Do you like substitutes? As kids, I loved it when I had a substitute teacher at school. Didn’t you? What’s not to like about having a free day, or at least a mild diversion from the routine. Taking the place of a regular teacher is a tall task, even for a day. Should we be surprised that some substitutes are little more than glorified babysitters.
I am not always so keen on other types of subs, though. Like when I go to the store to buy an advertised special, only to discover it was a bait and switch. Doesn’t that drive you crazy? If I was interested in the substitute (inferior!) product, I would have come looking for it. Or what about when your insurance company forces you to use a generic substitute for a prescription you have been taking a long time, and have grown to depend upon? It may be the same, but then again, maybe not. I do not want to be forced to find out.
I especially do not like substitute food products. After my heart bypass surgery a few years ago, I decided to try non-fat cheese. I had strong motivation to like it – pizza! Friday night was family night when our kids were growing up. And family night meant Teresa’s terrific homemade pizza to order. One problem. My doctor said to cut back on saturated fat. Solution: non-fat cheese. But have you ever seen that stuff? Imagine taking a Frisbee and melting it on top of your pizza. That is a pretty good picture of what it looked like. How did it taste? Let’s just say it did not only look like plastic.
Actually, in my experience, the same problem is found with most food substitutes. Take artificial sweeteners, as one more example. The aftertaste is awful, and they say they will kill you faster than fructose. So why substitute? Just drink Coke and enjoy it.
Of course, substitution is about far more than replacement teachers or alternative goods. Substitution is a biblical concept. In fact, one could argue substitution is at the heart of the Bible’s message. Our salvation is based squarely on substitution. Jesus died in my place, as my stand-in. He took my blows. He was pierced for my sins (Isaiah 53). He stood in for me. Or maybe I should say he was hung up for me – on a cross. Peter was there when it happened. He understood later more fully why it took place. For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God (I Peter 3:18). Perhaps Paul said it best. [God] made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21). It was the ultimate exchange.
However, this indescribably supreme exchange was necessary because of another substitution. Jesus died in my place because I tried to take his. That is the other side of substitution found in the Bible, one we rarely think about. The fact is, the essence of salvation is Jesus taking my place on the cross. But the essence of my sin, which put him there, is my attempt to take his place on the throne. What was the lie that led to our separation from God? You will be like God (Genesis 3:5), the serpent sneered. Our forefathers bought that lie from hell, and so have all their offspring ever since. Toppling God from his throne and taking his place is the essence of sin. Because I tried to take his rightful place of authority over my life, he, in a display of love unlike any other, rescued me the only way he could. He took my place of wretchedness on the cross.
The late John Stott said it well .
The concept of substitution may be said, then, to lie at the heart of both sin and salvation. For the essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for man. Man asserts himself against God and puts himself where only God deserves to be; God sacrifices himself for man and puts himself where only man deserves to be. Man claims prerogatives which belong to God alone; God accepts penalties which belong to man alone. *
*Cited in Christopher J. H. Wright, The God I Don’t Understand (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan), p. 125.