The purpose of the cross.
Christianity is strange indeed. No, I’m not talking about some of its adherents, though that may be true — rather, just Christianity in general. Have you ever really thought about it? Christians use an instrument of untold pain, torture, and execution as their call card — the cross. It has become a pendant for necklaces and the feature for complex tattoos. We use the cross for marketing and branding and individuality, letting others know who we are and where we stand just with glance. It sounds crazy but we might as well be carrying around little electric chair pendants — basically that’s what Christians have done: they’ve made the most excruciating, horrific way to die imaginable the unifying symbol of their faith. What other religion does that? What other faith system would use such an emblem as a cross as their banner? How can we call the cross “beautiful”?
A beautiful juxtaposition.
Well, the only way to realize the beauty of the cross is to first recognize its absolute brutality — to understand the allure and power of the cross you must first understand its purpose. Have you ever given this much thought either? Why did Jesus have to die? Why must God’s Son — God himself, in fact (Jn 8:58) — have to be degraded and debased to such a degree as dying on the cruel cross for our salvation? Why was that necessary? God’s omnipotent — couldn’t he have created another way to secure mankind’s redemption? In short, no. There is no other way for you and I to experience forgiveness and deliverance apart from the cross. That place of death and disgrace and shame is actually the birthplace of life, grace, and pardon. Indeed, to understand the point and purpose of the cross, just look at the law.
The law of God is really the heart of God — it is a disclosing of his perfect, unblemished character. As Stephen Tyng put it, it’s “a description of himself.”1 God is infinitely holy, absolutely perfect, having nothing to do with sin. As far as the heavens are removed from the earth, so far, and more, is God removed from sin. The Scripture says that God can’t even look upon sin (Hab 1:13), let alone associate with a sinner. Elsewhere, we’re told that God “hates all evildoers.” (Ps 5:5) These strong words point to the untiring, eternal holiness and righteousness of God, wherein is found no taint or thought of evil.
This law is likewise “holy and righteous and good.” (Rom 7:12) All its precepts are righteous, perfect, unflinching, and unalterable. “The law is good, if one uses it lawfully,” Paul says. (1 Tm 1:8) And it’s this law which formulates the purpose of the cross, for this law must be satisfied (Rom 8:4) — its demands for perfection must be appeased and fulfilled. Mankind broke this law in the Garden. The Fall jeopardized the whole human race, plunging them hellbound towards death.
A mysterious ministration.
The mystery of the gospel, though, is that God couldn’t be seen as the unflinchingly holy Being that he is if grace relaxed his demands. God the Father accepts sinners — horrible, wretched, deplorable, vile sinners, like you and me — squarely on the basis of Jesus dying on the cross, bearing our shame, taking our punishment for sin, suffering the full brunt of God’s wrath over our iniquity, and enacting the glorious transaction, wherein he exchanges our guilt for his righteousness. God welcomes all who come to him because we’re hidden in Christ (Col 3:3) — hidden beneath the shadow of the cross and the glory and grace found there. God is holy and just and good in bringing sinners to him because his Son fully, finally, and freely met what the law required — absolute perfection, utter sinlessness, and an atonement for broken law.
On our own, we can never live up to this sort of standard of holiness. (Mt 5:48) The idea of absolute perfection is so foreign to our sin-filled minds, we can’t even contemplate it: “Utterly, 100% holy? How can it be?” But this is the proper understanding of grace: that the law must be satisfied, and no amount of my own merit will ever live up to this demand. Therefore, Jesus lived and died in my place. The law isn’t something to be avoided. Yes, the final song for it has sounded, but it’s because of the law and God’s Son living up to it that we even have hope at all!
Fulfillment of the demand was his mission. He came to bring an end to our enslavement to sin and ourselves. He came to summon the age of grace to all those who believe in him; he came to conquer death, hell, and the grave, and he did so on the cross. Indeed, Christ Jesus came to do something about sin!
By Jesus stooping to us, he secured our salvation. By himself descending, he made possible our ascension. By he becoming man, he ensured the hope of glorification. By coming to us, Jesus established the bulwark of “no condemnation for those who are in [him].” (Rom 8:1) This is the mystery and scandal and amazingness of grace, that “he could only raise us, by himself stooping. He could only emancipate us, by wearing our chain. He could only deliver us from death, by himself dying. He could only invest us with the spotless robe of his pure righteousness, by wrapping around himself the leprous mantle of our sin and curse.”2
A humble recognition.
You see, the gospel of Jesus’s free grace is in no way a relaxation of the law. It’s merely the realization and recognition of the loftiness of its demands and the absolute inability that you could ever meet them. Grace is, indeed, a higher view of the law because it forces those under it to admit that they could never live up to it.
The purpose of the cross is the propitiation of the Father by the Son in order that the Father might welcome cruel sinners and have his holiness remain unblemished. (Rom 3:25–26; 1 Jn 2:2; 4:10) It’s the place of reconciliation, where God’s finest creation is set right and now those who rebelled are met with grace instead of wrath. (2 Cor 5:18–19) This cross is place of death but also life. It is the place of absolute wrath and love, at the same time. It is simultaneously Jesus’s mortification and coronation. “It is honour, yet it is shame,” writes Horatius Bonar. “It is wisdom, but also foolishness. It is both gain and loss; both pardon and condemnation; both strength and weakness; both joy and sorrow . . . It is grace, yet it is righteousness; it is law, yet it is deliverance from law; it is Christ’s humiliation, yet it is Christ’s exaltation.”3 And now, you are received by the Father, who runs out to greet you and hug you and make you his own (Lk 15:20), because the cross sets everything right.
Stephen Tyng, Lectures on the Law and the Gospel (New York: Robert Carter & Bros., 1849), 12.
Octavius Winslow, No Condemnation in Christ Jesus: As Unfolded in the Eighth Chapter of the Epistle to the Romans (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1991), 318.
Horatius Bonar, Family Sermons (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1954), 140–41.