The Heart of It All: Salvation

November 6, 2012

by Peter Amsterdam

Substitutionary Sacrifice and Reconciliation

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(For an introduction and explanation regarding this series overall, please see The Heart of It All: Introduction.)

In the last article we covered propitiation and redemption (ransom), two of the four scriptural concepts that help us to understand how Jesus’ death saves us from the penalty of sin and reconciles us to God. The third and fourth concepts, substitutionary sacrifice and reconciliation, will add to the understanding of how God’s plan of salvation brings us forgiveness of sins.

Substitution/Vicarious Sacrifice

A third concept which can provide further understanding of salvation is substitutionary sacrifice, which is sometimes called vicarious sacrifice or penal substitution. Vicarious in this case means to stand in place of another or represent another; thus Jesus being sacrificed in our place is considered a vicarious sacrifice. Penal substitution refers to Jesus’ payment of the penalty of sin in our place. This concept was the foundation of the Levitical sacrificial system, explained in the first article of this series, whereby a sacrifice was offered in the place of the offerer. Such a sacrifice for sin required the shedding of blood, which God said was necessary to make atonement for sin.

The life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.[1]

The blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.[2]

The concept of a substitute bearing our sins and taking the punishment in our place is conveyed in Isaiah 53, which is sometimes called the Song of the Suffering Servant. (The full verses are in the footnotes, when only a portion of the verse is used.)

Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.[3]

He was wounded for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His stripes we are healed.[4]

The Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.[5]

Stricken for the transgression of My people.[6]

His soul makes an offering for guilt.[7]

By His knowledge shall the righteous one, My servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and He shall bear their iniquities.[8]

He poured out His soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet He bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.[9]

Jesus stated that He gave His life as a ransom for many. The word “for” in this verse is translated from the Greek word anti, meaning instead of or in place of.

The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.[10]

While not using the same Greek word anti, numerous other verses also express the concept of in place of, or on behalf of.

[Jesus] said to them, “This is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.”[11]

Who gave Himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father.[12]

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.[13]

I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.[14]

Who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time.[15]

We see Him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone.[16]

Jesus’ death was a substitutionary sacrifice. He took our place, our punishment. He suffered in our stead so that we could be forgiven and have eternal life.


Jesus’ death on the cross, the shedding of His blood, is what cleanses us from sin, and what makes it possible for us to become reconciled with God. The fourth concept, reconciliation, generally refers to the ending of hostility between two persons who have quarreled. It signifies bringing back together those who were separated or enemies. Sin brings separation of humanity from God, but Jesus’ death has taken away the separation and has thus changed our relationship with God.

In Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in His flesh the dividing wall of hostility … so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.[17]

In Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross. And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, He has now reconciled in His body of flesh by His death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before Him.[18]

For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by His life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.[19]

The act of reconciliation between God and us is God’s doing, not our own. In His great love and mercy, He has reconciled us to Himself.

Propitiation, substitution, reconciliation, redemption, and salvation are different ways to describe the act of the merciful God who loves us. Salvation is His free gift to us, a gift we have done and can do nothing to deserve. While it is a gift freely given, it was a costly gift for the Giver. He gave His Son, who in His torturous death on the cross took on the sins of the world as His own and suffered the separation from God in our place.

Jesus’ death was a vicarious sacrifice for us. His blood was shed for our salvation. He paid the price of our ransom so that we could be freed, and through this He reconciled us to God.

As a parallel to the ordinance in God’s law that decreed that only animals without blemish could be presented for sacrifices, even so Jesus, the sinless Savior, was the only one who could be sacrificed as a propitiation for our sins. He lived a human life of obedience to God, a life without sin. Had He sinned, then He would have had to die for His own sins, instead of ours. However, He didn’t sin, and as such He was the sacrifice without blemish.

He upheld God’s holiness in His incarnate life, and therefore deserved no punishment for sin. He took our sins upon Himself, like the “scapegoat,” and became our sin bearer. Our sins were imputed to Him; they became His, as He substituted Himself for each one of us. He suffered the death and punishment of all sinners, which resulted in His righteousness being imputed to those who believe. He took both our guilt and punishment upon Himself, and in doing so made it possible for each of us to be reconciled with God.

At What Cost?

We have been redeemed by the sacrifice of God in the death of Jesus. He paid the price of our sins on the cross. But what did it cost Jesus to bear our sins and punishment?

It started with His incarnation when the second Person of the Trinity “made Himself nothing” by becoming human and living for decades on earth, humbling Himself by being obedient unto death.[20] He suffered when He was tempted and He learned obedience through what He suffered.[21] He suffered extreme physical pain and a horrible death by crucifixion. He was brutally tortured and nailed to a cross.

Besides the physical pain and suffering, He endured the pain of bearing the sins of humanity. The guilt of our sins was imputed to Him. God looked upon the sins of humanity as belonging to Jesus, instead of to us. Because He took upon Himself the sins of us all, “He who knew no sin was made to be sin for our sakes.”[22] Sin brings separation from God, and Jesus, being seen as guilty of all of humanity’s sins at the time of His death, suffered this separation. He felt the separation from the Father that one who dies in sin feels. This is evidenced in Jesus’ cry on the cross, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”[23] Added to this, He also bore the pain of the wrath of God, God’s righteous judgment, poured out upon Him for each human being’s sin. The punishment each of us deserved, He suffered for us. He bore the wages of sin in our place.

Author John Stott expressed the cost of the cross in this way:

The accumulated sins of all human history were laid upon Him. Voluntarily He bore them in His own body. He made them His own. He shouldered full responsibility for them. And then in the desolate spiritual abandonment that cry was wrung from His lips, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me” … He was bearing our sins. And God who is “of purer eyes than to behold evil” and cannot “look on wrong,” turned away His face. Our sins came between the Father and the Son … He tasted the torment of a soul estranged from God bearing our sins, He died our death. He endured instead of us the penalty of separation from God which our sins deserved.[24]

Theologian J. I. Packer wrote:

In Gethsemane, “horror and dismay came over Him,” and He said … “My heart is ready to break with grief” (Mark 14:34 NEB). The earnestness of His prayer (for which “He threw Himself on the ground,” rather than kneel or stand) was an index of the inward revulsion and desolation that He felt as He contemplated what was to come. … Then, on the cross, Jesus bore witness to the inward darkness matching outward darkness with His cry of dereliction, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” (Mark 15:34) … It was because Jesus was to be made sin, and bear God’s judgment on sin, that He trembled in the garden, and because He was actually bearing that judgment that He declared Himself forsaken of God on the cross … The unique dreadfulness of His death lies in the fact that He tasted on Calvary the wrath of God which was our due, so making propitiation for our sins.[25]

J. Rodman Williams speaks of the cost in these terms:

The weight of the divine fury directed against sin at the cross is humanly inconceivable. For at Calvary all the sin of all the world was receiving the outpoured vials of divine wrath. It was for Christ alone to bear that awesome punishment and to experience its indescribable torment and anguish … The Son of God, having so become sin that the Father could not look upon Him, now experienced the horrible God-forsakenness that belongs to hell itself … But this was God in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, enduring our condemnation and punishment, dying for the sins of mankind … This is vicarious punishment—beyond all human measure. Christ experienced the full consequences of our sinful condition—forsakenness, abandonment by God, damnation itself. He has taken our place, He has received the judgment upon Himself, He has gone all the way.[26]

Going to the cross cost Christ dearly. He paid the price and suffered the penalty of sin for each of us. His pain and agony brought us forgiveness of sin, freedom from the penalty of sin, and reconciliation with God. It is the greatest gift of all—the free gift of eternal life. And because we are the recipients of this gift—free for us, but costly for Christ—we are asked by God to become ambassadors for Christ, bringing His message of reconciliation to others, imploring them to become reconciled to God.

All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to Himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making His appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.[27]

[1] Leviticus 17:11.

[2] 1 John 1:7.

[3] Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted (Isaiah 53:4).

[4] Isaiah 53:5.

[5] All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6).

[6] By oppression and judgment He was taken away; and as for His generation, who considered that He was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of My people? (Isaiah 53:8).

[7] Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush Him; He has put Him to grief; when His soul makes an offering for guilt, He shall see His offspring; He shall prolong His days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in His hand (Isaiah 53:10).

[8] Out of the anguish of His soul He shall see and be satisfied; by His knowledge shall the Righteous One, My servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and He shall bear their iniquities (Isaiah 53:11).

[9] Therefore I will divide Him a portion with the many, and He shall divide the spoil with the strong, because He poured out His soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet He bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors (Isaiah 53:12).

[10] Mark 10:45.

[11] Mark 14:24.

[12] Galatians 1:4.

[13] Galatians 2:20.

[14] 1 Corinthians 15:3.

[15] 1 Timothy 2:6 NKJV.

[16] Hebrews 2:9.

[17] Ephesians 2:13–16.

[18] Colossians 1:19–22.

[19] Romans 5:10–11.

[20] Who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:6–8).

[21] For because He Himself has suffered when tempted, He is able to help those who are being tempted (Hebrews 2:18).

Although He was a son, He learned obedience through what He suffered. And being made perfect, He became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey Him (Hebrews 5:8–9).

[22] For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin (2 Corinthians 5:21).

[23] Matthew 27:46.

[24] John Stott, Basic Christianity (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1971), 117–118.

[25] J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 192–193.

[26] J. Rodman Williams, Renewal Theology, Systematic Theology from a Charismatic Perspective, Volume 1 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1996), 358.

[27] 2 Corinthians 5:18–20.