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.
Leon Morris, in The Cross in the New Testament, was not optimistic regarding the possibility of a “full and final theory of atonement:”
…Our survey of the doctrine throughout the New Testament has uncovered a bewildering variety of ways of looking at Christ’s work. Redemption, for example, is a figure derived from the slave market or the freeing of prisoners of war. It has to do with setting the captive free on payment of the price. Justification is a legal metaphor. It interprets salvation through the law court and sees it as a verdict of acquittal. Reconciliation refers to the making up after a quarrel, the doing away of a state of hostilities. Propitiation has to do with anger. It reminds us of the wrath of God exercised towards every evil thing and also of the fact that Christ has removed that wrath. How are these figures to be gathered together under one theory? It cannot be done. […The] mind of man is not able to comprehend all the various facets of New Testament teaching on the atonement simultaneously. […The] fact is that it is too great in extent and too complex in character for us to comprehend it all in one theory…
Though Morris does not think it is possible for the many sides of the atonement to be comprehended in a single theory, he does see it imperfectly gathered together by substitution:
[…While] the many-sidedness of the atonement must be borne in mind, substitution is at the heart of it. I do not mean that when we have said ‘substitution’ we have solved all our problems. […] But I do not think that we can escape substitution if we proceed on biblical premises. Thus, if we revert to the metaphors we were referring to a short while back, redemption is substitutionary, for it means that Christ paid that price that we could not pay, paid it in our stead, and we go free. Justification interprets our salvation judicially, and as the New Testament sees it Christ took our legal liability, took it in our stead. Reconciliation means the making of people to be at one by the taking away of the cause of hostility. In this case the cause is sin, and Christ removed that cause for us. We could not deal with sin. He could and did, and did it in such a way that it is reckoned to us. Propitiation points us to the removal of the divine wrath, and Christ has done this by bearing the wrath for us. It was our sin which drew it down; it was He who bore it. […Again] and again the key to the understanding of a particular way of viewing the cross is to see that Christ has stood in our place. […] Was there a price to be paid? He paid it. Was there a victory to be won? He won it. Was there a penalty to be borne? He bore it. Was there a judgment to be faced? He faced it…
Morris also recognizes an important limitation:
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, parcelled up, and given to someone else. Sin is a personal affair. My guilt is my own. What are we to say then? In the first place that no one thinks of substitution as the whole story. Salvation is an exceedingly complex process with many facets, and, while substitution is a very helpful concept for bringing out some of the truth, it must be supplemented where other aspects are in question. Thus if it is true that salvation may helpfully be described in terms of Christ’s bearing of my penalty, it is also true that it is to be described further in terms of new birth (Jn. 3:3, 5, 7), in terms of my dying with Christ and rising with Him (Rom. 6:8; Col. 3:1-3), in terms of my becoming partaker of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4), and in other ways. Substitution is not to be regarded as a magic key which unlocks all the doors. And substitution that leaves those substituted for exactly as they were, penalty apart, is not the biblical substitution.
Morris’ assessment that no final theory will ever adequately comprehend all aspects is premature. The many figures by which atonement has been conveyed, when taken together, do seem to present an impossible complexity. However, the reason for this, as Morris seems to acknowledge, is because the full reality has not been understood:
…The position then is that all our theories seem to have a measure of truth in them, and none, taken by itself, is adequate. It is not unlike the situation in the world of physics where scientists are not agreed on the nature of light. The corpuscular theory and the wave theory both have their supporters. It is difficult to see how these two are to be reconciled with one another. Yet neither can be abandoned, for some of the facts support one view and some the other. The reality must transcend both, but so far we do not know what this reality is. So with the atonement…
Reality has been taken out of view by the discarding of the realistic principle. By bringing reality back into view, we are able to find the missing key that transcends the complexity of atonement and gathers up into one all the various aspects—and does so with a satisfying simplicity. Continue reading