How the Death of Christ Saves Us
July 5th, 1970 @ 7:30 PM
HOW THE DEATH OF JESUS SAVES US
Dr. W. A. Criswell
7-5-70 7:30 p.m.
On the Sunday nights when we have the Lord’s Supper, I try to prepare a message on the atoning death of our Lord, and this is such a message tonight. It is entitled How the Death of Jesus Saves Us. And if you share with us the service on the radio, all of us who fill this auditorium in the First Baptist Church here in Dallas, we invite you to turn to the Book of Romans, chapter 5, the Book of Romans; after the four Gospels, Acts, Romans. The Book of Romans, chapter 5, and we shall read the first ten verses. And if on the radio you have a Bible, open your Bible and read it out loud with us; Romans, Paul’s letter to the church at Rome, chapter 5, and the first ten verses. Now all of us reading out loud together, the first ten verses:
Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ:
By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.
And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience;
And patience, experience; and experience, hope:
And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us.
For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.
For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die.
But God commendeth His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
Much more then, being now justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him.
For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.
The title of the message: How the Death of Christ Saves Us. When I was doing the special study in the seminary, leading toward a doctor’s degree, I majored in Greek New Testament. But I minored in two subjects, which was according to the outline of the course to follow. I minored in “Modern Social Movements,” the study of communism, fascism, socialism, democracy—modern social movements. And my other minor was “The Atonement.” For two years, for two years we studied the atonement, how the death of Christ saves us.
There are so many theories of the atonement. Through all the centuries and through all the generations there have been men who have tried to expound the reason for the efficacious offering of the Son of God. You have the patristic, the early church fathers, and their penal theory. You have the Anselmic theory, that the atonement honored God’s sense of justice and righteousness. Then you had the Socinian theory, the theory that the death of Christ was that of an example, a paragon. He died as a martyr died or as a hero dies. You have the Grotian, you have the Bushnellian, all through the years and the years.
But after I had finished studying that course two solid years and had passed a doctors examination on it, I felt at the end of that intensive period of study that the mystery of the death of Christ was as unfathomable and as inexplicable, at least to me, after I had studied it two years, as the day that I began the survey.
There is a mystery in the death of Christ into which a man’s mind cannot enter. There is something in God, there is something in the Holy Spirit, and there is something in Christ, in the adjudication, in the washing away, in the forgiveness of our sins that is a mystery into which only the mind that could equal the mind of God could ever be commensurate. But there are some things that as a rational human being, one who can understand, one who can sense, one who can think God’s thoughts after Him—there are some things that we can see, and it is just of those things when I give the title to the sermon, How the Death of Christ Saves Us.
I did not mean by the title that I could adequately explain it. I cannot. But there are some things that we can see: what God is like, and what God does, and how God does it, which is all that a human being can see anyway, for no man can explain anything. The pseudoscientist who arrogates to himself such superiority and such sophistication is a charlatan. No man can explain anything; he just sees it and describes it. But the great intricate details that lie back of its being, we do not enter into it. We just see it. So the marvelous mystery—inexplicable, unfathomable, indescribable—of the atoning grace of God in the death of Christ is beyond what we are able to encompass in theology or in sermon. But we can see.
All right, here’s one. There is something in God that put these two together, sin and death. God welded that link together. He did it in the beginning, and no man has ever been able to unweld that iron chain. Sin and death: “The wages of sin is death” [Romans 6:23]. “The soul that sins shall die” [Ezekiel 18:20]. “In the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely, surely die” [Genesis 2:17]. God welded that link together. But there is something else in the heart of God, an astonishing thing to me, and that is this, that when God pronounces that judgment upon transgression—when you sin, you die, the day you sin you die, the soul that sins shall surely die [Genesis 2:17; Ezekiel 18:20; Romans 6:23]—the same Lord God that pronounced that judgment upon our sins—physical death, moral death, spiritual death, the second death, eternal death—the same Lord God that pronounced that judgment upon our sins also did something else: God said that that atonement could be vicariously paid; somebody else could die in our stead. Somebody else could suffer in our stead. And if that vicarious suffering were of a turn, of a nature, as to satisfy that something in the character of God, we who have sinned can go free. Sometimes the Bible will say that in terms of a ransom. A slave is taken into captivity, sold. As the Scriptures say of us, we were sold under sin, we were in the bondage of sin [Romans 7:14], but somebody could pay that debt, somebody could ransom us, somebody could buy us back, and that is a presentation in the Scriptures of the grace of Christ [Matthew 20:28; 1 Timothy 2:5-6].
“We are not our own,” the Scriptures will say; “we are bought with a price” [1 Corinthians 6:19-20]. As the Lord would say, “For the Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for many” [Mark 10:45]. Somebody else, not we who are sold into slavery of sin, somebody else can pay our debt and our penalty, and we go free. But most of the time that is presented in the Bible under the figure, and the harbinger, and the earnest, and the picture, and the typology, and the symbolism of one who is shedding blood; that is, pouring out his life [Leviticus 17:11; Hebrews 9:22].
Now in the days of the Passover, when God said, “My angel of death will visit the land of Egypt, but it shall be, if there is blood sprinkled on the lintels and on the doorposts, the angel of death will pass over, and there will be life in that home” [Exodus 12:22-23]. All that a man had to do to be saved, to be delivered from the judgment that night in Egypt, was to get under the blood [Exodus 12:3-7, 13]. That was all. Just wait. Just be there. It was something God did, and when the angel—not many of them—when the angel sees the blood, he will pass over. It is something in God, a vicarious offering—in that instance, a lamb [Exodus 12:3-7].
On the Day of Atonement was the same picture of atoning grace. Two sacrificial animals are chosen [Leviticus 16:5]. One is slain, the blood caught in a basin, and the high priest enters into the Holy of Holies beyond the veil, and takes the blood and sprinkles it upon the propitiatory, the mercy seat [Leviticus 16:9, 15]. Then the second sacrificial animal is brought before the high priest, who has come out of the Holy Place. And the high priest takes both of his hands and lays both of his hands on top of the head of the animal, and confesses there all the sins of the people. And the animal is taken out into a place far away and driven off, called the scapegoat, a picture that in atoning blood our sins are taken away [Leviticus 16:10, 20-22].
That was the picture in the whole sacrificial system. Every morning and every afternoon there was the lamb slain and offered as a burnt sacrifice for the sins of the people [Exodus 29:38-39]. Mostly it will be under that figure that God will teach us that in the shedding of blood, there is remission of sins [Hebrews 9:22].
Now it could not be just anyone, for if our blood was shed, we could not atone for anyone else because we ourselves are sinners [Romans 3:23]. And if I die, I die for my sins [Ezekiel 18:4, 20]. I could not die for yours, for we are all sinners, and there’s no efficacy, there’s no divine grace in our lives. For if we die, we just pay the penalty for our own sins.
But all of the sacrificial systems of the Old Testament, the Day of Atonement [Leviticus 16:1-34, 23:26-32; Numbers 29:7-11], the Passover Feast [Exodus 12:1-28, 43-49; Leviticus 23:5; Deuteronomy 16:1-8], all of those were pictures, and adumbrations, and types of Him who was the Lamb of God [John 1:29]. And the Lord in heaven, the Lord God our Father, so values the priceless life of Jesus that God says that His pouring out of life, the spilling of His blood, the sacrifice of the Prince of glory is commensurate with all of the sins of all the world [1 John 2:2]. And as in the days of the Passover, if one was under the blood, God gave him life for death [Exodus 12:7, 13, 23], and it is so with us [1 Corinthians 5:7]. God so values and prizes the blood of Jesus that if one trusts in His Son, God equals the atoning death of our Lord as more than grace sufficient to wash away all, to forgive, all of our sins; “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ” [Romans 6:23].
So in the passage you read, again and again, “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” [Romans 5:8], in our stead. “For when we were without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly,” in behalf of the ungodly [Romans 5:6]. “For we have been reconciled to God by the death of His Son” [Romans 5:10], for we have now received, by Him, the atonement [Romans 5:11]. God so values the death of His Son that anyone who will trust in Jesus [Acts 16:31], God says it is equal, all-sufficient, for the washing away of all of his sins [1 John 1:7; Revelation 1:5].
Now the Holy Spirit does something in this, and as I say, I’m not explaining anything. I’m just pointing out what God does. God says, as He did at the Passover, that that blood is sufficient: when I see it, the angel of death will pass over [Exodus 12:7, 13, 22-23]. And that was the picture–God says that one who is under the blood, who trusts in Jesus, God says that the blood of the Lord is all-sufficient to cover our sin [1 John 1:7].
All right, something else I observe in that: I observe the power of the Holy Spirit to apply that message to the human heart [John 16:7-15]. Why, I could stand up here forever and tell you about the martyrs and about the heroes, about a Nathan Hale: “I regret that I have but one life for my country.” And we admire him and praise God for a patriot like that. It made our nation what it is, the sacrifice of men like Nathan Hale, or the soldiers of Valley Forge, or the men who are laying down their lives in Vietnam for us today. The pouring out of blood for freedom, and for liberty, and for the protection of our homes and our families, it’s been a story of bloodshed, and of martyrdom, and of heroic dedication through the years. But when I speak of the martyr’s death and the hero’s death, the people who listen would say, what a noble dedication, and how we ought to appreciate the liberties and the freedoms that have come to us through their sacrifice. But I could speak of that sacrifice and of that dedication forever and no one would be particularly convicted of his sins, and no one would be drawn to Christ in repentance, and in confession, and in faith.
Now I just say, I’m observing what God does when a man anywhere—and I’ve done it around the world, getting ready to do it again—when a man anywhere stands up, and he preaches, he presents the death, the sobs, the tears, the flowing wounds of Jesus [John 19:16-34], God’s Holy Spirit does something in the hearts of the people. There is a conviction of sin: “I’m not what I ought to be. I’m not what I could be. I’m not, by God’s grace, what I can be and am going to be.” There’s a conviction of sin in our hearts. We sense our shortcomings, our derelictions, our failures, our transgressions. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit [John 16:7-11].
And the Holy Spirit does something else: He points to the cross. He points to Jesus. He points to the Lamb of God. And He does it in wooing grace, in loving invitation and appeal. “Look,” the Holy Spirit says. “Look,” the Holy Spirit says. “Look, look!” That’s why any time there is a doctrine that emphasizes the Holy Spirit alone; it is the opposite of what the New Testament doctrine is, for the Lord said the Holy Spirit shall not speak of Himself. He will not draw attention to Himself, but the Holy Spirit will take of Mine and show it unto thee. The Holy Spirit never calls attention to Himself. The Holy Spirit exalts Jesus; He points to Jesus [John 16:13-15]. He brings our hearts to Jesus, and when a man speaks and preaches about the grace and the love of God in Christ Jesus, something happens to him. You see, and see, and see, and then one day, you see.
On Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s tomb is this stanza of the hymn:
‘Ere since by faith I saw the stream
Thy flowing wounds supplied.
Redeeming grace has been my theme,
And shall be ‘til I die.
[from “There is a Fountain,” William Cowper, 1772]
We see and see, and one day we see—we hear and hear, and one day we hear the gospel message pressed to the heart by the power of the Holy Spirit [John 16:13-15]. It’s an amazing thing. Why, sometime I will see people weep, just weep. Why do you cry? Just thinking about the Lord. Just looking again. Just seeing Jesus. And almost always there’ll be an experience in the life of a child—the child will cry, will break down and weep. Why? Just looking at Jesus. The power of the cross of Christ. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit.
Now I close with one other thing that God says, and a thing that I observe: not only that God counts the blood of Christ all-sufficient for all of our sins [1 John 1:7], and not only does the Holy Spirit press that message, that saving grace to our hearts [John 16:7-14], and we sense it, we feel it, I’ve always thought that far more than an intellectual understanding of the death of Christ is the feeling of it in our souls, the realization of it in our deepest hearts: this He did for me [John 15:13].
And there’s a third thing he says: “For if, when we were enemies”—sinners, recalcitrants, unrepentants, unregenerates—“we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son” [Romans 5:10]—God made favorable to us, God saying our sins are all washed away, been paid, the debt’s been paid, come; if we have been reconciled to God by the death of His Son—“much more being reconciled, Christ having died for us [1 Corinthians 15:3], the atonement having been made [Romans 5:11], shall we be saved by His life” [Romans 5:10]. Now, “by His life” Paul is referring to His resurrected life [Romans 5:10]. If in the cross of Christ, if in the death of Jesus our sins are all paid [Romans 5:8], and we’ve been reconciled to God [Romans 5:10], and God’s favorable toward us, He has forgiven us and welcomes us, then he adds, “much more now shall we be saved by His life, the resurrected life of our Lord” [Romans 5:10].
I think of that in three ways. One: He comes to live in our hearts and in our homes. Jesus is there. He is there, and we can feel and sense His presence. “Behold,” He said, “I stand at the door and knock: if anyone hear My voice, and open the door, I will come in and sup with him, and he with Me” [Revelation 3:20]. We can have fellowship with God. He lives in our house. He does. He walks with us.
I walk with the King, hallelujah!
I walk with the King, praise His name!
No longer I roam, my soul faces home,
I walk and I talk with the King.
[from “I Walk with the King,” James Rowe, 1913]
He lives in our house. He lives in our hearts. Christ is with us. “If we have been reconciled by the death of His Son, much more shall we be saved by His life” [Romans 5:10]. He is with us.
Second: not only is Christ with us—He lives in our heart in His Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus [1 Corinthians 6:19]—but the Scriptures say, “He is able to save to the uttermost them who come unto God by Him, seeing He ever liveth to make intercession for them” [Hebrews 7:25]. He prays for us and intercedes for us [Romans 8:34]. He pulls for us. He helps us. He is in heaven, and our Lord bows His ear to hear His people when they pray. And He reaches down help and hands of encouragement, and sympathy, and understanding [Hebrews 4:14-16]. And you can take it to Jesus.
What a friend we have in Jesus,
All our griefs and sins to bear.
What a privilege to carry
Everything to Him in prayer.
[from “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” Joseph Scriven, 1855]
For He ever liveth to make intercession for us [Hebrews 7:25], saved by His life [Romans 5:10].
And last: in the final hour of our death, who can go with me across that dark and swollen river? Can you? All you can do is to stand by the bed and look down on the face of the pastor as he dies and say, “O, God! Bless you pastor. You baptized my children, and you took my hand when I gave my old heart to Jesus. God bless you, pastor. You’ve been such a friend to me, but goodbye, pastor. I can’t go with you now. I can’t cross the river with you.”
Who can? Can mother? Can father? Can wife? Can children? Can friend? Can the whole church? Nobody. Nobody. When time comes to die, I have a rendezvous with God, alone. I may have ten thousand friends, I may have a multitude who love me, but when that hour comes, I have to face it alone. That’s why it’s such a tragedy to die lost. Nobody. Nobody. No Savior, no Lord. Just dying alone.
But not for us: “If, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, being reconciled, shall we be saved by His life” [Romans 5:10]. When time comes for the Christian to die, and if you want to read a marvelous portrayal of that, read the closing of Pilgrim’s Progress. When time came for the Pilgrim to cross the swollen river, Bunyan says that the trumpets sounded on the other side, and one of God’s saints went home.
It’s a coronation day! It’s the greatest day and the sublimest hour of our lives, for Christ is with us to receive us to Himself. He is on the other side of the river; not here, there. And our home is there [John 14:3; Philippians 3:20], and our inheritance is there [1 Peter 1:3-4], and our Lord is there [Colossians 3:1]—saved by His life, received into glory [2 Peter 1:10-11], welcomed by His precious hands [2 Timothy 4:18], as one of our eloquent preachers used to say, “when the pierced hands of Jesus who opened for us the doors of grace [John 1:14], shall open for us the gates of glory” [2 Peter 1:10-11]. Oh, what it means to be a Christian, to love the Lord, how the death of Christ saves us [Romans 5:8-9].
Now we’re going to sing our hymn of appeal. The song we’re singing is the song they sang when I was saved, when I gave my heart to Jesus. And while we sing the hymn, somebody you to give your life to the Lord: “I’ve seen it, I’ve heard it, I’ve felt it, and I’m coming tonight, taking Jesus as my Savior, and here I am.” A couple you, or a family you, as the Spirit shall press the appeal to your heart, come tonight, stand by me here. Make the decision now, and in a moment when we stand up, stand up coming, and God bless you in the way. Angels attend you as you come. Do it now, while we stand and while we sing.