The Jews have a legend about David which shows how deeply in the most ancient days men were moved by David's immortal lament over Absalom and felt that in some way God must honor such immeasurable grief. According to the tradition, at each cry of David—every time he uttered the words "My son! My son!"—one of the sevenfold gates of hell opened, until at length the soul of Absalom was admitted to paradise. What the Jews unwittingly were grasping after in that legend was the truth of the Atonement. At every cry of Christ on the cross as he hangs and suffers for sinners, one of the gates of condemnation swings open and the soul of the redeemed sinner is admitted unto paradise.
In the Boston library is the great mural painting "Christianity and Judaism," by Sargent. At one end are depicted the law and the prophets in majestic splendor and noble array; at the other is a representation of the Redemption. Surmounting all are the three colossal figures of the Trinity. On the cross hangs the Son of God, with Adam and Eve, emblematic of humanity, kneeling on either side and bound, by what seems to be cloud or purple banner, close to the body of Christ. Thus the artist has related to mankind the death of Christ. His death on the cross for sin has its direct and peculiar effect upon mankind. Humanity, identified with Christ in the Incarnation, suffers in Christ and is redeemed in Christ.
There is an old story of how the celebrated Greek poet Aeschylus was about to be sentenced and banished by the citizens of Athens. But his brother, who had lost an arm at the battle of Salamis, appeared at the tribunal and displayed his wounds as a reason why the citizens should show mercy to Aeschylus. Upon that ground, and with that appeal, the poet was set free.
This is but a poor illustration of how the wounds of Christ, his death upon the cross, are forever with God the ground of our forgiveness and his mercy. That is what we mean every time we conclude our prayers, in church or in private, by saying, "For Christ's sake. Amen." We ask God to answer our prayers and forgive our sins, for Christ's sake—that is, not merely for the sake of who Christ was, but of what Christ did upon the cross.
For several generations the Edinburgh Review has carried on its cover the Latin epigram, "The Judge is condemned when the guilty is acquitted." The guilty is sometimes acquitted in human courts, but this never happens in the Divine Court. There, if man is justified, or, to put it in plain present-day English, acquitted or found not guilty, it is in strict harmony with the law of right, of justice. How, then, shall mortal man be just with God? Man is a sinner. The penalty upon sin as announced by God is death, eternal death, spiritual death; and God will by no means clear the guilty.
The fact that Christ has bought us makes us desire to belong to him. See the account of the beautiful mulatto girl put upon the auction block at New Orleans. "$500, $700"—"knocked down" at $2,500! The next day the successful bidder called at the home where the girl was a slave; and when she saw him who was now her owner she said sadly, "I am ready to go with you."
But the man replied, "I do not want you to go with me. I bought you in order to set you free."
When the amazed girl was able to take in the meaning of his words, she said, "Then I will be your servant forever!"
So the purchase of Christ binds us to him with the bonds of love.
As Dr. Dale finely puts it in his work on the Atonement, "The real truth is that while He came to preach the gospel, his chief object in coming was that there might be a gospel to preach."
Great evils and great wrongs can be met and conquered only by great suffering. Perhaps there lies the key to the mystery of life.
On a November day in 1859 at Charles Town, Virginia, an old man was led out to be hanged by the neck until dead. The sentence of death was quickly executed. Stonewall Jackson, who had come up with a company of cadets from the Virginia Military Institute to suppress any attempt at rescue—who says he prayed earnestly for the man's soul—watching the hanging, said that soon the wind blew his lifeless body to and fro. North and south, nearly everyone said he died as the fool dieth. But just before he died the old man handed his executioners a bit of paper on which he had written these words: "I now believe that the sins of this guilty nation will never be purged away except with blood." That was in November, 1859.
Three short years passed, and on the seventeenth of September, 1862, the very ground on which the old man was hanged shook with the thunder and concussion of the guns firing on the banks of the Antietam. In the morning of that day the little river flowed quietly under stone bridges on its way to the Potomac, and the sentient fields of corn stood waiting for the reaper's hand. But when the moon came up that night over the distant mountains, it looked down upon one of those scenes which must ever humble man's vaunted wisdom and pride. The fields of corn which at sunrise had been waving their tassels in the morning wind now lay prostrate and trampled, swept by the sleet of lead. The trim hedges and fences were broken down, the orchards mangled and splintered. In the great barns or at the field hospitals the army surgeons, with bare and bloody arms, cut and hacked and sawed in the flickering light of the lanterns. Down by the river banks and in the river, under the stone bridges and along the roads and lanes, in the trampled corn fields, in the woods and in the orchards, the wounded and the dead, most of them under twenty—23,481 of them—lay in rows and heaps, their white faces pleading a mute protest to the autumnal moon. Yet that scene of sorrow and suffering played its part in righting a great wrong and in cementing anew the foundations and walls of the nation.
There has never been found a better illustration of sacrificial love than that in Charles Dickens' Tale of Two Cities, where Sidney Carton dies for Charles Darnay. The young Frenchman has been condemned to die by the guillotine. Sidney Carton is a dissipated English lawyer who has wasted great gifts and quenched high possibilities in riotous living. When he learns the plight of his friend, he determines to save him by laying down his own life—not for the love he has for the man, but for the sake of the man's wife and child.
To that end Carton gains admission to the dungeon the night before the execution, changes garments with the condemned man, and the next day is led out and put to death as Charles Darnay. Before he went to the dungeon he had entered the courtyard and remained there for a few minutes alone, looking up at the light in the window of the daughter's room. He was led by the light of love, but it led straight to a dungeon and thence to the guillotine.
As we see him ascending the steps to the place of death, his hands bound behind his back, taking his last look at the world, we feel that a noble ending has sanctified an ignoble life; and these words of our Saviour come to mind: "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13).