In the town where I live, there is a spacious open place at its heart, and in it a tall building topped by a cross. The cross is visible all along the main road leading into town, and is lit up at night to guide people to the heart of the community. The cross has long been central to our culture as a symbol of the Christian faith. This can be so because the cross itself is central to the faith; and not only to the faith, but to the life of every believer.
The cross was at the heart too, of the very great recovery of the truth the Reformation made of the Christian faith, which even in the centuries so soon after Christ was showing signs of bending from the truth that the Apostles taught in the New Testament. By Medieval times, the teachings of the church had become so twisted that they could hardly be recognised as those of the New Testament, but by the grace of God, the Reformers set about to reform, or reshape the church, to bring it back to its original shape. Their main concern was with its teaching, to bring it back into line with the New Testament again. And since the cross is central to the faith, it is not surprising that one of their major efforts was to restore the teaching about the cross of Christ.
The thing that Christ did on the cross was to make atonement between God and man. It is an old word which means literally at-one-ment. On the cross, Christ was making man at one with God again, having been separated from God since the time that our original parents Adam and Eve sinned in the garden. What the Reformation did especially was to bring out into the light again the way in which Christ did this. We must follow the scriptures closely to see what they taught.
Nobody, in Medieval times or today, or any day can deny that there is something drastically wrong with us human beings. We can observe wrong and hurtful activity as easily as we can observe clouds in the sky. We just look out of our windows at children playing in the street, where often enough the game will turn to tears. Or read the newspaper, where you do not even have to turn to the court reports to read about domestic violence, drug abuse, or fraud, or any other sins that may be reported, and the misery behind the scenes that attends these sins. Turn on the television, and you will not be watching long before you see scenes of bloodshed across the world. Worst of all, if you look into yourself…
This activity the Bible calls sin, and it separates us from God.
Your iniquities have separated you from God; your sins have hidden his face from you. Isaiah 59:2
and see Paul's catalogue of wrongdoing in Romans 1- 3, ending with his doleful remark that,
There is no one righteous, not even one ... all have turned away.Romans 3:11-12
So if ever we are going to be at one with God, and live in heaven with Him, we have to do something about sin, because we would never be fit for heaven if we had sin dragging us down. What the Reformation did was to restore the scripture teaching on how God dealt with sin through the cross. The Reformers recognised from scripture that God could not simply forgive sin as a man might forgive another man for something wrong done against him.
The revelation of God's justice in scripture is probably the most important thing to see when looking at how the cross provides atonement. God is simply not like us when it comes to overlooking offences against Himself. You thought that I was altogether like you (Psalm 50:21) is a charge levelled at us by God, but being perfectly just, God cannot let one sin go without treating it as it deserves.
It is not as if God were proud either, and never lets an offence against Himself go, in the way that proud people get angry with the smallest slight to their person. Any offence against God is against infinite love; it is a betrayal of trust, and the betrayal of a true Lover.
And sin is always against God. There is no such thing as sin which is only against the law, or against human society or a human friend. King David realised this with sickening clarity. Against You, You only, have I sinned he prayed in the agony of recognition of his sin (Psalm 51:4). Justice requires punishment of the sin, and when a godly man sins, he will recognise that God would be perfectly just to punish him. David, admitting this, goes on to say: So that you are proved right when you speak, and justified when you judge. (Psalm 51:4)
All that is right and proper in the universe would be violated if sin were left unchallenged and unpunished by God. But where does that leave the sinner? – in hell would be the short answer.
Sin must be punished, but there is just a hope for the sinner if some third party is willing and able to take the punishment instead. Jesus was that third party, sent into the world by God the Father to die on behalf of and instead of God's people.
This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.1 John 4:10
The most wonderful thing in human history happened when God sent His Son to earth, who took to Himself a human nature. He grew up and lived a sinless life in the land of Palestine, but He died as a criminal, condemned by the judicial process of the national law, just like the other two men who were crucified that day. But He also died condemned by God, because He died hung on the cross. This is what Paul means when he says that Jesus died under God's anger (in Galatians 3:13), by being hung on the cross, because the law of God states that all who die such deaths, as convicted criminals, are dying under God's anger (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). Jesus was being put to death for our sins.
The scriptures say that this was the case. But He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities... and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:5-6). God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:12), and Jesus Himself said that this was what He came to do: The Son of Man came ... to give His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). Giving His life as a ransom for us means giving His life on behalf of, or instead of, ours.
The whole of the Old Testament also points to Jesus being our substitute for sin. When John the Baptist calls Jesus The Lamb of God, he is referring to the Old Testament, where lambs, and other animals, were put to death so that the guilty sinner might go free. It also shows how innocent and meek Jesus was, like a lamb. The innocent Lamb of God was loaded with the guilt of our sin, the violence, the abuse, the anger, the fraud and betrayal, the tears and the misery for our sake. And where did it leave Him? In hell. Separated and punished by God, He cries out My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?
The Reformers rescued this truth of Christ being our substitute for God's anger for all ages. They rescued another New Testament truth too, which had long been neglected and discarded, that of being made right with God by faith alone. To be fully accurate, they rescued the alone. The church had recognised that we couldn't be made right with God without Christ's death on the cross, but had said that we must add our own effort to it. But when Christ bore our sins, He bore the punishment due to all of them; and when He bore God's anger, He bore it all, so that there is not one little drop left for the sinner. In this way we are reconciled to God, and made right with Him, the sin that had separated us being dealt with by Jesus on the cross.
It is faith alone in Christ's death on the cross as a substitute for us that makes us right with God. It isn't our faith that makes us right with God, because only Jesus can do that, but it is faith in the death of Jesus, for us that enables us to become at one with God.
In order for the cross to remain central in the life of the church, the life of the individual Christian, and even the life of our communities, the scriptural message of the atonement must not be lost again. Other teachings have arisen as to how Christ reconciled us to God, besides the substitution of Christ to bear our sins and God's anger, which the Reformation brought out again from the New Testament. But none of them stick so close to the Scriptures, or take sin seriously enough; nor do they take God seriously enough.
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