Joseph was told by an angel to name his son Jesus, because he would save his people from their sins (Matt. 1:21).
In times past in Egypt, the Passover lamb had borne people’s sins, but now Jesus came into the world to become the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). In our time, some would have us confess Jesus as Savior, but they suggest that he saved us by doing something other than taking our sin away. Or if they admit that sin needs to be taken away, then they say that Jesus does this by training us not to sin. In either case, we are left with something other than biblical salvation.
No plan of salvation that leaves out Christ’s payment for sin is a biblical plan of salvation. Yet I find that those who fight for this doctrine (may they always be given the honor that is their due) are often so focused on the truths under contention that they forget to flesh them out with other biblical truths. In the heat of battle, it is forgotten that we must not only contend for that part of the truth that is being attacked, but we must also tell the whole truth, even the part that might not be objected to. It might put the controversial statements in a new light. The doctrine of substitutionary atonement needs to be fleshed out with the doctrine of Christ’s deity, his two natures, and the Lord’s Supper if people are to see just how glorious a teaching is at stake.
Purchased with God’s Own Blood
The doctrine of substitutionary atonement teaches us that Christ saved us by paying for our sins; that is, he died in our place. As the Scriptures say, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Christ, who being sinless did not need to die, laid down his life for the sake of those who were condemned to death. The resurrection shows that God accepted the payment as complete. Christ was raised for our justification. It is what Luther called the great exchange. When we are united to Christ, God looks at us as if we had done our time. Eternal hell is our sentence, and we show up in God’s presence as if we had done the unthinkable and made full payment. Of course, we did not. Christ did it for us, but we receive the benefit.
Yet, many pastors have preached the cross in such a way that the most stunning element of the picture is missing, or at least hidden. At a specific point in human history, the almighty Second Person of the Trinity, the Lord of Glory, stooped down and took on a human nature. For our sake, he was condemned to death and suffered the wrath of God. This is a stranger, more glorious picture than we derive from the other ways of stating things that technically tell us of the same event.
When Jesus cried “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” the reality behind this cry staggers the imagination. God was forsaken by God. What we formerly knew of the Father in infinite holiness turning his back on his Son who had become sin for us remains true. But now we see God’s action in the bearing of his punishment. God, who is too holy to look upon sin, is at the same time God who so identifies with us that he suffers the abandonment of the holy God. If you have ever felt removed from God, you must realize that God knows what that is like.
It is important that this point be emphasized. There are too many people in the world who have heard of the crucified one spoken of as God’s Son, who never knew that he was God. What kind of thoughts about God does the cross kindle in such people? Are they overtaken by the wonder of divine mercy? Not really. While they may be thankful to Jesus that he was willing to take their place, they wonder about the character of God. He sounds like a harsh judge who is just happy that someone paid. It is not that he takes pleasure in setting people free, but that he is not particular about whom he punishes. If we do not know who Jesus is, we do not know to whom we should be grateful. When we learn that God willingly became the victim of his own rejection so that we could belong to him, all is different.
One of the worst fears that lurks in the back of our minds is that God’s punishment is unlimited by empathy. We fear that we are dealing with one whose attributes react like chemical formulas. Who wants to get crushed in the gears of an eternal principle? Who can be moved by an atonement reduced to a mathematical equation? Add perfect justice to perfect power and you get perfect hell. An infinite man can pay for all the sins of finite people, assuming he is innocent. Justice will be satisfied equally either way, by way of satisfaction or by way of retribution. It all makes sense on a chalkboard, but our human sensibilities balk, especially when we are speaking of something other than war criminals or child molesters. Sure, some people may deserve to pay for their crimes, but just how much wrath do they deserve?
God’s involvement in redemption changes the nature of the problem. He is not sitting in a laboratory dispassionately concocting a perfect justice to threaten humanity, while resting in the knowledge that his perfect goodness cannot be questioned. To be sure, God could have done this, and we would be in no position of moral superiority to question it. But that would have been a hopeless situation for us. God’s justice would to us be merely a formal invitation. Lurking doubts as to the justice of God would be silenced by prudence. Our self-protectiveness would tell us, “Don’t complain about the problem unless you want it to be a problem for you.”
God’s solution is better. It has all of the advantages of satisfying perfect justice as demanded by his attributes, but it goes further; there is divine involvement. God has entered into the mess he allowed and taken the brunt of the pain. What this says is that one who knew perfect goodness himself was willing to undergo trouble for the sake of the world he created. When we question the goodness of existence by asking if it is worth it to go through life in a fallen world, and then wonder if God’s decision to allow these conditions was based on his being removed from it all, the cross reminds us to think better things of God. He decided that it was worth creating and redeeming such a world in spite of what it would cost him in suffering.
We cannot quantify suffering, but it is probably best to assume that Christ’s decision to endure the cross was more than equivalent to a man choosing to suffer all the suffering that has ever taken place in the world. Find someone in history whose miserable circumstances cause you to doubt whether creation was worth it and ponder this: God the Son willingly underwent far worse. Not for the sake of being stoic, but “for the joy set before him.” He knew his love for us to be sufficient to motivate his own acceptance of suffering. For us, we are to suffer less of it, and what we receive at the end is ours not by merit but by gift.
At the Lamb’s High Feast
Our High Priest knows what it is like to be forsaken by God and does not wish his children to suffer this forsakenness. This sense of separation—of the Son from the Father as he hung on the cross, of Christ from his body as he lay in the tomb—is something Christ suffered so we would not have to. He assures us of this not only through an announcement but through a meal.
When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, Christ’s body and blood are offered for the forgiveness of our sins. We partake of his separation bodily so that we don’t have to experience separation from our bodies for eternity. The wages of sin is death. Christ’s body and blood are sacrificed so that at the resurrection we might be reunited with our bodies. Christ was betrayed by men and then rejected by the Father so that we might be accepted by the Father and reconciled to our fellow man. In the ancient church, the Lord’s Supper was known as the “medicine of immortality.” The body and blood of Christ of which we partake are the body and blood that have already borne the wrath of God. We can look at them as a vaccine. When we partake of the spent wrath of God, we become immune to the living wrath he bears toward sin.
The children of Israel escaped the plague of the firstborn of Egypt by painting blood on the doorposts of their houses. In one Communion hymn, this is linked to what happens when we receive the body and blood of Christ:
Where the paschal blood is poured
Death’s dread angel sheaths the sword
Israel’s hosts triumphant go
Through the waves that drown the foe, Alleluia!
As the church, we are the Israel of God. Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. His blood is poured into our mouths at Communion—the doorway, as it were, to our bodies. When God comes in judgment, he will see the blood on the doorpost and pass over us. Triumphantly, we will enter his eternal kingdom.
To be sure, Communion will not avail if we do not receive it in faith. Eating and drinking at the Lord’s Table are not a way of receiving salvation at odds with hearing the gospel and believing. Luther called the sacraments the visible Word. Unlike the audible word, which is received by the hearing of faith, this word of gospel is received by the eating of faith.
That God saves is the theme of the Bible. Substitutionary atonement is an important doctrine, not just because we need a substitute. It is important because in it we learn that God is our substitute. The story comes together here. We will be much better able to contend for the story when we know how it hangs together. We will be much more motivated to contend for the story when we realize what has been done for us and by whom. Jesus is God in the flesh saving his people from their sins. That is the gospel. Anything less is not good news. But our High Priest has not left us with less.
Adapted from Rick Ritchie “Christ the Victim, Christ the Priest,” Modern Reformation, March/April 2018. Used by permission.