On Good Friday, we remember that Jesus died on the cross for our salvation. As Christians, we say it so often – Jesus saved me, Jesus died for my sins. But what actually happened on the cross? What did Jesus actually achieve? The reality behind the cross is so deep that we’ll never be able to understand fully but three main things stand out – justification, redemption and propitiation. Big theological words, I know, but we’re going to have a look at them.
I can’t take the credit for this analogy. It comes from a sermon by Philip Jensen, one of the most well known Sydney Anglican preachers. It’s been preached a number of times through the years (the link is just the one with the best sound quality). I heard the analogy many years ago, and it has stayed with me ever since. It so beautifully captures three different aspects of our salvation, three different victories that Jesus won for us on the cross. I wanted to share this with you today.
Imagine you are walking through an ancient marketplace. The kind that Jesus and his disciples may have walked through all those years ago. As you walk through, you notice an imposing building. It’s a courthouse, the place where people accused of crimes were dealt their sentences. You step quietly closer and look inside. A man stands before a judge, accused of a number of crimes. He hangs his head in shame, painfully aware of his guilt and unable to even look the judge in the eyes. Yet, the judge looks at the man and declares him to be pardoned, let off with a warning. The man wasn’t innocent, but because of the judge’s declaration, he can walk home free from condemnation.
You move on from the courthouse and come across a much different place, bustling with activity and human beings put on display. This is the slave market. Here in front of the gaze of greedy eyes stands a young woman. Circumstances unknown to you have led her to this point, as she awaits being sold off to the highest bidder. But before the bidding can start, an older man comes forth and pleads for the sale to stop. He is the young woman’s uncle. As soon as he heard of her predicament, he gathered his wealth to pay the price for her freedom. He gives his money to the slave dealer, and the young woman is released, free to go home knowing she’ll be cared for by her uncle.
The final place you see is even grander and more imposing than the courthouse. The aroma of incense and the reverent silence lets you know that this is a holy place. In the centre of the room, a lamb without spot or blemish is placed upon the altar. A priest lifts his blade, says a prayer and sacrifices the lamb, its blood running red onto the floor. The sins of the people have once again been turned away.
It’s an analogy with many historical anachronisms, I’m sure. But, it so beautifully encapsulates the way the cross brings our atonement with God. Like the man in the courthouse, we are justified. Even though we have sinned against God and stand guilty before him, he declares us to be right in his eyes without any fear of punishment. And it’s not even just getting let off with a warning – it’s once for all, forever forgiveness.
Without God’s salvation, we are slaves to sin and death and Satan. We’ve got no power to free ourselves from this, no matter how hard we try or how many good works we tally up. Through Jesus’ death, we are redeemed. Like the young woman’s uncle, Jesus paid the price for our freedom – and that price was his blood shed on the cross. We are set free from the chains of sin and we know that death will not be the final word for us.
The final aspect involves a big theological word – propitiation. Basically, it means for anger to be turned aside. God’s anger towards us isn’t a very popular topic, but I wonder if that’s because we don’t grasp how sinful we are. In our own sinful selves, we deserve his punishment. But, when Jesus died, that was God taking our punishment on himself. Like the sacrificial animal who died in the place of the people, he was the perfect sacrifice who died in our place. God’s anger is turned aside once for all, for all those who trust in Jesus.
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. – Romans 3:23-25 ESV
In each of these aspects – justification, redemption, propitiation – there is a deep mystery. We’ll never be able to fully fathom the depth and breadth of God’s love expressed through the cross. It’s this depth and this mystery, combined with an understanding of just how much we needed this salvation, that brings us to heart-felt adoration.