This article is “part 1” of a series on the cross of Christ, answering the question, “What happened on the cross?”


All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way.

Isaiah 53:6a

The Dying Thief

When the news of Christ’s crucifixion is preached, faith is mandated – not merely encouraged. Christ commands sinners to repent and believe, He does not invite (ex. Mark 1:15). Thus, there are two possible responses to the cross: obedience or disobedience.

An obedient response is turning from sin and trusting in Christ (Psalm 51; Romans 3:21-26). A disobedient response is remaining in sin and rejecting Christ (John 1:9-13, 3:16-21). Every time the Gospel is preached, it proves successful in one of two ways: provoking the disobedient to obedience or provoking the disobedient to further disobedience.

These two responses are demonstrated by the robbers Christ was crucified between. Matthew (27:38-44), Mark (15:22-32), and John (19:18) do not distinguish one thief’s response from the other. Luke, however, provides an account (23:39-42).

One criminal responded inappropriately. Witnessing the death of God, he mocked and scorned Christ (clearly not convinced Jesus was the Messiah). The other man responded appropriately. He admitted God’s right to judge and damn him justly for his deeds, then recognized the righteousness of Christ, then cried aloud for mercy. Both men were thieves, both were dying – but only one obeyed Christ’s command.

To understand what happened on the cross, we must have the eyes of that obedient, dying thief. You will find it impossible to grasp the meaning of Christ crucified if you do not first grasp the meaning of God’s holiness and our sinfulness – God’s God-centeredness and our idolatry – God’s goodness and our wickedness.

Seeing God

The glories of God are enough to keep us busy for an eternity, chasing down the wonders of His great name. Consider, though, three attributes of God which are of particular relevance: His holiness, justice, and love. These three attributes are related to one another in nonequivalent fashion.

God’s holiness is the divinity of all He is and does. “Holy” means “other, separate.” Attributing holiness to God is counting Him distinct from all things. The divide is between Creator and creation. All things begin, continue, and end with God – and no created thing may boast this quality. He is categorically distinct from our universe, from our realm of existence.

God’s justice is the consistency between Who He is and what He does. If God is just, then He is constant in how He relates to creation. His pleasures and intentions are immutable; therefore His promises can be relied upon. He will never contradict Himself, in word or deed, for He is faithful.

God’s love is the outward trajectory of His perfections. He gives Himself to others.  His love is foremost in the eternal relationship between Father, Son, and Spirit. Before God covenanted with Himself to create anything, He enjoyed a Trinitarian relationship within Himself: an eternal bond of giving. Creation and all of history are fruits of this bond. His patience, mercy, and grace are some expressions of His love. God’s love towards us does not mean He seeks our desires above His own, but exactly the opposite: He seeks His desires with us. His love is witnessed and experienced by us in His condescension, which has happened many times throughout history – most notably in the person and work of Jesus Christ. (footnote 1)

These three attributes together describe God for us. God is holy, just, and loving. He is faithful like none other, relational like none other, and through it all the very substance of perfection and beauty.

Seeing Man

Seeing God rightly is a necessary prerequisite to seeing man rightly, for not only is God our Creator but also He is the One after Whom we are fashioned. Man is created in the image of God, the Imago Dei. This image is both conventional and moral. By conventional, we refer to ways man reflects God which can never be destroyed. Principally, we are rational creatures capable of judgment and volition. By moral, we refer to ways man reflects God which were tarnished in the Fall. Principally, we were made to be morally pure, righteous, diligent creatures, exercising God’s rule over the earth as stewards. The conventional and moral are essentially the distinction between man’s design and activity. We are designed for holiness, but we have instead defiled ourselves with unholiness.

Because of this defilement, the state of man is dismal for two reasons: judicial and ontological. The judicial state of man is who he is in the courtroom – what his sentence is under God’s law. (footnote 2) The ontological state of man is who man is in his being – what his nature is. Since our federal head Adam plunged us all into sin, our state has been guilt and wickedness. Judicially, man is guilty. Ontologically, man is wicked.

The guiltiness of man means you have broken God’s law and are found by Him to be a law-breaker. In the courtroom of Heaven, there is record of the innumerable sins you have committed. Guilt is something that God as Judge pronounces over you, which in turn demands a just consequence. While the final verdict “guilty” has yet to be declared (this will happen at the end of all things), God knows all and sees all. His omniscience means the wicked are already condemned (John 3:18; Romans 2:16).

The wickedness of man means you are naturally inclined to hate God. From the womb, the taste-buds of your heart had no interest in Christ. If we divided creation into categories of “good” and “evil,” you would fit comfortably with the latter.

A correct view of Man follows from a clear vision of God. We correctly understand mankind when we clearly behold God. Isaiah’s experience exemplifies this for us. “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (Isaiah 6:5, emphasis mine). “Woe is me” is a curse: Isaiah pronounces it on himself. “I am accursed.”

I have italicized the transitional prepositions “for” and “because,” as they demonstrate why Isaiah considered himself cursed. First, he is cursed because he is a man of unclean lips and lives among people of unclean lips. Why is he unclean – or, why is he just now noticing how unclean he is? Second, he notices his uncleanliness because his eyes have seen the King.

Catching a glimpse of the glory of God demonstrated for Isaiah how inglorious he was – seeing God’s holiness showed Isaiah his own un-holiness. The more clearly a sinner sees God, the more firmly he will be convinced that he is a wretch.

A Christ Centered Faith

Writing to his homiletic students, Spurgeon commented,

Of all I would wish to say this is the sum; my brethren, preach Christ, always and evermore…. More and more am I jealous lest any views upon prophecy, church government, politics, or even systematic theology, should withdraw one of us from glorying in the cross of Christ… O that Christ crucified were the universal burden of men of God. (footnote 3)

The person and work of Christ surely is the focus of all piety. This is manifest because it is the focus of the Godhead itself. God the Father images Himself through the person of Christ (Colossians 1:15) and God the Spirit works to exalt Christ’s person and work (1 John 4:1-6). Any movement or ministry blessed by God will be intrinsically Christ-Centered.

And with this consideration, surely the cross should be to us a sacred holy of holies in systematic theology. The cross is a funnel through which so many doctrines, blessings, curses, prophecies, and Scriptures pass. Misunderstanding the cross inflicts the brightest of minds with plague and leprosy.

It should be our aim (certainly is the aim of this work) to get the cross right. In whatever we do say and believe concerning the crucified Son of God, we are to be sure it is correctly said and believed. Though a dangerous task in many respects, beholding and studying the cross is non-negotiable. So we aim our study now with the heart of Spurgeon, “Blessed is that ministry” – that man, that book, that family, that church – “of which Christ is all.” (footnote 4)

“Blessed is that ministry” – that man, that book, that family, that church – “of which Christ is all.” (Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students [Old-Time Gospel Hour: Lynchburg, Virginia], 83.)

A Two-Sided Experience

The cross of Christ enters at the conjunction of God’s holiness and man’s sinfulness. We will evaluate the cross dichotomously. The experience of Christ on the cross has two sides, as a coin. First, we will consider the judicial experience of Christ – what occurred legally on the cross. Second, we will consider the substantive experience of Christ – what occurred ontologically on the cross. These two categories are also in temporal order.

The warrant for this approach is the justice of God, as He has revealed Himself. Our Creator never indicts or inflicts punishment without cause. “Of a truth, God will not do wickedly, and the Almighty will not pervert justice,” (Job 34:12 ESV). If God is angry, He is filled with righteous indignation. If God inflicts pain and suffering, there is a good and necessary reason. God’s standards for righteousness are clear from the beginning: sin warrants death (Ezekiel 18:20; Romans 6:23). However, where there is no sin, there is no death (Genesis 1:31; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57) – and this is the foundation of our dichotomy. Christ suffered on the cross, which is clear by definition. This suffering is the substantive. If Christ suffered, He must have suffered for a reason – or else God is unjust. This reason is the judicial.

This experiential division is exemplified in our courtrooms. When a man is accused of a crime, he is first brought to trial. At the trial, the prosecution and defense present respective cases. The trial will conclude with one of two verdicts: guilty or not-guilty. At the trial, the accused man is not subjected to any substantive suffering, though he may experience the weight of guilt and rejection by the court. What transpires in the courtroom is an indictment, not punishment.

Once the verdict is passed, the accused man then proceeds to a fulfillment of said verdict. If pronounced not-guilty, no further activities ensue. If pronounced guilty, the man is subjected to whatsoever punishments the court condemned him to. Having been formally pronounced guilty, he is then treated like a guilty individual. Whatever his punishment might be, it stems foremost from his guilt.

May God give us wisdom to comprehend something of the majesty and awfulness of the cross. Contemplating our Savior’s death is a bittersweet endeavour. Bitter, for we love Him so – sweet, for He is truly that: our Savior.


Footnote 1: To be clear, I reject the definition of God’s love as, “His tendency to seek the betterment of others.” Scripture presents a different trajectory of God’s ambitions. Even in our salvation, God is said to seek His glory above all.

Footnote 2: In my use of “law,” I am accounting for those who hear the Word and do not. As Paul wrote, “(Romans 2, those are a law unto themselves.)”

Footnote 3: Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (Old-Time Gospel Hour: Lynchburg, Virginia), 82-83.

Footnote 4: Spurgeon, 83.

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