April 16, 2014 Broadcast

The Donkey Who Carried a King

A Message by R.C. Sproul

The Donkey Who Carried a King is a children's storybook written and read by Dr. R.C. Sproul.  It vividly brings home the biblical teaching that Christ was the Suffering Servant who carried the sins of His people on the cross. Listen as Davey the Donkey offers his unique perspective on the events of Passion Week.

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. devotional

    Vicarious Substitution

  2. article

    The Bearer of Iniquity

  3. article

    The Suffering Servant

Vicarious Substitution

Jesus’ atonement for the sins of His people is an essential element of the Christian faith. In our look at the biblical doctrines outlined in the Heidelberg Catechism, we have been emphasizing what is known as the penal substitution view of the cross, namely, that Christ bore the wrath of God for the sins of His people in their place. This view of the atonement is key to the gospel, and it is the main paradigm through which Scripture sees the atonement. Yet there are other aspects of the atonement the Bible discusses as well. We will now consider some of these aspects with the help of Dr. R.C. Sproul’s teaching series The Atonement of Jesus.

On the cross, the sins of believers were imputed to Jesus, so that in condemning Jesus, God condemned our sins in Christ, sparing us from the full brunt of the Father’s wrath. In turn, Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us through faith alone so that we can be declared righteous and acceptable in God’s sight. Consequently, God is both just and the justifier of His children (Rom. 3:21–26).

This double imputation and its benefits are possible only because Jesus’ death was a vicarious substitution. It was a death of the spotless Lamb of God in our place, the perfect sacrifice necessary to satisfy the demands of God’s justice (Heb. 9:1–10:18).

Christ’s role as our vicarious substitute is evident from the start of His ministry. John the Baptist, for example, proclaimed Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). But the very act of Jesus’ baptism by John also reveals our Lord as our substitute. The key here is our Savior’s remark that His baptism was necessary to “fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15).

We grasp the import of Christ’s words once we understand that Jesus had to follow all of God’s commands perfectly to be a sinless sacrifice. John the Baptist was the last of the old covenant prophets, and his command for the Israelites to be baptized was from God Himself. Jesus had to keep this command and be baptized in order to earn the righteousness needed to be a perfect, sinless sacrifice.

From His birth in Bethlehem, Jesus did what sinners cannot do. He kept the law of God flawlessly. He gained a righteousness that could be imputed to us and qualified Himself to be the Lamb and bear His Father’s just wrath against sin.

The Bearer of Iniquity

Joseph Pipa Jr.

God has always dealt with the human race through a covenant head. Adam represented us in the garden. If he had obeyed, he would have merited (by covenant appointment) life for himself and the entirety of his posterity. In his rebellion, he plunged himself, as well as us, into the morass of sin, guilt, and condemnation. Although Adam broke the covenant of works, its inexorable demands and inflexible penalty remain in force. Jesus Christ would come as the second Adam to accomplish what the first Adam did not: to obey perfectly and to pay the penalty for the sins of His people. It was God’s eternal purpose to save us in this manner, and it was worked out in an eternal transaction between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in prospect of the incarnation of the Son. This transaction established the terms and conditions that Christ would accomplish in purchasing the salvation of His people.

We may summarize the entirety of Christ’s work under the concept of obedience. He became the God-man in order to fulfill the stewardship entrusted to Him from eternity, accomplishing the terms and satisfying the punishment of the broken covenant. Traditionally, His obedience is described under two headings: active obedience and passive obedience. In his active obedience, He fulfilled the terms of the covenant by obeying God perfectly. His active obedience was essential to His work as mediator and covenant head. Paul summarizes the importance of Christ’s obedience and relates it to our justification in Romans 5:19.

His passive obedience refers to His work of suffering for the sins of His people. The phrase does not mean that He was passive in His obedience. He actively offered up His body and soul as the sacrifice for the sins of His people. The term atonement describes Christ’s passive obedience. I will consider the nature of the atonement under four headings: expiation, propitiation, reconciliation, and redemption.

Expiation describes Christ’s work as a substitutionary sacrifice by which He cleanses us from the guilt and defilement of sin. John called Him the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29, 36; see also Rev. 5:9). This terminology points to the Old Testament sacrificial system. The Old Testament sacrifices served as types of the atoning work of Christ. The two key components of the sacrificial system were representation and imputation.

The idea of representation is illustrated in the sacrifices offered on the Day of Atonement. Annually on that day, the high priest entered the Holy of Holies with sin offerings for himself and for the people (Lev. 16:11, 15). In these transactions the priest and the people confessed that it was they who deserved to die; the animals were slain in their place.

The notion of imputation is also illustrated on the Day of Atonement. The priest placed his hands on the head of the live goat and confessed the sins of the people. Then the live goat was led away into the wilderness (Lev. 16:20–22). In this ceremonial act, the sins of the people were imputed to the goat. It was led into the wilderness to depict that the guilt of the sins of the people had been removed from them “as far as the east is from the west” (Ps. 103:12).

Now, for someone to be a fit substitute, an appropriate relationship must exist between the substitute and that for which it is substituted. The blood of bulls and goats could not atone for man’s sin — the substitute for a human being had to be a man. It was for this reason the Son of God became a man. Jesus Christ, being a man, is the suitable substitute. Moreover, He is also the only sufficient substitute. For the death of a mere man could not satisfy an eternal, infinite guilt. Thus, being the God-man, He made infinite and eternal satisfaction (see The Westminster Larger Catechism, questions 38–40). As the Savior, Christ was appointed by the Father to be the vicarious sacrifice of His people. He took our place; He was our representative. Moreover, God imputed the guilt of our sin to the Lord Jesus Christ. He became guilty in our place.

Today, the concept of substitutionary sacrifice is denied by many liberals and evangelicals. Liberals deny the substitutionary atonement because they reject the Gospel. Evangelicals deny it because it cannot be divorced from particular redemption. These people offer a number of competing theories. Two of the more popular are the “moral influence theory” and the “governmental theory.” The “moral influence theory” states that Christ’s death was not expiation, but a suffering with mankind in order to manifest God’s love. The sinner — seeing God’s love — will be awakened (influenced) to love God. Of course, this theory does not deal with the guilt of sin, and, therefore, it does not properly demonstrate the extent of God’s love.

The “governmental theory” states that God’s moral government demanded the death of Christ to show God’s displeasure with sin. Although Christ did not suffer the penalty of the Law, God accepted His suffering as a substitute for that penalty. This theory also fails to deal with the guilt of sin, and it fails to demonstrate how God’s moral government is vindicated by the death of Christ who had no guilt of His own.

The second concept of the atonement is propitiation. To propitiate someone is to remove his anger by satisfying justice. This concept is closely related to the expiatory work of Christ, but has a different end in view. As expiation purges from sin and guilt, propitiation deals with the satisfaction of God’s wrath and justice. Many dislike the concept of propitiation, because it suggests to them a God who has uncontrollable fury, and thus they believe it is inconsistent with God’s love.

God’s wrath, however, is not uncontrollable fury; it is His settled, holy disposition toward sinners. His justice demands their execution. As objects of wrath, God hates His enemies as well as their sins. Moreover, there is no disjunction between love and propitiation. John writes, “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). God loved objects of His wrath (Eph. 2:3) so much that He gave His own Son to be the sacrifice for their sins.

The third concept of the atonement is reconciliation. The meaning of this concept lies close to the biblical idea of propitiation. The sinner is alienated from God, who looks upon Him as an enemy (Isa. 59:2). Reconciliation is God’s provision for the removal of that alienation and the reestablishment of peace, friendship, and fellowship.

Paul explains reconciliation in 2 Corinthians 5:18–19: “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to Himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” Paul views reconciliation as having been accomplished by the finished work of Christ. Because of that work, God does not count trespasses against those reconciled to Him. The main idea of reconciliation is that God’s enmity toward us is removed. Even though we are commanded to be reconciled to God, this language always refers to the removal of the enmity of the one to whom we are to be reconciled. Note, for example, Christ’s use of the term in Matthew 5:23–24. Here we see that the one to whom the worshiper is to be reconciled is the one whom he has offended. Thus it is not our enmity against God that is dealt with in the work of reconciliation, but God’s against us. Every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, God declares that this reconciliation has been fully accomplished by the Lord Jesus Christ.

The fourth concept of the atonement is redemption. Redemption views the atonement from the perspective of a payment made to God. The idea of redemption is to salvage, or deliver, by payment. Jesus says in Matthew 20:28 that He came to give His life a ransom, and Paul in Acts 20:28 refers to the redeemed church.

In the Old Testament, two ideas were attached to the idea of redemption. The first is deliverance from punishment. In Exodus 21:30, the man who was liable to death because he carelessly allowed his dangerous ox to gore someone to death could be delivered from the death penalty by paying a ransom. Paul applies this to Christ in Galatians 3:13: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us — for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’”

Christ paid this ransom to God. The early church father, Origen, developed the theory that Christ paid the ransom to Satan. Thus the theory is called the “ransom theory”; Christ satisfied the claims that Satan had against sinners. John, however, makes it clear in Revelation that Christ paid the ransom to God: “Worthy art Thou to take the book, and to break is seals; for Thou was slain, and didst purchase for God with Thy blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9 KJV).

The second aspect of redemption is the restoration of inheritance. In Leviticus 25:25, a kinsman-redeemer could pay off a family debt, restore the land, and provide an heir (for example, what Boaz did for Ruth). In Galatians, Paul applies redemption to our adoption: “In order that he might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:5, 7). Adam not only plunged us into the morass of guilt and corruption, he lost also the family farm. He blew our inheritance as the sons of God. Christ paid off the debt of our sin so that God could restore the right and privileges of adoption.

Christ, therefore, by His active and passive obedience, fulfilled the Father’s commandment. In His atoning work, He accomplished four things: expiation, propitiation, reconciliation, and redemption. Through His work He fully accomplished salvation.

Let us praise God for the complete salvation and marvel at the wise love that planned and accomplished it. What an amazing love! The love God bestowed on us in eternity, the suffering and death of our Savior. What profound wisdom! Only divine wisdom could have concocted a plan for the salvation of sinners that enabled God to be just while justifying sinners (Rom. 3:24–26).

The Suffering Servant

Donald Macleod

John Murray, with good reason, argues that obedience is the most inclusive concept available to us for describing the redeeming work of Christ (Redemption Accomplished and Applied, p. 19). Other categories such as sacrifice and satisfaction cover some of the data, but obedience is by far the most comprehensive.

It is also, of course, utterly biblical. Christ came pre-eminently as the Servant, in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy (especially Isa. 52:13–53:12). In accordance with this, He saw Himself as one who had come not to do His own will, but the will of the Father who had sent Him; and at the end of His life His claim was simply that He had finished the work given Him to do (John 17:4).

Similarly, the apostle Paul defines the kenosis of Christ as consisting precisely in His taking the form of a servant (Phil. 2:7). As such, His very dying was an act of obedience (Phil. 2:8).

The same framework underlies the Christ-Adam analogy in Romans 5, where the fundamental contrast is between the disobedience of the first man and the obedience of the last man: “for just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.” (Rom. 5:19).

The life of Christ was clearly one of sustained, flawless, and consistent obedience. This is more than mere sinlessness. It is a dynamic thing. At every point Christ rendered to the Father joyful and creative obedience: the obedience of a perfect and costly love.

It is this righteousness of Christ that is imputed to us and becomes the ground of our justification. We become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor. 5:21). We must not dilute the meaning of this. All our sinfulness was imputed to Him; all His righteousness is imputed to us. He took our guilt; we acquired His righteousness. We must also take the phrase “of God” with total seriousness. We are righteous with the righteousness of God the Son; as righteous as God Himself; or, as William Cunningham once memorably put it, we are righteous with “the righteousness which God’s righteousness requires him to require” (quoted in Hugh Martin, The Atonement, p. 203).

Later theologians fine-tuned the idea of Christ’s obedience by drawing a distinction between the active and the passive obedience of Christ. The distinction was already current at the time of the Reformation and was taken for granted by such Protestant doctors as Wollebius and Turretin. In itself it is clear enough: the passive obedience of Christ is His suffering on the cross; His active obedience is His performing all the duties required by the Law.

But the distinction carries two dangers if pressed too far.

The first is our tendency to see Christ on the cross as being purely passive; as if, there, He was simply a victim, letting things be done to Him, renouncing control and reducing Himself to a state of total helplessness. This is an utterly false picture. The cross was not merely the climax of Jesus’ suffering. It was the climax of His obedience. Christ is supremely active at, and on, the cross. He obeyed even to the extent of dying. No one took His life from Him. He laid it down of His own accord, actively and voluntarily, in response to the commandment He had received from the Father (John 10:18).

This is why we say Christ was alive in dying, ministering to the thief on the cross, ministering to His mother, repelling temptation and persevering unfalteringly in His love to the Father and in His love to His own. He was alive when He died, shouting with a loud (“great”) voice before imperiously dismissing His spirit. “His dying,” wrote Hugh Martin, “was his grandest doing” (The Atonement, p. 99).

The second danger that can arise from pressing the distinction too far between the active and the passive obedience of Christ is that it tempts us to apportion different aspects of redemption to different aspects of the obedience, as if we could say, “His passive obedience secured this; His active obedience secured that.” Some theologians argued, for example, that it was the passive obedience of Christ (His endurance of the punishment due to our sin) that secured our forgiveness, whereas it was His active obedience that secured eternal life.

No less a figure than A. A. Hodge (The Confession of Faith, p. 150) attempted to read this analysis into the language of the Westminster Confession itself. The language of the Confession (chap. 8.5) is as follows: “The Lord Jesus, by his perfect obedience and sacrifice of himself … hath fully satisfied the justice of his Father; and purchased not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven.” Hodge comments: “The sufferings of Christ secure the remission of the penalty; and by his active obedience he purchases a right to life and eternal blessedness.” (p. 150)

It is safer to take the position of Calvin (Institutes 2.16.5) that Christ both reconciled us to God and secured our righteousness by “the whole course of his obedience.” For, he continues, “From the moment he put on the person of a servant, he began to pay the price of liberation for our redemption.” His whole life was an act of atonement.

This was the position taken by our later magisterial theologians such as Turretin and Cunningham. We have to interpret the work of Christ holistically, insisting that both what Christ did and what Christ suffered bear equally on our forgiveness and on our acceptance, “without any specification of the distinct places or functions which his passive and active obedience hold on the matter” (Cunningham, The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation, p. 405)

This obedience of Christ had manifold consequences. It expiated sin, it propitiated God, it satisfied justice and it redeemed the Church. These have all been given due emphasis in Reformed theology. We have done less than justice, however, to another key biblical concept: victory. Yet it is in such terms that the Scriptures first introduce Christ. The seed of the woman would conquer the seed of the serpent (Gen. 3:15).

This idea of victory is central to the New Testament’s understanding of the work of Christ. According to Colossians 2:15, for example, Christ disarmed the powers and authorities, made a public spectacle of them, and triumphed over them by the cross. According to Hebrews 2:14, He destroyed the one who holds the power of death; and according to Revelation 20:1–3 He has seized Satan, bound him with a great chain, thrown him into the abyss, and locked and sealed it. Once he held the Gentiles in the grip of total spiritual blindness. Now he holds them no more. The prince of this world has been driven out (John 12:31), Christ reigns, and the slaughtered Lamb is in the midst of the Throne. The kingdom has come.

There is an obvious appeal in the idea that it was Christ’s active obedience that secured His victory, but it is perilous even to venture on this kind of distribution. While it is true that in such passages as Philippians 2:9 God is said to exalt Him precisely in response to His obedience, that obedience itself is instantly defined by His death: He was obedient even to the point of dying. Was that active or passive? In Hebrews 1:3 it is precisely because He had expurgated sin that He sat down, triumphant, at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. Most eloquent of all is the testimony of Hebrews 2:14: It was “ by death” that He destroyed the one who had the power of death. The cross became the instrument of His almightiness. The Lamb conquered by His blood.

One final note of warning. It has sometimes been argued that since Christ in His active obedience fulfilled the Law in our place, we are therefore exempt from the obligation to fulfill it for ourselves. This is the logic of antinomianism, but it is, surely, the logic of the Pit. Sin is lawlessness (1 John 3:4), and to live without law would be to live in sin. Christ did not serve and obey so that we should live lawless lives. Every theological line points in the opposite direction. Christ’s obedience is set in the context of God’s eternal determination to conform us to the image of His own Son, the obedient, self-denying Servant (Rom. 8:29); far from Christ dying so that we should be exempt from the Law, the very reason He bore the condemnation due to our sin was that we should fulfil the righteousness of the Law (Rom. 8:4); the sprinkling of His blood is linked indissolubly to obedience (1 Peter 1:2); and the fact of redemption is linked equally indissolubly to the ministry of the Spirit (Gal. 3:14), who ensures that we shall not fulfil the works of the flesh (Gal. 5:16).

We love Him because He loved us to death; and love is the fulfilling of the Law.

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