It’s a Matter of Perspective

What does the cross achieve? Why does it occupy so central a place in the minds of the New Testament writers?

The Bible gives many wonderfully rich answers to such questions. Here are a few, from five distinct angles—God’s perspective, Christ’s perspective, Satan’s perspective, sin’s perspective, and our perspective.

1. God’s Perspective

In the Bible, God’s wrath is a function of his holiness. His wrath or anger isn’t the explosion of a bad temper or a chronic inability to restrain his irritability but rather a just and principled opposition to sin. God’s holiness is so spectacularly glorious that it demands he’s wrathful toward those of his creatures who defy him, slight his majesty, thumb their noses at his words and works, and insist on their own independence—even though every breath they breathe, not to mention their very existence, depends on his providential care.

If God were to gaze at sin and rebellion, shrug his shoulders, and mutter, “Well, I’m not too bothered. I can forgive these people. I don’t really care what they do,” surely there would be something morally deficient about him. Should God care nothing for Hitler’s outrages? Should God care nothing about my rebellion and your rebellion? If he acted this way, he’d ultimately discount his own significance, sully his own glory, besmirch his own honor, soil his own integrity.

It’s a glorious truth that although God is angry with us, in his very character he’s a God of love. Despite his anger as he perceives our anarchy—anger that’s a necessary function of his holiness—God is a loving God and therefore provides a means of forgiving sins, one that will leave the integrity of his glory unsullied. He comes to us in the person of his Son. His Son dies as the propitiation for our sins. He dies to ensure God becomes favorable toward us in precisely those areas where God has been opposed to us in judgment and wrath.

But this is quite unlike pagan propitiation, for God himself has provided the sacrifice. In pagan propitiation, we offer sacrifices and the gods are propitiated. In the Bible, God is both the origin and the object of the propitiating sacrifice. He provides it by sending his Son to the cross; yet at the same time, the sacrifice satisfies his own honor, and his righteous wrath is turned away without his holiness being impugned.

The apostle Paul writes, “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement [propitiation], through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:25–26, NIV).

Observe how Paul repeatedly insists that God sent his Son to the cross “to demonstrate his righteousness”—not simply to save us—as well as to be the One who justifies those who have faith in his Son. The cross unites God’s love and his perfect holiness.

That’s one of the ways, at least, that God looks at the cross.

2. Christ’s Perspective

Here, too, many things could be said. But one of the great and neglected themes about what the cross means to the Son is the obedience of the Son. This theme surfaces with special strength in the Epistle to the Hebrews and in the Gospel of John.

There, we repeatedly learn the Father sends and the Son goes; the Father commissions and the Son obeys. The Son always does what pleases the Father (John 8:29). The most staggering commission the Father gives to the Son is that he go to the cross to redeem a race of rebels. And the Son knows this is the commission given him. Jesus came, he insists, “not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

The most staggering commission the Father gives to the Son is that he go to the cross to redeem a race of rebels.

But knowledge of the commission he’d received didn’t make obedience easy. He faced Gethsemane and the cross with an agony of intercession characterized by the repeated petition “Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36).

For Jesus, the cross was not only the means by which he sacrificed himself, the just for the unjust, to bring us to God (1 Pet. 3:18); it was also the high point of his unqualified obedience to his heavenly Father (cf. Phil. 2:8).

3. Satan’s Perspective

Revelation 12 is one of the most important chapters in the New Testament for understanding the Devil’s perspective on the cross. Satan is portrayed as full of rage because he’s been banished from heaven and knows his time is short. He hasn’t been able to crush Jesus, so he vents his rage on the church. He’s the “accuser of [the] brothers” (v. 10) who wants simultaneously to roil their consciences and to accuse God of ungodliness because God accepts such miserable sinners as these. But believers, we’re told, defeat Satan on the ground of “the blood of the Lamb” (v. 11)—an unambiguous reference to the cross.

This means these believers escape the accusations of Satan, whether in their own minds and consciences or before the bar of God’s justice, because they make an instant appeal to the cross. They sing with full attention and deep gratitude the wonderful words of Augustus Toplady’s classic hymn “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me”: “Nothing in my hand I bring / Simply to thy cross I cling.”

In the face of that appeal, Satan has no retort. God has retained his honor while redeeming a rebel brood. We can be free from guilt—both objective guilt before a holy God and subjective awareness of guilt—not because we ourselves are guiltless but because Jesus “bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness. By his wounds [we] have been healed” (1 Pet. 2:24).

Imagine the first Passover, just before the exodus. Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones, two Hebrews with remarkable names, are discussing the extraordinary events of the previous weeks and months. Mr. Smith asks Mr. Jones, “Have you sprinkled the blood of a lamb on the two doorposts and on the lintel over the entrance to your dwelling?”

“Of course,” replies Mr. Jones. “I’ve followed Moses’s instructions exactly.”

“So have I,” affirms Mr. Smith. “But I have to admit I’m very nervous. My boy Charlie means the world to me. If, as Moses says, the angel of death is passing through the land tonight, taking out all the firstborn in the land—I just don’t know what I’ll do if Charlie dies.”

“But that’s the point. He won’t die. That’s why you sprinkled the lamb’s blood on the doorposts and on the lintel. Moses said that when the angel of death sees the blood, he will ‘pass over’ the house so protected, and the firstborn will be safe. Why are you worried?”

“I know, I know,” splutters Mr. Smith somewhat irritably. “But you have to admit there have been some very strange goings-on these last few months. Some of the plagues have afflicted only the Egyptians, of course, but some of them have hit us too. The thought that my Charlie could be in danger is terribly upsetting.”

Rather unsympathetically, Mr. Jones replies, “I really can’t imagine why you’re fretting. After all, I have a son too, and I think I love him just as much as you love your Charlie. But I’m completely at peace: God promised the angel of death would pass over every house whose door is marked by blood in the way he prescribes, and I take him at his word.”

That night, the angel of death passed through the land. Who lost his son, Mr. Smith or Mr. Jones?

The answer, of course, is neither. The fulfillment of God’s promise that the angel of death would simply “pass over” and not destroy their firstborns depended not on the intensity of the faith of the residents but only on whether or not they’d sprinkled blood on the doorposts and on the lintel. In both cases, the blood was shed, the houses marked; in both cases, the firstborn son was saved.

So also with us who have trusted Christ and his cross-work on our behalf. The promise of deliverance, the assurance we’re accepted by the Almighty God, is tied not to the intensity of our faith or to the consistency of our faith or to the purity of our faith but to the object of our faith. When we approach God in prayer, our plea isn’t that we’ve been good that day or that we’ve just come from a Christian meeting full of praise or that we’ll try harder but that Christ has died for us. And against that plea, Satan has no riposte.

For the cross marks Satan’s defeat, and Satan knows it. That’s what the cross means to him.

4. Sin’s Perspective

Sin isn’t a living thing, of course, so we can’t suppose sin literally has a perspective. But the category is useful even if it’s metaphorical, because it helps us see what the cross achieved with respect to sin.

The Bible uses many different images of sin. Sin can be thought of as a debt: I owe something I cannot pay. In that case, the cross is the means by which the debt is paid. One sometimes reads on Christmas cards this two-line poem: “He came to pay a debt he did not owe, because we owed a debt we could not pay.” That’s exactly right. That’s what the cross achieved.

‘He came to pay a debt he did not owe, because we owed a debt we could not pay.’

Sin can also be thought of as a stain. In that case, the dirt is removed by the death of Christ. Or sin is an offense before God. In that case, the cross expiates our sin; it cancels it and thus removes it. Regardless of what imagery is used to depict the foulness and odiousness of sin, the cross is the solution—the sole solution.

5. Our Perspective

The cross is the high-water mark of the demonstration of God’s love for his people. It’s a symbol of our shame and of our freedom. It’s the ultimate measure of how serious our guilt is and the comforting assurance our guilt has been dealt with. In the New Testament, the cross is tied to many of the most important words and concepts: justification, sanctification, the gift of the Spirit, the dawning of the kingdom.

But in the New Testament, the cross also serves as the supreme standard of our behavior. That theme is perhaps most dramatically drawn, in the New Testament, by the apostle Peter:

To this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. (1 Pet. 2:21–23)

And of course, it’s the primary point Paul makes to the Philippians. “Have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5, NIV), he writes, and then he drives to the cross.

Don Carson

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

%d bloggers like this: