God’s Recognition of Substitution
The mere bringing the question into the courts of law would have availed nothing, had there not been provision made for so ordering their processes and judgments that the sinner might be righteously acquitted; that God might be ‘just and the justifier” (Rom 3:26), “a just God and a Saviour” (Isa 45:21); that law might be brought to be upon the sinner’s side; his absolver, and not his condemner.
This provision has been made by means of substitution, or transference of the penalty from him who had incurred it to One who had not.
In human courts, no such provision can be allowed, save in regard to the payment of debt. In that case there is no difficulty as to the exchange of person and of property. If the creditor receives his money from a third party, he is satisfied, and the law is satisfied, though the debtor himself has not paid one farthing. To a certain extent, this is substitution; so that the idea of such a thing is not unknown in common life, and the principle of it not unacknowledged by human law.
But beyond this the law of man does not go. Substitution in any wider aspect is something about which man has never attempted to legislate. Stripe for stripe is human law; “by His stripes we are healed” is superhuman, the result of a legislation as gracious as it is divine.
Substitution is not for man to deal with: its principle he but imperfectly understands; its details he cannot reach. They are far too intricate, too far-reaching, and too mysterious for him to grasp, or, having grasped, to found any system of legislation upon them. In this, even though willing, he must ever be helpless.
But God has affirmed substitution as the principle on which He means to deal with fallen man; and the arrangements of His holy tribunal, His righteous governmental processes, are such as to bring this effectually and continually into play. It is through substitution that His righteous government displays its perfection in all its transactions with the sinner.
God has introduced the principle of substitution into His courts. There He sits as judge, “just and justifying”; acting on the principle of transference or representation; maintaining law, and yet manifesting grace: declaring that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23); that “by the deeds of the law shall no flesh be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom 3:20); yet presenting a divine Surety, as “a PROPITIATION through faith in His blood, to declare His RIGHTEOUSNESS for the remission of sins that are past” (Rom 3:25).
Salvation by substitution was embodied in the first promise regarding the woman’s seed and His bruised heel. Victory over our great enemy, by His subjecting Himself to the bruising of that enemy, is then and there proclaimed. The clothing of our first parents with that which had passed through death, in preference to the fig-leaves which had not so done, showed the element of substitution as that on which God had begun to act in His treatment of fallen man. Abel’s sacrifice revealed the same truth, especially as contrasted with Cain’s. For that which made Abel’s acceptable, and himself accepted, was the death of the victim as substituted for his own; and that which rendered Cain’s hateful, and himself rejected, was the absence of that death and blood. The slain firstling was accepted by God as, symbolically, Abel’s substitute, laid on the altar, till He should come, the “woman’s seed,” “made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons” (Gal 4:4,5).
From the beginning God recognized this principle in His dealings with man; the Just dying for the unjust; the blessed One becoming a curse that the cursed might be blessed. In all subsequent sacrifices it was the same. Noah’s burnt-offering was like Abel’s; and Abraham’s resembled Noah’s. Transference of guilt from one who could not bear the penalty without being eternally lost, to One who could bear it, and yet come forth from under it, free and glorious,-this was the deep truth into which God educated the patriarchs, as that which lay at the foundation of His procedure with the sinner. The consumption of Abraham’s sacrifice by the divine fire told him that the divine displeasure which should have rested on him for ever, had fallen upon a substitute and been exhausted, so that there remained no more wrath, no darkness, “no condemnation” for him; nothing but deliverance and favor and everlasting blessedness.
But it was the arrangements of the tabernacle that brought out most fully this great principle of God’s actings to the children of Adam.
In the passover-blood, the idea was chiefly that of protection from peril. The lamb stood sentinel at the door of each family; the blood was their “shield and buckler.” There might be trembling hearts within, wondering perhaps how a little blood could be so efficacious, and make their dwelling so impregnable; disquieted, too, because they could not see the blood, but were obliged to be content with knowing that God saw it (Exo 12:13); yet no amount of fearfulness could alter the potency of that sprinkled blood, and no weakness of faith could make that God-given shield less efficacious against “the enemy and the avenger.” The blood,-the symbol of substitution,-was on the lintel; and that was enough. They did not see it, nor feel it; but they knew that it was there, and that sufficed. God saw it, and that was better than their seeing it. They were safe; and they knew that they were so. They could feast upon the lamb in peace, and eat their bitter herbs with thankful joy. They could sing by anticipation the Church’s song, “If God be for us, who can be against us?”
But still it was not in Egypt, but in the wilderness; not in their paschal chamber, but in the sanctuary of their God, that they were to learn the full and varied truth of pardon, and cleansing, and acceptance, and blessing through a substitute.
The old burnt-offering of the patriarchs, on the footing of which these fathers had in ages past drawn near to God, was split into many parts; and in the details of these we see the fulness and variety of the substitution.
The various sacrifices are well connected with the altar; and even that which was “burnt without the camp” was connected with the altar. It was no doubt carried forth without the camp, and burnt with fire (Lev 6:30, 16:27); but “the blood was brought into the tabernacle of the congregation, to reconcile withal in the holy place.” “The blood of the bullock was brought in, to make atonement in the holy place.” Their connection with the altar is sufficient of itself to show the truth of substitution contained in them, for the altar was the place of transference. But in each of them we find something which expresses this more directly and fully.
In the burnt-offering we see the perfection of the substitute presented in the room of our imperfection, in not loving God with our whole heart.
In the meat-offering we have the perfection of the substitute, as that on which, when laid upon the altar, God feeds, and on which He invites us to feed.
In the peace-offering we find the perfection of the substitute laid on the same altar as an atonement, reconciling us to God; removing the distance and the enmity, and providing food for us out of that which had passed through death; for “He is our peace.”
In the sin-offering we see the perfection of the substitute, whose blood is sprinkled on the altar, and whose body is burnt without, as securing pardon for unconscious sins,-sins of ignorance.
In the trespass-offering there is the same perfection of the substitute, in His atoning character, procuring forgiveness for conscious and willful sin.
In the drink-offering we have the perfection of the substitute poured out on the altar, as that by which God is refreshed, and by which we are also refreshed. “His blood is drink indeed.”
In the incense we have the “sweet savor” of the substitute going up to God in our behalf, the cloud of fragrance from His life and death with which God is well pleased, enveloping us and making us fragrant with a fragrance not our own; absorbing all in us that is displeasing or hateful, and replacing it with a sweetness altogether perfect and divine.
In the fire we see the holy wrath of the Judge consuming the victim slain in the sinner’s room. In the ashes we have the proof that the wrath had spent itself, that the penalty was paid, that the work was done. “It is finished,” was the voice of the ashes on the altar.
In all this we see such things as the following: (1) God’s displeasure against sin; (2) that displeasure exhausted in a righteous way; (3) the substitute presented and accepted; (4) the substitute slain and consumed; (5) the transference of the wrath from the sinner to his representative; (6) God resting in His love over the sinner, and viewing him in the perfection of his substitute; (7) the sinner reconciled, accepted, complete, enjoying God’s favour, and feeding at His table on that on which God had fed; on that which had come from the altar, and had passed through the fire.
Thus God’s acceptance of this principle, in His preparation of acceptable worshippers for His sanctuary, shows the fitness and value of it, as well as the divine intention that it should be available for the sinner in his drawing near to God. In this way it is that God makes the sinner “perfect as pertaining to the conscience” (Heb 9:9), gives him “no more conscience of sins” (Heb 10:2), and “purges his conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Heb 9:14). For that which satisfies the holiness of God cannot but satisfy the conscience of the sinner. God, pointing to the altar, says, “That is enough for me”; the sinner responds, and says, “It is enough for me.”
As in the Epistle to the Hebrews we have this principle of substitution applied to the sanctuary, so in that to the Romans we find it applied to the courts of law. In the former we see God making the sinner perfect as a worshipper; in the latter, righteous as a servant and a son. In the one it is priestly completeness; in the latter it is judicial righteousness. But in both, the principle on which God acts is the same. And as He acts on it in receiving us, so does He invite us to act in coming to Him.
It is this truth that the gospel embodies; and it is this truth that we preach, when, as ambassadors for Christ, we pray men in Christ’s stead to be reconciled to God. God’s free love to the sinner is the first part of our message; and God’s righteous way of making that free love available for the sinner is the second. What God is, and what Christ has done, make up one gospel. The belief of that gospel is eternal life. “All that believe are justified from all things” (Acts 13:39).
With a weak faith and a fearful heart many a sinner stands before the altar. But it is not the strength of his faith, but the perfection of the sacrifice, that saves; and no feebleness of faith, no dimness of eye, no trembling of hand, can change the efficacy of our burnt-offering. The vigor of our faith can add nothing to it, nor can the poverty of it take anything from it. Faith, in all its degrees, still reads the inscription, “The blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin”; and if at times the eye is so dim that it cannot read these words, through blinding tears or bewildering mist, faith rests itself on the certain knowledge of the fact that the inscription is still there, or at least that the blood itself (of which these words remind us) remains, in all its power and suitableness, upon the altar unchanged and uneffaced. God says that the believing man is justified; who are we, then, that we should say, “We believe, but we do not know whether we are justified”? What God has joined together, let not man put asunder.
The question as to the right way of believing is that which puzzles many, and engrosses all their anxiety, to the exclusion of the far greater questions as to the person and work of Him who is the object of their believing. Thus their thoughts run in a self-righteous direction, and are occupied, not with what Christ has done, but with what they have yet to do, to get themselves connected with His work.
What should we have said to the Israelite, who, on bringing his lamb to the tabernacle, should puzzle himself with questions as to the right mode of laying his hands on the head of the victim, and who should refuse to take any comfort from the sacrifice, because he was not sure whether he had laid them aright;-on the proper place, in the right direction, with adequate pressure, or in the best attitude? Should we not have told him that his own actings concerning the lamb were not the lamb, and yet that he was speaking as if they were? Should we not have told him that the lamb was everything, his touch nothing, as to virtue or merit or recommendation? Should we not have told him to be of good cheer; not because he had laid his hands on the victim in the most approved fashion, but because they had touched that victim, however lightly and imperfectly, and thereby said, Let this lamb stand for me, answer for me, die for me? The touching had no virtue in itself, and therefore the excellency of the act was no question to come up at all: it simply intimated the man’s desire that this sacrifice should be taken instead of himself, as God’s appointed way of pardon; it was simply the indication of his consent to God’s way of saving him, by the substitution of another. The point for him to settle was not, Was my touch right or wrong, light or heavy? but, Was it the touch of the right lamb,-the lamb appointed by God for the taking away of sin?
The quality or quantity of faith is not the main question for the sinner. That which he needs to know is that Jesus died and was buried, and rose again, according to the Scriptures. This knowledge is life everlasting.