Surveying the Wondrous Cross: New Testament Pictures for the Atonement

Surveying the Wondrous Cross: New Testament Pictures for the Atonement

Previously we examined the place of the atonement in the covenant theology that unfolds for us in the pages of the Scriptures.  We discovered that there were three theological  covenants [1]:  the covenant of redemption that occurred between the three members of the Trinity in eternity, the covenant of works between God and Adam as the federal representative of the human race which Adam failed to obey, and the covenant of grace in which salvation is extended to the elect, that is, all those who trust in Christ by faith and are united to him and benefit from his fulfillment of the covenant of works by his perfectly holy life of obedience and sacrificial death on the cross.  We learned that when Adam fell, he tumbled into a double bind.  He owed personal, perpetual, and perfect obedience to God simply by virtue of the fact that he was God's creature.  He owed this apart from any consideration of the fall and sin.  But because of the fall, Adam also owed reparation or satisfaction to God because he broke his law and was disobedient.  We also learned how Adam had been offered eternal life for his obedience to the command to not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden and that salvation was a matter of at least bringing us to the place Adam would have attained had he been obedient.  In other words, salvation is not merely a return to the garden.  The cross-work of Christ fits into this narrative at the point where Adam (and we as his posterity) owes continued obedience to God as his creature and now owes him satisfaction.  Christ does both of these impossible things for us.  The cross, in other words, is the heart of the gospel.

The New Testament's Word Pictures for the Atonement

In this segment we will be considering the New Testament's rich and evocative vocabulary for the work of Christ on the cross.  I would suggest that there are five major word-pictures for the atonement in the pages of the NT.  I wish I could claim originality in what I want to unpack here, but I stand on the shoulders of several significant giants [2].   Also keep in mind that we shall consider the Old Testament background to these words as well.  By way of introduction, we will be looking at atonement as redemption (with its related idea of ransom).  This is a word picture drawn from the marketplace.  Next we will think over the word picture of reconciliation that is drawn from the warm environs of the family.  Third we will look at the word portrait of victory which is drawn from the battlefield.  After that we will examine the atonement as propitiation and that will take us into the sacred temple precincts.  Fifth and finally, we will delve into the atonement as justification, which locates us in the law courts.  Each of these ought to be considered complementary rather than contradictory.  In fact, attentive readers will notice that in many instances, the validity of one word picture depends upon the truth of the others.  In other words, the word pictures are mutually interpreting.   In the end it will be seen that each contributes to a robust understanding of penal substitutionary atonement.

Redemption:  God Provides the Ransom and Substitution

It should not surprise us that the New Testament words used to describe the atonement have both a secular and a sacred background.  In other words, the writers of the New Testament drew upon a vocabulary already in use in the Greco-Roman world but also built upon the rich conceptual world of the Old Testament.   Redemption is one such word.  Redemption involved the buying back of something for a price.  In the Greco-Roman world this often related to the purchasing of the freedom of captured prisoners of war or the setting free of a slave.  In either case, redemption involved freeing someone for a price.  The price required to purchase the liberation of a prisoner of war or slave was called a ransom.  We are familiar with the idea of ransom in the case of money demanded to set a kidnap victim free.   A ransom in the ancient world worked in an analogous way.  Liberation came at a cost.  John Stott in The Cross of Christ discusses redemption in a helpful way under three headings (is there a sermon here?!):  Redemption takes into consideration (1) the plight from which we are ransomed, (2) the price with which we are ransomed, and (3) the person of the Redeemer who has proprietary rights over the redeemed [3].

Under the first heading of redemption as concern with the plight from which we are ransomed, it is important that we reckon with what it is we are redeemed from.  What are we saved from?  We have already seen that the generic secular context for understanding redemption was liberation from prison and slavery, but it could also involve freedom from debt, other forms of captivity, exile, and liability to execution.  The New Testament use of the word is not disconnected from this broader usage.  What are we liberated from?  According to Paul in Romans, we are redeemed from the wrath of God for our sinfulness that he so clearly illustrates for us in Romans 1:18-32.  We are also redeemed from slavery to sin itself (Rom. 6:15-23).  Specifically, the atonement is understood as redemption in the following senses:  we are delivered from divine condemnation (Gal. 3:13, 4:5; Rom. 8:1), we are redeemed from our former empty way of life (1 Pet.1:18), we are saved from all wickedness (Titus 2:14) and we are liberated from the ravages of the fall [4].   

The Old Testament provides a rich background tapestry for the New Testament understanding of the idea of redemption from a plight.  The paradigm event which set the tone for all further discussion  of redemption in the remainder of the Old and New Testament was, of course, the Exodus and Passover events (Exodus 12:1-12).  God had rescued his own people from slavery in Egypt by delivering them under the human instrumentality of Moses.  As we are reminded in the prologue to the Ten Commandments, God had already brought his people out of bondage when he gave them his law.  The theme of redemption through replication of the Exodus can be seen, for instance, in the children of Israel crossing the Jordon as they enter into the Promised Land under the leadership of Joshua (Josh 3).  The stopping of the waters of the River Jordon would call to mind the miracle of the Red Sea.  Even later in the Old Testament, as the prophets looked to the coming judgment about to fall on a recalcitrant Israel, they would point to a coming restoration on the other side of punishment.  And that restoration, that return, from exile, would be painted in hues recalling the Exodus.  Isaiah is especially pregnant with Exodus imagery in chapter 35 of his prophecy (as is Jeremiah in Jer. 32:6-15).  The return of the children of Israel would be a new exodus.  We can find echoes of this in the New Testament as well where Jesus' ministry leads people out of sin and misery through a new exodus of a greater sort[5].

Stott also reminds us that there is a price with which we are ransomed [6].   As we have already seen, liberation for the prisoner of war or slave occurred through the payment of a ransom.  In other words, redemption on the human level was costly.   Redemption in the Bible was costly, too.  The Lord had to exercise his strong arm in the Exodus (Exodus 6:6, 12ff) and the whole sacrificial system (Leviticus) reminded its participants of the cost to achieve their forgiveness and restoration of fellowship with an utterly righteous and holy God.  From the first sacrifice immediately following the fall (in Genesis 3:21 when God replaced fig leaves with animal skins on Adam and Eve we see the necessity of the shedding of blood for the forgiveness of sins - Heb. 9:12) to the coming of Christ, we see that redemption involved the payment of a price.  As Paul told the Corinthians, we are not our own for we have been bought with a price (1 Cor. 6:20 and 7:23).  The principle of costliness of redemption is clearly evidenced in the covenant of redemption we discussed earlier.  The Son did not have to come to the world, but we know that he did.  The incarnation considered in itself was costly for our Lord.  In the "fullness of time" the Son took to himself a true body and a reasonable soul (WSC Q&A 27) in very lowly conditions (Phil. 2:5-9 and Gal. 4:4-5), which have aptly been described as embodying suffering and misery.  Jesus' suffering didn't begin in the garden of Gethsemane but at his incarnation and in his whole life.  And his own sacrificial death just is the price (Gal. 3:13, 1 Tim. 2:6, Titus 2:14, 1 Cor. 6:19b-20).  This brings us to the heart of the idea of ransom.

It is important that we not isolate the death of Christ from his whole life.  In other words, we should consider our Lord's death on the cross as the culmination of a life humiliation and substitution.  Christ lived his holy and perfect life for us (2 Cor. 5:21 and Zech. 3:1-5) [7].   And he died his sacrificial death in our place (Isaiah 53:6, 10; Zech. 13:7; Mark 14:27; Acts 2:23; Rom. 8:32; 1st John 4:9-10).  As I mentioned earlier, what Christ did he did as a public person, as our covenant representative.  Words fail me as I try to convey the depth of the mystery and wonder involved in this.  Just as we have fallen in Adam, we (the elect, who believe on Christ) have been restored in Christ (Rom. 5:12-21).  We are by nature all children of Adam, but by faith we are made co-heirs with Christ.  Consider what went on as Christ died on the cross.  Christ, who was in himself sinless, became sin for us.  He who had been the most obedient son that ever lived, was cursed by the Father - for us (Gal. 3:13)!  Our sin (the sin of the elect) was imputed or transferred to Christ.  Our sins were atoned.  God has cast them into the sea of forgetfulness.  They are as far removed from us as the east is from the west.  Christ pays the ransom price for our sin.  We deserve to be punished because of our sin.  But Christ has taken that sin upon himself.  He has born the wrath of his holy Father on our behalf and in our place.  To quote a hymn, "in [our] place condemned he stood." [8]   But as Paul points out in 2 Cor 5:21, [9] there is here also an imputation of another sort.  Not only does Christ take upon himself our sin, but we (who have trusted in Christ) are given his righteousness.  And that active obedience must factor in the Son's ultimate act of obedience to the Father, the atonement [10].   This is what has sometimes been called the "sweet exchange" - and sweet it is.  Christ has paid the ransom price for our liberation and redemption and it turns out to be nothing less than himself.  Christ is our substitute and our ransom price.  So you see, we are not our own because we have been bought with a price (1 Cor. 6:20 and 7:23).

As we come to the end of our consideration of the word picture redemption, we are reminded that we are not our own.  Christ, as Stott has told us, is our Redeemer and he has "proprietary rights" over us as his redeemed ones [11].   Jesus, as our covenant head or representative, is our Lord.  As Paul told the Ephesian elders, God shed his "own blood" for the church (Acts 20:28).  As bought ones, we are to avoid shameful and harmful behavior (2 Peter 2:1)) and we are reminded that we are the temple of the Holy Spirit individually and collectively (1 Cor. 3:16-17, 6:18-20).  As bought ones we are not liberated to go off on our own, but we have been made slaves of Christ (Rom. 6:15-23) who along brings true freedom.  Redemption not only liberates us from sin and wrath, but more importantly to salvation (with all its benefits and obligations).

Reconciliation:  God Restoring Our Broken Fellowship
As we consider the atonement from the perspective of reconciliation, we move from the hustle and bustle of the marketplace to the warm family circle.  We move from the auction block to home and hearth.  Reconciliation points out that we are at enmity with God.  Or, to put it more accurately, God is at war with us.  Paul tells us that by nature we are children of wrath and disobedience (Eph.  2:3). That is a Hebraism pointing to that by which we are most characterized.  Remember how Jesus referred to his disciples James and John as the "sons of thunder" (Mark 3:17)?  Jesus meant that these two brothers were characterized by thunder, which is probably a reference to their volatile tempers.  We are, by nature (that is, by virtue of being in Adam), under God's wrath and are alienated from him (we are also, as a result, alienated from our fellow humans, from our environment, and from ourselves).  We are in deep trouble.  We had been created to have fellowship with God and now that fellowship has been torn asunder.  We are the implacable foes of God, and he is determinately opposed to us in our sin.  That is our miserable condition apart from grace.

Thankfully God has chosen not to leave the elect in their well-deserved alienation, misery, and pain.  He could have done that and been just in so doing.  God has taken the first step in reconciling himself to us and us to him.  Pay attention to that order.  God first, we last.  There are several places in Scripture where we could turn to look at the cross as the basis of reconciliation (for instance, 2 Cor. 5:18-21; Eph. 2:16; Col. 1:20-22; Heb. 4:14-16, 10:19-25), but for our purposes, Romans 5:1-11 is key.  Here Paul is making an argument for God's consistent mercy.  Since we have been justified, we have peace with God (i.e., we are reconciled).  That peace cannot be ultimately forfeited.  If God demonstrates his love toward us by sending his Son to die for us while we were his enemies, how much more will he remain reconciled to us by the living ministry of his living and interceding Son?!  Let's break this down.  God sent his Son to reconcile us.  He did that by his death.  That reconciliation cannot be finally abrogated.  God remains reconciled to us now and in the future because of the ongoing intercessory ministry of his Son who remains at the Father's right hand.  This argument is what we call an a fortiori argument (from the greater to the lesser, or what the rabbi's would call a qal wehomer or "light and heavy" argument).  Paul is arguing that God cannot deny himself.  If we have been justified through faith in Christ, we have reconciliation.  And if we have reconciliation now, we will have it in the hereafter [12].   For our purposes the thing to see here is that God has been reconciled to his elect by the work of Christ on the cross.  It is something that has been accomplished.  God has taken the initiative.  And the good news is preached to the nations in light of this.

There is, as we might expect, Old Testament precedent for the New Testament's teaching on reconciliation.  Once again consider the sacrificial system.  The fellowship offering pointed to a restored relationship between God and the sinning Israelite (Lev. 3).  The whole point of the sacrificial system was reconciliation.  We see this in Psalm 32 where we are told the man is blessed who confesses his sin and is restored to fellowship.  Psalm 51 is even more explicit on this point.  While there is much that could be commented upon about this psalm, the end result of confession and cleansing is restoration, i.e., reconciliation:  "Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit"(Psalm 51:11-12 ESV) [13].    In Isaiah 1:18 the Lord calls upon his people to meet with him to reason together.  This will then result in the forgiveness of sin and the removal of offense.

Additionally, we find in the New Testament a concern for how the Christian is to live in the light of the reconciliation established by the cross.  Before our Lord's atonement he noted in Matt. 5:21-24 that when someone came to offer a gift at the altar at the temple and remembered that a brother had something against him (our Lord does not mention whether this ill feeling was deserved or not), he was to go and reconcile with the offended brother and then come and offer the gift at the altar.  More significantly, Paul reminds us in Eph. 2:11-22 that the Lord has by his death torn down the old dividing wall of the law that separated Jew and Gentile.  As we know from Acts and the Pauline letters, there was a real struggle in the early church to reckon with this new reality whereby Gentiles could become fellow citizens of the heavenly kingdom without first becoming Jews.  In other words Jews and Gentiles were on equal footing before the cross.  They all had sinned against a holy God and all had equal access to salvation through faith in Christ which led to justification.  Given that great fact of atonement and reconciliation, Christians were to live in reconciliation to one another [14].

To sum up what we have seen from a look at reconciliation, we have seen that considering the atonement from the perspective of reconciliation reminds us that God had to be reconciled to us before we could be summoned to reconcile with him.  This can be understood from the simple fact in the New Testament reconciliation is presented as something already accomplished in the past and offered to people now.  We have also seen that God is indeed angry with us because of our sin. It should be noted that this anger is a personal and judicial anger.  It is not merely the moral equivalent of a child sticking his finger in a light socket and getting electrocuted.   Additionally, God is reconciled to us by the removal of our sin and the absorption of his wrath, both of which are accomplished by God the Son on the cross.  Finally, reconciliation comes about because of the love of the Triune God for us.  All three persons of the Godhead have participated in the plan and execution of redemption.  It is not as if the loving Son had to cajole and arm twist a recalcitrant Father.  The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit entered into the covenant of redemption and executed the covenant of grace in history.

Victory:  God Conquers All His and Our Enemies
Having traveled from the marketplace through the family home we now come to the battlefield.  Here we will briefly consider the cross as the place of victory for Christ and his people and the place of defeat for Satan and his minions.  The Swedish theologian Gustav Aulén referred to this perspective on the cross as the "classical view," as he thought it was the principle view of the Bible and the early church [16].   We would argue that the word picture of victory is one picture among several complementary perspectives that all mutually reinforce one another and uphold the central concern of penal substitution.  Paul gives us the locus classicus for understanding the cross as the defeat of Satan.  He tells us that, "... you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses,  by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.  He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him" (Col. 2:13-15 ESV).  As we can see, the triumphing over rulers and authorities is parallel to the cancellation of debt.  You cannot have the one without the other.  In other words, God's victory involves his own satisfaction.
Once again we can see the precursor to this in the Old Testament and in the early pages of the New Testament.  God begins the conquest of his enemies in the garden immediately after the fall with his curse (Gen. 3:14-19) where we see set out for us a perpetual conflict between the people of God (the seed of the woman) the and the people of this world (the seed of the serpent).  This conflict will culminate in the seed of the woman crushing the head of the seed of the serpent and getting his heal bruised in the process.  There is good reason for Genesis 3:15 being called the protevangelium or "first gospel."  We see the atonement as God's victory over his enemies typified in the exodus of Israel out of Egypt (especially with the ten plagues which appear to have been a confrontation with specific pagan deities and the deliverance at the Red Sea, Exod. 7-12) and in the Canaanite conquest initially under the leadership of Joshua and completed many years later under King David (his fight with Goliath serves as an illustration in miniature).  We also see Christ's victorious death adumbrated in the confrontation between Elijah and the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel as well (1st Kings 18:20-40).  In the New Testament, during our Lord's earthly ministry, we see his passing his probation in the wilderness (Matt. 4; Mark 1; Luke 4) and his continual confrontation with demonic forces as foretastes of his conquest by death.  Consider also Paul's comments in the resurrection chapter, 1st Cor. 15.  There he reminds us that because of Christ's resurrection (the culmination and capstone of the atonement) death is destroyed:
 "When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:  'Death is swallowed up in victory'.  'O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?' The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Cor 15:54-57).  And at the end of the New Testament we see that Christ has conquered Satan and sin:  "And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world-- he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him" (Rev. 2:9 ESV, cf. 20:2).  

Christ's atoning death was a conquest - of Satan, sin and death.   But it would be wrong to see this as somehow in conflict with or in contradiction to penal substitutionary atonement.  The only way that the cross can be a victory is if it actually achieved something - namely the salvation of those for whom Christ died.  It can only be a victory because Christ has been our representative and substitute.  Otherwise we remain interested bystanders or spectators and the cross does nothing for us.  But, thanks be to God, the cross has done something for us.  It has won our redemption.  Christ both took our punishment as our representative and he defeated Satan, sin, and death.  It is not an either/or proposition, but both/and.  God, through his Son, King Jesus, has conquered all his and our enemies by the cross.  

Propitiation:  God is both Just and the Justifier of the Ungodly
We now come to a consideration of the atonement that brings us into the sacred precincts of the holy Temple.  We come into the presence of something that is, for the most part, foreign to us [17].   We now stand in the presence of priests and animals.  We are watching the rubrics of the sacrificial system as they are carried out.  We see Israelites approach the temple for the purpose of offering up an animal sacrifice.  What is the significance of all this ritual?  And does it make any difference to us today?  To answer these questions we need to dig up some old vocabulary that was once upon a time quite familiar to most English speaking Christians.

I am thinking, of course, about that strange looking and sounding word: propitiation.  You may be wondering to yourself, "What does that mean?"  I am so glad you asked!  Propitiation, a word that appears in the King James or Authorized Version of the Scriptures (and the ESV as well), means the appeasement, aversion, or placation of anger or wrath.  That naturally raises the question, whose wrath are we talking about here?  The answer to that is God's.  Yes, God is angry with us because of our sin.  It is not as if God has some sort of cosmic "hissy fit" though.  Unlike us, God does not have temper tantrums.  Rather, God's wrath is his settled disposition towards sin and evil.  Paul points out that God is wrathful in Romans 1:18-32.  There we find a sad picture of sin and degradation as the human race falls into a downward spiral.  From Romans 1 we see that God's wrath is personal.  That is, pace the British New Testament scholar C. H. Dodd, [18] God's wrath is not some mechanical response to certain types of behavior akin to a child who gets electrocuted for sticking his finger in a live outlet.  On the contrary, God's wrath is personal and judicial and purposeful.  That is, sin yields more sin which yields greater sin and degradation.  The picture Paul paints in Romans 1 is not pretty and it includes God's "handing over" sinful men and women to their sinful passions so that they may reap what they have sewn.  For instance, it has been argued that Paul's discussion of homosexuality represents it not only as sinful behavior itself, which will end in punishment, but that it by itself is a form of judicial sentence that follows from the suppression of the knowledge of God and the exchange of the truth for the lie.  To put it another way, there is a God and he is angry with us for our disobedience.

So God is a wrathful God.  But he is also a loving God.  Both of these descriptions are true.  It may boggle the human mind, but it presents no insurmountable obstacle for God.  It is at the cross where wrath and mercy meet [19].   God set upon the plan of redemption in eternity and the cross is at the heart of that plan.  That plan involved the Son of God taking upon himself a human nature and humbly obeying the Father's will and dying for the sins of the elect.  By doing this, God was able to be just (that is, he would not have to go against his holy and righteous character or conversely, he would not have to go against his loving nature) and the justifier of the ungodly.  Jesus Christ would absorb the Father's wrath so that he could save a people for himself.  God would not have to turn a blind eye to sin or wave the hand as if sin were of no consequence.  Those who think that sin is a minor matter, a peccadillo, have not seriously considered the seriousness of sin [20].   We are also reminded that the atonement is an expression of God the Father's love just as much as it is an expression of the Son's love.  There is no internal strife over whether the Father ought to forgive those united to the Son.

There are four principle passages in the New Testament where we find the word propitiation [21]:   Romans 3:21-26, Hebrews 2:17, 1 John 2:1-2, and 4:10.  We will look briefly at Romans 3.  Here Paul is addressing the basis of justification by faith alone in the work of Christ for us.  "But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it--the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:  for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,  and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,  whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.   It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus" (Romans 3:21-26 ESV).  The basis of our justification as ungodly enemies of God (per Romans 5:1-11) is Christ's being put forward as a propitiation.  That is, God the Father has put forward his own Son to take upon himself the punishment his own people deserved (Isaiah 52:13-53:12 and 1 Pet. 1:18-21 and 2:21-25).  By doing this God was able to maintain his integrity, upholding his justice and his mercy.  Our salvation is not the result of a divine cooking of the books.  The Son has absorbed the wrath of the Father for those who are his own.  Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1).

And now we are back at the beginning.  How so, you ask?  We began this section by asking about how the sacrificial system of ancient Israel related to us or to Christ's work.  The Levitical sacrificial system pointed forward to the coming Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world.  More significantly, the Old Testament sacrifices gained their efficacy from Christ's own death on the cross (Heb. 9:11-10:18).  As the writer to the Hebrews tells us, the endless repetition and offering of sacrifices day after day and year after year could not cleanse the conscience considered in and of themselves.  Look at it this way:  the Old Testament sacrificial system prepared the people of God so that they might understand the significance of the Son's death on the cross.  But the retroactive effectiveness of Christ's cross work provided the Old Testament sacrifices with their effectiveness.   So we have seen that God takes sin with utmost seriousness.  God cannot turn a blind eye to sin.  It must be atoned for.  We have also seen that this atonement is achieved by God's Son, Jesus Christ.  It is by his taking our sin upon himself that he removes the offense of sin and averts God's wrath from his elect.  In the cross of Christ we see wrath and mercy meet.  God is able to be just and the justifier of the ungodly.

The Cross and the Resurrection:  Jesus' Curse and Justification
We now come to the fifth and final New Testament word picture for the atonement.  We have moved from the marketplace to the family to the battlefield to the temple precincts.  Now we find ourselves in the law court.  Justification is the declaration that someone is in the right or is not guilty of wrong doing.  It is the declaration that someone is righteous.  It is not the making of someone righteous.  The opposite of justification is, of course, condemnation.  Again, condemnation is not the making of someone guilty, but the declaration of his or her guilt.  Consider, for instance, Deuteronomy 25:1-2, "If there is a dispute between men and they come into court and the judges decide between them, acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty, then if the guilty man deserves to be beaten, the judge shall cause him to lie down and be beaten in his presence with a number of stripes in proportion to his offense" (emphasis added).  The point here is that a judge does not make the person charged with a crime innocent or guilty.  He seeks to determine who is guilty or innocent and then declares a decision based upon the evidence.  To put it another way, justification is forensic and is not about moral transformation (i.e., sanctification).

You may be wondering how all this, important though it undoubtedly all is, relates to understanding the atonement.  The two are intimately related to one another.  I would like to suggest that Christ's death on the cross was a curse and the reversal of that curse was a justification  [23].   I believe we have biblical warrant for talking this way [24].   I would like to look at Jesus' curse for us on the cross, his justification by his resurrection and our justification by union with him who is our federal head.  If we stumble at any one of these points, I would humbly suggest we fail to understand the seriousness of sin, the depth of Christ's love and sacrifice for us, and how we may benefit from his work done in history over two thousand years ago.

First we need to consider how Christ was cursed for us.  Paul tells us in Galatians 3:13 that,    "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..."  Paul here is referencing Deut. 21:23 that tells us that any man hung on a tree is cursed by God.  Christ is really and truly cursed in his hanging on the cross and we need to wrestle with this fact.  We need to take it seriously.  Christ was not playing games.  It was not charades.  Christ was not pretending to be cursed.  He was really and truly condemned because he hung on the cross.  But how could that be?  It certainly was not for his own sin.  He was sinless and had been perfectly obedient to his Father's will (Heb. 4:15, 9:14; 1 Pet. 1:19).  On the contrary, he was condemned for our sins.  Just as Adam was a federal head or covenant representative, so too was Jesus Christ for his people.  Remember we as the posterity of Adam stood under the curse of God for his sin and ours.  Christ, in coming to be our surety, took upon himself our sin and bore the curse in his own body on the tree.  He really came under the Father's frown.  How else can we understand the mystery of the dereliction (Matt. 27:45-56; Mark 15:33-41)?  The Father would not have turned away because of any sin committed personally by the Son.  Perish the thought!  But our Lord stood in our place.  He was our substitute.  He was the ransom price.  He really was cursed.  He truly was condemned.  The cross was a place of condemnation.  If the story had ended here it would not have ended well.  And I am not thinking of the apologetic necessity of the resurrection at this point.  My focus is on the redemptive significance of the cross.  The cross needs the resurrection.

John Calvin was right.  We ought never to think of the cross without the resurrection and ought never to think of the resurrection without the cross.  So Christ stood under the curse of God for hanging on the cross.  He took our sin upon himself.  Thankfully that is not the end of the story.  There is more to follow.  Because Christ was nailed to the cross under a cloud of condemnation, there needed to be a reversal.  If Christ be not raised from the dead, the curse would remain [25].   If Christ remains in the tomb he is still under the curse.  What's more, we are still in our sin and are the most pitiable of all people (1 Cor. 15:17).  Now if the crucifixion was Christ's curse, and his resurrection is the reversal of that curse, then we can legitimately say that the resurrection of Christ was his own justification.  So says Paul in 1 Timothy 3:16, "Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness:  He was manifested in the flesh, justified [26] by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory."  The resurrection was God's stamp of approval upon the great sacrificial work of obedience by his Son.  Paul in Romans 4:23-25 reminds us that, "But the words 'it was counted to him' were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification." Jesus was cursed for us and he was justified for us.

But you may be wondering how we can benefit from what Christ did outside of us and for us.  As John Calvin reminds us, as long as Christ remains at a distance from us, what he has done for us will be of no value to us [27].   We come to benefit from Christ's accomplishment of redemption through the application of that to us by the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit joins us to Christ by faith and we therefore partake of the benefits of redemption (Rom. 5:12-21, 6:1-14; Gal. 2:15-20; Eph. 2:1-10, 4:17-24; Col. 2:6-15, 3:1-17) [28].   By being joined to Christ we benefit from his perfectly holy life and obedience to the Father (his fulfillment of the covenant of works), and we benefit from Christ's perfect once-for-all sacrifice.  In other words, the double bind that Adam landed us in (the requirement that we offer perfect, personal, and perpetual obedience and that we owe restitution for breaking God's law) is reversed and corrected [29].   This can only be true if Christ has been our penal substitute.

We have come full circle.  We have surveyed the language which the New Testament uses to explain the significance of the cross.  We have discovered that the cross of Christ is understood by five complementary interrelated word pictures.  We have examined the crucifixion as redemption, reconciliation, victory, propitiation, and justification.  We have barely scratched the surface.  But I trust you have been given a taste for the depth of the richness of divine revelation regarding the atonement.  We should be concerned with both the facticity of the cross of Christ and its theological and redemptive significance.  In the third and last segment we will turn our attention to a brief history of how the church has wrestled with the atonement as she has endeavored to understand it.


 [1] I use the term "theological" to distinguish these covenants from the historical dispensations of the covenant of grace, i.e., Abrahamic, Davidic, etc.
 [2] Those giants include John Stott and his The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove:  Inter Varsity Press, 1986); Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1955), The Cross in the New Testament (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1965), and The Atonement (Downers Grove:  Inter Varsity Press, 1983);  and many, many others.
[3] John Stott, Cross of Christ, 175-179.
[4] We should note here that redemption partakes of the already/not yet dynamic that we find throughout the New Testament's discussion of salvation.  In other words, not all aspects of redemption have been experienced as of yet.  We are like the children of Israel in this respect.  We have been brought through the Red Sea and have been saved, but we have not yet reached the Promised Land.  We are pilgrims in a desert land (Heb. 4).  While we have already been given the Holy Spirit as a down payment of our future glory (Eph. 1:14), we still must await the redemption of our bodies (Rom. 8:18-23) at the resurrection.
 [5] We could also point to the imagery of redemption in the book of Ruth with its portrayal of the kinsmen redeemer motif enacted by Boaz on behalf of the Moabite widow Ruth (Ruth 3-4).
[6]  Stott, Cross of Christ, 176-178.
[7]  For an insightful exposition of Zechariah 3:1-5 as it points toward and is fulfilled by Christ's righteousness being imputed to us by faith, see Richard Phillips' commentary on Zechariah in the Reformed Expository Commentary series (Phillipsburg:  Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 2007), 62-73.
[8]  Philip P. Bliss, "Hallelujah, What a Savior!" which is also known as "Man of Sorrows, What a Name."
[9]  With all due respect to Bishop N. T. Wright, "On Becoming the Righteousness of God," in Pauline Theology:  Vol. II:  1&2 Corinthians (ed., David M. Hay.  Minneapolis:  Fortress, 1992):  200-208, this verse does address the imputation of the active obedience of Christ.  See John Piper's Counted Righteous in Christ (Wheaton:  Crossway, 2002) and more recently his The Future of Justification (Wheaton:  Crossway, 2008).  See also the massive literature on the new perspective on Paul and the related so-called Federal Vision.
[10]  Jonathan Edwards has argued for the righteousness of Christ being understood as a unified whole.  He saw that the distinction between Christ's active and passive obedience, while true enough, might lead some to split up the work of our dear Savior.  And we have seen just that happen in current discussions of the issue.  For a helpful discussion of this in Edwards, see Craig Biehl, The Merit of Christ's Obedience to God's Rule of Righteousness in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards (PhD diss., Westminster Theological Seminary, 2008).
[11] Stott, The Cross of Christ, 178-179.
[12] This is not to suggest that we cannot experience God's fatherly displeasure.  We most certainly can. But those who are elect (that is, those who have trusted in Christ) have been, are, and will continue to be reconciled to the Father, through the Son, and by the Spirit.
[13]  It should be noted that restoration of fellowship occurs after sin has been dealt with and sin has been dealt with by being covered over or cleansed. 
[14]  There are many implications we can draw from this passage.  Among them would be how we should look at "race" relations within the church.  If Christ has broken down the wall of hostility that stood between Jews and Gentiles, how much more then, should we strive to live at peace with brothers and sisters of different ethnic, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds.  Note that is not a call for doctrinal relativity.  Some differences between, say, African American and Caucasian Christians may be substantive doctrinal differences that cannot be waved away on the basis of Eph. 2:11-22.  For an interesting discussion of the very idea of "race," see Thabiti Anyabwile's address, entitled "Bearing the Image: Identity, the Work of Christ, and the Church" before the 2008 Together 4 the Gospel conference recently held on Louisville, KY.  It can be accessed here:
[15]  This is not to deny that our personal sin can produce results that look like this.  If you engage in illicit sex, you may get pregnant or contract AIDS.  However it is not always the case that we get an immediate "payback" for our personal sin.  And the consequences of sin involve a judicial element in which God hands us over to experience the logical outworking of sin (per Romans 1:18-32).
[16]  As is usually the case,  Aulén overstated his position by setting it over against penal substitution.  The fact of the matter is that if Christ is not the sinner's representative and substitute, then how can it be said that Christ has conquered Satan and his minions or set things to rights?  There is a noticeable failure to reckon with the personal nature of sin in this kind of argument.  See Aulén's Christus Victor (London:  SPCK, 1931).
[17]  First century Christians, both Jews and Gentiles, would have been intimately familiar with sacrifices of various kinds.  However the idea of animal sacrifices is not so strange when we consider that religions practiced in our postmodern context, Santeria being one such example, involve ritual sacrifice.
[18]  C. H. Dodd, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans (London:  Hodder & Stoughton, 1932), 21.
[19]  In fact, that is the title of a fine collection of essays produced by the faculty of Oak Hill College in London.  In many ways this volume served as dry run for the more recent Pierced For Our Transgressions.  See David Peterson, ed.  Where Wrath and Mercy Meet:  Proclaiming the Atonement Today (Carlisle:  Paternoster, 2001).
[20]  So said Anselm of Canterbury in his classic treatment of the incarnation and atonement Cur Deus Homo or Why the God Man?  in St. Anselm:  Basic Writings (S. N. Dean, tr.  LaSalle:  Open Court, 1998), 1.21.  I shall have more to say about Anselm in the third segment of this series on the atonement.  Similar sentiments are met with in the thought of Jonathan Edwards where you will find considerable discussion of the infinite heinousness of sin.  See The Works of Jonathan Edwards:  Vol. 13/The "Miscellanies," a-500.  Thomas A. Schafer, ed.  (New Haven:  Yale University Press,  1994), Misc. nn, 187-188.
[21] There was another debate swirling around C. H. Dodd.  Dodd tried to argue that the Hebrew and Greek words here translated propitiation should be almost exclusively translated as expiation, "Hilaskesthai:  Its Cognates, Derivatives and Synonyms in the Septuagint," Journal of Theological Studies 32 (1931): 352-360 and later included in Bible and Greeks (London:  Hodder & Stoughton, 1935).  Dodd had a problem with the idea of personal divine wrath (as we have already noted) and he understood occurrences of kephar and hilasmos/hilisterion/hilaskomai to refer to the covering over or removal of sin.  Leon Morris in his Apostolic Preaching of the Cross and Roger Nicole in a significant article,"C. H. Dodd and the Doctrine of Propitiation," WTJ 17 (May 1955) and now included in Standing Forth (Fearn, Ross-Shire:  Christian Focus/Mentor, 2002), 343-385, deconstructed Dodd's scholarship and argument.  It is not necessary, in affirming that this vocabulary signifies propitiation, to deny that it may also point to expiation.  The removal of sin, which is the removal of the cause of divine offense, is a complementary idea to the idea of the appeasement of divine wrath, not its contradiction.  In fact, I would suggest the one requires the other.  The Son placated the Father (propitiation) by removing the cause of offense (expiation).
[22] A consideration of the sacrificial system also points to the interrelatedness of the various word pictures we find in the New Testament's discussion of the atonement.  The sacrificial system illustrates the truth that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin (Heb 9:22) (propitiation and expiation) and the sacrificial system also illustrates the idea of ransom.  The cost of atonement was the life of the animal.  And it illustrates the idea of substitution.  Who or what was it that died in a sacrifice?  It was an animal substituted for the sinful Israelite.  The laying on of hands of the sinful offerer on the animal head symbolized a transfer of sin to the animal.  And what was the result of this sacrificial transaction?  Reconciliation.
[23] Of course Jesus' justification is only analogous to ours.  That needs to be kept in mind.  Jesus' justification is different from ours in at least this very important fact:  He died and was condemned not for his sin, but for ours.
[24] There is also theological precedent.  Jonathan Edwards wrote at length on the topic. See "Justification," WJE,  19:151, "But God when he justified him in raising him from the dead, did not only release him from his humiliation for sin, and acquit him from any further suffering or abasement for it, but admitted him to that eternal and immortal life, and to the beginning of that exaltation, that was the reward of what he had done.  And indeed the justification of the believer is no other than his being admitted to the communion, or participation of the justification of this head and surety of all believers; for as Christ suffered the punishment of sin, not as a private person, but as our surety, so when after his suffering he was raised from the dead, he was therein justified, not as a private person, but the surety and representative of all who should believe in him; so that he was raised again not merely for his own, but also for our justification, according to the Apostle."  Richard Gaffin picks up on this theme in Edwards and notes it in his Resurrection and Redemption (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1981), 123n.147 and 132n.159.

[25] This means that the resurrection is not only a matter of apologetics.  That is, the resurrection not only evidences that Christ was the divine Son of God (although it most certainly does do that), it also demonstrates the reversal of the curse upon Christ and it also manifests the Father's acceptance of the sacrifice.
[26]  Many translations have "vindicated by the Spirit."  Vindication is justification.  The Greek word dikaioo is used here (edikaiothe).  I would not quibble over words.
[27] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion.  John T. McNeill, ed.; Ford Lewis Battles, tr.  (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 3.1.1.
[28] It is important to note that union with Christ has an eternal facet in which we are elect in Christ, a covenant-historical facet in which Christ as our federal head accomplished redemption in time and space, and there is an experiential facet in which the Holy Spirit joins us to Christ by faith.
[29]  I am of course limiting my focus in this discussion to justification.  I could also discuss adoption, definitive and progressive sanctification and glorification as well.  These benefits of redemption all come to us as we are joined with Christ.  The error we want to avoid when considering justification is that we not confuse it or blend it with sanctification.  On the other hand, we should not act as if we are allergic to a proper understanding of sanctification either.  As Calvin would point out, justification and sanctification are the duplex gratia Dei or twofold blessing of God.  I am aware that there is a current dispute within our circles over the relationship of union with Christ to justification.  However, I am not convinced that understanding justification as a benefit of union undermines its forensic integrity.  For criticisms of the view expressed here, see Tom Wenger's "The New Perspective on Calvin:  Responding to the Recent Calvin Interpretations ," JETS 50/2 (June 2007):  311-328; Michael Horton's Covenant and Salvation:  Union with Christ (Louisville:  WJKP, 2007), 288-289.  For a response defending the duplex gratia Dei model in Calvin, see Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., "Biblical Theology and the Westminster Standards," WTJ 65/2 (Fall 2003): 165-179and in revised form in The Practical Calvinist: An Introduction to the Presbyterian & Reformed Heritage:  In Honor of Dr. D. Clair Davis (Fearn, Ross-Shire:  Christian Focus [Mentor], 2002),  425-44, and "Union with Christ:  Some Biblical and Theological Reflections" in Always Reforming:  Explorations in Systematic Theology. A. T. B. McGowan, ed.  (Leicester, Intervarsity Press, 2006), 271-288, and By Faith, Not By Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation (Waynesboro:  Paternoster, 2006); Lane G. Tipton, "Union with Christ and Justification" in Justified in Christ.  K. Scott Oliphint, ed.  (Fearn, Ross-Shire:  Christian Focus [Menotr], 2007), 23-49; and Mark Garcia's Life in Christ: Union with Christ and Twofold Grace in Calvin's Theology.  Studies in Christian History and Thought.  (Milton Keynes:  Paternoster, 2008);  "Imputation and the Christology of Union with Christ: Calvin, Osiander, and the Contemporary Quest for A Reformed Model, WTJ 68/2 (Fall 2006): 219-251; and "Christ and Spirit: The Meaning and Promise of A Reformed Idea," Lane G. Tipton and Jeffrey C. Waddington, eds. Resurrection and Eschatology:  Theology in Service of the Church:  Essays in Honor of Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. (Phillipsburg:  Presbyterian and Reformed Publishers, 2008), 424-442.  For another exposition of Calvin and the duplex gratia Dei, see Cornelis Venema's  Accepted and Renewed in Christ (Gottingen: Vandenhoek and Ruprecht, 2007).

Jeffery Waddington is a PhD candidate at Westminster Theological Seminary and a teaching elder at Calvary OPC Church in NJ.