Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Franciscan monk was sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp on the 28th of May, 1941. Kolbe was subjected to violent harassment, including beatings and lashings. At the end of July 1941, one prisoner escaped from the camp, prompting the deputy camp commander to pick ten men to be starved to death in an underground bunker to deter further escape attempts. When one of the selected men cried out, “My wife! My children!”, Kolbe volunteered to take his place. According to an eyewitness, who was an assistant janitor at that time Kolbe led the prisoners in prayer. Each time the guards checked on him, he was standing or kneeling in the middle of the cell and looking calmly at those who entered. After they had been starved and deprived of water for two weeks, only Kolbe remained alive. The guards wanted the bunker emptied, so they gave Kolbe a lethal injection of carbolic acid. Kolbe is said to have raised his left arm and calmly waited for the deadly injection. He died on August 14, 1941. The Roman Catholic Church canonized Kolbe as a Saint on October 10, 1982.*
Maximilian Kolbe sacrificed himself so someone else could live.
We hear it all the time as Christians. “Jesus Christ sacrificed for you.” We hear it and of course we appreciate it, but why did He do it? Why would God send His only Son to earth to undergo horrible punishment and die on the cross, for us? It seems so incomprehensible.
Let’s make it even more incomprehensible.
In Chapter Six of The Cross of Christ John Stott tackles the idea that we are humans and we sin. God is holy and He does not sin [of course His Son did not sin either]. “How can the holy love of God come to terms with the unholy lovelessness of man?” [Stott, 133]. Stott says that surely God and man are bound to have a collision. How can a holy God find something in common with unholy man?
As human beings, we often do a mental trick called “compartmentalization.” We act in certain contexts in a particular manner. In another context we may have a different set of behaviors. Our behavior can be very inconsistent and even though we may know that, we excuse ourselves in order to function in the many parts of our lives. We may even try not to let the various compartments of our lives overlap.
Does God function that way? No He doesn’t. His behavior is consistent. If He is upholding His law, demanding our devotion or meting out justice, He is the same across the board. He is holy and He loves us. When He needs to correct us, He is holy and He loves us. When He forgives us, He is holy and He loves us. “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.”**
Here is the incomprehensible question then: “How then could God express simultaneously His holiness in judgement and His love in pardon? Is this not inconsistency of behavior? One can only answer this question by saying that “God provides a divine substitute for the sinner so that the substitute would receive the judgement and the sinner the pardon” [Stott, 133].
This is the part of Christianity that sounds almost too good to be true.
New Christians may complain that “I can’t wrap my head around this.”
More mature Christians may struggle to comprehend this for often you can hear a more mature Christian just say “Jesus came to save me!” and they leave it at that. What we are talking about here is propitiation, the act of appeasing God, in this case Jesus Christ [God] appeases God. This is not simply “Jesus came to save me!” as if God and Jesus are two separate entities.
When man sins, we have to suffer, but our suffering may result in personal guilt, some psychological pain from the act of sinning or we may have some social consequences [our friends may shun us]. But Jesus Christ took the penal consequences of our sinning. He came and put Himself in our place so we would be spared the actual physical suffering for our sins. Stott references Dr. Charles Cranfield on this subject “God, because in His mercy He willed to forgive sinful men, and, being truly merciful, willed to forgive them righteously, that is, without in any way condoning their sin, proposed to direct against His own very self in the person of His Son the full weight of that righteous wrath which they deserved.”***
How can we have a deeper understanding of this substitution? I have written on this topic before, especially in commenting on the book Knowing God by J.I. Packer.**** Packer refers to this as propitiation, which means the act of appeasing a god, in this case God the Father of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the propitiation for our sins, our atonement for our sins.
Stott will approach this difficult subject in a different way, looking to sacrifices in the Old Testament as a way to understand “The Self-Substitution of God.”***** He considers the Old Testament concept of animal sacrifice as the precursor of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, so he will go into great depth discussing those past practices as foreshadowing the eventual sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross.
Whether we refer to Jesus’ sacrifice as propitiation or “self-substitution” it does not matter. God cared so much for us that He sent His only Son to make things right between Himself and man. Earlier I wrote that surely God and man are bound to have a collision. How can holy God find something in common with unholy man? The thing that God found in common with man is Jesus Christ, God-man. He is the bridge between God and us. He is our Savior.
He is the “self-substitution of God.”
*accessed from Wikipedia on 8/11/2021.
**Thomas Crawford, The Doctrine of Holy Scripture Respecting the Atonement as quoted in Stott, 133.
***C.E.B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans as quoted in Stott, 134.
****for additional discussion in St. John Studies on this topic go to the search feature and type the word propitiation. ***** “The Self-Substitution of God” is the title of Chapter 6 in The Cro