What is the meaning of substitutionary atonement?
We are all familiar with substitutes. Teachers substitute for others who are ill. Athletes substitute when others are injured or fatigued or just not playing well. A substitute is one who takes the place of another. There is a terrible death sentence hanging over the head of every human being. The phrase "substitutionary atonement" means that Jesus Christ died in the place of sinners as our substitute so that that death sentence could be nullified. Since all men are in sin (Romans 3:9-18, 23), we deserve death because "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23). Thankfully, "the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." Any person who believes that Jesus (who is God) is able and willing to take that person's death sentence upon Himself, will live with Him for eternity.
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Romans 6:23 teaches us two things. First, it tells us that without Christ's substitutionary atonement, there is no doubt that we are doomed. In the Bible, death refers to separation. When a body dies, the soul is separated from the body. This is the physical death that we all experience. When a person dies without Jesus, his soul is separated from God (spiritual death). Spiritual death will result in eternity in hell, from which there is no escape. The second lesson contained in this verse is that eternal life is available through Jesus Christ to those who believe.
Here is how the substitute works. Jesus Christ is God (John 1:1-18) and is therefore an infinite being. We are finite, created beings. Since the sins we commit are against an infinite being (God), the punishment must also be infinite. There are two ways for this punishment to be carried out. Either an infinite being must die once to pay for sins (the cross), or finite beings must to pay for their sins infinitely (hell). Jesus lovingly offered Himself up and died in our place when He was crucified on the cross. This was an infinite Being making a one-time payment for sins that satisfied God's requirement (Hebrews 10:10, 14). When this happened, "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 Corinthians 5:21). This atonement is spoken of again, in 1 Peter 3:18, "For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit."
The Old Testament also contains prophecies that speak of this substitutionary atonement, and about the coming Messiah who would die to bring us peace. The prophecies contained in the Old Testament detail each aspect of His death, earthly life, and resurrection. In Isaiah 53:5 we find the atonement outlined very clearly: "But 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."
Sadly, many people still refuse to believe and will pay the price of their own sin in hell for all eternity. But we know that God's own Son, Jesus Christ, came to earth to pay for the sins of all who believe. There is no more important choice. Hebrews 3:15 says "Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts…" Right now—while you live and the substitutionary atonement is available to you—is the time to repent of sin and believe in His love.
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