Pierced Hands and Open Arms: The Irony of the Cross

In chapter two of The Cross of Christ, John Stott addresses the question, “Why did Christ die?” His answer initially highlights the ways in which Christ’s death may be understood as the consequence of the cowardly capitulation of Pilate to the crowd, the envious loathing of the Jewish elders and the greedy betrayal of Judas. Yet, he concludes by asserting, “we ourselves are also guilty. If we were in their place, we would have done what they did. Indeed, we have done it.”[1] Stott goes on to emphasize that Christ died for our sins (cf. 1 Cor 15:3), which inherently indicts us in the tragedy of the cross. Indeed, Stott says, “Before we can begin to see the cross as something done for us (leading us to faith and worship), we have to see it as something done by us (leading us to repentance).”[2] It is on this dual meaning of the cross that I wish to meditate.

The profound evil on display in the phony trial, horrific passion and death of Christ is the same evil found in the heart of all of Adam’s progeny. The cross of Jesus loudly announces the reality of human wickedness. John Owen, in his treatise The Mortification of Sin, asserts that Christians must bring their sins and lusts to the Gospel, “not [first] for relief, but for farther conviction of its guilt; look on Him whom thou hast pierced, and be in bitterness.”[3] Like the women weeping for Jesus on the cross, so too must our contemplation of his suffering cause us deep mourning – mourning indeed for our own rejection of Christ and our participation in this tragedy.

When we draw near to contemplate the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, we should first see it as an awful mirror reflecting our own sin. The wicked powers at work crucifying Christ are the very same powers we once served and followed (Eph 2:1-3). The same rationalizing fear of man that caused Pilate to deliver Christ over to the will of the crowd is present every time we, “anxious to avoid the pain of a whole-hearted commitment to Christ, [instead] search for convenient subterfuges.”[4] The same fear, hatred and envy we feel at the presence of the all-deserving Christ is what led the Jewish elders to hand him over. The same greedy self-deception that caused Judas to betray Christ is all too present in our minor and great rejections of Christ today. Horatius Bonar penned it well, “’Twas I that shed the sacred blood; / I nailed him to the tree; / I crucified the Christ of God; / I joined the mockery.”[5]

Yet we must not linger forever over the truth that the cross reveals our own sin. For in the midst of the great tragedy of the cross, our suffering Lord cried out regarding his executioners, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). Indeed, the crucifixion was on one hand a tragically unjust punishment, and on another hand a deliberate self-sacrifice. On the cross, Christ laid down his life of his own accord in order to save his sheep (Jn 10). It was, of course, love that principally drove the Triune God to redeem sinners, not hatred for their sin (Jn 3:16). As much as the cross calls us to mourn over our sin, to that same degree (and more), it calls us to find refuge in God’s over-abundant grace. Indeed, even in calling us to mourn over our sin, we are experiencing God’s grace. For sin is alienation from God, the source of life, and its end is death. But Christ came that we may have life, “and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10).

As loud as the cross may proclaim the wickedness of human sin and rebellion, it announces the love of God even louder. So, let us draw near to the cross this Good Friday (and indeed every day) and mourn the tragedy of our own sin and rejection of God. Yet may we also allow this mourning to lead us to grateful wonder at the amazing grace of God. For in the cross, of his own accord, the Son of God gave himself for our redemption. This deep irony of the cross, in its revelation of both our heinous sin and God’s over-abundant grace, lies at the very heart of its meaning. As Malcolm Guite said, “In a daring and beautiful creative reversal, God takes the worst we can do to him and turns it into the very best he can do for us.”[6]

In the words of the great fourth century theologian Gregory of Nazianzus, “He is sold, and cheap was the price—thirty pieces of silver; yet he buys back the world at the mighty cost of his blood. . .He is brought up to the tree and nailed to it—yet by the tree of life he restores us.”[7] As we have seen, this ironic double-meaning is central to the logic of the cross. This Good Friday, when we draw near to our crucified Lord, let us remember this great irony. The same place that we see the ugliest manifestation of our own wickedness, we also (and more importantly) see the most glorious expression of the inexhaustible mercy of God. When we survey the wondrous cross, what do we see? We see the great depths of human sin and the even greater heights of Divine love, as Christ was lifted up for all to see that he might, “draw all people to [himself]” (Jn 12:32). So, come O sinner – his arms are open wide, hands pierced for you.

Coleman Rafferty is currently an M.Litt student with The Davenant Institute.

  1. John Stott, The Cross of Christ, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006 [1986]), 63.

  2. Stott, The Cross of Christ, 63.

  3. John Owen, The Mortification of Sin, in The Works of John Owen 6 (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2009 [1967]), 58.

  4. Stott, The Cross of Christ, 55.

  5. Cited in Stott, The Cross of Christ, 63.

  6. Malcolm Guite, The Word in the Wilderness, found at: https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/2021/04/02/good-friday-the-first-12-stations-of-the-cross-5/.

  7. Gregory Nazianzus, “Oration 29: On the Son,” in On God and Christ, trans. by Frederick Williams and Lionel Wickham, Popular Patristics Series 23, ed. by John Behr, (Crestwood, NY: St Valdimir’s Seminary Press, 2002), 88.


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