This article first appeared as an editorial in the April 15, 1993 issue of the Standard Bearer, and was written by then editor Prof. David J. Engelsma.
The Saving Death of Jesus Christ
In the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, the church remembers the death of Jesus Christ. Remembering, she celebrates.
Every preacher of the gospel has determined to know nothing except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
Each believer glories in the cross, and in nothing else.
What was that death that it should be remembered, preached, and gloried in?
As a historical fact, it was the execution of Jesus of Nazareth by crucifixion. This took place just outside Jerusalem about A.D. 30. The Crucified died under sentence of condemnation by both the Jewish Sanhedrin and the Roman state. The manner of dying was shameful and painful.
Apart from this historical event, the death of Jesus Christ means nothing. This is, I know, an absurd statement. It is as absurd as to say that apart from the historical, reality of Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox, the surrender of the Confederacy to the Union is meaningless. How could something that never happened mean anything?
But exactly this absurdity flourishes in theology and church today, passing for profound wisdom. That which never happened is yet historical and of the. greatest importance to Christians. Such is the event of creation described in Genesis 1 and 2. Such also is the event of the fall recorded in Genesis 3. The same can and will and must be said about the death of Jesus: Although it never actually took place, it is still "historical" and of significance for mankind.
It must absurdly be asserted in our absurd age that the death of Christ was a historical event. It must absurdly be added that this means that the death of Christ really happened. It happened in earthly space and time just as did the surrender of Lee to Grant. The Bible says so. Jesus' death took place exactly as described by the four gospel narratives.
This historical event had a definite, unique meaning. The Triune God determined this meaning by His purpose with Christ's death and by His work in this death.
The meaning of the cross is saving. Christ's death was a saving death. It was not saving for everybody. On the contrary, it was judgment unto condemnation for some people. But Gods main purpose with the cross of Christ was salvation. The death of Jesus Christ was the deliverance of guilty sinners from eternal damnation by Christ's suffering their punishment in their stead. It was redemption of others by payment of the ransom. Christ paid the ransom to God. This was Christ's own explanation of His death: "The Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many" (Malt. 20:28).
The death of Christ was satisfaction of divine justice. Satisfaction was the essence of the cross. Christ died under condemnation of the heavenly tribunal. Hanging on the tree, He was cursed of God.
Satisfaction was possible for Jesus of Nazareth because He was (and is) not only a real, sinless man but also the eternal Son of God. Manhood was required to suffer punishment deserved by men. Godhead enabled Him to bear infinite wrath. Godhead gave His suffering infinite worth and value. This costly sacrifice was the price of ransom.
Because the death of Christ was satisfaction, the church remembers it, the ministers of the gospel proclaim it, and believers glory in it.
Other explanations are given. One is that the death of Christ exercises a moral influence upon sinners. It is an example that attracts them to Jesus, changes their attitude toward God from terror to trust, and turns them from self-love to love of the neighbor.
The cross melts men's hearts by its display of love. Or it brings them to repentance by demonstrating the punishment that all deserve. Or, as the supreme instance of sacrificial concern for one's fellow man, it moves men to live for others.
Another popular explanation is that Christ's death conquered the evil powers that trouble human life. By His death, Jesus is victor over Satan and death.
But these theories reject satisfaction. Therefore, they deny the cross. Those who teach these theories are enemies of the cross of Christ. There is nothing in these theories that makes the death of Christ memorable, nothing that is worth preaching, nothing that warrants a sinner's putting his trust in the cross .or glorying in it.
No mere influence can change the depraved sinner since he is deservedly depraved- totally depraved by the just judgment of God.
No victory over the dark powers is conceivable apart from satisfaction since the malignant rule of the forces of evil is founded on the claims of the broken law.
At the center of God's world and history is righteousness. This is not a righteousness without love, to be sure, but it is a righteousness that will not be ignored, or even slighted, by love.
The explanation of the historical death of Jesus Christ is satisfaction.
Only this doctrine of the cross does justice to the biblical truths about the cross picked up by the theories of moral influence and of victory over the evil powers.
The believer is moved and motivated by the love of God revealed in the death of Christ, when that death is known as God's own suffering of His wrath in the incarnate Son. Forgiven by the cross, the believing sinner is melted by the love of God for him in the cross, moved to love this God, and motivated to love his neighbor as himself. Apart from satisfaction, the cross only moves thinking men and women to marvel at an act of consummate foolishness. Why the bother of incarnation and hellish suffering merely to set an example?
Satan, sin, the wicked world, and death were indeed spoiled by the death of Christ, as the apostle writes in Colossians 2:14, 15, exactly because that death was the stripping from them of their right according to the law of God to dominate God's creation and (new) human race. The triumph of the cross over the principalities and powers was its "blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us" (Col. 2:14, 15). Apart from satisfaction, the cross was a futile, foolhardy, fruitless engagement with the enemies.
Satisfaction is the confessionally Reformed doctrine of the death of Christ. In answer to the question, "Why was it necessary for Christ to humble himself even unto death?," the Heidelberg Catechism replies:
Because with respect to the justice and truth of God, satisfaction for our sins could be made no otherwise, than by the death of the Son of God (Q. 40).
In further explanation and defense of this Reformed belief concerning the death of Christ, the Canons of Dordt develop the truth of Christ's death as satisfaction in the second head of doctrine. The approach to Christ's death is that of the requirement of divine justice that satisfaction be made for our sins, which are committed against "His infinite majesty" (Art. 1). The explanation of Christ's death as to its fundamental meaning is that
(the) only begotten Son, for our surety, who was made sin, and became a curse for us and in our stead, (made) satisfaction to divine justice on our behalf. The death of the Son of God is the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sin (Articles 2, 3).
Basic to the death of Christ as satisfaction is that it was for a limited number of particular persons. By decree of God, Jesus Christ died as the substitute for some, and for some only. Those for whom He died are those, and those only, whom the Triune God elected in eternity, those who are actually saved by that death.
If the possibility of Jesus' bearing the wrath of God for others is His humanity and Deity, the legitimacy of His representing others is His appointment in eternity as covenant Head of the elect church. Christ died as Head and Mediator of the new covenant (cf. Canons, II / 8, 9; II, Rejection of Errors/ II).
Christ did not die for all humans without exception. He did not die for all in the sphere of the covenant without exception.
To teach that Christ died for every human, or for every baptized child of believing parents, is contrary to Christ's own Word in Scripture: "I lay down my life for the sheep" (John 10:15). It contradicts the Reformed confession:
It was the will of God, that Christ by the blood of the cross, whereby He confirmed the new covenant, should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language, all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation, and given to Him by the Father ... (Canons, II/8).
Besides, the teaching of a death of Christ for all denies that death as satisfaction. For now there is a death of Christ that fails to save some for whom He died. The cross was not satisfaction for those who yet perish. Implied is that it was not satisfaction for any.
Why remember a death that leaves sins unpaid, sinners unredeemed, and divine justice unsatisfied? Preaching such a death is an exercise in futility, for, regardless of the effect of the preaching, satisfaction for sin has never been made. Rather than glory in such a cross, miserable sinners should lament it as the failure of the finest attempt of God at salvation.
The death of Christ of universal atonement, like that of moral influence and victory over the dark powers, is not saving. It does not effectually save. If it does not effectually save, neither does it make salvation possible.
God's resurrection of the crucified Jesus Christ, however, declared Christ's death to be saving. The church remembers a death that satisfied. The preacher proclaims a death that believers trust in for deliverance from the condemnation of God and, therefore, deliverance from the tyranny of Satan and the slavery of sin.
In the cross the sin-stricken, penitent sinner glories. In the cross as satisfaction, he glories.
Only in the cross.
Only in the cross as satisfaction.
Prof.David J. Engelsma (Wife: Ruth)
Ordained: September 1963
Pastorates: Loveland, CO - 1963; South Holland, IL - 1974; Professor in the Protestant Reformed Seminary - 1988; Emeritus - 2008Website: www.sermonaudio.com/search.asp?speakeronly=true&currsection=sermonsspeaker&keyword=Prof_D._Engelsma
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