Jesus’ death was Substitutionary. But it was also much more than that! I sometimes feel as though Christians have focused so much on the Substitutionary aspect of the Atonement that they do so at the peril of Christus Victor.
Sometimes these two aspects of the one and same Atonement get confused. People speak of the Penal Substitutionary Atonement and then use words like “broken” or “victorious”.
The Penal Substitutionary Atonement is what it is: a penalty paid by one who is innocent in place of one who is guilty (Lev 16:9-10). There is no sense of victory in this, only blood. No broken chains, only a broken body. No Lion of Judah, only a Slaughtered Lamb.
To speak of Christus Victor is to survey the Cross from a broader perspective. To ask the question: What for did the Son of Man come? The scriptures reply: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the Devil” (1 John 3:8; cf. Gen 3:1-15). Defeating the works of the Devil includes both Sin – since Sin entered after Adam and Eve fell for the Serpents deception – and Death, which is the result of Sin (cf. John 1:29; Rom 6:9 as examples).
But Isn’t the Cross all about the Sacrificial and Substitutionary death of Christ? How does the Cross facilitate the Victory of Christ?
Christ came to Reverse all that Adam had managed to destroy. Adam, by his disobedience and pride, brought about the sorry state which creation has found itself in ever since (Rom 5:12). But the Great Reversal of Christ (sung as it was in that great hymn of Philippians 2:6-11) was dramatically accomplished at the Cross. A Penal Substitution does not require a Cross, but only a death, any criminal death. But to undo the works of the Devil, the rebellion of Adam and the effects which followed required not just any criminal death, but the lowliest of all criminal deaths: that he “became obedient to death – even death on a cross!” so the early Christians sang.
Jesus’ death was Substitutionary, yes. But it was also much more than that.