This is Part 5 of a guest series by Dr. Ronn Johnson. I’m planning on posting some thoughts of my own on his series (thus far) in the near future.  I think Ronn’s presentation of the way the notion of substitution is put forth in evangelicalism is on target. As to analysis, my own corrective differs a bit, as it depends on (and derives from) terminology I’d use. Stay tuned!


From my count, I am up to the 10th brick on the evangelical Big Story wall. Please refer back to Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4 if you need to get up to speed. I will only look at two bricks in this post, due to the importance they seem to carry.

God instituted OT sacrifices to teach the general concept of substitution

In my last post I recommended that the practice of animal sacrifice was not invented by God. This is a new idea to some, I understand, though I believe the evidence supports it. We know that sacrifices and offerings were part of ancient religion long before Moses, and that Torah’s instructions regarding sacrifice mirrored many of the ceremonial practices of foreign nations. It is often helpful to turn to traditional Judaism for a question such as this, especially when it concerns a practice so foundational to Israel’s history and culture. Here is a selection taken from The Teaching Company’s course entitled Introduction to Judaism (taught by Shai Cherry from Vanderbilt University) concerning the origin of animal sacrifice:

“Sacrifice was a commandment, but it was also a concession to human psychology. Here’s how it works. [The medieval Jewish theologian] Maimonides said in The Guide of the Perplexed, that, quote, ‘A sudden transition from one opposite to another is impossible.’ What he means is that people can’t go from understanding everything about the world in one way to understanding everything about the world in a completely different way. They need time to adjust. He says this in context of the Israelites being freed from slavery in Egypt where they were steeped in idolatrous practices. Those practices included animal sacrifices. So Maimonides says that when God brought the Israelites out of Egypt into the desert, the only way the Israelites knew to worship God was through these animal sacrifices. So as a ‘gracious ruse,’ or as a ‘noble lie’—there are different translations of that platonic idea—God allowed the Israelites to continue in this idolatrous practice of sacrificing animals, but to the right address. In other words, the only thing that changed was the address, so that way the Israelites could still feel that what they were doing was efficacious. What they were doing was still worshipping God, even though that’s not the most noble, the most authentic way of worshipping God—because God doesn’t need it.” (italics added)

I realize we should be wary of labeling any one view within Judaism as “standard.” The rabbis have always been adept at collecting and even appreciating dissenting and minority opinions among their ranks. At the same time modern Jews hold the views of Maimonides in highest respect. Personally, I believe his opinion about the origin of sacrifice makes good and practical sense. So if it is accurate—if sacrifice makes its way into the Bible not as an invention by God but as a concession to the psychology of mankind, akin to divorce laws (Deut. 24:1-4; cp. Matt. 19:8)—then we as evangelicals are guilty of giving sacrifice (as a bare practice) too much meaning in our theology. We need to change the word “instituted” on this brick to something closer to “allowed” or “permitted,” before moving on to what OT Israelites were supposed to learn from the sacrificial system.

But now let’s move on to the question of substitution. Did God allow OT sacrifices to teach the general concept of substitution?

I started struggling with this brick several years ago, after teaching it for over twenty years as a Christian college prof. You could guess that this is not a brick that evangelicals like to debate. It sets up so much of our larger theology, or our larger story (or we presume it does). It is a brick that stabilizes a huge portion of the Big Story wall. At least that is what it feels like when I talk about the idea of substitution with my theologically-minded friends. So I appreciate your patience here as I challenge the idea by asking some background / preliminary questions:

1. What do we gain by believing that sacrifice includes substitution? Better, let’s ask this the other way around: what would we lose if we do not include substitution within sacrifice? I am not asking, yet, whether the view itself is right or wrong; I am just asking a question going in. I have often received odd looks (or perplexed emails) when I have asked this question, sometimes even getting what feels like a hand-over-the-mouth aghast reaction. It is like I am rejecting some important doctrine. But then I remind them it’s only a question: Why should I include substitution in sacrifice? What is the value?

2. When an answer to #1 is offered, does it come directly from the Bible? Let’s say a person were to say “Substitution is important because it’s the way God can teach the sacrificer about divine hatred for sin.” I’ve heard this argument many times. My reply, you could guess, would be But where is this actually said? Remember that the bricks for our wall need to be ideas that are actually stated, or actually happening, in the Bible. We can only dream of a text where someone stops mid-sacrifice to look into the camera and say “This teaches me God’s hatred for sin.” Short of that, or in want of that kind of explanation for sacrifice, I do not feel led to think that sacrifice teaches hatred for sin, nor that it teaches the general principle of substitution. At least it would not teach me that if I were the one doing the sacrificing. My mind would go elsewhere. This leads to my next question:

3. If sacrificing taught substitution, what is exactly being substituted for what? If I were bringing a trespass offering after contacting an unclean carcass, for example (Leviticus 5:2-6), I may experience a passing sense that the animal is taking my place on the altar, but this would be a momentary emotion only. I know I do not deserve to die—I’ve only touched a carcass, and probably plan on touching another carcass next week—and yet I have just killed an animal for my trouble. There is no substitution here. (Again, if the argument comes back, “Oh, but you did deserve to die,” I would need to hear this discussion played out in the Bible. Torah gives us plenty of opportunity to say something like this, and it is never said. This should tell us something. Or not tell us something.)

4. To go philosophical on this question, what does substitution say about God? Knowing what we know of Yahweh, how would he be satisfied in substituting one thing for another, such as an animal for a person? Jesus acknowledged that animals are nowhere as valuable as people (Luke 12:24), and yet substitutional sacrifice seems to presume at least some kind of equality. I find the entire concept of substitution out-of-bounds for the character of God.

5. Outside of the impersonal world of bookkeeping or accounting, do we as humans ever deal in substitutes? We are not allowed to do it in a court of law (“Your honor, my neighbor has volunteered to go to jail for me”) nor do we imagine doing it in the course of human relationships (“Sorry I offended your spouse. Is there something I can give you?”). I just find it odd to think that God would be open to the idea of substitution when our normal human condition is so opposed to it.

6. As for the text, why is the Bible so silent on the topic of substitutionary sacrifice when given the chance? The Hebrew and Greek words for “substitute” or “exchange” (chalaph and mur, Lev. 27:10; antallagma, Mark 8:37) are not uncommon (some 50 times from what I’m seeing), but they are never used for the subject of how sacrifice works. In test-driving the idea of substitutionary sacrifice, one of the first proofs we would look for would be a text which states the idea simply and clearly. But this is not what we find.

I welcome your comments to these questions if you believe good answers are available (my email is at the end of this post). Meanwhile, I am content to say that this brick needs some help if it is to find a place on our Big Story wall. Maybe it can just be reworded, as the idea of a “proxy” (a representative who leads the way for others while not actually becoming a substitute for them) will certainly play a significant role in describing our ultimate salvation. But that discussion will come later when we start to build the wall. For now, I am content to set all talk of substitutionary sacrifice aside. It will not play a role in the Big Story.

God’s wrath against sin was temporarily assuaged because of OT sacrifices.

This seems to represent a key turning point for the interpreter who is moving from the OT to the NT. Similar to what we have seen before, the wording on this brick seems to be the result of thinking backwards: If Jesus’ death finally solved God’s wrath against sin (a later brick we will talk about), and if Jesus’ death was a substitutionary sacrifice (another brick we will talk about), then that means that the substitutionary sacrifices which came before Jesus (i.e., OT sacrifices) must not have finally solved God’s wrath against sin. Thus the logical inference is that OT sacrifices did partially what Jesus’ sacrifice did fully as it concerned God’s wrath. I will recommend that this whole idea is unnecessary, and that the logic is faulty on the front end.

The wording on this brick changes slightly from author to author, and I can pass along two examples here. I mentioned earlier that I took a free Dallas Seminary online class entitled “The Story of Scripture.” Here is the professor’s exact wording on his brick: “God is willing to accept a temporary substitute for sin, and God’s grace allows judgment to be postponed until sin is dealt with in totality.” So he speaks of God postponing sin’s judgment, which seems to be another way of saying that God’s wrath is temporarily assuaged. The professor’s comment was based on Romans 3:25, the verse which is commonly appealed to for arguing this postponement idea. Here is the verse: “Whom God set forth to be a propitiation in his blood, through faith, to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed.”

I will look at what Paul meant by “passing over sins” in a moment, but here is another example quotation, this one coming from Douglas Moo’s commentary on Romans: “Paul’s meaning [in 3:25] is that God postponed the full penalty due sins in the Old Covenant, allowing sinners to stand before Him without their having provided an adequate satisfaction of the demands of His holy justice (cf. Heb. 10:4). In view of this, it is clear that ‘his righteousness’ must have reference to some aspect of God’s character that might have been called into question because of His treating sins in the past with less than full severity, and that has now been demonstrated in setting forth Christ as the propitiatory” (Romans 1-8 [Moody, 1991], 241-2).

So Moo’s argument is similar, where God’s wrath is postponed presumably through OT sacrifices. But now let’s ask what Paul could have meant by “passing over sins” in Romans 3:25. I sense we have quite a leap to make between the two ideas of “passing over” sin and “postponing the payment” of sin.

Here again is Romans 3:25, plus the beginning of the next verse: “…because in his forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at this time his righteousness . . . .” We notice that Paul’s larger argument concerns God’s righteousness, concluding with the realization that no one can boast because of it (3:27) and that one God will save Jews and Gentiles in the same way, through faith (3:30). Many commentators interpret the idea of righteousness (dikaiosune, used 92 times) along the lines of legal justice, even repayment, but I find this to be a forced idea that does not bear up behind the normal use of the word across the NT (e.g., 2 Cor. 9:10 uses dikaiosune in the sense of gratuity and kindness, almost the opposite of justice or repayment, and numerous other uses [Matt. 5:6, 10; 6:33; Rom. 6:18; Gal. 5:5; Eph. 5:9; 1 Tim. 6:11; 2 Pet. 3:13] signal general virtue which would not be associated with straightforward justice). My point is that we need to decide the general meaning of righteousness before figuring out what “passing over sin” means since the two ideas are so closely tied together in Romans 3:25. If we prepackage dikaiosune to mean justice in the legal sense, we will likely interpret “passing over sin” legally as well. This is what Moo does, coming up with the idea of “postponing the full penalty due sins” as his explanation of how God “passed over sins that were previously committed.”

So let’s pause and ask what Paul would have thought about righteousness. Did he think that God’s righteousness (Heb., tzedaqah) was primarily a legal concept, something that demanded a get-what-you-deserve “justice”? On the contrary, Paul read an OT which commonly tied God’s righteousness to his mercy and grace (“Gracious is the LORD, and tzaddiq/dikaios [LXX]; yes, our God is merciful,” Ps. 116:5; “The LORD is tsaddik/dikaios [LXX] in all his ways, gracious in all his works,” Ps. 145:17; cp. Ps. 36:5-6, 10; 37:21; 85:10; 89:14; 145:7-9; Prov. 12:10; 21:21; Hos. 2:19; 10:12; Mic. 6:8; Isa. 57:1; Jer. 10:24; Dan. 4:27; 9:18). This OT evidence leads me to suspect that Paul’s reference to “passing over sins” in Romans 3:25 is hinting toward God’s graciousness more than to what Moo calls the “adequate satisfaction of the demands of His holy justice.” It strikes me that Moo is making this idea up out of thin air, in fact.

The phrase “pass over” in Romans 3:25 is our translation of the single Greek word paresis. The word occurs just once in the NT, here in this passage. Mounce believes paresis means “let pass, pass over,” a word which is not meant to carry much theological weight. It certainly gives us a word picture to ponder on how God would treat sin. If I “pass over” someone’s sin again me, it may mean I just let it go, or it may mean that I hold a grudge until a later time when I can whack him. In God’s case, could his “passing over” sins include the idea of “postponing” deserved punishment? It might, depending on how we think about God’s righteousness. For remember, Paul’s larger argument is very careful: God’s righteousness was demonstrated in his passing over [paresis] of sins previously committed.

Here’s my opinion on God passing over sins in Romans 3:25—and I think the answer presents itself fairly easily. In the OT, God was in the business of forgiving sin (“But [Yahweh], being full of compassion, forgave their iniquity, and did not destroy them,” Ps. 78:38). Various analogies are used to describe God forgiving sins, including “bearing” or “lifting” them (nasaʾ, Gen. 50:17), “releasing” or “pardoning” them (salach, Lev. 4:20; Num. 30:5), “covering” them (kasah, Ps. 32: 1; 85:2), and “healing” them (raphaʾ, Ps. 103:3). We never get the sense from these common word pictures that God is postponing his anger for some later time as he bears/lifts/covers someone’s sins. We are not surprised, then, to also hear of God “passing over” sins with no hint of postponement or deferment of punishment: “Who is a God like you, pardoning (nasaʾ) iniquity, and passing over (avar) the transgression of the remnant of his heritage? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in mercy (chesed). He will again have compassion on us, and will subdue our iniquities. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:18). Paul may have had Micah’s prayer in mind when he spoke of God passing over sins. Even if he didn’t, the theology of “passing over” sins holds; it is synonymous with forgiveness. There is nothing in the biblical phrase generally, nor in Romans 3:25 specifically, that indicates that God is postponing punishment.

So what role does righteousness have in God’s forgiveness? What might Paul have meant by saying that “the righteousness of God was demonstrated” when he forgave previous sins—presumably those in the OT? Again, I think the answer is fairly simple, coming straight out of the OT story: By faithfully and consistently forgiving the sins of his people, God was showing his propriety or his righteousness as the covenant-keeping God of Israel (Exod. 34:6-7; Num. 14:18; 2 Chron. 30:9; Neh. 9:17; Ps. 86:15; 103:8; 111:4; 112:4; 116:5; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; Nahum 1:3). God was righteous in the sense that he always did what he said he would do, in this case forgiving the sins of those who were faithful to him. Drop this idea into Romans 3:25-26, and Romans 3:27-30 makes sense. This will be an important brick in my understanding of the Big Story, so I will spend more time on this text later.

We can do one more thing to help us toss this brick aside in good conscience. Think again of the specific wording on the brick: God’s wrath against sin was temporarily assuaged because of OT sacrifices. How would the Bible sound if this were true? It is reasonable to assume that the words “wrath” or “anger” would appear somewhere in a conversation about sacrifice in the OT. So let’s ask our computer to do a word search: How many times do the Hebrew words for wrath or anger (the best options would be aph [275 times], evrah [34 times] or qatzaph [34 times]) appear in a verse having to do with sacrifice in either Exodus, Leviticus, or Numbers (where the subject of sacrifice is most prevalent)? When we hit Enter we get this result: “Then Moses made careful inquiry about the goat of the sin offering, and there it was—burned up. And he was angry [qatzaph] with Eleazar and Ithamar , the sons of Aaron who were left” (Lev. 10:16). That’s it, one verse—and it isn’t even about God at all.

If you would like to respond to this post, I welcome your emails to I will certainly reply.