In 2018, an ISIS terrorist took a young woman hostage in southern France, threatening to kill her. In a bold move, a police officer, Lt. Col. Arnaud Beltrame, offered to take the place of the young woman. The terrorist let him swap places with her, and later stabbed him in the neck and killed him. After his death, it was revealed that this police officer had not long beforehand rededicated himself to his faith in Jesus Christ. Where did he get this idea of dying in someone else’s place? He got it from Jesus — because the Bible tells us that is exactly what He did for us on the cross:
“and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.”
This verse talks about one of the most important elements of the Christian faith; right at the heart of what we believe as Christians, what theologians call the “Substitutionary Atonement” of Jesus for us. Simply put, it means that Jesus died in our place; He “swapped places” with us — like the policeman did for that woman in France — and died for our sins on the cross. Let’s look together at what this verse teaches us about this “Substitutionary Atonement”:
I. Our SALVATION is by Substitutionary Atonement
I Peter 2:24 says “He Himself bore OUR sins in HIS body on the cross.” Our salvation comes to us through “Substitutionary Atonement,” that Jesus became a Substitute for us on the cross.
This idea of the “Substitute” did not just “pop out of nowhere.” Peter didn’t invent it. The Old Testament gave us many predictions about the Substitutionary Atonement that would be made for us by Christ:
— Leviticus 1 starts off talking about how God’s people were to offer burnt offerings, and says in :4, “He shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, that it may be accepted FOR HIM to make atonement for him.” There God said that these burnt offerings were made in their place, being given “for them.” When the person would put their hand on the head of the animal that was being sacrificed, this was a way of saying, “This should be ME. This animal is being sacrificed on MY behalf.” The sacrifice of that animal was taking the place of that person. It was a “substitute” for them.
And there are several other places in the Old Testament where we see this idea of a “Substitute”:
— In Exodus 13 the Lord said that the first-born of everything belonged to Him. But He said you can “redeem” it; or “buy it back,” with a lamb that would substitute for it. So if you had a first-born son, that son would belong to the Lord. But you could make a “substitute” for him, by trading a lamb in his place.
There are a number of such places in the Old Testament, that give us this idea of a “substitute sacrifice” offered in someone’s place. As I’ve said several times before, God gave us the Old Testament to help give us the “A-B-C’s” of spiritual understanding. And one of the things He wanted us to understand from the Old Testament is that our salvation would come by way of a Substitute who would take our place: first the substitute of an animal, as a sacrifice for us; and then the concept was given in Isaiah and elsewhere in the Old Testament of a PERSON who would be our sacrifice.
This is most explicitly taught in one of THE great chapters of scripture, Isaiah 53. As we have seen before, Isaiah 53 was written over 700 years before Christ was born, and yet it is a stunningly accurate picture of what He came to to do for us. And we see very dramatically, and very specifically in this chapter, this idea of the Substitutionary Atonement through the coming Messiah. I hope you’ll turn in your Bible to Isaiah 53, so you can see first-hand how clearly and repeatedly the Substitutionary Atonement of the Messiah is taught here. Over and over we see Isaiah predict that “HE” (the Messiah) would bear “OUR” sins for us: the Substitutionary Atonement: (you may want to mark all the “HE’s” & “OUR”’s in your Bible)
— :4a “Surely OUR griefs HE Himself bore”
— :4b “and OUR sorrows HE carried.”
— :4c “yet WE esteemed HIM stricken …”
— :5a “But HE was pierced through for OUR transgression”
— :5b “HE was crushed for OUR iniquities”
— :5c “the chastening for OUR well-being fell upon HIM”
— :5d “and by HIS scourging WE are healed.”
— :6 “the Lord has caused the iniquity of US all to fall on HIM.”
— :8 “HE was cut off out of the land of the living for the transgression of My PEOPLE, to whom the stroke was due.”
— :11 “MY SERVANT will justify the MANY” — :11b “As HE will bear THEIR iniquities.”
— :12 “Yet HE Himself bore the sin of MANY, and interceded for the transgressors.”
Do you see all those times it says HE did it for US? No less than TWELVE TIMES here in Isaiah 53, this idea of the substitutionary atonement of Jesus on the cross for us is presented. HE took OUR place, “bearing OUR sins in HIS body” on the cross.
The reason why God emphasizes this so much, is that the Substitution of Jesus is THE vitalL idea about our salvation. SALVATION IS NOT A MATTER OF WHAT YOU DO FOR GOD. SALVATION IS A MATTER OF WHAT GOD DID FOR YOU!
This is just what so many people miss about Christianity. They think Christianity is about being as good as you can, and hope you go to heaven. “I’ll do my best to keep the 10 Commandments, and try to be good enough.” All these kinds of ideas are based on US doing something for God to earn our salvation. But Christian salvation is NOT about us earning a place in heaven at all. Christian salvation is about what GOD did for us, when He sent Jesus to take our place, “bearing our sins in His body on the cross.” The bottom line is, Christianity is NOT what WE do for God; it is what HE did for us.
During Vacation Bible School I shared with the kids one of my favorite stories about Substitutionary Atonement, from the old Mark Twain classic, Tom Sawyer. I understand they don’t much read Tom Sawyer any more; when I asked the kids if they had heard of Tom Sawyer, almost NONE had! But there is a great picture in that story of what Jesus did for us. Tom Sawyer was a young man who was somewhat “untamed;” he loved to explore the caves and ride rafts down the Mississippi River where he lived, and get in trouble. When he wasn’t off on adventures, he attended a little one-room schoolhouse with his friends, and with the girl he secretly loved, Becky Thatcher. One day Tom and Becky were in the schoolhouse, and the teacher was gone, and they were looking at a special book the teacher had, and Becky accidentally TORE a page in his book. She knew she was going to be in trouble when the teacher found out — and sure enough, at the next class the teacher asked who tore his book; they were going to get a whipping. Well no one was going to admit to that. So the teacher began asking the students, one by one, if they did it. Becky knew that when he got to her, she was going to begin to cry, and she would give herself away. But just when the teacher was about to ask Becky, Tom Sawyer stood up and said, “I did it!” And Tom went to the front of the class, and took the punishment that Becky should have had, for her.
And what Tom Sawyer did for Becky Thatcher day, is a great picture of what Jesus did for us. We have all sinned against God. And we should have had to pay for our sins, and face the wrath of God for what we did. But instead, Jesus came and died on the cross, and as we saw a couple of weeks ago, He took the wrath of God for our sins upon Himself. He took our “whipping,” our punishment, on Himself. He was our Substitute. “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross.” That is what the “Substitutionary Atonement” means.
The question is, have YOU ever realized this? Have you asked Jesus to forgive your sins, because of what He did on the cross for you? Or are you still trying to be “good enough” to earn heaven on your own: trying to go to church enough times, or give enough money, or do enough good things? The Bible says you never will do enough. It says “by the works of the Law, NO flesh will be justified in His sight.” You can never be saved by what you do for God; you have to be saved by what GOD did for YOU, in the Substitutionary Atonement of Jesus on the cross. Even right now, in your heart, ask Him to do that for you. Confess your sins to Him; ask Him to save you, because of what Jesus did for you. And if anyone asks you “How are you going to get into heaven?”, say, “I don’t deserve it; but Jesus died for my sins. THAT is how I am getting in.” Your salvation must be by the Substitutionary Atonement of Jesus.
II. The PLACE of our Substitutionary Atonement
:24 says “He Himself bore our sins in His body ON THE CROSS.”
The CROSS is where this all took place. This is why the cross has such a central place in Christianity. You’ve probably noticed that if there is ONE symbol that is more prominent in Christianity than any other, it is the cross:
— our new church logo features a cross, right in the middle
— there are crosses of some kind in virtually every church building
— many Christians wear crosses around their neck or on t-shirts
— many churches are actually built in the shape of a cross
— so many of our songs are songs about the cross
WHY is the cross so important to Christians? In itself the cross is a very gruesome thing. The cross is where the Romans, who ruled the known world in Bible days, would put criminals to death. They would nail criminals on the cross until they died of thirst or blood loss. So to the Romans, the cross would be like “the electric chair,” or “the hangman’s noose,” or “the lethal injection” is to us today. It was their “Capital Punishment.” There is nothing holy or saving about a Roman cross in and of itself.
But what is significant about the cross of Jesus, is that it was there on the cross that this Divine Transaction of the “Substitutionary Atonement” took place: on the cross, a 100% God/100% Man (Jesus) took upon Himself the sins of the world in His body, and He bore the wrath of God for our sins there. And when He had done it, He cried out “tetelestai,” which was a Greek business word, which means, “It is paid in full.”
Not long ago I got a letter in the mail about our previous home in North Carolina, which indicated that our loan for that house had been paid for from the sale, and so our note with them was cancelled; and stamped on that paper were the words, “paid in full.” The debt was paid. THAT is exactly what “tetelestai” means. So when Jesus cried “tetelestai” that day, He was saying that the debt for our sins was “paid in full.” It was finished; it was done. We don’t have to do anything else to pay for our sins. The “spiritual business transaction” to bring about our salvation was DONE: the price for our sins was “paid in full.” So if we receive what Jesus did for us, then we can confidently say with that great old hymn:
“My sin, O the bliss of this glorious thought,
My sin, not in part, but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more;
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul”!
THAT is why the cross is so important. We remember the cross, and focus on the cross, and sing about the cross, because THAT is where our Substitutionary Atonement took place:
— that is why Paul called the gospel “the word of the cross” (I Cor. 1:18)
— that’s why he said “I preach Christ crucified”
— that’s why he said he never boasted in anything except the cross of Christ.
— that’s why when you get saved, you must know about the cross. You may say you love God, or “ask Jesus into your heart,” or whatever, but if you don’t know about the cross, you don’t have salvation; because it is faith in what Jesus did on the cross that gives us salvation.
— that’s why we must make sure that we share the cross when we share the gospel. Some time ago I was at what was supposed to be a Christian evangelistic meeting, and a pastor there shared a message that had some good things in it, but there was no mention of sin, or the cross. We’ve got to understand: if we do not share the cross, we have not shared the Gospel. The Gospel is all about the cross!
Because the cross is where it all happened: “He Himself bore our sins in His body ON THE CROSS.” The cross is where our Substitutionary Atonement took place.
III. The RESULT of our Substitutionary Atonement:
NOTICE in :24 THE RESULTS of Jesus’ substitutionary atonement for us. What happens as a result of His death for us? “SO THAT we might die to sins and live to righteousness.” The words “so that” point to the purpose: “SO THAT we might die to sin, and live to righteousness.”
What is the result of Jesus’ substitution on the cross for us? NOT “so that” we might just keep on doing what we were already doing, and living the same life we were already living. Unfortunately, I think this is a lot of people’s idea of salvation: they were living a certain way, and committing all these sins, but then they hear about Jesus and ask Him to forgive them and “come into their heart”, so now they think they can just keep on doing whatever they were doing, and the only difference is that now they know their sins are forgiven, and they are going to heaven when they die. But nothing has really changed:
— they’re still the same lousy employee they’ve always been
— they still mistreat people the same way they always have
— they’re still sleeping with whoever they were sleeping with
— they’re still using the same language they have always used
They’re still doing all the same things they were doing, only now they think they are “forgiven” for it all, and think they are going to heaven.
LET ME MAKE IT CLEAR: the Bible knows NOTHING of this kind of so-called “salvation”! Peter says here that Jesus “bore our sins in His body on the cross” SO THAT (for the purpose that/for the end result that) we should DIE TO SINS. Not that we would just continue to live in them; but that we might DIE to them.
We see this throughout the New Testament:
— Matthew 1 says Jesus came to “save us FROM our sins” — not for us to continue to live in them, but to save us FROM them!
— Titus 2:14 says Jesus “gave Himself to redeem us from every lawless deed” — NOT that we might continue in them, but redeem us FROM them.
Over and over we find verses like this, which tell us that Jesus has not only paid the penalty for your sins, but He has bought us OUT of our life of sin. So we will live differently now, as we follow Him. When we receive what Jesus did for us in His Substitutionary Atonement on the cross, we no longer just live in the same old sins; it changes us. HE changes us.
Earlier this year I read a very insightful book by Elizabeth Nel, who had been the Personal Secretary for Winston Churchill during World War II. At the end of the book, when Nel was leaving Churchill’s service, she wrote:
“I shall not try to relate my feelings on leaving him. A reader of the foregoing should be able to understand them for himself. I left (Churchill’s service and presence) … a different person than the one who entered.”
(Elizabeth Nel, Winston Churchill By His Personal Secretary, p. 137)
Listen: if association with a mere man can change a person’s life, how much more when we come to know the Living God though Jesus Christ, and His Substitutionary Atonement for us? If we really come to know Him, we will NOT keep living the same way we were. It will change us.
Now in all fairness, this doesn’t happen all at once. The process of sanctification (or holiness) in the Christian life is a life-long process. But if you have really received the Substitutionary Atonement of Jesus in your life, then you WILL be making progress in dying to sin. Sure, you will still stumble and fall sometimes — we all do — but over time you should also be able to look back and see that there are some things you used to do that you aren’t doing any more! And even when you DO still sin, you’re not happy about it; and you are trying your best to put it aside too, and every day you are asking for God’s help every day to die to that too. If you are really saved, you cannot be happy and sin. Your attitude towards sin changes. Because the Substitutionary Atonement of Jesus changes you.
The question is: HAS IT changed YOU? Can you see that your life has changed, and your attitude towards sin has changed, since you have followed Jesus, and received His Atonement for you? Do you really know for sure that you HAVE received it? And if you aren’t, why don’t you do it, right now?