Ch.3 The Atonement (I)

Making Sense of CHRIST AND THE SPIRIT by Wayne Grudem

The Atonement
Was it necessary for Christ to die? Did Christ’s
entire earthly life earn any saving benefits
for us? The cause and nature of the atonement.
Did Christ descend into hell?
EXPLANATION AND SCRIPTURAL BASIS
We may define the atonement as follows: The atonement is the work Christ did in his
life and death to earn our salvation. This definition indicates that we are using the word
atonement in a broader sense than it is sometimes used. Sometimes it is used to refer
only to Jesus’ dying and paying for our sins on the cross. But, as will be seen below, since
saving benefits also come to us from Christ’s life, we have included that in our definition
as well.1
A. The Cause of the Atonement
What was the ultimate cause that led to Christ’s coming to earth and dying for our
sins? To find this we must trace the question back to something in the character of God
himself. And here Scripture points to two things: the love and justice of God.
The love of God as a cause of the atonement is seen in the most familiar passage in the
Bible: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him
should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). But the justice of God also required
that God find a way that the penalty due to us for our sins would be paid (for he could
not accept us into fellowship with himself unless the penalty was paid). Paul explains that
this was why God sent Christ to be a “propitiation” (Rom. 3:25 NASB) (that is, a sacrifice
1Of course, there are also saving benefits that come to us
from Christ’s resurrection and ascension, from his continuing
high priestly work of intercession for us, and from his second
coming. For the sake of clarity, I have here included under the
title “atonement” only those things that Christ did for our salvation
during his earthly life and in his death.
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that bears God’s wrath so that God becomes “propitious” or favorably disposed toward
us): it was “to show God’s righ teousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed
over former sins” (Rom. 3:25). Here Paul says that God had been forgiving sins in the
Old Testament but no penalty had been paid — a fact that would make people wonder
whether God was indeed just and ask how he could forgive sins without a penalty. No
God who was truly just could do that, could he? Yet when God sent Christ to die and pay
the penalty for our sins, “it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righ teous
and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26).
Therefore both the love and the justice of God were the ultimate cause of the atonement.
It is not helpful for us to ask which is more important, however, because without the
love of God, he would never have taken any steps to redeem us, yet without the justice of
God, the specific requirement that Christ should earn our salvation by dying for our sins
would not have been met. Both the love and the justice of God were equally important.
B. The Necessity of the Atonement
Was there any other way for God to save human beings than by sending his Son to
die in our place?
Before answering this question, it is important to realize that it was not necessary for
God to save any people at all. When we appreciate that “God did not spare the angels
when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of nether gloom
to be kept until the judgment” (2 Peter 2:4), then we realize that God could also have
chosen with perfect justice to have left us in our sins awaiting judgment: he could have
chosen to save no one, just as he did with the sinful angels. So in this sense the atonement
was not absolutely necessary.
But once God, in his love, decided to save some human beings, then several passages in
Scripture indicate that there was no other way for God to do this than through the death of
his Son. Therefore, the atonement was not absolutely necessary, but, as a “consequence” of
God’s decision to save some human beings, the atonement was absolutely necessary. This
is sometimes called the “consequent absolute necessity” view of the atonement.
In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus prays, “If it be possible, let this cup pass from me;
nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39). We may be confident that Jesus
always prayed according to the will of the Father, and that he always prayed with fullness
of faith. Thus it seems that this prayer, which Matthew takes pains to record for us, shows
that it was not possible for Jesus to avoid the death on the cross which was soon to come to
him (the “cup” of suffering that he had said would be his). If he was going to accomplish
the work that the Father sent him to do, and if people were going to be redeemed for God,
then it was necessary for him to die on the cross.
He said something similar after his resurrection, when he was talking with two disciples
on the road to Emmaus. They were sad that Jesus had died, but his response was,
“O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it
not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Luke
24:25 – 26). Jesus understood that God’s plan of redemption (which he explained for the
disciples from many Old Testament Scriptures, Luke 24:27) made it necessary for the
Messiah to die for the sins of his people.
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Chapter 3 • The Atonement
As we saw above, Paul in Romans 3 also shows that if God were to be righ teous, and
still save people, he had to send Christ to pay the penalty for sins: “It was to prove at the
present time that he himself is righ teous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus”
(Rom. 3:26). The epistle to the Hebrews emphasizes that Christ had to suffer for our sins:
“He had to be made like his brethren in every respect, so that he might become a merciful
and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation [lit. ‘propitiation’] for
the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17). The author of Hebrews also argues that since “it is
impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins” (Heb. 10:4), a better
sacrifice is required (Heb. 9:23). Only the blood of Christ, that is, his death, would be
able really to take away sins (Heb. 9:25 – 26). There was no other way for God to save us
than for Christ to die in our place.
C. The Nature of the Atonement
In this section we consider two aspects of Christ’s work: (1) Christ’s obedience for us,
in which he obeyed the requirements of the law in our place and was perfectly obedient
to the will of God the Father as our representative, and (2) Christ’s sufferings for us, in
which he took the penalty due for our sins and as a result died for our sins.
It is important to notice that in both of these categories the primary emphasis and the
primary influence of Christ’s work of redemption is not on us, but on God the Father.
Jesus obeyed the Father in our place and perfectly met the demands of the law. And he
suffered in our place, receiving in himself the penalty that God the Father would have visited
upon us. In both cases, the atonement is viewed as objective; that is, something that
has primary influence directly on God himself. Only secondarily does it have application
to us, and this is only because there was a definite event in the relationship between God
the Father and God the Son that secured our salvation.
1. Christ’s Obedience for Us (Sometimes Called His “Active Obedience”). If Christ had
only earned forgiveness of sins for us, then we would not merit heaven. Our guilt would
have been removed, but we would simply be in the position of Adam and Eve before they
had done anything good or bad and before they had passed a time of probation successfully.
To be established in righ teousness forever and to have their fellowship with God
made sure forever, Adam and Eve had to obey God perfectly over a period of time. Then
God would have looked on their faithful obedience with pleasure and delight, and they
would have lived with him in fellowship forever.
For this reason, Christ had to live a life of perfect obedience to God in order to earn
righ teousness for us. He had to obey the law for his whole life on our behalf so that the
positive merits of his perfect obedience would be counted for us. Sometimes this is
called Christ’s “active obedience,” while his suffering and dying for our sins is called his
“passive obedience.”2 Paul says his goal is that he may be found in Christ, “not having
2Some have objected that this “active” and “passive” terminology
is not entirely satisfactory, because even in paying for
our sins Christ was in one sense actively accepting the suffering
given him by the Father and was even active inlaying down his
own life (John 10:18). Moreover, both aspects of Christ’s obedience
continued through his whole life: his active obedience
included faithful obedience from birth up to and including the
point of his death; and his suffering on our behalf, which found
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Making Sense of Christ and the Spirit
a righ teousness of [his] own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the
righ teousness from God that depends on faith” (Phil. 3:9). It is not just moral neutrality
that Paul knows he needs from Christ (that is, a clean slate with sins forgiven), but
a positive moral righ teousness. And he knows that that cannot come from himself, but
must come through faith in Christ. Similarly, Paul says that Christ has been made “our
righ teousness” (1 Cor. 1:30). And he quite explicitly says, “For as by one man’s disobedience
many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righ teous”
(Rom. 5:19).
Some theologians have not taught that Christ needed to achieve a lifelong record
of perfect obedience for us. They have simply emphasized that Christ had to die and
thereby pay the penalty for our sins.3 But such a position does not adequately explain
why Christ did more than just die for us; he also became our “righ teousness” before
God. Jesus said to John the Baptist, before he was baptized by him, “It is fitting for us to
fulfil all righ teousness” (Matt. 3:15).
It might be argued that Christ had to live a life of perfect righ teousness for his own
sake, not for ours, before he could be a sinless sacrifice for us. But Jesus had no need to
live a life of perfect obedience for his own sake — he had shared love and fellowship with
the Father for all eternity and was in his own character eternally worthy of the Father’s
good pleasure and delight. He rather had to “fulfill all righ teousness” for our sake; that
is, for the sake of the people whom he was representing as their head. Unless he had done
this for us, we would have no record of obedience by which we would merit God’s favor
and merit eternal life with him. Moreover, if Jesus had needed only sinlessness and not
also a life of perfect obedience, he could have died for us when he was a young child rather
than when he was thirty-three years old.
By way of application, we ought to ask ourselves whose lifelong record of obedience
we would rather rely on for our standing before God, Christ’s or our own? As we think
about the life of Christ, we ought to ask ourselves, was it good enough to deserve God’s
approval? And are we willing to rely on his record of obedience for our eternal destiny?
2. Christ’s Sufferings for Us (Sometimes Called His “Passive Obedience”). In addition
to obeying the law perfectly for his whole life on our behalf, Christ also took on himself
the sufferings necessary to pay the penalty for our sins.
a. Suffering for His Whole Life: In a broad sense the penalty Christ bore in paying for
our sins was suffering in both his body and soul throughout his life. Though Christ’s
sufferings culminated in his death on the cross (see below), his whole life in a fallen
world involved suffering. For example, Jesus endured tremendous suffering during the
its climax in the crucifixion, continued through his whole life
(see discussion below). Nevertheless, the distinction between
active and passive obedience is still useful because it helps us
appreciate the two aspects of Christ’s work for us. (See the
discussion in John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and
Applied [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955], pp. 20 – 24.) R. L.
Reymond prefers the terms preceptive (for active) and penal
(for passive), in his article “Obedience of Christ,” EDT, p. 785.
3For example, I could find no discussion of the active
obedience of Christ in the seven-volume Systematic Theology
by Lewis Sperry Chafer (Dallas: Dallas Seminary Press,
1947 – 48) or in Millard Erickson’s Chris tian Theology (Grand
Rapids: Baker, 1985), pp. 761 – 800.
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Chapter 3 • The Atonement
temptation in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1 – 11), when he was assaulted for forty days by
the attacks of Satan.4 He also suffered in growing to maturity, “Although he was a Son,
he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8). He knew suffering in the
intense opposition he faced from Jewish leaders throughout much of his earthly ministry
(see Heb. 12:3 – 4). We may suppose too that he experienced suffering and grief at
the death of his earthly father,5 and certainly he experienced grief at the death of his
close friend Lazarus (John 11:35). In predicting the coming of the Messiah, Isaiah said
he would be “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3).
b. The Pain of the Cross: The sufferings of Jesus intensified as he drew near to the cross.
He told his disciples of something of the agony he was going through when he said, “My
soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (Matt. 26:38). It was especially on the cross that
Jesus’ sufferings for us reached their climax, for it was there that he bore the penalty for
our sin and died in our place. Scripture teaches us that there were four different aspects
of the pain that Jesus experienced:
(1)Physical Pain and Death: We do not need to hold that Jesus suffered more physical
pain than any human being has ever suffered, for the Bible nowhere makes such a claim.
But we still must not forget that death by crucifixion was one of the most horrible forms
of execution ever devised by man.
Many readers of the Gospels in the ancient world would have witnessed crucifixions and
thus would have had a painfully vivid mental picture upon reading the simple words “And
they crucified him” (Mark 15:24). A criminal who was crucified was essentially forced to
inflict upon himself a very slow death by suffocation. When the criminal’s arms were outstretched
and fastened by nails to the cross, he had to support most of the weight of his body
with his arms. The chest cavity would be pulled upward and outward, making it difficult
to exhale in order to be able to draw a fresh breath. But when the victim’s longing for oxygen
became unbearable, he would have to push himself up with his feet, thus giving more
natural support to the weight of his body, releasing some of the weight from his arms, and
enabling his chest cavity to contract more normally. By pushing himself upward in this way
the criminal could fend off suffocation, but it was extremely painful because it required
putting the body’s weight on the nails holding the feet, and bending the elbows and pulling
upward on the nails driven through the wrists.6 The criminal’s back, which had been torn
open repeatedly by a previous flogging, would scrape against the wooden cross with each
breath. Thus Seneca (first century A.D.) spoke of a crucified man “drawing the breath of
life amid long-drawn-out agony” (Epistle 101, to Lucilius, section 14).
A physician writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1986 explained
the pain that would have been experienced in death by crucifixion:
4In Mark 1:13 the present participle peirazomenos, “being
tempted,” modifies the imperfect main verb of the clause (enm ,
“was”), indicating that Jesus was continually being tempted
throughout the forty days in which he was in the wilderness.
5Although Scripture does not explicitly say that Joseph
died during Jesus’ life, we hear nothing of him after Jesus is
twelve years old: see discussion in chapter 2, n. 7.
6The Greek word usually translated “hand” (cheir: Luke
24:39 – 40; John 20:20) can sometimes refer to the arm (BAGD,
p. 880; LSJ, p. 1983, 2). A nail through the hands would not
have been able to support the weight of the body, for the hands
would have torn.
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Adequate exhalation required lifting the body by pushing up on the feet and by
flexing the elbows. . . . However, this maneuver would place the entire weight of
the body on the tarsals and would produce searing pain. Furthermore, flexion
of the elbows would cause rotation of the wrists about the iron nails and cause
fiery pain along the damaged median nerves. . . . Muscle cramps and paresthesias
of the outstretched and uplifted arms would add to the discomfort. As
a result, each respiratory effort would become agonizing and tiring and lead
eventually to asphyxia.7
In some cases, crucified men would survive for several days, nearly suffocating but not
quite dying. This was why the executioners would sometimes break the legs of a criminal,
so that death would come quickly, as we see in John 19:31 – 33:
Since it was the day of Preparation, in order to prevent the bodies from remaining
on the cross on the sabbath (for that sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked
Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. So
the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been
crucified with him; but when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already
dead, they did not break his legs.
(2) The Pain of Bearing Sin: More awful than the pain of physical suffering that Jesus
endured was the psychological pain of bearing the guilt for our sin. In our own experience
as Chris tians we know something of the anguish we feel when we know we have
sinned. The weight of guilt is heavy on our hearts, and there is a bitter sense of separation
from all that is right in the universe, an awareness of something that in a very deep
sense ought not to be. In fact, the more we grow in holiness as God’s children, the more
intensely we feel this instinctive revulsion against evil.
Now Jesus was perfectly holy. He hated sin with his entire being. The thought of evil,
of sin, contradicted everything in his character. Far more than we do, Jesus instinctively
rebelled against evil. Yet in obedience to the Father, and out of love for us, Jesus took on
himself all the sins of those who would someday be saved. Taking on himself all the evil
against which his soul rebelled created deep revulsion in the center of his being. All that
he hated most deeply was poured out fully upon him.
Scripture frequently says that our sins were put on Christ: “The Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6), and “He bore the sin of many” (Isa. 53:12). John the Baptist
calls Jesus “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Paul declares
that God made Christ “to be sin” (2 Cor. 5:21) and that Christ became “a curse for us” (Gal.
3:13). The author of Hebrews says that Christ was “offered once to bear the sins of many”
(Heb. 9:28). And Peter says, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24).8
7William Edwards, M.D., et al., JAMA vol. 255, no. 11
(March 21, 1986), p. 1461.
8See Wayne Grudem, 1 Peter, TNTC (Leicester: Inter-Varsity
Press, and Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), pp. 133 – 34, for a
detailed answer to Deissmann’s view that 1 Peter 2:24 means
that Christ “carried our sins up to the cross” but did not himself
bear the guilt for our sins on the cross. Influenced by Deissmann,
BAGD, p. 63, 3, surprisingly deny that the verb anaphero,m which
is used in 1 Peter 2:24 can mean “bear,” but Polybius 1.36.3 and
Thucydides 3.38.3 provide extrabiblical examples of that meaning,
and it certainly has that meaning in the LXX of Isa. 53:4, 11, 12,
and in the quotation of Isa. 53:12 in Heb. 9:28; cf. LSJ, p. 125, 3.
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The passage from 2 Co rin thi ans quoted above, together with the verses from Isaiah,
indicate that it was God the Father who put our sins on Christ. How could that be? In the
same way in which Adam’s sins were imputed to us, so God imputed our sins to Christ;
that is, he thought of them as belonging to Christ, and, since God is the ultimate judge
and definer of what really is in the universe, when God thought of our sins as belonging
to Christ then in fact they actually did belong to Christ. This does not mean that God
thought that Christ had himself committed the sins, or that Christ himself actually had
a sinful nature, but rather that the guilt for our sins (that is, the liability to punishment)
was thought of by God as belonging to Christ rather than to us.
Some have objected that it was not fair for God to do this, to transfer the guilt of sin
from us to an innocent person, Christ. Yet we must remember that Christ voluntarily
took on himself the guilt for our sins, so this objection loses much of its force. Moreover,
God himself (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) is the ultimate standard of what is just and
fair in the universe, and he decreed that the atonement would take place in this way, and
that it did in fact satisfy the demands of his own righ teousness and justice.
(3) Abandonment: The physical pain of crucifixion and the pain of taking on himself the
absolute evil of our sins were aggravated by the fact that Jesus faced this pain alone. In
the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus took with him Peter, James and John, he confided
something of his agony to them: “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here,
and watch” (Mark 14:34). This is the kind of confidence one would disclose to a close
friend, and it implies a request for support in his hour of greatest trial. Yet as soon as Jesus
was arrested, “all the disciples forsook him and fled” (Matt. 26:56).
Here also there is a very faint analogy in our experience, for we cannot live long without
tasting the inward ache of rejection, whether it be rejection by a close friend, by a
parent or child, or by a wife or husband. Yet in all those cases there is at least a sense that
we could have done something differently, that at least in small part we may be at fault. It
was not so with Jesus and the disciples, for, “having loved his own who were in the world,
he loved them to the end” (John 13:1). He had done nothing but love them; in return,
they all abandoned him.
But far worse than desertion by even the closest of human friends was the fact that Jesus
was deprived of the closeness to the Father that had been the deepest joy of his heart for
all his earthly life. When Jesus cried out “Eli, Eli, lama sabach-thani?” that is, “My God,
my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46), he showed that he was finally cut off
from the sweet fellowship with his heavenly Father that had been the unfailing source of
his inward strength and the element of greatest joy in a life filled with sorrow. As Jesus
bore our sins on the cross, he was abandoned by his heavenly Father, who is “of purer eyes
than to behold evil” (Hab. 1:13). He faced the weight of the guilt of millions of sins alone.
(4) Bearing the Wrath of God: Yet more difficult than these three previous aspects of
Jesus’ pain was the pain of bearing the wrath of God upon himself. As Jesus bore the guilt
of our sins alone, God the Father, the mighty Creator, the Lord of the universe, poured
out on Jesus the fury of his wrath: Jesus became the object of the intense hatred of sin and
vengeance against sin which God had patiently stored up since the beginning of the world.
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Romans 3:25 tells us that God put forward Christ as a “propitiation” (NASB) a word
that means “a sacrifice that bears God’s wrath to the end and in so doing changes God’s
wrath toward us into favor.” Paul tells us that “This was to show God’s righ teousness,
because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the
present time that he himself is righ teous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus”
(Rom. 3:25 – 26). God had not simply forgiven sin and forgotten about the punishment
in generations past. He had forgiven sins and stored up his righteous anger against those
sins. But at the cross the fury of all that stored-up wrath against sin was unleashed against
God’s own Son.
Many theologians outside the evangelical world have strongly objected to the idea that
Jesus bore the wrath of God against sin.9 Their basic assumption is that since God is a
God of love, it would be inconsistent with his character to show wrath against the human
beings he has created and for whom he is a loving Father. But evangelical scholars have
convincingly argued that the idea of the wrath of God is solidly rooted in both the Old
and New Testaments: “The whole of the argument of the opening part of Romans is that
all men, Gentiles and Jews alike, are sinners, and that they come under the wrath and
the condemnation of God.”10
Three other crucial passages in the New Testament refer to Jesus’ death as a “propitiation”:
Hebrews 2:17; 1 John 2:2; and 4:10. The Greek terms (the verb hilaskomai, “to make
propitiation” and the noun hilasmos, “a sacrifice of propitiation”) used in these passages
have the sense of “a sacrifice that turns away the wrath of God — and thereby makes
God propitious (or favorable) toward us.”11 This is the consistent meaning of these words
outside the Bible where they were well understood in reference to pagan Greek religions.
These verses simply mean that Jesus bore the wrath of God against sin.
It is important to insist on this fact, because it is the heart of the doctrine of the
atonement. It means that there is an eternal, unchangeable requirement in the holiness
and justice of God that sin be paid for. Furthermore, before the atonement ever could
have an effect on our subjective consciousness, it first had an effect on God and his
relation to the sinners he planned to redeem. Apart from this central truth, the death
of Christ really cannot be adequately understood (see discussion of other views of the
atonement below).
Although we must be cautious in suggesting any analogies to the experience Christ went
through (for his experience was and always will be without precedent or comparison),
nonetheless, all our understanding of Jesus’ suffering comes in some sense by way of analogous
experiences in our life — for that is how God teaches us in Scripture. Once again our
human experience provides a very faint analogy that helps us understand what it means
to bear the wrath of God. Perhaps as children we have faced the wrath of a human father
9See the detailed linguistic argument of C. H. Dodd, The
Bible and the Greeks (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1935),
pp. 82 – 95. Dodd argues that the idea of propitiation was common
in pagan religions but foreign to the thought of Old Testament
and New Testament writers.
10Leon Morris, “Propitiation,” EDT, p. 888 (includes brief
bibliography). Morris’s own work has represented the best of
evangelical scholarship on this question: see his The Apostolic
Preaching of the Cross, 3d ed. (London: Tyndale Press, 1965),
pp. 144 – 213.
11Under the influence of scholars who denied that the idea of
propitiation was in the New Testament, the RSV translated hilasmos
as “expiation,” a word that means “an action that cleanses
from sin” but includes no concept of appeasing God’s wrath.
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when we have done wrong, or perhaps as adults we have known the anger of an employer
because of a mistake we have made. We are inwardly shaken, disturbed by the crashing of
another personality, filled with displeasure, into our very selves, and we tremble. We can
hardly imagine the personal disintegration that would threaten if the outpouring of wrath
came not from some finite human being but from Almighty God. If even the presence
of God when he does not manifest wrath arouses fear and trembling in people (cf. Heb.
12:21, 28 – 29), how terrible it must be to face the presence of a wrathful God (Heb. 10:31).
With this in mind, we are now better able to understand Jesus’ cry of desolation, “My
God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46b). The question does not mean,
“Why have you left me forever?” for Jesus knew that he was leaving the world, that he
was going to the Father (John 14:28; 16:10, 17). Jesus knew that he would rise again (John
2:19; Luke 18:33; Mark 9:31, et al.). It was “for the joy that was set before him” that Jesus
“endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of
God” (Heb. 12:2). Jesus knew that he could still call God “my God.” This cry of desolation
is not a cry of total despair. Furthermore, “Why have you forsaken me?” does not
imply that Jesus wondered why he was dying. He had said, “The Son of man also came
not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
Jesus knew that he was dying for our sins.
Jesus’ cry is a quotation from Psalm 22:1, a psalm in which the psalmist asks why God
is so far from helping him, why God delays in rescuing him:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my
groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest. (Ps. 22:1 – 2)
Yet the psalmist was eventually rescued by God, and his cry of desolation turned into a
hymn of praise (vv. 22 – 31). Jesus, who knew the words of Scripture as his own, knew well
the context of Psalm 22. In quoting this psalm, he is quoting a cry of desolation that also
has implicit in its context an unremitting faith in the God who will ultimately deliver
him. Nevertheless, it remains a very real cry of anguish because the suffering has gone
on so long and no release is in sight.
With this context for the quotation it is better to understand the question “Why have
you forsaken me?” as meaning, “Why have you left me for so long?” This is the sense it
has in Psalm 22. Jesus, in his human nature, knew he would have to bear our sins, to suffer
and to die. But, in his human consciousness, he probably did not know how long this
suffering would take. Yet to bear the guilt of millions of sins even for a moment would
cause the greatest anguish of soul. To face the deep and furious wrath of an infinite God
even for an instant would cause the most profound fear. But Jesus’ suffering was not over
in a minute — or two — or ten. When would it end? Could there be yet more weight of
sin? Yet more wrath of God? Hour after hour it went on — the dark weight of sin and the
deep wrath of God poured over Jesus in wave after wave. Jesus at last cried out, “My God,
my God, why have you forsaken me?” Why must this suffering go on so long? Oh God,
my God, will you ever bring it to an end?
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Making Sense of Christ and the Spirit
Then at last Jesus knew his suffering was nearing completion. He knew he had consciously
borne all the wrath of the Father against our sins, for God’s anger had abated
and the awful heaviness of sin was being removed. He knew that all that remained was to
yield up his spirit to his heavenly Father and die. With a shout of victory Jesus cried out,
“It is finished!” (John 19:30). Then with a loud voice he once more cried out, “Father, into
your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46). And then he voluntarily gave up the life
that no one could take from him (John 10:17 – 18), and he died. As Isaiah had predicted,
“he poured out his soul to death” and “bore the sin of many” (Isa. 53:12). God the Father
saw “the fruit of the travail of his soul” and was “satisfied” (Isa. 53:11).

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