By Elias Ayala (M.A.T. & Mdiv)
“The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself”.
– Ezekiel 18:20
The accusation is often launched that the sacrifice of the righteous Jesus was unjust and in violation of the scriptural mandate that the righteous shall not suffer the iniquity of the unrighteousness and vice versa. In other words, Jesus could not have been the substitute for sinners because the very notion of a substitute whereby a righteous person pays the penalty for an unrighteous person is in violation of the Law. However, there are a few qualifications that need to be explained.
First, the Bible believing Christian who believes the Bible to be the inerrant Word of God desires to interpret the Bible holistically and in a fashion that allows all of scripture to speak regarding the particular topic under consideration. Furthermore, when interpreting the scriptural data, we need to clearly define our terms and concepts and be able to differentiate the ways in which certain terms and concepts are used throughout scripture. For example, the Bible can use words and phrases in a certain sense and elsewhere use the same word or phrase in a different sense all the while allowing the context to determine the meaning. Let us take Ezekiel 18:20 for example. The text mentions the phrase the “righteousness of the righteous”. However, we are told elsewhere that there is no one who is righteous, none who does good (Romans 3:10). Yet, in other places in scripture there are people who are described as “blameless” (Job 1:8) and perfect (Genesis 6:9). What is going on here?
Scripture differentiates between horizontal righteousness (From man’s perspective) and vertical righteousness (from God’s perspective). In the eyes of the Lord, no man is righteous as Romans 3:10 clearly teaches, and the scriptures also say “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). If all men are sinners, in what way or sense are we to understand that certain men in scripture were described as perfect, upright, blameless? Let us take Noah for instances: In Genesis 6:9 we are told, “This is the genealogy of Noah. Noah was a just man, perfect in his generation. Noah walked with God”. The scriptural commentary on the universal sinfulness of man would have us believe “correctly” that all are sinners. A moment of Noah’s sin is alluded to in his getting drunk and passing out. The interesting thing is that Noah’s descriptive adjective of “being perfect” is found in the same book where his drunkenness is recorded. It is not very plausible that Moses made a mistake in forgetting he described Noah as perfect. It is clear that the term perfect, or blameless was being used in a more looser fashion. Perhaps on the level of describing someone as wholesome or sound. Noah is said to have walked with God. While not perfectly obedient, he is obviously described as a God fearing man.
Keeping this in mind, let us return to Ezekiel 18:20. Why is it the case that a “righteous” man cannot pay the penalty for the unrighteous man? The answer is simple when we consider the wider theological framework of the universal sinfulness of all men. The righteous man is not literally perfect. The righteous man within the context of the Law is not one who follows the law perfectly and is without fault. Within this context, the righteous man is the one who has not broken the Law at the particular point in question and hence should not pay the penalty for the other person who has in fact broken God’s Law at the particular point in question. In essence, God is commending the person who turns from their sins and lives, while affirming the just punishment on the person who turns from righteousness and sins. This should be understood within the context of God’s Law and the obeying of it or disobeying of it within the covenant community.
Let us now consider a hypothetical situation. Why can’t it be the case that the “righteous” give his life as a substitute for an unrighteousness man within the context of atoning for their sins? Because the “righteous” person in question is not literally righteous in the sense of being without sin, since there is no one who is without sin (1 John 1:8). The sacrifice of the “righteous” would not be a genuine sacrifice without spot or blemish. A sinner cannot pay for the sins of another sinner. However, in the case of Christ, being God in Flesh (John 1:1, 14, Philippians 2:5-8), the God-Man, who was without sin (1 Peter 2:22), he is truly righteous. And because all sin is sin against God Himself, only God Himself could adequately pay the debt owed for the violation of His Law. Hence it is only Christ who can pay the debt because only Christ can pay a debt of infinite value. The efficacy of the death of Christ on the cross was to be found not only in the perfection and perfect righteousness of the one dying, but in the very nature of the one dying, namely, Jesus Christ, the God-Man.
The perfect sacrifice offered once and for all (Hebrews 10:12) was of infinite value because it was performed by God the Son, Jesus Christ, sent by the Father to purchase with his blood, a people from every tribe, tongue and nation who are then sealed by the Holy Spirit.