Substitution is a truly basic principle of Christianity, despite the fact that many erroneous theories have been spawned by this concept. The “imputation” of Adam’s guilt to all mankind is one such error; and following close on its heels is the colorful but equally fallacious idea that Christ’s personal righteousness (His “perfect obedience”) is imputed to the saints. We need not adopt either of these concepts to appreciate substitution as taught in the Scriptures. If we allow misuse of the idea to blind us to its proper place in the scheme of redemption, we will deprive ourselves of rich and profitable material.
Isaiah 53 is a prophet’s revelation of the principle. “He hath born our griefs . . . he was wounded for our transgressions . . . with his stripes we are healed.” “Jehovah hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. “ Acts 8:32-35 tells us “He” is Jesus the Christ. Read the Isaiah chapter carefully, noting the many contrasts, and remember, you and I did the sinning, but He paid the price in our stead.
Justice demands, “The soul that sinneth, it shall die” (Ezek. 18:4). Abel’s offering of the firstlings of his flock (Gen. 4) is our first inkling that God would accept the life of an animal as a (typical) substitute for the life of the sinner. (We are discounting as fanciful and unsubstantiated the idea that God taught animal sacrifice when He made Adam and Eve’s clothing from skins of animals [Gen. 3:21].) Then Noah was told to take seven pairs of “clean” beasts into the ark, some of which were offered upon an altar when the flood was over (Gen. 8:20). Men were not to eat blood (Gen. 9:4), and the religious significance of this prohibition is established clearly in Leviticus, where we are told “the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls” (17:10-12).
Abraham’s use of blood sacrifice upon an altar (Gen. 12:f) is ample proof that this ceremonial significance existed long before the Law given through Moses. But in Judaism the concept is expanded. Greater attention is given to the necessary perfection of the offering, “without spot or blemish” (Lev. 22:19f). Moses once offered himself as an atonement for the people, but God rejected the offer, saying, “Whosoever hath sinned . . . him will I blot out of my book” (Ex. 32:30f). Moses needed to make offerings for his own sins; he was not a fit offering for the sins of others.
In later Judaism the prophets’ rebuke of the priests for offering polluted bread and blind sacrifices is occasion for an additional thought. Isaiah says it is not the offering itself that satisfied Jehovah. Multitudes of sacrifices may be “vain oblations” if there is no giving of the heart (1:11-17). Malachi says the corrupted offerings show contempt for Jehovah (1:6-10, 13-4), and are not acceptable because “ye will not lay it to heart” (2:1f). Animal blood could not be “traded” for forgiveness. But the contrite heart and the perfect (costly) offering were but typical of a plan for redemption which God was unfolding in that moonlight age. There was soon to come “the Lamb of God” who knew no sin yet freely gave Himself for our sins (Jn. 1:36; Rom. 5:6-9). The real character of forgiveness by substitution begins to emerge. (1) There is no sin without cost, and, (2) the substitution principle demands payment on the part of Him who forgives.
Some have raised the question: To whom was the price for sin paid? To Satan? We think not I If man can indeed answer such a question, it seems far more likely the Heavenly Father met this obligation to Himself-to His moral nature which demanded justice even as it extended mercy. Whatever the theological answer, it is clear that forgiveness is not without cost to Him who forgives. And that raises some interesting thoughts about what is involved when we forgive one another. Can we forgive without paying the price?
When someone wrongs us, our inclination is to demand justice. “That is not right,” we say. Of course it is not, and the transgressor should have to “make it right,” for his own sake as well as ours. But sometimes, even when he makes an effort to correct the wrong, we feel “it is not enough.” We want our pound of flesh. Then we remember our own sins, and the words of Jesus, “If ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. “ Can we forgive “till seven times” or even more (Matt. 18:21f)? We can not truly forgive even once unless we are willing to pay the price. It is not “forgiveness” to hold a grudge; to await the opportunity ; to “tell it on him,” or “even things up.” True forgiveness, the only kind that enables us to be forgiven by God, means we accept the hurt without demanding our “rights”; we who are wronged become the substitute sufferer for him who should suffer.
But how can we be “partakers of the divine nature” and not forgive? In paying the price to forgive we sense a tiny bit of the hurt God must feel at our sins. We enhance our “fellowship” with God, partake of His spirit, “dwell in Him, and He in us” (1 Jn. 4:13). Substitution, as an essential element in Christianity, encourages us to believe the old adage, “to forgive is divine.”