Jesus acts in our place and in our cause as only he can. He alone “gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father”(Gal. 1:4). We did not play any part in this saving action. How could we? We were under the power of the present evil age unable to do anything for ourselves and so unable to add to what Jesus did for us. He was also made a curse for us to free us from the curse (Gal. 3:13). Again, he did so, without us. The whole of God’s saving action has happened fully in Jesus needing no completion by us.
But is there no way at all that God’s saving action is completed by us? What about the decisive demand of faith? Faith is vital, but it does not add to what Jesus has done for us. In faith we gratefully respond to all Jesus has done for us by trusting in Jesus plus nothing. We fully trust in him alone and not at all in ourselves. And we give thanks to God for his indescribable gift.
This faith comes as Jesus encounters us personally by his Spirit. And in this encounter we know that faith is the gift of God. Furthermore in this response of faith we are united to Jesus by his Spirit. And in this union we now share personally in Jesus response of faith in our place and on our behalf. In that way, our imperfect response of faith shares in the perfect faith of Jesus on our behalf. It is all Jesus plus nothing.
Left to ourselves we humans are enslaved under the reign of sin and death. Under these powers we are always against God. We don’t want him. Nevertheless, God wants us and shows he is for us as he steps into our situation to rescue us from our plight. God intervenes in the death of Christ to bring to an end the reign of sin in death. He takes our sin upon himself and goes down into death to bring the power of sin and death to an end. Then Jesus is raised from death by the Father’s Spirit bringing into existence an entirely new creation.
This decisive divine intervention brings about a radical reversal of our previous situation in Adam.
In Jesus dying, the old is gone.
In Jesus rising, the new has come.
God himself has interrupted our old human existence in Adam under sin and death in order to open a new and living way in Jesus and his Spirit.
Jesus died and rose again as our representative so we died and rose with him. We have been crucified with Christ and so for us the old has gone. We have also been raised with Christ and so for us the new has come. And now our ongoing daily life is shaped by this dying and rising. Daily we die to any religious self-effort in attempting to be right with God or holy before God or more united to God. Daily we also rise in the Spirit into our new relation with God in which all things are new.
Scripture gives us various windows on the cross. These windows offer different ways of looking into the meaning of the cross. Gazing through these windows we are able to consider diverse features in Jesus self-offering for us and so gain a fuller understanding of his cross. And yet, we can never gain mastery over the mystery of the cross. For what actually took place between Jesus and his Father in the most holy place is hidden from us.
On the day of atonement the most important part was done within the veil beyond human sight. The high priest took some of the blood shed in sacrifice and disappeared behind the veil into the holies of holies. Jesus, our great high priest entered within the veil into heaven itself, into the holy of holies of God’s presence. There as our high priest he offered himself for us beyond our view. That means that the innermost meaning of atonement remains mystery. It is beyond our seeing and our saying. As T. F. Torrance says the cross is “… a holy and infinite mystery which is more to be adored than expressed. Here we tread the holy ground of the garden of Gethsemane and Calvary and here we must clap our hand upon our mouth again and again, for we have not words adequate to match the infinitely holy import of atonement”.
By the Spirit, we can see something of what the cross means as we look through the windows on the cross. Nevertheless, we cannot gain mastery over the mystery that always confronts us as we survey the wondrous cross.
Can we penetrate into the deep meaning of the cross of Christ? T. F. Torrance tells us that we cannot think our way into the cross but only out from it. And we only think our way out from the cross with understanding as we view it from the resurrection side. And yet, even in this “understanding” we are confronted with mystery beyond our knowing.
The Spirit of Christ must open to us the mystery of the Crucified Christ by bringing Christ to us in living encounter. Only then do we see something of what his cross means. In the presence of the risen Jesus we see that his tragic death has actually conquered death. Sin reigns in death, but now we know that both sin and death have been defeated and we are liberated from their power.
As the Spirit opens to us the meaning of the cross it still remains hidden as mystery. As David Willis says, “the more we know of its hiddenness the more it grows in its hiddenness. And the more we are caught up in its hiddenness, the more we are encountered in its disclosive power” In this encounter we do not invent our own theories of atonement trying to gain mastery over the meaning of the cross. Rather than trying to gain mastery over the cross we gaze into the mystery of Christ crucified. In wonder we say, “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!”