What Did the Cross Achieve? Seven Truths and Sixteen Quotes from John Murray

crossIn 1955 John Murray released his classic work on the cross and salvation, Redemption Accomplished and AppliedThis week, the men in our church are discussing this book. And in preparation, I re-read the opening chapters on the necessity and the nature of the cross.

For those who have asked questions about why the cross was needful and what the cross accomplished, Murray is a great start—even if you might need to keep Dictionary.com close at hand. In his book, he gives a solid defense of the faith and he offers cogent from a Reformed perspective. Over the years, I have often assigned this book for class and returned to it myself.

In what follows I offer sixteen quotations from the book organized around seven truths related to the necessity and nature of the cross. Indeed, if you want to know what the cross achieved, Murray’s book is a great introduction. And hopefully what follows will give you a helpful introduction to Murray.

(N.B. The page numbers that follow are based on the 1955 Eerdmans copy, the one without Carl Trueman’s forward. Additionally, if you are interested you can find the e-book on Hoopla.)

Seven Truths about the Cross

1. The Necessity of the Cross

John Murray begins his book with a chapter on the necessity of the cross, where he identifies two kinds of necessity—hypothetical necessity and consequent absolute necessity (11). Murray recognizes the former as something held by those like Augustine and Aquinas, while arguing for the latter. Regarding, “consequent absolute necessity,” he writes,

[1] The word “consequent” in this designation points to the fact that God’s will or decree to save any is of free and sovereign grace. To save lost men was not of absolute necessity but of the sovereign good pleasure of God. The terms “absolute necessity,” however, indicate that God, having elected some to everlasting life out of his mere good pleasure, was under the necessity of accomplishing this purpose through the sacrifice of his own Son, a necessity arising from the perfections of his own nature. In a word, while it was not inherently necessary for God to save, yet, since salvation had been purposed, it was necessary to secure this salvation through a satisfaction that could be rendered only through substitutionary sacrifice and blood-bought redemption. (11)

This point is important because it matches the justice of God with his mercy. God would not be unrighteous to put sinners to death, for the wages of sin is death, but he would be unrighteous to save sinners without the cross of Christ. Hence, the cross is necessary. Yet, instead of simply drawing a logical deduction about the cross, he turns to prove his point from Scripture, and he concludes in this way,

[2] For these reasons we are constrained to conclude that the kind of necessity which the Scriptural considerations support is that which may be described as absolute or indispensable. The proponents of hypothetical necessity do not reckon sufficiently with the exigencies involved in salvation from sin unto eternal life; they do not take proper account of the Godward aspects of Christ’s accomplishment. If we keep in view the gravity of sin and the exigencies arising from the holiness of God which must be met in salvation from it, then the doctrine of indispensable necessity makes Calvary intelligible to us and enhances the incomprehensible marvel of both Calvary itself and the sovereign purpose of love which Calvary fulfilled. The more we emphasize the inflexible demands of justice and holiness the more marvelous become the love of God and its provisions. (18)

2. Passive and Active Obedience

When discussing the nature of the cross, Murray makes obedience the theological umbrella under which every aspect of the cross (e.g., sacrifice, propitiation, reconciliation, redemption, etc.) is considered (19ff). Fine-tuning his point, he appeals to the historic distinction between active and passive obedience. Clarifying these terms, he writes,

[3] The distinction between the active and passive obedience is not a distinction of periods. It is our Lord’s whole work of obedience in every phase and period that is described as active and passive, and we must avoid the mistake of thinking that the active obedience applies to the obedience of his life and the passive to the obedience of his final sufferings and death.  The real use and purpose of the formula [passive and active obedience] is to emphasize the two distinct aspects of our Lord’s vicarious obedience. The truth expressed rests upon the recognition that the law of God has both penal sanctions and positive demands. (21)

3. The Personal Obedience of Christ

Next, Murray stresses the personal nature of Christ’s obedience. In other words, it is not simply Christ’s act of dying that saves sinners, it is also his inner disposition and obedience.

[4] When we speak of obedience we are thinking not merely of formal acts of accomplishment but also of the disposition, will, determination, and volition which lie back of and are registered in these formal acts. And when we speak of the death of our Lord upon the cross as the supreme act of his obedience we are thinking not merely of the overt act of dying upon the tree but also of the disposition, will, and determinate volition which lay back of the overt act. (22)

4. The Cross as Sacrifice

After tackling the overarching theme of Christ’s obedience, Murray moves on to cover four biblical metaphors for the cross. The first is sacrifice. Starting with the sacrificial system in Israel, he writes,

[5] The Old Testament sacrifices were basically expiatory. This means that they had reference to sin and guilt. Sin involves a certain liability, a liability arising from the holiness of God, on the one hand, and the gravity of sin as the contradiction of that holiness, on the other. The sacrifice was the divinely instituted provision whereby the sin might be covered and the liability to divine wrath and curse removed. The Old Testament worshiper when he brought his oblation to the altar substituted an animal victim in his place. (25)

Acknowledging the great distance between an animal and a man, Murray explains how these “shadows and patterns” prepared the way for Christ. And in Christ, we have the fulfillment of the sacrificial system.

[6] Jesus, therefore, offered himself a sacrifice and that most particularly under the form or pattern supplied by the sin-offering of the Levitical economy. In thus offering himself he expiated guilt and purged away sin so that we may draw near to God in full assurance of faith and enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. (26–27)

While I would take issue with Murray’s reduction of Christ’s sacrifice to that of the sin offering, he is correct to say that Christ died to purge away sin. Moreover, he is right to affirm our need to look to the Levitical patterns of sacrifice to understand the cross. As he notes, “We must interpret the sacrifice of Christ in terms of the Levitical patterns because they were themselves patterned after Christ’s offering” (27). Without them, we cannot make sense of the meaning of Christ’s cross. But with them, we are given a multi-faceted object lesson explaining the logic of sacrifice, as well as confidence that what God began typologically has been completed Christologically. That is to say,

[7] If the Levitical sacrifices were expiatory, how much more must the archetypal offering have been expiatory, and expiatory, be it remembered, not on the plane of the temporary, provisional, preparatory, and partial but on the plane of the eternal, the permanently real, the final, and the complete. (27)

In asking what did the cross achieve? Or what is the essence of the cross? We must begin with sacrifice. And not just the word, but the whole system of sacrifice outlined in the Law of Moses. At the heart of this logic is God’s provision for wiping away sin. This  is called expiation, and it promises that the blood of a perfect sacrifice can wipe clean our guilt by covering our sin.

5. The Cross as Propitiation

If the cross expiates our sin, it also propitiates the wrath of God. While these words have been confused and often juxtaposed to one another, they are actually two independent-but-related ideas that both have a place in Christ’s cross. Christ’s death deals with sin (expiation) and by means of expiation, the wrath of God is propitiated. Taking these ideas together, Murray is right define propitiation in personal terms.

[8] Sin creates a situation in relation to the Lord, a situation that makes the covering necessary. It is this Godward reference of both the sin and the covering that must be fully appreciated. It may be said that the sin, or perhaps the person who has sinned, is covered before the sight of the Lord. (30)

Whereas expiation removes the sin, propitiation assuages God’s holy wrath that sin invites. Appealing again to the Old Testament, Murray writes,

[9] In the thought of the Old Testament there is but one construction that we can place upon this provision of the sacrificial ritual. It is that sin evokes the holy displeasure or wrath of God. Vengeance is the reaction of the holiness of God to sin, and the covering is that which provides for the removal of divine displeasure which the sin evokes. It is obvious that we are brought to the threshold of that which is clearly denoted by the Greek rendering in both Old and New Testaments, namely, that of propitiation. To propitiate means to “placate,” “pacify,” “appease,” “conciliate.” And it is this idea that is applied to the atonement accomplished by Christ. Propitiation presupposes the wrath and displeasure of God, and the purpose of propitiation is the removal of this displeasure. Very simply stated the doctrine of propitiation means that Christ propitiated the wrath of God and rendered God propitious to his people. (30)

Propitiation is a difficult and debated word, but one that is worth defending when rightly understood. To aid in that understanding, Murray makes three clarifications.

[10] First of all, to love and to be propitious are not convertible terms. It is false to suppose that the doctrine of propitiation regards propitiation as that which causes or constrains the divine love. . . . Secondly, propitiation is not a turning of the wrath of God into love. The propitiation of the divine wrath, effected in the expiatory work of Christ, is the provision of God’s eternal and unchangeable love, so that through the propitiation of his own wrath that love may realize its purpose in a way that is consonant with and to the glory of the dictates of his holiness. . . . Thirdly, propitiation does not detract from the love and mercy of God; it rather enhances the marvel of his love. For it shows the cost that redemptive love entails. (31–32)

Propitiation is often denied or decried because its opponents fail to appreciate a biblical understanding of God’s wrath. However, when the wrath of God is appreciated, the doctrine of propitiation comes into full focus. And instead of being anything like the propitiation of pagan myths, it is a glorious testimony to God’s grace and love and wisdom. What God justly demands, the propitiation of his wrath, he graciously provides in the cross of Christ. This is why Murray says,  “To deny propitiation is to undermine the nature of the atonement as the vicarious endurance of the penalty of sin. In a word, it is to deny substitutionary atonement” (32–33).

6. The Cross as Reconciliation

Next, Murray considers the biblical language of reconciliation. Distinguishing it from propitiation, he observes,

[11] Propitiation places in the focus of attention the wrath of God and the divine provision for the removal of that wrath. Reconciliation places in the focus of attention our alienation from God and the divine method of restoring us to his favor. (33)

Equally important, Murray rightly identifies the need for a two-way reconciliation. Often, in presentations of God that stress his lovingkindness without due attention to his holiness and justice, reconciliation is presented as something we must do, not something God needs to do. After all, he is perfectly loving. However, such a presentation misses the way our sin offends God and requires reconciliation. In this way, man and God must be reconciled to one another. As Murray puts it,

[12] The cause of the alienation is, of course, our sin, but the alienation consists not only in our unholy enmity against God but also in God’s holy alienation from us. Our iniquities have separated between us and our God and our sins have hid his face (cf. Isa. 59:2). If we dissociate from the word “enmity” as applied to God everything of the nature of malice and malignity, we may properly speak of this alienation on the part of God as his holy enmity towards us. It is this alienation that the reconciliation contemplates and removes. (33)

It becomes more challenging, however, to prove this point when the New Testament never says directly that God is reconciled to us, but does say we need to be reconciled to God or that God has reconciled us to himself (34). This is what sets Murray on a long excursus discussing how a bare reading of the New Testament does not deny, but in fact, proves that God does need to be reconciled. Thus, after considering Matthew 5:23–24 (34–38), Romans 5:8–11 (38–40), and 2 Corinthians 5:18–21 (40–42), Murray concludes,

[13] The reconciliation of which the Scripture speaks, as accomplished by the death of Christ, contemplates, therefore, the relation of God to us. It presupposes a relation of alienation and it effects a relation of favor and peace. This new relation is constituted by the removal of the ground for the alienation. The ground is sin and guilt. The removal is wrought in the vicarious work of Christ, when he was made sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him. Christ took upon himself the sin and guilt, the condemnation and the curse of those on whose behalf he died. This is the epitome of divine grace and love. It is God’s own provision and it is his accomplishment. God himself in his own Son has removed the ground of offence and we receive the reconciliation. (42)

In this way, like all the gifts of God’s divine grace, reconciliation is what God does to meet his holy standards. Yes, we must respond to his gracious invitation—“Be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5;20). But any reconciliation on our part is only possible because God has been reconciled to us by the cross of Christ.

7. The Cross as Redemption

Finally, Murray defines the term redemption. He warns that redemption must not be reduced to mere deliverance; it must retain the idea of ransom and the paying of a price (42). This is point that Leon Morris (The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross) have made and it is one that needs to be made: redemption does not come without a cost. And, in his wonderful mercy, God took it upon himself to pay the curse of the law and the penalty of sin. In fact, these are the two areas that Murray addresses.

First, Murray notes that Scripture never says that we are redeemed from the law, but that we are redeemed from the curse of the law. He writes,

[14] When the Scripture relates redemption to the law of God, the terms it uses are to be carefully marked. It does not say that we are redeemed from the law. That would not be an accurate description and the Scripture refrains from such an expression. We are not redeemed from the obligation to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and strength and mind and our neighbor as ourselves. The law is comprehended in these two commandments (Matt. 22:40) and love is the fulfilling of the law (Rom. 13:10). To suppose that we are delivered from the law in the sense of such obligation would bring contradiction into the design of Christ’s work. It would contradict the very nature of God to think that any person can ever be relieved of the necessity to love God with the whole heart and to obey his commandments. (43–44)

This is an important point and one that protects us from antinomianism, as well as legalism. Murray notes that Christ redeems us from the curse of not keeping the law, but the cross also guards us from trying to do the works of the law. In fact, a right understanding of the cross affirms the way Christ obeyed the law in our place and put to death the curse of the law by dying in our place. Together, Christ’s full obedience redeemed us from the curse of the law and from cursing ourselves by trying to keep the law.

Second, Christ’s redeems us from sin. This is obviously connected to our redemption from the curse of the law, but as Murray notes, redemption from sin touches on the triumphal aspect of redemption. He writes,

[15] Redemption from the power of sin may be called the triumphal aspect of redemption. In his finished work Christ did something once for all respecting the power of sin and it is in virtue of this victory which he secured that the power of sin is broken in all those who are united to him. It is in this connection that a strand of New Testament teaching needs to be appreciated but which is frequently overlooked. It is that not only is Christ regarded as having died for the believer but the believer is represented as having died in Christ and as having been raised up with him to newness of life. This is the result of union with Christ. For by this union Christ is not only united to those who have been given to him but they are united with him. Hence not only did Christ die for them but they died in him and rose with him (cf. Rom. 6:1-10; 2 Cor. 5:14-15; Eph. 2:1-7; Col. 3:1-4; 1 Pet. 4:1-2). It is this fact of having died with Christ in the efficacy of his death and of having risen with him in the power of his resurrection that insures for all the people of God deliverance from the dominion of sin. (48–49)

Murray connects this victorious aspect of redemption to Christ’s defeat of Satan and finishes his chapter like this,

[16] We thus see that redemption from sin cannot be adequately conceived or formulated except as it comprehends the victory which Christ secured once for all over him who is the god of this world, the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now works in the children of disobedience. We must view sin and evil in its larger proportions as a kingdom that embraces the subtlety, craft, ingenuity, power, and unremitting activity of Satan and his legions — “the principalities, and the powers, the world-rulers of this darkness, the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenlies” (Eph. 6:12). And it impossible to speak in terms of redemption from the power of sin except as there comes within the range of this redemptive accomplishment the destruction of the power of darkness. It is thus that we may entertain a more intelligent understanding of what Christ encountered when he said, “This is your hour and the power of darkness” (Luke 22:53) and of what the Lord of glory wrought when he cast out the prince of this world (John 12:31). (50)

What the Cross Achieved

All in all, John Murray gives us a helpful introduction to Christ’s cross. In his book, he has more to say about the perfection of the cross, the extent of the atonement, and the resulting effects of the cross. The second part of his book considers the Ordo Salutis, i.e., the order of salvation. And anyone wanting to understand the cross of Christ and its effects, should look to Murray.

For Christians, knowing what God did in the cross of Christ is vital for understanding our faith. Moreover, if we intend to share the gospel, make disciples, or defend the faith, we need to understand these truths as well, starting with the necessity and the nature of the cross. Therefore, learning why and what the cross achieved is foundational for the faith. And I pray that what is cited above will help articulate the faith once for all delivered to the saints and build up our most holy faith.

To that end may we continue to look to Christ and the cross on which the prince of glory died.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

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