A Primer on the Atonement (pt. 4)
In this ongoing series from John Gerstner’s Primitive Theology, Dr. Gerstner uses a fictional dialog between Christian and Inquirer to provide a primer on the Christian doctrine of the atonement.
(Continued from Part Three)
I: I almost hate to ask this in the light of things we have just been saying and learning about the actual sacrifice He made.
C: I am sure that Christ will not be offended by honest questions about anything in His Word.
I: Suppose I am the sinner the Bible claims, and suppose Jesus Christ offers His blood for the remission of my sins, as it also claims. Really, is that fair either to Him or to me? On the surface of it, I cannot see how it is fair for Him to be judged or for me not to be judged.
C: That is a fair question. Let us first address whether it is fair to Christ to be judged for the sins of His people. I think we would both insist immediately that, if it were imposed upon Him to suffer for something He had not done, that would surely not be fair.
I: Agreed. The God of all the earth could not be just and arbitrarily condemn someone for somebody else’s sin. If He arbitrarily inflicts the punishment for your sin and mine on Jesus, who is in no way guilty of those sins, that would surely be unfair.
C: On the other hand, if God does not impose that on Jesus, but Jesus asks it for Himself, would that not change the matter?
I: I guess it would, though I cannot imagine why someone would want to suffer for somebody else’s sin.
C: The point is, if someone did choose to suffer for somebody else’s sins, for whatever reason, assuming the person is in his right mind, it would not be unfair if he were then punished for the guilt of their sins, would it?
I: I guess not. No.
C: Then our first problem is solved.
C: The Bible makes it very plain that Christ voluntarily took others’ sins upon Himself. They were not laid upon Him without His consent.
I: Where does the Bible say that?
C: While it does not say that in so many words, the Bible does nevertheless teach, first of all, that Jesus Christ is the Logos, the Word, the second person of the Trinity. That is to say, He is a full member of the Godhead. As such, He is absolutely sovereign. No one can impose his will on the deity.
I: I see. But as we have already noticed, He did not suffer as deity; He suffered in His humanity. That punishment for other people’s sin was laid upon Him as a human being, was it not?
C: Yes, it was as a man that He suffered the punishment for our sins, but as God that He submitted Himself to do so.
I: Run that by me again.
C: As God, the second person in the Godhead, He must have agreed to undertake this redemptive role. To suffer the punishment of His people’s sin involved His taking upon Himself, voluntarily, a human nature in which He could thus suffer. So, though He suffered as a man, and the punishment of our sins was laid upon Him by the deity, as deity He Himself concurred in His own incarnation and atonement.
I: I see. We can truly say that Jesus Christ, as deity, voluntarily undertook to suffer for the sins of His people. He subjected Himself to that vicarious atonement.
C: Yes. And in a sense, even as to His human nature, He voluntarily submitted to the cross. He came to do the Father’s
will. Jesus had said, “The Father is greater than I,” referring apparently to His human nature. As a human being, He submitted Himself to the Father’s will.
I: That is the significance of Gethsemane, is it not?
C: Yes. Christ said, “Not my will, but Thy will be done.” His will, at that time, was to avoid the awful suffering of the cross on the next day. “If it be possible,” He had prayed, “let this cup pass from me.” His will as a human being was to avoid the incredible anguish of Calvary, if it were “possible.”
I: But when He realized it was not possible, then He voluntarily, as a human facing the wrath of God on the cross, said, “Thy will be done.”
C: Right. The very statement, “Not my will, but Thy will be done,” really means that Christ’s will as a human being was submissive to the will of the divine being. He was saying in effect that His will as a human being, shrinking naturally from the ordeal of the cross, was to avoid such if at all possible, but only if possible. When it became obvious that it was not possible to avoid the cross and still accomplish His redemptive work, then of course His will was to do God’s will, which was to suffer in place of His people. Thus, as a human, Jesus chose to submit to the will of God. His will, as a human, was to do God’s will.
I: I am satisfied on this first point. It was not unfair for Jesus Christ to suffer for His people’s sins because He Himself (both as divine and human) voluntarily undertook to do that. He was not forced to suffer against His will. But we still have another part to the problem. I was asking if it is fair for the guilty person to have someone else suffer for his guilt, while he goes free.
C: I recall. The unfairness, or alleged unfairness, would be the guilty person’s not having to suffer the proper punishment for his crime. Is that it?
I: That is precisely my question.
C: You will notice that the guilty person does not go unpunished.
I: I had not noticed that at all. It seems to me that the guilty person does go unpunished. After all, we sinners are forgiven without ever having suffered the damnation of hell for our sins. Am I not correct?
C: I am afraid not.
I: What am I missing? Surely Jesus paid it all. I did not pay anything. What is that but going scot-free from the punishment for my crime? I must be obtuse. I cannot see any way to alleviate that part of the problem.
C: Think about it. When we talked about Christ’s suffering, we said it was “vicarious.”
I: Yes, meaning He was our substitute. Ah, the light is beginning to dawn.
C: What do you see?
I: If Christ voluntarily suffered for my sins, then He did suffer for my sins. He was punished in my place. Vicariously He endured for me. In that profound sense, I was punished in Him. Is that what we are saying?
I: Christ was my vicar, my substitute. In my place, He suffered my punishment. So in a very real way, I was punished for my sin. I did not go free. My debt was paid in full by me.
C: Exactly. It was paid in full by you.
I: Not by me in person, but by me in my representative, my vicar, my substitute, my vicarious sacrifice.
I: That is truly amazing. I pay for my guilt in a way that, left to myself, I could never have done, even in eternal torment in hell.
C: Precisely. Inasmuch as Christ’s sacrifice of infinite value was in your place, you paid the infinite price for your guilt.
I: I notice you say that believers are identified with Christ’s suffering on their behalf. Unbelievers, I take it, are not?
C: How can they be when they refuse to be?
I: Yet Christ died for the elect before they believe, did He not?
C: Yes. I can see where you are heading.
To be continued…
Excerpted from Primitive Theology by John H. Gerstner.