Salvation: Substitutionary Atonement & Regeneration

In a very real sense, Christ took our place on the cross. Humanity rightly deserved to die, and to die horribly for sinful thoughts, rebellion against God, and as a consequence of our actions. Enter Jesus. The Prophet Isaiah explained what the cross would be 700 years before it happened. He put it this way:

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:4-6 ESV).

God lovingly provided a solution to humanity’s sin problem by sending his only Son to suffer and die in our place. This is what theologians call substitutionary atonement. It is the only definition of atonement that matches the Old Testament examples.

In the end, both questions (why the cross? and how the cross?) cannot be fully answered. We must simply accept that this is the way that God has chosen by his grace to deal with our sin problem without destroying us. Christ became our atoning sacrifice.

Jesus, the Messiah, cooperated with the Father’s plan by giving of himself, sacrificing his life on the cross as our atoning sacrifice. Christ gave himself when enabled us to have new life. He also gave us his Holy Spirit to complete the work of salvation that he made possible. The Holy Spirit gives us guidance, supernatural gifts and power for ministry, and produces the fruit of righteousness in our lives.[1] He is the Regenerator. He applies the atonement to our lives, and produces the change that the cross made possible.

Jesus Explained Regeneration

While conversing with a Jewish religious teacher, Jesus explained what regeneration is. Nicodemus, who should have understood these things, did not have a clue.

Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”[2]

People do not give birth to themselves. That was the nature of the rebirth process that Nicodemus could not understand. He asked “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”[3] As a religious professional, Nicodemus was used to being given a command, and working out how he was going to actively obey that command. He was a “hands on” religious practitioner. He did not ask “what?” or “why?” or even “who?” He asked “how?” because he was comfortable with a religion that required him to do something.

But when Jesus said that regeneration was like a new birth, he implied that the one being born is passive in the process. No one gives birth to himself. The Holy Spirit is the active participant in the process, and the believer is the passive recipient. In natural birth, two parents come together, have sexual relations and a child is conceived as a result. The child has no say in the process of his conception. He is conceived of flesh, planned by flesh, nurtured during gestation by flesh, and when his birthday arrives – there he is: a bouncing baby flesh.

Jesus taught Nicodemus that spiritual rebirth works the same way. It is God’s Holy Spirit within the life of a believer that produces spiritual life. An unregenerate person is a degenerate. He produces only works of the flesh. They may be noble works of the flesh, or religious works of the flesh, or popular works of the flesh, but they are not God. They do not produce godliness, because God’s Holy Spirit is not there.

In true regeneration, the Holy Spirit applies the sovereign election of the Father, and the atoning sacrifice of the Son to the life of every true believer. The works that are produced are God’s works. The life within is God’s life. He blows around like a strong wind within the human lives of believers and leaves evidence of his existence among them.

By Rev. Jefferson Vann

(Rev. Jefferson Vann is a graduate of Berkshire Christian College, Columbia International University and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He and his wife Penny have been involved in Advent Christian ministry since 1984, serving as missionaries in the Philippines and New Zealand. Jeff is the author of “An Advent Christian Systematic Theology” and “Another Bible Commentary” and is a contributing editor to “Henceforth …”)


[1] see chapters 37-42.

[2] John 3:5-8 ESV.

[3] John 3:4 ESV.

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