As we prepare for Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday, consider this meditation from Alexander Watson, a 19th Century British curate in the Church of England. In the 1840s he preached a week-long series of sermons on Christ’s seven words from the cross. And in his first sermon on Luke 23:34 (“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”), he closed with a powerful reflection on what Christ accomplished on the cross—namely, salvation from sin.
In other words, Christ’s death does more than grant clemency to guilty sinners. Christ’s death justifies guilty sinners and frees sinners to pursue a life of increasing holiness. In other words, Christ’s death does not just save us in our sin; it saves us from our sin. While awaiting the redemption of the body, the cross of Christ effectively saves us from the consequences, causes, and corruptions of sin so that we can flee from sin, crucify our flesh, and pursue good works.
Tragically, the life-giving message of holiness can be lost in a truncated message that only focuses on guilt removal. Therefore, we need to give attention to every aspect of the cross, including the hopeful message of holiness exemplified by Watson.
On the finished work of Christ that empowers Christians to pursue holiness, he writes,
The atonement for sin is a finished act. The application of that atonement is a continual work. That portion of our Lord’s priestly office which consisted in his giving himself a ransom for the sins of the world has been accomplished, and can be no more repeated. “By one offering he has for ever perfected them that are sanctified, and there remains no more sacrifice for sin’’ (Heb. 9:26). But this consecration of his redeemed by his one offer does not exclude—but rather it involves, and requires—the continued mediation and intercession of him who is our great high priest, the one who offers prayer for us continually. And since it is his death upon the cross which gives to Christ’s mediation its meritorious efficacy and acceptable savor in God’s sight, we may be well assured that it will not avail for those in whom it does not work the conquest of sin and the presence of penitent desires after holiness.
Christ came to save us from our sins, and not in them. He died and revived that we too might die to sin, and that we might also rise again unto righteousness. He was made a curse for us—not that we might sin without a curse, but that sin should no more have dominion over us. Whenever, then, we are tempted to think any sin little, because we see in Christ praying for his murderers, remission of sins, and the power of his all-prevailing mediation and intercession. Let us then, at once, recollect where he was, and in what he was engaged, when he meekly and mercifully stood forth as the great example of forgiveness of injuries and the effectual preacher of God’s mercy and His love. He was upon his cross and upon that wood of torment and ignominy. He was testifying by his death the hatefulness of sin in God’s sight, since no less a price than the blood of his own Son would prove a ransom from its guilt and punishment.
Let none then hope to be saved by the Cross who do not crucify the flesh with its affections and lusts. Let none rely upon the intercession who do not realize the doctrine of the sacrifice by which it was accompanied, nor let any look for remission and forgiveness who forget that they who would be saved by the cross must bear it, and that none but those who forgive others can themselves have pardon.
–Alexander Watson, The Seven Sayings On the Cross; or, The Dying Christ Our Prophet, Priest, and King, 15–17; language updated.