Updated: Aug 28
Confessing the Atoning Death of Christ
As we return to the Apostles' Creed and its continuing confessions about the person and work of Christ, we arrive at the statement which concerns the atoning work of Christ. Certainly, this was the reason for which Christ entered the world. The apostle Paul demonstrated this truth when he wrote Timothy (I Timothy 1:15): "This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief." In that text, we see both the general statement of the mission of Christ as well as Paul's personalizing of its benefits. Christ entered the world to save sinners; He saved even me- the chief of sinners.
Since this is true, how was it accomplished? The accomplishment of the plan of salvation is a historical and theological work of God that fills the pages of Scripture. As such, it would be impossible to speak conclusively of it in a post of this size. In fact, the challenge of summarizing great truths is the very reason for which Creeds exist. Creeds distill these great truths into a statement to be learned, memorized, and recited. The Apostles' Creed summarizes the atoning work of Christ when it states:
"He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried."
Jesus, eternally God, took on flesh and entered into the world which He created. As we saw last week, He was born under the law, fulfilling it perfectly. It is this same Jesus of Whom we now read of His suffering, death, and burial.
This statement of the creed begins with the assertion of Christ's suffering. Certainly, the testimony of the Gospels makes it clear that suffering is a central point of this story. Jesus even warned His disciples that this was where His story was heading.
Then He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and that He must be killed and after three days rise again. Mark 8:31
Such teachings are also recorded in the Gospels of Matthew 16:21 and Luke 9:22. This gives clear evidence that suffering was a part of the mission of Christ that must take place.
In what ways, then, did He suffer? He suffered in many terrible ways. He was betrayed with a kiss. He was quickly abandoned by His friends. He was mocked, spat upon, and scourged. He was further mocked by a crown of thorns..so despicably was the King of Glory treated! Then, He went out to be crucified.
All of this happened under Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who ordered the crucifixion of Jesus. The reasons for his name being in the creed are two-fold. First, it provides an anchor to establish that these events did happen historically. Second, it reminds us that Jesus was put to death under the authority of Rome with the complicity of His own people. The text of the Gospels make this second point clear. Pilate, ever the sly politician, sought to refuse the religious leaders desires in the death of Christ. This was not because Pilate was sympathetic or fair; those are not descriptions which historically apply to Pilate. The governor's tune changed with the ever-shifting political winds. As the crowds cried out for His crucifixion and reminders were given as to how a true friend to Caesar must act, Pilate ordered His death.
When we state that Christ was crucified, it is easy to overlook the utter brutality of that means of death. Crucifixion seems to have originated with the Persians, but it was the Romans who perfected it as a way of warning. History records several incidents in which mass crucifixions took place. Such mass executions served to be an overwhelming sight (and sound) as well as a manifest warning to any who would oppose Rome. The reason that they were an effective warning was because of its cruelty. People were placed on the cross and would languish for days- slowly dying. In fact, the Romans found ways of brutally extending the process. If there was ever an established form of execution that shouted cruelty, this was it.
It signaled more than cruelty, it also screamed of shame and humiliation. Crucifixion was a very public way to die. It was a public spectacle in which the executed were generally stripped naked and hung for all to see. History tells us that many soldiers and passers-by could act cruelly toward the dying prisoners. Many felt it too brutal even to look upon.
The apostle Paul understood the necessity of this. He Recognized that Christ went to the cross, bearing our sins (not His own). That this was precisely the mission for which He came into the world- to bear our sins accounted to Him and to receive their right and wrathful wage in our stead. In this way, Christ bore the wrath we deserved upon the cross. Therefore, Paul states:
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us. For it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” Galatians 3:13
Here, then, Paul sees a connection between the logic of the Mosaic law and what has occurred in the crucifixion of Christ. In Deuteronomy 21, provision is given for the execution of one who is hanged from a tree. In commanding that the people are not to leave a body overnight upon the tree, it mentions that one who dies in this way is cursed. Paul sees the obvious connection: Jesus became a curse for us and was placed upon a tree. Christ, despised, humiliated, and having suffered, bore our sins that we might stand in His perfect righteousness.
The Scriptures clearly teach that Christ died upon the tree. This is not simply the appearance of human death (as in the swoon theories), nor is it a mere story. Christ Jesus died upon the cross. Since "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23), Christ, by the grace of God, came that He "might taste death for everyone" (Hebrews 2:9). In this way, Christ was the atoning sacrifice, the propitiation for sin, and the redeemer of His people. All of this because He stood in our place and made a way that we might be reconciled to God.
And Was Buried
Christ's death was real and so was His burial. The Gospels provide for the details of the story, but what is the significance of His burial? The elegant wording of the forty-first question of the Heidelberg Catechism provides the answer:
Question 41 Why was He “buried”?
Answer: His burial testifies that he really died.