The Vicarious Atonement in Isaiah 53
“For the transgression of My people was He stricken.” — Isaiah 53:8
When we Christians use terminology that briefly and accurately describes a Biblical truth or a doctrinal concept as a short-cut intended to simplify that which otherwise might require a lengthy explanation, we are often accused of “teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:9) just because the terminology is nowhere found in the Bible — “liturgy,” “sacrament,” “unionism,” “sinful separatism,” etc., as just a few examples. But how about the terms “Trinity” and “Triune God”? They’re not found in Scripture either, and yet no true Christian would deny that they are Scriptural concepts! Actually, most of our theological terminology is taken directly from the words of Holy Writ — terms like “redemption” (Romans 3:24, etc.), “justification” (Romans 4:25, etc.), “sanctification” (I Thessalonians 4:3), “regeneration” (Titus 3:5), “inspiration” (II Timothy 3:16), and many others.
The word “atonement,” for example, is found well over seventy times in the Bible. It means, according to its dictionary definition, “satisfaction given for wrongdoing” and, theologically understood in the light of the New Testament, “the effect of Jesus’ sufferings and death in redeeming mankind and bringing about the reconciliation of God to man” (Webster’s New World Dictionary, 2nd College Edition). “Vicarious” means “taking the place of another thing or person; endured, suffered, or performed by one person in place of another” (Webster, op. cit.). Thus, the term vicarious atonement simply describes the all-sufficient payment that our Savior rendered to God as the Substitute for sinners in order to satisfy divine justice and to buy us back from “the curse of the Law” (Galatians 3:10, 13), namely, from “the wages of sin” (Romans 6:23), everlasting death in hell.
The entire fifty-third chapter of Isaiah’s prophecy is devoted to the vicarious atonement of God’s Messiah “for the transgression of [His] people” (v. 8). Why was an “atonement” necessary in the first place? And why did that atonement have to be “vicarious”? In order properly to understand this concept, it is necessary to recognize and acknowledge as an undeniable fact that, because of what man IS by nature — conceived and born in sin (Psalm 51:5), totally depraved and evil already from his youngness (Genesis 8:21), incapable of good according to God’s standards (Romans 8:7), and inclined only to evil by nature (Romans 7:14ff.) — natural man is incapable of the perfection that God demands in His Law (Leviticus 19:2; Matthew 5:48; James 2:10; etc.) and cannot please God (Romans 8:8). Therefore it is impossible for sinful men, by what they themselves DO, to reconcile themselves unto God because the Bible rules out justification by works. St. Paul writes: “By the deeds of the Law there shall no flesh be justified in His sight” (Romans 3:20a). Why? Because “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (v. 23). Moreover, since we are unable to save even ourselves by the deeds of the Law, so we are also incapable of helping or ransoming or redeeming anyone else by our wretched, imperfect works, or of atoning or paying for anyone else’s sins by sacrifices we would make; for such offerings would never be “precious” enough to satisfy God’s justice and to secure anyone’s release from the curse of the Law (Psalm 49:7-8).
Even we Christians, who have been regenerated or “born again” (John 3:3) into a new spiritual life of sanctification by the operation of the Holy Ghost through the Means of Grace, whose New Man of faith is perfectly attuned to God’s will and desirous to keep His Law, are unable to merit God’s favor because of the Old Adam of sin that still dwells within us (Romans 7:17), which keeps us from the perfection that God requires (Isaiah 64:6) and causes us to transgress His commandments (Galatians 5:19ff.). “O wretched man that I am!” cries out the Apostle Paul, recognizing his inability to keep God’s Law and his need for deliverance “from the body of this death” by someone outside of himself (Romans 7:24).
Therefore it was Christ’s fulfillment of the Law as the Substitute of sinners that merited God’s favor. St. Paul writes to the Galatians that “God sent forth His Son, made of a woman, made under the Law to redeem them that were under the Law” (Galatians 4:4-5). Christ’s office as the Redeemer of the world necessitated that, when He took upon Himself our human nature, when He took the manhood into God (Athanasian Creed), He be placed “under the Law,” so that, not because He needed to for Himself, but because we needed Him to do it for us, Christ assumed our obligation to keep the Law of God perfectly, as our Substitute, for our benefit; and by His active obedience He perfectly fulfilled God’s prescriptive demands of us and thus both earned and set before the throne of God’s justice His perfect righteousness that is imputed to us by faith in His vicarious atonement, the “wedding garment” which gains us entrance into the marriage feast of heaven (Matthew 22:11ff.; Isaiah 61:10).
Thus “Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness to everyone that believeth” (Romans 10:4); for “as by the offense of one [namely, Adam] judgment came upon all men to condemnation, even so by the righteousness of One [namely, Christ] the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience the* many were made sinners, so by the obedience of One shall the* many be made righteous” (Romans 5:18-19 — *Note: “The many” in the Greek text clearly teaches both universal guilt and universal redemption and justification.). The Apostle does not limit “the obedience of One” to Christ’s being “obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:8), that is, to Christ’s passive obedience; but he contrasts Christ’s “obedience” to Adam’s “disobedience,” Christ’s “righteousness” to Adam’s “offense,” Christ’s keeping of the Law to Adam’s lawlessness. The Formula of Concord also clearly teaches that Christ’s active obedience was an integral part of His vicarious atonement or satisfaction, as follows:
His obedience, not only in suffering and dying, but also in this, that He in our stead was voluntarily made under the Law and fulfilled it by His obedience, is imputed to us for righteousness, so that on account of this complete obedience, which He rendered to His heavenly Father for us, by doing and suffering, in living and dying, God forgives our sins, regards us as Godly and righteous, and eternally saves us. (Formula of Concord, Thor. Decl., III, 15, Triglot, pp. 919-921).
But Isaiah’s description of our Savior’s suffering and death in chapter 53 of his prophecy speaks not of His active obedience but of His passive obedience, namely, His obedience “unto death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:8), that facet of Christ’s vicarious atonement that made satisfaction for our transgressions by His payment of the penalty of our guilt. Thus Christ “redeemed us from the curse of the Law, being made a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). As the Substitute for sinners, Christ bore the guilt of all mankind, as if He Himself had been the transgressor; for “[God had] made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him” (II Corinthians 5:21). Indeed, “Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the Just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God” (I Peter 3:18).
The Law condemns both sin and the sinner; and, apart from Christ and His vicarious atonement, God hates both sin and the sinner (Psalm 5:5). God declares according to His justice: “The soul that sinneth, it shall die!” (Ezekiel 18:4) and “The wages of sin is death!” (Romans 6:23). “Cursed is everyone that continueth not in all things which are written in the Book of the Law to do them!” (Galatians 3:10).
Consequently it was no mistake, nor was it an accident, a happenstance, a coincidence, or a “twist of cruel fate” that Jesus “was numbered with the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12). For this was prophesied of Him by Isaiah over seven hundred years in advance of His crucifixion as one of the marks by which the Messiah, the Redeemer of Israel, would be identifiable. When “with Him they crucified two thieves, the one on His right and, and the other on His left,” St. Mark directly connects even that visible juxtaposition of Jesus and the malefactors there on Calvary’s hill with that prophecy of Isaiah, saying: “And the Scripture was fulfilled which saith, ‘And He was numbered with the transgressors’” (Mark 15:27-28). Yea, “all this [all the gruesome detail of Jesus’ great passion recorded in the Gospel accounts] was done that the Scriptures of the prophets [that is, of the Old Testament, penned by inspiration of the Holy Ghost] might be fulfilled” (Matthew 26:56) concerning the vicarious atonement of Christ. For Jesus Himself, speaking to His disciples after His resurrection, pointed out “‘that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms concerning Me.’ Then opened He their understanding, that they might understand the Scriptures, and said unto them, ‘Thus it is written, and thus it behooved Christ to suffer’” (Luke 24:44-46).
But Christ “was numbered with the transgressors” not only physically and visually, as is obvious from the record; but He “was numbered with the transgressors” also forensically, that is, juridically or legally. It is an undeniable fact that Jesus of Nazareth was arrested, tried, convicted, sentenced and executed as a felon. This is a matter of record. Indeed, the well-known Passion History of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, compiled by Martin Chemnitz [1522*-1586 ^] according to the four evangelists, reports in scrupulous detail every facet of His “case” and remains to this day the inerrant, immutable, and therefore unassailable documentation upon which every objective historian (and every true believer) can absolutely rely: Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane by a deputized, armed posse which apprehended Him, bound Him, and took Him into custody (Matthew 26:55 and 57). He was tried in the religious court of the Jews before two justices, the retired High Priest, Annas, and the sitting High Priest, Caiaphas (John 18:13 and 24); and, although false testimony borne against Jesus backfired when the witnesses contradicted one another (Mark 14:59), He was ultimately charged with “blasphemy” because He had sworn in open court that He was the Son of God (Matthew 26:63-65). He was convicted of that capital crime (Leviticus 24:16; Matthew 26:66) by unanimous vote of the members of the Sanhedrin present at His trial. However, because the Jews, as Roman colonials, no longer had the right to inflict the death penalty, Jesus was bound over to the court of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, for sentencing. Pilate quickly recognized that the chief priests of the Jews had “delivered Him for envy” (Mark 15:10) and that the added allegations of incitement to tax evasion and treason were completely unfounded (Luke 23:14). Nevertheless, under extreme political pressure (John 19:12b), Pilate complied with the Jews’ demand for a sentence of death and “delivered Jesus to their will” (Luke 23:25) “to be crucified” (John 19:16), citing Him on the death warrant as “the king of the Jews” (Matthew 27:37).
Therefore the Prophet Isaiah says that the people who witnessed the Messiah’s suffering and death “did esteem [regard] Him stricken, smitten of God and afflicted” (Isaiah 53:4). The Jews who demanded Christ’s crucifixion regarded the suffering “Christ, the King of the Jews” to be guilty-as-charged of blasphemy and therefore receiving the punishment of God Himself (Matthew 27:41ff.). And so it was; for the Savior cried out from His cross (in fulfillment of Psalm 22:1), “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me??” (Matthew 27:46).
How was it possible for Christ to have been “guilty-as-charged”?? Although Jesus was (and is) the holy Son of God, “who did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth” (I Peter 2:22), the sins of the world were imputed to Him, as if He Himself had committed them, as if He Himself had been guilty of them, as if He Himself had been deserving of punishment because of them. For God had “made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us,” Paul writes in II Corinthians 5:21. God had transferred man’s sin and guilt and shame and dread of punishment —yea, even the justly merited punishment for sin— to Christ, the Sin-bearer. Thus we hear the Savior in prophecy confessing through the Psalmist: “O God, Thou knowest My foolishness; and My sins are not hid from Thee” (Psalm 69:5). And in the Garden of Gethsemane, He cried: “My soul is exceeding sorrowful even unto death!” (Matthew 26:38), as His guilt-ridden agony became so intense that His sweat “was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44). Moreover, Isaiah writes concerning the punishment meted out upon the suffering Messiah: “He had done no violence, neither was any deceit in His mouth. Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise Him; He hath put Him to grief” (53:9b-10a). Christ suffered the unmitigated wrath of God, God’s condemnation, rejection, and abandonment —the torments of the damned in hell— as in “the travail of His soul” (Isaiah 53:11a) He cried out: “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me??” (Matthew 27:46).
But we note yet, as the most important observation of all for our salvation that “He was numbered with the transgressors” vicariously, as our Substitute. For God had “made Him who knew no sin [our sinless Redeemer] to be sin for us,” says Paul (II Corinthians 5:21). “He was wounded for our transgressions; He was bruised for our iniquities; …the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all. …For the transgression of My people was He stricken …for He shall bear their iniquities” (Isaiah 53:5, 6, 8, 11). In His passive obedience, “in due time Christ died for the ungodly; …while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. …when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son” (Romans 5:6, 8, 10). Out of love and mercy to us poor sinners, Christ, “being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23) according to the Eternal Decree of Redemption, became the Scapegoat, the Sin-bearer, the Substitute for sinners. God, as noted above, imputed the sins of all men to Christ and then took out the full force of His wrathful justice upon Him instead of upon us. Thus, with the demands of His justice perfectly satisfied, God “reconciled us to Himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation, to wit, that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the Word of reconciliation,” the precious Word of the Gospel, that this is an accomplished fact (II Corinthians 5:18-19)! Why?? Because Christ “was numbered with the transgressors” —among transgressors, as a transgressor, and on behalf of transgressors, “that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him” (II Corinthians 5:21). “It pleased the Lord to bruise Him; He hath put Him to grief. When thou shalt make His soul an offering for sin, He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in His hand. He shall see of the travail of His soul and shall be satisfied; by His knowledge shall My righteous Servant justify many, for He shall bear their iniquities” (Isaiah 53:10-11).
This whole scenario, including the record that Jesus had been executed as a convicted felon, still contributes substantially to the fact that “the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness” (I Corinthians 1:18), both to the Jews and to the Greeks. For to natural man, to the unconverted sinner who is ignorant of God’s eternal Decree of Redemption to save lost and fallen mankind by the death of His Son, it makes no sense to preach that the Messiah died as a criminal among criminals —the Messiah who claimed to be the Son of God, the King of kings and Lord of lords, the Hero of His people, and the Head of His Church! Why would He have permitted Himself to be arrested in the first place, to be treated as an evildoer, to be bound and remanded, to be tried on criminal charges (even though they were trumped-up), to be convicted of a heinous moral offense and a capital crime, and finally to be executed in a vile and inhumane manner?! To natural man, it is “foolishness” to preach and to believe that “for us and for our salvation” [Nicene Creed] Christ “humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:8).
But “[Christ] was delivered for our offenses,” writes St. Paul in Romans 4:25a. He fully kept the Law of God in our place, thereby earning righteousness for the unrighteous, to be imputed by God to all the world for Christ’s sake; and He bore both the guilt and the punishment of all men’s trespasses in their stead, as their Substitute, so that “there is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). Since God has been “propitiated” by the vicarious atonement, the vicarious satisfaction of His justice, rendered by His beloved Son, in whom He is well-pleased (Matthew 17:5), because Christ’s atonement was perfect and complete, “once for all” (Hebrews 10:10), and not merely a “down payment” of sorts which we must supplement by our own works of merit, God now looks upon us differently than His justice would require apart from Christ’s redemptive work; and He is able to be gracious and merciful unto us without transgressing His divine justice, “that [as the gift of His grace] we might receive the adoption of sons” (Galatians 4:5), that we might become “the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26).
Therefore we Christians treasure, as a Scripture reading for Good Friday, the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah, as the “classical” prophecy of Christ’s vicarious atonement in His passive obedience, as “He was wounded for our transgressions; He was bruised for our iniquities. The chastisement of our peace was upon Him; and with His stripes we are healed. …The Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all. For the transgression of My people was He stricken. …He had done no violence, neither was any deceit in His mouth. Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise Him; He hath put Him to grief. …He shall see of the travail of His soul and shall be satisfied; by His knowledge shall My righteous Servant justify many; for He shall bear their iniquities.” (Selected verses). And the Lord’s apostles remind us that this vicarious satisfaction of God’s justice was not just for Israel according to the flesh, but for us as well, and for all mankind: “Ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things as silver and gold…, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a Lamb without blemish and without spot, who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world” (I Peter 1:18-20) to be “the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (I John 2:2). “For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. But God commendeth His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6-8), “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8).
Since Christ hath full atonement made
and brought to us salvation,
each Christian therefore may be glad
and build on this foundation:
Thy grace alone, dear Lord, I plead;
Thy death is now my life indeed,
for Thou hast paid my ransom!
(TLH 377, 6)
—D. T. M.