Our straying meant Christ had to die.
-Peter Hastie talks to Gerald Bray-
Jesus did not sin, but on the cross He became sin for us. What does this mean? In this interview Dr Gerald Bray explains and defends the traditional Christian doctrine of the atonement. In recent times this crucial doctrine has been doubted by some, even within the church, and despised by many who are acclaimed in the world. One thing is for sure: the atoning death of Jesus provokes strong reactions.
Dr Bray is a research professor of divinity at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama. He has earned a D.Litt from the University of Paris-Sorbonne and is an ordained minister in the Church of England.
Dr Bray’s specialty is church history and historical theology. A prolific author, he has published many scholarly articles and books, including The Doctrine of God (IVP) and Creeds, Councils, and Christ (Christian Focus Publications). His book Biblical Interpretation: Past and Present (IVP) was voted as one of the 10 books every pastor should read. His book Yours is the Kingdom (IVP 2007) is a systematic theology based on the Lord’s Prayer and his recent biblical and systematic theology, God is Love (Crossway), is a conversational and contemporary overview of Christianity’s leading ideas.
Gerald, Paul says to the Corinthians that the death of Jesus Christ for our sins according to the Scriptures is of “first importance”. What does he mean?
He means that unless Jesus had gone to the cross and died as an atoning sacrifice for sin, then the basic problem of how to deal with sin would never have been tackled. He reminds us that the death of Christ makes a permanent difference to the nature of our relationship with God.
Of course, atonement had been going on for a long time in the Jewish context, but by its nature it was only temporary. It had to be constantly renewed. However, the coming of Christ put an end to the temporary sacrifices and fulfilled a long-held hope in the Old Testament that one day God would put away sin forever through the offering of a special sacrifice. This took place when Jesus, the sinless Son of God, acting as God’s appointed high priest, offered up Himself as the final sacrifice.
I certainly couldn’t die for my own sin because I am already a sinner. I can’t overcome it. Nor can I do this for you.
Our relationship with God either wouldn’t exist or would be quite different to what it now is had that not happened, so the death of Christ for our sins is the key doctrine in Christianity. Without it, Christianity as we know it never would have existed.
Why is atonement necessary? What is it about the nature of God and our own situation that makes the atonement our greatest need?
I think the atonement is necessary because God created us in His image and likeness so that we could enjoy a special relationship with Him. This relationship is similar but greater than the relationship that He has with the angels. We have been created, not simply to communicate with God, but to have fellowship with Him. Clearly, the angels can communicate with God too, but only as servants, whereas we are created to be God’s children.
Now the problem we face is that we have spurned the love of our Heavenly Father. At the instigation of the fallen angel, Satan, we have followed him in his rebellion against God and have come under the sentence of death. You know the saying, “The greater they are, the harder they fall”? Well, that’s true of us. God created us for an amazing destiny of fellowship and service, but He also warned us that if we ever rejected Him we would die in our sin. Rebelling against God has the most serious consequences. You can’t paper it over or think it doesn’t matter Rebellion against God brings death. That is what defines our predicament.
Since God is the source of our lives the penalty for sin shows us how serious it is to rebel against Him. When Adam and Eve chose to disobey the Lord, they actually chose death. They chose to reject God’s will, a choice with catastrophic consequences. And to overcome the tragedy that we have brought upon ourselves, God has to get into the mess of what is wrong and cleanse it at the root. It’s like healing an infected wound or a cavity in your teeth. Unless you get right down to the bottom of the infection or decay and remove them, then there’s no possibility of healing. Our problem is that we have brought death upon ourselves through sin and, therefore, only by overcoming death is it possible to pay the price of sin.
Where does it first become clear in the Bible that we need to be reconciled to God?
Right at the beginning, after the fall of Adam and Eve, where they are expelled from the garden and were cut off from the tree of life. It’s clear that while they were in fellowship with God the tree of life was something that they were intended to draw from but as soon as they defied God’s word they were cut off from it. If they are ever to receive life again, they need to be reconciled with God.
You see this in the story of Cain and Abel. Abel offered the sacrifice of a lamb, and later we see Noah offering animal sacrifices to turn away God’s wrath as soon as he left the Ark. Again, we see the need for sacrifice in the time of Abraham who realises through his attempted sacrifice of Isaac and the Lord’s provision of a lamb, that the guilt of sin must be atoned for.
I think the need for a sacrifice for sin becomes really clear in the Mosaic law where there are detailed provisions that lie at the centre of Israelite worship. From the time of Moses onwards, the need for atonement is plain. To this day in Judaism the Day of Atonement is the most solemn day of the year. Jews still recognise it as the basic need.
Can you explain why God requires the death of a substitute to remove sin from us?
Well, the first thing to point out is that it is not just any substitute that can remove our sin. The substitute we need is the sinless Son of God. I certainly couldn’t die for my own sin because I am already a sinner. I can’t overcome it. Nor can I do this for you because I don’t have the ability to take away your sin. If I can’t die for myself or for you, our only hope is in the sinless Son of God. He is the only one who is righteous and in perfect relationship with the Father.
This explains why the Son of God had to become a man in order to be our substitute. Only God could help us because He has the power as God to bear our sin. He actually took upon Himself something that we are incapable of doing for ourselves. It’s hard to think of a useful analogy, but if you are a blind person you understand the need for someone else to be your eyes because you can’t see for yourself. You have lost the power of sight and so you need someone who can see to help you. I know it’s not a perfect analogy, but it does highlight that there are conditions from which we suffer when we need someone without that condition to help us because we cannot do it ourselves.
Some people think that we can ignore sin or let it go unpunished. But we are too significant for God to turn a blind eye to our ruptured relationship.
British theologian James Packer has said that the phrase “atonement through propitiation” is the essential message of the cross. What is actually meant by the phrase?
Well, this phrase preserves an important truth for us in understanding the atonement. It reminds us that the justice of God must be both acknowledged and satisfied in any solution for sin that leads to reconciliation between God and man.
Justice demands that sin is both condemned and punished. Some people think that we can pretend to ignore sin or allow it to go unpunished. However, this ultimately diminishes our greatness in the presence of God. We are too significant for God to turn a blind eye to our ruptured relationship. Our sin matters because we matter to God. Now propitiation is God’s answer to the problem. It tells us that God’s perfect justice – His wrath against sin – has been fully satisfied through the atoning work of Christ when He died upon the cross. It was sufficient to meet the demands of God’s justice.
I think it’s also important to add that the Son of God made this sacrifice to God voluntarily. We often forget that Christ went to His death willingly. He came to do the will of his Father but He did so freely out of love. This validates the sacrifice. It meets all the demands of God’s righteousness and is therefore accepted by the Father as a perfect sacrifice. This is why we call it a propitiation, because it satisfies God’s justice and turns aside His wrath from us.
What’s so special about the shedding of blood to bring about atonement in the Bible?
Blood is the symbol of life. The Bible tells us that without blood there is no life. So the idea of the “shedding of blood” is associated with sacrificial ritual where the death of a victim occurs.
Why must a death occur in the process of sacrifice for sin? The answer is that we are dead in the sight of God and unless another can assume that death for us we are not getting to the root of the problem. You see that in Cain and Abel. Abel’s sacrifice was better than that of Cain although Cain’s general intention to offer something to God was right.
His problem was that he didn’t see that sin required death. It was at this point that Abel understood the real nature of the problem of sin. He knew that the penalty for sin was death so that the lamb that he offered had to die by shedding its blood. When Cain offered fruit he revealed that he didn’t understand the problem that he faced as a sinner before a holy God. He didn’t see the connection between sin and death.
However, Abel did and so he realised that his offering required the shedding of blood.
Why do you think that many theologians today dislike the concept of propitiation and baulk at the idea of appeasing God’s wrath?
People don’t want to face the seriousness of what has happened. It’s not that they think they are perfect and they don’t have to live a good life. They just don’t see the reality and depth of sin in their lives.
Anselm faced this question in the 12th century. In his famous book, Cur Deus Homo (Why Did God become Man?), he tried to show why it was necessary for Christ to die.
Anselm’s answer was that no one understands the need for the death of Christ until they have first grasped the terrible nature of sin. This is the problem. People don’t like the wrath of God because they think of Christianity as a kind of moral system. They believe it’s up to them to put things right and this is something that’s essentially within the capacity of everyone to do. They believe that God will be happy with that, forgetting that what He demands is something that goes beyond anything that we are capable of achieving on our own. That is the heart of the matter. They reduce Christianity to a kind of morality and forget the seriousness of sin.
The idea of “propitiation” reminds us that God treats sin very seriously indeed. The belief that we can avert God’s just punishment for our sin by doing something ourselves is misguided. Only Christ can do it for us.
Do you think there is one particular passage in the Old Testament prophets that speaks more clearly to us of our need of atonement and God’s provision of a Saviour?
Isaiah 53 is the classic text, isn’t it? There the prophet reminds us that “all we like sheep have gone astray”, and “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (53:6). He also says, “He bore the sin of many” (53:12). If you have to take one particular text from the Old Testament this is the one, although there are others.
People don’t like the wrath of God because they think of Christianity as a kind of moral system. They believe it’s up to them to put things right.
Isaiah 53 is important because it makes us realise that the prophet sees one person who is going to do all this. Although it is not clear who this person will be, he does suggest that he will assume the punishment for sin and bear it for everyone. There is a sense in which this mystery “servant” will deal decisively with our sin once and for all at some point in the future so that the sacrificial system of the Mosaic law will no longer be needed.
Charles Wesley, in his famous hymn And can it be?, at one point suggests that God actually died on the cross. Did God die on Calvary?
It’s an interesting question. I always ask it in doctrine exams. “Did God die on the cross?” The correct answer is that the divine person of the Son of God suffered and died in His human nature. It is found in Philippians 2 where the divine Son of God, who was equal with God, nevertheless humbled Himself by taking the form of a servant. I think it’s interesting that Jesus voluntarily takes the nature of a servant in His relationship with the Father. He assumes a human nature so that He can get rid of sin and bring about a reconciliation between God and the human race. The incarnation is a means to an end because, without it, Christ could not have died in His divine nature since a divine nature cannot die. If Christ is to suffer and die for sin, He has to devise a way in which that is possible. This explains why He became incarnate.
So the answer is, “Yes, the divine Son of God did suffer and die on the cross, but only by taking on a human nature that made His suffering possible. He could not have died in His divine nature.”
Why do people like Bishop Spong react so strongly against the idea of atonement through propitiation?
I think the reason people like Bishop Spong react to the traditional Christian view of the atonement is that they underestimate the seriousness of the issues at stake. They fail to understand that the nature of sin makes reconciliation impossible on our terms. It’s impossible for us in our own strength to go back to God. It’s like leaping off a high cliff. Once you jump down you can’t get back. Someone needs to come down and rescue you. Reconciliation is only possible if God reaches out to us. In reaching out to us He cannot say, “Oh, it doesn’t matter what you’ve done.” If He had said that then we might assume that what we did was insignificant and that we didn’t really matter. I only understand the importance of the atonement when I realise that who I am and what I do is of real importance to God.
I think the other reason that people like Spong react to the traditional view of the atonement is that they have misunderstood it. They often think that the biblical view of the atonement involves God the Father demanding that the Son should die. However, this is a caricature of the doctrine. As I have already pointed out, the Father never demanded anything of the Son. Jesus Christ was never forced to go to the cross. Christ willingly took the form of a servant when He died for us. The idea that the Father was a tyrant who insisted that the Son should die is a total misunderstanding of the atonement. The Son volunteered to do it without any sense of compulsion.
Can you explain what the writer of the Hebrews means when he says that the blood of Jesus Christ can cleanse our hearts and guilty consciences?
To cleanse our hearts is to make us think in the right way. “We have the mind of Christ,” Paul says to the Corinthians. Jeremiah talks about taking out “the heart of stone and putting in the heart of flesh”. The “heart” represents the way we think, the way we feel, and the way we perceive ourselves. It is the core of our identity. The atonement affects us at this deepest level by purifying our thoughts and desires and renewing our whole orientation to life.
The divine Son of God did suffer on the cross, but only by taking on a human nature that made His suffering possible. He could not have died in his divine nature.
Cleansing the heart is the key to our salvation because the spiritual warfare in which the Christian is engaged is really the struggle of the clean heart against an evil world. If our hearts are not clean we are not in tune with God or with the world around us. If they are cleansed then we will think and desire the right things. So it’s very important to receive this blessing and to have our guilt and defilement taken away.
Sometimes I meet people who don’t think this is possible. They say to me, “If you knew what I’ve done in my life you wouldn’t be preaching forgiveness because God can’t forgive me when I cannot forgive myself for all that I’ve done.” And I say to them, “Well, you are not meant to forgive yourself because you can’t. Only God can forgive you.” One of the real joys of being a Christian is in knowing that our sins are forgiven even though we remain sinners. In other words, we don’t have to be weighed down by our sins. And this is not because we don’t care about them; it’s that we are set free from them.
If I didn’t believe in the power of the cross I could never preach the gospel. I’d stand up and think, “who am I to be doing this? I’m not worthy of this. How can I tell other people to repent when I’m a terrible sinner myself?” The reason I can now preach the gospel and call on others to repent is because I have repented myself and I have been blessed by the removal of my guilt.
First published 2013/2012 Summer Edition