Christ’s Vicarious Atonement
“…for our offenses.” —Romans 4:25a
We Lutherans are often accused of being “obsessed with terminology” when we teach and discuss the doctrines of Holy Scripture, terminology that is nowhere found in the Bible and terminology that hopelessly confuses all but professional theologians with its complexity. And our most reactionary critics, particularly from among the sects, allege that this terminology amounts to a stumblingblock [an offense; skandalon] which discourages simple people from studying Christian doctrine and may even prevent them from being saved and from coming to the knowledge of the truth (I Timothy 2:4). In point of fact, however, terminology which briefly and accurately describes a Biblical truth or a doctrinal concept is merely a short-cut intended to simplify that which otherwise might require a lengthy explanation. Actually, most of our terminology is taken directly from the words of Holy Writ [terms like redemption (Romans 3:24, etc.), justification (Romans 4:25, etc.), sanctification (I Thessalonians 4:3), regeneration (Titus 3:5), inspiration (II Timothy 3:16), and the like]. No one seems to have trouble with secular terminology that describes everyday processes and concepts (aerobic exercise, internal combustion engines, microwave ovens, and Internet access), but Christ’s passive obedience and His vicarious atonement are just “too much.” The critics need a reality check, and they would do well to spend their time in searching the Scriptures (John 5:39) rather than in striving about words to no profit (II Timothy 2:14)!
The word “atonement,” found well over seventy times in the Bible, means, according to its dictionary definition, “satisfaction given for wrongdoing” and, theologically understood in the light of the New Testament, “the effect of Jesus’ sufferings and death in redeeming mankind and bringing about the reconciliation of God to man” (Webster’s New World Dictionary, 2nd College Edition). “Vicarious” means “taking the place of another thing or person; endured, suffered, or performed by one person in place of another” (Webster, op. cit.). Thus, the term vicarious atonement simply describes the all-sufficient payment that our Savior rendered to God as the Substitute for sinners in order to satisfy divine justice and to buy us back from “the curse of the Law” (Galatians 3:10, 13), namely, from “the wages of sin” (Romans 6:23), everlasting death in hell.
In order properly to understand this concept, it is necessary to recognize and acknowledge an undeniable fact —undeniable because it is stated in the plain words of Holy Scripture in passage after passage: “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23); “There is not a just man upon earth that doeth good and sinneth not” (Ecclesiastes 7:20); “They are all gone aside; they are altogether become filthy; there is none that doeth good, no, not one” (Psalm 14:3; cf. Psalm 53:3); “Death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” (Romans 5:12); “If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His Word is not in us” (I John 1:10); and “We [even we Christians] are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6).
Consequently it is impossible for sinful men, by what they themselves DO, to reconcile themselves unto God, because the Bible rules out justification by works. St. Paul writes: “By the deeds of the Law there shall no flesh be justified in His sight.” Why? “For by the Law is the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20; cf. Galatians 2:16). God’s justice, manifested in His holy Law, demands perfection of every human being (Leviticus 19:2; Matthew 5:48; etc.); and His Law never condones sin, excuses sin, cuts man “slack” concerning sin, or permits anything short of complete holiness for the satisfaction of His divine justice. It never compliments us; it never justifies us; it only condemns us. And, since we are unable to save ourselves by the deeds of the Law, so we are also incapable of helping or ransoming or redeeming anyone else by our wretched, imperfect works which are not “precious” enough to satisfy God’s justice and to secure anyone’s release from the curse of the Law (Psalm 49:7-8).
Moreover, because of what man IS by nature, conceived and born in sin (Psalm 51:5), totally depraved and evil already from his youngness (Genesis 8:21), incapable of good according to God’s standards (Romans 8:7), and inclined only to evil by nature (Romans 7:14ff.), he cannot please God (Romans 8:8). And even we Christians, who have been regenerated or born again into a new spiritual life of sanctification by the operation of the Holy Ghost through the means of grace, whose New Man of faith is perfectly attuned to God’s will and desirous to keep His Law, are unable to merit God’s favor because of the Old Adam of sin that still dwells within us (Romans 7:17), keeps us from the perfection that God requires (Isaiah 64:6), and causes us to transgress His commandments (Galatians 5:19ff.). “O wretched man that I am!” cries out the Apostle Paul, recognizing his inability to keep God’s Law and his need for deliverance “from the body of this death” by someone outside of himself (Romans 7:24).
Unable therefore to render to God the perfect obedience that He requires, to live in the righteousness and true holiness that He demands, and therefore to fulfill the Law’s just precepts to merit His favor, man cannot make one positive contribution to his reconciliation with God. Therefore it was Christ’s fulfillment of the Law as the Substitute of sinners that merited God’s favor. St. Paul writes to the Galatians that “God sent forth His Son, made of a woman, made under the Law to redeem them that were under the Law” (Galatians 4:4-5). Christ’s office as the Redeemer of the world necessitated that, when He took upon Himself our human nature, when He took the manhood into God (Athanasian Creed), He be put “under the Law,” so that, not because He needed to for Himself, but because we needed Him to do it for us, Christ assumed our obligation to keep the Law of God perfectly, as our Substitute, for our benefit Luther says of Christ’s active obedience in our stead:
He satisfied the Law; He fulfilled the Law perfectly, for He loved God with all His heart, and with all His soul, and with all His strength, and with all His mind; and He loved His neighbor as Himself. Therefore, when the Law comes and accuses you of not having kept it, bid it go to Christ. Say: “There is the Man who has kept it; to Him I cling; He fulfilled it for me and gave His fulfillment to me.” Thus the Law is silenced. (Luther’s Works, Erlangen Ed., XV, 61, 63).
The Formula of Concord also clearly teaches that Christ’s active obedience was an integral part of His vicarious atonement or satisfaction, as follows:
His obedience, not only in suffering and dying, but also in this, that He in our stead was voluntarily made under the Law and fulfilled it by His obedience, is imputed to us for righteousness, so that on account of this complete obedience, which He rendered to His heavenly Father for us, by doing and suffering, in living and dying, God forgives our sins, regards us as Godly and righteous, and eternally saves us. (Formula of Concord, Thor. Decl., III, 15, Triglot, pp. 919-921).
Thus “Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness to everyone that believeth” (Romans 10:3-4); for “as by the offense of one [namely, Adam] judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of One [namely, Christ] the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of One shall many be made righteous” (Romans 5:18-19). The Apostle does not limit “the obedience of One” to Christ’s being “obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:8), but he contrasts Christ’s “obedience” to Adam’s “disobedience,” Christ’s “righteousness” to Adam’s “offense,” Christ’s keeping of the Law to Adam’s lawlessness.
But Christ also redeemed us from the “curse of the Law, being made a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). As the Substitute for sinners, Christ bore the guilt of all mankind, as if He Himself had been the transgressor; for “[God had] made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him” (II Corinthians 5:21). Thus “Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the Just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God” (I Peter 3:18). The Law condemns both sin and the sinner; and, apart from Christ and His vicarious atonement, God hates both sin and the sinner (Psalm 5:5). God declares according to His justice: “The soul that sinneth, it shall die!” (Ezekiel 18:4) and “The wages of sin is death!” (Romans 6:23). “Cursed is everyone that continueth not in all things which are written in the Book of the Law to do them!” (Galatians 3:10). Therefore the Prophet Isaiah says that the people who witnessed the Messiah’s suffering and death, as He was “numbered with [or counted as being one of] the transgressors” by the execution detail on Calvary’s hill who crucified Him between two malefactors, “did esteem [regard] Him stricken, smitten of God and afflicted” ((Isaiah 53::4). They, too, regarded the suffering “Christ, the King of the Jews,” to be guilty-as-charged and therefore receiving not only the punishment of the Roman state but the punishment of God Himself. And so it was; for the Savior cried out from His cross (in fulfillment of Psalm 22:1), “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me??” (Matthew 27:46). As our Substitute, Christ was guilty of the sins He had taken upon Himself and was bearing, in our place, vicariously, the full brunt of God’s fierce wrath against sin and against the sinner. Thus Peter writes in his first epistle, chapter 2, that “[Christ] His own self bare our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness, by whose stripes ye were healed.” (v. 24).
Therefore we Christians treasure, as a Scripture reading for Good Friday, the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah, as the “classical” prophecy of Christ’s vicarious atonement in His passive obedience, as “He was wounded for our transgressions; He was bruised for our iniquities. The chastisement of our peace was upon Him; and with His stripes we are healed. ¼The Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all. For the transgression of my people was He stricken. ¼He had done no violence, neither was any deceit in His mouth. Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise Him; He hath put Him to grief. ¼He shall see the travail of His soul and shall be satisfied; by His knowledge shall my righteous Servant justify many; for He shall bear their iniquities.” (Selected verses). And the Lord’s apostles remind us that this vicarious satisfaction of God’s justice was not just for Israel according to the flesh, but for us as well, and for all mankind: “Ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things as silver and gold¼, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a Lamb without blemish and without spot, who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world” (I Peter 1:18-20) to be “the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (I John 2:2). “For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. But God commendeth His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6-8).
“[Christ] was delivered for our offenses,” writes St. Paul in the title-text of our article. He fully kept the Law of God in our place, thereby earning righteousness for the unrighteous, to be imputed by God to all the world for Christ’s sake; and He bore both the guilt and the punishment of all men’s trespasses in their stead, as their Substitute, so that “there is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1), since God has been “propitiated” by the vicarious atonement, the vicarious satisfaction of His justice, rendered by His beloved Son, in whom He is well-pleased! (Matthew 17:5). Because Christ’s atonement was perfect and complete, “once for all” (Hebrews 10:10), and not merely a “down payment” of sorts which we must supplement by our own works of merit, God now looks upon us differently than His justice would require apart from Christ’s redemptive work, and He is able to be gracious and merciful unto us without transgressing His divine justice, “that we might receive the adoption of sons” (Galatians 4:5).
Since Christ has full atonement made
and brought to us salvation,
each Christian therefore may be glad
and build on this foundation:
Thy grace alone, dear Lord, I plead;
Thy death is now my life indeed,
for Thou hast paid my ransom!
(TLH 377, 6)
—D. T. M.