Did Jesus Die Vicariously?
I came across brethren some thirty-plus years ago in Alabama who were teaching that Jesus did not die vicariously (viz., in our stead) on that cruel cross of Calvary some two thousand years ago. I have since heard this idea advocated by such in Texas, Kentucky, Florida, and Georgia. I basically thought it to be a novel opinion believed by only a few. This may still be the case, and I pray it is, but I recently was contacted by a young Christian in Texas who was stung by a swarm of preachers holding this position. Why is this happening? Because some, in their efforts to counter what they believe is the effects Calvinism has had on us, think it is necessary to deny Jesus' vicarious death, which they believe to be not just a figment of Calvin's fertile imagination, but a doctrine necessary to Calvinism itself.
However, in rejecting Calvinism, it is not necessary to reject the substitutional death that the Bible, in Isaiah 53 and other places, so clearly says Jesus suffered on our behalf. But this is precisely what these anti-vicarious-death-of-Jesus brethren believe. The following citations are taken from separate articles written by two different Christians. I'm not naming them, for it is not the who but the what that I wish to concentrate on in this article. The first quote says:
The second quote reads exactly like the first, with the exception of the final sentence, which says, "The only conclusion that can be reached from the substitution position is universal salvation....or Calvinist limited atonement!" (Italics are in the original-AT.) This second brother went on to say the following in the very next paragraph:
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, 1 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 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?
I wanted to include these quotes to let the reader know that I'm not constructing straw men here. It is not difficult to see that these two brothers reject the vicarious death of Jesus. That is, although they know He died in order to pay the price for our redemption, they nevertheless make it absolutely clear that they reject, as gross error, the idea that Jesus died in our stead. And they do so, once again, to refute the ol' bugaboo of Calvinism. Certainly, Calvinism needs to be rejected; but in doing so, one must not reject what the Bible clearly teaches on this or any other subject.
Rejecting The Either-Or Argument
Consequently, I categorically deny and unequivocally reject the premise that if one believes in the vicarious death of Jesus, one must either accept universalism or Calvinism, for such an either-or assumption is simply not a valid Scriptural point. The Bible teaches neither of these, and I reject them both.
Furthermore, I will trust what the Bible actually says rather than what these brethren are trying to tell me it says. As I've already indicated, I will argue, from Isaiah 53 and other passages, that Jesus did, in fact, die in our stead. And although both these aforementioned brothers castigate those who hold "the substitution theory" for coming under the influence of human reasoning and denominational think-sos, I believe it is their own thinking that reflects such enslavement.
For example, in Galatians 3:13, Paul wrote, "Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree')." Then, in 1 Peter 2:24, we are told that Jesus "bore our sins in His own body on the tree [i.e., the cross]." Do not these passages, when coupled with Isaiah 53, convey the idea that Jesus suffered and died in our stead? Why, then, must I, in order to be thought sound in the faith, believe that Jesus didn't die in my place?
Truth is, I don't, and the convoluted logic and attempted exegeses of these two brothers changes nothing. As I pointed out in my little book, The Christian & Idolatry, man seems to always get into trouble with the human analogies he tries to appropriate to God. God is not a man. Therefore, the limitations of our human analogies cannot apply across the board to Him. When we try to make them do so, we are engaged in what the Bible calls idolatry.
I am not a universalist; nor am I a Calvinist. I am, instead, a Christian who believes what God has said in His word about who and what He is, whether I can fully understand it or not. This is true even when I can't seem to find a human analogy that completely applies to Him. One must be very careful about such things, for God and His thoughts are infinite and, therefore, so far above us and how we think that it is just impossible for us to know everything about Him (see Isa. 55:8,9). Yes, there is plenty to know about God, but there is still plenty more that we simply do not, and cannot, know (see Rom. 11:33 and compare it with Job 26:14).
Partly Right, But Still Very Wrong
What do I mean by the above subtitle? Simply this: Yes, Jesus was the perfect-Lamb-without-blemish sacrifice offered up for us on the cross of Calvary, as the Scriptures clearly teach. Consequently, while it is perfectly acceptable for one to preach and teach that Jesus paid the price for our sins because He was the perfectly sinless blood sacrifice for our sins, serving as the means of our redemption, it is, nevertheless, important to understand that this imagery does not fully exhaust God's description of this sacrifice.
For instance, in 2 Corinthians 5:21, Paul said, "For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him." Now, the critics of the idea that Jesus died vicariously in our place have called "nonsense" the idea that this passage, along with others, is teaching that Jesus actually took upon Himself our sins, paying in full the price for our pardon by being "the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world" (1 Jn. 2:2).
Thus, I find it most disturbing that some Christians have taken to calling "nonsense" anything taught in God's word that they happen to disagree with, whether it is this issue or some other, like the controversy over the days of Creation, or the brouhaha that manifested itself a decade or so ago over the deity-humanity of Jesus.
For example, the idea that God actually created the Universe in something approaching 144 hours is considered by some among us to be silly or ridiculous, as it contradicts the "Science" of our day. Likewise, the idea that Jesus could have been 100% God and 100% man while here on this earth was clearly thought by some among us to be absolute "nonsense." But these ideas aren't silly or nonsensical at all. In fact, they represent accurately the six-day creation taught in the Scriptures and the fully God-fully man Jesus described in the New Testament. Consequently, I don't like it one bit when I hear Christians calling nonsense, silly, or ridiculous things I can clearly read about in the Bible.
But if there were anything inherent in the vicarious death concept I believe to be clearly taught in the Bible that demanded universalism or Calvinism, as some claim, then I would, no doubt, have some interest in the semantical gymnastics they go through to "prove" that it can't be true. But when one of these argues that a particular interpretation of a pertinent passage that appears to teach that Jesus died vicariously can't be interpreted that way because it has already been demonstrated that the doctrine isn't true, when he has, in fact, done no such thing, just makes me shake my head in disbelief that a brother in Christ would stoop to making such a statement—a statement that, ironically, is to be taken, ipse dixit, as an argument for why the doctrine isn't true.
Asking A Difficult Question
Those who take the above stated position are known to ask this supposed hard question: "To whom do you think the ransom price for our sins was paid?" If you say to God, which they wrongly think is the incorrect answer, they make reference to Anslem, Catholic saint and Archbishop of Canterbury, who, in the 11th century, was the first one to introduce the idea that the ransom or satisfaction was paid by Christ not to Satan, but to God. Then, we are quickly informed, the Reformers compounded Anselm's error by adding to it the idea that Jesus actually took the place of sinners in the sight of God and, as their substitute, suffered the punishment that was due them, including the sufferings of Hell. Upon Him, it is claimed these Reformers taught, fell all the punishment of all the sins of all the men for whom He died. Consequently, it was further argued that these Reformers believed that, because of Jesus' sacrifice, penal justice could have no further claim. As a result, the so-called Substitution Theory was 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.
To this I simply say, "So what!" What Anselm thought, or what the Reformers believed, is not really all that important to me, and I don't mean anything overtly disrespectful when I say this. What I believe about Jesus' vicarious death is based on what I can read in the Bible, not the philosophies and think-sos of men, be they Anselm, Luther, Calvin, Arminius, or even Thomas and Alexander Campbell. But what I can read in the Bible is very important to me, and I can read in the Bible much about Jesus' vicarious death.
"But That's Not Even In The Bible," They Argue
Someone retorts: "But vicarious isn't even in the Bible. Why then are you trying to defend it?" But, the fact that the actual word isn't used in the Scriptures doesn't mean the concept or idea is not taught there. For instance, where is the term "triune nature" found in the Bible? It isn't, but this does not mean that the idea isn't taught within its pages, and most Bible students acknowledge this. But to charge me, or anyone else, with bowing down to the dictates of the First Council of Nicaea because I believe in the triune nature of God is preposterous. Why, then, should brethren, who accuse me of believing and teaching something that is false because the word I'm using to identify it isn't found in the Bible, expect my opinion of them to remain intact when they resort to such tactics?
If I didn't have any other teaching but Isaiah 53, I would still believe Jesus was the divinely ordained sin-bearer. I would still believe that the iniquity of us all was, in fact, laid upon Him by the Father. I would still believe that He was wounded for our transgressions because God loved us that much. And finally, I would still believe that Jesus bore the sins of us all because God ordained it. However, when one adds to this the many passages that teach this very same idea, then I think I have every reason to believe in the vicarious death of Jesus, namely, that He died in my stead, paying the price that was owed for my sins, and not mine only, but for the sins of the whole world (see again 1 Jn. 2:2).
This brings us full circle to this idea of Jesus being the "propitiation for our sins," and how it is in this truth that we are so confident of our salvation—not just now, but in the future, as well.
At Issue Is What The Bible, Not Calvinism, Teaches
As I've tried to demonstrate through this whole study of the errors of Calvinism, the main difference between Calvinism, a man-made doctrine, and the Bible, a divinely inspired revelation, is the idea that Calvinists believe that all the works of God in connection with our salvation are unconditional. Such thinking is required by their concept of God's sovereignty—a concept not taught in the Bible. But when this erroneous concept is then joined with the equally erroneous idea that man, since the fall of Adam, is born totally depraved and is, therefore, not only unwilling to do God's will in such a state, but is actually unable to do so, then the false idea that God can't predestinate a person to be saved based on His foreknowledge of whether or not that person will meet certain divinely imposed conditions is the inevitable result. This, in turn, provides all the main ingredients that form the base of genuine five-point Calvinism (TULIP).
In critiquing such an unscriptural idea, I have, at times, called it a "do-nothing religion," only to be met with screams and howls from Calvinists claiming this is a totally false caricature of their religion (see “Dialogue With A DO NOTHING Religionist” at www.allanturner.com/dialogue8.html). However, if man does not have free will, and there are no genuine five-point Calvinists who have ever thought he does, and if, as has been amply pointed out, Calvinists believe that everything that has to do with man's salvation must be done by God, then Calvinism, from man's standpoint, may be properly classified as a do-nothing religion. Now, in saying this, I am not describing those who call themselves three- or four-point Calvinists, which are not really Calvinists at all, but Arminians. But, because the Augustinians/Calvinists have already decided that Arminianism is heresy, three- and four-pointers would never think of calling themselves Arminians.
So, there must be no doubt that five-point Calvinism, from man's standpoint, is a do-nothing religion, as God does it all, even to the point of selecting (viz., choosing/electing/predestinating) certain ones to obey His Son by operating upon them with His so-called "irresistible grace." This irresistible grace causes them to be born again, or renewed spiritually, so that they, in turn, are able to then do what it is that God requires of them. Consequently, there are absolutely no conditions to being saved, for if there were, Calvinists inform us, then man would be earning his salvation by works, not grace. Although this accurately depicts Calvinism, it does not describe New Testament Christianity at all.
What The Bible Actually Says
The Bible teaches that God decided to create us with Free Will, man's free moral agency. Because He has foreknowledge, He knew His free will creatures were going to fall into sin and be in need of a Savior. Making the decision to redeem them, which was certainly not something He was obligated to do, He determined to send the Logos (or the divine Word) into this world as a man (viz., Jesus of Nazareth) to live and die so that mankind, in spite of its sinfulness, could be saved by faith in the only begotten Son of the Father.
Consequently, it was foreordained by God, the Father, before the very foundation of the world (i.e., before He created man) that Jesus would shed His blood at a particular time in the space-time continuum (see 1 Pet. 1:19-20). Referring to this, the apostle Paul said, "when the fullness of the time had come" (Gal. 4:4).
The fact that God could foreknow, before He ever created them, that all His free will creatures would fall into sin and be in need of a Savior and that, in spite of this, He chose to go ahead and create them anyway, does not impugn the character of God, as some Christians seem to think. But why do they think so? Because, I think, they have inculcated Calvinistic think-sos and arguments. Now, I'm not saying they are Calvinists, mind you; only that they have been willing to let the Calvinists define the terms and set the parameters of the debate.
For example, the Calvinistic idea that there is somehow some sort of friction between God's foreknowledge and man's free will is not taught in the Scriptures. But because some brethren have believed the Calvinists were right about this, they have felt the necessity to defend man's free will by sacrificing God's foreknowledge. Such was a major error for the Calvinists and it is a major error for New Testament Christians, as well.
Even so, because of God's foreknowledge of the fact that man would sin and that this would, in turn, require Him to send His Son to pay the price for those sins, and that this would be accomplished by man kissing (viz., worshiping) His Son (see Psa. 2:12 for this concept of kissing the Son and how the idea is tied to worshipful obedience), and that this would be achieved, on man's part, by exercising faith in Jesus as Lord and, ultimately, as Savior (stay with me here), He was able, in eternity, to do something—namely, to predestine not just the plan whereby He would redeem fallen man, but exactly who those individuals were who, when given the opportunity, would be willing, of their own free wills, to obey (or "kiss") His Son, doing so by rendering obedience to the gospel plan. (I know this is a very long sentence, but it is necessary to understanding this issue. So, if you didn't quite understand it the first or second time around, then please make the effort to do so before proceeding any further.)
Now, if God had not been willing to do this, and this even before the foundation of the world, then mankind was going to be lost. Therefore, if man is saved at all, he is saved by grace. But as we shall see, this salvation was not to be by grace alone. It was, and this is extremely important, to be by grace through faith. But for now, let's continue with the logical inferences and ramifications of the working in tandem of God's "determined counsel and foreknowledge" (Acts 2:23).
Thus, those individuals who God "chose...in Him [Jesus Christ] before the foundation of the world" were "predestined" by Him "to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ,...according to the good pleasure of His will" (Eph. 1:4,5). That this was, even before creation, a done deal in the mind of God is once again confirmed and made quite clear by Romans 8:29-30, which says:
Furthermore, that the end result of this whole process is that these foreknown individuals (i.e., "the elect") would one day be glorified in Heaven cannot, according to this passage, be Scripturally denied, although I am sorry to say that I have known Christians who have tried to do so, arguing that the glorification mentioned here is only that which takes place on earth when an individual obeys the gospel. Now, I do not deny that our calling and justification is the beginning of this process, but glorification cannot be fully realized unless and until we obtain our glorified bodies. It is only then that we will fully and completely be conformed to the image of God's Son—a Son who is now glorified in heaven and, as such, is "the beginning, the firstborn from the dead" (Col. 1:18), and all this that He might be able to bring "many sons to glory" (Heb. 2:10).
That New Testament Christians could ever think of denying an idea that is so clearly taught in God's word demonstrates, once again, just how much Calvinistic thinking has influenced their thinking. Again, not that they are Calvinists, only that they are willing to deny (i.e., to explain away, if you will) the clear teaching of the Bible concerning the actual contents of God's foreknowledge, thinking that if God actually knew before the foundation of the world who it was that was going to be saved in Heaven, then the future would somehow be fixed in a way that would nullify man's free will.
However, the future is not "fixed" because God's foreknowledge has caused it to be that way. It is "fixed" only because this is the way free will creatures will respond to various circumstances and situations, and God, because HE IS WHO HE IS, simply foreknows what those contingent, free will choices will be. There is nothing inherently causative about such knowledge.
But still suffering from the ol' Calvinistic bugaboo, someone says that if what I have written above is true, then this means that Jesus must have died just for the sins of the elect (that is to say, a limited few) and not for the sins of the whole world. But this simply isn't true. Although the elect were certainly foreknown by God even before He created the world, Jesus was not predestined to die only for the elect, as the Calvinists teach. No, no, no, a thousand times, no! Jesus, the Scriptures unequivocally teach, died for all mankind, not just a select few, and this, too, was a fact known by God before the foundation of the world (see 1 Pet. 1:20).
This means that before He actually created this particular world, God knew that only a few, relatively speaking, would be saved, and that the rest would be lost, spending an eternity, therefore, in a Devil's hell. Consequently, it is argued by some that if this is, in fact, the case (and it has been demonstrated that this is exactly what the Bible teaches), then how could a loving, merciful God think that the few who would be saved were worth the many who would be lost? This is an important point. Therefore, it behooves us to understand what we can about this perplexing subject.
Trying To Think It Through By Faith
As we try to think this out, even though we are limited by our puny, finite minds, we can theorize there must have been a multitude of different worlds that God, with His infinite knowledge (which included foreknowledge), could have created, all with a multitude of different outcomes. Why He chose this particular world, then, along with its particular results, is something completely known only by God. But, and this is now a foregone conclusion, He did decide to create this particular world with its particular outcome. Thus, before creating this world and knowing that many, many souls would be lost for an eternity as the result of His doing so, God did, in fact, choose to create this world: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Gen. 1:1).
It is just here, at the very first verse of the Bible, that saving faith begins, for faith, we are told in Romans 10:17 (and this is the saving faith we're talking about), "comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of God." In Hebrews 11:3, after being informed in verse 1 that "faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen," we are told: "By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible."
From this beginning verse—verse by verse, chapter by chapter, book by book—those of us who have been called by the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ (see 2 Thess. 2:14) have learned to trust in and rely upon our Creator, who is, no doubt, our Ruler, but who is, as well, our glorious Redeemer, and praise God for it.
And it is just here, at the very beginning of saving faith, that we begin to get some idea why God determined that the remnant of His creation that would be saved and spend an eternity with Him in heaven was worth His creating this particular world. This will become more evident as we continue this study.
Thus, by the time we get to the pages of the New Testament, we are absolutely overjoyed to discover that the great scheme of redemption that was fully hidden in the mind of God before the foundation of the world has now been revealed to us, actualized in the fullness of time in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, who was Messiah, the Christ (consider what is said in Ephesians 3:5, coupled with the many other passages that tell us who Jesus was and what He came to accomplish). Oh, what magnificent grace and mercy! Oh, what wonderful, wonderful love!
The Calvinists are always arguing that if man is amenable to the gospel and is actually called upon to do anything in order to be saved, then salvation is by works instead of faith alone. However, as we've already learned, the Bible does not teach salvation by faith alone. Nevertheless, it does teach that if man is going to be saved, it will have to be "by grace...through faith" (Eph. 2:8). So, it is to this much misunderstood concept that we must now turn our attention.
Saved By Grace Through Faith
Man does not have to sin; but he does. In fact, all have, or will, sin (see Rom. 3:23). But the only way, under law, that a man can be saved is by perfect law-keeping, which no mere man has ever done. Therefore, if man is going to be saved, it will have to be because of God's grace. This grace, or unmerited favor, has been extended to us through His sending of His only begotten Son into this world to do what we had failed to do—namely, to perfectly keep, and thus fulfill, the law. Having done so, it could be set aside, or done away with, so that a new covenant, with better promises, could be instituted for man's salvation (see Heb. 8:6; 12:24).
So, it is theoretically possible for one to keep the law perfectly and go to Heaven. But because the rules under such a system require that all the law be kept all one's life, and because all mankind miserably failed in this, except Jesus of Nazareth, all mankind was in need of redemption. God was not obligated to redeem mankind, but He wanted to. Thus, He designed a plan (viz., the grand and glorious Scheme of Redemption) whereby mankind could be redeemed.
Now, contrary to popular belief, God could not have saved man just any ol' way (see Rom. 3:21-26). Redemption, if such was going to be implemented, would have to satisfy God's justice, and God's justice requires that any violation of law be punished. Jesus Christ, then, became the propitiation (or satisfaction) of such justice, which required that the only man who ever lived perfectly under law (thus qualifying as the spotless sacrifice, or propitiation, for the sins of all mankind) would pay the penalty for everyone else (see 2 Cor. 5:14,15). Thus, and as was pointed out in chapter 8, the only man who deserved glorification in Heaven, and this because He kept the law perfectly, suffered the penalty and, in so doing, became the propitiation for the sins of us all.
We must remember, then, that grace—and this is because it is grace—isn't fair. I know that sounds strange, but if you want fair, you must relate to God through a system of perfect law-keeping. Keep the law and you do not fall into condemnation; break the law and you become guilty of all, deserving the penalty that is due law-breaking. This is fair. But under such a system, all mankind, except for Jesus, sinned and, as a result, deserved the penalty. Nevertheless, because He loved us so much, God sent His only begotten Son into this world to effect our salvation through our willingness to accept His Son as our Lord and Savior. This brings us full circle, then. Why? Well, "If God is for us, who can be against us?" (Romans 8:31). And because God is for us, He did not spare His own Son, sacrificing Him for us:
It is clear, then, that God, in connection with His Son, has given us "all things." This means there is nothing lacking in connection with our redemption and continued salvation—not one single, solitary thing! Now, because God was able to justify us in connection with the sacrifice of His only begotten Son on the cross, who vicariously paid the price for our sins, no one can now bring a charge against His elect and make it stick. As has already been noted, this is absolutely fantastic. Thus, nothing is "able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 8:39).
What all this means, once again, is that God is truly "for us." It needs to be understood that the vicarious death of Jesus on the cross is the consistent and incontroversial testimony of Scripture. Therefore, anyone who purports that the doctrine of Jesus' vicarious death is not taught in the Bible must start with dismantling Isaiah 53. I have studied with several who have done just this. By the time they get through reinterpreting the chapter, it no longer means what it clearly says on the surface. This is most disturbing and causes me to reflect on the integrity of those who would reinvent a chapter to support their preconceived doctrine. Furthermore, the fact that Jesus on the cross (i.e., in His suffering and death) was the propitiation for our sins has been either ignored or totally misunderstood by these people. The NIV translation of Isaiah 53:8,11-12 says, "For the trangression of my people he was stricken.... By his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.... For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors." In referring to this prophecy, Peter wrote, "He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness, for by His wounds you were healed" (1 Pet. 2:24). And in Galatians 3:13, Paul makes it clear that Jesus' death was both vicarious (i.e., substitutionary) and forensic (i.e., satisfying adjudicative justice). Thus, it was quite appropriate for the Messiah's work as the sin-bearer to be compared with the OT's sacrificial lamb as in John 1:29, which says, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" But to view Jesus' work only through this latter view is to fail to understand the how of His work, for He actually bore our sins in His body on the cross, and this speaks in terms of His suffering and dying in our stead. It is only this kind of suffering and death that addresses the idea of propitiation, an idea these Jesus-didn't-die-vicariously brethren fail to fully comprehend.