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Theology > Jesus > Christ's Death > Substitution


Theologically defined, substitution is the principle of transference whereby the sin of the individual is placed on another, animal or person, and the one on whom it is placed then pays for the sin of the individual. The payment is by means of sacrifice, blood for blood, life for life. It is the idea of substitution that is at the heart of sacrifice (see: Sacrifice).

While not being specifically stated the principle is operative in Eden. An animal was slain in order that the physical nakedness of Adam could be covered. The animal died in order that Adam might continue to live and at the same time to take into account his new state of need, a need for a substitutionary sacrifice.

The entire episode teaches the spiritual lesson that man with his sin is exposed before God and cannot remedy his condition; if man is to appear before God he is in need of a substitute, and because of His favor God provides the substitute, His only begotten Son. “The Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6; “iniquity” speaks of punishment or judgment; see: Gen. 4:13).

Not all the sacrifices of the Old Testament embodied the principle of substitution, but many did, perhaps most. Consider the following select statements from numerous ones that could be listed:

On the tenth of this month every man shall take for himself a lamb, according to the house of his father, a lamb for a household (Ex. 12:3; a lamb “for himself” and “for a household”);

When any one of you brings an offering to the Lord . . . of the herd and of the flock  . . . he shall put his hand on the head . . . and it will be accepted on his behalf to make atonement for him (Lev. 1:2-4; “accepted on his behalf” and “for him”);

He shall lay his hand on the head of his offering (Lev. 3:2; see: vs. 8, 13; laying the hand on the head is for identification and transference);

Let him offer to the Lord for his sin which he has sinned a young bull without blemish as a sin offering . . . he shall . . . lay his hand on the bull’s head (Lev. 4:3-4; see: vs. 15, 24, 29, 33; a bull “for his sin”);

Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions . . . putting them on the head of the goat, and shall send it away into the wilderness . . . the goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to an uninhabited land (Lev. 16:21-22; lay hands; confess sins of the nation, putting them on the goat; goat will bear the sins away; goat dies so nation can continue);

Then the Levites shall lay their hands on the heads of the young bulls, and you shall offer one as a sin offering and the other as a burnt offer to the Lord, to make atonement for the Levites (Num. 8:12; two bulls “to make atonement for the Levites”).

In addition to the above is the instructive passage in Isaiah, written in terms of the Suffering Servant of God, but which is understood from the New Testament to be a reference to Christ (Acts 8:30-35). Statements of substitution appear throughout Isa. 53:

He has born our griefs and carried our sorrows (v. 4);

He was wounded for our transgressions (v. 5);

He was bruised for our iniquities (v. 5);

The chastisement for our peace was upon Him (v. 5);

The Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all (v. 6);

For the transgression of My people He was stricken (v. 8);

He shall bear their iniquities (v. 11);

He bore the sin of many (v. 12).

In the New Testament substitution is always associated with Christ and His Passion:

The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many (Matt. 20:28; Jesus Himself is the price paid to deliver man from the slavery of sin);

If One died for all, then all died (II Cor. 5:14);

For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us (II Cor. 5:21);

Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (Gal. 3:13);

Who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree (I Pet. 2:24);

the just for the unjust (I Pet. 3:18).

Substitution can be defended from numerous perspectives; perhaps one of the most compelling arguments is the use of prepositions. At least one preposition is so specific that this one word substantiates the entire concept of substitution. It is the word anti, meaning “instead of” or “in the place of”; examples are: Matt. 20:28 (“ransom for many”; ransom in the place of many; see: Mk. 10:45; Lu. 11:11; Jo. 1:16; also see: Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross).

Additionally, another significant preposition is huper, meaning “on behalf of”; example are Lu. 22:19; Jo. 10:11, 15; Rom. 5:6; II Cor. 5:21; Gal. 1:4; 2:20 I Tim. 2:6; Tit. 2:14; I Pet. 2:21; I Jo. 3:16.

In a statement before His death Christ critiqued the concept of substitution:

Greater love has no one than this,
that he lay down his life for his friends.
Jo. 15:13

Return to: Christ's Death; Next Article: The Shedding of Blood

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