The very heart of the Christian faith, the very center of the Christian gospel, is the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ. Jesus died in the place of sinners, so that sinners like us would not have to die. This precious, vital truth is beautifully displayed at the end of John 11, just after the raising of Lazarus. The Sanhedrin was terrified that the resurrection of Lazarus would cause more people to follow Jesus as their Messiah, and that the Romans would view this messianic movement as an insurrection and would send in their legions to pound Israel to dust.
Finally, after much discussion, Caiaphas the high priest stood up and offered a final solution to the “Jesus problem” – kill Him. “But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all, nor do you take into account that it is expedient for you that one man die for the people, and that the whole nation not perish'” (11:49-50). The apostle John then tells us in verse 51 that this is what God meant by Caiaphas’ prophecy – “Now [Caiaphas] did not say this on his own initiative, but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but in order that He might also gather together into one the children of God who are scattered abroad” (11:51-52). Caiaphas said, “We will kill Jesus so that the Romans won’t kill us.” But God meant, “I will kill My Son so that I won’t have to kill My children.”
But why would the children have to die? Why can’t we just say we’re sorry and go on? Doesn’t God just forgive sinners? No, He does not. We have committed cosmic treason against the one true and living God. That’s what sin is – rebellion against our Creator and King. And the penalty for treason against God is death and hell. “For the wages of sin is death…” (Rom. 6:23). “The soul who sins shall die…” (Ez. 18:4). Sin places every one of us (for we are all sinners by nature and by action) under the curse of the law and the wrath of God. God’s holiness, righteousness, and justice demand of sinners the penalty of everlasting death.
But God, in His infinite wisdom, designed a plan to save sinners that would satisfy both the demands of His justice and His desire for mercy. That plan is substitutionary atonement. Substitution is the heart of the God’s plan of salvation. God gave His Son to suffer and die in our place. Jesus Christ died for (in the place of) His people as a wrath-absorbing, curse-bearing, propitiatory sacrifice. God offers no forgiveness apart from atonement, for “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9:22). This is the only way of salvation, and it is stunningly glorious. Jesus Christ the Son, the spotless Lamb of God, willingly laid Himself upon the altar of the cross, offering Himself in the place of the church He loved (Eph. 5:25). God the Father, took the sins of His people, and imputed them to His Son (Is. 53:6). Then, God the Father raised the knife of His wrath, and slew His only-begotten Son (Is. 53:4, 10). And the blood of the Son of God is precious (1 Pet. 1:18); so precious, in fact, that it satisfied the demands of God’s justice forever on behalf of all those who will embrace this sacrifice by faith.
Does this language of death, wrath, curse, sacrifice, atonement, propitiation, satisfaction, blood… does it make you uncomfortable? It does a lot of people, but these words are at the very heart of the Christian gospel. In fact, you cannot explain the gospel without them. Simply telling people to “ask Jesus into their hearts” is not the gospel. That phrase isn’t found anywhere in the Bible. Loads of people have “asked Jesus into their hearts” who have no understanding of the gospel and are not saved. People are not saved by “asking Jesus into their hearts.” They are saved by trusting in a crucified and risen Savior who bore the law’s curse, suffered God’s wrath, and satisfied divine justice in their place upon the cross. If we want to produce gospel people who have genuine gospel faith, then we need to use real gospel language.
So why is the truth of Christ’s substitutionary atonement precious? It is the basis for your assurance of eternal salvation. How do you know that when you stand before the judgment seat of God that He will not find you guilty and sentence you to eternal punishment? The answer is that Christ has already suffered the punishment of your sin in your place, and it would be unjust for God to exact punishment twice for the same offense. So when your heart condemns you or Satan accuses you (you’re such a sinner… how would God ever accept you?), you must run back to the cross and remind yourself that Christ has paid the full penalty for your sins, and nothing more can ever, nor will ever, be demanded as payment. It is finished! Full atonement…