VIII. The Vicarious Atonement

The fundamental doctrine of Biblical Christianity which forms our topic is usually treated, in more detailed presentations of Christian doctrine, as a subheading under the general subject of Christ’s three-fold office: a). His prophetic office, in which He during the days of His flesh by word and deed proclaimed Himself as the Son of God and the Savior of the world, and throughout the ages as supreme Prophet stands behind all prophets, evangelists, and apostles through whom He has revealed Himself, as well as all preachers of the Gospel who proclaim His truth in its purity in full accord with inspired Scripture; b). His priestly office, in which He, both priest and sacrifice, in His active and passive obedience offered Himself without spot to God as the one atoning sacrifice for the sins of all men (the specific theme of this present exposition), and still intercedes for us at the throne of grace; c). and His kingly office, which as kingdom of power extends over all creatures, as kingdom of grace embraces Christ’s Church militant upon earth, and as kingdom of glory rules the Church triumphant in heaven, including the holy angels, unto all eternity.

We now concentrate our attention upon the central act of the office and work of Christ for our salvation, as sketched above: His vicarious atonement or substitutionary satisfaction for all sinners, which He carried out, as our High Priest, in His spotless life and His innocent sufferings and death for us. We offer first a brief definition of the vicarious satisfaction, which we shall then analyze into its component parts, as a convenient frame-work for the grouping of the precious Scripture texts upon which this central doctrine of our most holy faith is based.

Definition: Vicarious satisfaction means that Christ vicariously (in the place of man) rendered to God, who was wroth over the sins of man, a satisfaction which changed His wrath into grace toward men.

1. The immutable justice of God which pronounces the sentence of eternal damnation upon all transgressors of His Law, the wrath of God against sin and sinners. It is only upon the dark background of the wrath of God (“It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” Heb. 10:31) that we can rightly appreciate the wonderful work of Christ for our salvation. “If, when we were enemies” (lying under the enmity and wrath of God against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, Rom. 1:18), “we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by His life” (Rom. 5:10). There is no more fearful declaration of the wrath of God against sinners than the awful sufferings of Christ, the spotless Son of God, when He, taking the place of sinners, subjected Himself to that wrath which is our rightful lot and took our curse upon Himself. “Cursed is everyone that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them” (Deut. 27:26; Gal. 3:10). This is the situation of every one of us, guilty before God, His enemies, hated by God, lying under God’s wrath, or the curse of His Law. To deliver us from this wrath and curse, the guiltless Savior took our guilt upon Himself, put Himself in our place, becoming our Substitute, and thus made Himself subject to the avenging justice of God. When God’s Son became our Substitute, and the guilt of our sin was thus charged to His account, or “imputed” to Him, God “spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all” (Rom. 8:32). “It pleased the Lord to bruise Him; He hath put Him to grief” (Is. 53:10). That is the meaning of the profoundly Scriptural lines in Thomas Kelly’s great Lenten hymn (No. 153 in Lutheran Hymnal):

“But the deepest stroke that pierced Him
Was the stroke that Justice gave.”

That is also the meaning of Isaiah 53:4–6: “Surely He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon Him; and with His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” All this came upon Him because “He was numbered with the transgressors” (compare Mark 15:28 and Luke 22:37); “and He bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12).

2. The willing obedience of Christ in accepting the obligation in man’s stead both to keep the Law and to bear the punishment the Law exacts of the transgressors. The three passages of Scripture which (especially in the original Greek) bring out this substitutionary idea most clearly are Matt. 20:28 and Mark 10:45 (identical in wording): “Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for many” (literally: “in the place of many,” “in the stead of many”); also 1 Tim. 2:6: “Who gave Himself a ransom for all” (literally: “a substitutionary ransom for all”).

As our willing Substitute and Redeemer Christ rendered full obedience in two respects: a). By doing by keeping perfectly for us the Law of God, which we were obligated to keep but unable to keep; b). By suffering, by enduring for us the full penalty of our transgressions, by suffering for us in His infinite Person, as the God-man, during the days of His flesh and especially in those last bitter hours upon Calvary, all that we should have suffered throughout eternity in hell. The very voice of this unimaginable and infinite suffering of the God-man as our Substitute is heard in His fourth word from the cross: “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” (Psalm 22:1; Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34).

“Deserted! God could separate from His own essence rather;
And Adam’s sins have swept between the righteous Son and Father;
Yea, once Immanuel’s orphaned cry His universe hath shaken,
It went up single, echoless: ‘My God, I am forsaken!’
It went up from the Holy’s lips, amid His lost creation,
That of the lost, no son should use those words of desolation.”

(Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “Cowper’s Grave.”)

This is indeed the very suffering of hell itself when He for our sins is forsaken. And this suffering of which He could say at the end of those three dread hours of darkness: “It is finished” (John 19:30), was truly equivalent to the eternal suffering of all sinners in hell, because of the infinite Person of Him who suffered. This equivalence of the infinite God-man’s suffering, which He finished and brought to an end in a few hours, to the eternal suffering of finite man in a living death which never ends, is beautifully expressed in the following little poem on “The Crucifixion” by Alice Meynell:

“Oh, man’s capacity
For spiritual sorrow, corporal pain!
Who has explored the deepmost of that sea,
With heavy links of a far-fathoming chain?

“That melancholy lead,
Let down in guilty and in innocent hold,
Yea, into childish hands delivered,
Leaves the sequestered floor unreached, untold.

“One only has explored
The deepmost; but He did not die of it.
Not yet, not yet He died. Man’s human Lord
Touched the extreme; it is not infinite.

“But over the abyss
Of God’s capacity for woe He strayed
One hesitating hour; what gulf was this?
Forsaken He went down, and was afraid.”

The Scripture testimony to this willing obedience of our Savior is fittingly divided, as before mentioned, into two groups of texts:

a). His obedience by doing, commonly called the active obedience: Matt. 5:17: “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.” (N.B. “Fulfilling” the Law means keeping it, obeying the commandments of God. This we were obligated to do, but could not do because of our sinful corruption. This Christ, being Himself God, was not obligated to do, but did for us, as our Substitute). Gal. 4:4, 5: “When the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth His Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.” The eternal Son of God, the Lawgiver, became incarnate, born of a woman, in order that He might come down under the Law with us, and in our stead render that perfect obedience to the Law which we were unable to render.

b). His obedience by suffering, commonly called the passive obedience: Gal. 3:13: “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree” (Deut. 21:23). Compare Gal. 3:10 (Deut. 27:26), quoted above, that you may fully understand why and for what purpose Christ had to become a curse if we were to be redeemed from the curse, and was willing to become a curse for us. 2 Cor. 5:14: “For the love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead.” On this text Dr. Walther remarks: “This is a golden text, which shines with the radiance of the sun even in the luminous Scriptures. Since the death which Christ died for all is a death for the purpose of reconciliation, it is the same as if all had suffered death for this purpose. It follows, then, that, without entertaining the least doubt, I can say with perfect assurance: ‘I am redeemed; I am reconciled; salvation has been acquired for me.’ ” (“Law and Gospel,” trans. by Dr. Dau, p. 274; compare also p. 374). 2 Cor. 5:19: “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation.” (N.B. The “Word of reconciliation” is the Gospel of the finished atonement, the unconditioned Gospel of the redemption of all men). 1 Peter 3:18: “Christ hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God.” 1 John 2:2: “He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.”

3. God lays His anger by. The vicarious satisfaction which Christ rendered by His active and passive obedience has resulted in appeasing God’s wrath against men, has set aside God’s judgment of condemnation and put in its place a judgment of universal justification. God has forgiven all the sins of all men for the sake of Christ’s substitutional obedience and death, and has sealed this universal amnesty by raising Him from the dead. As His condemnation was the penalty for our sins meted out to our Substitute (“the stroke that Justice gave;” “the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all,” Is. 53:6; “He was delivered for our offenses”), so when He was justified (from our sins, not His own, for He had none) by His resurrection from the dead, this was really our justification, the assurance that God was fully satisfied with the satisfaction He had rendered for us, that for Christ’s sake our sins are forgiven: Rom. 4:25: “He was delivered for our offenses, and was raised again for our justification.” Rom. 5:18: “Therefore as by the offense of one (Adam) judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of One (Christ) the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life.” In conclusion, 2 Cor. 5:21: “He hath made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.”

“He shows to man His treasure
Of judgment, truth, and righteousness,

His love beyond all measure,
His yearning pity o‘er distress,

Nor treats us as we merit,
But lays His anger by.

The humble, contrite spirit
Finds His compassion nigh;

And high as heaven above us,
As break from close of day,

So far, since He doth love us,
He puts our sins away.”

(Lutheran Hymnal, Hymn 34, stanza 2)