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Christ Our Sacrifice 3
The Christian church has always confessed its faith in the eternal redemption obtained for all men at the cross. In Jesus Christ, God has spoken His supreme word to lost men. This is the central theme of the Epistle to the Hebrews.
The author of Hebrews compares the sacrifice and ministry of Christ with the Levitical sacrifices and services. Jesus Christ as sacrifice and as High Priest fills the entire book. Type and prototype, shadow and reality, complement each other in order to show the nature of Christ's redemption and His high-priestly ministry that follows.
Christ came down to earth to do a complete work. On the eve of His crucifixion Jesus said: "I have glorified thee on the earth; I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do" (John 17:4). And on the cross His last words exclaimed, "It is finished" (John 19:30). To emphasize the finality of Christ's sacrifice, the Epistle to the Hebrews uses the phrase "the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all" (Heb. 10:10).
The sacrifice of Christ fulfills and replaces all the typical sacrifices. Christ's sacrifice of Himself is the gift of His life for mankind. Such a sacrifice is as eternal as Himself. It cannot be repeated. In contrast to the Levitical sacrifices, Christ "has no need to offer sacrifices daily, as the high priests do, first for his own sins and then for those of the people; for this he did once and for all when he offered up himself" (Heb. 7:27, N.E.B.).
In contrast with this one complete offering, the Levitical sacrifices continued day after day, year after year. They never did take sin away. Had they done so, they need not have been repeated.
The Levitical priest stood at the altar daily, his work unfinished and incomplete. Morning and evening he slew the lamb. The blood was sprinkled on the sides of the altar of sacrifice and the carcass was completely burned, showing that by the death of the animal, atonement for sin had been made. Those sacrifices pointed forward to the real sacrifice for sin, the genuine atonement to come, made once for all by Jesus Christ on the cross.
In Christ we have a sacrifice that far transcends the sacrifice of animals, for it involved none other than the Second Person of the Godhead. On the cross Jesus Christ was the true paschal lamb. Christ entered into the heavenly sanctuary into the presence of the Father by virtue of His blood, having obtained eternal redemption for us.
Christ bore man's sins onceon the cross. He does not bear sins now. Bearing sin is what Christ did by His death.
The finality of Christ's redemption at the cross leaves no room for vague questions. His sacrifice is the solution to the sin problem. Jesus is not one of many solutions. He is the only solution. He is not one branch of the tree of world religion, one aspect of truth. He is the Truth. His sacrifice is all-embracing, an all-inclusive truth. There can be no rivals.
The universe revolves around this center, the finality of Christ's work for man's redemption and the final victory over all sin. It is essentially a supernatural act. It is not a human operation, a man murdered by wicked men. His is not a martyrdom among those of many other martyrs.
With the psalmist we may say: "This is the Lord's doing; it is marvellous in our eyes" (Psalm 118:23). The great fact that Christ died for our sins is the most abiding of all truths. No man can be at peace with himself, with his neighbor, or with God who is not first reconciled to God by the death of His Son, Jesus Christ.
Why Did Jesus Die?
Jesus came to die. He became man in order that He might taste death for every man. Without His becoming flesh, He could not have died.
The cross was His destiny. No escape was possible unless He were to negate the plan of redemption. Christ knew the absolute necessity for His going to the cross.
Calvary was Christ's appointed hour. "Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour: but for this cause came I unto this hour" (John 12:27). On several occasions previous to Gethsemane men tried to kill Him but could not. Men tried to arrest Him, but it came to nothing. Until that hour He was miraculously protected. But when His appointed hour came, nothing could prevent His death. For the death of Christ is the crisis of all history and of all the universe. For this purpose Christ came. To the two disciples on the road to Emmaus after His resurrection He said:
The death and resurrection of Christ is the central core of the gospel. This was how the apostles proclaimed it. "I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified," said Paul (1 Cor. 2:2).
Why then did Jesus die? The Word of God leaves no doubt about it:
The key figure in this universal drama is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The most shocking thing is that to rescue and redeem the lost, Christ had to suffer the most violent deathdeath by crucifixion. The magnitude of the sacrifice reveals the magnitude of the problem. How does the sacrifice of Christ provide the complete answer to sin? Here there can be no compromise, no ignoring of sin. There are two planes on which God may deal with sin, two planes on which He may seek to come to grips with the problem: one is on the plane of law and punishment; the other is on the plane of grace and redemption. Since God is just, true to His law, how can He avoid executing the penalty of death on all sinners? Since God is love and mercy, how can He execute the wages of sin upon His children?
God's Problem With Sin
Sin is first of all a problem for God. Sin is the most tragic reality that ever invaded His domain. Sin alone has wrought alienation, rebellion, suffering, and death in a once-sinless universe. Sin is the mortal enemy of every creature who becomes involved in it. In the conflict between God and sin, God lost a third of the angels and millions of human beings on the earth, all of them His creatures and His children. Not one human being has escaped sin. Few have escaped death.
It is not possible for God to dismiss sin, to forget it or assign it to oblivion. An absolute holy and righteous God must react to sin. God must either judge sin and banish it or He must tolerate it and therefore side with it. No divine government would be possible unless God dealt with sin. Otherwise His law would be overthrown. Men and devils would be emboldened in rebellion.
What are the moral necessities that are involved in the atonement wrought out by Christ on the cross? What is it that God must accomplish by such a divine tragedy? God as Father does not and will not relinquish His lost children to their fate without a supreme effort to reconcile them to God and to judge sin to its final destruction. And in so doing He must reveal and vindicate His own character before the universe.
The sacrifice of the Son of God as the divine solution to the sin problem is, first of all, the account that God gives of His character of righteous love. Paul declares that "God designed him [Christ] to be the means of expiating sin by his sacrificial death. . . . God meant by this to demonstrate his justice" (Rom. 3:25, N.E.B.). John declared that "God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son" (John 3:16).
Consequently, a true interpretation of Calvary must reveal the moral character of God in His attributes of love and justice. Since God's love is the basic motive of His very being, the saving operation in Christ must be an expression of that love. In Christ the Godhead reveals the divine capacity for love, equal to anything that might occur in the universe. God is responsible for His creatures even as a Father is responsible for his children. He therefore has the moral right to assume the penalty for their sinfulness, to suffer for and with His children.
People often want to consider the cross only from the viewpoint of God's love. They tend to forget the moral demand that it is also a revelation of God's justice. When we have spoken of the sacrifice of Christ as a revelation only of God's love, have we not done despite to the moral character of God?
A naked demonstration of suffering or dying on a cross is not necessarily redemptive. On the contrary, it can create hostility. Deliberately to sacrifice one's life merely as a demonstration has no saving dynamic in it. The cross is more than a demonstration of love. For God to permit His Son to be crucified simply as a demonstration of love does not explain why the sacrifice of Christ is really necessary. Christ could have come to earth and lived for thousands of years, loving and healing people and proclaiming the love of God, as effectively as dying on a cross. If the value of the cross is simply to secure from the sinner a right response, then why is sin so deadly as to require such a sacrifice? Sin is not evil simply because men feel bad about it. Most of them do not. As a naked demonstration the cross can benefit only those who are old enough and intelligent enough to be moved by it.
The moral necessity for the sacrifice of the Son of God is based not only on God's love but also on His righteousness. Why was such a terrible price exacted from the Son of God? Who demanded it? Wherein did the moral necessity reside? Could not God have saved man without the death of His Son? If He could, then why was His death necessary at all? Paul declares the cross to be the revelation of God's justice, in order that He Himself might be just.
Exactly what does Paul mean? What are these sins of the past to which Paul refers? When did God ever overlook sin? During Old Testament times God's justice had been obscured and often misunderstood because no adequate judgment had been executed on sin for four thousand years. In the ages prior to the coming of Christ, God accepted and forgave repentant men as they offered animal sacrifices. Paul indicates in this passage that God had evidently freely forgiven without a just basis. Until the cross, God had not adequately dealt with sin. The sacrifice of animals never did bear or take away sin, or make an adequate atonement. (See Heb. 10:3, 4.) Hence if God's reaction to sin is revealed simply by the sacrificing of animals, then He would not be a righteous God. For justice must deal adequately with sin. Sin cannot be bypassed, certainly not by God.
Consequently, this brought the moral character and government of God under suspicion of injustice, of leniency with sin. God cannot remain under such suspicions as these. His righteous character must not remain under a cloud. God Himself must be declared just and righteous. The text declares that God set forth His Son as a propitiation in order at last to demonstrate that justice.
The sacrifice of Christ, then, first meets necessities within the Godhead itself. That has priority. Without meeting these divine necessities, salvation could not come to the sinner. Justice must first of all be done to the divine order.
Everything turns, not on Christ's life having been taken from Him but on His laying down His life voluntarily, of His own will to die for a lost race. The death even of the Son of God could have no saving power if the value was no more than that of a martyr's death. The sacrifice of Christ is a divine act, not simply a human atrocity. It was an act of redemption by the Godhead. It was God's "unspeakable gift," a manifestation of God's love and grace.
The cross is also a divine expression of judgment on sin. Righteousness, love, and judgment are forever inseparable. God must execute judgment on all sinners or He must assume it Himself. The members of the Godhead chose the latter, honoring the law while justifying the guilty. The law of God is honored either by complete obedience of man or by an adequate judgment on the violation of it; in this way is manifested the righteousness of God in the midst of man's sinfulness. Christ's death confessed God's righteousness. Only a member of the Godhead could do this, and this alone sets forth a true judgment on sin before the universe. The necessity for Christ's death lies in the righteousness of God rather than in the radical nature of man's rebellion. It is not death by martyrdom or murder that atones, but death as an expression of God's judgment on evil. The cross is both the redemption of sinful man and the judgment of God. For God and the universe there must either be an adequate judgment on sin or an end to righteousness. Both cannot exist in the same universe. There is no salvation or justification for sinful man except by the justification of God. Never is man so right with God as when, with broken heart, he confesses as righteous the judgment of God on sin at the cross, which rightly belongs to him as a sinner. Man's justification is grounded in divine justification.
The atonement wrought out by Christ upon the cross is vindication of a righteous God, vindication of the moral law of God, in a moral universe. Because this is true, believers are transformed. The atonement can never be some mechanical transaction that automatically saves men. It must actually win men to God, to His mind and will, and to a righteousness by which the universe is governed.
The cross met divine moral issues. Before a watching universe God revealed Himself as just and loving in dealing with the sin problem. All God's dealings were shown to be consistent with His righteous character. God judged sin to its ultimate end. In the gift of His Son, He upheld His righteous love. At the same time He guaranteed sin's final eradication, the eternal security of His throne and His creatures in all the universe.
How does the sacrifice of Christ effect all this? The justifying of God is not so much in the fact that Christ died as in the nature of that death. Sin is an intruder, the mortal enemy of God and all created beings. Sin threatened the security of the universe, including the government of God. God and sin are mutually exclusive. As the moral Ruler of the universe God is mortally bound to take action against it. Sin can never be banished unless God does it Himself. Man will not do it. Satan will not, for he began it. The sin dynamic can be met only by the divine dynamic of the cross.
By the very nature of His character, God has only certain ways of dealing with sin. He cannot use force and still hold the universe together. Yet He must condemn it, judge it, and establish the right to eradicate it.
At the cross all members of the Godhead are united in their judgment on sin, for "God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself" (2 Cor. 5:19). That judgment did cost God His beloved Son. The Godhead alone could reveal that judgment. No creature could. When a sinner suffers the penalty for his sin, that is his due. At the cross the Godhead assumed their own judgment on sin.
Once the issue is joined, there can be no compromise. The terrible agony and the experience of separation at the cross must not be ignored or dismissed. The death of Christ was unique. Christ's cry of dereliction cannot be explained by human wisdom. Sin can only be forgiven by an act of God that passes judgment on it at the same time. God can maintain His government and His law only as sin is rightly condemned and banished. The cross revealed this righteous judgment before all the universe.
Ellen White writes quite to the point, and it is well that we consider her interpretation of Christ's agony in Gethsemane and on the cross:
The cross involves a crisis within the Godhead. But in this action there is no rupture within the Godhead. The unity of the Trinity remains unbroken. All the agony of separation that Christ expressed in those terrible words "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" is experienced within the Godhead.
While loving the sinner and His other creatures throughout the universe with an everlasting love, God must never leave the impression that love means leniency with sin. God's love spoken of in John 3:16 must not be regarded as an incentive to take sin lightly. At the cross neither the salvation of the lost nor the righteousness of God is ignored. Both love and justice are real in God. Only a sentimental belief in God's love and a superficial grasp of it will make men no longer indignant about sin. God would not be more loving if He lightly dismissed sin. He would no longer be the righteous God. He could no longer be trusted.
If God had failed to pass a righteous judgment on sin, would not man then conclude that God approves it? If sin or disobedience to the law of God can be passed over without an adequate judgment, then would not the casting out of Satan from heaven along with a third of the angels appear far too strict, and the ejection of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden far too severe?
If sin is pardoned without a righteous judgment from God, then has not God modified His actions since the banishment of Satan and his angels from heaven? If the law of God can be abrogated after all these years, is it not apparent that the law was too demanding in the first place and that obedience should never have been required? If man's sinfulness can now nullify the obligation to obey His commandments, then it is God who must adjust Himself to the will of His creatures and not vice versa. Obviously, sin would no longer be sufficiently serious as to merit such a death for the Son of God. If sin can be pardoned without a judgment from God, then death is no longer the wages of sin, and God does clear the guilty.
So the cross is the marvelous revelation of the loving and righteous character of God. It is God's own answer to the sin problem. It is God's bearing His own judgment on sin rather than His executing it upon sinners. All creatures are called upon to take their stand with Christ in His righteous life, His law, and in His righteous judgment on sin. When men do that, sin can never rise again. The sin problem has been resolved. The throne of God is eternally secure.
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