Thursday, 13 April 2017

The Cross: Substitution or identification?

This post is an adaption from a portion of a chapter on baptism in my new book. Like much that is discussed therein, I have tried to ask different questions surrounding the fall, Christ’s death, resurrection and the gospel in order to gain new insights into what they are all about. For today (Good Friday), I would like to discuss the death and resurrection of Christ not from a substitutionary perspective but rather by using the language of identification.  This is not necessarily an objection or challenge against the answers and the conclusions we have reached in the past, but rather I feel that in approaching things from a new perspective we stand to benefit from fresh insights related to Christ’s sacrifice.

Now the typical presentation that we have of the atonement presents Christ as our substitute, the Lamb of God who dies a substitutionary death on behalf of mankind. This theology presents Jesus as the one who knew no sin who became sin for us and suffered a penalty on our behalf that we might escape its consequences. There is certainly an idea within Scripture of Jesus dying as a substitute. I do believe that there is some truth and merit in this way of thinking. Nevertheless, I believe that the substitutionary framework we have wrapped the cross in is insufficient when speaking of Christ’s death.  Because when one really starts to think things through we quickly run into problems with this kind of language.

Consider what the ‘instead of’ language does to the message of the cross. The common perception is that Jesus, the innocent Lamb who knew no sin became sin for us and we in turn received the righteousness of Christ. This I believe is good and true but I do not believe it accurately fits inside the substitution box. If it did then what penalty did Christ suffer in our stead? We know that He died on the cross and was raised back to life three days later; the innocent for the guilty. But did Christ die physically that we might escape death in this life? Or did He suffer eternal conscious torment in hell or annihilation so that we don’t have to? The answer to all of those questions is no and this presents a major problem with our substitutionary lenses that we read the Bible with because most people have the idea that Jesus died so that we don’t have to and that righteousness is ‘imputed’ on us but never really a part of who we are.

In reality, even though Jesus died for us, we still have to die as well, and even though He suffered for us, it was not some sort of ‘an eye for an eye’ legal exchange that was happening. There is simply no satisfying answer from those who teach that sinners must be tortured in hell for eternity but Christ could absorb that exact punishment in a few hours on the cross. If you believe in the eternal conscious torment of the unredeemed, think for a moment about the total number of people who have ever lived and multiply that number by the hours those people would spend in hell. The sum is impossible to do and nonsensical even to attempt for what number can be multiplied with infinity? So rather than speaking of Christ as a substitution I believe the word identification to be more accurate when we are discussing the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and this is why.

Christ identifies with man

How does a lifeguard save a drowning man unless he himself gets a little wet? Imagine for a minute a little boy who has a terminal illness, his body is simply not strong enough to fight off the disease which is killing him. But consider for a moment, what if his father’s body was strong enough to absorb and fight off the disease? Imagine that they could do a transfusion where some of the child’s blood could be put into the father’s body where a resistance could be built up against the disease and then somehow this blood could be given back to the child who could now fight the disease off. Medically speaking I am not sure if this makes sense or not (although I believe anti venoms for snake bites are made using this sort of concept) but the illustration bears some resemblance to what I believe God did in Christ for us. Consider what Hebrews 2:14 says:-

Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil.

Notice that there is more than simply a substitution going on here. Hebrews 2:14 says that Christ shared in the same. He identifies with man by entering into our story as one of us. We who were powerless to save ourselves from death and from the devil, the one who had the power of death, have now been rescued through HIS death and resurrection. We who were powerless to resist sin have by grace been rescued by the one who knew no sin yet identified Himself with our sins. We who were condemned and under a curse have now been redeemed by the One who became a curse for us. We who were poor have been made rich by the one who took on poverty for us. How does God save man? By becoming one Himself and doing what we could not in conquering the disease that had stricken us.

Man’s identity in Christ

Here I believe is where substitutionary language really begins to fall short because we are not born into the family of God through substitution but through identification. Christ did not die so that you don’t have to. No, Christ identified Himself with us by getting down in the muck with us and walking with and dragging us out of it hand in hand.

I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved and gave Himself for me. – Galatians 2:20.  

For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. – Colossians 3:3.

Notice the language in all of these Scriptures is that of togetherness rather than one in place of the other. Substitution language says ‘BECAUSE of Christ’ but identification says ‘IN Christ’. The difference is subtle but it can be the difference between having a religious and intellectual understanding of what Jesus has done for us versus the power of His indwelling life within us.

But God, who in His rich mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.
 – Ephesians 2:4 - 6.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; and behold, all things have become new. – 2 Corinthians 5:17.

But he who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him. – 1 Corinthians 6:17.

This list could go on and on, there are more than two hundred places in the New Testament which make use of language that says something along the lines of ‘in Christ’, ‘in Him’ or ‘with Christ’. The reason should be obvious by now that the cross was not merely the divine pardon but the glorious union between God and man in Jesus Christ. We do not overcome death by avoiding it; we overcome it by being raised up through it unto everlasting life in Christ. Herein is our advantage, when this sick, terminal man puts on Christ and clothes himself with immortality, death is swallowed up in victory.

 O Death where is your sting?
O Hades, where is your victory?

Adapted from Seeing the Cross with New Eyes, page 118 to 123. 


  1. Yes! THis is a great explantion bro! Can I suggest that you check out the "ontologial substitution" or "medical substitution" as categories for your thoughts here? Specifically, Much love and thanks for contributing to the discussion on facebook.

    1. Thanks Tim. I will definitely have a look at them. It's two terms that I am not familiar with but I am excited to get into it.

    2. Hi Tim. This is 6 months late but I have recently being going through the New Humanities website, I still have a lot to go through but so far it is fantastic. I am learning a lot from it and it's encouraging to see that I am on track with my thinking. Thanks for the link.

  2. Hey Wesley, that's awesome. Makos writings have been really helpful for me too.