Good Friday: What Do We Think About the Cross?

lent09God is most perfectly revealed in the crucified Jesus.  The vast majority of Christians out there would agree with this.  But if this is true, what does it say about our view of God?  What does our understanding of the cross say about what we believe God to be like?

Penal substitutionary atonement is all over the place in evangelicalism.  It is in our systematic theology textbooks.  It is in our favorite hymns.  “Jesus paid it all, all to Him I owe…”, whether the old version or the more modern version that Passion came out with a few years back.  A more theologically precise formulation might go something like this:  “Jesus died on the cross to pay the price for our sins so that we could be saved from the curse of sin and death and spend eternity with God.”

But at the heart of all this is one simple word:  Paid.  This suggests that at the heart of the cross is, in essence, a business transaction.  There was a price to be paid, and Jesus paid it on our behalf.  A divine deal was done wherein the punishment that was due to us for our sins was transferred to Jesus so that we could be released from our guilt.

This has implications for what we believe about God.  Namely, it implies that God deals with us on a transactional basis.  If the very central event of the cross was indeed a transaction, then how can we possibly expect God to deal differently with us on any other occasion–unless He is fickle and unreliable, and there is no way to stomach that possibility.  A key question to ask at this point:  If a price was paid at the cross, then who was it paid to?  According to penal substitutionary atonement, the answer is that it was paid to God.  Why?  Because God has rules, and they must be followed.  Fail to comply with the rules, and someone has to pay for it.  This is an inescapable fact of God’s very nature.  And the punishment for infringing upon the rules that we are talking about here is no mere slap on the wrist; it is death, death of the most violent, excruciatingly painful and shameful kind–no less than the very death Jesus died in our place.

The upshot:  God deals with His wayward children on a transactional basis, by setting impossibly high standards and decreeing death to all who fail to measure up.  But there is an escape clause:  Just believe–and by believe we mean give mental/intellectual assent to the idea that–Jesus died in your place the death you should have died, and it’s all good.

Okay.  That is a caricature.  But it serves to illustrate that what we believe about the cross has clear implications for what we believe about God.  Penal substitutionary atonement has some truth to it–the seriousness of sin, the consequences of sin which are our due and which Jesus took in our place.  But it is a flawed truth, a limited truth, an incomplete truth.  If the truth of penal substitutionary atonement is all there is, then it leads inescapably to a God who is all about punishment and who deals with His wayward children on a transactional basis; a God who is all about quid pro quo, to whom something must always be given–be it obedience, time, money, zeal in worship, evangelistic fervor–before any sort of blessing will issue.  “He died for me, I’ll live for Him”–another slogan which many of you have probably heard around evangelicalism at some point, in some form or fashion.  And living for Him–well, there’s no limit to what sort of demands this could entail.

But consider another way of looking at the cross, in which the cross is not necessarily about Jesus paying to God the price of our sin in the form of his life; but about Jesus suffering the effects of humanity’s sin, submitting Himself to the worst that humanity could possibly do to Him, and proving that it could not overcome Him.  When humanity committed its worst possible atrocity–killing God, and killing Him in the most violent, painful, disgraceful way possible, Jesus did not respond in kind, with violence.  Instead He responded with forgiveness.  “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  Even as the nails were being driven into His flesh.  And when Jesus returned from the dead three days later, it was not with violence or the threat of violence, but with the promise of peace.  Even for Thomas, who would not believe until he could probe the nail marks in His hands.  Even Peter, who swore to be faithful to Him to the end but denied Him on multiple occasions, even to a middle-school girl.

I am a mess.  I will just tell you that straight out.  I like to think of myself as a charming individual with a delightfully quirky personality and a wicked sense of humor.  But reality dictates otherwise.  For though I am able to pass myself off as a normal human being most of the time, with a certain degree of success, I am unable to pass myself off as COMPLETELY normal.  It isn’t anything obvious that anyone would be able to readily put their finger on.  Instead it is the sum total of a million little things–a funny glance here, a funny twitch of the facial muscles there–which, when taken together, all add up to the sum total of “There’s something about Joe that is not quite right.  I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it makes me very uncomfortable in ways I cannot quite articulate.”

Last year at Internet Monk there was a review of a book by a military chaplain who served in the Middle East.  He described a visit to the Sea of Galilee, a freshwater lake which sits atop a layer of salt water down deep, thusly:

. . . We are all staying at a kibbutz on the Sea of Galilee. I am told it is a freshwater lake that sits atop another layer of saltwater, way down deep. This fascinates me, the salt below the fresh. The pressure of the massive amount of fresh water pushing down on the saltwater, holding it in its place. There are things I cannot know. All I know is that deep down , there is a salty darkness inside of me that is starting to mix with the fresh water on the surface. I have kept it down all my life and now the war has taken too much of the fresh and left me with too much of the bitter. I keep it down with my jokes, my smiles, and “I was only there for a year.” But I can feel it coming up. I have touched the rage that lies beneath the thin veneer of what we call civilization . I know what is down below, so I turn from the lake and go to bed.

Though I have never been in a war, I can relate to this.  I know that there is a salty, bitter darkness deep down on the inside of me.  I am able to keep it down very well for the most part, able to present myself as a charming, delightfully quirky individual.  Yet despite my best efforts, sometimes the salt water underneath leeches out and poisons my relationships with other people, poisons others’ perceptions of me, in ways I do not even recognize, let alone understand.  Not that I would want to even if I could.  Some things you’re much better off not knowing.

“He makes me/us feel uncomfortable.”  Those words have been spoken over me, in some form or fashion, by enough different people in enough different situations that I know they are true.  They have to be.  I fear that the salty darkness inside of me is, despite my best efforts, leeching out into the world and tainting my relationships with other people, tainting others’ perceptions of me.  Perhaps it has tainted me as well, making me unfit on a very basic level for the blessings of human community, attachment, and belonging.

Because of this, I have no use for the God of transactionalism, the God of the quid-pro-quo.  I know that I do not have a prayer of making it under such a system, with such a God.  I need a Jesus who is strong enough to take the worst we have to offer and not be overcome by it.  I need a Jesus who is strong enough to take all of me, even the worst of me, the salty darkness deep down inside of me that leeches out into the world despite my best efforts and causes people to feel uncomfortable around me, to not know what to do with me, and not be overcome by it.

It matters to me that Jesus died on a cross, a victim of the most violent, excruciatingly painful and shameful death humanity could possibly bestow upon him, and was not overcome by it.  That is the only hope I have.  If we are honest, I think it is safe to say that is the only hope any of us have.

Pastor Tullian is In the News Again

tullianTullian Tchividjian, the grandson of Billy Graham with the funny name, is in the news again.

Some of you may remember last summer, when he resigned as pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in the Miami area after admitting to an extramarital affair.  Since then, he had been participating in a restoration program at Willow Creek Presbyterian Church, also in the Miami area and not to be confused with Willow Creek up in Chicago, which included a position on staff at the church.  But just this past week, news of an additional, previously undisclosed affair came to light.  Willow Creek decided this was more baggage than they could handle and let him go.

Let this be a reminder that, as noted last week, repentance is not a one-shot deal.  Repentance is a process and a journey, in many cases fraught with unexpected setbacks and crazy detours.  Our churches have to be communities where this process can happen in real time, in real life, even if it is imperfect, even if it involves lots of setbacks and lots of crazy detours.  Where people are at all sorts of different stages in the journey from “And that is what some of you were” to “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified…” and are free to talk about it openly, even if only with a few close and trusted friends.  As a resurrection people who follow a resurrected Savior, we have to believe that repentance and spiritual transformation can happen in our midst.  That there is no sin, and no sinner, who cannot be reached by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Lent Week 5: Is There a Safe Place to Repent?

lent09We began our Lenten journey by going straight back to the beginning of our Christian faith:  At the tomb of Jesus, where he had just risen from the dead.  Why an Easter story during Lent?  Because Easter is not a one-day-a-year thing, it is the every-day-of-the-year reality of who we are as Christians.  We are a resurrection people, formed at a fundamental level by the reality that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead.  We looked at some of the specific things we will find when we look at the place where Jesus lay:  specifically that Jesus is alive, that God has done it all, and that the possibility of connection with God is now a reality.

We are now looking at what it means for us as the Church to be a resurrection people, to live as the people of a resurrected savior Jesus Christ, even in the midst of a world which is becoming increasingly hostile to the Christian way of looking at things, a world in which we as Christians have lost and are losing much of the privilege and influence we once had even as recently as a decade or two ago.  A world in which we find ourselves in exile, in a manner of speaking–not actual, physical exile but a situation which in many ways resembles the situation faced by the Old Testament Jews in Babylon and the centuries which followed.  In the past few weeks I have addressed some specifics as to what this will look like, which I will not rehash at this time.  Go back and read for yourselves if you are interested; they are in the archives and will be there forever and ever, or at least as long as there is an internet.

This week, allow me to begin with a question:  Are our churches safe places to repent of serious sin?

In order to guide our thinking on this, let us go to 1 Corinthians 6:9-11:

Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

These verses contain a nice juicy list of serious sexual sins, and I would be willing to bet that a lot of you have heard a fairly good amount of preaching on these sins and on how those who indulge in these sins will not inherit the kingdom of God.  But don’t miss the back half:  “And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

The Corinthian church was a monumentally flawed community.  Riddled with factions, dysfunction, lack of mature leadership, and egregious abuse of the Lord’s Supper, this community was taken to task by Paul for all these things and more over the course of this letter.  Yet they apparently were getting one thing right:  This community must have–at some point, at least–been a safe place to begin the process of repentance and transformation, and become accepted members of Christian community.

“And that is what some of you were”–meaning that some members of the Corinthian community were engaging in the serious sexual sins listed here.  Yet in the Corinthian church they found a safe place to begin the process of repentance and eventually become fully accepted members of Christian community.

They were like this to a fault.  Earlier in the letter Paul berates the Corinthians for accepting, and celebrating their acceptance of, someone in a Jerry Springer-esque relational situation which was not compatible with Christlike character.  Without mature leadership, the Corinthian church went off the rails and into the ditch because of their tendency to accept.  But if they had to go into the ditch, better that it was on this side of the road.

Repentance and spiritual transformation happen somewhere.  We do not arrive fully formed.  Spiritual transformation is not instantaneous the moment you accept Jesus Christ.  It is a process.  We travel a road, and that road is very long and not always a straight line.  Thus the Corinthian church was filled with all sorts of people at all sorts of different places in the process of repentance and spiritual transformation, all going at different speeds in the process of changing from one sort of person to another, working out in real time and real life what it means to turn away from sin and be all that we are in Christ.  Messy place, that.

All our churches are like that, too, whether we are willing to admit it or not.  But we can’t admit it, given the ways in which we talk about spiritual transformation in evangelicalism.

Our only other option is to assume that anyone guilty of serious sexual sin was cast out, or else didn’t even bother showing up at the Corinthian church, until they straightened up, until their repentance was complete.  Then and only then were they welcomed into the Corinthian church.  Then and only then did they become part of the “And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified…”

In other words, repentance and spiritual transformation happened outside of Christian community.

This is compatible with much of evangelical belief; spiritual transformation is believed to be instantaneous the moment you accept Jesus Christ.  We have little to zero patience for the idea of repentance as a process–especially a long, drawn-out process which often involves lots of setbacks and crazy detours.  This process is unspeakable–unless it is complete.  We love the story of the horrific drug abuser who heard the Gospel, got straight, cleaned up his life, started going to church and Bible study, and became a brand new person.  We have little to zero patience if the journey of repentance is an imperfect journey, if the story involves lots of occasions where the person relapsed and disappeared from Bible study for long stretches at a time, only to show up again with promises to get straight and then disappear again later on, etc.

That bothers me.

As evangelicals we love to believe that certain types of sexual sin are beyond the reach of God’s grace and those who engage in them are outside the pale of Christian community and churches who welcome such people have departed from the Christian faith.  There are examples of this too numerous to mention from the writings of Owen Strachan and Thabiti Anyabwile.

I also raised concern a few months back about a church in Fairfax, Virginia, that was receiving pushback for having a registered sex offender on staff.  Some of that concern was justified; I am by no means saying that the victims of sexual sin should not have their stories and concerns heard and that the perpetrators should be shielded from the consequences of their sin.  What I am saying is this:  There has to be a way for everyone, including the perpetrators of serious sexual sin, to have access to Christian community in some form or fashion.

This is a Gospel issue.  If the Gospel of Jesus Christ is big enough to cover all our sins, then it is big enough to cover all, including the most serious sins, sexual and otherwise.  Our churches have to be communities where the process of repentance can happen in real time, in real life, even if it is imperfect, even if it involves lots of setbacks and lots of crazy detours.  Where people are at all sorts of different stages in the journey from “And that is what some of you were” to “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified…” and are free to talk about it openly, even if only with a few close and trusted friends.

As a resurrection people who follow a resurrected Savior, we have to believe that repentance and spiritual transformation can happen in our midst.  That there is no sin, and no sinner, who cannot be reached by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Repentance and transformation happen somewhere.  Let our churches be places where it can safely happen in our midst.

Lent Week 4: Do Not Be Afraid

lent09We began our Lenten journey by going straight back to the beginning of our Christian faith:  At the tomb of Jesus, where he had just risen from the dead.  Why an Easter story during Lent?  Because Easter is not a one-day-a-year thing, it is the every-day-of-the-year reality of who we are as Christians.  We are a resurrection people, formed at a fundamental level by the reality that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead.  We looked at some of the specific things we will find when we look at the place where Jesus lay:  specifically that Jesus is alive, that God has done it all, and that the possibility of connection with God is now a reality.

We are now looking at what it means for us as the Church to be a resurrection people, to live as the people of a resurrected savior Jesus Christ, even in the midst of a world which is becoming increasingly hostile to the Christian way of looking at things, a world in which we as Christians have lost and are losing much of the privilege and influence we once had even as recently as a decade or two ago.  A world in which we find ourselves in exile, in a manner of speaking–not actual, physical exile but a situation which in many ways resembles the situation faced by the Old Testament Jews in Babylon and the centuries which followed.  In the past few weeks I have addressed some specifics as to what this will look like, which I will not rehash at this time.  Go back and read for yourselves if you are interested; they are in the archives and will be there forever and ever, or at least as long as there is an internet.

Today there is one simple big idea:  Do not be afraid.

Why?

To answer this we need to go back to the beginning.  Not the beginning we talked about earlier in the series, at the empty tomb.  This beginning is before that; something you knew we would come to at some point during the Lenten season.  It is an event both beautiful and terrible, something we in the Western world have not had to lean into very much because of the relative peace and prosperity of our Christian existence, yet there it is:  Jesus, our leader and the author of our faith, was betrayed by a friend, unjustly arrested, illegally tried–the witnesses and ultimately the judge himself were bribed, tortured–not to get information as is the purpose of torture nowadays but to keep a certain group of people happy, mocked, and ultimately crucified–the maximum sentence.  There was no mercy here.

Now as you may know, the Romans did not invent crucifixion, but they perfected it.  A person who was crucified did not die of blood loss but of suffocation–eventually.  You see, the Romans figured out that if you drive a stake through the person’s ankles or place a small wedge under his feet, you give him just enough to push up on so that he can breathe.  Sort of.  In this manner, you can draw out the time required for death to several hours, even as long as a few days.  Which is exactly what the Romans wanted.  The whole point of crucifixion was to create a spectacle so ghastly, so horrific, so shameful, that once you saw it you could never unsee it for as long as you lived.  This was to serve as a graphic reminder of Rome’s authority and power, kept directly in front of the people at all times–just try to rebel against Rome and see if this doesn’t happen to you too.  This is why none of the Apostles or Church Fathers or anyone else for the first 300 years or so of church history talked about the Cross.  This is why the Gospel writers all went minimalist when talking about Jesus’ crucifixion.

But here is something very important to remember:  Jesus was not arrested while on his way to Egypt.  He was not arrested while hiding out in the caves of the En-Gedi where David hid out from Saul.  He was not arrested while trying to catch a boat bound for Ephesus or some other Jewish enclave elsewhere in the Roman empire.  No, he walked in under his own power.  He rode directly into town, right down Main Street in broad daylight, knowing full well what was coming next.

Jesus was bold.  He was fearless.  And he says, “Follow me.”

Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.

–Luke 9:23

Meaning:  When it feels safe, and when it doesn’t.  When it is practical, relevant, and helpful, and when it isn’t.  When it benefits you, and when it only hurts you.

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

–Matthew 10:28

If you are going to fear something, fear God.  Anything else pales in comparison as an object of fear.

Uncertainty and fear are inevitable.  Living in fear–that is, allowing our thinking, our actions, and our lives to be limited by what we are afraid of–is optional.  And when we serve a resurrected Savior, one who walked right into Jerusalem knowing it would not end well, and who came out on the other side with an empty tomb to show for it, that option is off the table.

Paul knew this.  He went around preaching the Gospel message and starting churches.  The Jews were upset with him because he wasn’t doing Judaism right.  The pagans were upset with him because he was cutting in on their territory.  It was a routine occurrence for him to be stoned, then dragged outside of town and left for dead.  Meaning:  He is going to bleed to death and then be eaten up by wild animals, let’s go home and have dinner.  Each time Paul would crawl away, get well, and go on his merry way.  Finally, he went back to Jerusalem.  They tried to talk him out of it, in a moving scene in Acts 21.  Yet Paul was not dissuaded.  He knew it would probably not end well, and sure enough it didn’t.  He was arrested.  He claimed Roman citizenship, and they didn’t know what to do with him.  They sent him off to Rome–most likely Nero’s Rome, where he was probably held in custody for an interminable length of time before finally being sentenced to death.  Yet Paul was not dissuaded.  He believed this was what God was calling him to, and he went through with it.

Mary knew it too.  Jesus’ arrest and death meant that anyone close to him was a wanted person as well.  Because she was the mother of Jesus, this made her an outlaw so she spent the rest of her life on the run, moving from place to place and finally (we think) winding up in Ephesus living with John in a community of believers there.  Yet she was not to be dissuaded.

Is the version of Christianity we hold to in present-day American evangelicalism worth all of that?  Is it worth the price these people–and more–paid?  Is it worth everything it took to get Christianity out of first century Jerusalem and all the way to the twenty-first century?  Is it worth dying for?

We do not know what the future holds for us.  We live in a world where we as Christians have lost and are losing tremendous amounts of privilege and influence which were once ours.  A world built upon the lies of modernity–a modernity we thought we could embrace and come to terms with–is now turning against us and we have no clue where it will end or what lies in store for us going forward.

Uncertainty and fear are inevitable.  Living in fear is optional.  And for us as resurrection people, serving a resurrected Savior who went straight to his own death, freely and deliberately, and came out on the other side with an empty tomb to show for it, that option is off the table.