Don’t Replace the “Substitute”

by Trevin Wax


Regular readers of Kingdom People know that I often stress the cosmic aspects of the gospel and the importance of not limiting the atonement to one theory (namely “penal substitution”).

I warn against over-individualizing the gospel, failing to include the Church as central to true Christian faith, and failing to focus on the lordship of Christ.

These aspects have been missing from gospel presentations in the past, and because of our over-individualized gospel, we have produced individualist Christians who see no real need for the Church and who have little understanding of the mission of God beyond God’s mission to save individual souls. The kinds of disciples we produce are a direct result of the gospel we preach.

I am encouraged to see campus ministers, Intervarsity teachers, youth pastors, and church planters seeking new ways to share the gospel that incorporate the “bigger picture” of salvation that has often been excluded in evangelical gospel presentations. I am cheering on the young ministers who are coming up with creative ways of sharing the gospel.

I have been asked to review and comment on several of the newer gospel presentations. So far, I have been disheartened to see many abandoning penal substitution altogether. Yes, the atonement is bigger and broader than the penal substitutionary model. But to excise the doctrine completely is to greatly damage the biblical witness.

The good of the new evangelistic proposals is in what they add. Many of the newer gospel presentations emphasize transformation instead of just decision. They reveal the communal aspect of salvation, not merely the individual. They focus on how salvation leads us to mission in this life, not merely a heavenly afterlife. I appreciate the way that these presentations describe the purpose God has for the whole world. This is a necessary corrective to previous presentations.

The best part of the new approaches to gospel-sharing are found in the beginning, namely, a strong emphasis on the world being “messed up.” We know it’s true. We feel it in our bones. And because we know something’s wrong, we must be made for something that is “right.” It is a terrific (C.S. Lewis-like) way to bring a person into the Christian story because it disarms (in a good way) the listener by presenting a scenario that most everyone agrees is accurate.

The other terrific part of these gospel presentations is the emphasis on the kingdom community that comes at the end. We must reclaim an oft-neglected aspect of the gospel – that Christ came to create a community, not just to save people here and there. The Church is central to God’s purposes.

But there are some weaknesses in the new forms of gospel-sharing.

1. Evil without “Sin”

The new presentations tend to use the more impersonal word “evil.” But talk about how we are “damaged by evil” gives the impression that we are victims of sin and have no moral culpability before God. Speaking of “evil” in the cosmic sense is good, but we must maintain the biblical teaching that evil runs through each of us and manifests itself in deliberate sinfulness. We are corrupt.

Evil is not just an outside force that holds us in slavery. It is an inside force that runs through us. We choose to not live in harmony with those around us. We choose to not live in harmony with our world. We choose to not live in harmony with God. We’re more than damaged – Scripture teaches we’re dead. Without the proper emphasis on human culpability for sin, we’re going to run into problems later.

2. Explanation of the Cross

The new gospel presentations rightly affirm that “Jesus came to restore the world and everything in it for better.” I enjoy the “already/not yet” paradigm of kingdom eschatology that comes through in these presentations.

Still, I wish for a clearer explanation of why Jesus had to die on the cross. The gospel presentations leave us with vague statements about “evil overpowering” Jesus or the sinfulness of the world “infecting” Jesus instead of the Scriptural description of Jesus willingly taking on our evil and sin upon himself and willingly dying.

The substitutionary atonement gets left out in many of these presentations. Thus we miss the reason why Jesus had to die – not the historical reasons for Jesus’ death, but the theological reasons why this death was necessary. Jesus dying as the Passover lamb is a clear statement that:

  1. Jesus is taking God’s wrath upon himself in place of his people and
  2. A new exodus is beginning.

Most of the new gospel presentations emphasize Point 2, but sidestep Point 1.

3. No faith. No repentance.

The New Testament continually tells people to “repent” and “believe.” Because personal sin is not highlighted much in the early part of these presentations, repentance for the forgiveness of sins is virtually absent at the end.

Regarding faith, I agree that we need to call people to submission under Jesus’ lordship (thus the verse in Romans 10 that speaks of “obeying the gospel”), but this call to submission follows the call to faith in his death and resurrection. We must maintain a proper emphasis on saving faith.


If we are going to keep the substitutionary atonement model in our presentation, we must show that God so passionately loves this world that he is committed to rooting out and purging all evil from it. He is not indifferent to human sin and evil. He loves this world so much that he is rightly wrathful against anything that defaces it and dishonors him.

When I share the gospel, I turn to examples of horrific evil like Nazi Germany or the sex-slave children taken from Indonesia after the tsunamis, etc. This helps people get a good idea of what evil in its worst forms is like and how a good God will not shrug his shoulders at evil. He is just and fair to rid the world of evil.

Then, after people acknowledge that evil exists and that evil must be done away with, I show how (in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s phrase) “the line of evil runs through each us too.” The sin we see in others runs through ourselves, even if we think we’re good. And if God is going to be just and fair, then all human sin has to be judged. All evil has to be purged from the world, which means that all humans are “goners.” “For all have sinned” fits in here.

Once we tweak the beginning of the presentation, the effects on our view of the atonement naturally follow. God steps in to bring redemption to our world in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the Human Being that we were all intended to be. He is the Image of God – the true image, whereas the image of God in us is defaced. Jesus fulfills God’s original intention for humanity. Because of that – here comes substitution – He is crucified in our place.

It wasn’t just that Jesus was a great guy who wound up dying for a good cause. He died according to the plan of God because we were so bad, and yet God loved us anyway. The way it sounds in some of the new gospel presentations, the cross looks like a surprise, not like the climax to which the Gospels are all moving.

If God is just and good, he must purge the world of evil. The way he does that and manages to save human beings who bear his image is by sending the His own Son to take the weight of the world’s evil upon himself and have it condemned in his body. God passes judgment on all that’s wrong in the world and all that’s wrong with us when Jesus, the Righteous One, dies on that cross. So evil is defeated, the loving judgment and love-based “wrath” of a good God falls upon Jesus, the sin-bearer dying on the cross.

We need to call people to trust in Jesus for salvation, to trust that the Story is true, to trust that our salvation is in God’s hands, to trust that Jesus’ death reconciled us to God and to others. Surely, we need to have “trust” in these presentations and not just “submit.” If not, we will eventually wind up with converts who are constantly examining themselves saying, Have I submitted enough? Have I committed enough? Have I turned away from enough sin? Am I a good enough agent for the Kingdom? Without trust in God’s mercy and grace at the forefront, we run the risk of turning this incredible story of good news about the world’s true Lord into a heavy burden. If salvation is about being justified by faith in Jesus as Lord, then faith needs to be included in the final point. Right now, faith is absent.

The Question of Future Disciples

When I evaluate a gospel presentation, I try to imagine what kind of disciple the presentation will produce. The gospel presentations of past generations have given us individualistic Christians without an understanding of the missio Dei and the nature of the church. They need to be fixed.

But I hope we don’t trade the inadequate presentations from the past with other inadequate presentations. I can see future generations who have grown up with this newer presentation asking questions like, “What does the gospel say about my guilt? How do I know I’m okay with God? How can I be sure I’ve been doing enough for the Kingdom?” And eventually, we will have self-focused, self-centered Christians who have turned introspective precisely because the gospel presentation they heard and believed did not say much to them about that.

Ironically, whereas our past gospel presentations have sometimes produced self-centered, consumerist Christians with little life change, it is very possible that our current presentations will produce the same self-centeredness, but in different ways.

We need to hold together the biblical understanding of the atonement and the kingdom. Let’s hold together the personal and the communal. Let’s hold together the afterlife and the mission-Life. Let’s hold together the decision and the transformation. Let’s not swing the pendulum too far to one side and make other errors.

The readers of my blog know I harp on the cosmic scope of the gospel because the cosmic implications of Jesus’ death and resurrection are often minimized or missing in evangelicalism today. If it sounds like I’ve done a 180 and am now harping on substitutionary atonement, repentance, and faith, it is only because I don’t want us to abandon the traditional aspects of the gospel. We need to increase our view of the gospel, not replace it with something less.


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