Jesus the Substitute: The Sinner’s Only Hope

A number of years ago, while doing some inner-city evangelism, I offered a gospel tract to a passerby. Without prior introduction or conversation he angrily threw this question at me: “Do you mean to tell me that I have to admit that everything I do is bad and everything he [God] does is good?” It was obviously a rhetorical question, for he didn’t wait to get an answer. He hurried onto the crosswalk in a state of distraction and I, recognizing his danger, refrained from speaking to him further.

That short exchange was very telling and left me pondering the man’s background and his state of confusion about the gospel. He understood or at least was aware of two essential elements of the gospel message: that man is inherently sinful and that God is inherently and perfectly righteousness.

But the gospel is not contained in these two facts alone; instead, it is the story of how these facts are brought together. It is how a sinful man can be reconciled to an infinitely holy God. In 2 Corinthians 5:14–21 the apostle Paul calls his preaching the “ministry of reconciliation.” Paul tells us that God is reconciling the world to Himself through Christ (verse 19). He goes further and explains that Christ does this by standing in the sinner’s place, by taking the sinner’s sins on Himself, and by giving the sinner His righteousness (verse 21). Jesus, the Friend of sinners (Matthew 11:19), in an act of unprecedented mercy, stood in our place to take our punishment in order to set us free from the guilt of our sins. Paul explains this act of substitution: “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). This good news is based on three important facts about Jesus Christ.

Jesus was a sinless substitute. He “who knew no sin” became sin for us. John knew that the law of the Old Testament required sin offerings to be perfect. Each lamb had to be without blemish or spot. And Christ was truly God’s lamb to fulfill the typology of Old Testament sacrifices because He was sinless. His life met the full approval of God the Father, and even his enemies, including Pilate, could find no fault in him (John 19:6). So we know that the Lord Jesus did not die for His own sins. He died vicariously as a substitute in the place of sinners. He died not for his own sins, but, as Paul the apostle stated, “Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). The sinless life of the Lord laid the foundation for His substitutionary death.

Jesus was a suffering substitute. If the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), then to cancel the debt of sin on our behalf Christ must go through death in our place. This is what He did on the cross. When the Israelite went out to his flock to choose a lamb, it was for the purpose of death. So the Lord Jesus was born with a distinct purpose: to die as a sacrifice for sin. In that classic passage on the substitutionary death of Christ Paul the apostle was careful to state it this way: “[God] hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21).The force of Paul’s words demonstrates that Christ died for the sins of His people in totality. They were all laid on Him when God punished Him as a sacrifice for our sin. The guilt of sin incurred by God’s people was transferred to Christ while He suffered on that cross. In His life He kept the law in perfect holiness for us and in His death He paid the penalty of the law that we had broken. He suffered as the sinless Lamb of God in the place of His people. The purpose of His death was to remove the guilt of sin from sinful men so they would be set free from all condemnation. They would be sin free and thereby reconciled to God. Through faith in the blood of Jesus Christ they have peace with God and future fellowship with Him (1 John 1:7–9).

Jesus was a sufficient substitute. Paul says that the believer is “made the righteousness of God”; that is, he is regarded by God as righteous because of Christ. To use the words of the apostle in another place, we are “justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24). The sufficiency of our justification is in Christ alone. It is “not of works” so that we cannot boast of our ability (Ephesians 2:9), and it is also “not of works” so that we cannot be condemned for our inability. “Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died” (Romans 8:34). Christ is not just necessary as the only author of salvation; He is altogether sufficient as the only finisher of our salvation. The Bible is clear that our salvation rests entirely on the sufficiency of Christ. It is wonderful to know that because Christ is sufficient our salvation is secure.

The death of Christ as a substitute for sinners is God’s good news to all in the world who will stop to listen and believe the gospel. The man I met on the street that day didn’t allow me to explain to him the wonders of God’s so great salvation. He was unwilling to admit his own sinfulness and reluctant to give Christ the credit for His sinless and substitutionary sacrifice. He lacked both repentance from his sin and faith in God’s solution (Acts 20:21). Without repentance towards God there is no way out of sin, and without faith there is no enjoyment of the righteousness provided in Christ. It is faith alone that transfers Christ’s accomplishments to the believer’s account and that provides him with life and immortality. Be sure to give your full attention to this good news of God’s saving work. Take it to heart that Jesus died in the place of sinners and know that you are called to believe in His death as a substitutionary sacrifice for your sin. Believe that God transfers the sins of men to Christ and then transfers Christ’s righteousness to believers. By faith in this good news you can go on your way rejoicing, free from the burden of sin.

Rev. Aaron Dunlop is the minister of Victoria Free Presbyterian Church in Victoria, British Columbia. He also maintains a blog at

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