In his essay, “The Difference Between God’s Sacrifice and Man’s,” P.T. Forsyth compares the death of Christ – which was a loss of his life to save others – with human heroism: again, one person giving his life to save the life of others. As he puts it, “How does man’s noblest work differ from Christ’s great work? (P.T. Forsythy, The Work of Christ, (London, Hodder and Stoughton, N.D.), 10.)
The work of a hero thrills us, we are attracted to it. We don’t need to learn to be inspired by heroic action, it comes by nature. But the same does not happen when we consider the death of Christ as it is in the Bible (perhaps one can re-work his death into a heroic political statement, but that is a completely different thing).
The death of Christ cannot be set up for admiration, which we then leave and go onto other things. First, the death of Christ must create in us the ability to even comprehend what is happening:
Christ’s was a death on behalf of people within whom the power of responding had to be created. (15)…
The death of Christ had not simply to touch like heroism, but it had to redeem us into power of feeling its own worth. Christ had to save us from what we were too far gone to feel. (18)
Thus, to begin to understand and have a suitable response to the death of Christ is something we must acquire as a result of the death of Christ.
Second, the death was not merely an exemplar, it is transformative:
That death had to make new men of us….The death of Christ had to with our sin and not with our sluggishness. It had to deal with our active hostility, and not simply with the passive dullness of our hearts. (19)
He then proposes a test for whether one has begun to understand what is happening in the death of Christ: how do you respond to being told that someone had to die on your behalf because you were dead in trespass and sin:
If the impression Christ makes upon you is to leave you more satisfied with yourself for being able to respond, He has to get a great deal nearer to you yet….The great deep classic cases of Christian experience bear testimony to that. Christ and His Cross come nearer and near, we do not realize what we owe Him until we realize that He has plucked us from the fearful pit, the miry clay, and set us upon a rock of God’s own founding. (23)
What then does it cost us to rightly understand what Christ has done?
The meaning of Christ’s death rouses our shame, self-contempt, and repentance. And we resent being made to repent. A great many people are afraid to come too near to anything that does that for them. That is a frequent reason for not going to church. (23)
A hero’s work raises in a thrill, they think well of human beings. But Christ’s death, which is certainly heroic, does the opposite – when it is rightly understood. When we see that death, we experience shame in ourselves. As Forsyth puts, this death calls for “the tribute of yourself and your shame.” (22)
What then is the distinction between the hero and Christ?
The sacrifice of the Cross was not man in Christ pleasing God; it was God in Christ, reconciling man, and in a certain sense, reconciling Himself. My point at this moment is that the Cross of Christ was Christ reconciling man. It not heroic man dying for a beloved and honored God. (25)
Therefore, the death of Christ – when put into the correct frame – is not attractive because it first costs us shame to understand. This death is not admirable: rather it is condemning of me. Now if my understanding of the death breaks me down and brings me to repentance, it does me infinite good. But it can never be rightly understood until I take hold of the shame it costs me.