The Self-Substitution of God

Why does author and theologian John Stott entitle Chapter Six of The Cross of Christ the “Self-Substitution of God?”  As I conclude my comments on Chapter Six, let’s revisit this extremely complicated idea.  What makes it complicated?  God felt wrath toward man because of man’s bent toward sinning.  To “make things right” God [in the form of Jesus] comes to earth to reach out to man and teach man how to live a righteous life.  In the process, God [in the form of Jesus] suffers on the cross, taking the punishment for His own wrath.  This is why Stott calls the sacrifice “self-substitution.”  This is also why Stott loves to call Jesus “God-man”, God in human form. “God-man” is the mediator between God and man [part God and part man].

Complex theology…you bet…

After a series of posts dedicated to the idea that Jesus was destined to be the sacrifice for man’s sins (foretold in the sacrificial foreshadowing of the Old Testament), Stott begins the last part of Chapter Six with questions which seem  surprising: “Who was our substitute?  Who took our place, bore our sin, became our curse, endured our penalty, and died our death?” [149].

Duh…Jesus Christ you might say?

“But who was this Christ?  How are we to think of Him?”

Stott makes a case that some theologians think that Jesus Christ was a man, separate from God and separate from humans, “an independent third party.”  Then he refutes this idea, saying that many might think of Jesus in this manner but “Scripture forbid[s] us to interpret the language of propitiation and advocacy that way.” 

Then he explains that some think that God alone took our place, bore our sins and died our death.  That won’t work either because as Stott explains, “no verse specifically declares that ‘God Himself’ died on the cross.  Scripture bears witness to the deity of the Person who gave Himself for us, but it stops short of the unequivocal affirmation that ‘God died’” [154].

Back to our original questions:  “But who was this Christ?  How are we to think of Him?”

For seven pages, Stott attempts to answer this question.  “Our substitute, then…was neither Christ alone…nor God alone but God in Christ, who was truly and fully God and man who on that account was uniquely qualified to represent both God and man and mediate between them” (my italics, bolding, and underlining) [156].

Why is this God in Christ idea so important?  Why do theologians need to spend so many words discussing the topic?  Do ordinary Christians need to know this?

Well Stott provides a “theological” reason for this knowledge which he calls a “theological inference”.  He feels is it impossible to believe in the historic doctrine of the cross without believing in the historic doctrine of Jesus Christ “as the one and only God-man and Mediator”.  Christ alone as man will not suffice.  The Father alone as God will not suffice.  It takes “God in Christ, God the Father’s one and only Son made man” to take our place.

So much of the explanation that Stott furnishes is superb, superb to the point that it is quotable.*   I can’t paraphrase these thoughts and do them justice.  “The person and work of Christ belong together.  If he did not say who the Apostles say he was, then He could not have done what they say He did.  The incarnation is indispensable to the atonement.  In particular, it is essential to affirm that the love, the holiness and the will of the Father are identical with the love the holiness and the will of the Son.  God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” [Stott, 159].

Stott references Karl Barth who has studied the person, nature, and role of Christ (what theologians call “Christology’).  Barth feels (like Stott) that Jesus Christ is the mediator between God and man.  In Jesus, God actively intervenes on behalf of man to reconcile God and man.  In Jesus, Barth feels like we have a true man, but a man who is “altogether man and altogether God.”  Finally Barth comments that Jesus is “very God and very man” and Jesus Christ is one, He is the God–man.

Barth writes “It is the Judge who in this passion takes the place of those who ought to be judged, who in this passion allows Himself to be Judge in their place. The passion of Jesus Christ is the judgement of God, in which the Judge Himself was the judged” [from Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics]. 

I have quickly summarized the “theological inference” but Stott goes further.  He feels there is also a personal inference (ideas that “ordinary Christians should know).   The personal interference focuses on rebellious humans (how personal do you want to get?).   “Therefore, as we stand before the cross, we begin to gain a clear view both of God and ourselves, especially in relation to each other.  Instead of inflicting on us the judgement we deserved, God in Christ endures it in our place.  Hell is the only alternative.  The problem is that our proud hearts rebel against this.  We cannot bear to acknowledge either the seriousness of our sin and guilt or our utter indebtedness to the cross.”  I have heard this said so much by people who are seeking a faith and I have also felt it: surely there must be something we can do, or at least contribute, in order to make amends?  It is almost like we want to suffer our own punishment rather than feel the humiliation of seeing God through Christ bear it in our place. 

We don’t want His charity, His gift, His grace.  We insist on paying our own way: this is pure pride.  Instead of acknowledging our need and our powerlessness, we suffer humiliation because we are “bankrupt.”   Stott says “We would rather perish than repent, rather lose ourselves than humble ourselves” [161].  The proud human heart is revealed in all of this. 

Theologian Emil Brunner writes “All other forms of religion…deal with the problem of guilt apart from the intervention of God, and therefore they come to a ‘cheap’ conclusion…man is spared the final humiliation of knowing that the Mediator must bear the punishment instead of him…He is not stripped absolutely naked” [from The Mediator]. 

“We cannot escape the embarrassment of standing stark naked before God.  It is no use for us to try to cover up like Adam and Eve in the garden” [Stott, 162].  There is no use trying to justify ourselves.  We need to acknowledge our sin, give thanks for the Divine Substitute who wears our “filthy rags” instead of us.  Yes we need to be thankful for His righteousness which clothes us. 

“But who was this Christ?  How are we to think of Him?”

Theologians may need to expound on these questions over and over again and despite all types of explanations from various people with various opinions, Stott summarizes his answer in three words:  we go back to God in Christ.  Ordinary Christians need to face up to the debt we owe God in Christ as He took what we deserved and left us with a chance at a righteous life.  I found it striking that Stott took the well-known hymn “Rock of Ages” as his closing thought for Chapter Six. 

Just attend to the words, the writer of the hymn knows the debt we owe God-man, the “personal inference” that we should all know.

“Nothing in my hand I bring,

Simply to your Cross I cling;                                                                                 

Naked, come to you for dress;                                                                                  

Helpless, look to you for grace;                                                                                      

Foul, I to the fountain fly;                                                                                                       

Wash me, Savior, or I die.”

*I will have a special post with some of the most quotable passages included on this website following this post.

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