GOD'S PURPOSE IN THE DEATH OF CHRIST
“God, sending His Own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh”—Romans 8:3
Nothing is more notorious than the fact of Christ’s death by crucifixion in the reign of Tiberius. Not only is the fact circumstantially related by the apostles who were eye-witnesses of the event, but Tacitus, the Roman historian who flourished in the reign of Nero, only 30 years after, records it in his annals, in connection with the burning of Rome. A “Christian world,” full of crosses today, is an evidence of it.
What is the meaning of this strange event? For a strange event we must account it, that, a man who went about doing good, and against whom no possible charge of sin could be brought, should be executed as if he were a felon.
As regards the motive of his executioners, there is no obscurity in the tragedy. Jesus deeply wounded the pride of the ruling classes of the Jewish nation, by his open denunciation of their evil ways. The Romans, who garrisoned the country, were but their instruments in executing a man whom they had no power themselves to destroy. This is what we may call the human side of the event.
But there is a divine side to the event, as explicitly affirmed by Christ when he said—
“No man taketh my life from me. I lay it down of myself. This commandment I have received of my Father.”
“I lay down my life for the sheep.”
“The Son of man is come to give his life a ransom for many.”
“I give my flesh for the life of the world.”
It will be a profitable enquiry to ask: first, How an event can be both human and divine at the same time? And second, Being divine as well as human, what were the divine objects aimed at in the sacrifice of the sinless son of God?
As regards the first point, the Bible is a continued illustration. The divine and the human were blended notably in 3 leading instances where there are hundreds—
Joseph, who was sold into slavery by his brethren, says—
“It was not you that sent me hither, but God” (Gen. 45:8).
Israel—who were overpowered by natural enemies—are made by the prophet Isaiah to enquire (42:24)—
“Who gave Jacob to the spoil, and Israel to the robbers?
“Did not the Lord, He against Whom we have sinned?”
Thirdly, God says by the same prophet that He would send Sennacherib against Israel, and adds—
“Howbeit he meaneth not so, but he saith, By my wisdom and the strength of my hand I have done it” (Isa. 10:7-13).
See also Deut. 32:26-27. It is easy to comprehend this duality of operation, when we remember that man lives in God, and can be controlled by Him without man being conscious of the operation, as Solomon says—
“The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, and he turneth it about whithersoever He will.”
“God ruleth in the kingdoms of men” (Dan. 4:17).
On the face of it Christ’s death was wholly a human event; but by the testimony of the apostles afterwards, as well as of Christ beforehand, its divine side was its strongest side, so strong that the human side would not have existed but for the divine aims in the case (Acts 2:23)
“Him being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken and by wicked hands have crucified and slain.”
“To do whatsoever Thy hand and Thy counsel determined before to be done.” (Acts 4:28).
The chief question is: What were the divine objects in so apparently cruel an arrangement? We have all been made familiar with the popular view: That the death of Christ was a vicarious punishment of all the sins that men ever committed; and that all that men have to do in order to get the benefit is to believe—“only believe.” There are several difficulties and confusions in this—
- The punishment of sin is supposed to be eternal torments in hell. How could Jesus endure endless agony in a brief moment, and how could he on earth suffer what belongs to hell only?
- The sinning part of man is supposed to be the immortal soul. But it was in Christ’s mortal body that he made a sacrifice for the sins of the world.
- It was death that Jesus endured in the process of taking away the sin of the world. But according to the popular theory he could not die.
- On what principle of justice is it possible to understand a righteous person being punished for a wicked person?
All these difficulties, inconsistencies, and obscurities disappear, when we realize the Scripture testimony in the case. There are various features to this testimony, and we must blend them all.
One is that the death of Christ was an arrangement of favour, for granting salvation by the remission of sins.
Another feature is that justice was done, while favour was shown; “that He (God) might be just,” etc. (Rom. 3:25-26).
Another is that while salvation is offered through forgiveness for Christ’s sake, its attainment is contingent on individual obedience and faithfulness, even to the extent of said individuals being judged and rewarded “according to their works.”
All is intelligible when the mortal nature of man is recognized and sin understood as the cause of the entrance of death into the world. What we have to ask is, In view of the reign of death, in what way did the death of Christ contribute towards its removal? On the surface of things it would seem as if a living Christ would be more suitable to the needs of dying man than a Christ given over to death.
We can only get at an answer by the testimony, and it is explicit. We are not only told that it was by means of death in the flesh and blood of the children that Christ was to destroy that having the power of death (Heb. 2:14); but we are admitted into an insight into the divine aims in the case—
- To condemn sin in the flesh (Rom. 8:3).
- To declare the righteousness of God for the remission of sins.
- That God might be just, while the justifier of him that believeth. (Rom. 3:25-26).
As to the further question—how these things were accomplished in the death of Christ—we cannot see it unless we recognize the identity of his human nature with the nature that sinned in Eden, and was sentenced to death because of sin. This identity is expressly affirmed in the apostolic writing—
“Likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom. 8:3).
“Made sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21).
“Flesh and blood—the same” (Heb. 2:14).
“Seed of David according to the flesh” (Rom. 1:3).
“Made in all things like his brethren” (Heb. 2:17).
“Came in the flesh” (1 John 4:1-3).
If we consider him as a representative man, sharing with us the very nature that has an inherited death from Eden, and the nature that is in us the cause of sin, we may understand how his death was a virtual repudiation of sinful human nature, and an assertion of the supremacy of God, and the enforcement of His righteousness for our recognition and identification in baptism, as the condition of a favour that bends to us in kindness without the compromised authority of righteousness.
But his death was the death of a righteous man, and therefore resurrection could take place conformably with the righteousness of God. The victory is Christ’s alone, but he is empowered to share the fruits of his victory with all those who, in humility and true repentance, come unto God by him.
Forgiveness is none the less free forgiveness because Christ died. Still it is forgiveness based on the enforcement of righteousness and submission to this enforcement on the part of those forgiven. We are forgiven “for Christ’s sake,” and thus “the blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth us from all sin.”
(Robert Roberts, Taken from The Berean April 1973)