A Good Friday
What happened on the cross is the magnificent mystery of the Christian faith. The implications for us and for the entire cosmos are more than we will ever entirely apprehend in this life. We at once mourn the necessity of the cross and celebrate in it God’s victory over sin, death, hell and Satan.
While there is mystery, deep mystery, this doesn’t mean we can’t know anything truly about the cross. There is much we can know with certainty. And there are misunderstandings we should avoid.
The classic book on the topic is no doubt John Stott’s The Cross of Christ. It has been out for over twenty years now and continues to prove to be an invaluable meditation on the central event of the Christian faith. Here are some selections (presented here without ellipses) from Stott’s pivotal chapter, “The Self-Substitution of God.”
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.
The key question we now have to address is this: exactly who was our substitute? Who took our place, bore our sin, became our curse, endured our penalty, died our death? To be sure, “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). That would be the simple, surface answer. But who was this Christ? How are we to think of him?
The first proposal is that the substitute was the man Christ Jesus, viewed as a human being and conceived as an individual separate from both God and us, an independent third party. Those who begin with this a priori lay themselves open to gravely distorted understandings of the atonement and so bring the truth of substitution into disrepute. They tend to present the cross in one or other of two ways, according to whether the initiative was Christ’s or God’s. In the one case Christ is pictured as intervening in order to pacify an angry God and wrest from him a grudging salvation. In the other, the intervention is ascribed to God, who proceeds to punish the innocent Jesus in place of us the guilty sinners who had deserved the punishment. In both cases God and Christ are sundered from one another: either Christ persuades God or God punishes Christ. What is characteristic of both presentations is that they denigrate the Father. Reluctant to suffer himself, he victimizes Christ instead. Reluctant to forgive, he is prevailed on by Christ to do so. He is seen as a pitiless ogre whose wrath has to be assuaged, whose disinclination to act has to be overcome, by the loving self-sacrifice of Jesus.
It is true that the sins of Israel were transferred to the scapegoat, that “the LORD laid on him,” his suffering servant, all our iniquity (Is 53:6), that “it was the LORD’s will to crush him” (Is 53:10), and that Jesus applied to himself Zechariah’s prophecy that God would “strike the shepherd” (Zech 13:7; Mk 14:27). It is also true that in the New Testament God is said to have “sent” his Son to atone for our sins (1 Jn 4:9-10), “delivered him up” for us (Acts 2:23; Rom 8:32), “presented him as a sacrifice of atonement” (Rom 3:25), “condemned sin” in his flesh (Rom 8:3), and “made him … to be sin for us” (2 Cor 5:21). These are striking statements. But we have no liberty to interpret them in such a way as to imply either that God compelled Jesus to do what he was unwilling to do himself, or that Jesus was an unwilling victim of God’s harsh justice. Jesus Christ did indeed bear the penalty of our sins, but God was active in and through Christ doing it, and Christ was freely playing his part (e.g., Heb 10:5-10).
We must not, then, speak of God punishing Jesus or of Jesus persuading God, for to do so is to set them over against each other as if they acted independently of each other or were even in conflict with each other. We must never make Christ the object of God’s punishment or God the object of Christ’s persuasion, for both God and Christ were subjects not objects, taking the initiative together to save sinners. Whatever happened on the cross in terms of “God-forsakenness” was voluntarily accepted by both in the same holy love that made atonement necessary. It was “God in our nature forsaken of God.”
The Father did not lay on the Son an ordeal he was reluctant to bear, nor did the Son extract from the Father a salvation he was reluctant to bestow. There is no suspicion anywhere in the New Testament of discord between the Father and the Son, “whether by the Son wresting forgiveness from an unwilling Father or by the Father demanding a sacrifice from an unwilling Son.” There was no unwillingness in either. On the contrary, their wills coincided in the perfect self-sacrifice of love.
Our substitute, then, who took our place and died our death on the cross, was neither Christ alone (since that would make him a third party thrust in between God and us), nor God alone (since that would undermine the historical incarnation), but God in Christ, who was truly and fully both God and man and who on that account was uniquely qualified to represent both God and man and to mediate between them. If we speak only of Christ suffering and dying, we overlook the initiative of the Father. If we speak only of God suffering and dying, we overlook the mediation of the Son. The New Testament authors never attribute the atonement either to Christ in such a way as to disassociate him from the Father, or to God in such a way as to dispense with Christ, but rather to God and Christ, or to God acting in and through Christ with his whole-hearted concurrence.
This is the mystery on which we meditate and which we celebrate.
Posted by Andy Le Peau
at April 2, 2010 6:18 AM