Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. Previous article in this series: January 1, 2006, p. 153.
Who gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us from this present evil world, according to the will of God and our Father, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
A very graphic description of Christ and His great work is appended to the apostolic blessing. This is unique among the blessings that Paul pronounces on the churches in the name of Christ, for, while he frequently includes important ideas in his address to the different churches,¹ he never includes such ideas in the blessing itself. There is some indication in this blessing of the agitation that fills the heart of the apostle at the thought of the apostasy that was present in the Galatian churches.
If we should ask why there is this particular description of the work of Christ, the answer can be found in Paul’s deep concern for the error being promoted in these churches. The error of the Judaizers involved the deepest truth of the faith: the excellency and sufficiency of the cross of Jesus Christ. This conviction of the apostle is evident from Galatians 5:2, 4: “If ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing…. Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace.” The Galatians were in dire danger of denying the cross and thus repudiating their salvation. Already in the blessing that Paul pronounces on them, he wants them to know how excellent is Christ’s cross and what a great work it accomplished for the church. “This work of Christ, by which you are rescued from this evil age,” Paul says, “is the work of Christ you are in danger of repudiating.”
The greatness of the work of rescuing us is emphasized in the text in various ways.
First of all, the apostle speaks of this present age.² He is referring to the mighty stream of history that runs from creation to the end. It can indeed be pictured as a river, rushing through time, becoming wider with each passing year, moving more swiftly as it nears its destination, and ending in a mighty waterfall that spells not only its end, but also its destruction. Every bit of history as it is ordained to come to pass in the eternal counsel and will of God is included in it.
Second, the apostle characterizes that stream of history as “wicked.” The word here defines wickedness from the viewpoint of its vicious character. There are some little boys who are mischievous. While this is wrong, one can look on such mischief with a fairly benign attitude and even smile a bit, especially when their mischief does no one any harm. But there are also boys who are vicious. They are cruel, sadistic, evil in a way that destroys. The latter is the word that the apostle uses here to define the history of the world. History is made by people. These people are evil. Their evil is the vicious kind of evil that destroys.
Such is the world from the viewpoint of its enmity against and hatred of God. The evil of the world is not a passive inability to do good, but an active, destructive attempt to destroy God and expel Him from His own world.
The men who make up this world and are the agents of history are men who are also intent on subduing the earth. This was the original creation mandate (Gen. 1:28, 2:15, 9:1-3). Man is compelled, by virtue of his own creation as an organic part of God’s world, to subdue the creation of which he is a part. But he is viciously evil. The result is that the sin of man develops as the creation is increasingly subdued and the powers of the creation are harnessed and put to man’s use. He expresses his contempt for God by taking God’s world, thumbing his nose at God, and using God’s world for his own sinful purposes.
This stream of history is, therefore, a foul stream filled with garbage and sewage, unbelievably vile, stinking, and poisonous. Into it all men are born. In it they spend the days of their life in the world. And swimming along in its current is their delight. That latter is the worst of all. Wicked men find it the most pleasant way to spend their time—swimming along in the sewage.
The end of the stream is that high waterfall that plunges into hell. As time rushes on, the stream moves more swiftly and the roar of the falls is clearly heard. But wicked man pays no attention, for he is secure in the enjoyment of being swept along in this foul river.
Third, it is from this river, Paul says, that Christ rescues us!³ Such is the excellency of Christ’s work.
The text emphasizes by its very language that this work of rescuing us is closely tied to Christ’s work on the cross. Both the power of our rescue and the precise identity of those rescued are determined by the cross. We do not rescue ourselves. If a lifeline is thrown to us, we ignore it or destroy it. If someone on the shore pleads with us to climb out of the river, we stick our fingers in our ears. The choice of man’s will is always to stay in the river. He is rescued by Christ’s power. Christ comes through His Spirit and plucks us from the muck and filth of the stream.
He rescues those for whom He died. Those for whom He died are those eternally given to Him by the Father. Those given to Him by the Father are those whom God has eternally chosen to be His people. These elect, redeemed in the blood of the cross, are those rescued.
Although the sinner objects strenuously and fights with all his might against his rescue, the rescue itself makes him delighted in the work performed for him. He is, so to speak, brought to the riverbank. He is given spiritual understanding to see the river from which he was rescued as it truly is, and he can’t any longer stand the sight or the smell. On the riverbank he comes to understand that he was not rescued only to be left standing helpless at the side of the river, but, turning away from the river, he sees the glorious vista of a whole new and sinless creation that is his by a free gift of God.
In other words, the rescuing of which the text speaks makes those rescued happy, thankful, humble, and joyful saints of God who glory in that work of grace performed for them. Is it really possible, Paul wonders, that the Galatians are now ready to dive back into that river?
This work is possible because Christ “gave himself for our sins.”
The whole gospel is wrapped up in those words.
That Christ gave Himself indicates our Savior’s perfect obedience.
Sometimes a distinction is made between Christ’s active and passive suffering. While perhaps this distinction has its value to understand more fully the whole work of Christ, it is also misleading. In fact, no part of the work of Christ was passive. Even His lowly birth was His own. He entered by His own act into our flesh and conceived Himself in the womb of Mary. He chose His own birthplace in the stable. All His life He walked in the consciousness of His calling, “I must be about my Father’s business.” The theme song of His life was the words of Psalm 40, which He Himself had penned through David: “Sacrifice and offering thou didst not desire; mine ears hast thou opened: burnt offering and sin offering hast thou not required. Then said I, Lo, I come: in the volume of the book it is written of me, I delight to do thy will, O my God: yea, thy law is within my heart.” (See also Hebrews 10:5-10.)
Christ was also active in His suffering on the cross. He was in control every moment—as was evident when at His word the soldiers who had come to capture Him fell to the ground (John 18:6). He assembled the Sanhedrin and brought Pilate to the praetorium. He went to the cross willingly, obediently, and in the consciousness of His calling to fulfill Scripture—”In the volume of the book it is written of me. I come to do thy will, O God.” So also our Lord was not simply passively obedient when the wrath of God was poured out on Him. He, as it were, reached up into heaven and pulled down the fury of God upon Himself. He walked (or stumbled) step by step down the dark stairway that led to the bottom of hell; there He built an altar; there He plunged the knife of the wrath of God into His own heart. He was, even on the cross, the eternal Son of God.
Even in that moment of awful confusion when it seemed as if He, engulfed in wrath, lost the consciousness that God was His Father and no longer could see clearly the need for such agony as He endured, He was still obedient. He loved the Lord His God with all His heart and mind and soul and strength. He loved Him in life—and in death. He loved Him on this earth and in hell. When that awful cry rang over Calvary, “My God, my God, why…?” still He loved His God. He kept the law. He said, “Though this awful blackness is too deep to penetrate and this terrible wrath almost more than I can bear, though I do not understand anymore, I love Thee, oh, My God. I do not know why Thou hast forsaken Me, Thine own beloved Son. But though Thou dost pour out Thy wrath upon Me, I will love Thee still!”
That is what it meant that Christ gave Himself for our sins.
Three mighty truths are locked up in that expression “for our sins.”
The first is that the most general word for “sin” is used here in the text. It defines sin in its essential character as missing the mark. We are called to aim the arrow of our life at the target of the glory of God. We miss. We miss, not because we try to hit that target but are rather poor shots, we miss because we turn around and shoot the arrow of our life in the opposite direction. This is the most fundamental characteristic of sin and of our lives of sin. God’s glory alone is of importance. That glory we despise. In all our life, with everything we do, we sin.
Second, the preposition “for” is crucially important. It is always startling that a major truth of Scripture hangs on a small word. Here, on the word “for” hangs the whole truth of the substitutionary atonement of our Lord. That He gave Himself for our sins means that He took our sins on Himself, was made sin for us, assumed full responsibility for every one of them, and did so in the full consciousness of God’s holiness, which requires that one sin be punished by an eternity in hell. That He gave Himself for our sins means that the uncountable eternities for an innumerable host of elect who had committed sins without number had to be paid for by our Christ. Only His perfect sacrifice could do that.
But that He paid for them means that they are gone forever, erased from the mind and heart of God, and that we are no longer, in any way, responsible for them. No one who teaches that Christ died for every man head for head can possibly maintain the substitutionary atonement of Christ: “He gave himself for our sins.”
Third, this is a personal confession of God’s people. That must not be forgotten. Paul is pronouncing a blessing on the church. He does so in the name of Christ. Paul pronounces Christ’s blessing on the saints. But he does so as a personal confession that includes himself. And, because that blessing must be appropriated by faith, the people of God say, in their hearts: “He gave Himself for me.”
Miserable doubt and vacillation concerning one’s salvation is sinful and really impossible for the child of God. He lives in the joyous reality of his rescue through the power of the cross. How can he who marvels in awe at the truth that Christ performed this work for him now abandon it to return to his own works as the way to be saved? Ye foolish Galatians…!
It is no wonder that Paul closes with a doxology. The work of Christ is the work of God in Christ, for “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself” (II Cor. 5:19). Christ’s work is God’s work, for Christ is God. God has chosen us from eternity in sovereign love for Himself; God gave us to Christ so that Christ might, as the Head of the church, be responsible to do all that was necessary for our full and complete salvation; God in Christ gave Himself for our sins; and now God in Christ rescues us from this present evil world. We have done nothing to earn or merit it. We have contributed nothing to attain it. We stand on the bank of the river in astonishment that we could ever have delighted in swimming in that cesspool. We marvel that for some reason beyond our comprehension He has freely chosen us and done such wonderful things for us. We look at what awaits us and are overwhelmed. What shall we then do? All we can do is give all glory to God who has done so wondrously. And while giving our glory to God, we confess that God Himself has done all these things that He and He alone might receive all glory. That we give glory to Him is also of grace!