In the first entry of this series, I discussed the question of how exactly we should understand Jesus to be the sinless Son of God. Contrary to the view that has prevailed within the western, Latin theological tradition (in which Jesus’ sinlessness is an ontological feature of his “human nature”), I have sided with the view that Jesus’ sinlessness is something he enacts within the same fallen humanity that you and I share, such that his sinlessness is the actual means by which our humanity is restored to redeemed fellowship with God through his life, death, and resurrection. This understanding of Jesus’ sinlessness yields a distinctive picture of the atonement in which the objective problem of sin is dealt with in Jesus’ own human existence through his death, as substitute on our behalf. God condemns sin in the flesh of his Son—in a moment, we shall discuss precisely how—and inaugurates a new creation through his death and resurrection. Because Jesus, even as a sinless person, nonetheless carried the problem of sin in himself, his death and resurrection actually dealt with the problem of sin decisively by taking it into the very life of the triune God himself and terminating it there for the sake of all.
This brings us to my concern in this entry: now I want to look at how this construal of Jesus’ sinlessness affects our understanding of God’s “self-substitution” for sinners. The protestant tradition in particular has (rightly) made much of how, in Jesus, we see God himself occupying the place of the sinner, for our sake. As we have normally described it, this substitution consists in a forensic exchange whereby our sin is “reckoned” to (an ontologically sinless) Jesus, who in turn bears the penalty of the sins reckoned; we in turn have his righteousness reckoned to us, and in consequence do not bear the penalty. So Jesus is understood to “stand in the place” of sinners—by receiving the penalty due to their transgressions. (This in turn raises the question of “limited atonement”—of whether the number of sins reckoned to Jesus and punished are those of every individual in the world, or of only the elect who will believe—which is a topic we will be considering in future posts as I discuss some of the research I have been doing lately on the topic.)
This picture of God’s self-substitution remains the same in its essentials, but gains a new depth of clarity as we consider it in light of how Jesus actually bears the problem of sin in himself. We could sum up God’s self-substitution in the statement: “God condemns sin in the flesh—by letting us condemn it to death in him.”
In other words, God deals with the world’s sin through the world’s own sinful rejection of him. By coming to us in Jesus Christ, bearing the problem of sin in his own humanity, he uses our rejection of his Son at the cross to destroy sin itself in his very being for our sake. The God whom we have rejected in Adam draws near to us in Adam’s flesh to bear our corruption as his own, and to receive our rejection in this new and utterly astonishing way, by taking on our stained and broken humanity, our captivated existence permeated by sin and estrangement, and as a sinless person accepting the death penalty we impose upon him, such that his innocent death and vindication in the resurrection at last put the whole problem of the sinful human condition to an end in his very person, and make it possible for sinners to find liberation and forgiveness in being joined to him through the Holy Spirit, by faith.
With the sinless Jesus of Nazareth, we sinners drove the nails and plunged the spear into our own fallen flesh and blood; we pressed the crown upon and smote the head of our own Adamic nature, innocently held before us by the Word of God made flesh; we in our sinfulness eradicated sin forever when we banished the Son of God into the outer darkness of Golgotha, bearing our sin-nature in himself. God has substituted himself for the sinner, by placing his only Son at the hands of our “justice” to be rejected, despised, and crushed, so that the sinner himself becomes the executor of God’s judgment against sin—upon God himself! Because God gives himself to us even in the uttermost of our rejection, bearing our fallen existence and approaching us in our own flesh and blood, our rejection that he willingly accepts becomes one and the same with his own rejection of sin forever.
This, then, is God’s self-substitution: he reverses our death penalty in himself, by bearing that penalty at our hands and by his faithful obedience rising again in victory; he then offers himself to us as the risen Lord, to be our substitute—our new humanity in which sin has been forever annihilated, in which the filth of our fallen condition has been washed away in his blood and a new creation raised up by the power of God’s Spirit. “You have died,” Paul writes, “and your life is hid with Christ in God…. Christ is your life” (Col 3:3-4). Because we are born again as a “new creation” through the Holy Spirit, Christ’s humanity is now the objective center of our own existence; we are “in him,” as Paul says over and over again. “I no longer live—Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20). Jesus is our surrogate humanity, our true life and meaning; because he is our life and we are now objectively situated in him by the Spirit, we have no penalty to undergo, no sin for which to face condemnation, for our Head has faced it already for us, and we are his Body.
That is how Jesus is our substitute, and how God substitutes himself for us. It is not most fundamentally a “reckoning” of something to someone, but an actual bearing of the burdens of those for whom the substitute acts, and an actual re-creating of sinners that places them “in Christ” by the Spirit, forgiven and no longer identified with their old and fallen humanity. Jesus gives himself to be the place where sin is condemned and its hold on the creation—specifically, on Jesus’ own humanity as the creation’s representative—is broken, and as the reigning King of the new creation gives himself to sinners like you and me to become, really and actually, the new seat of our identity through the Holy Spirit. Our death to the power of sin has already occurred; our old humanity has already been dissolved, because Christ has died and risen, and we are “no longer in the flesh but in [his] Spirit” (Rom 8:9)—what is true of Christ, our Life, is true of us, for our birth is of his Spirit and now no longer of the sinful flesh.
The Apostle Paul wrote, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2). In God’s self-substitution, we discover just how integral to the life and identity of God himself this really is—the “law of Christ” is none other than the law of God himself! God is the one who carries the burdens of his creation—not in any metaphorical or sentimental way, but in real space and time, becoming flesh and blood and making the weight of our broken existence his own, in order to bear its pains to the uttermost and to renew it in faithfulness as one of us. God carries the burden of our sin in Jesus his Son, and he gives himself to us in his Son to be the fulfillment of everything we need, to be the new creation in whom all things are united and re-created in life and freedom. That is God’s unfathomable, invincible love: to become what we are—broken, bowed down, under sin and death—so that we might become what he is: alive forevermore in the image of God, his Son.
In the third (and probably final) post of this series, we will consider how this understanding of Jesus’ sinlessness and the corresponding nature of the atonement determines our idea of what “truth” really is, and how this differentiates our gospel message from the claims of other philosophies and religions.