The following is adapted from a sermon series by Rev. Rolf Preus.
How can wandering sheep return? How can we turn back to God after we have turned away from Him? Surely, we need forgiveness, but our sin seems to be a wall between us and our God. How can God forgive sin? How can God forgive me, a sinner? How can I know that when I have sinned against God that I can receive any mercy from Him, any grace, any forgiveness? How can I know that He will be a loving Father for me, forgiving all my many sins against Him? Human reason cannot conceive of an answer, we cannot know this on our own. God Himself must teach us, and He does in our text. How can God be gracious to me, a sinner? Two words: vicarious atonement.
These two words hardly seem to clear up the confusion. Perhaps you’ve never heard them before, or only in passing, a far-off memory of a bible class or confirmation lesson. But these words are life, they are your salvation. They reveal to you the suffering Servant whose suffering brings us forgiveness, peace and health. Every spiritual blessing God has to give He gives on account of the suffering of His Servant. The suffering of the Servant has opened to us the doors of Paradise, it has taken away our sin, reconciled us to God, and brought us eternal life. That is what the words ‘vicarious atonement’ teach us. His death is vicarious. That means the Servant did what He did, He suffered what He suffered, as our substitute. He took our place, He stood in as our representative. What was done to Him was supposed to have been done to us. His death is atonement. That means that the Servant did what He did to bring us back into fellowship with God, establishing true peace between Creator and creature by paying everything that we owed. Vicarious atonement. Those words describe the very center of our faith, and they reveal God’s love to us.
“Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” At first glance, it appears that the Servant suffered on His own account, for something He had done. But nothing could be further from the truth. They were our griefs. They were our sorrows. He didn’t just sympathize with our sorrows, our sins. He carried them, He bore them in His own body. While the Servant walked this earth, He healed many of the corruptions of sin. But every act of mercy, every declaration of forgiveness, every restoration of disease had a cost. The illnesses He cured He bore. The griefs He removed He suffered. The sins He forgave He died for. He paid the ultimate price for every gift He gives to His people, not only suffering, not only death, but the very wrath of God Himself.
“Yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.” Understand these words well: Stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. God did it, God put His Servant to death. We all know the political machinations that went on during Good Friday, the power games and the terrible miscarriage of justice that let Barabbas go free and an innocent man hang upon the cross. But do not be deceived. God did it. He used corrupt religious leaders and cowardly politicians to carry out His will, but He did it. When we see men abuse Jesus, we must remember that they are only instruments: He was stricken, smitten, and afflicted by God Himself. God punished His Servant. This is the most amazing kind of love, beyond anything the world has ever seen. It certainly doesn’t look like love. The Father strikes, smites, and afflicts His dear Son, the one whom He loved from all eternity. But make no mistake: this is love.
“But He was pierced for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His wounds we are healed.” This is love, love for you and me. When God punished Jesus, He punished the sins of all sinners of all times and place. Does God punish or does He forgive? On the cross, He does both at the same time. The Servant was wounded, the Servant was pierced, the Servant was punished, the Servant was crucified. For what? For our transgressions. God loves us, He forgives us, by punishing Jesus. “Upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace.” He was punished instead of us. God makes peace with us by punishing Jesus in our place. Vicarious atonement. That is love. “With His wounds we are healed.” The Servant was whipped, the Servant was scourged, the Servant bore a crown of thorns for us. All health was taken away from Him to give us healing. He takes our place and by taking our place He gives us what is His takes what is ours. In Jesus God is both gracious and just. He both forgives and punishes. God doesn’t forgive without paying the price for forgiveness. The reason we can know for certain that God forgives our sins is because He laid those sins on Jesus.
“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to His own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” This is love. Vicarious atonement. For Christ’s sake all our sins are forgiven. How do we know? “He was pierced for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities.” We know because He bore our sins to the cross and paid the price for them there. His piercing pierced the dragon; His crushing crushed the head of the serpent, our ancient foe, because He was pierced and crushed in our place, removing the devil’s power over us. Vicarious atonement. This beautiful doctrine teaches us about our God, it gives us confidence that we can always run to God in repentance when we sin and find Him a loving, forgiving, and gracious Father who will never turn us away. We know our sins are forgiven because we know Christ. The Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.
It is only through the vicarious atonement that we are forgiven. Our sins aren’t forgiven because we believe they are forgiven, because we have faith. Our sins are forgiven because Jesus Christ, true God and true man, suffered and died for them. Jesus and Jesus alone takes away our sins by suffering and dying for them. But faith is still necessary, because faith receives this gift, it clings to the forgiveness that has been won. There is no one for whom Jesus did not die, and God forgives all those for whom Jesus died. God forgives the entire world. But the entire world is not saved. Forgiveness is not received except though faith. Only those who trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins receive from God the forgiveness of their sins. Apart from Christ, our sins are not forgiven; apart from faith in Him, we cannot receive that forgiveness. That is how wandering sheep return to their Master: the forgiveness of sins, purchased by Jesus, received by faith. Vicarious atonement. When we know Christ and Him crucified we know that God sees us at our very worst and forgives us all our sins, sets us at peace with Himself, and rescues us from death and hell. Like foolish sheep we wandered away. But by God’s grace we have returned to the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls. He sought out wandering sheep, and He paid the price for them, giving to you and to me green pastures and quiet waters, forever. In the Name of the Servant, Jesus Christ, Amen.