by Robert C. Harbach
“Him being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain” (Acts 2:23).
Many years ago, Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon entitled, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Today, with the widespread low view of God, many think of God in the hands of angry sinners. God, to many, is a very little ‘God’ indeed, who is being hindered and limited by the wicked hands of men. One man thinks he can hold God off at arm’s length and say unto Him, “I will not!”; or that he can, if he chooses, open his heart to the Saviour and let Him in. What a burlesque caricature of the “Almighty God, whose power no creature is able to resist!”
Our text does not say that Christ was delivered up to death on the Cross by man’s wicked hands, but by the determinate counsel and foreknowlege of God. Yet, we hear the Cross of Jesus being spoken of as an emergency measure on the part of God. As one writer put it: “Emergencies change all habits of action, divine and human . . . The greatest event on earth, the Cross, was an emergency action” (S. D. Gordon, Quiet Talks on Prayer, p. 55). What a horrible travesty of the truth! God is never put into an emergency. He is the Creator of circumstances; and no circumstance is ever any problem to Him. God is never put into a predicament; and the Cross was no afterthought, suddenly brought in to cope with an unforeseen difficulty. Nor was the death of Christ a calamity which calls for man’s sympathy and pity. Neither was His death a mere experiment, uncertain in its results. It was not a mere trial which God put into operation to see what good could be accomplished; it was the eternal purpose and counsel of the sovereign God. “For of a truth against Thy holy child Jesus, whom Thou hast anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together, to do whatsoever Thy hand and Thy counsel determined before to be done” (Acts 4:27,28). Hear the whole purpose of the Cross from the lips of incarnate Truth: “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth (on the Cross), will draw ALL unto Me” (John 12:32); and “ALL that the Father giveth Me shall come unto Me” (6:37). I delight in this truth and love to proclaim it, that the counsel of the Lord shall stand, and He shall do all His pleasure. Therefore, of all that the Father giveth to Christ, He shall lose nothing. By His predetermined death, they are eternally saved, and they shall never perish (John 10:28). Every part of His crucifixion was ‘according to the eternal purpose of God which He purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Eph. 3:11).
You can see, then, that the principle cause of Christ’s death was no accident of chance, but the sovereign counsel and eternal foreknowledge of God. It was God who planned it, who ordered it, and who disposed all things concerning it. This in no case implies that the murderers of Christ were forced into their evil act. They acted freely, and did unto Him whatsoever they listed. Yet, they are accountable to God for their sin; and are not excused on the ground that it was all the work of God’s determinate counsel. Their malice, cruelty and wicked hands God was pleased to use as instruments to accomplish His own holy purpose.
From the human side, (1) it was a violent death. He was put to death violently by outrageous men: “ye have taken and by wicked hands have crucified and slain.” Yet, from the point of view of God’s sovereignty no man could touch Him, except by the will of the Almighty Lord. For His life was laid down of Himself; no man took it from Him. He had power to lay it down, and power to take it again. (2) It was a painful death. “The cross was a rack as well as a gibbet” (John Flavel). The pains which He suffered were the pains of death. His soul was in travail; His body in bitter pangs. (3) It was a shameful death. Only slaves, and the basest and vilest of men were crucified. They were made an ignominious spectacle. But Jesus “endured the Cross” and “despised the shame” (Heb. 12:2).
Now why did Jesus thus die? Not to show us how a good man dies; not to teach us how to remain true to our convictions; not to prove that martyrdom is better than compromise. No, it was because in His death He must bear the curse of God against sin. The curse of the Law was against all of us, since we all fall short of that law. Christ bore the curse for His people and redeemed them from it. His was a prefigured death. In the O.T., we have the figure of the lamb being sacrificed as a type of Christ, who is the Lamb of God. His was a predicted death. He Himself had predicted His own death: “For the Son of Man goeth as it hath been determined of Him; but woe unto that man through whom He is delivered” (Luke 22:22). Also, God had foreappointed His death. It was all “according to the purpose of Him who worketh all things after the counsel of His own will” (Eph. 1:11). Therefore, though He died ON the Cross, He did not die OF the Cross. Christ was not a victim of circumstances. No, all circumstances are in the control of God. Nor did Christ suffer a tragic death as a result of caprice, chance, fortune or luck. We intensely dislike the thought that the Cross was a tragedy, or any sort of an emergency that God was forced into. Yet, we come across sermon titles such as “The Tragedy of the Cross.” Now a “tragedy” is defined by the dictionary as “the fatal outcome of a hopeless struggle.” That is exactly what the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ WAS NOT! “Known unto God are all His works from the beginning of the world” (Acts 15:18); and the Cross is no exception to this! It was no fatal outcome of a hopeless struggle; but it was the inevitable consequence of an invincible purpose! Thus, it is with the precious blood of Christ. Believers are saved by that blood while on earth, that they may live with Christ in heaven. And the blood which is redemption to them on earth is confirmation to those in heaven. Because of His shed blood, the saints in heaven have more perfect joy, but not more security, than the saints yet on earth.
“But Christ’s to the end shall endure,
As sure as the earnest is given;
More happy, but not more secure,
The glorified spirits in heaven.”
So it is by His blood that He has opened the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers. Notice not to all men, but to all believers! That is the extent and intent of His death: “By Him all that believe are justified from all things, from which they could not be justified by the Law of Moses” (Acts 13:39). The world sees this mighty sacrifice held up as the means of pardon and forgiveness for the people of God; and the world hates every bit of it. The ungodly world will have nothing of God’s mercy in the blood of Christ. With them, it is mercy despised. Yet those who trust in that atoning blood, though they be the greatest sinners, are certain of free, full and final pardon. The very blackest guilt can no more stand under the cleansing power of that blood, than a wicked reprobate can stand up under God’s justice. By that Divine blood every stain is washed away. And that efficacious blood shall wash away all the sins of God’s people, even their most obstinate unbelief.
As a certain writer so wonderfully describes His death: “(1) It was a natural death, i.e., it was a real death. He did not merely swoon on the Cross, then revive in the coolness of the tomb. The eternal Son of God ‘became flesh,’ condemned sin in the flesh, and ‘tasted death’ itself. And that the naturalness of it might be the more evident, He was buried, and lay in the tomb for three days. (2) It was an unnatural death, i.e., it was exceptional. Death had absolutely no claim on the Divine Saviour. Death comes by sin, and He had no sin. Peter says ‘He did no sin’ (1 Pet. 2:22); John says, ‘In Him is no sin’ (1 John 3:5); Paul says, ‘He knew no sin’ (2 Cor. 5:21). He is ‘holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners.’ Pilate found no fault in Him. Therefore, for the Holy One of God to die, it was unnatural. (3) His death was preternatural, i.e., it was predetermined from all eternity. He was the Lamb slain from before the foundation of the world. He Himself said ‘from henceforth I tell you before it come to pass, that when it is come to pass, ye may believe that I am He’ (John 13:19).
We are redeemed . . . with the ‘precious blood of Christ as of a lamb without blemish (in His person), and without spot (in His conduct); who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world’ (1 Pet. 1:20). God in His determinate counsel planned from eternity that the Saviour should die as the sacrifice for sin, that we might live. (4) His death was supernatural, i.e., it was different from any other death. It was a voluntary death, for He ‘laid down’ His life of Himself. He was led (not driven) as a lamb to the slaughter. He bowed His head, and gave up His spirit. Through all the six hours of excruciating pain on the Cross, He had held His head erect. It did not loll helplessly on His chest. And when He died, His head did not fall — He bowed His head — reverently and voluntarily. Behold, the majestic bearing of Christ on the Cross!
But there is further evidence that it was a supernatural death: ‘Behold the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; and the graves were opened’ (Matt. 27:51, 52). The purpose and power of God are very outstanding in the death of His Son. Everything about His death was in the hands and power of God. The Son Himself was the chief Actor in this drama of the ages; for He put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself (Heb. 9:26). He was not a helpless victim of human hate. By His death He did what was assigned Him to do, as He said: ‘This commandment have I received of my father’ (John 10:18b)” (Arthur W. Pink, in his Seven Sayings of the Saviour on the Cross).
We insist, therefore, that the death of Jesus Christ was definite and certain in every respect. There was nothing accidental, nothing precarious about it. His foreknowledge rendered it certain, for God’s foreknowledge is based on His settled counsel and purpose. So Jesus went to the Cross with absolute determination — with His face set like a flint. He went, not merely to make possible the salvation of mankind, but to make certain the salvation of believers. He died on the Cross, not simply to render sins pardonable, but to “take away sin” (John 1:19). Therefore, His death was not a mere “conditional” redemption purely incidental to the mood and inclination of man. It was an actual redemption: He actually redeems. “He hath visited and redeemed His people” (Luke 1:68). Thus Jesus carried out the counsel of God. He put into execution the whole plan of God. And we know that all things co-operate for them that love God and are called according to His purpose. Back in eternity there was a people God foreknew, and predestinated to be called, justified and glorified (Rom. 8:28-30). Now, in time, these people shall be called by Christ, justified by His blood, and glorified at the return of Christ in His glorious Second Coming. Thus the Cross of Jesus is the central link in the chain that connects the entire plan of salvation, including the believer, from everlasting to everlasting. Jesus died by the counsel of God, and believers are saved by the counsel of God, for the child of God is led to sing: “Thou shalt guide me with Thy counsel, and afterward receive me to glory” (Psa. 73:24). Yes, the believer is glorified by God’s grace. That means that Jesus Christ has merited glory for us on His Cross. Through the power of His Cross the glory of heaven can alone be realized. Through the power of His Cross He will draw His people from the depth of sin and death to the very height of everlasting glory. This He is able to do, since He arose from the dead, and He “ever liveth’ — death hath no more dominion over Him. The living Christ has power to save. And that gracious power is always in operation saving men through faith, calling them, justifying them, sanctifying them, and will ultimately glorify them both in soul and in body. Believe and trust the Christ of Calvary, and you will dwell for ever with the Christ of Glory.