The notion of a substitute is not difficult to grasp. We have substitute teachers, sugar substitutes, all kinds of replacements. But generally, substitutes have an underwhelming quality. They are not the same as the original and are somehow less than fulfilling. We like substitute teaches because we think we’ll just watch a movie in class, but we rarely learn as much from a sub as we do our regular teacher. We like sugar substitutes for the health benefits, but any enjoyment of real sugar is gone.
So we must dispense with popular notions of “substitute” to understand how Christ could be our substitute before a holy and righteous God while not being less-than. How could Christ stand in our place as our substitute and satisfy the wrath of God’s justice? The Confession begins by saying,
“Christ, by his obedience and death, did fully discharge the debt of all those that are justified; and did, by the sacrifice of himself in the blood of his cross, undergoing in their stead the penalty due unto them, make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to God's justice in their behalf; yet, inasmuch as he was given by the Father for them, and his obedience and satisfaction accepted in their stead, and both freely, not for anything in them, their justification is only of free grace, that both the exact justice and rich grace of God might be glorified in the justification of sinners.”
We begin by confessing that another paid our debt. So, sin is to be considered something of a debt before God. This was a common Jewish understanding of sin, hence Jesus teaching his disciples to pray that God would forgive their debts in Matthew 5.
Hebrews 10:13 tells us, “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” The debt was “fully discharg[ed]”. There is no other need for any sacrificial system to continue, now or in the future. How could one man put an end to the Levitical system by a single sacrifice?
Here we see the importance of Trinitarian theology practically applied. Jesus Christ was fully God, fully man. There was no mixture of natures or the creation of a third nature. One segment of the Athanasian creed says, “Thus the Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God. Yet there are not three gods; there is but one God.” It is not a trifling matter to see that God paid the debt he owed to himself. Why do we turn the other cheek? Because that’s precisely what our Savior has done. He has returned upon himself the penalty of sin.
The notion of Jesus Christ as our substitute is incredible simply because he was innocent of all sin. He did not deserve to die, especially in suffering as he did. But even more incredibly, we can say that not only did God provide a substitute, but he substituted himself in our place. God most certainly did not die on the cross; it is nonsense to say that the one being who embodies eternity in himself could come to an end. Neither did God suffer in Christ’s humiliation. As a man who shared our nature as well, he suffered and bled in his flesh, as a sinless creature, on behalf of his sinful brothers and sisters. Yet in his divinity, which was not tarnished by humanity, he successfully overcame the power of death in his resurrection. In the God-man, God the Father has “unite[d] all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:10).
The Confession continues,
“God did from all eternity decree to justify all the elect, and Christ did in the fullness of time die for their sins, and rise again for their justification; nevertheless, they are not justified personally, until the Holy Spirit doth in time due actually apply Christ unto them.”
“The fullness of time” comes directly from Ephesians 1:10, when Paul says Christ is the plan for all ages. Christ is how all things are redeemed, the source of all wisdom, the purpose behind God’s decrees, and the means of unifying heaven and earth. His bodily ascension is perhaps the greatest evidence of that.
It is necessary to say that the London Baptist Confession is the confessional document of the Particular Baptists, or, it at least has roots in that strain of Baptist theology. Particular Baptists hold to the doctrine of election, which says that God has decreed to save some and to pass over others, permitting them to live according to their own desires. In that way, God is not unjust; he simply allows some to sleep in the bed they have made and live according to their nature.
This stands in contrast to the General Baptists, which have Arminian heritage. They believe that Christ’s death, resurrection, and exaltation made salvation possible but not effectual (it only takes effect for some). They interpret passages speaking of Christ dying for the whole world to mean that Christ paid for the sins of every single person but that only some will believe it to be true.
Scripture speaks of both election, or God’s sovereign choice, and the responsibility of every person to believe. Jesus never offered an invitation. He issued commands to believe. “Repent and be baptized” is not an option. But he also spoke of the Father determining who would be sent to the Son for salvation, such as in John 6. We are creatures, not equals. God has, by his gracious appointment, determined that there will be those he pardons for their sins through the substitutionary atonement of his Son. He has also, by his judicious purpose, determined that some will be passed over and permitted to continue in their rebellion against him. You have no more authority to consign yourself to hell than you do to save yourself.
However, both Particular and General Baptists believed that the Holy Spirit applied redemption in real-time. No one is born saved. God may have appointed some to believe in eternity past, for Paul says that God “chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Ephesians 1:4). But that does not therefore mean that we are born living in the power of the Spirit. There is still a conversion yet to take place, whether it’s at age 5 or 95. That conversion is the beginning of the indwelling presence of the Spirit of God.
Speaking of the Christian life, the Confession says,
“God doth continue to forgive the sins of those that are justified, and although they can never fall from the state of justification, yet they may, by their sins, fall under God's fatherly displeasure; and in that condition they have not usually the light of his countenance restored unto them, until they humble themselves, confess their sins, beg pardon, and renew their faith and repentance.”
The only one who continues living without sin is Jesus Christ. Believers remain justified and forgiven, but we continue to fight the good fight. Our justification is not under threat, but our peace certainly is. Continued sin has the effect of causing us to doubt our security in Christ. In our brightest moments, we see the kindness of God in calling us into his marvelous light. In our darkest moments, when we commit the same sins with which we have struggled for so long, we must humble ourselves, repent of those particular sins, and seek the face of God again. We do so by the Spirit guiding us back to the Scriptures and the comfort found there. Believers do not make light of our sins, even if they are forgiven. We have a greater awareness of their deceitfulness and wickedness. And that awareness of the ugliness of sin and the beauty and patience of God is what draws us to return to his Son in confession again and again.