Vicarious Atonement

This article is excerpted from an article entitled “Substitutionary Atonement”, used courtesty of CARM, The Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.


    The word “vicarious” means substitute. Therefore, Christ was a substitute for others in that he took their place and suffered their punishment. It was also a legal act whereby Christ fulfilled the law and lawfully paid the penalty of sin.

    Is it biblical to say that Christ took our place and suffered our punishment? Yes it is. First of all, we see vicarious sacrifice in the Old Testament.

    Genesis 22:13, “Then Abraham raised his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the place of his son.”

    Notice that the ram was offered in place of Isaac. This was a substitutionary sacrifice which is exactly what “vicarious” means. Further we see a prophecy of the atoning work of Christ in Isaiah. Notice the substitutionary language.

    Isaiah 53:4-5, “Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried; yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. 5 But He was pierced through for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities. The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him and by His scourging we are healed.

    We see in the above verses in Isaiah that Jesus was prophesied to bear our sorrows, to be smitten of God (which is what is due us, the sinners), and that our chastening fell upon him. Can it be any clearer? What was due to us, because of our sinfulness, is what fell upon Christ. He was our substitution.

    • 2 Cor. 5:21, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”
    • Rom. 4:5, “He who was delivered up because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification.”

    Clearly, Jesus was a substitution in that he was made sin on our behalf. Just as the RAM was offered and substitute for Isaac, Christ was offered in substitution for us. This is why the Bible says he became sin on our behalf, That he was delivered because of our transgressions, that he bore our griefs, carried our sorrows, was pierced for our transgressions, and was crushed for our iniquities.
    Jesus did what we could not. He took our place and bore our sins in his body on the cross (1 Pet. 2:24) and made propitiation for our sins.

    • Rom. 3:25, “whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed.”
    • 1 John 2:2,and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.
    • 1 John 4:10, In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

    The word propitiation “properly signifies the removal of wrath by the offering of a gift.”1 Propitiation properly deals with the wrath of God. The wrath of God is due to the legal requirements of punishing the sinner. Remember, the sinner is someone who has broken the law of God; hence, the legality of punishment and since Jesus is our propitiation and turns away the lawful wrath of God, we have further evidence that Christ’s sacrifice was to avert God’s righteous wrath against odds, the sinners. Since the law of God must be met and cannot be ignored, is proper that the law be fulfilled. Jesus is the one who fulfilled the law and never sinned (1 Pet. 2:22). But, he bore our sins in his body on the cross (1 Pet. 2:24) and became sin on our behalf (2 Cor. 5:21) thereby suffering the penalty of sin, which is death.

    Christ’s death was a legal payment

    In addition to Christ’s atonement being a vicarious, it was also legal. Legality deals with the law. Sin is breaking the law of God. When a law is broken, a punishment is incurred. There is no punishment without law and there is no law without punishment. When a person is sentenced to time in prison, this is done based upon the requirements of the law. Likewise, the sentence upon the one who breaks the law of God, is death.

    2 Cor. 1:9, “indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves in order that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead.”

    Paul tells us that we had a “sentence of death.” This sentence is due to our breaking the law of God. Therefore, we were legally guilty before God because we broke his law. Furthermore, when Jesus was on the cross he said “It is finished,” (John 19:30). In Greek it is, “tetelistai” and it was a legal term.

    “The sixth word or saying that Jesus spoke from the cross was the single Greek work tetelestai which means ‘It is finished.Papyri receipts for taxes have been recovered with the word tetelestai written across them, meaning “paid in full.” This word on Jesus’ lips was significant. When He said, “It is finished” (not “I am finished”), He meant His redemptive work was completed. He had been made sin for people (2 Cor. 5:21) and had suffered the penalty of God’s justice which sin deserved.”

    Jesus knew the culture and he specifically used that word “tetelestai” which was used in legal statements in ancient Israel when a legal debt had been fully paid. Why was this necessary legally? Because sin only has power because of the law (legality) of God. The law has a punishment and the punishment is death.

    • 1 Cor. 15:56, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.”
    • Rom. 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

    The whole atoning work of Christ was a legal action where Jesus substituted himself for sinners and paid the legal requirement of the punishment of sin, death. This is what the scriptures teach and this is the position of CARM.

    The New Bible Dictionary, (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.) 1962.
    2. Walvoord, John F., and Zuck, Roy B., The Bible Knowledge Commentary, (Wheaton, Illinois: Scripture Press Publications, Inc.) 1983, 1985.


    2 thoughts on “Vicarious Atonement

    1. Hmmm. The Bible says the ‘wages of sin is death’ in context of Paul contrasting SOME details concerning both Adam and Christ. However, the Bible does not say the PUNISHMENT of sin is death. So Paul was saying that the wages of ADAM’s sin was our death. I think you do not clearly see that there are both natural AND governmental consequences of sin. The governmental consequences are eternal torments. Confusing wages with punishment is close to watchtower theology because JWs don’t like discussing the afterlife and they major on physical death as PUNISHMENT only.
      I think the term ‘vicarious atonement’ is like the term ‘audible sound’ or ‘free gift’. By nature, an atonement is a substitute for punishment. The Bible says that Christ suffered for sinners, but I don’t see that it says that Christ suffered INSTEAD of sinners. Justice doesn’t need to be satisfied if something else can effectively serve the same purpose for which punishments were designed. But I don’t think that Jesus died on our behalf to satisfy justice anyways. I think he died on our behalf in order to heal the broken relationship between man and God, and if this could be effected through his death, then the satisfaction of justice is not necessary. Some people think that God is not too concerned about who gets punished as long as he gets his satisfaction by punishing, or the books get balanced. I think such a view robs God of his loveableness and presents him as a celestial child abuser. That’s my take on it.

    2. If Jesus crucifixion would not have resulted in the death of a man by bloodshed these various doctrines related to the theory of substitutionary atonement might have half a chance to fly. For there is no case of any man’s life taken by bloodshed which does not result in the incriminating responsibility to account to God. But the crucifixion of Jesus is the only case of a man’s life taken by bloodshed that has resulted in the incrimination of each man by a change to the law to make all men accountable directly to God in regard to the sin of taking this man’s life by bloodshed. Therefore no man can be forgiven of all sins by not confessing directly to God that he is sorry Jesus was crucified. For it is a violation of the law by the change made to it not to account to God for Jesus’ crucifixion as a sin.
      “For it is not those who hear the law, Repent, that are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law, Repent, who will be declared righteous.”

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