I do not believe that we can overstate the importance of substitution. Salvation is stunningly simple and yet profoundly complex. There are many vital and essential truths that are necessary for an accurate apprehension of the ‘good news’. There are the truths of God’s holiness, righteousness, power, omniscience, justice, goodness, wrath, forbearance, mercy, grace, and love. There are the doctrines of depravity, sin, judgment, grace, justification, imputation, regeneration, adoption, faith, repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
So, to say that substitution is “the supreme distinctive” of the gospel of Christ is only valid because without it there could be no forgiveness of sin, no justification of sinners, and no reconciliation with a holy God. Forgiveness would be outright injustice. Grace would be criminal partiality. Reconciliation would be the brazen compromise of holiness. The trustworthiness of God would be blatantly destroyed. Justice would be hopelessly shattered; and even more unutterable, God would be corrupt. The substitution of Christ is the kingpin of salvation (Is 53:10-12; Dan 9:24; Mt 26:28; Mk 10:45; Jn 10:15; Rom 4:25; 5:6, 8; 2 Cor 5:21; Gal 1:4; 3:13; Eph 5:2; 1 Tim 2:6; Titus 2:14; Heb 9:28; 1 Pet 1:18-19; 2:24; 3:18; Rev 5:9)!
Without Christ substituting Himself for us, in our stead, on our behalf, in the place of us, we would have to answer to God’s holiness on our own. No moral example and no enlightening influence will avail in the face of God’s wrath against sin.
Forgiveness hinges on substitution; otherwise God would be committing the injustice of dismissing willful moral evil without consequence. But God has promised that He will by no means acquit the guilty. Since “all have sinned” (Rom 3:23), the only way that God can say that He “forgives iniquity, transgression and sin” and at the very same time One who “will by no means leave the guilty unpunished” (Ex 34:7 NASB), is through a substitute. The Substitute voluntarily suffers the punishment due the criminal and since the crime has been punished, justice has not been compromised and yet the guilty has been acquitted. Only through a just substitute, can God forgive sin.
Justification hinges on substitution; otherwise God would be committing the abomination of declaring the wicked ‘righteous’. This He openly disdains: “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the LORD” (Prov 17:15). God would be an abomination to God if He justified sinners without a Substitute. This is at the center of why Christ came. God put Christ forward as a substituting sacrifice “so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom 3:26).
In like manner, imputation hinges on substitution; God’s righteousness hinges on substitution; God’s grace hinges on substitution; God’s forbearance hinges on substitution; God’s holiness hinges on substitution; God’s trustworthiness hinges on substitution; God’s love is expressed in substitution.
The gospel is therefore most approximately summarized in the principle of substitution.
When Paul passionately emphasized that he determined to know nothing among the philosophically minded Corinthians except Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor 2:2), he was driving one sacred stake into the ground with the mighty power of two heavenly hammers. The stake is the gospel and the gospel is God in Christ reconciling the world to Himself through the substitution of the one and only God-man. The gospel is Christ. And Christ rightly known is Christ slain in the substitution of sinners. This is the absolute uniqueness of the gospel, Christ and Him crucified as our substitute!
—Pastor Manny, an unashamed substitutionalist