Penal suffering in Scripture is released,
or not inflicted upon the guilty,
because it has been endured by a substitute.
—William Shed, Dogmatic Theology (1888-90)
The Need for the Cross
Early on in the Bible we get some bad news. Our rebellion deserved divine wrath. God is just and holy and can’t overlook sin (Ex. 34:7). But God is also love and grace. His love moved Him to save sinners from death and hell. “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). God gave us His saving love in the person of Jesus Christ, whom He gave for the salvation of the world. Those who believe in Jesus are saved from their sins and also from the wrath of God. They have eternal life as the adopted children of God. Those who refuse to believe remain slaves to sin and abide under God’s wrath (John 3:36).
God gave up His Son to death on the cross. Please know this … the cross was a particularly horrible way to die. As the victim’s chest muscles tightened, breathing became more and more difficult.
Only by pushing up against the nails that pierced the victim’s hands and feet could he draw his next breath. But this could go on for days. The Romans had mastered crucifixion, not just as a tool of punishment, but also as a visceral warning to others. Pain, suffocation, thirst, exposure, infection and humiliation all went into the torturous death of the cross.
But when it came to Jesus there was much more. Beyond the lashes, the beatings, the thorns, the fatigue, and the physical anguish was something far greater. The wrath and curse of God (Gal. 3:13). For Jesus, the cross was also a ticket to Hell. The Father made Jesus a true and complete offering for sin (Isa. 53:10). The Son of God took on, in His humanity, all the terrors of Hell in the place of those who would trust in Him. And then He died a judicial death, the innocent for the guilty, to bring rebellious sinners to God.
The Bible uses a number of terms or concepts to explain exactly what Jesus accomplished on the cross. Scripture speaks of sacrifice, propitiation, reconciliation, atonement and redemption.
God instituted animal sacrifice in Eden and continued it until the cross. Early on, “sacrifice” taught the theology of penal substitution. The worshipper took a lamb or a bull from among the community’s herds (Lev. 1). The animal had to be without spot or blemish. The worshipper would lay his hands on the animal, so identifying himself with it.
He would then kill the animal himself. This was important. Sacrifice always meant death, and the worshipper needed to understand his responsibility for that death. He needed to realize, “This animal died for me. I deserved this death. I killed this substitute.” Once the animal was dead, all or part of the animal was placed on a flaming altar. There it was consumed, and its smoke rose up to heaven. Sacrifice went on for 4,000 years. But the blood of lambs and bulls couldn’t ultimately satisfy the demands of God’s justice (Heb. 10:1-4). They were only a picture and pledge … a kind of “flaming promise.” And, of course, they weren’t the real Substitute.
Jesus was the real and true Substitute, the true Lamb of God (John 1:29). He came from among God’s people, true Man from true men. He was innocent and holy, guiltless by God’s testimony and by Roman law. But in His sufferings and death, Jesus Christ bore the wrath of God against sinners. He died in the place of His people, and He rose from the dead as a clear testimony to His righteousness and deity (Rom. 4:25; 1:4). When we “lay hands” on Him, we identify with Him, by faith.
The word propitiation has nearly disappeared from the modern church’s vocabulary. It’s a word suspiciously absent from many of newer translations of Scripture. While we live in a “dumbed down” world where multi-syllabled words are disappearing fast, the word propitiation has been scrubbed from Scripture for a very different reason. The real problem folks today have with this word … is the theology it implies. That’s because to propitiate means to turn away anger or wrath.
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To say that Jesus is “the propitiation for our sins” (1 Jn. 2:2; 4:10) is to confess that God’s wrath needed to be propitiated. That God, in all His holiness and justice, is angry with sinners (Ps. 7:11). That He hates all the workers of iniquity (Ps. 5:5). That the wrath of God abides on those who are His enemies (John 3:36).
Jesus, in His sufferings and death, bore that anger, that hatred, that wrath, so that God can show His love for sinners without violating His own holiness and justice. God loved the world in giving His only begotten Son as a “propitiation” for sins. Those who trust in Him have God’s love and favor. Those who reject Christ abide under God’s all-consuming wrath and are bound for eternal Hell. Sorry, that’s what the Bible says and that’s why understanding who Jesus is and what he accomplished is both urgent and important.
Alright, so God took the first step in reconciling His enemies to Himself. This means, first, that an offended God had to satisfy the demands of His own justice so that He could be at peace with His enemies. Paul writes, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them” (2 Cor. 5:18). The basis for reconciliation with God is the legal imputation of sin to Christ and the imputation of His righteousness to those who believe.
Second, and this is the “amazing grace” part … reconciliation means that God reaches out to sinners through the Gospel to bring them to Him. So, Paul goes on to say that God “has committed unto us the word of reconciliation,” and pleads accordingly, “we pray you, in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God” (1 Cor. 5:19-20). God, in no uncertain terms, calls us to lay down our enmity toward Him and receive His peace. He says, “get out of that camp and get over here!”
“Atonement” in English is a word translated William Tyndale (d. 1536) to communicate this biblical doctrine. The Hebrew word appears throughout the Torah in connection with blood sacrifice. Atonement means that God covers the sins of His people with the blood of Christ. That is, God judicially hides the guilt of the sinner from His view because Jesus has already taken on the wrath that the sinner has coming. Because God has already punished the sin … He may forgive the sinner. Atonement involves both propitiation and reconciliation. Which means, it escorts in, both forgiveness as well as peace with God. This is no small thing. The blood sacrifices of the Mosaic covenant portrayed and preached atonement in very graphic terms. Terms that seem out of place for us today.
Redemption is tied to debt and slavery. “To redeem” means to “buy back.” God redeemed Israel from slavery in Egypt, destroyed its enemies, took his people to Himself as His covenant bride. Not just that, but He also gave Israel an inheritance … the land of Canaan (Ex. 15:13; Deut. 7:8; Ezek. 16:8). Please stay with me here and keep reading, because most people don’t follow this “redemption trail” and its tremendous implications. Under the Mosaic law, a man’s nearest male relative served as his kinsman-redeemer.
The kinsman-redeemer had some major responsibilities and at least four interrelated functions: 1) He had to buy back his enslaved kinsman (Lev. 25:28). 2) He had to make sure justice is done for his kinsman if he has been murdered (Josh. 20:1-6). 3) He even had to marry his kinsman’s widow and raise up his kids if necessary (Deut. 25:25). 4) He also had to buy back an indebted or lost inheritance for his kinsman or for his kinsman’s widow and children (Lev. 25:25).
Glad that’s Old Testament? Keep reading. It’s very much a part of the good news.
All of this is fulfilled in Jesus Christ: 1) He has bought us back from sin and death (Gal. 3:13; Titus 2:14). 2) He destroys our enemies (2 Thes. 1:7-10). 3) He has taken the Church as His Bride and is raising up a redeemed humanity as her children (Rev. 21). 4) He will redeem all of creation and restore it in “resurrection glory” for His people. This is our eternal inheritance (Rom. 8:18-23).
All this opens up the true meaning of the cross. And it’s how Jesus Christ became the Savior of the world. This is what Good Friday is all about. Jesus our sacrifice, our propitiation, our reconciliation and our atonement: Jesus our Redeemer and our Savior. Our responsibility is to trust in Him and to obey His commandments. His words, not mine.
May God bless you mightily this Easter.