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“Christ for Us” Isaiah 53:1-12 Apr 6, 1997

Today, I want to consider in something of an introductory way the teaching of Isaiah 53 concerning the death of Christ. Next week, Lord willing, I want to apply that teaching to our faith in life as Christians. But, first, we must consider what is taught and, especially, against the background of the widespread denial of this teaching, even within the church.

Without a doubt, Christians prize this text as they do and as they always have primarily because it sets forth so clearly and beautifully the nature of Christ’s work as our Redeemer. It is surely striking that when we have occasion to explain to someone what Christ did and why he is our Savior from sin we are more likely to quote from this text, written seven centuries before the birth of Jesus, than from any text in the New Testament, save, perhaps, John 3:16.

Could Isaiah have made it any clearer?

“…he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

And then, again, later:

“…for the transgression of my people he was stricken.”


“…the Lord makes his life a guilt offering…”


“…he will bear their iniquities.”


“…he bore the sin of many.”

According to the British scholar, J. S. Whale, this Servant Song “makes twelve distinct and explicit statements that the Servant suffers the penalty of other men’s sins: not only vicarious suffering but penal substitution is the plain meaning of its fourth, fifth, and sixth verses.” [Packer, p. 34n.]

No wonder that a distinguishing mark of evangelical Christianity the world over is today, as it has always been, the belief that Christ’s death had the character of penal substitution. It was substitution in that Christ took our place and it was penal substitution in that Christ, as our substitute, endured in our place the penalty of God’s holy judgment which we had incurred because of our sin. Christ is our penal substitute because, moved by a love that drove him to do everything necessary to deliver us from death and hell, taking our place, he suffered the punishment and penalty demanded by God’s law and justice on account of our sins. It is substitution because he took our place, it is penal because he took our place in the matter of the punishment due us as sinners.

It is of this penal substitutionary death that Paul is speaking in 2 Cor. 5:20: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us so that in him (that is, in Christ) we might become the righteousness of God.”

And there are a great many texts that teach this doctrine, that explain Christ’s work as our Redeemer in these terms. His was, Paul says in Romans 3, a sacrifice of “propitiation,” that is, by what he did in our place, as our substitute, he turned away the wrath of God that was against us. Or, in Gal. 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us…” And so on. Christ suffered our sentence in our place so that we would not have to!

If thou my pardon hast secured,
And freely in my room endured
The whole of wrath divine,
Payment God cannot twice demand,
First from my bleeding Surety’s hand
And then again from mine.

Such is the logic of Christ’s penal substitutionary death for us and the Christian’s faith and hope in his death in our place.

Now, it will not perhaps surprise you to know that, though the generality of Christians have always understood Christ’s death in this way, there have been other theories, other explanations, other ways of understanding the death of Christ than that of penal substitution.

There is, first, a way of understanding the cross that sees it having its effect entirely on men. There are different theories that share this common point of view. Some see the cross as revealing God’s love to us and so moving us to love and trust God in return. Some see it as demonstrating to men the divine displeasure with our sin so that God’s forgiveness does not lead to moral laxity. Others see the cross as blazing a trail that we are to follow, giving ourselves to God and others completely as Christ did, learning from him to repent of our sins, to suffer for righteousness sake, etc. These views can be combined, but the idea is that the significance of the death of Christ is not that of meeting the claims of divine justice, but rather the effect it has upon men: what it teaches them, how it moves them and inspires them, and so on. As soon as it has this effect on a man or a woman, he or she becomes forgivable and God grants forgiveness. There was never a need for our sins to be punished; God can simply forgive them.

There is, second, a view of the death of Christ that sees its effect as falling primarily on the Devil and his kingdom. The Devil has us in his clutches, the cross is Christ going out to do battle with the Devil on our behalf and conquering him and so delivering us from our bondage to him. In the early church this was a common — though by no means the only — way of speaking about the death of Christ and it has had something of a revival in our own day.

But, over against these other theories, the common view of the Christian ages that the effect of the cross falls primarily on God himself. This view does not deny, of course, that the cross has an effect on us and an effect on the Devil and his kingdom. That is believed absolutely. But, the primary effect — the effect that makes the other effects possible — is the effect of the cross on God himself. This view is based on the biblical teaching that man as a sinner stands under God’s wrath, that the wages of his sin must be death and rejection by God, and that, unless God’s rejection of him is turned into acceptance, man must be lost forever. It is to affect this acceptance that Christ suffered and died in our place, bearing in himself the punishment God’s holiness demanded for our sin, and so exhausting the divine judgment against us, turning away God’s holy wrath from us.

In theology it is said that Christ offered to God “satisfaction” for the sins of his people, that is, he satisfied the divine justice by suffering the appointed penalty in the place of those who had deserved it by their sins.

The first two views of the death of Christ that I mentioned — that its effect is upon men or upon the Devil — set themselves against and deny the third view, the third — that its effect is primarily upon God himself — takes up the first two views into itself. That is, the cross satisfies divine justice, but in doing so, it breaks the grip of the Devil upon sinful men and women and shows them the evil of sin and the love of God.

It is, of course, obvious why Christians in general, why Christian hymns and the literature of Christian devotion express their understanding of Christ’s death in this way. It seems to be what the Bible says, plainly, repeatedly, emphatically, gloriously, and beautifully, and no more so than here in Isaiah 53.

“In my place condemned he stood;
Sealed my pardon with his blood.”

But, there have been many critics of this understanding of Christ’s redeeming work. Many have rejected it as not only not the gospel, not the teaching of the Bible, but as unworthy of God, as actually immoral!

The first of these was Faustus Socinius, a later contemporary of John Calvin, who was to become known as the father of Unitarianism. Socinius was, in other words, the prototypical liberal. He was a Pelagian who believed that man was saved by his good works, he denied the Trinity, the incarnation, a great deal of the supernatural history of the Bible, and he denied the doctrine of Christ’s penal substitutionary atonement. In his work, Of Jesus Christ the Savior, published 1578, he argued that the doctrine of the Reformers, and of the great medieval theologian Anselm before them, was irrational, immoral, and impossible. He argued that giving pardon is not consistent with demanding satisfaction. One either forgives a person or requires payment, not both. Further, he said, it is unjust to punish someone else for another’s crimes. What is more, Socinius argued, the temporary death of one man does not suffice as payment for the eternal death of multitudes of human beings. Finally, Socinius claimed, if Christ really paid for someone’s sin and guilt — all his sin and guilt, past, present, and future — he would have given that man an unlimited freedom to sin, for, no matter how many sins he committed and how terrible those sins, as soon as one committed them, they were already paid for. For Socinius, Christ’s death has only the power of a great example which leads men to do good deeds.

In the centuries since Socinius first raised the objections, they have been raised again and again by both Christianity’s enemies and those who thought themselves its friends.

What is more, the attack had the very unfortunate effect of mesmerizing the defenders of the church’s historic doctrine, making them determined to demonstrate that the Bible’s doctrine of Christ’s penal substitutionary death was not subject to these objections and that there was an adequate reply for every one of them. The result was an overly rationalistic defense and presentation of this doctrine through the next several centuries.

Listen to Dr. J.I. Packer explain what happened [What did the Cross Achieve? pp. 4-5]:

“[The objections of Socinius and others] led [the Reformed] to fight back on the challenger’s own ground, using the Socinian technique of arguing [a priori] about God as if he were a man — to be precise, a sixteenth- or seventeenth-century monarch, head of both the legislature and the judiciary in his own realm but bound nonetheless to respect existing law and judicial practice at every point. So the God of Calvary came to be presented…as successfully avoiding all the moral and legal lapses which Socinius claimed to find in the Reformation view. …What was happening? Just this: that in trying to beat Socinian rationalism at its own game, Reformed theologians were conceding the Socianian assumption that every aspect of God’s work of reconciliation will be exhaustively explicable in terms of a natural theology of divine government, drawn from the world of contemporary legal and political thought. Thus in their zeal to show themselves rational, they became rationalistic.”

Now Dr. Packer is not saying that the Reformed theologians were not substantially right. They were because, after all, they were defending the doctrine that the Bible itself teaches repeatedly and emphatically. But they were going about it in the wrong way.

As with everything else in our faith, this doctrine too is a mystery. It is a reality that transcends our knowledge. As with so much else that we are taught in Holy Scripture, here too the Lord’s ways are a great deep, his judgments are unsearchable. When we try to understand all of this it is like trying to gaze at the sun, whose brightness makes it impossible fully to see it [Packer, 7]. In this respect, the doctrine of Christ’s death is not any different from the related doctrines of the Trinity, the sovereignty of divine grace, the incarnation of God the Son, the new birth, and so on. We cannot fathom any of these completely. That does not mean that we do not have a true knowledge of them. What we have been told about them is true and we have been given minds capable of comprehending that truth. It only means that very soon the reality outstrips our grasp of it, our minds quickly come to the end of their understanding and find themselves standing before a great deep. We know only in part. And this closes the door against any idea that we can explain with finality, that we can explain with complete satisfaction any of the ways of God, any of the realities that have been revealed to us in Holy Scripture.

How little you and I know of our own sin, of the reality of it, of God’s holiness and justice and the reality of that, of forgiveness itself (as our measly practice of forgiveness is proof enough!). How then could we claim to understand a doctrine, such as Christ’s death in our place for our sins, when we understand so little of the presuppositions and foundations of that doctrine! We know this too only in part; we see this too only as through a glass darkly.

So, then, what may we say in introduction to our consideration of Christ’s atoning death, his penal substitutionary death. What can we say with confidence as we approach this great subject?

I. Well, the first thing we should say is that no one can understand this doctrine or this reality aright who does not first have his heart in the right place before God.

Isaiah begins with this. Who has believed our report? So few understand, so few will believe!

Robert Traill, the Scottish Puritan, in his great work on justification by faith, wrote this:

“The theme of justification hath suffered greatly by this, that many have employed their heads and pens, who never had their hearts and consciences exercised about it. And they must be frigid and dreaming speculations that all such are taken up with, whose consciences are not enlivened with their personal concern in it.” [p. 288.]

And, indeed, the same is true with the doctrine that lies beneath the doctrine of justification, viz. the penal substitutionary death of Christ. This was Faustus Socinius’ problem! He was a proud man who had no sense of his own sin and guilt and his need of a Redeemer. He thought he could save himself. No wonder he found his objections to the idea that Christ had to save him from himself! His Uncle, Laelius Socinius, was of a similar stripe and, early on, he would write to Calvin with all his questions and complaints about Christian doctrine. Calvin, perceptive as always, realized at once that lying behind all of these so-called intellectual problems with the faith, was a proud and self-confident spirit. In a letter back to Socinius, in which the great reformer refused to comment on his speculations or answers his questions Calvin urged him to rest content with the Word of God and warned the young man not to trifle with the things of God:

“The time will come, I hope, when you will rejoice in having been so violently admonished. …and if this rebuke is harsher than it ought to be, ascribe it to my love to you.”

The rebuke did no good and the two men, Uncle and Nephew Socinius, started a movement that rejected everything truly unique in the Gospel, denied the incarnation of God the Son, the deity of Jesus Christ, salvation by grace, and everything else. In other words, they invented a religion of their own so as not to have to believe the religion God revealed in his Word. No wonder, I say, they had no sympathy with Christ’s substitutionary death. People who have little or no thought of their sin and of the debt they owe to the holiness of the Great God rarely do!

Ah, but let a man or woman feel the true weight of his or her sin and guilt, let them get but a glance at the glory and splendor of the divine holiness, and suddenly Christ’s death will seem to them not only right, not only comprehensible, but absolutely necessary if they are ever to be right with God, if ever they are to escape the wrath they know they so richly deserve.

II. Second, we can say that Christ’s substitutionary death is presented in the Bible as designed to effect two results.

As I said before, we may not be able fully to account for the manner in which Christ’s death achieves these results, but that it is designed to achieve two results is often stated in the Bible.

First, Christ’s death is said to be necessary to deliver sinners from the consequences of their sin, both their guilt (i.e. their liability to be punished for their sin) and their bondage to sin as a way of life. Second, Christ’s death is necessary to accomplish their deliverance in a manner that is consistent with the holiness and justice of a God who has told us that he will by no means clear the guilty and that his eyes are too pure to behold iniquity. We have both emphases repeatedly in these verses in Isaiah 53, both that the punishment he took brought us peace, and that it was God’s will that he suffer, that God set him forth as a guilt offering.

This is the point Newton makes in his wonderful hymn:

Let us wonder; grace and justice
Join, and point to mercy’s store;
When through grace in Christ our trust is,
Justice smiles and asks no more…

God’s justice has been satisfied and we have been delivered!

Paul, among others, makes this double point explicitly in his exposition of the doctrine of salvation in Romans 3. Christ was set forth as a propitiation — that is, as one whose death in the place of others turned God’s holy wrath away from them — so that God could be both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Christ Jesus. Again, we understand this only to the extent that it is explained to us and much is left unexplained, but here is the reply to Socinius’ charge that forgiveness and satisfaction are incompatible. According to the Bible, forgiveness is impossible without satisfaction, at least God’s forgiveness of sinners.

We have all heard the typical illustrations used to explain this. A judge is not supposed to forgive a criminal who comes before his court simply because the judge happens to be a merciful man. His duty is to mete out justice, to condemn and punish the guilty and to acquit the innocent. Civilization itself depends upon the preservation of justice. But, (as Dr. Packer reminds us,) we would be well to remember that our entire concept of justice, our sense of a judge’s role, the place we give to reward and punishment — all of this comes from God himself. Fact is, we know that sin must be punished only because God tells us that He must punish it.

We know that God’s great mercy leads to forgiveness and that his justice requires satisfaction for sin only because the Scripture reveals this to be so. It is clear enough to an honest heart that there is no inconsistency between forgiveness and satisfaction, but we know that only because all we truly know about justice and forgiveness we have learned from God himself. We are not wise to judge God by our standards! When man justifies the wicked it is a miscarriage of justice which God hates. When God justifies the wicked it is a miracle of grace for us to adore. But, the Scripture says that he can do so only when first he has satisfied his justice in regard to our sins.

III. Third, we can say that Christ is not a third party as our substitute.

The objection that is sometimes made that it is impossible for one person to bear the guilt of another — however empty that objection may be in any case — it does not in fact apply in the case of God’s forgiveness of our sins. For it is not another who bears the penalty of our sins, but God himself, incarnate in Jesus Christ. It is not the case that God lays on someone else our guilt and the penalty of our sin. Rather, God the Son comes among us to take upon himself the suffering and death our sins deserved.

It was God’s justice that made it necessary for the Son to enter the world as a man to suffer and die for men; but it was God’s love and mercy that contrived to take upon himself the punishment our sins deserved.

It is an analogy only, but worth contemplating in this regard. Whenever one forgives another, in effect he accepts the penalty of that sin, he refuses to hold the other person to account for his or her sin. He forgives her, bearing the consequences of the sin himself, willing to do so that he might forgive. Well, so God has forgiven us and to do so has taken upon himself the consequences of our sins, not holding them against us. It is not a complete explanation, of course, but a reminder that Christ is not a third party, but God intervening himself to save his people from their sin.

Well might the sun in darkness hide,
And shut his glories in,
When Christ, the mighty Maker died
For man the creature’s sin.


Then for the Supper meditation, the following from Alexander Moody Stuart’s biography of Rabbi Duncan:

“In the winter of 1864, Dr. Duncan was reading part of Isaiah with his senior class. The particular passage I cannot remember, nor does it matter, for it only served as a suggestion of the cry in verse 1 of the 22nd Psalm, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ By the time Dr. Duncan had reached that point he had left his desk and, bent nearly double, was pacing up and down in front of the students’ benches, his snuff-box and pocket-handkerchief in one hand, a huge pinch of snuff occupying the fingers of the other, but utterly forgotten in the absorbing interest of his subject, our Lord’s sufferings for sinners, which he was turning over and looking at, now on this side, now on that, but all with a loving reverence, and as one who spoke in a half-sleeping vision, when suddenly a flash went through him as if heaven had opened. He straightened himself up, his face kindled into a rapture, his hand went up and the snuff scattered itself from the unconscious fingers as he turned to the class, more as it seemed for sympathy than to teach –‘Ay, ay, d’ye know what it was — dying on the cross, forsaken by His Father–d’ye know what it was? What? What? (as if somebody had given him a half answer which stimulated him, but which he had to clear out of his way, a very usual exclamation of his when wrapped in thought.) ‘What? What? It was damnation — and damnation taken lovingly.’ And he subsided into his chair, leaning a little to one side, his head very straight and stiff, his arms hanging down on either side beyond the arms of his chair, with the light beaming from his face and the tears trickling down his cheeks he repeated in a low intense voice that broke into a half sob, half laugh in the middle, ‘It was damnation–and he took it lovingly.’ [pp. 104-105]