At the heart of the Christian faith is Jesus Christ and the great salvation he has won for us. Christians are not satisfied with a vague and nebulous notion of God or a utopian vision for the human race. We also reject the reduction of our faith to a set of rules or a pattern of moral behaviour. The Christian faith is much more particular than that. It is centred on God’s rescue mission, a mission that makes very clear what God is like and what are his plans for us. This means that at the heart of everything we believe is a particular person and a particular set of events: the person of Jesus Christ and the work he came to do. We know what God is like and we know what God intends for us because Jesus has come and made this clear.
Jesus himself went to great lengths to make his disciples aware of why he came. ‘The Son of Man did not come to be served’, he told them, ‘but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Mk 10:45).
On the other side of the resurrection he would even use the language of necessity to explain what had happened: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again’ (Luke 24:7).
Jesus himself put his death and resurrection at the centre of his work for us. No wonder the apostle Paul would insist, ‘I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified’ (1 Cor. 2:2). In the same letter he outlined what he had received ‘as of first importance’:
…that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter and then to the Twelve. (1 Cor 15:3–5).
From the Beginning to the End
On the broadest possible scale, the cross is anticipated at the very beginning of the Bible’s story (Gen. 3:15) and is still very much on view at the end, when at the centre of the throne stands ‘a lamb, looking as if it had been slain’ (Rev. 5:6). A Christianity that is not focussed on the cross has no claim to be the genuine article.
For these reasons as much as any other it is important to get our thinking straight about the death of Jesus (which can never, of course, be separated from his resurrection). What was it about his death on the cross which makes this single event so central to Christian thinking and living? Why is it simply not enough to speak of Jesus the teacher, Jesus the healer, or Jesus the conqueror without also speaking about Jesus the crucified and risen one, the one who dies for his people and in doing so undoes the hold of death itself? How should we understand what was happening that Friday outside Jerusalem’s city walls and its necessary sequel three days later?
The Root Problem
To understand the centrality of the cross of Jesus in all of God’s purposes we need to go back a step. What is it that makes the cross so necessary in the first place? If the Bible does speak of God’s purpose in Jesus as a rescue mission, what do we need to be rescued from? What is the human predicament as God sees it?
I suspect that behind much current neglect of the cross, and even many of the recent attempts to redefine it, lies considerable confusion about the human condition. Most human diagnoses fail to penetrate beyond the symptoms to the real cause of our problems. Human suffering, our sense of alienation from each other and even from ourselves, oppression, injustice, the fragility of human life on every scale imaginable, the disintegration of community ties and a common moral vision—all these things are merely symptoms. The biblical diagnosis is that underlying them all is our rebellion against the God who made us and the consequences that such rebellion inevitably brings. The human, creaturely assault upon the Creator and his word, cannot help but deface his image. We bear the marks of Adam’s choice and our own (Rom 5:12–21).
Human sin has three dreadful consequences that bear on each one of us: guilt, corruption and enslavement. We each stand guilty before the Lord we have ignored or openly rejected, and as a result the judicial wrath of God is coming (Rom. 1:18–20; Eph. 2:1–3; Col. 3:6 etc.). Everything we are and everything we touch has been distorted by our refusal to recognise him (Mk. 7:20–23) and our corruption is most powerfully displayed by the final decay of our bodies in death.
What is more, we are not able to extract ourselves from this situation (Rom 6–7). We can still make choices, that is true, but our choices are shaped by our character and our character has been indelibly marked with our own rebellion. What is even more frightening, behind our choices stands the wicked design of the ancient enemy, who was a liar and murderer from the beginning (Jn 8:44; Gen 3:1–7). The symptoms we experience everyday are related to these three dimensions of the impact of human sin: our guilt, our corruption, and our enslavement.
But the consequences of sin do not stop there. We can’t afford to obscure these personal dimensions, which are horrific enough in their magnitude, but the Bible has a wider view even than that. Sin is an assault upon the creation precisely because it is an assault upon the Creator by whose good will it is sustained in every moment. The world, created to be the arena of fellowship with God, is inevitably distorted by what we have done. It is ‘subjected to futility’, is ‘bound to corruption’, and ‘groans as if in the pains of childbirth’ (Rom 8:20–22).
The world convulses with the consequences of human sin. What is fascinating, though, is that this cosmic futility, corruption and distortion can only be undone by that wonderful activity which ‘reveals the sons of God’ (Rom 8:19). That is salvation for which it eagerly waits.
When the cross is understood against this background, then it becomes clear that, if it is to be a genuine answer to the human predicament, it must deal with all three of the personal dimensions of sin. Our redemption must deal with our guilt before God and the penalty that justly arises from it (death). It must deal with the mess that sin has made of my life. It must deal with the fact that I am trapped within the spiral of sin, unable to break free of my selfishness in all its forms. And it must set in train the ‘revelation of the sons’ of God which signals the liberation of the creation itself.
Only Through the Cross
The testimony of Scripture is that all this is accomplished by the cross. The penalty we deserve is taken up by God himself in the person of his Son (Gal. 3:13; 1 Pet. 2:24). Here our understanding of God as Trinity prevents us from pitting the Father against the Son but rather seeing the life and death and resurrection of Jesus as the work of God to save us. Father, Son and Spirit are wonderfully united in this plan to save us. What is more, the death of Jesus cleanses us from the corruption that sin produces in us (1 Jn 1:7). Precisely because of the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the gift of the Spirit is given to those who have been forgiven, producing the fruit of godly living that Paul talks about in Gal. 5. Alongside both of these dimensions is the victory that the cross achieves for us. Those who previously enslaved us have been decisively defeated and we have been freed to live as the children of God (Col. 2:13–15; Gal. 3:26–5:1). Life and immortality have been brought to light through the gospel of our crucified and risen Saviour (1 Tim. 1:10).
More Than an Example
In some circles it has become fashionable to speak about the cross as an example of self- sacrifice, as an act of love, as the triumph of hope and of God’s purposes, without relating it to the problem of our sin and its dire consequences. The New Testament won’t let us get away with that. At the heart of everything that is said about the death of Jesus in the Bible is this idea of penal substitutionary atonement. ‘Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures’ (1 Cor. 15:3). Indeed, ‘Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring us to God’ (1 Pet. 3:18). ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Cor. 5:21). Far from being one possible explanation amongst many, one of the theories of the atonement which people have come up with to explain the fact of the atonement, this is the Bible’s own — and therefore God’s own — explanatory key to all the other descriptions of what God has done for us in Christ.
As one great Australian Christian wrote more than fifty years ago:
From all this it is clear that in the New Testament view the cross is absolutely central. It is the means of bringing us salvation and it is the basis of our living the saved life. It is, or should be, the burden of our preaching. A Christianity which is not cross-centred is not Christianity at all. This is of the utmost importance both for our understanding of the faith and for our proclamation of it. It is weakness of much modern preaching that the cross is scarcely mentioned. But in the history of the Christian Church it is when the cross has been preached boldly and clearly that preaching has had power. The great preachers, like the great theologians, have gloried in the cross, and they have set it forth as God’s answer to men’s need. And when they have done so the power of the cross to save has always been vindicated.
(Leon Morris, Glory in the Cross: A Study in Atonement (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1966), 91–92.)