In what way was the Lord Jesus Christ’s work on the cross able to provide forgiveness and salvation? Evangelical Christianity holds to the penal substitutionary view of the atonement, that Christ bore our sins on the cross, took our punishment and bore the wrath of God on our behalf.
“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows… upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:4-5)
“There are many facets to the atonement… In whatever way our need be viewed, Christ has met it fully… Each of the ways of looking at the cross then underlines the fact that the way of salvation is not the way of human merit. All is of grace, for all is of God.” (Leon Morris, The Atonement , Downers Grove: IVP, 1983; 203-4).
Christadelphians deny the full deity of Christ, and because they see him as merely a man (albeit specially empowered by the Holy Spirit and endowed with attributes of his Father) they deny the substitutionary atonement also. As a mere man, Christ could not substitute for us — that would be unjust, to punish an innocent man for sins that were not his. No, instead they view Christ merely as a representative (albeit perfect) human being, his death an example of what sinful humanity deserves and his sinlessness an example to be emulated. (Robert Roberts, The Christadelphian Instructor, http://www.thechristadelphians.org/btcd/BTCD/htm/ci/index.htm and Jeremy Thomas, Testimony Handbook of Bible Principles, King’s Lynn: The Testimony, 2010; 42-45 ).
In fact, Robert Roberts finds that “the idea that Christ has borne our punishment and paid our debts, and that his righteousness is placed to our credit, and that the only thing we have to do is to believe it, is demoralizing.” (Roberts, The Blood of Christ, 1895, http://www.thechristadelphians.net/images/Blood_of_Christ.pdf, 23 ) Not having considered what John 3:16 might mean, instead, Roberts sees the atonement as “comparable to a form of apology presented by the Majesty of Heaven as the condition of receiving His mercy unto life eternal,” and a process of acknowledging God’s righteousness, repenting, submitting to baptism and obeying his commandments. (Roberts, Blood of Christ, 14 – 15). The emphasis is on imitation of Christ, on human effort.
Although there are certainly aspects of Christ’s atoning work in which he stands as the representative of humanity, as did Adam before him, representation alone does not go far enough. There are two aspects to Christ’s role as our Saviour.
Firstly, he led a perfect life of obedience to the requirements of God’s laws, a sinless life; this is something we are totally incapable of doing. Even Adam, who was created in a “very good” state, failed miserably. Christ as the second Adam achieved what Adam — and we — could not, and hence by his obedience many are made righteous (Rom 5:19; 1 Cor 15:22) In this sense, yes, Christ stands as the ideal human being, sharing our humanity and overcoming sin in the very flesh in which sin normally reigns (Heb 2:14-18; Rom 8:3). But to share in this, to benefit from his work, to receive his righteousness imputed to us, requires more than mere acknowledgement, identification and imitation, for we are powerless to do this ourselves (Eph 2:1-10).
So, secondly, Christ took on himself our sins and bore the penalty for them. He is the fulfilment of the types of the animal sacrifices under the law, as well as the scapegoat. He bore our very sins, our iniquities were laid on him and he was pierced, crushed, punished and stricken for us. This is seen clearly in the suffering servant prophecy of Isaiah, which we know is speaking of Christ (Acts 8:30-35).
“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows (verse 4) . . . he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed (verse 5) . . . the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all (verse 6) . . . stricken for the transgression of my people (verse 8) . . . when his soul makes an offering for guilt (verse 10) . . . the righteous one, my servant, (will) make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities (verse 11) . . . he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors (verse 12). (Isa 53:4–12)
Peter quotes this passage in summarising what Christ achieved for us.
“He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Pet 2:24)
In this, the Son was no ignorant or unwilling victim, coerced against his will; this is not the meaning of substitutionary atonement, despite what its critics imply. (Heb 9:14, 10:7; Gen 22:6 –12 and John 1:29; Luke 24:26; John 10:17–18, 18:11)
“He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and as a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.” (Isa 53:7)
These statements about bearing our sins and his stripes healing us are not metaphorical, as Christadelphians assert. The element of substitution in the atonement cannot be ignored; it is central to the various ways in which it is portrayed in Scripture. God the Father himself put our sins on Christ, and in doing so imputed our sins to him, just as Adam’s sin had been imputed to us. In so bearing the sin of the world Christ took it away, far more effectively than the scapegoat ever did. Note the clear substitution element in the following verses:
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor 5:21)
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us — for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.'” (Gal 3:13)
“So Christ having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” (Heb 9:28)
At least four images are presented in Scripture to describe the nature of Christ’s atoning work; propitiation (the turning away of God’s wrath; Rom 1:18; 1 John 2:1–2, 4:10) redemption or ransom (Our purchase at great cost; Mark 10:45; 1 Tim 2:5–6; Rev 5:9) justification (the declaration that we are made righteous and stand uncondemned; Isa 53:11; Rom 3:22–24, 5:1–2, 8:30–34) and reconciliation (peace with God; Rom 5:1–2; 2 Cor 5:18–21). As John Stott says,
“All four images emphasize that the saving initiative was taken by God in his love. It is he who has propitiated his own wrath, redeemed us from our miserable bondage, declared us righteous in his sight, and reconciled him to himself… All four images plainly teach that God’s saving work was achieved through the bloodshedding, that is, the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ… So substitution is not a ‘theory of the atonement.’ Nor is it an additional image to take its place as an option alongside the others. It is rather the essence of each image and the heart of the atonement itself. None of the four images could stand without it.” (John Stott, The Cross of Christ, (Nottingham: IVP, 2006) 235–6).
Christ was able to give himself for us, to bear our sins, our punishment, and take them away because not only is he human as we are, but he is God himself, the “beloved, one-and-only Son” who alone could bear the wrath of God and impute a “righteousness from God.” By devaluing the person of Christ, Christadelphians devalue his work, making him an example to be followed, and adding an element of human effort to the all-sufficient work of Christ. Because Christ’s sacrifice is not regarded as sufficient in itself, and must be added to, there can be no assurance of salvation.
But — surely, surely, — he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, the chastisement that brought us peace was upon him, and with his stripes we are healed.