Imagine that, in the midst of a bout of temporary insanity, you told your wife this: that in order for you to remain married, she would have to dress up like a nun, because that was the only way you could love her and find her attractive. How long do you think that marriage would last? I would hope that any woman in such a situation would have sufficient self-respect to see that maintaining this relationship would be degrading, and that she would leave. Such conditions are oppressive and humiliating, and indicate that love is, if not absent, at least perverted.
However, I have a suspicion that this is the kind of relationship between Christ and his bride, the church, which we are espousing from too many pulpits. As Christians, the way that we think about the cross will have profound implications for how we view ourselves and others. It impacts everything we are and everything we do. It is instrumental in shaping how we present the gospels. Needless to say, it is crucial that we get it right. But I think we have been unduly influenced in our doctrine by Reformation theology in this regard, to the extent that we have come to accept as normal a picture of a relationship with God that resembles the scenario I just described.
It is frequently taught in Protestant churches that, as a result of the crucifixion, when God looks at us, he sees only Jesus. We maintain that we are so sinful and God is so holy that He cannot bear to look at us in our current state. We preach that humans are fundamentally unlovable, but thank goodness that God came up with a plan: He could not stand to look at us in our sinful state, so he ‘dressed us up in Jesus’ instead. I know I am being a bit flippant, but I hope you can see why I find such a picture problematic. It does nothing to demonstrate real love.
The Bible, as far as I can tell, is clear on the fact that He does love us, and always has, even “while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8) . He didn’t send Jesus so that he could love us; He did it because he already did. The crucifixion was not the means by which God made us palatable to Himself; it was not His attempt to help us avoid punishment for our sins (would that be just? And if that was the goal, why do we still die?); it was His way of bringing healing to our brokenness. It was not about pacifying Him, but about restoring us. In other words, the needs met by Jesus’ incarnation and crucifixion were ours, not God’s. I think we’ve understood it incorrectly in the Protestant church for too long.
When Nathan behaves atrociously – and anybody who has had the joy of parenting a two-year-old will know that they can behave quite abominably – my reason for addressing it is not because my sense of outrage at his behaviour prevents me from being in his presence otherwise. No! I will love him regardless. He will not cease to be my beloved son based on his actions. My motivation when I respond to him is less about my anger and hurt and more about correcting him so that he can learn to express his feelings in a constructive way, and thus experience life more fully and maturely. If I discipline effectively, actually, it should have nothing to do with my anger whatsoever. It is not even about the principle. If I correct Nathan, it should be because he will be better off for the correction, not because I will. So I believe it is with God.
God has loved us all along – just as we are. But a loving parent will never leave a child in a state of brokenness when he has the power to bring healing. And we are profoundly broken by sin. Look at how Jesus himself defines his mission (Luke 4:16-21):
16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. 17 The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” 20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, 21 and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
By his own admission, Jesus saw his role as more than just a substitution for the punishment of sin; it was a reconstitution of our spiritual health – of our very human identities in God, as they were meant to be – by removing from us the effects of sin: death. We are, as is pointed out frequently in the New Testament, “new creations”. It is not a case of the old being there but protected from God’s wrath by the blood of Jesus. Rather, the ontological state of death brought about by sin has been cleansed from us. That is why we rejoice. That is what it means to be “free from the curse of the law”. That’s why it is good news.
Despite criticism, Jesus spent his time with the sinners. It is the sick, he said, who need a doctor, and the sinners who need to be called to repentance (Luke 5:30-32). He recognised that sin causes brokenness and so he came as a healer. He did not come to punish but to restore. People didn’t walk away from an encounter with Jesus feeling miserable and condemned. He did not threaten the tax collectors with divine wrath. Nobody left him feeling guilty and dirty – at least not because he had pointed their spiritual state out to them; his presence was enough to lead them to that conclusion themselves. He never told anybody that he really wanted to spend some time with them but could not because of their sins. Nobody left him feeling worthless and reviled. Many came away more whole. His sense of justice was not retributive. And if Jesus is the best picture of God that we have – and I believe he is – then maybe we ought to re-examine the picture of God our theology has formed. I am not sure they are always compatible. How do sinners feel when they walk away from our churches? I wonder.
Perhaps we need to re-examine the cross. Once our understanding of that mystery improves, I think we will be humbler and more gracious and more free. Once we can accept that the crucifixion was not God finding a loophole in the system of cosmic justice, but an act of perfect love, then we will see Him and others in a different and – I am convinced – more loving light.