An Illustration of Substitutionary Atonement
My thirteen-year-old daughter is the manager of her junior high basketball team. Watching seventh and eighth-grade girls play basketball is like watching Mike Tyson enter a spelling bee: awkward, difficult, and sometimes entertaining. During last night’s game a girl on the opposing team committed five fouls within the first ten minutes, and thus, had to be benched for the remainder of the game. In other words, she contributed nothing to her team’s eventual victory but her error. The girl who came off the bench to play her position, however, was extraordinary. She not only followed the rules of the game without infraction, she put so many points on the board by half-time that her team’s lead was insurmountable. She was the MVP of the game. As a Lutheran pastor in the bleachers, of course, I found in this a useful illustration for Christ’s substitutionary atonement and imputed righteousness for the car ride home.
10 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” 11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” 12But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— 14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith. (Galatians 3:10–14)
The law of God is good and holy. For those that can do all that it demands, it promises eternal life. The problem is not with the law, but with our inability to keep it⎯perfectly, consistently, and forever without blemish. When the gavel drops, here’s the verdict: Everyone has fouled out of the game of life and must ride the bench because of sin. Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them. There is no way to escape this terrible curse, and thus, no path to victory in and of ourselves. We must rely upon another.
Thankfully, our heavenly Father sent a Champion into the game to take our place. What we failed to do, He accomplished. Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us. Take a moment to cherish those last two words, for us, for they succinctly and beautifully express the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. Our curse for fouling out was pronounced upon Christ. He became a curse, for us, in our place. Born under the law, Jesus satisfied every demand of the law through His perfect life and innocent suffering (what theologians refer to as His active and passive obedience). He didn’t abolish the law; He fulfilled it... for us. (Matt 5:17)
By entering the playing field, as it were, Jesus not only played the perfect game, but assumed the penalty of every evil foul ever committed by humanity by hanging on that cross. Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree. Luther’s comments are worth noting:
So, making a happy exchange with us, He took upon Himself our sinful person, and gave unto us His innocent and victorious Person; wherewith we being now clothed are freed from the curse of the law... True it is that Christ is a Person most pure and unspotted, but you must not stay there; for you do not yet have Christ, although you know Him to be God and man. But you have Him indeed when you believe that this most pure and innocent Person is freely given you by the Father to be your high priest and Savior, yes, your servant, that He, putting off His innocence and holiness and taking your sinful person upon Him, might bear your sin, your death, and your curse, and might be made a sacrifice and a curse for you, that by this means He might deliver you from the curse of the law. (Luther, Galatians, 186–188)
Our great champion takes our curse of death and delivers us by “imputing” to us His perfect righteousness. Imputation is a term taken out of the field of accounting. It refers to crediting something to a person. Justification by faith alone in Christ alone involves a two-way imputation.
First, God imputes our sin to Christ; our guilt and shame are credited to him as-if He had committed them Himself, and thus, He bore the sentence of that curse upon the cross: “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them”. (2 Cor 5:21) This is what makes Good Friday so “good.”
Second, God imputes Christ’s righteousness to us. In other words, he regards us as-if we had played the game of life perfectly. This Luther referred to as an “alien righteousness” because it comes from outside of us. “To impute,” writes Paul Zahl, “means to ascribe qualities to someone that are not there intrinsically, to regard somebody as a person that he or she is not”. (Grace in Practice, 119) St. Paul repeatedly upholds Abraham as the example par excellencefor how God exchanges our guilt for his righteousness: Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. (Gal 3:6) Anyone who has read the patriarch’s story knows that he was far from a righteous man; however, he trusted in God’s promise of a coming Messiah, and it was credited to him as righteousness.
The poor girl who fouled out in the first quarter was delivered by the performance of the one who took her place. Though she sat passively on the bench in shame, she nevertheless won the victory alongside her team. She was literally “clothed” with the same jersey as her champion. In like manner, those united to Christ by baptism and faith have been “clothed” in Christ’s righteousness. For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. (Gal 3:26–27) Thus, the church victorious gathered around the Lamb of God in heaven is portrayed as those clothed in robes of pure white. (Rev 6:11; 19:8)
Thank God for our Champion! I suck not only at basketball, but at life itself. For both, I must rely upon Another.