In Dr. Sproul’s little book The Truth of the Cross, the author discusses the importance of the atonement to the Christian faith: essentially, without the cross there is no Christianity. In order to understand the need for the atonement, he insists that we really need to understand both the character of God and the nature of sin. As I’ve found with Sproul’s other books, he takes an extremely weighty and significant subject and makes it clear and understandable to the average Christian reader. He explains concepts and terms relevant to the atonement, such as ransom, substitute, redemption, covenant, propitiation, expiation, total depravity, imputation, and others. In this book, Sproul answers such questions as:
- Why does God need to punish sin?
- Why did Jesus have to become a man?
- Why didn’t Jesus just come from heaven as an adult and go straight to the cross?
- Who did Jesus’ death atone for?
- Is it correct to say that God died on the cross?
Sproul starts out by laying down the foundational truth that God is holy and therefore must deal with sin. We know that God is a loving and merciful God, but He is also just and therefore cannot allow lawlessness to go unpunished. Sproul explains,
Though God pardons sinners and makes great provision for expressing His mercy, He will never negotiate His justice. If we fail to understand that, the cross of Christ will be utterly meaningless to us…The Judge of all the earth must do right. Therefore, He must punish sinners–or provide a way to atone for their sin.
Even the slightest sin does violence to His holiness, to His glory, and to His righteousness. Every sin, no matter how seemingly insignificant, is truly an act of treason against the cosmic King.
He then examines fallen man’s relationship to God in terms of being debtors, enemies, and criminals. The natural man does not want to think of himself in these terms in relation to God, but he must come to see himself as such in order to see the necessity for a Savior, Mediator and Substitute in his behalf. Sproul sums it up this way:
The fact that my debt is paid, the demands of reconciliation are met, and the punishment for my crime is given to my Substitute shows that in the cross we see perfect justice with perfect mercy.
Ultimately, Jesus died to save us from the wrath of God. We simply cannot understand the teaching and the preaching of Jesus of Nazareth apart from this for He constantly warned people that the whole world someday would come under divine judgment.
If you take away the substitutionary atonement, you empty the cross of its meaning and drain all the significance out of the passion of our Lord Himself.
A couple of chapters later Sproul explains the importance not only of Christ’s death as the perfect sacrifice, but of his life of perfect obedience leading up to his death. He explains,
The righteousness of Christ that is transferred to us is the righteousness He achieved by living under the Law for thirty-three years without once sinning. Jesus had to live a life of obedience before His death could mean anything.
He goes on to look at Christ as the Suffering Servant, as prophesied of in the Old Testament, and then discusses the fact of Christ becoming a curse on our behalf, forsaken for a time by the Father, whose perfect communion He had only known up to then. Consider these amazing thoughts:
If Christ was not truly forsaken by His Father during His execution, then no atonement occurred, because forsakenness was the penalty for sin that God established in the old covenant.
On the cross, He was in hell, totally bereft of the grace and the presence of God, utterly separated from all blessedness of the Father. He became a curse for us so that we one day will be able to see the face of God. God turned His back on His Son so that the light of His countenance will fall on us.
Sproul finishes with the implications of the perfect atoning work of Christ to the believer, the assurance that the necessary work was finished at the cross on our behalf, as agreed between the Father and Son before all eternity. God did everything needed, from start to finish, to redeem a people to Himself by the work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Hallelujah, what a Savior!
Nothing in my hands I bring,
Simply to thy cross I cling!