Results tagged “Cross” from Reformation21 Blog

Conflict, Comfort and the Cross

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Last week, a gunman entered First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas and killed 26 people, wounding 20 others. The massacre was brutal and left what will surely be scars on all of those who survived, many of whom were young children. Usually there is some sort of grieving period that decorum allows in the aftermath of such events, but as civilization abandons any pretense at care or compassion that grieving period is quickly disappearing.

One of the nastiest things about the internet is that it allows angry and grieving people to abstract the people they are writing about from reality. People are able to speak freely even when they know what they have to say is cruel or even evil. It should be no secret in the Christian community that the world thinks that we're foolish. We acknowledge it, but sometimes we see it in ugly ways.

Perhaps the most despicable reactions came from Actor Michael McKean, who mocked the dead on Twitter and attacked those who encouraged prayer for the people in the church: "They had the prayers shot right out of them. Maybe try something else." Wil Wheaton attacked one politician who expressed sympathy and prayers for those who had lost so much: "If prayers did anything, they'd still be alive."

I do not wish to judge these men as human beings. I don't know them in their everyday lives. I don't know what they've been through or what they've seen, but someone who understands the cross would never say these sorts of things. These are the responses of people who do not understand the cross.

The mockery of the unbelieving world assumes a few significant things. It assumes that God would never permit his people to die. It assumes that suffering isn't part of God's plan. It assumes that if prayer "worked" then God's people would just keep on living. And most fundamentally it assumes that God builds his church on power and strength. There's an entire worldview of assumptions that have to be true if their mockery could have any basis, but of course all of these assumptions miss the cross.

The cross was the ultimate and willing display of weakness. When many think of the cross they think, perhaps of an identifying marker, a beautiful piece of jewelry, or some elaborate symbol. But the cross was horrible, ugly, and nonsensical. It was a weapon of death, akin to the rack or the guillotine. At the core of the Christian religion is the conviction that death is the road to life and weakness is the road to strength. That's totally upside down from the rest of the world.

Paul says that "the world did not know God through wisdom" (1 Cor. 1:21). What he means is that if you were trying to dream up a way to rescue people from hell, the conclusion that reason would take you to is a show of power, a demonstration of strength. This is why the religious leaders mocked Jesus as he died: "Let him come down from the cross, and [then] we will believe in him." And in a sense that mockery is echoed in the sentiments of men like Wheaton and McKean. The cross is foolish to these men (1 Cor. 1:18-25). What else would we expect?

You see, the mockers also don't understand that Christians are called by Christ himself to carry the cross, too. If McKean, Wheaton, and their tribe don't understand the cross, then they certainly won't get what Christians are called to carry. What the saints at First Baptist Church were called to carry last week. Jesus spent a huge quantity of his earthly ministry preparing his disciples to suffer and carry the cross.

I do fear, however, that as Christians, we also forget these truths. How often do we prize earthly power, success, cultural authority, and the respect of those outside of the church? Prizing these things is a sign that we've learned to think like the world, too.

Sometimes I fear that as Christians we are far too easily embarrassed by the opinions of the watching world. The base ideas about Christ that the world works with assume the narrative of power and strength. The truth we need to remember is quite the opposite.

The truth that suffering and loss is intrinsic to the Christian religion and to our own lives as believers means that church shootings, religious persecution, and difficulty shouldn't be the exception for Christians. We should understand comfort and ease to be the real exceptions.

Cruciform Suffering

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The fact that the incarnate Son of God "learned obedience" (Heb. 5:8) is an essential aspect of Jesus' human nature and so is indispensable to sound Christology and soteriology. Apart from the cross itself, the clearest example we have of this "learning" is probably found in the Synoptic accounts of our Lord's prayer in Gethsemane (Matthew 26; Mark 14; Luke 22). While Jesus' obedience is of unparalleled import for our justification, his example of submitting to his Father's will and so learning obedience through suffering is also a unique model for our sanctification, the goal of which is nothing less than Christ-conformity.

The Gospel accounts of this prayer show Jesus' desire to avoid the cup of the Father's wrath against sin, but only if that can be done in accord with his Father's will. While this raises some interesting theological questions, the Synoptics give more attention to the subjective or experiential facet of Jesus' prayer. Similarly, our personal appropriation of the text merits serious reflection, not least because submitting one's will to God's when that means accepting suffering involves nothing less than putting to death the remnants of the old man (Mark 8:34-35).

Although Jesus is the supreme example of learning obedience through suffering, the Gospel accounts do not provide a detailed analysis of how this learning took place. For that reason, and because the Old Testament figure of Job exhibits both similarities and differences with respect to Jesus' example, we turn first to the Book of Job before returning to the Gospels (and to the gospel) in order to reflect on how we might imitate Christ in the way that he learned obedience.

Job is clearly a dynamic character in the book that bears his name. At the beginning and end of his suffering, Job accepted the mysterious providence of his trial, trusting firmly in God's wisdom and justice. The narrator affirms twice that at the outset of his trials Job's responses to his suffering were without sin (1:21; 2:10), and at the end of the book Job not only repents of his flawed interpretation of his suffering (and of God), but even intercedes on behalf of his friends. In doing so he demonstrates restored and even strengthened confidence in God's justice, mercy, and goodness.

But what of the bulk of the book of Job, sandwiched between the opening and closing narratives? After an unspecified period of suffering in which he did not draw into question God's goodness and justice and on the contrary affirmed them, Job eventually changes and utters a lengthy curse in chapter three. Who can doubt that over time Job's suffering, compounded by the fear that God had become his enemy (3:23), tore relentlessly at his faith? Eventually his faith wavered, and the curse-lament of Job 3 demonstrates profound differences when compared to Job's beliefs and attitudes in chapter 2. In chapter 3, Job feels that it would have been better for him not to have existed, and he draws into question God's wisdom and goodness as well as the usefulness of such immense suffering in his life. Job expresses these sentiments at several later points in the book prior to God's theophanic arrival (16:7-14; 23:1-7; 30:20-23), and his discourse culminates in a bold challenge for God to answer his accusations (31:35-37).

The differences between Job's lament (which the book does not condone) and those we find in the psalms (e.g., Pss 10; 22) are significant. Hartley notes that Job voices no affirmation of trust nor any vow to praise God after his deliverance, and omits any review of God's faithful character and past intervention on his behalf ("From Lament to Oath," 89-91). As of chapter 31 Job "is not there yet," and God's two speeches in chapters 38-42 are necessary to convey the knowledge Job needs to understand and even profit from his extreme suffering. God's words to Job affirm divine justice over against Job's accusations and highlight Job's incomplete understanding of creation and providence. God draws Job's attention to the "counsel" that Job's words have darkened in 38:2 (referring to God's governance of the world), the tension between Job's desire to affirm his righteousness over against God's in 40:8, and the reality that divine justice (at least sometimes) is brought about gradually (38:12-15). In response to this wisdom instruction, Job "repents," which in this context means that he recognizes his epistemological limitations, rejects his earlier view of God's culpable involvement in his suffering, and accepts God's self-description as good, just, and beyond his comprehension. Amazingly, this takes place before his suffering has ended.

Let's come back now to the double significance of Jesus' obedient suffering, especially as seen through the lens of his prayer in Gethsemane. On the one hand, because of our Lord's perfect obedience, obeying to the point of death on a cross, our sins are atoned for and his perfect righteousness is ours. On the other, he calls us to suffer with him and to follow Him while bearing our cross. One could almost say that these two poles constitute Christianity's unique approach to suffering (which we can define as physical, emotional, and/or spiritual pain that is not demonstrably sent as discipline for our sin). Living on this side of the cross and the empty tomb, especially when seen against the immediate backdrop of Gethsemane, our understanding of why God sends suffering into the lives of His children is significantly greater than what Job enjoyed. We see the cross followed by the resurrection as the grounds of our justification, we have received the Holy Spirit who testifies to the certainty of our eschatological adoption (Rom 8:15-17), and we await with impatience the new heavens and the new earth, "in which righteousness dwells" (2 Pet 3:13). These redemptive-historical advances demonstrate God's righteousness and grace, and address with brilliant clarity the questions that plagued Job: Where is God's justice? How can the just suffer? Why must the just suffer? Yet the difficulty of Christian suffering remains. Although the goal is nothing less than Christ-conformity, this conformity is inherently cruciformity.

As we know from experience, doubts about God's goodness or the strong conviction that another set of circumstances would better promote our Christ-conformity (or both!) are only too quick to arise in our hearts when we are faced with suffering. Before the final stage of his suffering, Jesus sinlessly petitioned his Father to remove the cup from him if it were possible, always adding that the Father's will was, in the end, also his. Thus even before the response to his prayer was clear, Jesus was ready to accept the cup from his Father's hand. His obedience was neither a perfunctory acquiescence nor something born of compulsion, but rather a sincere (if trembling) embracing of the Father's will.

Depending on our state of heart and mind, the fact that God's fatherly providence is not arbitrary can be either a source of temptation to doubt his goodness (God forbid!) or the soil in which patience, humility, and even joyful optimism can grow. Not only is conformity to Christ's death inseparable from conformity to His resurrection (what Calvin called our "true destiny," on Matt. 2:23, CDCL 45), but offering ourselves to God entails "a real gladness which arises from the love we have for Him to whom our self-offering is made" (Calvin, on Deut 7:7-10, CDCL 34). A positive response to suffering requires that we understand that since God's power and wisdom are both perfect and without limit, our current circumstances are the best way for God to develop our conformity to the image of His Son. We must remind ourselves that of all possible paths, at this moment this trial is what our heavenly Father wills for us. Even in the most extreme suffering, victory in and over suffering is guaranteed by (and cannot be separated from the experience of) the love of Him who "did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all" (Rom 8:39). Suffering believers can therefore know, with utmost certainty, that their heavenly Father is using their present, very unpleasant circumstances to conform them to the image of his Son and to teach them the profound power and glory of his love.

"Take up your cross and follow me," Jesus says; "learn obedience as I learned it." Why not another way, any other way? Scripture's answer is that only such a trial, one that cannot be understood here and now, creates a situation in which we can submit our wisdom and our will to God's ("if it be possible . . . yet not my will. . . "). In so doing we will learn that God can be trusted, loved, and honored through a trial which may never be understood this side of glory. Though God's ways are often beyond our understanding, in our suffering we can be certain that though this trial our heavenly Father is lovingly, justly, and wisely conforming us to the death and the resurrection of His Son. "Whoever loses his life for my sake and for the gospel will save it" (Mark 8:35).


Daniel Timmer is the Professor of Old Testament at the Faculté de théologie évangélique (Acadia) in Montreal.
Talk of God's attributes that is not tethered to concrete stories of God's dealings with his people in history tends toward abstraction (and so away from doxology, where all talk of God should end). The same is true, of course, of talk about any person's attributes. It's one thing for you to tell me that your spouse is kind and forgiving. I understand the meaning of those words, and, at least in theory, I applaud the virtues thus named. But those descriptors, so long as they remain divorced from stories of specific instances of spousal kindness and grace, don't grip me -- they don't move me to wonder and admiration at your spouse and his/her virtues. It's a whole different thing to tell me stories about how your spouse supported you in concrete ways during a rough spell at work or when your father passed away, or to tell me how quickly and freely they forgave you after you said or did that thing you shouldn't have said or done. Tell me stories, and I gain a more robust appreciation for the positive qualities of your husband or wife. Stories give teeth to adjectives that might otherwise fail to impress as fully as they should.

So too with God. Descriptions of God as just, merciful, wise, and true are accurate. But those words as such, no matter how artfully defined or movingly recited, don't grip us the way that concrete stories demonstrating God's justice, mercy, wisdom, and truthfulness do. And no story -- that is, no historical event -- puts God's attributes more vividly on display than the Cross. If pressed to define the Cross, our first inclination might be to unpack it in terms of what it has accomplished for us. And not without good reason. But we should also strive to unpack the Cross in terms of what it reveals and demonstrates about God. Who he is. What he is like.

Robert Howie does just that in his late sixteenth-century work On Man's Reconciliation with God. Howie was a Scottish born student of Caspar Olevianus and Johannes Piscator at Herborn. He returned to Scotland around the same time that his book on reconciliation was published on the continent (1591). Back home, he became the first principal of Marischal College in Aberdeen following its founding in 1593, and in 1606 succeeded Andrew Melville as principal of St. Mary's College in St. Andrews.

"In the reconciliation of God and man, God's supreme justice, mercy, wisdom, and truth shine." Thus Howie introduces the second chapter of his book on reconciliation. He proceeds to explain how each named characteristic of God is made conspicuous upon the Cross. With regard to God's justice, for instance, he notes how the Cross upheld God's own insistence regarding himself in Exodus 23:7 that he "will not acquit the guilty." God's justice was not compromised in the least by the Cross. Sin received its full due. God's righteous indignation at violations of his perfect law was exhausted. His wrath was poured out completely -- poured out on His own Son in the place of those whom God purposed to save from all eternity.

God's mercy, however, is equally conspicuous on the Cross. "God himself sent his only-begotten Son to die for those who were his enemies. And the Son suffered that wrath to fall on him that rightly should have been poured out on us." There was, Howie notes, no residual virtue in man that moved God to act thus. "God purposed to have mercy upon us entirely according to his own infinite grace, being moved by the indignity and misery of his creatures." Howie concludes his discussion of God's mercy vis-à-vis the Cross by noting several considerations that highlight the extent of that mercy. So, for instance, he points out that "God had mercy upon us, not upon the Angels [who rebelled against him], even though they were more excellent creatures than we." God's saving compassion towards particular sinners likewise exalts his mercy: "Even if all men had remained in the state of original intregrity and just one of those predestined for salvation had fallen, the Son of God still would have come down from heaven, and, leaving behind the ninety-nine sheep, would have sought the one who had gone astray and carried him home on his shoulders."

God's infinite wisdom, Howie notes thirdly, is conspicuous upon the cross. God's wisdom manifests itself in that way that perfect justice and perfect mercy meet upon the cross. "God remained just to the highest degree because he punished our sins with eternal death, not remitting any of them. He was merciful to the highest degree because he did not exact punishment for those sins from us, but from our surety, whom he himself had given to us, and thus he forgave all our sins." Reflection upon the wisdom revealed in justice and mercy's marriage on the cross prompts Howie to both praise and humble intellectual restraint. "Herein lies the astonishing wisdom of God, which transcends all knowledge. The minds of men are not sufficient to obtain exact understanding of these things. Angels rejoice to probe the same. Indeed, this wisdom is of such magnitude that we and the Angels will dwell upon it for eternity - there is much to learn from it, and much to weigh carefully in it."

"God's supreme truthfulness, finally, is conspicuous in our redemption." God's truthfulness, Howie argues, is seen in the fulfillment of God's own threats and promises in salvation history -- threats and promises that, upon the surface, may seem at odds with one another. So, for instance, God's insistence to Adam and Eve in the Garden that "you will surely die" (Gen. 2:7) finds fulfillment on the cross. Death for sin is realized in our substitute. Simultaneously, God's promise from the beginning (Gen. 3:15) of one who would come to conquer sin, death, and hell finds fulfillment on the cross. "God is found to be true in both the threats and promises he made," at that very moment when profound justice and profound mercy, in keeping with God's profound wisdom, meet. "For in the fullness of time, God sent the mediator into the world, and that mediator... absorbed for us that death which God had threatened."

Other attributes of God demonstrated upon the cross could be noted. Howie himself hints as much when he subsequently notes that God's "omnipotence never shone more brightly than when coupled with God's justice, when he determined to free us from death and the Devil... by a course that in itself seemed most impotent (for never did God constrain his omnipotence more than when he died in the flesh)."

In sum, then, we should as Christians regularly turn our thoughts to the cross. And may the cross, in addition to providing peace and hope to us, richly inform our sense of what God is like (our sense, that is, of his character), and so inform our praise.

Leon Morris once suggested that "the atonement is the crucial doctrine of the faith" and that "unless we are right here it matters little . . . what we are like elsewhere" (The Cross in the New Testament, p. 5). He is surely right. But the saving work Christ accomplished on the cross has been interpreted in various and sometimes even conflicting ways from the beginning of Christian theology right down to the present. If a proper understanding of how Christ's death saves his people were as crucial as Morris suggests, then we would seem to have a somewhat embarrassing and possibly even paralyzing problem. How did the church endure when she was so long confused and conflicted about "the crucial doctrine of the faith"?

While the cross is absolutely this crucial to our theology it is not strictly necessary to understand precisely how Christ's death saves sinners to benefit from it. This is welcome news, reminding us that we are not saved by our ability to reason our way through to theological truth but by God's grace and faith in the crucified who lives and reigns and is willing and able to save all who call on him. Abelard had this in view when, in opposition to Anselm's view the atonement expounded in Cur Deus Homo, he set out a moral-influence theory in his commentary on Romans.

In Cur Deus Homo, Anselm explains that our savior had to be both God and man in order to satisfy the offended honor of our Sovereign on our behalf. Along the way he corrects a basic error in the ransom-to-Satan view advanced by many before him and gently pushes back on the close association of the number of the elect with the number of fallen angels--a popular piece of speculation at that time. Contrary to conventional wisdom, however, Anselm does not argue "the death of Christ was an actual penalty inflicted on him as a substitute" in our place (Erickson, Christian Theology, p. 807). He instead reasons that "it is a necessary consequence" of the logic of forgiveness "that either the honor which has been taken away [from God by our sin] should be repaid, or punishment should follow" (Cur, 1.13, emphasis mine).

If the offended honor of God is not satisfied by a payment worthy of his divine dignity and majesty, he argues, then we will be punished for our sin. The Son of God, however, became man and voluntarily offered up his life on the cross as just such a payment. Because the Son's sinless, voluntary, and sacrificial gift of himself to the Father has infinite worth it not only satisfies the offended honor of God but also wins a reward that is graciously lavished on us. In this way, Anselm's theory of vicarious satisfaction of divine honor is compatible with the medieval scheme of merit that the Reformed theory of penal substitution overthrows.

Abelard found Anselm's argument from God's offended honor repugnant. Appealing to Paul, he countered that the cross is actually how "God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). As sinners, we need the assurance of God's love for us that the cross publicly supplies to convince us that he yet loves us and is willing to receive all who call on him. So, while the demonstration of God's love is as objective for Abelard as the satisfaction of God's honor is for Anselm, on this view reconciliation occurs through the conversion of the sinner's affections as he convinces us "how much we ought to love him 'who spares not even his own Son' for us," rather than by the satisfaction of God's honor or justice (Abelard, "Exposition of the Epistle to the Romans," p. 279).

The death of Christ, however, cannot be a display of divine love if it is not necessary in order to save us from our sin. If I was out on a date with my wife one rainy night and turned to her, as we were strolling down the sidewalk huddled under our umbrella, and said "I love you this much" and then hurled myself in front of an oncoming bus, I don't think she would feel the love. Such a senseless act would more likely confirm her suspicion I'm really an idiot and probably leave her half peeved and utterly dismayed. The only way throwing myself in front of a bus counts as a loving act is if her welfare somehow demanded it--if my sacrifice was somehow necessary to save her.

Likewise, for the cross to demonstrate God's love for sinners it is not enough that Christ dies or that he dies voluntarily or even that he voluntarily dies "for us" in some sense. We must go further and hold that nothing less than Christ's voluntary death on the cross was sufficient to meet our need before God. Only, in other words, if his death is an objective satisfaction for all that has offended God and alienated his people from God can the death of Christ also be the demonstration of God's love for sinners that it is.