Thursday, April 14, 2022

The death of the sinner

As we approach the end of Holy Week, I've been thinking again about the significance of the death of Jesus Christ.  I've noted before that a central element of the New Testament presentation of this significance which I think is often missed in contemporary reflections is the death of the sinner in the death of Christ.  That is to say, when Jesus died on the cross, sinful humanity died a warranted, judicial death in him.  To unpack that a little:

-A real thing happened when Christ gave up his spirit and died.  It is not 'as if' we sinful people died there; we actually really did.  In God's sight, we died in his death.  The reality of this is, so to speak, crucial.  The foundation of the believer's response to the death of Jesus is faith expressed in baptism, and in baptism we are said to be buried with Christ.  But this can only be the case if antecedent to our recognising and entering into this being dead in Christ we had actually died with him.  In Christ, we really died.  (That might mean we need to rethink what death actually means!)

-The death of Christ was the death of sinful humanity per se.  The Lord Jesus took on our nature (not, note, an individual human being, but human nature).  He carried that nature through temptation and cross, and ultimately to the point of death.  Though he was not a sinner, it was the nature - the flesh - of those who were sinners which he had vicariously assumed.  There is no future, then, in sinful humanity.

-The death which was carried out in Christ was a death sentence, a warranted judicial death.  It was, in fact, the execution of God's just sentence on sinners.  I've been thinking a little, provoked by this post from Ian Paul, about the extent to which we can say, with the hymn, that in Christ's death 'the wrath of God was satisfied'.  This sits at the heart of the understanding of the cross as penal substitution - the idea that Christ bore the punishment merited by sinful humanity.  I think we can and should say, and sing, that God's wrath is satisfied, but amongst other qualifiers I would add that this only makes sense if we understand that God's wrath was satisfied by the removal of the object of his wrath.  It is not that there is a conflict in God - he really loves humanity, but he is wrathful against sin - and so to resolve the conflict he exhausts his wrath on Jesus, like a child punching a pillow until they've let out all their anger.  No, God's holy love and holy wrath are one and the same, and in his holy love for sinners he pours out his holy wrath on them (in the person of Christ) until sinful humanity is done away with.

-The heart of the gospel is that all this happened in him.  That he voluntarily assumed our place, identified with sinners, and carried their case through to death - this is amazing.  When we recognise who he is - the very God against whom we had offended, the God whose holy wrath burns with all the heat of his infinite holy love - well, then it is simply breathtaking.  That my death took place in him, that the death which awaits me is merely the shadow of death with nothing of judgement in it, this is the wonderful significance of the cross.  The key question, I think, which it provokes is: if all this happened to me in him, what then is to happen in me?  And the answer to that is essentially that being dead in him to sin, I ought to (and must) die in me to sin; that by the Spirit I am to be enabled to make real in my life and experience what is already real in my very being, because real in him.

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