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Propitiation and Substitution

I Jackson, Eastbourne

If we fail to distinguish these two aspects of the work of Christ at the cross diverse errors will follow. On the one hand we might end up believing that Christ’s death was only for the elect or, on the other, that He was the substitute for all. The one error would mean there could be no truly free offer in the gospel whilst the other would necessarily result in universalism. True wisdom is not to confuse things that are different but to distinguish things that are similar.

Propitiation is Godward whereas substitution is manward. Man is not propitiated nor is God substituted. This is demonstrated in the Old Testament picture of the Day of Atonement. On that day it took two goats to form one sin offering. One goat was slain; the other was sent away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness. The goat that was slain met the demands of God in particular; the scapegoat especially met the needs of man. The goat upon which the Lord’s lot fell never had the sins of the people transferred to it, but the live goat had confessed over him "all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins" (Lev 16.21) as the priest laid both his hands upon its head; and it bore them away. The emphasis in respect of the first goat was that the blood of sacrifice was sprinkled upon the mercy seat, but in respect of the scapegoat that which is stressed is that it bore away the sins of that people.

The mercy seat was the throne of God for He dwelt between the cherubim. Without blood sprinkled upon it that mercy seat was in fact a throne of judgment, as Nadab and Abihu discovered. Within the Ark, of which the mercy seat was the lid, were the unbroken tables of the law, a law which demanded justice. God could only meet with man in His presence when the demands of that justice were fully met. Whatever the number of the people, or the number of their sins, divine justice was fully satisfied, in picture, by the blood of the slain goat. In this we are reminded that the Lord Jesus, the righteous one, is "the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world" (1 Jn 2.2). In His person He is the propitiation, but He has also made it good to His people (Heb 2.17). He is, in fact, the mercy seat now set forth to the view of all (Rom 3.25) in contrast to the literal mercy seat of the Tabernacle which was hidden behind the vail.

The Lord Jesus went to the cross first of all to meet the demands of the throne. It has often been said, and it is vital to realise the truth of the statement, that even if no one had ever been saved God was infinitely glorified in the work of Christ. An infinite person made an infinite sacrifice which infinitely satisfied the heart of the Father and the throne of God. Accordingly, the statement of 1 John 2 must not be limited in any way. Calvary is to be thought of qualitatively, not quantitatively.

The use of the word "all" is linked to the truth of propitiation. Consider Romans 5.18, where it should be noted that the word "upon" is actually the preposition eis, which has the force of "towards". The verse teaches that Adam’s offence brought condemnation towards all in its direction and scope; no one born of Adam’s race is excluded from that. Condemnation "upon all" is not the final outcome of Adam’s offence but condemnation is "towards all" as a result of that offence. In similar manner the righteousness accomplished at Calvary by our Saviour is also "towards all" in its direction and scope. It is thus proper to preach that the work of Christ at Calvary is sufficient for all. The apostle speaks in Romans 1.17 of "a righteousness from God" that is offered "to faith" wherever faith is found: in 3.22 it is "unto all". There are no exceptions. "Were there a thousand worlds to save, were there sinners beyond all numbering to hear God’s glad tidings, there is that in the blood of Jesus which would meet every sinner of every world. Such is the unlimited value God finds in the death of His Son" (W Kelly, Lectures on ‘The Day of Atonement’).

Paul again confirms this great truth in 1 Timothy 2.6 where he states that the man Christ Jesus "gave himself a ransom for all" without exception. The price He paid was good for all, such is its value. None is excluded from the great provision and we may in an unfettered manner thus preach the gospel to all. Yet it must be noted that our Saviour said in Matthew 20.28 that He would give His life "a ransom for many". "Many" should never be confused with "all" in relation to the work of Calvary. The two words are not the same in their extent. Paul speaks of provision made on behalf of all; Matthew speaks of Christ being the substitute instead of "many".

William Kelly comments on this distinction as follows. "A nice difference distinguishes the two texts. When, as in Matthew, it is a ransom for many, we have it clearly defined. The ‘for’ is ‘instead of’ (anti) many. It is strict substitution. When, as in 1 Timothy, all are in view, it is simply ‘on behalf of’ (huper) all. ‘For’ is not always the same word in Scripture. It is the more needful to make the remark, because so many are apt to reason that if ‘for’ means one thing in one place, it must have the same force in another."

Paul carefully selects his language in Romans 5. He speaks of "all men" in v.18 but of "the many" in v.19 and this is not without significance. "Many" is to be distinguished from "all" in that whereas, as we have already seen, "all" is to be understood in relation to the direction and scope of both condemnation and righteousness, "many" is to be seen in relation to outcome or result. The significance of v.19 is that "the many" are constituted sinners eternally because of one man’s disobedience and their refusal of the offer of righteousness but at the same time "the many" are constituted righteous eternally by the obedience of one and the acceptance of the offer of righteousness. To say that "the many" of v.19 means the same as "all men" in v.18 is to introduce the possibility of limited atonement on the one hand or universalism on the other. The use of the word "many" in other Scriptures relating to the work of Christ bears the same meaning. It invariably refers to those who believe. That which was effected for all is effective to all who believe. The righteousness of God is "unto all" but only "upon all" those who believe. It is available to all but availing only to those who believe. Those who believe are "the many" of Romans 5.19 and are simply referred to as "many" elsewhere.

On the Day of Atonement there would be no point in telling the people that all their sins were borne away by the goat which was slain, whose blood was sprinkled on and before the mercy seat, because it would simply not be true. The effect of that sacrifice was Godward. True, it was the very basis upon which the other goat could effectively bear away the sins, iniquities, and transgressions of the people when such were confessed and transferred to it, but it did not itself result in that bearing away. The other goat, representing another aspect of the work of Christ, namely His being the substitute, was necessary. This is the manward aspect of Calvary. Faith is able to say that He "bare our sins in his own body on the tree" (1 Pet 2.24). We should carefully note that the Bible nowhere says that He bore the sins of the whole world. John 1.29 is to be carefully distinguished as referring not to "sins" but to "sin". This looks forward to the eternal day, when sin shall have been removed from the universe by the Lamb of God.

William Kelly further says that when a sinner "believes the gospel, you are entitled to tell him, in virtue of the truth figured in the second goat, that Christ bore his sins in His own body on the tree, and bore them away for ever. The work of propitiation is seen under the first goat. When the sins are confessed and sent away, then is the comfort of knowing that all that heavy burden is clean gone never to reappear. This you cannot say to every soul. Here it is that the limitation of Israel has its importance. The people are concerned in the second goat in a very definite manner. In the former case it was Jehovah’s lot; in the second place, it is the people’s lot. By the ‘people’ is not meant everybody, but (as far as Leviticus speaks) the chosen nation, and that nation only".

In all of this we must be careful not to let our convictions regarding election and the sovereignty of God colour our understanding of the work of Christ. Those who believe that God has predestined some to heaven and others to hell (as against those who simply believe in the election of individuals by God so that His purpose will be fulfilled) will generally teach that Christ died only instead of the elect. This is clearly wrong as we have seen and it should also be remembered that the benefit of the work of Christ will in a future day extend to the millennial earth. A-millennialism and limited atonement, so called, are connected lines of teaching. However, others who do not believe in election in that way teach that our Saviour was the substitute for all in the sense that He bore the sins of, and the punishment for the sins of, all people. If that is so those who are eternally lost might well wonder how it has come about and ask whether God is right to punish them when another has been punished in their stead. Substitution, if it means anything at all, must mean that another has taken my place.

Let us give God the glory as we contemplate the wonders of Golgotha.



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