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Quotes by Greg Gilbert


Crucifixion was never a private event. It was always raw, and searingly public, because its purpose was to terrify the masses into submission to the authorities. Crosses often lined the main roads into cities, holding the broken writhing bodies of the condemned, or displaying the rotting corpses of the dead. The Romans even scheduled public crucifixions to coincide with religious festivals, insuring the maximum number of people present to witness the horror. Murderers, robbers, traitors, and slaves were crucified, brutally, by the thousands all over the empire and always deliberately in full public view. The horror of the cross was inescapable, and the Romans intended it to be that way.


Shredded flesh against unforgiving wood, iron stakes pounded through bone and wracked nerves, joints wrenched out of socket by the sheer dead weight of the body, public humiliation before the eyes of family, friends, and the world – that was death on the cross, “the infamous stake” as the Romans called it, “the barren wood,” the maxima mala crux. Or as the Greeks spat it out, the stauros. No wonder no one talked about it. No wonder parents hid their children’s eyes from it. The stauros was a loathsome thing, and the one who died on it was loathsome too, a vile criminal whose only use was to hang there as a putrid, decaying warning to anyone else who might follow his example. That is how Jesus died.


Paul’s matter-of-fact acknowledgment, born of twenty years of first-hand experience, that the message he was preaching – that salvation as to be had through a crucified God – was considered by everyone to be either deeply obscene or totally, completely, tin-foil-hat ridiculous.


Surely Paul could have made the gospel more palatable – and less dangerous – by saying it was about something else. Something cleaner and less ridiculous than the cross. Something more glorious. Less disgusting. He didn’t do that, though. “I decided,” Paul said, “to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). In the face of the worst cultural prejudice imaginable, he fixed the entire gospel squarely and immovably on the fact that Jesus was tacked to a stauros and left to die. If he had been trying to find a surefire way to turn first-century people off from his “good news,” he couldn’t have done better than that! So why did he do it? It’s simple. He did it because he knew that leaving the cross out, or running past it with a glance, or making it peripheral to the gospel, or allowing anything else to displace it at the center of the gospel would make it, finally, no gospel at all.


Unless the Son of God died in our place, taking the punishment we deserve for our sins, we will not be saved, and we will not be citizens of His kingdom. Our guilt is too deep. If that is true, then we cannot soften the edges of the gospel message. We cannot move the penal, substitutionary death of Jesus to the side, we cannot replace it with any other truth, and we cannot reimagine it as something less offensive (and ultimately less wonderful!) than it really is. If we do, then we will present the world with something that is not saving, and that is therefore not good news at all.


Redemption, reconciliation, adoption, healing, conquest – all these are ways the Bible talks about the victory Christ won on the cross. That does not, however, mean that penal substitution is just one image of the cross among many, and that we may pick and choose which one we want to emphasize. The Bible’s images of atonement don’t work like that; they are not an all-you-can-preach buffet. Actually, each of the images the Bible uses to describe the atonement finally finds its resolution in the fact that Jesus died in the place of His people. If you trace down the reality that lies behind the images, that is, if you ask enough how and why questions, what you find at the bottom of every single one of them is penal substitution.


When we sin against Him, breaking His law, worshipping idols, searching for satisfaction in created things rather than in Him, we reject His kingship over us and thereby make ourselves liable to His good and righteous judgment.

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Greg Gilbert