Tag Archives: atonement

If Jesus was God Incarnate, Did God Die on the Cross?

A basic doctrinal truth held by all orthodox Christians—including Catholics and evangelicals—is that in Jesus Christ God became incarnate in human flesh (Matthew 1:16-25; John 1:14; John 20:26-29; Romans 8:3; Philippians 2:4-8; 1 Timothy 3:16; Hebrews 10:5).

Even though Scripture clearly describes the passion of Jesus Christ, many Christians are unwilling to acknowledge that the divine Son of God suffered and died for our sins. While they affirm that Jesus Christ was truly one human/divine person, they say it was only Christ’s human nature—not His divine nature—that suffered and died.

But if God was truly incarnate in Jesus Christ, how could only Jesus’ human nature suffer the agony, separation, and death described in the Gospels? If only Christ’s human nature experienced suffering, agony, spiritual and physical death, how can we speak of a true incarnation; and how can we be assured of the infinite value of His suffering and death on our behalf?

The Bible makes it clear that we could not be saved if Christ Himself hadn’t borne our sins on the cross (2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:13; Hebrews 9:28). In AD 325, the Council of Nicaea strongly affirmed the deity of Jesus Christ, realizing that our salvation depends upon the incarnation. If Jesus Christ were not both truly God and truly man, His death couldn’t atone for our sin. Only God would be capable of the infinite sacrifice necessary to the sins of the world. (See the ATQ articles, Is it necessary to have a clear understanding of Jesus Christ’s deity in order to be saved? and How can it be morally right for Jesus Christ to die for our sins?)

One of the most fearful truths taught in Scripture is that physical death is not the greatest evil. The greatest evil is “the second death” (Rev. 21:8). Spiritual death is the second death. It is separation from God.

What Jesus dreaded when He said “Let this cup pass from Me” (Matthew 26:39) could not have been merely death by crucifixion. Other martyrs have faced equally horrible deaths with composure. Nor could it be a premature death in Gethsemane at the hands of the devil. Our Lord said that this cup came from God—“Shall I not drink the cup which My Father has given Me?” (John 18:11). Moreover, Jesus expressly declared that He wouldn’t die until He voluntarily laid down His life. He said, “I lay down my life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again” (John 10:17-18).

Scripture makes it clear that the Son of God suffered most when He was experiencing separation from the Father. This “cup” is the agony of hell Jesus had to endure on the cross. It was the experience of God’s wrath, as in Psalm 75:8, “For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup, and the wine is red; it is fully mixed, and He pours it out; surely its dregs shall all the wicked of the earth drain and drink down.” On the cross, God made His Son “who knew no sin to be sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21). He poured upon Jesus Christ His wrath against all sin, causing Him to endure the desolation of hell. This sense of abandonment began to sweep over Jesus in Gethsemane. On the cross, it finally caused Him to cry out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matt. 27:46). The cup that Jesus dreaded, therefore, was the abandonment by God, which makes hell, hell.

Although most classical theologians taught that Jesus Christ suffered only in His human nature, a distinguished minority, including Ignatius of Antioch, Tertullian, Martin Luther, A. H. Strong, Jurgen Moltmann, and D. A. Carson, disagree. Charles Wesley wrote:

And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain?
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
Amazing love! How can it be
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

’Tis mystery all: th’ Immortal dies!
Who can explore His strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine.
’Tis mercy all! Let earth adore,
Let angel minds inquire no more.
’Tis mercy all! Let earth adore;
Let angel minds inquire no more.

He left His Father’s throne above,
So free, so infinite His grace!
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race.
’Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For O my God, it found out me!
’Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For O my God, it found out me!

Scripture itself speaks of God’s capacity to suffer (e.g., Judg. 10:16; Jer. 31:20; Hos. 11:8). Isn’t it presumptuous to assume that the Creator knows less of suffering and emotion than His creatures.

Perhaps the assumption that Jesus Christ’s divine nature couldn’t experience suffering and death is based on faulty reasoning rather than Scripture and reality. Any argument used against Jesus Christ’s divine nature experiencing death can be applied against the incarnation itself. How could the eternal God be incarnate in a time-bound, finite man? How could the eternal God set aside His omnipotence and omniscience? We don’t doubt these things, so why should we doubt that in some sense the second person of the Trinity suffered and died on the cross of Calvary?

While we raise these questions, we acknowledge the need for humility No one should assume they have an absolute answer to this question any more than they can pretend to understand the Trinity or the incarnation.

 

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What Was the Purpose of Animal Sacrifices?

According to Scripture, sacrifice was instituted and approved by God. But when worship of the true God was abandoned, blood sacrifice was transformed into a way to magically appease, manipulate, and avert the anger of imaginary gods. The apostle Paul wrote:

Because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen (Romans 1:21-25).

And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting (Romans 1:28).

(See the ATQ article, Why Did Ancient Pagans Practice Blood Sacrifices?)

Faithful sacrifice in worship of the true God was reinstated at the time of the Flood (Genesis 8:20-21) and confirmed when God established a special covenant with a man of faith named Abraham.

Now the Lord had said to Abram: “Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:1-3).

Faith in God’s goodness and grace became the bridge between sinful creatures and a holy God ( Hebrews 11:6-19 ). Abraham demonstrated his genuine faith by his radical obedience. He was willing to offer his long-awaited, precious son, Isaac, as a sacrifice to God (Genesis 22:1-3). God didn’t dispute or deny human unworthiness, or imply that death wasn’t the necessary price for atonement. It was necessary, after all, for Abraham to be willing to bring Isaac as a sacrifice. But God didn’t require Isaac to die. God Himself provided a sacrifice—a ram (Genesis 22:12-13)—to die in his place.

On the mountain top in Moriah (traditionally identified as the temple mount in Jerusalem), God revealed His grace and mercy in a way that—for Abraham and his descendants—clearly ended the practice of human sacrifice. In the Old Testament law, God clearly forbad that man shed human blood in sacrifice (Deuteronomy 18:9-12).

Since God was now known as both holy and merciful, sacrifice was no longer to be motivated by superstitious fear. It was to be the expression of conscious acknowledgment of guilt, 1 of belonging to God, and of desiring to be restored to fellowship with Him. 2

The Old Testament law ( Leviticus 16 ) introduced the ritual of atonement, in which the life of a goat was accepted by God as a symbolic substitution for the lives of a corrupt people who were individually and corporately worthy of death. But Old Testament sacrifices were not in themselves sufficient to atone for sin. They were sufficient only to point forward to the coming of the Messiah who would die in atonement for the sins of the world. Hebrews 10:4 declares,

It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.

Further, Hebrews 10:10-14 tells us that “by one offering He (Christ) has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.”

One of the main purposes of Old Testament law was to make the people of Israel conscious of the great gap between their own weakness and corruption and the expectations of a Holy God ( Romans 5:12-20 ). Old Testament sacrifices accustomed the Jews to acknowledge their guilt and their need for divine grace and forgiveness. But it was only through Christ’s perfect life and death that actual and permanent atonement was made for the sins of an evil world. By entering His own created universe and assuming the penalty for its sin, His infinite suffering has atoned for the natural and moral evils that resulted from His creatures’ freedom to sin (Luke 22:20 ; John 6:53 ; Romans 3:25 ; 1 Corinthians 10:16 ; Ephesians 2:13 ;Hebrews 9:14 ; 1 Peter 1:18-19 ). Jesus Christ was a human sacrifice, but not a sacrifice offered up by fallen mankind to God. He offered Himself up freely as a sacrifice by God to God for mankind 3 ( John 3:16 ; John 11:27-33 ; Romans 8:32 ; 1 John 4:9 ).

  1. Unlike the sacrifices of the pagans, Old Testament sacrifices had to be offered in a spirit of humility and repentance ( Numbers 15:22-31 ; Isaiah 66:1-4 ; Amos 5:21-24 ). It wasn’t enough that they simply be performed as magical means of appeasement. Back To Article
  2. “The object of the sacrifice is to establish a moral relation between the man as a personal being and God the absolute Spirit, to heal the separation between God and man that had been caused by sin. Now, as free personality is the soil out of which sin has sprung, so must the atonement be a work rooted in free personality as well. Being outside the sphere of moral freedom, the animal may be regarded as innocent and sinless; but for the same reason it cannot possess innocence in the true sense of the word and thus have a righteousness that could form an adequate satisfaction for the sin and guilt of man” (New Unger’s Bible Dictionary, p.1100). Back To Article
  3. “Who makes the propitiation? In a pagan context, it is always human beings who seek to avert the divine anger either by the meticulous performance of rituals, or by the recitation of magic formula, or by the offering of sacrifices (vegetable, animal, or even human). Such practices are thought to placate the offended deity. But the gospel begins with the outspoken assertion that nothing we can do, say, offer, or even contribute can compensate for our sins or turn away God’s anger. There is no possibility of persuading, cajoling, or bribing God to forgive us, for we deserve nothing at His hands but judgment. Nor, as we have seen, has Christ by His sacrifice prevailed upon God to pardon us. No, the initiative has been taken by God Himself, in His sheer mercy and grace” (John Stott, The Atonement). Back To Article
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How Can Christianity Claim To Be the Only Way to God?

Although there are numerous groups in every major religious tradition, there are relatively few major religious traditions. Probably the oldest religious tradition is that of Animism, found mostly among the so-called “primitive” peoples of the world. Animism teaches that the world is populated by a myriad of spirit beings that can be appeased and manipulated through ritual and magic.

The Hindu religion has its center in India. In the form of Buddhism, it has spread all throughout East Asia. This ancient tradition teaches that all living beings are caught up in a cycle of reincarnation. It maintains that the only way to achieve salvation is to be freed of one’s burden of “karma.” Only then can one escape the cycle of reincarnation, lose one’s individuality, and merge with the Being of God like a drop of water in the sea.

Islam is the religion of Muhammad, a warrior/prophet who was born approximately 700 years after Jesus Christ. Islam is similar to Judaism and Christianity in some respects, upholding the authority of the Old and New Testaments and believing in one God. Its holiest book is the Koran. Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam despises idolatry and believes in the reality of eternal punishment or eternal reward in the next life.

The only other great religious traditions are those of Taoism in China and Shintoism in Japan. These religions are pantheistic like Hinduism, but they also have a number of animistic characteristics.

Although there are elements of truth in all of the religious traditions, the Bible teaches that there is only one way that we can be saved. In John 3:13 Jesus stated clearly, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” In Romans 10:9 we read, “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” Jesus Himself said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” ( John 14:6 ). We know that all salvation is accomplished through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ and His atonement for the sins of the world.

(See the ATQ article Are All Who Haven’t Heard of Christ Damned?)

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