This article is about the substitution in atonement, Jesus Christ as the representative of believers, and the union with original sin.

Source: The Monthly Record, 1994. 4 pages.

Substitution – or What?

Substitution is a word often applied to the work that Christ has done on our behalf. But the work of Christ is farreaching and many facetted. That's not the only way of describing what he did for sinners. What other ways are there?

The evangelical world, I suspect, is sold on substitution as THE way of describing what Christ did for us. "Substitutionary Atonement" — or it's equivalent "vicarious atonement" — is a watchword for some. If you don't believe that, then you are not sound.

There's no way we can call in question the accuracy of the de­scription that Christ died as our substitute. It is a good, useful and Biblical way of looking at Cal­vary. All I wish to say is that it is not a complete way of looking at the work of our Lord for us. If we only stick at the popular idea of substitution, then we have missed out aspects of his work that are of the greatest impor­tance.

When we talk, in everyday terms, of a "substitute", the area of activity that will immediately come to mind for most people is the sports field. A player is in­jured, or not adequate for the task on the day, or tired out through much exertion. He is taken off the field of play and another player comes in as a replace­ment. This second player does the task that was assigned to the first, and, hopefully, does it bet­ter. That is what substitution means for most people nowadays.

The work of Christ can be explained in similar terms. We were failing miserably in the task of obedience that was assigned to us. So the great Substitute came to this field of activity in which we have been placed. He took over the task that was allotted to us and performed all that was originally asked of us. He did it perfectly.

More specifically, on the cross that burden of guilt which accrued to us because of our sinfulness was transferred to his shoulders. He took up that weight of justified divine anger which we deserved. He took our position and paid the penalty, standing in for us.

A Familiar Way of  Looking at Things — and all of it True🔗

True, but perhaps somewhat shallow, because if that is all that we think of as involved in substitution then there are im­portant elements of the gospel message absent. For example, in the sporting substitution — what benefit is there to the person substituted? Yes, someone takes his place and relieves him from the task which he is performing so ineptly. But to what benefit to him? He is still a failure; he has had to be removed from the field of play. That a substitute has been played may well deepen the sense of failure rather than fill one with a sense of wellbe­ing. And that's not what the Bible says about Christ, our substitute. He did something for us, for our benefit, the advan­tages of which accrue to his own.

If that aspect is to be ap­preciated we have to progress beyond the idea of substitution — or at least that simplistic concept of it, commonly adhered to.


Christ was not just our sub­stitute but our representative.

This is not an idea normally associated with the idea of substitution as we find it in the sporting field analogy. A sub­stitute comes on and scores a goal or even, on the cricket field, takes a catch. Who is credited with that achievement? The cricket scoreboard records it as "c. sub."; in football the goal would be counted to the substi­tute's own name. The substitute acts in his own name.

But imagine, if you can, a situation where the scoreboard attributes the catch or the goal, not to the person who has come on, but to the person who has gone off the field of play. If that happened, then the player who has come on would not only be a substitute for the one who had been removed; he would be his representative as well. He would be acting in his name, in such a way that the achievements of the substitute were counted to the credit of the one he was substi­tuted for.

That is the vital element in the work of our Lord that makes his vicarious work avail for us. He didn't simply accrue reward and glory to himself in doing what he did. He acted in the name of others and won reward and glory for them. Everything he did in his life, death and resurrection had this aspect. He represented his people.

He lived a life of perfect obedience, not just in the place of others, but more importantly in the name of others. Thus his perfect obedience was accounted not just as his but as theirs. The death that he died, which in­volved the receiving of the wages of sin, was suffered by urn willingly in his role of representative of his people. The debt that he paid was paid over by him in the name of others.

A legal representative acts in the name of those whom he is appointed to represent. What he says is equivalent to them saying it. What he signs under their instructions binds them. As such a legal representative Christ acted for his people. If this idea of representation doesn't un­dergird and explain the concept of substitution, then vicarious atonement loses much of its depth.

But having said that, there is something that goes yet further than either of these ideas.


If we go back to the com­monest example of the substitution idea in daily life, we can imagine a further refinement. Imagination it has to be, for what happens by divine appointment doesn't and can't happen in or­dinary life.

The player who is putting in a poor performance has to have a substitute. But imagine the situation where a player comes on, but instead of the poor per­former going off, the substitute, say, carries him on his shoulders, and the two are considered as one.

Ridiculous, I know, to try and imagine that on the football pitch, but more easily imaginable in the case of a young child wanting to play a game of rounders of which he is not ca­pable. An adult comes and takes him in his arms; he places his hands on the child's hands and wields the bat. He takes up the child and together they run. All the effective power comes from the adult; but the child gets the credit of the score. These are homely examples, but they are the nearest I can get to illustrating divine truth from every­day life.

Incapable we are in our­selves, but Christ, as our rep­resentative, takes us up into himself and in him we achieve what was impossible in our­ selves. We were there when he lived a life of complete obedi­ence. Indeed, we lived that life of complete obedience because we were joined to him as he did that.

He died a death which in­volved paying the supreme penalty for sin. We were there when he died that death. Indeed, we ourselves died that death, because he had taken us up into himself, as a father gathers a child in his arms and acts for him. We paid the debt in him.

He rose from the dead and was raised to heavenly glory. And so did we, for when he did that, we were considered as united to him.

This goes far beyond the idea of substitution — at least, as it is frequently understood. It sur­passes even the notion of rep­resentation. Incorporation into Christ, union with Christ in ac­cordance with the Father's pur­pose, that is the fullest expla­nation given of what Christ did in his perfect work.


This is a thoroughly Biblical idea. Everything that we have is "in Christ".

Thus the New Testament doesn't hesitate to say that we died. This unfortunately is somewhat obscured by a couple of less than complete transla­tions in the A.V. For example, in Colossians 3:3 it says: "for ye are dead"; and in 2 Corinthians 5:14 it reads: "then were all dead". But in both cases the verb is the same and in the same tense. It refers to a single act in the past when death — our death — took place. So Paul says to the Colossians: "for you died and your life is hidden with Christ in God". And to the Corinthians he declares: "we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died".

How is that we are already considered to have died some time in the past? Paul says that the death of the one — Christ — is the death of all who are in him. Incorporation into Christ in his sacrificial death is the explana­tion of it all.

Similarly, the resurrection and ascension of Christ are spoken of as historical acts — acts in which we ourselves share. Again we have Paul's word on this:

God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.

Union with Christ, and therefore a real participation and involvement in the acts which he performed, are the keynotes of that passage.


What is the usefulness of looking at things in this way? There are many and varied benefits. It helps us cope with other areas of theology that some find difficult; it may even be of use in evangelism; and it cer­tainly gives enrichment to our spiritual experience.

If we don't see what it means that we are redeemed through union with Christ, it is hardly likely that, in this day and age, we will understand how we have been ruined in Adam. The con­cept of sinning in Adam and falling with him in his first transgression may be an idea familiar to those of us brought up on the Shorter Catechism. But familiar with it or not, it is an idea many find very difficult to grasp. The most useful approach to resolving this difficulty is to look at the Second Adam —Christ — see how we died in him and rose with him, and then work back from that beneficial union to grapple with the diffi­culties of a similar but malign incorporation into Adam.

If we grasp the reality and nature of this union with Christ, it will help us to overcome frequent difficulties with the doctrine of infant baptism. Bap­tism signifies and seals our un­ion with Christ.

Now, union with Christ isn't something psychological that comes into being when we yield to him in faith — though then is our first conscious experience of its significance. It is a relation­ship instituted by the Father's purpose from all eternity. It is something that finds concrete expression in history in the life and death of our Lord. It is a reality long before we actually come to experience it. It is that reality that baptism signifies and seals, not just the moment when it becomes a conscious experience. If we do justice to that idea, we can appreciate the meaning of infant baptism bet­ter. The union which God has effected may legitimately be sealed to an infant on the basis, not of experience, but of promise.

Again, it is interesting to note that many Muslims seem to have some awareness that Christianity teaches about Jesus being a substitute for sinners. In fact, they seem to know it better than many nominal Christians do! But they have got a very sim­plistic and mechanistic under­standing of it.

It would be interesting to develop some means of illus­trating to them a fuller aware­ness of what Christians teach about this along the lines that we have been explaining above. Here's an interesting point for those engaged in the evangelism of Muslims: can we find a good presentation of the truth not just of substitution — which they think they know about — but of incorporation into Christ?

But above all, to emphasise incorporation is for our spiritual enrichment. Substitution lays stress on him taking our posi­tion. Incorporation reminds us that not only did he take our position, but that we take his position. We not only died in him; in him we were raised and glorified. We are, as we have said, already seated with him in heavenly realms. That is the status that we enjoy because of union with him. How wonder­ful! We lay claim frequently to Christ the substitute for sinners. But how often do we lay claim to union with him to give us boldness at the throne of grace?

There, therefore, remain these three explanations of the work of Christ — substitution, representation and incorpo­ration — but the greatest of these is incorporation.

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