Christ’s Vicarious Death

Christ’s Vicarious Death

Dr. John Boyd

By the vicarious death of the Lord Jesus Christ we mean that He, having no cause of death in Himself, voluntarily went into death on behalf of men, whose sin merited the righteous wrath of God.

The doctrine of the vicarious death is intimately associated with several of the fundamental doctrines of Scripture, for example: (1) The perfect sinlessness of Christ, (2) The fact of sin in man, (3) The righteousness of God, who must punish sin, (4) The perfection of the man who avails himself of the finished work of Christ, (5) The resurrection of Christ.

Much is written in the Old Testament foreshadowing Christ’s vicarious death. It is set forth in many types. More particularly is it seen in the various lambs sacrificed, each presenting a different facet of the Lord’s atoning work, a different aspect of “the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Abel’s lamb shows the perfection of God’s Lamb — “of the firstlings of his flock, and of the fat thereof” (Gen. 4:4). Man’s salvation required that a perfect Lamb be slain for the sin of mankind. Only such would suffice. Abraham’s lamb (Gen. 22:13) depicts Christ as the Lamb of God’s providing. The Passover Lamb, offered and slain by the Israelites the night before leaving Egypt foreshadowed “Christ our pass-over is sacrificed for us” (1 Cor. 5:7). In it we see Christ the Lamb without blemish, whose perfections were displayed for three and a half years to Israel, the Lamb that was slain on Calvary, the Lamb whose death provides a shelter from the coming storm of God’s wrath, the Lamb whose atoning sacrifice must be personally appropriated by the sinner to ensure his salvation.

The many sacrifices of the Levitical economy find their antitype in the Lord Jesus Christ. His one sacrifice at Calvary covered all the requirements of those multitudinous offerings. Yea more, His sacrifice far exceeded those. It needed no repetition; it was once for all; it perfected them that were sanctified; it stands out in contrast to the continually recurring Levitical offerings, which, instead of removing sins, constantly reminded the Children of Israel of their exceeding sinfulness.

The Lord Jesus Christ is prophetically presented to us in Isaiah 53 as God’s perfect Servant, suffering for sins not His own. There we see Him portrayed as the One who successfully did the work that God required as an offering for sin. In the performance of this task His visage was marred. He was misunderstood. His work was misinterpreted. Men saw Him as one suffering because of God’s displeasure, whilst all the time He was being smitten for the sins of men. Of His own free will He suffered on the behalf of men; He bore the judgment due to man’s iniquities; upon Him the Lord laid the iniquity of us all; He was stricken for the transgressions of men; He bare the sin of many. Yea, the pleasure of the Lord prospered in His hand. Through Him many are justified. With Him God will divide the eternal inheritance of His redeemed ones.

Many other Old Testament Scriptures hint at the vicarious work of Christ. Psalm 22 describes in prophetic language the experiences of Christ on the Cross. There He suffered at the hands of men; He was the object of Satan’s hostility; He was forsaken even by God. Psalm 40:6 indicates Christ’s voluntary offering of Himself consequent on God’s dissatisfaction with the Levitical offerings. Psalm 69:9 tells us of the reproach that the Lord Jesus Christ would bear on Calvary, in fulfilling the plans and purposes of God. It was from Israel, His “brethren” (v.8); it was from those who were reproaching God; it was from men who despised Him, for He became the song of the drunkard; it was associated with loneliness, and broke His heart. Daniel 9:24 foretells Calvary as the place “to make an end of sins, and to make reconciliation for iniquity.” Zechariah 13:1 sets forth the work of the Cross as a fountain for sin and for uncleanness.

The vicarious death of the Lord Jesus Christ is the grand theme of the New Testament. In the Gospels, as might be expected. great prominence is given to the Lord’s death. All the evangelists dwell at great length on His passion and resurrection. All mention that He dismissed His spirit. So different was His death from that of other men! His was a voluntary going into death — a death with a purpose. All mention His burial — to dispose of the theory that He merely swooned, and never really died. All mention His resurrection, so necessary to man’s justification.

The Lord, in His teaching, often spoke of His death, and its vicarious nature. He spoke of His sinlessness—the great pre-requisite for One who would bear the sins of others. He was confident of ever having pleased the Father in His life (John 8:29); He could challenge men to accuse Him of sin (John 8:46); He knew that Satan could find no sin in Him (John 14:30).

Again, the Lord Jesus Christ reminded men of the purpose of His incarnation. He came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10), to give His life a ransom for many (Matt. 20:28), to lay down His life for His sheep (John 10:11).

The Lord taught that His death was a voluntary act. None took His life from Him; He laid it down of His own free will; He laid it down that He might take it again; He laid it down and took it again in harmony with the will of His Father (John 10:17-18).

The Saviour, too, indicated the benefits that would accrue from His death. By believing on Him men would not perish; instead they would have eternal life (John 3:14). He would draw all unto Him (John 12:32).

In commissioning His disciples ere He was taken into Heaven, Jesus told them that it had been necessary for Him to suffer, and to rise from the dead before repentance and remission of sins could be preached in His name. This is the grand message of the Gospel we have for the nations today.

Finally, the Lord would have us proclaim His vicarious death, when each recurring Lord’s Day we seek to remember Him. For this purpose He instituted the Lord’s Supper. He gave us the emblems to remind us of His body broken for us, and of His blood shed for many for the remission of sins. What a blessed privilege to engage our minds with such a lofty theme!

The apostles also made much of the value of the death of Christ. Peter preached of it as God’s plan (Acts 5:23); as a result of it men could have forgiveness of sins (Acts 5:31). The Lord’s death is a constantly re-curing theme in Peter’s First Epistle. Through it men are redeemed (1:18). In His death Christ suffered for us; He bare our sins in His own body upon the tree; He received the stripes that brought us healing, and enabled us to live unto righteousness (2:21-24). Christ’s death in the flesh was all-sufficient; once was enough; He was the Just One, suffering for the unjust ones, to bring them to God (3:18).

John also appreciated the vicarious nature of Christ’s death. He first introduces us to the Lord Jesus Christ as “the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). In his First Epistle the Apostle of love shows how much we owe to the Lord’s death. “The blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin” (1:7); “He is the propitiation for our sins: and … for the sins of the whole world” (2:2); “He laid down His life for us,” that is, of His own free will (3:16). He came from Heaven at the Father’s request to give His life, and to be the propitiation for our sins (4:9-10). In the Book of Revelation John again writes of what we owe to the death of Christ, describing Him as the One who “loveth us, and loosed us from our sins by His blood” (1:5, R.V.). In Revelation 5:9 we have the song of the redeemed in Heaven worshipping the Lamb, because of the redemption His death has accomplished for men of all nations.

Paul, the Apostle born out of due time (1 Cor. 15:8), in all his epistles deals with the vicarious death of Christ. The Epistle to the Romans dwells especially on the theme. For this purpose God set Him forth as a propitiation (3:25); chapter 4:25 tells us that He was delivered for our offences, and raised again for our justification; chapter 5:6-11 presents Him as One who died for us, sinners, ungodly, without strength, yet that death brought justification, salvation and reconciliation; chapter 8:32 reveals that He had not been spared by God, but delivered up for us all.

One verse may be quoted from each of Paul’s other epistles to show how constantly he mentioned this subject—1 Corinthians 15, “Christ died for our sins;” 2 Corinthians 5:21, God “made Him, who knew no sin, to be sin for us;” Galatians 1:4, He “gave Himself for us sins;” Ephesians 1:7,

“In whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins;” Philippians 2:8, “He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross;” Colossians 1:20, “Having made peace through the blood of His cross … and you … hath He reconciled;” 1 Thessalonians 1:10, “Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come;” 1 Timothy 2:6, He “gave Himself a ransom for all;” 2 Timothy 1:10, “Our Saviour Jesus Christ, who hath abolished death;” Titus 2:14, He “gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from all iniquity.”

Thus Paul leaves us in no doubt as to the purpose and the value of the death of Christ. It was his great sheet-anchor from time to eternity. He rejoiced continually in its efficacy.

Whilst the value of the death of Christ is available for all, it is effective only in those who believe. This truth is emphasised when we compare the different Greek prepositions translated by our word ‘for’ in two similar, yet different, verses. In 1 Timothy 2:6 we read that Christ “gave Himself a ransom for (huper-on behalf of) all.” But Matthew 20:28 tells us that He gave “His life a ransom for (anti — in the stead of) many,” that is, the many who believe on Him.

What an important subject is the vicarious death of Christ! How its understanding enhances our appreciation of Him, and of the work He accomplished on Calvary! May this study produce in our hearts more gratitude, and adoration, and worship!

Whatever curse was mine, He bore;
The wormwood and the gall,
There, in that lone mysterious hour,
My cup — He drained it all!