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Neglected Aspects of the Cross

Category Articles
Date April 19, 2019

No doctrine has received greater attention than the Atonement. And yet, comparing the studies of the present with those of the past, and the emphases of the Bible with those of its interpreters, one begins to suspect that several aspects of the doctrine are not receiving the attention they deserve.

Its Horror

This is true, for example, of the horror with which our Lord contemplated his imminent death. A priori, we should expect heroic fearlessness, perhaps even an impatience to return to his Father. Yet this is not what we find. He does eventually enter upon the final conflict with equanimity. But this was not instinctive. It was the product of struggle, the fruit of prayer. The graphic Synoptic portrayals of the agony in Gethsemane make it abundantly clear that the prospect of death was devastating and crushing. ‘His death rose up in appalling terror between himself and his return to God’1 and he prays, with surpassing fervour, that if it is at all consistent with the purpose of redemption he may be spared.

But this is not the way that good men, or great men, have been accustomed to die. It was not the way Apostles — ‘I have a died desire to depart’ (Phil. 1:23). It was not the way martyrs died. ‘I take God to record,’ cried James Guthrie, moments before his execution, ‘I would not exchange this scaffold with the palace or mitre of the greatest prelate in Britain.’2

How then is the reputation of our Lord to be redeemed from the charge of cowardice? Only by insisting that death contained for him elements that were extra­ordinary — that for him it meant something other than it did for Apostles and martyrs. It meant personal responsibility for the world’s evil. It meant the anathema of God. It meant the dereliction, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’

The implications of this for Moral Influence theories of the Atonement are serious. For one thing, there is more, far more, in his death than such theories require ­far more than is necessary if its only purpose is to inspire or conciliate men, or to move them to repentance. Furthermore, our Lord’s experience seems rather to intimidate than to console. If the Lord of Glory, with a conscience void of offence, is appalled, what does the Valley of the Shadow of Death hold for the ungodly and the sinner?

Its Ugliness

Another aspect of the Cross which has been neglected is its sheer ugliness. Christian devotion has romanticized it, preferring the euphonious ‘Calvary’ to the harsh gutturals of the more Biblical ‘Golgotha’, and transforming ‘the place of a skull’ into the’ green hill far away’.

Now it is a truth of the first importance that the resurrection has transformed the aspect of the crucifixion. But this does not warrant our losing sight of the fact that the immediate associations of the Cross are grim, macabre and horrible. Golgotha was a place of execution, and the Cross an instrument of penal death. Moreover, the circumstances attending this particular crucifixion were in the highest degree portentous. ‘There was darkness over the whole land’ (Mark 15:33), suggestive of the midnight darkness of the first Passover, ‘a night of deadly conflict and decisive triumph,’ and ‘the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom, and the earth did quake and the rocks rent; and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose’ (Matt. 27:51-52). Furthermore, the same associations cling to the categories in terms of which the event is interpreted. They are not beautiful. The broadest category of all, that of sacrifice, associated as it was with carnage, blood, death, curse, substitution and propitiation, concentrates in itself much of the offence of the Cross. Here, if anywhere, was Christianity ‘a religion of the shambles.’

The offensiveness is deliberate, and the following report of a sermon by Dr Stewart of Cromarty suggests the reason. ‘We heard him, scarce a twelve-month since,’ wrote Hugh Miller, ‘deliver a discourse of singular power on the Sin-Offering of the Jewish Economy, as minutely particularised by the divine penman in Leviticus. He described the slaughtered animal — foul with dust and blood — its throat gashed across — its entrails laid open — and steaming in its impur­ity to the sun, as it awaited the consuming fire, amid the uncleaness of ashes outside the camp — a vile and horrid thing, which no one could see without experiencing emotions of disgust, nor touch without contracting defilement. The picture appeared too painfully vivid ­its introduction too little in accordance with the rules of a just taste. It seemed a thing to be covered up, not exhibited. But the master in this difficult walk well knew what he was doing. “And that,” he said, as if pointing to the strongly-coloured picture he had just completed, “and that is SIN.” By one stroke the intended effect was produced, and the rising disgust and horror transferred from the material image to the great moral evil.’3

It is the position of the sin-offering that our Lord occupies on Calvary, and that whole cluster of events is grim and ugly because sin is grim and ugly. It is grim as an analysis of sin — deicidal in its tendency and restless until it has crucified the Lord of Glory. It is grim as illustrative of the consequences of sin; and it has the paraphernalia of an unearthly conflict to make clear the magnitude of the problem which sin constituted for the Lord God. ‘It is a vile and horrid thing which no one could see without experiencing emotions of disgust,’ so that sin may be the object of our horror and loathing.

The Activity of Christ

A third emphasis which has not received the attention it deserves is the fact that the role of Christ on Calvary is a supremely active one.

Sometimes this is so far overlooked that he is made to appear the helpless victim of circumstances. In the words which drew on F. W. Robertson the righteous anger of Hugh Martin, ‘Christ came into collision with the world’s evil, and He bore the penalty of that daring. He approached the whirling wheel and was torn in pieces.’ And Donald Baillie, although careful to point out that ‘Jesus did not die as a helpless victim,’ seems to have regarded the death of our Lord as an effect, a side-effect, almost secondary and incidental, of his compassion for sinners. ‘He went straight on, as “the friend of sinners,” and got deeper and deeper into trouble until in the end he was condemned to death.’4 (Incidentally this is not accurate even as suggesting the occasion of our Lord’s death, or the pretext upon which he was crucified. The scandal was not, ultimately, that he was the friend of sinners, but that ‘he made himself equal with God.’)

There is an abundance of material in the New Testament to give the lie to these constructions. For one thing, our Lord explicitly asserts that he controls, absolutely, his own destiny: ‘No man taketh my life from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it again’ (John 10:18). Secondly, that he should die was the very motive of the Incarnation – ‘the Son of Man came to give his life’ (Mark 10:45): it was not an eventuality to which he steeled himself on realising that ‘failure’ was inevitable. Thirdly, ‘To him, his death — whatever may have been its significance — was distinctly present from the very beginning of his ministry.’5 It was in words suggestive of the suffering Servant that the voice from heaven addressed him at his baptism — ‘Thou art my beloved Son in whom I am well-pleased’ (compare Isa. 42:1, ‘mine elect, in whom my soul delighteth’). Then on the very first of three visits made to Jerusalem in the course of his ministry, he tells Nicodemus that ‘the Son of Man must be lifted up,’ must be crucified (John 3:14). And in the same first year of his ministry he predicts a day when ‘the Bridegroom will be taken away’ — wrenched away by a violent death — from the disciples (Mark 2:20).

I need not point the relevance of this. The voluntari­ness, and hence the moral significance, of our Lord’s death, depends on it. But it is equally important to maintain that even the impaled and immolated Christ is not simply a helpless victim. The currency of such phrases as ‘the Passion’ tends to obscure the fact that the Cross ‘was the instrument which, in the lowest ebb of his human strength, he wielded with Almightiness, through the Eternal Spirit, as the weapon of his warfare and the means of his victory;’6 He was not simply suffering the will of God. He was doing it. The cross was not a martyr’s stake: it was a theatre of war, the scene of a mighty conflict. Incalculable spiritual power was being wielded. Sin was being rendered impotent, death was being destroyed, the rulers of the darkness of this world were being routed.

An Analysis of Christ’s Activity

Dare we attempt an analysis of this activity?

First, there is a priestly activity. The metaphors of the preceding paragraph belong, strictly speaking, to the kingly function of our Lord. They bear on ‘restraining and conquering all his and our enemies.’ But, to revert again to the words of Hugh Martin, it was the Cross that was ‘the weapon of his warfare and the means of his victory: It was by his sacrifice that he conquered — by an activity which was priestly, which was indeed High Priestly. With an urgency for surpassing that of Aaron he must immolate himself; He must shed his own blood; he must go through the veil, not of the earthly sanctuary, but of the heavenly, and offer his self to the Holy One as a propitiation for the sin of the world. At every point in the mighty transaction the initiatives lie with himself. At no point is he simply victim, without being Priest also. And it is for this reason that ‘to the very moment of our Lord’s death there was no loss of consciousness or exhaustion of strength.’7 His spirit is not simply to depart, or to expire. It is rather dismissed, on the authority of the Saviour, as the magnificent shout of triumph reverberates through the universe, TETELESTAI! (It is finished !)

Second, there is the activity involved in our Lord’s obedience to the Second Table of the Law. At no point was he relieved of the obligation to love his neighbour as himself. Personal anguish, however intense, must not obscure the needs of others. He must not curse the persecutors. He must not even be indifferent. His tor­menting neighbours must be loved as his tormented self. ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’:

Nor must the needs of his mother be forgotten.

Her mind with grief was torn
Her strength was ebbing fast,
And through her heart forlorn
The sword of anguish passed.

The Lord’s testament is brief but comprehensive, and its moral significance sublime — ‘Woman, behold thy son’ (John 19:25), ‘a sermon to all ages on the Fifth Com­mandment.’8

Third, there is what Moberley called ‘the majesty of the restraining will.’9 The Cross is the climax of the conflict between duty and self-interest. Here above all is our Lord tempted by suffering (Heb. 2:18). This is the very bottom of the Incarnation: there had been the fashion of a man and the form of a slave, and now there was the curse, the anathema, the impending dereliction. And this context gives an almost irresistible eloquence to the final assault on the Incarnation — Come down from the Cross! Undo the enfleshment! Summon the legions! It is not ordinary will-power, it is not ordinary love, it is not ordinary devotion to duty that hurls this suggestion to the far side of the universe: that deliberately chooses the Cross — abides by that choice and re-enacts it from moment to moment. ‘Voluntarily, from moment to moment, He is choosing the pain. . . One moment’s un­willingness to suffer — and he can wholly be free! Every separate item in the anguish is allowed by himself.’10

The Unique Constitution of our Lord’s Person

Mention may be made finally of the fact that the New Testament seems to go out of its way to emphasise, in connection with the Atonement, the unique constitution of our Lord’s person. ‘He by himself purged our sins’ (Heb. 1:3) ; ‘He is himself the propitiation’ (1 John 2:2) ; ‘the Church of God which he has purchased with his own blood’ (Acts 20:28) ; ‘they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory’ (1 Cor. 2:8).

This is of obvious importance for the doctrine of vicarious suffering, caricatures of which too often represent Christ as a third party dragged, almost re­luctantly, into the controversy which sin has occasioned between God and man. The deity of the Mediator forbids such a representation. Our Lord as Law-giver was from the very first a party to the dispute, and what the doctrine of vicarious suffering presents us with is not an arbitrary and externalistic imputation of sin, but a voluntary assumption of the sinner’s liabilities by the offended Creator. Continuing, by the very tendency of his nature, to require an expiation, God provides the expiation — God indeed becomes the expiation.

The fact of our Mediator’s deity is important, again, for the question of the precise identity of the sacrifice which he offered. If the New Testament representation is that ‘they have crucified the Lord of Glory,’ and that the Church has been purchased with ‘the blood of God,’ then, clearly, the dictum ‘He offered his manhood on the altar of his Godhead’ is not valid. It was his Self that was offered, his person, his divine person. The price of redemption is ‘God’, ‘the Lord of Glory’. He himself ­God ‘not similarly, not generically, but wholly, in­dividually, identically’ — is the Propitiation.

It is for this reason that forgiveness in the New Testament (and in the Old) is grounded finally not in the indulgence of God, but in his rectitude. This is the glory of such utterances as that of Ps. 51:14, ‘Deliver me from blood-guiltiness and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness’; of Rom. 3:26, ‘God is just (righteous) in justifying the ungodly’; and of 1 John 2:1, with its suggestion that the advocacy of Jesus is none the less successful for being righteous. These representations make it clear that, in the last analysis, forgiveness is not a sovereign, but a judicial act; that it is eminently righteous, that it is sanctioned — that it is indeed demanded — by the Moral Law. And the reason for this is not far to seek. The blood of God — the sacrifice of the Lord of Glory ­these justify justification. In the flesh of the Son of God the sins of the Church of God have been condemned, and there is therefore –– the logic of redemption — no condemnation.12 In Christ, they are all that the righteousness of God requires him to require, and for that reason not only may God forgive them, but God may not not forgive them. It is to the divine fidelity (1 John 1:9) that the eloquence of the Atonement is ultimately addressed.

‘Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ Jesus that died’ (Rom. 8:34).

This article was first published in the 1967 edition of the Banner of Truth magazine.


  1. R. W. Dale, The Atonement, 1900, p.58.
  2. A. Smellie, Men of the Covenant, 1960, p.98.
  3. A. Stewart, The Tree of Promise, 1864, p.128.
  4. D. M. Baillie, God Was in Christ, p.183.
  5. Dale, op. cit., p.S1.
  6. Hugh Martin, The Atonement, 1882, p.250.
  7. Dale, op. cit., p.50.
  8. S. J. Stalker, The Trial and Death of Jesus Christ, 1894, p.214.
  9. R. H. C. Moberley, Atonement and Personality, 1901, p.116.
  10. Moberley, op. cit., p.115.
  11. idem, p.92.
  12. cf. Romans 8:1-4.

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