During the first decade of the twenty-first century, a number of prominent leaders in the emerging church movement asserted that the doctrine of substitutionary atonement is tantamount to “cosmic child abuse.” At a time when men and women were finally starting to see the need to condemn every form of abuse that had been tolerated in our culture, the allegation seemed to be a powerful argument with which to drive people away from the longstanding teaching of the Christian church on the sufferings of Christ. The question of the atonement is not, however, settled by aspersions cast by contemporary theologians but by biblical exegesis and theological coherence.
While Jesus frequently taught His disciples about the certainty and necessity of His death on the cross (Matt. 16:21; Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22; 17:25; 22:22), He only explicitly tied those aspects of His death on the cross to its meaning on three occasions—in Mark 10:45, in the Good Shepherd discourse (John 10), and at the institution of the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:19–20). In these places, Jesus taught the substitutionary nature of His death for the forgiveness of the sins of His people.
When we move from the Gospels to the Epistles, an explicit articulation of the substitutionary nature of the death of Christ appears. When one considers the many instances in which the Apostles explain the death of Christ, it is incontrovertible that the doctrine of substitutionary atonement is the Apostolic doctrine of the atonement. In what is perhaps the clearest exposition of the death of Christ, the Apostle Paul teaches the vicarious sacrifice of the Savior when he declares, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). Likewise, the Apostle Peter explained that Jesus “himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24).
Behind the Apostolic interpretation of the death of the Savior is the Old Testament teaching on the atonement. The prophet Isaiah, in speaking of the Suffering Servant, foretold of the sufferings that Jesus would undergo in the place of His people: “He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (Isa. 53:5). All of Israel’s prophets alluded to the substitutionary nature of the work of the Redeemer when they spoke of the work of redemption. This, of course, also has its foundation in the nature of Old Testament sacrifice.
In his Reformed Dogmatics, Herman Bavinck explains the significance of the old covenant sacrificial system for seeking to understand the sacrifice of Christ:
The New Testament views Christ’s death as a sacrifice and the fulfillment of the Old Testament sacrificial cult. He is the true covenant sacrifice; just as the old covenant was confirmed by the covenant sacrifice (Ex. 24:3–11), so the blood of Christ is the blood of the new covenant (Matt. 26:28; Mark 14:24; Heb. 9:13f.). Christ is a sacrifice (θυσια, זֶבַח), the sacrificial victim for our sins (Eph. 5:2; Heb. 9:26; 10:12), an offering (προσφορα, δωρον; מִנְחָה קָרְבָּן; Eph. 5:2; Heb. 10:10, 14, 18); a ransom (λυτρον, ἀντιλυτρον; Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45; 1 Tim. 2:6) and therefore denoting the price of release, a ransom to purchase someone’s freedom from prison, and hence a means of atonement, a sacrifice by which to cover other people’s sin and so to save them from death. He is a payment (τιμη, 1 Cor. 6:20; 7:23; 1 Peter 1:18–19), the price paid for the purchase of someone’s freedom; a sin offering that was made to be sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 John 2:2; 4:10); the paschal lamb that was slain for us (John 19:36; 1 Cor. 5:7), the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and is slain to that end (John 1:29, 36; Acts 8:32; 1 Peter 1:19; Rev. 5:6; etc.). He is an expiation (ἱλαστηριον, Rom. 3:25), a sacrifice of atonement (θυμα), a curse (καταρα, Gal. 3:13) who took over from us the curse of the law, like the serpent in the wilderness lifted high on the cross (John 3:14; 8:28; 12:33) and like a grain of wheat dying in the earth in order thus to bear much fruit (John 12:24).