The curse caused by our guilt was awaiting us at God’s heavenly judgment seat. Accordingly, Scripture first relates Christ’s condemnation before Pontius Pilate, governor of Judea, to teach us that the penalty to which we were subject had been imposed upon this righteous man. We could not escape God’s dreadful judgment. To deliver us from it, Christ allowed himself to be condemned before a mortal man—even a wicked and profane man. For the title “prefect” is mentioned, not only to affirm the faithfulness of the history, but that we may learn what Isaiah teaches: “Upon him was the chastisement of our peace, and with his stripes we are healed” [Isa. 53:5]. To take away our condemnation, it was not enough for him to suffer any kind of death: to make satisfaction for our redemption a form of death had to be chosen in which he might free us both by transferring our condemnation to himself and by taking our guilt upon himself. If he had been murdered by thieves or slain in an insurrection by a raging mob, in such a death there would have been no evidence of satisfaction. But when he was arraigned before the judgment seat as a criminal, accused and pressed by testimony, and condemned by the mouth of the judge to die—we know by these proofs that he took the role of a guilty man and evildoer. Here we must note two things that had been foretold by the oracles of the prophets, and which greatly comfort and confirm our faith. When we hear that Christ was led from the judge’s seat to death, and hanged between thieves, we possess the fulfillment of the prophecy to which the Evangelist referred: “He was reckoned among the transgressors” [Mark 15:28; cf. Isa. 53:12]. Why so? Surely that he might die in the place of the sinner, not of the righteous or innocent man. For he suffered death not because of innocence but because of sin. On the other hand, when we hear that he was acquitted by the same lips that condemned him (for Pilate was more than once compelled to give public testimony to his innocence [e.g., Matt. 27:23]), there should come to mind the utterance of another prophet: that he repaid what he did not steal [Ps. 69:4]. Thus we shall behold the person of a sinner and evildoer represented in Christ, yet from his shining innocence it will at the same time be obvious that he was burdened with another’s sin rather than his own. He therefore suffered under Pontius Pilate, and by the governor’s official sentence was reckoned among criminals. Yet not so—for he was declared righteous by his judge at the same time, when Pilate affirmed that he “found no cause for complaint in him” [John 18:38]. This is our acquittal: the guilt that held us liable for punishment has been transferred to the head of the Son of God [Isa. 53:12]. We must, above all, remember this substitution, lest we tremble and remain anxious throughout life—as if God’s righteous vengeance, which the Son of God has taken upon himself, still hung over us.
Institutes II, xvi, 5.
May you ever cherish and treasure this thought. Christ is made a servant of sin, yea, a bearer of sin, and the lowliest and most despised person. He destroys all sin by Himself and says: “I came not to be served but to serve” (Matt. 20:28). There is no greater bondage than that of sin; and there is no greater service than that displayed by the Son of God, who becomes the servant of all, no matter how poor, wretched, or despised they may be, and bears their sins. It would be spectacular and amazing, prompting all the world to open ears and eyes, mouth and nose in uncomprehending wonderment, if some king’s son were to appear in a beggar’s home to nurse him in his illness, wash off his filth, and do everything else the beggar would have to do. Would this not be profound humility? Any spectator or any beneficiary of this honor would feel impelled to admit that he had seen or experienced something unusual and extraordinary, something magnificent. But what is a king or an emperor compared with the Son of God? Furthermore, what is a beggar’s filth or stench compared with the filth of sin which is ours by nature, stinking a hundred thousand times worse and looking infinitely more repulsive to God than any foul matter found in a hospital? And yet the love of the Son of God for us is of such magnitude that the greater the filth and stench of our sins, the more He befriends us, the more He cleanses us, relieving us of all our misery and of the burden of all our sins and placing them upon His own back. All the holiness of the monks stinks in comparison with this service of Christ, the fact that the beloved Lamb, the great Man, yes, the Son of the Exalted Majesty, descends from heaven to serve me.
Such benefactions of God might well provoke us to love and to laud God and to celebrate this service in song and sermon and speech. It should also induce us to die willingly and to remain cheerful in all suffering. For how amazing it is that the Son of God becomes my servant, that He humbles Himself so, that He cumbers Himself with my misery and sin, yes, with the sin and the death of the entire world! He says to me: “You are no longer a sinner, but I am. I am your substitute. You have not sinned, but I have. The entire world is in sin. However, you are not in sin; but I am. All your sins are to rest on Me and not on you.” No one can comprehend this. In yonder life our eyes will feast forever on this love of God. And who would not gladly die for Christ’s sake? The Son of Man performs the basest and filthiest work. He does not don some beggars torn garment or old trousers, nor does He wash us as a mother washes a child; but He bears our sin, death, and hell, our misery of body and soul. Whenever the devil declares: “You are a sinner!” Christ interposes: “I will reverse the order; I will be a sinner, and you are to go scotfree.” Who can thank our God enough for this mercy?
I can truly say, I dearly love the people of Christ, for the image of Christ that I see stamped upon them. … I can say that I dearly love those that have the Lord for their portion. I can truly say, that the poorest and the most neglected, and the most despised saint in the world, is more precious in my eye, and more dear to my soul, than the greatest and the richest sinner in the world (cf. Psalm 16:3).
I dare say that I would not willingly and resolvedly sin against Christ for a world. I will rather leap into a bonfire than wilfully to commit wickedness, wilfully to sin against God. I can say, through grace, were I this moment to die, that my greatest fear is of sinning against Christ, and my greatest care is of pleasing Christ. I know there was a time, when my greatest care was to please myself and the creature, and my greatest fear was to displease myself and the creature. I can remember with sorrow and sadness of heart, how often I have displeased Christ to please myself, and displeased Christ to please the creature; but now it is quite otherwise with me, my greatest care is to please Christ, and my greatest fear is of offending Christ.
I can truly say, that the want of Christ’s love is a greater grief and burden to my soul, than the want of any outward thing in this world. I am in a wanting condition, as to temporals; I want health, and strength, and trading, friends, and money, ‘that answereth all things,’ as Solomon speaks, Eccles. 10:19. And yet all these wants do not so grieve me, and so afflict and trouble me, as the want of Christ, as the want of grace, as the want of the discoveries of that favour that is better than life, Ps. 63:3, 4.