Beyond Belief
by E.H. ‘Jack’ Sequeira

Chapter 4 – Christ Our Substitute

The biblical concept of corporate oneness leads us to the important doctrine of substitution.  This doctrine was at the very heart of the theological controversy between the Reformers and the Roman Catholic scholars during the Reformation.  The central issue under dispute had to do with the ethical problem raised by the truth of justification by faith.  The issue is real, and it still concerns us today:  “How can God justify believing sinners and at the same time maintain His integrity to the divine law that justly condemns them to eternal death?” [see Romans 4:5, Galatians 3:10].

The Catholic scholars insisted that before God could declare the individual believer justified, He first had to make him righteous through an infused grace.  Otherwise, God is testifying to a lie:  declaring a sinner justified who is still a sinner.  The Reeformers rejected this solution to the problem and came up instead with the biblical doctrine of substitution.  “God declares a believer justified,” they said, “on the basis of the life and death of Christ, which fully met the law’s requirements.”  In other words, the righteousness of Christ substitutes for the believer’s lack of righteousness.

The Catholic scholars would not accept this answer.  They argued that such a substitution would be unethical and illegal.  No law allows one person to assume the guilt or punishment of another.  Righteousness cannot be passed from one person to another.  Accordingly, they accused the Reformers of teaching “legal fiction,” a “passed-on righteousness,” or “celestial bookkeeping.”

Both parties were correct to a point, yet both taught error as well.  The Catholic theologians were ethically right.  God does need to make sinners righteous before He can legally declare them righteous.  They were wrong, however, in their solution and rightly deserved the Reformers’ accusation of legalism.

The Reformers, on the other hand, were correct in their solution; the Bible clearly teaches that believing sinners are justified on the basis of the life and death of Jesus substituting for their own sinful life [see Romans 10:4; Acts 13:39].  The Reformers, nevertheless, were ethically wrong in the definition of substitution:  that the doing and dying of Christ was accepted instead of our doing and dying.  As the Catholic theologians pointed out, it is a fundamental principle of all law, God’s or man’s, that guilt or punishment cannot be transferred from the guilty to the innocent, nor can the righteousness of one person be legally transferred to another [see Deuteronomy 24:16; 2 Kings 14:6; Ezekiel 18:1-20].

What, then, are we to make of the biblical teaching of substitution?  How are we to define it?  Biblically, the doctrine of substitution is based on the concept of solidarity or corporate oneness.  As we saw earlier, all humanity stands legally condemned because all sinned in one man, Adam.  Likewise, God can legally justify sinners because all humanity corporately obeyed the law in one Man, Jesus Christ — the second Adam.  God made this possible by uniting His Son with the corporate life of the human race at the incarnation.  This qualified Christ to be the second Adam and to be the legal Substitute for fallen humanity.

The Reformers failed to solve the ethical problem of the gospel for the simple reason that they, like the Roman Catholic Church, made a distinction between the humanity of Christ and the humanity He came to redeem.  Only when we identify the humanity of Christ with the corporate fallen humanity that He came to redeem can we preach an ethical gospel that is unconditional good news.  In other words, humanity that Christ did not assume, He could not save.

The Humanity of Christ

In the next chapter, we will study how the Bible clearly defines the concept of substitution through the idea of the “two Adams.”  But first, we need to answer two vital questions concerning the humanity of Christ.  The first question is:  “What was the primary purpose of Christ becoming a man?” Today, there are three answers to this question being given within the Christ church.

  1. Christ became a man to prove that men and women can keep God’s law.  The problem with this answer is that we cannot explicitly substantiate it from Scripture.  Of course, the fact that in His humanity Christ did perfectly keep the law proves that human beings who are controlled by God’s Spirit also can fully meet the law’s demands.  But the Bible does not teach that this was the primary reason Christ became a man.

  2. Christ became a man to be our example.  The Bible does point to Christ as our example, but it does so only with reference to those who have accepted Him by faith and who have experienced the new birth [see 1 Peter 2:21; Philippians 2:5-8].  It does not teach that the primary reason Christ became a man was to be our Example.  Those who emphasize christ as our Example without first clearly presenting Him as our Savior give the impression that they are teaching the example theory of the atonement.  This is why they are often accused of the heresy of perfectionism or legalism.

  3. Christ became a man to redeem men and women from sin.  Scripture presents this as the primary reason for the Son of God being made flesh [see Matthew 1:21; Galatians 4:4-5; Hebrews 2:14-17].  At the very heart of the doctrine of Christology is the glorious truth that Christ assumed humanity so that He could be the Savior of the world.  Only to those who have first received Him as Savior does He become an Example.

Once we establish that the primary reason Christ became a man was to redeem fallen humanity, we face the second important question concerning His human nature.  “How did Christ save mankind in His humanity?” Again, Christianity offers more than one answer.  Each answer demands a different view of the nature of Christ’s humanity.

1.  Christ, in His humanity, saved men and women vicariously (one person acting in the place of another).  The Reformers held this view, as do many evangelical Christians today.  To do so, they teach that christ took on a pre-Fall human nature — the spiritual nature Adam had before he sinned.  Here is their basic line of reasoning.

Sin, say those who hold this view, is a dual problem.  It is, first of all, a condition or state of being.  A sinful nature is itself sin and automatically stands condemned.  Therefore, christ had to take a sinless human nature (like Adam’s before the Fall) in order to substitute Himself vicariously for our sinful nature, which stands condemned.  They insist that if Christ had taken our sinful nature as we know it, He would automatically have become a sinner and in need of a savior Himself.

Second, they say, sin is also performance — sinful acts.  Christ’s perfect life and sacrificial death substitute for our sinful performance.  Therefore, those who hold this view see Christ dealing with this dual aspect of sin.  His sinless human nature vicariously substituted for our sinful natures.  And His perfect performance — His doing and dying — vicariously redeemed us from sin.

However, this position presents two problems.

It makes the gospel unethical.  As we have already seen, no law of God or man will allow guilt or righteousness to be transferred from one person to another.  So those who teach vicarious substitution are rightly accused of teaching “legal fiction” or a “passed-on righteousness.”  Attempts to solve this ethical problem (such as “Christ is above the law,” or “He volunteered to die in our stead, so this makes it ethical”) are unacceptable.  Law simply will not allow sin to be transferred from the guilty to the innocent.  Only when the guilty and the innocent are actually linked together, as illustrated in the Old Testament sanctuary service, does substitution become legally aacceptable [see 1 Corinthians 10:18].

The second problem with the idea of a salvation based on vicarious substitution is that it very easily turns the gospel into “cheap grace.”  If Christ did it all without having to identify Himself with us, if He lived and died instead of us, then we should be able to receive the blessings of His holy life and death simply by agreeing mentally to this truth.  We don’t have to identify ourselves with His living and dying, as true faith and baptism demand us to do [see Galatians 2:19-20; Romans 6:1-4].  We simply accept that Christ lived and died instead of us.  That is “cheap grace.”

There is a second answer to the question of how Christ saved us in His humanity.

2.  Christ, in His humanity, saved men and women in actuality, not vicariously.  Those who take this position teach that Christ took the human nature Adam had after his fall.  They argue that since Christ came to save fallen humanity, He had to assume the sinful human nature that needed redeeming.  By thus identifying Himself with our corporate fallen humanity, Christ qualified Himself to be the second Adam and legally gained the right to be our Substitute.

According to this view, Christ’s life and death actually changed mankind’s past.  Because each of us was corporately identified with Christ’s humanity, His life and death become our life and death.  In Him, we lived a perfect life; in Him we died the penalty for sin.  When Christ died on the cross, all humanity was legally justified because all humanity died with Him there.  Justification by faith is simply making that legal justification effective in the life of the believer.  Faith, therefore, becomes much more than a mere mental assent to the truth.  It requires a heart appreciation of the cross; it produces a surrender of the will and an obedience to the truth as it is in Christ [see Romans 1:5; 6:17; 10:16; Galatians 5:7; 2 Thessalonians 1:7-8].  Such obedience of faith is the basis of true holy living [see Galatians 2:20; Romans 6:10-13].

But some raise a serious question about this view.  “If Christ identified Himself with our sinful human nature,” they ask, “does that not make Him a sinner like us and in need of a savior as we are?”  A sinful nature, they remind us, is itself sin.

It’s true that Paul clearly teaches that the sinful human nature we possess is indwelt by sin [see Romans 7:20, 23] and that we are, therefore, “by nature objects of wrath” [Ephesians 2:3].  It’s also true, however, that the Bible clearly teaches that Christ took the same nature as that of the human race He came to redeem [see Hebrews 2:14-17].  How,then, are we to resolve the dilemma?

The correction solution is to take note of the qualifying word the New Testament writers use when they speak of the humanity Christ assumed.  In John 1:14, Galatians 4:4, and 2 Corinthians 5:21, for example, the writers stop short of saying that in His humanity Christ was just as we are in our fallen humanity.  They say He “was made flesh” [John 1:14], that He was “made of a woman” [Galatians 4:4].  What does this word mean?

The Greek words translated made in our English Bibles mean to become.  When Christ became a man, He actually became what He was not.  The sinful nature He assumed was not His by native right, but something He took upon Himself, or was made to be in order to redeem it.  As Ellen White says, “He took upon His sinless [divine] nature our sinful [human] nature, that He might know how to succor those that are tempted” (Medical Ministry, p. 181).  The words “shared in” or “took part” [Hebrews 2:14] and the word “likeness” [Romans 8:3] carry the same connotation as the word “made.”

Scripture teaches that Christ actually did assume our condemned sinful human nature as we know it.  But He totally defeated “the law of sin and death” [Romans 8:2] that resided in that sinful human nature and then executed it on the cross.  Had Christ consented, even by a thought, to the sinful desires of that nature which He assumed, then He would have become a sinner in need of a savior Himself.  That is why, in dealing with the human nature of Christ, we must be exceedingly careful not to drag His mind or His choice into sin or to say that He “had” a sinful nature.

The fact that the New Testament writers record the genealogy of Jesus, tracing His roots to David [see Romans 1:3], to Abraham [see Matthew 1:1-16], and even to Adam [see Luke 3:23-38] clearly shows that Christ’s humanity was part and parcel of the humanity He came to redeem.  The question that confronts us is:  “How and when did Christ cleanse that humanity from the law of sin and death?”  Most Christians teach that this took place at the incarnation.  But Scripture does not support this.  On the contrary, the Bible teaches clearly that it was on the cross that Jesus took away the sin of the world [see Romans 8:2-3].  The incarnation is not God’s solution to our sin problem; His solution is “the blood of Jesus, his Son [that] purifies us from all sin” [1 John 1:7].  The incarnation qualified Jesus to be our Substitute and Savior, but it is the cross that is the power of God unto salvation.

When the everlasting gospel is understood in the light of the “in Christ” motif, the humanity of Jesus becomes everything to us.  Today, more and more scholars are recognizing this truth.  Here are what two have to say on the subject:

Perhaps the most fundamental truth which we have to learn in the Christian church, or rather relearn since we have suppressed it, is that the Incarnation was the coming of God to save us in the heart of our fallen and depraved humanity, where humanity is at its wickedest in its enmity and violance against the reconciling love of God.  That is to say, the Incarnation is to be understood as the coming of God to take upon Himself our fallen human nature, our actual human existence laden with sin and guilt, our humanity diseased in mind and soul in its estrangement or alienation from the Creator.  This is a doctrine found everywhere in the early church in the first five centuries, expressed again and again in terms that the whole man had to be assumed by Christ if the whole man was to be saved, that the unassumed is unhealed, or that what God has not taken up in Christ is not saved....  Thus the Incarnation had to be understood as the sending of the Son of God in the concrete form of our own sinful nature and as a sacrifice for sin in which He judged sin within that very nature in order to redeem man from his carnal, hostile mind.  [Thomas F.  Torrence, The Meditation of Christ, pp.  48-49.]

It was to be right in sin’s own realm that the Son was to bring sin to judgment, overcome it, and take away its power.  It is therefore important that with Christ it is actually a matter of “sinful flesh,” of sinful flesh....  Christ’s carnal nature was no unreality, but simple, tangible fact.  He shared all our conditions.  He was under that same power of destruction.  Out of “the flesh” arose for Him the same temptations as for us.  But in all this He was master of sin.  [Anders Nygren, Commentary on Romans, pp.  314-315.]

The God-Man Savior

At the incarnation, two distinct natures were united in one Person:  Jesus Christ.  In order for Christ to qualify legally to be our substitute and representative, His divinity had to be united to our corporate fallen humanity that needed redeeming.  These two distinct, opposite natures were united in one Person, and Christ became the second Adam.  This is the “in Christ” motif, the central theme of Paul’s theology.  In chart form, here is what the New Testament says about the divinity and humanity that were united in Christ.

His Divine Nature –
What He Is
His Human Nature –
What He Was Made
  1. Son of God  [Luke 1:35]
  2. Self-existing  [John 1:4]
  3. Spirit  [John 4:24]
  4. Equal with God  [Philippians 2:6]
  5. Sinless  [2 Corinthians 5:21]
  6. Independent  [John 10:18]
  7. Immortal  [1 Timothy 1:17]
  8. Lawgiver  [James 4:12]
  1. Son of man  [Luke 19:10]
  2. Born of a woman  [Galatians 4:4]
  3. Flesh  [John 1:14]
  4. A slave of God  [Philippians 2:7]
  5. Sin  [2 Corinthians 5:21]
  6. Dependent  [John 5:19-20]
  7. Mortal  [Hebrews 2:14-15]
  8. Under law  [Galatians 4:4]

At the resurrection, these two natures became one, sharing the same divine life.  On the cross our corporate, condemned life died eternally in Christ [see 2 Corinthians 5:14].  In the resurrection, God gave the human race the eternal life of His Son [see 1 John 5:11].  All that we are as a result of the Fall, Christ was made at the incarnation so that, through His life, death, and resurrection, we could be made, in Him, all that He is [see 2 Corinthians 5:17].  This is the good news of the gospel.

By nature we are:

  1. spiritually dead, but in Christ were made spiritually alive [see Ephesians 2:5];
  2. sinners, but in Christ were made righteous [see 2 Corinthians 5:21];
  3. sinful, but in Christ were made holy and blameless [see Ephesians 1:4];
  4. condemned, but in Christ were justified [see Romans 5:18];
  5. sons of man, but in Christ were made sons of God [see 1 John 3:1];
  6. hell bound, but in Christ were made to sit in heavenly places [see Ephesians 2:6];
  7. mortal, but in Christ were made immortal [see 2 Timothy 1:8-10];
  8. poor, but in Christ were made rich [see 2 Corinthians 8:9]; and
  9. lower than the angels, but in Christ were made joint heirs with Christ [see Hebrews 2:6-12; Romans 8:17].

The next chapter will examine in more detail what Scripture has to say about the two Adams and the implications for you and me.


Key Points in Chapter 4
• Christ Our Substitute •
  1. Justification by faith raises an ethical issue:  How can God justify believing sinners and at the same time maintain His integrity to the divine law that justly condemns them to eternal death?  [See Romans 4:5; Galatians 3:10.]

  2. During the Reformation, the Reformers answered this question with the doctrine of substitution in which Christ’s righteousness substitutes for the believer’s lack of righteousness.

  3. Catholic scholars argued that substitution was unethical.  It made God testify to a lie:  declaring a sinner justified who is still a sinner.  They insisted that before God could declare a person justified, He had to make the person righteous through an infused grace.

  4. The Catholic scholars were ethically right:  God does need to make sinners righteous before He can legally declare them to be righteous.  They were wrong in their solution to the problem, however.

  5. The Reformers were right in their solution to the problem:  the Bible clearly teaches that sinners are justified on the basis of the life and death of Jesus substituting for their own sinful life [see Romans 10:4; Acts 13:39].  The Reformers were ethically wrong, however, in defining substitution as Jesus’ life and death being accepted instead of our life and death.

  6. Biblically, the doctrine of substitution is based on the concept of corporate oneness.  God can legally justify sinners because all humanity corporately obeyed the law in one Man, Jesus Christ.  Only when we identify the humanity of Jesus with the corporate fallen humanity He came to redeem can we teach an ethical gospel that is unconditional good news.

  7. The main reason Christ became a man was to redeem men and women from sin, not primarily to prove that they could keep God’s law or to be their Example [see Matthew 1:21; Galatians 4:4-5; Hebrews 2:14-17].

  8. Christ, in His humanity, saved men and women in actuality, not vicariously.  Christ’s life and death actually changed humanity’s past; Christ’s life and death became our life and death.  In Him we lived a perfect life; in Him we died the penalty for sin [see 2 Corinthians 5:14].

  9. The Bible clearly teaches that Christ took the same nature as that of the human race He came to redeem [see Hebrews 2:14-17].  But it stops short of saying that in His humanity Christ was just as we are in our fallen humanity.  The Bible says He “was made flesh” [ John 1:14].  He became something He was not.  He took sinful nature upon Himself in order to redeem it.

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