How the Incomplete Gospel of Substitution Impacts Discipleship

Last Saturday I posted a response that challenges a video by a leading Christian author who said that discipleship hinges on whether or not universalism is false—as in, if universalism is true, then we have no reason to leave all for the sake of Jesus. I wanted to take the discussion there one step further into the way we discuss salvation and how it impacts discipleship.

As I said last week, most Christians agree that the Gospel is more than a ticket for us into heaven, but what is it supposed to accomplish then?

I used to think that the Gospel was only supposed to deliver us from sin. Jesus took my place, and that’s all there is. However, I still struggled with sin and living as a faithful disciple of Jesus.

When I discovered the atonement theory known as Christus Victor, I found a historically rooted narrative for salvation that tied substitutionary salvation into the entire story of scripture and gave a full picture of the Gospel.

A Gospel that only delivers us from sin without encompassing the rest of the salvation story naturally becomes our ticket to heaven. Sin is defeated, we get to go to heaven, and then we’re left to wonder what to do with the rest of the Bible and the persistence of sin.

Understanding the death of Jesus as substitutionary for us certainly captures a central event in our salvation, and I’m sure if we only know that much, God can work with us. However, that is only part of the larger narrative of God’s salvation. If God only wants to substitute himself for us, then universalism certainly is a problem that threatens a specific method of being saved by understanding something about the work of Christ.

However, in the larger narrative of salvation, universalism becomes irrelevant. While I believe universalism is still wrong because it turns God into a deity who forces himself on us whether we want him or not, we don’t need to worry about whether or not its true because we are entering the advancing Kingdom in the present and are being transformed into God’s holy people.

We follow God because he has delivered us from sin and death and is healing  and using us.

In other words, God is placing his law in our hearts through his Spirit because he has defeated sin. The process by which he defeated sin was substitutionary in that Jesus took our place, but he has now defeated sin and has given us his Spirit so that we can live in his freedom and share that Good News of the Kingdom with others.

By saying that Jesus took our place, we’re only sharing half of the good news. While we need that victory, we need the resurrection and the consequent filling of the Spirit. We weren’t saved just to be saved. We were saved to be holy and to do God’s work here on earth.

I see the victory of Christ as the controlling narrative of scripture where God delivers us from our sins and the power of evil that we often submit to in this life—we are responsible for our sins and need his substitionary deliverance. The means is substitutionary, but the narrative is larger and more powerful than Jesus taking our place. We have been delivered for his holy calling.

When we find that larger narrative, we can see that Gospel does more than defeat sin, it opens us to God’s healing power in our lives and empowers us to follow Jesus as his ambassadors who are compelled by the love of God to share his Kingdom’s Good News.

10 thoughts on “How the Incomplete Gospel of Substitution Impacts Discipleship

  1. Nikole Hahn

    “When we find that larger narrative, we can see that Gospel does more than defeat sin, it opens us to God’s healing power in our lives and empowers us to follow Jesus as his ambassadors who are compelled by the love of God to share his Kingdom’s Good News.”

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  3. Ben Sternke

    I really like this, Ed. I’ve written similar thoughts regarding the “substitution” gospel’s failure to produce disciples of Jesus.

    In that post I quote Dallas Willard, who said this at a conference in answer to a question about these things:

    “People who are taught that salvation is forgiveness do not make the natural connection to Christ as teacher, and so they don’t become disciples… If you look at congregations that have been told that forgiveness is salvation, you do not see and natural development into discipleship. I’m not being theological about that, just observe and see. And there’s one line [of thinking] that goes with the more Calvinistic side of things that says, ‘Well, gratitude will make you a disciple.’ Well again, you just have to look: it isn’t doing it.”

    1. ed Post author

      Thanks for that quote. Both the reason for discipleship and the power for discipleship is lacking when salvation is just forgiveness.

  4. Justin Gohl

    Ed, I certainly resonate with your thinking here. Indeed, I’ve actually come to think that the notion of “substitution” is almost completely foreign to NT (and broader early church) thinking on the atonement/death of Christ.

    In my reading, almost everywhere the NT says Jesus died “for us,” the implication is either exemplary or participatory, or both. Certainly, Jesus’ death accomplishes something for us that we can’t do for ourselves; but it is actualized by our participation in Jesus’ death. I.e., Jesus dies for us so that we may die to ourselves in him, and model that death (to the “old man”) to others.

    On the question of universalism, I don’t think your suggestion that this notion leads to a coercive God is quite accurate. My sense is that the early church fathers who held something close to universalism (apokatastasis) understood it to be rooted in the fact that God is Love and that God, in the end, will fill all things (1 Cor 15.28) (which he already does now, though in a different way).

    In other words, it’s not that God forces himself on to his creatures; it’s that God’s love towards his creatures is so efficacious that it gradually (over the “ages to come,” Eph 2.7) wins (almost?) all creatures to itself. So, conversion instead of coercion…

    1. ed Post author

      Thanks Justin for adding some clarity here. After I posted this, I regretted not getting into participatory aspect of the atonement. I read a book by Jim Speigel recently where he mentioned that, and I found that he put into words what I found in the Bible.

      I was probably too general with my terms, but the main sense of substitute that I was aiming at was Jesus taking our place to do what we can’t. I’ve never been quite sure what to make of the other notions of substitutionary atonement. I mean, I’m not opposed to it necessarily, but I’m not quite sure how it really works.

      Thanks for the clarity on universalism. That’s interesting. The sense I was thinking of was an instantaneous moment where we’re all brought in, but the idea of God taking time to convert us through his love certainly makes things interesting. I’m at a place where I hope that’s true.

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  6. fireandmirth


    There is indeed a false dichotomy often inserted between what is typically called substitutionary atonement and Christus Victor (by contrast, see Col 2:13-15). However, I’m not sure how you’re arriving at “the victory of Christ as the controlling narrative of scripture”, if by this you mean Christus Victor.

    Most of the key Christus Victor verses and passages in the Bible are laced with references to substitutionary atonement, as commonly defined (again Col 2:13-15; also Heb 2:14-18, Rom 6, 1 John 3). By contrast, there are many references to substitutionary atonement with no attendant reference to Christus Victor (Eph 5:1-2, Rom 3:21-26, 1 John 2:2, 1 John 4:10).

    I don’t mean to be harsh in any way, but I fear these discussions of the atonement can get far afield of scripture. We start talking, as in the Willard quote above, about what we see and feel, and leave off doing the hard work of grounding what we’re saying in the text.

    I’d be keen to hear your thoughts.

    1. Justin Gohl


      Not trying to co-opt Ed’s response, but as someone who is interested in this discussion, perhaps you could discuss briefly what you understand to be the “common definition” of substitutionary atonement.

      For myself, my sense is that “substitution” is an acceptable exegetical conclusion if by it one means that Jesus’ death does something for us that we can’t do for ourselves. But most people don’t use it in this sense (cf. penal notions of substitution).

      When the NT says Jesus’ death was “on our behalf” (*huper hemwn*, Eph 5.2), the logic is not “substitutionary,” properly speaking. The notion is not that he “takes our place;” rather, he gives himself up *for us* as an expression of love, e.g., to rescue us from sin, death, and the devil. It’s an important distinction: the focus is not on what Jesus’ death helps us avoid, but on what it positively accomplishes for us.

      This, for example, clarifies the *hilasmos* word-group in Rom 3.21ff and 1 John. Not “substitution” in terms of appeasement or wrath-absorption, but reconciliation in terms of expiation (in connection with the Temple symbolism of *hilasterion*).

      Be interested to hear your thoughts and to further engage the text.


  7. Theodore A Jones

    “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
    The unilateral interpretative error relative to Jesus’ crucifixion is the false assumption that the sin of murder caused by bloodshed is a direct benefit. The true fact that his crucifixion has accomplished is that the loss of Jesus’ life by bloodshed is an accountable offense for each man. The law, by Jesus’ crucifixion, has been amended by adding the word Repent. Therefore the only way this law can be obeyed is by the faith of confessing directly to God that you are sorry Jesus’ life was lost by bloodshed when he was crucified. But the man who refuses he disobeys a law that cannot be forgiven and this disobedience justifies God to sentence that man to serve the penalty of eternal death.

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