In his work Cur Deus Homo? (Why the God-man?), Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109) sought to answer the question of why the incarnation was necessary. R. C. Sproul writes,
At the heart of Anselm’s answer to that question was his understanding of the character of God. Anselm saw that the chief reason a God-man was necessary was the justice of God. That may seem to be a strange answer. Thinking of the cross and of Christ’s atonement, we assume that the thing that most strenuously motivated God to send Christ into the world was His love or His mercy. As a result, we tend to overlook the characteristic of God’s nature that makes the atonement absolutely necessary—His justice. God is loving, but a major part of what He loves is His own perfect character, with a major aspect being the importance of maintaining justice and righteousness. Though God pardons sinners and makes great provision for expressing His mercy, He will never negotiate His justice. If we fail to understand that, the cross of Christ will be utterly meaningless to us. —R. C. Sproul, The Truth of the Cross (Reformation Trust, 2007), 18–19.
Sin, R. C. Sproul writes, “is cosmic treason.”
We rarely take the time to think through the ramifications of human sin. We fail to realize that even the slightest sins we commit, such as little white lies or other peccadilloes we are violating the law of the creator of the universe. In the smallest sin we defy God’s right to rule and reign over His creation. Instead, we seek to usurp for ourselves the authority and power that belong properly to God. Even the slightest sin does violence to His holiness, to His glory, and to his righteousness. Every sin, no matter how seemingly insignificant, is truly an act of treason against a cosmic King. There are two aspects of the one problem we must understand if we are to grasp the necessity of the atonement of Christ. . . . God is just. In other words, He cannot tolerate unrighteousness. He must do what is right. . . . The other aspect of the problem [is that] we have violated God’s justice and earned His displeasure. We are cosmic traitors. We must recognize this problem within ourselves if we are to grasp the necessity of the cross. —R. C. Sproul, The Truth of the Cross (Reformation Trust, 2007), 32–33.
R. C. Sproul, considering the separation between God and man that made a substitutionary atonement by a God-man necessary, draws three circles. The first represents the character of man.
Imagine a circle that represents the character of mankind. Now imagine that if someone sins, a spot—a moral blemish of sorts—appears in the circle, marring the character of man. If another sin occurs, more blemishes appear in the circle. Well, if sin continues to multiply, eventually the entire circle will be filled with spots and blemishes. . . . Human character is clearly tainted by sin . . . The sinful pollution and corruption of fallen man is complete, rendering us totally corrupt. . . . To take it further, when the apostle Paul elaborates on this fallen human condition, he says, “There is none righteous, no, not one; . . . There is none who does good; no, not one” (Rom. 3:10b-12). That’s a radical statement. Paul is saying that man never, ever does a good deed, but that flies in the face of our experience. When we look around us, we see numerous people who are not Christians doing things that we would applaud for their virtue. . . . But how can there be these deeds of apparent goodness when the Bible says that no one does good? The reason for this problem is that when the Bible describes goodness or badness, it looks at it from two distinct perspectives. First, there is the measuring rod of the law, which evaluates the external performance of human beings. For example, if the law says you are not allowed to steal, and you go your whole life without stealing, we could say that you have a good record. You’ve kept the law externally. But in addition to the external measuring rod, there is also the consideration of the heart, the internal motivation for our behavior. We’re told that man judges by outward appearances, but God looks on the heart. From a biblical perspective, to do a good deed in the fullest sense requires not only that the deed conform outwardly to the standards of God’s law, but that it proceed from a heart that loves Him and wants to honor Him. You remember the great commandment: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind’” (Matt. 22:37). Is there anyone reading this book who has loved God with all of his or her heart for the past five minutes? No. Nobody loves God with all of his heart, not to mention his soul or mind. . . . If we consider human performance from this perspective, we can see why the apostle would come to his apparently radical conclusion that there is no one who does good, that there’s no goodness in the full sense of the word found among mankind. Even our finest works have a taint of sin mixed in. I have never done an act of charity, of sacrifice, or of heroism that came from a heart, a soul, and a mind that loved God completely. —R. C. Sproul, The Truth of the Cross (Reformation Trust, 2007), 85, 87–89.
R. C. Sproul draws three circles illustrating the separation between God and man that made a substitutionary atonement by a God-man necessary. The first circle represented the character of man. Sproul continues:
Imagine a second circle, just like the one we had for man, to represent the character of God. How many blemishes would we see in this circle? Absolutely none. We are totally depraved, but God is absolutely holy. In fact, He is too holy to even look at iniquity. He is perfectly just. Here, then, is the crux of the problem: how can an unjust person stand in the presence of God? Or, to put the question another way, how can an unjust person be made just, or justified? Can he start all over again? No. Once a person commits one sin, it is impossible for him ever to be perfect, because he’s lost his perfection with his initial sin. Can he pay the penalty for his sin? No—unless he wishes to spend an eternity in hell. Can God simply overlook the sin? No. If God did that, He would sacrifice His justice. Therefore, if man is to be made just, God’s justice must be satisfied. Someone must be able to pay te penalty for man’s sin. It must be a member of the offending party, the human race, but it must be one who has never fallen into the inescapable imperfection of sin. Given these requirements, no man could qualify. However, God Himself could. For this reason, God the Son came into the world and took on humanity. As the author of Hebrews says, “He had to be made like His brethren . . .” (Heb. 2:17a, emphasis added). —R. C. Sproul, The Truth of the Cross (Reformation Trust, 2007), 90–91.
Illustrating the necessity of a substitutionary atonement, R. C. Sproul draws three circles. The first circle represents the character of man. The second represents the character of God. The third represents Christ.
Imagine a circle representing Jesus’ character. He lived as a man on earth for decades, subject to the Law of God and subject to all of the temptations known to man. (Heb. 4:15). But we do not see any blemishes in His circle. Not one. This is why . . . John the baptist cried, “Behold! The lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29b). The Passover lambs of the Old Testament were to be lambs without blemish, as physically perfect as possible. But the ultimate lamb, the Lamb of God who would take away the sins of His People, was to be perfect in every way. In calling Jesus the Lamb of God, John was affirming that Jesus was untouched by sin. Jesus Himself made this claim. He asked the Pharisees, “‘Which of you convicts me of sin?’” . . . How would you react if somebody said to you: “I am perfect. If you don’t agree with me, prove that I’m not.” That’s what Jesus said. He claimed to have no shadow of turning, no blemish, nom sin. He said that his meat and drink were to do the will of the Father. He was a man Whose passion in life was obedience to the Law of God. We have one unjust party (man) and two just parties. We have a just God, and a just Mediator, Who is altogether holy. The Mediator is the One who came to satisfy the requirements of a just God on behalf of the unjust race of man. He is the One who makes the unjust party just. He is the only One Who could do so. As Protestants, the term we use for this process of making something that is unjust to be something that is just is forensic justification. The term forensics is used in the context of police investigative work or to describe high school debate matches. It has to do with authoritative formal acts of declaration. So forensic justification occurs when a person is declared to be just at the tribunal of God. This justification takes place ultimately when the supreme Judge of heaven and earth says, “You are just.” The grounds for such a declaration are in the concept of imputation. . . . we are talking about imputation when we say that Jesus bore our sins, that He took the sins of the world on Himself. The language there is one of a quantitative act of transfer whereby the weight of guilt is taken from man and given to Christ. . . . In theological language, we say that God imputed those sins to Jesus. If all that happened was a single transfer of our sins to Jesus, we would not be justified. If Jesus took all the sins I’ve ever committed on His back and took the punishment for me, that would not get me into the kingdom of God. It would be good enough to keep me out of hell, but I would still not be just. I would be innocent, if you will, but still not just in the positive sense. I would have no righteousness . . . Thankfully, however, there is not just one transfer, there are two. Not only is the sin of man imputed to Christ, but the righteousness of Christ is transferred to us, to our account. As a result, in God’s sight the human circle is now both clean of all blemishes and adorned with glorious righteousness. Because of that, when God declares me just, He is not lying. —R. C. Sproul, The Truth of the Cross (Reformation Trust, 2007), 91–95.
After spending some time on the doctrine of limited, or particular, atonement, explaining that Christ’s death did not merely make salvation possible, but actually secured it for a particular people, R. C. Sproul answers the question, “How can you know if you’re one of the elect?”
If you are one of the flock of Christ, one of His lambs, then you can know with certainty that an atonement has been made for your sins. You may wonder how you can know you’re numbered among the elect. I cannot read your heart or the secrets of the Lambs Book of Life, but Jesus said: “‘My sheep hear My voice’” (John 10:27a). If you want Christ’s atonement to avail for you, and if you put your trust in that atonement and rely on it to reconcile you to almighty God, in a practical sense, you don’t need to worry about the abstract question of election. If you put your trust in Christ’s death for your redemption and you believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, then you can be sure that the atonement was made for you. That, more than anything else, will settle for you the mystery of God’s election. Unless you’re elect, you won’t believe on Christ; you won’t embrace the atonement or rest on his shed blood for your salvation. If you want it, you can have it. It is offered to you if you believe and trust. One of the sweetest statements from the lips of Jesus in the New Testament is this: “‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world‘” (Matt. 25:34b). There is a plan of God designed for your salvation. It is not an afterthought or an attempt to correct a mistake. Rather, from all eternity, God determined that He would redeem for Himself a people, and that which He determined to do was, in fact, accomplished in the work of Jesus Christ, His atonement on the cross. Your salvation has been accomplished by a Savior Who is not merely a potential Savior, but an actual Savior, One Who did for you what the Father determined He should do. He is your Surety, your Mediator, your Substitute, your Redeemer. He atoned for your sins on the cross. —R. C. Sproul, The Truth of the Cross (Reformation Trust, 2007), 151–153.
There is pow’r, pow’r, wonder working pow’r In the blood of the Lamb; There is pow’r, pow’r, wonder working pow’r In the precious blood of the Lamb.
Or is there? The blood of Christ is often given magical, mythical power in the minds of Christians. In the classic 1959 movie Ben-Hur, the blood of Christ drips from the cross. As it begins to rain, the blood merges with the rain water, and as the rain falls on Judah Ben-Hur’s leprous mother and sister, they are healed. Healing power was attributed to the physical blood of Christ. John MacArthur has been branded a heretic by some for denying that the physical blood of Christ possesses any divine character or power. Is there “power in the blood”? If so, what does that mean, biblically? R. C. Sproul answers the question, “What is the significance of the shedding of blood in the atonement?”
The idea that there’s some intrinsic or inherent power in the blood of Jesus is a popular concept in the Christian world. It even crops up from time to time in various hymns and praise songs. This idea reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept of the blood as it relates to atonement from a biblical perspective. I once heard my dear friend John Guest, who is an Anglican evangelist, preach on the cross and the blood of Christ. He asked this question: “Had Jesus come to earth and scratched his finger on a nail so that a drop or two of blood was spilled, would that have been sufficient to redeem us? That would have constituted the shedding of blood. If we’re saved by the blood of Christ, wouldn’t that have been enough?” Obviously the point John was trying to make is that it’s not the blood of Christ as such that saves us. The significance of the blood in the sacrificial system is that it represents life. The Old Testament repeatedly makes the point that “the life of the flesh is in the blood” (Lev. 17:11). Therefore, when the blood is poured out, the life is poured out. That’s significant, because under the covenant of works in the Garden of Eden, the penalty that was laid down for disobedience was death. God required that penalty for sin. That is why Jesus had to die to accomplish the atonement. When the blood is shed and the life is poured out, the penalty is paid. Nothing short of that penalty will do. —R. C. Sproul, The Truth of the Cross (Reformation Trust, 2007), 155–156.
And can it be that I should gain An interest in the Savior’s blood? Died He for me, who caused His pain— For me, who Him to death pursued? Amazing love! How can it be, That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me? Amazing love! How can it be, That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me? —Charles Wesley, 1738
Yesterday, I introduced R.C. Sproul’s comments on the blood of Christ with the chorus to the gospel song Power in the Blood. Typical of many of the songs of its time, it is not very deep or clear doctrinally, and requires some supplemental words to make sense of it. Today, we will see that even some truly great hymns can contain some vague language and require some clarification as Dr. Sproul answers the question, “Is it accurate to say that God Died on the Cross?”
This kind of expression is popular in hymnody and in grassroots conversation. So although I have this scruple about the hymn, and it bothers me that the expression is there, I think I understand it, and there’s a way to give an indulgence for it. We believe that Jesus Christ was God incarnate. We also believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross. If we say that God died on the cross, and if by that we mean that the divine nature perished, we have stepped over the edge into serious heresy. In fact, two such heresies related to this problem arose in the early centuries of the church: theopassianism and patripassianism. The first of these, theopassianism, teaches that God Himself suffered death on the cross. Patripassianism indicates that the Father suffered vicariously through the suffering of His Son. Both of these heresies were roundly rejected by the church for the very reason that they categorically deny the very character and nature of God, including His immutability. There is no change in the nature or character of God at any time. God not only created the universe, He sustains it by the very power of His being. As Paul said, “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). If the being of God ceased for one second, the universe would disappear. It would pass out of existence, because nothing can exist apart from the sustaining power of God. If God dies, everything dies with Him. Obviously, then, God could not have perished on the cross. Some say, “It was the second person of the Trinity Who died.” That would be a mutation within the very being of God, because when we look at the Trinity we say that the three are one in essence, and that though there are personal distinctions among the persons of the Godhead, those distinctions are not essential in the sense that they are differences in being. Death is something that would involve a change in one’s being. We should shrink in horror from the idea that God actually died on the cross. The atonement was made by the human nature of Christ. Somehow people tend to think that this lessens the dignity or the value of the substitutionary act, as if we were somehow implicitly denying the deity of Christ. God forbid. It’s the God-man Who dies, but death is something that is only experienced by the human nature, because the divine nature isn’t capable of experiencing death. —R. C. Sproul, The Truth of the Cross (Reformation Trust, 2007), 159–161.