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The Cross of Christ: a Fact and a Doctrine

Category Articles
Date November 12, 2013

A recent writer complains that ‘contemporary gospel preaching . . . rarely explains the cross of Christ;’ that is, it fails to tell us that ‘He died bearing the transgressions of His people . . . suffering the divine penalty for their sins . . . forsaken of God and crushed’ beneath God’s wrath. It may be so. The complaint prompts us to write the following article.

The cross as a fact is recorded in that most profound Gospel according to John: ‘And he bearing his cross went forth into a place called “the place of a skull” . . . where they crucified him’ (John 19:17-18). The cross as a fact is recorded in that inimitable passage where the Apostle Paul exhorts the Philippian church to mutual love and humility as exemplified in the life and death of Christ: ‘Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus; who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God, but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men; and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross’ (Phil. 2:5-8).

The cross as a doctrine is set forth in that glorious phrase: ‘having made peace [i.e. between God and his sinful people] through the blood of his cross’ (Col. 1:20). The cross as a doctrine appears as the only basis of union between Jews and Gentiles: ‘that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross’ (Eph. 2:16). The cross as a doctrine surfaces again in Paul’s refusal to preach in high-flown scholastic language: ‘lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect’ (1 Cor. 1:17).

Let us briefly consider both fact and doctrine.

As a fact of history, the cross was divinely planned: in his infinite wisdom, God both decreed in eternity that the redemption of his elect should be by the cross, and in due time brought his dear Son to the cross. The cross of Christ is thus the focus of God’s eternal purpose and of its providential fulfilment. The Apostle Peter makes this clear in his remarkable address on the day of Pentecost: ‘Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain’ (Acts 2:23).

It is impossible to conceive or feel the pain and anguish the sinless Saviour suffered on the cross: the agony of physical crucifixion, the pain of shame before a gaping world, and the spiritual dereliction he experienced as his soul sank into the abyss beneath the stroke of divine justice. It may help us a little to realize that he bore an infinite hatred to the very sins which caused him such pain on the cross, even while he was suffering for them.

Even in its outward aspect the cross of Christ was an act of violence. The conflict between the Jews and Jesus, and between God and sin, was brought into the open, and the Son of God bore the brunt of both. To be ‘cut off out of the land of the living’ (Isa. 53:8) was to suffer violent judicial punishment at the hands of God and man. As John Murray writes: ‘there were no lower depths possible;’ his humiliation and suffering were ‘inimitable, unrepeated, unrepeatable.’ Yet it all actually took place, so that the Redeemer of God’s elect could of his own free choice finish the work God gave him to do. Nothing less could save them, and nothing more was required to save them.

As a doctrine, the cross is an awesome display of the holy attributes of God. The old adage expresses the matter well: what God’s justice demanded, his love provided. ‘All God’s justice and all God’s love are focussed on the cross’ (Augustus H. Strong).

The cross is a symbol of the curse, not only in the opinion of men, but also by the decree of God. ‘Cursed is everyone that hangeth on a tree’ (Deut. 21:23; Gal. 3:13) This is what God’s justice demands of everyone to whom he imputes sin; and this is what Christ bore when he hung on the cross. The Highland minister Lachlan Mackenzie states the case bluntly when he says: ‘His people deserved the death of the cross, and therefore our Lord was crucified.’

What was he doing when he hung on the cross? Let the Christ-loving poets tell us:

On the cross thy body broken
Cancels every penal tie;
Tempted souls, produce this token,
All demand to satisfy.
(Joseph Hart)

Inscribed upon the cross we see
In shining letters, ‘God is love;’
He bears our sins upon the tree;
He brings us mercy from above.
(Thomas Kelly)

In short, by his cross Christ bore our curse. The deepest significance of the cross was its awful expression of God’s curse on sin. ‘Through it the bitterness, the anguish, the desolation of that curse’ was ‘ministered to the . . . soul of our Lord’ (Roderick A. Finlayson). The Jews saw it in that light; God viewed it in that light; Christ himself interpreted it in that light. The cross was God’s chosen instrument of his curse.

By his cross Christ endured the retributive judgment of God that was due to us. He made an all-sufficient, expiatory and satisfactory sacrifice for his people’s sins. He propitiated God’s wrath by expiating those sins, and so removed them out of God’s sight. By his cross he made the final act of atonement for sin, making an end of sin and bringing in an everlasting righteousness.

This is why John Calvin can write: ‘our salvation consists in the doctrine of the cross;’ why Martin Luther can write: ‘the cross of Christ runs through the whole of Scripture;’ why Charles Haddon Spurgeon can write: ‘the world’s one and only remedy is the cross;’ and why Leon Morris can write: ‘Christianity is a religion about a cross.’

Is this how you view the cross of Christ? Can you say with Elizabeth Clephane:

Beneath the cross of Jesus
I fain would take my stand?

And with Augustus Montague Toplady:

Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to thy cross I cling?

John Charles Ryle addresses us with some solemn remarks on the cross:

You must know his cross . . . or else you will die in your sins.

Unless you know the power of Christ’s cross by experience . . . unless you are willing to confess that your salvation depends entirely on the work that Christ did upon the cross . . . Christ will profit you nothing.

Beware . . . of a religion without the cross.

There are hundreds of places of worship . . . in which there is everything almost except the cross; . . . there are thousands of religious books . . . in which there is everything except the cross.

If Christ had not gone to the cross and suffered in our stead, the Just for the unjust, there would not have been a spark of hope for us.

Men and women, pretending to honour Christ, have dressed up his cross in the gaudiest colours: ‘it represents God’s sympathy with suffering mankind;’ ‘it teaches us how to die;’ ‘it shows us how far he was willing to go for his cause;’ and so on. This will never do. In its naked ugliness, its unmasking of human guilt and depravity, and its revelation of the righteous judgment and amazing love of God, ‘the cross passes judgment upon us all,’ for ‘you cannot remain neutral in the presence of the cross’ (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones). Either it is the essence of foolishness or it is our only hope. Which is it for you and me?


Taken with permission from Peace and Truth 2013:4, written by its editor.

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