The doctrine of substitution refers to a formal method or process that enables mankind to be brought back into good relationship with God. It involves making a sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins. God instituted principles of substitution after the fall of Adam and Eve when He killed an animal to cover their nakedness (Genesis 3:21). God gave the Israelites the Law through Moses in the Old Testament, which detailed substitutions for sins through the sacrificial system. The New Testament tells us about God sending His Son Jesus to be the ultimate substitution for our sins.
In the Old Testament Law, substitution to pay the penalty for sins was generally done through blood sacrifices (Exodus 29:41–42; Numbers 29:2). When God gave the Israelites the Law, it showcased His holiness and made it clear that they could never achieve that level of holiness on their own, necessitating the sacrifices. If man followed God's specific instructions, he could sacrifice an innocent animal, be forgiven of his sins, and enter into God's presence. The animal died in place of the sinner, allowing the sinner to move forward as a free man. Not all animals were killed. Leviticus 16 talks about the scapegoat, a goat which the Israelite elders placed their hands on to symbolize transferring the people's sins to the goat. Rather than being killed, the scapegoat was released into the wilderness in order to bear the people's sins far away.
In Exodus 12, God instituted the Passover, which required the Israelites to sacrifice a lamb and smear the blood on their doorposts in order to have the angel of death pass over their dwelling and spare their firstborn sons during the plagues in Egypt (Exodus 12:13). This served as a preview for Jesus' coming as the ultimate Passover Lamb.
The animal sacrifices of the New Testament were imperfect; their blood held no innate value other than symbolic value (Hebrews 10:4). They pointed ahead to the sacrifice of Christ that was yet to come (Hebrews 9:22). The sacrifice of Jesus provided the perfect substitution for our sins, once and for all.
God sent Jesus and "made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5:21). The penalty for sin is death (Romans 6:23). Atonement for sins requires a perfect sacrifice—death of one who owes no penalty and dies as a substitute in our place. No human is without sin; all are in need of atonement (Romans 3:23). The Old Testament animal sacrifices were temporary (Hebrews 9). They were never intended to last; rather, they foreshadowed God's plan of redemption through Jesus. Jesus is God in human flesh. He was sinless (Hebrews 4:15). Only He could make sufficient atonement for the sins of humans. He died in our place to provide a substitution for our sins that would last forever (1 Peter 3:18), and He did it willingly (John 10:18). This event was prophesied by Isaiah in Isaiah 53:5: "But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed."
Jesus did not merely die as a substitute for us. He rose from the dead! He is victorious over sin and death. His act of substitution is fully sufficient for all who will put their faith in Him (John 1:12; 3:16–18; Romans 10:9).
While substitution is available, it still requires action to apply to our own lives. Because Jesus' death made atonement for the sins of the entire world, some people mistakenly assume this means that all people will go to heaven someday. However, this perspective is incorrect, because while Christ died for the sins of the world, He did it as a substitution. The substitution He provided must be applied personally to each heart, just as the blood of the Passover lamb in the Old Testament had to be personally applied to each door in order to be effective (John 1:12; 3:16–18; Acts 2:38). We have to exchange our sin nature for the nature of Christ. God has made substitution available to us in Jesus, but we only receive that substitution when we personally receive the Substitute, Jesus Christ, by faith (Ephesians 2:8–9).
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