The Great Exchange

by

In the cross of Christ, as in a splendid theater, the incomparable goodness of God is set before the whole world. The glory of God shines, indeed, in all creatures on high and below, but never more brightly than in the cross, in which there was a wonderful change of things — the condemnation of all men was manifested, sin blotted out, salvation restored to men; in short, the whole world was renewed and all things restored to order. …The cross was accursed, not only in human opinion but by decree of God’s law [Deut. 21:23]. Hence, when Christ is hanged upon the cross, he makes himself subject to the curse. It had to happen in this way in order that the whole curse — which on account of our sins awaited us, or rather lay upon us — might be lifted from us, while it was transferred to him.” (Commentary on the Gospel According to John, II, 73; Institutes, 2.16.6)

Over the centuries, painters have portrayed the scene of Christ on the cross. The colors chosen from the pallet are dark. The shame and agony are everywhere apparent. Christ’s brutal execution, performed by the hands of pagan idol-worshipers, should be depicted in that way. It was a time of true and real suffering.

Yet, instead of underlining only the shame and suffering, Calvin presented Christ’s cross in a different fashion. He mentioned that the scene was as in a “splendid theatre.” In his Philippians commentary, Calvin described the crucifixion in a similar fashion: “No throne [was] so stately, no show of triumph so distinguished, no chariot so elevated” as the cross on which Christ hung. That stage presented the fullness of God’s goodness. 

John, the beloved disciple, loved to emphasize Christ’s glory and mentioned it over and over in his gospel. Calvin connected that glory not only to the incarnation, or even to Christ’s beautiful teaching on the mount, but to the bloody cross itself.

Calvin also paid attention to the “wonderful change” for the world as a result of the gruesome cross. First, he focused on the issue of human sin and the resulting curse, and then he moved to the resulting light and glory.

Calvin knew himself. He knew that his own heart — and the human heart in general — was a “factory of idols.” After Adam’s fall, the world stood condemned for both original and actual sins. In Christ’s cross, this condemnation was lifted from our weak shoulders and placed upon Christ’s massive, divine strength. Christ could bear the weight of the guilt of sin in a way that no other human was able. Having borne sin’s burden, Christ then liberated believers from the curse.

From that foundation of forensic justification, still in imitation of the work of Christ’s cross, Calvin set about to “restore order” to the world of Geneva. On the basis of Christ’s saving work a political system could now be established in a godly fashion, and education could be made available to all citizens, including girls. Also, wicked occupations like prostitution could be eliminated and replaced with well-cared for, godly citizens.

In conclusion, Calvin was rightly convinced that “our salvation consists in the doctrine of the cross” (Commentary on the Harmony of the Evangelists, 3:274–75). 

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