By Dr. R.C. Sproul
The famous hymn of the church “And Can it Be?” contains a line that asks a very poignant question : “How can it be that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?” Is it accurate to say that God died on the cross?
This kind of expression is popular in hymnody and in grassroots conversation. So although I have this scruple about the hymn and it bothers me that the expression is there, I think I understand it, and there’s a way to give an indulgence for it.
We believe that Jesus Christ was God incarnate. We also believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross. If we say that God died on the cross, and if by that we mean that the divine nature perished, we have stepped over the edge into serious heresy. In fact, two such heresies related to this problem arose in the early centuries of the church: theopassianism and patripassianism. The first of these, theopassianism, teaches that God Himself suffered death on the cross. Patripassianism indicates that the Father suffered vicariously through the suffering of His Son. Both of these heresies were roundly rejected by the church for the very reason that they categorically deny the very character and nature of God, including His immutability. There is no change in the substantive nature or character of God at any time.
God not only created the universe, He sustains it by the very power of His being. As Paul said, “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). If the being of God ceased for one second, the universe would disappear. It would pass out of existence, because nothing can exist apart from the sustaining power of God. If God dies, everything dies with Him. Obviously, then, God could not have perished on the cross.
Some say, “It was the second person of the Trinity Who died.” That would be a mutation within the very being of God, because when we look at the Trinity we say that the three are one in essence, and that though there are personal distinctions among the persons of the Godhead, those distinctions are not essential in the sense that they are differences in being. Death is something that would involve a change in one’s being.
We should shrink in horror from the idea that God actually died on the cross. The atonement was made by the human nature of Christ. Somehow people tend to think that this lessens the dignity or the value of the substitutionary act, as if we were somehow implicitly denying the deity of Christ. God forbid. It’s the God-man Who dies, but death is something that is experienced only by the human nature, because the divine nature isn’t capable of experiencing death.
SOURCE: http://www.ligonier.org (APRIL 14, 2014)
The Blood of the Lamb of God by Gordon Wenham
“Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins,” says the epistle to the Hebrews (9:22). Most of that epistle is taken up with showing how Christ fulfilled the hopes and aspirations of the Old Testament, especially in regard to the sacrificial system of ancient Israel. But for modern readers who have never seen a sacrifice and do not think in Old Testament categories, this is all double Dutch: What has the killing of animals to do with the forgiveness of sins?
It is explained at length in the book of Leviticus, which begins with a long section setting out just how to offer the different kinds of sacrifice and what each achieves (chap. 1–7). However, we need to start further back than this to understand Leviticus and the basic notion of sacrifice.
Genesis 18 tells how Abraham was visited one day by three men. He had no idea who they were, but being a very hospitable man, Abraham laid on a splendid feast for them. His wife Sarah made a pile of fresh bread, while he offered a tender young calf, which his servants killed and cooked for the visitors. We are not told that he gave them wine, but, doubtless where that was available, it too would be served to important guests. Subsequently Abraham discovered who his visitors were — the Lord and two angels!
Though this episode is not seen as a sacrifice, it does give us an insight into the basic dynamics of sacrifice. At a sacrifice, God is the most important guest: His presence is honored by offering Him those items — meat, bread, and wine — that were served only on very special occasions. Meat eating was a rare luxury in Old Testament times, and doubtless wine was reserved for big occasions too.
Israel’s ancient neighbors saw sacrifices as meals for the gods, but the Old Testament indignantly rejects this idea. It is God who provides food for man (Gen. 1:29), not the other way around. Psalm 50:10, 12 puts it well:
Every beast of the forest is mine,
the cattle on a thousand hills… .
If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for the world and its fullness are mine.
So what was the point of these massive feasts in front of the tabernacle and later in the temple precincts? The first sacrifices in the Bible are those offered by Cain and Abel. These are mentioned straight after Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, where they had enjoyed walking with God in the cool of the day. Excluded from the garden, they were deprived of this privilege of intimacy with God. So one motive for sacrifice suggested by this story is that sacrifice allows man to renew fellowship with God.
But it must be offered in the right spirit. Cain offered only some of the fruit of the ground, whereas Abel “brought of the firstlings of his flock and their fat portions” (Gen. 4:4), that is, the very best bits of his most valued animals. God accepted the latter but not the former. Here we realize one of the most important features of sacrifice: the animals must be young and healthy, not decrepit and elderly. The Passover lamb had to be without blemish and one year old. Repeatedly, the sacrificial laws in Leviticus insist that the animals involved must be “without blemish.” The Cain and Abel story shows what will happen if this is ignored: “they will not be accepted” (Lev. 22:25; see also 19:7; 22:20).
After the fall, an avalanche of sin, especially murder and violence, engulfed the world. God complains that sin is built into man: “every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). “The earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence” (6:11). So God sent the flood to wipe out sinful humanity and start afresh with Noah, the one man “who was righteous, blameless in his generation” (6:9).
When Noah eventually emerged from the ark, his first act was to build an altar and offer sacrifice. One might suppose that this was just an act of thanksgiving for being saved from destruction himself, but the text indicates it achieved much more. “When the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, the Lord said in heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth’” (8:21). In other words, though man’s evil character has not been changed (see 6:9), God’s attitude to human sin has: He will never again punish the world with a flood. Why? Because of the pleasing aroma of the sacrifices offered by Noah (8:21). Sacrifice according to Genesis 8 thus cools God’s anger at human sin. That animal sacrifices produce a pleasing aroma for God is a frequent refrain in Leviticus 1–7.
But why is animal sacrifice so effective in appeasing God’s wrath? The account of Abraham’s offering of Isaac gives some insight into this. Genesis 22 tells how God tested Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his most precious possession, namely, his only son Isaac. Abraham did not know that this was a test — for him it was deadly earnest. So at the last minute, just as Abraham was about to cut Isaac’s throat, the angel of the Lord told him to stop: “for now I know that you fear God” (22:12). Then Abraham looked up, saw a ram, and offered it up instead of Isaac.
This story shows that if someone is ready to obey God totally, God will accept an animal instead of the worshiper. Isaac was Abraham’s future, and Abraham was willing to give him to God, yet God was satisfied with a ram. Here the doctrine of substitutionary atonement is illustrated for us. It is even clearer in the laws in Leviticus, where an essential feature of every sacrifice is the placing of the worshiper’s hand on the animal’s head. This action declares that the animal is taking the place of the worshiper. The worshiper is giving himself entirely to God by identifying himself with the animal; the animal is dying instead of the worshiper.
In Leviticus 1–7, four different types of animal sacrifice are discussed. The emphasis in these chapters is on how to carry out the different types of sacrifice. We must now focus on the features that distinguish one type of sacrifice from another. The burnt offering (Lev. 1) was unique in that it was the only sacrifice in which the entire animal was burnt on the altar. In this, the total consecration of the worshiper to the service of God was represented. At the same time, it made atonement (Lev. 1:4) for the worshiper. “Make atonement” is more exactly “pay a ransom,” a phrase used elsewhere in the Law, where an offender who might otherwise face the death penalty was let off by the payment of damages (for example, Ex. 21:30).
The peace offering (Lev. 3) was probably the most popular of Old Testament sacrifices, as it was the only one in which the worshiper who donated the animal had a share of the meat (usually, only the priests ate the sacrificial meat). The peace offering could be offered spontaneously as an act of thanksgiving to God, but it might be offered when you made a vow asking for God to do something for you, or when that prayer was answered.
The sin offering (Lev. 4) was peculiar in that some of the animal’s blood was smeared on the altar or sprinkled inside the tabernacle or temple. This blood cleansed the tabernacle from the pollution of sin. Sin does not just make one guilty before God or make Him angry, it also makes places and people unclean and thus unfit for God to dwell in. By smearing blood on the altar or sprinkling the interior of the temple with blood, these objects were cleansed of pollution. At the same time, the sinner who had caused the pollution by his misdeeds was forgiven his sins and cleansed from its pollution. This cleansing made it possible for God to re-enter the temple and indwell the believer.
Finally, there was the guilt offering (Lev. 5:14–6:7), which expressed the idea that certain deeds put us in God’s debt. These sins can only be atoned for by the sacrifice of an expensive ram. Though discussed relatively briefly in Leviticus, the sacrifice is of great importance in Isaiah 53, where the suffering servant is called the guilt offering (v. 10; see the ESV, “offering for sin”), who suffers for our transgressions (vv. 5–6). As this chapter describes most fully the atoning role of Christ, it is central to the New Testament’s understanding of Christ’s death.
The imagery of sacrifice in general pervades the New Testament’s interpretation of the cross. When John the Baptist said “Behold, the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), he was most likely seeing Christ as the perfect Passover lamb, an image that Paul also uses when he speaks of “Christ, our Passover lamb” (1 Cor. 5:7). He is also seen as the supreme burnt offering, a sacrifice superior to Isaac, an idea alluded to in such well-known passages as John 3:16 and Romans 8:32: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all.” Mark 10:45 describes the Son of Man as the ultimate servant, who gave “his life as a ransom for many.” 1 John 1:7 takes up the imagery of the sin offering when he says that “the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” For the epistle to the Hebrews Jesus is the supreme High Priest, who through His death achieves all the goals to which the Old Testament sacrificial system pointed (see Heb. 9:1–14).
Finally, we should note that the death of Christ does not exhaust the significance of the sacrificial system for the Christian. We too are expected to walk in Christ’s footsteps and share His suffering (1 Peter 2:21–24). So we too are encouraged “to present our bodies as a living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1). Paul, anticipating his own death, compared it to being “poured out as a drink offering,” that is, like the wine that was poured over the altar with every animal sacrifice (see also Phil. 2:17; 2 Tim. 4:6). In this way the old modes of worship should still inspire our consecration today.
About the Author: Dr. Gordon Wenham is senior professor of Old Testament at the University of Gloucestershire, England, and he served on the translation oversight committee for the English Standard Version Bible.
Article Information: From Tabletalk Magazine, September 1, 2005. © Tabletalk magazine Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way, you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, and you do not make more than 500 physical copies. For web posting, a link to this document on our website is preferred (where applicable). If no such link exists, simply link to http://www.ligonier.org/tabletalk. Any exceptions to the above must be formally approved by Tabletalk.
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A Summary of the Sovereignty of God in Salvation
Salvation is not finally in the hands of man to determine. His choices are crucial, but they are not the final, decisive power in bringing him to glory, God’s sovereign grace is.
1. God elects, chooses, before the foundation of the world whom he will save and whom he will pass by and leave to unbelief and sin and rebellion. He does this unconditionally, not on the basis of foreseen faith that humans produce by a supposed power of ultimate self-determination (= “free will”).
Acts 13:48, “When the gentiles heard this they were glad and glorified the word of God. And as many as were for ordained to eternal life believed.”
Romans 11:7, “Israel failed to obtain what is sought. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened.”
John 6:37, “All that the Father gives to me will come to me; and him who comes to me I will not cast out.”
2. The Atonement applies to the elect in a unique, particular way, although the death of Christ is sufficient to propitiate the sins of the whole world. The death of Christ effectually accomplished the salvation for all God’s people.
Eph. 5:25, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”
Heb. 10:14, “By a single offering he perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”
John 10:15, “I lay down my life for the sheep.”
Rom. 8:32, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how shall he not with him freely give us all things?”
3. Because of the Fall, humans are incapable of any saving good apart from the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. We are helpless and dead in sin. We have a mindset that “cannot submit to God without divine enabling.
Rom. 8:7-8, “The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, it does not submit to God’s law; indeed it cannot. But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you.”
4. God’s call to salvation is effectual, and, hence His grace cannot be ultimately thwarted by human resistance. God’s regenerating call can overcome all human resistance.
Acts 16:14, “The Lord opened her heart to give heed to what was said by Paul.”
1 Cor. 1:23-24, “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
5. Those whom God calls and regenerates He also keeps, so that they do not totally and finally fall away from faith and grace.
Rom. 8:30, “Those whom he predestined, he also called and those whom he called he also justified and those whom he justified he also glorified.”
John 10:27-29, “My sheep hear my voice and I know them and they follow me; and I give them eternal life and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand.”
1 Thess. 5:23, “May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly, and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful and he will do it.”
Romans 11:36, “From him, through him, and to him are all things, to him be glory forever amen!”
By John Piper ©2012 Desiring God Foundation. December 10, 1997. Used by Permission. Website: desiringGod.org
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on our website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Desiring God.
About John Piper:
John Piper was pastor for preaching and vision for over thirty years at Bethlehem Baptist Church in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. He grew up in Greenville, South Carolina, and studied at Wheaton College, Fuller Theological Seminary (B.D.), and the University of Munich (D.theol.). For six years he taught Biblical Studies at Bethel College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and in 1980 accepted the call to serve as pastor at Bethlehem. John is the author of more than 40 books and more than 30 years of his preaching and teaching is available free at desiringGod.org. John and his wife, Noel, have four sons, one daughter, and twelve grandchildren.
We may define the atonement as follows: The atonement is the work Christ did in his life and death to earn our salvation. This definition indicates that we are using the word atonement in a broader sense than it is sometimes used. Sometimes it is used to refer only to Jesus’ dying and paying for our sins on the cross. But, as will be seen below, since saving benefits also come to us from Christ’s life, we have included that in our definition as well.
The Cause of the Atonement: What was the ultimate cause that led Christ’s coming to earth and dying for our sins? To find this we must trace the question back to something in the character of God himself. And here Scripture points to two things. And here Scripture points to two things: the love and justice of God.
The love of God as a cause of the atonement is seen in the most familiar passage in the Bible: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). But the justice of God also required that God find a way that the penalty due to us for our sins would be paid (for he could not accept us into fellowship with himself unless the penalty was paid). Paul explains that this was why God sent Christ to be a “propitiation” (Rom. 3:25 NASB) (that is, a sacrifice that bears God’s wrath so that God becomes “propitious” or favorably disposed toward us): it was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins” (Rom. 3:25). Here Paul says that God had been forgiving sins in the Old Testament but no penalty had been paid–a fact that would make people wonder whether God was indeed just and ask how he could forgive sins without a penalty. No God who was truly just could do that, could he? Yet when God sent Christ to die and pay the penalty for our sins, “it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:26).
Therefore both the love and the justice of God were the ultimate cause of the atonement. It is not helpful for us to ask which is more important, however, because without the love of God, he would never have taken any steps to redeem us, yet without the justice of God, the specific requirement that Christ should earn our salvation by dying for our sins would not have been met. Both the love and the justice of God were equally important.
The Necessity of the Atonement. Was there any other way for God to save human beings than by sending his Son to die in our place?
Before answering this question, it is important to realize that it was not necessary for God to save any people at all. When we appreciate that “God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of nether gloom to be kept until judgement (2 Peter 2:4), then we realize that God could also have chosen with perfect justice to have left us in our sins awaiting judgment: he could have chosen to save no one, just as he did with the sinful angels. So in this sense the atonement was not absolutely necessary.
But once God, is his love, decided to save some human beings, then several passages in Scripture indicate that there was not other way for God to do this than through the death of his Son. Therefore, the atonement was not absolutely necessary, but, as a “consequence” of God’s decision to save some human beings, the atonement was absolutely necessary. This is sometimes called the “consequent absolute necessity” view of the atonement.
In the Garden of Gethsemene Jesus prays, “If it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39). We may be confident that Jesus always prayed according to the will of the Father, and that he always prayed with fullness of faith. Thus it seems that this prayer, which Matthew takes pains to record for us, shows that it was not possible for Jesus to avoid the death on the cross which was soon to come to him (the “cup” of suffering that he had said would be his). If he was going to accomplish the work that the Father sent him to do, and if people were going to be redeemed for God, then it was necessary for him to die on the cross.
He said something similar after his resurrction, when he was talking with two disciples on the road to Emmaus. They were sad that Jesus had died, but his response was, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:25-26). Jesus understood that God’s plan of redemption (which he explained for the disciples from many Old Testament Scriptures, Luke 24:27) made it necessary for the Messiah to die for the sins of his people.
As we saw above, Paul in Romans 3 also shows that if God were to be righteous, and still save people, he had to send Christ to pay the penalty for sins. “It was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). The epistle to the Hebrews emphasizes that Christ had to suffer for our sins: “He had to be made like his brethren in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation [lit. ‘propitiation’] for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17). The author of Hebrews aslo argues that since “it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins (Hebrews 10:4), a better sacrifice is required (Hebrews 9:23). Only the blood of Christ, that is, his death, would be able really to take away sins (Hebrews 9:25-26). There was no other way for God to save us than for Christ to die in our place.
Dr. Wayne Grudem, research professor of theology and biblical studies at Phoenix Seminary, received his A.B. from Harvard University, M.Div. from Westminster Seminary, and a Ph.D in New Testament from the University of Cambridge. He is a board member of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, a past president of the Evangelical Theological Society, and the author of more than a dozen books -including his magnum opus “Systematic Theology”, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009 – from which this article is excerpted from chapter 27.
As a pastor for over twenty-four years now, I am amazed at how fresh and new and exciting the depths of my understanding of the gospel keep getting – largely due to books like this one. This insightful book offers a very refreshing and much needed look at the necessity of a paradigm shift in our thinking through the lenses of the resurrection rather than through the cross as the appropriate symbol of the church in today’s world. In this book the authors make the very effective case that the resurrection is the lynchpin upon which Christianity stands or falls: without it – there is no atonement for sin, no justification by faith alone, no empowerment for living a holistic life, and no basis for ethics, spiritual growth, human rights, and missions.
One of the most important contributions this book makes is how they cogently and with convincing evidences show how a theology of the resurrection was in the thoughts and heart of the worldview of the most missional Christian of all time – the apostle Paul. The authors also demonstrate how resurrection theology is present in all of Biblical revelation. This book is not so much a case for the evidence of the resurrection, but a case for the necessity and reality of our belief and application of the ramifications of the resurrection for all of life.
I immensely enjoyed this book and will be adding it to an increasing list of books that I will be reading on a yearly basis to remind me of the importance of the resurrection lenses through which I should be seeing all of life each and every day – until Jesus returns – of course, made possible because of His literal bodily resurrection from the dead. As a result of my reading of this book I believe and feel even more empowered and equipped to live out and share the past, present, and future realities of the gospel consisting of the death, burial, resurrection, and return of Jesus Christ the Lord.
They say a picture is worth a 1000 words. Here is my favorite painting by William Holman Hunt. In this painiting he gives a foretaste of why Jesus came with Mary glancing at the wall in the carpenter’s shop and seeing why her son took on flesh to be the Savior of the world. Christ’s life, death, and resurrection is perhaps best summarized by the Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” And by Peter in 1 Peter 3:18 & 2:24, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit…He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.”
*William Holman Hunt (1827-1910 – British) changed his middle name from “Hobman” to Holman when he discovered that a clerk had misspelled the name after his baptism at the church of Saint Mary the Virgin, Ewell. After eventually entering the Royal Academy art schools, having initially been rejected, Hunt rebelled against the influence of its founder Sir Joshua Reynolds. He formed the Pre-Raphaelite movement in 1848, after meeting the poet and artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Along with John Everett Millais they sought to revitalize art by emphasizing the detailed observation of the natural world in a spirit of quasi-religious devotion to truth. This religious approach was influenced by the spiritual qualities of medieval art, in opposition to the alleged rationalism of the Renaissance embodied by Raphael. He had many pupils including Robert Braithwaite Martineau.
Hunt’s works were not initially successful, and were widely attacked in the art press for their alleged clumsiness and ugliness. He achieved some early note for his intensely naturalistic scenes of modern rural and urban life, such as The Hireling Shepherd and The Awakening Conscience. However, it was with his religious paintings that he became famous, initially The Light of the World (1851–1853, now in the chapel at Keble College, Oxford; a later version (1900) toured the world and now has its home in St Paul’s Cathedral.
In the mid 1850s Hunt traveled to the Holy Land in search of accurate topographical and ethnographical material for further religious works, and to “use my powers to make more tangible Jesus Christ’s history and teaching”; there he painted The Scapegoat, The Finding of the Savior in the Temple and The Shadow of Death, along with many landscapes of the region. Hunt also painted many works based on poems, such as Isabella and The Lady of Shallot. He eventually built his own house in Jerusalem.
His paintings were notable for their great attention to detail, vivid color and elaborate symbolism. These features were influenced by the writings of John Ruskin and Thomas Carlyle, according to whom the world itself should be read as a system of visual signs. For Hunt it was the duty of the artist to reveal the correspondence between sign and fact. Out of all the members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood Hunt remained most true to their ideals throughout his career. He was always keen to maximize the popular appeal and public visibility of his works.
He eventually had to give up painting because failing eyesight meant that he could not get the level of quality that he wanted. His last major work, The Lady of Shallot, was completed with the help of an assistant (Edward Robert Hughes).