I remember singing "When I Survey The Wondrous Cross" for the very first time. Having come to Christ in a contemporary church, the hymn was new to me and it seemed a little odd.
The lyrics are strong at times:
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of Glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God,
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.
See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down,
Did e'er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
His dying crimson, like a robe,
Spreads o'er His body on the tree;
Then I am dead to all the globe,
And all the globe is dead to me.
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
"Wouldn't it be better to sing about the Savior and the resurrection?" I wondered. Well, the answer is that the cross only matters because of the savior and the resurrection, but without the cross they do not make sense.
In this article from the HSCB Study Bible, Bruce Ware explains what the cross accomplished. As I'm doing all year long, I am giving away a free HCSB study Bible to a reader. To be entered, share with us your favorite hymn in the comments below.
The cross of Christ and the gospel of Christ are inextricably linked. Indeed, the gospel is the good news of what took place when Christ died on the cross. To understand what Jesus accomplished on the cross, then, is to understand the gospel. To believe personally that what Christ did on the cross He did for
you, is to believe the gospel of Jesus Christ.
What Happened on the Cross?
What took place in Christ's death on the cross? The short answer is this: "Christ died for our sins" (1Co 15:3). Christ's death for our sin must be understood in two broad ways: First, when Jesus was nailed to the cross, the Father charged to Him all of our sin (2Co 5:21) and judged the full penalty of our sin in Jesus as He died (Col 2:14). Second, Jesus conquered the power of Satan, darkness, and death as He died for our sin (Col 2:15; Heb 2:14), thus establishing His supreme authority and power over everything in creation (Eph 1:20-23). To summarize, in His death on the cross Jesus fully paid the penalty for our sin, and He totally defeated the power of sin.
Jesus' subsequent resurrection from the dead was not just a nice ending to the story but rather necessary evidence that His death for sin really worked (1Co 15:17). The penalty of sin is death, and the greatest power that sin has over us is death. But since the penalty of sin is death, and since Christ paid the penalty of sin fully by His death on the cross, His resurrection from the dead demonstrated that the penalty had been paid in full. And since the greatest power of sin is death, and since Christ conquered all of sin's power in His death on the cross, His resurrection also demonstrated that the complete power of sin had been defeated as He arose victorious from the grave.
Erasing the Certificate of Debt
It is only because Christ paid sin's penalty that He was able also to liberate us from sin's power. That is, His payment of sin's penalty (sometimes called "penal substitution") is the basis for His conquering of sin's power (sometimes called "Christus Victor").
Consider one sample passage that shows this to be true. Colossians 2:13-14 teaches that believers are forgiven of all their trespasses through the death of Christ on the cross. The thrust here is on expiation: the liability we owed before a holy God to suffer the penalty for our violation of His law is removed because Christ took upon Himself our record of debt. Jesus "erased the certificate of debt, with its obligations, that was against us and opposed to us, and has taken it out of the way by nailing it to the cross" (v. 14).
The substitutionary death Christ died, in which He cancelled out the debt of sinners, then, is the backdrop for the next glorious truth found in Colossians 2:15. Here it is said that Jesus "disarmed the rulers and authorities and disgraced them publicly," putting them to shame and triumphing over them. The death by which Satan is disarmed and put to shame, then, is a death that cancels our sin. The disarming of Satan and the death that cancels our sin are theologically linked in this way: the basis of Satan's power over sinners is sin itself; the only way to overthrow this power was for sin to be paid for and forgiven. Christ's forgiveness through penal substitution, therefore, is the means by which we are freed from Satan's power.
An Analogy of our Freedom
An analogy may assist in clarifying Scripture's teaching about the pardon Christ earned for believers on the cross. Under a just system of laws, a prisoner is jailed because he has been convicted of some crime whose penalty involves his incarceration. Notice, then, that his guilt forms the basis for his bondage. Only because he has been proven guilty of breaking the law does the state have the right to imprison him. Furthermore, if a prisoner can prove his actual innocence, such that the charge of guilt can be removed--e.g., if some forensic or DNA evidence available after his incarceration demonstrates his innocence--then the state is obligated to release him from prison. It is clear, then, that the power of the state to put criminals in bondage comes from the guilt they have incurred and the accompanying penalty directed at them as a result. Remove the guilt and its penalty, and you remove the just basis for the state's power to enforce bondage.
Similarly, Satan's power over sinners is tied specifically and exclusively to the sinner's guilt through sin. His hold on them is owing to their sinful rebellion against God. But remove the guilt through Christ's payment for their sin and you remove the basis for Satan's hold on them! So by His death Christ took upon Himself the sin of others and paid the full penalty for their sin. As a consequence, the hold that Satan had upon sinners is necessarily broken since the basis for this bondage is removed. Remove the guilt and you remove the bondage; accomplish penal substitution and you accomplish Christus Victor.
The Cross Is Good News
The gospel is the good news that in the cross of Christ, the penalty of our sin was paid fully by Christ. By this, sin's powerful hold on our lives, which leads ultimately to death, has been completely defeated. If we will trust fully Christ's accomplishment for us--that He paid sin's penalty and conquered sin's power--and not look to our own works or accomplishments as if they could commend us to God, we will be saved (Eph 2:8-9).
Bruce A. Ware
Ph.D., Fuller Theological Seminary