For each day of Lent this year, I am going to post on the blog quotations from various figures in church history regarding the death of Christ. These quotations, for the most part, will have to do with Christ’s substitutionary atonement on behalf of us sinners. You may have heard various people say that the whole idea of Penal Substitutionary Atonement was pretty much the invention of Anselm in the 11th century, and then was revived and revised by the 16th-century reformers into the “horrible” doctrine that it is today in the evangelical church. But in the days ahead, we will see the fallacy of this perverted, revisionist understanding, as we read excerpts from the Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Eusebius of Caesarea, Athanasius, Hilary of Poitiers, Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory Nazianzus, Ambrose, Chrysostom, Augustine, Cyril of Alexandria, Gregory the Great, as well as figures from much later in the history of the church.
Usually, these citations will be much shorter than the one I have chosen for today. But I have decided to start off this series with a rather lengthy citation from Martin Luther’s remarks on Galatians 3:13 in his commentary on that book. Gustaf Aulén, in his highly influential book, Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement, argued that Christus Victor was the much more prevalent understanding of Christ’s death in church history, and that even the reformer Martin Luther was more of a Christus Victor theologian than he was a believer in Penal Atonement. But as theologian John Webster has rightly remarked, it is only “mirabile dictu” that Aulén’s survey is “considered a reliable guide to the history of theology.” That Luther and many other figures in church history understood the atonement to be Christus Victor is not to be denied. That they dichotomized between Christus Victor and Penal Substitutionary Atonement is to be denied. So, I start off this series with Martin Luther. I have deleted a couple of more extraneous paragraphs from Luther’s commentary. You can access the whole commentary here.
Paul does not say that Christ was made a curse for Himself. The accent is on the two words “for us.” Christ is personally innocent. Personally, He did not deserve to be hanged for any crime of His own doing. But because Christ took the place of others who were sinners, He was hanged like any other transgressor. The Law of Moses leaves no loopholes. It says that a transgressor should be hanged. Who are the other sinners? We are. The sentence of death and everlasting damnation had long been pronounced over us. But Christ took all our sins and died for them on the Cross. “He was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12).
All the prophets of old said that Christ should be the greatest transgressor, murderer, adulterer, thief, blasphemer that ever was or ever could be on earth. When He took the sins of the whole world upon Himself, Christ was no longer an innocent person. He was a sinner burdened with the sins of a Paul who was a blasphemer; burdened with the sins of a Peter who denied Christ; burdened with the sins of a David who committed adultery and murder, and gave the heathen occasion to laugh at the Lord. In short, Christ was charged with the sins of all men, that He should pay for them with His own blood. The curse struck Him. The Law found Him among sinners. He was not only in the company of sinners. He had gone so far as to invest Himself with the flesh and blood of sinners. So the Law judged and hanged Him for a sinner.
I am told that it is preposterous and wicked to call the Son of God a cursed sinner. I answer: If you deny that He is a condemned sinner, you are forced to deny that Christ died. It is not less preposterous to say, the Son of God died, than to say, the Son of God was a sinner.
John the Baptist called Him “the lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” Being the unspotted Lamb of God, Christ was personally innocent. But because He took the sins of the world, His sinlessness was defiled with the sinfulness of the world. Whatever sins I, you, all of us have committed or shall commit, they are Christ’s sins as if He had committed them Himself. Our sins have to be Christ’s sins or we shall perish forever.
Isaiah declares of Christ: “The Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.” We have no right to minimize the force of this declaration. God does not amuse Himself with words. What a relief for a Christian to know that Christ is covered all over with my sins, your sins, and the sins of the whole world.
Our merciful Father in heaven saw how the Law oppressed us and how impossible it was for us to get out from under the curse of the Law. He therefore sent His only Son into the world and said to Him: “You are now Peter, the liar; Paul, the persecutor; David, the adulterer; Adam, the disobedient; the thief on the cross. You, My Son, must pay the world’s iniquity.” The Law growls: “All right. If Your Son is taking the sin of the world, I see no sins anywhere else but in Him. He shall die on the Cross.” And the Law kills Christ. But we go free.
The argument of the Apostle against the righteousness of the Law is impregnable. If Christ bears our sins, we do not bear them. But if Christ is innocent of our sins and does not bear them, we must bear them, and we shall die in our sins. “But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Let us see how Christ was able to gain the victory over our enemies. The sins of the whole world, past, present, and future, fastened themselves upon Christ and condemned Him. But because Christ is God, He had an everlasting and unconquerable righteousness. These two, the sin of the world and the righteousness of God, met in a death struggle. Furiously the sin of the world assailed the righteousness of God. Righteousness is immortal and invincible. On the other hand, sin is a mighty tyrant who subdues all men. This tyrant pounces on Christ. But Christ’s righteousness is unconquerable. The result is inevitable. Sin is defeated and righteousness triumphs and reigns forever.
In the same manner was death defeated. Death is emperor of the world. He strikes down kings, princes, all men. He has an idea to destroy all life. But Christ has immortal life, and life immortal gained the victory over death. Through Christ death has lost her sting. Christ is the Death of death.
The curse of God waged a similar battle with the eternal mercy of God in Christ. The curse meant to condemn God’s mercy. But it could not do it because the mercy of God is everlasting. The curse had to give way. If the mercy of God in Christ had lost out, God Himself would have lost out, which, of course, is impossible.
“Christ,” says Paul, “spoiled principalities and powers, He made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it” (Col. 2:15). They cannot harm those who hide in Christ. Sin, death, the wrath of God, hell, and the devil are mortified in Christ. Where Christ is near the powers of evil must keep their distance. St. John says: “And this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith” (I John 5:4).
You may now perceive why it is imperative to believe and confess the divinity of Christ. To overcome the sin of a whole world, and death, and the wrath of God was no work for any creature. The power of sin and death could be broken only by a greater power. God alone could abolish sin, destroy death, and take away the curse of the Law. God alone could bring righteousness, life, and mercy to light. In attributing these achievements to Christ the Scriptures pronounce Christ to be God forever. The article of justification is indeed fundamental. If we remain sound in this one article, we remain sound in all the other articles of the Christian faith. When we teach justification by faith in Christ we confess at the same time that Christ is God.
When we hear that Christ was made a curse for us, let us believe it with joy and assurance. By faith Christ changes places with us. He gets our sins, we get His holiness.
By faith alone can we become righteous, for faith invests us with the sinlessness of Christ. The more fully we believe this, the fuller will be our joy. If you believe that sin, death, and the curse are void, why, they are null, zero. Whenever sin and death make you nervous, write it down as an illusion of the devil. There is no sin now, no curse, no death, no devil because Christ has done away with them. This fact is sure. There is nothing wrong with the fact. The defect lies in our lack of faith.
In the Apostolic Creed we confess: “I believe in the holy Christian Church.” That means, I believe that there is no sin, no curse, no evil in the Church of God. Faith says: “I believe that.” But if you want to believe your eyes, you will find many shortcomings and offenses in the members of the holy Church. You see them succumb to temptation, you see them weak in faith, you see them giving way to anger, envy, and other evil dispositions. “How can the Church be holy?” you ask. It is with the Christian Church as it is with the individual Christian. If I examine myself, I find enough unholiness to shock me. But when I look at Christ in me, I find that I am altogether holy. And so it is with the Church.
Holy Writ does not say that Christ was under the curse. It says directly that Christ was made a curse. In II Corinthians 5:21 Paul writes: “For he (God) hath made him (Christ) to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” Although this and similar passages may be properly explained by saying that Christ was made a sacrifice for the curse and for sin, yet in my judgment it is better to leave these passages stand as they read: Christ was made sin itself; Christ was made the curse itself. When a sinner gets wise to himself, he does not only feel miserable, he feels like misery personified; he does not only feel like a sinner, he feels like sin itself.
To finish with this verse: All evils would have overwhelmed us, as they shall overwhelm the unbelievers forever, if Christ had not become the great transgressor and guilty bearer of all our sins. The sins of the world got Him down for a moment. They came around Him like water. Of Christ, the Old Testament Prophet complained: “Thy fierce wrath goeth over me; thy terrors have cut me off” (Psalm 88:16). By Christ’s salvation we have been delivered from the terrors of God to a life of eternal felicity.
February 18, 2015