Our study of Isaiah for the past few weeks has looked closely at the Suffering Servant, His work on behalf of His people, and the results of that work in their lives. In short, we have been discussing atonement. Of course, the teaching that the Suffering Servant—the Davidic Messiah—must atone for the sins of His people fits into a broader theological and biblical context that establishes the need for an atonement, describes what it accomplishes, and explains the Lord's intent in it. To help us get a better understanding of the atonement and its context, we will now pause our study of Isaiah for a few days and look more closely at what the rest of Scripture says about the atonement. Dr. R.C. Sproul's teaching series The Cross of Christ will guide us.
Something of the necessity of the atonement can be inferred from etymology, for the Latin word we translate as "cross" is the root term behind the English words crux and crucial, both of which are used to refer to that which is essential. Clearly, Christianity is a faith grounded in the cross, for without the crucifixion and the resurrection, we have no gospel (1 Cor. 15:1–4). Today's passage indicates that the crucifixion—the Messiah's atoning death—is a non-negotiable when it comes to the Christian faith, but this idea is found throughout the Bible (Gen. 3:15; Matt. 16:21; Rev. 5). In fact, if the central message of Scripture is the kingdom of God inaugurated and consummated in Christ Jesus, then the entire Bible is concerned primarily with explaining the significance of the cross.
Despite the centrality of the cross and the atonement, the preaching of the cross is neglected in many churches today. In the wider culture, we could say that most people believe in "justification by death," the idea that all people are going to heaven unless they are really, really bad (like Adolf Hitler), and that we all get there simply by dying. But the neglect of the cross in the church and popular views of the afterlife indicate that too many lack an understanding of the absolute necessity of the atonement in God's plan. We forget that there is something intrinsic to the character of God that requires death as a payment for sin. Because of the Lord's holiness and the cosmic treason that is sin, an atonement is required for us to be reconciled to God and see Him in heaven. Our Father condemned sin in the flesh of His Son because it was the only way He could rescue us without compromising His holy justice (Rom. 3:21–26; 8:3).
In other religions, such as Islam and Judaism, God simply waves sin away, not requiring payment for transgressions in order to forgive. This idea betrays a view of a Creator who is not really all that holy, who ultimately is willing to wink at sin or to accept imperfection before His judgment seat. Yet the Bible has the highest view of the Lord's holiness. It teaches us that He is perfectly holy and demands from us what only He can graciously provide.