What atoned for sin? (1)
What atoned for sin was not Christ's suffering as suffering (much less "punishment") but Christ's holy obedience that took the form of suffering.
Suffering simply as the experience of pain has no moral quality or content—it is neither good nor evil, it is neither praiseworthy nor is it worthy of condemnation. The moral worth or the wicked nature of suffering lies not in itself, as pain experienced, but in its purpose, motivation, degree, context and other considerations.
The difference between pain inflicted by a surgeon and a mugger could illustrate this truth well.
The profound heartache experienced by a parent whose love for a wayward and endangered child differs from the profound heartache of a "lover" who desperately wants another man's wife and can't have her. Both experience great pain but we know there's a qualitative difference.
Suffering that is inflicted on us against our will is qualitatively different from suffering that we choose on behalf of others though in both cases it is suffering.
Suffering that is inflicted on the guilty as just punishment is qualitatively different from the suffering experienced by a lover who endures suffering because his/her beloved is being abused. Mary's suffering at the sight of her Son being murdered was of a different kind than the suffering endured by two robbers at the side of Jesus (see Luke 23:40-41).
This truth about suffering simply as pain experienced is germane to our understanding of the death of Jesus Christ. The moral quality and the reconciling power of Jesus' cross is not that he experienced pain, not even that he experienced pain unjustly—the significance of his pain relative to his atoning for sin, lay in another direction altogether; it had to do with his purpose in choosing pain and how his Holy Father construed his pain.
On stylistic grounds, Macleod Campbell is a very hard read but in The Nature of Atonement he has taught us well in showing us that Jesus' suffering was the form a Son's loving obedience took in doing the will of his Holy Father. That's what gave it its moral value and its reconciling power—it was the expression of a heart entirely aligned with the heart of the Holy Father. His aim was to reconcile humanity to God, to realign their hearts to the Holy Father and the nature of his goal is expressed in the nature of his life and death. What he was and did is what he meant to bring about in and for others. His life embodies and is the manifestation of his purpose.
His life of love and honour and devotion, consummated in "obedience unto death, even death on a cross," is the holy and moral response that should be expected from God's child; and it was what Jesus gave him— joyfully and no matter the cost.
In addition, Jesus was God's gift to humanity (2 Corinthians 9:15) so that Jesus' loving obedience was God's gift to humanity. That obedience was not only the expression of the Son's love for the Father it was an expression of the Son's love for the human family that is loved by the Father (2 Corinthians 8:9, John 3:16-17).
But Jesus is also redeemed humanity's gift to God. The hymn-writer expressed well this facet of the believer's life with God: "Nothing in my hand I bring/Simply to thy cross I cling."
The suffering of Jesus on the cross (as the essential consummation of all other aspects of his suffering in life) is not to be construed merely as pain endured, for that would take the holiness and moral quality out of it.
The suffering of Jesus (consummated in his death) is not to be construed as God punishing him instead of punishing the guilty for God has taught us that he regards that as immoral and sinful (Deuteronomy 24:16; 27:25 and Proverbs 6:17 illustrate). Not only was God not angry at Jesus he gloried in Jesus' embracing the cross. Not only did he not see him as guilty and defiled (for sin defiles as well as renders guilty) the Holy Spirit of God enabled him as a High Priest on the cross to offer himself as a spotless sacrifice (Hebrews 9:11-14). The same writer has Jesus as a High Priest as sinless and undefiled, offering himself up to purify people of their sins (2:15 and 7:26-27) and then going to glory (Hebrews 1:3-4).
©2004 Jim McGuiggan. All materials are free to be copied and used as long as money is not being made.
Many thanks to brother Ed Healy, for allowing me to post from his website, theabidingword.com.