Shelf Life Book Review: Defending Substitution

Abram Kielsmeier-Jones

Defending Substitution: An Essay on Atonement in Paul
Baker Academic, 2015

Simon Gathercole’s short volume is an excellent resource for students of theology. Despite the author’s repeated (and mildly distracting) assertions that such-and-such a subpoint is beyond the scope of his 128-page book, it is hard to imagine a better succinct, introductory treatment of substitutionary atonement.

The essay’s goal is to “argue that Christ’s death for our sins in our place, instead of us, is in fact a vital ingredient in the biblical (in the present discussion, Pauline) understanding of atonement” (14). Gathercole reaches this goal through: (a) exploring other views of atonement that look past substitution, mining them for what they have to offer and critiquing where they fall short; and (b) exegeting Scripture to “make a positive case for substitution” (55).

Two passages serve as case studies: “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3) and “Christ died for us” (Rom 5:6–8). In dying for our sins, Jesus died “because of” them and “thereby saves others from the consequence of sin” (72). In dying for us, Jesus died vicariously, taking our place.

Gathercole charitably yet persuasively argues his case that a substitutionary view of atonement is necessary to be faithful to the biblical witness. At the same time, his rootedness in Scripture allows him to honor the good in other atonement theories. The reader finishes the book with a deeper appreciation of the multifaceted nature of Christ’s work on the cross.

This review also appears in the May-June '16 issue of Bible Study Magazine.