Christianity is Christ, and unless we understand the death of Christ, we cannot possibly appreciate why our Lord came into human history. Without the death of Christ, there could be no forgiveness of sins and hence no salvation. Jesus Himself said, “The Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10) and, “The Son of Man came not to be ministered to, but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45), clearly pointing to the redemptive nature of His death.
In the death of Christ we have another “uniqueness” of Christianity. Here God has done for man what man cannot do for himself. God provided a way by which man, who is sinful and corrupt, can be forgiven, cleansed, and brought into vital and intimate relationship with his Maker – not on the basis of something man must do, but on the basis of what God Himself, in His Son, has done.
Every other religious system in the world is essentially a “do-it-yourself” proposition. Only in Christianity is salvation a free gift, offered not because man deserves it but because of the incomprehensible goodness of God’s love. The cross of Christ is the central fact of human history. Jesus was the only Man born to die (Heb. 2:14). His death is the basis for His personal worthiness to receive the worship of the whole creation (Rev. 5:9, 12, 13).
Christ’s death is a central theme of the Scriptures, both Old Testament and New. As far back as the Garden of Eden, when God cursed the serpent, He promised the Deliverer (Gen. 3:15). The Prophet Isaiah gives us a clear promise of One who would die for our sins: “He was wounded for our transgressions; He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him; and with His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way, and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:5, 6).
In order to explain the recent puzzling events in Jerusalem to the two disciples walking to Emmaus, Jesus showed them all the Scriptures pointing to His death (Luke 24:25-27). His conversation must have been one of the most exciting Bible studies of all time. His death was a subject about which the prophets wrote much. They spoke of His sufferings without knowing exactly who He was or when He would come. They were told they were writing for the benefit of others than themselves (1 Peter 1:10-12).
Some question the necessity for understanding the meaning of the Cross and the Atonement. After all, they argue, we are not saved by any theory of the Atonement, but by the actual. death of Christ. This, of course, is true. We must be careful not to try to reduce the Atonement into merely a neat formula. On the other hand, just as what we believe about Christ’s person is crucial – even though we are saved by what He has done — so it is important for us to understand the meaning of His mission to die for man’s sin. Otherwise we may find ourselves wittingly or unwittingly opposing the Gospel in one of its most vital and fundamental teachings.
Old Testament Background
A clear understanding of the significance of the death of Christ requires an understanding of the Old Testament background which led up to it.
Man is hopelessly separated from God because of His sin: “But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid His face from you, that He will not hear” ( Isa. 59:2). God takes the initiative and provides the way by which our estrangement may be ended. Leon Morris comments, “In the Old Testament, [atonement] is usually said to be obtained by the sacrifices, but it must never be forgotten that God says of the atoning blood, ‘I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls’ (Lev. 17:11). Atonement is secured not by any value inherent in the sacrificial victim, but because sacrifice is the divinely appointed way of securing atonement.”22
The whole sacrificial system of the Old Testament was a symbolic portrayal of what would be completely fulfilled in Christ. The Passover, celebrated at the time of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, is the fullest picture. Each believing family slew a perfect lamb and put its blood on the doorposts and lintels of the house. The angel of death, when he saw the blood, passed over that household, which in this way escaped the judgment of having its firstborn die. As with other sacrifices, the elements of perfection, the shedding of blood, and substitution were all present.
Christ was the fulfillment of all that the Passover lamb stood for. He was “the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Those who in faith offered animal sacrifices in Old Testament times looked forward to the coming Messiah, just as we by faith look back to the cross of Christ. The animal sacrifices did not save, but faith in what they symbolized did. We by faith lay hold on the fulfillment of the symbols.
Not all the blood of beasts
On Jewish altars slain,
Could give the guilty conscience peace,
Or wash away the stain.
But Christ the heavenly Lamb,
Takes all our sins away;
A sacrifice of nobler name
And richer blood than they.
Atonement for Sin
Christ’s death is spoken of as the atonement for our sin. It has been suggested that ”atonement” means, basically, “at-one-ment” – that is to say, a bringing together of those who are estranged. But the Old Testament word means, essentially, “to cover.” The animal sacrifices provided a “covering” for sin until the death of Christ would put it forever away.
In the New Testament, various ideas are presented which explain and illustrate Atonement. It is spoken of as a reconciliation: “When we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son” (Rom. 5:10, cf. 2 Cor. 5:18, 19; Eph. 2:16; and Col. 1:20). Reconciliation implies former hostility between the reconciled parties. As sinners, we were enemies of God. God, because of His holy character, is opposed to that which is sinful and unholy. The death of Christ did away with the cause of God’s enmity by taking away our sin. We have been reconciled to God, the root cause of alienation having been removed and our attitude toward God having been changed. God has always loved us, and still loves us. But His wrath – the fixed, permanent attitude of God’s holiness against evil – has been turned away from us. It has been carried by Christ.
The death of Christ is also spoken of as a propitiation: “God hath set [Him] forth to be a propitiation through faith in His blood, to declare His righteousness for the remission of sins that were past, through the forebearance of God” (Rom. 3:25). Propitiation has within it the concept of “the removing of wrath by the offering of a gift.”23 It has a personal quality to it. A young man might propitiate his girlfriend, for example, by sending her a bouquet of roses. God, in this case, is propitiated because the perfect sacrifice of Christ, in laying down His life for us, has fully met the holy and just requirements of God’s law.
It is important to understand that God does not first reconcile us and then love us. Rather, because God has loved us, He reconciles us and opens the way for propitiation.
“Ransom” is another term used to define the death of Christ. It is closely linked with the idea of redemption. “[Christ] gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time” (1 Tim. 2:6; cf. 1 Peter 1:18). Though some Church leaders seem to have thought this ransom was paid to Satan, the general conviction has been that it is the price paid to meet the holy requirements of God’s law and redeem us from its curse. “Ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold…but with the precious blood of Christ, as a Lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Peter 1:18, 19).
Among the terms that give the clearest explanations of the death of Christ is “substitute.” “Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18 ). Christ died for us – that is, in our place. “[God] hath made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him” (cf. 2 Cor. 5:21).The whole concept of sacrifice for sin carries with it the idea of substitution, which is fulfilled in Christ, “who His own self bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness; by whose stripes we are healed” (1 Peter 2:24).
In the doctrinal statements of many Bible-believing churches and institutions, specific and particular mention is made of the “substitutionary” atonement of Christ. The reason for this is that other interpretations of the atonement have been advanced which, though some of them contain partial truth, have tended to eclipse, if not deny outright, the central truth of substitutionary atonement. Some theologians openly attack this doctrine, suggesting that the idea of substitution is a Pauline addition to the teaching of Christ. Even from the small portion of Scripture we have examined, however, it is clear that such claims are not the case. The teaching that Christ has taken our place and suffered and died in our behalf is as present in the Gospels as in the rest of the New Testament.
Often the viewpoint of a speaker, minister, or author on the substitutionary atonement is a reliable indicator of the orthodoxy of his other theological views.
Among the many perverted views of the atonement are the following:
1. The moral influence or example theory.The idea here is that man needs only to repent and reform to be reconciled to God. Advocates of this view believe the death of Christ is merely the powerful example of a man committed to truth and righteousness at all costs, and that we are redeemed as we allow His example to have a determining influence on our own efforts at moral improvement.
There is, of course, great moral influence in Christ’s example. It is true that “Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example that ye should follow in His steps” (1 Peter 1:21). But Scripture clearly teaches not only that sin has defiled us personally, but that because of it we are guilty before a holy God. Many passages of Scripture clearly teach that Christ died for our sins, and the moral influence theory ignores these passages entirely.
Other Erroneous Views
2. The governmental theory holds that the Atonement is a requirement of God’s government of the universe, which “cannot be maintained, nor can the divine law preserve its authority over its subjects, unless the pardon of the offenders is accompanied by some exhibition of the high estimate which God sets upon His law and on the heinous guilt of violating it.”24 But why is Christ necessary , if this is all there is to the Atonement? And why should One who is perfect suffer, rather than one who is guilty?
It is true that the Cross shows man, with extreme vividness, the awfulness of sin, and that it is eloquent testimony that man may not ignore or toy with the law of God. But this surely is incidental to Christ’s being made sin for us so that we may be made the righteousness of God in Him ( 2 Cor. 5: 21 ).This view also fails to do justice to all the passages of Scripture already referred to.
3. Some have felt that the crucifixion of Christ was simply an untimely accident of history, unexpected and unforeseen. But Scripture clearly contradicts this view. Christ Himself assured His disciples that it was for this purpose that He had come into the world (John 12:27). In the Garden of Gethsemane He prayed to His heavenly Father, “Nevertheless, not as I will but as Thou wilt” ( Matt. 26:39). He says further, “Therefore doth My Father love Me, because I lay down My life, that I may take it again. No man taketh it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again” ( John 10:17, 18). The prophets predicted the Messiah’s sacrificial death and, in fact, an scriptural evidence opposes the idea that Christ’s death was accidental. That Christ did not have to die, but voluntarily endured the Cross for us, is one of the central and most moving aspects of His sacrifice.
4. Others would suggest that though Christ’s death might have been anticipated by sensitivity to the gathering storm, He died, essentially, as another martyr of history. But if this were the case, how could forgiveness come from His death, and how do we account for Jesus’ statement, when He began the ceremony we celebrate as the Lord’s Supper, “This is My blood of the New Testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matt. 26:28)? The whole emphasis of the Scripture is opposed to any view of the Cross that is less than supernatural.
The idea of substitution is a basic theme throughout the Bible. There are other lessons to be learned from the Atonement, to be sure, but none is so prominent as to obscure this basic and wonderful truth.
Objections to Substitution
There have always been objections to the substitutionary atonement, and we should consider some of them.
Some insist that if God does not pardon sin without requiring atonement, He must either not be all-powerful or else not be a God of love. “Why can’t He simply forgive sin out of His pure mercy?” skeptics want to know. “Could not an all-powerful God, in His omnipotence, have redeemed the world as easily as He created it? Since God commands man to forgive freely, why does He Him- self not freely forgive?”
Finlayson summarizes the answer given such questions by Anselm in the Twelfth Century: God cannot so forgive because He is not a private person, but God. God’s will is not His own in the sense that anything is permissible to Him or becomes right because He wills it. What God determines is what God does. God cannot deal with sin except as in His holiness He sees it to be. If He did not punish it, or make adequate satisfaction for it, then He would be forgiving it unjustly.25
It is important to realize, as we have previously pointed out, that God exercises all His attributes in harmony with each other. His holiness demands atonement for sin. His love provides it. God’s attributes never violate one another, nor are they antagonistic to each other. They are not in an uneasy equilibrium, but they work together in full and complete harmony. “Mercy is shown not by trampling upon the claims of justice, but by vicariously satisfying them.”26 In the cross of Christ, “Mercy and truth are met together: righteousness and peace have kissed each other” (Ps. 85:10).
Love and Holiness
The New Testament speaks of the “wedding,” or coming together, of the attributes of God’s love and holiness in the cross of Christ so that “He might be just and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). In the very act of forgiving sin, or, to use Paul’s “daring word…of ‘justifying the ungodly,’ God must act in harmony with His whole character. He must show what He is in relation to sin – that evil cannot dwell with Him because He refuses to tolerate sin in any form. In the very process of making forgiveness available to men, He must show His complete abhorrence of sin. In other words, God must not merely forgive men, but must forgive in away which shows that He forever hates evil and can never treat it as other than completely hateful. Sin makes a real difference to God, and even in forgiving, He cannot ignore sin or regard it as other or less than it is. If He did so, He would not be more gracious than He is in the Atonement – He would cease to be God.”27
Others have said that the very idea of God’s permitting Christ to die for our sin, as an innocent victim for guilty sinners, was injustice rather than justice. Some go so far as actually to call it immoral. But such charges would be true only if Christ were an unwilling victim. As we have seen, the glory of the Cross is in the voluntary nature of Christ’s coming to earth. “He did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but humbled Himself and became obedient to death, even the death of the cross” (cf. Phil. 2: 6-8). Hammond observes, “The Sufferer must have a double connection between God and Himself on the one hand, and the sinner and Himself on the other.”28 Only a solidly scriptural objection could fairly be raised against evangelical teaching on this subject.
Though we must consider alternative interpretations, we must note that critics approach the doctrine of substitution from their preconceived notions of what God ought to have done and their own superficial and humanistic ethical standards.
In addition to the objections we have already mentioned, certain other questions may come to your mind about the substitutionary death of Christ. How, for example, could the death of one Person atone for the innumerable sins of the whole world?
At the human level, such atonement would obviously be impossible. One person may die for one other, but for no more than one other. But when we consider the effectiveness of the death of Christ, we must remember who died. Christ was not merely a man; He was the Cod-man: “Cod was in Christ” (2 Cor. 5:19). Christ’s life was of infinite value, and His death likewise had infinite worth. The sum total of the value of all of those for whom He died does not approximate the infinite value of the divine life that was given at Calvary in sacrifice for our sakes.
In the “value” of the One who died is also the answer to the question, “Since Christ was only dead for three days, how can His experience be compared with the eternal death millions will experience if they do not trust Him?” The death Christ died was an infinite death, both in value and in the intensity of the spiritual suffering the Son of Cod went through. We simply cannot comprehend what it must have been for the sinless Son of Cod to become sin (2 Cor. 5:21) for us.
There is also the question as to whether, when Christ died, it is true to say that “God died.” Robert J. Little points out, in answer to this question, that Christ “became a man in order to die, for without dying as a man He could not have delivered men from the penalty of sin….Yet when He died, His divine being did not die. And when He died as a man, it was only His body which died. Scripture makes it clear that when any human being dies, it is the body which dies. The soul and spirit live on. Hence, when Christ died, we do not say that God died, though He who died on the cross was God. No finite mind can fully understand everything about the infinite God, but we can have some understanding of what is involved.”29
A number of clear implications arise out of an understanding of the Atonement.
One is that in the Atonement we are dealing with an absolute issue of life and death. The Bible clearly tells us that “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). Some tend to hedge on drawing lines between those who are saved and those who are lost. This hedging is perhaps due to their reluctance to judge individuals and perhaps also because of their incipient hope that all are saved.
It is true that only the Lord knows those who are His, and that our judgment, based on a man’s profession in words and on the external nature of his life, may be faulty. But the Scripture knows no such vagueness. “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life; and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him” (John 3:36). Men are in sin and Christ died for their sin. A man is now either in Christ by faith, or still in sin because of unbelief. There is no in-between ground. A person has either life or death, lives either in light or in darkness, is either saved or lost.
It is in the death of Christ that we can see clearly why some widespread ideas of the universal Fatherhood of God are erroneous. Often accompanying a reluctance to draw distinctions, people who hold these ideas suggest that all men are God’s children and that therefore efforts to “convert” them are in bad taste. But though we all are God’s offspring by creation (Acts 17:28), we are not God’s children spiritually, else the Atonement would have been unnecessary. Jesus spoke sharply to those who refused to recognize Him as God, saying, “Ye are of your father the devil” (John 8: 44). On the other hand, “to all who did accept Him, and trust in His name, He gave the right to become the children of God” (John 1:12, WMS). We cannot become what we already are.
The death of Christ is what makes the Gospel good news rather than good advice. Christ did not die for us because we recognized our need and cried out to God for help. “But God proves His own love for us by Christ’s dying for us when we were still sinners” (Rom. 5:8, BERK). The Gospel is not a set of swimming instructions for a drowning man, but a pardon and reprieve from death for a man who does not deserve it. There is nothing we must or can do to benefit from it, except simply to receive it as a free gift and so experience eternal life.
Basis for Assurance
The Atonement is what gives a Christian his basis for assurance of forgiveness of sin and eternity in heaven. This assurance is not arrogant presumption that we are better than anyone else, but rather confidence, based on God’s own Word, in what Christ has done for us by dying on the cross. From the cross, just before He died, Jesus said, “It is finished” (John 19:30). So we speak of the “finished work of Christ.” By this we mean that our Lord has already done everything necessary for our salvation. We still need daily cleansing and forgive- ness of sin, of course, and we receive it when we confess our sin (1 John 1:9). But we receive forgiveness on the basis of what has already been accomplished in us – sons, not as alienated sinners. God intends us to have assurance of our salvation: “These things have I written to you that believe on the name of the Son of God, that ye may know that ye have eternal life” (1 John 5:13).
Assurance need not lead to indifference and smug contentment, as many contend it does. It can also result in deep joy and a loving response to Christ because of His love for us. We are continually reminded, “Ye are not your own…ye are bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s” (1 Cor. 6:19, 20). The new life we receive changes our attitudes, motives, values, and will. In ourselves we are incapable of such changes, but in Christ we become new creations (2 Cor. 5:17). It is for this reason that Paul was so daring and so adamant in maintaining that the Church add nothing to simple trust as a requirement for salvation, and add nothing afterward by way of legal regulation to maintain salvation. The Gospel is not Christ “plus” something, however good the something may be, but Christ alone in His atoning death for us.
Demonstrates God’s Love
The Atonement also demonstrates the nature and character of God’s love. We live in a world which is acutely aware of man’s pain, suffering, and misery. No one is interested in a God who is aloof and untouched by human need, or even in a God who might save sinners from a distance. In the cross of Christ the affirmation, “God is love,” takes concrete expression. People will believe a demonstration of love in action before they will believe a person who declares it only in words. God’s love for us is no exception. John says, “Hereby perceive we the love of God, because He laid down His life for us” (1 John 3:16).
God, in Christ, became involved in this life. He assumed its burdens and entered into its tragedies. Finally He took on full responsibility for this life by “becoming sin for us…that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him” (cf. 2 Cor. 5:21). Through the Atonement, we know dramatically that God is not indifferent to man’s tragedy and suffering.
The death of Christ, in its objective accomplishment and in its subjective impact, is the central fact of history.
Love so amazing, so divine
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
For Further Reading
James Denney. The Death of Christ. Chicago: Inter-Varsity Fellowship, 1964.
Guillebaud, H. E. Why the Cross. London: Inter-Varsity Fellowship, 1967.
Morris, Leon. The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross. London: Tyndale Press, 1965.
The Cross in the New Testament. Grand Rapids: : Eerdmans, 1964.