Christ our Representative, Reconciler and Substitute
John ‘Rabbi’ Duncan once said of F. W. Robertson of Brighton: ‘Robertson believed that Christ did something or other, which, somehow or other, had some connection or other with salvation.’
This vague ‘mystification’ covers all the heretical and erroneous views of the atonement being mooted today. Indeed, F. W. Dillistone tells us enthusiastically: ‘there has been a growing recognition that no single interpretation of atonement can be regarded as definitive.’ It all depends, he says, on people’s ‘cultural experience’ of ‘the human predicament’ at any particular time whether or not they can ‘speak most effectively’ about Christ’s atoning work on the cross, since it is ‘continually re-enacted and re-experienced’ whenever we recognize its significance ‘for every contingency of human living.’
What this man-centred and confused jargon means is no concern of ours. Sufficient to say that all Reformed confessions, creeds, sermons and writings agree on only one interpretation of the atonement: that interpretation is that our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ acted as our Representative, Reconciler and Substitute.
Christ our Representative
Although the word ‘representative’ does not occur in our English translations of Holy Scripture, it certainly expresses the truth that in the eternal covenant of grace, in the Old Testament sacrifices and types, in his life-long obedience unto death, in his High Priestly offering and intercession, his prophetic and Kingly session at the right hand of the Father, in his Second Coming, Judgment of mankind and throughout eternity when God will dwell with his redeemed people in the new heavens and new earth, Christ is his people’s Representative in the presence of God.
In human affairs a representative is not a substitute. Whereas a substitute takes our place, a representative acts on our behalf, and so makes us present where we cannot personally be. But Christ is both. He always has represented and always shall represent his people before the face of God, the throne of grace and the judgment seat. He stands for us, and we are present in him. This means we are chosen in him, accepted in him, righteous in him, glorious in him. Whatever he is before God, he is for us. And so we are complete in him.
Christ our Reconciler
The popular explanation of our English word ‘atonement’ as ‘at-one-ment’ is ‘entirely fanciful.’ (W. E. Vine) Its ‘original sense was to reconcile.’ (Adrian Room) To make atonement, therefore, is not being at one; nor is it to compensate for wrongdoing. It is to reconcile. ‘It brings together those who have been at variance.’ (William S. Plumer) The ‘ministry of reconciliation’ is the ministry that makes known the atoning work of Christ. The ‘word of reconciliation’ is the doctrine of atonement plus its urgent practical corollary: ‘be ye reconciled to God.’ And so we read of believers that ‘God . . . hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ’; ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself’; ‘It pleased the Father . . . having made peace through the blood of his [Christ’s] cross, by him to reconcile all things to himself’; ‘it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren . . . to make reconciliation for the sins of the people.’ (2 Cor. 5:18-19, Col. 1:19-20, Heb. 2:17).
Explains William Plumer: ‘We have forsaken, insulted and rebelled against God’; but in loving-kindness and tender mercy ‘He has provided a mode of reconciliation by the life and death of his Son. Jesus Christ is the Reconciler.’
When he hung on the cross, therefore, our blessed Lord and Saviour reversed our wrong relationship to God. We were estranged and alienated from him, but Christ made peace between us through the blood of his cross (Col. 1:20-21). We were alienated from his life (Eph. 4:18), but Christ restored this life to fallen man, and bestows it on all his elect, who in time come to trust in him (1 John 1:2, John 3:36; 10:10). O how thankful we should be that God has found a Daysman or Umpire or Mediator to reconcile us to himself!
Christ our Substitute
Lastly, Christ is our Substitute. He took our place when we could neither face nor bear the wrath of God for our sin. His substitution was penal. He paid the penalty for our wickedness. He suffered what we deserve to suffer. This is why the Holy Spirit says that he ‘once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God’ (1 Pet. 3:18). Having kept the law of God perfectly by his immaculate life (and that law is inward and spiritual as well as outward and moral) he satisfied the judicial demands of the broken law in his dreadful death. O how we law-breakers owe our divine law-keeper all that we are and have! It was to satisfy God’s law that he took our place and suffered our punishment. And not until he had drunk our cup of damnation to its dregs could he have cried: ‘It is finished.’ Of all deaths, there never was and never will be a death like the death of Christ. ‘D’ye know what it was – dying on the cross?’ asks John Duncan with deep emotion. ‘It was damnation, and he took it lovingly.’ And it was as our Substitute that he did so.
When, by God’s gracious enabling, we take Christ as our Substitute, we are released from nothing less than eternal damnation. O blessed be God, our God, for providing such a Substitute! As the old Puritans used to say: ‘He is a Nonesuch! There is none like Him!’
Because the sinless Saviour died,
My sinful soul is counted free;
For God the Just is satisfied
To look on Him, and pardon me.
(Charitie de Chenez)
Blest cross! Blest sepulchre!
Blest rather be
The man that there was put to Shame for me!
Taken with permission from Peace and Truth 2010:3.
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