Jewish and Christian views on substitutionary atonement

“To read John Owen, says Sinclair B. Ferguson, is to enter a rare world. Whenever I return to one of his works I find myself asking “Why do I spend time reading lesser literature?”

I’m reading Owen’s majestic three-volume work on the Epistle to the Hebrews. His writing is extremely dense and unless the loins of your mind and your will are well girded, you’re going to throw in the towel. Here is Owen on the atonement through Christ as the fountain of salvation:

“Whereas God was highly incensed with, and provoked against all and every one of those whom he was to save and bring to glory, they having all by sin come short thereof, and rendered themselves obnoxious to the law and its curse ; it was requisite for attaining the ends of this covenant, that he [the Messiah, Jesus/Yeshua] should, as the servant of the Father, make an atonement for sin in and by our nature assumed, and answer the justice of God by suffering and undergoing what was due unto them, without which it was not possible that they should be delivered or saved unto the glory of God (Isaiah 53:12). And as all the other terms of the covenant, so this in particular he undertook to make good; namely, that he would interpose himself between the law and sinners, by undergoing the penalty thereof; and between divine justice itself and sinners, to make atonement for them. And so are we come to the well-head, or the fountain of salvation. Here lieth the immediate sacred spring and foundation of the priesthood of Christ, and of the sacrifice of himself, which, in the discharge of that office he offered unto God.”

(Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, Volume 1)

Here is Isaiah 53:11-12, which Owen referenced above:

“11 He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities. 12 Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”

Who are these transgressors? They are all mankind; the Jew, however, stands out, because “unto them were committed the words of God” (Romans 3:2b) but they rejected their suffering Messiah. (Not all the Jews rejected the Messiah). Here is Romans 3:2b in context:

“What advantage then hath the Jew? or what profit is there of circumcision? Much every way: chiefly, because that unto them were committed the words of God. For what if some did not believe? shall their unbelief make the faith of God without effect? God forbid: yea, let God be true, but every man a liar; as it is written, That thou mightest be justified in thy sayings, and mightest overcome when thou art judged (Romans 3:1-4).

Paul says later:

“I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost, That I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart. For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh: Who are Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises; Whose are the fathers, and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen” (Romans 9:1-5).

With regard to atonement, it is the general belief of Orthodox Judaism that somebody else cannot atone for your sins. Therefore, the Christian concept of substitutionary atonement is rejected, because salvation results when a person atones for his own sin through personal repentance and fulfilling the law. Here are two examples of this position:

The Baal Shem Tov states that while we cannot actively change others we can and should change ourselves to help others.

English: Baal Shem Tov

English: Baal Shem Tov (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


“If you want to, you can overpower the Evil Inclination, as it says, ‘…it desires to control you, but you can overpower it” (Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 30b).

The above statements are based on biblical texts such as Deuteronomy 30:19-20:

“I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live: 20 That thou mayest love the Lord thy God, and that thou mayest obey his voice, and that thou mayest cleave unto him: for he is thy life, and the length of thy days: that thou mayest dwell in the land which the LORD sware unto thy fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.”

Romans 10:1-4 brings Deuteronomy 30 to remembrance:

“1 Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved. 2 For I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge. 3 For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God. 4 For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth.”

In spite of the general Jewish belief that salvation is achieved through self-effort, there are
several places in the rabbinic literature that speak of substitutionary atonement. Here are two examples:

Berakoth (Benedictions) 62b of the Babylonian Talmud reads, “R. Eleazar said: The Holy One, blessed be He, said to the Angel: Take a great man [rab] among them, through whose death many sins can be expiated for them. And the Moed Katan (“Little Festival”) 28a says that Miriam’s death helped the community obtain forgiveness for its sins.

The glaring issue in reconciliation between God and man is the relationship between substitutionary atonement and personal atonement that is, personal responsibility, which I have discussed in several places elsewhere.

2 thoughts on “Jewish and Christian views on substitutionary atonement

  1. Here’s the Jewish view of “substitutionary atonement” (the Christian concept that G-d is fundamentally unjust, and that He rewards sin and reserves punishment for the innocent–Jesus “died for your sins”):

    “The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself.”–Ezekiel 18:20

    “Everyone will die for their own sin.”–Jeremiah 31:30

    “Each will die for their own sin.”–Deuteronomy 24:16

    As you can see, the Jewish view, which comes directly from the Jewish Bible, is quite inhospitable to Christian “substitutionary atonement” doctrine. When will you stop repudiating personal responsibility?

    • Anon, you have said on several occasions on this site and elsewhere that it is YOU/ISRAEL in Isaiah 53 who atones for the sins of the nations (goyim), and now you also claim that no one (I assume you include a goat and a bull) can atone for another person’s sin.

      “And the LORD said to Moses, ‘Say to the people of Israel, If any one sins unwittingly in any of the things which the LORD has commanded not to be done, and does any one of them, if it is the anointed priest who sins, THUS BRINGING GUILT UPON THE PEOPLE, then let him offer for the sin which he has committed a young bull without blemish to the LORD for a sin offering.’” Leviticus 4:1-3

      Isaiah 53:5-6 “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of wour peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. 6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

      As I’ve said on several occasions, I grant you the forum to lambast Christianity, and give you unbridled freedom you don’t get anywhere else. The fact that you don’t have the courage to put your money where your anonymous mouth is, is telling. For all we know, you might be nothing but a porte-parole. Not to worry, my door is always open. Alas, I’ll have to put that bit back on your bridle. But not to worry I’ll go gently on the reins.

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