Text: Romans 5:6-8 Theme: When Jesus died on the cross he substituted himself for us in bearing divine punishment on our sins.
Major League Baseball has just started a new season. Fans are familiar with substitution. When a pitcher just doesn’t have his stuff and is getting hit hard, what happens? The manager strolls out, signals to the bullpen, and another player trots onto the field. That relief pitcher is a substitute for the starter.
Or when you need a clutch hit in the ninth inning, a pinch hitter may be sent in. Or if a team needs to squeeze in one run, a speedy pinch runner may be sent in- to substitute for a lumbering slowpoke on the bases.
Students are familiar with substitution. Once in awhile their teacher may not show up- because of sickness or taking a personal day to go hiking. In their place comes a substitute teacher. Then students try to figure out how much the substitute will let them get away with.
And sometimes a movie plot involves substitution. Take the 1993 film titled: Dave. In it the President of the United States suddenly has a major heart-attack. His aides fear that the news could cause pandemonium around the country. Or it might embolden enemies to attack the US during this moment of confusion.
In their mad scramble they whisk in an ordinary guy named Dave. Why? Dave has an uncanny resemblance to the president. Suddenly Dave becomes a substitute for the president in all his public appearances. And his private activities, including with the president’s wife, who hasn’t been told either. You can imagine the plot possibilities that follow.
Dave reminds us of a proverb: often there is more to something than meets the eye. Nowhere is this more true than with Jesus’ death on the cross. God’s Word teaches: behind Jesus’ physical death, spiritual events were taking place. Christians believe Jesus died on the cross for a purpose: to save us from our sins.
But how? How did Jesus’ death save us? How did it cover our sins? What connection does one man’s death two thousand years ago have with our sins today?
Well, early Christians searched the scriptures to gain understanding. And they noticed Bible passages such as Romans 5:8- While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Here’s one natural way to understand this statement: Jesus acted as our substitute. On the cross he took our sins on his shoulders; he suffered God’s wrath in our place. Jesus died for us. This is the classic doctrine of Jesus’ substitutionary atonement.
This doctrine is clearly found in the Heidelberg Catechism, our church’s main confession. From Q+A 12: God requires that his justice be satisfied. Therefore the claims of his justice must be paid in full, either by ourselves or another. Did you catch that? By ourselves or another. This leaves the door open for a substitute. Then the Catechism sets up Jesus as the only substitute able to pay the price for our sins.
The substitutionary atonement of Christ. But some balk at this conclusion. I once preached on Jesus’ substitution on the cross at an ecumenical Good Friday service. Afterward a mainline pastor was a bit miffed; he dismissed it as a “mere theory.”
Why do some reject the historic teaching that Jesus was a substitute for us? Here’s why: an action for someone doesn’t necessarily mean being their substitute. For example: you can do a favor for someone. You can give them directions to a store. But that doesn’t mean you take their place to drive there. Doing something for a person may simply mean you’re helping them in some way.
Here’s a second objection: substitution doesn’t always seem fair. Shouldn’t each person stand on their own two feet? Doesn’t justice require us to pay for our own actions? Is it right for an innocent person to suffer instead of a wrongdoer- who gets off free?
So, what do we make of this? When we look at our courts we find a mixed precedent. Substitution is allowed with certain penalties- like fines. If a teen gets caught speeding, her parents may step in to pay the fine- to pay the penalty.
On the other hand, substitution for a jail sentence isn’t allowed. If you are convicted of murder, no court allows someone else to take your place in prison.
So why has the church long maintained that on the cross Jesus acted as our substitute? Because God’s Word contains more clues than just Romans 5. Probably the strongest evidence comes from the Old Testament. There God seems to intentionally prepare us to understand the Messiah as our substitute. God did that in at least three ways. First, God cultivated the concept of substitution through an Old Testament figure. Remember when Jacob’s sons journeyed to Egypt to obtain grain during a famine? On their trip back the Egyptian lord had his prized silver cup found in Benjamin’s sack. As a consequence the Egyptian lord threatened to keep Benjamin as his slave.
Jacob’s sons know their father would be crushed by losing his cherished son Benjamin. Faced with that horrible prospect, Judah offered to be a substitute. He pleaded: Now then, please let your servant remain here… in place of the boy, and let the boy return with his brothers. Judah offered to be a substitute in slavery. He foreshadowed the substitution of Jesus, who one day was born from the tribe of Judah.
Second, God cultivated the concept of substitution through sacrifices. Take the Passover sacrifice. In Exodus 12 God was about to bring judgment on Egypt. He was about to send his angel to strike down every first-born son in the land.
But for his own people he commanded that blood from a lamb be put on their door frames. Then the angel of death would pass over them. The blood of the lamb was clearly a substitute for the blood of their own first-born child.
Then God commanded them to celebrate the Passover every year. Every year that ceremony reinforced the concept of a saving substitute. Then one night in an upper room Jesus claimed to fulfill the Passover with his own blood.
Third, God cultivated the concept of substitution through prophecy. The most clear and compelling example is found in Isaiah 53: He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him + by his wounds we are healed.
So, the church has longed maintained that substitution is central to God’s salvation plan. It is foreshadowed by Judah; by the Passover Lamb; and by the prophecy of Isaiah. All that was fulfilled in Jesus. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Here’s the wonder of it all: Jesus was willing to be our substitute on the cross. No one forced him. God the Father didn’t make him. As Jesus said in John 10:No one takes my life from me; I lay it down of my own accord. Even though it cost him scorn and excruciating pain and laying down his very life. The very Son of God was willing to die as our substitute. That’s mind-boggling!
In my Grand Rapids church there was a dear mother of three whose kidneys were failing. She was forced to start dialysis- with the grind of treatment three times a week. At the same time they set out to find a donor for a kidney transplant. In the search it’s common to start with family, who may have compatible blood types.
Sure enough, one good match came up: her brother. But he had young kids. He was busy with his career. What if something happened to his other kidney later on? In the end he chose not to donate his kidney for his sister. And you can’t really blame him. You can’t expect or demand a gift from someone.
In the same way, you can’t expect or demand God’s Son to be a substitute for our sins. Here’s the wonder: in his love for us, Jesus freely chose to be our substitute on the cross. He chose to suffer the awful wrath of God on our sins. That should take our breath away.
In closing I’ll highlight one more glorious angle to this great doctrine: God’s genius. When Adam and Eve plunged the world into sin, God found himself in a pickle. In his pure holiness, he couldn’t stand sin. In his holiness + pure justice, his natural reaction is to punish every last wrong on the spot.
But in his pure love, he wouldn’t sit around and see us perish. Our misery stirred up his tender mercy. In his love for us he longed to spare us the punishment we deserve.
It was a pickle. How could God be true to his own nature and solve this dilemma? Here we come to the genius of the gospel. By pouring out his judgment on Jesus, God’s pure justice is satisfied. By sparing us, God’s love + mercy prevails. Jesus’ substitution is a stroke of genius.
A new baseball season is upon us. Every time you see a relief pitcher stroll in; every time a pinch hitter steps up; every time a pinch runner trots to first base, remember the great substitution. while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
This is why we remember Jesus’ death. This is why we worship him. This is why we love Jesus.