What Can We Know about the Father’s Involvement in the Crucifixion?

Faith Knowledge and Mystery

What sort of knowledge of God’s action in Christ’s death may we have? That a man named Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate around AD 30 is common historical knowledge, but Christian beliefs about his divine identity and the significance of his dying cannot be deduced from that fact alone. What further sort of knowledge about the cross, then, may Christians enjoy?

The answer, we may say, is faith knowledge: by faith we know that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. Yes, indeed; but what sort of knowledge is faith knowledge? It is a kind of knowledge of which God is both giver and content. It is a Spirit-given acquaintance with divine realities, given through acquaintance with God’s word. It is a kind of knowledge that makes the knower say in one and the same breath, “Whereas I was blind, now I see” (John 9:25 KJV) and “Now we see in a mirror, dimly . . . now I know in part” (1 Cor. 13:12 NKJV). For it is a unique kind of knowledge that, though real, is not full; it is knowledge of what is discernible within a circle of light against the background of a larger darkness; it is, in short, knowledge of a mystery, the mystery of the living God at work.

What Did the Cross Achieve?

J. I. Packer

In this famous essay, late theologian J. I. Packer analyzes Scripture and the works of early Reformers to defend the truth of Christ’s substitutionary suffering and death, the heart of the Christian gospel.

“Mystery” is used here as it was by Charles Wesley when he wrote:

’Tis mystery all! The immortal dies!
Who can explore his strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine!1

“Mystery” in this sense (traditional in theology) means a reality distinct from us that in our very apprehending of it remains unfathomable to us: a reality that we acknowledge as actual without knowing how it is possible, and that we therefore describe as incomprehensible. Christian metaphysicians, moved by wonder at the world, speak of the created order as “imagery,” meaning that there is more to it, and more of God in it, than they can grasp; and similarly Christian theologians, taught by revelation, apply the same word to the self-revealed and self-revealing God, and to his work of reconciliation and redemption through Christ. It will be seen that this definition of mystery corresponds less to Paul’s use of the word mustērion (which he applied to the open secret of God’s saving purpose, set forth in the gospel) than to his prayer that the Ephesians might “know the love of Christ which passes knowledge” (Eph. 3:19 NKJV). Knowing through divine enlightenment that which passes knowledge is precisely what it means to be acquainted with the mystery of God. The revealed “mystery” (in Paul’s sense) of Christ confronts us with the unfathomable “mystery” (in the sense I defined) of the Creator who exceeds the comprehension of his creatures. Accordingly, Paul ends his full-dress, richest-ever exposition of the mystery of Christ by crying: “O depth of wealth, wisdom, and knowledge in God! How unsearchable his judgements, how untraceable his ways! Who knows the mind of the Lord? . . . Source, Guide, and Goal of all that is—to him be glory for ever! Amen” (Rom. 11:33. NEB).

Here Paul shows, and shares, his awareness that the God of Jesus remains the God of Job, and that the highest wisdom of the theological theorist, even when working under divine inspiration as Paul did, is to recognize that he is, as it were, gazing into the sun, whose very brightness makes it impossible for him fully to see it; so that at the end of the day he has to admit that God is much more to him than theories can ever contain, and to humble himself in adoration before the one whom he can never fully analyze.

Every aspect of God’s reality and work, without exception, is mystery.

Now the atonement is a mystery in the defined sense, one aspect of the total mystery of God. But it does not stand alone in this. Every aspect of God’s reality and work, without exception, is mystery. The eternal Trinity; God’s sovereignty in creation, providence, and grace; the incarnation, exaltation, present reign, and approaching return of Jesus Christ; the inspiring of the Holy Scriptures; and the ministry of the Spirit in the Christian and the church—each of these (to look no further) is a reality beyond our full fathoming, just as the cross is. And theories about any of these things that used human analogies to dispel the dimension of mystery would deserve our distrust, just as rationalistic theories about the cross do.

It must be stressed that the mystery is in each case the reality itself, as distinct from anything in our apprehension of it, and as distinct therefore from our theories, problems, affirmations, and denials about it. What makes it a mystery is that creatures like ourselves can comprehend it only in part. To say this does not open the door to skepticism, for our knowledge of divine realities (like our knowledge of each other) is genuine knowledge expressed in notions that, so far as they go, are true. But it does close the door against rationalism, in the sense of theorizing that claims to explain with finality any aspect of God’s way of existing and working. And with that, it alerts us to the fact that the presence in our theology of unsolved problems is not necessarily a reflection on the truth or adequacy of our thoughts.

Inadequate and untrue theories do of course exist: a theory (the word comes from the Greek term theōrein, meaning, “to look at”) is a view or sight of something, and if one’s way of looking at it is perverse one’s view will be distorted, and distorted views are always full of problems. But the mere presence of problems is not enough to prove a view distorted; true views in theology also entail unsolved problems, while any view that was problem free would certainly be rationalistic and reductionist. True theories in theology, whether about the atonement or anything else, will suspect themselves of being inadequate to their object throughout. One thing that Christians know by faith is that they know only in part.


  1. Publisher’s note: Charles Wesley, “And Can It Be, That I Should Gain?” (1738).

This article is adapted from What Did the Cross Achieve? by J. I. Packer.

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