A Few Thoughts Regarding
The Substitutionary Atonement
For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: (1 Peter 3:18)
Many skeptics profess to have serious moral and ethical problems with the doctrine of the Substitutionary Atonement. This article is an attempt to offer a few thoughts that may help us have a better insight and perception of the significance of the Substitutionary Atonement. It is obviously not meant to be a comprehensive study of this profound Biblical truth.
The Substitutionary Atonement teaches us that our Lord Jesus Christ died in our place. He is our “substitute.” His death was accepted as a substitution for our death. The word “Atonement” indicates that we, who were once estranged from God, are reconciled to Him (or made “at one” with Him).
To many skeptics this seems morally outrageous. It seems to violate their sense of “fairness” and “justice.”
Our Sin Problem
“For the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23)
The Bible teaches that God created mankind in order to love us and be loved by us forever.
But the Bible (and our personal experience) also teaches us that mankind has a monstrous problem called sin. Sin is deeply rooted in every human being. It is demonstrated in a kind of foolish and ignorant selfishness and pride that inevitably leads to behavior that is harmful to ourselves and to others and is repulsive to God. In fact, God tells us that it inevitably leads to spiritual death, instead of the eternal life He intended for us.
Every sin, however small in our own sight, is a manifestation of this monstrous and deeply rooted problem. We can “dress ourselves up” to look civilized and proper. We can appear to others to be “fine upstanding citizens.” But, whatever the outer appearance, we still have the monstrous sin problem within us. We have an deep-seated tendency to make very selfish and ultimately very foolish decisions about our day to day behavior.
The decisions are foolish in the sense that if we could only see ourselves and our futures as God sees us, we would recognize that telling that lie, getting angry when we were “taken advantage of,” thinking too highly of ourselves, or behaving arrogantly in our relationships with others inevitably leads to horrific consequences.
We are emotionally and rationally unable to really see the monstrousness of sin the way God sees it. We have lived with sin all our lives. We have told lies and been told lies. We have gotten angry and been the recipient of the anger of others. We have sought our own comfort at the expense of others and been taken advantage of by others. When we are the recipients of those things, we may feel the sting. But we quickly “recover” and go on without really grasping the depth and horror of the problem. We can even justify ourselves on the basis that others have done equally bad or far worse things. We are like a man—whose body is trying to tell him with pain signals that he has a deadly but curable disease—who goes to a quack doctor to get a prescription for pain killers but continues inexorably toward death.
We do not realize the horror of sin. But God does.
For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: (Romans 8:3)
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:6)
They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one. (Romans 3:12)
How often have we heard (or perhaps said), “I can’t help it. It’s just the way I am.” There is a sense in which this is very true for one who has not been changed by the Lord Jesus Christ. Many people use these words for an excuse as they lightly dismiss their sin problems. But many people have uttered these words in despair. They have been angry with themselves and struggled mightily against their own “bad habits.” But it seems that however hard we try, we cannot conquer the problem. Or if we seem to conquer it for a time, it eventually manifests itself again—perhaps in a slightly or totally different form.
There is a sense in which our sin problem is so deep that nothing we do to try to reform ourselves ever quite works. In fact, though we may not realize it, it never comes even close to working.
God knew this and has told us about it in His Word.
And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. (Luke 1:25)
Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: (Matthew 28:19)
I and my Father are one. (John 10:30)
For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily. (Colossians 2:9)
And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: (Mark 12:29)
The Bible teaches us that God is one God. But that He manifests Himself in three persons whom we call “God the Father,” “God the Son,” and “God the Holy Spirit.”
Some skeptics have taken issue with this “irrational” doctrine. Nevertheless, it is Biblical truth. I cannot understand, much less explain, the Trinity. But perhaps this little thought experiment will help.
Suppose you and I had full and complete knowledge. Instead of me knowing a few things about myself and a few things about you and not knowing many things about myself and many more things about you, and instead of you knowing a few things about me and yourself and not knowing many things about me and yourself, pretend that we have complete knowledge of each other.
Everything that you know, I know. Everything that I know, you also know. I know all about me and all about you. There is nothing about me or about you that I don’t know. You have the same knowledge of yourself and me. You know everything in my mind. I know everything in yours.
Furthermore, assume that you and I were totally agreed about every issue that exists. We never disagree. We both know what is best and we want what is best.
Perhaps you are ahead of me by now. If you continue the essence of this thought experiment, you will come to the conclusion that you and I are really one person. We are one person existing in two bodies. For the benefit of others around us, we could communicate with one another. But there would be no real need for us to communicate. Because we both already know everything the other is thinking. Remember, in our thought experiment, we have perfect knowledge.
God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are three Persons, but one God. There is no knowledge that God the Father does not have. There is no sin in God the Father. All His purposes are perfect. The same can be said for God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. There is nothing in The Father's mind that is not also in the Son's mind and in the Holy Spirit's mind. There is no purpose in the Father's heart that is not also in the Son's heart and in the Holy Spirit's heart. One God manifested in three Persons. He is beyond our puny ability to understand, but He is certainly Three in One.
Thou shalt not do so unto the LORD thy God: for every abomination to the LORD, which he hateth, have they done unto their gods; for even their sons and their daughters they have burnt in the fire to their gods. (Deuteronomy 12:31)
And shed innocent blood, even the blood of their sons and of their daughters, whom they sacrificed unto the idols of Canaan: and the land was polluted with blood. (Psalm 106:38)
Those who think that they are rejecting the Substitutionary Atonement on the basis of “moral grounds” (i.e., they think it is morally repulsive to think of anyone dying as a substitute for another) are simply not going far enough in their appreciation of Who God is or what God has done.
They may say, “It is outrageous and unthinkable that I should sacrifice my own child to pay a penalty for someone else’s guilt.” Humanly speaking, this is true.
I once heard an illustration of a one-room school in the early days of our country in which a teacher had constructed a set of inviolable rules for the class. The rules were accompanied by specific and severe punishments. One young, weak, and impoverished boy was guilty of breaking a rule to the point that the punishment was 10 lashes across his back. Everyone, including the teacher, knew that the punishment was too much for the boy. But the teacher felt that he could not teach the class the concept of justice unless he carried out the punishment. Just as the punishment is about to be administered, an older and stronger boy in the room rises, asks the teacher to stop, and tells the teacher he will take the younger boy’s punishment.
The story is a touching story. But it falls short of illustrating the Substitutionary Atonement of our Lord Jesus Christ. It might come a bit closer if the teacher in the story had decided to take the punishment. In other words, we must not get the idea that God the Father unjustly allowed God the Son to take our punishment in the same sense that the teacher allowed the older boy to take the punishment for the younger one. Remember that God the Father and God the Son are One God. God chose to sacrifice Himself in order to provide the remedy for our sin problem so that we could have eternal fellowship with Him.
We must also never forget that there is a vast difference in God Himself, in His infinite knowledge and wisdom and power and love, deciding to sacrifice Himself, and in the horrendous and ungodly concept of human sacrifice. In His Word, God clearly condemns the concept of human sacrifice. Pagan nations who practice this abominable practice are always condemned in the strongest of terms. Human beings who decide to sacrifice one human being as a substitute for another human being that they consider more valuable are guilty of heinous sin of the worst kind. (By the way, recognition of the horror of this sin is what drives Christians to be so opposed to abortion and euthanasia, in which some weaker human beings are sacrificed—often for the mere convenience of others.) (Of course, the kind of self-sacrifice involved in the risk-taking of an heroic attempt to save the life of another is an entirely different kind of sacrifice.)
At the same time, we must never minimize the horror of what it meant for God Himself to be willing to become a man and go through the suffering and death of crucifixion in order to pay the penalty for our sin. When we look at the cross, we have a wide range of emotional responses. We are shocked at what the consequences of sin are. We are overwhelmed at what lengths God has chosen to go through in order to have eternal fellowship with us. We are amazed at the kind of Love that would endure the pain of crucifixion on behalf of others and ourselves.
Our Frail Logic
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9)
O LORD, how great are thy works! and thy thoughts are very deep. (Psalm 92:5)
Ultimately, we come to the doctrine of the Substitutionary Atonement, as we do other doctrines, with a sense of wonder and awe. We cannot understand all of it. We cannot see it, but the sin that is so deeply entrenched within each of us clouds our ability to see from God’s perspective. So we are tempted to enthrone our own logic and reasoning ability as our “god.” We say to the True God, “I don’t understand You. You don’t make sense to me. And I don’t accept things I can’t understand.” In so doing, we foolishly reject the only remedy that can be provided for our sin. We have foolishly set up ourselves as our own gods, and we are utterly incapable of playing the part.
Wise men say, “Lord, I do not understand You very much. But I am so overwhelmed with gratitude that You would choose to forgive me of my sin on the basis of Your sacrifice of Yourself on the cross of Calvary. Thank You, Lord.”
Also, never forget the empty tomb! One of the messages of Calvary is that death could not conquer our Lord. He submitted Himself to death as our Substitute. And He defeated it. He is not dead!
So He says to us, “I died in your place. Even though you cannot understand it, I became your Substitute, so that your sins could be forgiven. I offer you eternal life on the basis of My death. You can receive forgiveness and life by receiving Me as your personal Lord and Salvation. You have a choice to make.”
Of course, these puny little thoughts do not begin to touch the whole truth. The more we study His plan and the more we submit to His will, the more awesome and overwhelming life becomes and the more awesome and overwhelming HE becomes to us! As time goes on, we realize more and more that our God is higher than us and His ways and thoughts are higher than our ways and thoughts as the heavens are higher than the earth! We simply bow our wills to Him and cry, “Hallelujah! Lord, You are great, and greatly to be praised!”
You may also be interested in reading:
Why We Are Christians
How to Receive Jesus Christ
More Detailed Version of How to Receive Jesus Christ
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