Gospel Issues in Adventism
by E.H. “Jack” Sequeira

#4 – The Doctrine of Substitution
(Isaiah 53:4-11)

Closely related to the in Christ motif, which was our last study, is the doctrine of substitution. This is another Biblical truth that Satan hates and therefore has created opposition against it since the Reformation times. It is still being challenged today, especially by Muslim scholars. It is also one of the issues in Adventism today and that is why I am including it in this series of studies on the gospel issues in Adventism.

The word substitute means one person acting on behalf of another. In this country we have substitute teachers; and the practice of substitution is very common in sports. While the word substitute is not found in Scripture, it is definitely a Biblical truth and a central pillar of the gospel message. The Bible clearly teaches that Jesus lived and died in our place. Note these clear texts [Isa. 53:4-6, 11; 2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13; Heb. 2:9; 9:28; 1 Pet. 3:18].

Since the Scriptures so clearly teach that Christ lived and died as our substitute, why is there so much opposition against it, especially within the Christian Church? The problem is that, unlike the teaching profession or sports, the Biblical doctrine of substitution creates a legal or ethical problem. According to the book of the law, no innocent person is allowed to be punished for the guilt of another [read Deut. 24:16; note also Ezk. 18:20.]

Since Christ committed no sin, the big question is: how could God punish Him on the cross for our sins? Is He not going against His own law? In other words, how can God justify sinners on the basis of what Christ did and still maintain His integrity to His own law which condemns us to death?

This was the main issue fought over the doctrine of justification by faith, in the Counter Reformation. Roman Catholic scholars, like Osiender and Newman, accused the Reformers of legal fiction. If God can justify sinners without first making them righteous, they argued, than He Himself is guilty of breaking His own law. Today, the Muslim scholars are putting forth the same argument and accusing Christianity of being the most unethical religion in the world.

How do we solve this ethical problem? Make no mistake, the Reformers were Biblically right in teaching the doctrine of substitution, but where they failed was to show how Christ qualified to be our substitute. Before Christ could be our Saviour He first had to be qualified to be our substitute. And the reason why the Reformers failed here was because they failed to identify the humanity of Christ with the fallen sinful humanity He came to redeem.

Thus they taught what is commonly known today as Vicarious Substitution. This simply means that Christ took our place, lived and died instead of us, without first identifying Himself with our humanity that needed redeeming. The word “vicarious” means being sympathetic towards another’s need without actually experiencing their situation.

This is how the vicarious substitution of Christ is generally explained: Christ came to this earth to save mankind from sin, but sin is a dual problem. In the first place, sin is what we are by nature; it is a condition we are born with [Eph. 2:3b]. Secondly, sin is behaviour; it is the transgression of the law [1 Jn. 3:4]. How did Christ save us from this two-fold sin problem? The answer they give is, by His sinless human nature He substituted our sinful nature, and by His perfect performance, i.e., His life and death, He substituted our sinful performance. Thus He became our perfect substitute.

This sounds wonderful, but is this what the Scripture teaches? Nowhere will you find in the Bible this idea of vicarious substitution. On the contrary, the Bible is clear that, in order for Christ to qualify to be our substitute, He had to become one of us in every away except participate in our sin. Please note how two of the gospel writers describe Christ’s genealogy [read Matt. 1:1; the first and last verse of Lk. 3:23-38; and Rom. 1:4.]

Turning to the book of Hebrews, we find that the writer of this epistle clearly identifies the humanity of Christ with our fallen humanity that needed redeeming. Note these clear statements at the very beginning of this epistle [read Heb. 2:10, 11; 14-17]. I will have much more to say about the humanity of Christ in our next study, since this will be our topic. But now I would like to point to two things: first, the two-fold problem this vicarious substitution has created and second, the true Biblical teaching of substitution.

  1. As already mentioned, vicarious substitution presents an unethical gospel, that Christ illegally representing us. But vicarious substitution has also opened the door for cheap grace. That is, since Christ lived and died instead of me, without me being actually implicated in His life and death, all I have to do to be saved is simply believe in Him, that is, mentally consent to what He did for me, and I can live as I please and still be saved. But this is not what the Bible teaches [read Romans 6:1, 2, 10, 11; Col. 3:3; 1 Pet. 2:24].

  2. The only true explanation of the doctrine of substitution is the in Christ motif, which we considered in our last study: that, in order to save fallen humanity, Christ had to first be qualified to be our substitute and representative. How did God do this? By uniting the divinity of Christ with our corporate humanity that needed redeeming. Thus, by becoming the second Adam, i.e., the second mankind, Christ fully qualified to act on our behalf. This is the clear teaching of Scripture [1 Cor. 1:30, 31; Eph. 2:5, 6].

That is why true righteousness by faith is more than a mental assent to the truth of the gospel, what Christ did for us in His life and death, but an actual submission to the new history God has given us in Christ. This means by faith we obey the gospel and identify ourselves with the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Christ [read Romans 6:17, 18].

This is the true meaning of baptism, the putting on of Christ or entering into Christ’s experience of His death burial and resurrection. Baptism in the New Testament is always into Christ [Romans 6:3-8; Gal. 3:27; 1 Pet. 18-22].

By actually becoming us, Christ could legally or lawfully be our substitute and His holy history, His life and death, can legally be applied to all those who by faith receive Him as their personal Saviour. That is why, in the light of this truth, true Christianity is more than a mental assent to the truth as it is in Christ but an actual participating in Christ. This is clearly demonstrated every time we partake of the Lord’s Supper [read 1 Cor. 10:16].

Such an understanding of the doctrine of substitution and our response to it leaves no room for cheap grace. Every believer who has by faith received Christ as his or her personal Saviour has to confess what Paul confessed about himself to the Christians of Galatia [read Gal. 2:19, 20; note also Col. 2:6, 7].

Correctly understood, the doctrine of substitution offers us Christians two things. On the one hand, it gives us full assurance of salvation, since we are already sitting in heavenly places in Christ [Eph. 2:6]. But, on the other hand or at the same time, this truth does not give us license to live as we please. Our lives are now hidden in Christ and, as a result, we must put on Christ and make no room for the flesh [read Rom. 13:14].

May this two-fold experience be ours as we grow in grace and truth.

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