Nothing but the Blood of Jesus
I don't doubt that we have more to learn from Christ's death than simply the fact that he died as a substitute for us, bearing our grief and carrying our sorrows (Isa. 53:4). Peter, for instance, teaches that we should follow Christ's example of suffering for that which is good ( 1 Pet. 3). Any biblical understanding of the Atonement must take into account our having been united to Christ by faith, adopted and regenerated in him. As those who belong to him, as his temple and his body, we expect the fruit of his Spirit to be evident in us. Because of the Atonement, we expect a new quality to our lives (Rom. 6; 2 Cor. 5; Gal. 5; 2 Pet. 1). The Atonement is not merely moral influence, but it surely results in moral improvement.
Rather than pitting these theories against one another, couldn't they be evaluated together? A Christ who wins victory over the powers of evil, whose death changes us, and whose death propitiates God is not only conceivable, he seems to be the Bible's composite presentation. Frank Thielman of Beeson Divinity School states a traditional view of the Atonement in his recent summary, Theology of the New Testament (Zondervan, 2005). But Thielman, a scholar who has focused his work more on Paul than on the Gospels, also presents the Cross as a defeat of those cosmic powers opposing God—Christus Victor. As Hans Boersma wrote of Atonement theories in Books & Culture (March/April, 2003), "By allowing the entire choir to sing together, I suspect we may end up serving the interests of God's eschatological shalom."
Still, when we give attention and authority to all parts of the New Testament canon, substitution becomes the center and focus of the Bible's witness to the meaning of Christ's death, and the measure of God's redeeming love. As New Testament theologian George Eldon Ladd said, "The objective and substitutionary character of the death of Christ as the supreme demonstration of God's love should result in a transformation of conduct that is effected by the constraining power of that love." Theologian Donald Bloesch is in line with this when he insists: "Evangelical theology affirms the vicarious, substitutionary Atonement of Jesus Christ. It does not claim that this theory does justice to all aspects of Christ's atoning work, but it does see substitution as the heart of the Atonement."
No Sacrifice Too Great
And what about that charge of being "too Atonement-centered"? We must center our lives around Christ's Atonement. We don't want to encourage violence, marginalize the gospel, or promote individualistic passivity. But I haven't seen sinners who are gripped by Christ's substitutionary death respond that way. Instead, I've more often observed responses like C. T. Studd's famous statement: "If Jesus Christ be God, and died for me, then no sacrifice can be too great for me to make for him." Charles Spurgeon put that point well: "It is our duty and our privilege to exhaust our lives for Jesus. We are not to be living specimens of men in fine preservation, but living sacrifices, whose lot is to be consumed."
Dever takes issue with Scot McKnight's handling of Scripture, and Scot replies at his blog, http://www.jesuscreed.org/?p=959 , but then says something similar to Dever.
First, I'm thankful that Jesus died for our sins (including mine). His life, his death, his burial, his resurrection, and his sending of the Spirit are all "for us" — not for himself, but all for us.
Second, in his death, as Paul says in Roman 6 and Galatians 2, he represented us — both exclusively (called substitution) and inclusively (called co-crucifixion). He both died for us and we die with him.
Third, as we find in Colossians 2, in his death and resurrection march into the presence of God, he liberated us. He conquered the systemic and demonic enemies, nailed them to the cross, and defeated them so we could live in the power of his resurrection. He is the ransom price paid for us so that we could be set free.
Fourth, overall, to use the language of Irenaeus and Athanasius, which are based on Romans 5, he recapitulated our life: he became what we are so we might become what he is.
Fifth, he identified with us "all the way down." Phil 2:6-11 shows that Jesus came to earth to become like us and in doing so he died for us. By identifying with us, he is our substitution who takes on the very depth of our punishment, even death, even death on a cross, so that he might lift us into the presence of God.
Sixth, he not only dies for us but he gives us in his death a new paradigm for life: we are to die to ourselves, deny ourselves, and make the cross the paradigm of how we live — and that we means we enter into his life by making the cross our own.