Theology Thursday: Substitution

By Justin McLendon, PhD
College of Theology

March 12, 2020

“And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son” (Genesis 22:13).

These vivid words arrest our attention as we sit on the edge of our seats and think through what is happening between this father, Abraham and his son, Isaac. As we continue reading through the Old Testament (especially Leviticus 16) and the New Testament, we put together important features of the Bible’s presentation of substitution.

Next month Christians will celebrate Easter and in this celebratory season our hearts and minds are stirred afresh, our devotion is renewed and our life’s purpose (1 Corinthians 10:31) is reoriented when we consider again Jesus’s substitutionary sacrifice on our behalf. The Apostle Paul speaks of the “gift” God provides through Jesus and this gift is “the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:24-25). And for added emphasis, a few chapters later Paul says yet again, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

These texts and many, many others insist upon a few unavoidable conclusions. We are reminded that God is holy (1 John 1:5), that we are sinners and that our sin separates us from God, rendering us judged and helpless before God (Romans 3:23; John 3:18); yet our God is rich in mercy and he sent Jesus “who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that in Him [Jesus] we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). These foundational statements remind us that salvation is indeed a gift of God, one undeserving Christians receive by faith (Galatians 3:11; Ephesians 2:7). It is important to note that Jesus is our substitute in both his life and his death. That is, Jesus lived for our righteousness (obeying God’s law) and he died for our sins (be bore the curse).

Why is Substitution Important?

Why should we remember these important truths about Jesus’s substitutionary work on our behalf? For brevity, four reasons are noteworthy. First, remembering Jesus’s substitutionary death helps us recall the truths of the gospel. Jesus’s substitutionary work for his people is a gift of grace, never to be earned, only to be received by faith. We have to resist every inclination or attempt to redefine the gospel (it’s worth reading 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 often).

Second, recalling Jesus’s substitutionary work helps us fight sin and live unto holiness. In salvation, we are reconciled to God and our hearts are now postured toward God’s glory and not self-glory. From this posture, we fight sin, knowing that our Lord’s life is itself an example of speaking, acting and thinking in a manner pleasing to God.

Third, recalling Jesus’s substitutionary work saves us from ourselves, for we are often plagued by past sins and the shame it brings. Yet, our Lord took our shame, our pain, our sin and he killed it on the cross. No wonder the author of Hebrews pleads: “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).

Fourth and finally, recalling Jesus’s substitutionary work helps frame the gospel in our
evangelistic conversations. There are lots of self-help, man-made recovery options that come and go in human conversation, but man’s real hope is external, in the perfect substitute, for man’s real problem is internal, our sinful heart. And the good news of Jesus’s substitutionary work is that, as Jesus himself claimed, “It is finished” (John 19:30).

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