The Vicarious Death of Christ?? - 1

by Maurice Barnett

     The doctrine of the vicarious death of Jesus has become ingrained in most denominations and even among churches of Christ. But, popularity does not establish truth. The question is: Was the death of Christ a vicarious death? To understand the significance of that question, we must first know what the word means.

     Webster says vicarious means to take "the place of another person or thing; to act as a substitute." The Pope of the Catholic Church claims to be the Vicar of Christ on earth. Supposedly, the Pope takes the place of Christ on earth, hence he is said to be the Vicar of Christ. In our present investigation, the doctrine of vicarious death means that Jesus took our place in guilt and in punishment for sin, He took upon Himself the wrath of God against sin and took our place on the cross as a sacrifice for sin - He stood in our place. J. Oliver Buswell explains:

     "The most satisfactory single term for designating the scriptural doctrine of the atonement for our generation is, I believe, the word substitution. This term indicates that Christ died for our sins, in our place, as our substitute. The word, vicarious, strictly implies the substitutional view, but the latter term is less likely to be misunderstood. The moral order and the necessity for satisfying its demands, together with the necessity of penalty for the vindication of the moral order, all these considerations are assumed in the substitutionary view."

     He is correct in saying that the word substitution is more easily understood than the word vicarious. Please notice that he also says that the essential elements of the doctrine are assumed in the substitutionary view. That is a fatal admission but is also very true. With this doctrine, we are looking at a human philosophy rather than Bible truth.

     Substitution is also known as the "penal satisfaction theory." So, the theory is that Jesus took our place on the cross, died in our stead, suffered the guilt and punishment that rightly belongs to us, became a curse in our place; everything was done in our place as our substitute. This became the predominant theory among Protestant churches generally and we can pinpoint the origin of it.

     From the second to the eleventh centuries, religious leaders did little more than quote scripture and use Bible terms to express the sacrifice of Jesus. All of that changed in the eleventh century with Anselm.

     "Anselm was a godly Italian, who first settled in Normandy, and then in 1093 following the Norman Conquest was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. He has been described as the first representative of medieval ‘scholasticism,’ which was an attempt to reconcile philosophy and theology, Aristotelian logic and biblical revelation. Although he included in his writings a number of biblical quotations, however, and referred to Holy Scripture as ‘a firm foundation,’ his overriding concern was to be ‘agreeable to reason’ (ii.xi)." John R.W. Stott, The Cross of Christ, page 118.

     Though several of the conclusions of Anselm were later rejected, he set the tone for the Protestant Reformation with his approach of philosophy and logic instead of taking his position strictly from biblical evidence. Ever since, human philosophy has been as much a part of "modern theology" as scripture has been. This was incorporated in the Protestant Reformation and is why Wiley and Culbertson say about the substitution theory,

     "This is the theory generally held by the Reformed Churches, and is frequently known as the Calvinistic theory." Introduction To Christian Theology, page 228.

     This should immediately alarm us. Though the seeds of the theory existed long before, it was closely interwoven with Calvinism. William Newton Clarke explains it well:

     "Anselm, in the eleventh century, introduced the worthier idea that the ransom or satisfaction was paid by Christ not to Satan but to God. He argued that the enormity of sin required an infinite satisfaction to God if he was to release the sinner; that this satisfaction was due to God from man, and could be justly offered by no other; that nevertheless it could actually be rendered by no one inferior to God himself; and that for this reason God became man, in infinite mercy, in order to enable humanity, in the person of Christ, to satisfy him for its sins. This explanation proceeds upon the analogies of civil law, and views the satisfaction due to God as debt.

     At the Reformation, this doctrine was modified by the introduction of the analogies of criminal law. In this view, the satisfaction that was due to God consisted in punishment. It was now held that Christ actually took the place of sinners in the sight of God, and as their substitute suffered the punishment that was due to them, including, as many of the Reformers taught, the sufferings of hell. Upon him fell all the punishment of all the sins of all the men for whom he died; against them, therefore, penal justice could have no further claim." An Outline of Christian Theology, page 319.

     Though only Televangelists still maintain that Jesus descended into Hell at His death, the rest of the position formulated by Calvin remains at the heart of the Substitution theory. The theory of substitution is cross connected with the five points of Calvin, standing on the two legs of the imputation of our sins to Christ and the imputation of His righteousness to us. James Buchanan, an avowed Calvinist, explains this:

     "Socinians, and others, who deny the substitution of Christ in the room of the guilty, the imputation of their sins to Him, and the vicarious nature of His sufferings and obedience, as a satisfaction to the law and justice of God, are the only parties who can consistently reject the imputation of His righteousness as the ground of their pardon and acceptance; indeed, they must do so, for they sweep away the whole ground on which the doctrine of imputation is based. But those who admit these fundamental truths, cannot consistently refuse this unavoidable inference from this, that what he did, as their substitute and representative, was done for them; and that, to be available for their benefit, it must be, in some way, made over to them, or put down to their account. To this extent, they must all admit the fact of imputation. If they ascribe any efficacy to the work of Christ at all, considered as a vicarious work accomplished by Him on behalf of His people, which merited or procured anything for them, His merit must be reckoned to them, if they are to derive any real benefit from it." The Doctrine of Justification," page 329f.

     Thus, the doctrine is that our sins were literally transferred to Christ (our sins imputed to Him and He thus became guilty of our sin) and His righteous obedience is then applied to us, (righteousness imputed to us). However, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us is no more true than the imputation of our sins to Him. Even David Lipscomb could not escape some of this concept:

     "The flesh is weak, and the law of sin reigns in our members; so that we fall short of the perfect standard of divine righteousness; but if we trust God implicitly and faithfully endeavor to do his will, he knows our frame, knows our weakness, and as a father pities his children, so the Lord pities our infirmities and weaknesses, and imputes to us the righteousness of Jesus Christ. So Jesus stands as our justification and our righteousness, and our life is hid with Christ in God." A Commentary on the New Testament Epistles, volume IV, page 206.

     The modern theologians, Lewis and Demarest, explain what substitution means in their book. They first say:

     "The concept of substitution is essential to all of the biblical analogies - passover sacrifice, ransom, redemption, propitiation, victory over Satan, and reconciliation. In each aspect of what Christ did, sinners united to him by faith cannot do for themselves. The divine substitute fully provided for sinners’ liberation, forgiveness, and reconciliation. ‘So substitution is not a theory of the atonement. Nor is it even an additional image to take its place as an option alongside the others. It is rather the essence of each image and the heart of the atonement itself.’" Integrative Theology, page 403.

     Contrary to what these authors say, substitution is certainly a theory about the death of Christ and several notable authors admit that the terms used, vicarious, substitute, satisfaction, are "not scriptural," yet they insist the idea is there. Even the venerable Thomas Campbell, in the November, 1833, issue of the Millennial Harbinger, admits that the use of such terms is not speaking of "Bible subjects in Bible terms," pp. 549, 551, 553. Yet, Campbell insists that the Bible teaches the doctrine as "also do the old philosophical axioms verify this conclusion." He thus pinpoints the basis of the doctrine, human philosophy and not scripture. And, as with any erroneous doctrine, one must invent a new vocabulary with distinctive definitions in order to use it.

     Returning to the quotation above from Lewis and Demarest, the authors explain what is meant by "substitution" on page 402 of their book. They illustrate substitution by: (1) referring to the practice during our American Civil War that allowed one man to volunteer as a substitute for another who was drafted for military service. This was a strict one person substituted for another to fight in battle; the first man didn’t have to fight at all, nor serve even a moment in military service because his substitute did it in his place; (2) a young lady was arrested for possession of an unregistered gun. Her boyfriend convinced the judge to let him spend her sentence of three days in jail in her place; she was not forgiven her infraction of law but didn’t have to spend a moment of punishment for it because her substitute paid the price and suffered the guilt and punishment in her place; (3) a Catholic monk stepped in to take the place of a Polish sergeant in a WWII Nazi concentration camp and was executed "in his place;" (4) a "substitute" on a football team goes into the game in the place of another player; this "other" player sits on the sidelines and takes no part at all in the game becaue his substitute is in there doing it "for" him. These are their illustrations of what substitution means in regard to what Jesus did. Of course, they do not stick with such illustrations because they, and all others who take the substitution theory, know that such a one-for-one substitution cannot be sustained in regard to what Jesus did. On the very next page of their book, Lewis and Demarest admit that what Jesus did was not an equal, exact, substitute for all mankind; for example, Jesus experienced the same "kind" of punishment but not the same quantity or quality. But, I deny that it was even the same "kind" of punishment for sin as sinners will experience in Hell.

     In the sense of the substitution theory, if Jesus, when He died on the cross, removed God’s wrath against sin, satisfied divine justice, paid all our debt in our place, took our punishment for sin upon Himself, became guilty with our guilt, was cursed in our stead, then Jesus has already done it all in our place. It is just like the substitute soldier, the substitute football player, the boyfriend who went to jail in the place of his girlfriend and the priest who went to the firing squad in the place of another man. Why then should we be charged with anything if Jesus has already done it all? He removed our responsibility and accountability, and He did it nineteen centuries ago. If Jesus has already taken my punishment for my sins upon himself, then I don’t have to worry because my punishment was removed nineteen centuries ago. I cannot be held accountable to God for what I have done because my substitute has already taken that on Himself and removed any responsibility from me! The only conclusion that can be reached from the substitution position is universal salvation....or Calvinist limited atonement!

     Some will insist that they do not believe in either universal salvation or limited atonement but believe in substitution anyway. But, they don’t realize what they are saying. The Bible teaches that we must do something to have our sins removed, Mark 16:15-16, Acts 2:38. We are righteous even as He is righteous if we do righteousness, I John 3:7, and are acceptable with God if we work righteousness, Acts 10:34-35. We can escape the punishment of hell but must obey God to do so, Matthew 25:32-46. We must obey God in order to enter Heaven, Matthew 7:21-27. The very fact that we must do all these things in order to have our sins removed, be righteous and escape punishment for sin demonstrates that the substitution theory is human error and not truth. Some will also say they believe in the necessity of human obedience and substitution as well. Again, they don’t know what they are saying. Human obedience and the substitution theory are contradictions. This is why Calvinism virtually removes any such human effort from the process. Limited atonement, irresistible grace, and the impossibility of apostasy of Calvinism are the direct results of the substitution theory. Baptist doctrine demonstrates the same things; God provides the faith and grace, once saved you can’t be lost and the number is limited to those to whom God gives the grace. And why not, if Jesus has already done everything in our place? What is there for us to do?

     The facts are, Jesus provided the bridge between man and God, Hebrews 4:14-16, I Timothy 2:5-6; He opened the door to reunion with God, Hebrews 6:18:20. We must return to God for pardon and Jesus is the way by which we make that return, John 14:6. Jesus provided the means but was not our substitute. But, let’s note just a few of the major arguments used to establish substitution.

     A Substitute For Isaac: Genesis 22:12-13 says that God stopped Abraham from offering Isaac as a sacrifice, though God had ordered it, and a ram was offered up "in the stead" of Isaac. Substitution advocates thus claim that Isaac represents sinners, the altar represents the literal cross of Christ, and the ram that was offered represents Jesus. Thus, Jesus is our substitute as the ram was for Isaac. However, such a comparison is untrue. Let’s consider the facts.

     It was intended that Isaac be sacrificed on that altar to begin with; it was a specific directive by God concerning these specific individuals! In the place of sacrificing Isaac, the ram was substituted. But, instead of being an illustration and authority for the substitution theory, it is the opposite! The reason? It was never intended that mankind be offered on a cross, or any altar, as a sacrifice in order that Jesus could then be our "substitute." Jesus certainly didn’t take my place on the cross, nor your place, nor anyone’s.

     The Scapegoat: Leviticus 16:20-22 gives instruction for the "scapegoat." The priest laid both hands on the head of the live goat on the Day of Atonement and confessed all of the sins of Israel upon its head and then sent it away into the wilderness. The goat bore all their iniquities. (We will deal with the subject of "bearing" sins in another article). It is thus said that the sins and iniquities of Israel were laid on the goat on the Day of Atonement shows that the Atonement of Jesus was the same. Supposedly the sins of mankind were laid on (imputed to) Jesus, our substitute. However, the error of this should be clearly seen.

     First, Jesus is never likened to the scapegoat. The scriptural likeness with Jesus is found in the first goat, the one for Jehovah, the one whose blood was sprinkled in the Most Holy Place. This is what Jesus did as High Priest, offered His own blood in the heavenly holy place, Hebrews 9:1-14, 23-26. In keeping with this, it must be understood that there was no sacrifice for sin by just the death of Jesus on the cross. The offering of His blood before God was as necessary as His death. If Jesus had died only, had not been raised and completed the sacrifice, we would still be in our sins, I Corinthians 15:17, Hebrews 1:3.

     Second, the scapegoat appears in the scenario AFTER the offering for atonement in the tabernacle that furnishes the shadow of what Jesus did, Hebrews 9. If one should say that the scapegoat was also chosen to "make atonement" as was the other goat, keep in mind that when the poor offered fine flour for a sin-offering it was also referred to as atonement, Leviticus 5:11-13; no blood was shed in such "atonement." On the Day of Atonement, the scapegoat was not slain, its blood was not shed, so the scapegoat could not be a type of Christ, it could not have portrayed the death of Christ for our sins. Remember, Hebrews 9:22 says that "without shedding of blood there is no remission."

     Third, if the scapegoat enters the picture at all in the New Testament order, it would have to be AFTER Jesus ascended into heaven and completed His offering for sin. That means, Jesus could not have corresponded to the scapegoat while on the literal cross. The scapegoat was but a symbol of the removal of sins.

     Fourth, as we will see in an article to come, the literal sins of man were not literally placed on Jesus while He was on the literal cross. He did not "bear" our sins in that sense.

     The Firstborn Of Egypt: This supposedly teaches that a lamb was substituted for the firstborn of Israel when the death of the firstborn of the Egyptians occurred. Thomas Crawford insists that this is the meaning, The Doctrine of the Atonement, page 97, 501. Like the other arguments, this is highly imaginative but totally false. Though the word "sacrifice" is used in reference to the lamb, the purpose of such a sacrifice is not inherent in the word. An examination of the passages in which zebach and ghahg are used show the pertinent passages are talking about a feast made of the animal slain.

     The instructions about the Passover feast in Exodus gives the purpose of the observance. Some of the blood of the Passover lamb was placed on the door. But, for what purpose? As a substitute, in the sense of the substitution theory? No. This was no substitute for the sins of the Israelite firstborn, no penalty for sin was placed on the lamb that was slain, the lamb did not take the place of anyone. The curse pronounced on the Egyptians included the firstborn of all their animals as well. Exodus 11:5 says,

     "And all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sitteth upon his throne, even unto the firstborn of the maidservant that is behind the mill; and all the firstborn of beasts."

     The firstborn of all the animals of Israel were delivered just as were the firstborn of the Israelites themselves! Was the blood of the Passover lamb a "substitute" sacrifice for the "sins" of animals also? Merely to ask the question is to answer it. The blood on the doorway was for identification and thus protection, not some form of substitution. The Passover was a sacrifice in that it was a feast; indeed it is referred to as the feast of Passover, Exodus 34:25.

     To make a leap to Jesus’ being the Passover lamb is also faulty. There was no substitution involved in the Passover in Egypt, so no such connection can be made to begin with. Trying to connect I Corinthians 5:7-8 to this theory is to pervert the passage. Jesus is referred to as our passover who was sacrificed for us in that passage. These passages prove that the meaning of passover sacrifice is a "feast." But, these terms are used by Paul as figures, not literally. Just as Israel was to remove all leaven from the household at the time of Passover observance, so Christians are to remove all kinds of wickedness from their midst; in this instance it involved a wicked man who had to be removed from the congregation. The "feast" under discussion is neither the literal Jewish Passover nor the Lord’s Supper. It is the union, purity and communion together of the congregation.

     Jesus Became Sin: One of the most often referred to texts used as authority for substitution is II Corinthians 5:21. "Him who knew no sin he made to be sin on our behalf; that we might become the righteousness of God in him." The very worst "translation" of this passage is in Living Letters, the Paraphrased N.T. "For God took the sinless Christ and poured into Him our sins. Then, in exchange, he poured God’s goodness into us." That is classic Calvinism and clearly states the substitution theory, showing the cross connection between substitution, imputed sin and imputed righteousness. We will look at the preposition "for" in a future article so will not deal with it here.

     I first heard this position from a Baptist preacher when I had only been preaching about a year. He explained that it was at the moment that Jesus said "My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me" that the sins of the world were transferred to Jesus and God withdrew His presence from Jesus as He does with any sinner. That’s a fanciful theory, but none of it is true.

     The understanding of the passage turns on the word "sin" in the phrase, "made to be sin." Does it mean that Jesus actually became sin because all of the sins of humanity were literally laid on him so that all the wrath of God against sin was poured out on Him, that He was cursed of God thereby and the very punishment for sin was suffered by Him? Nonsense! In this passage, it means sin-sacrifice. Even a footnote in the ASV gives sin-sacrifice as the meaning, as do other translations.

     The word for "sin" even in the Old Testament may mean several things, including sin-offering. In Leviticus alone, it is rightly translated as sin-offering over 50 times. See Leviticus 6:25, 4:21, 25. Where sin-offering is found in these places, just the word "sin" is in the original text in both Hebrew and Greek Septuagint. This is also true regarding trespass and trespass-offering. Hebrews 10:8 says,

     " ...saying above, Sacrifices and offerings and whole burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin thou wouldst not, neither hadst pleasure therein..."

     The word "sacrifices" in the phrase "sacrifices for sin" is not in the Greek text, only the word for "sin" is there. Your Bible may have the word in italics to show this. The same is true in Hebrews 10:6 which is a quotation from Psalm 40:6. In the Psalm, the Septuagint also does not have the word "sacrifice" in the text. The word "sin" alone stands for "sacrifice for sin." Romans 8:2-3 says,

     "For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus made me free from the law of sin and of death. For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh."

     In the phrase, "and for sin," the word "sin" refers to sin sacrifice, which is identified as such in a footnote in the ASV. Other translations say the same. The passage is saying, "God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and by a sin sacrifice, condemned sin in the flesh." See Bauer’s Lexicon under peri, point i.g. page 644. The Jewish New Testament, translated by David Stern, translates II Corinthians 5:21 as,

     "God made this sinless man be a sin offering on our behalf, so that in union with him we might fully share in God’s righteousness."

     The animal for a sin-offering had to be absolutely pure, without a blemish, completely holy, all of which Jesus was. For Him to have become "sin" in the sense of disobedience to God, He would have become an unholy, blemished sacrifice. Jesus was the lamb slain without blemish and without spot, I Peter 1:18-19. The priests making an offering under the Law also had to be as holy and spotless as the sacrifice they offered. Just so, Jesus as High Priest was "holy, guileless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and made higher than the heaven ... when he offered up himself," Hebrews 7:26-27.

     I will leave Galatians 3:10-13 for article 3, dealing with the prepositions involved in these passages. There are other arguments bearing on this subject that will also be dealt with, either in the two articles to come or certainly in my soon to be released Volume 2 of The Scheme of Redemption on "Reconciliation."

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