SUBSTITUTION VERSUS FORGIVENESS (1)
It is a primary principle for believers to understand, that Jesus Christ laid down his life in order to save his brethren. Note the following passages:
“This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15)
“… Thou shalt call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins” (Mat. 1:21)
” God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (Jno. 3:16)
But the question that needs to be asked, is How does the sacrifice of Christ effect the salvation of sinners? What is the basis upon which forgiveness can be extended to the ungodly (Rom. 5:6)?
THE COMMON BELIEF
The common belief is that Christ died as a substitute for us. The comparison is made with a man who is about to be hung for an offence. However, another man comes up (i.e. Christ), and offers to be hung instead, as a substitute. So the innocent is punished, and the guilty is allowed to go free.
Again, another comparison is made: a man owes a debt that he cannot repay. However, another man pays the debt for him (i.e. Christ) and so the debtor is allowed to go free.
This is a popular explanation, and although it is not Christadelphian teaching, it has been expressed on online Christadelphian discussion groups thus:
“Christ substituted for Abraham and Robert Roberts, just as much as you and me”
“On the first Good Friday, Christ was crucified between two thieves. It was his choice to die in this way and from his death and resurrection three days later, comes all our life and hope. He died in our place in this way so that we would not have to die.”
“I can recommend many books which speak volumes of the bible teaching about grace. The simple fact is that the verses ‘snatched’ from various books depict what truly I deserve; yet the Lord suffered for my transgressions. We are like Barabbas; awaiting execution; but Jesus has taken my place. And folk wonder why I call Jesus my friend, why I try and have a relationship to Him. “Greater love hath no man ….”
“I believe You are God and that your son Jesus Christ died on the cross to pay for my sins. I know You are alive. I ask You to be my SAVIOR! Come into my heart right now and forgive me so I can have free everlasting life. Amen!”
There are, however, a number of major problems with this position. firstly, If Christ has taken our place and died instead of us, then we ought not to die: death is the punishment, and the sentence has been carried out. In fact, this logical outcome is so obvious in the position cited above, that the writer himself said “he died in our place so that we would not have to die”. The problem is that in fact, we do still die, something which is within the experience of us all. Another objection is that if the penalty had to be paid by someone, either us, or someone else, then that flatly contradicts the Bible doctrine of forgiveness. By definition, if the debt is paid by a third party, the debt is not actually forgiven, or cancelled out – it still has to be paid.
BIBLE TEACHING REGARDING FORGIVENESS
There are many passages of Scripture that illustrate the concept of forgiveness. Matthew chapter 18 deals with disputes between brethren, and concludes with the parable of the unmerciful servant. A certain king was owed a vast amount by one of his servants, who was unable to pay the debt. But then, “the servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt” (see Mat. 18:23-35).
Notice what happens here: the lord does not require the debt to be paid at all, whether by the servant, or another man instead. The debt is simply forgiven: It is cancelled. His compassion is shown by loosing him from the debt, not by insisting that somebody else must pay in his place.
Again, in Luke chapter 7, we read of Messiah’s forgiveness of a particular woman in Simon the Pharisee’s house. Jesus spoke another parable:
“There was a certain creditor which had two debtors; the one owed five hundred pence, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave them both. Tell me therefore, which of them will love him most? Simon answered and said, I suppose that he, to whom he forgave most. And he said unto him, Thou hast rightly judged” (Lu. 7:41-43).
Again, we see the compassion of the creditor in forgiving, or as some versions render it, “cancelling”, the debt. He did not require someone else to pay it instead: it was simply cancelled: “he frankly forgave them both”.
There is another point that comes out from both of these parables: they are designed to be examples of how the believers ought to forgive trespasses against them. In his model prayer, Christ instructed his disciples to ask: “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Mat. 6:12). But how are we to forgive our debtors? By insisting that they find somebody else to pay the debt (i.e. “substitution”)? By no means, it is by cancelling the debts themselves. So Matthew 18 concludes by describing how the forgiven servant would not blot out the debt of another man who owed him money, and therefore had his own debt reinstated, and he cast into prison until he paid it all:
“So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses” (Mat. 18:35).
Here is the principle: “even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye” (Col. 3:13). To demand a substitute to pay the debt, by definition, is contrary to the Bible doctrine regarding forgiveness.
There is an interesting account in Scripture of a substitutionary sacrifice being refused. Moses besought Yahweh to forgive the sin of Israel, and offered himself to bear their punishment himself:
“Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them gods of gold. Yet now, if thou wilt forgive their sin – and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written. And Yahweh said unto Moses, Whosoever hath sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book” (Exo. 32:32-33).
There are a number of points which come out from this: firstly, Moses offered himself as a substitute for the people, yet this was rejected with the declaration “whosoever hath sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book”. Yahweh will not allow any man to take the punishment of another: people are personally accountable for their sins, and no-one can be a substitute for them.
The second point is that the offer of a substitute is directly contrasted with forgiveness: “if thou wilt forgive their sin – and if not not, blot me, I pray thee out of thy book”. If sin could not be forgiven, then Moses offered himself to bear the punishment instead. Substitution then, is presented in this case, as something which is the opposite to forgiveness.
In our considerations, we have seen how that the popular explanation of the sacrifice of Christ is left wanting, when compared with the Holy Word. Substitution is not a Scriptural teaching, and in fact, it directly contradicts the Bible teaching of forgiveness. Here is the real power of the sacrifice of Christ: It is not the case that a vengeful Deity requirers a legal sentence to be inflicted upon an innocent man, rather, it is the love of Yahweh extended to those who would come to Christ in humility and hope, forgiving their sins, and blotting out their trespasses. And the reasons why it is so is something we will consider if the Lord permit, in our next issue.
(To Be Continued)