In the temptation in the wilderness Jesus deliberately put the way of man from him and chose the way of God, which meant the way to the cross. Hints in the story of the earlier ministry show that from then onwards the Cross was before his eyes. How could it fail to be when the Voice at his baptism which acclaimed him as the Beloved Son so firmly identified him with the Servant of the Lord in the prophecy of Isaiah? The words “in whom I am well pleased” unmistakably recall Isaiah 42:1: “Behold my servant, whom I uphold; mine elect, in whom my soul delighteth.” And so he could speak with a significance which would be hidden from his immediate hearers of the “Bridegroom” who would be “taken away”, saying that then would his servants fast.

This burden he had to carry alone until in the training of the Twelve the time was ripe to disclose it to them; and even then it fell on uncomprehending ears, though it left the disciples with puzzled foreboding. The chief value was that later they would be able to look back and see that Jesus had “set his face steadfastly” towards Golgotha, and that the crucifixion had its appointed and inevitable place in his service to the Father.

The time came when in the environs of Caesarea Philippi Simon Peter confessed him as Messiah. Then for the first time Jesus spoke boldly of his rejection, suffering, death and resurrection in terms drawn from Isaiah 53 and other parts of the Servant Songs. When Peter rebuked him, speaking  now with the outlook of men, Jesus turned on his heel to put the tempter behind him as he had done with the Adversary in the wilderness. Calling the disciples to him, he made a profound utterance on the meaning of his sacrifice and the road that they must follow: “Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it” (Mark 8:34–35).

The ultimate denial

To deny himself: to lose his life: this was what Jesus was about to do; and only so could he save it. The full force of the words can only be recognized in the light of the truth concerning the mortality of man and the nature of Christ. Death is death, for him as for others; and death voluntarily suffered in obedience to the express will of God is the total denial of the self, for in death man has ceased to be. For this end the death must indeed fulfil all the conditions stated in that sentence; it must be willing, it must be in obedience, it must be an identification with the will of the Father. It must not be an act of “will worship”, a deliberate seeking of martyrdom, a piece of bravado or self-advertisement, for that would be an assertion of the self and not the denial of it. Truly to be a denial of the self it must be in the spirit of Christ who prayed:

“O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.”

The only ransom

While in this Jesus was setting an example which true disciples must follow, he was at the same time undertaking an act which was possible for him alone. This was indicated by some other words of his:

“For even 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).

Once again in the context he was setting an example to the disciples:“Whosoever of you will be the chiefest shall be the servant of all”; yet the example was to be drawn from his own act which must be unique, giving his life as a ransom for the many. There could be no other ransom; and the very word “many” links the thought with that unique Servant of the Lord of whom it was said: “By his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities … he hath poured out his soul unto death … and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”

The representative man

Jesus, then, was both unique and representative; both apart from men and a man among men; one alone and yet a leader of followers. His sacrifice means that there is “none other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved”, yet he sets the pattern of living for all who will be his. So much may be drawn from the Scriptures already quoted, and may be abundantly supported from other parts of Holy Writ. Even thus far, however, a number of questions have been raised which must be followed further. Why could he alone ransom men? What is the “ransom”, and why was it needed? What was the nature and meaning of his sacrifice?

Ransom and redemption

The term “ransom” (lutron) is only one of a number of terms used in the New Testament for that which was accomplished in the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is closely related to other Greek words meaning redemption or deliverance, and in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) it represents at least three Hebrew words with different meanings. As a noun it is used to render distinct words meaning a covering or atonement, and freedom or release; in its verb form it translates yet another word meaning to free, to redeem, and cognate with the common word for “redeemer” as in the case of the redeemer or avenger of blood. It would be a great mistake therefore, to construe the word “ransom” too narrowly as though it could only be used of buying up slaves to set them free. The idea which it represents has widespreading roots in Old Testament thought.

Its foundations may be found in the deliverance of God’s people Israel in the Exodus from Egypt. Moses sang in his song of deliverance:

“Thou in thy mercy hast led forth the people which thou hast redeemed … The people … which thou hast purchased” (Exod 15:13,16).

This deliverance from bondage was reflected in various forms of “ransom” or “redemption” in the subsequent Mosaic Law. The redeeming of the firstborn directly recalled the deliverance in the first Passover. The half-shekel “ransom” or “atonement money” for every male acknowledged that they were not their own but had been “purchased” by Him, and that they needed a “covering” for their lives in His sight. The redemption of the land sold out of the family holding recognized that people and land were God’s possession and not to be alienated. The great Day of Atonement with all its sacrificial rites was a witness to their need for God’s “redemption” from death by His forgiveness of iniquity, transgression and sin. While different terms are used for these, all reflect in some way the one great national redemption, and the meaning of all the terms converges on the New Testament lutron, lutrōsis.

From the various examples, all stemming from the one great deliverance in the Exodus, it can be deduced that ransom is deliverance effected at a cost and with recognition of the rights of God.

Man’s need

From what does man need to be delivered? Paul states the facts with unsurpassed brevity: “By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned”.

All suffer the consequences of one sin, yet it is no arbitrary sentence imposed by despotism, for all are sinners; heredity and environment combine, their inherent tendency finds opportunity, their impulses are stirred, and they sin. Not one could on his own account stand acceptably before the holiness of God. So “through the trespass of the one the many died”. No works of their own could gain life. Yet the gift of God surpassed the judgment of God, for it was by His act of grace that the One Man came as the second Adam, and reversed the effect of the first sin. This he did by “obedience even unto death”, so that as “through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the one shall the many be made righteous”.

Sin, death, condemnation

In this connection there are three facts to be taken into account. The first is the fact that death “reigns”; all alike, the innocent babe and the aged sinner, are subjects of the dark despot. True though it is that men are constituted as the animals by nature, Paul’s teaching is that as a fact in the history of man death came into man’s experience as the consequence of the one man’s disobedience. It came as judgment by a divine sentence that he must return to the dust. All his progeny suffer in consequence; they suffer because the mortal cannot produce the immortal, and because the sinner cannot produce the sinless. Sin is a universal fact in human nature, and even the babe of a week old possesses the nature  which is prone to sin, though it may not be an actual sinner. Of the race as a whole it can be said comprehensively, “all have sinned”, and therefore death has passed upon them not by an arbitrary fiat, but as a necessity of the righteousness of God.

The second fact is that sin must come under God’s judgment and be condemned. It is a necessity of the holiness of God that sin cannot be tolerated. If it does not appear to come under instant judgment so that sinners go on generation by generation, that is an act of the “forbearance” of God, who always had in view the purpose of “declaring” or demonstrating His righteousness and providing a way of redemption. Sin was exhibited as under judgment when Christ came “in the likeness of sin’s flesh”, and, on our behalf, by a sacrifice for sin “condemned sin” – and condemned it in the sphere where it held sway, “in the flesh”. It is one of the paradoxes of the Cross that he condemned it by showing as a representative of men the judgment due to human nature, and at the same time as the One Man he condemned it by repudiating sin even to the extent of dying, so perfecting his obedience to God. Here are the two sides of the same fact, that the dramatic exhibition of judgment upon sin was at the same time the perfect fulfilment of obedience: and it was because of this two-fold character of the same fact that it could be written: “… we did esteem him smitten, stricken of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripe we are healed.”

For us

It is here that we can find the solution of the problem of what is called “vicarious” atonement: the problem involved in the words, he was smitten, we are healed. The solution is that he was identified with us in the very act in which he was most distinct from us. One of us in nature, he died as man, showing the death due to men; but he died as the willing representative of men, in order that all men may be identified with him. Seeing him stricken, men thought him something apart from them, a sinner they could scorn. They had to learn that he was impaled on the Cross on their behalf, and that if they were to find life they must be identified with him. They thought him something different and found that he embraced them all; they thought him a sinner, and found him the only righteous one.

“Him who knew no sin (God) made to be sin on our behalf; that we might become the righteousness of God in him.”

Yet sharp as is the contrast between him and ourselves, Christ died “for us”, and not “instead of us”. Commenting on Paul’s use of the preposition huper, on behalf of, Dr. Vincent Taylor comments: “Nowhere does he use anti, ‘instead of ’. From this we may certainly infer that he did not look on the death of Christ as that of a substitute.” In one place he uses peri, concerning or on account of:

“For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him.”

Lifted up

It is as the sinless example of sin that he was “lifted up” in the sight of men as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. At that time serpentbitten men could look on the emblem of their sin and its penalty lifted up as an ensign; and, turning to it in contrition and faith, they were healed. So today men can look on the sinless One “made sin”, lifted up as God’s ensign, and be saved from perishing to gain eternal life.

“God so loved . . .”

These allusions to John 3:14–16 lead on naturally to the further fact which is to be noted—the fact which is indeed the foundation of all: “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son …” Redemption issues from God; all the deliverance is by His grace through Christ. Justification comes to men as a gift, and it is a “gift by grace”, the gift of the “one man, Jesus Christ”. “God commendeth his own love towards us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” The whole movement of redemption emanates from God towards those who are powerless to redeem themselves: by the greatest paradox of all, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself ”. The very power to lay hold of the offer of forgiveness and life must come as a response to the love of God revealed in Christ Jesus. Nothing but the knowledge of our own need and the love that reaches out to us can break down the barrier of resistance which human nature puts up.

His death as a sacrifice

While true understanding is impossible without love, emotion alone may mask or distort some of the hard realities underlying the atonement. It may tend in particular to direct attention to Christ’s death as an example of love to such a degree as to detract from its importance as a sacrifice. This has happened in some thinking about the atonement from Abelard to the present day. That “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us” is a truth to be held firmly, and it was in the Lord’s mind when in a Passover-time discourse he said, “the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world”. The allusion can hardly be missed: as the lamb was slain, its blood sprinkled and the flesh eaten for the life of Israel in Egypt, so he will be for the life of the world; yet he shows how far the reality will transcend the type in life-giving power when he adds that not only must they eat his flesh but they must drink his blood – a thing impossible under the law. A sacrifice he was truly, summing up in himself all the offerings under the Law which were fulfilled and transcended in him. His sacrifice was not only in pouring out his life in death on the cross, nor even in the life of submission to the will of his Father which was completed in his obedience in death; it was in the total denial of himself in order to accept the will of God – a denial even to the extinction of his own life and the oblivion of his own will. It was a “cutting off ” of which circumcision was a type, a repudiation of all that “flesh” stood for. And where there was utter denial there was a great affirmation; in saying “No” to himself he said “Yes” to God. Because he affirmed God as supreme he would rise to live in God. Just as a great Apostle could afterwards say, “I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me” – so the Son of man himself might have said, “I died, yet nevertheless I live; yet not I, but my Father liveth in me”.

God’s “yes”

Resurrection was essential to the atonement. It was God’s “Yes” to the Son’s self-denial, God’s acceptance of the offering of himself. It is God’s opening of the way of forgiveness and life in Christ’s sacrifice. It is God’s affirmation that as He lives, so those who are His shall live in Him, for He is God of the living and the fountain of life. And it is God’s declaration that all the work is His, for His love in giving His Son is fulfilled in receiving His Son as the firstborn among many brethren. This resurrection was morally possible for one who was sinless yet the representative of sinners. Indeed, because of his sinlessness it was a moral necessity: God raised him up because it was “not possible that he should be holden” of death.

  The death we must die

As Christ, the sinless Son of man, was identified with sinful men in his death, so they, through repentance, can be identified with him in his resurrection. But first they too must die – die in ritual symbol as a mark of their obedience unto death. They must deny themselves, recognizing that as men they have no claim to life before God. They must deny the self-centred life governed by impulses and desires which is human nature. They must repudiate the works which that nature produces when left to itself, and must seek forgiveness for their past deeds. They must turn resolutely to a new life which is not their own, a new manhood which has neither its origin nor its growth in human will.

All this “change of mind” is put to the test in one decisive act of obedience to a command. It is the act of burial with him in baptism – an act which is purposeless apart from his command, and meaningless apart from his death and resurrection; an act which in the judgment of men is foolish as the cross of Christ was foolish, but to those who are called of God it is, like the cross, “the power of God and the wisdom of God”. It is an expression of God’s power because in it is granted God’s forgiveness and a rising to new life in the risen Christ. That new life is the starting point of a course, the beginning of a contest, which involves a continuing death to the self. The end by God’s grace is a sharing in Christ’s immortality.

Contrast

These thoughts make no claim to completeness as a study of the atonement. One thing which emerges from them, however, is that at every point connected with atonement there is a two-foldness which seems a contradiction, and yet is resolved in a larger truth.

God is love, yet He requires the sacrifice of His Son to condemn sin for only so could love and inviolable holiness find expression in mercy.

The Son of man is sinless, yet identified with sinners  for only so can they be identified with his righteousness.

His offering of himself is unique, for no one else could give his life for men; yet it is a pattern for all to follow, both in their identification with him in baptism, and in their course in daily life.

The sinless one was “made sin”: in him sin was exhibited in all its power as it had been in the type of the uplifted bronze serpent, and the judgment on sin was shown; yet in that very act he was “fulfilling all righteousness” in perfect obedience to the Father.

Thus the sinless one was identified with sinners, bearing the sins of the many, in the very act of death in which he was finally victorious over sin. He was one with men at the very moment that he was most exalted above them.

The sources of distortion

And so we might go on: at every point there is an antithesis to be resolved in a larger understanding. The very idea of “making peace” between the holy God and sinful men involves a reconciliation of opposites, and for God Himself to be the Reconciler surpasses man’s comprehension. As the Psalmist says, “There is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared”. From this fundamental paradox the others follow. It is because of this two-foldness that so often there has been a tendency to emphasize one aspect of the atonement or the other to the distortion of both and the breeding of controversy. Christ’s humanity as son of Adam or his divinity as Son of God; his holiness as separate from sinners, or his identification with sinners; the uniqueness of his sacrifice, or its power as an example; his doing what none could do, yet doing what all must share – all these have proved stumbling-blocks. Yet such apparent contradictions are inherent in the whole wondrous idea of God in Christ reconciling a world unto Himself. We come to understanding, not by trying to find a middle way between extremes, but by seeing them as opposite aspects of the same truth – which we may very feebly compare to two sides of a medal.

In that light we shall see Jesus as a member of the race of Adam, sharing the nature he came to save and the experiences from which he came to deliver us. Yet we shall see him victorious over sin and free from its defilement. We shall see him sharing not only our life but our death, dying the death of men; not having some other life to offer as a ransom price in our stead, but willingly yielding for our sakes the life he shared with us, redeeming us at the cost ofhis own death. We see him bearing our sins as the sinless one who is one with us and can stand for us. And we rejoice in this provision by the gift of God of a Mercy Seat where we can come by faith for forgiveness of sins