To confirm in personal study whether the various ways of speaking about the cross that we have surveyed are faithful to Scripture, what are some of the themes one could trace through the Bible and test how central they are to the apostolic understanding of the cross?
Certainly, covenant is a prime category to consider. Jesus said as He poured the wine at the Last Supper that the cup was the “new covenant” in His blood. The New Covenant predicted by the prophets ties together all the covenant promises of God throughout history, including those to Abraham and David, as well as those made to Israel under Moses. As Paul says, “all the promises of God are yea and Amen in Christ.” Paul also traces out some of these intra-covenantal connections in places like Galatians 3 and 4—not easy chapters to exegete, but very fruitful for the diligent student.
Kingdom, a very central organizing category for the teaching at Christ the King Presbyterian Church, is also extremely important for understanding the cross. It relates well to the “Christus Victor” theme mentioned above, in which Christ’s death is understood as the means of God’s defeat of the dark powers of evil, which had usurped man’s rightful rule over the creation under God. Because the glorious Son of God hung on the cross, with an ironic crown of thorns on His head, and an inscription of His kingship above Him that the rulers would not withdraw or correct, the previous “ruler of this world” has been cast out, severely limited, and “bound” from deceiving the nations anymore. And man’s capacity to rule for God has been restored in union with the risen Christ. As important as penal substitution is for understanding the atonement, it is interesting to note that the “proto-evangelion” (first gospel announcement) in Gen. 3:15 was in terms of the “seed of the woman” bruising the head of the serpent…
Kingdom is closely related to the temple theme, as well. While Adam should have slain the serpent in the garden-temple before he ever managed to approach and deceive his wife, Christ defeated the serpent once for all and definitively cast him out of the new temple, the holy place in which God’s Spirit shall dwell forever—the Church (and ultimately the world).
Law is certainly prominent in discussions of the penal substitutionary aspect of the atonement. It is worth tracing throughout Scripture in its own right: What does God require of man? What are the consequences of obeying or disobeying God? How does Christ’s death address man’s guilt? It should be noted though, that this theme is best situated as a sub-theme under covenant, lest we fall prey to the dangers in previous posts about excessive abstraction.
The cross as the greatest act of love is also something worth studying and meditating on scripturally, as well. A biblical definition of love must necessarily find itself centered upon the humility of the Son in making Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, and dying for His friends. While the first and foremost place for this idea in our theology should be the ground of the enablement of our love, it is not wrong to appeal to Christ’s love and humility as a perfect example to be followed, as well. The cross is much more than an example, but it is not less. Paul certainly did not think it less in Philippians 2:6-11.
The glory of God (together with the enjoyment of Him) is the “chief end of man” and so bears much study in relation to the cross, as well. We normally think of the glory of God as being revealed in those theophanies in which the effulgence of splendorous light has a blinding and devastating effect on mortal men—Moses allowed to see only the “back side” of the Lord passing by, Isaiah seeing the Lord high and lifted up in the temple, Jesus at His transfiguration, Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus. Those are glorious manifestations, indeed.
It is interesting to note, however, how John in his gospel speaks of the hour coming in which Jesus shall be “glorified.” There is certainly some anticipation here of Jesus’ resurrection, but there is also a distinct sense on the part of the reader that what John primarily has in mind is actually the cross. It reminds one of Jonathan Edwards’ preaching about “The Admirable Conjunction of Diverse Excellencies in Christ Jesus;” we see the glory of God brightly in the person of Jesus because of the coming together of infinite transcendence and sovereignty on one hand, and lowly meekness and self-giving on the other. If one reads carefully, one will note that one of the most important paragraphs for understanding the cross in all the NT—Romans 3:21ff—is even more about demonstrating the righteousness of God than it is about justifying sinners. The cross is first and foremost a gloriously Godward-event, and derivatively, the basis of His people’s salvation.
Man’s theories can never exhaust the meaning of the cross. But the better we can do in including all of the richness of Scripture in our understanding of the death of the Christ, and the better we can keep the “central” things central in our thinking, the more we will honor our Savior’s achievement. We must also appropriate His work personally, by faith. “What has Christ’s death done for me?” is an appropriate question.
Heidelberg Catechism Q. 1: “What is your only comfort in life and death?”
A: “That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.”