Participation, Substitution, Representation

Do “modern scholars” largely reject substitutionary atonement in favour of a representative atonement theory? Does substitutionary atonement do away with the idea of “participation” in Christ because we are mere passive recipients of grace? Christadelphian apologist Jonathan Burke makes these assertions in his “Apostolic Teaching Series”, but there are several problems with his thesis.
• Burke’s decontextualised quotations do not necessarily represent the consensus he claims (and especially not a movement toward “the Christadelphan position”)
• That substitutionary and representative aspects of the atonement are not mutually exclusive (Christ both represents us and substitutes for us in his incarnate divinity) is not acknowledged
• Substitutionary atonement is misrepresented as having the effect of changing God and initiating his love for us, when in fact it results from God’s love for us and effects a response in Christians
• What Burke means by “participation” is not consistently defined, and could be construed in either a biblical way (which is consistent with substitutionary atonement) or a dangerously non-biblical way.

Burke asserts, “The dominant Christian understanding of the atonement is the penal substitution theory, which states that Christ was punished by an angry God as a substitute for those he came to save.” This is a simplistic and inaccurate caricature of atonement theory. Propitiation is an aspect of atonement that is biblical and which cannot be ignored, but it is overly simplistic to say that “God punished Jesus in our place” and leave it at that. Because Christadelphians see Jesus as a mere representative human being, albeit righteous, they are forced to regard substitution in this context as unjust, which indeed it would be on those terms. This is the argument in John Launchbury’s Change Us, Not God: Biblical meditations on the death of Jesus.[1] . Most Christadelphian arguments against substitutionary atonement rest on non-trinitarian assumptions and a misconception that “punishment” or satisfaction was a prerequisite for God’s love. But God’s love was the cause, not the result of the atonement (John 3:16; Rom 5:8; 1 John 4:10). To suggest that Christian theology teaches otherwise is to misrepresent it. God did not delegate the salvation of the world to a third party; God’s own arm wrought it (Isa 59:16). As John Stott explains,

It is God himself who in holy wrath needs to be propitiated, God himself in holy love who undertook to do the propitiating and God himself in the person of his Son died for the propitiation of our sins. Thus God took his own loving initiative to appease his own righteous anger by bearing it in his own self in his own Son when he took our place and died for us. There is no crudity here to evoke our ridicule, only the profundity of holy love to evoke our worship.” [2]

Was [the substitute] just a man? If so, how could one human being possibly — or justly — stand in for other human beings? … [we are] to think of Christ neither as man alone, nor God alone, but rather as the one and only God-man who because of his uniquely constituted person was uniquely qualified to mediate between God and man. Whether the concept of substitutionary atonement is rational, moral, plausible, acceptable, and above all biblical, depends on our answer to these questions. The possibility of substitution rests on the identity of the substitute… We must not, then, speak of God punishing Jesus or of Jesus persuading God, for to do so is to set them over against each other as if they acted independently of each other or were even in conflict with each other… The Father did not lay on the Son an ordeal he was reluctant to bear, nor did the Son extract from the Father a salvation he was reluctant to bestow.” [3]

Nevertheless, it is clear that Christ is also our representative; he became incarnate in order to share our nature, conquer sin in the flesh it which it normally reigns and be the second Adam, achieving what Adam failed to do. This qualifies him to be our representative, our Advocate and mediator, the parakletos or Counsellor for the defence (Rom 5:15–19; 8:3; 1 Cor 15:47–49; Heb 2:9, 15–18; 4:15–16; 1 John 2:1). For Christ to be our Passover (1 Cor 5:7) the Lamb of God (John 1:29) the atoning sacrifice (propitiation; 1 John 2:2) and bear our sins, being made sin for us (Isa 53; 2 Cor 5:21) and our example (1 Pet 2:21–24) he had to be a genuine representative of humanity. But representation is not the whole story, and that’s where Burke and other Christadelphians make the mistake, in not understanding that being our representative does not preclude Christ also being our substitute. To set these aspects of the atonement against each other is a false dichotomy that has its roots not only in a misunderstanding of the breadth of the atonement but in the nature of Christ. It is because Jesus is divine as well as human that he could bear the sins of the world and overcome sin. Otherwise any mere man could have been the scapegoat, and the result would have been no more effective an atonement than that which came by the blood of bulls and goats.

Burke cites Leon Morris, “Most scholars today accept the view that the death of Christ is representative. That is to say, it is not that Christ died and somehow the benefits of that death became available to men… It is rather that he died specifically for us. He was our representative as he hung on the cross… The death of the Representative counts as the death of those he represents.”[4] What Burke doesn’t present is Morris’ full exposition of the atonement. In the same article Burke cites, Morris writes significantly more in support of substitutionary atonement! Clearly Morris finds the two aspects compatible.  Further, in his seminal work on the Atonement, Morris’ expanded treatment  encompasses covenant, sacrifice, Passover, redemption, reconciliation, propitiation and justification, which culminates in:

There are many facets to the atonement. It may be viewed from any one of a number of angles, each of which brings us to an individual insight into the way of salvation. Some of them emphasize that Christ took our place. We are the sinners. We deserve the punishment. But we do not undergo it. Christ stood in our place and we are free. The New testament witnesses to a many-faceted salvation, one which may be regarded in many ways and which is infinitely satisfying… Each of the ways of looking at the cross then underlines the fact that the way of salvation is not a way of human merit. All is of grace, for all is of God.” [5]

Burke does not clearly define what he means by “participation” in atonement. The scholars he quotes do not seem to be making exactly the same points, and care should be taken with any decontextualised citation. If by citing “It is not so much atonement, as it is ‘sharing in Christ’s death’ that brings salvation,” [6] Burke means we have to be “in Christ,” buried with him in baptism, believe in him, be branches of the true vine, to receive the benefits of Christ’s atoning work — then substitutionary atonement is in no way at odds with this. But if Burke means that we must “participate” in the sense of “contributing” to our atonement, we must part company. Each of these perspectives needs to be addressed. Burke seems to think that only a representative theory involving a non-divine human could accomplish “participation” in Christ’s atoning work. Assuming for now he means the “being in Christ” type of participation, he has not proved his case. Understanding that participation in Christ is essential to our apprehension of his atoning work, in no way undermines substitutionary atonement, nor does it force a dichotomy between Christ as our substitute and Christ as our representative. To assert that anyone can be saved without participation in Christ, being “in Christ,” is universalism. It is not mainstream Christianity.

Christ’s death was sufficient to atone for the sins of the world (John 1:29; 3:16–17; 1 John 1:2) but not everyone accepts this atonement. Not everyone abides in the vine; not all people will be saved (Matt 7:13–14, 21; Luke 10:16; John 3:18–19; 12:46–48;15:6). Only those who accept Christ as Lord and Saviour (John 20:31; Acts 2:21, 38; Rom 10:13), who believe in him (John 1:12–13; Rom 3:21–24; 10:9–13) who “receive him,” are saved (John 1:12–13; Gal 3:26–27). Such are “in Christ.” In Christ we receive justification, propitiation, reconciliation, salvation (Rom 5:8–11; 2 Cor 5:17–21; Eph 2:13–14 1 John 5:20). We share in his death, having died with him, and so will be raised with him (Rom 6:3–11; 7:4–6; 8:1–4, 9–17; 2 Cor 15:14; Gal 2:20; Col 3:3–4). That is what it means to be in Christ rather than as we were, in Adam (our natural state, the universal state of all who are unredeemed; Rom 5:14–21; 1 Cor 15:21–22).

Does Burke really believe that Christians who accept the substitutionary basis of the atonement do not think that they need to be united with Christ, believe in him, be “in him” in order to be saved? If Burke genuinely does think this, then he is way off the mark and knows nothing about the doctrines he seeks to refute. If he doesn’t think this is what Christians believe, then he has  misrepresented those he attacks. His real problem with substitutionary atonement is a Christ who is divine, as well as human. The Christadelphians’ merely human Christ can only be representative and the doctrines tend to stand or fall together. A low view of Christ leads to a low view of his work. And here’s the real rub; if Christ’s work is seen as only representative, not substitutionary, it is incomplete; it requires the believer to conform to what Christ represents. This is the “we must contribute” definition of “participation.” If Christ is merely our representative, then we have to imitate him in order to be accepted by God. It is a very short step from the “representative only” model of the atonement to a denial of the all-sufficient grace of God and the imposing of a requirement for works.  As Christadelphian pioneer Robert Roberts asserted,

This passing by of our sins is the act of His forbearance; that no debt of ours has been paid or can be paid; that what the death of Christ has done has been to declare God’s righteousness that we may, by taking part in it, receive God’s forgiveness through him… 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 demoralising… He only is righteous who doeth righteousness… we have to ‘work out our own salvation’ by a ‘patient continuance in well doing.’” [7]

Accepting that God himself had to step in to effect our salvation, by substituting for us, to do what we could not and cannot possibly do, actually is “demoralising” — in a sense. Our righteousness is as filthy rags and we cannot save ourselves. We cannot boast in our works. If “participation” means contributing somehow to our salvation or helping Christ do his job, then it’s definitely not compatible with substitutionary atonement, or indeed the New Testament. Salvation is from God and by God alone. What feeble works we can achieve are in grateful response to our undeserved salvation, and only by the Spirit’s enabling.

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.(Eph 2:4–10)

“I am the true vine,” said Jesus, in one of the divine “I am” sayings, “and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit… Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:1–5). What is “abiding in the vine” and thus “bearing fruit” if not “participatory”? But Burke also asserts that substitutionary atonement neglects any consequences of daily life for the believer. That would require a rejection of most of the New Testament, with its commandments of Christ, emphasis on the new life in Christ and Paul’s imperatives for living, which follow so closely on his theological expositions. It also runs counter to mainstream scholars and preachers who diligently uphold the tension between our receipt of the gracious gift of atonement and our response as those “in Christ.”

The great thing about the cross is that God saves us by his grace. We do not merit our salvation, but receive it as a free gift. But every one of the categories [of atonement] at which we looked reminds us that this has implications for the way we Christians are to live. The cross is the making of a new covenant, but this means we are to live as the people of God. It is the perfect sacrifice, but we are to present our bodies as living sacrifices. If Christ died for us, we are to live for him. He has carried our sins away, as the Day of Atonement reminds us, and won for us access into the presence of God… Reconciliation is a process in which we are not to be passive, even though we do nothing to bring it about. We receive it as a free gift, but this way of looking at the cross reminds us that it must be received… an understanding of what the cross means has effects on the way we live.” [8]

John Stott’s classic work on the centrality of the cross and the meaning and implications of substitutionary atonement emphasises the participatory aspect of atonement and its implications for the life of the believer.

The victory of Christians, therefore, consists of entering into the victory of Christ and of enjoying its benefits. We can thank God that ‘he gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.’ We know that Jesus, having been raised from the dead, is now seated at the Father’s right hand in the heavenly realms. But God has ‘made us alive with Christ… and raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms.’ In other words, by God’s gracious power we who have shared in Christ’s resurrection share also in his throne.” [9]

“Christ has redeemed us from the law’s curse by becoming a curse for us. It is in this sense that ‘Christ is the end of the law’ and we are no longer ‘under’ it. It emphatically does not mean that there are now no moral absolutes except love… or that we have no obligation to obey God’s law… for those who are in Christ there is ‘no condemnation’ (Rom 8:1) for God has already condemned our sins in Jesus Christ (Rom 8:2).” [10]

Scripture is clear, repeatedly, that Jesus Christ bore our sins. He didn’t just represent them, he bore them, carried them, nailed them to his cross and died for them (Isa 53; 1 Pet 2:24). All the benefits of his atoning work, in their richness and sufficiency are ours, if and only if we belong to Christ and are “in him.” Substitutionary atonement is participatory in its apprehension and application. Substitutionary atonement is a powerful and loving work of God himself and not a mere shifting of blame in a parody of justice. It works hand in hand with a high view of Jesus Christ, Son of God made flesh for our salvation. It required divinity and humanity in one great conquering Lion who is also the Lamb. Forgiveness is possible because God himself, the one who is owed the debt, has paid it, which IS the process of forgiveness.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself… 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 5:17–21)




  1. John Launchbury, Change Us, Not God: Biblical meditations on the death of Jesus (Charleston: WCF Publishing, 2009).
  2. John Stott, The Cross of Christ. Leicester: InterVarsity, 1986, 175.
  3. Stott, Cross of Christ, 176–178. My italics.
  4.  Leon Morris, “Atonement,” in Wood & Marshall, eds. New Bible Dictionary, 3rd ed. 102-4.
  5. Leon Morris,  The Atonement: Its Meaning and Significance. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1983,  203-4 (my italics).
  6. Attributed to Sanders in in Finlan, “The background and content of Paul’s cultic atonement metaphors” (2004) 117. (incomplete citation)
  7. Robert Roberts, The Blood of Christ, 1895. Repr. Birmingham: The Christadelphian, 1980,  23.
  8. Morris, Atonement, 204–5.
  9. Stott, Cross of Christ,  279.
  10. Stott, Cross of Christ, 281.

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