Atonement: Realistic Substitution

Ken Hamrick

Active member
The Adam-Christ Parallel
There are important differences and similarities between our union in Adam and in Christ. At the beginning, all were in Adam as a singular, corporate existence. When he sinned, we sinned. When we were propagated out of Adam, and into the man, Seth, we no longer were in Adam—no longer “in his loins.” When we were in Adam, we shared in his personal identity, in that, if he had died without offspring, he would have went to his eternal destiny with us still in him. If he would have went to hell, then all humanity would have went to hell in him. What happened to his person would have happened to us—in that mysterious germinal existence prior to our own personhood.

This is where the mystery is most difficult. Our existence in Adam was literally real, spiritual and participative; but it was not personal. Looking back, the many were in the one; but from Adam’s perspective, the one has, by propagation, become the many. Each of Adam’s descendants is a distinct individual, who is accountable to God for his own individual deeds. Yet, God justly passes down the racial penalties and cosmic results of the first sin onto all men in the form of natural consequences. Each of us has an ownership of Adam’s sin. Since the propagation of the first child, there has been more to human existence than personal and individual existence. We did not sin as individuals, but neither does God personally condemn us for it. We sinned not as persons but as a race, so the penalties do not fall on us personally but instead, fall on the race. This is why those penalties are not removed in this lifetime, even for those who are saved and justified. Physical death still awaits, we still must contend with our own depravity, and we still are subject to disease and the miseries of this world. This is because we are still members of the race that fell, having participated in that fall in a corporate way, and those penalties will not be removed until the Last Day.

In Christ, we have the opposite of our propagation out of Adam. We are reborn not out of but into Christ. By being propagated out of Adam, we left his person and our participation in him ended; but by being propagated into Christ, we are joined to Christ’s person because we gain the very Person of Christ within our being. Our participation in Christ is personal and will never end—and includes all of His human life, both present and past. When Christ joins His life to the believer’s, a new man is formed who has all things in common with both. The previous life experiences of both are now owned by the new man. The new believer gains a full ownership of all of Christ’s human deeds just as if the believer had done them himself.

Christ satisfied the demands of the Law in our place—both the demands of righteousness, and the demand for punishment of sin. The Law’s requirements were not on God but on man. To satisfy those requirements, Christ must be a man; but to save any man, He must also be God. The satisfaction of the Law by the man, Jesus, can do nothing to save me, a different man, unless Jesus is able to spiritually indwell and unite with me, so that His satisfaction of the Law comes to be seen as mine, and only God can spiritually indwell me in this way.

The Proper Fit for Identification
For Christ to successfully save men by this means, He must assume of humanity that which is common to all men. Christ identified with sinners by assuming a genuine human existence in anticipation of the fact that we would need to fully identify with His humanity in order to be joined to Him. Our salvation depends on our identification with Christ, and that depends on the proper fit. Our union with Christ saves only because Christ is both man and God in one indivisible Person, so that our union with His divinity involves our union with His humanity. Faith could not save unless it resulted in God uniting us to Christ’s human life and sacrificial death; and union with these can only save because Christ actually lived His life as a man, and perfectly accomplished, step by step, all that was necessary to secure salvation for us.

All that Christ did as a man was in anticipatory identification with sinners. This can be seen in such events as His baptism, where He said, “It is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” “For us“—He was speaking for us as He walked in our shoes and performed human actions in our place. It was for us that He was baptized. It was also starkly evident at His trial, where He spoke not a word in His defense. The crime was our crime. He being a man made Himself out to be God—that is every sinner’s crime, and one with which we can all identify. He could not plead innocent because He was acting in our place and we are guilty. But He, being God, could not rightly plead guilty; so He spoke not a word either way.

If we are to be joined in a shared personal identity—the two becoming one in the eyes of justice—then we must be able to identify with His anticipatory identification. First, we must be the same kind of being. Angels cannot identify with what Christ did because He did not take on the nature of angels. Since He came to save men, He assumed the nature of men. Second, the crime for which He was executed must be our crime. Had He been executed for thievery, He would only be able to save thieves. Third, His human experiences must match our need. Every sinner stands condemned before God, and is lacking two things in human experience in order to satisfy the Law of God. The sinner lacks the human experience of enduring the complete wrath of God against sin, of which he is guilty; and he lacks the human experience of having lived a perfectly righteous life from cradle to grave. Christ accomplished both of these human experiences, and by doing so, He purchased redemption and earned a righteousness that could be applied to any human being. Divine righteousness in itself cannot save us, as we cannot identify with divinity. Divine righteousness must be worked out through the human actions of a human life, becoming human righteousness.

The humanity of Christ enables the mutual identification, just as the divinity of Christ enables the Holy Spirit to provide a spiritual indwelling and union with Christ. Because the Person to whom we are spiritually joined is a real man, and because we are so joined as to become one spirit with Him, then the two human lives become one in the eyes of justice, and all that Christ accomplished comes to be credited to the believer. If justice should see in the believer some fault, it immediately sees the suffering of the cross, as well. If it sees imperfection in the believer, it immediately sees the perfection of Christ. God’s piercing gaze looks on the heart, sees Christ and says, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.”


Ken Hamrick

Active member

A Real and Substantial Union—Once in Adam and Now in Christ
Our union with Christ is real and substantial. The nominalistic paradigm is so pervasive that even when acknowledging this fact, the reality is minimized. Robert Reymond chose an unfortunate but revealing illustration to emphasize the substantial reality of our union with Christ:
…[The] Scriptures make it clear that, though it is spiritual and mystical, this nonmaterial union with Christ is as real as though there were in fact a literal umbilical cord uniting them, reaching “all the way” from Christ in heaven to the believer on earth.[1]
Christ’s intercession in heaven does not leave the believer with only an “umbilical cord” of His presence. Christ is able to stand in us on earth and reach to the court of heaven! His intercession there is firmly grounded in the reality of Christ in us here. If there were no Christ in us, there could never be a Christ who intercedes for us. The legalities in the court of heaven would be thrown out on objection of the Accuser if there were no Christ in us. He is the Intercessor within us, crying out, “Abba! Father!” Apart from us, the ground of intercession disappears.

The objection that the spiritual union with Christ cannot be the cause of the believer gaining credit for Christ’s accomplishments, because such a transfer would require that the union exist prior to the accomplishments, confuses generation with re-generation. We have an ownership in what Adam did because we were in him while he did it. But we are not generated out of Christ; rather, we are regenerated into Christ. We gain an ownership in what Christ did not because we were in His loins when He did it; but because we gain the very Spirit of Christ to indwell and become part of our being. We were not in singularity with Christ on the cross, but the Christ to whom we are now joined was in singularity with Himself.

The believer’s innate moral agency did not participate in Christ’s life, death or resurrection. Nonetheless, when Christ indwells the believer in spiritual union, the moral agency of Christ Himself becomes as much a part of the believer as his own innate moral agency—Christ becomes as much a part of his existence as the believer himself. The two become one new man in Christ. Now owning this new spiritual nature—new moral agency—based on the substantial reality of Christ in him, it becomes an undeniable fact of reality that the moral agency now in the believer was in Christ when He chose to walk in perfect righteousness and die as an atonement for sin. This is far more than a mere “divine constitution” by which God chose to see believers as if we were in Christ. To the extent that anyone denies the reality of our new ownership of all of Christ’s human deeds, he denies the reality of our current spiritual union with Christ. If He is really in us and joined to us, then we really have a legitimate claim to a participation in all of His deeds—even if long prior to the union. As a believer in Christ, “I” no longer refers only to my innate moral, spiritual nature. Being now joined to Christ, “I” will forever refer to Christ and I in union.

The Mechanics of Atonement
Atonement is the satisfaction of justice through the interposition of a substitutionary victim. Christ satisfied justice in principle by suffering the complete wrath of God against sin (the penalty due any individual sinner). This had reference to no one in particular. This is not to say that God had no intended reference to individuals, but only to say that intentions do not atone. Then, when a sinner comes to faith, he is spiritually joined to Christ such that the two become one in the eyes of justice even to the point that the sinner’s life is hid in Christ, because they become one in reality. The believer and Christ are not like two people in a tent, or two spirits in a human body. Rather, they become one new man so that Christ and the believer are spiritually indistinguishable as it respects human identity. The spirits of the believer and Christ are now, together, the spirit of the new man; the past actions and present existence of both now serve as the past actions and present existence of the new man.

Until conversion, the claims of justice on the sinner were in force. After conversion, justice vacates its claims because it now sees that this person has already suffered the complete wrath of God against sin (due to this person’s identity now including Jesus Himself, giving the sinner an ownership in all Christ’s human accomplishments). Thus, justice is now satisfied, and this satisfaction is due to the sacrificial death of Christ. Since it is the death of Christ that frees the sinner from obligation to suffer wrath, and since that wrath was our due, then Christ’s death was substitutionary and vicarious in its effect.

No man’s sins are atoned for until he comes to Christ in faith, because Christ and His death are not interposed until He is in the believer. Many seem to insist that there is something in the very nature of the death of Christ that particularizes its power—as if the names of all those to whom it would be applied were “written” into the blood as it was shed. But the particularity is not found in the nature of Christ’s death. Rather, it is found in the will of God regarding the application of the benefits of Christ’s death to particular individuals. There can be no particularity in the nature of Christ’s sacrifice if that sacrifice is required merely to save one sinner. If each believer could rightfully point to some fraction of Christ’s suffering as being in his place, so that the total of Christ’s sacrifice would somehow “add up” to the total of what all of the elect together owed, then there would be a particularity in the nature of Christ’s death. But such is not the case.

Rather, that sacrifice is required just as much to save one person as to save all; and that throws the particularity back onto the will of God alone. In other words, the cross did not particularly atone for the sin of any man at the time of Christ’s death. Rather, it was a sin sacrifice, having reference to no man in particular; and was of a universally interchangeable nature, able to be given reference to any sinner in a particular way (when they come by faith). So in this way, God is able to give salvation and particular atonement to whomever He chooses—and He chooses to give it to any who come by faith. This speaks only of the mechanics of atonement and not of election. How the agency of God interacts with the agency of man in the generating of that faith is a question distinct from atonement.

Although the particularity of the cross is a matter of God’s will insofar as to whom He applies it, the modus operandi is a matter of substantial reality and not merely of His will. While the Old Testament types of atonement involved an interposing of the sacrifice as a matter of God’s choosing, the mystery of the antitype is an interposing effected by the joining of two human lives (the sinner and Jesus) through the indwelling Holy Spirit. Once joined, the God of truth cannot see them as anything other than joined. They are now one new man in Christ.

When God imputes the righteousness of Christ to us, God actually sees us with that righteousness.[2] Did God ever see Christ with our guilt? During the entire ordeal of the cross, God never forgot that this was His Son in whom He was “well-pleased.” When, as the representationists hold, God imputes Adam’s sin to us, or imputes Christ’s righteousness to us, it is not a transfer that removes what is imputed from the source—Adam still had his sin and Christ still has his righteousness. Such imputations merely share the sin or righteousness of the source, and do not take it away from that source. Nowhere in Scripture is it written that our sins were imputed to Christ.
2 Cor. 5:21 ESV
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
The word, “sin,” in Hebrew, stands not only for sin, but also for sin sacrifice. Paul used this Hebrew thinking in His Greek writing here to make a play on words. God made Christ a sin sacrifice, making Him to be “sin,” so to speak, who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God. How do we “become the righteousness of God?” It is only by having Christ’s righteousness imputed to us. But for He to become “sin” was only by becoming a sin sacrifice. He bore the penalty of our sin, but He did not bear the guilt. To bear sin is to bear the penalty due for sin.

The language of payment and debt are mere figures to illustrate the deeper spiritual truth. The payment and debt are owed to justice for our crimes. Unlike a creditor, justice will not accept payment from any other than the criminal. Not only will the Savior have to pay the penalty due us, He will also have to spiritually indwell us and unite with us in one identity. Only then can the payment be credited to us as if we had made it. Only then can that ransom be considered by God as if it has been given by us.


[1] Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), p. 738.
[2] Justification is grounded on real union.

Ken Hamrick

Active member

The idea of the imputation of our sins to Christ comes from the misunderstanding of atonement as concurrent with sacrifice. It is the satisfaction of our sin-debt—the suffering of the complete penalty—that extinguishes our sin-debt right where it is, in us, when we are united to Christ. In virtue of our spiritual union with Christ, as His obedience and righteousness are imputed to us as if we had accomplished them, so also His suffering of our penalty is imputed to us as if we had suffered it.

What Christ suffered does not come to be seen in the eyes of justice as having been in our place until we are put in Christ and He in us. What He did and suffered was not vicarious by an a priori assignment, but by an a posteriori effect of spiritual union. We must not confuse justice with God’s intentions. God has planned to satisfy justice through the cross for each of the elect; but until they come to faith and are joined to Christ, justice is not satisfied in their cases. The planning is not the accomplishing, and justice does not measure according to plan but according to reality. It is only after a man is joined to Christ that what Christ did and suffered is ascribed to that man as if he had done and suffered that very thing.

Prior to the cross, sinners could not be joined to Christ through the Holy Spirit. It was only after Christ’s death that being joined to Christ would include being joined to His death. Christ brings the experience of that death with Him when He indwells the believer, and without it He cannot be joined to sinners. That experience is what is needed to counteract the sin and guilt of the sinner. Unless Christ brings to the union what is needed to deal with this sin and guilt, He cannot unite with the sinner, because Light has no union with darkness—holiness no union with guilt. This is the very reason for Adam’s spiritual death when he first sinned. Adam became a guilty sinner, and the Holy God could not remain in any union with him and remain holy. When Christ experienced His atoning sacrificial death, the gaining of that human experience was the gaining of the power of redemption, as He was then able to join Himself to any sinner. Prior to the cross, the Holy Spirit would indwell only as a divine Visitor and not in the New Testament way of a spiritually identifying union or rebirth.

This is why the Old Testament saints remained in sheol, separated from sinners in torment by a great gulf. They were captives of justice. They had been justified, but justice had not yet been satisfied. They waited for the coming Messiah to suffer and die as an atonement for their sins. Then, the triumphant Savior descended to sheol, shared the good news with them, filled them with His Spirit, and brought them to heaven.

Gathering Up the Complexity
The Bible often uses physical or human things to describe spiritual truths. How many ways were we saved by the Cross of Christ? Just one salvation, just one sacrificial death, and just one Savior. Yet, I was saved by Christ paying my debt, by Christ paying my ransom, by Christ being my sin sacrifice and sacrifice of atonement, by Christ propitiating God’s wrath, by Christ expiating my sin, by Christ reconciling me to God, by Christ tasting death for me, by Christ gaining the victory over death and sin for me, etc. Being born again, regenerated, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, joined to Christ and made one spirit with Him, made a member of His body, baptized into the Spirit, baptized into Christ and baptized into His death, adopted as a son, justified, etc, are just different ways of describing the singular thing that has happened to us to save us. In Christ, the natural and the legal are joined. What prevented us from becoming natural sons? It was the legal impediment of sin. What will keep us from ever being legally separated from God again? It is the natural union with Christ, which entails both a spiritual union and a union of identity (grounded on the union of spirit).

Christ’s blood covers our sins as He is interposed between us and God. This interposition is not a mere choice on God’s part to view us in this way. Rather, the divine choice is to put the Spirit of Christ within us so that He may join with the believer to form one new man. It is this identifying spiritual union with Christ within that interposes His life and death between us and God. Where the Law demands perfect obedience and pure heart from cradle to grave, Christ has accomplished that, and we now gain ownership of it as if it were ours. And where the Law demands that we endure God’s full wrath against sin as the punishment for our crimes, Christ has accomplished that also, and we now gain ownership of that as well. Christ’s enduring of God’s wrath now comes to be seen as our propitiating act, just as if we had been hung on the cross and endured what He endured. Where our life is deficient, His life interposes to fill the gap and justify us before God. This is interposition. This is being covered in His blood. This is atonement!

Thus, the Gordian knot is gone. The death of Christ is universally applicable, the gospel warrant is valid for all, and atonement remains particular and absolutely effective. Objections to the injustice of fictional imputations, concerns regarding “double jeopardy,” the need for an “already-but-not-yet” paradox, and the awkwardness of a gospel that is universally preached without universal provision of atonement all fall away.

Ken Hamrick