How can it be possible for guilt to be transferred from one person to another? How can it be possible for Jesus Christ, the sinless one, to bear away the guilt of me, a sinner?
In his book Scandalous Don Carson reminds us of an illustration that is quite often used by preachers: a judge pronounces a guilty sentence on a criminal. Then he steps down from the bench, takes off his robes, and takes the person’s place in prison or writes out a cheque to cover the fine.
Although not mentioned by Carson, one could imagine a variant of this illustration, in which it is not the judge himself who bears the punishment, but rather the judge’s son.
Now, these illustrations are not completely devoid of truth. They do suggest some kind of penal substitution, and to that extent are indicative of the atonement. In that regard, they encapsulate a better theology than simple ‘Jesus loves me’ illustrations, in which, perhaps, we might grotesquely imagine some random person running towards a cliff-edge shouting, “I love you, I love you, I love you”, and then killing himself by jumping onto the jagged rocks far below. As if anything like that could secure our eternal forgiveness!
But both versions of the law-court illustration are inadequate, because the actions they speak of are inherently unjust. For one thing, Christian theology insists that in the matter of sin it is God who is the most offended party, and in a human court a judge would not be allowed to try a person who had committed an offence against him personally. For another thing, the criminal is still guilty; his moral state remains the same.
So how can it be possible for a righteous God to transfer not only our punishment but also our guilt to Another?
Derek Rishmawy puts it quite well, I think. The answer comes when we consider that Jesus is the Christ – God’s anointed one, the Messiah. Just as a king acts as his people’s representative, so that in battle his victory is their victory, so Jesus acts as the mediator of the new covenant relationship, so that what is true of him is true of all his people. In our individualistic age, we find this hard to appreciate, but Scripture is quite clear: just as in Adam all die, so all those who are in Christ live (Rom 5:12-20).
‘We ought not to think of Christ dying to deal with the sins of people as some simple swap of any random innocent person for a bunch of guilty people. It is the death of the King who can legally represent his people in a unique, but appropriate fashion before the bar of God’s justice. He is our substitute because he is our representative. Strictly speaking there are no proper analogies, but there is a moral logic that is deeply rooted in the biblical narrative.’