By David Faust
It’s all right with me when the restaurant’s menu says “no substitutions.” Usually the chef’s recipe is fine the way it is.
Anyway, substitutes seldom equal what they replace. Stand-ins command little respect. We call them bench-warmers, understudies, back-ups, second-fiddles. Schoolchildren try to get away with more mischief and do less work when their regular teacher stays home with the flu. Baseball players figure they have a better chance to succeed against the other team’s second-stringers.
Yet, some substitutes are essential. Championship teams not only feature star players; they usually have a strong bench. Substitute teachers fill a vital role at school when they serve their students well. Interim ministers bring fresh ideas and encouragement to churches. In the absence of birth parents, foster parents love and bless their children.
In our relationship with God, we need a substitute. I don’t want to stand before God on judgment day bearing nothing but my own good deeds. He is perfect; I am flawed. He is forever holy; I have a long track record of slip-ups and wrong decisions. He is pure love; I fight a daily battle with self-centeredness. His glory calls forth worship; my sins deserve punishment.
The Law of Moses called for animal sacrifices to atone for sin. Once a year on the Day of Atonement, the high priest would lay his hands on a goat’s head and confess the sins of the people. Then the goat was led away into the wilderness and released (Leviticus 16:15-22). Bible scholar Leon Morris says it was customary for the man who took the scapegoat (“escape goat”) into the desert to push it over a cliff to ensure that the animal and the sins it carried would never come back.
Our forgiveness required something even more dramatic, because “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). Our forgiveness required an infinitely greater sacrifice, a flawless substitute.
The Lamb of God “was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities . . . and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:5, 6). “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree . . . . For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Peter 2:24; 3:18). In a way only grace can explain, Christ served as our scapegoat, “the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 2:2) who took upon himself the punishment we deserved.
We must learn to speak the vocabulary of grace. Colossians 4:6 says, “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” Sentences “seasoned with salt” and peppered with grace will cause others to thirst for God, but not if we take the edge off the gospel by cheapening grace and forgetting the price God paid for our forgiveness. Many today talk about mercy and grace in a bland, fuzzy, generic way, or downplay the necessity of responding to God through faith, repentance, and baptism. Let’s be clear about what God’s Word says on these vital topics. But most of all, let’s never forget that our Day of Atonement was a day of indescribable suffering for the Son of God. The road to salvation passed through the torment of Gethsemane, the torture of Golgotha, and the triumph of the empty tomb.
There’s no substitute for Jesus. There’s no forgiveness without the cross.
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