“Surely…” Isaiah 53

In what way was the Lord Jesus Christ’s work on the cross able to provide forgiveness and salvation? Evangelical Christianity holds to the penal substitutionary view of the atonement, that Christ bore our sins on the cross, took our punishment and bore the wrath of God on our behalf.
“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows… upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:4-5)

“There are many facets to the atonement… In whatever way our need be viewed, Christ has met it fully… Each of the ways of looking at the cross then underlines the fact that the way of salvation is not the way of human merit. All is of grace, for all is of God.” (Leon Morris, The Atonement , Downers Grove: IVP, 1983; 203-4).

Christadelphians deny the full deity of Christ, and because they see him as merely a man (albeit specially empowered by the Holy Spirit and endowed with attributes of his Father) they deny the substitutionary atonement also. As a mere man, Christ could not substitute for us — that would be unjust, to punish an innocent man for sins that were not his. No, instead they view Christ merely as a representative (albeit perfect) human being, his death an example of what sinful humanity deserves and his sinlessness an example to be emulated. (Robert Roberts, The Christadelphian Instructor, http://www.thechristadelphians.org/btcd/BTCD/htm/ci/index.htm and Jeremy Thomas, Testimony Handbook of Bible Principles, King’s Lynn: The Testimony, 2010; 42-45 ).

In fact, Robert Roberts finds that “the idea that Christ has borne our punishment and paid our debts, and that his righteousness is placed to our credit, and that the only thing we have to do is to believe it, is demoralizing.” (Roberts, The Blood of Christ, 1895, http://www.thechristadelphians.net/images/Blood_of_Christ.pdf, 23 ) Not having considered what John 3:16 might mean, instead, Roberts sees the atonement as “comparable to a form of apology presented by the Majesty of Heaven as the condition of receiving His mercy unto life eternal,” and a process of acknowledging God’s righteousness, repenting, submitting to baptism and obeying his commandments. (Roberts, Blood of Christ, 14 – 15). The emphasis is on imitation of Christ, on human effort.

Although there are certainly aspects of Christ’s atoning work in which he stands as the representative of humanity, as did Adam before him, representation alone does not go far enough. There are two aspects to Christ’s role as our Saviour.
Firstly, he led a perfect life of obedience to the requirements of God’s laws, a sinless life; this is something we are totally incapable of doing. Even Adam, who was created in a “very good” state, failed miserably. Christ as the second Adam achieved what Adam — and we — could not, and hence by his obedience many are made righteous (Rom 5:19; 1 Cor 15:22) In this sense, yes, Christ stands as the ideal human being, sharing our humanity and overcoming sin in the very flesh in which sin normally reigns (Heb 2:14-18; Rom 8:3). But to share in this, to benefit from his work, to receive his righteousness imputed to us, requires more than mere acknowledgement, identification and imitation, for we are powerless to do this ourselves (Eph 2:1-10).

So, secondly, Christ took on himself our sins and bore the penalty for them. He is the fulfilment of the types of the animal sacrifices under the law, as well as the scapegoat. He bore our very sins, our iniquities were laid on him and he was pierced, crushed, punished and stricken for us. This is seen clearly in the suffering servant prophecy of Isaiah, which we know is speaking of Christ (Acts 8:30-35).

“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows (verse 4) . . . he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed (verse 5) . . . the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all (verse 6) . . . stricken for the transgression of my people (verse 8) . . . when his soul makes an offering for guilt (verse 10) . . . the righteous one, my servant, (will) make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities (verse 11) . . . he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors (verse 12). (Isa 53:4–12)
Peter quotes this passage in summarising what Christ achieved for us.
“He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Pet 2:24)

In this, the Son was no ignorant or unwilling victim, coerced against his will; this is not the meaning of substitutionary atonement, despite what its critics imply. (Heb 9:14, 10:7; Gen 22:6 –12 and John 1:29; Luke 24:26; John 10:17–18, 18:11)

“He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and as a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.” (Isa 53:7)

These statements about bearing our sins and his stripes healing us are not metaphorical, as Christadelphians assert. The element of substitution in the atonement cannot be ignored; it is central to the various ways in which it is portrayed in Scripture. God the Father himself put our sins on Christ, and in doing so imputed our sins to him, just as Adam’s sin had been imputed to us. In so bearing the sin of the world Christ took it away, far more effectively than the scapegoat ever did. Note the clear substitution element in the following verses:
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor 5:21)
“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.'” (Gal 3:13)
“So Christ having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” (Heb 9:28)

At least four images are presented in Scripture to describe the nature of Christ’s atoning work; propitiation (the turning away of God’s wrath; Rom 1:18; 1 John 2:1–2, 4:10) redemption or ransom (Our purchase at great cost; Mark 10:45; 1 Tim 2:5–6; Rev 5:9) justification (the declaration that we are made righteous and stand uncondemned; Isa 53:11; Rom 3:22–24, 5:1–2, 8:30–34) and reconciliation (peace with God; Rom 5:1–2; 2 Cor 5:18–21). As John Stott says,

“All four images emphasize that the saving initiative was taken by God in his love. It is he who has propitiated his own wrath, redeemed us from our miserable bondage, declared us righteous in his sight, and reconciled him to himself… All four images plainly teach that God’s saving work was achieved through the bloodshedding, that is, the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ… So substitution is not a ‘theory of the atonement.’ Nor is it an additional image to take its place as an option alongside the others. It is rather the essence of each image and the heart of the atonement itself. None of the four images could stand without it.” (John Stott, The Cross of Christ, (Nottingham: IVP, 2006) 235–6).

Christ was able to give himself for us, to bear our sins, our punishment, and take them away because not only is he human as we are, but he is God himself, the “beloved, one-and-only Son” who alone could bear the wrath of God and impute a “righteousness from God.” By devaluing the person of Christ, Christadelphians devalue his work, making him an example to be followed, and adding an element of human effort to the all-sufficient work of Christ. Because Christ’s sacrifice is not regarded as sufficient in itself, and must be added to, there can be no assurance of salvation.
But — surely, surely, — he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, the chastisement that brought us peace was upon him, and with his stripes we are healed.


17 thoughts on ““Surely…” Isaiah 53

  1. There appears to be some confusion in terminology here, for the article begins as a defence of a doctrine of “penal substitutionary view of the atonement” but ends using John Stott’s words which were explaining “the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ.” These surely are two very different views? One says that Jesus was punished in our place, the other that He sacrificed Himself for our sake.

    I fully agree with you on the unsatisfactory and inaccurate view of Christadelphians but I disagree with your idea of punishment of the Messiah as necessary for salvation.

    As I recently wrote to a certain preacher: Your message this last Sunday on the necessity and central doctrine of the cross was of great value. There is one point you made that I want to discuss. You mentioned “penal substitution” and said that you know of present day preachers who deny this and that they are wrong. I do not know of those preachers, so I have not been influenced by them, and also it seems to me that there can be two positions that might be included in that description, for there is a difference between warding off a blow aimed at a person, and deliberately directing that blow at a third person.
    My own thinking developed thus: when 17 years old I was a reserve  counsellor at the Billy Graham campaign in the old Wembley stadium and in action for each of the six days (on the Saturday there was an estimated 120,000 attendance, stands full and people all over the pitch) and he preached the idea that Jesus was “punished” for our sins, that he “bore the punishment” etc. Moreover, there were many tracts about at the time from BG and others with the same message. I had heard it before, of course, and previously not questioned it. But now I began to wonder, because it was normally linked to “God’s justice” which had to punish sin. But, I wondered, how can it be “just” to punish the wrong person? Even if that person volunteers, is justice really served? If a grown son committed a crime and his father paid the penalty, would that be just? Would it be likely to stop the son offending again, or would it encourage him to carry on with his bad ways? I felt that this version of “God’s justice” was putting off unbelievers because it seemed so unjust and unreasonable. So I did the correct thing, I asked what the Bible really says, not what other people told me it says – a vital principle I  adopted then and have adhered to ever since. Not that I ignore the interpretations of others, of course, but I have to investigate whether those interpretations are true to the text.
    I then discovered that in the whole Bible of  three quarters of a million words there is only ONE clause of EIGHT words that MIGHT suggest that Jesus was punished, or bore a punishment. That clause is “the chastisement of our peace was upon him” Is.53.5 KJV which appears to be a very correct translation of the original words, with “chastisement” implying “penalty with the purpose of correction” and it is OUR PEACE,  that is chastised, not HIM, so this is saying that our peace with God can remain intact because it is laid on Him along with our sin. This interpretation is in accordance with the other clauses in that verse and with the rest of the passage. I noted too, that the Levitical laws, which you correctly quoted on Sunday, are all to do with sacrifice, not punishment. There is no mention anywhere that the animal sacrifices, or either of the two goats you mentioned on Sunday regarding Yom Kippur were being punished. Every knowledgable Christian understands that those laws were a “type” of the Gospel of Jesus, so that, too, must be about sacrifice, not about punishment.
    So we look into the New Testament and we find not a single occasion in which “punish” is applied to the sufferings of Jesus. I believe that it would be accurate to say that He warded off the punishment that would have fallen on us, but not that He was punished. Nor would the latter accord with an understanding of the Trinity. How could one Person of a Unity punish another Person of the same Unity? I came at that time to understand that what Jesus did in essence, and what brings Him greater glory, and what accords with ALL the scriptures, was to absorb our death on the cross, and then replace that death with His Life at the Resurrection. Death, spiritual and eventually physical, was the punishment of sin, so by taking away that death, the sin went too, and by Him replacing it with His Life, we “may participate in the divine nature.” 1Peter 1.4 
    I should add that much later I discovered that, whereas in English the two words “justice” and “righteousness” have different origins and quite separate meanings, in Greek they are two parts of THE SAME WORD – “dikaios”. Look at all the derivations of “right” and of “just” in Romans 3 and they are all versions of that word “dikaios”. Verse 10 “There is none righteous” and verse 20 “no flesh shall be justified” both use “dikaios.” So to “justify” is “to make righteous” and references to “God’s justice” are actually to His righteousness. Justice in English is usually about punishment and even revenge, but not in Greek and Hebrew, they are about getting things as right again as possible. So this fits in with all that I have written above about God putting things right by restoring our originally intended spiritual life and rescuing us from our sin and its consequences. To say that Jesus was punished is unrighteous, unjust, and unscriptural.

    Further correpondence included the following: “Allow me to ask you the following questions:
    – How is slaughtering a lamb not punishment?”
    ​When you sit down to a dinner of lamb (or any other meat) do you think that the lamb has been punished?​ I bet you don’t. These animals are reared with the sole purpose of being slain; how could that be punishment? With the animals that were sacrificed under Levitical law, there is a difference in that there had to be a cost to the person offering and a recognition of the purity of a forgiving God; both of these principles met together in the insistence that the animal be healthy and unblemished.

    “Jesus didn’t simply divert or ward off but indeed paid the price and took the penalty for our sin. All of which I think is indeed scriptural but at the same time humanly I would say unfair but then the gospel doesn’t always make sense”
    ​Actually I believe that within its own parameters (and those are the only parameters of which we can be certain) it does make perfect sense, it must do because it is the Gospel of the Almighty so if anything of His appears not to make sense then it is either ​our understanding of sense or our understanding of apparent “facts” or our understanding of doctrine that is wrong. In those things in which I differ from standard evangelical doctrine, they are all aimed at understanding this overall cohesion of God’s nature and plan, enlightened not by human logic but by an understanding of His written word.

    ” Isaiah 53:4:
    Yet it was our weaknesses he carried;
    it was our sorrows[a] that weighed him down.
    And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God,
    a punishment for his own sins!”

    ​Exactly – we “thought that ……….. BUT….”​

    ​a clear indication that what we thought was wrong and then follows a long list of what “HE”​ suffered in our place, but it is a warped interpretation to say that He was punished. If some woman who thought she had been wronged tried to aim blows at a man’s wife and that man stood in the way and took those blows himself, would any court, any sane person, say that he was punished? He may in fact have been wronged himself by his wife, but he nevertheless took the blows to protect her. That was substitutionary but it wasn’t punishment. The Guidford Four and the Birmingham Six went unjustly to prison for many years, but no-one now says that they were “punished”? No, because that would imply their guilt, they suffered terrible injustice, a very different thing to punishment. On battlefields many a soldier has sacrificed his own life for that of a comrade or an officer, were those heroes suffering punishment?

    The area of agreement betwen us is far greater that that of disagreement and those who allow such differences to ​damage their fellowship are certainly not glorifying God or properly serving the Lord Jesus. I reached the conclusions I did because:
    a) it does not glorify the Father to portray Him as having the attitude that “someone has to be punished. Heads will roll, even if they are the wrong heads”
    b) Such a doctrine makes it harder to portray to unbelievers the righteousness, justice, and patient love of a true Father, whereas a doctrine of standing in the way of the consequences of another’s sin, of taking on death to release life, of sacrifice of the pure one to save the sinner, is far easier to promote and far more easily comprehensible and attractive to the unsaved.
    c) This is what I find in the scripture when it is read without preconceived ideas.

    Perhaps the only difference between us is that you, and so many others, cannot understand the difference between “consequences” and “punishment.” If I eat something that looks like mushroom but isn’t, the consequences might be sickness, even death, but that is not punishment.

    NO, I’m not denying the Wrath of God, but even that is a consequence, not something he’s hiding away until He has a chance to suddenly brandish it.


    1. Thank you, Peter, for your detailed reply and thoughtful comments.
      Yes, I believe the terminology can be cause for confusion, particularly when we try to match the semantic ranges and evolving meanings of our 21st century English vocabulary with that of the ancient scriptures. Perhaps because it was difficult to find a single word or phrase that succinctly described what Christ would do, Isaiah 53 says it in so many different ways. “Punishment” is a strong word, and conjures up vivid word pictures such as those you suggest. Perhaps for that reason, unqualified, it may not be the most appropriate word to use. However, I believe we need something stronger and more specific than “consequences” to describe what Jesus bore on our behalf. And consequences can still remain after sin is forgiven. For example, David was forgiven his sins of adultery and murder, yet Uriah did not return from the dead and David’s family was torn apart as his leadership lost credibility. When the slate of Saul of Tarsus, the self-styled “chief of sinners” was wiped clean, those whose imprisonment and execution he had orchestrated were still gone. The same is true for the “consequences” of our forgiven sins.
      For John Stott, there is no dichotomy between “the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ” and the “penal substitution theory of the atonement.” Sacrifice is one important aspect, arguably the most important, of Christ’s work on the cross, but the atonement cannot be reduced to a single metaphor, type or component. “The death of Jesus,” Stott writes (p 236), was the atoning sacrifice because of which God averted his wrath from us, the ransom price by which we have been redeemed, the condemnation of the innocent that the guilty might be justified, and the sinless One being made sin for us.” Elsewhere (p 131), He defends the concept of “satisfaction” — perhaps that is the better word we seek — and raises the same concerns as you do; “How, people ask, can we possibly believe that God needed some kind of ‘satisfaction’ before he was prepared to forgive, and that Jesus provided it by enduring as our ‘substitute’ the punishment we sinners deserved?”
      The major punishment or consequence or “wages” of our sin is of course death, and we have been earning it since Adam (Gen 2:17, 3:19; Rom 6:23). Jesus died to remove that curse; through his death he defeated him who has the power of death (Heb 2:14) and brings eternal life to those who are in him (as opposed to being in Adam; 1 Cor 15:22) — John 3:16, 6:54; Rom 5:21. It’s not that he took away death and our sin went with it; the Scripture is clear that he took away our sin, and death was vanquished by that (John 1:29; Rom 5:12, 6:16–23, 8:2-3; Jas 1:15; 1 John 2:2). Whichever word we use (and perhaps there is no single word which really encapsulates it) Jesus took on our sins in his own body (1 Pet 2:24). He became a curse for us (Gal 3:13). He was bruised for our transgressions. He became sin, who knew no sin (2 Cor 5:21). The Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all. He died, the just for the unjust, while we were yet sinners (Rom 3:26, 5:6–9). This is the great and wonderful paradox of the cross, that the just should die in place of the unjust. Is this “unjust?” You raise the very helpful point that the Greek NT words for “just,” “justice,” “justify” etc., have the same root as “righteous,” “righteousness,” “make righteous,” and can be used interchangeably. It’s not about “fairness,” (as if we humans were good judges of what is fair, anyway!) for who could say that what Jesus went through was “fair?” (The price paid for our redemption was immeasurable) That’s why the cross is a scandal and “foolishness.” (1 Cor 1:23–25; Gk: skandalon!) Justice/ righteousness is about right standing before God. And for God to justify/ make right sinners (the unjust/unrighteous) without compromising his own justness/righteousness, he needed a solution that would satisfy his justice and condemn sin as it ought to be condemned, in the very flesh in which it normally reigns (Rom 8:3).
      Did God punish (put to death for our sins; Rom 4:23) the wrong person? My point is that had Jesus been a mere man, substituted for us, the answer would be yes. A substitutionary atonement only works if the Saviour is God himself, who can do this outrageously loving, sacrificial act, put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And the death of the innocent Son of God only works if he is a substitute for what we in our weakness could not do, rather than being inherently liable to punishment/condemnation himself.
      Whether we use the words “punishment,” “satisfaction,” “penalty,” “consequences,” “chastisement,” or “absorb our death and replace it with life,” we have to conclude that it would be a misdirection to send a mere man to the cross in our place, for all the reasons you mention. But Jesus is not merely man (although of course fully human), he is also Almighty God, and as Stott says, he himself “undertook to propitiate his own wrath,” by being the Passover lamb sacrificed in lieu of the firstborn. He has the right and ability to do that, and he did it, out of love. If that is God’s way to make us right with himself, doing for us what we in our weakness could not possibly do, how can that be “unjust?” How great is the love of God that he would do this for us! It’s not that “heads must roll, who will I choose?” Jesus was the lamb slain from the foundation of the world, the atonement was part of God’s eternal plan. There was never any question but that creation would be renewed by the self-same Word who brought it into being (as Athanasius put it). By all means, avoid the word “punishment” if it conjures up the wrong word picture, use “consequences” if you must, but it’s hard to find a single word that does justice to the complexity of Christ’s work and what it was that he put to death on the cross, and why.
      Iron sharpens iron, brother, and you have made me think more deeply about these word choices and as you say, the agreement between us is greater than the disagreement. Thank you for your input.


  2. Thank you, too for your response – which I have only just seen. I really feel now that there is little, if any, difference between us, and clearly we both have the insight to know that we struggle as humans to fully comprehend and explain to others the divine plan and the wonders of Grace. Unfortunately many preachers and tract writers are too certain of their legalisms when trying to convey, ” For sin will not have authority over you; because you are not under legalism but under grace” (Rom.6.14 CJB); too ready to drive folk into the Kingdom by fear rather than draw them in with Love; too rooted in the past to learn what it really means to be “all things to all men.”

    May grace be with you.


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