Christ died FOR us, not INSTEAD of us
There’s a common idea in the church that no Christian should ever experience feelings of condemnation for sin. But this is entirely false. The Spirit of God is specifically sent to “convict the world of sin, and righteousness, and of judgment,” (John 16:8). Christ said that His light comes to those who are walking in darkness in order to “expose” their evil practices (John 3:19-21), and Paul tells us that “all things that are reproved are made manifest by the light.” (Eph 5:13 KJV). The Spirit of God does not lie, flatter, or commend what is contrary to His own pure nature and life just because we have correct beliefs about Jesus. Rather, He “brings to light the hidden things of darkness, making manifest the counsels of the heart,” (1 Cor 4:5) because “all things are naked and open unto the eyes of Him to whom we have to give account” (Heb 4:13).
The Spirit of God shows man (especially those who are sincere Christians!) what is really working and living in them, what is moving and motivating the heart. His light uncovers everything that has a source, nature, and purpose contrary to the life and goodness of God. And the reason the Spirit does this is NOT so that we then continue to live in these wrong things and therefore abide continually under feelings of condemnation, but rather that we see our true condition, and turn to the power that can free us. The Spirit does not condemn sin so that man lives in condemnation, but so that man comes OUT of condemnation, by coming out of the nature or birth that is condemned.
Now often when people hear this, they immediately dismiss it by quoting the first part of Romans 8:1, which says “There is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.” But this statement is made to those “who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit” (vs 1b, and 4). There is indeed condemnation felt in those who claim to follow the light of Christ and yet continue to walk in darkness. John says that such Christians are lying to themselves, and not practicing the truth (1 John 1:6). There IS condemnation, and there will ALWAYS BE condemnation for the nature of flesh, in whatever measure we remain in it, love it, live in it, act by it, and speak from it. In other words, of course there is condemnation felt wherever Christ is not reigning in us; that is, wherever flesh is still the predominant power, the source of life, and purpose, thought, desire, and action, and this sense of condemnation is truly a gift of God. It is a manifestation of His love, because it shows us our problem, diagnoses our disease, manifesting the enmity between us and our Creator wherever it is found.
If we claim to be Christians and yet are still living in the flesh, thinking according to the flesh, desiring the things of the flesh, then OF COURSE there will be a sense of the Lord’s disapprobation or condemnation for such things, because the nature of flesh is “enmity with God” (Rom 8:7), contrary to Him in every way. Flesh always lives for itself, always clings to its own life and will and way. Paul says that those who walk in the flesh cannot please God (Rom 8:8), and if you continue to “live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” (vs. 13)
It is a great deception in the church today to suggest that we should not feel condemnation or correction for living in and for things that are condemned by God. A pastor once called me, and after talking for a few minutes, began to tell me about his thirty year addiction to pornography, how he was totally enslaved to it, unable to stop himself, and that it had in many ways corrupted his life, defiled his heart, and ruined his marriage. This is sadly very common. But it is also very common for people in this condition to try to comfort themselves saying, “but I know that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ,” or “I know that God looks at me through the lens of Christ, and doesn’t see or doesn’t condemn my sin.”
But the wonderful work of Christ accomplished by His incarnation, sinless submission to the Father, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, does not make God blind to sin. This is a very common idea, but it is simply not true. God sees all things as they really are. He sees through all covers, sees behind our words and doctrines, right into our hearts, and knows what lives and reigns in the heart of man. Christ did not come as a man and die so that God would no longer care about sin. No! He came, died and rose again so that He could give to man a measure of His overcoming Spirit; that He could become our High Priest, empowering us to walk in the narrow path that leads to life.
Christ came TO us, and died FOR us, but He did not die INSTEAD of us. He did not die on the cross so that we didn’t have to die; but rather so that we also (by partaking of His Spirit, grace, and power) COULD die to everything that was contrary to Him. He came, obeyed the Father, suffered, died, rose, and ascended into heaven so that we could follow Him in the exact same way, in the exact same process, having received a gift of His overcoming Spirit as our light, life, and leader.
Now this is important, because many Christians speak as though Christ suffered so that we don’t have to suffer, or that He died in the flesh so that we don’t have to die to the flesh. I know of no greater lie in the church. I repeat, Christ died FOR US, but not INSTEAD OF US. Everything that Christ did was FOR man, on behalf of man, for man’s benefit, and out of His love for man. But the way we experience this benefit, this incredible gift, is not by simply claiming that Christ did everything so that we don’t have to do anything. The reason Christ came, the reason He joined Himself to man, the reason He suffered, died, and rose, was so that after having conquered all obstacles, overcome all evil, weakness, temptation, and even death, He could share with us a measure or seed of His overcoming Spirit, empowering us to follow the Captain of our salvation in the new and living way, through the door that He opened for us.
This is what it means that Christ is our great High Priest, that He was made in all things like His brethren (Heb. 2:17), that He became “the captain of our salvation through sufferings,” (Heb 2:10) that “through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is the devil.” (Heb 2:14). By giving us a measure of His Spirit, He thereby gives all who receive Him “power to BECOME the sons of God.” (John 1:12) That is, He empowers us to follow Him in the same process, in the same obedience, in the same exodus, in the fellowship of His sufferings, experiencing His life working in us to be the only way, truth, and life. Christ’s death did not purchase magic glasses for the Father that could no longer see sin. Christ’s death purchased a gift of His overcoming Spirit that could be shared with all His brethren, with “all who labor and are heavy laden,” who desire to leave their own inward Egypt and follow Him through the way that He opened, in the highway that He cast up. Isaiah speaks of Christ’s work in these words, “Go through, go through the gates; prepare the way of the people; cast up, cast up the highway; gather out the stones; lift up a standard for the people.” Isa 62:10. And notice what Peter says, “For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps” (1 Pet 2:21).
Now pay attention to what Peter is saying here, because it is extremely common today to hear a version of the gospel that doesn’t involve “following in His steps,” “drinking His cup,” or “being baptised with the baptism with which He was baptised” (Mat 20:23), that is, a gospel that doesn’t involve “denying self, taking up your cross daily, and following Christ” in His steps. Men often teach as though, through Christ’s death and resurrection, God reconciled Himself with sin. But this is a great lie. God did not give His Son so that man could believe good doctrines and yet continue in sin without fear of consequences. He gave His Son so that, by following Him, by abiding in His overcoming Spirit, being empowered by His grace, we too could die to sin, lose our lives in the flesh, and walk in the newness of His resurrected life.
And of course, if we follow Him in this way, learning to walk and live in His Spirit (and thereby put to death the deeds of the flesh), we will experience more and more of His life and nature, and less and less of the condemnation that always (and rightly) condemns sin in the flesh. But wherever the nature of flesh still reigns in a member of Christ’s body, then OF COURSE we are going to feel that these fleshly actions, thoughts, and desires are condemned by that righteous Spirit who seeks to save us from them.
Let me say again: through Christ’s work on the cross, God did not reconcile Himself with sin. No. He reconciled Himself with man by offering Himself as a sacrifice "for the remission of sins that are past," (Rom 3:25) and by creating and giving a way or means whereby sin, corruption, and death could be destroyed, removed, and purged from our hearts. John says, “For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil;” (1 John 3:8), NOT so that He could keep the Father from seeing the works of the devil, or somehow reconcile God to the works of the devil. Christ came to “condemn sin in the flesh” (Rom 8:3), not to accept or wink at sin in the flesh; and His Spirit does precisely the same thing in us.
What does the Spirit of God desire to do in the church, which is Christ’s body? He seeks to do the same thing in the members that He did in the Head, namely, to overcome all evil by the power of God. All who will be led by the Spirit, and learn to walk in the Spirit, will find the Spirit teaching them to submit to and obey the Father, to walk in paths of truth and righteousness. They will find the Spirit striving within them against all evil, exposing and condemning all that is contrary to truth, bringing them into the fellowship of Christ’s suffering, making them conformable to His death, that they may also partake of His resurrection. The Spirit of God has the exact same nature in the body as it has in the Head. And it is therefore an incredibly great error to suggest that God now doesn’t see or doesn’t condemn the law of sin and death that works in flesh, because this is a nature that always lusts against the Spirit, always seeks and glorifies self, and is a perpetual enemy to the cross of Christ. This is like saying that God accepts and unites with what is completely contrary and opposed to Himself. It’s like saying that God commanded Israel to share their land with the uncircumcised idol-worshippers of Canaan.
Show me one verse in the old testament where God told His people that it was acceptable to intermarry and make treaties and covenants with uncircumcised flesh in the land. Show me one verse in the book of Judges or Kings, when the Spirit of God came upon a man or woman, and did not manifest His desire to free Israel from every uncircumcised enemy. Show me one verse in the entire Bible where God made a treaty or a mixture with the nature of sin, or said that He would stop condemning it, or wink at it, be reconciled to it, or allow it to remain in the land of our heart. To say this, is to say that either God cannot, or that He does not want to, overcome His enemy and establish His kingdom in man. How many verses are there in the New Testament that plainly declare God’s desire to cleanse, transform and free man from all sin? Are we not told to “be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect”? Are we not told that “this is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Thes 4:3). That He desires us to be “sanctified in body, soul and spirit,” that we “perfect holiness in the fear of God,” that we be “transformed into the same image from glory to glory,” that we become “conformed to the image of His Son,” and become “participants of the divine nature,” and that Christ “gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works.” Can you possibly believe or affirm that all of this takes place without God showing you and condemning in you what is contrary to Himself? Will you contradict hundreds of Scriptures and insist that all of this takes place outside of you, like some sort of outward transaction, or a new legal position because Christ took your place? Will you say that Christ suffered so that you don’t have to? That He died so that you don’t have to?
No. I say again, Christ did not die INSTEAD OF us. He died FOR us. He died on our behalf, so that we too, by His Spirit, could die to sin, die to the world, die to the flesh, and live in and by His eternal and heavenly life. Christ made a way. He opened a door. He was the firstborn of many brethren, the captain of our salvation. But He didn’t give himself as a “substitution.” No, the whole idea of “substitution” (at least how it is generally understood and taught) has done great damage in the body of Christ. People talk of Christ dying in their place, so that they don’t have to die. They talk of Christ cancelling their debt, so that they are free to live their ‘best life now’ in the flesh. But there couldn’t be a more contrary idea to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The apostles never taught this sort of doctrine of substitution. Very much to the contrary, they spoke of “dying daily,” that they were “always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body.” They spoke of being “crucified with Christ,” being “conformed to His death,” of “filling up in their flesh what is lacking of the afflictions of Christ.” They said that we are “heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together.” (Rom 8:17)
Now, I am in no way suggesting that Christ did half of the work, and now we have to finish it ourselves. No. I am very far from believing such an idea. What I am saying, and what I believe all of the Apostles and Christ Himself affirmed so strongly and plainly, is that Christ overcame the flesh, the world, and the devil when he was a Man, and that He now desires to do the exact same thing in us by sharing His Spirit with the members of His body. “To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne,” (Rev 3:21). Our role is not to DO the second half of the work, or to finish what Christ started. Our role is to receive with meekness the implanted Word of Christ, and then to surrender ourselves fully to it, to cling to it, obey it, allow it to expose and put to death in us all that is contrary to it, and bring to life in us all that is born of it. Our role now is to submit entirely to the Spirit, to walk in this gift of the Spirit, to live in the Spirit, be led by the Spirit, governed by the Spirit, to obey the Spirit of Christ and to deny the will and desires of the flesh. Because if we live by this overcoming Spirit, we will thereby “put to death the deeds of the body.” (Rom 8:13) If we walk with Him, in Him, with our heart and mind set upon Him, then we will thereby find that His Spirit “puts to death our members which are on the earth.” (Col 3:5) But if we continue to walk in the flesh, resisting the Spirit, we have no business applying Christ’s victory to ourselves.