Vicarious Substitution

John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness’” (vv. 14–15).

- Matthew 3:13–17

Jesus’ atonement for the sins of His people is an essential element of the Christian faith. In our look at the biblical doctrines outlined in the Heidelberg Catechism, we have been emphasizing what is known as the penal substitution view of the cross, namely, that Christ bore the wrath of God for the sins of His people in their place. This view of the atonement is key to the gospel, and it is the main paradigm through which Scripture sees the atonement. Yet there are other aspects of the atonement the Bible discusses as well. We will now consider some of these aspects with the help of Dr. R.C. Sproul’s teaching series The Atonement of Jesus.

On the cross, the sins of believers were imputed to Jesus, so that in condemning Jesus, God condemned our sins in Christ, sparing us from the full brunt of the Father’s wrath. In turn, Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us through faith alone so that we can be declared righteous and acceptable in God’s sight. Consequently, God is both just and the justifier of His children (Rom. 3:21–26).

This double imputation and its benefits are possible only because Jesus’ death was a vicarious substitution. It was a death of the spotless Lamb of God in our place, the perfect sacrifice necessary to satisfy the demands of God’s justice (Heb. 9:1–10:18).

Christ’s role as our vicarious substitute is evident from the start of His ministry. John the Baptist, for example, proclaimed Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). But the very act of Jesus’ baptism by John also reveals our Lord as our substitute. The key here is our Savior’s remark that His baptism was necessary to “fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15).

We grasp the import of Christ’s words once we understand that Jesus had to follow all of God’s commands perfectly to be a sinless sacrifice. John the Baptist was the last of the old covenant prophets, and his command for the Israelites to be baptized was from God Himself. Jesus had to keep this command and be baptized in order to earn the righteousness needed to be a perfect, sinless sacrifice.

From His birth in Bethlehem, Jesus did what sinners cannot do. He kept the law of God flawlessly. He gained a righteousness that could be imputed to us and qualified Himself to be the Lamb and bear His Father’s just wrath against sin.

Coram Deo

Nothing that Jesus did was an accident. He did not need to be baptized for the forgiveness of sins, but He did need to be baptized to keep God’s laws perfectly and to be perfectly identified with His people. Because He fully identified with us and followed His Father completely, we enjoy the benefits of His vicarious substitution. These truths are essential to the gospel message, and we must know them, love them, and proclaim them.

Passages for Further Study

Exodus 12:1–32
Leviticus 16:6–22
Isaiah 53:4–6
Matthew 20:28

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