“When we behold the disfigurement of the Son of God, when we find ourselves appalled by His marred appearance, we need to reckon afresh that it is upon ourselves we gaze, for He stood in our place.” (John Calvin)
“Let this image of Christ be always printed on our hearts. Let it stir us up to the hatred of sin, and provoke our minds to the earnest love of Almighty God” (Church of England, Homily of Passion).
We will never overcome sin if we continually underestimate it.
The cross of Christ is a scandal to our senses. When we see the horrors of what Jesus experienced on the cross, do we realize that it is our sins, our ugly rebellion, that brought him there?
The cross shows me that I’m not just a man who needs a spiritual boost. I am a profoundly broken person, a sinner at war with God.
Why Atonement Matters
Let’s get into a bit of theology. Let’s talk about the concept of atonement.
Atonement is not merely a fancy term for professional theologians. It communicates the idea of becoming one with God again: at-one-ment. It is the language of God’s love, and it is crucial for us to understand if we are to fall in love with God and overcome sin.
There are (at least) two atonement concepts that need to be grasped when contemplating what Christ did on the cross: expiation and propitiation. These terms were graphically portrayed in the ritual done on the Day of Atonement in the Old Testament (Leviticus 16). In this yearly ritual, two sacrificial goats had center stage at the temple in Jerusalem.
Propitiation: The high priest would slay one goat and take its blood behind the veil into the Holy of Holies, splattering the blood on the cover of the Ark of the Covenant. God’s presence rested above that Ark, while inside the Ark sat the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. So the blood of this goat literally came between the holy God and the broken law. This is where propitiation happened: God’s anger against Israel’s sin was channeled into the first goat instead of into those who were guilty.
Expiation: Next, the high priest would place his hands on the head of a second goat, called the scapegoat, and there he would “confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins” (Leviticus 16:21). It was as if he was placing the sins of the people on the goat itself. Then a designated person or a succession of priests would lead the goat into the wilderness, carrying the sins of the people with him, away from the nation. This is how expiation happened: the filth and stain of sin was removed.
Seeing Both Goats
These two concepts point to two different realities about sin.
- The first goat shows us that sin is offensive to God: we are His enemies, God detests our rebellion, and death is the punishment.
- The second goat shows us that sin is a stain on us, that it defiles everything it touches. Our hearts, minds, consciences, and bodies are stained by our own sin and the sin of others around us.
The first goat bore the wrath of God (thus making us right with Him), the second goat took the defilement of sin away (thus making us right with ourselves, making us clean, and bringing peace to our souls and our relationships).
We are meant to see both of these realities when we see the cross of Christ: as we see the Son of God on the cross we are meant to see the Father pouring His wrath out on Him for our sin, and second, we are meant to see Jesus absorbing the stain and defilement of sin, taking it away from our hearts.
The problem is we have a tendency to look only at the second aspect, we only see how much sin pains us.
John Owen writes about this in his classic work, Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers:
“Hatred of sin as sin, not only as galling or disquieting, a sense of love of Christ in the cross, lies at the bottom of all true spiritual mortification [the killing of sin]. . . . You set yourself with all diligence and earnestness to mortify such a lust or sin; what is the reason of it? It disquiets you, it has taken away your peace, it fills your heart with sorrow and trouble and fear; you have no rest because of it. . . . It is evident that you contend against sin merely because of your own trouble by it” (Chapter 8 ).
As I fight with indwelling sin I tend to only see the aspects of my sin that affect me: how sin disquiets my soul, the guilt
I feel, my sense of dirtiness, the disappointment of failure, the shame of hypocrisy, how sin makes it hard for me relate to others in the right ways. These are awful and painful realities of sin, to be sure, and part of the good news is that Jesus did “expiate” my sins. He took them away. But if I stop there in my understanding, then I have underestimated sin, and in doing so, I have underestimated the full story of the cross.
No matter what sin grips you and pains you—outbursts of anger, impatience, fear of what others think of you, raging lust, lack of discipline, being given to too much alcohol, obsessive gossiping—do you realize how much your sin pains God?
When we behold the Son of God bearing His Father’s wrath, cursed by His Father on a Roman cross, then we get a hint of how ugly our sin is to Him. When we recoil at his marred appearance, we are staring into the face of our own ugly sin.
Hating sin as God hates it is the first major preparation of the soul to put sin to death.
Trembling at the Cross
Modern man does not naturally embrace the idea of God’s wrath and judgment. C.S. Lewis points out that this is one of the main differences between modern man and ancient man. Ancient man believed that the gods were his judges, and that he was at their mercy. Modern man rather believes that he is God’s judge; God is on trial. This is a major question we should ask ourselves: do we accept the fact that God has the right to judge us?
Or perhaps we have other reasons for not liking all this wrath-of-God talk. Perhaps our minds might retreat to verses like Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Many of us, desiring to cling to God’s love for us, will retreat from all thoughts of His wrath lest we begin condemning ourselves.
However, meditating on the wrath of God seen in the cross should lead to conviction, not condemnation. Conviction and condemnation are two very different things. When I experience self-condemnation, I am still counting my sins against me as if Jesus never took them upon Himself; I am ignoring what Jesus did for me on the cross. When my conscience is convicted, it is because I catch a glimpse of what Jesus endured for my sin, I see how God feels about my sin, and I long to see sin eradicated because of it. Condemnation ends in despair and chronic guilt. Conviction empathizes with God’s hatred of sin. Both will cause us to tremble, but for very different reasons.
Martin Luther wrote,
“You must be overwhelmed by the frightful wrath of God who so hated sin that he spared not His only begotten Son. . . . The whole value of the meditation of the suffering of Christ lies in this, that man should come to the knowledge of himself and sink and tremble.”
Read Part 3