Why I Am A Universalist, §8: The Doctrine of the Atonement (Section IV.3)

Section IV.3: Parameters for a doctrine of the atonement: substitution

An orthodox doctrine of the atonement must affirm that God’s economy of salvation is …

(3) … substitutionary. By stressing the substitutionary nature of the atonement, we simply mean that what God accomplished in Jesus Christ was ‘for us’; the self-offering of Christ was on our behalf and in our place. Barth discusses the pro nobis character of Christ’s person and work by stating:
He took our place as Judge. He took our place as the judged. He was judged in our place. And He acted justly in our place. It is important to see that we cannot add anything to this—unless it is an Amen …. All theology, both that which follows and indeed that which precedes the doctrine of reconciliation, depends upon this theologia crucis. And it depends upon it under the particular aspect under which we have had to develop it in this first part of the doctrine of reconciliation as the doctrine of substitution. Everything depends upon the fact that the Lord who became a servant, the Son of God who went into the far country, and came to us, was and did all this for us; that He fulfilled in this way, the divine judgment laid upon Him. There is no avoiding this strait gate. There is no other way but this narrow way. (CD IV.1, 273)
In the first four statements, Barth explicates the substitutionary nature of the Mediator in both ontological and actualistic terms—that is, in terms of Christ’s person and work. Ontologically, Jesus Christ is the God-human: “He took our place as Judge. He took our place as the judged.” In terms of the actualization of his being, Jesus Christ took our place actively in his life of ministry and passively in his death and resurrection: “He was judged in our place. And He acted justly in our place.” Jesus was our substitute in both life and death; he was active and passive in our place. The full scope of his life, including his “cadaver obedience” (Balthasar) in going to the abyss of hell, is essential to the nature of the atonement that was accomplished concretely in his very being.

The concept of substitution is too often prematurely associated with the Reformed doctrine of the penal substitutionary atonement. We need to dissociate the two as clearly as possible. The latter is a particular version of the satisfaction theory of the atonement that was expounded by Anselm of Canterbury. The former is simply a biblical and theologically essential component of any orthodox Christology. Without the concept of substitution, Jesus’ life and death are emptied of any meaning beyond mere examples of divine love. Without substitution, we have no assurance that salvation was accomplished for us in Jesus. Without substitution, the burden of salvation is left upon our shoulders, and that is a burden too great to bear.

The church depends upon the creedal confession that Jesus Christ came “for us and for our salvation.” The pro nobis is the heart of the Christian faith; it undergirds the doctrine of justification by grounding the hope of our salvation in the very being of God. As Barth rightly declares, “Everything depends upon the fact that the Lord . . . did all this for us.” This is indeed the “narrow way” of the gospel, but it is also the way of freedom, the way of hope, and the way of love. God is ‘for us’ and not ‘against us.’ “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. (1 John 4:9-10)
For us. For our sins. In our place. These are the qualifications of Christ’s person and work out of which we establish our theology. This is the concrete center of our being—the center, in fact, of the whole cosmos. In the gospel story, we discover that “the conversion of the world to [God] took place in the form of an exchange, a substitution” (Barth, CD IV.1, 75). Jesus Christ is the “turning point of the world” precisely because in him the “happy exchange” took place: our godlessness was borne away to the grave by Jesus, and conversely the new being of Easter morning was granted to humanity.
The death of Jesus, however, is not only the consequence of that godlessness but at the same time his bearing of that godlessness. In that Jesus suffers the godlessness of the world, the conflict with the law which he provoked is decided in his own person. For the godlessness which will not let God be God leads to death, according to the law. This cursed death is the fate of a godless world. That Jesus suffers the death which the law foresees for the godless, because he identified this godlessness as such, is the conflict of the law with the law which is decided in his own person. And that is what constitutes the God-forsakenness of the cross. The theological tradition has quite rightly used the category of substitution for this. It is, to be sure, a category which presupposes the identity of God with Jesus. It is only on the basis of this identity that one can call Jesus Christ our substitute in the sense that “Jesus Christ is in Himself ‘for us’—without our being with Him, without any fulfilment of our being either with or after Him—on the contrary (Rom. 5:6f), even when we were without strength, godless, and enemies.” God has then identified himself with the Jesus who made himself sin for us as our substitute. We have recognized this identification of divine life with the dead Jesus as the event of divine love. As such, it is the turning point of the world, because God has interposed himself in the midst of fatal God-forsakenness in order to create a new relationship with God. (Jüngel, God as the Mystery of the World 367)
The “happy exchange” that took place in Jesus is not an abstract theory of atonement but instead the concrete event of divine love. The substitution of Christ’s righteousness for our sinfulness, of his life for our death, is the meaning of the cross. God’s love identifies the life of God with the death of Jesus—whose death is identified as the death of all people—and thus God “interposes himself in the midst of fatal God-forsakenness” as the judge judged in our place. Of course, we must not limit ourselves to the cross and thereby ignore the scope of this substitution. In the Christ event, God also identifies the life of God with the life of Jesus, and thus Jesus Christ mediates on our behalf in life and in death. Our God-forsakenness and our response of faithful obedience are both mediated through the being of Jesus Christ. In him alone, our estrangement from God is destroyed and in its place a dialogical relation of ontological correspondence is definitively established. “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).
What has in fact taken place in Jesus Christ? We will first give the general answer that there has taken place in Him the effective self-substitution of God for us sinful men. … God does not merely confront him as God and Lord and Judge, but as such He effectively takes His place at the side of sinful man, indeed, He takes the place of sinful man, representing him against Himself His eternal Word becomes flesh. He Himself in His Word becomes man. Why? In order that He may not only conduct His own case against all men, but take up and conduct the case of all men, which they themselves cannot conduct, in that process between Him and them In order that He may be for them what they cannot be for themselves—an active subject and a passive object in that conflict. In order that He may take over on their behalf the suffering and activity for which they are not adapted, which is completely beyond their capacity and will In order to carry through as their Representative the justification which cannot take place or be carried through if they fall short. Not from His own side. Not as God, Lord and Judge. But from their side. As the God, Lord and Judge who is man, servant and judged. (Barth, CD IV.1, 550-51)
In the person of Jesus Christ, God stands by our side in solidarity with sinful humanity. But God not only stands with us (cum nobis); God also stands for us (pro nobis). In Jesus Christ, God exists in solidarity with humanity as our servant while also taking our place and representing us before the Father as our sole mediator. God takes our place as both the “active subject” of faithful obedience and the “passive object” of God’s holy love on the cross. God accomplishes in Jesus Christ what humanity could never accomplish on its own. God thus self-determines in Jesus to be both the judge over us and the judged for us, and in this divine self-substitution on behalf of humankind, divine love exercises itself against the old and for the new: “everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor. 5:17). What has in fact taken place in Jesus Christ? The transition from the old to the new, from sinfulness to righteousness, from estrangement to reconciliation, from enemy to friend, from death to life, from love everlasting to love everlasting.


Halden said…
Where's the quote from Balthasar about "cadaver obedience"? I seem to remember that, but I'm not sure where I read it.