Chapter 5: Substitution
by David E. West, England.
The Oxford English Dictionary gives the meaning of the word ‘substitution’ as “the putting of one person or thing in the place of another.”
Although the actual words ‘substitute’ and ‘substitution’ do not occur in the Bible, nevertheless, the truth of substitution is thoroughly and fundamentally biblical and ‘substitution’ is a sound theological term. The essence of substitution is that one is put in the room and stead of another.
That which the word ‘substitution’ expresses is found again and again in Scripture. Thus in Isaiah chapter 53 the concept is found some ten times, e.g. in v.5 it is there four times: “He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon Him; and with His stripes we are healed.”
The Old Testament offers several illustrations of substitution; the following are examples:
- Eve evidently regarded Seth as a substitute for Abel who was slain by his brother, “For God, said she, hath appointed me another seed instead of Abel, whom Cain slew” Gen.4.25.
- Abraham’s faith was tested to the limit even to the offering of his only son, Isaac, as a burnt offering. However, the Lord intervened at the last minute and “a ram caught in a thicket by his horns” was provided as a substitute for Isaac, “Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son” Gen.22.13.
- Laban cunningly substituted Leah for Rachel, whom Jacob loved, “Laban … took Leah his daughter, and brought her to him (Jacob); and he went in unto her” Gen.29.22, 23.
- The firstborn of an ass was to be redeemed with a lamb; the ass went free because another had died in its place, “every firstling of an ass thou shalt redeem with a lamb” Ex.13.13.
- Moses enacted that, in the case of an unresolved murder, the elders of “the city which is next unto the slain man” Deut.21.3, should first declare their own innocence and sacrifice a heifer in place of the unknown murderer, “the elders … shall wash their hands over the heifer that is beheaded in the valley” Deut.21.6.
- The prophet, Micah, evidently well understood the substitutionary principle when he said, “shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” Mic.6.7.
Although the theme of this present paper is ‘Substitution’, it is difficult to present the subject without making mention of the truth of ‘Propitiation’. For a fuller treatment of propitiation, see chapter 6 of this book.
The two words ‘propitiation’ and ‘substitution’ express the two great aspects of Christ’s atoning death; although they are mutually complementary, it is vital to distinguish between the two doctrines. Those who see the relative place of the truths of propitiation and substitution can preach the gospel with clarity and consistency.
Propitiation is the Godward side of Christ’s sacrifice; with that sacrifice God is satisfied. If the sacrifice were to be of atoning value, it had to meet all the demands of God’s holiness and of His righteous throne and thoroughly vindicate Him, as well as being such as would relieve the sinner by removing his sins. So when Christ’s death is considered in its substitutionary aspect, it is not being viewed from God’s side, but from the side of the sinner. The point then is not how Christ’s sacrifice has satisfied the Creditor, but rather how fully He has intervened on behalf of debtors and of the complete clearance which is theirs as a result.
The fact of propitiation authorises the evangelist to go to any man and tell him that Christ has died for him and consequently forgiveness is preached to him: “through this Man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins” Acts 13.38. The forgiveness of sins, however, is only the portion of those who believe, inasmuch as it involves substitution. In other words, although forgiveness of sins may be preached to all men, only those who believe are forgiven.
The twin truths of propitiation and substitution are clearly set forth in the two goats that were taken on the Day of Atonement, “the goat upon which the Lord’s lot fell,” and “the goat on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat” Lev.16.9,10.
Aaron brought the goat upon which the Lord’s lot had fallen and offered it for a sin offering. The blood was then taken within the veil and sprinkled upon the mercy seat and before the mercy seat seven times. The goat upon which the Lord’s lot fell, typifies the death of Christ as that wherein God has been perfectly glorified with respect to sin in general. The death of Christ has perfectly vindicated the holiness and righteousness of God. It has met all the claims of His Divine throne. Propitiation has been made.
The scapegoat, however, typifies Christ taking His people’s actual sins and bearing them away into oblivion, never to be raised against them forever. Although the sin offering had been slain and its blood taken into the holy of holies and sprinkled before and on the throne, yet the people still carried their sins until the high priest laid his hands upon the scapegoat and placed on it all their sins.
The scapegoat as a substitute is probably the most complete type of the substitutionary work of Christ found anywhere in the Scriptures.
Paul writes “there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus; who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time” 1 Tim.2.5,6.
The English word ‘for’ here is a translation of the Greek preposition ‘huper’ (meaning, ‘on behalf of’) and identifies the only basis upon which one may be ransomed and that the redemptive work of Christ was sufficient for all.
The context of this statement should be noted. Paul is dealing here with the subject of public prayer in the assembly, “I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men” 1 Tim.2.1. This is the suggested scope for assembly prayer. Brethren should therefore never be at a loss as to what to pray for in the prayer meeting.
This exhortation regarding prayer centres in the fact of God’s desire, “Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth” 1 Tim.2.4. This verse is describing God’s disposition; it is an expression of goodwill rather than determination. That all men should be saved is the desire and attitude of the heart of God.
The “all” in 1 Tim.2.6 surely means “all men” and is therefore worldwide in its scope and corresponds to propitiation. Paul is reminding Timothy of the gospel which he is to preach, “to be testified in due time”. The testimony to this truth is to be given in its own season; that season is now. This verse is teaching the intrinsic worth of the ransom price paid by Christ Jesus; it was adequate to meet the needs of all men, so that none might despair. He gave Himself a ransom for all, thus meeting the claims of God’s holiness and justice and, at the same time, depriving any man of a just complaint that he had no opportunity to be saved.
John writes, “And He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for [the sins of] the whole world.”
The italicised addition in the A.V., “the sins of”, has been introduced by the translators, the words not being in the original Greek; this has led some to give a wrong interpretation of this verse.
John is addressing his epistle to those who are members of the family of God, “my little children” 1 Jn.2.1. The emphasis in the passage is that “He is the propitiation for our sins” that is for the sins of the believers to whom John was writing. This truth is presented later in this epistle, “God … sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” 1 Jn.4,10. The use of the possessive adjective “our” should be noted in both of these passages; the benefits of His propitiatory sacrifice are realised only by believers.
In the latter part of 1 Jn.2.2, we learn that Christ is the propitiation, in a general way, “for the whole world”; the value of that sacrifice is universal in its scope. As the propitiation, He, through His sacrificial death, is the righteous basis upon which mercy and pardon can be offered to all.
The meaning of the Greek preposition ‘anti’ is ‘in exchange for’ or ‘as the equivalent of’. Thus it is the preposition of equivalence, denoting a price paid or a balance made, as on the scales. ‘Anti’ therefore signifies one thing over against another, one thing in place of another or something given in exchange for something else. The expression ‘instead of’ well illustrates its meaning; ‘anti’ is indeed the preposition of substitution.
The present writer is given to understand that a study has been made of the use of ‘anti’ in the Septuagint (LXX) Version (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) and that thirty-eight passages have been found where it is rightly translated ‘instead of’ in the R.V. The following are examples:
- “Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son” Gen.22.13.
- “Now therefore, I pray thee, let thy servant abide instead of the lad a bondman to my lord; and let the lad go up with his brethren” Gen.44.33 – these being the words of Judah to Joseph.
- “And I, behold, I have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel instead of all the firstborn that openeth the matrix among the children of Israel” Num.3.12 – the Lord speaking to Moses.
These three passages deal unmistakably with substitution.
The following are examples of the use of the preposition ‘anti’ in the Greek New Testament:
- “Archelaus did reign in Judaea in the room of his father Herod” Matt.2.22 –one reigning in the stead of another.
- “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” Matt.5.38 – here the preposition is used as an equivalent given for a loss.
- “Go thou to the sea, and cast an hook, and take up the fish that first cometh up; and when thou hast opened his mouth, thou shalt find a piece of money: that take and give unto them for Me and thee” Matt.17.27 – the words of the Lord Jesus to Peter; here ‘anti’ is used for the payment of a claim.
- “Or if he ask a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent?” Lk.11.11 – the Lord Jesus addressing His disciples; the preposition is employed here for something given in the place of something else.
- “Recompense to no man evil for evil” Rom.12.17 – something not to be returned in place of what is given.
- “Looking unto Jesus … who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame” Heb.12.2 – the Lord Jesus setting aside one thing for another.
The preposition ‘anti’ is found twice in connection with the death of Christ in parallel passages in the first two synoptic gospels:
- “Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for [‘anti’] many” Matt.20.28.
- “For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for [‘anti’] many” Mk.10.45.
In the context of each of these passages, the Lord Jesus was pointing out to His disciples that authority in the hands of men always tends to bondage but that He, on the contrary, did not exercise authority, but rather served, and this tended to liberty (a thought involved in the word ‘ransom’). In setting forth His own example, He was showing His disciples the path to true greatness.
In itself, the phrase “to give one’s life” need not mean more than giving one’s entire devotion; but here the idea of ‘ransom’ (a payment for deliverance from bondage) involves submission unto death.
These two verses set forth the essential truth of substitution, “a ransom for (instead of) many”. The “many” are those who, on the basis of that ransom price already “paid in blood at Calvary”, actually come and avail themselves of this gracious provision. In thus using this preposition of the scales (‘anti’), the Lord Jesus was showing that His own death was to be accepted by God as a valid substitute for, or instead of, ‘many’.
It should be emphasised that when the subject in Scripture is that of the bearing of sins, the language used is not “all” but “many”.
The writer to the Hebrews says “And as it is appointed unto men once to die … so Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many” Heb.9.27,28. Such a Scripture views His death from the standpoint of substitution. Thus as men die once by Divine appointment, so Christ died once – He was “offered to bear the sins of many”. This is reminiscent of Isa.53.12: “He bare the sin of many.” Indeed there, in the same context, Isaiah writes, “by His knowledge shall My righteous servant justify many; for He shall bear their iniquities” Isa.53.11.
In Matthew’s record of what we know now to be the Lord’s Supper, the Lord Jesus says, “For this is My blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” Matt.26.28, whilst in Mark’s gospel, the words are “This is My blood of the new testament, which is shed for many” Mk.14.24. This latter is thus heightening the idea of persons and presenting the sin offering character of the sacrifice of Christ, with Matthew highlighting the trespass offering character.
The place that substitution occupies in the New Testament in relation to other aspects of the death of Christ is clearly seen in several Scriptures.
It Was For Our Sins
- “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures” 1 Cor.15.3. The use of the possessive adjective “our” indicates that it was a substitutionary death; He died on our behalf. It was an atoning death, for it was on account of our sins with a view to their expiation.
- “... our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins,” Gal.1.3,4. He “gave Himself” – in all the greatness of His Person – “for our sins” – thus He offered Himself in a vicarious and sacrificial sense, bearing the judgment due to them. He was there as our substitute. In the context of the Epistle to the Galatians, if this be so, there is no need for it to be supplemented by law-keeping of any kind. If He “gave Himself for our sins”, God is satisfied.
It Was For Believers
- “This is My body which is given for you … This cup is the new testament in My blood, which is shed for you” Lk.22.19,20. These are the first very clear statements to His own (“for you”) that, not only would He suffer and die, but He was to die in their stead as their substitute.
- “But God commendeth His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” Rom.5.8. Whilst it is true that “Christ died for the ungodly” Rom.5.6, in the general sense that He died on behalf of those who were openly impious, nevertheless, God gives expression to and proof of His own love “toward us” (the apostle includes himself), in that, “while we were yet sinners,” neither desiring nor deserving His love, “Christ died for us”.
- “He that spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him freely give us all things?” Rom.8.32. The triumphant challenge in the previous verse, “If God be for us, who can be against us?” allows Paul to pose another rhetorical question and to give proof of God’s interest in His own. If God was prepared to go to the ultimate and deliver up His Son, what He will do for His saints can never be in doubt. The “us all” are spoken of in the following verse as “God’s elect”.
- “For He hath made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin” 2 Cor.5.21. Although some have made the suggestion, it would seem that the expression “made … sin” is not adequately explained by the fact that He was made a sin-offering. Indeed, the words would suggest that, during the three hours of darkness, He was treated by God as if He were sin itself. Thus on the cross, Christ was made sin and endured judgment as sin, and that “for us”.
- “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us” Gal.3.13. Strictly speaking, the ‘us’ in this verse refers to Jewish believers. Christ stood in the place of those who had broken the law (He was their substitute) and bore the penalty due to them, yet He personally had never broken the law.
- “our Saviour Jesus Christ; who gave Himself for us” Titus 2.13, 14. The death of Christ was voluntary, “who gave Himself”; it was vicarious, “for us”: it was purposive, negatively, to “redeem us from all iniquity” and positively, to “purify unto Himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works”.
How wonderful that each believer can join with the apostle Paul and speak of “the Son of God, who loved me, and gave Himself for me” Gal.2.20.
It is a blessed truth that “Christ Jesus … gave Himself a ransom for all” 1 Tim.2.5,6; He died to open up the way to heaven for the “whosoever will”. Christ’s death has provided a righteous basis upon which God may offer salvation to all. However, if we say that Christ bore the sins of all, we are overstepping the bounds of Scripture. If Christ bore the sins of all in general, then for what will the lost be judged at the great white throne? Rev.20.12, clearly teaches “the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.”
The apostles never preached to the unsaved “Your sins have been borne by Christ”. However, Peter, writing to fellow believers could say, “who His own self bare our sins in His own body on the tree” 1 Pet.2.24. Therefore we can sing heartily:
- Behold the Lamb for sinners slain!
- To cleanse them from each guilty stain
- His precious blood was shed;
- He took our place upon the tree,
- Made sin, He bore our penalty.
- To set the guilty captives free,
- By dying in our stead.
- (G. W. Frazer)