Jesus, Our Only Substitute

What is so unique about Jesus’ death?

Is it that he died for someone? The idea that one would die for another is not unique. We all have heard of a soldier or policeman taking a bullet for one of their own.

Is it that he died sacrificially? That isn’t unique either because we all have heard of parents that have sacrificed their own lives to save their children. So, the notion that one would die for another is not unique either.

I’m afraid that if this is the only way that we would present the gospel, then we missed the crux of Christianity.

When speaking of the gospel, we must point out the uniqueness of Christ’s death, namely the quality of the substitute. We’ve all heard one story or another that tried to relate to the substitutionary death, as illustrated above. However, all of them fall short.

When anyone dies, it is a just death (i.e., death that is just). If God is sovereign in who he allows to live and doesn’t, then there’s no “accidental” death. Death comes to all (Heb. 9:27).

Moreover, death is deserving to all because the wages of sin is death. Besides having some sentimental emotions, there is no propitiation or redemption when a sinner dies for another sinner. In other words, what does a sinner dying for another sinner do? Nothing. Both would die, still in their sin.

Without the perfect sacrifice (i.e., without any blemish) that can meet all of God’s holy demands, there is no propitiation, no redemption, and no reconciliation with God. Hence, the biggest question then is, who meets the perfect standard to be our propitiation, for our atonement? Who is qualified to meet all of God’s holy demands by dying as our substitute? And this is where Jesus Christi comes into the scene.

He lived thirty-three years or so, to fulfill every law. The four Gospels display his righteousness, so that after his death, his righteousness then can be imputed to his elect. Moreover, he lived the perfect, righteous, and holy life without any sin, to testify to all that he was the only one who was qualified to die the death of perfect substitution. This is the message of an important aspect of the gospel, namely the quality of our substitute.

Therefore, if we fail to understand God’s rightful condemnation on all sinners, the uniqueness of Christ’s death, and the quality of our substitute, then the death of Christ is mere sentimental emotion at best. And we do injustice by reducing the power of the gospel to a mere moral lesson.

For some people, the notion of substitutionary death is morally wrong. As a reaction against such notion, in his book The Cross, Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes:

To them, the idea that one man should be punished for other people’s sin is immoral. The whole notion is quite unthinkable. A man bears his own punishment. This idea that somebody else comes along who is absolutely innocent, and that you put your guilt on him and that he then bears the punishment – the thing is quite immoral. They say they cannot believe in a God who does a thing like that, a God who can punish his own Son, cause his death, in order to forgive others. It is not justice. They say that it violates their sense of justice and of morality. Have you not heard that? Perhaps you have thought it? If you have, the cross is an offence, because the essence of this doctrine is subsitution. It teaches that Chrst is the Lamb of God ‘that taketh away the sins of the world’; that our sins are transferred to him, are imputed to him, and put upon him; and that it is ‘by his stripes we are healed’. It teaches that God has smitten him. God has ‘laid on him the iniquity of us all’ (Is 53:6). And to the modern man, the natural human thinker, this is an offence, immoral, unjust, and unrighteous. So he hates it and he rejects it ([Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1986], 48).

I would like to echo the following prayer of a Puritan:


I thank thee from the depths of my being, for thy wondrous grace and love, in bearing my sin in thine own body on the tree.

May thy cross be to me as the tree that sweetens my bitter Marahs, as the rod that blossoms with life and beauty, as the brazen serpent that calls forth the look of faith.

By thy cross, crucify my every sin;

Use it to increase my intimacy with thyself;

Make it the ground of all my comfort, the liveliness of all my duties, the sum of all thy gospel promises, the comfort of all my afflictions, the vigour of my love, thankfulness, graces, the very essence of my religion;

And by it give me that rest without rest, the rest of ceaseless praise.

(From “The Grace of the Cross” in The Valley of Vision [Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth, 1994], 171).


Ponder Anew

Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” (Matthew 27:46).

“When a man offers a sacrifice of peace offerings to the LORD to fulfill a special vow or for a freewill offering, of the herd or of the flock, it must be perfect to be accepted; there shall be no defect in it” (Leviticus 22:21).

“He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

“And He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed” (1 Peter 2:24).

Luther on Christ’s Death

According to Martin Luther:

The greatest wonder ever on earth is that the Son of God died! The shameful death of the cross. It is astonishing that the Father should say to His only Son, who by nature is God: Go, let them hang you on the gallows. The love of the everlasting Father was immeasurably greater towards His only begotten Son than the love of Abraham towards Isaac. The Father testifies from heaven: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased,” yet He was cast away so lamentably like a worm, a scorn of men, and outcast of the people.

At this, the blind understanding of man stumbles. We ask, “If Christ is the only begotten Son of the everlasting Father, how, then, can God deal so unmercifully with Him?” He showed Himself more kind to Caiaphas, Herod, and Pilate than towards His only begotten Son. But to us true Christians, it is the greatest comfort; for we therein recognize that the merciful Lord God and Father so loved the poor condemned world, that He spared not His only begotten Son, but gave Him up for us all, that whoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life (Table Talk, 132).

A Description of the Crucifixion

F.F. Bruce notes:

Crucifixion was not only a prolonged and unspeakably painful method of execution; it was also utterly humiliating. A crucified man was exposed naked to the jeers and abuse of the populace like one who was fastened in the stocks or the pillory; there was, however, eventual release from the stocks or the pillory, but none from the cross. The victim was already racked with pain from the flogging and general rough treatment before he was fastened to the cross; then, with the agony, the cramp, the dehydration, the flies, the stench, he endured a living death for hours or even days. The provision of a projecting support or seat from the upright stake was designed not to give him some relief but to prolong his ordeal. The weight of the body fixed the thoracic cage so that the lungs could not expel the inhaled air, but the leverage afforded by this wooden support made it possible for breathing by diaphragmatic action to continue for a long time (Jesus: Lord & Savior, 110).

Some Historical Confessions on the Passion Week

One of the visible characteristics of Reformed (or reforming) churches is that it is confessional, not in a Roman Catholic sense where you confess your sins to a priest, but confessional like in doctrinal. Although I rejoice witnessing resurgence of Reformed interests, especially, from the neo-Reformed (so called “young, restless, reformed”), my concern is that one is not really Reformed without being confessional, namely historical confessions.

To think that somehow we just discovered the mammoth of theological truths is simply a sign of arrogance in our part, and does a huge injustice to historical theology. Hence, to help us to think through some aspects of this Passion Week, let me offer some of the confessions from our church history:

The Heidelberg Catechism (1563):

40. Why did Christ have to go all the way to death? Because God’s justice and truth demand it: only the death of God’s Son could pay for our sin.

41. Why was he “buried”? His burial testifies that he really died.

42. Since Christ has died for us, why do we still have to die? Our death does not pay the debt of our sins. Rather, it puts an end to our sinning and is our entrance into eternal life.

43. What further advantage do we receive from Christ’s sacrifice and death on the cross? Through Christ’s death our old selves are crucified, put to death, and buried with him, so that the evil desires of the flesh may no longer rule us, but that instead we may dedicate ourselves as an offering of gratitude to him.

44. Why does the creed [i.e. the Apostle’s Creed] add, “He descended into hell”? To assure me in times of personal crisis and temptation that Christ my Lord, by suffering unspeakable anguish, pain, and terror of soul, especially on the cross but also ealier, has delivered me from the anguish and torment of hell (from Lord’s Day 16).

The London Baptist Confession (1689):

Chapter 8: Of Christ the Mediator

4. This office the Lord Jesus did most willingly undertake, which that he might discharge he was made under the law, and did perfectly fulfil it, and underwent the punishment due to us, which we should have borne and suffered, being made sin and a curse for us; enduring most grievous sorrows in his soul, and most painful sufferings in his body; was crucified, and died, and remained in the state of the dead, yet saw no corruption: on the third day he arose from the dead with the same body in which he suffered, with which he also ascended into heaven, and there sitteth at the right hand of his Father making intercession, and shall return to judge men and angels at the end of the world.

5. The Lord Jesus, by his perfect obedience and sacrifice of himself, which he through the eternal Spirit once offered up unto God, hath fully satisfied the justice of God, procured reconciliation, and purchased an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for all those whom the Father hath given unto Him.

6. Although the price of redemption was not actually paid by Christ till after his incarnation, yet the virtue, efficacy, and benefit thereof were communicated to the elect in all ages, successively from the beginning of the world, in and by those promises, types, and sacrifices wherein he was revealed, and signified to be the seed which should bruise the serpent’s head; and the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, being the same yesterday, and to-day and for ever.

Chapter 11: Of Justification

3. Christ, by his obedience and death, did fully discharge the debt of all those that are justified; and did, by the sacrifice of himself in the blood of his cross, undergoing in their stead the penalty due unto them, make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to God’s justice in their behalf; yet, inasmuch as he was given by the Father for them, and his obedience and satisfaction accepted in their stead, and both freely, not for anything in them, their justification is only of free grace, that both the exact justice and rich grace of God might be glorified in the justification of sinners.

Jesus, Our Great High Priest

Just like in the Old Testament, in the rabbinic writings there is a twofold emphasis on the Day of Atonement, namely accessing to God and cleansing from God. And the high priest was the only person, who was permitted to enter the Holy of Holies only once in the whole year (cf. Hebrews 9:7). On this regard, in his book The Atonement, Leon Morris writes:

The writer to the Hebrews bears this in mind. He points out that Christ entered the heavenly Holy Place not ‘by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption’ (Heb. 9:12). The contrast between the blood of Christ and the blood of animals is important, for ‘it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins’ (Heb. 10:4). Just as it was impossible for animal blood to take away sin, so it was impossible for it to secure access. Christ’s blood is different. It really opens up the way into the presence of God (p. 83).

The Death of Christ According To God’s Sovereign Will

On this Passion Week, some of the helpful considerations will be posted to aid your meditation and preparation for Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday.

To kick off, consider the following thoughts from John Piper’s History’s Most Spectacular Sin:

From all these prophesies, we know that God foresaw and did not prevent and therefore included in his plan that his Son would be rejected, hated, abandoned, betrayed, denied, condemned, spit upon, flogged, mocked, pierced, and killed. All these are explicitly in God’s mind before they actually happen as things that he plans will happen to Jesus. These things did not just happen. They were foretold in God’s word. God knew they would happen and could have planned to stop them, but didn’t. So they happened according to his sovereign will. His plan (pp. 11-12).