Fixing the Blame but Denying the Guilt

“[Pilate] took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, ‘I am innocent of the blood of this just person; see ye to it.’”

Matthew 27:24

Who was really to blame for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ? This question continues to be bandied about like the proverbial “hot potato,” and the accusations continue to fly back and forth, some directed at the Jews, some directed at the Romans. Some have maintained and continue to say that the Jews are really to blame because they “delivered” Jesus to the Romans “for envy” (Mark 15:10), having regarded Him as a threat to their political control of the people, having resented His scathing indictments of their hypocrisy, and having plotted “to put Him to death” one way or another (John 11:47-53). Besides, not only their leaders but all the Jews present in Pilate’s courtroom eagerly accepted responsibility for Jesus’ death and voluntarily took the blame upon themselves and upon their children after them (Matthew 27:25). Nowadays, of course, it is “politically incorrect” even to mention these documented facts and to blame the “poor, persecuted Jewish people” for what amounted to the lynching of Jesus Christ by a bloodthirsty mob brought together and fired up by their own leaders. Why, the Roman Pope himself in recent years yielded to the world’s collective “outrage” and absolved the Jews of any responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus! And yet, his unilateral action —spooned out like a transparent “sop” to placate the outrage of B’nai B’rith and of modernistic “Christians” like Dr. Martin Marty and to gain for himself a “plus” in public relations— hardly changes the indisputable facts.

But who is speaking up for the “poor Romans” whose extinct culture is curiously without apologists in this debate?? Apparently only Pontius Pilate, who knew full well that he was being “used” by the Jews as a convenient “hit-man” to do the deed with the appearance of legality (John 18:31). In the title-text above, Pilate ceremoniously “washed his hands” of the whole business and in the process etched a perverted twist into an idiom and image common to many of the world’s languages: “To wash one’s hands of…” that is, to deny moral responsibility for something. Pilate knew he was not innocent of Jesus’ blood, and his perversion is as transparent as the Jews’ motive. Let’s examine it briefly: Pilate was a “professional” jurist who presided every day over cases more serious in terms of public safety and criminal justice than “The Jews vs. Jesus of Nazareth”. He examined Jesus in considerable detail in open court concerning the civil charges preferred against Him by the Jews, and he had in King Herod Antipas a professional “consultant” who likewise “questioned with [Jesus] in many words” (Luke 23:9). BOTH men found “nothing worthy of death” having been done by Jesus; and Pilate stated for the record several times: “I find no fault in this man.” If indeed he had followed his own natural law instincts of what was right and wrong (according to the conscience still operative within him) and set Jesus free —without first scourging Him— we might be able to see, at least from his perspective, the “innocence” Pilate claimed. BUT, in spite of his “not guilty” verdict, Pilate a) permitted Jesus to be abused by Herod’s soldiers and found Herod once again to be a “kindred spirit” in the kind of justice both apparently dispensed, and a personal friend (Luke 23:12); b) ignored his wife’s pleading to disassociate himself from the Jews’ plot against Jesus because of a dream she had that night (Matthew 27:19); c) had Jesus cruelly scourged for no reason (Luke 23:16); d) offered Barabbas, a murderer, as a “swap” of equal value for an innocent man (Luke 23:19); e) handed Jesus over to his soldiers for mockery and abuse; f) sentenced Jesus to be crucified as the Jews had required; and g) had the sentence carried out by men under his personal command. Some justice!

Why did he do it? Pilate was the consummate politician; and the lessons of reality in history teach us that it is a “rare bird” indeed who can be a responsible jurist and an effective politician at the same time. For that very reason, the judicial branch is kept separate from the executive and legislative branches of our government to give judges independence from political pressure. Pilate, however, was a political appointee. And when he saw that his judgment carried no weight with the Jews but rather that “a tumult was made” by arguing with the chief priests (Matthew 27:24), Pilate was “willing to content the people” (Mark 15:15) and “gave sentence that it should be as they required” (Luke 23:24). In this he yielded to the political pressure of the screaming mob and permitted himself to be intimidated by the chief priests, who questioned his loyalty to Caesar, and suggested that if he set Jesus free he would be aligning himself with a traitor (John 19:12).

Neither the Jews nor Pilate was “innocent of the blood of this just person.” But then neither was Judas, who had betrayed Jesus; neither was Peter, who denied Him three times instead of coming to His defense; neither were the other disciples, all of whom “forsook Him and fled” (Matthew 26:56). Nobody gets off the hook on this one! Trying to shift the blame from one to the other, or attempting to fix greater blame upon one than upon another, does absolutely nothing to reduce the guilt that must be borne for the persecution, suffering, and death of Jesus Christ. In fact, attempts to detract from one’s own guilt by deflecting it to others only proves the intensity of the guilt in the first place —a guilt too great to bear!

Who then was really to blame? Who was really guilty? Who is ultimately responsible for what happened to Jesus? YOU are, dear reader; and so am I! Every sinner who ever walked the face of this earth and who will ever yet live in this vale of tears is personally responsible for every blasphemous word spoken, for every sadistic slap and punch, for every cruel lash landed on the Savior’s back, for the puncture of every thorn, and for the rip of every nail! “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” asks the old Negro spiritual. Indeed we were, for “surely He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; … He was wounded for our transgressions; He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and with His stripes we are healed,” we confess with the prophet. And Isaiah adds the overall, “blanket” cause for the Savior’s entire passion, saying: “For the transgression of my people was He stricken.” (Isaiah 53:4-5; 8a). And so we confess with Paul Gerhardt in that favorite Lenten hymn (L.H. 172):


My burden in Thy passion, Lord, Thou hast borne for me,
For it was my transgression which brought this woe on Thee!
I cast me down before Thee; wrath were my rightful lot.
Have mercy, I implore Thee! Redeemer, spurn me not!

As hard as that is to hear (and even harder to acknowledge) because of the perverse sinful flesh which clings even to the Christian like an ever-present albatross, we have every reason to rejoice in the fact that God’s Holy Spirit, through the precious means of His grace, has “shined in our hearts” and worked in them not only the courage to admit humbly and contritely our guilt and our responsibility for Jesus’ passion, but also the joyful confidence that by Jesus’ wounds and suffering and death, we have been redeemed from all sin, from death, and from the power of the devil. As our Substitute, Christ assumed all our guilt —even our bloodguilt of His suffering and death— and bore all our punishment “in His own body on the tree” (I Peter 2:24) in order to lay before the bar of divine justice a ransom of sufficient value to purchase our redemption and to reconcile us to His heavenly Father [Christ’s Vicarious Atonement]. And that sacrifice of His Son was accepted as “payment in full” for the sins of the world when God raised Him up the third day to exaltation and glory; for it was the perfect payment in view of which God “reconcil[ed] the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them” (II Corinthians 5:19). Thus the Apostle Paul includes both Christ’s redemptive work and God’s objective justification of the world in one striking statement concerning Jesus our Lord, “who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification” (Romans 4:25). And herein we find comfort, even as we ponder during the holy Lenten Season upon the Savior’s passion and the great woe we heaped upon Him, “that being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1).

How sad to note, however, that there are so many in our world today who, like Pilate, try to maintain a kind of “neutrality” when it comes to Jesus Christ. The most striking example is, of course, the “silent majority” of those who refuse to commit themselves one way or the other to the Redeemer of lost mankind. In spite of Jesus’ statement, “He that is not for Me is against Me,” many of these claim that they have nothing “against” Christianity; they’re just not “for” it. Among them are those who find it “politically incorrect” to maintain that a person will indeed NOT get to heaven apart from Jesus Christ and without true faith in Him as his Savior. To get such people “off the fence” we might quote Jesus Himself in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by Me” or in John 8:24, “If ye believe not that I am He, ye shall die in your sins.” —Then there are those who say they “have no quarrel” with Jesus “as Savior and Lord” but are unwilling to stand up for the truth of His Word. These claim, for example, that, since a person can conceivably be a true Christian without holding to purity of doctrine in every article of faith, therefore orthodoxy should not be insisted on; and “differences in doctrine and practice shouldn’t be permitted to divide Christians.” Jesus Himself emphatically challenges such fence-sitters in Luke 6:46, “Why call ye Me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?” and in John 8:31-32, where He says: “If ye continue in My Word, then are ye My disciples indeed, and ye shall know the truth…” Of these latter “Pilates” whose credo seems to be “What is truth?”, there is a considerable number of well-disguised “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” professing Lutherans even, who like to identify themselves as “conservatives” and “confessionals” but who have the honesty of sorts not to represent themselves as “orthodox”. Among these are, quite frankly, spiritual adulterers who make prostitutes look like rank amateurs! They are quite literally “in bed” spiritually with anyone who “walks the walk and talks the talk” of a “conservative” without being sure of such a person’s doctrine and practice in everything. Such “easy girls” apparently regard St. Paul’s exhortation in I Corinthians 1:10 as too impractical to carry out in these days where a person’s “fellowship” has to be kept track of on a database. Paul writes: “…that there be no divisions among you, but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.” “Not so!” they cry. “We have to reach out to all those of our cause [whatever that is], and work out the details later.” And so they practice what we call selective fellowship, a finely-chopped form of spiritual promiscuity: “Brother A and I are in fellowship together. Brother A is, of course, a member of a heterodox church body; but he’s a conservative. He communes at conferences with others in that body with whom I could never commune, but he’s trying to gain them after all! He also writes for a conservative paper. I’m also in fellowship with Brother B in a still different synod. He’s a conservative too, but he and Brother A are NOT in fellowship. There still seems to be something standing between them. It’s probably one of those doctrines that isn’t really divisive of fellowship. It’s hard to tell anymore what is divisive and what isn’t, you know what I mean? I wish them both God’s richest blessings in their work.”

If such pastors preached and practiced with the same care about wedded love and faithfulness between husbands and wives, one might wonder what “indiscretions” they would consider as “divisive” of the marriage bond! They would probably advocate “open relationships” as long as the various partners at least profess “love” for one another! —”Be not deceived! God is not mocked!” These same “theologians” are quick to fix blame for divisions in the churches upon us who, in obedience to God’s command in Romans 16:17, left heterodox bodies years ago to “be separate” (II Corinthians 6:17); but they acknowledge no guilt for the extreme factionalism which characterizes the Lutheran “face” today, factionalism which they themselves perpetuate by “all talk and no action” concerning error and errorists, and “sweet talk and lots of action” with those who like them (and like Pontius Pilate) pander to the people, telling them what they want to hear (II Timothy 4:3), and still dare to call themselves “conservatives”. “I am innocent of what is going on in Synod today. I’ve washed my hands of the whole mess. YOU do something about it. I have my pension to consider.” And people always think of Pontius Pilate as the moral wimp!

Make no mistake about it, we too are tempted to be “fence-sitters” when it comes to Jesus and His Word. “The flesh is weak,” Jesus warns us; and in it “dwelleth no good thing,” Paul adds in Romans 7:18. Our flesh too would have us compromise with error and errorists to expand our emotional “comfort zone”. The flesh makes even discerning Christians hesitate to call a sin a “sin” even when the Scriptures show it for what it is. Our flesh finds the whole process of Christian admonition “distasteful” and would rather have us ignore a brother’s trespasses than to approach him in an evangelical manner to “gain him”. That same flesh often makes the men of the congregation shrink back from acting upon a case of discipline in which a sinning brother “refuses to hear the church” and the Savior Himself demands action. And it is the flesh which makes Christians “wonder” whether an excommunicated person is really and truly “an heathen man and a publican” in his heart and in the sight of God, even though Jesus assures us that the Scriptural action of the congregation is as valid and certain in heaven also as if Christ, our dear Lord, dealt with us Himself. [Luther] (Matthew 18:18; John 20:23).

Let us all, by God’s grace, get off and stay off the proverbial “fence” that seeks to straddle between right and wrong, between truth and error, between Christ and Belial, between righteousness and unrighteousness! We can’t have it both ways and still be faithful to our precious Savior, who says in unmistakable terms: “He that is not with Me is against me; and he that gathereth not with Me scattereth abroad” (Matthew 12:30). May He grant us ever better to be “strengthened with might by His Spirit in the inner man,” to stand up boldly for Him and for His precious truth against any and all odds in “the good fight of faith” until by His grace we are privileged to enjoy the rest which He has prepared for us from the foundation of the world!

— D. T. M.