The seven sayings: Atonement

In April 1984, police arrived at Rafael Ruiz’s home to inform him that he was a suspect in a sexual assault investigation. Professing his innocence, Ruiz complied fully with the investigation. Formally charged, Ruiz was offered a plea deal in which he could accept 18–36 months’ imprisonment for admitting guilt. Maintaining his innocence, Ruiz rejected the plea deal and went to trial. He was found guilty and sentenced to 8–25 years in prison.

Ruiz served the full 25 years before his release, always maintaining his innocence. In January this year, new evidence was presented in the case. On 28 January, a judge in the Supreme Court of the State of New York dismissed all charges, stating that the new evidence completely exonerated him. “I am thankful to the Innocence Project for all their work to make today a reality,” said Ruiz. “I lost 25 years of my life because I insisted upon my innocence and rejected plea bargains. Today feels like a huge burden off my shoulders and I look forward to living a good life moving forward.”

The Innocent Project aims to exonerate the wrongly convicted through DNA testing. Its mission is “to free the staggering number of innocent people who remain incarcerated, and to bring reform to the system responsible for their unjust imprisonment.”

Christians can appreciate the work done by organisations like the Innocence Project. The Bible reveals that God is concerned with justice and calls God’s people to “do justice, and to love kindness” (Micah 6:8). Yet the astonishing reality is that the greatest kindness ever shown to sinful humanity was secured through the greatest injustice ever known to man. Jesus captured the essence of this injustice when, in his fourth utterance from the cross, he cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). This word of our Saviour highlights the truth of which Paul wrote: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). It speaks to us of atonement.

To fully appreciate this divine cry, we must recognise that that Jesus was quoting Psalm 22. We don’t know the circumstances that led David to write. A particular affliction struck in which he felt as if God had abandoned him. He poetically expresses the great distress in which he found himself, slowly talking himself back into a right frame of mind. By the end of the psalm, his faith is renewed: “All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, even the one who could not keep himself alive. Posterity shall serve him; it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation; they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, that he has done it” (vv. 29–31).

David may not have known it, but his words were profoundly prophetic of the coming Messiah. In life, Jesus confidently affirmed, “He has not left me alone” (John 8:29). On the cross, he cried in distress, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In life, he proclaimed, “I knew that you always hear me” (John 11:42). On the cross, he lamented, “O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer” (Psalm 22:2). It was a cry of anguish, yet one that highlighted the truth of atonement. Consider what this cry of anguish teaches us about atonement in Christ.

First, Jesus’ words teach us about the awfulness of sin and its consequences. Human beings were created for unbroken fellowship with God, but death unnaturally entered the human race to interrupt that fellowship. Sin invites the death of beings created in God’s very likeness. Death is a most unnatural enemy, whose defeat could only be secured by the death of God himself. How heinous is sin that it required the death of God’s only Son to atone for it! No penalty for sin is sufficient but complete separation from the source of all life. And Jesus, who is himself the source of life—the one who created and holds all things together—personally underwent that penalty to atone for those his Father had given to him. No wonder he felt the sting of abandonment!

Second, Jesus’ words teach us about the inflexible justice of the perfectly holy God. The God who is purity incarnate (1 John 3:3) and in whom no darkness can dwell (1 John 1:5) will not tolerate sin to go unpunished. And yet he longs for fellowship with his creatures. How can fellowship be realised while holiness is upheld? Only by the sinless one taking the holy penalty for sin upon himself. As Pink observes, “God’s holy character could do no less than judge sin even though it be found on Christ himself. At the cross then God’s justice was satisfied and his holiness vindicated.” Is it any wonder that the sin-bearer felt as if he had been abandoned by God?

Third, Jesus’ words highlight his unwavering obedience. How he would have loved to avoid the cross! How he longed for that cup to pass from him! Yet he chose to do the will of the one who had sent him. His enemies taunted him cross, mockingly asking why the God in whom he trusted would not deliver him. At any moment, he could have commanded legions of angels to rescue him. But he remained firm in his commitment to the very God whom, he felt, had abandoned him in his moment of greatest need.

Fourth, Jesus words highlight the basis of our salvation. Only the death of a sin-bearer could atone for sin. Sinful human beings could never atone for their own sin. It took one who knew no sin, but who willingly became sin for us, to pay the full penalty for sin. The full cup of divine wrath was poured out on the Son at Calvary. Gethsemane—“the olive press”—became the place where the wrath of God pressed the precious blood of Christ from his broken body as the means of our atonement. The sinless one became sin for us. How could he feel anything but abandonment in that moment?

He suffered in our stead, he saved his people thus;

the curse that fell upon his head was due, by right, to us.

The storm that bowed his blessed head is hushed forever now

and rest divine is mine instead, while glory crowns his brow.

But observe that he alone was forsaken by God for our sins. There is no hope of forgiveness and salvation outside of Christ. He suffered the full thrust of divine wrath for those who will believe in him. Those who reject his sacrifice will face that wrath themselves as they “pay the penalty of eternal destruction from the Lord’s presence and from his glorious strength” (1 Thessalonians 1:9, CSB). Judgement day is coming.

Hear, once more, the timeless words of Arthur Pink:

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Let every believing soul make answer: He entered the awful darkness that I might walk in the light; he drank the cup of woe that I might drink the cup of joy; he was forsaken that I might be forgiven!

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