/ Jeffrey A Stivason

In My Place He Stood

Often the notion of vicarious atonement is eschewed by those who claim to be evangelical.  Almost twenty years ago N. T. Wright claimed that the atonement “was and is the stunning, towering achievement by which evil itself was defeated so that God’s new age could begin.”[1] The obvious question being how? Just a few sentences before, Wright quoted loosely what Jesus said about the cup at the Lord’s Supper adding, “The atonement is not simply an abstract transaction making God’s forgiveness available to those who want it.” By “abstract transaction” Wright meant what Reformed folks mean by double imputation.

Despite using the language of substitution (e.g. for me, on our behalf, or in my place), Wright fails to convince us that he actually believes Jesus substituted Himself for sinners.  He is simply keeping the language but denying the content. How else can he be read? He, in fact, has said that he can recite the creeds but doesn’t mean by them what the church means.  He is a revisionist, and many have been devoured by him. Now, there are many like N. T. Wright. Those who have a form of godliness but deny its power.

On what may seem an aside, I was recently reading a book by David McCullough about the Johnstown Flood, appropriately titled, The Johnstown Flood.  My interest was piqued by attending a historical society lecture held at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary. There I learned that Durbin Horne, once owner of the mansion that now houses the Seminary, was a member of the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club. This club owned the dam that let loose a lake of destruction on the people of Johnstown.

Now, there is an illustration in that book which caught my attention. But before I give it let me set the context. Wright and those like him love to use the language of Scripture when talking about substitutionary atonement, especially that of the Lord’s Supper. In his Evil and the Justice of God, Wright will often pull words from the last Passover meal that Jesus shared with His disciples. For example, in Luke’s gospel, while holding the bread, Jesus says, “This is my body, which is given for you.” In what sense is it given? Is Jesus’ death an example, an achievement to put into practice, an exemplar, and a template? All of these are Wright’s terms. Or is Jesus saying that His body was given in our stead. Did He, as the older scholars say, stand in our room?  With that question in mind let’s think of the example from Johnstown.

A man and two women were spotted atop a makeshift "raft" (probably the roof of some demolished structure) headed for the arched bridge leading out of Johnstown. Branches and ropes were dropped from the bridge so that the passengers might grab hold and be pulled to safety. The man grabbed hold, but the women missed the ropes. So, the man dropped back to the "raft." He eventually grabbed a tree branch and successfully pulled the women to the safety of the tree. However, according to eyewitnesses the safety was short lived.  A large building came careening into their new nest and crushed them.

 Now, we might say that the man let go of the rope “for” his companions. In other words, he did not want them to face the dangers of the flood alone.  But we may not say that the man let go of the rope “in their place.” The proof is in the fact that he shared their destruction. In other words, they were not saved by his sacrificial choice. They all perished.

When I read Wright’s account of what Jesus did the best counsel that Wright can offer is to “See all your sins laid on Jesus.”[2] But what does Wright mean? Notice that he doesn’t say that our sins were imputed or reckoned to Jesus. No, we are to see our sins laid on Jesus. It’s the “see” that makes me nervous. Wright seems to be saying that Jesus let go of the rope for me. In other words, when I eat the Lord’s Supper I know that I’m not in this alone. Jesus died as an example for me.  He said, “That’s how you die, bro!”  And if that’s all there is, then, frankly, it’s not a lot.

But more importantly, the Bible doesn’t agree with Wright. In Luke 22:19, Jesus said, “This is my body, which is given for you.” Now at this point a little grammar goes a long way. When the preposition “for” goes with a genitive, which it does here, then it can be translated “in the place of.” And this is not the “in the place of” as defined by Wright. This means that Jesus’ body was broken instead of my own. This means that He stood in my room. Jesus took the cup of God’s wrath and curse meant for me and He drank it to the dregs (Psalm 75:8). He is my Savior because he stood in my place. This is double imputation, and I am thankful for this gospel and no other.

[1] N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Books, 2006), 156.

[2] Ibid., 97.

Jeffrey A Stivason

Jeffrey A Stivason

Jeffrey A Stivason (Ph.D. Westminster Theological Seminary) is a pastor (Grace RPC, graceingibsonia.org) and NT professor at RPTS in Pittsburgh, PA. He is also editor at placefortruth.com.

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