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Can Justice allow for substitution?

August 14th, 2005 | 3 min read

By Tex

Question: In what way is substitutionary atonement and sacrifice just?

Problem: Generally, when justice is demanded, it not merely that a payment be made, but that a particular person make the payment. For example, when a woman is found raped and murdered at the bottom of the Mississippi, justice does not lead the police to handcuff the next man on the street, drag him to prison and give him the death penalty; rather, every effort is made to find the particular man who committed the crime, and drag that man to prison and give him the death penalty. Even if an innocent man were to step forward and offer to take the penalty in place of the guilty man, it would not be allowed–indeed, it would not be just for the innocent to suffer in the place of the guilty. I cannot think of a single instance where an injustice committed against a person’s body or soul can be made right by punishing anyone other than the perpetrator of the crime. The only cases where substitution can be satisfactorily made are cases involving money, property or goods–in such cases it is permissible for a benefactor to provide restitution for the stolen/lost/damaged goods in the stead of the guilty one.

It seems to me that the sinfulness of man is more analogous to crimes committed against body or soul (against the character, essence or personality of subjects), than to crimes involving stolen/lost/damaged money, property or goods (crimes involving inanimate, impersonal objects). When man sins he disobeys God, rebels against Him, and refuses to acknowledge His authority. The sin he commits comes from the depth of his being, and stems from a wicked attitude, mindset or heart that purposes to flout God’s commands and follow his own desires instead. This is an affront to God’s character; it is scoffing at His essence and character (crime against a subject), and is not merely taking or disregarding something external to God (an object).

Therefore, how is it just that Jesus paid our debt and covered our guilt when we stood guilty for crimes against the person of God? Further, how is it just that God accepted this payment and allowed sinful man to be counted free? (It seems to be even more unjust that God essentially paid Himself off since He was both the Sacrifice and the Judge).

Possible Solutions:
1) Sin is not analogous to crimes against subjects, but rather to crimes involving external objects like money, property or goods. However, if this is the case, it is hard to understand why blood is required for the sin. Can it be just to require that payment for an object be the death of a subject? This seem incongruous.

2) By becoming a man, God, as the second person of the Trinity, came to share in the corporate guilt of man and so could be justly punished as a man among men; however, just as all men became guilty through the sin of their corporate head, Adam, so all men could become guiltless through the punishment of their corporate head, Jesus. In other words, although Jesus himself never sinned against the person of God, He in some way could become guilty by association with men when He became a man (in the same way that newborn children can be guilty by association with men even though they have not personally sinned). Thus, He could be justly punished. However, being at the same time without sin, His punishment could be applied to men–again, by the same principle of association–and so all men vicariously share in the punishment without actually being punished individually. The main difficulty with this solution is understanding how punishment and absolvement can ever be vicariously applied through an individual who stands as a corporate head or representative; this seems contrary to our notions of justice in which the individuals committing the crime must be individually held accountable for their actions (see the original problem). The problem is only partially dealt with by somehow involving Jesus directly with the sins of man (i.e. He is now one of the individuals of whom justice can be demanded); however, if He remains sinless, it is still problematic to understand how He can atone for the crimes of others.