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New Horizons

Christ Our Substitute

A. Craig Troxel

Isaiah 53:1-6
1 Who has believed what they heard from us?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
2 For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
4 Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was wounded for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his stripes we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned every one to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

A friend in our denomination told me a story about a companion of his who was walking in a field in Montana after a fire had swept through it. As he walked along, inspecting the scorched earth, he came upon a duck that had been killed by the raging fire. Out of curiosity, the man turned the bird over with his boot and was surprised to find a brood of live ducklings. Their mother had protected her young by covering them with her wings, deflecting the fire's deadly heat. She had saved their lives by placing herself between them and death.

We are drawn to such acts of loving sacrifice. We long to hear stories of heroic and noble acts that transcend our usual selfishness. This, then, raises a question when we consider the spiritual realm. Why is it that some people love the Lord Jesus Christ and treasure his sacrifice on the cross, while others are left cold by his self-sacrificing act?

Perhaps the reason why some people do not adore Jesus is that they do not like his teachings. Maybe they do not consider him to have been a righteous man. Perhaps they doubt that he ever lived or that he died on the cross. These reasons may hold true for some, but certainly not for all. There are many people who believe that Jesus walked this earth as a righteous man, taught the truth authoritatively, and innocently endured a cruel death. Some religions even accept or recognize Jesus as a prophet. And yet, these people do not love Jesus. They would agree that many of the things that Christians confess about Jesus are true, but they do not adore him as the saints of God do. Why not? More particularly, why do we love the Lord Jesus? The prophet Isaiah helps us with these questions in his prophecy about the Suffering Servant in chapter 53.

A Stricken One

Isaiah writes that there are several reasons why people have not been drawn to the Suffering Servant. First of all, this servant does not have superficial appeal. His appearance or "form" is not so striking that people flock to him (vs. 2). If he has followers, they are not drawn to him because of his looks. Accordingly, the New Testament authors do not write about Jesus' physical features. They do not describe his facial features, the color of his hair, or how tall he was. They simply are not concerned about such things.

In fact, the Suffering Servant had qualities that were definitely unattractive (vs. 3). To begin with, he was sad: "a man of sorrows" and "acquainted with grief." He was probably considered gloomy and far too somber-perhaps even thought to have emotional problems. Furthermore, he was socially "despised" and "rejected." Other people turned away and hid their faces from him. He was to be avoided and dismissed (cf. John 1:11). He was thought of as unfortunate, under a curse or hex, a man being punished by God (vs. 4).

All of this makes the simple point that this individual does not fit the image of the chosen instrument whom the Lord blesses with strength. On the contrary, this man could be quickly written off and passed over as a serious contender for God's appointment as the Anointed One who would bring deliverance to Israel. The idea that this man was "the arm of the Lord" that would save God's people seems ridiculous, especially when he is described as such a pathetic individual. Such a man might die for a good cause or because of his own political naïveté, or even, as some might think, for his own sin (e.g., for blasphemy—Matt. 26:65). But his death would mark his being an outcast, not a conqueror.

To be sure, many people look upon Jesus in this way. They see him as a tragic historical figure who was cut down in the prime of his life, or they look upon him as the champion of a noble cause and as one who identified with the poor and hurting. More disapprovingly, some see Jesus as one who was afflicted by God for his own wrongdoing. But in any case, he is not to be considered as a Savior, a "winner," nor as a king among kings and a great lord over lesser lords. Representing the sentiment of such individuals, Isaiah says that "we esteemed him not," and we "esteemed him stricken, smitten by God" (vss. 3, 4). Such people do not love the Lord Jesus Christ. But why do believers love him? Why do we love him?

Our Substitute

The telling difference between those who do not love the Lord Jesus and those who do is that we as believers not only understand that he suffered, but also know why he suffered. He suffered for us and for our sin. Believers are endeared to the Lord Jesus Christ because they see him as their substitute.

First of all, believers understand that Jesus did not suffer because he did anything wrong or because he was unfortunately in the wrong place at the wrong time. We know that he was not "a man of sorrows" and "acquainted with grief" because he was melancholy. We do not believe that Christ was "despised" or "rejected" because he was a social misfit. Men did not "hide their faces" from him because he had sinned or because he deserved such scorn.

Rather, Christ suffered because of us. Isaiah helps us to see this with a play on words in verses three and four. The Suffering Servant was "acquainted with grief" (vs. 3) because he "has borne our griefs" (vs. 4). He was "a man of sorrows" (vs. 3) because he "carried our sorrows" (vs. 4). He took upon himself a punishment that was ours, not his own. He carried our griefs and our sorrows (vs. 4); he suffered for "our transgressions" and "our iniquities" (vs. 5; see also vs. 6). He took upon himself the "chastisement" and "stripes" that brought us peace and healing (vs. 5). He was not just stricken. He was stricken for us.

Naturally, this raises a question: What was the penalty against us that Christ took upon himself? What did we deserve? Paul states that those who by nature are "dead" in their "transgressions and sins," who have "followed the ways of this world," who are "gratifying the cravings of our flesh, and following its desires and thoughts," are objects of God's wrath (Eph. 2:1-3 niv margin). This is the penalty deserved by those who have sinned against the One who is infinitely pure and altogether just. We have offended his holiness and have incited his righteous wrath. As Scripture says, he will "by no means clear the guilty" (Ex. 34:7)—and we are guilty. Thus, the holy and righteous God must be appeased. Someone must pay the penalty. What was lost must be restored. What was soiled must be cleansed. The wages of sin is death, and someone must die. So Christ bore our penalty. He paid our debt. He died our death. He shouldered our burden as our surrogate.

In the Old Testament sacrificial system, the high priest laid his hands on the scapegoat to symbolize the placing of the sins of the people upon the animal (Lev. 16:21). Isaiah similarly says that "the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all." Jesus received what our sins and guilt deserved. "For our sake," God "made him to be sin who knew no sin" (2 Cor. 5:21). It is not that our sinfulness was transferred to Jesus personally, but rather that the guilt, shame, and punishment of our sin was credited to his account. He suffered and died on behalf of his sheep—his church, his bride—as our ransom, surety, and Passover Lamb.

The wrath of God that was against us has been exhausted upon him. So, although we were condemned to drink the cup of God's wrath, Christ instead put the cup to his lips and drank it dry. He has expiated the offense of our sin by his blood and propitiated God's righteous anger by his death. Again, recall the story related at the outset about the mother duck. By covering her ducklings with her wings, she exhausted the fiery heat in her own body. As our substitute, Christ's blood has covered our sin and has also deflected the fiery heat of God's wrath.

We were condemned to shame and contempt, but instead Jesus endured the shame of the cross. We were doomed to lose the Father's favor eternally, but instead the Son was forsaken by his Father in the agonies of death on our account. We should have drowned under the flood of our sin, but instead Christ underwent the baptism of death. We deserved to perish without mercy, but instead our substitute was shown no pity in his dying moments upon the cross. He was disowned, forsaken, abused, cut off, and "stricken," but not for himself. He did nothing wrong. It was for our offending sin that he had to endure such an appalling and excruciating death. We are those who have forsaken God, who have violated his law, who have refused to obey him, and who have chosen the wide gate that leads to destruction. Yet, as the God-man, Jesus stood in our place, paying what humanity deserved and owed, but what God alone could endure and pay. He is our substitute, and this is why we love him.

Our Satisfaction

Moreover, if God the Son is our substitute, then it follows that he has made complete satisfaction for our salvation. Fundamental to the substitutionary work of Christ described above is the benefit that his atoning sacrifice has gained. If Christ is our substitute, then his representation cuts both ways. Our sin and sorrow are imputed to him, and his righteousness and life are in turn imputed to us. We lose something in the work of Christ, and we also gain something. "For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21). Christ did not suffer and die just to have our sin forgiven and to render us acceptable in the sight of God. He has also earned benefits and transferred them for us. The chastisement that fell upon him has "brought us peace," and the stripes that he endured enable us to be "healed" (Isa. 53:5). Those who once were lost, dead, and blind are now found, made alive, and able to see. Those who were polluted by the filth of sin are now washed clean by the blood of Jesus. Those who were once objects of God's wrath are now the objects of his mercy as his children. We were once condemned and guilty, but are now forgiven and made acceptable. The gospel is that we are both redeemed from our sin and reconciled to God. Our sin is paid for, satisfied, and washed away. But more than this, we stand before God eternally clean and righteous. Calvin puts it this way:

This is the wonderful exchange which ... he has made with us; that, becoming Son of man with us, he has made us sons of God with him; that, by his descent to earth, he has prepared an ascent to heaven for us; that, by taking on our mortality, he has conferred his immortality upon us; that, accepting our weakness, he has strengthened us by his power; that, receiving our poverty unto himself, he has transferred his wealth to us; that, taking the weight of our iniquity upon himself ... he has clothed us with his righteousness. (Institutes 4.17.2)

Thus, there are two different responses to the Suffering Servant. There are those who do not love Christ, who reject him and perhaps even have contempt for him. They "esteem him not" and believe that he suffered senselessly and perhaps even culpably.

On the other hand, there are those of us who love him, receive him, and adore him with all that is in us. We esteem him because we believe that what he suffered, he suffered for us on account of our sin. He covered us with his love, and like that mother bird whose sheltering wings were lifesaving, Christ has saved us from the heat of God's wrath. It is precisely because we understand why Christ suffered that we are drawn to his noble and sacrificial love.

A friend of mine puts it this way. If we see someone walking down the street with a pronounced limp, we may assume that he has suffered either from some bodily infirmity or "accident." Not wishing to be rude, we do not stare at him; rather, we turn our head and look in the other direction. But let us say that this person was injured because he put himself in harm's way to save someone else's life. Suppose, for instance, that he had run into the street and pushed a child out of the path of a speeding car, but was himself run over by the vehicle, crushing one of his legs. How, then, would the parents of that child regard that person who walked with a limp? Clearly, they would look upon him with great affection and profound appreciation. Every time they see him limping along, they are reminded of what he endured in order to rescue their child, and their hearts are filled with gratitude! Often tears well up in their eyes when they remember how one person's sacrifice rescued their precious child from certain death. Similarly, what makes our Lord's suffering so attractive to us, what makes the cross so precious to us, what makes us adore him for the holes in his hands, feet, and side, is this doctrine of substitution, this great truth of the Christian faith. What Christ endured, he endured for us.

Furthermore, we ought to think of Christ's love for us in light of the free and voluntary nature of his sacrifice. Christ not only gave himself, but gave himself willingly. Jesus was not reluctantly dragged to his death. In a great priestly act of worship and loving resolve, our Lord offered himself to the Father as a sacrificial lamb to be slain in our place. Paul does not record that Christ "was humbled" and "was made nothing," but rather that he "humbled himself" and "made himself nothing" (Phil. 2:7-8). Our Lord said, when he was among us, that "no one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord" (John 10:18). Christ humbled himself and voluntarily submitted to his suffering. What he did for us, he did freely and willingly.

This is why, when we celebrate the Lord's Supper, our affections and love are stirred for our Savior. In the sacrament, we see how our salvation was purchased for us. It is here, in the sacrament, that we see Jesus wounded and bruised, the victim of unspeakable suffering. Here we behold Jesus carrying the weight of our guilt in his body, shuddering and convulsing, held to the cross by four spikes. His lonely eyes were looking around for compassion, but finding none. Longing to hear words of comfort, he heard only mocking and ridicule. Here we see Jesus our substitute, groaning, sinking, and dying under the curse that we deserved. Thus, we approach the table with warmth and fondness for our Suffering Servant in his sorrow. It is here that his love for us is shown to us as most precious and lovely. This is the demonstration of love. Which of us can look upon these symbols that represent our Lord's love and not be moved? Can we think of his wounds that brought healing from sin and not give continuous thanks? Can we look without emotion upon this sign and seal of his body given and bruised for us and of his blood spilled for sinners? Such sacrifice constrains us to love and live for him who died for us.

When we think of our salvation, and when we meditate upon our justification, and when we come to the Lord's Table, we come in faith. But we also come with love. We see how "the righteous" one has won the victory "for the unrighteous," in order to bring us to God (1 Pet. 3:18). We come and see how we have been "justified by faith," so that we might have reconciliation and "peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom. 5:1). We eat the sacramental bread and see how our Savior bore our penalty in his body, so that there might be "now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 8:1). We drink the cup of the Lord and behold how it is that we are washed clean by his blood and clothed in his righteousness (Rev. 7:14).

What an amazing joy the gospel is. To think that sinners such as us have been made acceptable in the sight of the holy God and can now come and feast with him at his table, at his invitation. Even though he knows all the sins that we have committed and will commit, he nevertheless invites us to come. How is this possible? It is possible—it is a reality—because we have a substitute. We can put aside all of our unbelieving fears and doubts, knowing that the crucified Lamb of God has stood in the place of sinners. He has satisfied the law. He has covered our sin. He has borne the wrath of God. He has overcome every obstacle. He has purchased every blessing. All who look to this interceding, holy, and satisfying substitute will be saved. This is why the Father is well pleased with his Son and has exalted him to his right hand, and given to him that name which is above every name, and honored him with every title, and appointed him to be the head over all things, and placed all things under his feet. And this is why we love him. Indeed, how could we not love him? What Christ did, he did for us.

The author is pastor of Calvary OPC in Glenside, Pa., and teaches at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He quotes the ESV. Reprinted from New Horizons, February 2004.

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