WE BELIEVE IN THE ATONEMENT
Dr. W. A. Criswell
3-27-70 12:00 p.m.
This year our theme has concerned the great centralities of the faith. Monday, We Believe in God; Tuesday, We Believe in the Lord Christ; Wednesday, We Believe in the Bible, the Book; yesterday We Believe in the Judgment; and today, the Friday that our Lord was crucified, We Believe in the Atonement, God’s merciful provision for the forgiveness of our sins.
The account of the crucifixion of Christ in the First Gospel is in chapter 27. “And when they were come to a place called Golgotha,” an Aramaic word for a hill of a skull, a place of a skull, “there they crucified Him” [Matthew 27:33, 35]. “And about the ninth hour,” He was crucified at nine o’clock in the morning, and the ninth hour, according to their reckoning of time would be at three o’clock in the afternoon—the first hour at dawn, the last hour at sunset—and in the dividing up of the day, the ninth hour: about three o’clock in the afternoon. “And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice saying,” Eli, Eli, “My God, My God!” That i is “my,” a possessive pronoun; El is God. Eli, Eli, lama, this is Aramaic: lama, “why,” sabachthani, “hast Thou forsaken Me?” [Matthew 27:46].
This is the fourth of the seven sayings from the cross;
- The first, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” [Luke 23:34].
- The second, to the dying thief, “Today shalt thou be with Me in Paradise” [Luke 23:43].
- The third, to His mother, “Woman behold thy son!” [John 19:26], and to John, “Son behold thy mother!” [John 19:27].
- The fourth, “Why hast Thou forsaken Me?” [Matthew 27:46].
- The fifth, “I thirst” [John 19:28].
- The sixth, “It is finished” [John 19:30].
- And the seventh and the last, “Father, into Thy hands I commit My spirit” [Luke 23:46].
That was the day, the day of the cross, of deep dyed contrasts; that the Prince of life should die, that the Lord of heaven should be crucified.
That face, so filled with the reflection of the glory of God, now stained and dripping with His own blood; those hands, so blessed as He prayed over little children, and laid them upon the eyes of the blind, they’re now nailed to a cross; and His feet, so beautifully and swiftly given to errands of mercy and love, are now so cruelly pierced. And His brow that reflected the grace of God, encircled with thorns; and His lips that distilled words of love and mercy like dew are now swollen and parched with fever; and His eyes that out of compassion wept over Jerusalem are now glazed in death. He is dead. But out of all of the deep dyed contrasts of that day, nothing is so overwhelmingly inexplicable as this cry from the cross: “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” [Matthew 27:46].
There have been brave men without number who have met cruel death with indifferent disdain and with calm composure. There have been brave women who have laughed at the most horrible forms of mutilation and persecution. And even the disciples of our Lord Himself, without number, have been martyred at the stake, on the rack, have met torment and torture in its most gruesome and terrible forms and have met it with songs of praise and of triumph.
And here in this story, the Lord crucified between two malefactors, even they do not cry out in that agony of intense pain. One of them is a blasphemer and an unbeliever; and disregarding his agony, he joins with those who wag their heads before the cross, ridiculing the claims of the Son of God. And the other malefactor, who turned in repentance and asked forgiveness for his sins, even he disregards his pain, thinking only of his soul and of the world that is to come [Luke 23:32-33, 39-42]. And yet that Man on the central cross, the God of glory and the Prince of heaven, when He faces death, He cries out in agony and in this terrible and awesome question, “My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” [Matthew 27:46].
There has to be some explanation why the Lord should have met death in such a heartfelt, soul agonizing cry. And the reason from God’s Book is very simple to find. Our Lord did not die as a martyr or as a hero, but He died bearing the sins of the whole world. Isaiah said, “God shall see of the travail of His soul, and shall be satisfied” [Isaiah 53:11]. The author of the Hebrews said that, “He by the grace of God shall taste death for every man” [Hebrews 2:9]. Simon Peter wrote, “Himself bare in His own body our sins on the tree” [1 Peter 2:24]. And the author of the Apocalypse wrote that, “He treads the fierceness and the wrath of Almighty God” [Revelation 19:15]. To look upon the death of Christ as being one of a martyr or of a hero or of a sacrifice for a great and noble cause is to turn aside from the scriptural explanation of His sufferings altogether. There are heavenly reasons for the agony and the travail and the suffering of our Lord.
One: His suffering and His death are explained by sin. The forsakenness He felt was caused by our iniquities. Sin isolated Him; sin set Him apart; sin marked Him for death. You have a perfect picture of that in the paschal lamb, the offering of the Passover lamb. God said, “First the lamb is to be set aside; for four days it is to be isolated, it is to be penned up, it is to be separated, it is to be designated for death” [Exodus 12:3-6]. Sin and Satan did that with Christ; they separated Him and isolated Him and marked Him out for death. This is a part of the bitterness of Lucifer, who knows he has but a short time [Revelation 12:12]. And the extent of that bitterness of Satan can be seen in the day of the cross.
All through His life, Satan sought to slay Him: when He was born in Bethlehem, the sword of Herod raised to destroy Him [Matthew 2:16]; in the temptation that He cast Himself down from the pinnacle of the temple [Matthew 4:5-7]. When He preached at His home in Nazareth, they sought to cast Him headlong from the brow of the cliff upon which their city was built [Luke 4:28-29]. In the garden of Gethsemane, Satan sought to slay Him when His agony was expressed in blood, sweat, and tears [Luke 22:4]. But in the day of the cross, God turned away His face, and the Lord lowered His hand of protection, the shield of comfort was withdrawn [Matthew 27:45-46]; and Satan was at liberty to do his utmost. He did it.
He [Satan] entered into the heart of Judas, who betrayed Him for thirty pieces of silver [Matthew 26:14-16]. He entered the souls of the mockers, the high priests and the scribes who disdainfully cast His words into His very teeth [Matthew 27:39-43; Mark 15:29-32]. He entered into the spineless response of the Roman procurator who delivered Him unto crucifixion and death [Matthew 27:22-26; John 18:38-40]. And he exalted in the course revelry and brutal crucifixion of the Roman soldiers [Matthew 27:27-35]. What God handed down to man in song and in praise in Bethlehem [Luke 2:13-16], Satan handed back to God on the point of a Roman spear, mutilated, bloody, and dead [John 19:33-34]. Satan and sin crucified the Son of God. And may I parenthesize? If ever you are persuaded of the innate goodness of man, get a good look at the cross.
Second: God did it. This is a part of the great redemptive plan of the ages. This is God’s provision for our forgiveness; the washing of the stain of sin out of our souls [1 John 1:7, 9]. This is God’s plan for our redemption [Colossians 1:14]. The whole Bible is that. I preached a sermon one time beginning at seven-thirty in the evening and preached beyond midnight, on a theme entitled “The Scarlet Thread through the Bible,” God’s redemptive plan through the ages. And when I had done at midnight it seemed I had but begun. This is the gospel; this is the sublime story of God’s merciful, loving remembrance of the children, the lost children of old man Adam, that we might be saved [John 3:16; 2 Peter 3:9]. In the twenty-second chapter of the Book of Genesis is one of the sublimest stories in the Old Covenant. Abraham, on the third day’s journey has come to Mount Moriah, and there where the temple stood, and where David placated the wrath of God in judgment upon his people, there did Abraham build an altar, and he bound his son and laid him on the altar for a sacrifice. And as the boy saw what his father was doing, he said, “Father, here is the wood and here is the fire: but where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” [Genesis 22:7]. And Abraham replied, “My son, God will provide,” and in the King James Version, you have it “a lamb” [Genesis 22:8]; the Hebrew says, “And Abraham replied, My son, God will provide the lamb for the sacrifice.” And the hand of Abraham that was stayed by a voice from heaven [Genesis 22:11-12] was not stayed when the heavenly Father saw His Son die in His own elective and permissive will [Matthew 27:45-50]. This is God’s atoning grace for the washing away of our sins [Ephesians 1:7].
And the whole Book is that. Before the world began, He was the Lamb, the Scriptures say, slain from before the foundation of the world [Revelation 13:8]. He volunteered in heaven; “Sacrifice and offerings Thou wouldst not, but a body hast Thou prepared for Me” [Hebrews 10:5]. That’s the virgin birth. The reason for the virgin birth is: this is God’s preparation for the sacrifice, the Passover, of our sins on the cross [1 Corinthians 5:7]. A spirit could not be sacrificed; God prepared in the womb of that virgin girl a body which God said was prepared for the purpose of sacrifice for our sins [Matthew 1:21]. And the Lord volunteered for that before the foundations of the world were laid [Hebrews 10:5-14]. And through the ages that is the recurring theme and the recurring type. Every time a lamb was slain at the morning sacrifice, every time a lamb was slain at the hour of the evening prayer [Exodus 29:38-39], it was a pre-figuration, an adumbration of the Lamb of God who should die for the sins of the world [John 1:29].
This was the theme of the great prophets: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all” [Isaiah 53:6]. And it was the constant recurring presentation of the life of our Lord in the days of His flesh. Said the angel to His parents, “Thou shalt call His name, lesous, Savior: for He shall save His people from their sins” [Matthew 1:21]. Why He came incarnate, in human flesh to die for our sins. When He was introduced as He began His public ministry, John the forerunner said, “Behold the Lamb of God” [John 1:29].
Think what that meant to the Jew who’d been sacrificing that lamb morning and evening every day for thousands of years [Exodus 29:38-39], “the Lamb of God” [John 19]. When on the top of Mount Transfiguration, from a distant past came Moses and Elijah speaking to Him; they spake to Him about His death, “which He should accomplish in Jerusalem, which He should accomplish in Jerusalem” [Luke 9:28-31]. And on the night of the betrayal, “He took bread and brake it, and said, This is My body [Matthew 26:26]. And He took the cup, and blessed it, and said, This is the blood of the new covenant, the new promise, the new hope, shed, poured out, for the remission of sins” [Matthew 26:27-28]. And this is the theme of the apostles in their preaching: “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world” [Galatians 6:14], or as John wrote in 1 John 1:7, “And the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanseth us from all sin.” And as the triumphant song of the Revelation, “Unto Him who loved us, and washed us from our sins in His own blood . . . to Him be glory and honor and dominion for ever and ever. Amen” [Revelation 1:5-6]. And as the apostle looked upon the throng of God’s redeemed in heaven [Revelation 7:9-10], the elder asked:
Who are these who are arrayed in white robes? and whence came they?
And John said, Sir, thou knowest, I do not know. And the elder replied, saying, These are they who have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
Therefore are they before the throne of God, forgiven, without spot or blemish, and serve Him day and night.
This is the answer to the ultimate question of all humanity: what can wash away my sins? [Psalm 51:2]. In all literature there is no more dramatic theme than Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth and Lord Macbeth as they look upon the blood that stains their hands: she, walking in her sleep in the night, looks at the stain, “Out damn spot, out I say; but there is the smell of blood still. Will all the perfumes of Arabia sweeten this little hand?” Oh, oh, oh! And he, as he looks at the stain on his hands, “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand? No, rather, this my hand will the multitudinous seas incarnadine making the green run red.” What can wash away our sins? We sing a hymn of that glorious redemption:
What can wash away my sins?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus
What can make me whole again?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus
Oh, precious is the flow
That makes me white as snow
No other fount I know,
Nothing but the blood of Jesus
[“Nothing But The Blood of Jesus,” Robert Lowry]
E’er since by faith, I saw the stream, Thy flowing wounds supplied
Redeeming grace has been my theme, and shall be till I die.
Then in a nobler, sweeter song, I’ll sing Thy power to save
When this poor lisping, stammering tongue, lies silent in the grave
[“There Is a Fountain,” William Cowper]
This He did for me. This He did for us. And this we shall do for Him: “Dear Lord, I give my life away, ‘tis all that I can do.”
And our Lord, in that holy and reverential commitment of soul, and life, and day, and year, and eternity to Thee, may we walk in the praise, and love, and light, and blessing of our Lord, now and forever, amen.