The Divine Interpretation of Christ’s Death

twelve-thumbAs I have been working my way through writing the first draft of my book, Our Love Is Too Small, I have confessed that nothing draws us more deeply into the love of God than the death of Christ “for our sins.” I have also suggested that theories of the atonement often get in the way of our experiencing the death of Christ at the very core of our soul.

A friend suggested last week that I read a chapter in the famous A.B. Bruce book, The Training of the Twelve (1871), and see what he had to say about the death of Christ and the love of God. In a chapter titled “In Memoriam; Or, Fourth Lesson on the Doctrine of the Cross,” A.B. Bruce says:

Besides commemorating Christ’s death (“This do in remembrance of me”), the rite of the Supper is used to interpret the Lord’s death. He says the eucharist throws important light on the meaning of the solemn event. The institution of this symbolic feast was in fact the most important contribution made by Jesus during his personal ministry to the doctrine of the atonement through the sacrifice of himself (356).

Besides all the words that our Lord spoke Bruce argues that this meal would allow the twelve to conceive of the redemptive character of his death more than any single thing he did. We are, says Bruce, accustomed to explaining the Lord’s Supper by the death rather than by explaining the death by the Supper. I found that statement immensely helpful. If we imagine ourselves in the time and place of the twelve we will be more likely to better understand the significance of the Supper.

The fact that the Lord’s Supper commemorates the Lord’s death plainly fixes our eyes on Calvary. It is a “monument” to Jesus because of his death, which was not just any death. But why should his death be singled out in this manner? Did Jesus merely want us to remember his death and thereby have our feelings stirred up or a tear come to our eyes now and then?

Jesus meant, by this Supper, that his disciples would understand his death henceforth and forever as the inauguration of the new covenant. Jesus means for us to understand how much God’s love actually means for us – it cost him the beloved Son’s life in order to complete this radical display of love he had for the whole world (cf. John 3:16-17).

The key to understand this, says A.B. Bruce, is to realize that this commemorative celebration has at the center of it our Lord’s words: “This is my body, given for you,” and “This is my blood shed for you.” His blood was shed for the remission of sins. But Bruce errs, I believe, when he says that this blood was shed to “purchase forgiveness of a moral debt.” (This is one of the theories of the atonement at work and one I will try to show misses the intent of the death of Christ at its heart!) I do believe that he is right in saying that forgiveness is clearly connected to this remembrance but the problem is in this phrase “moral debt.” Who is paid and why? Is the honor of God the real issue, or perhaps it is simply the legal requirement of paying God, the devil or someone else? All of this is what I find less than convincing as I study this subject every single day.

Bruce suggests that after his death there would be no more sacrifice needed but rather a “thank offering” would follow Christ’s “once for all” sacrifice. (I think he is right but even this needs serious exploration.) “We may well drink of this cup with thankfulness and joy; for the ‘new covenant’ (new, yet far older than the old), of which it is the seal, is in all respects well ordered and sure.” Bruce then rightly says:

Then this economy serves well the interest of divine love, as it gives that love a worthy career, and free scope to display its magnanimous nature, in bearing the burden of the sinful and the miserable. . . . If by faith in Christ be understood merely belief in the opus operatum of a vicarious death, the power of such a faith to elevate is more than questionable. But when faith is taken in its true scriptural sense, as implying not only belief in a certain transaction, the endurance of death by one for others, but also, and more especially, hearty appreciation of the spirit of the deed and the Doer, then its purifying and ennobling power is beyond all question. “The love of Christ constraineth me;” and “I am crucified with Christ,” as the result of such faith (361-62).

He died not as a martyr for righteousness but “as a Redeemer for the unrighteous” (362). Without the death the forgiveness would cost the forgiver nothing. It would have been a cold transaction. “We must feel that our forgiveness has cost the Forgiver much in order to love him much” (362). These insights are sound I think.

Bruce further says:

When the catholic Christian thinks of the tears, agonies, bloody sweat, shame, and pain endured by the Redeemer, of his marred vision, broken heart, pierced side, lacerated hands and feet, his bosom burns with devoted love. The story of the passion opens up all the fountains of feeling; and by no other way than the via dolorosa could Jesus have ascended the throne of people’s hearts (362-63).

Bruce says that the “government of God is carried on in the interest of Holy Love” (363). This is the central thesis of my work on God’s love. God ‘s love is always holy and his holiness is always moved by who he is in his great love for the whole world.

But the Lord’s Supper is not only taken to remind us of what Christ did to save us but also to nourish us as the Paschal Lamb who is eaten at the table. Jesus taught his disciples that his “crucified humanity [was/is] the bread of God for the life of their souls. We must eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of man spiritually by faith, as we eat and rink the win literally with the mouth” (365). Do not read the words “spiritually by faith” here as if this is bare commemoration. It is much, much more. It is mystery and I believe the language of sacrament alone fits the mystery.

As often as we celebrate this meal of thanksgiving (eucharist) we are to contemplate Christ “as the food of our souls in this comprehensive sense” (365). Thus Bruce concludes:

This, then, is what we have learned from the monumental stone. The Lord’s Supper commemorates the Lord’s death; points out that death as an event of transcendent importance; sets it forth, indeed, as the ground of our hope for the pardon of sin; and finally exhibits Christ the Lord, who died on the Cross, as all to us which our spirits need for heath and salvation – our mystic bread and wine. This rite, instituted by Jesus on the night on which He was betrayed, He meant to be repeated not merely by the apostles, but by His believing people in all ages till He came again. So we learn from Paul; so we might have inferred, apart from any express information. An act so original, so impressive, so pregnant with meaning, so helpful to faith, once performed, was virtually an enactment. In performing it, Jesus said in effect: “Let this become a great institution, a standing observance in the community to be called by my Name” (366).

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