Paul F. M Zahl’s book, Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life – Part 3: On Justification and Substitutionary atonement

5 min read

…human beings need to be justified, which means that human beings need to live a non-accused life. They need to have the certainty that before God they are innocent. 

By raising this perfectly innocent man, whom we understand to be the perfect expression of God, and by putting that man between us and our irrefutable accusation, God “justifies” us. Thus Jesus our Lord … was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification” (Romans 4:24-25)

What this theology of everyday life seeks to emphasize is the grace of the first Easter, by which our helpless need as pathetic, predatory human beings is given a remedy.

Grace justification preaches! It preaches to the abandoned and those who pant for mercy. It preaches to criminals and perpetrators. It preaches to victims and to women. It preaches to children and to the oppressed pressed poor. It preaches to oppressors and abusers. It preaches to people caught in the act. It is thoroughly non-partisan, non-sectarian, and nonethnic. It tears down denial. It is thus a threat to walls and veils of excuse.

On substitutionary atonement 

What is atonement? It is someone giving up something in order to satisfy the demand of someone other is proper. It is the result of an original injustice. Something valuable must be offered in satisfaction. `John Barleycorn must die.” This is the territory of once-popular sociologists such as Joseph Campbell. Campbell was always talking about atonement-motifs in world religions, from “Lord of the harvest” agrarian sacrifice to the drowning of young girls by the Incas. Campbell, like his forerunner, Sir James Frazer, saw a fascination with myths of atonement in religions throughout the world. The fascination of these myths lay in their resonance with the occurrence in Christianity of such ideas. “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous.”

The atonement of Christ is the mechanism of grace. Without the atonement, the grace of God is a beautiful dream.

The atonement of Christ is the sacrifice of the one man by which the sin of the world is taken from the shoulders of the guilty and placed completely on the shoulders of an innocent. God the judge, the unswervingly swervingly fair judge, accepts the substitution. Someone had to bear the just sentence of his judgment. That had to happen for justice to be done because justice is a part of God. But in the atonement, the direction of the thunderbolt of judgment swerved. It struck away from the guilty and hit the innocent one.

The atonement of Christ is the death of an innocent man in the place of every guilty man and woman. It is representative, as his death “represents” the death of every single guilty human person. It is vicarious because it is in their place. He dies vicariously so each of them will not have to die for the sin they inherently and historically bear. It is substitutionary because he actually takes on their identity. He is an “identity-thief” in the fructifying sense that their old identity, as a sinner, transfers to him; and his identity, as the perfect man for others, goes to them. It is an exchange. It is a one-way exchange because, as God, he alone can make this happen. I could wish for it, but I could never bring it off. It is the one-way love of grace.

The atonement of Christ satisfies the just demand written into the universe that guilt must be punished wholly. The atonement of Christ gives the one-way initiative in the matter to God alone. The atonement of Christ frees the recipient without a hitch. There are no hidden clauses in the contract. There is no contract! The entire cost of the arrangement is born by Christ Jesus, who is not me, nor is he you. That cost is the cost of death and a one-way trip to hell. Thankfully, the Father of Christ rescued cued him from hell.

The atonement of Christ on the cross is the mechanism by which God’s grace can be offered freely and without condition to strugglers in the battle of life. Grace is not offered by God as a fiat. We all wish that the innocent had not had to die for the guilty. We wish that a different road, a road less travelled in scars, had been taken. But we have been told that this was the necessary way by which God’s law and God’s grace would be resolved. It had to be resolved through a guilt-transfer, making it “possible” – the idea is almost beyond maintaining – for God to give the full scholarship to the candidate least qualified to receive it.

With the atonement, grace is firmly grounded on a rock, and the rock is the finished law. The atonement makes it possible to speak grace to sufferers and criminals and really mean it.

For Christians, the heart of religion is the impossible dream made real. The old words for the impossible dream and it’s coming into reality are “the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ on the cross.” With the arrival of these words upon the scene, one might wish to put up one’s hands in horror. Oh, that! The crutch of all traditional Christians: the intervention of a divine forgiveness so devoutly to be wished for but so completely elusive in life. For this reason, Christian faith must bear witness to the resolution of grace and law in the substitutionary atonement of Christ.

1 Peter 3:18… Here again, First Peter displays sublime brevity: Christ died “once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous.” The word “for” signals the substitution. This death was a final advocacy. It was a final substitution for our guilt. This substitution is an unpopular idea. People become incensed when they are told that their sin, or (perhaps more immediately) the sin of someone who has hurt them and wronged them, can be conquered by an outside intervention that is a direct substitution for that guilt. How dare God? How dare God, or anyone for that matter, substitute himself for that dreadful person who hurt me so badly? It is unfair!

It is a proper noun because the New Testament regards it as final: “once for all.” Atonement resolves the irresoluble conflict between grace and law. It is the end of the law, as St. Paul states it in Romans 10:4. The incomparably stressful demand of the law is answered perfectly in the death of the innocent. This is the heart of Christianity.

That’s what grace looks like

Paul F. M. Zahl. Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life. You can buy the book from Amazon