Thursday, April 13, 2006

Whatever Happened To: Preaching the Cross?

It's Passover and with Good Friday and the crucifixion of Christ on the minds of millions worldwide, I just ask whatever happened to preaching the cross? I don't wont to go on a big assessment of evangelicalisms failings here rather my main goal is to celebrate the most significant event in the history of the world, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. However, the sad but true fact is that many of our churches are going to skip right over a serious contemplation of what the cross of Christ really means. Why? For a number of reasons, all which seem to be rooted in this one biblical verse:

"But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed." (Gal 5:11)

What Paul refers to as he refers to "still preach circumcision" is a system of justification by works. Interestingly he says if I teach circumcision why am I being persecuted? Aside from the obvious that he would be right in step with the Judaizers, I think persecution would be eliminated because the natural man can manage law. Just tell me what to do. Believe in Jesus and do x, y, and z and you will be right with God, if that is what Paul taught like the Judaizers then " In that case the offense of the cross has been removed." Why? Because it is Jesus and me cooperating for my salvation, something I can manage, the natural man loves this stuff. Why else are millions upon millions of dollars spent on 12 step books by Christian and non-Christian authors (saying the same stuff just a different language game)? How do you grow a church today? Give people (x) days or (y) steps to purpose or "Find the Champion" in them, or how to get your best life now, and they flock.

Ultimately Luther classified such theology as a "theology of glory". The natural man is very pleased to embrace a theology of glory, one that gives him specific steps and promises success if followed thus the person has grounds for glorying in themselves in a sense. This is precisely what the church growth movement thrives upon, giving people what they want, a spirituality that they can manage themselves. The offense is removed.

Why would Paul call the cross an offense? Because it destroys all theologies of glory, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Catholic, Theraputic evangelicalism, etc. The cross says that not the labors of our hands but the death of a substitute ALONE is what reconciles men to God. The cross says that no one will do enough "good" and tip the scales in their favor, but says to man "This was done in your place." One can see what this implies about our is "filthy rags"

"We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away." (Isa 64:6)

Yikes! That's not exactly the "Find the champion in you" message that we naturally are inclined to embrace. However, it is passages like this that give the cross its meaning. "Mine mine was the transgression, but Thine the deadly pain." We are transgressors, and deserving of Gods wrath yet "He has made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in Him." (2 Cor 5:21) The offense surfaces the cross makes a blow at our righteousness (glory) putting the natural man to death, but in doing so it raises us to life in Christ who gives us His own perfect righteousness as a free gift. Thus God alone gets the glory, this Luther called this "the theology of the cross", in opposition to the theology of glory.

Thus we come as beggars to God with Christ and His cross as our plea for mercy, again this is opposed to a Theology glory for no one wants to be a welfare case. I find people get really edgy when I start talking about us being beggars before God. I don't know how many times people had to burst in saying "But we need to remember were God's children" implying that we aren't beggars. Well there's truth to that, and I don't want to minimize adoption, however that follows as a benefit of coming as a beggar through trust in Christ and having the blessing of the cross applied.

"But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God."(John 1:12-13)

This is the essence of the gospel, this is Christianity: That through faith alone in the sacrifice of Christ in our place on the cross we are made right with God. The glory of Christ is manifested in the cross: He who judges the universe humbled Himself to be judged falsely by men. He who alone is infinitely exalted, sunk lower than any other man has or will by bearing our guilt. He who is infinitely good and perfect, became the most sinful man ever to exist. He who alone did not deserve God's wrath suffered greater wrath than anyone. It's really humbling to know that that is what is saving our souls from hell.


Dani said...

Nice Post! Great Site!

I am going to add you to my blogroll.

Happy Easter - Celebrating the Life, Death and Resurrection of our Lord and Savior - Jesus Christ!

Melissa said...

hi Bob. You want to check out Tom Wright's series on the Resurrection. It's big but awesome.

What I like about Wright's work is how he describes the theology of the cross you talk about in your post. Wright teaches that picking up the cross was a wholly political message, that it means something about our engagement in the powers of this world. Yes to the cross meant no to Caesar, no to regimes of power and violence and no to any politics that demands the death of an other for our protection. It's a radical message especially for American Christians in a country that prizes liberty and rights. What if Christianity is a body politic which shows how to be truly political by renouncing the sword. I would LOVE to hear that message preached Sunday. Chances are good that in my Mennonite church, that's exactly the message I will hear.

Peace to all as we learn to but down the sword of our rhetoric and our actions.

Lisa said...

Melissa, my dear, you know I do not slay my sword at you but I must disagree. "a wholly political message"? Where is subsitutionary atonement? It had nothing to do with Caesar. Yes to the cross meant yes to the wrath of God poured out on His sinless Son, made sin for us. It was not so much about peace in an earthly sense but peace for our souls! It grieves me that THIS message is not preached on Sundays. Surely love and peace among men follow as a result of the cross and work of the Holy Spirit in us, but let us not lose sight of essence of the cross - that though our sins are like scarlet, we are made white as snow.

Melissa said...

I think you are imagining politics as Republicans and Democrats. I am thinking of the "polis," a people organized in the shape of the cross to be the body of God. Jesus initiates us fully into our true reality by uniting us with God through the gift of his only Son even after we turned away from Him in sin.

I appreciate how Daniel Bell takes this deeper. He is, mind you, working of off Anselm's theory of atonement, not subsitutionary atonement but I think you can still hear what he has to say.

Bell writes that Jesus' justice needs to understood through the order of charity, that being atoned is nothing less than being brought into friendship with the Father. "God's honor is not a barrier to humanity's reconciliation with God rather it is the origin of God's free act to provide humanity a path to renewed communion."

Communion, though, isn't something ethereal or present only in our "spiritual" life. In the "divine refusal to hold our rebellion against us," Jesus teaches us the new politic of the city of God. That's Wright's claim about Caesar (which he very well documents).

A teacher of mine from Duke, Stan Hauerwas, sums it up nicely: "the greatest ethical task of the church is to be the church, not that the world may be transformed, but that the world might know it is the world."

Bob said...

Thanks dani, happy easter to you too!

Hey Melissa,
Thanks for writing your thoughts on the death of Christ, I am all about people disagreeing with me on things, I genuinely respect them more than when people disagree and don't say anything. Theology is important, important enough to respectfully challange one another on.

The main thing I want to address is the view of the atonement (Anselm's) as a satisfaction of God's honour wich has been trivialized by men's sin. This is opposed to a substitutionary death for for mens sin where Christ literally takes our sins upon Himself to suffer the wrath that those sins deserve.

(You may full well agree with me I don't know if you hold to an Anselmian view of the atonement)While I fully agree with Anselm that our sin is indeed a blow to the glory of God, thus wrath is most appropriate for mankind. I disagree that is was soley for the vindication of God's honor that Christ died. Scripture clealy indicate that our sins became Christs:

"All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." (2 Cor 5:18-21)

John Murray comenting on this says:
"The reconciliation of which the Scripture speaks, as accomplished by the death of Christ, contemplates, therefore, the relation of God to us. It presupposes a relation of alienation and it effects a relation of favour and peace. This new relation is constituted by the removal of the ground for the alienation. The ground is sin and guilt. The removal is wrought in the vicarious work of Christ, when he was made sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him. Christ took upon himself the sin and guilt, the condemnation and the curse of those on whose behalf he died. This is the epitome of divine grace and love."
(John Murray "The Nature of the Atonement")

I just wanted to put this stuff up to further clarify what Christ's death entailed for anyone reading.

Yeah NT Wright is a pretty thourough writer, I will try to get to reading some of His online stuff on the ressurection.

In Christ

melissa said...

Thanks for the comment. I wrongly wrote Anselm when I meant to write Abelard. Just to eliminate some initial confusion....

Bell's work is on God's justice and I think he does a nice job of allowing the honor of God language in "moral influence theory" to intersect with subsitutionary atonement. He places Christ's death in its proper context: "the ecclesial penitential order understood as a means of grace, an order that transformed or redeemed justice." He goes on to say, "for Anselm, God became man not to meet the implacable demands of justice... but that humanity might be restored to the place of honor that God intended." Unlike Abelard, honor is not a barrier to coming near to God but the means of the path of salvation. God, by his very nature as a good God, wants to be in ontological union with his creation. His honor demands a sacrifice he freely choses.

I like Bell because he works with both theologians. He basically takes the medeival jurisprudence out of the Anselmian model and shows how Aberlard's theory has basically the same issues of strict rendering in substitutionary atonement (we, afer all, do not get what we deserve) as Anselm. Now that is a good Presbyterian.

Bell's article is in The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics which is well worth a read. It just came out in paperback which makes it only slightly less absurd in cost.

Peace this Easter.