Recently I found myself in at least two discussions with professing believers about the nature of the atonement (the process of sinners being made right with God) and the true meaning, and purpose, of the cross of Christ.
Writ large across the pages of scripture and therefore heralded for centuries as one of the central components of the Christian faith is the truth that since sin entered the world through Adam (Romans 5:12-21) we have all fallen short of God’s standard (Romans 3:22-23), none of us is righteous in and of ourselves (Romans 3:9-18), we are all slaves to sin (John 8:34), and we are all deserving of its consequences.
The fact that we all deserve to face the ultimate consequence (or wage) for our sin, but in His mercy God has saved a people for Himself, is to me one of the most awe-inspiring aspects of the Christian gospel message. Romans 6:23 reminds us of this important fact by saying:
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
So why would anyone want to twist that message?
Interestingly, in both of the recent discussions mentioned above about the meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross, I came across professing believers who denied the notion that Jesus died as a substitute to save us by his grace from the wrath of God that we rightly deserved as sinful creatures. Instead, their assertion was that the purpose of Jesus’ death was just to prove to us that he was perfectly obedient and selfless during his life on earth, and that he really loved us. One proponent of this view even went so far as to say his death wasn’t necessary from God’s perspective, but it was necessary insofar as God figured we wouldn’t accept his forgiveness if it appeared to come cheaply or without some kind of retribution. In holding to these lines of reasoning, my discussion partners clearly placed themselves in the position of arguing against the doctrine of substitutionary atonement – the traditional doctrine wherein Jesus pays the price for sin as a substitute in our place.
Now it is true that through Jesus’ willingness to die on the cross and to offer up his life for the sake of those whom the father has given to him (John 6:37-39), we do see THE perfect example of humility, faithfulness, obedience and love. However, to invert the cross of Christ into an event designed to capitulate to humanity’s supposed desire for a particular kind of saviour is to put things in the wrong order. This creates an undeniably man-centred theology which stands in direct opposition to the God-centred story of redemptive history found in the Bible. It also downplays the seriousness of sin and the role of God as the justifier of the ungodly. In returning to Romans 3, we find a detailed explanation of the interconnection between the death of Christ, the result for the one who has faith in Jesus (those for whom he died) and the role of God as the just justifier of sinful humans.
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
Romans 3:21-26 (ESV)
Notice the use of the word ‘propitiation’ which means ‘to appease’ or even more simply ‘to make right’. Now remember that God is perfectly holy. Sin is the opposite of holiness. Sin also accumulates a wage (death) which must be paid in order for justice to be served. The beauty of the cross lies in the fact that while Jesus did not deserve to die, he willingly and lovingly took my place and your place, if you believe in him for salvation, taking our punishment upon himself, breaking the curse of sin’s hold on us by rising again to defeat death once and for all, and offering us the free gift of eternal life if we repent and believe.
We see this in numerous passages of scripture including:
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
2 Corinthians 5:21 (ESV)
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.
1 Peter 2:24 (ESV)
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit…
1 Peter 3:18 (ESV)
And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.
Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.*
Romans 5:16-18 (ESV)
*Note: ‘all men’ here is not referring to the salvation of all men/women who ever lived. That would be a theory known as universalism which does not sit in harmony with the biblical narrative. Instead, in the preceding sentence it can be seen that it refers to “those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness…” – in other words, all those who believe in Jesus Christ.
It is worth noting too that Jesus’ substitutionary death was not an afterthought. It was part of the Father’s plan as seen in the prophecy of Isaiah 53.
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
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.
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.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people?
And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.
Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,
because he poured out his soul to death
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and makes intercession for the transgressors.
Isaiah 53:2-12 (ESV)
In his well-known book The Cross of Christ on the subject of the atonement, John Stott writes:
“How then could God express simultaneously his holiness in judgment and his love in pardon? Only by providing a divine substitute for the sinner, so that the substitute would receive the judgment and the sinner the pardon. We sinners still of course have to suffer some of the personal, psychological and social consequences of our sins, but the penal consequence, the deserved penalty of alienation from God, has been borne by Another in our place, so that we may be spared it.”
Stott, J. (1989). The Cross of Christ (2nd ed., p. 158). Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press.
It seems there is a trend among some Christians today which has undoubtedly always existed; a trend which seeks to water down the meaning of the cross (and in turn the message of the gospel) by removing any possibility of offense and seeking to create a sanitised reading of the Biblical narrative that tickles the ears of an increasingly secular Western culture. In this context, it is vital to continually remember these words from 1 Corinthians 1:18 (ESV); “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.“
As believers, we need to share the message of the cross with everyone, knowing that God will use it powerfully in the lives of those he is calling to himself.
We must not allow the message and meaning of the cross to grow cold in our hearts or to be diluted into something seemingly more palatable to our easily-offended culture. Instead, we should let it burn in our minds and hearts as both a harsh and heartbreaking reality and a beautiful, heart-restoring act of love, mercy and grace. The message of the cross and of Jesus sacrifice in our place is the ‘good’ news of Good Friday. May we remember it, believe it, share it and rejoice in it, today and always.