Some who reject the vicarious death of Jesus argue it would have been sinful for Jesus to die in our stead. One of these argued that the fact “Jesus’ death was not substitutionary…is not difficult to show, for the Law and Prophets specifically prohibited substitutionary deaths of a man in the place of another man” (A personal correspondence I had with David Sims which is posted on his website at http://www.retainthestandard.com/pst.html). He offered the following passages as proof:
Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their fathers; a person shall be put to death for his own sin (Deut. 24:16),
Yet you say, “Why should the son not bear the guilt of the father?” Because the son has done what is lawful and right, and has kept all My statutes and observed them, he shall surely live. The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself (Ezek. 18:18-20).
He followed thus up with:
Since Jesus lived while under the Law of Moses was still in effect, He was subject to it while He lived. If Jesus died as a substitute for one man or any number of men, He violated the Law of Moses and the inspired word of the prophets. And since we know Jesus never actually sinned, the sacrificial death of Jesus could not have been a substitutionary death (Ibid.).
I believed this brother’s use of Deuteronomy 24:16 to be fundamentally flawed. In fact, the very thing he claimed this passage disproves is still awaiting proof, in that neither the letter nor the spirit of Deuteronomy 24:16 prohibited one from graciously volunteering to pay the deserved penalty or debt of another. Instead, such was put in place by God to prohibit those in positions of authority from perverting justice by wrongly punishing one for the sin, crime, or debt of another. This is borne out by Deuteronomy 25:1, where the obligation of judges and those in positions of authority to “justify the righteous and condemn the wicked” is made clear.
It was precisely this kind of justice we saw being demonstrated by Judah’s King Amaziah in 2 Kings 14:6, which says, “But the children of the murderers he did not execute, according to what is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, in which the LORD commanded, saying, ‘Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their fathers; but a person shall be put to death for his own sin.’”
Besides, the demands of Deuteronomy 24:16 and similar passages were not given to constrain God, who always acts consistent with justice and righteousness, but man. Therefore, when God, the Righteous Judge, does justice and righteousness, He is not being guided by the external dictates of the law He has given to man. Instead, He simply acts consistent with His own nature. In other words, He does justice and righteousness because He is just and righteous (viz., God always exercises Himself consistent with Who and What He Is). Thus, any effort to judge the justice and righteousness of God based on His subjugation to an external (i.e., outside of Himself) law code misunderstands the very nature of the I AM THAT I AM.
Again, God’s justice and righteousness are not dependent on, nor judged by, any law He has given to His creatures. On the contrary, His justice and righteousness are solely dependent on His divine Being. This means, among other things, that when the only absolutely righteous Judge is portrayed as doing the very kind of thing He has prohibited His fallen, finite creatures from doing (cf. Ex 20:5; 34:7; Isa 14:21; Jer 32:18), He must not be judged by, and is not guilty of, the law He has given to said creatures. Rather, the very context of God-given law is but man himself. Again, it is not God, but only man, who is the subject of God-given law, and it is only man who is amenable to it. Misunderstand this and one finds himself in the unenviable position of bringing false charges against God Himself.
However, nothing I’ve said here should be taken to mean I think God was unjust or unrighteous when He visited the iniquity of the fathers on their children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Him (cf. Ex 20:5; 34:7; Isa 14:21; Jer 32:18). Instead, what I’m saying is that the omnipotent, all-knowing God, in contrast to His fallen, sin-sick creatures, is able to execute justice and righteousness flawlessly, and does so without the constraints of external law. Therefore, when the Righteous Judge visited the iniquity of the fathers up to the fourth generation, He was acting in perfect harmony with justice and righteousness. I especially like what Adam Clark said about this in his comments on 1 Samuel 15:2-3: “Nothing could justify such an exterminating decree but the absolute authority of God. This was given: all the reasons of it we do not know; but this we know well, the Judge of all the earth doth right. This war was not for plunder, for God commanded that all the property, as well as all the people, should be destroyed” (Adam Clark’s Commentary On The Bible).
Therefore, one of the serious mistakes this anti-substitutionary-death-of-Jesus brother makes is thinking God is subject to the law code He has given to His sinful creatures—a law code that was designed to prevent them, due to their finitude and self-corrupted natures, from perverting justice and righteousness, something the I AM THAT I AM would, and could, never do.
On the other hand, Ezekiel 18:19-20 is found in the context of a rebellious people who are being confronted by the wrath of God via the Babylonian Empire. At the time it was written, the first Babylonian deportation in 606 B.C., as well as the second in 597, had already occurred. The destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 586 B.C. are yet some five years out. The false claim of these rebellious people that God is unfairly dealing with them is a familiar one by this time. Their audacious we-deserve-nothing-of-what-we-are-getting claim is, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” Although their claim may appear to have some merit, what is happening to them is their own fault, in that they have stubbornly refused to repent of their own rebellious and idolatrous ways. As a result, they are rightfully experiencing the wrath of God, which is a crucial point when trying to understand God’s righteousness when visiting the iniquity of the fathers on their children to the third and fourth generations (cf. Ex 20:5). Hence, any such charge leveled against God based on the appearance His actions were violations of the justice and righteousness principles found in His law is clearly misinformed.
Sims then went on to compound his error by using Isaiah 5:20, Jeremiah 31:27-34, and Hebrews 8 to argue that any concept of substitutionary, man for man, penalty- or debt-paying was as unlawful under the NT as it was the OT. I responded by making it clear that Christians can play no part in any effort to punish, or otherwise impose a penalty on, anyone but the perpetrator of a sin, crime, or wrongdoing, as any action to the contrary would be unjust and/or unrighteous and thus unscriptural. But when all this is said and done, none of it says anything about it being wrong for someone to graciously volunteer to accept, experience, or suffer the debt, penalty, or punishment that rightly belongs to another. Along these lines, it was noted that Paul’s actions on behalf of Onesimus, which are recorded in verse 18 of his letter to Philemon, are a demonstration of this. There, Paul said concerning Onesimus, Philemon’s runaway slave, “But if he has wronged you or owes anything, put that on my account.” The key phrase here is “put that to my account” (touto emoi ellogā). The only other time the verb ellogā is used is in Romans 5:13, where it is translated in the KJV, NKJV, ASV, and NASB as “imputed,” which is not insignificant to the subject under discussion. Yes, there can be no doubt that it would have been unjust for Philemon, or anyone else, to charge whatever wrong Onesimus had done, or debt owed, to the apostle Paul without his consent, and nothing Paul says or does in this incident gives any credence that it would ever be right to do so. What is in play here, and this is so important to see and understand, is grace.
This is brought out clearly by Albert Barnes in his Notes on the Bible:
(1) Onesimus, not Paul, had done the wrong. (2) Paul was not guilty of it, or blameworthy for it, and never in any way, or by any process, could be made to be, or conceived to be. It would be true forever that Onesimus and not he had done the wrong. (3) Paul assumed the debt and the wrong to himself. He was willing, by putting himself in the place of Onesimus, to bear the consequences, and to have Onesimus treated as if he had not done it. When he had voluntarily assumed it, it was right to treat him as if he had done so; that is, to hold him responsible. A man may assume a debt if he pleases, and then he may be held answerable for it. (4) If he had not assumed this himself, it never could have been right for Philemon to charge it on him. No possible supposition could make it right. No agency which he had in the conversion of Onesimus; no friendship which he had for him; no favor which he had shown him, could make it right. The consent, the concurrence on the part of Paul was absolutely necessary in order that he should be in any way responsible for what Onesimus had done. (5) The same principle prevails in imputation everywhere. (a) What we have done is chargeable upon us. (b) If we have not done a thing, or have not assumed it by a voluntary act, it is not right to charge it upon us. (c) God reckons things as they are.
So, in order to be consistent, our anti-substitutionary-death brethren must argue that not only did Paul sin by suggesting such a solution (viz., having Onesimus’ debt and wrongdoing put to his account), but that he actually compounded it by asking Philemon to become a partaker with him in his “evil” scheme. I couch it this way for two reasons. The first is based on the argument that says:
If Jesus died as a substitute for one man or any number of men, He violated the Law of Moses and the inspired word of the prophets. But since we know Jesus never actually sinned, the sacrificial death of Jesus could not have been a substitutionary death.
The second is based on the fact that this was not just an OT principle, but a NT one as well. As I see it, then, those making such an argument have but two choices: they must recognize that they have (1) wrongly interpreted and applied the passages under discussion, or (2) they must view Paul as sinning when he asked Philemon to “put that to my account.”
Finally, there is nothing in the passages Sims cited (explicitly or implicitly) that forbids someone from voluntarily assuming another’s debt or, as in the case of Jesus, suffering the judicial penalty for someone else’s sin(s) (cf. 2 Cor 5:21; Gal 3:13; 1 Pet 2:24). Thus, any such argument is found wanting.
I’ll have some closing remarks in the post that follows.