Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

The Forgiveness of Sins and the Work of Christ: A Case for Substitutionary Atonement

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

The Forgiveness of Sins and the Work of Christ: A Case for Substitutionary Atonement

Article excerpt

The doctrine of substitutionary atonement has been called into question by many, chief among them Immanuel Kant, who denies there can be justice in the innocent dying for the guilty. When Kant's objection is examined, however, the shortcomings of the Enlightenment assumptions on which it stands are exposed. The forgiveness of sins is seen to have a substitutionary character, as does, therefore, the doctrine of justification by faith. So we see that the credal statement "one baptism for the forgiveness of sins" necessarily implies a substitutionary atonement, which invites a reconsideration of the way in which substitutionary atonement is generally treated.

Substitutionary views of atonement have faced strong criticism throughout the modern era. Recently even evangelicals, long associated with this position, have found themselves in dispute over it.1 What exactly does it mean that Christ "bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness" (1 Peter 2:24)?2 Or, "For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21)? Does this include at least an element of exchange, or substitution, in which Jesus takes human sin and offers in its place his perfect righteousness by virtue of his death and resurrection? If so, that raises questions about the justice of a righteous man suffering in the place of guilty sinners.3

The widespread rejection of substitutionary atonement in academic theology may be traced in large part to the criticisms made of it by Immanuel Kant. Kant objected to the idea that an innocent third person could suffer the punishment for the sins of guilty persons. His argument proved highly persuasive and remarkably significant. What might at first glance appear to be the elimination of just one possible option among many regarding the nature of atonement has often become one element of a widespread revaluation of theological commitments, as it was for Friedrich Schleiermacher, the father of modern theology, who first rejected substitutionary atonement when he was in seminary.4

In this paper I shall make an argument in favor of the view that Christ died as a substitute for sinful human beings. I shall begin by examining Kant's objection to the doctrine before seeing how those concerns might be countered. Then I shall show that substitution is an inevitable aspect of forgiveness, and so the good news of the justification of sinners is unavoidably a gospel that rests on substitutionary atonement.

Meeting Kant's Objection to Substitutionary Atonement

In his Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793), Immanuel Kant attempted to present a version of Christianity that could be accepted on the rational principles of the Enlightenment and thereby overcome many of the objections it faced in the light of that movement. The inscrutable supernatural realm is not so much rejected as left alone as unknown and unknowable. This meant that the miraculous aspects of the biblical revelation were set aside as superstition.5 Kant then reworked the Christian faith to accent its moral value. This highly innovative project required a substantial rethinking of the doctrine of atonement.

Kant insisted that no person can represent or "take another's place" (Stellvertretung) in matters of personal guilt. He said,

[Moral evil] is no transmissible liability which can be made over to another like a financial indebtedness (where it is all one to the creditor whether the debtor himself pays the debt or whether some one else pays it for him); rather is it the most personal of all debts, namely a debt of sins, which only the culprit can bear and which no innocent person can assume even though he be magnanimous enough to wish to take it upon himself for the sake of another.6

This is not, however, to suggest that sinful human beings simply have to face the punishment for their sins. It is instead to relocate the atoning work from Jesus Christ to the repentant human being. …

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