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The centrality of the cross

April 2001 | by Timothy Cross

We are all born into this world as sinners under the judgement of God. This being so, we desperately need to be saved. It is here that the Christian gospel really is good news. Jesus saves! This is the glory and distinguishing mark of true Evangelicalism.

Whereas Roman Catholicism preaches a works-based ‘salvation’, that we must somehow try to save ourselves, Evangelicalism proclaims a salvation which has already been securely accomplished for sinners by Christ. The Bible teaches that when Christ died on Calvary’s cross outside the walls of Jerusalem two thousand years ago, he procured the eternal salvation of all his elect people.

Glorying in the cross

The ‘finished work of Christ’ upon the cross is central to the Christian faith (John 19:30). Paul wrote: ‘Far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Galatians 6:14). Paul had been saved by the cross, and he never ceased to marvel at it. The redeeming work of Christ at Calvary was the supreme motivation behind all of Paul’s many and varied missionary labours.

The cross was central to Paul’s preaching. He wrote to the church at Corinth: ‘I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified’ (1 Corinthians 2:2).

The cross is also central to the whole Bible. Open the Bible anywhere, and you will find the cross somewhere! In the Old Testament it is prefigured and prophesied. In the Gospels it is described. In the Acts it is proclaimed. In the New Testament epistles it is explained and applied.

In the very last book of the Bible, the cross is sung about. Revelation records the chorus of the redeemed: ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain’ (Revelation 5:12). Consider the key words that unlock the true meaning of the cross of Christ.

Substitution

The Bible teaches that when Christ died on the cross, he died in the place of the sinner. God’s ultimate punishment for sin is physical and eternal death. Christ was the only sinless one who has ever lived. Being sinless, he alone was not subject to this death penalty – and yet he died.

When Christ died, therefore, he was not dying for his own sins but for the sins of others. He died as the sinner’s substitute. ‘Christ died for our sins’, being ‘put to death for our trespasses’ (1 Corinthians 15:3; Romans 4:25). ‘He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree’ (1 Peter 2:24).

Propitiation

Related to Christ’s death as our substitute is his dying as our propitiation: ‘He is the propitiation for our sins’ (1 John 2:2). To propitiate means ‘to turn aside wrath’, ‘to appease’, or ‘to pacify’. A holy God has to punish sin, for not to do so would compromise his justice. Sin has to be punished or justly pardoned.

The wonder of the cross is that it is God’s own way of both punishing sin and pardoning the sinner – ‘to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus’ (Romans 3:26). When Christ died on the cross he bore the divine punishment for our sins and eternally turned aside the wrath of God for all who are his.

A caricature of propitiation sets a stern God against a loving Son. But this betrays an ignorance of what the Bible really teaches. It was, in fact, the love of God the Father which gave up his own Son to be the propitiation for our sins: ‘In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins’ (1 John 4:10).

Reconciliation

It is by the cross that the sinner is reconciled to God. Our sin separates us from God, for he is ‘of purer eyes than to behold evil and cannot look on wickedness’ (Habakkuk 1:13). Christ dealt with the barrier that alienates us from God: ‘But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been made near by the blood of Christ’ (Ephesians 2:13).

The God-man’s death on the cross brings God and man together. God is at war with sinners, but Christ has ‘made peace through the blood of his cross’ (Colossians 1:20). This reconciliation is a never-ending source of joy: ‘we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation’ (Romans 5:11).

Redemption

Ephesians 1:7 reads: ‘In [Christ] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins according to the riches of his grace’. The blood of Christ, shed on the cross, achieves redemption. Redemption means ‘to set free by paying a price’. It speaks of freedom from the penalty and power of sin. This redemption comes to us absolutely free yet, paradoxically, was infinitely costly.

The price paid to redeem the sinner was the death of Christ: ‘you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot’ (1 Peter 1:18-19).

The theme of redemption by blood runs right through the Bible. In the Exodus, the people of Israel were miraculously freed from slavery in Egypt. But this freedom was only achieved by the shedding and application of the blood of the Passover lamb, foreshadowing the greater redemption to come.

Remission

Jesus said of the wine of the Lord’s Supper: ‘This is my blood of the new covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’ (Matthew 26:28). In taking our sins upon himself, Christ bestows on us God’s pardon and remission.

Sin has put us in God’s debt, but on the cross Christ paid the debt in full. Thus the apostle John could write: ‘I write to you little children, because your sins are forgiven you for his name’s sake’ (1 John 2:12).

Colossians 2:13 ff. explains that Christ has ‘forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us … nailing it to the Cross’. Those who trust Christ are a forgiven people, for God has pardoned all their sins. ‘At the end of the ages [Christ] has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself’ (Hebrews 9:26).

‘My sin – O the bliss of this glorious thought!

My sin, not in part but the whole,

Is nailed to the Cross, and I bear it no more;

Praise the Lord; praise the Lord, O my soul!’

The New Testament verb ‘forgive’ can also be translated ‘send away’. This reminds us of the ‘scapegoat’ of Leviticus 16:21-22, on whose head the high priest placed his hands, symbolically transferring the people’s sins to the innocent animal. ‘The goat shall bear all their iniquities upon him to a solitary land’.

As the goat was sent away into the wilderness, so was the guilt of sin removed. The scapegoat foreshadowed Christ, the one who truly ‘sends our sins away’. Psalm 103:12 says: ‘as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us’.

Purification

Christ’s death also deals with the pollution of sin: ‘when he had by himself purged our sins, [he] sat down at the right hand of the majesty on high’ (Hebrews 1:3).

The Bible describes our sin as a personal defilement – uncleanness that makes us unfit for God’s presence. Aware of his sin, David prayed: ‘Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin’ (Psalm 51:2). In Zechariah 13:1 God promised ‘a fountain opened … to cleanse from sin and uncleanness’.

With New Testament hindsight, we know that this promise was fulfilled in the death of the Lord Jesus Christ. At Calvary ‘one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water’ (John 19:34). Here is ‘a fountain filled with blood, drawn from Emmanuel’s veins; and sinners plunged beneath its flood lose all their guilty stains!’ The Bible declares that ‘the blood of Jesus … cleanses us from all sin’ (1 John 1:7).

Conclusion

The cross of Christ defines our view of God – his holy nature and his amazing grace both made the cross a necessity. It defines our view of ourselves – we are sinners who need to be saved. It defines our view of Christ – he alone, as the Son of God, could offer himself as an eternal, atoning and all-sufficient sacrifice to save our souls. It defines our view of salvation – we are saved by trusting the crucified Saviour. It defines our view of the church – the church is the community of those saved by the cross.

A true Evangelical trusts in the cross of Christ and the Christ of the cross for eternal salvation. A true Evangelical glories in the cross. A true Evangelical preaches the cross as the sinner’s only hope.