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Substitutionary Atonement

Double Crushed

Disobedience to God's Law carries two different penalties.  There is the human penalty applied for crimes with physical repercussions: theft, murder, adultery, etc.; but then there is also a divine penalty applied for sins of the heart: covetousness, faithlessness, dishonesty, and others. Justice absolutely demands this duality.  A government charged with enforcing the law cannot make decisions about what goes on inside a person.  Human law enforcement must concern itself only with outward expressions of disobedience.  So, the person who secretly worships a god other than Yahweh should feel no wrath from the magistrate, but if the same person openly offers a sacrifice to a false god, then such a person is to be put to death (Deuteronomy 17:2-5).

So, one side of this coin is that human government is to punish outward disobedience to the Law, and the sentence may only be carried out on the basis of witnesses (Numbers 35:30), further cementing the fact that heart sins may not be punished by the human magistrate, since there are no witnesses.  The other side of the coin, however, is that God looks on the heart (1 Samuel 16:7).  That is the purview of His justice, and we certainly ought not to think that the retribution He has in store for transgression of His Law in the inner man is inferior to that which the human magistrate can dish out.

The greatest of all commandments in the Law is actually a heart command: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might" (Deuteronomy 6:4, cf. Matthew 22:37).  A human court cannot measure this love within a person, and so has no jurisdiction, but God can and does, and He will pour out eternal punishment on those who disobey (Matthew 25:41-46).

This duality of punitive justice - civil and divine - is the reason why Jesus died on a cross and not some other way.  He was guilty of neither an outward disobedience to the Law nor an inner one, yet He suffered the consequence of both.  He was put to death by the magistrate - the highest form of human punishment for crime - and He was cursed by God.  The truth of the latter part of that statement is made clear to us from the Law itself:

And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance.  (Deuteronomy 21:22-23)

The hanged man is cursed by God!  So by being crucified, Jesus bore the wrath of a criminal against man and a criminal against God when He was neither.  This is the essence of penal substitutionary atonement.  Christ did not suffer the wrath of both forms of justice for His own sins, because He had none, but instead He did so for those who trust in Him (Isaiah, 53:4-6, Romans 3:21-26, Galatians 3:13).

This is the great truth of the Gospel: the sacrifice of the sinless for the sinful.  Accept no substitutes.

Changing Places

If I were to get pulled over for speeding, I could not get away by telling the police officer to give my ticket to someone else.  As the one who deserves the penalty, I am in no way authorized to suggest a transference of that penalty.  Likewise, in a human court of law, the judge cannot sentence an innocent person for the crime of the guilty party.  That is not within his domain of authority.  The state has authorized him to try cases and mete out appropriate punishments, but since he is neither the offended party or the one who makes the laws that he enforces (I guess we're not talking about Supreme Court justices here), he cannot simply reassign just penalties wherever he likes. The situation is a lot different when I'm the offended party.  If someone harms me or my property, I have a right to either press charges or not, but I still don't have the right to shift who I press the charges against.  If one person steals my television, I can't insist that someone else take the blame.  That is because I have not been wronged by the other person, and so it would not be just to swap the penalty.  Also, I'm not the one who has made the law, so I can't change how the penalties are carried out.  I'm under someone else's authority on this matter.

God does not operate under these considerations, however.  That is simply because He is the One who has both crafted all of the laws and the One who has been offended by the breaking of those laws.  All of the authority to decide what ought to be done at that point belongs to Him.  As the Owner and King of everything, He can do whatever He wants with His property.

I was reminded of this as I read Numbers chapter 3 this morning.  When God freed the people of Israel from their slavery to the Egyptians, He told them that all of their firstborn males would be devoted to Him.  This was because God had killed all of the firstborn of Egypt, but spared the Hebrews.  So, instead of killing the Hebrew children, He demanded that they be devoted to Him and then redeemed by a sacrifice in their stead.  As the Lawmaker, He could demand an animal sacrifice in place of a human death.  And then in Numbers 3:11-13, He declared that all of the males of the tribe of Levi would be His instead of the firstborn males from the other tribes.  He switched out the requirement again, and once again He had every right to do so because He made the requirement in the first place, and all of those who were affected belonged totally to Him since He had "bought" them by saving them in the Exodus.

And of course, this is exactly what happened at the cross in the death of Jesus Christ.  Since God is the One who made the laws that were broken by sinful humanity, He, as the offended party, has the both the right to dictate the terms of the punishment and the right to call for a substitute to receive the penalty if He so desires.  The only other consideration is that since God is perfectly just, the penalty that is meted out must not be lessened or redundant with some other penalty.  All just penalties must be fully endured for the sake of justice.  In other words, He couldn't just double up the penalty on one who is already guilty in order to redeem somebody else.  You can't set one murderer free by killing another murderer twice.  Justice would not be done.

So the penalty must fall on One who does not deserve a penalty on His own.  But if there was such a person outside of God Himself, then God would be unjust in transferring the sins of disobedient humanity to that one.  No, the only solution is for the Judge Himself, the offended party and the Maker of the laws, to accept on Himself the punishments for the disobedience of His own rules.  If He has to be just and He wants to redeem the guilty, then this is the only choice.  And so Christ, the eternal Image of God - His manifestation - took on mortal flesh to be able to receive the blow from God's wrath that we deserved.  It is simultaneously the infinitely perfect display of love, justice, mercy, wrath, righteousness, and grace.  Hallelujah!  What a Savior!