The Substitutionary Incarnation

The substitutionary atonement is the most essential part of the gospel and the Christian faith. But when we say the phrase, “substitutionary atonement”, we often limit the substitution of Jesus Christ on our behalf to His death alone. Although the death of Christ is a climactic part of our salvation, it is also beneficial for us to understand that the substitutionary aspect of Jesus’ purpose began at His birth. 

Just as minimizing the importance of the resurrection to the crucifixion would create a tragic misunderstanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ, so would belittling the role of His life and ministry. The Lord Jesus’ entire life was a Substitute for us, and it began at the Incarnation.

This is manifest in a number of aspects.

His Perfect Obedience

I have always found Deuteronomy 10:12, 13 to be one of the funniest passages in all the Bible. I do not mean to be irreverent. But one can almost sense a comical tone in the way the following is said:

Deuteronomy 10:12 And now, Israel, what doth the LORD thy God require of thee, but to fear the LORD thy God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the LORD thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul,
13 To keep the commandments of the LORD, and his statutes, which I command thee this day for thy good?

Say, what does God require of you anyway? Not much! Just a few things, like. . . to fear God (continually), to walk in all His ways, to love Him (continually), to serve Him with all your heart and all your soul and keep all His commandments and statutes! Yeah, that’s not asking too much.

The “funny” thing about this is, it is absolutely impossible to fulfill the above requirements! 

And it’s not just about Israel, either:

Romans 3:19 Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.
20 Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.
21 But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets;
22 Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference:
23 For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;

All of us – Jew and Gentile, Greek and Barbarian, male and female  – have failed to live up to the standard of God’s holy law. In order to have a clean slate with God, we need One who would be without sin and perfectly obey the law of the Lord. That One is the Lord Jesus Christ:

2 Corinthians 5:21 For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.

John 8:29 And he that sent me is with me: the Father hath not left me alone; for I do always those things that please him. 

Beginning with His miraculous virgin birth, the Lord Jesus Christ lived a life for us. He never broke the Law. He always pleased His Father. He knew no sin. His perfect record is vital for our salvation.

His Suffering

When Jesus de-robed Himself of His glory and came to the world, He suffered in human flesh. He wept for His own. He hungered and thirsted and fasted in the wilderness. He was tempted in all points like as we are. He was despised and afflicted and acquainted with grief. He became poor for our sake. He was betrayed by a friend and denied by a disciple. He was arrested and mocked. He was whipped and spit upon. His beard was ripped off of His face. A crown of thorns was placed on His head. He was nailed to a crucifix, beaten, bruised, scarred above recognition, thirsty, and brokenhearted. That not being enough, the totality of God’s wrath against sin was poured out on Him so that, as He bore the sins of the whole world, His own Father, with Whom He enjoyed fellowship from all eternity, literally turned away His face from His dear Son, causing Jesus to cry out, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Certainly, Jesus suffered. From the Incarnation to the crucifixion, His life was filled with suffering. 

Our sins caused the Savior to die on the cross, yes, but that payment for sins extended to the everyday sufferings which Christ endured on our behalf for 33 years.

His Sacrifice

2 Corinthians 8:9 For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich.

Again, Christ’s sacrifice extends beyond Calvary. The Incarnation of Jesus Christ was a miracle – a miracle in humiliation. The God of this universe, of Whom the angels sang from everlasting, was born into poverty. He gave up His lofty position. He suspended His eternal rule. He emptied Himself, without ceasing to be God:

Philippians 2:5 Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:
7 But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:
8 And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.

His sacrifice was a complete exchange: His life for our lives, His death for our death. 

Substitution!  What a wonderful doctrine it is! As we reflect on the truth of the substitutionary atonement, let us not forget its extent – the Lord Jesus Christ lived a life for us and died a death for us. 


4 comments so far

  1. Theodore A. Jones on

    Gen. 9:5 NIV is a law stated by God that does not allow a direct benefit whenever any human male’s life is taken by bloodshed. The first problem with the doctrine of substitutionary atonement is that it is the false assumption that the crucifixion of Jesus is a direct benefit. The second problem is that if were true that Jesus had died in your place an argument could be made with merit that any male human sacrificed to God by bloodshed is sucifficent for salvation. The third problem with your doctrine of salvation is that the life of any man taken by bloodshed is accountable to God but there is only one man’s life which has been lost by bloodshed for which each man too has become accountable. Therefore no man will be saved from eternal death by not confessing directly to God that he is sorry Jesus was crucified.

  2. Damien T Garofalo on


    thanks for stopping by. Would you mind telling me your personal religious/philosophical position? I’d like to know precisely where you’re coming from.

    As for your comments, you’ve taken this specific concept and blown it wide open. I don’t mind that, it’s just going to take more than just the original post to discuss. What I do find interesting, however, is the fact that you’ve ignored what the post is actually about. In fact, your comment may be a good reason for this post. It was made as an encouragement to Christians to not neglect the substitutionary aspect of Christ’s incarnation as we rejoice in His atonement. Both are important. His blood indeed makes us free, but let’s not forget imputed righteousness. Those who are justified have Christ’s righteousness (His perfect life beginning in His incarnation) imputed to their accounts.

    Your last sentence, “therefore no man will be saved from eternal death by not confessing directly to God that he is sorry Jesus was crucified” was rather intriguing. Do you mind elaborating a bit? Perhaps contrast what you personally believe with that which I have proposed here. Thanks!

  3. Theodre A. Jones on

    My belief is that the doctrine of substitutionary atonement or any derivative of it is entirely false. If the crucifixion of Jesus had resolved all issues between God and even one person, there cannot be any direct statement of God that counters the doctrine. But there are two counters by Jesus who is God manifested in flesh. One delineates what his crucifixion could not accomplish and the other delineates the true condition of mankind post of his crucifixion. The condition post of his crucifixion is “When he comes he will convict the world (unilateral populous) of guilt in regard to (a) sin.” Whom has received any direct benefit from Jesus’ crucifixion? No one. But his statement about his crucifixion prior to it is even more precise of his fathers intent in regard to his only begotten son having been crucified. See the parable of the Tenants of God’s intent in regard to Jesus’ life having been lost by crucifying him. The theory of substitutionary atonement when taught as a doctrine of salvation relative to Jesus’ crucifixion teaches the exact opposite. This doctrine is the lie which has been exchanged for the truth of God.
    As to your concept of imputed righteousness the counter is, “It is not those who hear the Law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who OBEY the Law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13, but which law? “For when there is a change of the priesthood, there MUST also be a change of the law.” Heb. 7:12 Therefore your salvation from the penalty of eternal death is predicated upon your faith to obey exactly as specified by law the set purpose of God for each man or commit a violation of the law which has no possibility of forgiveness. “The Law was added, changed, so that the trespass (the sin of taking Jesus’ life by bloodshed) increased”, Rom. 5:20, by the exponent of law and Each man too has become accountable directly to God for Jesus life having been lost by bloodshed. “He who knew no sin has become a sin for us so that we MIGHT become the righteousness of God.” by the faith to obey a Law which has been added to the law by Jesus’ crucifixion.
    If it is only by the crucifixion of Jesus that all have already been saved from the wrath of God as the doctrine of substitutionary atonement proposes. Then the Acts two message should have never been preached, but it is in the record. In regard to the question “Brothers! What shall we DO!?” Do you think the correct answer is “God we are so glad we crucified Jesus in our place” which is what you think? There are only a few whomever find what the small narrow gate into the kingdom of God, which has been perfected by Jesus’ crucifixion, actually is.

    • Damien T Garofalo on

      Thanks for your comment, Theodore. I don’t regularly update this blog, so I apologize if I’m not able to carry out dialog with you on this matter. I’m sure you know the Reformed arguments for imputation and substitutionary atonement, and I’m acquainted with arguments against those doctrines. One thing to add, however, is that I don’t think we are saying that the crucifixion “resolves all issues between God and every person.” Reformed theology still calls for repentance (as you’ve noted), but there’s no contradiction to the gospel we preach.

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