Whose Place Did Jesus Take on the Cross?

Crosses

Jesus’ death on the cross is part of the foundation of our faith. Yet for an event so important and familiar, many have misconceptions about it. One common misconception is the idea that Jesus died in our place or in our stead. We sometimes hear the terminology that calls this sacrifice the vicarious death of Christ. Vicarious simply means a substitute. This is the idea that many have – Jesus died in our place as a substitute for us.

Let us notice a common illustration that is used to emphasize the presumed vicarious nature of Christ’s sacrifice. [I say this is a common illustration because I have personally heard it, or something very close to it, used on multiple occasions by gospel preachers from the pulpit.] The illustration goes something like this: You are a defendant in a court of law and, being found guilty, are sentenced to pay some outrageous fine that you could never be able to pay. Since you cannot pay, you are going to be sent to prison. Then someone you do not know steps forward and agrees to pay the debt for you. He takes your place. It is as if he was the one who committed the offense because the punishment for your offense fell on him. Your debt is transferred to and paid by him. As a result, you are free.

The parable described above is used to depict Jesus as one who willingly took our place and acted as a substitute for us. The punishment we were due for our sin, He endured. We are thus free from the penalty for sin. This is a heart-warming metaphor. But as we shall see, it is not Biblical.
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Our Sins and His Cross

Cross

Sin separates man from God (Isaiah 59:2). Jesus came to bring back peace between man and God (Ephesians 2:13-16). To do this, He needed to do something to remedy the problem of sin. Peter wrote, “Christ also died for sins once for all” (1 Peter 3:18). Jesus’ death on the cross was God’s solution for sin. But how did this fix the problem? Some teach that our sins were placed upon Christ and then, in essence, “nailed to the cross.” Is this what happened? It is a familiar concept. But is it a Biblical idea?

One passage used to justify the idea that Jesus took on our sins and carried them to the cross is 2 Corinthians 5:21. “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” What does it mean that Jesus was made “to be sin on our behalf”? Isolating this verse from its context and ignoring related passages, there are three possible interpretations:
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