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The Vicarious Atonement

"The Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all." (Isaiah 53:6)

When I was young, I saw a choir program that featured a woodcut by Reformation-era artist Albrecht Dürer. The stark black-and-white panel featured only Jesus’ head, bearing the crown of thorns. His face was deeply lined, His mane of hair tortured. Drops of blood drawn by the thorns stood out on His forehead. The locks of His hair and strands of His beard were curled, spiraling inward in such a way that my attention was relentlessly drawn in to His weary, tender eyes—eyes telling of an unfathomable sorrow within.

This is Jesus at the point when Pontius Pilate stands Him before the crowd and says, “Behold the Man.” (John 19:5) This is also Isaiah’s “Suffering Servant” of Chapter 53, vividly depicting the biblical doctrine often termed vicarious atonement. Recall just a few sample phrases from Isaiah: “Surely, He has borne our griefs And carried our sorrows” (v. 4); The Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (v. 6); “He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities” (v. 5). With the concept of vicarious atonement, the mechanics, so to speak, of salvation come into view.

The word atonement quite literally means “to be at one,” to be in harmony, as of enemies reconciled and peace reigning between them. It has been God’s will from eternity that humans, though corrupted by sin and separated from Him by their own unrighteousness, should somehow be reconciled to Him. Atonement is the means by which that would happen. A price would have to be paid; a terrible offense would have to be taken out of the equation, so the parties could be at one again.

The term vicarious means “substitutionary,” “taking another’s place.” In this case, the offending party (humankind) could not do the work of atonement, for “none of them can by any means redeem his brother.” (Psalm 49:7) The price of peace would have to come through the Prince of Peace, as theologian John Schaller explains: “God [demands] perfect compliance [with His law]  . . . Christ, putting Himself in our place, had to supply the deficiency by keeping the law with flawless observance.” ( Biblical Christology, page 117)

While the concept is found throughout the Old Testament through the offering of sacrifices, it is explained explicitly in many New Testament passages. For instance, Galatians 4:4 explains that Jesus’ mission was to fulfill the divine law for all sinners: “When the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.” In Romans 5:19, Paul makes clear that Jesus’ one sacrificial act is sufficient to reverse the carnage initiated by Adam’s godless act: “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous.” And in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, Paul makes it clear that this was God’s plan all along: “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (5:21)

As one views Dürer’s drawing of Christ, the spiral locks and tragic eyes seem to swallow the viewer up; to draw him into something limitless and profound. Jesus, the Son of God and Child of Mary, offering His innocent life and divine soul, does indeed swallow up all our sin; all that of which we are ashamed; every particle of offense that can in any way separate us from our (yes, our) Lord and God. “The chastisement for our peace was upon Him.” (Isaiah 53:5) In Him we are free.

Peter Reim is a former pastor who now teaches English at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. He makes his home in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.