What Really Happened on the Cross? Part 2
Few questions are more important than “What really happened on the cross?” Being a Christian and living as a Christian is dependent on giving a biblical answer. In the newest issue of Credo Magazine, “The Glory of the Atonement,” Mike Riccardi extrapolated five themes of Christ’s atonement in answer to this question.
Mike Riccardi has served on staff at Grace Community Church since 2010. He currently serves as the Pastor of Local Outreach Ministries, which includes overseeing Fundamentals of the Faith classes, eight foreign language outreach Bible studies, and evangelism in nearby jails, rehab centers, and in the local neighborhood. Mike earned his B.A. in Italian and his M.Ed in Foreign Language from Rutgers University, and his M.Div. and Th.M. from The Master’s Seminary, where he is currently pursuing his PhD while teaching as a Faculty Associate in the Theology Department. He also has the privilege of serving alongside Phil Johnson as co-pastor of the GraceLife fellowship group at Grace Church. Mike and his wife, Janna, have two children.
In addition to being a substitutionary sacrifice and a propitiation, Christ’s atonement is also the means of reconciliation between God and man. Man’s sin has not only incurred guilt (which requires sacrifice) and aroused God’s wrath (which requires propitiation). Sin has also effected hostility between God and man which must be overcome.
This alienation is pictured vividly throughout Scripture. In the Garden, after Adam and Eve sinned, Scripture records, “They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden” (Gen 3:8). It seems it was a regular occurrence for the holy presence of God to be moving about in the Garden. God would have had what could be described as face-to-face communion with Adam and Eve in the cool of the day. Yet after disobeying God, their immediate instinct was to hide from Him and avoid his fellowship. Before our first parents had even seen the Lord again, the presence of sin had already fundamentally altered their relationship. Eventually, Adam and Eve were driven out of the Garden, cut off from the holy presence of their God (Gen 3:22–24).
In Israel’s history, God’s separation from sinful man is powerfully illustrated by the threefold barrier of the tabernacle and temple. The tabernacle and the temple were where God uniquely manifested His presence, but because of sin, there was a threefold separation between God’s people and God’s presence. First, there was the outer court, which was accessible only to those who were bringing substitutionary sacrifices for their sins. Second, there was the holy place, which was accessible only to the priests who offered sacrifices for the people. And third, there was the holy of holies, or the most holy place, which was accessible only to the high priest only on the Day of Atonement, when he would make propitiation for the sins of the entire nation. Consider how far mankind had fallen. Adam and Eve once enjoyed face-to-face fellowship with God in the cool of the day; now blood had to be shed for one person in all of Israel to enter the presence of the Lord on one day of the year. The lesson?
The prophet Isaiah comments on this broken relationship when he says, “Your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear [you]” (Isa 59:2). We who were created for intimate friendship with our Creator have become His enemies (Rom 5:10), alienated from God, hostile in mind, and engaged in evil deeds (Col 1:21). In Romans 8:7, Paul says, “The mind set on the flesh”—which is to say the fleshly human mind in its natural state—“is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” This is our miserable condition. And yet it is precisely here, in the depth of our need, that the atoning work of Christ meets us with saving power. The atonement is a work of reconciliation, whereby the ground of the enmity and hostility and alienation between God and man is removed and peace is accomplished. Note the emphasis:
- Romans 5:10–11: “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.”
- 2 Corinthians 5:18–19: “Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation.”
- In Ephesians 2:16, Paul speaks of Christ reconciling both Jews and Gentiles “in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. And He came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near; for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father.”
- And in Colossians 1:20–22, Paul writes, God was pleased “through him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven. And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach.”
In a real sense, reconciliation is the most ultimate work of Christ’s cross, because it accomplishes the ground of the peace with God that we enjoy through our justification (Rom 5:1). Because of Christ’s atonement, we who were separated from the God we were created to know and worship will be restored to loving fellowship with Him. As Peter says “Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous” (1 Pet 3:18). This verse speaks of both the judicial and relational aspects of Christ’s work on our behalf. There is the judicial reality of the cross: Christ pays the penalty of our sin as our Substitute. Then, the next phrase tells us the “why” of Christ’s penal substitution: “. . . so that He might bring us to God.” This is the very goal of our salvation: restoring us to the all-satisfying, unspeakably glorious, consummately delightful God from whom our sins had cut us off. The glorious truths of propitiation, redemption, justification, forgiveness, and freedom from punishment (and more) all just get stuff out of the way so that we can get to Him. They exist to give us access to the Father (Eph 2:18), in whose presence is fullness of joy, and in whose right hand are pleasures forevermore (Ps 16:11). What makes the gospel good news is not simply that our sins are forgiven, that we get out of hell, that we do not feel guilty anymore, or that we get to see our friends and family in heaven. The very bottom of why the gospel is good news is because it reconciles us to the God who makes heaven heaven. Our sin had cut us off from Him—this magnificent treasure, this ocean of delight. And the cross of Christ overcomes the alienation and hostility that exists between us and God and purchases the reconciliation that brings us back to Him.