The Pilgrim’s Digest is a sampling of Christian writings throughout the centuries on many subjects from
Reformers, Puritans, pastors, and various theologians. Let’s take a short walk with the saints.
Soli Deo Gloria!
The Completeness of the Substitution
by Horatius Bonar
Horatius Bonar (1808-1889) was a Scottish pastor, who ministered in Leith, Kelso and finally Ediburgh. He was a much-respected preacher and pastor, and a prolific author of hymns and books.
In person and in work, in life and in death, Christ is the sinner’s substitute. His vicariousness is co-extensive with the sins and wants of those whom He represents, and covers all the different periods as well as the varied circumstances of their lives.
He entered our world as the substitute. ‘There was no room for Him in the inn’ [Luke 2:7]—the inn of Bethlehem, the city of David, His own city. ‘Though rich, for our sakes He had become poor’ [2 Cor. 8:9]. In poverty and banishment His life began. He was not to be allowed either to be born or to die, save as an outcast man. ‘Without the gate’ [Heb. 13:12] was His position, as He entered and as He left our earth. Man would not give even a roof to shelter or a cradle to receive the helpless babe. It was as the substitute that He was the outcast from the first moment of His birth. His vicarious life began in the manger. For what can this poverty mean, this rejection by man, this outcast condition, but that His sin-bearing had begun.
The name, too, that met Him as He came into our world intimated the same truth: ‘Thou shalt call His name Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins’ [Matt. 1:21]. His name proclaimed His mission and His work to be salvation; ‘Jehovah the Saviour’ (Jesus) is that by which the infant is called. As the Saviour, He comes forth from the womb; as the Saviour, He lies in the manger; and if He is the Saviour, He is the substitute. The name Jesus was not given to Him merely in reference to the cross, but to His whole life below. Therefore did Mary say, ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour‘ [Luke 1:46, 47]. Therefore also did the angel say to the shepherds, ‘Unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord’ [Luke 2:11].
“As the banished one, He bore our banishment that we might return to God.”
Scarcely is He born when His blood is shed. Circumcision deals with Him as one guilty, and needing the sign of cleansing. He knew no sin, yet He is circumcised. He was not born in sin, nor shapen in iniquity, but was ‘the holy thing’ [Luke 1:35]; yet He is circumcised as other children of Abraham, for ‘He took upon Him the seed of Abraham’ [Heb. 2:16]. Why was He circumcised if not as the substitute? That rite proclaimed His vicarious birth, as truly as did the cross His vicarious death. ‘He who knew no sin was made sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him’ [2 Cor. 5:21]. This was the beginning of that obedience in virtue of which righteousness comes to us; as it is written, ‘As by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous’ [Rom. 5:19]. For He Himself testified concerning His baptism, ‘Thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness’ [Matt. 3:15]; and what was true of His baptism was no less so of His circumcision. The pain and the blood and the bruising of His tender body, connected with that symbol of shame, are inexplicable save on the supposition that even in infancy He was the vicarious one, not indeed bearing sin in the full sense and manner in which He bore it on the cross (for without death, sin-bearing could not have been consummated), but still bearing it in measure, according to the condition of His years. Even then He was ‘the Lamb of God.’ His banishment into Egypt is referred to once and again by the old divines as part of that life of humiliation by which He was bearing our sins. As the banished one, He bore our banishment that we might return to God. He passed through earth as an outcast, because He was standing in the outcast’s place—’hurried up and down’ says an old writer, ‘and driven out of His own land as a vagabond’ (Flavel). In each part of His sin-bearing life there is something to meet our case. By the first Adam we were made exiles from God and paradise; by the last Adam we are brought back from our wanderings, restored to the divine favour, and replaced in the paradise of God.
His baptism is the same in import with His circumcision. He needed not the symbol of death and cleansing; for He was wholly pure, not liable to death on His own account. Why, then, should this sign of washing the unclean be applied ti Him, if He was not then standing in the room of the unclean? What had water to do with the spotless One? What had ‘the figure of the putting away of the filth of the flesh, and of the answer of a good conscience toward God’ [1 Pet. 3:21], to do with Him who had no filth of the flesh to put away, and on whose conscience not the very shadow of dispeace had ever rested? But He was the substitute; and into all the parts and circumstances of our life He enters, fulfilling all righteousness in the name of those whom He had come to save. The water was poured upon Him as standing in our room, and fulfilling our obligations.
In the Psalms we find Him giving utterance to His feelings while bearing sins that were not His own, but which were felt by Him as if they were His own. Again and again He confesses sin. But what had the Holy One to do with confession, or with strong crying tears? What connection had He with the horrible put and the miry clay, with the overwhelming floods and waves, with the deep waters, and the dust and the darkness, and the lowest pit? Why shrank He from the assembly of the wicked that enclosed Him, from the ‘bulls that compassed Him, the strong bulls of Bashan that beset Him round,’ from the power of the dogs, from the sword, from the lion’s mouth, from the horns of the unicorns? Why, during the days of His flesh, was He subjected to all this? and why were the powers of earth, and hell let loose against Him? Because he was the substitute, who had taken our place and assumed our responsibilities, and undertaken to do battle with our enemies. In these Psalms we find the seed of the woman at war with the seed of the serpent, and undergoing the varied anguish of the bruised heel.
“The utterance, It is finished,’ pointed back to a whole life’s sin-bearing work.”
He speaks not merely of the anguish of the cross when the full flood of wrath descended on Him, but of His lifetime’s daily griefs: ‘I am afflicted and ready to die from my youth up: I suffer Thy terrors, I am distracted’ [Psa. 88:15]. ‘My soul is full of troubles, my life draweth nigh the grave,’ He said in the Psalms; just as afterwards He cried out, ‘My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even unto death.’ ‘Mine eye mourneth by reason of affliction. … Thy fierce wrath goeth over me, Thy terrors have cut me off. … Lover and friend hast Thou put far from me, and mine acquaintance into darkness.’ Thus was He ‘despised and rejected of men (i.e. the despised and rejected one of men), a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief’ [Isa. 53:3]. And of the meaning of all this we can have no doubt, when we remember that He was always the sinless One bearing our sins, carrying them up to the cross as well as bearing them upon the cross [1 Pet. 2:24, ἀνήνεγκεν, anēnegken]; also that it is written of Him, ‘Surely He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows’ [Isa. 53:4]; and yet again, that it is written expressly with reference to His daily life, ‘He healed all that were sick, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying, Himself took our infirmities, and bare our sicknesses‘ [Matt. 8:16, 17]. Vicariousness, or substitution, attached itself to each part of His life as truly as to His death. Our burden He assumed when He entered the manger, and laid it aside only at the cross. The utterance, ‘It is finished,’ pointed back to a whole life’s sin-bearing work.
The confessions of our sins which we find in the Psalms (where, as ‘in a bottle,’ God has deposited the tears of the Son of man, Psa. 56:8) are the distinctest proofs of His work as the substitute. Let one example suffice: ‘O Lord, rebuke me not in Thy wrath, neither chasten me in Thy displeasure; for Thine arrows stick fast in me, and Thy hand presseth me sore. There is no soundness in my flesh because of Thine anger, neither is there any rest in my bones because of my sin. For mine iniquities are gone over mine head; as a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me’ [Psa. 38:1-4].
These confessions must be either those of the sinner or the sin-bearer. They suit the former; and they show what views of sin we should entertain, and what our confession should be. But they suit the latter no less; and as they occur in those Psalms which are quoted in the New Testament as specifically referring to Christ, we must take them as the confessions of the sin-bearer, and meant to tell us what He thought of sin when it was laid upon Him simply as a substitute for others. The view this given of the completeness of the substitution is as striking as it is satisfying. We see here our Noah building His wondrous ark for the salvation of His household. We see its beginning, middle, and end. We see its different parts, external and internal; each plank as it is laid, each nail as it is driven in. Its form is perfect; its structure in all details is complete; its strength and stability are altogether divine. Yet with what labour and amid what mockings is this ark constructed! Amid what strong crying and tears, what blood and agony, is it completed! Thus, however we are assured of its perfection and security. Through the deep waters of this evil world it floats in peace. No storm can overset it, no billow break it, nor so much as loosen one of its planks. They who have fled to it as a hiding-place from the wind, and a covert from the tempest, are everlastingly safe.
When the Lord said, ‘Now is my soul troubled’ [John 12:27]; and when, again, He said, ‘My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death’ [Matt. 26:38], He spoke as the sin-bearer. For what construction can we possibly put upon that trouble and sorrow, but that they were for us? Men, false to the great truth of a sin-bearing Christ, may say that in the utterance of this anguish He was merely giving us an example of patient endurance and self-sacrifice; but they who own the doctrine of Christ ‘suffering for sin, the just for the unjust,’ will listen to these bitter cries as to the very voice of the substitute, and learn from them the completeness of that work of satisfaction, for the accomplishment of which He took our flesh, and lived our life, and died our death upon the tree.
But the completeness of the substitution comes out more fully at the cross. There the whole burden pressed upon Him, and the wrath of God took hold of Him, and the sword of Jehovah smote Him; He poured out His soul unto death, and He was cut off out of the land of the living.
Then the work was done. ‘It is finished.’ The blood of the burnt-offering was shed. The propitiation was made; the transgression finished; and the everlasting righteousness brought in.
All that follows is the fruit or result of the work finished on the cross. The grave is the awful pledge or testimony to His death as a true and real death; but it forms no part of the substitution or expiation. Ere our surety reached the tomb, atonement had been completed. The resurrection is the blessed announcement of the Father that the work had been accepted and the surety set free; but it was no part either of the atonement or the righteousness. The ascension and the appearing in the presence of God for us with His own blood, are the carrying out of the atonement made upon Calvary; but they are no part of the expiation by means of which sin is forgiven and we are justified. All was finished, once and for ever, when the surety said, ‘Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit.’
“The altar is the only place of expiation; and it is death that is the wages of sin. Burial was but the visible proof of the reality of the death.”
There are some who would separate propitiation from the cross, who maintain that the three days’ entombment was part of the sin-bearing. But the cry from the cross, ‘It is finished,’ silences all such theories. The altar is the only place of expiation; and it is death that is the wages of sin. Burial was but the visible proof of the reality of the death. The surety’s death once given instead of ours, the work is done. The fire has consumed the sacrifice; the ashes which remain are not the prolongation of that sacrifice, but the palpable proof that the fire has exhausted itself, that wrath is spent, and that nothing can now be added to or taken from the perfection of that sacrifice, through which pardon and righteousness are henceforth to flow to the condemned and the ungodly.
‘Justified by His blood‘ is the apostolic declaration; and as the result of this, ‘saved from wrath through Him’ [Rom. 5:9]. Here we rest; sitting down beneath the shadow of the cross to receive the benefit of that justifying, saving, protecting sacrifice.
It is at and by the cross that God justifies the ungodly. ‘By His stripes we are healed’ [Isa. 53:5]; and the symbol of the brazen serpent visibly declares this truth. It was the serpent when uplifted that healed the deadly bite, not the serpent after it was taken down and deposited in the tabernacle. As from the serpent—the figure of Him who was ‘made a curse for us,’—so from the cross health and life flow in. Not resurrection, but crucifixion, is the finishing of transgression and the making an end of sin, ‘Reconciled to God by the death of His Son’ [Rom. 5:10] is another of the many testimonies to the value and efficacy of the cross. Reconciliation is not connected with resurrection. The ‘peace was made by the blood of His cross‘ [Col. 1:20]. The fruits and results of the peace-offering may be many and various, but they are not the basis of reconciliation. That basis is the sacrificial blood-shedding. What can be more explicit than these three passages, which announce justification by the blood, reconciliation by the death, and peace by ‘the blood of the cross?’
In the cross we see the Priest and the priesthood; in the resurrection, the King and royal power. To the Priest belong the absolution and the cleansing and the justifying; to the King, the impartation of blessing to the absolved and the cleansed and the justified.
To the cross, therefore, do we look and cleave; knowing that out of its death cometh life to us, and out of its condemnation pardon and righteousness. With Christ were we crucified; and in this crucifixion we have ‘redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace.’
“Death could no longer have dominion over Him. The work was finished, the debt paid, and the surety went forth free: He rose, not in order to justify us, but because we were justified.”
Three times over in one chapter [Lev. 1:9, 13, 17] we read these words, ‘It is a burnt sacrifice, an offering made by fire of a sweet savour unto the Lord;’ and the apostle, referring to these words, says, ‘Christ hath loved us, and hath given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling savour’ [Eph. 5:2]. This sweet savour came from the brazen altar, or altar of burnt-offering. It was the sweet odour of that sacrifice that ascended to God, and that encompassed the worshipper, so that he was covered all over with this sacrificial fragrance, presenting him perfect before God, and making his own conscience feel that he was accepted as such, and treated as such. Thus, by that burnt-offering there is proclaimed to us justification in a crucified Christ. The manifold blessings flowing from resurrection and ascension are not to be overlooked; but nowhere does Scripture teach justification by these. The one passage sometimes quoted to prove this, declares the opposite [Rom. 4:25]; for the words truly translated run thus: ‘He was delivered because we had sinned, and raised again because of our justification.’ It was because the justifying work was finished that resurrection was possible. Had it not been so, He must have remained under the power of the grave. But the cross had completed the justification of His church. He was raised from the dead.
Death could no longer have dominion over Him. The work was finished, the debt paid, and the surety went forth free: He rose, not in order to justify us, but because we were justified. In raising Him from the dead, God the Father cleared Him from the imputed guilt which had nailed Him to the cross and borne Him down to the tomb. ‘He was justified in the Spirit’ [1 Tim. 3:16]. His resurrection was not His justification, but the declaration that He was ‘justified;’ so that resurrection, in which we are one with Him, does not justify us, but proclaims that we were justified—justified by His blood and death.
In so far, then, as substitution is concerned, we have to do with the cross alone. It was, indeed, the place of death; but on that very account it was also to us the place of life and the pledge of resurrection.
The words of the apostle [Rom. 6:6, 7] are very explicit on this point: ‘Knowing this, that our old man has been crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.’ Here we have three things connected directly with the cross: (1) The death of the old man; (2) the destruction of the body of sin; (3) deliverance from the life-bondage of sin. Then he adds, ‘For he who dieth is freed from sin.’ The word ‘freed’ is literally ‘justified,’ teaching us that death is the exhaustion of the penalty and the justification of the sinner; so that justification in a crucified Christ is the teaching of the Spirit here. The words of another apostle are no less clear [1 Pet. 4:1]: ‘Christ suffered for us in the flesh; … he that hath suffered in the flesh hath ceased from sin.’ Here Christ on the cross is set before us, suffering the just for the unjust; and having thus suffered, He exhausted the penalty which He was bearing; and having exhausted it, His connection with sin has ceased: He is now in the state described elsewhere, ‘without sin’ [Heb. 9:28]. The word ‘ceased’ means more properly, ‘has rest.’ The life of our surety was one of sorrow and unrest, for our penalty lay upon Him; but when this penalty was paid by His death, He ‘rested.’ The labour and the burden were gone; and as one who knew what entering into rest was [Heb. 4:10], He could say to us, ‘I will give you rest.’ He carried His life-long burden to the cross, and there laid it down, ‘resting from His labours.’ Or rather, it was there that the law severed the connection between Him and the burden; loosing it from His shoulders, that it might be buried in His grave. From that same cross springs the sinner’s rest, the sinner’s disburdening, the sinner’s absolution and justification.
“Acceptance, and completeness in our standing before God, are attributed to the cross and blood and death of the Divine Substitute.”
Not for a moment are we to lose sight of the blessings flowing from resurrection, or to overlook and undervalue the new position into which we are brought by it. The ‘power of His resurrection’ [Phil. 3:10] must be fully recognised and acted on for its own results. We are crucified with Christ. With Him we died, were buried, and rose again. ‘Risen with Him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised Him from the dead’ [Col. 2:12]. ‘He hath quickened us together with Christ, and hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus’ [Eph. 2:5, 6]. Such are the terms in which the apostle describes the benefits of Christ’s resurrection, and in which he reveals to us our oneness with Him who died and rose. But nowhere does he separate our justification from the cross; nowhere does he speak of Christ meeting our legal responsibilities by Hist resurrection; nowhere does he ascribe to His resurrection that preciousness in whose excellency we stand complete. Acceptance, and completeness in our standing before God, are attributed to the cross and blood and death of the Divine Substitute.
Poor as my faith in this Substitute may be, it places me at once in the position of one to whom ‘God imputeth righteousness without works.’ God is willing to receive me on the footing of His perfection; and if I am willing to be thus received, in the perfection of another with whom God is well pleased, the whole transaction is completed. I AM JUSTIFIED BY HIS BLOOD. ‘As He is, so am I (even) in this world,’—even now, with all my imperfections and evils.
To be entitled to use another’s name, when my own name is worthless; to be allowed to wear another’s raiment, because my own is torn and filthy; to appear before God in another’s person—the person of the Beloved Son—this is the summit of all blessing. The sin-bearer and I have exchanged names, robes, and persons! I am now represented by Him, my own personality having disappeared; He now appears in the presence of God for me [Heb. 9:24]. All that makes Him precious and dear to the Father has been transferred to me. His excellency and glory are seen as if they were mine; and I receive the love, and the fellowship, and the glory, as if I had earned them all. So entirely one am I with the sin-bearer, that God treats me not merely as if I had not done the evil that I have done; but as if I had done all the good which I have not done, but which my substitute has done. In one sense I am still the poor sinner, once under wrath; in another I am altogether righteous, and shall be so for ever, because of the Perfect One, in whose perfection I appear before God. Nor is this a false pretence or a hollow fiction, which carries no results or blessings with it. It is an exchange which has been provided by the Judge, and sanctified by law; an exchange of which any sinner upon earth may avail himself and be blest.