Joseph was told by an angel to name his son Jesus, because he would save his people from their sins (Matt. 1:21).
In times past in Egypt, the Passover lamb had borne people’s sins, but now Jesus came into the world to become the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). In our time, some would have us confess Jesus as Savior, but they suggest that he saved us by doing something other than taking our sin away. Or if they admit that sin needs to be taken away, then they say that Jesus does this by training us not to sin. In either case, we are left with something other than biblical salvation.
No plan of salvation that leaves out Christ’s payment for sin is a biblical plan of salvation. Yet I find that those who fight for this doctrine (may they always be given the honor that is their due) are often so focused on the truths under contention that they forget to flesh them out with other biblical truths. In the heat of battle, it is forgotten that we must not only contend for that part of the truth that is being attacked, but we must also tell the whole truth, even the part that might not be objected to. It might put the controversial statements in a new light. The doctrine of substitutionary atonement needs to be fleshed out with the doctrine of Christ’s deity, his two natures, and the Lord’s Supper if people are to see just how glorious a teaching is at stake.
Purchased with God’s Own Blood
The doctrine of substitutionary atonement teaches us that Christ saved us by paying for our sins; that is, he died in our place. As the Scriptures say, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Christ, who being sinless did not need to die, laid down his life for the sake of those who were condemned to death. The resurrection shows that God accepted the payment as complete. Christ was raised for our justification. It is what Luther called the great exchange. Our sins are imputed to Christ. His righteousness is imputed to us. We can press these images even further. When we are united to Christ, God looks at us as if we had done our time. Eternal hell is our sentence, and we show up in God’s presence as if we had done the unthinkable and made full payment. Of course, we did not. Christ did it for us, but we receive the benefit.
While the church could certainly profit from hearing more about how Christ as a perfect man paid for the sins of all humanity, this doctrine is taught even outside of Reformation churches. The doctrine received one of its clearest expressions at the hand of St. Anselm of Canterbury in the thirteenth century. What has been underemphasized is that the one who made the payment was God himself.
Now I want to be clear about this. St. Anselm’s work Why God Became Man (Latin: Cur Deus Homo) proves that Anselm understood the identity of Christ. And most trained theologians, if asked, would admit that the Jesus who died on the cross for our sins was God as well as man, and they teach and defend it. But while this teaching is well known, it is not emphasized enough. There are many ways of speaking of the divine action in relation to the cross that do not in themselves convey the fullness of the picture. The divine action about which many have heard is the Father pouring out his wrath on his Son. If a pastor wishes to emphasize the benevolent side of this, he speaks of the Father sending the Son on our behalf. Sometimes we even see an attempt to link divinity to the suffering, as when we are told that the divine nature lent weight to the suffering of the human nature. True and important as these things are, they are not what is usually lacking, at least in those churches where the cross is still central.
Many pastors have preached the cross in such a way that the most stunning element of the picture is missing, or at least hidden. In the middle of telling about the crucifixion, unless the pastor outright states that the one who suffers is God, many listeners will miss it, even if they know that Jesus is God. It is not that listeners are inattentive, but that their attention is focused so narrowly on what is said that the unspoken logical implications are lost on the periphery.
Added to this is the fact that so much of the teaching on the two natures in Christ is so sloppy. The doctrine of Christ’s two natures teaches us that Christ is both God and man in one person. We say that Christ has two natures, a divine nature and a human nature. But these two natures are not two persons. This distinction is what is in danger of being lost, especially in speaking of the cross. Many laypeople are under the impression that even though Jesus was God, his divine nature was utterly removed from the event somehow. Sometimes they will even use the term “divine nature.” But they miss the point. The picture they convey makes it sound as if Christ’s two natures were two persons.
Some have even suggested that Jesus’s cry “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46) was Jesus’s human nature speaking to the divine. Such sloppy teaching obscures the wonder that God is the one who atoned for us. This is no technicality. It is part of the good news. God does not just provide salvation; he does the saving work himself.
At a specific point in human history, the almighty Second Person of the Trinity, the Lord of Glory, stooped down and took on a human nature. For our sake, he was condemned to death and suffered the wrath of God. This is a stranger, more glorious picture than we derive from the other ways of stating things that technically tell us of the same event. While it is certainly correct to speak of Christ as a man with a divine nature, we may also—and in this case much more profitably—speak of him as God with a human nature.
When Jesus cried “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” the reality behind this cry staggers the imagination. God was forsaken by God. What we formerly knew of the Father in infinite holiness turning his back on his Son who had become sin for us remains true. But now we see God’s action in the bearing of his punishment. God, who is too holy to look upon sin, is at the same time God who so identifies with us that he suffers the abandonment of the holy God. If you have ever felt removed from God, you must realize that God knows what that is like.
It is important that this point be emphasized. There are too many people in the world who have heard of the crucified one spoken of as God’s Son, who never knew that he was God. What kind of thoughts about God does the cross kindle in such people? Are they overtaken by the wonder of divine mercy? Not really. While they may be thankful to Jesus that he was willing to take their place, they wonder about the character of God. He sounds like a harsh judge who is just happy that someone paid. It is not that he takes pleasure in setting people free, but that he is not particular about whom he punishes. If we do not know who Jesus is, we do not know to whom we should be grateful. When we learn that God willingly became the victim of his own rejection so that we could belong to him, all is different.
I hold no degrees in philosophical theology, but I have read several defenses of the goodness of God and found many of the insights useful. Still, I have found that few arguments really “solve” the problem of evil. The difficulty is that there is more than one problem. Depending on circumstances, we have various types of problems with evil—some of which come and go, some of which persist. I think that this view of the divine mercy manifested in God’s adoption of a human nature through which he could suffer the penalty of his own justice goes a long way toward making some of my problems with evil less foreboding.
One of the worst fears that lurks in the back of our minds is that God’s punishment is unlimited by empathy. We fear that we are dealing with one whose attributes react like chemical formulas. Who wants to get crushed in the gears of an eternal principle? Who can be moved by an atonement reduced to a mathematical equation? Add perfect justice to perfect power and you get perfect hell. An infinite man can pay for all the sins of finite people, assuming he is innocent. Justice will be satisfied equally either way, by way of satisfaction or by way of retribution. It all makes sense on a chalkboard, but our human sensibilities balk, especially when we are speaking of something other than war criminals or child molesters. Sure, some people may deserve to pay for their crimes, but just how much wrath do they deserve?
God’s involvement in redemption changes the nature of the problem. He is not sitting in a laboratory dispassionately concocting a perfect justice to threaten humanity, while resting in the knowledge that his perfect goodness cannot be questioned. To be sure, God could have done this, and we would be in no position of moral superiority to question it. But that would have been a hopeless situation for us. God’s justice would to us be merely a formal invitation. Lurking doubts as to the justice of God would be silenced by prudence. Our self-protectiveness would tell us, “Don’t complain about the problem unless you want it to be a problem for you.”
God’s solution is better. It has all of the advantages of satisfying perfect justice as demanded by his attributes, but it goes further; there is divine involvement. God has entered into the mess he allowed and taken the brunt of the pain. What this says is that one who knew perfect goodness himself was willing to undergo trouble for the sake of the world he created. When we question the goodness of existence by asking if it is worth it to go through life in a fallen world, and then wonder if God’s decision to allow these conditions was based on his being removed from it all, the cross reminds us to think better things of God. He decided that it was worth creating and redeeming such a world in spite of what it would cost him in suffering.
We cannot quantify suffering, but it is probably best to assume that Christ’s decision to endure the cross was more than equivalent to a man choosing to suffer all the suffering that has ever taken place in the world. Find someone in history whose miserable circumstances cause you to doubt whether creation was worth it and ponder this: God the Son willingly underwent far worse. Not for the sake of being stoic, but “for the joy set before him.” He knew his love for us to be sufficient to motivate his own acceptance of suffering. For us, we are to suffer less of it, and what we receive at the end is ours not by merit but by gift.
It is in light of this involvement that we cherish the rigorously developed scholastic theology of the atonement; that the divine nature can add weight to human suffering has explanatory value when a skeptic wonders how one man’s death can pay for the sins of the world. The value of the explanation is greater, however, when we understand better what we are defending. We do like to speak of the atonement with mathematical precision, not because we think of God as a math problem but so that we know we have found the true measure of what was done for us, done by an involved God in human flesh.
W. H. Auden on the Crucifixion
Just as we are all, potentially, in Adam when he fell, so we were all, potentially, in Jerusalem on that first Good Friday before there was an Easter, a Pentecost, a Christian, or a Church. It seems to me worthwhile asking ourselves who we should have been and what we should have been doing. None of us, I’m certain, will imagine himself as one of the Disciples, cowering in agony of spiritual despair and physical terror. Very few of us are big wheels enough to see ourselves as Pilate, or good churchmen enough to see ourselves as a member of the Sanhedrin. In my most optimistic mood I see myself as a Hellenized Jew from Alexandria visiting an intellectual friend. We are walking along, engaged in philosophical argument. Our path takes us past the base of Golgotha. Looking up, we see an all too familiar sight—three crosses surrounded by a jeering crowd. Frowning with prim distaste, I say, “It’s disgusting the way the mob enjoy such things. Why can’t the authorities execute people humanely and in private by giving them hemlock to drink, as they did with Socrates?” Then, averting my eyes from the disagreeable spectacle, I resume our fascinating discussion about the True, the Good and the Beautiful.
Excerpt taken from A Certain World: A Commonplace Book by W. H. Auden (Viking Press, 1970)
Setting the record straight on these doctrines may take some painstaking study in some highly technical doctrinal areas. The doctrine of the two natures in Christ is one of the most difficult doctrines to learn well. But the difficulty of setting the record straight does not mean that the main point is hard to grasp. A small child can learn that God is the one who saved us. When I was younger, a Roman Catholic friend and I were paging through my family Bible, a Bible that contained Rembrandt’s biblical paintings (the painting of the blinding of Samson was one we liked to reenact!). When we reached the painting of the crucifixion, my friend said “That’s God,” pointing to Jesus. Thinking myself to be better taught, I said, “No, that’s his son.” My Roman Catholic friend had been taught the heart of the matter better than I. He knew that God saves. What little I knew did involve the Father sending his son on our behalf, but I did not grasp that it was God the Son who was sent.
Even when I later became aware that Jesus was God, this point did not sink in quickly. It might have if my pastors and Sunday school teachers had shown us Rembrandt pictures or crucifixes and said, “That is God.” It takes so little. I hope my readers take the time to tell their children and Sunday school students that God is the one on the cross.
At the Lamb’s High Feast
Our High Priest knows what it is like to be forsaken by God and does not wish his children to suffer this forsakenness. This sense of separation—of the Son from the Father as he hung on the cross, of Christ from his body as he lay in the tomb—is something Christ suffered so we would not have to. He assures us of this not only through an announcement but through a meal.
When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, Christ’s body and blood are offered for the forgiveness of our sins. We partake of his separation bodily so that we don’t have to experience separation from our bodies for eternity. The wages of sin is death. Christ’s body and blood are sacrificed so that at the resurrection we might be reunited with our bodies. Christ was betrayed by men and then rejected by the Father so that we might be accepted by the Father and reconciled to our fellow man. In the ancient church, the Lord’s Supper was known as the “medicine of immortality.” The body and blood of Christ of which we partake are the body and blood that have already borne the wrath of God. We can look at them as a vaccine. When we partake of the spent wrath of God, we become immune to the living wrath he bears toward sin.
The children of Israel escaped the plague of the firstborn of Egypt by painting blood on the doorposts of their houses. In one Communion hymn, this is linked to what happens when we receive the body and blood of Christ:
Where the paschal blood is poured
Death’s dread angel sheaths the sword
Israel’s hosts triumphant go
Through the waves that drown the foe, Alleluia!
As the church, we are the Israel of God. Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. His blood is poured into our mouths at Communion—the doorway, as it were, to our bodies. When God comes in judgment, he will see the blood on the doorpost and pass over us. Triumphantly, we will enter his eternal kingdom.
It may sound shocking to American Protestants to hear a son of the Reformation speak thus, but this is the character of the Lutheran Reformation. To be sure, Communion will not avail if we do not receive it in faith. Eating and drinking at the Lord’s Table are not a way of receiving salvation at odds with hearing the gospel and believing. Luther called the sacraments the visible Word. Unlike the audible word, which is received by the hearing of faith, this word of gospel is received by the eating of faith.
Contending for the Whole Faith
A sad truth about American Christianity is what the fight against liberalism has done even to those who have remained faithful in battle. Early in the twentieth century, the strategy was to define the fundamentals of the faith so that all would know what doctrines would have to be fought for to the death. Differences in nonfundamental doctrines would be occasions for charity. This sounded like a good strategy, but it has born some bitter fruit. The list of fundamental doctrines grows shorter and shorter. This makes things more difficult. A short list of fundamental doctrines, removed from their larger context of biblical truth, is a very gray, bland, utilitarian object, compared to the robust body of biblical doctrine. We spend our time fighting not for doctrines but for doctrinoids. Who can develop a passion for a K-Mart system of doctrine?
When we raise our sights to a fuller body of biblical truth, we find that God weaves his work together richly. Our best expressions of his truth strive to embody such a texture. The Apostles’ Creed is a wonderful expression of doctrines that had to be hammered out in the midst of controversy. It reads not like a list but almost like a story. When more doctrines came to be fought over, the Nicene Creed was written. Again, the doctrines are orthodox, but they are clothed in a rich garment. The story of redemption is expressed in the Trinitarian structure. Luther’s Small Catechism teaches doctrine to children in sections devoted to, among other things, the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer. The doctrinal teaching is hung on a structure of writings that are committed to memory. The whole is coherent. It is a beautiful thing I want to believe, not just something I am told I must fight to defend.
That God saves is the theme of the Bible. Substitutionary atonement is an important doctrine, not just because we need a substitute. It is important because in it we learn that God is our substitute. The story comes together here. We will be much better able to contend for the story when we know how it hangs together. We will be much more motivated to contend for the story when we realize what has been done for us and by whom. Jesus is God in the flesh saving his people from their sins. That is the gospel. Anything less is not good news. But our High Priest has not left us with less.
Rick Ritchie is a long-time contributor to Modern Reformation magazine.
This article was originally published in the July/August 2007 issue of Modern Reformation.