Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Part 2: What should we say about the cross?

In our first session, we looked at a considerable range of things, all stemming out from the simple statement that ‘Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.’ Some of this may have been rather overwhelming, but the point is that all Christian doctrine is, in essence, the doctrine of the cross.

This was Martin Luther’s point when he coined that Latin phrase, ‘Crux sola est nostra theologia.’ The cross alone is our theology.

We thought about Christ, our sins and death as a punishment for sin. But what about the term ‘for’? What does it mean to say Christ died for our sins?

The centrality of propitiation

The first thing we must say is that there are a variety of meanings to this word ‘for’, because there are a variety of ways in which the New Testament talks about the effects of the cross.

However, the Anglicans here may at this point want to refer to the second of their Thirty-nine Articles, which sums up both the nature of Christ and the outcome of his life in one short sentence:
The Son, which is the Word of the Father, begotten from everlasting of the Father, the very and eternal God, and of one substance with the Father, took man’s nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin, of her substance: so that two whole and perfect natures, that is to say, the Godhead and manhood, were joined together in one person, never to be divided, whereof is one Christ, very God and very man, who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile His Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for all actual sins of men.
Actually that’s 106 words in a sentence, which might make you thankful I wasn’t born 500 years ago. But the phrase to note is this: Chris suffered, died and was buried ‘to reconcile His Father to us.’

The nature of propitiation

There has been much debate over the meaning of the Greek word hilasterion, sometimes translated ‘propitiation’, but sometimes ‘atoning sacrifice’, as in the NIV and NRSV. You will perhaps know, however, that some people take exception to the idea of the cross as a propitiation, preferring to think of it only as an expiation of sins.

The difference between a propitiation and an expiation is this. If I park on a yellow line and a traffic warden comes along and gives me a ticket, I have to expiate the fine by paying it. If, however, I park on the traffic warden’s foot on a yellow line, I have to both expiate the fine and propitiate the traffic warden.

There are many who want to say that the cross is an expiation for our sins. Jesus bears the punishment. But it is not a propitiation for our sins, since God’s attitude towards us in sending Christ to die is love, not wrath. However, the Anglican formularies —in this case the Prayer Book and the Thirty-nine articles —are quite clear about propitiation. According to Article 2, Christ reconciled the Father to us. Article 31 says,

The offering of Christ once made is the perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual, and there is none other satisfaction for sin but that alone.
There is also a little-used ceremony in the Prayer Book titled ‘A Commination, or Denouncing of God’s Anger and Judgements against Sinners’, which quotes from 1 John using the word ‘propitiation’. So the Anglican position is clear. But of course Anglicans would say this is because Scripture is clear. God’s wrath in Scripture is against both sin and sinners, and atonement functions to turn it away.

Scripture and propitiation
One of the starkest examples is the case of Phinehas, who killed an Israelite and a Midianite woman together. In Numbers 25:10 and 13 we read this:

The Lord said to Moses, “Phinehas ... has turned my anger away from the Israelites; ... He and his descendants will have a covenant of a lasting priesthood, because he was zealous for the honour of his God and made atonement for the Israelites.
Uncomfortable —yes, these words are. Unclear —no, they are not.

Again, in 2 Chronicles 29, Hezekiah announces that he is going to cleanse the Temple, and ‘make a covenant with the Lord, the God of Israel, so that his fierce anger will turn away from us.’
Once again, the understanding is that an action averts God’s wrath.

Propitiation and punishment

Scripture is also quite clear that the Suffering Servant, who is the model for Jesus’ death on the cross, suffers the punishment of God for sinners.

It has long intrigued me that in referring to the definitive passage in Isaiah 53, Steve Chalke writes,

I still have no desire to become involved in a technical debate about how the cross works. As Scripture says ‘he was wounded for our transgressions, by his stripes we are healed’ (Isaiah 53:5), and for me that is enough. (Redeeming the Cross)
The trouble is, as he must realize, Chalke has left out the material which does not fit with his own rejection of penal substitution, for in Isaiah 53:5-6 we read,
... he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
Perhaps a classic text to help us get the sense of the word for punishment here would be Proverbs 23:13-14, where it is translated as ‘discipline’:
Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish him with the rod, he will not die. Punish him with the rod and save his soul from death.
What happened to Jesus was that ‘disciplining’ punishment —the punishment that is a judicial response to wrongdoing, inflicted by a father on his son.

Let us be quite clear, incidentally, that Steve Chalke opposes the doctrine of penal substitution. He writes,

... this supposed orthodoxy is no orthodoxy at all. In reality, penal substitution (in contrast to other substitutionary theories) doesn’t cohere well with either biblical or Early Church thought. Although penal substitution isn’t as old as many people assume ... it is actually built on pre-Christian thought. (Ibid)
I am fascinated that Bp Tom Wright thinks Steve Chalke holds to a doctrine of penal substitution, and I am amused by the fact that one of the good things he says about the book Pierced for our Transgressions is that
... it firmly and decisively knocks on the head an old canard ... that ‘penal substitution’ was invented by Anselm and developed by Calvin ...
I’m amused because in the work I’ve been quoting, Steve Chalke says this:
Initially, though not explicitly, rooted in the writings of Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), penal substitution was substantially formed by John Calvin’s legal mind in the reformation.
And there’s more
That aside, though, we for our part must acknowledge that the impact of the cross is not limited to Christ bearing the punishment for our sins and so reconciling the Father to us. There is also the fact of the victory over the cosmic forces of evil, referred to in Colossians 2:15:

And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
In fact, as a Conservative Evangelical, I can accept pretty well any other Christian understanding of the cross you care to throw at me. Thus the cross was most certainly an example for us to follow. In 1 Peter 2:20-21, we read,
But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.
Again, the cross clearly represents a ransom. Jesus says in Mark 10:45, ‘the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ The cross is also a model of healing from the sickness of our souls. In John 3:14-15, we read,
Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert [so that the Israelites who had been bitten by the snakes God sent to plague them could be healed], so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.
We might say, ‘and so on.’ There are even ways of thinking about substitution which are not specifically penal. For example, in John 15:13, where Jesus says,
Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.
Provided we keep the doctrine of Christ’s bearing God’s wrath and punishment central, we can embrace many other aspects of the cross. In all these ways, we can say Christ died ‘for’ our sins — not only to bear our punishment, but to bring us the consequences of the cross.

Universal reconciliation

And one of the reasons why we ought to do this is that the impact of the cross goes beyond our personal redemption and beyond also the overcoming of the powers of evil, for the cross is the means by which the universes itself is redeemed. In Colossians 1:19-20, we read this:

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
The great hope of a restored creation thus also rests on the cross.

Life in the Spirit

To this, we must also add the gift of the Holy Spirit. In fact, if there is an area where Conservative Evangelical preaching needs to be more aware, it is the connection between the consequences of the cross and the outpouring of the Spirit. This is brought out emphatically in Galatians 3:13-14,

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.
Here again, incidentally, it is hard to avoid the ‘penal’ language of what the cross involves. If coming under God’s curse is not a punishment, it is hard to imagine what is.

But we ought also to be able to see here why the theology of a ‘second blessing’ is wrong. Sometimes people have said that what is important is not a second blessing, but a third and a fourth and a fifth blessing, and so on. The problem is, as far as the cross is concerned, what matters is the first blessing, because the first blessing is the blessing promised to Abraham in Genesis 12, that in him the whole earth would be blessed, which is the promise of salvation worked out in the rest of Scripture.

What Paul draws out is the fact that this promise finds its fulfilment in the outpouring of the Spirit through the work of Christ on the cross on those who have faith in him.

Once again, therefore, the cross is our theology, and in this respect I think the charismatic movement of the last century and its remaining manifestations in this century represent a deviation from mainstream theology.

The place of the Spirit

The problem with the charismatic movement was not that it recognized the possibility of charismatic gifts still being present today, but that it detached the gift of the Spirit from the work of the cross. The work of the cross thus became a kind of ‘part one’ to the Christian life, with the focus on forgiveness, repentance and reconciliation, whilst ‘part two’ was the work of the Spirit, with the emphasis on empowerment, progress and rejoicing.

But really the two should belong together, which means that the Christian life is always lived in a state of repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation and empowerment, progress and joy. The important thing, though, is that the empowerment, progress and joy flows constantly from the forgiveness, repentance and reconciliation. The work of the cross is ongoing in our lives, and this should be reflected in our preaching because we will never preach the Spirit after the cross but only through the cross.

Having said that, though, we must preach the Spirit — we must never give the impression that the Christian life is just about responding to a set of propositions with an intellectual assent that somehow means we’ve given the right answer to the spiritual equivalent of Anne Robinson. We should expect the Spirit’s work in people as a response to the message of the cross because the work of the cross enables the Spirit to work.

And baptism

We might also just consider something else about our preaching of the cross. We have seen that one of the definitive passages for our understanding of the cross is Isaiah 53, and the place where that is shown most clearly is, of course, Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8.

We know how the dialogue goes: how the eunuch is reading Isaiah 53 and invites Philip to explain it. And we may assume that our own explanation would be the same as his. But I wonder whether it is. The test is this: would your explanation of Isaiah 53 lead someone to ask the question the eunuch puts in v 36:
“Look, here is water. Why shouldn’t I be baptized?”

The apostolic preaching of the cross was not ‘repent and believe’, but ‘repent and believe and be baptized’, and we must make sure that is our preaching as well. Not, of course, that salvation is effected by baptism, or prevented by non-baptism. But God has given us baptism for a reason, and it is surely noteworthy that the benefits of the cross are described as being conveyed to us in baptism in Romans 6:2-4:

We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
Union with Christ
Baptism is also important because it shows us that the what the cross achieves for us is not conveyed to us merely by changing the way we think, or even simply by the gift of the Holy Spirit to us. Rather, the benefits of the cross are ours because we are united with Christ. And the fact of our union with him should caution us against an over-emphasis on substitution in the atonement.

One of the important aspects of sacrifice in the Old Testament was that the person offering the sacrifice identified themselves with the victim. The victim died in their place as if they had died. We see this in the way that the Levites substituted for the firstborn of the other Israelites in the same way that the Passover sacrifice substituted for Israel’s firstborn. In Numbers 3:11-13, we read,

The Lord also said to Moses, “I have taken the Levites from among the Israelites in place of the first male offspring of every Israelite woman. The Levites are mine, for all the firstborn are mine. When I struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, I set apart for myself every firstborn in Israel, whether man or animal. They are to be mine. I am the Lord.”
The sense of substitution is clear. The question is, how does what happens to the substitute benefit the person for whom they are substituting? We have rather tended to talk as if the benefit came purely from the fact that the penalty fell on the substitute. This does rather make it sound as if God didn’t mind who got punished for our sins, so long as somebody did, and Jesus was the only one big enough to take it. But that overlooks a very important factor, which is the relationship we have with Jesus, which baptism signifies. For our relationship with him is not limited to what happens after our conversion.

Baptism makes it clear that our relationship with Christ goes back to the cross, not merely back to our conversion. Baptism spells out the fact that we died with him and have been raised with him. And these things are not just manners of speaking but spiritual truths because we are united with him.

Marital union with Christ

But where does this union come from, and how is it possible? Here we are nearing the end of the trail. Our union with Christ, in biblical terms, is a marital union. In 1 Corinthians 6:16-17, Paul writes this:

Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.” But he who unites himself with the Lord is one with him in spirit.
The classic statement, however, is that in Ephesians 5:22-32. Here, it is made clear that far from marriage being a model for our understanding of the believer’s relationship with Christ, it is the other way round, and the believer’s relationship with Christ provides the model for marriage. In vv 22-23 we read,
Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour.
And in vv 25 and 29 we read,
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her ... After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body.
And then, significantly, Paul brings the whole thing back to Genesis in vv 31-32:
For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery — but I am talking about Christ and the church.
The one flesh union of Genesis 2 is thus seen to be a reflection of the ‘one body’ union of Christ and those who are ‘in Christ’. And since Christ and the believer form ‘one body’ in their union, what is true of Christ —namely that he died for our sins and rose from the dead —is true for us. At the same time, our sins, for which Christ died, are truly —not fictitiously — born by him, who unites himself with sinners.

Our message

Our message, then, remains, ‘Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures.’ And we call people to the ABCDE of the gospel:

Accept that you are a sinner

Believe that Christ died for your sins

Consider what it means to live with him as your Saviour and Lord

Do what he commands: repent and be baptized.

Expect your life to be transformed by the Holy Spirit working in you.

But then we must teach people what this means. The cross alone is our theology. It takes a moment to believe it, a lifetime to live it.

No comments will be posted without a full name and location, see the policy.


  1. (Chelmsford)

    I see, the parts of the discussion I was asking about in my comment on Part 1 were delayed until Part 2. Fair enough, although I fail to see why these come under "what we should say" rather than "what we should think".

    I can agree with you that "I can accept pretty well any other Christian understanding of the cross you care to throw at me." What I have trouble with here is your insistence that "we keep the doctrine of Christ’s bearing God’s wrath and punishment central", my emphasis. What makes this necessarily central and the other understandings necessarily peripheral? What justifies the hate campaign against Steve Chalke (a hate crime if anything is!) for daring to question this centrality?

    In fact later you write "the fact of our union with him should caution us against an over-emphasis on substitution in the atonement". Amen! But why then are the knives out for Chalke for saying much the same?

    I agree that in so far as "the charismatic movement of the last century and its remaining manifestations in this century" reject the centrality of the cross and the resurrection, they "represent a deviation from mainstream theology". But this is simply not true of the majority of the charismatic movement today. But you continue to neglect the real Part Two of the work of Christ, the resurrection, which is the basis for the new Spirit-filled life of Christians. Indeed "the two should belong together," the cross and the resurrection.

    "the spiritual equivalent of Anne Robinson" - I love this description of God at the Last Judgment, which I presume is tongue in cheek!

    Baptism spells out the fact that we died with him and have been raised with him. ...

    And since Christ and the believer form ‘one body’ in their union, what is true of Christ —namely that he died for our sins and rose from the dead —is true for us.

    Indeed, and this is important. It is not that nothing happens to us, we got away scot free, because Jesus took our punishment. It is that we are punished and put to death through his punishment and death - and we continue to live only because he was raised back to life. And I am glad to see for once a reference here to resurrection. If it wasn't for this we would simply be dead in our sins, not living in newness of life.

  2. Hi Peter

    Thanks as always for commenting. I don't know if anyone else reads this stuff!

    I had an interesting discussion last weekend, when I did a much longer presentation (four talks) on the same material, over the place of the resurrection.

    Let me start off by saying that I am not setting aside the ‘criticality’ of the resurrection, though I am concerned about those who wish to make the resurrection, over against the crufixion, the pivotal historical moment in redemption.

    Is one really more important than the other? That is impossible to address, as would be asking whether Jesus’ birth is ‘more important than’ his death. But they clearly have different functions. The function of Jesus’ death is to save us from our sins. The function of his resurrection is to exalt him as Saviour and Lord. We may therefore preach him as Lord because he is raised and Saviour because he died.

    But he was not incarnated and crucified so as to be Lord, and his being Lord is not (strictly as such) salvific. The same Lord is also, for example, Judge. So I am arguing for the order set out in 1 Corinthians 15:3: what is of first importance is that Christ died for our sins, from which followed the resurrection, and the appearances to the apostles, which is the basis for the proclamation of Jesus as Saviour and Lord.

    There is, however, an ordo salutis testified to in baptism: “If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin — because anyone who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” (Rom 6:5-8)

    The headings of the talks (What we should think, What we should say) were for my own guidance, having been asked to address the question of speaking about the cross in the contemporary situation. I left them in as they were written.

    The doctrine of penal substitution is central because we understand Christ’s death ‘according to the Scriptures’ and there the sacrificial system atones for sin and averts God’s wrath.

    Steve Chalke does not question the centrality of penal substitution. He denies it. Given what he has said, and the support he has (sadly) received from some quarters, I felt it helpful to touch base on that one. It is not, I hope you’ll agree, a hate campaign. I just think he’s wrong.

    On the point I was making about "the fact of our union with him should caution us against an over-emphasis on substitution in the atonement", I didn’t mean that we are over-emphasising the penal element, but the substitutionary. The model I see in Scripture is that we are united with Christ in his death (and therefore his resurrection). In that sense, he incorporates us into his death, rather than dying and, as it were, ‘merely’ substituting for us -setting us to one side while he suffers. This is not what Steve Chalke is saying, though.

    The nature of the life in the Spirit needs more discussion than I have room for here.

    I basically agree with your last summary: "It is not that nothing happens to us, we got away scot free, because Jesus took our punishment. It is that we are punished and put to death through his punishment and death."

    Being made like him in his death, we will presently share in his resurrection (Phil 3:10).

  3. John, thanks for the response.

    I am not trying to say that the resurrection is more important than the cross, but to put them on the same level.

    Surely "of first importance" in 1 Corinthians 15:3 refers to the whole summary of vv.3-8, not just to "Christ died for our sins". And the order is chronological and so should not be taken as one of precedence.

    The doctrine of penal substitution is central because we understand Christ’s death ‘according to the Scriptures’ and there the sacrificial system atones for sin and averts God’s wrath.

    But surely other models of the atonement are also rooted in the Old Testament? For I do mean that "we are over-emphasising the penal element", even if you don't. After all, the sacrificial system which you refer to is not really penal. The idea that a sacrificial animal is being punished for our sins is a primarily New Testament interpretation. Even in Isaiah 53 the penal element is only one among many, and the word used refers to discipline rather than retributive punishment. But I need to think a bit more about this one.

  4. Sure all the other models relate to each other rather than work as a take your pick. And it seems to me that Penal Substitution touches on other "models".

    When we say that the cross is God's victory over Satan, just how does it do that? What was the power Satan had over us? Surely it is because of penal substituion that the accuser can no longer accuse.

    In the 2 classic cross as example passages, 1 Peter and Mark 10:45, substitution isn't far away, in fact 10:45 "a ransom for many", where Jesus uses 'anti' (in the place of).

    Far from them being competing aren't they dependant on each other, or even dependant on penal substitution?

    I think there is a misunderstaning creeping in about those who defend penal substitution. The common come back is, "what about other models, what about the resurrection". The point is that penal substitution is the thing under attack. I'm not quite sure why everyone wants to defend Steve Chalke and say how nasty people are who disagree with him. Those of us who disagree with him engage with what he has said. He seems a nice enough bloke. But have you seen what he says about his opponents?!

    Darren Moore, Tranmere, Birkenhead

  5. Just another thought...

    If we drop penal substitution, don't we also loose our Justification. He is imputed with our guilt, us with his righteousness. To loose one is surely to loose the other.

    So it matters, rather than just plumping for a prefered "model". which ironically we'd loose too.

  6. should have added location on last comment

    Darren Moore, Tranmere, Birkenhead

  7. (Chelmsford)

    Darren, I don't think any of us are dropping penal substitution. But there are plenty of ways of describing justification without insisting that penal substitution is central. See for example the works of Bishop NT Wright.

    The various models do indeed have some mutual interdependence. But they are not all dependent on penal substitution. Perhaps you need to look at Orthodox understandings of this issue. I am not an expert on them, but they seem to have a consistent picture which does not include penal substitution.

    Have you seen what Steve Chalke's opponents said about him, before he was goaded to respond?

  8. Clearly some people are denying penal substitution, even if you are not one of them. I'd be bothered if any other aspect of Christ's work on the cross was being denied. And if they are all interdependant, then in a sense they are all central. Although I'd still say that Penal substituion is central as the others seem to be results of it. So Jesus taking on my sin removes Satan's accusation & power over me. But I don't see how Christ's victory over satan as an abstract idea automatically removes my sin. But at least we can agree they'll all really important, therefore which ever one is denied there are serious consequences.

    What I don't understand is that when people defend this doctrine loads of people come out and say, "I'm not denying it but there are other models". As if those of us who wish to defend it believe nothing else. We only need to defend what is under attack.

    I thought the final chapter of "Pierced for our Transgressions" was brilliant as it looks at how people argue. There is the vague objection "I think prof x has something to say about this" - we have to bow to their superior wisdom and there is the emotional objection when something distasteful is associated with what we believe that we'd want to be distanced from (e.g. Child abuse). Most of what I've come against so far has fallen into those 2 catergories.

    No, I hadn't read anything that people had said about Steve Chalke personally. Everything I'd read/heard only dealt with his arguements, not the man. But to many I know this was far worse than any heresy. This is symptomatic of the Church embracing whatever it is that comes after postmodernism (probably postmodernism in Church, we're always a bit behind) that the 1 thing we can't say is that someone is wrong.... Oh unless they hold to inconvienient/untrendy conservative views.

    Darren Moore (Tranmere, Birkenhead)