What did Christ achieve on the cross and how did he do it? Answers to such questions have often been complicated by terminological confusion—particularly the distinction between substitution, representation and incorporation. Did Jesus atone for our sins by dying instead of us or by representing us? Was his death something we did along with him or something he did for us and without us? In what sense did we die with him?
As we come to this Easter weekend, particularly in the midst of the Coronavirus crisis, it will be good for our souls to give our attention to such questions. The following article is an attempt to clarify the differences between these important terms (substitution, representation and incorporation) and the relationship between the realities they describe. I will do this by asking two diagnostic questions.
1. Does Jesus really need to be our substitute if he’s already our representative?
Substitution and representation are closely related ideas in biblical thought. But if the atoning nature of Jesus’ death is to be rightly understood, it is vital that the two ideas be carefully distinguished. While a representative acts for others, his actions are also their action through him. A substitute, however, replaces others—doing for them what they cannot do. The first idea is inclusive, the second exclusive. Both, however, are necessary in order to understand what Jesus did for us on the cross. As Peter Bolt explains:
His death is an inclusive place-taking death, in that he shares the ‘flesh and blood’ of our mortality. But his death is also an exclusive place-taking death, in that he is the one who dies for the many. In the concrete circumstances of his death, he bore the wrath of God on our behalf, in our place.
Both ideas can be seen in Isaiah’s prophecy of the suffering servant: not only was he “numbered with the transgressors” (Isa. 53:12), but he was “pierced for our transgressions” and “crushed for our iniquities” (v. 5). In other words, he took on the punishment deserved by us and bore it in our stead. That is substitution.
Both representation and substitution can be seen in Isaiah’s prophecy of the suffering servant: not only was he “numbered with the transgressors”, but he was “pierced for our transgressions” and “crushed for our iniquities”. He took on the punishment deserved by us and bore it in our stead.
Not surprisingly, the New Testament emphasises the crucial nature of the substitutionary aspect of Christ’s self-offering. In Romans 3:23-26, for example, Jesus is presented as the sole bearer of the wrath which sinners deserve (c.f. 1:18-3:20). Moreover, it is precisely because of his propitiatory sacrifice (“his blood”, v. 25) that God is able to be both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (v. 26). Such teaching stands in stark contrast to the wrong-headed (if not blasphemous) idea that we bore our own punishment through Christ—a thought that could not be further from the New Testament teaching. No. Jesus did something which we did not do—and never could have done! His death was more than vicarious (on behalf of others), it was substitutionary (in the place of others).
This fact is further highlighted by the New Testament’s use of the preposition anti—a word that clearly conveys the concept of “exchange” (i.e., one for another). So when the Gospels record that “the Son of Man came … to give his life as a ransom for (anti) many” (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45), both the use of this term and its link with the ransom idea make it inescapably substitutionary. The same thought is expressed by the more common term hyper (usually translated “for”), which is not only capable of bearing the meaning of “on behalf of” or “for the benefit of,” but also “instead of” or “in place of.” This latter meaning can be seen clearly in John 11:50-51 (cf. 18:14), where Caiaphas states that “it is better for you that one man should die for (hyper) the people, not that the whole nation should perish.”
What this illustrates is that, although not synonyms, hyper and anti have overlapping meanings; both are capable of expressing the idea of substitution. However, hyper has an additional advantage—one that may explain why it is the term more frequently employed by the New Testament writers. It has the ability to express the ideas of “benefit” and “substitution” at the same time.
This double sense is evident in 2 Corinthians 5:21 (“God made him who knew no sin to be sin for [hyper] us”), where being made “to be sin” conveys the idea of “made to bear the penalty of sin”—something that is not done by us but by Christ, but clearly done for our benefit. It is also evident in Galatians 3:13 (“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for [hyper] us”). Here, the thought is of Christ sharing the condemnation and rejection that we—as sinners—deserve from God, in order that we might not have to undergo such an experience. But the combination of ideas is, arguably, strongest in 1 Timothy 2:6. In fact, here we find a confluence of the compound word antilutron (ransom) with the preposition hyper (for): “[Christ Jesus] gave himself as a ransom (antilutron) for (hyper) all.” In short, Jesus died both in our place and for our sake.
The death of Christ, then, was representative and substitutionary. However, J. I. Packer is right to insist that, while representation makes substitution possible, substitution is the “basic category” and thus the key to Christ’s atoning work. Hebrews 2:17 bears out the truth of this claim. Here we are told that it was necessary that Christ be made like us in every respect in order that he might be qualified to function as our high priest (i.e., to represent us). But this in turn was necessary so that he might make atonement/propitiation (hilaskesthai) for our sins by tasting death for (hyper) us (v. 9). In other words, his solidarity with us was with a view to his substituting himself for us. James Denney’s comment on this text is insightful:
It is true that He is our representative; but He not only acts in our name, and in our interest; in His action He does something for us which we could never have done for ourselves, and which does not need to be done over again; He achieves something which we can look to as a finished work, and in which we can find the basis of a sure confidence toward God. He achieves, in short, ‘purgation of sins’ (i.3). This is the evangelical truth which is covered by the word ‘substitute,’ and which is not covered by the word “representative.”
2. Is the idea of our being incorporated into Christ an alternative to substitution?
The ideas of substitution and representation also need to be carefully distinguished from another important aspect of New Testament teaching: our incorporation into Christ by faith. Being “in Christ” is fundamental to our personal salvation—indeed, believers are even said to have been chosen in Christ “before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4). Given this fact, we have good reason to affirm that there is a sense in which we were “in Christ” when he died for us.
Nevertheless, it is not until we become Christians that Jesus’ death becomes ours in such a way that we can be said to have died with him (Rom. 6:8, 7:4; 2 Cor. 5:14; Col. 2:20, 3:3). In fact, this is something that can only happen after the event of Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice has taken place and after we have come to faith in him. Therefore, when Paul says “I have been crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:20a), he is not suggesting that he was literally there on the cross with Jesus. He is speaking, rather, of his present “spiritual identification with Christ’s death on the cross.” Don Carson puts it this way:
Since Christ died on my behalf, bearing my penalty, then because of Christ’s death I am clear of that penalty imposed by the law. I am dead in relation to law because of Christ’s death; I am crucified with Christ. In that sense, I no longer live.
In other words, “I have been crucified with Christ” is simply another way of saying what he says later in the same verse: “I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for (hyper) me” (Gal. 2:20c).
Incorporation is a fruit of our union with Christ by faith. It is not the presupposition of Christ’s death, but its result. As Paul makes clear in Romans 6, it is only as we are baptised into Christ’s death that we become the beneficiaries of all he did for us.
Incorporation, then, is a fruit of our union with Christ by faith. It is not the presupposition of Christ’s death, but its result. As Paul makes clear in Romans 6, it is only as we are baptised into Christ’s death that we become the beneficiaries of all he did for us in his doing and dying (cf. vv. 3-11). Packer sums up the point helpfully:
We identify with Christ against the practice of sin because we have already identified him as the one who took our place under sentence for sin. We enter upon the life of repentance because we have learned that he first endured for us the death of reparation. The Christ into whom we now accept incorporation is the Christ who previously on the cross became our propitiation—not, therefore, one in whom we achieve our reconciliation with God, but one through whom we receive it as free gift based on a finished work (cf. Rom. 5:10); and we love him, because he first loved us and gave himself for us.
The simple conclusion to be drawn from this brief study is this: as vital and necessary as representation and incorporation are for our salvation, we cannot do without the more central and foundational reality of substitution. Certainly, it was necessary for Jesus to represent us in order to die for us. And there is no doubt that it was always the Father’s purpose to incorporate us into Christ that we might receive the benefits of his passion. But at the very point where Christ atoned for our sins (i.e., in the shedding of his blood upon the cross) he acted as our substitute, dying in our stead. Billy James Foote, therefore, has it right:
I’m forgiven because you were forsaken.
I’m accepted; You were condemned.
For such “amazing love” the Saviour of Sinner deserves our endless praise, eternal allegiance and “undying love” (Eph. 6:24).
Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing! (Rev. 5:12)
 In fact, as J. I. Packer suggests, there are good reasons to speak of Christ as our “representative substitute” (“What Did the Cross Achieve?: The Logic of Penal Substitution,” Tyndale Bulletin 25 , 20-21).
 Peter G. Bolt, The Cross from a Distance: Atonement in Mark’s Gospel (Leicester: IVP, 2004), 141.
 Leon L. Morris, The Cross in the New Testament (Exeter: Paternoster, 1976), 21.
 Packer, “What Did the Cross Achieve?,” 24-25.
 James Denney, The Death of Christ (New Canaan: Keats, 1981 [first published 1902]), 236.
 Richard Gaffin refers to this as “the redemptive-historical ‘in Christ.’” See Richard B. Gaffin, “Union with Christ: Some Biblical and Theological Reflections,” in Always Reforming: Explorations in Systematic Theology, ed. Andrew T. B. McGowan (Leicester: Apollos, 2006), 275. Emphasis his.
 Richard N. Longenecker, Galatians (Waco: Word, 1990), 92.
 D. A. Carson, Love in Hard Places (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2002), 165.
 Denney, The Death of Christ, p. 307.
 Packer, “What Did the Cross Achieve?,” 24.
 This is affirmed in Scripture by repeated references to the fact that we have been redeemed, saved, cleansed, purified, forgiven, justified, sanctified by “his blood” (Matt. 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20; Acts 20:28; Rom. 3:25; 5:9; 1 Cor. 11:25; Eph. 1:7; 2:13; Col. 1:20; Heb. 9:12, 14; 13:12; 1 Pet. 1:2, 19; 1 John 1:7; Rev. 1:5; 5:9). The focus of such texts is not upon the life Christ lived as one of us but on the death he died instead of us. See Alan Stibbs, “The Meaning of the Word ‘Blood’ in Scripture”, in Such a Great Salvation: The Collected Essays of Alan Stibbs, ed. Andrew Atherstone (Fearn: Mentor, 2008), 171-184.
 Billy James Foote, “You Are My King (Amazing Love).” © 1999 worshiptogether.com songs (ASCAP), admin. CapitolCMGPublishing.com.