It Is Finished: Beholding the Cross of Christ from All of Scripture

Have you ever watched a new movie, where you started 10 minutes before the end?

Many years ago, when big hair was still in style, I was introduced to Back to the Future in this way. My friends were watching this movie and I joined them at point where Doc Brown crashed through garbage cans, warned Marty and his girlfriend about their future children, and drove to a place where “we don’t need roads.”

If you only know the last ten minutes of Back to the Future, however, you won’t understand the significance of the DeLorean, the date (November 5, 1955), the speed (88 miles per hour), or the electricity (1.21 Gigawatts) that makes time travel possible. Nor will you understand the flux capacitor and its cruciform power to rewrite history. All of these details are revealed over the course of the movie and only in watching the movie from beginning to end, can you make sense of its ending. 

Something similar happens when we open our Bibles and behold the man hung upon a Roman cross. While many well-intentioned evangelists point to Christ’s cross as the center piece of our Christian faith and the way of our salvation, it is an event in history that only makes sense when you begin in the beginning. That Christ was buried in a garden tomb does more than give us an historical referent; it tells the significance of Christ’s death as the way of God’s new creation, because after all it was in a garden where Adam sinned and brought death to the world. Now, raised from a garden tomb, Jesus as the new Adam has introduced a new way of life.

In this vein, the biblical storyline is necessary for understanding why the Son of God had to die on a tree, be buried in a tomb, and raised to life on the third day. Indeed, even if we know that Christ did not stay dead—that he rose from the grave, walked the earth teaching his disciples for forty days, and ascended to heaven, where he now sits in glory—we cannot make sense of the cross. Or at least, our interest in Christ’s death and resurrection leads us to ask: But what does it mean?

Indeed, the way to understand Christ’s life, death, and resurrection is to place those events in the timeline of God’s redemptive history. That timeline begins in creation, proceeds through the fall of mankind into sin, and picks up countless promises of grace and types of salvation throughout the Old Testament. In fact, to be most precise, God’s plan for Christ’s cross did not begin in space and time; it began before God spoke light into the darkness (Gen. 1:3). As Peter says in his first sermon (Acts 2:23) and his first epistle (1 Peter 1:20), the cross of Christ was the centerpiece of God’s eternal plan for the salvation of his people.

In Scripture, therefore, the cross is the climactic work of God to redeem sinners and rescue the dying. Indeed, while Jesus now reigns in glory, and his victorious resurrection gives assurance that all those who trust in him will have eternal life, it is vital to understand what Christ did on the cross and what it means when Christ said on the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30).

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Getting Redemption Right and Understanding the Logic of Christ’s Cross

black cross on top of mountain

Recently, I have been watching, reading, and discussing the ways that the cross of Christ has being wrongly preached, taught, and explained in churches today. In particular the penal substitutionary nature of the cross, where Christ pays the penalty for sinners who have broken God’s law and deserve his righteous and eternal condemnation, has been redefined by scholars like N.T. Wright, popular teachers like Tim Mackie (and The Bible Project), and misrepresented by pastors who have adopted their teaching and succumbed to the God-is-love-and-not-wrath narrative. And this does not even include the opponents of Christianity (e.g., Tony Jones, Bart Campolo, Richard Rorty, and others in the following video) who have simply denied the historic meaning of the cross of Christ.

Often, false teaching about the cross affirms truths that Scripture teaches. For instance, the cross does defeat the powers and principalities (Col. 2:13–15); it does display the love of God (John 3:16); it does liberate mankind from the idols and ideas of this world (1 Pet. 1:18–19). Sadly, the error comes not in what is affirmed, but what is denied—namely, that the cross propitiates the wrath of God. At its heart, Scripture teaches that a holy God cannot turn a blind eye to human sin. Therefore, mankind stands condemned in Adam and ready to receive God’s righteous judgment. This is bad news. But it is biblical and it is the ground from which the good news of Christ’s death must spring.

In the Bible, we discover that God’s gospel declares that he has satisfied his own holy standards by substituting his own Son in the place of the people who he has chosen to redeem. Sadly, many teachers deny or distort this penal substitutionary view of the cross. Some caricature God’s wrath as divine child abuse poured out on Jesus, as if Jesus is not God himself; others make the problem of humanity some form of human, political, or demonic evil; and others simply deny the holiness of God, declaring that God has absolute freedom to do whatever he wants, including letting sinners go free—no wrath needed. Space does not permit a full response here to these errant views (but see this three-part response).

Instead, I want to offer a biblical definition of redemption and Christ as the redeemer.  Again, the problem with any view that denies Christ’s penal substitution stems from a dismissal or distorted view of Scripture. Yet, when we take Scripture on its own terms, we find a holy God who has made a single way of salvation in Christ’s death and resurrection. Explaining that redemption, Leon Morris, in The Atonement: Its Meaning and Significance, has helpful spelled out the nature of humanity’s need and the effect of Christ’s death. Writing about Christ the Redeemer, he says Continue reading

The Whole Truth: Why One-Sided Truths Are the Most Effective Way to Introduce Error

Since its inception, the church has been a community created by truth (Eph. 1:13; Col. 1:5) and engaged with confronting error. Both proactively and reactively, the church and its heralds of Scripture have been called to preach the truth of God’s Word and reject falsehood (see e.g., Titus 1:9). Yet, in every generation this calling has been compromised through half truths masquerading as whole truths which become untruths, as the late J. I. Packer once put it.

For this reason, Christians, and especially pastors, must be vigilant to defend the truth from half truths. On this point, A.A. Hodge insisted that the challenge of this duty stemmed from the many-sided nature of truth. Because we are one-sided people, who are both limited in our thinking, twisted in our desires, and easily deceived by our Enemy, we struggle to handle the many-sided nature of truth. Thus, we fall into error. 

Though he wrote nearly 150 years ago, his observation is worth considering, with the added reflection on ways that one-sided truths lead us into error. Here are his words, which come from the opening pages of his book, The Atonement. Below I will offer four ways that one-sided truths can derail us and lead us into temptation and error.

The human mind was formed for truth, and so constituted that only truth can exert permanent influence upon it. But the truth revealed in the Scriptures is so many-sided in its aspects, and so vast in its relations, and our habits of thought, because of sin, are so one-sided and narrow, that as a general fact, the mind of any Church in any single age fails to take in practically and sharply more than one side of a truth at a time, while other aspects and relations are either denied or neglected. A habit of unduly exalting any subordinate view of the truth at the expense of that which is more important, or of overlooking, on the other hand, some secondary aspect of it altogether, is certain after a time to lead to a reactionary tendency, in which that which has been too much exalted shall be brought low, and that which has been abased shall be exalted. This principle is abundantly illustrated throughout the entire history of theological speculation as in the ever-repeated oscillations between extremes of Sabellianism and Tritheism as to the Trinity, of Eutychianism [Jesus was fully divine, but not fully human] and Nestorianism [Jesus was two persons (one divine, one human) not one person with two natures] to the Person of Christ, and in the history of speculations on the doctrine of Redemption.

Every prominent heresy as to the nature of the Atonement, as the reader will find carefully acknowledged and defined in the following work, embraces and emphasizes on its positive side an important truth. The power, and hence the danger, of the heresy resides in that fact. But on the other hand, it is a heresy, and hence an evil to be resisted unto death, because it either puts a subordinate principle into the place of that which is central and fundamental, or because it puts one side of the truth for the whole, denying or ignoring all besides the fractional truth presented. It is plainly the policy as well as the duty of the defenders of the whole truth, not only to acknowledge the truth held on the side of their opponents, but to vindicate the rights of the perfect system as a whole, by demonstrating the true position and relation of the partial truth admitted in the larger system of truth denied. By these means we double the defences of orthodoxy, by bringing into contribution all that is true, and therefore all that is of force, in the apologies of error. (A. A Hodge, The Atonement, 17–18).

Acknowledging Hodge’s warning, what can we do to guard against one-sided (half-)truths? The singular answer is to continue to press into the truth of God and the whole counsel of God’s Word. At the same time, we should recognize common paths to error. And that is what I want to offer here—namely, four ways we might be led to affirm one-side of the truth without holding fast to the other sides of truth. As a result, we misshape the truth by ignoring or denying other aspects of truth, which makes the truth we hold persuasive but also pernicious. Only truth in full flower is, what Francis Schaeffer called, true truth. And true truth is what we must always pursue. To that end let us beware of the following habits of thought. Continue reading

On Reading Leviticus: Four Reading Strategies for This Glorious Book

Jesus washing the feet of Saint Peter on Maundy Thursday

With a new month (March) comes a new book in the Via Emmaus Reading Plan. This year I am reading Track 1 and listening to Track 3. And for those who are reading along this plan, or for those who are interested in reading Leviticus—“The Most Exciting Book You’ve (N)Ever Read”—I offer this reading strategy with resources.

This year, we have read Genesis and Exodus, and now we come to Leviticus, which is arguably the centerpiece of the whole Pentateuch. As I have taught in this Bible Study, borrowing from the work of Michael Morales (Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord?) who cites many others, the book of Leviticus is the literary center and high point of the Pentateuch. Thematically, we might capture it this way:

Genesis begins in Eden, the Garden of God and ends in Egypt, a place of exile and death;

Exodus moves from Egypt through the wilderness to Sinai;

Leviticus is entirely written at Sinai;

Numbers moves from Sinai through the wilderness to the Promised Land (i.e., Israel sits poised to enter the land at the end of the book);

Deuteronomy prepares the people to move from exile in the wilderness into the Garden of God, the land of Canaan.

From this locational/thematic chiasm (and there are other literary clues that indicate an intentional shaping of the Pentateuch), we see that Leviticus is not a book we must “get through.” In the Pentateuch, it is the book we must “get to.”

We need Leviticus, so that we might learn what it takes to dwell near to God. This month, as we read Leviticus, we need to consider how this book gives us more than a detailed list of instructions for the priests of Israel. It invites us to approach a holy God and to do so through the finished work of Christ—the One who fulfills all the requirements of the Levitical system of sacrifice. In what follows I will offer a handful of resources to help you read this book, starting with four reading strategies for Leviticus. Continue reading

Seeing Leviticus with New Eyes: Understanding the Pollution of Sin and the Need for Sacrifice

steve-sharp-DmM6NQcavuI-unsplashOn Tuesday’s nights I teach a class on Leviticus, which I have affectionately entitled, “Leviticus: The Most Exciting Book You’ve (N)ever Read). If you are interested in learning a thing or two about this vitally important book and how it teaches us about Christ, the gospel, and the logic of God’s atonement, you can find the lessons here

This week, as we considered the Reparation Offering—which if you will listen has some application for considering the modern question of reparations—I began with a discussion on the difference between this offering and the Purification Offering. On that point, I found the following explanation of sin as pollution helpful. In his commentary on Leviticus, Gordon Wenham observes the way Moderns fail to understand the cultic idea of sin and pollution. This is one of many reasons why we struggle to understand Leviticus. But once we understand how Israel’s sin defiled the tabernacle and its various sections (i.e., the altar, the holy place, and the holy of holies), we begin to understand what the sacrifices did. This understanding of the sacrificial system, in turn, helps understand what Christ did in his atoning sacrifice, as well as what it means that Jesus is our propitiation.

Again, this is why we are looking at Leviticus. And to help us understand that book and the whole concept of sacrificial worship and atonement for our sin, I share these reflections from Gordon Wenham. Continue reading

One Ransom for All: The Beautiful Scandal of God’s Universal Particularity (1 Timothy 2:5–7)

livingchurch

One Ransom for All: The Beautiful Scandal of God’s Universal Particularity (1 Timothy 2:5–7)

On Sunday we focused on the death and resurrection of Christ. While Psalm Sunday directs us to Christ’s triumphal entrance to Jerusalem, we focused on Paul’s message of the cross in 1 Timothy 2:5–7. As 1 Timothy 2–3 spend time on Christ’s death and resurrection, we considered how his one death ransomed people from every nation.

Indeed, speaking into the divided context of Ephesus where the Law was separating Jews and Gentiles and urging Gentiles to become like Jews, Paul speaks of the all-sufficiency of Christ’s death once and for all. In this context, we see why this is good news for us and for all time.

You can listen to the sermon online. And you can response questions and further resources below. Continue reading

The Nature and Necessity of the Cross: Why Christ Had to Die for Sin (With a Little Help from Anselm)

cross

For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men,
the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all,
which is the testimony given at the proper time.
— 1 Timothy 2:5–6 —

Yesterday (Psalm Sunday) marked the day when Jesus entered Jerusalem en route to a cross. There on that Roman instrument of death, he revealed God’s justice and mercy, disarmed the devil, and ransomed his people from their sin—to name but a few of the ways Scripture speaks of Christ’s death.

In the days of crucifixion, Jesus was one of thousands who were hung on a tree. Physically speaking, his death was not remarkable, aside from the fact that his death came much quicker than most who died by crucifixion. Spiritually speaking, however, his death was unlike any other. No one else—before or since or ever—died in the place of others and rose from the grave, conferring on his people resurrection life won through his obedience unto death.

Today, there dozens of ways Christians speak of the cross—e.g., a redemption, victory, sacrifice, penal substitution, etc.—but critically two issues stand at the center of the cross. First, for whom was the cross chiefly designed? Did Jesus die to give man a moral example? Did he die to defeat the devil? Or did he die to propitiate the wrath of God? In truth, we must affirm all three realities, but only when the design of the cross is chiefly Godward do the other aspects of the cross hold together.

Second, was Christ’s death the only way of salvation or might God have forgiven man in another way? This was the question answered in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36–46). For Jesus, the cross was the cup prepared for him to drink, and on the cross this cup—the cup of God’s wrath—he would drink to its dregs (Psalm 75:8). Truly then there was no other way. Continue reading

How the Cross of Christ Crucifies Sin

crossAs 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.  Continue reading

Let Us Meditate On the Cross

crossThis morning I continue to teach The Work of Christ to a group of students at Indianapolis Theological Seminary. Few things are more delightful than spending hours meditating on the finished work of Christ and contemplating the way Scripture portrays Christ’s substitionary atonement on behalf of sinners.

To be sure, this is not an undisputed view today. But it is vitally important truth and one worth defending and declaring boldly: Christ’s death is not one of many options for reconciliation with God; it is God’s eternal plan and necessary means for justifying sinners, reuniting image-bearers with their Maker, and putting all things under his feet so that in the age to come.

For our consideration of this glorious hope, consider five quotes from Emil Brunner, Martin Luther, and John Stott.

Emil Brunner

The whole struggle of the Reformation for the sola fide, the sola deo Gloria, was simply the struggle for the right interpretation of the Cross. He who understands the Cross aright—this is the opinion of the Reformers—understands the Bible, he understands Jesus Christ. (Emil Brunner, The Mediator, 435)

Martin Luther

Because and eternal, unchangeable sentence of condemnation has passed upon sin—god cannot and will not regard sin with favor, but his wrath abides upon it eternally and irrevocably—redemption was not possible with a ransom of such precious worth as to atone for sin. This no creature was able to do. There was no remedy except for God’s only Son to step into our distress and himself become a man, to take upon himself the load of awful and eternal wrath and make his own body and blood a sacrifice for sin. And so he did, out of the immeasurably great mercy and love towards us, giving himself up and bearing the sentence of unending wrath and death. (Martin Luther, “Epistle Sermon: Twenty-fourth Sunday after Trinity,” cited in John N. Lenker, ed., The Precious and Sacred Writings of Martin Luther, 9:43­–45)

John Stott

Christianity is Christ, and the crucial fact about Christ is his passion on the cross… Scripture portrays the Savior’s death as the basis of every spiritual blessing (Rom 8:31–32), as the source of true Christian living (Rom 6:1­–11; 8:3–4), and as the foundation of the church’s sacraments (Rom 6:1-4; 1 Cor 11:26). John tells us that throughout eternity the inhabitants of heaven will sing the glorious praises of the Lamb who was slain (Rev 5:9–14)” (John Stott, The Cross and Salvation, 167–68).

All inadequate doctrines of the atonement are due to inadequate doctrines of God and man. If we bring God down to our level and raise ourselves to his, then of course we see no need for a radical salvation, let alone for a radical atonement to secure it. When, on the other hand, we have glimpsed the blinding glory of the holiness of God, and have been so convicted of our sin by the Holy Spirit that we tremble before God and acknowledge what we are, namely ‘hell-deserving sinners,’ then and only then does the necessity of the cross appear so obvious that we astonished we never saw it before. (John Stott, The Cross of Christ, 109)

Substitution is not a ‘theory of the atonement.’ Nor is it even an additional image to take its place as an option alongside the others.  It is rather the essence of each image and the heart of the atonement itself.  None of the images could stand without it. (John Stott, The Cross of Christ, 202–03).

Let us not be ashamed of the cross of Christ, for it is the power and wisdom of God. And may these reflections help us marvel at God’s great gift, the voluntary sacrifice of his Son in the place of sinners. There is no other way of salvation, and no more glorious truth to contemplate.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Beholding Christ at the Lord’s Table: Penal Substitution (Old Testament)

altarAnd can it be, that I should gain an interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died he for me, who caused his pain? For me, who him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be that thou, my God, shouldst die for me!
Amazing love! How can it be that thou, my God, shouldst die for me!
— Charles Wesley, “And Can It Be That I Should Gain”

Substitution stands at the heart of cross—the innocent dying in place of the guilty, the righteous for the unrighteous, the sinless for the sinful. English hymnody is filled with this truth, because the Bible repeats the emphasis—Jesus Christ, sinless son of God, laid down his life in the place of his beloved. But hymnody is not the only place in Christian worship where Christ’s substitution is proclaimed; when we come to the Lord’s Table we also remember his death in our place.

In recent years, there has been no little debate about this truth. More than a few books have been penned arguing against penal substitution. Negatively, some have said penal substitution posits an angry, blood-thirsty God. Others, more constructively, argue that Christ came to defeat the powers and principalities (Christus Victor) and give a moral example of love in his death. To the latter, we can whole-heartedly affirm—Jesus did come to defeat the devil (1 John 3:8) and provide an example of holy love (1 Peter 2:21). But he did so by nailing his people’s sin to the cross, disarming the devil (Colossians 2:13–15) and providing an atonement for those who would imitate him (read the context of 1 Peter 2:21, esp. v. 24).

Therefore, to pit penal substitution against any other aspect of the cross obscures the necessity and beauty of Christ’s death in our place. In fact, it is by remembering Christ’s substitution that we rightly understand God’s love (1 John 4:8–10), and how a holy, triune God reconciles sinners to himself. Therefore, when we approach the Lord’s Table, we must remember see how the meal portrays his substitution.

Today, let us consider three Old Testament passages which teach penal substitution and which prepare our hearts to worship the Son of God who gladly took our sin on his shoulders and died in our place. Continue reading