Written in Blood

Is the cross becoming less than crucial to Christian thinking? Jonathan Fletcher urges us to keep the atonement at the centre of our faith.

Moses died at the age of 120 after 40 years of very busy ministry; Buddha died aged 80 in peaceful serenity; Confucius died at 72; Mohammed at 62 in his harem. Jesus died at about 33 after some three brief years of public ministry. He was crucified on a criminal’s gibbet, and hanged there in nakedness, degradation, pain, weakness and humiliation.

His death by crucifixion was mocked at the time. An early piece of graffiti depicts a man with an ass’s head being crucified with a kneeling figure before, and underneath the caption reads: “Alexamenos worships his god”. More recently it was mocked by Professor A. J. Ayer who said: “Christianity is the worst religion in the world. It rests on the doctrine of redemption through substitutionary sacrifice which is intellectually contemptible and morally outrageous”. Bernard Shaw said similarly that he liked Christianity and hated Crosstianity.

And yet the death of Christ is the key to everything—literally the crux of Christianity. In England, the one day in the whole year that is specifically mentioned on every pillar box is Good Friday, and annually we have the extraordinary scene of folk who never normally go to church pouring into a midnight communion to celebrate the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day by remembering his death!

At the same time I am concerned. I detect even in evangelical circles a move away from the doctrine of Christ’s death as a penal substitution. Too many are saying that they see ‘substitution’ as only one of a number of models. As I understand it they are being influenced by the writings of scholars such as Jimmy Dunn, Tom Wright and Alister McGrath. To my mind what is worrying is that they have never been told about nor read some of the older books that underscored the substitutionary character of the atonement.

Among them are: Alan Stibbs on The Meaning of the Word Blood in Scripture, and R. V. G. Tasker, The Biblical Doctrine of the Wrath of God, both Tyndale Monographs. The works of Leon Morris remain magisterial and unanswered affirmations of this doctrine, The Cross in the New Testament and especially The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross. Similarly, James Denney’s The Death of Christ is arguably one of the most important books that the InterVarsity Press has ever published, and Why the Cross? by Archdeacon H. E. Guillebaud remains for many of us one of our favourites on this subject. More recent books by John Stott, The Cross of Christ and the introduction to his Commentary on Romans, and Jim Packer’s essay, What Did the Cross Achieve—the Logic of Penal Substitution, must be read by everyone who would be well informed on this vital doctrine.

Of course, the first place to look is in Scripture itself, and one of the key passages is Romans 3:21-26, which we will reflect on in this article:

But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forebearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

God’s surprising wrath

In this passage, the exciting words “But now” indicate there has been a ‘before’. This was outlined in the wretched backdrop described from Romans 1:18-3:20. In 1:18, we find a number of surprises: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness”.

First, we are told of the Wrath of God. God is indeed a God of infinite love and compassion, but he is also a Holy and Righteous Judge who hates sin and sinners. “Where there is no fear there can be no rescue. Where there is no condemnation there can be no acquittal. Love must be based on justice else it degenerates into mere affection” (Tasker, p. 36). Much modern error is based on a senti- mental view of God. In fact, it has been said that all heresy begins with an inadequate view of sin and its consequences.

The second surprise in Romans 1:18 is that the particular offence that arouses God’s wrath is the suppression of the truth (see Rom 1:18, 21, 25, 28). This attitude refuses to let God be God; refuses to honour him, to thank him and to acknowledge our indebtedness to him. Such ‘sin’ (as opposed to ‘sins’) is inexcusable.

The third surprise is to discover that God’s wrath is being revealed now. This could just be an allusion to the Cross, but more likely it looks ahead to the rest of the chapter. If people refuse to read and follow what God has written in his Word, he writes it into our history. As the chapter unfolds, there is a dreadful and awful reciprocity. We give God up (1:21), and so we read, like a funeral drumbeat, he gives us up (1:24, 26, 28). So although it is true that sin brings judgement (2:2), the thrust of Romans 1 is that judgement brings sins into the world. He hands men and women over to the horrors of a sinful life-style. Again, because we refuse to honour God, so he gives us up to dishonourable passions. Worse still, we exchange the truth about God for a lie (1:23, 25) so he gives men and women over to a dreadful exchange of natural love for unnatural vice (vv. 26, 27). Lest some should begin pointing the finger at certain groups, a further list of more common perversions (such as envy, strife, gossip, haughtiness) is given in verses 29-31. Each vice is as prevalent today as it was then, and we are all included.

The royal exchange

Our condemnation is confirmed in our paragraph—Romans 3:21-26—by the frequent use of ‘justified’ and related words which in the context must have a forensic sense, if I may disagree with Tom Wright. This is confirmed in Romans 8:1, where believers in Christ have no condemnation and this complements and rests upon God’s judicial verdict in Romans 3:24, justifying believers on the basis of Christ’s “wrath-removing sacrifice”.

“Redemption” (3:24) has a similar significance as the background is not so much ‘the slave market’, as is often said, but rather Egypt. It was Egypt from which the children of Israel needed to be rescued. And it was not merely from the political subjugation, so much emphasised by the Liberation Theologians, but from the wrath of God. The homes of the Hebrews in Egypt needed the blood of the Passover Lamb to preserve them from the Angel of Death. The conclusion is summed up in 3:23—we all have sinned (i.e. rejected God as the true law-giver and rebelled against him—1 John 3:4). Therefore we are not fit for his presence—we have come short of his glory. So before the righteousness of God appeared we were guilty, condemned and under his wrath and judgement.

If I can put it this way, the problem is God. If God wasn’t the sort of God he is—holy, righteous and just—our sin wouldn’t be a serious matter. In fact it wouldn’t be sin, for sin is a theological word that is intelligible only in the light of God’s nature.

The dominant note of Romans 3:21-26 is that it is describing life after Christ. As a result of what Christ has done we are now justified—which does not mean made righteous, but counted as righteous! There has been, in the words of a famous London landmark, a Royal Exchange.

The ‘after’ is reinforced by the fact that we have also been redeemed, which, as we have seen, means that we have been delivered from captivity, slavery and from the wrath of God. Paul can go on to say in later chapters of Romans that we are therefore incorporated into Christ. This means that we have peace with God—the enmity and hostility is over. We have access to his grace, and we have the hope of glory.

Justification has an especially eschatological dimension, as it means that the eschatological judgement has for us already taken place so that we have a confident assurance about our future. Christians have sometimes been accused of being presumptuous because we feel we can say quite definitely, albeit humbly, that we know our sins are forgiven and that we are going to heaven. It is not a question of ‘I hope so’ but ‘I know so’. Of course, it is in fact the other way round, the very opposite of presumption. It is very presumptuous not to be sure for it would imply that Christ’s work had been inadequate. The so-called sacrifice of the mass is a continual insult to God because it assumes that Christ’s once for all sacrifice was incomplete. So is any doctrine of purgatory, although apparently held with great humility by such men as C. S. Lewis, revealing, I fear, that he did not understand the doctrine of justification by faith.

Prayers for the dead at the funeral of a Christian are equally offensive, since for believers they rob the funeral of that proper note of assurance, and for unbelievers they are too late. I think I am right in saying that in the original version of his great hymn John Newton wrote “Saviour, since of Zion’s city I through grace a member am”. No ‘ifs’ about it.

In Romans 3:21-26, we discover a much more important consequence of the ‘after’ than our being justified and redeemed. From 3:25b-26 we learn that God’s righteousness has been satisfied and his justice vindicated. It has been said that before Christ came, the spectacle that confronted the whole of the moral universe was a perpetual scandal. The Lord God had said that he was a moral God who hated sin and would punish it and, lo and behold, liars like Abraham, cheats like Jacob, adulterers and mass-murderers like David were being accepted into his company and were counted as his friends. Had God gone back on his word? Had he no moral standards of right and wrong? How could he pass over former sins?

The answer is that he could only do so justly if one day those sins were going to be punished in the person of his Son. If the real problem was the absence of God’s wrath against sin, then the most important thing was that that wrath should be satisfied. It had to be demonstrated that God was a just God. That is exactly what the Cross achieved, so that although we are going to see that the word ‘substitution’ is key, so is the word ‘satisfaction’. As the old hymn puts it:

Because the sinless Saviour died
My sinful soul is free
For God the just is satisfied
To look on Christ and pardon me.

So, “if we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness”. That is the after—the gospel, in Romans 3:21-26.

Classics on the cross

The books below are among the best modern works on the meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection. Sadly, a number of them have been out of print (‘OOP’) or quite a while …

  • R. W. Dale, The Atonement (OOP)
  • James Denney, The Death of Christ (OOP)
  • H. E. Guillebaud, Why the Cross? (OOP)
  • Leon Morris, The Cross in the New Testament (OOP)
  • Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (Eerdmans)
  • Alan Stibbs, The Meaning of the word ‘blood’ in Scripture (OOP)
  • R. V. G. Tasker, The Biblical Doctrine of the Wrath of God (OOP)
  • John Stott, The Cross of Christ (IVP)

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