I recently attended a meeting of our local presbytery (the regular, periodic gathering of local pastors and elders), and I was blessed to sing the words of a classic hymn: “Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim, till all the world adore his sacred name.” The closing stanza of this hymn struck me. It reads, “For thy blest cross which doth for us atone, creation’s praises rise before thy throne.”
The cross atones. The “cross” is more than a mere piece of wood. Its use here is a “literary metonymy.” In other words, it is a part that represents a much larger whole; one word signifying a much more complex concept. The cross in this way summarizes the atoning work of Christ. The blood of Christ — another metonymy for the death of Christ — shed on the cross is that which technically atones for, or covers, our sin. But the cross is the locus for this atoning work and is also a primary locus, therefore, of Christian assurance. And this is critical because in the church today too many of God’s children lack assurance. They live thinking there might be things they could do (or fail to do!) that would negate the work of Christ for them. They don’t understand that God is utterly faithful to His promises; promises made certain and unchangeable by the blood of Jesus.
My friend and mentor, Dr. Jack L. Arnold, was a man who lived with deep assurance concerning what Christ had done for him and what the work of Christ promised to him. Last January, Jack preached his last sermon. The sermon was entitled “The Cost of Discipleship” and focused on the need for believers to be willing to sacrifice all for the cross. He recalled Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” But then Jack also quoted Wesley to the effect that as followers of Christ, we are immortal — indeed we cannot die — until our work for Christ on this earth is completed. Then Jack said, “But when our work for Christ is done, I don’t know about you, but when my work for Christ is done …” — then he slapped his hands together, sending one hand pointing to the sky — “… I am out of here! I will go to heaven and that will be great gain!”
Within a few sentences of these words, Jack paused ever so briefly, looked up, swayed just a bit, and fell back to his death. Someone in the front row said it was as though God reached down through the roof and yanked Jack’s soul to heaven leaving the body to fall where he had been standing.
While traumatic and not a small amount dramatic, this was also a glorious event in the eyes of God. The world found it strange (the story appeared on Yahoo.com under “odd news”), but it was glorious. Why? Because this man knew what he believed. He had just expressed that he had no doubt about his future. Because of Christ’s atoning work for him, he was in Christ and would be with Christ. Knowing this, believing this, empowered Jack to live with courage and almost reckless abandon for Christ’s kingdom. His confidence was not in his preaching, not in the hundreds of pastors he taught across Africa in his last seven years of life, nor in the scores and scores of leaders he discipled over the years in his home country. His confidence was in Christ alone.
Numerous people who saw Jack die that day at our church independently shared with me virtually the same impression. Old friends of Jack, a young teenager, some visitors to the church, all actually thought Jack was role playing when he fell — as if to say, “This is what will happen when I die.” It was only when he did not get back up that they realized this was more serious. The assurance Jack had expressed was palpable and in fact was the one thing that allowed the congregation to give God the glory through the loss of this dear saint and humble leader in Christ’s church. We were blessed to see the fulfillment of Jack’s assurance. He had often said, “Even if I were the only person God ever saved from sin, Jesus would still have come to earth and bled and died for my sins.” The truth of the atonement allowed Jack Arnold to say with Paul, “For me, to live is Christ, to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21).
Now, of course, the atonement is one of numerous sources for Christian assurance. J. Gresham Machen’s last words as he died in 1937 were: “So thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.” This scholar and teacher found consolation in his last moments in Christ’s life of sinless adherence to God’s law on behalf of those who trust in Him. Other people rightly rest upon Christ’s resurrection from the dead as the foundation for assurance of their own salvation.
But for saints through the ages, the sure and definite atonement of Christ serves to assure the church of the Father’s forgiveness. The final word: Those who trust in the atoning work of Christ alone as their basis for being right with God, these can live fearlessly for Christ with every breath, and they can die fearlessly in Christ knowing their sins are covered as they stand clothed in the righteousness of Christ the Savior.