In order to fully understand the cross correctly we need grasp the natures of the Father, the Son and the Spirit.
Most of the secular objections to the cross are based on wrong ideas about God and Christ; and nearly all the Christian misunderstandings about salvation come from inaccurate pictures of the relationship between the Father and the Son. The idea of substitution rests on the identity of the substitute. Everyone knows that Christ was the substitute, but we need to grasp precisely who the Christ is who died on the cross.
An independent Jesus Unbelievers think that the person who died on the cross was simply a human being. Although most Christians reject this idea, many believers think that the Son was an individual being who was quite separate from God – an independent third party in the act of salvation.
This means that they present the cross either as Jesus trying to pacify an angry God and grasp a begrudging salvation, or as an unjust God who kills an innocent Jesus in place of the real culprits. This is a grievous misrepresentation of the Father. He is not reluctant to suffer himself or to forgive humanity, and he is not a cold tyrant whose anger has to be appeased and whose antipathy to humanity has to be overcome by someone outside himself, by some third party. This ‘third party’ approach sets the Son against the Father, yet there has never been any discord or conflict between them. Whatever happened on the cross was willed and accepted by both equally.
The second clause of Isaiah 53:10 is notoriously difficult to translate. It is unclear in Hebrew who makes the offering: the clause could mean either ‘though God offers his servant as an offering’ or ‘though the servant offers himself as an offering’. At first sight, the New Testament appears to be equally ambiguous.
Passages like Romans 3:25, “[Christ Jesus] whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed” and the well known John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” stress that the Father sacrificed the Son. Whereas Matthew 20:28 emphasises that the Son sacrificed himself, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”
Once again, the truth is parallel and inter-related. The Father gave the Son and the Son freely gave himself. The Father sacrificed his Son, and the Son voluntarily sacrificed himself. The Father did not make the Son endure an ordeal he was unwilling to bear, and the Son did not surprise the Father by his selfless action. Galatians 1:4 & John 10:17–18 express this paradox very plainly.
In one sense, the story of Abraham and Isaac on Mount Moriah is an obvious foreshadowing, for there we see the father ready to sacrifice his unique son of promise, and the son prepared to be the willing victim. At another level, however, it is a thoroughly inadequate picture because Abraham and Isaac are separate, independent beings. God is not divided into three. He is one, but more than one. The Father, the Son and the Spirit are not three distinct individuals; they are three self-distinctions within one being who reveal their essential oneness in a three-fold diversity of ‘uni-persons’, characteristics and functions.
If we misunderstand this absolute divine unity we are likely to fall into error whenever we think about the cross. If we think of the Father and the Son as separate individuals we inevitably caricature Calvary as either God punishing an innocent Jesus (cosmic child abuse) or as Jesus placating an angry God (as in paganism).
But 2 Corinthians 5:18–19 makes it clear that the sacrifice was not made by Christ alone, or by God alone, but by God acting in-and-through Christ with his full agreement. They worked together in harmony. Their functions may have been different but their wills were one. They were co-dependent not independent.
The essential unity of God has led some people (they are usually called ‘Unitarians’) to believe that God alone was the substitute, that he took our place and died for us. They argue: 1 Corinthians 2:8 shows that it was the Lord of Glory who was crucified; Revelation reveals that the Lamb who died is at the centre of God’s throne; Hebrews 9:17 teaches that we can benefit from the promises in a will only after the testator has died; and Acts 20:28 announces that God purchased the church with his own blood.
Their argument fails, however on the fact that no verse specifically declares that God himself died on the cross, and on the realisation that the immortality of God means he could not have died. Common sense should be enough to convince us that God simply had to become human (without ceasing to be God or becoming independent of God) if he was to die as our substitute and simultaneously be both Judge and innocent Victim.
We should note that the New Testament usually means ‘the first uni-person of God, the Father’ when it mentions God. This is another reason why it can be misleading to suggest that ‘God’ died on the cross – for it was the fully-human, fully-divine Son who died, not the fully-divine Father. If we over-emphasise ‘God’s’ sufferings on the cross we are in danger of confusing the ‘uni-persons’ of the Trinity, of denying the eternal distinctiveness of the Son, and of denying Jesus’ full humanity. Passages like Romans 5:12–19; Galatians 4:4; Philippians 2:7–8 & Hebrews 5:8 underline the ‘unity and functional distinctiveness’ within God by stressing the Son’s willing submission to the Father.
The substitute who took our place, offered our full confession, bore the pain of all our sin, and endured the penalty incurred by all our rebellious disobedience was not Christ alone (as this would make him an outside third party) or God alone (because this would negate the incarnation). Instead, the Substitute on the cross was God-in-Christ, fully-human and fully-divine, uniquely qualified to represent both God and humanity, and to mediate between them. Whenever we think about the cross in terms of Christ suffering and dying, we overlook the Father’s gracious initiative. But when we think about it in terms of God suffering and dying, we overlook the Son’s gracious mediation.
In contrast to these partial approaches, the New Testament consistently stresses that the Father acted in salvation ‘in-and through Christ with his whole-hearted agreement’. It should be obvious that only a human should make atonement for the sins of humanity (because it is men and women who have sinned) and that only God could make the necessary atonement (since it is he who had justly demanded it and humans could not provide their own). Jesus Christ, therefore is the only possible substitute because he is the only person in whom the should and could are united by virtue of his fully-human, fully-divine nature.
These ideas of ‘divine oneness’ and ‘God-in-Christ’ mean, first, that there are only two participants in the drama of the cross, not three: humanity and God; and, second, that it is all down to grace. In giving his Son, God graciously gave himself for us. In sending the Son, he graciously came himself for us. By grace, the Judge intervened and himself endured the penalty that he had imposed on us. In order to save sinful humanity in a way which was fully consistent with his holy nature, God-in Christ graciously substituted himself for us. Before we can consider what happened on the cross, and its consequences and implications for us, we need to be absolutely clear what the cross is and is not. For example, the cross was not:
•A bargain with the devil •A requirement of some code of law or honour • A punishment of an innocent Jesus by a harsh Father • A means of extracting salvation from a mean Father • An action of the Father which by-passed Christ’s mediation
Instead, the just-and-loving God humbled himself to become – in-andthrough his only Son – human flesh, and to endure and accept the terrible consequences of human sin. He graciously did this so that he could save us without compromising his holy divine character. In many ways, substitution is at the heart of both sin and salvation. We can say that the essence of sin is humanity substituting itself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for humanity. Through our rebellious sin, we put ourselves where only God should be; and by his amazing grace, God puts himself where only we deserve to be. Truly our salvation is by grace.