We come now to perhaps the most solemn line in the creed, the content of which is so central to the faith once for all delivered to the saints, that the Apostle once said he had determined to know nothing among the Corinthian churches but “Christ and Him crucified.” By this he of course did not mean to diminish the resurrection and ascension of our Lord, as if they were not also essential to the accomplishment of redemption. Rather, the cross without the resurrection would be some kind of mere historical tragedy, with nothing of the cosmic significance (and indeed empirically evident, world-changing power) that it, in fact, has.
Still, from certain angles, it is entirely appropriate to locate the climax of redemptive history at these six hours of greatest moment, when darkness gathered more and more over the land (figuratively and literally), trying to overcome the Light of the world; when the glorious Light shone in the darkness and overcame it, though few if any could see this at the time; when the Father delivered His beloved Son over to the powers of this present evil age, in order to deliver His people from the same; when the full weight of the curse of the Law came crashing down on the only truly Blessed Man, who had never walked in the counsel of the wicked even for one hour.
It is impossible to exhaust the meaning of the death of the Messiah, and a few meager blog posts can hardly manage a tiny fraction. But in a few words, how is the cross normally talked about in conservative evangelical and especially Reformed circles? How is it talked about it in some contemporary academic literature? And what are some of the most helpful biblical themes to trace out that help us answer the question of the meaning of Christ’s death?
I will call the “evangelical and Reformed” way of typically speaking about the cross, “shorthand.” What I mean is that we (meaning especially Reformed people) often reduce our statements on the meaning of the cross to “slogans,” or concise statements about what we believe the cross most fundamentally, or most importantly was about. “Jesus died to save us from the guilt and power of sin.” “Jesus died to save us from the wrath of God.” “Jesus took upon Himself our sin and died, so that we could have His righteousness and have eternal life.”
Sometimes this takes on a more sophisticated form at times with the language of traditional Reformed covenant theology (i.e. the covenant of works/covenant of grace paradigm based in the Reformed Confessions). So Jesus, being the Last Adam, fulfills the covenant of works which Adam broke (and so eventually receives His reward in resurrection and the gift of His bride), and bears the negative sanctions of the covenant of works due to Adam’s sin, by dying on the cross. Thus, the blessings of the covenant of grace are purchased for all the elect. “Jesus fulfilled the covenant of works for us.”
What are the advantages and disadvantages of this kind of language? There do seem to be both. Positively, this kind of shorthand gives us ways of speaking about Christ’s work that doesn’t necessitate the full rehearsal of the whole biblical narrative in all its details and multi-faceted components every time we announce the gospel. Biblically, it’s a fact that the New Testament writers, interpreting the events of the cross and resurrection, don’t feel it necessary to always say everything about the cross which could be said. They emphasize themes that are most relevant to their occasional concerns about the churches or individuals to whom they are writing.
Negatively, there are some potential pitfalls, as well, if we only ever use these kinds of shorthand explanations of the cross. For example, if we are not careful, and we begin emphasizing one or two aspects of the meaning of the cross in our small expressions, which are not actually biblically central ideas, we could be in danger of distorting the gospel. Even if we emphasize one or two of the most central ideas but leave out one other which is arguably equally as central, we could be in danger of distorting things.
There is also the danger of excessive abstraction of the cross from its proximate historical and covenantal context. As Dr. John Frame well notes in The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, not all abstraction is bad; it is in fact very necessary in our thinking. But if we begin to lose all touch with the wider historical setting of Good Friday—the context of exile and Roman occupation, the context of the divided kingdom and the dispersion especially of the Northern tribes, the final brokenness of the covenant made with Israel at Sinai, and the unwavering commitment of God to still fulfill His promises to Abraham and to David about blessing all nations and establishing a dynasty forever—we will inevitably begin to look at the cross in individualistic, narcissistic, and chronocentric ways. What was the cross for? To make my life great again! (However I define that). I trust you see there can be kernels of truth here, but great dangers of distortion.