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Teaching Children the Substitutionary Atonement Based on Luke 23

I have often used the story of the two thieves on the cross to explain the substitutionary atonement of Christ. Both children and adults can learn from this simple chart!

The pertinent verses are Luke 23:40-43.

The penitent thief says, “Don’t you fear God, since we are under the same sentence? We are punished justly for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

When using it:
1. I would draw the three crosses.
2. I would ask what was true of the two thieves. Then I would fill in the boxes above their heads. The two criminals are guilty. Since the wages of sin is death (Romans 3:23), then they and we all deserve death.
3. I would ask what was true of Jesus. Then I would fill in the box above his head. Notice it says “Righteous” not “Innocent.” There is a difference. Innocent would indicate that Jesus never sinned. Of course, he did not ever sin. But there is something more. Jesus also actively obeyed the Father and fulfilled the law perfectly. He is righteous. Negatively, he never sinned. Positively, he obeyed the Father.
4. I would ask, “So, how does the thief get to be in paradise?” Then I draw the line from the thief to Jesus. And then the line from Jesus to the thief. The guilt and death that we deserve is placed on Jesus at the cross. And his righteousness and eternal life is given to us.

(During this time I might make the point that the other thief’s sins were still on him. He died and is in hell today. In addition, just like those two thieves we each have a choice to make.)

Theologians call this act of having our sins placed on Jesus and his righteousness placed to our account double imputation.

Thus technically, as Christians, we are not just innocent but righteous. The righteousness of Christ has come to us.

When I teach this to older students I use another illustration. Imagine a white 3×5 card with all of our sins written on it. Now what happens at the cross? Most students will say those sins are somehow erased on the white 3×5 card. Instead I take the white card and give them a yellow 3×5 card representing the righteousness of Christ. We are now saints.

Or another way to illustrate it is to think, as the Bible does, of sin as debt. Imagine that before Christ our heavenly debt is a million dollars (or ten thousand talents Matt 18:24). After we come to Christ, repenting of our sins, trusting in his payment on the cross, what then is our heavenly bank account? Most Christians will say the debt has been forgiven and the account is at zero. But this is WRONG. It is not at zero but it is a million dollars to the positive! Christ forgives our sin AND gives us his righteousness. What great news!

God made him who knew no sin be sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). What a great truth!

Figure 2 Cross

This illustration comes from The Disciple-Making Parent page 78.

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