The Self-Substitution of God

Easter's Gospel

Series: Easter's Gospel

by Carroll Wynne April 9, 2014

During the weeks leading up to Easter our pastoral staff will tackle theological topics related to the resurrection in a series we're calling "Easter's Gospel."


Substitutionary sacrifice is illustrated strikingly throughout Scripture. Abraham’s prophetic words in Genesis 22:8, “God will provide for himself the lamb” (supposedly only for Isaac’s ears), pointed forward to the provision of Christ as, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29)—and both on Mt. Moriah, later the foundation of both temples (2 Chronicles 3:1) and now under the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. The substitutionary atonement was further enhanced by the Passover sacrifice in Exodus 12 which was sacrificed as a community (v.6), eventually expanding into atonement for the nation at the wilderness Tabernacle (Exodus 30:10; Leviticus 16).

However, this idea of the self-substitution of God (Rom. 3:26) raises two topics:

  • The holy and sinless nature of the substitute.
  • The adversarial and confederate action of the Holy Judge and sinful sacrifice.

The Holy, Sinless Substitute

Creeds have certainly distilled Scripture’s teaching on the God-man nature of our substitute from the Nicene Creed (325 and 381 AD) and the Apostle’s Creed (390 AD).  However it was not until the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) concluded with these five statements about God-man nature of Christ [1]:

  • Jesus has two natures—he is God and man.
  • Each nature is full and complete—he is fully God and fully man.
  • Each nature remains distinct.
  • Christ is only one Person.
  • Things that are true of only one nature are nonetheless true of the Person of Christ.

The good news for us is that as Adam was our federal head, acting on our behalf in the fall into a sinful state (1 Corinthians 15:22), so Christ now fulfills that same role (Romans 8:3).

The Adversarial, Holy Judge

It is the second of topic of the self-substitution of God for our sin which is more difficult: If God is holy and “cannot look upon wrong (sin)” (Habakuk 1:13), how can Christ—the God-man—“becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13) and still be God?

T.J. Crawford writes:

It is altogether an error…to suppose that God acts at one time according to one of his attributes, and at another time according to another. He acts in conformity with all of them at all times. …As for divine justice and the divine mercy in particular, the end of his [that is, Christ’s] work was not to bring them into harmony, as if they had been at variance with one another, but jointly to manifest, and glorify them in the redemption of sinners. It is a case of combined action, and not of counteraction, on the part of these attributes, that is exhibited on the cross. [2]

This truth is seen in Isaiah 53 and Christ’s final prayer.

Isaiah 53—the passage of the Suffering Servant whom we believe to be Christ—reveals our foolish thought that Christ was receiving his just punishment from the hand of God (v. 4). Yet the following verses show how he was punished for our sins as a part of God’s plan—the will of our covenant God—which satisfies the servant as well (v. 10, 11a). In the same way, Christ’s own prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane mirrors this same desire for “the plan” where he voices his heart’s cry to have the cup of God’s wrath against sin removed from him, but with faith submits to God’s will even in the face of such pending death. There is not light of separation between Father and Son, nor Holy Judge and sinful sacrifice.

John Stott captures this wonderful truth:

We must never make Christ the object of God’s punishment or God the object of Christ’s persuasion, for both God and Christ are subjects not objects, taking the initiative together to save sinners. Whatever happened on the cross in terms of “God-forsakenness” was voluntarily accepted by both in the same holy love that made atonement necessary. …There was not unwilling ness in either. On the contrary, their wills coincided in the perfect self-sacrifice of love.[3]

During this Easter season, read through Romans 3:21-26 (esp. vv. 25, 26) and praise our covenant, Triune God for all he has accomplished for our salvation.


[1] For an excellent article see Matt Perman, http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/how-can-jesus-be-god-and-man

[2] Quoted in Stott, The Cross of Christ, IVP, 1986, pp. 133-134.

[3] Ibid., p. 151.