Did Jesus Die “In Our Place”?

It is argued by those in the anti-vicarious-death-of-Jesus camp that the Bible nowhere teaches that Jesus died “in our place” or “in our stead.” One such proponent is bro. Maurice Barnett. I’ll be using his multi-volume work The Scheme of Redemption as my main source, specifically Volume II—Reconciliation.[1] He spends twenty-seven pages reviewing the various Greek prepositions he believes render the vicarious (substitutionary) death of Jesus indefensible. His primary focus is on anti and huper, which are typically translated “for” in the critical passages.[2] But even Barnett is forced to admit that such usage is not, in and of itself, definitive. This is due, in large part, to the ambiguous and imprecise nature of these words—words in which the context determines their meaning. When we add to this the fact that the meaning of these words is all too frequently influenced by the color of one’s own theological leanings, we have sufficient reason to suspect anyone’s ipse dixit that “the Bible nowhere speaks of Jesus dying ‘in our stead,’” which is a refrain often heard from the other side. Barnett, himself, even touches on this very thing: “The prepositions, anti and huper, are both translated, in most instances, by the English word, for. In pursuit of understanding these words, we’ll find that lexical and grammatical authorities are so contradictory, and in many instances self-serving, that at times they are as confusing as they are informative.” He follows this with: “A consensus of lexical sources tells us that anti means over, for, to, opposed to, before, because of, over against, exchange, in the place of, instead of. Some lexical authorities will also assign ‘on behalf of’ as a meaning as well.” Finally, he says: “Huper has a basic meaning of over, above, upon, across, and then for, for one’s advantage, for the sake of, on behalf of. Many will also assign the meaning of ‘in the place.’”

Now, I’m not questioning Barnett’s observations in the above quotes. It’s certainly possible, even likely, that the definitions of words may be theologically driven. But it is also quite possible that these prepositions have different meanings based on the context in which they’re used. After all, this is the way it is with prepositions, in that a preposition “is a word that shows the relationship between a noun or a pronoun and some other word or element in the rest of the sentence.”[3] This means the case, syntactic relationship, and position of the noun can all affect the meaning of the preposition being used and thus the very meaning of the sentence itself. All this is just a technical way of saying that context plays a significant role in determining the meaning of a preposition. This is illustrated by the examples below.[4]

1 John 4:3—“over against”
Matthew 2:22; 5:38; Romans 12:17—“in place of”
Matthew 17:27—“on behalf of”

Romans 9:3—“in place of”
Philemon 1:13—“on behalf of”

Thus, it should be obvious that a dialog with grammarians, lexicographers, and the like will not produce a definitive answer to the question of whether or not Jesus did, in fact, die “in our place.” Instead, the context (immediate, general, and even remote) serves as an important guide to the correct interpretation of a passage. Those who claim otherwise are either ignorant of this fact or playing loosely with it. Therefore, I was disappointed to hear Barnett, apparently with a straight face, say, “I do not believe the substitution theory to be scriptural in the first place and thus huper could not indicate what does not exist, regardless of whether or not that at times it may mean ‘in the place of’ in some secular sources.” In other words, if bro. Barnett doesn’t believe it, then it just ain’t true, and this no matter what the evidence may indicate. Is this the interpretative touchstone those of you who hold bro. Barnett’s basic position use to arrive at your conclusions on this matter? If so, then shame on you.

Then there’s that question that seems to hang over this discussion like a pall. You know the one I’m talking about. It asks, “Where is the scripture that specifically says Jesus died in our place?” By “specifically,” the questioner means “explicitly” and “unequivocally,” and it’s a question that continues to be asked in spite of the fact that Isaiah 53, 2 Corinthians 5:21, Galatians 3:13, and 1 Peter 2:24 have been mentioned repeatedly by me and others throughout these proceedings. As anyone who has spent much time studying this issue knows, the preposition huper plays a critical role in each of the NT passages mentioned above. If it can be shown there is plausible evidence that the context of these passages favors an “in place of” or “instead of” meaning, then my non-vicarious-death-of-Jesus brethren have, exegetically speaking, a very high mountain to climb. Consequently, in the posts that follow, we’ll be taking a little closer look at the context of these passages.



[1] Barnett’s views may also be referenced in a five-article series in the Gospel Anchor entitled “The Vicarious Death of Christ?” http://www.biblebanner.com/ga_art/deity/vicar.htm.

[2]However, in this series of posts, I’ll be concentrating almost exclusively on the preposition huper.

[3] See the online blog “Grammar Revolution” at http://www.english-grammar-revolution.com/what-is-a-preposition.html.

[4] One needs to keep in mind that I’m not referring to how these prepositions have actually been translated in the various versions. Instead, I’m making a point about their obvious use vis-à-vis the context in which they’re found.

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