The Altar of God's Mercy

Monday, August 6th 2007
Jul/Aug 1997

The following are excerpts from plenary addresses delivered at the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology in April. The theme was "The Theology of the Cross."

The Centrality of the Cross

Alistair Begg
Pastor, Parkside Church, Cleveland

…We are not surprised by the antithetical nature of world religions. We have grown accustomed to the marginalizing of essential elements of theology from those [within liberal theological circles] who reject the authenticity and sufficiency of Scripture. But what we are unprepared for, and in many cases unaware of, is the fact that within the framework of conservative Christianity, we have still yet to fight for the centrality of the cross. Let me explain to you what I mean. And you are sensible people, you need to judge whether my observation is accurate.

It is possible-I do not want to say it is likely, I want to say simply that it is possible-it is possible to be in an evangelical church and not hear the cross preached. Now, I do not mean that we do not see the cross carried, on little chains around ladies' necks. Now, I do not mean that we do not see the cross stamped or embossed on gaily colored Bible covers and carriers-strange little things that we see people walk around with … I am not suggesting that, in not hearing it preached, we do not hear it referred to. But hearing it referred to, is not the same as hearing it preached … The rehearsing of clichés with evangelical buzzwords in them, and the sounding out of evangelical mantras, dare not be equated with giving to the cross the place that the Scriptures give it; namely, a central place in life, and doctrine, and worship, and ministry, and evangelism, and practice! The central emphasis of the cross declares its necessity, establishes its meaning-namely, that it is substitutionary, that it is propitiatory, that it is efficacious, etc …. -and also in seeking to do that, that does not shy away from its offense.

You see, when we redefine the essence of the human predicament-and we are doing this, loved ones! -when we redefine the essence of the human predicament, in terms of a lack of self-esteem, in modern psychological terms, then we will inevitably find people being offered a couch rather than brought to a cross; being introduced to a psychologist rather than being confronted by a Savior.

When the battle is redefined in political terms, and that is made central, then what the Bible says is central becomes inevitably peripheral. And if evangelicalism has been good about one thing in the last fifty years, it has surely been good about this: namely, taking what is central and making it peripheral, and thereby allowing what its peripheral to take the central place. And we could discuss this well into the night, with many, many illustrations. The trivialization of the cross, amongst those of us who ought to know better, is observable in many different ways.

[So, let's look at the place Scripture gives the cross.] Let's begin in Luke, chapter 24. You know the story: it follows upon the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. The fellows are going down the road, totally disappointed and disgruntled, because, as far as they can tell, salvation history has ended in the cul-de-sac of a Palestinian tomb. And as they are walking, alongside comes Christ himself. They are kept from recognizing him, and in the course of discussion, we read in verse 25: "He said to them, 'How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?' And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself." If you look forward to verse 44: "He said to them, 'This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.' Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, 'This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations ….'"

Now, if there is one sermon that any of us might have enjoyed listening to, it surely must be this one. To have had the privilege of standing there, or sitting down, and listening to Christ himself expounding the theme "Christ in all the Scriptures." To have Christ himself take these disciples through the Bible, and to point out the absolute, essential dimensions of the cross, as it appeared-through the Passover, the serpent in the wilderness, and so many different places. Where did he go? Did he remind them of his words from the cross-that three of them came from the Psalms? Did he turn them back to Psalm 22, as he rehearsed his statement: "My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?" Did he remind them of Psalm 69, in the statement: "I am thirsty," and unfold that for them? Did he turn them to Psalm 31, and explain how it was, and why it was, that he chose to use those words to say, "Into Your hands, I commend my Spirit"? And do you think that he went all the way through the Prophets, and did not turn to Isaiah, chapter 53? That he did not drive home to the minds of these as yet unconvinced and uninitiated dear souls, the absolutely central place of his dying, of his suffering, and of his cross? He reminded them that he was simply doing again what he had said to them-for them-when he had been with them. "This is what I told you when I was still with you." But they weren't real quick on the pick-up. Turn to Mark's Gospel, chapter 8 … He comes back to it in chapter 9…Chapter 10, verse 32 … And again, he took the twelve aside, and told them what was going to happen to him.

What characterized the last month of the Lord Jesus' life, was a deliberate attempt to teach his disciples about his death. And when you read the Gospels, it becomes perfectly clear that the death of Christ, the cross of Christ, and its significance, is given a disproportionate amount of time in each of these Gospel records. It is quite clear that the author in each case had no intention of simply writing a biography of the Lord Jesus. But everything in the Gospels is arranged to lead up to the climax of the cross itself. That is why when, for example, you read in John's Gospel, you have at the very earliest stages this notion of his hour not yet coming-even in the Cana of Galilee event … Til finally we have Christ saying, "Father, I have come to this hour, and I am here for this hour, and I understand perfectly." And in a moment in time, the expression of the great Covenant of Redemption, from all of eternity, when the Father, and the Son, and the Spirit, have it determined in the framework of their mutuality and co-equality, how this amazing plan of redemption will unfold in the experience of history. And that's why when we read these Gospel records, we find ourselves again and again and again being brought to this central emphasis.

When you go into the Acts of the Apostles, what do you find? The Apostles hit the streets, and what do they talk about? "You crucified this Jesus, and God has raised him from the dead!" And as you go through the Acts of the Apostles, there are some fourteen occasions, that I managed to count, where the cross is directly and expressly preached.

"We preach Christ crucified," Paul says to the Corinthians.

"Before your very eyes, he says, Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified." And the word which is used there is the word for "placarded." It is placarded, he says, in the same way as you drive from the airport into the center of the city, and you are confronted by these huge signs calling out all kinds of things-to do, and places to go, and things to purchase. It is all placarded there that all might see. That is the very word which Paul uses. He says, "Now, when I came to Galatia, I placarded the message of the crucified Christ for all to see!"

The Necessity of the Cross

Michael Horton
Co-Pastor, Christ Reformed Church, Orange County

…The evangelical Church tells people today, "Jesus is the answer." The world booms back with the bumper sticker: "If Jesus is the answer, what's the question?" You tell us; what is your question? Well, I'd like to be happier. Jesus is the answer! I'd like to be wealthier. Funny thing, Jesus is the answer to that too! I would like to have a happier marriage. Jesus is the answer. I'd like to have a great experience. Jesus provides that; go to Toronto! I'd like to have total liberation from the problems of this world; I would even like to be at the place where I'm never troubled by my own sinfulness.

Of course we long for freedom from sinfulness, especially as Christians. This is part of what we are looking forward to. We have been taken from the age that is, into the age that is to come that is already breaking in upon us. Yet, we still haven't found what we're looking for. We are still looking for that better city; that city which is above that is coming down.

Jesus is the answer, but what is the question? You see, that is the problem today. We don't know what the question is. The necessity of the atonement, the necessity of Christ's cross is not that great, because we do not have a sense of our own sinfulness. Heaven forbid people should actually have some heavy sense that before God they stand naked and ashamed. Heaven forbid we should address this need-the need that truly matters.

But think of a lot of the preaching in evangelical churches today. Moses is an example of leadership. Joshua gives us principles. It is the Aesop's Fables approach to the Bible. Find a Bible character and find out what he teaches about how we should order our lives, and what practical principles he can lead us to. You can find that in any religion. You do not need the Bible for that kind of practical religion.

But the Bible is about the cross … As Moses prepared the way for Joshua to carry Israel into the promised land, so John the Baptist prepares the way for Jesus by bringing his people to that very same Jordan River to be baptized. Yet, no sooner is Jesus baptized than he is tempted by Satan. We see that temptation in the first chapter of Mark's Gospel. Immediately the Spirit drove him into the wilderness, where he was for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was with the wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.

In the other Gospels, we see the exchange that takes place between Jesus and Lucifer, that ancient enemy of the preincarnate Son. Lucifer, the angel of light, the theologian of glory, promises glory to mortals like Adam, and he comes to the second Adam to promise the same thing. "If you will only eat this fruit, Jesus, you will be as God. I will give you the kingdoms of this world. You can have all of the wealth and splendor without the cross."

If you could have anything at all, what would it be? Money? "Show me the money." That is what our culture is all about. Fame? Everyone would know you. Power? To be able to tell other people what to do, and instantly they would do it? Or even the religious experience of glory and power? A spiritual control over sickness and disease, where you could name and claim health, wealth, and happiness? Moral perfection? Political utopia? What are your felt needs?

Satan comes to Jesus precisely at the point of his felt need. (This is really important for us, because if we are really going to found a theology of felt needs, it will always be a theology of glory. It will never be a theology of the cross.) Jesus' felt need in that hour was not to go to the cross. His felt need in that hour was for food; he was physically hungry. It was a very practical need. But, while the first Adam reached for the fruit and Israel demanded the food they craved in the wilderness, this second Adam-this true Israel-is already obedient to the Word of God. And this Word is finally a Word of the cross, rather than a word of glory.

Here we find Satan as the champion of the theology of glory. "Jesus, get the crown without the cross!" Remember that Jesus is fully human as well as divine; remember also that he possessed eternal glory. He knows what perfect peace, happiness, joy, prosperity, power, and wealth really are. Yet, instead of grasping what he really wants, he obeys the Word.

The world wants religion to improve us. The Christian faith comes to destroy us, so that we can be raised again with Christ on the third day.

In chapter two, the paralytic man comes to Jesus to be healed, but is told that his felt need for immediate physical healing is not his real need, his most immediate need. "Son," Jesus says, "your sins are forgiven." This is your real need, Jesus says. After this, though, the paralytic is also physically healed as a sign of this greater miracle. To the grumbling Pharisees, Jesus asks, "Which is easier to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or, 'Arise, take up your bed and walk'? Yet, so that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins, I said to the paralytic, 'Arise, take up your bed and go home.'"

Throughout Jesus' ministry, people followed, but mostly because of glory. As we note in John 6, people want their felt needs satisfied. As they catch up to Jesus for another meal, though, he says, "You don't follow me because you believe I am who I said I am, and you don't believe because of the miracles, these signs which I do. You simply follow because you ate and had your fill. You are consumers." And thus, Jesus whittles the Church at this point-the visible Church, that is. He whittles it down significantly, from five thousand consumers to at least eleven disciples. They come seeking glory, not forgiveness. They don't want forgiveness.

Today, we probably would have built a big church out of that. "You don't come for forgiveness, but eventually, you might come for forgiveness. So at least we will get you coming here because of glory."

… [But then again, we are not that different than the disciples.] In Mark 13, Jesus describes his death and resurrection to them in terms of the temple. "Don't you understand it? I am the temple. I am the holy of holies in whom the fullness of the godhead dwells bodily."

But his disciples are so fascinated by the outward glory and majesty of the earthly temple that they miss his point entirely. "How can you-you described by Isaiah 53 as a man who had no beauty that anyone should admire him-be Solomon's temple in all of its glory?"

Finally the second Adam endures his last temptation in the garden, saying, "Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but thine be done." It was not the Roman execution he feared. It was not even the mockery of his own people. It was the vengeance of his own Father that so tormented his soul that night. For Jesus, judgment day is about to come crashing down upon the sacred head now wounded. And when it does come crashing down, there is no one in the universe to make him happy, to meet his felt needs, to make him feel self-esteem or fulfillment. There is no one, no one in the universe, not even his own Father. Jesus becomes the abandoned one, hanging on the cross because of our sins.

When Israel rebelled in the wilderness, God sent venomous snakes, commanding Moses to raise a brass serpent. Everyone who looked upon it would be healed. What an inglorious sign of redemption! Like all of the signs of redemption-God slaughtering an animal and covering you in the bloody skins-God is awfully earthy; not very spiritual. Why on earth would you put a brass snake on a pole? And raise it in the middle of the desert so that the people bitten by the venomous snakes could look on it? Do you see how the whole Bible is about the cross? Christ, by his cross, was the one who crushed Satan's head on that stake, so that everyone who looks to him-the sin bearer-is forgiven, and lives!

This is so disorienting. This sign of the cross raised for the healing of the nations. It is foolishness to those who are perishing. Infamous throughout the whole world as the empire's instrument of execution, this is the symbol of Christianity? God in the electric chair? And this is God at his best? God sitting on a throne in a palace, I can understand. But God suspended on a throne of splinters is unimaginable. And yet the Gospel is that that is where God's wisdom trumped all the cleverness of the great philosophies of the western and eastern worlds. It was in that moment that all of our glory parades were made as nothing as the glory of God hung suspended with blood dripping and flies buzzing about it. In that passage that was read to us, the humiliated Christ is now the exalted Christ before his ascension. As he had told the Pharisees, they did not understand the Bible at all because they did not understand that he was the center of it all….

The Meaning of the Cross

James Montgomery Boice
Pastor, Tenth Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia

1 Peter 2:24: "He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed."

… We have made reference already to the passage in Luke 24, in which Jesus is explaining the meaning of his death to his disciples, who, by that time, still had not gotten it. What Jesus did, we are told, is go to Moses and the Prophets, and explain to them in all the Scriptures, the things that concern himself. Now that is a very interesting verse, because it combines the three major parts of the Old Testament, according to the Jews' understanding … So, we have the Torah, the Prophets, and the writings or the Scriptures. So, when Jesus began with Moses and the Prophets, and explained to them in all the Scriptures the things that concerned himself-that it was necessary that the Son of Man go to the cross, and suffer and die, and on the third day rise again-it is a way of saying that he began at the very beginning of the Bible, and he moved through it to the very end.

It is easy enough to see that; he was referring to the Old Testament. You go back to the book of Genesis, and there as early as the third chapter, you have the announcement of the cross. Adam and Eve have sinned in the Garden; they are expecting to die, because that is what God said. "The day in which you eat of the fruit of the forbidden tree, you will surely die." God comes; he pronounces judgments, at the end of which they are still not dead. What they have heard is the announcement of the Gospel. One is going to be born of the woman, who will crush the head of Satan-even though Satan is going to strike his heal. We understand that, as we look back, as a prophecy of what was to come.

You go the whole way through the Old Testament, and you find it again and again, book after book. We had mention already of Isaiah 53, the greatest of the prophets. Finally, we come to the end of Malachi, and we find Malachi looking forward to that Son of Righteousness, who is risen with healing in his wings. So, you find the cross the whole way through the Old Testament. We find it the whole way through the New Testament as well.

Satisfaction has to do with the character of God, whom we have offended; and therefore, it has to do with sin. To make satisfaction means to make reparation for damages that are done … In this case, the damage is done to God's honor, and it is an offense against his character. That is one reason, I suppose, why we do not hear very much about the cross in our churches today. If the cross is God's answer to the sin question, we don't talk about the cross, because we are not very conscious of our sin.

It is not only conservative theologians who are saying this. Even worldly people have noticed it. Karl Mennenger wrote a book some years ago by the title, Whatever Became of Sin? He then explained, as he understood it, why people don't talk about sin anymore. He said, rightly, that sin by definition is an offense against God. So, if you push God out of the picture … you can't really have sin anymore.

Well, if you do not have sin, then you don't have a cross. The first step to understanding what the cross is all about is to realize the gravity of sin, and that the cross is God's answer to the sin question … Anselm, far more than people in our day, understood this indispensable point: in order to understand the cross, you have to understand how serious sin is. If we don't understand the seriousness of sin, we assume that all God has to do is forgive us. We forgive other people, after all, so why shouldn't God just forgive us as well?

We have to understand as well that it is never a case of mere human beings appeasing God's wrath. It is a case of God himself satisfying his own wrath, through the death of Jesus Christ. It is not surprising that this is hard for people to understand. We just do not think as God thinks; his ways are not our ways; his thoughts are not our thoughts. That is why God has taken so much time throughout the Scriptures to elaborate the meaning of the cross.

He began it in the Old Testament, with these elaborate destructions having to do with the sacrifices-primarily that which involves the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark of the Covenant was a wooden box that was covered with gold. It was about a yard long, about eighteen inches high and deep. It contained the Law of Moses, the Ten Commandments that God had given to Moses on the mount. The original tablets, you will recall, were broken by Moses when he came down from the mountain, in that scene described in the thirty-second chapter of Exodus. But then the Ten Commandments were written out again, and it was that that was placed within the Ark.

Now, this Ark of the Covenant had a covering, which was called the Mercy Seat. It was made out of pure gold, hammered. At either end of this covering, or lid, of this box that contained the stone tablets of the Law, there were two cherubim-angel-like figures that faced one another. They had wings that went backwards and then upwards, and came together almost meeting over the top of the Mercy Seat, above the Ark that contained the Law. Within that space between the wings of the cherubim, God, in a symbolic way, was understood to dwell.

I ask the question: What does that picture mean? What are you to understand when you direct your mind toward the Ark of the Covenant, which is within the most holy place of the Jewish Tabernacle? It is a picture of judgment, of course, because here is God, the holy God, looking down, and as he looks down upon earth, what meets his gaze? His holy Law, within the box of the Ark, the very Law that you and I have broken. That picture is a picture of judgment, and every Jew, as they thought about that, understood what that was about. The holy God must do right, and a God who is holy and right, must judge sin.

But then, here is where the good news comes in. Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest, after performing a sacrifice for himself and the sins of his family, out in the courtyard, killed another animal and took the blood of that animal, very carefully (lest he violate any of the requirements of the Law and perish by taking the holiness of God lightly), made his way into the most holy place with the blood of the sacrifice, and sprinkled it upon the Mercy Seat, which was the covering of the Ark. Now, what does it picture? Now, as God looks down from between the wings of the cherubim, toward the Law which we have broken, he sees intervening in between the blood of the sacrifice. It symbolizes that death has taken place out there in the courtyard, by the Altar. An innocent has died. Substitution has been made. Blood has been shed. The wrath of God is satisfied. Now, the love of God is free to go out and embrace the sinner.

Now, it is all just a symbol. They understood, and it said very clearly in the Old Testament that the blood of sheep and goats does not take away sin. They are just animals. But it pointed forward to the blood of Jesus Christ, that would take away sin. Those who understood the Gospel in the Old Testament understood that, and looked forward to the coming of the Redeemer.

Incidentally, that is why that cover of the Ark is called the Mercy Seat. It is translated in the Greek Septuagint by the word "propitiation" -because it is the place where propitiation was made, and the wrath of God was turned aside.

The Offense of the Cross

John Armstrong
Director, Reformation and Revival Ministries

… If the mystery of Calvary were at the heart of our faith and godliness, I don't think we would have a hard time taking the Lord's Supper, as John Calvin wanted it to be taken, every week…

…But the cross is also a scandal because it goes contrary to all ideas of human merit. Ah, here is the theology of merit. The last thing men will give up-even evangelical men, who will make their decision for Christ-is their own righteousness. They will fight you for that. They will definitely fight you for that. ?Well, I know I'm saved by grace, but …." No! "But" nothing. It is grace, or not at all. It's Christ, or not at all. It's the cross, or not at all.

The world is full of do-gooders; religious, righteous do-gooders galore. So Toplady writes (in Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me):

Not the labors of my hands
Can fulfill Thy law's demands;
Could my zeal no languor know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.

Indeed, as long as you are content with yourself, in your present condition-even your present professed Christian condition! -there is no hope. Your only hope tonight is Christ and him crucified.

Secondly, tonight, the believer can glory in the cross because here he sees God. We have so many people today running here and running there; running to Toronto, running to Pensacola, looking for God. They say they are "looking for the Spirit to fall." People are trembling and quaking, and testifying to the Spirit falling. But I keep looking and listening, and I keep asking, "Where is the scandal of Calvary?" Is it in repenting? Turning over a new leaf? Promising to serve God? Wanting to get rid of some sin? Some of this is laudatory and right of course, but without the cross, it takes the poor and confused, even the true believer, right back into another cycle of bondage. But Paul's whole word to us tonight, from Galatians 5, is that we are free! But what makes us free, if we take our eyes off of Calvary? It is here that we see God.

We must not miss that God has become man! We cannot look at God in any other way than first through the doctrine of Christ. God has become man and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. We beheld his glory, and we saw in him the very glory of God-not full blown and blazing, for we could not handle that; we could not see it. But we saw the glory in this human person.

We preach because Christ has come, through the New Covenant fulfillment of all the prophets. We say that the Messiah has come, and he has died. We preach Christ and him crucified. This is what Paul is saying. Jesus Christ and his death on Calvary is the center of everything distinctly Christian. This is the polestar, the Northstar, the theology of the cross. This is that which is all of our theology, as Luther said.

Here we see the face of God. So the hymn writer can say:

See from his head, his hands, his feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down;
Did e'er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

Let me close with this simple word. Where is it as Christian believers that you get the assurance of your pardon? Where is it that you find hope and help and strength to face the world in which you live, and the judgment which is to come? Where is it that you find any hope whatsoever? Well, I will tell you where you do not find it-and it is where a lot of us have looked. You do not find it in a decision you have made somewhere in the past. You do not find it looking back to driving stakes, and writing decisions, and writing prayers, and uttering various things that people tell you. You do not find it going back through the same process over and over again. You do not find it either in moral improvement. You do not find it in improving your life, or changing your life, or getting your life in order under Christ, or by the law of God. You do not even find assurance in saying, "I have believed. And I believe that I believed, believingly." You do not find it there.

Where do we find assurance? When the enemy comes to you … n the night and says, "Do you look at yourself? What kind of man are you? … What kind of minister are you? If they could see you now, if they could see your heart, if they could see what I've seen and what you've seen, and what I know and what you know, if they could see you, how dare you get on your knees and pray? How dare you preach that sermon? How dare you talk to that man about his soul? Who do you think you are?"

What do you do? Where do you go? … You go as quickly as you can possibly go to Calvary. You run to the cross of Jesus Christ … Why? Because here God has pledged his mercy in the message of the cross to the foulest of sinners! "Foul I to the foundation fly; Wash me Savior or I die!" … His death is sufficient for all of my sin. His sacrifice is accepted in heaven even now for all of my unrighteousness. Credited to my account on the basis of his Calvary Work, is his own perfect righteousness. Therefore, I stand now as I shall stand in the Day of Judgement, not in anything I have done, but I stand in him complete; clothed in his righteousness; cleansed by his blood; and prepared to meet him face to face ….

Monday, August 6th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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