Exploring the Mystery of the Cross

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.

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2 thoughts on “Exploring the Mystery of the Cross

  1. I really, really like so many of the things you say here. I think the problem with extreme hard-line Calvinism is that it’s trying to pin down these mysteries and paradoxes that do exist (and should exist, if we’re dealing with God, after all). And just because there is mystery and paradox, does not mean that it is not truth as well. When people start to think they’ve got the atonement completely figured out, it’s a bit worrisome. There is also this shortening of the story of the bible in the hard-line reformed tradition that ends up, I feel, overemphasizing our “vileness” and doesn’t account for either God’s good spirit at work in us, or our joy at being redeemed, or our value as image bearers of God (even if we never “get saved” or something). Properly understood, our sin is a catalyst for us to rejoice and praise God for his grace. But I think so often it becomes the defining feature of our identity, whereas in Christ we’re new people.
    For example, the format that the church I attended for a while was good, in that every week they had a time of confession, but the emphasis was so much on our sin, and how terrible we all were, and there was never the, “But praise be to God because while we were still sinners Christ died for us, and if we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, let’s party now” part.
    Miroslav Volf has a great book called, “Free of Charge, Giving and forgiving in a culture stripped of Grace” that I REALLY like.

    I guess my only question is what about references to the wrath of God in the Bible? In your example with Nathan, you want him to become better, but would you say you display “wrath” in your punishments?

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    • I think we misunderstand God’s wrath. Our picture of it often goes something like this: God gets progressively more angry at our bad behaviour, but holds back and holds back and holds back and then eventually explodes and does something like smiting a sinful city or nation. I find this picture problematic on a number of levels. First, it is purely reactive. God is not in control of his emotions in such a picture. Rather, they control Him. Second, it seems He draws His boundaries and then does nothing when they are crossed; He is thus permissive and lacking in self-respect, as He is unwilling to maturely defend His rules. This picture of God is one of an emotionally immature being. I cannot accept it.

      No effective discipline is ever underpinned by anger. Discipline always aims at restoring the right relationship and facilitating positive character growth. Not at assuaging anger. Nathan’s actions frequently do make me angry, but effective discipline requires that I process that myself. I alone am responsible for my anger and what I do with it, not Nathan, even when he is instrumental in causing it. I need to find a constructive way to deal with it, not to take it out on Nathan. But I must act. Not because I am angry, but because should Nathan’s bad behaviour become habitual, he will suffer the natural consequences of it, and they will harm him. So there must be consequences, and they must be immediate. i cannot delay a response, overlook bad behaviour until I explode. That can only hurt Nathan ultimately. I won’t do that to him. I don’t think God would do that to us either.

      I think God’s response to sin is immediate. The wages of sin is death. The Bible is clear on that. And all humans die. I don’t believe God’s intended ideal world contains death, but it is the price of our sin. We still pay that price for sin, despite the cross. So maybe there is a hint in that fact that we have a flaw in our understanding somewhere. Also, God – certainly in my experience – never protects me from the natural consequences of my sinful actions. And He should not. I grow more godly as a result of having to learn from them. I learn to make better decisions because I am not protected from the consequences of my sins. So while I believe that our sin makes God angry, I don’t believe that it was His anger that resulted in the cross. I think He wanted to correct another consequence of sin: an ontological state of death that prevents us from fully participating in His divine nature, which is life in its abundance. Irenaeus wrote that “the glory of God is man fully alive”, and I think the mystery of the cross might be linked to that thought. Certainly the cross addressed sin, but I don’t think it was about protecting us from God. We need no protection from a loving father. To paraphrase John, perfect love drives out fear because g=fear has to do with punishment.

      Honestly, I do not know what to do with many of the scriptures on God’s wrath. I do know that many of the current interpretations of them are logically inconsistent with a loving God. I trust absolutely that Jesus is our best picture of God, and I can only compare our interpretations of Biblical texts with his teachings and actions. I know that God can not be emotionally or psychologically or morally flawed, so I have to question our human understanding instead. You are right: the cross is a very deep mystery. And although we can never fully comprehend it, I do believe we ought to try, and we can only grow in our understanding and therefore love of God when we challenge our own inadequate understanding in so doing.

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