Sweet Monotony

When it was finally determined that I would write a synthesis of the pastoral theology of John Newton, it became clear to me that to hold true to Newton’s approach, my book would need to find its focal point in one direction. For Newton, Christ is the conscious center of the Christian life. And not a theoretical Christ-centered life that acknowledges the doctrines of the gospel on occasion, but a life truly centered entirely — and daily — on the magnificent person of Jesus Christ, as seen with the eyes of faith.

I was certainly up the challenge, and put pen to paper.

But in the early weeks of writing I felt occasional jolts of caution. Sometimes I would stop writing to ponder whether or not the market would sustain a book like the one I was writing. Will readers get antsy for the practical how-tos for life success? Of course the book would have to get very practical, because street-smart Newton was never content with tossing out untried theories. But the book could never lose sight of Calvary.

But back in those early days of writing the book, wrestling with this one nagging question, one evening I decided to pull down a collection of Charles Spurgeon sermons and read something he preached as a 21-year-old titled “A visit to Calvary,” published here on pages 187–188.

Here’s what caught my attention:

We never hear a sermon concerning Christ crucified of which we disapprove, however inelegant its diction, if it be sound in doctrine. We never complain of our minister that he preaches too much concerning Jesus Christ. No; there can be no tautology where his name is mentioned; though a sermon should be little beyond the mere repetition of his Name, we would rejoice to hear it. . . .

Oh, how dissatisfied are our souls when we listen to a sermon that is destitute of Christ! There are some preachers who can manage to deliver a discourse and to leave Christ’s name out of it altogether. Surely, the true believer, who is present on such an occasion, will say, with Mary Magdalene, ‘They have taken away the Lord, and I know not where they have laid him.’

Take away Christ from the sermon, and you have taken away its essence. The marrow of theology is Christ; the very bone and sinew of the gospel is preaching Christ. A Christless sermon is the merriment of hell; it is also a fearful waste of time, and it dyes with the blood of souls the skirts of the man who dares to preach it.

But too much of Christ we cannot have. Give us Christ always, Christ ever. The monotony of Christ is sweet variety, and even the unity of Christ hath in it all the elements of harmony. Christ on his cross and on his throne, in the manger and in the tomb — Christ everywhere is sweet to us. We love his name, we adore his Person, we delight to hear of his works and his words. Come, then, to Calvary awhile with me, that I may say to you, as Pilate said to the Jews outside his judgment hall, ‘Behold the man!’

Such a simple point, such a profound truth, wrapped in such a strong rhetorical punch was enough to encourage me forward writing the book, confident that Newton himself would echo Spurgeon’s answer to the question. Will Christian readers yawn at books too full of Christ’s glory? May it never be!

The Father’s Sacrifice

Genesis 22:6–8:

And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. And he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together. And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together.

Romans 8:32:

He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?

Donald Macleod, Christ Crucified (IVP, 2014), 64:

What can we say as to the precise nature of the Father’s actions at Calvary? The New Testament answer is breathtaking. He acted in the role of priest. Just as Jesus ‘gave’ his life a ransom for many (Mark 10:45) so God the Father ‘gave’ his one and only Son (John 3:16); just as Christ ‘delivered up’ himself as a fragrant offering (Eph. 5:2) so God the Father ‘delivered up’ his own Son (Rom. 8:32).

Clearly, then, corresponding to the priesthood of the self-giving Son there is a priesthood of God the Father. From this point of view, Golgotha becomes his temple, where, far from abusing a child or sadistically inflicting cruelty, he is engaged in the most solemn business that earth can witness. He is offering a sacrifice. The cross is his altar, and his own Son the sacrifice.

You Killed the Author of Life (Good Friday)

Sin in Eden knocked all creation into chaos. Sin at Babel marked the collective pride of mankind. And while every sin is an act of God-rejection, humanity’s wickedness reaches new heights in the horrifying events of Good Friday.

Holy Week makes us uncomfortable. There is glorious life and victory to come on Easter Sunday, but to get there we must pass directly through the darkness of Good Friday. We must remember the day when human malice broke barriers and reached levels of previously unmatched atrocity. The Messiah, the King, come to save mankind, was nailed to an accursed tree and left to die.

There is no immunity for such cosmic treason.

On Good Friday we feel the finger of guilt and culpability rightly shoved into the ribs of humanity:

  • “…this Jesus whom you crucified…” (Acts 2:36)
  • “…you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and you killed the Author of life…” (Acts 3:14–15)
  • “…whom you crucified…” (Acts 4:10)
  • “…whom you killed by hanging him on a tree…” (Acts 5:30)

Humanity has never heaped upon itself more self-condemning guilt than on Good Friday. This simple phrase — you killed — pierces through all vain excuses. It was a conspiracy to kill the God-man, and success in the evil plot has stained our hands with God’s own blood, blood on the hands of both scheming Jews and acquiescing Gentiles.

This is why Good Friday was the most horrible sin the world ever witnessed (Sibbes). More terrible than Babel’s arrogant tower. If ever there was cause for God to rain down wrath upon the world, and re-flood the globe with justice, there was no more opportune moment than the brutal slaughter of his beloved Son.

In his Good Friday sermon of 1928, Dietrich Bonhoeffer drives this cosmic tragedy home like three cold steel stakes pounded through the nerves of humanity’s own wrists and feet.

Good Friday is not the darkness that must necessarily yield to light. It is not the winter sleep that contains and nourishes the seed of life within. It is the day on which human beings — human beings who wanted to be like gods — kill the God who became human, the love that became person; the day on which the Holy One of God, that is, God himself, dies, truly dies — voluntarily and yet because of human guilt — without any seed of life remaining in him in such a way that God’s death might resemble sleep.

Good Friday is not, like winter, a transitional stage — no, it is genuinely the end, the end of guilty humanity and the final judgment that humanity has pronounced upon itself. . . .

If God’s history among human beings had ended on Good Friday, then the final pronouncement over humankind would be guilt, rebellion, the unfettering of all titanic human forces, a storming of heaven by human beings, godlessness, godforsakenness, but then ultimately meaninglessness and despair. Then your faith is futile. Then you are still in your guilt. Then we are of all people most to be pitied. That is, the final word would be the human being.1

This is the awful memory Good Friday presses on us.

Humanity, aspiring in arrogance to become godlike, has slayed the God-man by both murderous intent and by woeful passivity. And in this crime, Bonhoeffer goes on to explain, everything else has been made futile. All our culture, all our art, all our learning, all our hopes, have come to a meaningless end once we have heaped on our own heads the murder of God’s only Son.

Thank God, the story doesn’t end here, but Good Friday presses us to imagine if it did. What if the story ended at the cross? What if the God-rejecting sin of humanity wrought despair to life now and nothing short of a godforsaken despair for eternity?

Divine words of accusation stab into the ribs of humanity:

You have swelled up around him like a wall of unfounded hate and vicious lies (Psalm 69:4).

You have circled him like ravenous dogs (Psalm 22:16).

You have ambushed the beloved son (Mark 12:1–9).

You have killed the Author of Life (Acts 3:15).

Let these hard words sting as we consider for a moment together how stupid and how foolish and how ignorant and how wicked is the human heart to have brought this end upon human history — the darkest day of mankind, the apex of human ignorance, a situation so hopeless that human history seems to have been brought to its very end. What now can we look forward to but only eternal despair and desolation forever?

But sinful mankind does not get the last word. How appropriate the prayer of the dying Christ — “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

As a human race we can scarce understand what we’ve done, what we’ve unleashed in evil ignorance.


1 Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 10, Barcelona, Berlin, New York: 1928–1931 (Fortress, 2008), 487–88.