What happened on Good Friday is so scandalous and profound that the Bible does not limit itself to a single explanation. Dutch theologian, Herman Bavinck, explains, “[T]he work of Christ is so multifaceted that it cannot be captured in a single word nor summarized in a single formula.”[i] “Multifaceted” is exactly the right word for the cross. It brings to mind the image of a giant deep-cut diamond, a unity with a multiple facets, each refracting rays off and through the other.[ii] Let’s take one lap around this flawless wonder and look at six things to celebrate this Friday and every day ...
Behind our first image of the cross is the idea that we are not merely apathetic about God, we are “hostile” toward him.[iii] Hence, our need for what the Bible calls “atonement,” someone to bring at-one-ment where two sides are at war, a peacemaker. The Bible also uses the term “reconciliation”—mending a rift, bringing friendship to a hostile situation. The cross is God’s decisive way of this new friendship a reality. “In Christ,” says Paul, “God was reconciling the world to himself.”[iv] It is not us, but God, in Christ, who makes the first disarming move. As 83% of self-identified evangelicals “agree” or “somewhat agree” with the statement that “a person obtains peace with God and then God responds with grace,” we desperately need to recover the true evangel, the good news that God and God alone is the great Initiator of peace and salvation for hostiles like us. The cross is about our At-one-ment, and more …
2. Battlefield Hero
In Genesis 3:15 we find a cryptic promise that a Man would one day be born and bruised to fatally stomp on the Serpent’s head. Later the Serpent is described as a vicious Dragon, a devouring Lion, a murderous Thief, Apollyon, “the Destroyer.”[v] Jesus appears in first century Palestine “to destroy the works of the devil,”[vi] that is, to crush the Serpent, slay the Dragon, hunt the Lion, catch the Thief, and destroy the Destroyer. Paul tells that that Jesus, “disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”[vii] Just as the captured soldiers of a defeated army were often dragged in chains on a public shame walk, so Jesus shows “the ruler of this world,” “the prince of the power of the air,” the “strong man, fully armed.”[viii] to be powerless. The cross is about our Battlefield Hero, and more …
While bringing bondage to the devil, Jesus brings “freedom,” pays “the ransom,” and offers “redemption” to us.[ix] This is the language of the slave market. Jesus told a crowd who believed they were already free that “everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.”[x] We typically think of slavery as being chained by some outside force. But Jesus describes a slavery from within. We are not so much held captive against our desires but by our desires, not bondage against the will but what Martin Luther called “bondage of the will.” Francis Turretin clarified with his memorable image of “a prisoner who kisses his chains and refuses deliverance.”[xi] Thankfully Jesus died to “deliver us from the kingdom of darkness,” and “so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.”[xii] As Jesus himself put it, “If the Son set you free, you will be free indeed.”[xiii] The cross is about our Chain-breaker, and more …
4. Defense Attorney[xiv]
God makes and enforces laws.[xv] But we love ourselves more than our Maker, more than our neighbors, more than the poor and the outcast. This is criminal and God is a God of Justice.[xvi] So the Judge sends us a Substitute, someone willing to be “pierced for our transgressions,” and “crushed for our iniquities.” In this “wonderful exchange” (as Luther described it) Jesus chooses, at the behest of his loving Father, to stand in the place of lawbreakers to be treated as the Lawbreaker. Our death sentence has been served. Justice has been satisfied.[xvii] “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”[xviii] The New Testament adds that “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.”[xix] “Advocate” (from the Greek, parakleton) pictures the resurrected Jesus zealously pleading our case. If we represent ourselves before the bar of Perfect Justice then we should tremble. But we have nothing whatsoever to fear because Jesus offers his services to us pro bono, and he never loses a case. He has the only fail-proof argument for the Judge to take our side—his own completed death sentence for all of our law breaking.[xx] The cross is about our Defense Attorney and more …
5. Eternal Priest
How can a self-polluting people (like us) enjoy the presence of a pure Being? The answer to that question moves us into the Temple where priests performed elaborate purification rituals for over a thousand of years. For a purification offering the priest would lay his hands on a bull, goat, lamb, or bird as a kind of symbolic transfer of impurity, then slay the animal to bring forgiveness to himself and the people.[xxi] The annual Day of Atonement offering involved two goats.[xxii] The first goat was killed by the priest and its blood sprinkled to cleanse the most Holy Place, then the Tent, then the Altar. The second, the “scapegoat” would be symbolically loaded up with the collective defilements of the people and led outside the city to wander alone.[xxiii] A “paschal offering” was a lamb “without blemish” killed at twilight, its meat eaten, and its blood painted over the doorposts.” [xxiv] Breaking God’s rules is a costly and bloody endeavor. [xxv] But animal slayings are hardly a real solution to the problem. And so Jesus became “a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.”[xxvi] The cross is about our Eternal Priest, and more…
6. Forsaken Son
Ephesus had a mound outside its city gates where those whom society branded unfit for life and love were dumped. Paul opens his letter to this city with an image that would have shocked an Ephesian audience. God the Father, “chose us in him [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and unblemished before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.”[xxvii] Many of the first people to ever read those words would have been the Exposed, unwanted by their own fathers and raised as slaves in Ephesus. God the Father rescues them from the dump and calls them “holy and unblemished.” The fatherless, at last, have a Father, a Father who chose them, who can never abandon them, who will spend forever lavishing gifts on them. This adoption happens “through Jesus Christ,” and the cross is right there at the center of it all: “In him we have redemption through his blood …”[xxviii] Jesus saves outcasts, making their adoption possible, by taking their place and becoming the Outcast. Like the Exposed, “He was despised and rejected by men.” He was “taken away” and “cut off out of the land of the living.” He “suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood.”[xxix]
The ABCs of Atonement
These are not a few scattered images, but overlapping facets of the same Jesus on the same cross. From each angle, Jesus does for us what we could never do for ourselves.[xxx] He elevates us into a friendship, victory, freedom, justice, purity, and family we could never reach on our own. I encourage you to make a habit of preaching this good news to yourself every day. Thank Jesus that through the cross he is the …
… At-one-er. I was hostile to God, but Jesus has made me “at-one” with him, breaking down the wall of division and welcoming me into friendship.
… Battlefield Hero. The forces of fear and evil held me in their oppressive grip, but Jesus, the Warrior-King, has crushed the enemy’s head and claimed victory.
… Chain-breaker. I was a slave to darkness, selfishness, and anxiety, but Jesus is my great Liberator who purchased my freedom and cut my chains.
… Defense Attorney. I broke the laws of an infinitely just Being, but Jesus took my death sentence and now pleads the winning case for my innocence.
… Eternal Priest. I was unclean, but Jesus became my spotless Lamb and serves as my Priest so I can stand confidently in the presence of divine Perfection.
… Forsaken Son. I was left to die at the human dump, but Jesus became Forsaken in my place so that I can enjoy adoption as a cherished son/daughter of God.
Praying through these six biblical images may take 6 minutes or it may take 60 seconds. But that brief time of preaching the good news to yourself can boost an otherwise anxious day into something grace-filled and worshipful.
[This post was adapted from Dr. Williams' new book REFLECT: Becoming Yourself by Mirroring the Greatest Person in History [Weaver, 2017] available here).
[i] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2006) 383-384.
[ii] The trick to a theology of the cross, then, is not to stay in the same place forever fixated on a single image, mesmerizing though it may be. A better way to “survey the wondrous cross” and experience it as a treasure that “demands my soul, my life my all” (in the words of the old hymn) is to stay in motion. Walk its circumference. Marvel for a while from one angle, then move on to watch how one facet catches new rays of light when viewed through the other facets.
[iii] See Romans 8:7 and Colossians 1:21-22.
[iv] 2 Corinthians 5:19a. Elsewhere Paul expands: “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him” (Colossians 1:19-22. See also Romans 5:8-10).
[v] Revelation 12:9; 1 Peter 5:8; John 8:44; and Revelation 9:11.
[vi] 1 John 3:8.
[vii] See Colossians 2:15.
[viii] See Luke 11:21-22; John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11; Ephesians 2:2; and I Corinthians 15:25).
[ix] See Eph. 1:7; Colossians 1:14; Hebrews 9:12; 1 Corinthians 6:20; and Galatians 3:13.
[x] John 8:34.
[xi] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol. 1, Ed. James Dennison, (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1992) 671.
[xii] Hebrews 2:15; Colossians 1:13; and Romans 6:6b.
[xiii] John 8:36.
[xiv] See John 3:16-17; Rom. 5:16, 18; 1 Pet. 2:23; and 1 John 2:1; The view of atonement that I merely sketch here is known as “penal substitutionary atonement” For a more biblically detailed defense see J.I. Packer, “What Did the Cross Achieve?” in Celebrating the Saving Work of God: Collected Shorter Writings of J.I. Packer, Vol. 1, (UK: Paternoster, 1998); Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3, 162-163, Ch. 7; and Adam Johnson, Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015).
[xv] Derek Rishmawy puts it well: “Given this, forgiveness cannot be a simple affair of “letting it go”, or passing it over for God. His own character, his holiness, his righteousness, his justice means that he cannot treat sin as if it did not happen. And it bears repeating that we don’t want him to. We honestly don’t want a God who looks at sin, idolatry, murder, oppression, racism, sexism, rape, genocide, theft, infidelity, child abuse, and the thousand dirty “little” sins we’d like to sweep under the rug, and just shrugs his shoulders and lets it go.” (“The Beauty of the Cross: 19 Objections and Answers on Penal Substitutionary Atonement,” derekrishmawy.com, posted on October 23, 2014.
[xvi] Herman Bavinck clarifies: “…retribution is the principle and standard of punishment throughout Scripture… All this is grounded in the fact that God is the God of justice and righteousness, who by no means clears the guilty, yet is merciful, gracious, and slow to anger, and upholds the rights of the poor and the afflicted, the widow and the orphan (Exod. 20:5–6; 34:6–7; Num. 14:18; Ps. 68:5; etc.). He, accordingly, threatens punishment for sin (Gen. 2:17; Deut. 27:15f.; Pss. 5:5; 11:5; 50:21; 94:10; Isa. 10:13–23; Rom. 1:18; 2:3; 6:21, 23; etc.) and determines the measure of the punishment by the nature of the offense” (Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 3: Sin and Salvation, 162-163).
[xvii] It would be a mistake to understand anger as God’s emotion toward Jesus on the cross. Calvin clarifies, “Yet we do not suggest that God was ever inimical or angry toward him. How could he be angry toward his beloved Son, ‘in whom his heart reposed’ [cf. Matthew 3:17]? How could Christ by his intercession appease the Father toward others, if he were himself hateful to God? This is what we are saying: he bore the weight of divine severity, since he was “stricken and afflicted” [cf. Isaiah 53:5] by God’s hand, and experienced all the signs of a wrathful and avenging God” (Institutes, I.xvi.11). See also Thomas McCall, Forsaken: The Trinity and the Cross, and Why It Matters, (Downers Grove, Il: IVP Academic, 2012) 13-47.
[xviii] Romans 8:1.
[xix] See also Romans 8:34 and Hebrews 7:25.
[xx] As John declares in the very next breath: “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:1). According to Paul, God has “forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Col. 2:13b-14).
[xxi] Read Leviticus 4-6 for more detail.
[xxii] Read Leviticus 16 for more detail.
[xxiii] J.I. Packer sees this as “an illustrative device to make plain to God’s people that their sin really has been taken away” (“Sacrifice and Substitution,” in Celebrating the Saving Work of God: Collected Shorter Writings of J.I. Packer, Vol. 1, [UK: Paternoster, 1998] 130).
[xxiv] Read Exodus 12:1-28 for more detail.
[xxv] See Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3, 332-337.
[xxvi] Hebrews 2:14-17. See also Ephesians 5:2.
[xxvii] See Ephesians 1:3-6.
[xxviii] Ephesians 1:7a.
[xxix] Hebrews 13:12.
[xxx] In this sense we could say that substitution runs through all six images. As John Stott says, “So substitution is not a ‘theory of the atonement.’ Nor is it even an additional image to take its place as an option alongside the others. It is rather the essence of each image and the heart of the atonement itself. None of the … images could stand without it” (The Cross of Christ, [Downers Grove, Il: InterVarsity, 1986] 202-203).