At the center of all that God has revealed concerning Himself stands the cross. God has revealed Himself in the Scriptures as the God of salvation. This salvation is all in Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son come in the flesh. And at the heart of it all stands the cross. It is through the cross that God brings salvation.
Not all are agreed on the meaning of the cross. Some say that Christ died on the cross merely to serve as an example for mankind. Others say that the death of Christ on the cross serves to demonstrate what God can and will do to man if he does not repent. Still others see the cross as being the basis for God to alter the “conditions” for salvation. Whereas before God required perfect obedience to the law, now God is satisfied with the imperfect obedience of faith. These ideas merely direct our attention away from the true meaning of the cross.
The Scriptures teach that at the cross God was satisfying His own justice so that He might receive unto Himself the elect sinner. This truth is beautifully set forth in Lord’s Days 5 and 6 of the Heidelberg Catechism. It is also spelled out very clearly in the Canons of Dordt, Head II, Articles 1-3, which we quote:
Article 1. God is not only supremely merciful, but also supremely just. And His justice requires (as He hath revealed Himself in His Word], that our sins committed against His infinite majesty should be punished, not only with temporal, but with eternal punishment, both in body and soul; which we cannot escape, unless satisfaction be made to the justice of God.
Article 2. Since therefore we are unable to make that satisfaction in our own persons, or to deliver ourselves from the wrath of God, He hath been pleased in His infinite mercy to give His only begotten Son, for our surety, Who was made sin, and became a curse for us and in our stead, that He might make satisfaction to divine justice on our behalf.
Article 3. The death of the Son of God is the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sin. . . .
A proper understanding of the cross obviously involves a discussion of God’s justice. God’s justice may be defined as the virtue of God according to which He always maintains Himself as the God of all moral perfection and goodness. God does this in two ways—by rewarding the good with good and by punishing the evil with evil. Perhaps this can be made clear through an illustration. When a child walks disobediently he ought to be punished by his parents. However, when that same child walks uprightly according to the wishes of the parents, he is properly rewarded in some way. This is necessary if the parents will maintain themselves before their children as being upright and virtuous. It takes little wisdom to see that one can not on the one hand claim to be a person of uprightness and integrity and on the other hand punish the good or reward the evil. By rewarding evil with good or punishing the good a person shows very clearly that he loves the evil and hates the good. He reveals that he himself is basically evil. For a person to maintain himself as upright and morally good he must show his approval for the good and disapprove of the evil. So it is also with God. To maintain Himself as the God of all perfection and virtue He must necessarily punish all that is of sin and evil and bless all that is upright and good. This is God’s justice.
The truth of God’s justice is very clearly set forth in Scripture. It was clearly revealed for example in the law given at Mt. Sinai. Concerning this law Moses informs the Israelites (Deut. 11:26-28), “Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse. A blessing, if ye obey the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you this day: and a curse, if ye will not obey the commandments of the Lord your God. . . .” The justice of God is also expressed in Isaiah 3:10, 11 where God instructs the prophet, “Say ye to the righteous, that it shall be well with them: for they shall eat the fruit of their doings. Woe unto the wicked! it shall be ill with him: for the reward of his hand shall be given him.” In these and many other passages of Holy Writ God reveals that He is a just God, rewarding the good with good and punishing the evil with evil.
The situation of man is that he is a sinner. He has sinned against God originally in Adam; and he sins against God every day of his life. According to the justice of God his sin must be punished. And there is no way around this. God is a God of perfect justice. He can not simply ignore man’s sin and bless him in his sin. This would require that God deny Himself. Nor can man appeal to God’s mercy in the hope that God’s mercy will in some way negate God’s justice. God is indeed merciful. He is filled with pity and compassion for His people in their woe. And His chief desire is to deliver them and bless them. This however does not detract from the fact that God is just, and therefore will and must punish all sin.
In light of all this it is possible for sinful man to receive God’s blessings only in the way of satisfaction. The demands of God’s justice must be met or satisfied. This satisfaction of God’s justice must be made either by the sinner himself or by someone else who does it for him. This satisfaction includes two elements. First, satisfaction requires that the full weight of God’s wrath against sin be endured. God’s justice requires that God punish the sin of man to the extreme. Hence, satisfaction requires that either the sinner himself or someone in his place endure the full burden of God’s wrath against his sin. God must pour out the vials of His holy wrath upon the sin of man and only when that wrath is spent and God can say that He has punished man’s sin to the extreme can He ever bless the sinner. However, this is not enough. God’s justice also requires of God that He bless man only when there is a perfect righteousness or obedience to the law. But this the sinner has not done. Insomuch as he has sinned he has fallen short of the perfect obedience required of him. Hence, to receive God’s blessing the sinner must either by himself or through another present God with a perfect obedience and righteousness. This is the idea of satisfaction. Another way to God’s blessing there is not for the fallen sinner.
The sinner is not able to make this satisfaction himself. The reasons are quite obvious. He is not able to meet either demand of Gods justice. First, he is not able to bear away the full weight of God’s wrath against his sin. To make satisfaction he must not only endure God’s wrath against his sin; he must endure all of it. This is impossible for a mere creature. It is certainly possible for the creature to bear God’s wrath. Many in fact shall do so in hell. But the wrath of God against sin is so great that man can never bear all of it so as to finish it. That is why hell is forever. But there is another reason why man can not satisfy for his own sin. God’s justice requires a perfect righteousness. To make satisfaction man would have to present God with a perfect obedience. This also is impossible for him to do. For man is by nature totally depraved. He is totally incapable of doing any good; he is inclined to all evil. Hence, man can never make satisfaction for his own sin so as to receive God’s blessing.
Fallen man stands in need of a Mediator, a Substitute, One Who can make this satisfaction for him. God in His mercy has provided such a Mediator—His only begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Certainly Christ has all the qualifications to make satisfaction for man. He Himself is a man and therefore can properly bear the punishment for man’s sin. But He is more than a man; He is also very God. Hence, He is able to endure all the divine wrath against man’s sins. Finally, He is perfectly righteous so that He can fulfill all obedience and thus present man in perfect righteousness before God.
All these things Christ has accomplished as Mediator of God’s people. Upon Him has God poured out all the vials of His wrath. Under this burden Christ lived all His life long. But especially at the cross did Christ endure the wrath of God against sin. There all the horrors of hell were concentrated upon Him. In perfect love and obedience to the Father He endured His suffering to the bitter end. At the cross therefore He finished the wrath of God against the sin of His people and fulfilled all obedience on their behalf. Thus, He made satisfaction for their sins.
This is the truth of vicarious or substitutionary atonement. That this is the meaning of the cross is evident from passages of Scripture. Evident it is fromIsaiah 53:5, “But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon Him; and with His stripes we are healed.” This is the teaching also of I Peter 3:18, “For Christ also hath suffered for sins, the just for (literally: in the place of) the unjust, that He might bring us to God.”
What a blessing is the cross! All those for whom Christ suffered and died are free forever from the punishment of sin. Christ has borne it all away. And in Christ they stand before God in perfect righteousness. God according to His justice must and will bless them eternally with His glory. Blessed are the people that stand in the shadow of the cross.