the uniqueness of the cross
For Christians throughout the ages, the cross of Christ stands at the very centre of the Christian faith. It is through the suffering of the Son of God and His death on the cross that the redemption of the world was achieved. But for Christians, the significance of the cross is more than our salvation. It shapes the way in which we understand the nature of God, the greatness of His love for humankind, and the meaning of the Christian life. Christians can only begin to understand the nature of God and the breadth, length, height, and depth of His love when we come to appreciate that ‘God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:8). As one writer puts it, the cross of Christ ‘is so gloriously stupendous in its significance that it fills and dominates the whole Christian landscape’.
Unfortunately, many people have mocked the Christian understanding of the significance of Christ’s death on the cross. In the second century, the great Christian apologist Justin Martyr reported that the cultured despisers of Christianity mocked the Christian claim that the crucified son of a carpenter was in fact God. Perhaps the most scathing critique came from the pen of the renowned philosopher of the same period, Celsus, who dismissed the ‘tree of life’ and ‘resurrection of the dead as fables’.
Sadly, derisory voices are also found within the Church. For example, in his book Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, John Shelby Spong, the Episcopal Bishop of Newark writes: ‘To speak of a Father God so enraged by human evil that He requires propitiation for our sins that we cannot pay and thus demands the death of the divine-human Son as a guilt offering is a ludicrous idea in our century’. Spong goes on to rubbish the sacrificial death of Christ by insisting that the idea that the blood of Jesus cleanses the sinner from sin is ‘by and large repugnant to us today’.
To the modern mind, sacrifice smacks of primitive and useless rituals and unconscionable cruelty. But for Christians, the significance of Christ’s death on the cross cannot be fully understood without the image of sacrifice. When God established His covenant with Israel after He had delivered them from Egypt, He instituted a system of sacrifices by which His people can atone for their sins (Leviticus 17:11). What blotted out the sins of the people, however, was not the blood of animals (Hebrews 10:11) but that of the sinless Son of God it prefigures. Therefore, animal sacrifices of the old covenant were a type that points to the sacrificial death of the Lamb of God, who came to take away the sins of the world.
The New Testament contains numerous references of the death of Christ as the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul says that Christ loved us ‘and gave Himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God’ (Ephesians 5:2). Peter in his letter to the Christians in Asia Minor asserts that believers are redeemed ‘with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect’ (1 Peter 1:18-19). The writer of Hebrews makes it clear that atonement for the sins of humanity is the purpose of the incarnation of the Son of God: ‘For this reason He had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service of God, and that He might make atonement (propitiation) for the sins of the people’ (Hebrews 2:17).
At the heart of the concept of sacrifice is the idea of an exchange: on Calvary’s cross, the sinless Son of God died in our stead, receiving the punishment and bearing the divine wrath that we deserve. Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians, writes that ‘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). In Galatians, he repeats the same idea when he asserts that ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us’ (Galatians 3:13). Drawing from Isaiah 53:5-6, Peter writes: ‘He himself bore our sins in His body on the tree that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By His wounds we are healed’ (1 Peter 2:24). This wonderful truth prompted the second century anonymous writer of The Letter to Diognetus to exclaim: ‘O sweet exchange … The sinfulness of many is hidden in the righteous one, while the righteousness of the One justifies the many that are sinners’.
The sacrificial and substitutionary death of Christ on the cross presents a tapestry of theological themes too rich to explore in any detail in this short article. It points to the enormity of human sin against God. In rebelling against their Creator, human beings have not only transgressed the law of God. They have also dishonoured God, offending him in the deepest sense. As the eleventh century theologian, Anselm puts it in his famous work Why the God-Man? (Cur Deus Homo?): ‘He, who does not render this honour which is due to God, robs God of His own and dishonours Him; this is sin’. And since ‘God maintains nothing with more justice than the honour of His own dignity’, He simply cannot overlook the rebellion that violates it. This is because the just God cannot betray His own requirement for justice. Thus Anselm concludes that ‘even God cannot raise to happiness any being at all by the debt of sin, because he ought not to’.
Anselm stresses that it is impossible for humans to pay their own debt of sin, for even if they did not sin they still owe everything to God: ‘If in justice I owe God myself and all my powers, even when I do not sin, I have nothing left to render Him for my sin’. Because of the enormity of sin and the justice of God, human rebellion against God cannot be simply forgiven without the debt being paid. Anselm presents the problem thus: ‘How, then, shall man be saved, if [man] neither pays what he owes, and ought not be saved without paying?’
In the cross, God provides the solution by becoming incarnate in human flesh and by paying the human debt to satisfy His own divine justice. This is how Anselm puts it: ‘And hence arises a necessity that God should take man into unity with His own person; so that he who in his own nature was bound to pay the debt, but could not, might be able to do it in the person of God’. On the cross, the incarnate Son of God died our deaths and paid the price we are unable to pay so that our sins may be expiated and we may be reconciled to God.
Theologically liberal thinkers like Spong often protest against the morality of sacrifice and substitution. How can punishing the innocent instead of the guilty be said to meet the requirements of justice? Would not a judge who punishes an innocent party after finding the defendant guilty have committed a gross act of injustice? What these conscientious objectors fail to see, however, is the voluntary nature of Christ’s sacrifice. In John 10:18, Jesus says: ‘No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and I have authority to take it up again’. Christ died on Calvary’s cross not out of coercion but freely, out of the abundance of His love for sinners. In addition, in the relationship between the three Persons in the Triune God, Jesus’ work on the cross involves the Father. Thus, in the mystery of the cross God is both the judge and the person paying the penalty.
The holiness and love of God meet in the mangled figure of the Nazarene on the cursed tree of Calvary. In His great love for humankind, God sent His Son to suffer and die in our place for our salvation, but without violating His radical holiness. The cross is God’s answer to the impasse that otherwise could never be resolved: in the cross, what the holiness of God requires, the love of God provides. In this way, the sheer grotesqueness of the cross reveals the unimaginable and strange beauty of divine love, a love that gives of itself in order to save.
The God that the cross reveals contradicts and challenges all preconceived notions of deity embedded in human religious imaginings. Instead of humans reaching out to God, the cross reveals the God who reaches out to sinners. Instead of humans suffering for God, the cross points to the God who suffers for His creatures. Instead of God receiving gifts from man, the cross shows us the God who gives of Himself freely, sacrificially and lovingly. This is the uniqueness of the Gospel that the cross of Christ so powerfully and profoundly encapsulates and reveals. It is this unimaginable and unheard-of grace and love of God, revealed so powerfully in the death of Christ on Calvary that led Charles Wesley to sing in rapturous wonderment:
And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Saviour’s blood?
Died He for me? – Who caused His pain?
For me? – Who Him to Death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
Author: Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College, Singapore.
First published in The Courier, April 2012.