This is a major point of conflict between the Western and Eastern Christian traditions.
The Western view is based on tribal Germanic mythology, which bears an inherently vindictive and punitive view of God’s wrath. The image of God that arises from this tradition is closest to the literary image of the grouchy Norse god. It makes God’s wrath unpredictable and capricious. This is a pagan view; it is not consistent with the Bible. This is why Western Christian theology tends to view Jesus as a departure from the God of the Old Testament, and hostile to the continuity between Jesus and the Old Testament.
The Eastern view does not see fallen men as evil, but as sick. Instead of the Western need of placating an angry God, this is the view that we need healing for our warped understanding. The Eastern church prefers the term “recapitulation” instead of “atonement.” The call of Christ is more of union than paying a penalty. The Eastern Christ reunites fallen man with God’s ideal; it’s a stronger focus on the work of His life than on His death. It’s a much stronger emphasis on the dual nature of Christ.
We find both views lacking in the sense of a false dichotomy. We emphasize the centrality of covenant in what we teach here. Everything is explained by referring to the applicable covenant. For us, Christ came to restore the covenant communion we had with God in the Garden of Eden. The mission of Christ was to bring us back to the Flaming Sword so we could enter Eden again. We don’t explain it in abstractions nor mere symbolism, but in terms of biblical narrative.
The problem with the Fall was asserting the primacy of human self, the intellect over faith. We are all equipped with the mechanism of faith, but our sense of the adequacy of reason stands in the way. We insist on discerning and reasoning out for ourselves what is good and what is evil. So long as we trust in our human capabilities, we exclude ourselves from redemption.
The death of Jesus was substitutionary in the sense that, once we bought into Satan’s lie about trusting our own intellects and becoming our own gods, we were flatly unable to find our way back to faith. This placed us outside of Eden and under wrath, deserving of eternal destruction. Jesus took our destruction upon Himself. His work was both restoration of divine truth and healing, but also opened showed us the path back to Eden. We can choose self-death before we come to the grave.
This in inherent in the Old Testament. There, the path of revelation was God’s chosen self-disclosure through the various covenants. It began with the simple Covenant of Seth just outside of Eden. As mankind traveled farther and farther from Eden, things get more complicated for a return to the Flaming Sword. Next came the Covenant of Noah, rather clearly stated in prophecy Noah gave before the Flood. But mankind traveled farther still from Eden. Sometime later, at least one man reached the self-death of the Flaming Sword: Abraham. The Covenant of Abraham is a genuine covenant of faith, the first recorded instance of a very personal communion between God and man. It was implied under the Covenant of Noah, but was offered only upon reaching that point of self-death. Abraham was marked for return to Eden.
However, Abraham was also the first link in the Covenant of Moses. Moses was a specific implementation of the broader Covenant of Noah, a much more clear and precise contextual statement of Noah. During the time of ancient Israel, the path back to Eden — now quite long — meant a great deal of struggle to find the Flaming Sword and make use it for self-death. Moses was meant to create a condition of longing for peace with God, but it was by then a very difficult path. Still, it was the best path, though Noah’s Covenant was still open to those who were not called to Moses.
Jesus used the term “born from above” with Nicodemus. Paul says that spiritual birth is entirely a matter of God’s initiative and election of recipients. We do not “get” it; we realize that God chose us and embrace it with joy. It is beyond us to even understand it, and Paul flatly says we cannot want it because self-death is necessary for it. The fleshly self cannot wish for its own death; it cannot embrace the Flaming Sword. Only the power of God awakening the dead human spirit can overcome the resistance of the flesh. Jesus didn’t bring us this spiritual birth. It was always there. Abraham was elect; clearly the likes of Samuel and King David were beyond the point of self-death. Jesus was disappointed that Nicodemus exhibited no self-death level of personal faith and understanding after having so long tread the path of the Covenant.
What Jesus brought us was the shortcut back to the Flaming Sword. Instead of treading a long path of conditioning under the Law Covenants (Moses and Noah), we can take a shortcut to the Covenant of Faith (like Abraham) and receive the awakening of our awareness of divine election. We don’t have to first submerge our lives in some Law Covenant, but we can find faith freely and seize the Flaming Sword.
But what is supposed to follow that discovery of election is then to go back and devote the rest of our lives to that long path of learning what the Law Covenants were designed to teach our flesh. We can’t know what Abraham had accomplished before God called him into covenant, but we do know that his mistakes indicate how his faith had to grow. This is where we find ourselves today. Christ paid the price of that long trek up front; He substituted His own sinless life on the Cross so we didn’t have to carry one to get back to the Flaming Sword and the Gate of Eden. But we do have to carry one once we embrace His sacrifice on our behalf.
Just a reminder: In Paul’s writings in particular, but in the New Testament in general, the references to “the Law” often mean something other than Moses. You have to read it in context, because sometimes it refers to the Talmud, not Moses. Sometimes it refers to legalism as the mental habit of Pharisees, portraying them as some awful, implacable law, because they were often part of the Jewish government. At other times, it does, indeed, refer to the Covenant of Moses. But because people don’t grasp the contextual distinctions, they become legalistic about the words “not under law but under grace.”
Law is grace. It came as a measure of God’s mercy to bring us back to the Flaming Sword, and back to the Gate of Eden. The Law points the way, but it cannot of itself give you faith. That comes only when you embrace self-death. Only God knows if, when and how you can get there.