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Death of Christ
Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament
DEATH OF CHRIST
I. In the Gospels.—The aim of the present article is to examine the place of the death of Christ in the moral order of the world. What is the moral order of the world? The question may be answered as follows:—The will and purpose of God are in the way of coming to realization in the individual and social life and destiny of humanity. They are still very far from having attained to universal realization, but they are destined to reach it in the perfected kingdom of God. This is what is here understood as the moral order of the world. It began to exist and to be evolved on the earth with man’s appearance as a being with a moral nature and created for a moral destiny. Its evolution is still very incomplete, but it is certainly though slowly making for a predestined end in which all men in Christ shall be morally perfect as God is; and in the moral relations of God to men, and of men to God and to one another, an order of perfect moral unity and universality shall reign for ever.
In this order of things, then, and its evolution, the death of Christ occupies a place of the highest importance and value. It is only from the point of view of this moral order of things and its evolution that the essential merits of His death can be properly understood. A consideration of it from the same point of view is called for by the methods of modern thought and inquiry. And it is only thus that the cultured Christian conscience can find true, adequate, abiding moral satisfaction. But it is necessary, in order to prevent confusion of ideas, to mark the important distinction that exists in the nature of things as they now are in man’s moral history, between the moral order of the world and the moral course of the world. The moral order of the world as just defined is only one of the constituent factors of the world’s moral course. Besides it there are two more. There is, on the one hand, the factor which consists of all those facts or phenomena in the individual and social life and history of mankind which fall under the designation of sin or moral evil; and, on the other, the moral government of God, which presides immanently, persistently, and universally over the relations between sin and the moral order of things or the order of righteousness. These three factors constitute that actual moral course that the world is ever following; and the predestined end of their relation to one another will be realized in the complete and eternal victory and triumph of righteousness over sin, through the unerring and all-sufficient administrative judgments of God’s moral government of the world (Matthew 13:41-43, 1 Corinthians 15:24-28). It is the moral course of the world as so understood that explains the nature and methods of the historical revelation, contained in the Bible, of God’s will and purpose in their relation to man’s moral life and destiny. The course of the world as so understood occupied a determinative place in our Lord’s conceptions of man’s moral life and destiny (See Progress). And it was from the point of view of Sin, Righteousness, and Judgment that He contemplated the fullest and profoundest significance of His obedience unto death. It was on the place of His death in the moral order of the world, and as therein related to man’s sin and God’s governmental judgment, that He depended for the victory and triumph of Righteousness over Sin in the dispensation of the Spirit (John 17:7-11). From the point of view here raised His death may be considered in various aspects.
1. He was put to death on the Cross. How did this happen? What were His leading thoughts about it as so viewed? He lived and died without sin. He fulfilled all righteousness in the course of His obedience unto death, freely and perfectly uniting Himself and all the activities of His will and life with the will and purpose of God, and with Him His Father was well pleased. This means that although He appeared and lived and died in the moral course of the world, He was not of the world, had absolutely no fellowship with it in so far as it was under the domination of sin. He loved sinners in their character as moral beings with perfect love. But sin He hated with perfect hatred; and He lived and died to save men and the moral course of the world from it. His life of perfect union with His Father’s will and purpose in all things implied not only that He lived entirely on the side and in the interests of the moral order of the world, but also that the latter found in Him, for the first time on earth, the One Individual moral Being in whom it had secured its perfect form of manifest realization, in so far as this was possible in one life in human form. It was this fact, on the one hand, and the hatred of the men over whom the world’s sin had gained complete domination on the other, that determined His way to His destiny on Calvary. This conjunction of righteousness and sin, and their creative influence on His earthly history and experience, affected Him in three ways, each of which should have a regulative effect on every one’s thoughts as to the meaning and value of His death.
(1) He regarded the existence of the sin that arose and developed in increasing antagonism against Himself and His mission, in the course of His ministry, as a thing that ought not to be. Saying after saying of His, bearing on this point, seems almost to convey the impression that He must have regarded this sinful and guilty opposition, without which He would not have been put to death, as not required by the interests and objects of the moral task which He had come into the world to accomplish (Matthew 23:33-39, Luke 13:31-35; Luke 23:23-27, John 7:19; John 8:21-59; John 15:17-27; John 19:10-11). (2) Then, again, His own words show that the inward ‘moral’ struggles and agonies of His life arose out of the prospect and contemplation of the development of the manifestations of the world’s sin and unbelief against Him and against His claim to be entirely identified with His Father’s will and purpose in all His words and deeds. His experience of inward crushing sorrow, arising from the cause alluded to, reached its culmination in the Garden of Gethsemane. But before the hour which He spent there in anguish and bloody sweat, He had foretastes of the terrible bitterness of the Passion which He knew was awaiting Him as His destiny (Matthew 20:22; Matthew 26:36-45, John 12:27). (3) In spite of these two facts as to our Lord’s thought and experience in connexion with His death, He always cherished perfectly optimistic confidence and hope as to the issues of the latter. Through the discipline of experience and through prayer He became strong enough to be obedient even unto death. He had perfect faith in His Father as the Lord of heaven and earth. He knew that all the future interests and objects of His mission and work on earth were absolutely safe in His hands. He knew before He died that His death could not hinder, but would be made to further these objects and interests (John 12:24; John 12:32; John 16:7-11), and the first word He spoke about His death after He had risen from the dead was, ‘Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory?’ (Luke 24:26).
2. The question now arises as to the nature, meaning, and value of our Lord’s unique achievement on earth, which reached its perfect accomplishment in His death on the cross. This achievement from beginning to end was made by Him in His position as internally related to the moral order of the world, and through it to the world in its character, aspirations, and activities as under the domination of sin. His achievement, as so viewed, consisted in the perfect realization of His Father’s will and purpose in His unique moral Individuality, and in all the manifestations of the latter in His relations with God and with men. It is to be observed, then, for one thing of highest importance, that this achievement of His, in its nature, meaning, and value, was purely, entirely, exclusively moral. There are two considerations which place this fact in the region of absolute certainty.
In the first place, the fact has its validity in the established nature of the moral order of the world and in Christ’s own place in this order. This is an order of things which has its foundations in the moral nature of God; in the moral nature of man as made in the image of God as a Moral Being; in the fact and in the nature of the moral relations between God and men and between man and man; and also in the fact that Christ as the Son of God came into the world to qualify Himself for occupying His momentous position of mediation within the sphere of the moral relations of God to men and of men to God. These are all indisputable facts, and they make it certain that the essential nature and objects of our Lord’s earthly achievement, which culminated in the manner in which He met His death on the cross, were absolutely and exclusively moral. That it was so in our Lord’s own way of conceiving of the nature, meaning, and value of His life of obedience unto death, is manifest from His own words, e.g., in John 16:7-11.
But, secondly, the same conclusion follows from His attitude of resistance to the whole system of legalism which He found Judaism had developed and set up, as an order of fixed and unchangeable conditions, in the relations between God and men—between Him and them as individuals, and between Him and the Jewish nation at large as His own peculiar covenant people. The effect of this system, as being both theoretically and administratively legal, was conceived and opposed by our Lord as subversive of that moral order of things in which inward, direct, universal, and eternal relations are established between God and men (Mark 7:1-23). And it is a fact written broadly and deeply in all the Gospels, that if there was anything that He ever attempted more manifestly, strenuously, uncompromisingly, and more persistently than another, it was this, viz.: to overthrow completely and for ever the entire order of ideas which rested upon the stupendous error that the direct relations between God and men are legal, that they are founded on legal conditions, that they are to be maintained, administered, and mediated by legal means, and that, therefore, they are not inward but external (Matthew 5-7; Matthew 15:1-20; Matthew 15:23, Luke 11:38-54, John 5:5-17; John 7:37-53; John 8:31-59; John 12:37-50). What, then, does His attitude of unreserved and bold antagonism to the legal system of Judaism imply in the point of view here considered? (1) It implies that in His position in the moral order of the world He stood on the eternal fact and truth that the direct relations between God as a Moral Being and men as moral beings are inward and therefore essentially moral. (2) It implies, again, that He stood upon the predestined fact and truth that His position and work of mediation within the domain of these relations were also essentially moral and therefore anti-legal.
3. But, further, it follows from the nature of our Lord’s earthly task that the achievement of it in the manner in which He lived and died was a moral unity. His personality or moral individuality was a unity. His will was a moral unity, and the entire series of the manifold inward and outward free moral activities of His life until His last moment on the cross, were related to one another as a perfectly consistent order of moral unity. He came into the world, as He Himself always represented, on one entirely homogeneous moral undertaking; and when this undertaking was fulfilled, He spoke of it in terms which show that He regarded the finished task as one homogeneous moral result (John 17:4; John 19:28). In other words, our Lord’s obedience in His manner of living and dying followed the law of moral continuity. His obedience unto death was regulated, on His part, by one determinative moral principle; but there was diversity of incidental moral significance and value in the various positions in which His moral vocation summoned Him to act, and to be faithful and loyal to this principle.
(1) What was the principle which constituted the perfect moral unity of His obedience unto death? It was perfect love, manifesting itself in perfect self-sacrifice and service, and, in doing this, ever paying perfectly wise and loyal regard to the moral requirements of human life and destiny on the one hand, and to the moral requirements of God’s holy will and purpose in relation to those human requirements on the other (Matthew 20:28; Matthew 26:39, Mark 10:45, John 10:17-18; John 13:1-17; John 3:13-21; John 4:34; John 5:17-44; John 8:49-50; John 8:54-55; John 17:1-7; John 17:23; John 17:26). From such sayings of our Lord’s as are here referred to, it is obvious that the principle which regulated all the moral activities of His life was, in effect, of the nature and compass just defined. There are no words of His reported in any of the Gospels which justify the making of any essential distinction between the nature of His obedience or moral achievement during the time of the Passion, and the nature of it prior to the hour when He allowed Himself to fall into the power of His enemies. The period of His Passion was indeed unique in two things as regards His own part in it. From the moment that He began to pray in Gethsemane till the moment when He said ‘It is finished,’ on the cross, He endured unspeakable suffering, physical and moral, altogether unparalleled in His antecedent experience. Again, it was precisely during this period of His extremest suffering that all His powers of moral activity were subjected to their severest strain, and that they, under this strain, reached the highest possible point of their morally victorious, triumphant achievement. But these two facts, so distinctive of His Passion, made no real breach in the moral continuity and unity of the moral achievement of His life as a whole. His moral suffering did not begin with the last tragic hours of His life. There was an element of moral suffering in the compassion with which He was so often moved. He had looked forward to His predestined ‘hour’; and His words, ‘I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished!’ (Luke 12:50), suggest that, in anticipation of His cross, He may have spent many an hour in painful moral wrestling, in view of His destiny, long before His anticipations began actually to be realized. In any case, it may be taken as certain that there was no form of inward moral activity called forth in Him during the hours of His Passion, which had not been evoked many times over in previous situations of His life. But on the cross these moral activities of His, in the superlative degree of their strenuousness and in the transcendent magnitude of their victory over sin and temptation, eclipsed all the moral achievements of His past life. And yet in reality He died, in the sense of all that was essentially moral, as He had lived. He lived and died determined by the same moral principle, in the same spirit of love and self-sacrifice and service, and in the same spirit of perfectly wise and loyal regard to all the demands of God’s will and purpose on Him, and to all the demands on Him of the world’s moral needs.
This view of the moral unity of the achievement of Christ’s earthly activities is the truth as it was in His own thought. His thought was this: ‘Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life (ἐγὼ τίθημι τὴν ψυχήν μον), that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father’ (John 10:17-18). Now there is absolutely nothing in these words to justify any theologian in limiting the application of them to what our Lord did during the hours of His Passion. What He did then, in the exercise of His powers of moral activity, was to submit, in a way perfectly pleasing to God, to the sort of death predestined for Him. Again, for Him who was in God, and who had God in Him, ‘it was not death to die.’ He never was more alive, in the highest and deepest sense of the word as applied to a perfect moral being, than in the very moment on the cross when He cried with a loud voice, saying, ‘Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit’ (Luke 23:46). He did indeed lay down His life in submitting to His death, which He indisputably contemplated in the same way as St. Peter did in the words, ‘Him … ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain’ (Acts 2:23, cf. Matthew 16:21, John 7:19; John 8:37). But how did it come to pass that He was able to lay down His life in dying, doing so in such a manner that His Father loved Him in the doing of it and for the doing of it? It so came to pass because He had never done anything else but lay down His life (ψυχή) in living. All the moral powers of holy love, self-sacrifice, and service that were individualized in Him as the incarnate Son of God and man’s Redeemer,—these powers, which were His life, He laid down, consecrated, employed, every moment and in every situation of His life of free activity, in order perfectly to fullil His life’s vocation as determined for Him by His Father’s will and purpose, and by the moral necessities of the world which He had come to save. And it was because He did all this in living that He was able so successfully and triumphantly to do it all in dying. And the effect of this truth is neither to dim the moral splendour nor to detract from the moral value of our Lord’s death, but rather to reveal how great was the moral splendour and value of all the activities, words, and deeds of His life.
(2) But if His life prepared Him for dying, His death on the cross raised the moral splendour and value of His whole life to its highest powers of revelation and effect in the human soul and in the moral history of the world. The supreme distinction of the cross, as our Lord Himself understood it and trusted and hoped in it, as related to man’s redemption, was the unique, stupendous, tragic conjunction of sin and righteousness and judgment, a moral tragedy of which the cross was but the outward visible symbol. The complex event for which the cross stands is the most momentous and the most creative moral event in the history of the world’s moral course. In the tragic moral truth of this event God and Christ and man, God’s righteousness and love in Christ, man’s sin and salvation, and eternal judgment, were and are all directly concerned in the highest degree. The fact of Christ’s death is thus pregnant with all the inexhaustible powers necessary for the moral regeneration of the individual human soul and of the human race. Out of this fact springs the inspiration necessary to illuminate the human conscience with divinest moral ideas, and to make it live in the divinest power of moral sentiment. And it is in this internal moral renewal and its manifestations that the soul finds its true redemption and its highest life; so Christ Himself evidently thought (John 16:7-11).
4. It now remains to note, from the standpoint of the moral order of the world, some features of our Lord’s place and work therein, as the Mediator between God and men. His work of mediation in the flesh ended with His death on the cross, and it was preliminary to His mediation in the Spirit (John 14:12-26; John 16:7-11). His mediation in the Spirit, which will be continued until the Kingdom of God is perfected, is dependent for its existence and efficiency on the moral and historical conditions provided in His earthly life of obedience unto death, and in the revelation of sin, righteousness, and judgment in which the completion of His work in the flesh issued. What, then, are the nature, the objects, and the methods of our Lord’s mediation?
(1) Its general object is to save individuals from their sin by reconciling them to God, to perfect them as individuals in their moral nature and life, and to unite all who are thus saved in a life of eternal oneness with God, and with one another in Him.—(2) The sphere within which the mediation of Christ is carried on with a view to that end is that of the inward and immediate moral relations of God as a moral Being to men, and of men as moral beings to God. It was so even during the time of His earthly life and ministry in so far as His mediation took real saving effect in the moral nature and life of any of His disciples. It is so still in the current dispensation of the Spirit by whose agency His mediation is brought to saving effect in souls. All the methods of the Spirit’s work and all the moral effects that result from it imply the existence of internal, direct, living, moral relations between the soul and God in Christ.—(3) The mediation of Christ, as brought to effect by the Spirit’s work, is in every case a relation of His mediation to the individual. For the Spirit cannot work in any number of individuals as a body unless in so far as He works in the moral nature and life of each.—(4) The mediation of Christ operates through the Spirit’s agency by means of moral illumination and power—and moral illumination is always moral power.—(5) The moral means in question consist in the revelation of the holy gracious love or righteousness of God as realized by Christ, and manifested in His life and death of perfect self-sacrifice for the world’s salvation. The best name for all this is ‘grace’—the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, or the grace of God in Christ, which was and is no other thing than the sum of the living activities of God as holy love, evoked by men’s need of salvation from sin—men as moral beings. And this grace of God in Christ is moral. It is the highest and grandest form of the self-manifestation of God as a perfect moral Being.—(6) Hence it is only by means of appropriate moral conditions, existing in the individual’s own moral nature and inner life, that he can enter into and abide in a saving relation to the grace of God as mediated by Christ through the work of His Spirit. And these internal moral conditions are repentance, faith, and the spirit of free and loyal obedience to Christ or to God, all of which are essentially related to one another, in every one of which the whole of the individual’s moral nature comes to forms of manifestation in harmony with the will of God, and all together have the effect of uniting the individual directly and inwardly with God in Christ.—(7) This internal, immediate union of the individual with Christ, and therefore with God, is the true way of salvation and life for man (John 14:6) This secures not only forgiveness, but every moral or spiritual blessing that the individual needs for this world and the next, every blessing that God has to give or that it is possible for Him to bestow in Christ and through the work of His Spirit in the heart. The inward, direct union of the individual with Christ through repentance, faith, and the spirit of obedience, means that the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made him free from the law of sin and death (Romans 8:1-4). This law of the Spirit of life in Christ is the law of eternal righteousness. Thus the moral regeneration of the individual through his entrance into a state of union with Christ, and with God in Him, is a new life, which carries in it the whole principle of eternal righteousness; and his union with Christ, his dependence on Christ, his fellowship with Him in the love that is of God, are guarantees that the law of righteousness will eventually receive complete fulfilment through his walking not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. And what is the law of the Spirit of life and righteousness in Christ but the law of that moral order, through which Christ Jesus, by means of His mediation, first in the flesh and then in the Spirit, is establishing and perfecting all the moral relations of individual men to God and to one another in Him? This is the new creation that Christ is evolving in the moral course of the world by means of His mediation. And, having made peace by the blood of His cross, He will continue His mediation until He has reconciled all things in heaven and on earth unto Himself, and therefore to God (Colossians 1:20).
Literature.—Dale, Atonement7 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , Christian Doctrine, chs. x.–xii.; Bruce, Training of the Twelve, chs. xii., xvii., xviii., xxii., Humiliation of Christ, 317–400; Lux Mundi, ch. vii.; Denney, Death of Christ, Atonement and Modern Mind; Weiss, Bib. Theol. of NT, i. 419–452; Beyschlag, NT Theol. ii. 133–164; Kaftan, Dogmatik, p. 446 ff.
W. D. Thomson.
II. In the Epistles.—In keeping with the amount of space devoted in the Gospels to the story of Christ’s Passion is the place assigned to our Lord’s death in the Epistles, and the significance evidently attached to it. The material is so abundant that it is impossible to give it in full detail. All that can be attempted is a brief sketch covering the chief epistolary groups, in which, however, the Apocalypse may be included, as containing the ‘Letters to the Seven Churches,’ and forming an important part of the Johannine cycle. Two distinct features come before us: (1) the place given in the Epp. to the death of Christ; (2) the meaning assigned to it.
1. The place given to the death of Christ.—Beginning with 1 Peter, we see the prominence which the subject occupied in the Apostle’s mind when we find him in his very first sentence speaking of ‘the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ’ (1 Peter 1:2), and thereafter referring repeatedly to those sufferings of Christ on our behalf (1 Peter 1:18 f., 1 Peter 2:21 ff., 1 Peter 3:18, 1 Peter 4:1) of which he himself had been a witness (1 Peter 5:1).
Coming to St. Paul, we have not only the fact, apparent to every reader, that he set Christ’s death in the forefront of all his teaching, but his testimony that in doing so he was following the example of the earlier Apostles and the primitive Church. ‘I delivered unto you first of all,’ he writes, ‘that which also I received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures’ (1 Corinthians 15:3). And St. Paul’s preoccupation with the death of Christ was not a passing phase of his religious experience. We find him speaking of it in the first and last chapters of his earliest Epistle (1 Thessalonians 1:10; 1 Thessalonians 5:10). In the great Epistles of his middle period it is his dominating thought. The Ep. to the Galatians is a passionate apologia for the gospel which he preached (Galatians 1:8 ff.), a gospel whose substance he sums up in the words ‘Jesus Christ … crucified’ (Galatians 3:1), and with regard to which he exclaims, ‘God forbid that I should glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Galatians 6:14). In 1 Cor. he declares that when he came to Corinth he determined not to know anything there save Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2); and further assures his converts, in a passage already referred to, that in proclaiming Christ’s death ‘first of all’ he was only maintaining the Christian tradition as he had received it (1 Corinthians 15:3). In this same Epistle he hands on (1 Corinthians 11:23) the special tradition of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, refers to that rite as the central purpose for which the members of the Church came together (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:18 with 1 Corinthians 11:20 ff.), and says that in the observance of this great solemnity of the Christian faith we ‘proclaim the Lord’s death till he come’ (1 Corinthians 11:26). 2 Cor., besides many other references, contains the great classical passage in which Christ’s death is set forth as the convincing proof of His love and the basis of the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:14 ff.). In Romans the expressions ‘Christ died’ and ‘his death’ occur more frequently than in all the rest of St. Paul’s Epistles put together. ‘Christ died for the ungodly,’ we read (Romans 5:6); ‘while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:8); ‘he died unto sins once’ (Romans 6:10); ‘it is Christ Jesus that died, yea rather that was raised from the dead’ (Romans 8:34). Similarly, the Apostle writes, ‘We were reconciled to God through the death of his Son’ (Romans 5:10); ‘we were baptized into his death’ … ‘buried with him … into death,’ ‘united with him by the likeness of his death’ (Romans 6:3-5). And when we pass to the last group of the Pauline writings, although we find that in two of them, Colossians and Ephesians, the writer has a larger outlook than before, and thinks of Christ’s work now as having a cosmic and not merely a human significance (Colossians 1:15., Ephesians 1:10; Ephesians 1:20 ff.), he still exalts. Christ’s death as the very core of the work He did. It is ‘the firstborn from the dead’ (Colossians 1:18) who is ‘the firstborn of every creature’ (Colossians 1:15). ‘He is before all things, and by him all things consist’ (Colossians 1:17); but it is ‘through death’ (Colossians 1:22), ‘through his blood’ (Colossians 1:14), ‘through the blood of his cross’ (Colossians 1:20), that He brings peace and redemption and reconciliation (cf., further, Ephesians 1:10; Ephesians 1:20 ff. with Ephesians 2:13; Ephesians 2:16, Ephesians 5:2; Ephesians 5:25).
Very different views have been taken of the relation in the mind of the author of Hebrews between the incarnation and the death of Christ. But in any case it is agreed that it is upon the latter subject that the writer’s attention is especially fastened. It is in what he has to say about the death of Christ and its purpose that we find the real message of the work. It is to elucidate and illustrate this great theme that the author draws so freely upon his intimate acquaintance with the sacrificial rites and ministering priesthood of the OT Church (Hebrews 1:3; Hebrews 2:9; Hebrews 2:14; Hebrews 7:27; Hebrews 9:12 ff., Hebrews 9:26 ff; Hebrews 10:10; Hebrews 10:19 f., Hebrews 10:29; Hebrews 12:2; Hebrews 12:24; Hebrews 13:12).
With regard to the Apocalypse, it is noteworthy that at the very beginning of the book Jesus Christ is introduced to us as ‘the firstborn of the dead,’ and that the ascription immediately follows, ‘Unto him that loveth us, and loosed us from our sins by his blood’ (Revelation 1:5). And very significant surely is the constant recurrence, throughout the book, of the figure of the Lamb, a figure the meaning of which is made clear when the Lamb is described as ‘the Lamb that was slain,’ the Lamb by whose blood men of every nation have been ‘purchased unto God’ (see esp. Revelation 5:6; Revelation 5:9; Revelation 5:12, Revelation 7:14, Revelation 12:11). 1 Jn. is a treatise not on the death of Christ but on the ‘word of life’ (1 John 1:1). Jesus is conceived of as the manifested life (1 John 1:2), and union with Him through faith as the source of eternal life to men (1 John 5:11-13). And yet the condition of our transition from death to life is the fact that Christ ‘laid down his life for us’ (1 John 3:14; 1 John 3:16), and a Christian life which can be described as a ‘walk in the light’ is secured only by the fact that Jesus Christ the righteous is ‘the propitiation for our sins,’ and that His blood ‘cleanseth us from all sin’ (1 John 1:7, 1 John 2:1-2).
2. The meaning assigned to the death of Christ.—Having established the place given in the Epp. to Christ’s death, we must now consider the meaning which is assigned to it. (1) The fundamental thought in all the groups is that the death of Christ is a manifestation of the love of God. ‘God commendeth his own love toward us,’ says St. Paul, ‘in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:8). This Pauline keynote is one that is constantly struck. In 1 Peter ‘the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ’ is brought into immediate connexion with ‘the foreknowledge of God the Father’ (1 Peter 1:2)—a view of the Father’s relation to the death of Jesus which must not be lost sight of when the Apostle exclaims in the next verse, ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to his great mercy begat us again unto a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead’ (1 Peter 1:3). The author of Hebrews declares that it was by the grace of God that Jesus tested death for every man (Hebrews 2:9), and that it was by the will of God that we were ‘sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all’ (Hebrews 10:9-10). In 1 Jn. we have the great utterance, ‘Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins’ (Hebrews 4:10).
In all these writers, then, the grace of the Heavenly Father is the source of the redemption which is bound up with the death of Christ. In the case of St. Paul the attempt is frequently made to show that his teaching on the subject of Christ’s death as a necessary sacrifice for sin is inconsistent with the utterances of Jesus Himself (e.g. in the parable of the Prodigal Son, Luke 15:20 ff.) with regard to the Father’s spontaneous love for sinners. But whatever St. Paul said as to the propitiatory character of the death of Christ, it is evident that he never felt that he was compromising the love of God in any way. On the contrary, he saw in God’s love the original motive of Christ’s sacrifice (2 Corinthians 5:18), and in that sacrifice the commendation of the Father’s love (Romans 5:8).
(2) Further, the death of Christ is uniformly represented as the supreme expression of the love of Christ Himself. With St. Paul this is a central and constantly recurring thought. ‘The love of Christ constraineth us,’ he exclaims in one of his greatest passages, ‘because we thus judge, that one died for all’ (2 Corinthians 5:14). ‘Christ also,’ says St. Peter, ‘suffered for sins once, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God’ (1 Peter 3:18). In the view of the author of Hebrews, Jesus ‘offered himself’ (through His death, viz., as the preceding phrase, ‘the blood of Christ,’ shows) to purge the human conscience (Hebrews 9:14). And St. John writes, ‘He’ (i.e. Christ) ‘laid down his life for us’ (1 John 3:16).
The Father and the Son are thus represented as working together in Christ’s death for man’s salvation, and working together from motives of love. As St. Paul expresses it, ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself’ (2 Corinthians 5:19). But Christ is not the involuntary instrument of the Father’s love for men; He is Himself a willing sacrifice. He is the ‘Lamb of God,’ indeed, as the Baptist said (John 1:29; John 1:36); but He is not ‘brought as a lamb to the slaughter,’ as in the dim figure of the OT prophet. Rather, as in the conception of the writer of Hebrews, He is the High Priest who makes the offering, even more than the Lamb that is laid on the altar (Hebrews 9:11-14). St. Paul sums up the matter apart from the imagery of the Tabernacle and the Temple, and in the simple dialect of the heart, when he says, ‘The Son of God loved me, and gave himself up for me’ (Galatians 2:20).
(3) But while springing from the Divine love, the death of Christ is represented in the Epp. not less clearly as a propitiation for sin. According to St. Paul, as we have seen, it was the initial article of the primitive tradition that ‘Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures’ (1 Corinthians 15:3). And this part of the primary deposit of Apostolic testimony reappears in the witness of all the different epistolary groups. It reappears so constantly that no reader of the NT will challenge the statement that Christ’s death is invariably associated with the putting away of sin (cf. 1 Peter 1:18 f., 1 Peter 2:24; 1 Peter 3:18, Galatians 1:4; Galatians 3:13; Galatians 6:14, 2 Corinthians 5:14, Romans 3:21 ff; Romans 5:8 ff., Hebrews 9:26; Hebrews 9:28, 1 John 1:7; 1 John 2:2; 1 John 4:10). The discussion of the precise nature of the relation between these two magnitudes—the death of Christ and the sin of man—belongs properly to the doctrine of the Atonement (See Atonement, Ransom, Reconciliation, Redemption). But this at least may be said, that however the matter may appear to those who deal with it from the point view of a philosophy of the Atonement, any interpretation of the mass of NT evidence seems difficult and forced which does not recognize that, in the view of these writers, Christ’s death was really our death in a vicarious and propitiatory sense—that Jesus Christ died on our behalf that death which is the fruit of sin, taking upon Himself the Divine condemnation of sin, so that there might be no condemnation to those who are found in Him. That this is the Pauline teaching is generally admitted (see Romans 3:22 ff; Romans 4:23 ff; Romans 5:6 ff; Romans 8:1 and passim). But it seems not less the teaching of the other Epistles, if we take the language of the writers in its general connexion and natural sense. Is not this what St. Peter means when he says, ‘Who his own self bare our sins in his body on the tree, that we, having died unto sins, might live unto righteousness’ (1 Peter 2:24); and when he says again, ‘Because Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God’ (1 Peter 3:18)? Is it not the meaning of the author of Hebrews when he finds in the sacrifices of the Old Covenant types and shadows of the sacrifice of Christ, and speaks of Him as ‘having been once offered to bear the sins of many’ (9:28)? And is it not the Johannine view-also, seeing that we find ‘Jesus Christ the righteous’ described as ‘the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the whole world’ (1 John 2:2; cf. 1 John 4:10; see also Revelation 1:5; Revelation 5:6; Revelation 5:9; Revelation 5:12)?
(4) Once more, the death of Christ is set forth in the Epp. as a death from which there springs a life of holiness. These writers relate the death of Christ to the power as well as to the guilt of sin; they conceive of it not only on the side of its propitiatory effect, but as bringing a mighty regenerating influence into the life of man. St. Peter connects the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ with sanctification of the Spirit and obedience (1 Peter 1:2), and His death upon the tree with our living unto righteousness (1 Peter 2:24). The author of Hebrews, who says that Christ offered up sacrifice for sins ‘once for all, when he offered up himself (Hebrews 7:27), also says that the blood of Christ, by cleansing the conscience from dead works, sets us free ‘to serve the living God’ (Hebrews 9:14). St. John, writing of those who are already Christians, declares that the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanseth them from all sin (1 John 1:7). But it is above all in the Epistles of St. Paul that we find a full treatment of this idea of Christ’s death as the secret spring of a new life in the Christian himself, of a crucifixion with Christ whereby the very life of the Son of God flows into the heart (Galatians 2:20); of a burial with Christ which leads to a walk in newness of life, and a union with Him by a likeness to His death which carries with it the promise and the potency of a likeness to His resurrection (Romans 6:4-5).
There are some modern writers who insist that there is a duality in St. Paul’s view when he approaches the subject of Christ’s death in its relation to sin, and who distinguish between what they call his juridical and his ethico-mystical doctrines of reconciliation. The former is sometimes represented as nothing more than the precipitate of the Jewish theology in which the Apostle had been trained, while the latter is accepted as the genuine and immediate product of his personal experience (Holtzmann, NT Theologic, ii. 117f.). The common tendency among such writers is to hold that the Apostle had two quite distinct theories, which lay side by side in his mind in an entirely unrelated fashion. He set himself, it is supposed, to the high argument of showing how God and man could be reconciled, but never took the trouble to attempt to reconcile his own thoughts about the efficacy of Christ’s death. This, however, seems less than just to St. Paul. His theology as a whole hardly warrants the conclusion that he had no gift of systematic thinking, or that he would be content to allow his ideas on justification and regeneration respectively to lie together in his mind without concerning himself as to any possible connexion between them. It seems in every way more reasonable to think, for example, that in Romans 6:1 ff., the Apostle is not suddenly introducing a set of entirely new conceptions, connected with the sacrament of baptism, about a mystical fellowship with Christ in His death, considered as an archetypal dying unto sin, which conceptions stand in no sort of relation to all that has been said in Romans 3:25 ff., about justification through faith in the propitiating blood of Christ. Rather it appears natural to hold, in Professor Denney’s words, that the justifying faith of which St. Paul speaks in the earlier passage ‘is a faith which has a death to sin in it’ (Expositor, 6th ser. iv.  p. 306), so that when by faith we make Christ’s death our own, sin becomes to us what it is to the Sinless One Himself—we died to it as He died, and in dying to sin become alive unto God.
Literature.—Denney, Death of Christ, Studies in Theol. chs. v., vi., Expositor, VI. iv.  299 ff.; Stevens, Chr. Doct. of Salvation, pt. i. chs. iv.–vii.; Seeberg, Der Tod Christi; Weinet, St. Paul, ch. xx.; Weiss, Bib. Theol. of NT, i. 419–452; Kaftan, Dogmatik, p. 446 ff.; Expos. Times, xiv.  169.
J. C. Lambert.
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Hastings, James. Entry for 'Death of Christ'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​d/death-of-christ.html. 1906-1918.