By Carl Braaten
“But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” Romans 5: 8
“For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.” I Thessalonians 5: 9-10
A statement by Reinhold Niebuhr has stuck in my mind: the simplest confession of the Christian faith, one that underlies all the very complicated doctrines of atonement, is this: “Christ died for our sins.” We have read two verses that assert that. But there are many more like it throughout the New Testament that Niebuhr must have had in mind. Such verses picture Christ doing something for us, surrendering himself, sacrificing himself, giving himself up, in short, dying for us. We know that Jesus died on a cross, and we are told that he did this for us. But how and why? What role is Christ playing for us?
It has been said that this means that Christ is our substitute. He is a scapegoat or whipping boy. This is the leading idea in one of the atonement doctrines. But how is Christ really our substitute? The word “substitute” does not appear in the New Testament. It enters as a later interpretation, to unpack the meaning of confessing that “Christ died for us.” However, is Christ really willing to be our substitute? Does one who loves us want to take our place? To displace us. In ordinary life we watch out for people who want to stand in as our substitutes. On every ball team, there are the first-string players, and then the substitutes who sit on the bench. When a substitute is sent in, he is competing for the place of the first stringer. The sub goes in and tries his hardest to become the permanent replacement.
Our society is like an athletic team. It is competitive. The better your job, the more eager people are to take your place. The substitute does not go in to represent you, to keep your place open until you return. The substitute goes in to excel, to replace you, to disprove the myth of the indispensable person. A competitive society forgets its indispensable persons very quickly. No wonder no one wants to be merely a substitute. We don’t want to be supplanted, shoved aside. We don’t want someone to take our place, to dislodge us, to overshadow our identity. Moreover, it is not true that Jesus is our substitute. We still have our grief; we still have our pain; we still have to die. Christ suffered for us, but he did not suffer instead of us. We still have to suffer. Christ died for us, but he did not die instead of us; we still have to die.
But if Christ is not our substitute in the sense that he replaces us, he can be our representative. That is what we need in our competitive litigious society. Who is able to represent me in a society in which I am replaceable, in a society in which my worth is measured in terms of what I can produce? Who can represent me without replacing me? Who will keep a place open for me when I am sick or away on leave?
Who will represent me as my defense attorney when my case seems hopeless? Who will represent me when my voice is silenced by death? Who will assure me that I am a unique, indispensable, and irreplaceable individual?
There is little wonder that the problem of personal identity has become an open festering sore in the sick body of our social life. Behind the big words about war and peace, justice, and the international order, about participatory democracy and police reform, the question of the worth of every person underlies every other concern. Who am I? How am I to become authentic, a true individual self in a world supermarket, in which everything has its price tag, and a person’s value is equal only to the sum of his functions, and these functions in turn can be taken over by someone else or even better by a machine or robot. It is in this world of carbon copies, of mass-produced marketable goods, that the individual cries out for representation without displacement.
Christ is able to give us such representation. He is our representative; but he is not a substitute who wants to step in to replace us. Jesus’ death on the cross has representative meaning. His whole life was representative. He represented the interests of others selflessly and completely. He did not use people to promote his own self-interest. He did not go about worrying over his good name and reputation. Jesus wept but not for himself. He suffered, but not on his own account. He went ahead to prepare a place for all of us. Jesus can deal with a person’s identity crisis because he was not hung up on his own. Jesus’ entire life was representing the good things of God’s kingdom — healing power for the sick, hope for the dying, forgiveness for sinners, amnesty for outcasts, and a voice for the poor.
Faith is an act of letting Jesus be our representative, for in representing us, he never replaces us. Because he died for us, we never die alone without representation, without hope for personal identity beyond death. We never have to die alone on a godforsaken hill outside the gate. We can die in a communion of his love, in the assurance of the forgiveness of sins, with a sure hope for resurrection unto new and everlasting life with God and the whole company of saints in heaven. Only Jesus has the status and credentials to be our representative before the throne of Almighty God. Because he died the death of the guilty one, as the guileless man, he can be our representative. Because he died the death under the law as the man of love, full of life to share and taking time for others, he can be our representative. He can be our representative because, in being raised from the dead, he was approved by God as being the right person to be the ambassador of the whole human race.
But Jesus is more than our representative; he is at the same time God’s representative. He is not a substitute for God. It is the essence of heathenism to make substitutes for God; that is idolatry. Jesus stands in for God as one who represents God’s love for us. In Jesus’ suffering God himself is taking part in the pain of each one of us. To believe in the cross Jesus is to let God suffer for us. Bonhoeffer’s words make the point: “Only a suffering God can help!” In the ancient church the question was raised, can the Father suffer? Can the Father experience pain? And the church fathers answered, “No.” Now, we would raise some doubts about that answer. It would be a strange Father who would not let himself share any of the pain that his Son is suffering. To believe in a God who does not suffer great pain in a world of pain is too much to ask.
We have used the word “representative” to speak of Jesus’ role in dying for us. That word, admittedly, does not appear in the New Testament either. It is an interpretation of the words “for us.” Jesus is there for us, representing us without replacing us. Jesus is there for God, representing him without replacing him. By being absolutely open to us, Jesus is able to open us up to God. By being absolutely open to God, Jesus is able to open God’s heart to us. By identifying God to us, Jesus is able to answer our question of personal identity. There is no good answer to the question “Who am I?” by looking here and there for an answer. Jesus is the representative in whom God and we humans can exchange hope for each other.
Many times, we feel like giving up on ourselves and giving up on God. And then we hear the good word of the gospel, that Jesus gave himself up for us. For Jesus’ sake God does not give up on us. Jesus helps God define himself to us at time when we have lots of questions about who God is and whether he cares about us.
It used to be thought that it was only we humans who needed to have a representative, to plead our case before God. It used to be thought that without Christ God would get rid of us or forget about us. That is surely true, but the other side now appears to be equally true. God needs to have a representative to plead his case before us. Now it appears that God is on trial, and modern people might be ready to get rid of a God who does not seem to be doing much to change the world for the better. For this reason, God needs Jesus to make his own case credible in a world of pain and death. It is Christ who gives us reason to hope that God is alive and is still engaged in the human adventure. It is Christ who makes the connection between God’s presence in the world of human suffering, so that we can believe that reconciliation can come from the death of Jesus, that victory can be forged by tragedy, that fulfillment of life can arise in spite of defeat, and that resurrection can convert a cross into the good news of God present in our suffering, in our pain, and in our dying. So whether we live or whether we die, we have in Christ a representative through whom God identifies with us, and in whom we have a promise of identity that goes infinitely beyond any word our world can speak to us or that we can speak to ourselves. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Carl Braaten is professor emeritus of systematic theology at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and a founder of the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology.