How Could Jesus Be My Substitute?
By Edwin de Kock
Over much of a lifetime, when I thought of Jesus, this question stirred within me, from time to time. How could anybody die in another person’s place as a sacrificial substitute? That could surely happen only if one person could somehow be or become somebody else. And this was impossible—or was it? In bits and pieces, partial answers would well up within me; but for me they only came together when a personal crisis suddenly struck, just nine days after my eightieth birthday.
As the gurney on which I was lying wheeled me into the theater for an emergency operation, my right hand was still clinging to a little New Testament. It was opened to the Gospel according to John, the beloved disciple. With coronary thrombosis, after a second heart attack right there in the hospital, the outlook at my age was bleak. But some of the last words I remembered, before anesthesia closed in, were precious: “. . . whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life . . . the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. (John 5: 24, 25, ESV) “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. . . . For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:37, 40, ESV)
Thank God, I survived without kidney failure or damage to my brain; but mortality has for me become a personal fact. It is no longer a vague theoretical idea. For at any time . . . And the puzzling question has returned: Just how can our Lord and Saviour substitute for me, in death as well as life?
Important hints appear in the New Testament.
In 1 Corinthians 15, the apostle Paul wrote profoundly about the resurrection, amongst other things the following passage: “The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit. . . . The first man is of the earth, earthy: the second man is the Lord from heaven. As is the earthy, such are they also that are earthy: and as is the heavenly, such are they also that are heavenly. And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly.” (Vv. 45-49)
But how can our Lord, a descendant of Adam, be another Adam, on our behalf? His genealogy in Luke 3 contains a key to an answer. Tracing back his human ancestry, it climaxes with the declaration: “Which was the son of Enos, which was the son of Seth, which was the son of Adam, which was the son of God” (vs. 38).
So Adam, the first created human being, was a son of God, everybody’s earthly father, who also like the sons of God whom we read about in Job 1:6 and 2:1 represented our planet. Unfortunately, however, he died after yielding to the temptations of Satan, who usurped his place. Our Lord acknowledged this as a fact and called the devil the prince of this world, who however was judged and cast out through the crucifixion (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). Paul even called him “the god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4).
But Jesus was the Son of God in two ways, through his human ancestry as well his divinity. The incarnation united both capacities. Therefore, immediately when he came to our world, he assumed priority over Adam. He moved, so to speak, one position higher up in the line to head the human race. When he died on the cross, the devil was also cast out. We are therefore enabled, through the plan of salvation, to choose whom we will serve; and, if we believe, the Holy Spirit comes to our aid. Through him, the Lord Jesus not only rules over us but dwells in our hearts and minds.
All the same, the question remains: just how can one person die on behalf of another? That is, how could the Saviour become us?
Paul hinted at an answer when he explained to the wise men of the Areopagus in Athens about the one whom they called THE UNKNOWN GOD. He said: “in him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). It is through and in him that we exist. Therefore we believe that when he died, we also died; and when he was resurrected, we were also resurrected. In fact, he has changed our death into a sleep. Through his death, we are also—if by faith we accept it—freed from the burden of guilt and the compulsion to keep on sinning.
As Paul explained this is symbolized by baptism, to which he added that believers are actually crucified in and resurrected with their Lord:
What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein? Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For he that is dead is freed from sin. Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him: knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no dominion over him. For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God. Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof. Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin; but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God. (Roman 6:1-13)
But is baptism not a metaphor or symbol? It is, but not so the realities of the atonement which it represents. Crucifixion, death, and the resurrection are real. They were the bitter lot of our Lord, but in him we live, and move, and have our being. Therefore, if we will accept it, we too have been crucified and buried with him. Our transgressions are forgiven. Through him, also, we can obtain the victory over sin and become new creatures. If we choose and believe, we will likewise at the last day be raised up to live forever.
With all of this, I am well content and need not be afraid. Indeed, I shall not only rise again, but already—right now—have eternal life; just as the little New Testament which I clutched told me as I entered that operating theater. I am an old man, but let death come when it must, a little sooner or a little later. Jesus, the Son of Man who is also our creator God, has vanquished the grave, for me like everyone else who believes.