Octavius Winslow once famously said, “Who delivered up Jesus to die? Not Judas, for money; not Pilate, for fear; not the Jews, for envy—but the Father for love.” 1 We could just as easily edit this statement in the following way: “Who put Jesus on the cross? Judas, for money; Pilate, for fear; the Jews, for envy; and you and me, for enmity.” This is a truth we should never tire of hearing and to which we must often return. Our understanding of the nature of our depravity is essential if we are to rightly understand the nature of the death of Jesus. In short, the doctrine of human depravity helps us better understand who delivered Jesus up to the death on the cross.
When considering the nature of sin, many professing Christians have a tendency to focus on the horizontal relationships they sustain with those around them. In a very real sense, all of us have been culturally conditioned to think of the manifold ways in which we violate the last six—rather than the first four—commandments. Perhaps it is because the relationships that we sustain with one another in a visible world seem to make the last six commandments more tangible. However, Scripture makes it clear that the violations of the last six commandments—called “the second table of the law”—flow out of violations of the first four commandments—called “the first table of the law.” The first table of the law is summarized by the first great commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, mind, soul and strength,” whereas the last six commandments constitute the scope of the second great commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” All of our sin is first and foremost against God (Ps. 51:4), and any of our violations of the last six commandments are violations of the first commandment, “You shall have no other Gods before me” (Ex. 20:3; Col. 3:5). Only when we understand that our sin is primarily against God will we rightly understand what our sin truly deserves—and why Christ had to die.
When we begin to understand all that Scripture reveals about the death of Jesus, we start to come to terms with what our sin deserves. Scripture clearly teaches that Jesus gave “his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45), was made to be sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21), became “a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13), “bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24), suffered for our sin (1 Peter 3:18), was sacrificed for us (1 Cor. 5:7), and “gave himself for our sins” (Gal. 1:4). Jesus substituted Himself for His people on the cross, taking all of their sins on Himself and bearing the full weight of the wrath of God that those sins deserve. Jesus endured hell for us on the cross. An eternal being, manifest in the flesh, took the eternal wrath on Himself in order to propitiate that wrath, satisfy justice, and atone for our sins. If we want to know what our sin truly deserves, we should look at the cross. The eighteenth-century Irish hymn writer Thomas Kelley set this truth out in the most salient of ways when he wrote,
Ye who think of sin but lightly
Nor suppose the evil great
Here may view its nature rightly
Here its guilt may estimate
Mark the sacrifice appointed
See who bears the awful load
’Tis the Word, the Lord’s Anointed
Son of Man and Son of God
The cross brings the heinousness of our sin into view as we look upon the crucified Son of God. However, seeing Christ crucified also enables us to understand more about the true nature of our sin and depravity.
The Bible, in no uncertain terms, reveals that all natural-born descendants of Adam are, by nature, enemies of God (Rom. 1:30; 5:10) and that our lives and actions bear witness to that enmity (Eph. 2:1–4; 4:18). Jesus Himself said, “Men love the darkness rather than light, because their deeds are evil” (John 3:19). Nevertheless, I have yet to meet an unbeliever who consciously admits that he truly hates God. In fact, in all the evangelistic labors in which I have been engaged throughout the years, I have had the opposite experience. Nearly everyone to whom I have sought to bear witness to Christ and the gospel has suggested that—far from being at enmity with God—his relationship with God is “fine.”
The sad story of mankind since the fall is discovered in the history of mankind’s attempting to rid this world of God. This is nowhere seen so clearly as it is in the account of the crucifixion of the Son of God, Jesus Christ. The greatest atrocity ever committed was the crucifixion of the Son of God at the hands of lawless men. Nothing reveals the depths of man’s spiritual depravity so much as the bloodthirsty way in which both the Romans and the Jews cried out, “Crucify Him, crucify Him.”
Jonathan Edwards once concluded that the crucifixion of Christ was a sort of representation of the entirety of the sin of mankind. He wrote:
The sin of crucifying Christ seems to have been designed of God to be a representative of the sin of mankind in general. The sin of mankind was that which slew Christ, for he bore our sins; it was our sin that stood against him. This was the enemy that was so cruel to him, that nailed him to the cross, that pierced his side, and let out his heart’s blood. We who have sinned, that he came into the world to redeem, are the crucifiers of Christ; therefore, the sin of mankind in general is fitly represented by the sin of the immediate crucifiers of Christ.
There never was opportunity but once for it to appear in fact, what the corruption of man would do to God or a divine person if it had him within its reach: for a divine person never was put within the reach of the malignity of man’s sin, but only when the Son of God became man and dwelt here on earth. 2
In a similar way, the martyrdom of Christians reveals the natural man’s enmity to Jesus. Next to the crucifixion of the Son of God Himself, there is nothing that so clearly exposes the depravity and enmity in the hearts of men as the martyrdom of those who belong to Christ.
Reflecting on the first act of martyrdom in human history, Charles Spurgeon explained,
“If Cain could have done the same to God as he did to his brother Abel, he doubtless would have done it. He was of that wicked one, and therefore slew his brother, and . . . he would have slain God himself if it had been in his power.”3
The world’s opposition to Christians is a manifestation of the world’s opposition to God Himself. Jesus told His disciples, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you” (John 15:18) and “Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you” (1 John 3:13). Every act of murderous aggression against the people of God is an attempt to act out murderous aggression against the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. When Jesus arrested Saul of Tarsus by His grace on the Damascus road, He asked, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). This occurred when Saul was heading to drag Christians out of their homes and throw them into prison. Jesus explained the true nature of Saul’s depravity by explaining the union that He sustains with those He redeems. The glory of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus road is that he would become the great Apostle Paul, who would help every generation of Christians since the Apostolic age understand the true nature of our depravity (e.g., Rom. 1:18–3:20; Eph. 2:1–4). How fitting that one who was so clearly acting out his murderous aggression toward God through the vehicle of persecuting Christians should become the one who would be commissioned by God to explain how God truly became the object of that enmity in the death of Christ. If I do not see that “it was my sin that held him there” on the cross, I will not understand the enormity of the fact that God has taken an enemy like me and turned me into one of His beloved children by His mercy and grace in Christ (Eph. 2:12, 16; 4:18; 1 Peter 2:10).
Editor’s Note: This post was first published on November 22, 2019.
- Octavius Winslow, No Condemnation in Christ Jesus (London: John Farquhar Shaw, 1852), 367. ↩︎
- The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 18, The “Miscellanies” 501–832, eds. Ava Chamberlain and Harry S. Stout (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000), 407. ↩︎
- https://www.spurgeon.org/resource-library/sermons/the-blood-of-abel-and-the-blood-of-jesus#flipbook/ ↩︎