A Chapter Summary of Robert Reymond’s A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith
Chapter Seventeen – The Character of the Cross Work of Christ
At the center of all of Christianity, indeed the centerpiece of all of human history, stands the cross of Christ. This work of the salvation of God’s elect through the mediator of the covenant of grace, the Lord Jesus Christ, was subsumed under his offices as our prophet, priest and king. As our prophet he addresses man’s ignorance by proclaiming the message of God’s salvation to the people (John 8:26; Matt. 4:17), foretold events to come (Matt. 25-25; Luke 19:41-44) and continues to speak by his word (John 16:12-15) and his Spirit (1Pet 1:10-11). As our high priest he provides the solution to man’s guilt through the “foolishness” of the cross (1 Cor. 1:23) by offering himself as the divine substitutionary atonement for their salvation (Rom 3:26) and continues to intercede to the Father on behalf of those the Father has given him (John 17:6-24; Heb. 7:25; 9:24). As our king he is the perfect servant leader who provides power to weak men as he calls the elect to his kingdom (Isa 55:5; John 10:16, 27), has establish his holy government over them (1 Cor. 5:4-5; Eph. 4:11-12; Matt. 18:17-18), provides protection for them (Rom 8:35-39), restrains their enemies (Acts 12:17; 18:9-10), optimally rules for his glory and their good (Matt. 28:19-20; Col 1:18), and visits vengeance upon his (and their) enemies (Ps. 2:9; 2 Thess. 1:8). It is of great importance to understand that Christ’s exercise of these duties did not spring into effect at the time and as result of his exaltation, as if earned by his cross work. Rather, they are operative throughout his state of humiliation (Isa 9;6-7; Ps. 2:6; Rev. 19:16) culminating in his sacrifice treated at length in Scripture through the concepts of his body, blood, cross and death.
The phrase “body” of Christ is used metonymously throughout the New Testament to refer to the sacrifice, the bodily sacrifice, of the Son of God for the propitiation of the elect (Rom 7:4; Col 1:22; Heb 10:10; 1 Pet 2:24). The “blood” of Christ, having ultimately the same end, refers specifically to the sacrificial aspect of his death, harkening back to and fulfilling its Old Testament typological partner, the sacrificial system (1Pet 1:2, 18-19). It is through the sacrificial spilling of this “blood” that the elect have been justified (Rom 5:9), redeemed (Eph 1:7, Heb 9:12), brought near to God (Eph 2:12-13), reconciled (Col 1:20), cleansed (Heb 9:14; 1Jo 1:7), freed (Rev 1:5), and purchased (Rev 5:9-10). Similarly, the “cross” of Christ speaks metaphorically of his sacrificial death by which we have been reconciled with God (Eph 2:16), we have been made at peace with God (Col 1:20) and the law fulfilled (Col 2:14-15). Finally, the “death” of Christ in addition to being employed for the purpose of delineating the accomplishments it wrought on behalf of men (Rom 5:6, 8; 1Cor 15:3; 2Cor 5:15; 1Thes 5:10), also points to that which his payment had purchased for him – crowning “with glory and honor” (Heb 2:9-10), that “he might destroy the one who has the power of death” (Heb 2:14), that he would be “a ransom to set them free” (Heb 9:15) and that he would produce “many seeds” (John 12:24).
How is it though that Christ was able to accomplish these things? How was he fit, or qualified, to accomplish these things? In a word: Obedience! (Rom 5:18). Though there are only three explicit New Testament statements regarding the obedience of Christ (Rom 5:19; Phil 2:8; Heb 5:8), the Scriptures are filled with conceptual references to this truth – his purpose to do his Father’s will (Ps. 40:7; John 5:30; 10:18; Heb 10:7 and others), his sinless life (Matt 27:4; Mark 12:14; 2Cor 5:21 and others) and his submission to the divine law (Matt 3:15; Gal 4:4 and others). There has been some quibbling over the terms used to described the purpose of his obedience. Traditionally his various acts of obedience have been categorized as active and passive where Reymond prefers to substitute preceptive and penal, respectively. He argues that nothing Christ did was passive. [Aside: I think this to be a potentially helpful distinction but a rather unnecessary point of contention if the former terms are considered by their more classical connotation. In linguistic evolution the term “passive” has become used to indicate “inactivity” or even “apathy”. However, as intended, and also derived from the Greek grammatical construction of the active and passive tense of verbs, passive means neither of these in its intended context. It rather simply indicates that the action of the sentence is being enacted upon verses the subject being the causative agent of the action, “Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him” (Isa 53:10)]
Christ’s obedience has been well summarized by John Murray as having four primary characteristics. His obedience was inward in that it came from a joyous, ever-willing heart to yield himself to the Father’s will. It was progressive. Scripture states that Christ “grew…in favor with God and men (Luke 2:52) and that he was “perfected” (Heb 2:10; 5:9) and that “he learned obedience” (Heb 5:8). These must not be construed as a transition from less perfect to more perfect or less obedient to more obedient. Rather, as Christ obediently navigated the vicissitudes of his life and ministry his will to obey became ever more resolute in preparation for his ultimate act of obedience. His obedience indeed had its climax in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross itself. Finally, Murray contends that Christ’s obedience is dynamic. It was through the myriad means of trials, temptations and sufferings that his obedience was honed and fitted perfectly for the full accomplishment of his Messianic task.
The Messiah’s perfect obedience, being necessitated by human sin and guilt, culminated in his sacrificial offering (1 Cor 5:7; Eph 5:2; Heb 7:27; 10:14) of himself as our Great High Priest (Heb 7:26-27; 9:11-14) and the Holy Lamb of God (John 1:29; 1Pet 1:19; Rev 5:8-9; Rev 7:14). This, of course, refers again to the typological relationship between Christ’s cross work and the Old Testament sacrificial system of which his contemporaries would have been well aware. This Christ was perfect and without blemish (Exo. 15:5; 1Pet 1:19), to whom the sins of the people were transferred (Lev 1:4; 3:2; Isa 53:4-12) as he became their substitute (Mat 20:28; Mark 14:24 and others) for the expiation (cancellation) of their sin and guilt. Taking aim at the liberal theology that would, perhaps with the misguided intention of vindicating God’s actions for him, dispute this sacrificial “blood theology”, we must understand that the Old Testament sacrificial system only has, and has only ever had, value in as much as it pointed forward to its ultimate antitype in the Son of God who was perfectly “obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil 2:8), that had power that the “blood of bulls and goats” could never have had (Heb 9:13; 10:4). Tender sensibilities of those opposing the idea of the necessity of human sacrifice would do violence to this doctrine and would at the same time tenderly destroy any and all power and purpose in the Gospel of Jesus Christ! Reymond well states, “God is not opposed in principle to all human sacrifice but only to sinful human sacrifice because such sacrifice will not prevail before him.”
So, once we move past the purpose and reality of Christ’s sacrificial, atoning death for sinners we stumble over another snag in the fabric of our understanding of the doctrine of redemption, namely, the issue of expiation versus propitiation as the ultimate means of the deliverance of the elect. To clarify, expiation is generally used theologically to indicate the removal or cancellation of sin where propitiation indicates the reconciliation of God and man through the removal of God’s wrath placed upon man. This argument turns on the Greek word-group hilasmos, “turning away”. Is the subject of this verb sin itself or the wrath of God? Is it primarily a turning away of sin or a turning away of the wrath of God? C. H. Dodd argues for the former on the basis of LXX (Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament) grammar related to the sacrificial system. In this he posits that the sacrifices, and consequently Christ’s sacrifice, were never ultimately aimed at assuaging the wrath of God. Rather, to the contrary he argues, men have erroneously portrayed God as angry instead of loving; the sacrifices are for the sole, loving purpose of delivering man from sin. In opposition to Dodd’s position, it has been shown that his extra-biblical information is incomplete as the LXX as well as writings of Philo and Josephus do indeed include “wrath of God” language, specifically that associated with the hilasmos word-group. Further, and more significantly, the Old Testament refers to the wrath of God 585 times and the LXX translation specifically refers to the propitiation of this wrath (ex, Zech 7:2, 8:22, Mal 1:9). The New Testament passages of Heb 2:17 and 1 John 4:10 could be construed as simply the taking away of sins, but Rom 3:25 (preceded by 1:18-2:34 which has God’s wrath as its theme) and 1 John 2:1-2 (where hilasmos is directed Godward by our “advocate” before the Father) will simply not abide such an interpretation. Under the expiation scheme, if a man were to die in his sin, without expiation, would he not incur divine displeasure at the Judgement? In reality, do not those for whom Christ died, even if the removal of sin were the primary target, receive propitiation, the deflection of God’s wrath, as a result of the work of their Mediator? If this is understood, whether one subscribes to the primacy of expiation or propitiation, propitiation by default becomes ultimate.
The willing cross work of Christ has God as its primary referent and not man, therefore we should look on the cross not primarily as our salvation (a work aimed at man), though it does indeed procure this efficaciously, but rather first as our damnation by the wrath of God that was absorbed and turned away by Christ (a work aimed at God). At this point one may be tempted to think of God as our antagonist in this story and Christ our protagonist. [Aside: If this is your view, “get thee behind me Satan”!] God’s wrath has never been motivated by capricious or irrational malice but rather by the necessity of his divine revulsion to evil. Love and wrath are not contradictory. It is precisely the love of God that necessitated the great lengths he has employed to smite his Son to satisfy his holy wrath. P. T. Forsyth captures this, “The atonement did not procure grace, it flowed from grace”(italics added). J. R. W. Stott also affirms this sentiment, “God does not love us because Christ died for us; Christ died for us because God loved us.” Stott goes on to provide the understanding that it is God’s wrath that required propitiation, and it was his love that provided it and ultimately changed his dealings with sinners (Rom 3:25; 1 John 4:9-10).
Scripture then indicates that having had God’s wrath “turned away” there has been established a reconciliation between God and man (Rom 5:10-11; 2 Cor 5:17-21; Eph 2:14-17; Col 1:19-22). Reconciliation being an effect presupposes their having been an alienation (cause) from which to reconcile. The debate on this point attempts to decide the Scripture’s teaching regarding whose alienation is being referred to; God’s or man’s. Did Christ’s cross work remove man’s alienation from God or vice versa? Does reconciliation ultimately have a Godward or man-ward referent? Some have argued that while Christ’s death propitiated God, it served to reconcile man. In other words, the substitutionary atonement satisfied God’s wrath but it addressed the enmity between God and man by soothing man’s hostility toward God. This understanding however does not hold up to the scrutiny of scripture or human experience. Regarding the latter, we have never seen evidence that humanity’s disdain for God has been expunged. To the contrary, most men are born, live and die hating him.
Exegetically we find in the verses noted above that the hatred of God is indeed removed from God’s elect and in this sense man is apparently the referent. However, it is the covering of their sin by the cross work of Christ that permits the removal of God’s wrath and as a result allows God to be simultaneously just and the justifier (Rom 3:25-26), removing God’s holy hatred of these men (Rom 5:10) and allowing them to have “peace with God” (Rom 5:1). Those remaining unjustified also remain in their state of alienation from God; his disposition toward them and theirs toward him unchanged. Also, the fact that this change in attitude, reconciliation, occurred punctiliarly in history concurrent with the death of his Son (see aorist tense of the stem for “reconciled”, κατηλλαγ-, in Rom 5:10, 2 Cor 5:17-21, Eph 2:14-17 and Col 1:19-22) it can only have in view an objective change in God’s disposition at a point in time rather than a subjective change in man over time (that most men, indeed, never experience).
In addition to reconciliation, another aspect of that which was wrought by the obedient cross work of Christ commonly spoken of in the Holy Writ is that of the redemption of men who are in a state of slavery/bondage. The debate in view here has not been man’s bondage, which is clearly and repeatedly attested to in the New Testament, nor is it man’s need for redemption, Rather, it surrounds the understanding as to the proximate means of that redemption. Is deliverance accomplished through the sheer power of the Deliverer apart from a price to be paid or was there a payment due that our Lord remitted by his work? Using the Exodus account in its typical juxtaposition to the deliverance provided by Christ, R. W. Lyon argues that there was no price in view but only the deliverance by power for the Israelites (Deut 7:8) and those delivered by the cross (1 Cor. 1:18). This interpretation erroneously overlooks the value and purpose of the slain passover lamb. This was indeed the price paid to earn the deliverance that, to be sure, was made effectual through great power. The antitype, the blood of the ultimate Paschal Lamb, paid the ransom making salvation then through the power of the cross possible. This idea is prominently displayed in the New Testament in the Greek word-groups lytroo (ransom), agorazo (marketplace, a place of prices being paid), and perpoieo (purchased). Christ himself describes his bodily sacrifice as “a ransom for many” (Mat 20:28; Mark 10:45) “for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28). Peter explicitly equates the blood of Christ with units of monetary exchange, even as superior to “silver and gold” (1 Pet. 1:18:19). In his Revelation, John labels those given to the Lamb as “the bought ones” (14:3) who “were bought from among men” (14:4). Paul, more than anyone else, teaches this idea of a ransoming. Christ “gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:6) and “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness” (Tit. 2:14). In Romans 3:24-27 he stresses our redemption by the blood of Christ as having purchased our justification through faith (see also Eph. 1:7 and Col. 1:14). Paul further goes on the proclaim that this punctiliar act, vis, Christ’s death on the cross, not only purchased this gift of grace (Rom 3:24) initially but also our future redemption (Rom 8:23) and our final redemption (Eph. 1:14; 4:30). We “are not (our) own; for (we) were bought with a price” (1 Cor 6:19-20; 7:23).
As to the law, God “sent his Son…to purchase those under the law” (Gal 4:4-5) and so “Christ purchased us from the curse of the law” (Gal 3:13; Acts 20:28). He delivered God’s people from any further necessity of preparatory pedagogy of the ceremonial institution (Gal 3:23; 4:2-5; 5:1). He relieved the necessity that the Christian should have to obtain on his own a right standing before God (Rom 10:4). As to sin, Christ redeemed us from its guilt (Matt. 26:28; Eph. 1:7), its power over us and its fruitlessness (Rom 6:21-22; Titus 2:14; 1 Pet. 1:18-19). While when speaking of any of the divine activities one cannot simply marginalize the idea of divine power. Specifically, in the redemption of man however it is the price paid that justifies the unleashing of God’s power on behalf of those who “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
In addition to the direct benefits of Christ’s obedient cross work for the child of God, it also takes aim at the destruction of a kingdom of evil. This kingdom of evil is the domain of Satan who goes by many names in scripture: Apollyon (Rev 9:11), Beelzebub (Matt. 12:24), our enemy (1 Pet. 5:8), the tempter (1 Thess. 3:5) and others. Though he rages against men (Rev 12:12) – as he did in the temptation of Adam (Gen. 3:1-5), the affliction of Job (Job 2:7), the sin of David (1 Chron. 21:1), the temptation of Jesus (Matt. 4:11) and others – he does so within the confines of divinely appointed limitations. (Job 1:12; Matt. 12:29; Rev. 20:2-3). Of all that Christ’s work accomplishes its ultimate end is the destruction of the power and work of Satan. That the seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent was the promise made by God in the garden (Gen. 3:15). This protoevangelium, the ultimate victorious confrontation of the Son of God over the dominion of Satan, is repeatedly testified to throughout the New Testament: 1 John 3:8c; Matt. 12:29; Luke 11:21-22; 1 Cor. 15:24-26; Heb. 2:14-15, to name a few. In sum the obedient sacrifice of Christ provided expiation of the sins of man, satisfaction of divine justice allowing for propitiation of the wrath of God and reconciling him to his elect, redemption from the curse of the law and the power of sin, and the final destruction of the kingdom of evil.
The next very logical consideration then is to seek to understand why (or why not?) Christ’s obedience and all of its results were actually necessary for the salvation of the elect. Asked another way: Is it possible that there was another means by which God might have accomplished the same end? Or, was this particular course absolutely necessary? There are two prominent positions in this debate. One, the “hypothetical necessity” view of the atonement, argued by Augustine, Aquinas and some early Reformers, holds that while the atonement was not absolutely necessary, it was by the atonement that the greatest good and most glory to God are achieved. The opposing view, held by Turretin, Hodge, Berkhof, Murray and others, is that of “consequent absolute necessity”. That God should choose to save at all was, in the logical sense, absolutely unnecessary. God chose to save by his own free, sovereign grace. At this point it must be understood that this choosing is being considered in a logical rather than chronological sense as all of God’s decrees are eternal and immutable. Only as a direct consequence of that divine choosing, because of the perfections of his nature, the means by which this salvation of the elect was to be wrought could by necessity only be achieved through the atonement of Christ. The latter view seems to be favored by Heb. 9:23 which teaches that while animal sacrifices were necessary for a wilderness tabernacle, “heavenly things” must be purified “with better sacrifices”. If we understand sin against the Almighty to be infinitely damning, must not that demand a payment of infinite value? In the most well-known of verses, John 3:16, the alternative to God giving his Son is eternal death. If one were to attempt to argue for a possible alternate to be found in the law, this is easily ruled out by Paul in his letter to the Galatians (3:21). Finally, is it fathomable that had there been a price any less valuable than that of God’s most beloved Son that could have satisfied the debt that it would not have been paid instead?
The sacrificial atonement of Christ, being absolutely necessary for the good of man to the glory of God is also said to be perfect. Perfect in that it was an actual event that fully and completely accomplished its intended purpose of providing once-for-all an infinitely valuable payment for infinitely costly transgressions by a vicarious sacrifice that did not merely make salvation of the believer possible but absolutely guaranteed that their can never remain any penal liability for sin for any of those for whom Christ died. [Aside: If reading that through and letting it wash over does not cause one to break into spontaneous doxology scarcely anything imaginable will.] Unpacking this idea into four components, Murray describes Christ’s accomplishments as historically objective, final, unique and intrinsically efficacious. Christ’s cross work actually occurred in real, historical time and space completely independent of any “participation or contribution” on the part of any for whom the work was accomplished. It is final. In contradistinction to Roman Catholic theology and consistent with the perspicuous teaching of Scripture, Christ’s atonement is a completed work (John 19:30; tetelestai) whose repetition is not only utterly unnecessary but utterly impossible. In addition to its finality, the atonement remains also absolutely unique. It is Christ alone in all of history who has the credentials necessary to expiate sin (1 Tim. 1:15) and save sinners (John 14:6; Acts 4:12; 1 Tim. 2:4). Finally, the atonement can also be defined by its intrinsic efficacy. That is its ability within itself alone to not simply make salvation possible for all men, and thereby contain the logical possibility (however improbable) of saving no men, but to fully and completely satisfy all of the divine requirements and procure the actual salvation of all of those elect in Christ.