[Originally posted on May 16, 2011 – but for some reason disappeared off the blog, perhaps by an Act of God… 😉 ]
For many conservative churches, this trinity of Sin, Wrath and Cross – i.e. penal substitutionary sacrifice – has come to be a touchstone of sound doctrine and almost the whole meaning of the gospel. It is the message preached in every sermon week-in week-out, and the basis for all evangelism.
Now, neither I nor my friend are denying the reality or badness of sin, nor the huge significance of the cross. But we both believe that there is more – so much more – to the Christian faith than just the cross, or just sin-wrath-and-cross. There’s more because there’s more to Christ than just the cross and payment for sin.
Indeed there’s more even to the cross than just ‘the cross’, if by ‘the cross’ we just mean a particular doctrine of the atonement. I’m personally convinced that penal substitution is not the best, and certainly not the only, model for understanding the cross of Christ (I’ve expounded my own interpretation of Good Friday before). But even if it is, there’s still just so much more to Jesus than the few short, brutal hours of his crucifixion.
Jesus before Jesus
First, there’s Christ’s participation of joyful love within the eternally pre-existent communion of the Trinity, for unimaginable aeons before he ever set foot on this earth. There’s his co-authorship of creation, standing at God’s side as his helper, and as the one by and through and for whom all things were made.
There are his mooted theophanies throughout the Old Testament – as one of the three strangers who visited Abraham, as the mysterious figure of Melchizedek, as the ‘angel’ who wrestled with Jacob, as the ‘rock’ in the desert with Moses, as the extra figure in the fiery furnace with Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego, and in all the appearances of the ‘Angel of the Lord’. There are his foreshadowings in the lives of the patriarchs, in the writings of the prophets, and in the very pattern of the story of Israel.
Jesus’ life and works
There there is the long-heralded yet unprecedented event of his Incarnation, when ‘redemption ripped through the surface of time in the cry of a tiny child’, in Bruce Cockburn’s memorable lyrics. I’ve written elsewhere that the Incarnation, rightly understood, is shocking, unheard-of, unthinkable, as God the most holy subjects himself to the privations, perils, pains and indignities of human life on this screwed-up planet. To me, the Incarnation is every bit as important and foundational a part of the Christian faith as is the cross.
There is the drama of Jesus’ birth and the flight into Egypt. There are the mysterious years of his childhood illuminated only by the brief flash of his visit to the Jerusalem Temple. And then at last there are his appearances at the Jordan and Galilee, and the start of the most remarkable three-year healing and teaching ministry the world has ever seen. There are the parables and the miracles, the public popularity and the official opposition; the tears and the triumphs and the troubles. There are the countless conversations with ordinary individuals, life-changing for each one – Nicodemus, Zaccheus, the Samaritan woman at the well, the Gadarene demoniac, the man born blind, the woman with the issue of blood. And all of it telling the same clear message – the long-awaited Kingdrom of Israel’s true God and the World’s true God is breaking in here and now with the advent of Israel’s true Messiah. The Kingdom of peace and truth, of love and goodness, of forgiveness and mercy and restoration is here and now for the asking. The search is over, the wait is ended; “dismiss your servant in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation…”
Then of course there is the great and terrible drama of Jesus’ last week: the final Passover meal, the very human anguish in the Garden, the bitter betrayal and arrest, the desertion by all his friends. There is the travesty of a trial on trumped-up charges, the silent dignity under abuse, and then at last the awful dark of Good Friday – of love and truth and hope blotted out by religious vested interest and human frailty and the efficient brutality of a military state.
There is the cold, dark wait of the tomb; the despair of Holy Saturday; the hopes crushed, the light seemingly put out forever.
Easter and beyond
And then there is the unbelievable morning of Easter Day, the empty tomb, the resurrected Christ – God’s great joke against all the powers of evil; love given the great last word against death and injustice and despair. There are the meetings with astonished, incredulous friends; the sharing of breakfast, the breaking of bread, the restoring of Peter. And then the final promises and commissioning before passing beyond sight and understanding to rejoin his Father and our Father.
And beyond this – the coming of the Spirit, the transforming of the disciples, the birth and beginnings of a new movement that would unbelievably change the world, swelling to global proportions and – almost as a sideline – giving rise to some of the greatest art, architecture, music, literature, law-making and science the world has ever seen. Sadly the church is as human as it is divine, as flawed as it is inspired, and so it would also tragically bring the evils of crusades and conquistadores, inquisitions and pogroms; but for each of these blasphemies there has arisen a Francis of Assisi, a William Wilberforce, a Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Martin Luther King, a Desmond Tutu to show Jesus’ way again. And where Christ’s spirit has been allowed to shine through, his church has brought life and hope and purpose to countless millions across all cultures and all walks of life.
Yes, sin is real, and the cross is vital. But there is so much more to Christianity than just the cross (or just sin-wrath-and-cross) – because there is so much more to Christ than just the cross.