The transformation of judgement
When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14 having cancelled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. 15 And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. (Col 2:13-15)
The cross must be understood not as a momentary event, but a way of life. Furthermore, it is not just an event which happened to Christ, but an event which involves us. According to the New Testament, we are not merely passive onlookers, gazing on the cross of Christ, but active participants in the crucifixion. And this is not just, as preachers and hymnwriters have pointed out, a participation in having him crucified but a participation in being crucified with him.
The doctrine of penal substitution rightly emphasises that Christ bore the punishment for our sins. When Peter wrote of the crucified Christ, “by his wounds you have been healed”, he was alluding to the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53:5, whom the onlookers there considered, “stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted”. But he goes on to say, “he was was pierced for our transgressions,” and “was crushed for our iniquities.” The natural interpretation of the Servant’s suffering is that he bears God’s punishment for sin. The hidden truth, though, is that it is our sins, not his, for which he is being punished.
This doctrine of penal substitution, then, is not some novel reading of post-Reformation Evangelicalism, as some like to imply (though as eminent a theologian as Tom Wright denies). It is the heart and soul of the Bible, beginning with God’s warning to Adam in the Garden not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil for, “in the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die.”
This death is not an effect of the fruit but a punishment of God. To the serpent, God said after the Fall, “Cursed are you”; to the woman, “I will multiply your pains”; to Adam “dust you are and to dust you will return.”
And when God showed his glory to Moses, it was the glory of a God who is merciful precisely because he turns away his own wrath:
“The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, 7 maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”
That God punishes sin — indeed the least sin — is surely one of the clearest lessons of the Old Testament, not least because it is one of the most difficult.
And we cannot comprehend the New Testament unless we understand how God can forgive sin without simply ignoring sin — how God can remain true to his character as Judge as well as Deliverer.
The penalty aspect of penal substitution is something which we must never let go of. Yet in holding onto this understanding, we sometimes over-stress the element of substitution, forgetting that in the New Testament we are caught up in the death of Christ on the cross. Yes, Christ died for our sins, but, Paul asks, “don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” When he was crucified, we were crucified. And as he died for our sins, we died as sinners with him.
The Christian life, then, is not simply a life lived knowing that Christ died for us, but knowing that we died with Christ. And this has radical consequences.
The familiar lesson is that we should not go on sinning because we have died to sin. And this is true, but even this has major implications, for the Apostle’s approach is not to threaten Christians with the consequences of the Law, but to appeal to their understanding of their new life in Christ.
And this is quite different from the world’s approach (indeed, it must be said it is quite different from what is often the Church’s approach). For the world always does (and always must) rely on the law and the Church has often kept the law in its back pocket for use if the gospel appears to have failed. So the world will always be moralistic in its attitude and legalistic in its solutions. The only difference between the world’s morality and that of, say, the Pharisees, is a disagreement over what constitutes moral behaviour. The world’s understanding of this may shift this way and that. But both the world and the Pharisee agree that the right answer lies in the details — indeed, the minutiae — of the law, which must control and tame the human subject, under (of course) the supervision of the experts in the law who will mould the rest of us into the pattern of living they themselves approve.
The gospel, however, has nothing with which to ‘control’ the human subject — nothing, that is, other than the word of God. And so, confronted with the less-than-desirable behaviour of the Christian (and our behaviour is always less than desirable in some regards) — the Apostle’s ultimate sanction is the appeal and the warning. On the one hand, “I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God,” (Romans 12:1). On the other hand, “I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Gal 4:21). But there is no new set of Christian rules, no new list of Christian sanctions.
Yet that is not all it means for us to have died with Christ. We are dead to the Law so that we might live for God (Gal 2:19)
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal 2:20)
And if we are dead to the law, we are dead to the prescriptions of the law. On the one hand, this is a liberty anyone would welcome. We are free, for example, from the obligations to observe rituals and regulations.
Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.
We might even add, we are free from the obligation of Good Friday, or Easter Sunday, for the person who observes these days and the person who does not are the same in God’s eyes, provided they have died with Christ and live by faith in him.
On the other hand, our freedom from the law means there is no limit to our obligations to others:
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbour as yourself.”
The lawyer asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbour?” hoping to tie it down. Jesus replied, “Who was neighbour to the man who fell among robbers? Go and do the same.”
But even then there is more to the life of the cross. For on the cross, our sinful self is crucified for its sins. The accusation nailed above Jesus’ head was, “King of the Jews.” The accusation nailed above our sinful selves on the cross with Christ is every sin we have ever committed (or will commit). And so we are set free not just from the penalty of sin, and not just from the power of sin, but from the condemnation of sin: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1).
The life of the cross is not a life weighed down by an awareness of guilt and sin but of the “glorious freedom of the children of God” (Rom 8:21). We are aware of our sin, and we are aware of our guilt, but we are aware of them in the way that a person whose debt has been cancelled might be aware of their debt, or as someone whose headache has gone might be aware of their headache, or as someone who thought they’d lost their wallet might be aware of their anxiety when they discover it in their coat.
Our God is a God of judgement. Let us never forget. But the cross transforms judgement. No longer does it hang over our heads, not because there is nothing to judge, but because it has been hung over our heads on the cross itself, when we were crucified with Christ.
10 April 2009