Significance of Christ’s sacrificial death


‘Crucified, dead and buried’

AS WE turn now to the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross, we ask what is the significance of this death, and why is it necessary to reconcile man to God.

The Christian understanding of the death of Christ brings together two practices found in the Old Testament. The first is the practice of animal sacrifices. In order for the rift between God and man caused by human sin to be removed, it was necessary for a sacrifice to be offered to God. It is believed that such a sacrifice can accomplish the remission of sins and establish atonement.

In Israel, the Day of Atonement (Yum Kuppur) is designated for animal sacrifices to be made for the cleansing of the sanctuary, the priesthood and the people (see Lev. 16:23-32; Num. 29:7-11). The slaughtering of the animal is not the centre of the event. It is done so that sacrificial blood can be obtained. Alongside this rite is another which involves a living goat. The priest will list the sins of Israel and ritually heap them on the head of the goat. The goat will then be driven out into the wilderness, bearing the sins of Israel as the scapegoat.

The Gospel writers understood Jesus to be the fulfilment of the shadowy images to sacrifice and atonement in the Old Testament. John the Baptist announced that Jesus is the “Lamb of God who will take away the sins of the world”, employing the well-known imagery of the sacrificial lamb of the Old Testament. Jesus himself said that He has come to offer his life “as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

The Gospel writers emphasised that the shedding of Jesus’ blood on the cross would result in the forgiveness of sins (Matt 26:28) and bring about the new covenant (Luke 22:20). Paul, in 1 Corinthians, takes up this theme when describing the sacrificial nature of the death of Christ, our paschal lamb (1 Cor 5:7). Peter echoes the same theme when referring to the significance of Christ’s work: “the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect and blemish” (1 Peter 1:19). And the writer of Hebrews points to the finality of the sacrifice of Christ. It is a sacrifice which renders all subsequent sacrifices unnecessary (Heb 6:27).

New Covenant

‘The Gospel writers emphasised that the shedding of Jesus’ blood on the cross would result in the forgiveness of sins (Matt 26:38) and bring about the new covenant.’

But why is such a sacrifice necessary in the first place? The 11th Century theologian, Anselm of Canterbury, has provided us with something of an answer to this question.

In his famous book, “Cur Deus Homo?”, Anselm sought to show why the incarnation was necessary. God created the human race out of love and compassion. His desire is for human beings to be blessed and happy. But the sinful rebellion of God’s free, rational creatures has caused such a fracture in God’s plans that a radical step must be taken in order to restore it. God’s justice and the severity of human sin demands that satisfaction is made for it. But this has introduced a dilemma. Since it is the human race that sinned against God, a member of that race must offer satisfaction to God. But no human being can do this because all have sinned against God and no one has the spiritual capital to offer the required satisfaction. God, however, is capable of making such an offering. But should he? Hence, the dilemma: Man should but could not; God could but should not. The solution is found in the incarnation – Jesus Christ, the God-Man.

Modern critics of Anselm have protested against such an understanding of God. The God of Anselm, they insist, is a legalistic God. How does this square with the biblical picture of a merciful and loving God? Furthermore, they protested against Anselm’s understanding of justice. What sort of justice would allow an innocent man to suffer on behalf of the guilty?

Such criticisms, however, fail to take into consideration two very important aspects of Anselm’s account of the atonement. This account is able to do justice both to the righteousness of God and his mercy. God’s righteousness demands that those who sin against Him be punished. Such is the severity of sin. But this account points to a God who provides a way out by taking the place of sinful man in the Incarnation. The Incarnation and the cross are therefore supreme expressions of God’s mercy. We must bear in mind that the sacrifice of Christ, the Son of God, was made willingly for the sake of sinful humanity. Christ, the Lamb of God who took away the sins of the world, gave of himself willingly, in full obedience to the Father.

If the first image of the cross is taken from the Temple sacrifice, the second is taken from the battlefield. This is the Christus Victor motif in which Christ, depicted as Victor over his enemies, rescues human beings from enslavement. This picture is widely used in the early Church, especially during the first 500 years, and also in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition. Human beings have become enslaved to the forces of evil because of their rebellion against God. God, working through Christ, engages in a battle against His enemies, with the principalities and powers, and with the devil. He emerges as the victorious One, freeing the captives from what Paul calls the “yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1). Modern liberation theologians have appropriated the Christus Victor motif and present Christ as the liberator of those who suffer under political, social and economic oppression. In the same vein, others have played up the military metaphor too excessively. This imagery is found in hymns like “onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war” and “stand up, stand up for Jesus, ye soldiers of the cross”.

Christ the Victor

When this metaphor is brought too closely to politics and nationalism, the result has not always been too positive. Such aberrations, however, should not detract from the fact that this metaphor of the victory is a biblical one. It points to the fact that on the cross, Christ has won the victory over sin, death and the devil.

The Western theological tradition, represented by Anselm, emphasises Christ the Victim, while the Eastern tradition emphasises Christ the Victor. It would be a mistake, however, to polarise the two or to pit one against the other. The best of both traditions have always presented the two as inseparable. This is seen supremely in the hymns and liturgies of these traditions.

Let me cite just two examples. The first comes from the work of Johann Sabestian Bach. As a Lutheran, Bach may serve as a representative of the Western tradition. In his famous St Matthew Passion, Bach presents the death of Christ in the light of the victory that it brings to the human soul: “For love will my Saviour die! / Of sin he knows nought, / So that eternal destruction / And punishment of judgement / May not rest upon my soul.”

In the same way in St John Passion Bach brings out this theme beautifully in the very first chorus: “Lord, our Master, whose glory / is celebrated in every land! Show us, through your Passion, / that you, the true Son of God, for all time, / even in the greatest humiliation / are glorious in triumph.” In the Orthodox Tradition, Christ the Victim and Christ the Victor are not contradictions but juxtaposed because they both bring to expression the work of the one Christ. Hence, even in the hymns that are sung on Good Friday, the majesty of the Crucified One shines through: “Today is hanged upon the tree / He who hanged on earth in the midst of the waters / A crown of thorns crown Him / Who is the king of the angels. / He is wrapped with the purple of mockery / Who wraps the heavens in clouds.”

Thus in the mystery of the Incarnation and the cross we are confronted with a paradox. John Chrysostom, the most eloquent preacher of the patristic period, has expressed this paradox thus: “I call Him King, because I see Him crucified.”

Dr Roland Chia, a lecturer at Trinity Theological College, is also the Director of the Centre for the Development of Christian Ministry at TTC. He is a member of Fairfield Methodist Church.