The cross is a statement of God’s righteousness. That’s literally what Paul says in Romans 3:24-25:
… the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness …Romans 3:24-25
Jesus was put forward as a propitiation by his blood to show God’s righteousness. We’ll get to that word, “propitiation” in tomorrow’s post. But first, let’s talk about God’s righteousness.
English translations use several different words to translate what is one word-group in Greek. The Greek word dikaiosyne is translated as “righteousness” or “justice” pretty much interchangeably. For example, Paul uses this word seven times in Romans 3:21-26; it is translated as “righteousness” four times, while the other three are translated along the lines of “just” or to describe the act of “justifying.” Here’s what I want to stress about that: in the Bible, God’s justice and God’s righteousness are essentially the same thing.
Justice is a really popular topic in America today. We hear a lot about “social justice” these days, from social media to advertisements to sporting events. I was at the Tennessee Titans game this weekend and the end zone included the message, “Advance Social Justice.” And in many ways, that is a good thing. It is certainly a good thing for people to be more aware of injustices, to hear the stories of those who experience oppression. But we should also remember that biblical justice is married to God’s righteous character. Any form of justice that does not seek to reflect God’s righteous character is NOT true biblical justice. If we’re going to advocate for justice, we should advocate those forms of justice that are aligned with God’s righteousness.
When we say God is righteous and just, these are action words — we’re saying God does right, He does right-making in the world. N.T. Wright speaks of God “putting the world to rights,” which is simply his way of saying that God works to repair all that has been broken in His originally good creation. We all sense that something is wrong with the world; even the most irreligious person would agree with that. Thankfully, the Bible tells the story of how God works to make right all that is wrong in our world. And this happens at the cross. It happens because the Lord is a righteous God.
One of the objections to the cross goes along these lines: a father who would sit back and allow his own son to undergo such vicious treatment must be a monster. This is a pretty common view among people who seek to undermine and disparage the Christian story. They’ll claim that the cross amounts to “spiritual child abuse” because God the Father forces His Son to endure such brutality. How could God just sit back and watch His Son suffer?
That critique is fairly powerful because it taps into a fierce place in our hearts when it comes to protecting our children.
A couple of years ago, at an Atlanta Braves baseball game, one of the stadium attendants started yelling at my daughter. It was a million degrees that day, so Abby Kate (my daughter) and Sunny (my wife) decided to stand in the shade at the concourse level just a few rows behind our seats. It was the eighth inning of a lopsided game, so many people had already left the stadium. Anyway, Abby Kate’s shoe was untied, so she sat down in an empty chair to tie it. Well, this was one of the chairs reserved for people with disabilities. I don’t know if he’d had a bad day; maybe he had to tell fifty other people the same thing that afternoon … but this stadium attendant just started yelling at Abby Kate for sitting in the seat. I was still watching the game when I heard all this yelling coming from behind me. I turn and I see this man standing over my daughter and I see Sunny trying to explain the situation to him. And he’s yelling at Abby Kate and he’s saying, “Do you see this sign? It says that this seat is for handicapped people! Are you handicapped, little girl? Tell me, what’s your disability?” And all of these people were looking at them and Abby Kate started to cry.
And I just started seeing red. Before I knew it, I was in this guy’s face and I was telling him exactly what I thought of him. You know how sometimes you think of the perfect thing to say AFTER you’ve had a confrontation? Well, that’s pretty much never happened to me because I’m really quick on my feet and I have an extensive vocabulary so I was able to say EXACTLY what I wanted to say to this guy. “What kind of man are you that you have to berate a teenage girl in front of everybody? Does that make you feel good about yourself?” I didn’t cross the line of cursing him or uttering any four-letter words but at the same time … I completely lost control. It was like that scene in Lonesome Dove when Captain Call sees Newt being whipped by that Army scout and he just loses control. In about five seconds, I was guilty of doing the very thing he was doing to my daughter — I was completely berating him in front of everybody. Eventually security had to be called in to separate us. It was a pretty ugly scene, honestly.
In the car coming home, we were driving through Mentone and I told Sunny, “If I were the Incredible Hulk, I would still be green right now.” I was just fuming.
So I understand this deeply-ingrained impulse we have to protect our children. The love we have for them is fierce. And so this critique of the cross kind of hits home for some of us. We might even find ourselves in agreement with that critique. We might think, “Well, yeah … any parent who could sit back and watch this happen to their child must not be a God of love. It does seem unjust and cruel to subject your child to such harsh treatment.”
But this objection misses some key elements of the biblical story, parts that are really important for our understanding of atonement. The first thing it misses is the fact that nothing happens to Jesus apart from His willful consent. The cross wasn’t the will of the Father against the will of the Son. No, the cross is the will of both the Father AND the Son. Do you remember what Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane? He said, Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done, (Luke 22:42). The will of the Son is aligned with the will of the Father. Jesus is fully on board with this plan to redeem humanity.
To get theological for a second, it is really important that we maintain a Trinitarian understanding of the cross. That is, we see the will of God the Father and God the Son and God the Spirit coming together to bring about salvation and forgiveness through the cross. Nothing happened to Jesus without His willful consent as the second member of the divine Trinity. He willfully chose to be obedient to death, even death upon a cross (Phil. 2:8).
But this critique also ignores the righteousness of God. I can’t imagine what it was like for God the Father to hold back His wrath as He watched them spit on His Son, to flog Him, to nail Him to the cross. If I were God, I would have been hurling down some lightning bolts from heaven. But that’s just the point: I’m not God, and neither are you. Even when my anger is justified like it was that day in Atlanta, my anger is also mingled with sin, which means my anger will be unrighteous at times. But God’s anger is pure because He is righteous. And the cross is evidence of God’s righteousness — His action to make right in the world by condemning Sin.