10 Things You Should Know about the Vicarious Confession/Repentance Theory of the Atonement1
This theory of the atonement will likely strike most Christians as bizarre, and rightly so!
(1) The primary advocate of this theory was the Scottish theologian and intellectual leader, John McLeod Campbell (1800-1872). Campbell was instructed at home by his father from an early age and was fluent in Latin before entering the University of Glasgow in 1811. He received additional training at the University of Edinburgh. His vigorous defense of unlimited atonement put him at odds with his presbytery and subjected him to the charge of teaching heresy. He was removed from ministry and for a few years worked as an evangelist in the Scottish Highlands. His primary ministry was found in his work as a pastor and author.
(2) Campbell articulated his theology of atonement in his book The Nature of the Atonement (1856). It may well be that Campbell embraced this theory principally to maintain his belief in the universal extent of the atonement, for he believed the penal substitutionary theory logically entailed restricting the benefits of Christ’s sufferings to the elect. He says this concerning John Owen’s Death of Death in the Death of Christ:
“As addressed to those who agreed with him as to the nature of the atonement, while differing with him as to the extent of its reference, this seems unanswerable” (1873, 4th ed., 51).
In the interests of fairness, it must be pointed out that some still maintain that Campbell did not deny all elements in penal substitution. Even if that is true, there can be no escaping the fact that his primary point of emphasis was on the vicarious confession and repentance that Jesus offered up on our behalf.
(3) Some contend Campbell derived his theory from Jonathan Edwards, who wrote:
“It is requisite that God should punish all sin with infinite punishment; because all sin, as it is against God, is infinitely heinous, and has infinite demerit, is justly infinitely hateful to him, and so stirs up infinite abhorrence and indignation in him. Therefore, it is requisite that God should punish it, unless there be something in some measure to balance this desert; either some answerable repentance or sorrow for it, or other compensation” (Essay on Satisfaction for Sin, NY ed. I:583).
(4) It must be remembered, however, that Edwards rejected the possibility of an “answerable repentance,” for repentance is possible only by those who have sinned, and whatever degree of repentance someone might produce, it “is as nothing in comparison with the injury” done by him in sinning.
(5) Campbell begins by affirming that Christ suffered as an atoning sacrifice but not as a penal substitute:
“The sufferer suffers what he suffers just through seeing sin and sinners with God’s eyes, and feeling in reference to them with God’s heart. Is such suffering a punishment? Is God in causing such a divine experience in humanity inflicting a punishment? There can be but one answer” (117).
And that answer is No.
“While Christ suffered for our sins as an atoning sacrifice, what he suffered was not – because from its nature it could not be – a punishment” (101).
(6) Campbell then argues, contrary to Edwards, that Christ himself offered an adequate sorrow, confession, and repentance for sin. He explains:
“That oneness of mind with the Father, which toward man took the form of condemnation of sin, would in the Son’s dealing with the Father in relation to our sins, take the form of a perfect confession of our sins. This confession as to its own nature must have been a perfect Amen in humanity to the judgment of God on the sin of man. . . That response has all the elements of a perfect repentance in humanity for all the sin of man, - perfect sorrow - a perfect contrition - all the elements of such a repentance, and that in absolute perfection, all except the personal consciousness of sin; and in that perfect response in Amen to the mind of God in relation to sin is the wrath of God rightly met, and that is accorded to divine justice which is its due, and could alone satisfy it” (117-18).
(7) God’s justice is thus satisfied, not by Christ enduring the penalty of the law, but by his perfect confession of sin on our behalf. Christ uttered forth in his life and death a heart-felt “Amen!” to the assessment of God against human rebellion.
(8) “We feel that such a repentance as we are supposing would be the true and proper satisfaction to offended justice, and that there would be more atoning worth in one tear of the true and perfect sorrow than in endless ages of penal woe” (125).
(9) The element of truth in this theory is that Christ did, in point of fact, live the sort of humble and obedient life that acknowledged the justice of God and did, in point of fact, experience on our behalf the heartfelt sorrow that we should have felt for the sin we committed. But this alone, apart from suffering the due penalty of divine justice against sin, could never save us.
(10) For a more positive assessment of Campbell’s concept of atonement, see Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1996), pp. 287-317.