"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." (Isaiah 53:5 ESV)
One author tells the story of reading about a couple from the Midwest who were caught in a deadly tornado. The fatal twister came upon the couple and their small baby suddenly. Realizing they had no time to take cover, they laid their child on the floor and covered her with their bodies. After the storm passed, rescue workers began the gut-wrenching task of sorting through the wreckage. When they came to what was left of the couple’s leveled home, they heard the muffled sounds of a baby softly crying. Frantically, they tore through the rubble. To their shock, they found the baby alive, safe beneath the bodies of her lifeless parents.
This story illustrates the principle which is a bedrock of gospel truth: Jesus dies in the storm of God’s fury so that we are kept safe. The technical theological terms for this teaching are “penal substitutionary atonement.” These words simply mean that Jesus died as our substitute, taking upon himself the penalty due to us for our sin, in order to make atonement for us and reconcile us to God.
Penal substitutionary atonement formed the backbone of Israel’s sacrificial system. The worshipper would place his hands on the animal, signifying a transfer of guilt from him to the animal. Then the worshipper would slaughter the animal, shedding its blood to make atonement for him (Lev 1:4-5). Thus, we have a graphic picture of penal substitutionary atonement. But no one in Israel was prepared for Isaiah’s words, for Isaiah was not speaking of an animal, but a person who would be the substitute for sinners. Therefore, Isaiah 53 is speaking of Jesus, the one who died to reconcile us to God (Eph 2:16, Col 1:20). He is our sinless substitute who dies in our place, taking upon himself God’s wrath that is due to us.
We must be careful here. It is not as if Jesus died to reconcile us to an unwilling Father who needed to be overcome by Jesus’s display of love for us. Just the opposite in fact. It was the Father’s love that placed Jesus on the cross. Even more astonishing, “Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom 5:6,8). Penal substitutionary atonement teaches us that when we were not looking for God, when we were running from him, when we had no desire for him or to live for him—in this wretched state, when we would most expect God to turn away from us, he instead kills his only beloved Son in our place. He turns away from the Son (Matt 27:46) so that we can know for sure he will never turn away from us. Amazing!
All of us deserve God’s wrath for our sin. But Jesus lives and then dies in our place so that by simple faith in him alone, we are saved from the storm of God’s wrath. God punishes Jesus in our place because of his great love for sinners. As with every aspect of the gospel, we once again see that no other world religion or philosophy teaches penal substitutionary atonement. The greatest news for sinners like us is that eternal life comes freely to us only because it was secured by the costly death of Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, on the cross. This week, meditate on the fact that God loves you enough to kill his Son for you. Let that fact put to rest all doubts about God’s love for you and for all who will trust in Jesus’s death in their place.