A Shocking Truth
The reality of Christ’s vicarious, substitutionary death on our behalf is the heart of the gospel according to God—the central theme of Isaiah 53.
We must remember, however, that sin did not kill Jesus; God did. The suffering servant’s death was nothing less than a punishment administered by God for sins others had committed. That is what we mean when we speak of penal substitutionary atonement. Again, if the idea seems shocking and disturbing, it is meant to be. Unless you recoil from the thought, you probably haven’t grasped it yet. “Our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29). This is one of the major reasons the gospel is a stumbling block to Jews, and it’s sheer foolishness as far as Gentiles are concerned (1 Cor. 1:23). “But to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, [the message of Christ crucified embodies both] the power of God and the wisdom of God” (v. 24).
There’s no way to sidestep the fact that the doctrine of penal substitution is unequivocally affirmed in the plain message of Isaiah 53. It is also confirmed and reiterated by many other passages throughout Scripture (cf. 2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13; Heb. 9:28; 1 Pet. 2:24). The servant of Yahweh, though perfectly innocent, bore the guilt of others and suffered unspeakable anguish to atone for their sins.
The Necessity of Christ’s Death
Despite the unsettling overtones in that message, it is good news. In fact, there is no more glorious good news. It explains why God “does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities” (Ps. 103:10). He has not compromised his own righteousness. He does not merely overlook our transgressions. Rather, he fully satisfied justice and put away our sin forever through the death of his Son. “As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us” (Ps. 103:12). Now grace can truly reign through righteousness (Rom. 5:21). And God can be both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26).
Israel’s national salvation is still in the future. But no one (neither Jew nor Gentile) need wait for some future event in order to turn from sin and trust Christ. You can be saved “today, if you hear his voice” (Heb. 3:7). The righteousness of God is available even now “through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Rom. 3:22). And “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom. 10:13).
“Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2).
This article is adapted from The Gospel According to God: Rediscovering the Most Remarkable Chapter in the Old Testament by John MacArthur.