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The Self-Substitution of God

Reading Classics Together
This morning brings us to our next reading in John Stott’s classic work The Cross of Christ. This week I am simply going to offer up a few amazing quotes from this chapter. I hope that this will give everyone who reads this article something to chew on, whether or not you’ve read the book. At the very least read the final quote!

The Self-Substitution of God

In this chapter, titled “The Self-Substitution of God,” Stott addresses this key question: Exactly who was our substitute? Who took our place, bore our sin, became our curse, endured our penalty, died our death? Who was this Christ? How are we to think of him? In other words, he is looking at the idea of substitution and wondering who could act as substitute and what the nature of that substitution would be.

He outlines several possible answers:

Was he just a man? If so, how could one human being possibly—or justly—stand in for other human beings? Was he then simply God, seeming to be a man, but not actually being the man he seemed? If so, how could he represent humankind? Beside this, how could he have died? In that case, are we to think of Christ neither as man alone, nor as God alone, but rather as the one and only God-man who because of his uniquely constituted person was uniquely qualified to mediate between God and man? Whether the concept of substitutionary atonement is rational, moral, plausible, acceptable and above all biblical depends on our answers to these questions. The possibility of substitution rests on the identity of the substitute.

He goes on to look at the three explanations he has sketched for us, looking carefully at a long list of passages from the Bible. He arrives at this conclusion:

Our substitute, who took our place and died our death on the cross, was neither Christ alone (since that would make him a third party thrust in between God and us), nor God alone (since that would undermine the historical incarnation), but God in Christ, who was truly and fully both God and man and who on that account was uniquely qualified to represent both God and man and to mediate between them. If we speak only of Christ suffering and dying, we overlook the initiative of the Father. If we speak only of God suffering and dying, we overlook the mediation of the Son. The New Testament authors never attribute the atonement either to Christ in such a way as to disassociate him from the Father, or to God in such a way as to dispense with Christ, but rather to God and Christ, or to God acting in and through Christ with his whole-hearted concurrence.

Of course this idea of substitution has been debated and often rejected, so Stott defends it. This is a beautiful, concise explanation!

The concept of substitution may be said to lie at the heart of both sin and salvation. For the essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for man. Man asserts himself against God and puts himself where only God deserves to be; God sacrifices himself for man and puts himself where only man deserves to be. Man claims prerogatives that belong to God alone; God accepts penalties that belong to man alone.

If the essence of the atonement is substitution, at least two important inferences follow, the first theological and the second personal. The theological inference is that it is impossible to hold the historic doctrine of the cross without holding the historic doctrine of Jesus Christ as the one and only God-man and Mediator. Neither Christ alone as man nor the Father alone as God could be our substitute. Only God in Christ, God the Father’s own and only Son made man, could take our place.  At the root of every caricature of the cross there lies a distorted Christology. The person and work of Christ belong together. If he was not who the apostles say he was, then he could not have done what they said he did. The incarnation is indispensable to the atonement. In particular, it is essential to affirm that the love, the holiness and the will of the Father are identical to the love, the holiness and the will of the Son. God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.

There’s something to meditate upon this morning…and for the rest of eternity!

Next Week

For next week please read chapter 7, “The Salvation of Sinners.”

Your Turn

The purpose of this program is to read these books together. If you have something to say, whether a comment or criticism or question, feel free to use the comment section for that purpose.