Psalm 22 is a messianic psalm that records in considerable detail the events surrounding Christ’s crucifixion. Although written hundreds of years before the fact, it depicts the awful scene at Calvary. It references Christ’s being despised and scorned by men. They mocked Him as He died. They shook their heads in disdain and contempt. They laughed at His circumstances and showed Him no pity. There are also references to His thirst, pain, and shame. In prophetic detail the psalmist outlines the callousness of the gambling soldiers, the carelessness of the bystanders, and the cruel brutality of nailing the condemned Saviour to the cross. That the psalm is messianic is unquestionable.
The opening verse contains Christ’s agonizing cry to His Father, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Our Lord sensed that His Father had abandoned Him. This had never happened before. Christ was the only begotten Son of God. He was the object of the Father’s special delight. From eternity they had rejoiced over each other. However, when Christ was in His darkest hour, when His soul was at its heaviest, when sorrows rolled over Him, when everyone else had turned from Him, and as even the sun refused to shine upon Him, the Father forsook Him.
Christ spoke seven times from the cross but it could be argued that this statement is the most amazing and profound of all those sayings. It is almost unanswerable. This is holy ground and we fear to provide an answer lest we make a mistake. But a statement in Psalm 22 unlocks this deep mystery and it references the holiness of God. Christ suffered at the hands of His Father when He laid down His life, and the sufferings that He endured on the cross must be seen and understood in the context of the perfect holiness of God and His absolute abhorrence of sin. In verses 1 and 2 of the psalm the Saviour cries, “Why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring?” But in the third verse He says, “But thou art holy.”
The cross displays the holiness of God. In order to understand the link between the holiness of God and the death of Christ, we need to understand what actually happened at the cross. Why was Christ there? Why did He endure the agony and suffering? It was not, as some suggest, one huge mistake. It was not that Christ was taken unawares and dragged reluctantly to His death. He was there as one who was voluntarily standing in the sinner’s place. Christ was on the cross as the substitute of His people.
Peter understood the truth of substitution when he spoke of Christ’s bearing our sins in His own body to the tree. His words reflect the language of the evangelical prophet who noted, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him [Christ] the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6). Christ took the sins of His people. He knew no sin and had no sin of His own, but He became sin for them. Their sin was imputed to Him. He took their place and as their substitute He went to the cross.
This was the truth of Paul’s testimony in Romans 5 when he stated, “Christ died for the ungodly…. Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6, 8). Christ went to the cross instead of and on behalf of His people. That truth is superbly captured in the words from the hymn “Man of Sorrows”: “Bearing shame and scoffing rude, in my place condemned He stood.”
At the cross we discover Christ standing in the sinner’s place; therefore He must suffer the sinner’s punishment. This is gospel logic. Since Christ took the sins of His people upon Himself, according to the justice and holiness of God, He must suffer for those sins. From the very beginning the penalty of sin has been death. That is what God said in the Garden of Eden to Adam and Eve: “Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Genesis 2:16–17). The punishment for sin is death. God is holy, pure, righteous, just, and true, and therefore He cannot turn a blind eye to sin. His holy law has been broken; therefore the penalty must fall.
When Christ took the sins of His people upon His own body the punishment for that sin was poured out upon Him. The holiness of God would not allow it to be any other way. Isaiah understood the connection. When he said, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all,” he immediately added, “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter” (Isaiah 53:6–7). Nowhere was God’s detestation of sin more evident than at the cross.
God the Father could not ignore sin just because it had been placed on His Son. Sin must be punished and as the sin-bearer, Christ must be punished. Jonathan Edwards entitled his famous sermon about the peril that sinners face from a holy God, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Christ, as the sinner’s substitute, was in the hands of an angry God and He felt the full fury of His wrath. Charnock noted, “The Father’s heart beats not in the least notice of tenderness to sin in the midst
of his Son’s agonies.”
It is on the basis of this truth that we can speak of Christ’s securing the sinner’s pardon. The holiness of God was maintained at the cross. God did not set His justice aside. He did not compromise His law or the sentence of that law. Rather, Christ has made a full satisfaction of the law and thus He has secured salvation for all who will believe on Him. He has suffered in the sinner’s place and therefore there is pardon for guilty souls. God, who is holy, will not judge the same sin twice, once in Christ and then again in those who are in Christ. Because God maintained His holiness at the cross we can know that our sins are forgiven and that we have peace with God. We can live in the joyful confidence that we are accepted in Christ by a holy God who will never leave us nor forsake us.
In Isaiah 6 the seraphims beholding the Lord high and lifted up cry to each other, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts.” When Moses and the children of Israel saw the Egyptians washed up on the shore of the Red Sea they sang in praise to God, “Who is like thee, glorious in thy holiness.” We would echo those cries. But as we think of the cross and of what happened there, we would surely conclude with the Puritan Stephen Charnock, “Never did divine holiness appear more beautiful and lovely than at the time our Saviour’s countenance was most marred in the midst of his dying groans.”
Rev. Colin Mercer is the minister of Faith Free Presbyterian Church in Greenville, South Carolina.