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Vicarious Substitutionary Atonement

  • October 2018 Issue
Theology Matters

Many critics of contemporary worship songs charge that they focus only on an emotional experience with Jesus, unlike an older generation of Christian hymns that seemed to talk about something else: the blood. But why would Christians sing about blood?

The Bible says much about blood, especially in connection with atonement. The New Testament’s theology of atonement is grounded in the Old Testament practice of animal sacrifices. The Law of Moses prescribed animal sacrifices as a sin offering (Ex. 29:36). The Hebrew word translated atone is linked to the idea of ransom. To atone is to ransom or redeem by offering a substitute. In the Old Testament sacrificial system, this ransom involved a blood sacrifice.

The book of Hebrews makes clear, however, that the sacrifices required by the Law of Moses were merely anticipatory. The author calls them “shadows of the good things to come” and explains that it is “impossible” for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin (Heb. 10:1, 4).

The Old Testament system was really a reminder of sin, intended to point forward to Jesus Christ. Jesus was sacrificed for our sins “once for all” when He offered Himself on the cross (Heb. 7:27). What Jesus offered in place of our sins was “his own blood” (Heb. 9:12). This means that the offering of Christ was not only substitutionary, it was also vicarious. In law, vicarious responsibility is the principle where one person is held accountable for the action of another.

Christ’s atoning work also speaks of a shared experience. (The practice of baptism is a picture of this.) Not only did Christ die on our behalf, but we also died and rose with Him (Rom. 6:8). This is one of the things the New Testament means when it describes believers as being “in Christ” (Rom. 6:11; 8:1; Eph. 2:6–7). Jesus took upon Himself the guilt and penalty that were ours. We were united with Him in His death and resurrection. The result is new life for all who are in Christ.

Jesus took upon Himself our guilt and punishment and in return gives us His righteousness and life.

To learn more about the doctrine of the atonement, read The Atonement: Its Meaning and Significance by Leon Morris (InterVarsity).

BY Dr. John Koessler, Chair and Professor of Pastoral Studies

Dr. John Koessler serves as chair and professor in the division of applied theology and church ministry at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois. He is married to Jane and has two sons, Drew and Jarred. John is the author of The Radical Pursuit of Rest (InterVarsity), The Surprising Grace of Disappointment (Moody) and True Discipleship (Moody). John has written several other books and articles and serves as a contributing editor for Today in the Word.

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