Christ's Death: His Willingness
April 2, 2015
As some will no doubt be preaching on Christ's death on Friday, there is one hugely important theological fact that must be kept uppermost in our minds as we consider his death on the cross.
If we do not understand Christ's death as voluntary then we do not understand his death.
Jesus himself testifies to his voluntary sacrifice: "For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father" (Jn. 10:17-18).
Jesus, the good shepherd, gave himself for us (Eph. 5:2). He did not offer riches, as he could have - not even all the riches of the universe - but instead he offered himself, which was more precious than anything else in the universe. As Paul makes clear, "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich" (2 Cor. 8:9)
Christ offered himself up to the Father. Reconciliation, in the Scriptures, is attributed especially to him (2 Cor. 5:18-19). We are estranged from him because of our sin and deserve wrath and condemnation (Gen. 2:17; Rom. 1:18ff; 3:23). But the Son of God reconciles us to the Father through his death. Jesus delivered himself, both body and soul, to God, who is of purer eyes than to look upon iniquity (Hab. 1:13). He looked instead upon his Son so that we, who were at enmity with God, might be delivered from the tortures of eternal damnation and be at peace with him (Rom. 5:1).
Christ's willingness did not merely encompass his voluntary death on the cross. Rather, his entire life was an offering and one of willing obedience to God's will. From the cradle to the grave, so to speak, Jesus acted out of love, which makes obedience acceptable to God. Therefore, his willingness was a conscious decision to fulfill not his own will, but the will of the one who sent him (Jn. 6:38).
Jesus did not ask to be killed by crucifixion, though he knew it would certainly happen (Matt. 16:21). Many events and persons were responsible for his death (Matt. 20:18). Peter makes this clear in his sermon at Pentecost when he claims of the Jews, "you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men...this Jesus whom you crucified" (Acts 2:23, 36). Yet, at the same time, Peter informs us that Jesus was "delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God" (Acts 2:23; see also Acts 4:28). In one verse, Peter sets divine sovereignty and human responsibility side by side and without contradiction, as if to say, "You Jews killed Jesus whom God put on the cross."
Still, there is some truth to Octavius Winslow's claim for divine ultimacy:
"Who delivered up Jesus to die? Not Judas, for money; not Pilate, for fear; not the Jews, for envy; - but the Father, for love!"
But, here we also need to add filioque ("and the Son"). The Son, according to the counsel of the Father, also freely offered himself up for love. Indeed, as Charnock affirms, "He that can rescue himself from the hands of men, and will not, may be said to die willingly, though he die violently." Our great confession as Christians is simply this: the life we live we live by faith in the Son of God who loves us and gave himself up for us (Gal. 2:20).
The charge of cosmic child abuse to those who hold to penal substitution is a gross misunderstanding of what Reformed theologians have actually taught. Child abuse has in view a child who is unwilling - and rightly so - to receive excessive and brutal punishment. But in the life of Christ, we see perfect willingness to obey the command of the Father, and so remain in his love by offering himself up by the power of the Spirit (Heb. 9:14).
Just as Christ's resurrection is a trinitarian act, so is his death. The Son, lays down his life in obedience to the Father's will, by the power of the Spirit.