How can we, who are so deeply unholy and unrighteous, be reconciled with God, who is gloriously holy and righteous? How can God express simultaneously his holiness in judgment and his love in pardon?
The astonishing, yet scriptural, answer, is, in the words of Cranfield, that
‘God, because in his mercy he willed to forgive sinful men, and, being truly merciful, willed to forgive them righteously, that is, without in any way condoning their sin, purposed to direct against his own very self in the person of his Son the full weight of that righteous wrath which they deserved.’
Old Testament Teaching
The idea of substitutionary sacrifice is deeply embedded in Old Testament teaching. This is clear in the OT references to ‘blood’ (life poured out in death) as a means of atonement (e.g. Lev 17:11; cf. Heb 9:22; 10:4).
In the Passover, God is both Judge and Saviour. Salvation was by substitution: only those firstborn males were spared in whose families a firstborn lamb had died instead. The lamb’s blood had to be sprinkled after its death; there had to be individual appropriation of the divine provision.
What of the idea of ‘sin-bearing’? It has been claimed (by Socinus and others) that guilt cannot be transferred from one person to another. Christ is our substitute in that he bore our pain, but not in the sense that he bore our penalty. But it is clear from the Old Testament that to ‘bear sin’ means to bear the penalty for sin. The ritual on the Day of Atonement clearly illustrates this: one goat providing the blood sacrifice and the other bearing the sins away. Isa 53 contains a number of references to substitutionary sin-bearing, and these are taken up in the New Testament and applied to Christ.
Jesus himself affirmed the sin-bearing nature of his own death in Mk 10:45 and 14:24.
So, then, when the New Testament teaches that Christ died for us, the preposition is sometimes hyper (‘on behalf of’) and sometimes anti (‘in the place of’). Nowhere are the affirmations of substitutionary atonement more striking than in Gal 3:13 and 2 Cor 5:21. Both of these verses indicate that ‘when we are united to Christ a mysterious exchange takes place: he took our curse, so that we may receive his blessing; he became sin with our sin, so that we may become righteous with his righteousness.’ In this act of imputation, it was not moral qualities that were exchanged but legal consequences.
God the Substitute
Who was the substitute? If we conceive of him merely as the man Christ Jesus, as an independent third party, then we run the danger either of picturing him as intervening to pacify an angry God or as God using him as his whipping who is punished instead of the real culprits. These caricatures will not do, for they neglect that both the Father and the Son fully co-operated in the work of atonement. The Father willingly sent; the Son willingly came.
‘The Father did not lay on the Son an ordeal he was reluctant to bear, nor did the Son extract from the Father a salvation he was reluctant to bestow.’
If we should not conceive of the Father and the Son working independently of one another in the atonement, should we then say that they are to be completely identified? May we say that ‘God died for us’? Scripture indeed comes close to such language (Acts 20:28; Phil 2:6-8; 1 Cor 2:8). Nevertheless, Scripture does not go so far as to say, baldly, ‘God died’. For God, as God, is immortal. Moreover, when the New Testament refers to ‘God’ it generally refers to the Father, and it was not the Father who died, but the Son.
And over-emphasis on the sufferings of God on the cross may mislead us either into confusing the persons of the Trinity and denying the eternal distinctness of the Son, like the Modalists or Patripassians, or into confusing the natures of Christ, and denying that he was one person in two natures, like the Monophysites or Theopaschites.
Our substitute, then, is not Christ alone, nor God alone, but God in Christ.
‘The New Testament authors never attribute the atonement either to Christ in such a way as to disassociate him from the Father, or to God in such a way as to dispense with Christ, but rather to God and Christ, or to God acting in and through Christ with his whole-hearted concurrence.’
Jesus is ‘God with us’. God was ‘in Christ’ reconciling the world to himself. God so loved the world that he gave his Son. In Christ, all the fullness of God dwelt.
At the centre of the biblical doctrine of atonement, then, is the self-substitution of God.
‘We strongly reject, therefore, every explanation of the death of Christ which does not have at its centre the principle of “satisfaction through substitution”, indeed divine self-satisfaction through divine self-substitution. The cross was not a commercial bargain with the devil, let alone one which tricked and trapped him; nor an exact equivalent, a quid quo pro to satisfy a code of honour or technical point of law; nor a compulsory submission by God to some moral authority above him from which he could not otherwise escape; nor a punishment or a meek Christ by a harsh and punitive Father; nor a procurement of salvation by a loving Christ from a mean and reluctant Father; nor an action of the Father which bypassed Christ as Mediator. Instead, the righteous, loving Father humbled himself to become in and through his only Son flesh, sin and a curse for us, in order to redeem us without compromising his own character.’
Note two important inferences:
First, it is impossible to hold the historic doctrine of the cross without holding the historical doctrine of Jesus Christ. ‘At the root of every caricature of the cross there lies a distorted Christology’.
Second, we see in the cross our own fallenness and God’s provision for it. Let us give up all notions of paying for ourselves, of self-redemption, and cling to the cross of Christ.
Based on John Stott: The Cross of Christ, 133-163.