“The firm conviction of the permanent efficacy of the crucifixion leads Paul to say that he will glory in the cross.”
For Paul the death of Christ is the great fact on which salvation for all believers depends. For him it is absolutely central. He is always speaking about it, and he ransacks his vocabulary to bring out something of the richness of its meaning. So much of what he says has passed into the common stock of Christian knowledge that it is difficult to estimate at all fully our debt to him.
It comes as something of a surprise, for example, to find that, apart from the crucifixion narrative and one verse in Hebrews, Paul is the only New Testament writer to speak about “the cross.” We find it difficult to talk for long about Jesus without mentioning “the cross,” and this is the measure of the way Paul has influenced all subsequent Christian vocabulary. We would imagine that there are many New Testament references to the death of Christ. But, outside of Paul, there are not. That is to say, there are not many which use the noun “death” (references to “the blood” of Christ, which mean much the same thing, are more frequent). Paul has a good deal to say about “the death of his Son” (Rom. 5:10), but this is not a common New Testament form of expression.
And it is not only a question of terminology. There are great ideas in connection with Christ’s work for men which are found only or mainly in the apostle’s writings. Thus it is to Paul that we owe great concepts like justification, imputation, reconciliation, adoption, the state of being “in Christ,” and a good deal more. Even the bare recital of a list like this is enough to indicate something of the richness of Paul’s thought about the cross, and of the very great debt we owe him.
Repeatedly Paul says that Christ died for sin and that he died for men. For the first point let us notice that he was “delivered up for our trespasses” (Rom. 4:25), that he “died for our sins” (1 Cor. 15:3), that he “gave himself for our sins” (Gal. 1:4), and “the death that he died, he died unto sin once for all” (Rom. 6:10, margin), that God sent him “in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin” (Rom. 8:4). For the second point, “Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6), or for “sinners” (Rom. 5:8). He “died for all” (2 Cor. 5:14). He “died for us” (1 Thess. 5:10). It is clear that both thoughts mean a good deal for Paul, and that they are connected, as when he speaks of Christ’s death for “sinners.” It is probable that he gives us the connection as he sees it when he tells us that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). He repeatedly links death with sin in a causal fashion (Rom. 5:12 ff.; 1 Cor. 15:21). This is not a simple thought, because physical death and a state of soul seem both to be involved. It is impossible to understand either Romans 5 or First Corinthians 15 without the thought of physical death. But it is impossible to think of physical death as exhausting the thought of either passage. Death is both mortality, a liability to physical death, and also separation from God, an alienation from that life which alone is worth calling life (“the mind of the flesh is death” whereas “the mind of the spirit is life,” Rom. 8:6).
This close connection between sin and death for Paul demanded that Christ’s saving act should deal with death. As James Denney puts it, “It was sin which made death, and not something else, necessary as a demonstration of God’s love and Christ’s. Why was this so? The answer of the apostle is that it was so because sin had involved us in death, and there was no possibility of Christ’s dealing with sin effectually except by taking our responsibility in it on himself—that is, except by dying for it.” In dying then Christ died that death which is the wages of sin. His death is effective to deal with the consequences of our sin. We had involved ourselves in death. Christ took over our involvement and freed us from it.
Paul can sum up his message by saying “we preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1:23). When he came to Corinth he had reached a determination not only not to preach, but also “not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). Likewise among the Galatians “Jesus Christ was openly set forth [or ‘placarded’] crucified” (Gal. 3:1). Each of these passages shows that the crucified Christ was primary in Paul’s preaching. In each case “crucified” is the perfect participle, which means that Paul preached not only that Christ was once crucified (which would be the aorist), but that he continues in his character as the crucified One. The crucifixion is a fact of permanent significance and not simply a historical curiosity. It is this firm conviction of the permanent efficacy of the crucifixion that leads Paul to say that he will glory in the cross (Gal. 6:14).
Sometimes he prefers to speak of “the blood” of Christ, as when he tells us that God set him forth “to be a propitiation, through faith, by his blood” (Rom. 3:25), or when he refers to “being now justified by his blood” (Rom. 5:9). It is “through his blood” that we have redemption (Eph. 1:7). Yet another of Paul’s great concepts, reconciliation, is related to “the blood,” for it was the Father’s good pleasure “through him to reconcile all things unto himself, having made peace through the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:20; cf. Eph. 2:13). He speaks of the use of the chalice in the holy communion as “a communion of [or “participation in,” as margin] the blood of Christ” (1 Cor. 10:16), and he reports the words of Christ at the institution, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (1 Cor. 11:25). Thus Paul relates “the blood” to each of his most important ways of interpreting what Christ did for us and to the great sacrament in which Christians habitually joined.
Attempts have been made in modern times to show that “blood” points us essentially to life. Exponents of such views rely heavily on a particular interpretation of Leviticus 17:11, “the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh atonement by reason of the life.” Now this verse is patient of more than one interpretation. It could mean that the ritual presentation of blood signifies the ritual presentation to God of life, the life of the victim. Or, it could mean that what is ritually presented to God is the evidence that a death has taken place in accordance with his judgment on sin. For blood in separation from the flesh is not life but death. Upholders of the view we are considering never seem to consider the possibility that the verse may be understood in this second way. Nor do any of them, as far as my reading goes, make a real attempt to survey the whole of the Old Testament evidence on the subject. Such a survey shows clearly that the Hebrews understood “blood” habitually in the sense “violent death” (much as we do when we speak of “shedding of blood”), and in the sacrifices the most probable meaning is not “life” but “life yielded up in death.” And this is surely Paul’s meaning. It makes nonsense of the passages we have listed to understand them as pointing to anything other than the death of Christ, and that death not a normal, peaceful death, but a violent death inflicted unnaturally. It is such a death that brings the benefits Paul has been speaking of to those who are Christ’s.
The idea that Christ in his death closely identified himself with sinful men, the teaching which we have seen in the Gospels and in Acts, meant a good deal to Paul, and he has some very far-reaching statements about it. He tells us that Christ came “in the likeness of sinful flesh and … for sin” (Rom. 8:3), and he applies to Christ’s sufferings the words of the Psalmist, “The reproaches of them that reproached thee fell upon me” (Rom. 15:3). I do not see how this can well be interpreted without the thought that Christ has borne that which men should have borne, that his death is in some sense the sinner’s death.
And that is stated in express terms when Paul writes, “one died for all, therefore all died” (2 Cor. 5:14). On this verse A. B. Macaulay writes, “the death of Christ had a substitutionary and inclusive character.” I do not see how this estimate can fairly be disputed. One died, not many. But the death of that one means that the many died. If language has meaning, this surely signifies that the death of the One took the place of the death of the many.
Later in the same chapter Paul has one of his most important statements about the death of Christ. After beseeching his readers “be ye reconciled to God,” Paul goes on, “Him who knew no sin he [i.e., God] made to be sin on our behalf …” (2 Cor. 5:20 f.). The first point to notice here is that the verb is active and that the subject is God. This passage is often, perhaps even usually, misquoted in such a way as to obscure this. Men say Christ “was made sin” or “became sin,” making the statement curiously impersonal, and seriously distorting Paul’s meaning. Whenever this is done an important truth is obscured. The atonement is not basically an impersonal affair nor a sole concern of the Son. It is rather something in which the persons of both the Father and the Son are exceedingly active. It is not an affair in which Christ takes a firm initiative while the Father adopts a passive role. In every part of the New Testament that we have so far examined the fact that the atonement proceeds from the loving heart of God has been emphasized. And Paul is emphasizing it here. He is not saying that somehow Christ happened to be mixed up with sin. He is saying that God made him sin. God, none less and none else, made him sin. Christ went to the cross, not because men turned against him, but because the hand of God was in it. We have seen how this follows on a statement which means that Christ died the death that sinners should have died. The Father’s condemnation of sin brought about the atoning death of Christ, that and his burning will to save men.
“Made sin” is not a very usual expression, but I should have thought that it is fairly plain that it means “treated as a sinner,” “made to bear the penalty of sin,” or the like. But in recent times some have denied this. D. E. H. Whiteley, for example, admits that the words could mean “made to bear the guilt of sin, treated in a penal substitutionary transaction as if he were a sinner.” But he goes on to reject this in favor of the meaning, “that in the providence of God Christ took upon himself human nature, which though not essentially sinful, is de facto sinful in all other cases.” This seems to me to be evading the sense of the passage, and I do not see how this extraordinary meaning can be extracted from the text at all. All the verbal juggling in the world cannot make “made sin” mean “took upon himself human nature.” Moreover, although Paul can write movingly about the incarnation when he wishes to (it is sufficient to refer to Phil. 2:5 ff.), he does not see Christ as redeeming men from the curse of sin by becoming man, but by hanging on a cross. And when he speaks of God as making Christ sin for us he is using a strong way of affirming that God has caused Christ to bear what we sinners should have borne.
It is not unlike another saying of Paul’s, this time in Galatians, where he tells us that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree” (Gal. 3:13). Just as the previous passage we were examining spoke of God as making Christ “sin,” so this speaks of Christ as becoming a “curse.” As we saw the former to mean that he bore our sin and its consequences, so the latter will mean that he bore our curse. This curse is related to the manner of the death he died, and the quotation from the law of the Old Testament shows that it is the curse of the law that is meant. Indeed Paul has just said “as many as are of the works of the law are under a curse” (v. 10). His meaning then is that men have not kept the law of God. Therefore they stand under a curse. But Christ became a curse for them. He bore the curse that they should have borne. He died their death. As Vincent Taylor puts it, “A spiritual experience of reprobation is meant, and since this cannot be personal, it must be participation in the reprobation which rests upon sin.” This is a vigorous way of putting it. Paul’s vivid language conveys the thought that our sin is completely dealt with, our curse is removed from us forever. And Christ did this by standing in our place.
Thus there are various passages which stress the thought that Christ in his death was very much one with sinners, that he took their place. As J. S. Stewart puts it, “Not only had Christ by dying disclosed the sinner’s guilt, not only had He revealed the Father’s love: He had actually taken the sinner’s place. And this meant, since ‘God was in Christ,’ that God had taken that place. When destruction and death were rushing up to claim the sinner as their prey, Christ had stepped in and had accepted the full weight of the inevitable doom in His own body and soul.” Nothing less than this seems adequate to the language used. And at the risk of being accused of being unduly repetitious we conclude this section by drawing attention once more to the fact that the divine initiative is stressed throughout these passages. It was God who was in Christ, God who made him sin, God who sent his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin. We have been insisting that substitution is the only unforced way of interpreting the passages in this section. But with this we must take the thought that God is active in the process. Substitution is not some external process which takes place with God no more than a spectator. He is involved. He involves himself in this business of saving mankind.
And if we must not overlook the connection of the Father with what happened on Calvary, neither should we minimize the way men are to link themselves with it. Paul stresses the closeness of the identification of believers with Christ in his death. They are dead with him (2 Tim. 2:11). They are crucified with him (Rom. 6:6; Gal. 2:20). They are baptized into his death (Rom. 6:3). They are buried with him (Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:12). They suffer with him (Rom. 8:17). Those who are Christ’s “have crucified the flesh” (Gal. 5:24). The world is crucified to them and they to the world (Gal. 6:14). Such strong expressions emphasize the fact that Paul does not take the crucifixion of Christ as something to be understood quite apart from the believer. The believer and the Christ are in the closest possible connection. If it is true that their death is made his death, it is also true that his death is made their death.
Some modern scholars think of reconciliation as the most important way of viewing the atonement to be found in the Pauline writings, and, indeed, in the whole New Testament. This is difficult to substantiate at least on the ground of frequency of mention. Paul does not linger on this idea as he does on some of the others that we have dealt with (it is used in only four passages, admittedly all important), and the idea is scarcely found at all outside his letters. It is an important idea but let us not exaggerate as we treat it.
D. S. Cairns puts what he calls “The Problem of Reconciliation” thus:
We all alike believe that the only God worth believing in is the God of absolute moral perfection, and we all believe that man is made for full communion with God. Our moral nature demands the first and our religious nature requires the second. But how is that communion to be attained, kept, and developed? How is the unholy to commune with the holy, the sinner with his Judge? If I am not wholly at ease with my own conscience (and what morally sane man is?), how can I possibly be at ease with the omniscient conscience, who is also the Sovereign Reality and Power? [The Expository Times, lvii, p. 66].
That is the problem faced by all who take seriously the two facts of the holiness of God and the sin of man. Let us see how Paul faces it.
In Romans 5 he speaks of Christ’s death for sinners as proof of the Father’s love, and goes on, “If, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, shall we be saved by his life,” and he goes on to speak of “our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation” (Rom. 5:10 f.). Here he makes the points that men were “enemies.” Their sin had put them at loggerheads with God. But the death of Christ effected reconciliation. As this is said to have been “received,” it was in some sense accomplished independently of men.
In Second Corinthians 5 Paul has been speaking of Christ’s death as the death of those for whom he died, and he goes on to refer to “God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ,” and he explains “the ministry of reconciliation” that is given to preachers in these terms: “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself, not reckoning unto them their trespasses” (2 Cor. 5:18 f.). The initiative here is entirely with God, as, indeed, is the whole process. But what is not always recognized in modern discussions is that Paul sees the reconciliation as meaning that God does not reckon to men their trespasses. Most recent exegetes are so much taken up with the great thought that “God was in Christ” (there has even been a very important book with just this title) that they overlook the fact that the passage is not dealing with the incarnation at all. The words that follow are not supporting evidence designed to show that Christ really was God. They are concerned with salvation, and with salvation in a particular way, namely salvation defined in terms of the non-imputation of sin. This was such a great work that it demanded a divine Person for its execution. There are certainly implications for Christology here. But we should not overlook the main thrust of the passage. Reconciliation in Paul’s thought is closely identified with sinners in his death. In other words reconciliation is not some respectable idea that modern men may safely employ while holding aloof from concepts like imputation and the death of Christ in the sinner’s stead. It is closely linked with both.
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