The fundamental notion and essence of atonement, as embodied in the priestly work of Christ, is the offering of Himself unto God [as] a sacrifice and a reconciliation for the sins of His people. It is His substitutionary oblation of Himself, bearing the curse and bringing in righteousness, thereby satisfying Divine justice and reconciling us unto God…But now:
Is the action of Priesthood real action—not mere suffering or endurance, but real action, and that action, offering? Then, without bringing out the nature of this action more fully—without even asking what the exact and intrinsic nature of this action is—we may see that it bears very powerfully, though perhaps not so patently, upon all the false theories [of atonement]…Their advocates contemplate Christ’s death not as action, but exclusively as suffering: it is a providential event to which Christ is subjected, not a priestly action that Christ achieves. They recognize His passive endurance, not His priestly agency. They see that He suffered; they see not that He offered…
Did Christ merely suffer in His death? Was His own agency not concerned in it? Then, was He not a Priest on Calvary, but merely a Lamb? If so, the question at once arises, “Who offered up this Lamb of God, the eternal Son of God, a sacrifice upon the cross?” Either the Father or the Spirit was the Priest, neither of Whom was ever “taken from among men” or “ordained for men…that he may offer” (Heb 5:1); or there was no Priest. For assuredly no creature could be admitted to the honor of offering up the only begotten of the Father. In any case, in this view, Christ’s death occurred outside His Priesthood. If that is true, His death can be nothing to us.
I refuse to believe in the cross of Christ as a mere passive endurance. And I refuse to discuss the doctrine of His death under any such restriction of its marvelous, [singular], and transcendent glory. I deny that His God-glorifying agency was overborne before He died, leaving Him a mere victim to causes and means of death, aside from His own active will and power offering Him to God. I deny that on His cross all His duty turned at last into patience and became negation. It was His duty to die, and He discharged His duty…Christ acted in dying. It was His duty to die—His official duty. Official action was in it: priestly agency. He dismissed His Spirit (Joh 19:30). He “gave himself ” (Gal 1:4; 2:20; Eph 5:25; 1Ti 2:6; Ti 2:14). Herein is His love: herein also is His power—herein the triumph and transcendent glory of His victory over death. He is an unquelled, unconquered, conquering agent in offering Himself up to God.
It is true He suffers—the just for the unjust. Men are killing Him, and Satan [is] tempting and tormenting Him. The Father bruises Him: “It pleased the LORD to bruise him” (Isa 53:10) and to say, “Awake, O sword, against my shepherd” (Zec 13:7). He endures the cross. He suffers death. He dies a sufferer. So much the more wondrous is the truth that He [is] a conquering agent in dying. He trembles, but He does not faint. He does not swoon, but agonize. And “agony” is action to the uttermost. This is the glory of His triumph! Leave this out of view—put aside His priestly agency and priestly action in His death—suppose His agency and action to have been, ere death, exhausted, leaving room for passive sufferance and patience merely, and you cannot “glory in the Cross,” nor teach the Church of God to glory in it. You leave the glory of Christ’s triumph and the evidence of Christ’s love deeply buried in the shame of Calvary and in the grave of Golgotha…If [Jesus] died a mere passive victim, He did not die a victor; and no subsequent glory can redeem what in that case was defeat. But He died a triumphant agent! He prevailed against death to live until He said, “It is finished” (Joh 19:30), and then to die, not merely voluntarily, but by positive priestly action, giving Himself to God.
The Cross itself is glorious: not from the subsequent resurrection and enthronement, but glorious from itself…Christ crucified is—not after, but in being crucified—the power of God. And He is the power of God because He is the Priest of God. It is His priestly duty to die—a duty unparalleled and unapproachable. He falters not in the discharge of it. Official agency is in His sacrificial priestly death. He offered Himself (Heb 9:14). “[He] loved the church, and gave himself for it” (Eph 5:25)…
We lay it down that the doctrine of the atonement ought not to be discussed apart from the idea of Christ’s priestly action in His death. We are deeply persuaded that the refusal to discuss or contemplate the doctrine of Christ’s death, except as that priestly action that Holy Scripture abundantly reveals it to have been—while it is obviously the most effective method of establishing and defending the doctrine itself—is at the same time the true way to take legitimate and conclusive preliminary objection to the vast majority of false representations of Christ’s death…Holy Scripture is so clear, so abundant, so express, varied, and emphatic in its assertions of Christ’s death being a transaction in which His own agency was concerned that those who deny this or make no account of it cannot be considered as merely erring in scriptural interpretation, but must be regarded as rejecting Scripture as the rule of faith…
Reasons why this truth has been much overlooked…We are so familiar with the plain statement that Christ was at once the Sacrifice and the Priest—“he offered up himself” (Heb 7:27)—that we think we have fully mastered its contents, while we may have done little more than skim the surface.
That it must contain great depths of truth should be obvious from the fact that it presents a consideration absolutely unparalleled, singular, and unique. That the man Christ Jesus should both suffer death—and such a death, under the curse of the divine Law, with all conceivable aggravations of woe, agony, and shame—and also that He should sinlessly, yea, obediently and officially have an active hand in His death, and such a death—ought at once to strike us as passing all comprehension. [It is] entitled to that thoughtful, prolonged, and reverent contemplation that might enable us, under the teaching of the Spirit of truth, to place the fact before our understandings with the most exact accuracy of thought we can attain and with the fullest completeness that we can grasp…That “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” (1Co 15:3), [many] are content to believe. But that in this transaction of the death at Calvary, He combined the two apparently antagonistic attitudes of suffering and offering—suffering unto such extent and such intensity as would have quelled all the active powers, not to say the patience, of any but a Divine person; and offering, also in such activity and such unquelled and excelling triumphant action, as if no suffering were making drain upon His active powers at all. This is the apparent paradox in the death of Christ that many, we fear, have far too lightly considered. Yet, how, without profound consideration and appreciating admiration of it, they can intelligently “glory in the Cross,” it is impossible to see.
That the simple but profound truth on which we are desirous of insisting should have been, at least to some extent, overlooked by many whose views of the Atonement are not incorrect, may in some measure be easily accounted for…Several phrases have acquired a [general use] unfavorable to clearness and comprehensiveness. Among these we may notice what we have long thought the unhappy and not very intelligible expression—“Christ’s active and passive obedience.” No doubt, with explanations, the phrase may be allowed. And without question, it is with these explanations that sound writers have used it. It has been employed to express the fact that in Christ’s life and death as our Surety, there meet the endurance of the penalty of the Law and the inbringing of a positive righteousness…Moreover, if there is anything in Christ’s [intervention] for our salvation that may be supposed to be called “passive” obedience—as in express contradiction to “active” obedience—it must be His death. And where this impression prevails, it obviously countenances and indeed suggests the idea that His death was exclusively passive—that His own activity or agency is not to be recognized in it...
The Paraphrase also—the forty-fourth—which represents “the pale ensigns” of death as overspreading the cheeks and the “trembling lips” of our Lord, while life forsook “His closing eyes and His drooping head,” does most manifest injustice to the condition of our Lord’s Person on the cross and is clearly most injurious to the scriptural representations that “Jesus cried with a loud voice” and “gave up the ghost” (Mar 15:37)—dismissed His Spirit. The impression that such phrases are fitted to make upon the mind is just this and nothing more: our Lord unmurmuringly endured inconceivable sufferings; He was being subjected to death as the penalty due to sin. All that is true. But they also suggest the idea that whereas formerly He had been engaged in positive duty, going about doing good, the time for positive and active duty was now passed. The time for simply suffering had come.
We must never cease to affirm that this representation of the cross is most inadequate. It exhibits the cross as the emblem and scene of patience merely, while it conceals those glorious and glorifying aspects of it in which it is seen to be an altar of priestly agency, a throne of powerful action, and a chariot of victory and triumph. It represents Christ’s activity as subdued and overborne, or at least as [temporarily stopped]. It [leaves out] the grand consideration—which direct Scriptural assertions place before us and which an adoring appreciation of the constitution of Christ’s Person and the intrinsic nature of His work necessitate—that Christ’s actual putting forth of power and His official, obedient, and positive agency, never were and could not be overborne and subdued…Earth, hell, and heaven: earth’s rulers and her rabble; her kings, priests, soldiers, and malefactors assailed Him; her Jews and Gentiles; even her dumb creatures; earth’s forests furnishing wood; earth’s streams refusing water; earth’s bitternesses mingled in vinegar and gall; earth’s curse embodied in her thorns, in mockery and pain to crown Him; earth’s founded steadfastness refused to support Him and her firmament to shine upon Him; hell’s utmost force and fury gathered up against Him; heaven’s sword devoured Him and heaven’s God forsook Him—earth, hell, and heaven conspired against Him unto the uttermost of heaven’s most extreme justice and earth and hell’s most extreme injustice—what is the glory of the Cross, if it be not this: with such action conspiring to subdue His action, His action outlasted and outlived them all! He did not die subdued and overborne into dying; He did not die until He gave Himself in death! Emmanuel a mere sufferer in His death? “The preaching of the cross…is the power of God” (1Co 1:18).
Direct scriptural evidence of this truth: We may notice briefly some of the more obvious scriptural assertions of this truth…Among some of the more obvious testimonies to the doctrine that the death of Christ was an action of His priestly office may be reckoned the assertion of Isaiah: “He hath poured out his soul unto death” (53:12). The phrases frequently used by the Apostle Paul: “Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it” (Eph 5:25); and, specializing this love and loving service to the individual believer, He “loved me, and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20). Again, “Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour” (Eph 5:2). And again, “When he had by himself purged our sins” (Heb 1:2). The doxology of John: “Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood” (Rev 1:5). The frequent expressions of the Lord Himself: “The Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mat 20:28). And, very specially, His ever memorable account of Himself as the Good Shepherd: “The good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep” (Joh 10:11). So [concerned] is our Lord on this point that He repeats it again and again in the strongest and most emphatic terms, positive and negative alike: “No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself” (Joh 10:18). And so powerfully does He bring out the idea of His own agency being concerned in His death that He places it on a level with the agency He should put forth in His resurrection! [He] represents obedient action equally in the two cases as constituting jointly what His Father’s commandment had enjoined upon Him and what His Father’s love and approbation rested in so complacently: “Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself”—at My own instance, of My own will, by My own deed—“I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment received I of my Father” (John 10:17-18). How clearly is the putting forth of positive power implied in all these various expressions!...“Nor yet that he should offer himself often…For then must he often have suffered since the foundation of the world: but now once in the end of the world hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself ” (Heb 9:25-26)—an utterance of inspiration that fearlessly presents the sacrifice of the Cross as an offering in suffering and as suffering in offering, doing justice alike to both aspects of the truth, together constituting one truth indissoluble, its unique singularity arising from a combination of what, in none but the God-man, could be combined.
We speak of His “doing” and His “dying.” His dying was His grandest doing. The light and evidence of His active obedience, instead of paling on the Cross, shines out there most brilliantly of all, shining down the darkness of death, and of the frown of incensed justice, until the dark frown passes off from the face of the Eternal Judge, and the light of a Father’s countenance is lifted on the obedient Son in the moment of His saying, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit” (Luk 23:46). The Father’s will is done. It is done by the Eternal Son, through the Eternal Spirit. Consentient actings of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost fill the death of Christ with action and with power unparalleled and transcendent; and the [preaching] of the cross is the power of God.
From The Atonement: In Its Relations to the Covenant, the Priesthood, the Intercession of Our Lord, Banner of Truth Trust, www.banneroftruth.org.