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Seekers Encouraged – The Substitute

The whole pith and marrow of the religion of Christianity lies in the doctrine of “substitution,” and I do not hesitate to affirm my conviction that a very large proportion of “Christians” are not Christians at all, for they do not understand the fundamental doctrine of the Christian creed; and, alas, there are preachers who do not preach, or even believe this cardinal truth. They speak of the blood of Jesus in an indistinct kind of way, and talk about the death of Christ in a hazy style of poetry, but they do not strike this nail on the head, and lay it down that the way of salvation is by Christ’s becoming a Substitute for guilty man. This shall make me the more plain and definite. Sin is an accursed thing. God, from the necessity of his holiness, must curse it; he must punish men for committing it; but the Lord’s Christ, the glorious Son of the everlasting Father, became a man and suffered in his own proper person the curse which was due to the sons of men, so that, by a vicarious offering God, having been just in punishing sin, could extend his bounteous mercy towards those who believe in the Substitute.

But, you inquire, how was Jesus Christ a curse? The answer is, “He was made a curse.” Christ was no curse in himself. In his person he was spotlessly innocent, and nothing of sin could belong personally to him. In him was no sin. God “made him who knew no sin to be sin for us” (2 Cor 5:21). There must never be supposed to be any degree of blame-worthiness or censure in the person or character of Christ as he stands as an individual. He is in that respect without spot or wrinkle, the immaculate Lamb of God’s Passover. Nor was Christ made a curse out of necessity. There was no necessity for him ever to suffer the curse; no necessity except that which his own loving pledge created. His own intrinsic holiness kept him from sin, and that same holiness kept him from the curse. He was made sin for us, not on his own account, not with any view to himself, but wholly because he loved us and chose to put himself in the place which we ought to have occupied. He was made a curse for us, not out of any personal desert or out of any personal necessity, but because he had voluntarily undertaken to be the covenant head of his people, and to be their representative, and as their representative, to bear the curse which was due to them.

I want to be very clear here, because very strong expressions have been used by those who hold the great truth which I am endeavoring to preach; strong expressions which have conveyed the truth they meant to convey, but also a great deal more. Martin Luther prized the Epistle to the Galatians so much that he called it his Catherine von Bora (that was the name of his beloved wife, and he gave this book the name of the dearest one he knew). In his book on that epistle he says plainly, but be reassured he did not mean what he said to be literally understood, that, “Jesus Christ was the greatest sinner that ever lived; that all the sins of man were so laid upon Christ that he became all the thieves, and murderers, and adulterers that ever were, in one.” Now he meant this: that God treated Christ as if he had been a great sinner; as if he had been all the sinners in the world in one; and such language teaches that truth very plainly. But Luther-like in his boisterousness, he overshoots his mark, and leaves room for the censure that he has almost spoken blasphemy against the blessed person of our Lord. Now, Christ never was and never could be a sinner; and in his person and in his character, in himself considered, he never could be anything but well beloved of God, and blessed forever and well pleasing in Jehovah’s sight; so that when we say today that he was a curse, we must lay stress on those words, “He was made a curse”—constituted a curse, set as a curse; and then again we must emphasize those other words, for us—not on his own account at all; but entirely out of love to us, that we might be redeemed; he stood in the sinner’s place and was reckoned to be a sinner, and treated as a sinner and made a curse for us.

How was Christ made a curse? In the first place, he was made a curse because all the sins of his people were actually laid on him. “He made him to be sin for us”; and let me quote from Isaiah, “The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all”; and yet another statement from the same prophet, “He shall bear their iniquities.” The sins of God’s people were lifted from off them and imputed to Christ, and their sins were looked upon as if Christ had committed them. He was regarded as if he had been the sinner; he actually and in very deed stood in the sinner’s place. Next to the imputation of sin came the curse of sin. The law, looking for sin to punish, with its quick eye detected sin laid upon Christ and, as it must curse sin wherever it was found, it cursed the sin as it was laid on Christ. So Christ was made a curse.

Wonderful and awful words, but, as they are scriptural words, we must receive them. Sin being on Christ, the curse came on Christ, and in consequence, our Lord felt an unutterable horror of soul. Surely it was that horror which made him sweat great drops of blood when he saw and felt that God was beginning to treat him as if he had been a sinner. The holy soul of Christ shrank with deepest agony from the slightest contact with sin. So pure and perfect was our Lord, that never an evil thought had crossed his mind, nor had his soul been stained by the glances of evil, and yet he stood in God’s sight a sinner and therefore a solemn horror fell upon his soul. Then he began to be made a curse for us, nor did he cease till he had suffered all the penalty which was due on our account.

We have been accustomed to divide the penalty into two parts, the penalty of loss and the penalty of actual suffering. Christ endured both of these. It was due to sinners that they should lose God’s favour and presence, and therefore Jesus cried, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” It was due to sinners that they should lose all personal comfort; Christ was deprived of every consolation and even the last rag of clothing was torn from him and he was left, like Adam, naked and forlorn. It was necessary that the soul should lose everything that could sustain it, and so Christ lost every comfortable thing; he looked and there was no man to pity or help; he was made to cry, “But I am a worm and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people” (Psa 22:6). As for the second part of the punishment—namely, an actual infliction of suffering—our Lord endured this also to the extreme, as the evangelists clearly show. You have often read the story of his bodily sufferings; take care that you never depreciate them. There was an amount of physical pain endured by our Saviour which his body could never have borne unless it had been sustained and strengthened by union with his Godhead; yet the sufferings of his soul were the soul of his sufferings. That soul of his endured a torment equivalent to hell itself. The punishment that was due to the wicked was that of hell, and though Christ did not suffer hell, he suffered an equivalent for it; and now, can your minds conceive what that must have been? It was an anguish never to be measured, an agony never to be comprehended. It is to God, and God alone that his griefs were fully known. The Greek liturgy puts it well, “Thine unknown sufferings,” for they must forever remain beyond human imagination.

The consequences are that he has redeemed us from the curse of the law. Those for whom Christ died are forever free from the curse of the law; for when the law comes to curse a man who believes in Christ, he says, “What have I to do with you, O law? You say, ‘I will curse you,’ but I reply, ‘You have cursed Christ instead of me. Can you curse twice for one offence?’ ” And the law is silenced! God’s law having received all it can demand is not so unrighteous as to demand anything more. All that God can demand of a believing sinner, Christ has already paid, and there is no voice in earth or heaven that can accuse a soul that believes in Jesus after that. You were in debt, but a friend paid your debt; no writ can be served on you. It does not matter that you did not pay it, it is paid, and you have the receipt. That is sufficient in any fair court. So all the penalty that was due to us has been borne by Christ. It is true I have not borne it; I have not been to hell and suffered the full wrath of God, but Christ has suffered that wrath for me, and I am as clear as if I had paid the debt to God and suffered his wrath. Here is a glorious bottom to rest upon! Here is a rock upon which to lay the foundation of eternal comfort! Let a man get to this truth: my Lord outside the city’s gate bled for me as my Surety, and on the cross discharged my debt. Why then, great God, I no longer fear your thunder. How can you condemn me now? You have exhausted the quiver of your wrath; every arrow has already been used against my Lord, and I am in him clear and clean, absolved and delivered, as if I had never sinned.

“He hath redeemed us,” says the text. How often I have heard certain gentry of the modern school of theology sneer at the atonement, because they charge us with the notion of its being a sort of business transaction, or what they choose to call “the mercantile view of it.” I do not hesitate to say that the mercantile metaphor rightly expresses God’s view of redemption, for we find it so in Scripture; the atonement is a ransom—that is to say, a price paid; and in the present case the original word is more than unusually expressive; it is a payment for, a price instead of. Jesus in his sufferings performed what may be forcibly and fitly described as the payment of a ransom, the giving to justice a quid pro quo for what was due on our behalf for our sins. Christ suffered what we ought to have suffered. The sins that were ours were made his; he stood as a sinner in God’s sight; though not a sinner in himself, he was punished as a sinner, and died as a sinner upon the tree of the curse.

You have only to trust Christ, and you shall live. Whoever, or whatever, or wherever you are, even though you lie at hell’s dark door to despair and die, the message comes to you: “God hath made Christ to be a propitiation for sin. He made him to be sin for us who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. Christ has delivered us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us.” He who believes no longer has a curse upon him. He may have been an adulterer, a swearer, a drunkard, a murderer; but the moment he believes, God sees none of those sins in him. He sees him as an innocent man, and regards his sins as having been laid on the Redeemer, and punished in Jesus as he died on the tree. If you believe in Christ, though you are one of the most damnable wretches who ever polluted the earth, you shall not have a sin remaining on you after believing. God will look at you as pure; even Omniscience shall not detect a sin in you, for your sin shall be put on the scapegoat, even Christ, and carried away into forgetfulness.

Put away your accursed and idolatrous dependence upon yourself; Christ has finished salvation-work, altogether finished it. Do not hold your rags in competition with his fair white linen. Christ has borne the curse; do not bring your pitiful penances, and your tears all full of filth, to mingle with the precious fountain flowing with his blood. Lay down what is your own, and come and take what is Christ’s. Put away now everything that you have thought of being or doing by way of winning acceptance with God; humble yourselves, and take Jesus Christ to be the Alpha and Omega, the first and last, the beginning and end of your salvation. If you do this, not only will you be saved, but you are saved. Rest, O weary one, for your sins are forgiven; rise, you lame man, lame through want of faith, for your transgression is covered; rise from the dead, you corrupt one, rise, like Lazarus from the tomb, for Jesus calls you! Believe and live.

Spurgeon, C. H. (2009). Advice for Seekers (pp. 24–28). Logos Bible Software. (Public Domain)

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