hebrews 9:26, 28 - thusia

Hebrews 10:12 - thusia

1John 2:2 - hilasmos

1John 4:10 - hilasmos


The Greek words noted above are:

[1] thuo – the basic meaning of this word is to kill; it is commonly used of killing a sacrificial victim.

[2] thusia – according to Vine, this word ‘primarily denotes the act of offering; then, objectively, that which is offered.

[3] hilasmos – is ‘a means by which sin is covered and remitted’ [Vine]

[4] hilasterion -  This word is sometimes translated ‘propitiation’, sometimes ‘expiation’. It is the Greek word used to refer to the ‘mercy seat’ or ‘atonement cover’ – the lid of the Ark of the Covenant, which was placed in the Most Holy Place in the tabernacle, and where blood was sprinkled on the yearly Day of Atonement [see Leviticus 16]. It is used in the Greek Old Testament to translate the Hebrew kaphar [kippur] which means to cover or conceal – and hence to refer to the covering or concealing of sin. Embedded in the meaning of hilasmos and hilasterion is the concept of mercy. Sin, instead of being exposed and punished, is covered.

[5] hilaskomai – to make propitiation [atonement] – to appease, to turn away wrath. This word is used in the New Testament only in Luke 18:13 – ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner’ – and Hebrews 2:17 [see table above]. In both there is a context of mercy. In both contexts there is, apart from the action of this verb, an expectation and inevitability of judgment; but because of this verb, there is the promise that the expected judgment is somehow averted.

There is on-going debate among scholars as to whether hilasterion and cognate words refer to ‘expiation’ or ‘propitiation’.

Expiation means ‘paying the penalty for sin’, ‘making amends for sin’.
Propitiation means ‘turning away the wrath of an offended party’.

Some comments:

TC Hammond:

‘… no doctrine of the Cross of Christ is adequate to the comprehensiveness of the full scriptural statement which does not present the even deeper fact that our Lord’s Death was in the nature of a propitiation.  The adjectives usually applied to this … are those such as ‘propitiatory’, ‘vicarious,’ ‘substitutionary.’ … Evangelicals have the right fearlessly to contend that  … this deeper mystery of the Saviour’s Death, is the crowning wonder of the grace of God, the most superb gesture of the Godhead to men, and the very heart of Christianity.’ [p122 In Understanding be Men]

Leon Morris:

‘The wrath of God is often confused with the irrational passion we so frequently find in man and which was commonly ascribed to heathen deities. … Dr Maldwyn Hughes says: ‘… The fact which we have to face is that in the nature of things there must be an eternal recoil against the unholy on the part of the all-holy God.” If we can understand the wrath of God in some such fashion as this there seems no insuperable objection to our thinking of that wrath as a reality to be reckoned with, and to seeing propitiation as the means of averting that wrath from the sinner, who, unless this can be done, finds himself in evil case.

‘To the men of the Old Testament the wrath of God is both very real and very serious. God is not thought of as capriciously angry [like the deities of the heathen], but, because He is a moral Being, His anger is directed towards wrongdoing in any shape or form. Once roused, this anger is not easily assuaged, and dire consequences may follow. But it is only fair to add that the Old Testament consistently regards God as a God of mercy. Though men sin and thus draw down upon themselves the consequences of His wrath, yet God does not delight in the death of the sinner. He provides ways in which the consequences of sin may be averted.’ [p 149 The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross]

‘While wrath is a dreadful reality, it must not be taken as the last word about God. … God’s nature is merciful rather than wrathful … the idea that God is ‘slow to anger’ was not a truism. It was a surprising revelation, something to be received with awe and wonder. This thinking reaches its climax in the passages where the removal of divine wrath is ascribed to God Himself. … The general picture which the Old Testament gives us of God is of One who is by nature merciful, and who cannot be swayed by man’s puny efforts. In the last resort forgiveness is always due to God’s being what He is, and not to anything that man may do. Because God is God, He must react in the strongest manner to man’s sin, and thus we reach the concept of the divine wrath. But because God is God, wrath cannot be the last word. ‘The Lord is good; his mercy endureth for ever.’ [ibid, p153-4]

[Commenting on 1 John 2:2 and 4:10] ‘The point is that Christ is said to be “an Advocate with the Father”, and if we sinners need an advocate with God, then obviously we are in no good case, our misdeeds prevail against us, we are about to feel the hostility of God to all that is sinful. Under these circumstances we may well speak of Christ turning away the wrath of God, and thus hilasmos is a natural word in the context. …. In 1 John 4:10 if hilasmos be given its usual meaning we have one of those resounding paradoxes which mean so much for the understanding of the Christian view of sacrifice. It is to God Himself that we owe the removal of God’s wrath … whereas, if the more colourless “expiation” is understood, the verse is much less striking. [ibid, p206,7]

‘Those who seek to reduce the concept of propitiation to a mere expiation do not … face the questions which expiation raises, such as “Why should sin be expiated?” “What would be the consequences to man if there were no expiation?” … It seems evident on the scriptural view that if sin is not expiated, if men “die in their sins”, then they have the divine displeasure to face, and this is but another way of saying that the wrath of God abides upon them. It seems that expiation is necessary in order to avert the wrath of God, so that nothing is gained by abandoning the concept of propitiation.’ [ibid, p211]


This act of God in Christ Jesus, this substitutionary atonement, makes two things clear and certain:

[1] the sheer impossibility that we could ever save ourselves, and

[2] the sheer impossibility of those who genuinely trust in Christ ever losing their salvation.


Task #8: Discuss the validity of the above two-part statement.