Is Jesus Christ our substitute or our representative? This was a question that I pondered seriously in my conversion to becoming Catholic. As a Protestant, I firmly believed that the crucifixion of our Lord was substitutionary i.e. that Jesus Christ died in our place for our sins. Now, don’t get me wrong...this is true...but only insofar as it goes. What I didn’t realise as a Protestant was that Christ was so much more than simply our substitute.
Consider St. Paul’s teaching of Jesus as the New Adam (cf. Rom 5:12ff; 1 Cor 15:21-23). St. Paul’s point is that Jesus Christ is the covenantal head of the new creation, just as Adam was the covenantal head of the old creation. And this covenantal headship is not a substitutionary headship – rather the covenantal head is the first member of the covenant, as well as the representative of all those who are included in the covenant thereafter. So, just as Adam was our representative in the old humanity, so Christ is our representative in the new humanity.
And how did Christ become the head of the new covenant? By pouring out His blood for the forgiveness of our sins (Matt 26:28). By giving Himself on Calvary, Christ was our substitute, but He was also so much more than that. He was our covenant representative. The idea of a substitutionary atonement is limited only to substitution; however, the idea of a representative atonement is so much more (although it includes element of substitution).
But what does this mean in practical terms? If Christ is more than just our substitution – if He is in fact our representative – then this places some responsibility on us. Because Jesus was our representative on the cross, we have the responsibility to follow in His footsteps i.e. we are called to take up our cross daily and to follow Him (Matt 16:24). We are called to follow His representative example by dying to ourselves and giving ourselves – and in this way we fill up what was lacking in Christ’s suffering (Col 1:24).
And this is what covenant is about. The fact that we are in covenant with God implies that we have covenantal responsibilities. The New Covenant, like all the preceding covenants, contains blessings for faithfulness and curses for disobedience. With Christ as our representative, and being fed by His grace, may we continually look to Him and seek to live out the life that He calls us to live – giving ourselves sacrificially to one another, just as Christ gave Himself for us.