Consider an illustration: A group of young people conspire to vandalize the estate of a powerful and generous nobleman, and they follow through on the act, causing great and costly damage. The nobleman and his only son go to great lengths to pay for and complete the work required to restore their estate to its original, pristine condition. With order restored and the honor of their name vindicated, the father and son then seek to show their good-will toward the young criminals by prescribing a way for them to make amends on an individual basis. They go so far as to offer an inheritance in the estate to each one who would clear his conscience by owning his crime and suffering an appropriate penance. However, to a person, the juveniles have neither the desire to accept the gracious invitation, nor the ability to pay the penalty that would allow them to be brought into the good nobleman’s family. Then, in a wonderful display of kindness, the father sets his heart on several of the undeserving, guilty ones and sends his son to suffer the penalty for damages that these favored ones owed. At great cost to his own wealth and honor, the son removes the barrier to their pardon, peace, and reconciliation. Now, with the noble estate restored and the squire’s honor vindicated, and with the chosen youths’ penalty paid, the son brings back with him those whom he had substituted himself for, those whose place he took, while the rest remain in their state of willfull alienation from the gracious nobleman.
In a previous article on propitiation, we summarized the teaching of Christ’s propitiatory work, how it glorified God with respect to all the offenses ever committed against Him, and how its virtue allows for the cleansing of the earth and the heavens, allowing God to declare His righteousness while proclaiming mercy toward men. But propitiation itself does not address the personal guilt and alienation of an individual soul; for that there must be a substitute, someone to stand in the stead of a sinner, suffering the penalty for those sins, and bearing them away “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12). The illustration above attempts to show the distinction between the dishonor done to God by sins, and the guilt of the individual sinner, both of which are addressed in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.
A ransom price was paid for all when the Lord Jesus Christ became, on the cross, the propitiation for the whole world. “God so loved the world“, and accordingly He “desires that all men should be saved” (John 3:16; I Timothy 2:4). However, both the instructed Bible teacher and Gospel preacher know, on the authority of the scriptures, that God’s goodness toward men does not after all bring about the eternal salvation of every human soul; it does not have a universalist effect. God set forth His Son Jesus as a propitiation (mercy-seat), declaring His righteousness in offering pardon and peace to all who believe on Him, who receive Christ by faith.¹ But it seems evident that so many do not believe! How are they then to be condemned if a ransom has been paid and God propitiated?
While God’s righteous character has been vindicated and His claims met with regard to the sins of mankind that have defiled the earth and the heavens, the personal guilt for those sins, and the alienation of the sinner who committed them, must be addressed on an individual basis, rather than in a general way. This is where the truth of Christ’s substitutionary atonement complements the teaching of His propitiation in the multi-faceted doctrine of Christ’s infinite atoning work on the cross. Propitiation is general in scope, and its emphasis is on meeting God’s claims where all of the sins of man had so dishonored Him. But substitution (Christ’s vicarious work) is particular and definite, for it meets the desperate need of individual sinners for the guilt their sins have brought upon them.
The second goat of Leviticus 16, called the “scapegoat”, shows us in type that Christ’s mighty work of atonement not only has a God-ward aspect, but a man-ward aspect as well. The treatment of these two goats could hardly have been more different. The scapegoat was to bear away the individual sins of the people to an uninhabited place, and we see the transfer of guilt from the offerer to the goat, on behalf of the people, in the laying on of hands. This is a picture for us of Christ bearing away the sins and guilt of all who lay their hands (by faith) on Him, trusting Him as the only one who can take them away. “He was manifested to take away our sins” (I John 3:5).
There are numerous passages in the New Testament that teach the full truth of what the scapegoat’s substitutionary act pictures for us, and we will highlight some of them here. The Lord Jesus Christ “bore our sins in His own body on the tree . . . by whose stripes we are healed” (I Peter 2:24). “Christ once suffered for sins, the Just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God” (I Peter 3:18). “Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many” (Hebrews 9:28). “For He hath made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him” (II Corinthians 5:21). “Our Saviour Jesus Christ; who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto Himself a peculiar people” (Titus 2:13-14). “I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). Notice that when sin-bearing is spoken of, it only applies to those who are “healed”, and “brought to God”, and “redeemed”, and “made the righteousness of God”. Christ bore “the sins of many”, not of all, but only of those who trust Him, for He is the substitute only for those who have a right to say by faith that the Son of God “gave Himself for me.”
In the reality of God’s spiritual economy, when a man’s substitute is Christ, all of his sins are gone forever; but when a sinner rejects Christ as a substitute for himself, those sins will remain, he will die in his sin, and the wrath of God will abide on him forever, for lack of having them borne away by the Lord Jesus Christ.² There is no thought in New Testament teaching of a general bearing away of the sins of all mankind, nor of a partial, time-limited sin-bearing for the failing believer, for everything was settled for God’s elect on the cross 2000 years ago, once for all.
Is the Lord Jesus Christ your substitute? Were your sins laid on Him to bear them in His own body on the tree? There is just one way to know, one way to have assurance that your sins are all gone, never to be held against you in judgment: Receive Christ as the propitiation for your sins, and as your personal substitute who bore the wrath of a thrice-holy God for you, a lost sinner who could never stand before God on your own merits. Jesus plainly told the Jewish crowd that “whoever comes to Me I will never cast out”,³ and that guarantee is as valid today as it was when He said it. Come to Him today to be justified from all your sins, and that will bring full pardon and real peace with God, for time and eternity.
¹ Acts 14:17; Romans 2:4; Luke 2:14; Romans 3:3, 21-26; 5:1
² John 9:41; John 8:24; John 3:36
³ John 6:37, ESV