Thinking with Scripture about the Cross: Moral Example

Posted by: Stephen J. Wellum

Over the last series of posts, we have been thinking through the Bible’s description of the cross, and how Scripture presents our Lord’s death in all of its richness, glory, and redeeming splendor. We have compared the biblical interpretation of the cross to a precious gemstone. Just as one gazes on the beauty of a precious gem from a number of different yet complementary angles, so we fix our eyes on the cross. In fact, each angle or description is necessary to capture the picture of the “whole,” that is, the comprehensive nature and total presentation of Scripture’s teaching about why God the Son incarnate had to die, and what he precisely achieved in his death for us and “for our sins” (1 Cor. 15:3). It is only after we do this that we can begin to grasp the meaning and significance of the cross and appreciate why the message of the cross is for us who are being saved “the power and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24).

In addition, we have also argued that to grasp the Bible’s view of the cross, we must place its description within the Bible’s own framework, categories, and covenantal unfolding. This point may seem obvious, but sadly it is not! Too often people remove the biblical words and concepts from the Bible’s understanding and presentation of these words/concepts, thus neutering and distorting the biblical teaching. Specifically, we have argued that to comprehend the biblical view of the atonement, we must fathom who the triune God is as our Creator and Lord, who our Lord Jesus Christ is as the Word made flesh, and the serious nature of human sin before God.

After all, the Bible, from beginning to end is clear: our greatest problem as humans is not our lack of education, a bad environment, our genetics, or the injustices we have experienced from others, but our sin before the “Judge of all the earth” (Gen. 18:25). What fallen creatures need more than anything else is to stand justified before our holy, righteous, and good Creator. If we get these basic theological points wrong, we will never fully grasp the achievement of Christ’s cross and why the cross was necessary for our salvation. However, the flipside is also true: if we gaze upon the cross from within the teaching of a whole Bible, we then discover not only the meaning of the cross but also why the Bible’s multifaceted description of the cross is intertwined, complementary, and simply glorious.

One further point: as we have walked through each way Scripture describes and interprets the cross, we have argued that the best theological understanding of the cross is penal substitution. Why? Because, in contrast to other views of the cross, it best accounts for all the biblical data, especially within the Bible’s own framework, categories, and covenantal storyline. Specifically, it best accounts for what is central to the cross and why the divine Son had to die and why he alone can redeem, reconcile, and justify us before God. Apart from penal substitution, as the overall theological interpretation of the cross, each biblical description hangs in midair. But when each Scriptural truth is viewed in light of penal substitution, then we can make sense of what Christ is doing on the cross as our new covenant head and substitute, and make sense of all of the cross’s saving entailments and consequences for us.

Before I conclude with some final comments, let me say something about the last way the Bible presents the cross, not only for the sake of completion but also to account for the fullness of Scripture’s teaching regarding our Lord’s atoning work for us.

Christ’s Cross as a Moral Example

Alongside all the ways the Bible describes the cross—an act of covenantal obedience, a propitiatory sacrifice, our redemption and reconciliation, an act of justice, and where victory over our enemies is achieved—Scripture also presents Christ’s cross as a moral example. In fact, the cross is presented as the supreme moral example for believers of love, obedience, and suffering. As such, it serves as the standard of the kind of attitude and behavior we are to have as Christ’s disciples (e.g., John 13:12-17; Eph. 5:1-2, 25-27; Phil. 2:5-11; 1 Pet. 2:18-25; 1 John 4:7-12).

However, with that said, the cross is never explained theologically by what is known as “the moral example” or “exemplary view” of the cross. This view gained prevalence in the Enlightenment and it continues within non-orthodox theology. Its problem is that it reduces all of the biblical teaching to this one image, and it guts the cross of its substitutionary nature “for our sins.” In truth, no one in the history of the church has held to the exemplary view as the sole explanation for the cross. Those who did, especially within a larger liberal theology, simply demonstrated that they have embraced another gospel, and rejected the biblical teaching within the framework, categories, and storyline of Scripture.

But with that said, it is important to never forget that our Lord does set an example for us in his life and death. Thus, in his obedience as the Son incarnate, Christ demonstrates what a true image-bearer looks like. In his interaction with others, he reveals how we ought to act, and even in his suffering—although it is utterly unique and unrepeatable—it teaches us how we are to respond to our enemies, endure unjust suffering, and learn to put others before ourselves. For the Christian, Christ’s life and death is to move us to moral action, but it does so because it is grounded in the unique and objective work he accomplished for us at Calvary. In other words, without the singular, unique, and objective work of the cross, it would not serve as an example for us.

In a similar way, it is never enough for Christ merely to identify with us in his incarnation and show us how to live. As we have mentioned before, solidarity is not itself atonement, only its prerequisite. To redeem us, Scripture teaches that we need more than a mere example. What is needed is for Christ to live and die for us. Our problem is not a lack of knowledge so that all we need is a great prophet or teacher. Our problem is sin before God and this problem requires the enfleshment of God’s own dear Son to represent us in his obedient life and to die for us in his obedient death as our great high priest and our covenant mediator. It is only when Christ acts for us as our propitiatory sacrifice that God’s own righteous demand is fully met, and we, by faith alone in Christ alone, receive all the glorious benefits of his new covenant work: redemption, reconciliation, justification, and victory over all of our enemies.

Concluding Reflection: Christ as our Exclusive and All-Sufficient Savior

After walking through the biblical teaching, our conclusion is that penal substitution is the best way of capturing and making sense of all of the biblical data. No doubt, the biblical language describing the cross is rich and diverse, and we must never succumb to reductionism. Yet, when all of the data is placed properly within Scripture, penal substitution best captures the Bible’s own explanation for why Christ had to do die as our Lord and Savior.

In fact, as one works through all of the data, one discovers our human need, the sovereign and gracious initiative of our triune God to redeem, and how he has done so in the representative and substitutionary work of our new covenant mediator.

For example, think of how the biblical data highlights a different aspect of our human need. Obedience reminds us that we are disobedient and thus require a covenant mediator who obeys completely. Sacrifice stresses our defilement, guilt, and pollution before God, while propitiation underscores God’s wrath upon us. Redemption highlights our bondage and captivity to sin, while reconciliation speaks of our enmity towards God and his enmity against us, hence the need for peaceful relations to be restored once again. Justification stresses our guilt before the sovereign Judge, while conquest speaks of our bondage to the powers.

However, just as the biblical language reminds us of our human need, it also emphasizes God’s sovereign grace and initiative to save, thus highlighting the God-centeredness of the cross and our salvation. From eternity past, the triune God planned, initiated, and accomplished our salvation. In Christ alone, the Father has sent his obedient Son, who willingly obeyed and became the Lamb of God who takes away our sin to meet God’s own righteous demand. In Christ, God took the initiative to satisfy his own just demand by becoming sin for us, absorbing the Father’s wrath, redeeming us from sin and death, and restoring us to the purpose of our creation: to know, glorify, and serve God.

But none of this biblical data makes sense apart from viewing Christ’s work, in his life and death, as the one who shed his blood as our new covenant head, our great high priest, and as our penal substitute. All the benefits of Christ’s are ours because the Son became man, represented us in his life and death, and died in our place. Everything that is ours in salvation is due to him and the application of his work to us in faith union with him. Christ alone took our wretchedness, sin, and death, and in so doing, he has given us his righteousness and life.

J. I. Packer beautifully makes this point. In working through the biblical data, he nicely concludes that one cannot make sense of the biblical presentation of the cross apart from penal substitution. He writes:

What did Christ’s death accomplish? It redeemed us to God—purchased us at a price, that is, from captivity to sin for the freedom of life with God (Tit 2:14; Rev 5:9). How did it do that? By being a blood-sacrifice for our sins (Eph 1:7: Heb 9:11-15). How did that sacrifice have its redemptive effect? By making peace, achieving reconciliation, and so ending enmity between God and ourselves (Rom 5:10; 2 Cor 5:18-20); Eph 2:13-16; Col 1:19-20). How did Christ’s death make peace? By being a propitiation, an offering appointed by God himself to dissolve his judicial wrath against us by removing our sins from his sight (Rom 3:25; Heb 2:17; 1 Jn 2:2; 4:10). How did the Savior’s self-sacrifice have this propitiatory effect? By being a vicarious enduring of the retribution declared due to us by God’s own law (Gal 3:13; Col 2:13-14)—in other words, by penal substitution.[1]

Similar to Packer, Philip Bliss also captures the biblical view of penal substitution, but this time in poetry and hymn. As we conclude our reflections on the cross, we will let Bliss have the final word, but may it be true of us that we forever glory in Christ Jesus our Lord and unashamedly proclaim him and the glory of his cross.

Bearing shame and scoffing rude

In my place condemned he stood,

Sealed my pardon with his blood—

Hallelujah! What a Saviour!

[1] J. I. Packer, “The Atonement in the Life of the Christian,” in The Glory of the Atonement, eds. Charles E. Hill and Frank A. James III (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 416.

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