Our Redeemer: Our Substitute
Propitiation is not a word that is used in general conversation, let alone on Twitter. Connected to my article on Lord’s Day 4, I had a twitter exchange with an individual who denied the penal substitution of Jesus for our sins as well as propitiation. If you’re not familiar with the terms let me break it down for you.
Propitiation refers to the act of appeasing or turning away wrath. Jesus did this when he became our penal substitute on the cross. In other words: Jesus went to the cross to satisfy the wrath of God and pay the penalty incurred by sinners on the cross. The righteousness required by the law (penalty) and the holiness of God (wrath) are satisfied by this substitution in the sinners’ place. This concept is foundational to knowing how we are to escape our sin and misery. We need a substitute.
Lord’s Day 5 begins Part Two of the Catechism: our salvation. Having established that mankind is sinful and without hope outside of God’s mercy, the Catechism begins to point us to the only One who can save us:
12 Q. Since, according to God’s righteous judgment we deserve temporal and eternal punishment, how can we escape this punishment and be again received into favor?
A. God demands that his justice be satisfied. Therefore we must make full payment, either by ourselves or through another.
13 Q. Can we by ourselves make this payment?
A. Certainly not. On the contrary, we daily increase our debt.
14. Q. Can any mere creature pay for us?
A. No. In the first place, God will not punish another creature for the sin which man has committed. Furthermore, no mere creature can sustain the burden of God’s eternal wrath against sin and deliver others from it.
15. Q. What kind of mediator and deliverer must we seek?
A. One who is a true and righteous man, and yet more powerful than all creatures; that is, one who is at the same time true God.
Number Twelve reminds us of what we learned in Part One—that God’s justice must be satisfied in full. God does not sweep sin under the rug—there is a price that must be paid by someone. Question Thirteen requires a little explanation—Can we pay this debt ourselves? That is, can we pay this debt off. I think that an explanation for what this means needs to be added: Rome taught, and still teaches, that if a person dies in a state of grace they go to purgatory to receive temporal punishment, and they will stay there until their debt is paid in full. In the Roman system, when you receive an indulgence—whether it is by some kind of blessing or a visit to a holy relic or a place, you receive time off of purgatory. No one knows what their balance sheet looks like to begin with, but the assumption is that this debt is something that can be paid off. The Reformers outright denied this. More importantly, the Bible outright denies this. No one can pay their debt. It is impossible to do so and we add to it with every breath we take. Man does not even contribute to paying off his debt. Not in the slightest. He is completely unable to do anything that would please God.
We also cannot have a mere creature pay our debt either. The sacrifice system laid out in the Mosaic Law merely covered sin but it did not take sins away (Hebrews 10:1-4). The sin had to be continually covered by animal sacrifice. The priest could never rest because he had to keep sacrificing animals—not only did the sin of the people need covering but his own sin as well. What forgave sins in the Old Testament—as now—was the shed blood of the Messiah. The sacrifice was offered in faith that the coming Messiah would take away their sins. We also cannot have our sins paid for by another person either because that person is also sinful and carries a debt that must be paid. A guilty person can only pay for his own sin. He cannot pay for his sins and the sins of another because there will be nothing left to pay for another.
So what do we need then? Shai Linne put it this way in his song The Hypostatic Union:
See, only a human can substitute for human lives
But only God can take the wrath of God and survive
See the humanly unsolvable obstacle?
With God all is plausible, nothing’s impossible (Shai Linne, “The Hypostatic Union”). We need a man because the debt was incurred by man. But we need a righteous man and there is no one righteous. We also need that man to be able to bear up under God’s wrath and make it out on the other side. In other words, we need humanity and divinity to unite in one person. Who is this person? His name is Jesus.