Friday, March 25, 2016

He Was Wounded for Our Transgressions

Isaiah 52:13-53:12

John 18:1-19:42


It was a day of great sorrow, of heartbreak, and confusion.  At about three o’clock in the afternoon, the scourged and bleeding body of our Lord hung in agony upon a Roman cross to which he was cruelly nailed. On top of his, in mock honor, was crown of thorns. The blood from his scalp flowed down his face and marred his visage. He, the only true innocent, hung between thieves and murders and the crowds called out insults.
It is a scene that pierces our hearts, not least because we love him and name him our savior and king. Who was responsible for this horrific act? Why was a man full of such love and compassion, a man of such evident virtue, treated so shamefully? Why did he have to die?

Jesus was hailed by the prophet John the Baptist as, “the lamb who takes away the sins of the world.” Jesus also spoke of his own death as a kind of paschal sacrifice and himself in terms of the lamb whose blood turned back the wrath of God on the day of Passover. Indeed, the Church, especially here in the west, has often spoken of Jesus’ death as being for the forgiveness of sins. We have spoken of Jesus’ death as a kind of substitute—much like the lamb—offered in our place. Jesus—it is said—suffered the death that was the penalty for our sinful rebellion against the Father. Scripture itself seems to suggest as much. For instance in the words of the prophet Isaiah, 

But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.

We might also look at the words of Saint Paul in his letter to the Galatians,

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us”

But if Christ is a sacrificial offering for the forgiveness of sin, to whom is such a gruesome payment being made? To God? To put the question bluntly, “Was it God who demanded this horror? Did God kill Jesus?”   This idea is troubling to many and is thought to be morally reprehensible to others. One vocal critic of Christianity has even called the cross, “divine child abuse.” How could any loving Father demand the horrible death of his son? Why couldn’t God just forgive us? Surely he is not some primitive pagan deity that can only be propitiated with blood sacrifice! 
Not all theologies attempting to explain the meaning of Jesus’ death—the  atonement as it is called—think about the cross in terms of punishment for the sins of the world or a legal transaction between God and Man.
The Medeval theologian Abelard wrote,

“How cruel and wicked is seems that anyone should demand the blood of an innocent person as the price for anything, or that it should in any way please him that an innocent man should be slain—still less that God should consider the death of his Son so agreeable that by it he should be reconciled to the world!”

He speaks of Jesus death, not so much as appeasing God, but as a moral influence on sinners. Jesus’ death reveals to us the depth of human evil and our hearts are changed as we contemplate the depth of God’s love for us despite our rebellion. Still others have spoken of Jesus’ cross and resurrection as a conquering of death on our behalf or as rescuing us from the power of Satan. There are any of number of other ways we can describe the meaning of Jesus’ death as well.  All of these models of atonement reveal something of its truth. They are like different windows into a multifaceted reality. 
Nevertheless, I believe we must come to terms with what the scriptures say about how Jesus bares the punishment for our sins on the cross as our substitute or representative. The doctrine, however, has been badly misunderstood, and is often presented in a very problematic manner.
 Sometimes Jesus is made to look like a third party that comes between us and a wrathful God, like an older brother who takes the beating his naughty little brothers deserved.  This makes the father look monstrous, besides it is hardly just for God to punish the innocent for the sake of the guilty. More fundamentally it ignores the fact that Jesus and the Father are one God. Jesus is as fully God as the Father is. He is as much the offended party as he is the one who suffers the consequences. It is God himself who suffers for us on the cross.

Let me offer an analogy that may be helpful. Here at Christ Church we cherish our beautiful sanctuary, but imagine if it was defaced by vandals. Our windows broken, statues shattered, and paintings spray painted over. Wouldn’t we be justly outraged?

Now imagine those same vandals brought to justice. Even if, by a supernatural act of grace, we were somehow able to offer forgiveness to these vandals for their disgraceful actions, someone would still need to pay to repair what was damaged would they not? Even if the cost was far beyond what the guilty party could ever afford, even if in our mercy we decided not to exact payment from them, the damage could simply not be allowed to remain. It would be an affront to the community, and offense to God’s glory, and we could never rest until it was fixed. In reality there is insurance for such things, but the point is the payment would fall on someone, if not the guilty, if not the insurance company, or some other benefactor, than on us the offended.

Now our sin, the human rebellion against our righteous creator and God, is an offense of an infinitely greater magnitude. It has resulted in a debt to the justice of God so great no creature could ever hope to pay it, and yet the damage cannot be ignored. The goodness and beauty of the world has been defaced by it, and God’s justice and his glory mocked. An offense against infinite goodness must surely have infinite consequences. If God were to fail to act against such travesty he would be neither good nor just, and yet he is as endlessly merciful as he is holy and just.

 Astonishingly God has offered forgiveness to such vile offenders. He has chosen to withhold his righteous judgment from us, and accept the payment for sin himself. He himself became a curse for us in the body of his humiliation and the holy judgment and wrath against sin was laid upon his own shoulders. The crucifixion is the revelation of God’s wounded heart of love towards us. In it God accepted the loss of his glory and honor and absorbed the tremendous consequence of our sin. Forgiveness is not easy. It is painful and costly. And yet through this act of mercy, grace, and love God restored what was ruined by our sin. He himself set right was we destroyed and vandalized. The horrible result of our rebellion was reversed through his resurrection. 
And so this day of sorrow, this day of horrors, can also be called “Good Friday.” On this day the goodness of God was vindicated and mercy was shown to sinners.