It’s Time for New Thinking on Atonement, Part 3: Unquantifiable & Nontransferable

This eight-part series introduces the new perspective of Realistic Substitution, which unties the knots and answers the questions that previous theories could not. It is the ancient Realistic view of Adam further developed and applied to Christ.

The Unquantifiable Nature of Sin-Debt, Wrath, and Atonement
How many sins did Adam commit before he stood in need of a Savior? If Adam had died with just that one sin on his record, and God had intended to save Adam and no one else, would the ordeal of the cross have been abbreviated? No, even from the first sin, Adam needed the entirety of Christ’s suffering and death just to save him alone.

Sin is like that. One sin puts you under the whole wrath of God.

James 2:10 ESV
For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.

Rom. 6:23 ESV
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

But atonement is just as immeasurable. That which is required to save the least of sinners is abundantly able to save the worst.

A Payment Exacted but Not Applied
The fact that Christ’s death is sufficient to pay for the sins of any man does nothing to extinguish the debt of those who have not put their faith in Him. William Shedd explains:

The mere fact that Jesus Christ made satisfaction for human sin, alone and of itself, will save no soul. Christ, conceivably, might have died precisely as he did and his death have been just as valuable for expiatory purposes as it is, but if his death had not been followed with the work of the Holy Spirit and the act of faith on the part of individual men, he would have died in vain. Unless his objective work is subjectively appropriated, it is useless so far as personal salvation is concerned…

The supposition that the objective satisfaction of justice by Christ saves of and by itself, without any application of it by the Holy Spirit and without any trust in it by the individual man, overlooks the fact that while sin has a resemblance to a pecuniary debt, as is taught in the petition “forgive us our debts,” it differs from it in two important particulars. In the instance of pecuniary indebtedness, there is no need of a consent and arrangement on the part of the creditor when there is a vicarious payment. Any person may step up and discharge a money obligation for a debtor, and the obligation ceases ipso facto. But in the instance of moral indebtedness to justice or guilt, there must be a consent of the creditor, namely, the judge, before there can be a substitution of payment… Second, after the vicarious atonement has been permitted and provided, there is still another condition in the case, namely, that the sinner shall confess and repent of the sin for which the atonement was made and trust in the atonement itself…[3]

Since atonement does not proceed on the order of the payment of a [pecuniary] debt, then no sinners have the benefits of Christ’s death applied to them unless and until they come to Christ in faith (which the Judge in the case requires). But even then, it is a one-for-one substitution.

Because the sinner’s debt is criminal, each individual sinner owes the entirety of Christ’s suffering and death. All of His blood was needed to wash away my sin alone. I cannot look to His cross and say that only one stripe on His back or only one drop of His blood was for me—He suffered my penalty and all of it was for me. So how is there any left over to save you?

Most Baptists see Christ’s sacrifice as an overabundance, paying for the sins of all God intends for it to pay, and with an infinite surplus of “value.” As Millard Erickson sees it, the reason that Christ’s sacrifice is able to save so many is because it is of infinite value:

When evangelicals ask the question, “For whom did Christ die?” they are not asking whether the death of Christ has value sufficient to cover the sins of all persons. There is total agreement on this matter. Since the death of Christ was of infinite value, it is sufficient regardless of the number of elect…[4]

But this is flawed, as it makes each sinner’s share of those six hours of vicarious suffering infinitely small, so that only an infinitely small time-slice of Christ’s suffering was necessary to pay what I owed for my sin. Not only is sin devalued, it is infinitely devalued. The cross does not save on the principle of a value-based transaction, but on the principle of one-for-one substitution.

The payment that was exacted of Christ on the cross was exactly equal to what any single sinner owed: it was the suffering of the complete wrath of God. The fact that each of us owes exactly that same debt means that anyone can look to the cross and say, “He paid what I owed.” The Biblical expression, to bear sin, means to bear the penalty due for sin. Since every sinner is due the same penalty, which is the full wrath of God against sin, then Christ was able to bear a penalty that belongs to each and every sinner.

So then, what Christ endured was not a quantified sum of penalties due to each elect, so that one fraction of a stripe paid for my sins and one fraction of a thorn paid for yours. Rather, what He endured was the archetypal penalty that each individual sinner owes. All of His blood was needed to wash away my sin alone, and there is no excess..

The Nontransferable Nature of Criminal Liability
The most difficult problem for penal substitution, whether Limited or Universal, is the nontransferable nature of criminal liability. A man’s crimes are his own; and while it may be easily stated that God punished Jesus in my place, it is not easily explained how this is just and right. Justice demands more than merely that a particular sin have an appropriate punishment happen. Justice demands that the one who sinned be punished.

Deut. 24: 16 ESV
“Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.

Most parents would be willing to die in place of their child, and as Rom. 5:7 tells us, “…perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die,” but there was no provision for human substitution within the Law. Every man must die for his own sin. That said, every Old Testament sacrifice pointed to the cross of Christ. But those pictures of God-provided substitution did not establish that substitution is just. They merely pictured what Christ would one day accomplish, without addressing the mechanics. The Levitical sacrifices were patterned after the cross, and not the reverse.

Andrew Fuller also emphasizes the misunderstandings that come from taking the metaphor of payment of debt to an unwarranted extreme:

I apprehend, then, that many important mistakes have arisen from considering the interposition of Christ under the notion of paying a debt. The blood of Christ is indeed the price of our redemption, or that for the sake of which we are delivered from the curse of the law; but this metaphorical language, as well as that of head and members, may be carried too far, and may lead us into many errors… Sin is a debt only in a metaphorical sense; properly speaking, it is a crime, and satisfaction for it requires to be made, not on pecuniary, but on moral principles…

The reason for this difference is easily perceived. Debts are transferable, but crimes are not…[5]

“Debts are transferable, but crimes are not.” Gordon Clark calls this “a major problem:”

The distinction is this: If Mr. X owes Mr. Y a hundred dollars, financial justice is completely satisfied if Mr. Z pays the debt for Mr. X. But if Mr. X robs a bank or murders someone, Mr. Z cannot satisfy justice by taking his punishment. Criminal justice requires that the criminal himself, and no one else, must suffer the penalty. Now, since sin is a crime, not a financial debt, the satisfaction of divine justice without the penalty being imposed on the sinner himself constitutes a major problem.[6]

This “intensely personal nature of guilt” is also acknowledged by Leon Morris:

An objection to this view arises from the intensely personal nature of guilt. My misdeeds are my own, and all the verbal juggling in the world cannot make them belong to someone else…

…If atonement consists simply in ignoring this, and putting the punishment arising from my yesterdays upon someone else, then a grave wrong has been done. Sin is not to be regarded as a detachable entity which may be removed from the sinner, parceled up, and given to someone else. Sin is a personal affair. My guilt is my own.[7]

Christ must do more than die in my place. God must find a way that Christ’s death and righteous life can be made mine just as if I had done them. Shedd tells us, “When a particular person trusts in this infinite atonement and it is imputed to him by God, it then becomes his atonement for judicial purposes as really as if he had made it himself, and then it naturally and necessarily cancels his personal guilt…”[8] How then does God make Christ’s atonement to become mine as really as if I had made it myself?

In and of itself, the shedding of the blood of the Sacrifice does nothing to satisfy the claims of justice upon the individual sinner. There must be a connection established between the Sacrifice and the sinner if the former is to affect the latter. While sovereignty is free from the exigencies of substantial reality, justice has no such license. God may sovereignly declare that a mere nominal connection between the Sacrifice and sinner is sufficient to free him from wrath, but He cannot justly do so.

There are two ways in which justice must be satisfied: 1) justice must be satisfied that the penalty has been fully suffered within substantial reality; and 2) justice must be satisfied that the Sacrifice and sinner are so joined as to become one within substantial reality. Neither of these two can be mere choices within God’s mind to view them as if they were true (in contradiction to substantial reality). Justice demands more than that the sin be punished—justice demands that the one who sinned be punished. The Substitute and the sinner must become one man in reality—and this is what Realistic Substitution provides.

(Adapted from “Toward Theological Reconciliation: Atonement.”)

[3] William G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, (Phillipsburg: P & R, 2003), Third ed., pp. 726-727.
[4] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990), pp. 825-826
[5] Andrew Fuller, The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, (Harrisonburg: Sprinkle, 1988), Vol. II, “Conversations,” p. 688
[6] Gordon Clark, The Atonement, (Jefferson: Trinity Foundation, 1987), pp. 84-85
[7] Leon Morris, The Cross in the New Testament, (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2006), p. 415
[8] Shedd, p. 725