Sunday, July 13, 2008

Why Did Jesus Die? (10) Substitutionary Themes in the Atonement

A certain theme of substitution runs throughout all the ways of thinking about the Cross. That is, since Christ has died for us, we no longer have to die. "I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus said. “He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die”. (John 11:25-26) He means souls and bodies that have become separated will one day be reunited, having first been perfected and glorified. He also means, by saying “shall never die,” that neither our souls nor our bodies will ever be separated from God.

He died to rescue us from death, as a fireman might die to rescue a child from a burning house. This is how we read such verses as:

4 He bears our sins, and is pained for us: yet we accounted him to be in trouble, and in suffering, and in affliction. 5 But he was wounded on account of our sins, and was bruised because of our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and by his bruises we were healed. 6 All we as sheep have gone astray; every one has gone astray in his way; and the Lord gave him up for our sins. 7 And he, because of his affliction, opens not his mouth: he was led as a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is dumb, so he opens not his mouth. 8 In his humiliation his judgment was taken away: who shall declare his generation? for his life is taken away from the earth: because of the iniquities of my people he was led to death. (Isaiah 53:4-8, Septuagint)

Another place in the Bible where we can discern an element of substitution – or at least role reversal – is 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”

Christ remained righteous at all times, else we could not become “the righteousness of God in Him.” That is why St. Paul is careful to add, “who knew no sin.” We do not imagine that a person, especially a divine person, could literally morph into a thing, especially into sin. Rather, St. Paul means that in Jesus’ dying, sin died. He and sin died together on the Cross. (See Part 04 of this series.) St. Peter means the same thing when he writes of Him “who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness--by whose stripes you were healed.” (I Peter 2:24)

If we are circumspect about it (circumspection being necessitated by heterodox teaching), we can also describe this same thing, the necessity of dying to destroy death, metaphorically and say Christ bore the penalty of our sin upon the Cross. We do not mean the Father was literally punishing the world through the Son; for this is not the kind of unmerciful God we worship.

We do mean that what happened, like what happened to a sacrificial animal, had the same effect as if it had been for punishment; that, together with the fact that we indeed deserved punishment, is why the metaphor is apt. God allowed His sinless One to suffer and die exactly as a sinner would; in fact, the same way a criminal in those days did die. (Indeed, He was crucified with two other men who really were criminals.) This, although we were the ones who deserved to suffer and die, while He did not.

Christ assumed our nature; He voluntarily submitted to all the consequences of sin. He took on Himself the responsibility for our error, while remaining a stranger to sin, in order to resolve the tragedy of human liberty and in order to bridge the gulf between God and man by leading him into the heart of His person where there is no room for any division or interior conflict. (Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Orthodox Church, p. 153)

Another verse whose irony gives us at least a hint of substitution is, "Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree')." (Galatians 3:13, quoting Deuteronomy 21:23)

The curses here are prescribed by the Law of Moses. Again, they do not have to do with God the Father blaming His all-righteous Son for our sins. St John Chrysostom explains:

In reality, the people were subject to another curse, which says, ‘Cursed is every one that continues not in the things that are written in the book of the Law.’” (Deut. xxvii. 26.) To this curse, I say, people were subject, for no man had continued in, or was a keeper of, the whole Law; but Christ exchanged this curse for the other, ‘Cursed is every one that hangs on a tree.’ … It was like an innocent man’s undertaking to die for another sentenced to death, and so rescuing him from punishment. For Christ took upon Him not the curse of transgression, but the other curse, in order to remove that of others. (St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Galatians, Chapter 3, emphasis mine.)

God the Father, then, is not transferring our curse onto Christ. Christ is taking upon Himself a different curse. He subjects Himself to one curse in the course of freeing us from another.

It was indeed “like an innocent man’s undertaking to die for another sentenced to death, and so rescuing him from punishment” – one readily sees the simile – but this is a simile, a figure of speech, for besides such a substitution being legally unacceptable, punishment is not in question where there is forgiveness. To forgive is to rescind the punishment, to overrule the penalty, to cancel the debt, to give up ones claim against another. Forgiveness and punishment are opposites and mutually exclusive. Where punishment is exacted (except in the case of chastisement), there is no forgiveness. And no loving either, but only self-serving, which is something in which our God never indulges. "God is love," and "love seeketh not her own."

Let the Pharisees grumble if they think it unfair, or let the elder brother of the Prodigal Son howl for “justice”; the unkindness is theirs. (And so is the error regarding the nature of justice.) As for us, let us simply fall before Christ’s cross in tears of overwhelming, grateful, joyous repentance.

“For scarcely in behalf of a just man does one die; yet perhaps one might bring himself to die for a good man. But God demonstrates His love towards us, because when we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:6-9)