Sunday, 24 March 2013

The Triumph of the Cross

Writing for The Guardian last Friday, the Revd Dr Giles Fraser, priest-in-charge at St Mary's Newington in south London and the former canon chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral, bewailed the present state of the Church of England. “Once again,” he said (though I’m not sure to which past time he is referring), “the evangelicals are in the ascendency in the Church of England.”
The cause of his anxiety was the installation of Justin Welby as Archbishop of Canterbury — a man who, according to Fraser, comes from that branch of evangelicalism where people speak of ‘Cheesus’, rather than ‘Jesus’. And for Fraser, these Cheesus-loving evangelicals are not just everywhere, but utterly wrong in their understanding of the crucifixion:
... for the worst sort of Cheesus-loving evangelicals [he says] the cross of Good Friday is actually celebrated as a moment of triumph. This is theologically illiterate. (1)
Well, if that is true — if it is theologically illiterate to think of Jesus’ death as “a moment of triumph” — we might ask ourselves why we call this day ‘Good Friday’. But as I read this, I recalled the words of another Revd Dr, this time Martin Luther, written in challenge to the prevailing theology of his own day.
In April 1518, following the publication of the Ninety-five Theses, Luther took part in the regular theological disputation of his monastic order at Heidelberg. Luther was invited to contribute by putting forward some propositions for debate. Two of them were as follows:
19. That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened.
20. He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross. (2)
What are the invisible things of God? asks Luther. The answer is virtue, godliness, wisdom, justice, goodness. But don’t expect to understand God through seeing straightforward, visible, examples of virtue, godliness, wisdom, justice and goodness. To understand God as God truly is — to become a real theologian — you must look to the cross: The “visible things of God” seen there are “his human nature, weakness, foolishness.” (3)
When you look to the cross, therefore, what you see is not (quite) what you get. What the eye sees is weakness and foolishness. These things, which are the visible things of God (or as Luther says with reference to Exodus 33:23, the ‘back’ of God), “are placed in opposition to the invisible”. The cross doesn’t look much like wisdom, glory and power. But that is exactly what it is. As the Apostle Paul writes,
... we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
Hence he can write elsewhere quite explicitly of the ‘triumph of the cross’:
13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.
The mistake we make with the cross is not in seeing it as a triumph. It is in failing to see the invisible things of God being manifested there — that this is God’s power, and that therefore the words of Christ to the Apostle in a time of test, “my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:10), means not ‘in spite of’ but literally what it says, ‘in’. This is the power of the cross, and points the way to our power to overcome in this world.
The modern mistake of evangelicalism is not to exalt the triumph of the cross, but to exalt the resurrection as the ‘solution’ to the cross, thereby making suffering merely a ‘problem’ to be ‘solved’, rather than a solution to mankind’s besetting problem and therefore, at one level, the key to everything.
(2) Luther’s Works, Vol. 31:40, The Heidelberg Disputation
(3) LW 31:52
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  1. The Triumph of the Cross might be stated as being based on the humility of the Son of God, who faced the shame and ignominy of being nailed upon it.

    Trimuphalism, for its own sake, can be an enemy of the Gospel. Jesus, Himself, never identified with it. "The language of the Cross may be illogical to those who are not on the way to salvation; but those of us who are on the way see it as God's power to save - 1Cor.18

  2. I cannot begin to understand how it is possible to see the words "it is finished" as other than a marvellous categorical statement of the triumphal outworking of the (unseen) eternal purposes of God.

    Giles Fraser's inaccurate caricature of evangelicals does nothing to detract from the thrill this evangelical gets from the one through whom all things were made saying such a thing.

    "Full atonement can it be...?" - absolutely because God himself said so. If that is not a cause for triumph what will ever be?

    This Easter let us all pray that Giles Fraser is as thrilled as anyone by the one perfect sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction once offered.

    Dan Leafe

  3. The only words I would add to your posting, Dan, are these - '"for the sake of ALL people". Christ died for ALL - despite some claims that his death was only for 'The Righteous'.

    1. The Lord Himself said that He came to find the lost and sinner, not the (self)righteous

  4. Why then are not all saved?

    1. Anon, Because it is up to the person to respond to the invitation, to respond to the death and resurrection of Jesus.

      There is no doubt from the Gospel, that "all have sinned and fallen short...", but that not all would hear and accept Jesus' words.

      It is a hard question to grasp, that why didn't God make us all to respond positively to Jesus' death and resurrection, and his invitation to believe and trust in Him, but without the option, without the response coming truly from the heart of a changed sinner, Jesus' death would have no meaning whatsoever.

      It's a bit like why we have criminal courts. What would be the point if the judge automatically found everyone not guilty at the start of the trial? People could then commit crimes to their heart's content. This is then what Jesus asks of us, to repent, ask forgiveness and *turn away* from the sinful life. Even better though than the earthly judge's verdict of "not guilty" is Jesus' death and resurrection enabling God to judge us "Originally Innocent". On Earth we have a record of sin, in Heaven there is no record.

  5. Kiwianlgo,

    Exactly who says this? You're not doing a Giles Fraser are you? (1 Peter 3:18 & all that).

    Darren Moore

  6. John, I hope you don't mind, but I posted this on the Ely list, as a thought provoking Easter thought (in full, and also with the URL link to here).

  7. I have never agreed with Giles Fraser before, but... he may be right about much evangelical life (though, not about Reformation theology).
    Too much English modern evangelicalism and charismaticism, is, in practice, is about triumphalism and living a happy, self-centred, and victorious life, with Jesus as best mate; by-passing the call of Christ to take up our cross daily and to submit to his Lordship. It is, to paraphrase Luther, a theology of glory, not the cross.

    Ro Mody, Bournemouth

    1. Ro,
      There in lies (one of) the weakness in what Fraser is saying. Evangelicalism itself is so broad. So, maybe there are triumphalist churches. But if anything, the tradition I'm in could do with a bit more "triumph" (ok, maybe it's not the traditions fault, but the Minister).

      I've always thought, even in "happy-clappy" churches, they are best in a crisis. Then people rally round and then people's theology is put to the test.

  8. John,

    I wonder whether the problem lies in thinking of a "moment" of triumph. If it's all about that one moment, then what of the Resurrection? What is the point of all that Jesus has done - God himself being born, and suffering, and rising and ascending and being glorified? Isn't the mistake to think that we can do theology without taking everything into account - effectively doing "sound-bite" theology? (should that be "verse-bite"?)

    Instead shouldn't we talk of the "person" of triumph - Jesus Christ. God incarnate, about whom we cannot talk without saying that God died ("and him crucified"), and yet about whom there is a great deal more to be said as well?


    1. Remember the book of Revelation - only the lamb was worthy to open the seals - a real triumph of the Lord's Messiah

  9. Jesus' death on the cross won us eternal life by paying the price for our sins, etcetera.

    That IS a triumph. It is GOOD Friday. Giles Fraser IS a .............. [fill in the blank with a suitable Christian/Biblical adjective]

  10. Count me among the theologically illiterate.

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