Isaiah 53:6 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.
Resolved: God imputed the guilt of the sins of the elect to Christ.
This is a debate over substitutionary atonement, the idea that Christ served as a substitute for his people. I will be advocating the Reformed position on the atonement, which teaches that Christ was the federal head of the elect, just as Adam was the federal head of the natural human race. (1 Corinthians 15:22 For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.) Christ is the new Adam and greater than Adam. (1 Corinthians 15:45 And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit.)
This federal relationship is a familial relationship. We are of Adam’s family by nature – and consequently the children of his disobedience (Ephesians 5:6 Let no man deceive you with vain words: for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience.) and children of the just wrath of God upon that disobedience (Ephesian 2:3 Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others.)
Nevertheless, without any merit of our own to commend us, we are adopted into Christ’s family – the family of which he is the federal head. (Romans 8:15 For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.) Adam merited death for us, but Christ has merited life for us (Romans 5:18 Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life.). This adoption of us as sons of God was the reason for Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection (Galatians 4:5 To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.). It was part of God’s eternal plan for the elect, who were predestined to become the sons of God via adoption through the work of Christ (Ephesians 1:5 Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will,).
The atonement was variously represented in the Old Testament, but the primary way it was represented was by sacrifice (for example, Exodus 29:33 And they shall eat those things wherewith the atonement was made, to consecrate and to sanctify them: but a stranger shall not eat thereof, because they are holy.) The sacrificial system provides us with a framework within which Christ, the sacrifice to which those sacrifices pointed, can be understood (Hebrews 10:12 But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God;).
Within the sacrificial framework, there were generally four involved parties: the beneficiary, the victim, the priest, and God (see, for example, Leviticus 9:7 And Moses said unto Aaron, Go unto the altar, and offer thy sin offering, and thy burnt offering, and make an atonement for thyself, and for the people: and offer the offering of the people, and make an atonement for them; as the LORD commanded.). The beneficiary is the particular person or group of people for whom the sacrifice was to be offered. The victim is the person, animal, or other thing being offered. The priest is the person who performs the ritual of offering the victim. God is the one to whom the offering is made.
The role of priest was a special role, because the priests had to come before the Lord with the sacrifice (Exodus 28:35 And it shall be upon Aaron to minister: and his sound shall be heard when he goeth in unto the holy place before the LORD, and when he cometh out, that he die not.). The priests themselves had to be pure in order to stand before the Lord, therefore, the priests would first offer for themselves and then for the people (Hebrews 7:27 Who needeth not daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifice, first for his own sins, and then for the people's: for this he did once, when he offered up himself.).
In Christ’s sacrifice, the person of the Father is God to receive the offering (Ephesians 2:18 For through him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father.). Christ is both the high priest (Hebrews 9:11 But Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building;) and the victim (Hebrews 9:26 For then must he often have suffered since the foundation of the world: but now once in the end of the world hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.). The elect of God are the beneficiary (John 10:15 As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep.).
The basic concept of the sacrifice is one of putting away sin (2Sa 12:13 And David said unto Nathan, I have sinned against the LORD. And Nathan said unto David, The LORD also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die.). Indeed, this is the express purpose why Christ came (Hebrews 9:26 For then must he often have suffered since the foundation of the world: but now once in the end of the world hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.).
Similarly, in English, this concept is expressed as “taking away” sins (1 John 3:5 And ye know that he was manifested to take away our sins; and in him is no sin.). In fact, the act of taking away sins and purging them roughly synonymous (Isaiah 27:9 By this therefore shall the iniquity of Jacob be purged; and this is all the fruit to take away his sin; when he maketh all the stones of the altar as chalkstones that are beaten in sunder, the groves and images shall not stand up.).
This expression of sins being “purged” is also frequently used to describe the result of sacrifice (Hebrews 9:22 And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission.). It is even used specifically with respect to the sprinkled blood of the Paschal lamb (Psalm 51:7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.)
Certainly, more could be said about the sacrifice of Christ, but in order to keep this from becoming excessively long, perhaps it would suffice to focus on the reasons to view the atonement as being a penal substitution, that is to say, that Christ was punished in place of the elect.
Simply put, the argument may be presented as follows:
1) As demonstrated above, Christ came as a sacrifice for sin.
2) Christ’s sacrifice was necessary for the forgiveness of sins, because blood must be shed for remission of sins (Hebrews 9:22 And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission.).
3) Christ himself taught that he laid down his life in substitution for his people, his sheep (John 10:11 I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep. John 10:15 As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep.).
4) The Scriptures, especially in Isaiah 53, teach that the Messiah would receive punishment for the sins of his people.
5) The plain result of the work of Christ is the salvation of his people from their sins, which is the very reasons he is called “Jesus” (Matthew 1:21 And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.).
More discussion will follow, to show not only that this is a matter of logical necessity, but it is the teaching of the Reformed churches and the historic Christian church, although it should be acknowledged that the doctrine is more systematically and clearly laid out in the Reformers than in the earlier writings.
The first argument used by the Reformers was drawn from those scriptural texts in which Christ is said to have redeemed us by his blood, by a perfectly sufficient price; and which assert that a satisfaction has been made. The next argument was drawn from those passages of scripture, in which Christ is said to have died, not only for the promotion of our interests, but also in our stead, as a substitute. A third argument, in favor of Christ’s having made such a satisfaction as that for which the Reformers contended, was derived from those portions of the Bible in which Christ is said to have borne our sins, and on account of them to have been afflicted, to have been wounded, and to have died. A further confirmation of the reformed doctrine of the atonement is confirmed by those scriptures that assert that Christ was made sin and a curse for us. (“A Historical Sketch of the Opinions on the Atonement” by James Renwick Willson)
Of course, we do not accept the Reformers arguments simply because they were made by such great luminaries as Francis Turretin, but because they are (as demonstrated briefly above) the teachings of Holy Scripture.
While the church fathers certainly present a wide variety of opinions with respect to the death of Christ, we see at least some of the fathers had some similar conceptions of Christ’s works as those discussed above.
For example, Turtullian (circa A.D. 160-220) wrote:
Now, since hatred was predicted against that Son of man who has His mission from the Creator, whilst the Gospel testifies that the name of Christians, as derived from Christ, was to be hated for the Son of man’s sake, because He is Christ, it determines the point that that was the Son of man in the matter of hatred who came according to the Creator’s purpose, and against whom the hatred was predicted. And even if He had not yet come, the hatred of His name which exists at the present day could not in any case have possibly preceded Him who was to bear the name. But He has both suffered the penalty in our presence, and surrendered His life, laying it down for our sakes, and is held in contempt by the Gentiles. And He who was born (into the world) will be that very Son of man on whose account our name also is rejected.(The Five Books Against Marcion, Book IV, Chapter 14)
Similarly, Hilary of Poitiers (circa A.D. 315-67) wrote:
The Only-begotten God, then, suffered in His person the attacks of all the infirmities to which we are subject; but He suffered them in the power of His own nature, just as He was born in the power of His own nature, for at His birth He did not lose His omnipotent nature by being born. Though born under human conditions, He was not so conceived: His birth was surrounded by human circumstances, but His origin went beyond them. He suffered then in His body alter the manner of our infirm body, yet bore the sufferings of our body in the power of His own body. To this article of our faith the prophet bears witness when he says, He beareth our sins and grieveth for us: and we esteemed Him stricken, smitten, and afflicted: He was wounded for our transgressions and made weak for our sins. It is then a mistaken opinion of human judgment, which thinks He felt pain because He suffered. He bore our sins, that is, He assumed our body of sin, but was Himself sinless. He was sent in the likeness of the flesh of sin, bearing sin indeed in His flesh but our sin. So too He felt pain for us, but not with our senses; He was found in fashion as a man, with a body which could feel pain, but His nature could not feel pain; for, though His fashion was that of a man, His origin was not human, but He was born by conception of the Holy Ghost. For the reasons mentioned, He was esteemed ‘stricken, smitten and afflicted.’ He took the form of a servant: and ‘man born of a Virgin’ conveys to us the idea of One Whose nature felt pain when He suffered. But though He was wounded it was ‘for our transgressions.’ The wound was not the wound of His own transgressions: the suffering not a suffering for Himself. He was not born man for His own sake, nor did He transgress in His own action. The Apostle explains the principle of the Divine Plan when he says, We beseech you through Christ to be reconciled to God. Him, Who knew no sin, He made to be sin on our behalf. To condemn sin through sin in the flesh, He Who knew no sin was Himself made sin; that is, by means of the flesh to condemn sin in the flesh, He became flesh on our behalf but knew not flesh: and therefore was wounded because of our transgressions.(On the Trinity, Book 10, §47)
The same thing is taught by Augustine (circa A.D. 354-430), who wrote:
The believer in the true doctrine of the gospel will understand that Christ is not reproached by Moses when he speaks of Him as cursed, not in His divine majesty, but as hanging on the tree as our substitute, bearing our punishment, any more than He is praised by the Manicheans when they deny that He had a mortal body, so as to suffer real death. In the curse of the prophet there is praise of Christ’s humility, while in the pretended regard of the heretics there is a charge of falsehood. If, then, you deny that Christ was cursed, you must deny that He died; and then you have to meet, not Moses, but the apostles. Confess that He died, and you may also confess that He, without taking our sin, took its punishment. Now the punishment of sin cannot be blessed, or else it would be a thing to be desired. The curse is pronounced by divine justice, and it will be well for us if we are redeemed from it. Confess then that Christ died, and you may confess that He bore the curse for us; and that when Moses said, “Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree,” he said in fact, To hang on a tree is to be mortal, or actually to die. He might have said, “Cursed is every one that is mortal,” or “Cursed is every one dying;” but the prophet knew that Christ would suffer on the cross, and that heretics would say that He hung on the tree only in appearance, without really dying. So he exclaims, Cursed; meaning that He really died. He knew that the death of sinful man, which Christ though sinless bore, came from that curse, “If ye touch it, ye shall surely die.” Thus also, the serpent hung on the pole was intended to show that Christ did not feign death, but that the real death into which the serpent by his fatal counsel cast mankind was hung on the cross of Christ’s passion. The manicheans turn away from the view of this real death, and so they are not healed of the poison of the serpent, as we read that in the wilderness as many as looked were healed.(Reply to Faustus the Manichaean, Book XIV, §7)
And there is no need to stay with fathers of the Western church. Theodoret of Cyrrhus (circa A.D. 393-466) commenting on Numbers 5:6, wrote:
“Only Christ the Lord, both as God and as man, is blameless. The prophet Isaiah foresaw this and said, “He commited no transgression, nor was deceit found in his mouth.” For this reason he took upon himself the sins of others, for he had none of his own. For Isaiah says, “He bears our sins, and he is afflicted for us.” And the great John says, “Behold the Lamb of God who bears the sins of the world.” For this reason he is also called “free among the dead,” since he suffered death unjustly.”
Likewise, Chrysostom (circa A.D. 349-407) commenting on Hebrews 9:28, said:
“So Christ was once offered.”: By whom offered? evidently by Himself. Here he says that He is not Priest only, but Victim also, and what is sacrificed. On this account are [the words] “was offered.” “Was once offered” (he says) “to bear the sins of many.” Why “of many,” and not “of all”? Because not all believed, For He died indeed for all, that is His part: for that death was a counterbalance against the destruction of all men. But He did not bear the sins of all men, because they were not willing. And what is [the meaning of] “He bare the sins”? Just as in the Oblation we bear up our sins and say, “Whether we have sinned voluntarily or involuntarily, do Thou forgive,” that is, we make mention of them first, and then ask for their forgiveness. So also was it done here. Where has Christ done this? Hear Himself saying, “And for their sakes I sanctify Myself.” (John 17:19) Lo! He bore the sins. He took them from men, and bore them to the Father; not that He might determine anything against them [mankind], but that He might forgive them.”(Epistle to the Hebrews, Homly 17)
This understanding of the atonement was not limited to the early fathers, but carried through into the middle ages. For example, Bede (circa A.D. 672-735) commenting on 1 John 2:1, stated:
“The Lord intercedes for us not by words but by his dying compassion, because he took upon himself the sins which he was unwilling to condemn his elect for.”
This view of the atonement continued through the middle ages (not as the only view, to be sure, but as one of the views), eventually finding powerful expression in Anselm’s classic work Cur Deus Homo.
In book 1 of CDH, Anselm explains that man is unable to pay for his own sins, those sins must be paid for if man is to be set free, and consequently someone must pay for them - and that someone is Christ. Thus, Chapter 25 poses the question:
B. How, then, will man be saved if he does not pay what he owes and if he ought not to be saved unless he pays it? Or how can we impudently maintain that God, who is rich in mercy beyond human understanding, cannot bestow this mercy?Anselm goes on to provide as the central answer that,
A. From what I have already said, do you not realize that it is necessary for some men to attain happiness? For if it is unfitting for God to bring a man having any stain to that end for which He created him free of every stain—lest [by so doing] He should seem either to regret the good work He had begun or to be unable to fulfill His purpose—then, much more, because of this same unfittingness, it is impossible that no man whatsoever be elevated to the end for which he was created. Therefore, either the kind of satisfaction-for-sin which I earlier showed to be required must occur outside the context of the Christian faith—something which no sound reasoning can demonstrate—or else satisfaction-for-sin must assuredly be believed to occur within the context of the Christian faith. For that which on the basis of rational necessity is inferred really to be the case ought not to be called into any doubt, even if the reason why it is true is not discerned.
It is this satisfaction-for-sin by another than the actual sinner that we call “imputation” of their sin to him. Thus, Christ’s sacrifice was the way in which Christ obtained mercy for us, by fulfilling justice. In chapter 12 of Book 1, we see the following exchange:
A. Also consider the following point: Everyone knows that human justice is subject to law, so that God deals out the measure of recompense according to the degree of justice.
B. This is what we believe.
A. But if sin were neither paid for nor punished, it would be subject to no law.
B. I cannot think differently.
A. Therefore, if injustice is forgiven out of mercy alone, then injustice is more at liberty than is justice—something which seems especially unfitting. Moreover, this unfittingness is so extensive that it makes injustice resemble God, for as God is subject to no one's law, neither would injustice be.
B. I cannot oppose your reasoning.
As noted above, this view of the atonement was not the only or exclusive view of the atonement in the middle ages. For example, Aquinas did not share this view of the atonement. Instead, while Aquinas sometimes seemed to hint at a view of penal substitution (“It was not necessary, then, for Christ to suffer from necessity of compulsion, either on God's part, who ruled that Christ should suffer, or on Christ's own part, who suffered voluntarily. Yet it was necessary from necessity of the end proposed; and this can be accepted in three ways. First of all, on our part, who have been delivered by His Passion, according to John (3:14): "The Son of man must be lifted up, that whosoever believeth in Him may not perish, but may have life everlasting." Secondly, on Christ's part, who merited the glory of being exalted, through the lowliness of His Passion: and to this must be referred Luke 24:26: "Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and so to enter into His glory?" Thirdly, on God's part, whose determination regarding the Passion of Christ, foretold in the Scriptures and prefigured in the observances of the Old Testament, had to be fulfilled. And this is what St. Luke says (22:22): "The Son of man indeed goeth, according to that which is determined"; and (Luke 24:44-46): "These are the words which I spoke to you while I was yet with you, that all things must needs be fulfilled which are written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms concerning Me: for it is thus written, and thus it behooved Christ to suffer, and to rise again from the dead."” Summa Theologica, Third Part, Question 46, Article 1; “That man should be delivered by Christ's Passion was in keeping with both His mercy and His justice. With His justice, because by His Passion Christ made satisfaction for the sin of the human race; and so man was set free by Christ's justice: and with His mercy, for since man of himself could not satisfy for the sin of all human nature, as was said above (Question 1, Article 2), God gave him His Son to satisfy for him, according to Romans 3:24-25: "Being justified freely by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God hath proposed to be a propitiation, through faith in His blood." And this came of more copious mercy than if He had forgiven sins without satisfaction. Hence it is said (Ephesians 2:4): "God, who is rich in mercy, for His exceeding charity wherewith He loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together in Christ."” Id. and “Through Christ's Passion we have been delivered from the debt of punishment in two ways. First of all, directly--namely, inasmuch as Christ's Passion was sufficient and superabundant satisfaction for the sins of the whole human race: but when sufficient satisfaction has been paid, then the debt of punishment is abolished. In another way--indirectly, that is to say--in so far as Christ's Passion is the cause of the forgiveness of sin, upon which the debt of punishment rests.” Summa Theologica, Third Part, Question 49, Article 3), nevertheless Aquinas elsewhere seemed to suggest a different view, one that he viewed in medicinal terms (“Christ by His Passion delivered us from our sins causally--that is, by setting up the cause of our deliverance, from which cause all sins whatsoever, past, present, or to come, could be forgiven: just as if a doctor were to prepare a medicine by which all sicknesses can be cured even in future.” Summa Theologica, Third Part, Question 49, Article 1).
We would generally criticize Aquinas’ apparent view for one major reason, divided into several parts. The major reason is that the view Aquinas seemingly proposed is not scripturally supported. This major reason may be divided into several parts, as follows: (1) Aquinas would seem to make Christ’s deliverance of his people merely potential, but Scripture declares proper (i.e. actual) deliverance, (2) Aquinas would seem to fail to underappreciate the perfection of the work of Christ, in that Christ’s death fully expiates for all the sins and with respect to every punishment for those sins according to Scriptures, and (3) Aquinas seems to focus on merit as though sins were merely debt to be canceled out through payment of righteousness, whereas Scripture teaches the sins incur the penalty of death.
From all that has gone before, therefore, it is respectfully submitted for the reader’s consideration, that Christ has come as a sacrifice, specifically to suffer the punishment for sins, namely death. To conclude, I provide a brief summary from another great theologian on the atonement, A.A. Hodge:
There are several forms of expression which essentially present the same great principles, but with variations. His sufferings are said to be vicarious. He himself is said to have been the Substitute of his people, and a Ransom for them, that is, in their stead. He is also said to have been their Representative before God, and the one Mediator between God and man. We have before seen that Christ was accurately prefigured by the bleeding sacrifice upon the altar, and by the high priest who brought the blood near to God within the veil. He was in like manner prefigured, at the same time, by the slain goat upon the altar, and by the living goat carrying away the expiated sins of the people into the wilderness. His office as Mediator included the functions at once of Prophet, Priest and King, and yet not one of his personal types embraced, in one person, more than two of these, as David and Ezra. The reason for this, of course, lay in the fact that the type was finite and transient, while the antetype was infinite and eternal. He was at once God, and priest, and bleeding sacrifice, dead and alive again for evermore, offerer and offering. When we say, therefore, that our blessed Lord is, in the strict sense of the word, our Substitute or our Ransom, we do not mean that for any single moment these relations exhaust all the relations borne or functions discharged by his infinite person. At the very same moment he is God, whose justice demands propitiation; and Priest, offering himself a sacrifice; and the sacrifice, offered to satisfy that justice. Let it be distinctly understood, then, that when we say that Christ was the Substitute of his people, and his sufferings, in the strict sense of the word, vicarious, we affirm this to be true of him viewed in his function as a sacrifice. When we say that he is the Representative, we affirm this to be true of him as the second Adam or federal Head, undertaking and discharging all the obligations of the broken law in our stead. When we say he is our Mediator, we affirm that to be true of him as our High Priest, as he is ordained for man in the things pertaining to God (τὰ πρὸς τὸν Θεόν).(A.A. Hodge, "The Atonement," pp. 163-43)
To the glory of God,