Subduing or Suppressing?
What then does the crucifixion signify in an age like ours? I see it in the first place as a sublime mockery of all earthly authority and power. The crown of thorns, the purple robe, the ironical title, ‘King of the Jews were intended to mock or parody Christ’s pretensions to be the Messiah; in fact, they rather hold up to ridicule and contempt all crowns, all roses, all kings that ever were … look under the crown and you see the thorns beneath; pull aside the purple robe, and lo! Nakedness; look into the grandiloquent titles and they are seen to be no more substantial than Christ’s ribald one of ‘King of the Jews’ scrawled above His cross … it was the sort of incident—a man dying in that slow public way—which must have generated its own immediate tension in the beholders, even though they were unaware of the nature and magnitude of the stupendous drama being enacted before them. In some vague way they expect something to happen, and so it does …. Malcolm Muggeridge, Jesus Rediscovered, Family Library, pp. 53,56
The power of the cross does not lie in some abstract, ethereal, cosmic transaction but rather in a literal subduing of the rebellious human heart. The Latin (Commercial Transaction) doctrine gives us a series of acts standing in relatively loose connection. The actual atonement consists in the offering of satisfaction by Christ and God’s acceptance of it; with this act men have nothing to do except in so far as Christ stands as their representative. Justification is a second act, in which God transfers or imputes to men the merits of Christ; here, again, there is no direct relation between Christ and men. Next, we have sanctification, a third act with no organic connection with the preceding two. See Gustaf Aulen, Christus Victor, Macmillan, p. 150. God’s desire was never to suppress rebels, for certainly that would have been easy enough, but to subdue their pride to once again enjoy their fellowship.
The exertion of force, though it results in rapid submission, cannot subdue the heart. Consequently, true fellowship devolves to respect based on fear. God’s ultimate goal has never been to save us from hell. He came rather to save us from ourselves—from our sin.
And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call His name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins. Matthew 1:21
Although it is true that the atonement or substitutionary death of Christ markedly reduces the amount of suffering in the universe, the divine objective was to reveal the true human condition. While it would take a far greater effort to subdue man’s heart rather than simply doling out His just deserts, this was the path God chose.
The cross of Jesus Christ thus understood provides an imposing barrier to the individual contemplating sin. To do so he must harden himself against the loving gaze of a suffering Savior as he moves toward each selfish gratification. He must stubbornly ignore the cross as a roadblock, and reject the sacrifice of Jesus.
Jesus was able through his suffering to do what the Old Testament sacrifices never could—provide a lasting, moral force to alter our entire outlook on sin. Perhaps in time the death of an innocent lamb might fade in our minds and be forgotten. But neither heaven nor earth will forget the day God came to earth to wash the feet of His enemies.
While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son … Romans 5:10