The Cross is central to Christianity. Without it, humanity is devoid of rescue and bereft of hope.
In his contribution to Theology for the Church, Paige Patterson writes the section concerning the important issue of the work of Christ. In establishing the importance of the work of Christ for the church, Patterson notes that of all the things Christ did on earth, “only the atonement is memorialized” in the ordinances of the church (545). The Lord’s supper points to the “broken body and shed blood of Jesus in his passion” and Baptism points to his “burial and his triumphant resurrection on the third day.” So, these two together “focus the attention of the believing community” on the essential elements of the gospel, namely the incarnation, atonement and resurrection of Christ.
Christians love the gospel. They love the work of Christ. The practice of the believing community evidences this. We are baptized in his Name, and remember his body that was broken, and his blood that was spilled until he comes.
In the course of his chapter, Patterson also demonstrates that the concept of Christ’s work involving a sacrifice that takes the place of sinners and satisfies God’s wrath toward them is firmly grounded in the OT scriptures. Throughout church history, this central truth has been attacked and denied. Some say that these legal concepts and extreme contentions come solely from the cultures and contexts of interpreters in certain ages. After surveying the relevant Biblical data, Patterson counters that
the idea of Christ paying a price demanded by the justice of God arises not out of the judiciary of the Middle Ages or from Roman times but directly out of the earliest understandings of the Hebrew people as they grappled with the clear substitutionary and vicarious teaching of such events as Passover and the Day of Atonement (564-65).
But couldn’t there have been some other way? Did Jesus really have to die?
Many, especially in our times, would answer with a resounding, ‘No! The belief that Jesus had to die is a misconstrual of the nature of God.’ To this contention, Patterson insightfully notes that “such departures from the biblical and historical understanding of the atonement do not open a way forward but a theological retreat. They miss the ontological necessity of the work of Christ and the beauty and glory of what the Father accomplished in the death of his precious Son” (599).
Despite differing on some points, for me, this chapter was an occasion to behold the Word who became flesh who rescued me from certain destruction, and to marvel at the glories of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, our Lord. This chapter is an occasion for worship. The work of Christ, as he bore the wrath and punishment for our sins that we rightly deserved (penal), and died in our place (substitutionary), making amends with God (atonement), should permanently drive forgiven sinners to their knees. Those who believe in His name do not get what they deserve, and receive what is not rightfully theirs.
How can this be? How can this be?
Patterson ends his chapter by answering,
For theologians and biblical scholars, the cross of Christ remains a subject shrouded with the mystery of a holy and transcendent God. But for those same theologians and for the church at large, the cross remains the astonishing matrix of the atonement of Christ, about which we say with Paul, “But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal 6:14).