Haven’t you ever wondered that if Christ died in our place then why do we still die? When someone does something in our place we don’t have to do it. But in the matter of death we do have to do it. What’s up with that? Why do we pay the wages of sin if the payment has already been made?
In the often over-complicated theological terms ’dying in our place’ is called the ‘substitutionary atonement’ or ‘substitutionary death’. Sometimes it seems that these kinds of expressions are meant more to cloud the subject than explain it, more to make sure we know that higher doctrinal thinking is out of our reach. But it is worth decoding because words have meaning and meaning directs our thinking. Let’s look at the key word in back of this idea, substitute, and test against Scripture. Maybe the fog can lift.
When I was in school we would have a substitute teacher on occasion. If our normal teacher prepared a lesson plan then the substitute would follow the plan and do exactly what the teacher would have done. (Otherwise we would just watch a movie.) What is the basic meaning of this word substitute?
It means someone or something that replaces or swaps out for the original. A substitute steps in and does what the original was supposed to do; it takes its place and function. If it is a good substitute then no one will know the difference and the outcome will be the same. But if your rented golf clubs aren’t the quality of your own they are a poor substitute because they can’t achieve the same result – better to just watch a movie.
Is that what Christ did for us? Did He swoop in and do what we could have done (replace our function) except we were just too busy? Was He our substitute? If we die does it have the same result as if He dies? Is He an exact substitute? Let’s get the plain facts out; if we die the effect is we’re dead. That’s it. No power, no resurrection, no overcoming death, no nothing. Do we need a substitute to achieve that? If we need a substitute to pull off those results just about anybody could die in our place. Our death does not satisfy God’s righteous requirement concerning our sin. If we can’t do it in the first place, how can Christ take our place (substitutionary atonement)?
And further, if He died in our place (substitutionary death) why then would we die at all? Does the real teacher have to come back and teach the same lesson? Not if the substitute did her job. For purposes of illustration these two mismatches mean we are a poor original (we can’t atone for our sin) and Christ is a poor substitute for our death (we still die).
But is this what the Scripture says? We are so infused with this word ‘substitutionary’ and the died-in-our-place idea that we impose it on the Scriptures we read. But this is not what they say. And further, the mistake we make brings up these crazy questions. Why do we still die? Error produces error.
What happened when Christ died? He conquered death! He gave us new life. We don’t have to stay dead. In other words, Christ did what we could not do on our own. His death produces far more than ours and no wonder. He led a sinless life – the just dying for the sake of the unjust.
Did you read that word – sake? When we do something for someone’s sake we do what they could not do. Sometimes it’s a matter of timing and location. “For my sake you let the cat out when I was gone.” You did what I couldn’t do. Sometimes it is a matter of ability. “For my sake you paid the rent when I was broke.” You did what I was powerless to accomplish.
Christ did not die in our place, He died on our behalf; He died for us not instead of us. There is big difference. Being a true substitute for us would accomplish nothing. There is no power in ‘our place’. Our place is full of sin, corruption, and death. Man returns to the dust.
We need someone to do what we could never do, that is, release us from the bonds of death. We will live again beyond the reaches of death, beyond the corruption of sin. Adam and Eve, it was feared, would eat of the tree of life and live in perpetual corruption. Not so for us because Christ released us and died for (on behalf of not in place of) our sins.
Read them again with new eyes:
But He was wounded for our transgressions; He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was on Him; and with His stripes we ourselves are healed. Isa 53:5 (NKJV)
We suffer the consequences of our sin and our iniquities but having gone through them does not heal us. Our suffering has little power. Only when He subjected Himself to our same suffering was there hope and cleansing. We suffer, He suffered, but only His suffering could purchase righteousness.
For the One not knowing sin, He makes to be a sin offering for our sakes that we may be becoming God’s righteousness in Him.” 2Co 5:21 (CLV)
He is a sin offering for our sakes. Only the One Who did no sin can lift us from it. Only through Christ can we die to sin. Without Him we just die. Contradictions like, “Why do we still die” often are the source of doubt and disbelief. If we can’t make sense of it, then what promise can we trust? What did Christ really accomplish?
Walking closely with the Biblical vocabulary often clears up worrisome contradictions. We still die because Christ didn’t die in our place; He died for our sakes and on our behalf. The wage of sin is death and we still die. There is no contradiction. There is a tendency to think that spending time on a subject like the meaning of one word is an unimportant detail, mere semantics fit only for those who love to scrutinize the irrelevant and bury others in endless debate. But there is much more here than clearing up a nagging question. Biblical truth penetrates, seeks to speak to our hearts as well as our heads, has within it golden nuggets, valuable gems that reveal the character and heart of God, knowledge we must hold tightly to our chests.
To know that He did what we could never do is to soak again in His gift of life and love and at once shed any urge to offer up our own efforts to escape sin or death. The thought of every other religion or philosophy carries the mandate of self-advancement, of slowly and incrementally getting better and better until there is greatness self-made. Yet no one escapes the grip of death on his own. Why do we still die? There is no place more helpless than the grave, God’s stark reminder that we all must be rescued, we are all powerless in matters of life and death. But now, as death was unable to hold Him it will also be unable to hold us. The corruptible will put on incorruption and the mortal will put on immortality and without us lifting a finger. How can there be better news?