Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Part 1: What should we think about the cross?

The first of two talks given to the St Albans Diocese 'Mission Minded' group, Sunday 18th November 2008

In my two sessions with you today I’m going to consider the cross from two angles. First, what should we think about the cross, and secondly what should we say about the cross.

One of the things to bear in mind is that we should not necessarily say about the cross everything that we think. It depends on the audience’s capacity to hear. In this respect, the sermons in Acts are a model of good practice. When speaking to audiences of Jews or well-informed Gentiles, the Apostles are able to speak in detail about the life of Jesus and to quote extensively from Scripture. But when Paul preaches in Athens to a group of sophisticated pagans, he proclaims the gospel without naming Jesus at all, and his only quotes come from the works of Greek poet-theologians.

So we should look and learn! Gospel preaching is not preaching which says everything that can be said with scriptural references to support the argument. Gospel preaching is, rather, an exercise in which unbelievers hear the gospel in such a way that they are able to respond to its claims on their lives. So not everything I say is designed to be repeated!

The gospel
Nevertheless, gospel preaching centres on, and derives from, the cross of Christ. To my mind, there is no better starting point than 1 Corinthians 15:3:
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures ...
The passage continues on to speak of the resurrection and the appearances to the apostles, to the believers and eventually to Paul. But the critical point is made in those nine words (in Greek and English): ‘Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.’

All Christian theology is, in the end, a commentary on that. First we must explain who Christ is, and of course great swathes of the epistles, as well as the four gospels, are given over to that.

Secondly, we must explain why he died —both why his death was necessary and what it achieved.

Thirdly, we must explain the meaning of the word ‘for’ — in Greek huper. Much hangs on that!

Fourthly, we must explain ‘our sins’. Why should our sins evoke Christ’s death? Who are we that he should die for us? What is sin, that it should make Christ’s death necessary?

And all this must be done scripturally, which means not only establishing it along New Testament lines but relating it to the Old Testament material.

I venture to say that if the Church just did that, and demanded that its clergy did that, we would have far fewer problems on other fronts than we do at present. Clergy who are orthodox on the gospel are likely to be orthodox on other issues, such as sexuality.

However, I would also want to say that we must not rest on our own laurels. There are presentations of orthodoxy which are formulaic, unimaginative and even inaccurate. Moreover, when faced with challenges to orthodoxy from within the Church, it is essential that we respond with real answers, rather than slogans.

The Bible warns us that false teaching appeals by scratching people’s ears. We may not be able to scratch where people itch. Indeed, it has been said we should scratch where they don’t itch. But let us scratch to the best of our ability, not relying on what we have heard in Sunday school or sung in our traditional hymns and choruses, but searching the Scriptures once again to see if these things be really so.

Let us, then, work our way through just those headings I suggested, beginning with Christ. Who, according to the Scriptures, is the Christ who died for our sins?

We understand he is the man known as Jesus of Nazareth, and that his story is definitively told for us, indeed, revealed to us, in the four gospels. They must be our bedrock and constant reference when we think about Christ.

This man is the Son of God in the Jewish sense of being the Messianic descendant of David. But we also understand that he is God the Son. We believe in the incarnation, and so we believe that in Jesus of Nazareth, God himself entered into our world. This conclusion is forced on us by what we read in the gospels themselves, and it is explained and elaborated for us in the epistles.

However, we believe furthermore that the manner of the incarnation reveals also to us that God is to be understood as a Trinity. This is a doctrine stated definitively by the Church in its Creeds, but those are the result of literally centuries of reflection on and analysis of Scripture.

What, though, do these three principles, humanity, divinity and trinity, mean for our understanding of the cross?

To answer that, I want us to consider our Lord and Saviour not from any one of those three standpoints but, as far as we are able, from the standpoint of eternity, for what we are told in Scripture is that it is this standpoint which determines why he died and what it achieved.

In Colossians 1:15-16, we read this:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.
You will undoubtedly be familiar with the concept of all things being created by Christ, although sometimes our historic Creeds seem to underplay this.

However, what is just as important to note that all things were created for Christ. For when we ask, ‘Why did God make the world?’ it means that the answer is, ‘Because of Christ.’ And this implies that the world is necessarily given a particular shape, because the world takes its existence from the one for whom it was made. The world, in other words, is not just something created ‘on a whim’. It’s creation has an end in view —it is ‘for him’, through whom and for whom it was made.

But as the reason for its creation gives the world a particular shape, so the means of its salvation gives a shape, both to the world and to the Saviour. Thus there are passages in Scripture which we would regard as remarkable were we not so used to them. We my think, for example, of Hebrews 2:10:
In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering.
I looked up a Unitarian website on the internet which makes great play of this passage as demonstrating a clear difference between God and Jesus.

Now, on the one hand, we will recognize that the biblical meaning of ‘perfect’ is complete or finished, and that therefore the opposite of perfect is not ‘flawed’ or ‘faulty’, necessarily, but can simply mean ‘incomplete’, ‘unfinished’. Nevertheless, the point remains that the event of the cross has a function with regard to Christ. He does not, as it were, sail through his incarnation serenely from one challenge to another, and emerge no different at the end that he arrived at the beginning. Rather, within the events of the incarnation, as Hebrews 5:8-9 tells us,
Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him
Of course, we will ascribe that process to the humanity of Jesus. The divine Christ is not changed by the experience of being human. But by the same token, this must mean that Christ’s nature includes eternally something which is worked out historically.

The eternal cross
If I may try to illustrate that, we have in 1 Peter 1:18-20 a statement of enormous significance when we seek to understand the cross. Peter writes this:
For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.
Here, we have the eternal and the historical aspects of the cross presented alongside one another. Christ was chosen as the lamb of God whose blood would redeem the world ‘before the creation of the world’.

Thus although the events of redemption, the crucifixion and the shedding of Christ’s blood, happened ‘in these last times’, the origin of those events lies ‘before the creation of the world’ in the nature of God himself.

The cross, therefore, not only stands at the centre of history, it defines history.

Us and God’s Image
But what kind of world is it that Christ’s nature shapes. The answer, in the opening chapters of Genesis, is that it is a world which presumes and requires the incarnation.

The climax of Genesis 1 comes in vv 26-28:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
A lot has been said about the meaning of the term ‘image’, but the most straightforward answer is given by the New Testament and what it says about Christ. Thus in 2 Corinthians 4:4 we read
The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
And in Colossians 1;15 we read that,
He [Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.
The meaning of the term ‘image of God’, then, is to be understood by looking at Christ. And in this sense, Genesis 1 presumes the incarnation. What Christ will be, when he comes into the world, is the image of God proclaimed in Genesis 1.

But Genesis 1 also requires the incarnation, because we read frequently in the New Testament that we are being transformed into Christ’s image. Thus Romans 8:29 says,
For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness [lit. image] of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.
Again, 1 Corinthians 15:49 says,
And just as we have borne the likeness [lit. image] of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.
And again, 2 Corinthians 3:18 says,
And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness [image] with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
And again, Colossians 3:10 says we have,
... put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.
The process of salvation is therefore the means by which the promise of Genesis 1:26 is fulfilled for us, and so the incarnation is required, because it is through the incarnate Jesus, who is the image of God, that we are ourselves transformed into the image of God that we see in Christ.

The goal of salvation is therefore summed up in Hebrews 2:10 as ‘bringing many sons to glory’, the word ‘sons’ there being important because it emphasises the connection between ourselves and Christ. God’s plan and purpose, then, is not that there should be one Son, for whom all things were made, but many sons, sharing the glory of the Son, sharing the dominion of the Son, and sharing the same relationship with the Father as the Son shares.

As we read in John’s gospel, Jesus prayed at the Last Supper,
May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. (John 17:21-23)
Nothing less than this is the point and purpose of what God is doing in and through his Son, but the path to achieving this lies through the cross and therefore through the Fall for which the cross was the remedy.

Our sins
When we say, therefore, that Christ died ‘for our sins’, we are taking into account the fact that whilst sin has a negative effect, it has a positive outcome, and that takes some understanding!

We should remind ourselves that the plan and purpose of God is to bring many sons to glory, and that was this means is that his Son’s nature is replicated — re-imaged, we might say — in millions of ‘image bearers’. The astonishing truth about creation is not simply that God makes something which is not himself, but that God makes something which is not himself in which he is, to all intents and purposes, replicated in what he has made!

But the means to achieving that end is not simply by a kind of spiritual cloning. We know that, because what he has made is something quite different from spiritual clones. By spiritual cloning, I mean simply replicating Christ. It is clear that the act of creation does not replicate Christ because of what happens in Genesis 3. There, the man and woman face temptation and fail. The contrast with Christ himself is glaringly obvious, for when Christ faces the same tempter (though with temptations suitable to his own nature), he does not fail. The different outcomes clearly point to a different nature, as summarised in Philippians 2:5-8:
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross!
The fact of our salvation calls us to put on his nature, which did not seek its own glory, but let go of its likeness to God, and joined us sinners.

The contrast with the Garden is clear, where mankind sought to become like God, knowing good and evil, through an act of disobedience based on an attitude of mistrust and presumed jealousy. Remember how the serpent said to Eve,
“You will not surely die, ... For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
And in fact they did become like God, for we read God’s verdict at the end of Genesis 3:
And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. (Gen 3:22)
So just as Christ, though being in the image of God was made perfect through the events of his incarnation, the human race also remained to be made perfect even at the outset in Genesis 1 and 2. They were not like Christ, the image of God, insofar as they could not resist temptation, and they were not like God, insofar as they did not know good and evil. But the process that they underwent as a result of the temptation and Fall had disastrous consequences.

When we say Christ died for our sins, the sheer fact of his death tells us something about the nature of sin. That it should require the death of God the Son shows that it has profound significance. But we also see the nature of sin in the world around us. Fortunately we are largely shielded from sin’s effect in ourselves and in others. Domestication, civilization, the law, fear of embarrassment, lack of opportunity and so on, all conspire to keep us relatively well-behaved.

What experience here shows is that sin is a manifestation of something for which the only proper word is evil. And evil must be regarded not simply as ‘bad things’. Rather, evil involves personality, and both stems from and causes the corruption of a person.

Having a brick fall on your head is a bad thing, and may properly be described as an indirect result of the Fall of mankind. Dropping a brick on someone’s head, however, is something else entirely. To the person hit by the brick, the physical effect will be more or less the same. In this case there is both the intention, arising from within the person corrupted by sin, and there is the corrupting effect on that person as a result of performing the sinful act.

This is why punishment cannot simply be predicated on the effect of an action on others. If the brick which is deliberately dropped misses, that does not absolve the person who dropped it. Sin has had its full expression and much of its effect, even though the intention failed. Nor can punishment be replaced by programmes which seek to prevent a lack of repetition. The wrong that was done, or was attempted, is not remedied by the fact that it doesn’t happen again.

An act of wrong must either be punished or ignored, and whilst there are many in the secular world who might argue that the approach of ignoring the actual wrong in favour of preventative programmes should be followed for actions which are merely perceived as anti-social, there are remarkably few who argue this in the case of emotive crimes such as rape, racist and homophobic attacks and so on. Oddly enough, the radical becomes remarkably traditionalist in such cases, for we know that merely overlooking acts of evil is itself a wrong.

For us, however, the need for and the nature of the punishment is laid down by God’s own word. The disobedience of Adam and Eve in Eden issues in death, as the appropriate response by God to disobedience which allies us to evil.

The reason why Hell is so incomprehensible to many people is that they consider it only in relation to persons as they know them now, or as they think they know themselves. What they do not, indeed cannot, consider is the effect of evil on a personality when it is allowed to continue unhindered and unabated.

The Bible says that those who have been redeemed by Christ are being changed ‘from glory to glory’ —from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor 3:18). But what of those who are not redeemed? What do we think is happening to them?

Again, it is clear that once we have been freed from this mortal body, we who have been baptized into Christ will also be freed from the sinful nature. But what about those who also leave this mortal body and yet who do not belong to Christ? What will freedom from the body mean for them spiritually? It is understandable that we struggle with the idea of Hell as the place for those we see around us, but we ought to have the same struggle with the idea of Heaven as being a suitable place for them!

In both cases, the words of 1 John 3:2 apply: “Dear friends ... what we will be has not yet been made known.” For some, that is a glorious promise, for others, it is a dreadful warning.

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1 comment:

  1. (Chelmsford)

    On what biblical basis do you claim that ‘Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures’ is "critical" in a way that ‘Christ ... was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures’ is not? I accept that your subject in this sermon is the cross, not the empty tomb. But is one really more important than the other? I don't think Paul thought so.

    Meanwhile I can't help thinking that this post has been left unfinished, or cut off in the middle. I know it is only Part 1, but I take it as being intended to be complete on "What should we think about the cross?", with Part 2 to be on "What should we say about the cross?" For your presentation in this post doesn't really go beyond the bad news, that we are sinners who deserve to die. The second and third paragraphs from the end mention those who are saved and redeemed, but this seems to be only as a lead up to the fate of those who are lost.

    I was expecting to read your explanations on these issues:

    Secondly, we must explain why he died —both why his death was necessary and what it achieved.

    Thirdly, we must explain the meaning of the word ‘for’ — in Greek huper. Much hangs on that!

    But you don't seem to have covered these issues, beyond the general point that "the plan and purpose of God is to bring many sons to glory". I was expecting some kind of presentation of or interaction with penal substitutionary atonement. But you have not even touched on this controversial issue. Is this to follow? I hope so. But I wonder if a presentation of it can be adequate if it ignores the Resurrection.