"American Gospel" Gets It Right
The Gospel Coalition has published a review of a new documentary, American Gospel: Christ Crucified. In the review, Caleb Wait makes two critiques of the documentary. The purpose of this post is to show how these critiques are seriously misguided.
Did God Kill Jesus?
First, Wait critiques Voddie Baucham for saying that God killed Jesus on the cross. He writes:
"Intermingled with these accurate statements, however, are a few others that unnecessarily muddy the waters on this crucial doctrine. For example, Voddie Baucham says in the film: 'Yeah, God killed Jesus. But did Jesus go to the cross unwillingly? No' [41:50]. This undermines what the film later notes, that God's decree to ordain Christ's death is not equal to the act of killing Jesus himself: 'He was handed over by God’s set plan and foreknowledge, and you, by the hands of the lawless, put him to death by nailing him to the cross'" (Acts 2:23).
One wonders when an article will be written critiquing Job for saying:
"'Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD . . . Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?' In all this Job did not sin with his lips." (Job 1:21, 2:10).
The critique might sound something like this: "Job's statements undermine what we learned earlier in the book, that Job's wealth and children weren't taken away by God, but by Satan, and Job did not receive evil from God, but from Satan." That would obviously be a wrong critique of Job's words, and, in a similar way, Wait's critique of Baucham is wrong as well.
It is true, as Justin Peters pointed out later in the documentary, that wicked men did kill Jesus. The answer to the question of who killed Jesus is multifaceted – Herod, Pontius Pilot, the Jews, the Gentiles and, in a very real sense, all sinners bear responsibility. But Voddie Baucham is absolutely right: God killed His own Son on the cross as well. And He killed Him in two difference senses.
First, God killed His own Son on the cross in the sense that He is the first cause of all things. In the book of Job, we see that though Satan is the second cause of Job's great losses, Job attributes his losses to God, and Job attributes the evil done to him to God. Job said God has taken away! Job said he received evil from God! And lest we think it was wrong of Job to say this, God's Word makes it clear—in all of these words, Job was not sinning against God with his lips.
When Baucham said God killed Jesus, he wasn't sinning with his lips either. He, like Job, was simply speaking of God as the first cause of all things. Wait acknowledges that God ordained the death of Jesus, but his mistake is in thinking that Baucham, like Job, spoke in a wrong way by attributing to God the ultimate and final responsibility for the ends He ordained.
In both Job's case and with Jesus at the cross, God used second causes to bring His purposes to pass. And those second causes sinned. It was wicked and evil for Satan to destroy Job's family, wealth, and health (Satan is a murder from the beginning - John 8:44), and it was wicked and evil for Herod, Pontius Pilate, the Jews, the Gentiles, and the soldiers to crucify the Lord of glory, yet God sinlessly ordains the sinful actions of Satan and men to carry out His wise purposes for the good of His people and for His own glory. It is not wrong to attribute all of these actions to God as the first cause of all things. Therefore, it is right to say that God killed Jesus. No, God wasn't there using a hammer to nail the nails into Jesus' body, but He was there as the first cause putting Jesus to death, and it's very Biblical to speak this way. We must follow Job as he follows Christ.
Second, God killed His own Son on the cross, not only as the first cause of all things, but God was directly killing His Son to make propitiation for sin. Sinful men didn't kill Jesus for redemptive purposes, but God did. And the Bible makes it clear, over and over again, that God killed His own Son for the salvation of His people:
"...we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted" (Isaiah 53:4)
"Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief" (Isaiah 53:10)
"'Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, against the man who stands next to me,' declares the LORD of hosts. "Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered'" (Zechariah 13:7)
"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)
"Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood" (Romans 3:24-25)
"Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree'" (Galatians 3:13)
"He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all..." (Romans 8:32)
"My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will. (Matthew 26:39)
"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46)
- God struck and smote His Son—to death.
- God crushed His Son—to death.
- God gave His Son—to death.
- God put His Son forward—to death.
- God made His Son a curse and cursed Him—to death. Death is a part of the curse.
- God did not spare His own Son and gave Him up—to death.
- God gave His Son the cup of wrath—to death.
- God forsook His Son—to death.
- God did this. God killed Jesus.
There are other faithful witnesses who use the same language as Baucham to describe God's redemptive work on the cross. Thomas Goodwin, one of the most respected Puritans who was also on the Westminster Assembly, clearly wrote that God smote His Son to death:
"And considered either as lamb or shepherd, we find that God being angry with him whilst thus he bore our sins, insomuch as he is said in his wrath to have smitten this shepherd with his sword, and smitten him unto death" (Christ Our Mediator, Grand Rapids: Sovereign Grace Publishers, 1971, 370. Emphasis mine).
Side note: I cannot recommend Goodwin's work highly enough when it comes to the cross. He understands the fact that God was both angry with Christ and loved Christ at the same time while He suffered on the cross.
Charles Spurgeon preached that God killed Jesus. To describe the cross, Spurgeon used the illustration of God's command to Abraham to slay his son, Isaac. But one major difference Spurgeon pointed out between Abraham and Isaac and what God did to His Son on the cross is that God actually did the deed and slayed His Son and drove the knife into His heart:
"The death of Christ is traceable to God the Father . . . O! can ye tell the greatness of that love, which made the everlasting God not only put his Son upon the altar, but actually do the deed, and thrust the sacrificial knife into his Son's heart? Can you think how overwhelming must have been the love of God toward the human race, when he completed in act what Abraham only did in intention? Look ye there, and see the place where his only Son hung dead upon the cross, the bleeding victim of awakened justice! Here is love indeed; and here we see how it was, that it pleased the Father to bruise him" (The Death Of Christ, Sermon delivered on Sabbath Morning, January 24, 1858).
Delighting in the love of God for sinners, Octavius Winslow wrote: "Who delivered up Jesus to die? Not Judas, for money; not Pilate, for fear; not the Jews, for envy - but the Father, for love!" (No Condemnation in Christ Jesus, London: John Farquhar Shaw, 1852, 367).
Martyn Lloyd-Jones affirmed that God killed Jesus. He wrote:
"But let me end by giving you this specific statement which literally tells us that it was God who was doing this thing on Calvary: Isaiah 53:6: 'All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.' But have you ever realized that John 3:16 says this? 'For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son'—to the death of the cross—it is God who gave Him. Take again Romans 3:25: 'Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God'—there it is again. Or Romans 8:32: 'He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?' He, God, He 'spared not His own Son but delivered Him'—it was God who did it . . . Any idea or theory of the atonement must always give full weight and significance to the activity of God the Father" (Great Doctrines of the Bible, Volume One, Substitution, "The Necessity of the Atonement," Crossway Books, Wheaton, Illinois, 2003, 317-337).
Again, as he gloried in the cross, Lloyd-Jones wrote: "...he was put to death by his own Father..." (The Cross, Crossway Books, Wheaton, Illinois, 1986, 82).
Even great systematicians of the past understood that God had a very positive and direct role in the death of Jesus. Louis Berkhof wrote:
"The sufferings of the Saviour were not purely natural, but also the result of a positive deed of God, Isa. 53:6,10... The sufferings of the Saviour finally culminated in His death... God imposed the punishment of death upon the Mediator judicially... The sentence of Pilate was also the sentence of God, though on entirely different grounds" (Systematic Theology, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1938, 338-339. Emphasis mine).
Herman Bavick wrote that is was God who punished Jesus with an accursed death:
"...God condemned sin in his flesh [Rom. 8:3] and punished him with the accursed death on the cross and that through him we now receive reconciliation and forgiveness, righteousness and life, indeed total and complete salvation..." (Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006, 398. Emphasis mine).
Contemporary pastors and theologians, like Voddie Baucham, also affirm this truth. John Piper writes:
One of my friends who used to be a pastor in Illinois was preaching to a group of prisoners in a state prison during Holy Week several years ago. At one point in his message, he paused and asked the men if they knew who killed Jesus. Some said the soldiers did. Some said the Jews did. Some said Pilate. After there was silence, my friend said simply, "His Father killed him." That's what the first half of Romans 8:32 says: God did not spare his own Son but handed him over - to death (Who Killed Jesus?).
Stephen Wellum writes:
Texts such as Isaiah 53:10, John 3:16, Romans 8:32, and Jesus's prayer in Gethsemane and his cry from the cross, all teach that the Father deliberately sacrificed his Son for us... How is the Father justified in what he did at Calvary? What gave him the right to sacrifice his own Son? Two points require emphasis. First, Scripture presents the action of God the Father as a priest offering the sacrifice of his only Son, as a demonstration of his love, justice, and righteousness. Second, given the Trinitarian personal relations, the act of the Father also involves the active involvement of the Son and the Spirit, who together, and according to their mode of personal relations, act as the one God to redeem us (Christ Alone: The Uniqueness Of Jesus As Savior, Zondervan, 2017, 211-212).
Finally, Douglas Moo, commenting on Romans 3:25, writes:
"Redemption is in 'Christ' in that God 'displayed him publicly,' or 'set him forth as a sacrifice' on the cross as a hilasterion [propitiation]. Nor should it be missed that it is God who thus takes the initiative in the process of redemption... As P. T. Forsyth remarks, 'The prime doer in Christ's cross was God...' (The Epistle To The Romans, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996, 231. Emphasis mine).
God killed His Son on the cross. Scripture testifies to it, and faithful, godly believers in church history testify to it as well.
God's Damning of His Son
The second critique Wait makes is against the language R. C. Sproul used to describe what Jesus endured on the cross. He writes:
"...the film includes the unfortunate statement from the late, great R. C. Sproul, speaking of Jesus's cry of forsakenness on the cross: 'It was as if there was a cry from heaven, as if Jesus heard the words "God damn you"' [2:26:16]. The problem for the viewer is that these rather bombastic statements are contextless, and they paint a picture that goes further than the actual doctrine of PSA allows. As described by Begg and DeYoung, God does not hate the Son."
First, no where in the documentary is it stated that God hates His Son. That is simply a false criticism. Second, R.C. Sproul is simply stating the truth of Galatians 3:13: "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us - for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.'"
To curse means to damn. John Calvin, for example, used these words interchangeably: "Then are we all undone and damned as in respect of the Law, there is no more remedy, Cursed shall he be which does not all those things." (Sermon delivered on Wednesday, the first of January 1556, The 124th Sermon which is the fifth upon the one and twentieth Chapter)
Furthermore, numerous figures throughout church history have written this way about the cross, including Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wycliffe, John Owen, Herman Witsius, Francis Turretin, Wilhelmus à Brakel, A.W. Pink, J.I. Packer, John Piper, and Philip Ryken.
See the above link for a full list of examples. I'll simply list a few of my favorites here (all emphases mine):
Martin Luther: "So then, gaze at the heavenly picture of Christ, who descended into hell [I Pet. 3:19] for your sake and was forsaken by God as one eternally damned when he spoke the words on the cross, "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani!"—"My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" [Matt. 27:46]. In that picture your hell is defeated and your uncertain election is made sure." (Luther's Works, Vol. 42, Eds. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969, 105)
John Calvin: "How is it possible that Jesus Christ, who is the salvation of the world, should have been under such damnation? He was not to remain under it. For though He experienced the horror we have spoken of, He was by no means oppressed by it. On the contrary, He battled with the power of hell, to break and destroy it." (The School Of Faith: The Catechisms Of The Reformed Church, Ed., Trans. Thomas F. Torrance, Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1959, 16)
"Not only the body of Christ was given as the price of our redemption, but there was another, greater, and more excellent ransom, for He suffered in his soul the dreadful torments of a damned and lost man." (Institutes, II.xvi.10)
"For inasmuch as we see that the Son of God . . . was pronounced accursed by God's own mouth." (Sermons On Galatians, Audubon, New Jersey: Old Path Publications, 1995, 295-296)
Wilhelmus à Brakel: "Christ did indeed suffer eternal damnation, for eternal damnation, death, and pain consist in total separation from God, in the total manifestation of divine wrath, and all of this for such a duration until the punishment upon sin was perfectly and satisfactorily born." (The Christian's Reasonable Service, Vol. 1, Trans. Bartel Elshout, Ed. Joel Beeke, Rotterdam, The Netherlands: D. Bolle, 1999, 591)
Philip Graham Ryken: "To the Jews, this was absolute blasphemy: a cursed Messiah on a cursed cross. No wonder the cross was such a stumbling block to them! To put it in the most shocking and yet perhaps the most accurate way, the apostolic message was about a God-damned Messiah." (Galatians, Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 2005, 115)
The critiques made by Caleb Wait are simply wrong and misguided. They are neither Biblically accurate nor supported by church history. And they do damage to a faithful and helpful documentary on the cross and the Gospel.
I highly recommend American Gospel: Christ Crucfied. They get the cross right in every way: God killed Jesus so that sinners might be saved from eternal death and destruction in Hell; and God damned Jesus on the cross so that we will never be damned, but rather enjoy fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore in God’s very presence.
Hallelujah! What a Savior!
Joseph Randall serves as the pastor of Olney Baptist Church in Philadelphia, PA.
"Surely He Has Borne Our Griefs" by Sinclair Ferguson
"The Blessed Cursed Tree" by Nick Batzig
Atonement, edited by Gabriel Fluhrer