The substitutionary theory of the atonement is not the Christian gospel. The only time Paul discusses at length how the death of Jesus is involved in our salvation, he talks about our participation in Jesus’ death, not substitution. Paul says that we died with Christ, and in dying with Christ we died to sin — “our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin be destroyed” (Romans 6:6).
So how does this work? By believing the substitutionary theory of atonement? Of course not. We are set free by trusting that our little, ego self no longer has power over us, and by walking in (being faithful to) the new life of the Spirit (Romans 8:1-4). New Testament faith is primarily about trusting in and being faithful to the way of Jesus, which is the way of love.
Richard Rohr says: “Christians are usually sincere and well-intentioned people until you get to any real issues of ego, control, power, money, pleasure, and security. Then they tend to be pretty much like everybody else. We often gave them a bogus version of the gospel, some fast-food religion, without any deep transformation of the self.”
What does this “bogus” gospel look like? Consider what the late Charles Caldwell Ryrie, a former professor at Dallas Theological Seminary and author of the Ryrie Study Bible, says in his book, So Great Salvation: “The issue is, How can my sins be forgiven? What is it that bars me from heaven? … The answer is sin. Therefore, I need some way to resolve that problem. And God declares that the death of His Son provides forgiveness of my sin. … Through faith I receive Him and His forgiveness. Then the sin problem is solved, and I can be fully assured of going to heaven.”
Is salvation primarily about forgiveness of sin debt and going to heaven? Is salvation even about such things at all? We do not need to be saved from our sin debt, we need to be saved from our actuals sins. If God is God and not subject to some outside law of retributive justice, then God can forgive sin unconditionally and freely. God doesn’t need a sacrificial victim to bear sin’s penalty and punishment in order to forgive. If Jesus taught us anything he taught us that God is not a strict Judge presiding in a court of law, but rather, a loving Abba who loves unconditionally and forgives freely. Substitutionary theory imposes conditions on God’s love and forgiveness that make God seem petty and punitive.
The penalty of sin is not the problem. It is the power of real sin (greed, jealousy, pride, envy, hatred) over our lives that is the problem. And this problem is not solved by simply believing in some divine arrangement which the theory of substitutionary atonement resolves. Believing in a theory doesn’t change us or make us more loving persons.
Salvation (real transformation) occurs when we are saved from our egotism, love of power and control, consumerism, greed, violence — what Paul calls “works of the flesh,” (manifestations of the false self), so that our true self can experience and express God’s liberating love. Paul says, “The only thing that counts, is faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). And once again, in the same letter, “The whole law [the whole requirement of God for humanity] is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (5:14). That’s what salvation looks like.
Ryrie, advocating substitutionary theory as the gospel, says that one can believe that what Jesus taught on earth “was good, noble, and true, and it was”; one can believe that Jesus wants to “run our lives, and “he is able to do that” and “wants to,”; but these issues, according to Ryrie, “are not issues of salvation.” He claims, “That issue is whether or not you believe that His death paid for all your sin and that by believing in Him you can have forgiveness and eternal life.”
The late Dallas Willard, a professed evangelical, raises serious objections to this understanding of substitution, salvation and faith in his book, The Divine Conspiracy. He points out that this idea of thinking that God would transfer Christ’s merit account to ours, and our sin debt to Christ simply “upon inspecting our mind and finding that we believe a particular theory of the atonement to be true — even if we trust everything but God in all other matters that concern us” is foundationally flawed. Willard asks, “Can we believe that being saved has nothing whatsoever to do with the kinds of persons we are?” Willard rightly considers it “unfathomable” that God would devise a plan of salvation that “bypasses the awesome needs of present human life … with our kinds of problems: psychological, emotional, social and global,” and “leave human character untouched.” I wish more evangelicals would read Willard.
It’s just common sense. What kind of persons and what kind of world does God want? Surely whatever salvation involves it would involve our transformation into the persons and society God wills. Does God want persons who are simply forgiven? Or does God want persons who are not only forgiven, but are quick to forgive others, because they have a forgiving heart? Does God want persons who believe theories, or does God want persons who return God’s love and love others as they love themselves?
Salvation is a process of becoming more loving like God. As we are daily saved from our sins — our selfishness, impatience, anger, envy, lust for power — we are free to love others as we love ourselves. Loving God and loving others is “much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Mark 12:33), and on these two love commandments “hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:40). Jesus told the gatekeepers of his day, “Go learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’” (Matt 9:13). It really is that simple.