I was in second grade at St. Christopher’s School in Midlothian, Illinois. The ink was still drying on the documents of the Second Vatican Council in Rome and I was preparing for my First Holy Communion in the Catholic church with about 30 to 40 other children (those were the days of big class sizes) who were often giddy with excitement at the thought of the parties and presents that followed this rite of passage. I was hoping for my first wristwatch.
We had a lay teacher that year, but when it was time to cover religion one of the nuns came in to instruct us. There were a few things we needed to learn before we could partake of the communion host—deep things, spiritual things, mysterious things.
My parents had used the sign of the cross—the tradition of touching one’s right hand to forehead, chest, and shoulders in the pattern of a cross before and after prayer—to help teach us the doctrine of the Trinity. The more I learned about the Trinity, the more convinced my young mind became of something I’d already had a taste of when I was told that God had no beginning: there were some things about God that I would probably never understand.
So there I was in a small ocean of children sitting in old wooden desks. I don’t know how long my hand had been up, but in my seven-year-old mind it seemed like close to a half hour. Finally, the sister called on me.
“Why did Jesus have to die on the cross?” I asked her.
She answered in a tone that almost seemed to imply that I should have already known the answer.
“To open the gates of heaven,” she said.
I did not know quite what to make of her response. I had expected something—well, a little less cryptic.
But wasn’t Jesus already in heaven before He came down to die on the cross? I thought. Why couldn’t He have simply opened its gates while He was still up there? What did coming down here and dying have to do with opening Heaven’s gates?
I was too embarrassed to pursue the issue, and besides, the teacher seemed to be in a hurry. So I did what I’d learned to do whenever I encountered religious teachings that did not make sense to me: I figured it was my problem; there were some things about God I simply would never understand.
It would be nearly ten years before my question was answered in a way that made sense to me.
The Cross and the Church
They say the plot of a typical romantic comedy goes like this: “Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl back.” And how does the boy lose the girl? Very often it is due to some kind of misunderstanding. She misinterprets something he says, or she thinks she catches him in a compromising situation with a competing female, or is convinced by a rival male that she should question the boy’s motives. The plot devices are endless, but the bottom line is that communication is obstructed, and the relationship is interrupted.
When it came to the history of the church’s grasp of the doctrine of salvation, the plotline was very similar. If, for a moment, we allow the cross of Jesus to represent all the Bible says about salvation, the first nearly 1,500 years of church history went something like this: “The church meets the cross. The church loses the cross. The church gets the cross back.” The loss occurred when the communication of the Gospel became more and more obstructed over generations. The essential truths of salvation through Christ became muddled. They were buried in mysterious words and phrases that were not adequately explained. And for countless people, the result was that their relationship with the Savior degenerated into superstition. The story had a happy beginning, and during the 16th century Protestant Reformation, at least, a happy ending. But in between there was a period of, if not complete darkness, then a very dim and unfocused perception.
They Didn’t Get It, Either
Here is a universal rule: when it comes to spiritual truth, people are naturally dense. This was especially true of the apostles of Christ prior to the Day of Pentecost, which finally came in the second chapter of the Book of Acts. When I think about how slow they were to grasp the ultimate goal of Christ’s mission, it makes me feel better about my lack of spiritual perception as a second grader (not to mention all my lack of discernment years later). It also makes me a bit less judgmental toward those for whom the truth of salvation got out of focus during the Middle Ages.
How many times did Jesus explain to His apostles that He would go to Jerusalem where He would be betrayed to the religious authorities, put to death, and then rise from the dead? And how many times did the apostles fail to get it?
According to Matthew, the first time came right after Peter declared his faith that Jesus was the Christ, and Jesus made a pretty big deal out of it. But then Jesus went on to explain why He came.
From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
[Matthew 16:21-23, English Standard Version]
In the very next chapter in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John with him high up on a mountain and reveals His glory to them (Matthew 17:1-9). Elijah and Moses miraculously appear and strike up a conversation with Jesus. According to Luke’s gospel, they discussed what would happen to Jesus in Jerusalem (Luke 9:31). And just when Peter got all excited and suggested they make three tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, the voice of God the Father thundered from heaven, Peter, James, and John fell face-down in fright, and by the time Jesus got them back on their feet Elijah and Moses had vanished. Then Mark informs us:
And as they were coming down the mountain, he [Jesus] charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead might mean.
[Mark 9:9-10, English Standard Version]
They still didn’t get it! Even for some time after Christ’s resurrection it was still sinking in. But by the Day of Pentecost—as people today might say—they so got it!
Helping Others Get It
Not only did the apostles finally get it, but so did those they taught. After Pentecost, a large number of foreign-born Jews remained in Jerusalem to learn about their new faith, and this led to the usual list of interpersonal issues. The apostles soon became frustrated as some new Christians started bickering over the distribution of food within the church at Jerusalem, so they asked the offended parties to nominate “seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (Acts 6:3) to be appointed stewards—the first deacons of the church—to make sure things were done fairly.
As it turns out, not only were these men qualified as restaurant mangers, but boy, could they preach! The next two chapters of the book of Acts focuses on the exploits of two of these deacons whose job description was “to serve tables” (διακονεῖν τραπέζαις, diakonein trapezais; Acts 6:2). The first of these, Stephen, faces down hostile unbelievers, giving the first apologetic sermon in the early church, and becomes church’s the first martyr (Acts 7). In the ensuing wave of persecution, Philip heads north and introduces the Gospel to the Samaritans with amazing results. Then an angel tells him to go south toward Gaza, and he runs into a court official of the queen of Ethiopia, a Gentile eunuch who is in the process of converting to Judaism while returning from worshiping at Jerusalem and reading the book of Isaiah as his chariot moves down the road.
And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this:
“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter
and like a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he opens not his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
“For his life is taken away from the earth.” And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus.
[Acts 8:29-35, English Standard Version]
I love it when a highly intelligent person like this Ethiopian official has the Bible spread out in front of him and admits he needs help to understand it. Then I don’t feel so bad for all the times I’ve felt clueless about the meaning of Scripture.
We have no reason to believe that Philip had a Ph.D., but we know he had the Holy Spirit. The apostles and their pupils could understand what the Old Testament teaches about Christ because God was opening their minds and enlightening their hearts, and now they could explain it to others. In fact, this very chapter of Isaiah that the Ethiopian was trying to understand would prove to be one of the linchpin texts that would help hold together the church’s ability to understand why Jesus had to die on the cross.
Christ, Our Example
Years later, when the Apostle Peter wrote to Christians to tell them how to live, he used the same part of the book of Isaiah from which Philip preached to the Ethiopian to explain the ramifications of what Jesus had done for them. The Christian life is no bed of roses; when the Holy Spirit calls us to trust in Christ, He also calls us to suffer.
In 1 Peter 1:19, the apostle refers to Christ with Isaiah’s image of the lamb led to the slaughter (Isaiah 53:7), but in declaring that we’ve been redeemed “with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” he is adding some words of his own that connect the death of Jesus directly to the sacrificial system in the Law of Moses which required that only physically perfect lambs be offered as sacrifices. So for Peter, Jesus fulfilled the true meaning of the Old Testament sacrifices, but how? Well, in the next chapter, he writes:
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.
[1 Peter 2:21-23, English Standard Version]
In the last five verses of 1 Peter 2—the first three of which I have just quoted—Peter either alludes to or directly quotes Isaiah 53 five times. That chapter, part of a long section in Isaiah written in poetic form, is sometimes called “The Song of the Suffering Servant.” (One of the best commentaries you can get, by the way, to help explain all this to you is The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary, by J. Alec Motyer.)
We have been called to follow Christ’s example, says Peter. Because He suffered, we should expect to suffer as well. We won’t have to go out of our way to look for suffering; people who do that aren’t spiritual, they’re masochists. Suffering will find us, even when we are most undeserving of it, and when it does we can be confident that we are following in the footsteps of our Savior.
Unfortunately, that’s where some people stop. They say something like, “Ah-ha! So that’s why Jesus had to die on the cross! He came to be our example.” They make the example aspect of Christ’s mission it’s whole purpose, and when they do that they completely miss it.
But Peter did not stop there. He obviously did not think that the whole point of Isaiah 53 was merely that Christ was a good example of how to suffer without complaining. No, Christ’s suffering had a unique purpose that all our sufferings will never have. Peter continued:
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
[1 Peter 2:24-25, English Standard Version]
Christ did not die simply to show us how to suffer. His suffering was not some kind of end in itself. He suffered for our sins. He bore them in His own body.
But what does that mean? His wounds somehow healed us, but how? Some people would have us believe we shouldn’t concern ourselves with how Christ’s death helps, but only that it helps us—”the how,” they tell us, is not all that important. Peter, Paul, and the other apostles would tell as that those people don’t know what they’re talking about.
Christ, Our Substitute
To understand what Peter was trying to say, we must understand the source of his teaching. In this case, everything he says at the end of 1 Peter 2 echoes the following prophecy in the book of Isaiah:
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
[Isaiah 53:4-6, English Standard Version]
Hebrew poetry is based on parallelism, the practice of repeating the same basic statement in different words for rhetorical effect. Such repetition can also help to remove ambiguity. Here it serves to leave no doubt that there was something that should have happened to us that happened to Christ instead. He endured something that should have been our experience. He took our place. He was our substitute.
Consider the following more literal alternative translation of these verses from another book I highly recommend:
Surely our sicknesses—he bore them,
and our pains—he suffered them.
Yet we considered him as one stricken,
as one struck down by God and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
and crushed for our iniquities.
The punishment for our salvation lay upon him,
and by his wounds, healing came to us.
We all have strayed like sheep
each of us has turned to his own way.
But Yahweh has caused to fall upon him
the iniquity of us all.
The cross of Christ lies at the core of the Gospel, and as he prophesied, Isaiah made it clear that the essence of that cross is the Christ Who takes our place on it. We committed sins, and as a result, He took a beating.
The implications of this may seem rather obvious to some people. At this point, however, believe it or not, there are those who still ask, “Why?” What is the connection between our sins and what Christ suffered? The answer is not palatable to everyone.
Christ, Our Penal Substitute
If I sin and you are punished, you might find that unfair. If someone commits a crime and another person goes to jail, or is executed, we would call that a miscarriage of justice. These concepts are fundamental to the law that is written in all human hearts, which the Apostle Paul tells us is actually the universal awareness of God’s moral law (Romans 2:14-15).
But what if someone deliberately takes the place of a guilty person, allows himself to be convicted of that person’s crimes, and willingly accepts the resulting sentence? In fact, what if the Judge Himself, after pounding the finality of the criminal’s guilt and condemnation with his gavel, steps down from his bench, allows Himself to be stripped of His robe and be sent off to bear that penalty Himself?
The fact is that human laws do not have any provision for such an occurrence. But God’s law does. All the lambs that were slaughtered by God’s command under the Law of Moses were little pictures of what He ultimately planned to do. When Paul wrote that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23, ESV), he was not trying to put a positive spin on things; he used the ironic metaphor of “wages” because it fit in with point he was trying to make at the moment, but he clearly understood that death is the penalty of sin. And that penalty, according to the uniform witness of the New Testament, was what God Himself had come down to bear in the person of Christ as our substitute.
Some people cannot bear the idea that this is what the Bible actually teaches about why Jesus died on the cross. They find the concept of bloody sacrifices in general highly distasteful, and the notion punishment for sin in particular unworthy of God. Some find the teaching of Scripture perfectly clear, but they reject it outright, like the heckler R.C. Sproul once encountered at one of his speaking engagements.
Some parts of the Bible are so clear and simple that they are offensive to those suffering from intellectual arrogance. A few years ago I was lecturing about how Christ’s death on the cross fulfilled the curse motif of the Old Testament. In the middle of my lecture a man in the audience interrupted me, saying loudly, “That’s primitive and obscene.” I asked him to repeat his comment so that everyone present could have the opportunity to hear his complaint. When he repeated it, I said, “You are exactly right. I particularly like your choice of words, primitive and obscene.” The entire history of redemption is communicated in primitive terms from the episode of the encounter of Adam and Eve with the serpent to the devastating destruction God visits on the chariots of Egypt in the Exodus to the crass and brutal murder of Jesus of Nazareth. The Bible reveals a God who hears the groans of all of his people, from the peasant to the philosopher, from the dull-witted to the sophisticated scholar. His message is simple enough for the most simplistic of his fallen creatures to understand. what kind of a god would reveal his love and redemption in terms so technical and concepts so profound that only an elite corps of professional scholars could understand them? god does speak in primitive terms because he is addressing himself to primitives. At the same time, there is enough profundity contained in Scripture to keep the most astute and erudite scholars busily engaged in their theological inquiries for a lifetime.
If primitive is an appropriate word to describe the content of Scripture, obscene is even more so. All of the obscenities of sin are recorded with clear and forthright language in the Scripture. And what is more obscene than the cross? Here we have obscenity on a cosmic scale. On the cross Christ takes upon himself human obscenities to redeem them.
[Sproul, Knowing Scripture, (Downers Grove, IL, USA: InterVarsity Press, 1979), 15-16.]
Such people accept the clarity of Scripture but reject its message. Others want to claim fidelity to Scripture but reject its clarity on this point. They come to biblical texts like Isaiah 53 (and there are plenty of others) and read what they plainly say, but then look for all sorts of ways to deny the truth of penal substitution. They just don’t get it! But the fifth verse of that chapter leaves absolutely no wiggle room.
But he was wounded (חלל, ḥālāl)
for our transgressions (פשׁע, pesha’);
he was crushed (דכא, daka’)
for our iniquities (עון, ‘avon);
upon him was the chastisement (מוסר, mûsār)
that brought us peace (שׁלום, shālôm),
and with his stripes (חבבורה, ḥabbûrâ)
we are healed (רפא, rāpā).
[Isaiah 53:5, English Standard Version]
This verse not only makes it plain that the coming Anointed One, the Messiah, the Christ, was to act as our substitute by bearing our punishment, but that this was God’s way of ending the state of hostility that separated us from Him, and making us whole again. As Motyer wrote, “… ‘the punishment of our peace’ means ‘our peace-punishment,’ the punishment necessary to secure or restore our peace with God” (Ibid., 430). If Christ was not punished in our place, we could never have peace with God; we could never be saved.
They Got It!
After the New Testament was complete and the last apostle died, the Gospel message was passed on to the next generation. Over time, the bedrock of biblical teaching on salvation, Christ’s penal substitutionary atonement, would be eroded by various winds of doctrine, but more by neglect than anything else.
It probably started when Christian leaders were legitimately distracted by heresies concerning the person and nature of Christ that attached themselves to the church like burrs on a wool sock during the fourth and fifth centuries a.d. The need for systematic treatment of Christ’s atoning death was eclipsed by the more urgent requirement to carefully define the nature of the triune God and the relationship between Christ’s deity and humanity as found in Scripture.
But just because the church as a whole did not formulate carefully crafted statements about why Jesus died on the cross does not mean that there was no general consensus on the matter. In fact, it was because they clearly understood the meaning of the cross that they took Christ’s deity so seriously, because only God could fully pay the penalty for a multitude of sinners.
Sometime back in the second century, an anonymous author wrote a letter to someone named Diognetus. We’re not really sure who the recipient was, but the Epistle to Diognetus went on to be included in a body of literature known as the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, which were highly influential works attributed to the generation of Christian leaders that followed the apostles. It is clear from the following citation that the author had a vivid understanding of the fact that by suffering on the cross Christ had paid the penalty for our sins:
But when our unrighteousness was fulfilled, and it had been made perfectly clear that its wages—punishment and death [κόλασις καὶ θάνατος]—were to be expected, then the season arrived during which God had decided to reveal at last his goodness and power (oh, the surpassing kindness and love of God!). He did not hate us, or reject us, or bear a grudge against us; instead he was patient and forbearing; in his mercy he took upon himself our sins [τὰς ἡμετέρας ἁμαρτίας ἀνεδέξατο]; he himself gave up his own Son as a ransom for us [λύτρον ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν], the holy one for the lawless, the guiltless for the guilty, “the just for the unjust,” the incorruptible for the corruptible, the immortal for the mortal. For what else but his righteousness could have covered our sins? In whom was it possible for us, the lawless and ungodly, to be justified, except in the Son of God alone? O the sweet exchange [γλυκείας ἀνταλλαγῆς], O the incomprehensible work of God, O the unexpected blessings, that the sinfulness of many should be hidden in one righteous man, while the righteousness of one should justify many sinners!
[Epistle to Diognetus 9:2-5, in Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, updated edition, (Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Baker Books, 1999), 547. Emphasis mine.]
The author makes clear something that many today try to avoid: to say that Jesus took upon Himself our sins means the he took our punishment. A little more than a couple of centuries later this language of the great exchange—our sins for His righteousness—would be echoed in a sermon by Augustine of Hippo (a.d. 354-430).
In a word, He died, because it was so expedient, that by His Death He might kill death. God died, that an exchange might be effected by a kind of heavenly contract, that man might not see death. For Christ is God, but He died not in that Nature in which He is God. … Forasmuch then as He is both God and man, being pleased that we should live by that which was His, He died in that which was ours. … What an exchange [qualia commercia]! What hath He given, and what received? Men who trade enter into commercial intercourse for exchange of things. … And who can enumerate all these exchanges? But no one gives life to receive death.
[Augustine of Hippo (a.d. 354-430), Sermon XXX.5 (Sermon LXXX in the Benedictine Edition), in Philip Schaff, ed., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Volume 6, (Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers, reprinted 2004), 351. Latin text added. Cf. “The Confessions of St. Augustine,” 10.43.68-79 in ibid., Volume 1, 162.]
“But no one gives life to receive death”—no one, that is, except Jesus.
During times when the Gospel was clearly understood, this idea captivated the thoughts of Christians. The more believers correctly grasped it, the more they talked about it. A millennium later Martin Luther returned to the idea of this wonderful exchange again and again in his vast body of writings (e.g., Luther’s Works, Harold Grimm and Helmut Lehmann, eds., [Philadelphia, PA, USA: Fortress Press, 1957], 31:351). The reason for this is clear: Christ’s penal substitutionary sufferings were the core of the Gospel message.
Finally Getting It
Sadly, there were long centuries when the Gospel was not clearly understood. Theologians came along who affirmed penal substitution, but denied the Bible’s teaching about how we receive its benefits, coming up with complicated sacramental systems in place of faith alone. Others denied it altogether. In some branches of the church, confusion still continues to reign on the question of precisely why Jesus had to die on the cross.
This confusion continued to reign in my own mind years after I first took communion as a boy, not that I gave it all that much thought. I didn’t get why Jesus had to die on the cross, but I did get the wristwatch I’d asked for.
In the coming years my youthful faith began to wither. Despite the fact that I would pray when I was in trouble, I began to consider myself an agnostic. And then something happened.
On a rainy Sunday night in the middle of December 1975, when I stumbled into LaGrange Gospel Chapel in LaGrange, Illinois, I still didn’t get it, but at least now I wanted to. My dad had died ten months earlier, and now I was really searching for answers.
The church was holding its annual Christmas Sunday School program. The lights were out in the main auditorium as a movie played, so I groped my way to a seat in the back. When the lights came back on, I looked for the friend who invited me, but she was nowhere to be seen.
But I did see the the large plaque behind the pulpit, which announced to everyone there, “Jesus said, I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me. John 14:6”.
I remember thinking, “That sounds kind of narrow.” But God was drawing me to Himself that night (John 6:44).
I went out into the foyer, trying to figure out where to go next. A man with a broad smile was standing there. He extended his hand and told me his name: Grey Culberson.
“Have you accepted Christ as your personal Savior?” he asked.
I had never heard that question before and was not immediately sure what it meant. But it had something to do with Jesus, and in recent months I had come to believe that He was really was who He said He was. So after a moment of thought, I concluded there was only one appropriate response.
“I think so,” I said.
“Well you can know so!” replied Grey, smiling warmly.
I glanced back at the plaque on the wall. It did not feel as though Grey was pressuring me, but something was—or some One.
I looked back at Grey. “Then I know so,” I said.
His expression indicated that he was not immediately sure what to say next, but he was not at a loss for words for long. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet. Tucked inside was a little booklet.
“I like to keep these handy to share with people,” he said, extending the booklet to me. On the cover its title asked, Have You Heard of the Four Spiritual Laws?
I took it home that night and eagerly devoured it. When I came to a certain point in the booklet, it was as though a light went on inside my head. It said, “…God has bridged the gulf that separates us from Him by sending His Son, Jesus Christ, to die on the cross in our place to pay the penalty for our sins.”
In our place—”In my place, condemned he stood,” as I would later learn to sing. Suddenly I knew why Jesus had to die on the cross: He was my substitute. He took my punishment. There were some deep, spiritual things that I actually could understand, and now I understood the most important one of all.
And I have not been the same person since.