What was God doing on the Cross? (Part 4)
Well, the two things that I’ve come to expect every Easter made their appearance right on time again this year. The slew of articles and essays online that that leave the impression that anyone who “clings” to the church’s traditional teachings about Good Friday (that Christ dies for our sins) and Easter Sunday (that Christ was “bodily” raised from the dead on the third day) is intellectually suspect, and the Easter Eve broadcast of Cecil B. DeMille’s epic “The Ten Commandments,” a programming choice that leaves many scratching their heads and wondering if a more “Christian” choice wouldn’t be timelier? In my mind these two things are connected.
On Maundy Thursday we gathered to remember and experience the Upper Room where Jesus kept some version of the Passover Meal with His disciples. The unleavened bread that He broke and gave to His disciples while explaining that it was His body given for them, and the cup of wine that He poured and shared with them while saying that it was the “new covenant in His blood” forever lashed the Christ event to Exodus. Jesus used the Passover story and symbols to interpret the meaning of His death, and the early church “got” it. When Paul told the Corinthians to “clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened… For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed… let us celebrate the festival…” (I Corinthians 5:7-8), he was clearly appealing to the Passover tradition that the Corinthians certainly understood. I can only conclude that in preaching and teaching “Christ and Him crucified” (I Corinthians 2:2) to them, that Paul used the Exodus narrative just as Christ Himself had to be the interpretive key to the meaning of Good Friday. And it’s not just Paul.
The powerful “Lamb of God” allusions in the writings of John (John 1:29; Revelation 5) are also Exodus and Passover prompted. But when this strand of meaning is jettisoned this connection quickly gets lost and we are left wondering about things like what the movie “The Ten Commandments” has to do with Easter? It’s when the idea that the cross of Christ was not an unexpected outcome to the life of Christ, but was in fact the very purpose of His life (“You shall call His name ‘Jesus’ for He will save His people from their sins” – Matthew 1:21), and when what Christ was doing on the cross is understood as God’s own saving work of atonement rather than just the tragically noble death of an exemplary martyr suffering for his spiritual and moral ideals, that “The Ten Commandments” becomes the perfect Easter movie – theologically. Of course, this all assumes the legitimacy of the Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement as one of the strands of meaning that the New Testament attaches to the cross.
As I wrote about in my blog last week, my spiritual commitment to “speak where the Scriptures speak” prevents me from making the theological traditionalists’ mistake of thinking and talking as if the Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement is all that the New Testament has to say about the meaning of the cross, and from the theological progressives’ mistake of thinking and talking as if the Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement is not one of the ways that the New Testament speaks about the meaning of the cross. In fact, by excluding it from the conversation, one of the ways that the Gospel solves a human problem is removed from the church’s pastoral repertoire.
This was Richard Mouw’s point in his June 4, 2012 Christianity Today essay “Getting to the Crux of Calvary.” Eavesdropping on the conversation of two young clergypersons at a Conference about how they never preached or taught the Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement anymore, Dr. Mouw wondered about the pastoral and spiritual limitation that this interpretive decision imposed upon them and their ministries. Later, he said-
…I came upon a Christian station airing a recording of a man who was telling the story of his spiritual journey to a group of fellow business folks. The man recounted a time when he was increasingly successful in his business dealings, while increasingly dissolute in his personal lifestyle: drinking heavily, unfaithful to his wife, distant from his children, his marriage headed toward divorce. His wife and daughters were active in church life, but he never attended. One Saturday evening, after he had downed several martinis, his 10-year-old daughter pleaded with him to come to church the next morning. Her singing group was going to participate in the service, and she wanted her father there. He reluctantly agreed, something he greatly regretted the next morning when he woke up with a hangover. But he kept his promise. In that service, he said, he heard for the first time in his life that he was a guilty sinner who needed salvation, and that Jesus had taken his sin and guilt upon himself on the Cross of Calvary. The man wept as he heard the sermon, and he pleaded with God to take away his burden of shame. From that point on, his life took a new direction. I would have loved to have asked the young pastor at the conference what he thought about that testimony. Suppose, for example, the man whose story I heard had gone instead to that young pastor’s church that morning, and heard a sermon about how Christ has on Calvary encountered “the powers” of consumerism, militarism, racism, super-patriotism, and so on. I don’t think that such a message would have affected the life-transforming change that took place.
The Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement remains a club in my theological, spiritual and pastoral golf bag – to use Scot McKnight’s wonderful analogy – because it is one of the strands of meaning that I find that the Scriptures clearly attach to the cross, and those are the categories – the strands of meaning that the Scriptures attach to a revelatory or redemptive event – that I believe that I am obliged to use as a direct consequence of my commitment to “speak where the Scriptures speak.” I am consciously tethered to the text as a pastor and a teacher. This is not just a principled stand for me. In my 40 years of ministry in local churches I have found that it has served me often and well. It has helped me to make sense of those realities to which the Biblical text bears witness, and in turn, to offer spiritual guidance and pastoral support to real people living real lives.
Specifically, retaining the Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement as a viable theological resource for my own life and ministry has helped me by bringing some real clarity to three rather central spiritual issues –
- Sin – In 1988 Dr. Karl Menninger wrote his classic volume Whatever Became of Sin? Prophetically accurate and incisive, this book probed the causes and the consequences of the moral relativism that has become our cultural norm. If nothing is right or wrong then we have no need for a Savior. But if some things are right and other things are wrong, then what do we do about the wrong choices that we make and the real damage that they do? The Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement is predicated on the reality and the seriousness of sin. Biblically it is a primary way of explaining what it means when we say that we believe that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (I Corinthians 15:3), and existentially it deals with our human problems with shame and guilt — my human problem with shame and guilt. Because I find that sin is a real problem for me individually and for human being collectively, the Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement is a meaningful way to think and talk about what God in Christ did for us on the cross.
- God – Paul told the Corinthians that he did not want to be guilty of “misrepresenting God” (I Corinthians 15:15). Jesus Himself warned that it would be better to have a millstone lashed around our necks and for us to be dropped into the depths of the sea than to lead one of God’s “little ones” astray (Matthew 18:6). Preachers and teachers are going to have to give an account (Hebrews 13:17) and will be subject to a “stricter judgment” (James 3:1). All of which is to say, that we who preach and teach must be careful about what we say, because beliefs have consequences, and what we say about God, as A.W. Tozer observed, is the most important thing about us. “God is love” (I John 4:8) is what most of us will say when we are asked about God, and I have no quarrel with it being the first thing that we say about God. That seems to me to be entirely consonant with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. What is not consonant with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in my judgment, is to make “God is love” the only thing that we say when we are asked about God. Why, even the textual source for our affirmation that “God is love” doesn’t say that love is all that there is to the Biblical God. I John 1:5 tells us that “God is light,” and then immediately frames that affirmation of God’s identity in terms of His aversion to human sin (I John 1:6-2:2). No single characteristic of God exhausts God’s reality as it is revealed in the salvation history that the Scriptures narrate, and keeping the Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement in the conversation about why Christ came and why Christ died keeps me honest about the complexity of who God is.
- Christ – Finally, the Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement keeps me from prematurely releasing the tension of the paradoxical affirmation of historic Christianity that Jesus Christ is “fully God” and “fully man.” So much of the critique that I hear about the Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement stems from the barbaric idea that the cross is something that God did to someone else, namely Jesus. If this is what the Biblical Theory of the Substitutionary Atonement affirmed, then I would side with its critics. But Biblically, I would argue that this critique of the traditional theory of Substitutionary Atonement is rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding that goes all the way back to Athanasius in the fourth century and his struggle with the teaching of Arius. If Jesus Christ is not God incarnate (What we sing and say at Christmas) then what happens on Good Friday cannot possibly be salvific. It can be noble. It can be heroic. It can be exemplary. But if the cross is not the work of God Himself, then it can’t be salvific. Tim Keller helpfully writes –
When I get to the cross, I’ve found there is this caricature of Jesus as the Son whom the Father crucifies – child abuse, etc. Without the unity of God what you wind up with on the cross is a helpless son and a vindictive father. But with the unity of God what you wind up with on the cross is God substituting Himself, and not just the Father substituting the Son.
Westminster Seminary professor Robert Strimple rocked my world with something he once said, with tears in his eyes, “Please don’t ever get out there and preach John 3:16 as if you have an angry abusive father who is taking his anger out on his son. “God was, in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.”
John Stott in The Cross of Christ forever shaped what I see when I look at a cross by what he wrote about the description of the heart of God found in Hosea 11. What’s happening on the cross is a picture of the costliness of God’s love and the seriousness of God’s holiness struggling with each other at the center of God’s own being. And this means that the cross is not about what God did to someone else, someone external to Himself. No, I believe that the cross is the work of God Himself, what God Himself embraced with His decision to forgive. DBS+
“A God on the cross! That is all my theology.” (Jean Lacordaire)