The Godhead at Golgotha: The Cross in Trinitarian Perspective

By: Cade Campbell


Introduction and Thesis: The Supreme Mystery

            J.I. Packer writes that the gospel, and particularly the gospel’s central event, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, is the greatest mystery in the entire world. It is, he says, “a reality distinct from us that in our very apprehending of it remains unfathomable to us…which we therefore describe as incomprehensible.”[1] That statement seems correct, and yet it forces one to ask a very basic question: Why is the crucifixion of Christ the greatest mystery in all the world? Surely it is not because the act of crucifixion itself is outside the sphere of human knowledge. The mechanics of Roman crucifixion are fairly well known.[2] How a tortured man expires after being nailed to a stake is within the grasp of human knowledge. How then can Packer’s assertion be granted any merit?

The answer is that far more is happening at Christ’s crucifixion than merely the gruesome death of a random Jewish peasant executed as a Roman convict. The crucifixion of Jesus Christ is not the supreme mystery of the cosmos because crucifixion is a mystery. It is the supreme mystery because it is the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. At the rocky quarry called Golgotha, just outside the city walls of Jerusalem, the defining moment of history occurred because at that precise place and time the timeless God of the universe acted in the defining event within both his creation and within his own being. The cross is beyond full comprehension because it is at the cross where God worked definitively within time to reconcile sinners to himself, a sovereign reconciliation which had been the eternal purpose of God reaching back through the ages beyond the very reaches of eternity, a purpose of such massive scope so as to encompass the totality of the Godhead.

The being of God as a Trinity is an unfathomable mystery in itself. The human mind cannot fully grasp how the one God eternally exists as three distinct yet equal and inseparable Persons. Yet at the cross the mystery of God’s Trinitarian being explodes in the climactic event of God’s Trinitarian work. The result is an historic event that echoes and reverberates backward and forward endlessly into eternity. No wonder Packer considers the cross the seminal mystery above and beyond all mysteries. It is a wholly and holy Trinitarian occurrence.

Many discussions of the atonement emphasize the action of God on the cross as the work of Christ, a branch of Christology. Surely such emphases are right to place the atonement categorically within the sphere of Christ’s accomplished work. And yet such an emphasis can unnecessarily and unintentionally minimize the cross as an event and an atonement that is accomplished by the united work of each Person of the Trinity. It is the cross of Christ in so far as it was the incarnate Son who suffered on the cross. In a wider sense, however, it was the cross of the triune God, for it was the triune God who accomplished salvation. The atonement is fully the work of the Godhead at Golgotha. Robert Letham is correct to show that the crucifixion is the work of the Trinity. He notes that it is the event at which “Christ the Son took human nature in the incarnation and offered himself through the Holy Spirit to the Father so as to make atonement for his elect people.”[3] An introductory overview of the atonement through this Trinitarian lens is the focus of this short paper. It will seek to briefly show, how the atonement must be consistently understood within a Trinitarian framework as the primary event at which the inseparable operations of the Persons of the Trinity were displayed. It will seek to argue this thesis by exploring the basic but united actions of the three Persons at work simultaneously at the cross, on the cross, and through the cross, a united work that is fully that of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The Work of the Father at the Cross

            The cross is the culmination of the Father’s business, the work that he sent the Son to accomplish. This is clear from Jesus’ own words just prior to his crucifixion. Jesus speaks of his coming passion as the Father’s will (Luke 22:42). Yet it is a mistake to see the Father as merely a backstage observer, quietly willing his plans to unfold and be put into action by others. The Father himself is active within the six hours culminating in Christ’s death. He is fully at work in union with his Son, and participating through his presence throughout the entirety of Christ’s passion-ordeal. The Bible speak of the Father’s work at the cross in several senses: The Father is at work in his loving relationship with the Son, in his unsparing offering of his Son, in his imputation of sin to his Son, and in his propitiatory outpouring of wrath onto his Son. Each of these four works will be briefly explored in turn.

First, the Father is present as a full Trinitarian partner at the cross through his loving relational presence with the Son. The Father’s role alongside the Son at the cross should not be pressed so closely as to warrant charges of Patripassianism. The Father is not suffering at the cross, but he is fully present with his Son throughout his sufferings in the flesh. Jesus’ relationship with his Father at the cross is glimpsed in three specific prayers that he speaks to the Father throughout his time on the cross. He begins by asking the Father to forgive those who are crucifying him (Luke 23:34). There is the questioning cry of anguished-forsakenness as he cries out in the darkness (Matthew 27:46). Finally there is the prayer of relief, completion, and consecration as he offers himself up to the Father’s presence in death (Luke 23:46). From beginning to end the Son understands that the entirety of his work is carried out within the Father’s presence. Even his cry of forsakenness (as it is sometimes described) should not be pressed so far as to speak of broken fellowship, abandonment, or a rift/tear within the ontological fabric of the Trinity. The forsakenness that Jesus experiences is only within the context of propitiation and as such is a forsakenness within the Father’s presence, not outside of it.

Second, the Father acts at Golgotha by offering up the Son to death as a sacrificial offering. This work of the Father is one aspect of the cross’ accomplishment in which the inseparable operations of the triune Persons are most clearly seen. Jesus speaks of his own offering of himself as a sacrifice (Mark 10:45; Ephesians 5:2). The author of Hebrews speaks of Christ as the one who as the Great High Priest has “offered himself” as the acceptable sacrifice (Hebrews 10:11-14). The one to whom he is offering himself within these contexts is undoubtedly the Father. Shockingly, however, the Bible also speaks of the Father as the one who offered his Son as a sacrifice. Romans 8:32 speaks of the Father as he who “delivered up his own Son.” If Christ is acting in the role of a Melchizedekian priest coming into the Father’s presence to make atonement for sins, the Father is in relation to him as an Abrahamic priest, taking his Son, his only Son up to the mountain as the sacrificial offering (Genesis 22). Such close operations are fully consistent with the cross being the self-substitution of God, the offering of God to God. The sacrifice and the one to whom the sacrifice is given are both spoken of in priestly language. Donald Macleod notes this work of the Father when he writes, “What can we say as to the precise nature of the Father’s action at Calvary? The New Testament answer is breathtaking. He acted in the role of priest…. corresponding to the priesthood of the self-giving Son there is a priesthood of God the Father.”[4]

Third, the Father’s work at the cross was the imputation of sin onto the sinless Son. Jesus was the one who was “numbered with the transgressors” (Luke 22:37). In the context of the gospel accounts and the original Old Testament text it refers to (Isaiah 53:12), the “numbering” should not be thought of as merely a human reckoning. He is numbered among the transgressors by God the Father. This work of imputation on the Father’s part was central to his work of reconciling sinners to himself. 2 Corinthians 5:19 says that “in Christ God [the Father] was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” The implication is that key to the reconciliation of sinners was the Father’s counting of their trespasses against him (the Son). To make that point clearer Paul continues, “For our sake he [the Father] made him who knew no sin [the Son], to be sin, so that in him [the Son] we might become the righteousness of God [the Father]” (2 Corinthians 5:21). That “making to be sin” was the work of the Father at the cross. Such action is consistent with and flows out of the Father’s work as priest, offering up a sinless sacrifice (his Son) as a sin offering to be slaughtered.[5]

Fourth, and climactically, it is the Father who pours out his holy wrath and judgment onto the Son and is propitiated by the Son’s offering of himself as a substitutionary sacrifice. Leon Morris’ foundational work demonstrates fully that the use of propitiation in the biblical witness refers to a satisfaction of just and holy wrath poured out on the Son by the Father. He notes that such wrath is not in conflict with God’s love for his Son, nor is it an irrational or uncontrollable burst of anger. It is rather “a burning zeal for the right coupled with a perfect hatred for everything that is evil.”[6] Surely it is the Father that is spoken of in Romans 3:25 as the one who put Christ “forward as a propitiation by his blood.” As the one who is offering the propitiation of the Son to himself, the Father is the one whose wrath is fully, finally, and conclusively satisfied.

It is within the spectrum of this outpouring of wrath that we are to understand Christ’s cry of forsakenness. This mysterious moment during which the eternal Son absorbs the just wrath of the eternal Father was quite literally an earth quaking event, but it was not a rupture or a rending of the Trinitarian relations. Bruce Ware is right to point out that the outpouring of wrath by the Father onto the Son is an outpouring of wrath onto the Son as the perfectly obedient sin-bearer.[7] As such it is within this horrific moment when the Son fully drinks the cup of wrath and experiences the Father’s perfect displeasure on sin that he is still simultaneously the beloved Son with whom the Father is perfectly well pleased.

This fourfold work of the Father as relationally-present, sacrificially-priestly, imputationally-reconciled, and satisfactorily-propitiated are not four aspects of the Father’s work merely in the eternal cosmic plan of redemption, nor in the incarnation of Christ proper, nor in his earthly ministry taken as a whole. These are four specific works of the Father that are centered at the cross and that were accomplished in union with both the Spirit and the Son to whom we turn next.

The Work of the Son on the Cross

            As mentioned above, the events of the cross are typically categorized as the work of Christ. Because it was God the Son incarnate who was publicly and shamefully executed upon the Roman cross affixed atop the execution site called Golgotha, the cross’ accomplishment is best understood as primarily the work of the Son. Indeed within history it was God the Son who was the one Person of the Godhead who acted as the visible agent of redemption through his own crucifixion. The Son’s obvious role within the events centered on the cross will allow this third section to be somewhat briefer than the preceding one considering the work of the Father. The work of the Son on the cross will be shown as a work that displays perfect obedience, was a sufficient sacrifice, and a complete propitiation:

First, the work of the Son on the cross was a work of perfect obedience. As mentioned above, the Son is acting in complete correspondence with and in absolute obedience to the will of his Father. KÖstenberger and Swain are right to see in John’s gospel that everything building up to the Baptist’s assertion that Jesus is the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29) flows out of John’s introductory theology of the Son’s filial relationship with the Father, a relationship in which the Son acts in perfect obedience to the Father’s sending commission in the incarnation.[8] Paul writes in Philippians that Jesus’ incarnate condescension (leading to his eternal exaltation) was in “becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8).

Second, Jesus’ work on the cross was in his offering of himself as a sufficient sacrifice. In the classic Anselmian framework Jesus as man was able to perfectly represent mankind through his sacrifice, and Jesus as God was perfectly able to satisfactorily pay the infinite cost necessary to provide atonement for sins committed against an infinitely holy God. The author of Hebrews wrote that “when Christ offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God” (Hebrews 10:12). Such a single sacrifice culminating in the high priest sitting down and resting from his labors displays the complete and sufficient nature of Christ’s offering of himself for sinners.

Third, Jesus’ work on the cross was as the wrath-bearer making complete propitiation to the Father. As mentioned earlier in the consideration of the Father’s work at the cross, the Son (as sin-bearer) received the full-force of the righteous wrath of God, completely satisfying the righteous requirement of God’s justice in the place of sinners. It is the Son as the receptor of God’s righteous judgment, bearing the full weight of sin that accomplishes the salvation of sinners. Herein lies the force of Colossians 2:13-14. Paul writes that “you [believers]…God [the Father] made alive together with him [the Son], having forgiven us all our trespasses, by cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he [the Father] set aside, nailing it to the cross.” Bruce McCormack writes about the propitiatory work of the Trinity accomplished by the Son: “The triune God pours his wrath out upon himself in and through the human nature that he has made his own…that is the ontological significance of penal substitution. The triune God takes this human experience into his own life; he ‘drinks it to the dregs.’ In doing so, he vanquishes its power over us. That is the meaning of penal substitution when seen against the background of a well-ordered Christology and a well-ordered doctrine of the Trinity.”[9]

The Work of the Spirit through the Cross

            Not only is the cross the undivided work of the Father and the Son, but it is also the work of the Spirit. As is often the case (particularly in relation to the cross) the Spirit’s work is not as explicitly clear in Scripture to the same degree as is true of the Father and the Son. That is not to say, however, that the Spirit is absent from the events at the cross, nor is it to say that the Bible is completely silent. It will be seen, for instance, that in at least one key text the work of the Spirit is explicitly connected to Christ’s own work on the cross. The work(s) of the Father and the Son have been seen primarily in their priestly offerings and in their connected propitiatory work. The Sprit’s role within the work of both the Father and the Son is primarily presented as that of instrumentation, and so it is fully true that at the cross God the Father saved sinners by the Son and through the Spirit.

The Spirit is the instrumental agent by which the work of the Father and the Son are completed. In other words, the Son offers himself in perfect obedience to the Father and the Father pours out his righteous wrath onto the Son via the Spirit. The forsakenness that causes Christ to cry out into the afternoon darkness is not a forsakenness in which he experiences the relational absence of the presence of the Father and the Spirit. Rather, it is a forsakenness in which by the Spirit he is offering himself up to the Father’s judgment that is being poured out onto him infinitely through the Spirit.

It is this reality of the Father and the Son’s work being accomplished through the Spirit that the author of Hebrews speaks to clearly. There we read that Christ “offered himself without blemish to God [the Father] through the eternal Spirit” (Hebrews 9:14). Bruce Ware comments on this reality when he writes that the mystery of Christ’s work in his obedience (even his obedience unto death) is accomplished through Christ’s humanity being in absolute reliance upon the power and authority of the Spirit.

The Spirit’s role at Golgotha is clear (I would argue) in relation to his sustaining power by which the Son obeys the Father fully even to the point of death. In the same way, the Spirit is the means through which Christ offers himself as a sacrifice to God. What is far less clear is my assertion that the Father’s wrath is poured out through the Spirit. Lacking clear textual language connecting the Spirit to the propitiatory work of the cross, is such an assertion warranted?

I think so, for two reasons: First, the Spirit is consistently seen in Scripture as the instrumental means by which the powerful work of the Father is always accomplished. What other Trinitarian means is there by which an outpouring of wrath from the Father to the Son might be implemented if not through the Spirit? This is not to say that the Spirit is himself pouring wrath out upon the Son, nor that the Spirit is the propitiated Person, just that the Spirit is the Trinitarian agent through which the Father’s judgment is poured out. Second, if we are to understand the text in Hebrews 9 as speaking of Christ offering himself as a sufficient blood-sacrifice  to the Father “through the eternal Spirit” in a propitiatory sense (as I believe we should) then the Spirit is understood as the instrumental means by which the propitiation of the Father by the Son is accomplished.

The Spirit’s presence and work at the cross is also hinted at textually within the events described as having taken place in connection with Christ’s death. Matthew’s Gospel connects the rending of the temple’s curtain alongside the resurrection of many saints in the moments just after Jesus’ death (Matthew 27:51-52). Perhaps it is within these events where the Spirit’s presence at the cross is most clearly seen in the narrative accounts themselves. In Matthew’s gospel the earlier rending of the heavens (which bookends the rending of the temple) is understood as a Trinitarian event in which the Spirit is seen descending as a dove (Matthew 3:16-17) in response to the Son’s obedience and the Father’s pronouncement. Additionally Jesus’ baptism and the Spirit’s descent is itself a type of resurrection as the Son is coming up out of the water. Such imagery echoes the Bible’s presentation of the Spirit as the one who gives life, as the one who resurrects. With the resurrection of the saints as Christ dies, a more visible allusion to Ezekiel may be intended. In Ezekiel 37, at the Valley of Dry Bones, the resurrection of dead bodies is connected to the New Covenant promise of the gift of God’s Spirit. Indeed, the promise God makes is that “you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live” (Ezekiel 37:13-14). At Christ’s death the Spirit’s presence is demonstrated powerfully and visibly through both the baptismal rending of the heavenly temple-veil and the resurrection of God’s people brought to life by the Spirit of the Living God.

Conclusion: The Cross of Christ and Inseparable Operations

            The cross is the central event of the gospel. It is the heart of the gospel. It is the work of the creator God on behalf of men and women, his creatures, who had spurned him in their sin. Far from being merely the work of the Son, the cross event is a fully Trinitarian affair. Salvation is accomplished by God the Father at the cross, the Son of God on the cross, and the Spirit of God through the cross. That brings us to a few concluding considerations of how the Godhead’s work at Golgotha is connected with the doctrine of inseparable operations, the teaching that whenever any one Person of the Trinity works, each Person of the Trinity is at work and that work is fully performed in a unity within the Godhead.

The doctrine of inseparable operations might best be understood through the patristic developments of the doctrine itself. Gregory of Nazianzus wrote that “We have one God, because there is a single Godhead…[The three Persons] are not sundered in will or divided in power. You cannot find there any of the properties of things divisible…the Godhead exists undivided in things divided.”[10] More simply put, “in all God does, all three Persons are directly involved.”[11]

With this in mind we return to a comment that was made in this paper’s introduction. The cross is commonly classified as the “Cross of Christ.” Considering what has been seen concerning the inseparable workings of both the Father and the Spirit, is such a classification justified? That question (more appropriately a similar question) was taken up by Augustine. His answer is that while the works of each Person of the Trinity are inseparable such actions are also properly appropriated or applied to one primary Person of the Trinity. In other words, whenever one Person works the other two Persons work in unity. At the same time, like the Trinity itself, these works while united are also distinct, distinct to the point that they are rightly spoken of as the work of one of the triune Persons.[12]

Yes, each of the three Persons of the Godhead are present and active at Golgotha. The cross, however, is indeed the cross of the Son. To speak of it in this way does not diminish the roles of the Father or the Spirit, but instead brings them into far clearer focus. The Trinity is the unity in the plurality of the Godhead and plurality in the unity of the one and only one God. The cross is the climactic work within the creation of the triune God, and as such it is a work of plurality, but it is fundamentally one work, and one Person’s work. In other words, the cross is only understood in its fullest and most Trinitarian sense if and only if it is always understood as the cross of Christ. The works of God the Father and God the Spirit are indivisible from the work of God the Son, but the cross is wholly (from beginning to end), the cross of the incarnate Son. It is his work. It is his doing. It is his accomplishment. For his sufferings he has been given a name that is above every name (Philippians 2:9). It is his work which echoes endlessly into eternity in the praises of his people who sing the fully harmonious Trinitarian song of worship to the Lamb, “Worthy are you…for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9).

[1]J.I. Packer and Mark Dever, “What Did the Cross Achieve? The Logic of Penal Substitution,” in In My Place Condemned He Stood: Celebrating the Glory of the Atonement (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007), 57. See also J.I. Packer, “The Trinity and the Gospel,” in Revelations of the Cross (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1998), 1-3.

[2]See especially Martin Hengel, Crucifixion (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977).

[3]Robert Letham, “The Triune God, Incarnation, and Definite Atonement,” in From Heaven He Came and Sought Her, ed. David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013), 437.

[4]Donald Macleod, Christ Crucified: Understanding the Atonement (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 64.

[5]Brian Vickers, Jesus’ Blood and Righteousness: Paul’s Theology of Imputation (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006), 160.

[6]Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), 209.

[7] Bruce Ware, “Christ’s Atonement: A Work of the Trinity,” in Jesus in Trinitarian Perspective: An Introductory Christology, ed. Fred Sanders and Klaus Issler (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2007), 178.

[8]Andreas KÖstenberger and Scott Swain, Father, Son, and Spirit: The Trinity and John’s Gospel (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 127. See also Graham Cole, God the Peacemaker: How Atonement Brings Shalom (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 89.

[9]Bruce McCormack, “The Ontological Presuppositions of Barth’s Doctrine of the Atonement,” in The Glory of the Atonement: Biblical, Theological, and Practical Perspectives, ed. Charles Hill and Frank James (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 364.

[10]Gregory of Nazianzus, The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002), 127. See also Stephen Holmes, “Trinitarian Action and Inseparable Operations: Some Historical and Dogmatic Reflections,” in Advancing Trinitarian Theology: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics, ed. Oliver Crisp and Fred Sanders (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 60-74.

[11]Robert Letham, “The Triune God, Incarnation, and Definite Atonement,” 440. See also, “The Glorious, Indivisible, Trinitarian Work of God in Christ,” in From Heaven He Came and Sought Her, ed. David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013), 331-373.

[12]Robert Letham, “The Triune God, Incarnation, and Definite Atonement,” 441.

Cade Campbell (M.Div, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Associate Pastor for Preaching and Discipleship at First Baptist Church Henryville, Indiana. You can follow him on Twitter at @DCadeCampbell.

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