why the cross?
Why the cross? That has long been an issue for Christians. Surely, we ask, there had to be an easier way for God to make forgiveness of sins and human renewal possible? Perhaps God could have continued to use the sacrificial system of the Temple (God tried this but people never seemed to change). Maybe God could have started over and the world would have learned its lesson (tried that with Noah and Noah started all over by making wine and getting drunk). Maybe God could have simply forgiven humanity (not sure how many times God forgave and we humans went right back to our same old ways of living). So again, why the cross? I believe the answer can be found in D. M. Baillie's book God Was in Christ. By following Baillie's argument I hope it will become clearer why God chose the horror of the cross as the instrument of God's reconciling and renewing work in the world.
The first part of Baillie's argument is that sin is real, cannot be ignored and must be dealt with. This is so first because sin is not simply people doing somewhat bad things but that sin is instead the orientation of human hearts that leads them to death dealing ways thus destroying the good that God has created. Sin robs persons of their opportunity to be fully human, and enjoy the blessings that God offers in this world. Sin must also be dealt with because sin's destruction of humanity and creation causes great pain to God who loves the whole world. God's love for the world is so great that God desires nothing more than for human beings to live in right relationship with Gods self, one another and with creation. Thus in order to save humanity from death and into life something has to be done about sin.
The second part of the argument concerns what must be done. For Baillie this is a costly self-offering of God's own self. Why is this? This is so because there is a great deal of difference between a "good natured indulgence and a costly reconciliation." Baillie puts it this way, "Is there no difference between a good-natured indulgence and a costly reconciliation? There is an immense moral and spiritual difference between the two.
And which of them are we to attribute to the love of God? Does the whole process of reconciliation cost Him nothing? Is His forgiveness facile and cheap? And if it were, or if we accepted it as such, would it have the liberating power, to set us free for a new and better life?" (p. 172)
To grasp concept this we must consider the difference between indifference and forgiveness. If someone takes something from me about which I do not care I can say, "I forgive you," and it will cost me nothing because I am really indifferent. In addition my indifference will have little if any impact on the one who has taken from me because they can tell I do not care. However, if someone takes something from me that is dear to me, for me to forgive them is costly to me because it hurts to forgive. I pay a price. That kind of costly forgiveness also contains within it the possibility of real change in the life of the one who has taken from me because they can see the pain they have caused.
The final part of Baillie's argument then is that in order for God to save humanity from sin, and transform us into loving human beings, God must pay a price…God must go to the cross. "What Jesus offered to God was Himself...But if, on the deepest interpretation, this was not only an offering made by a man to God, but also a sacrifice made by God Himself, then it is part of the sacrifice that God is continually making, because He is infinite Love confronted with human sin. And it is an expiatory sacrifice, because sin is a dreadfully real thing which love cannot tolerate or lightly pass over, and it is only out of the suffering of such inexorable love that true forgiveness, as distinct from an indulgent amnesty, could ever come. That is the objective process of atonement that goes on in the very life of God." (pp. 197-198) Thus the cross becomes a necessary evil/good through which humanity can be and is being changed into the very likeness of the image of God. Forgiveness now makes an actual difference in our lives so that we can become new people. The challenge for us then is to allow that transforming power to work within us that we too might be continually brought from death to life.
what happened on the cross - theologically speaking
Over the past several weeks we have looked at the trial, death and resurrection of Jesus. There is one last issue concerning the death of Jesus at which we need to look and that is the church's understanding of how Jesus accomplished our salvation on the cross. The word which has been used to describe the outcome of Jesus' death is atonement. A simple definition of atonement would be "making amends for a wrong that has been done for the purpose of repairing a relationship. " As we discussed last week what makes this story a bit strange is that God, in the person of Jesus, made amends for the sins of humanity, because we could not ultimately make amends for ourselves. A struggle for the church has been to explain "the how" of this process in a way that made sense to people in different times and places. We will look at four different ways in which atonement is described. These are Ransom, Christus Victor, Substitutionary and Moral Influence (listed in the order they were adopted by the church).
The Ransom theory of atonement was the earliest and most widely held theory of how humanity was reconciled to God. It is partially based on Mark 10:45 : "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many"; and 1 Timothy 2:5-6, "There is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men…". This theory implies that Adam and Eve, by their actions in the garden sold humanity to Satan. Justice required that a ransom be paid to Satan for our salvation. Jesus paid the ransom with his death, but God raised him from the dead thus tricking Satan and insuring eternal life for all.
Christus Victor is a theory which though related to the Ransom theory has some important differences. Christus Victor (or Christ the victor) puts forth the idea that in Jesus God defeated the powers and principalities of this world. The powers did their worst in killing Jesus, God's only Son, but in raising Jesus from the dead God defeats sin and death, thus liberating humanity.
Because sin and death have been defeated human beings can once again live as God-centered moral agents. The main difference between the Christus Victor and Ransom theories is that Christus Victor does not see Jesus' work as a transaction between God and Satan (paying a ransom) but as a dramatic victory over the forces of evil.
Substitutionary atonement reflects the ancient sacrificial system employed by Jews at the Temple in Jerusalem. This theory is based on the scriptures in the Gospel of John which speak of Jesus as "the Lamb of God" as well as those in Hebrews which specifically speak of Jesus as the perfect sacrifice. This model works in the following fashion. Human beings sin and are thus deserving of death. The only way in which people can be saved is through a blood sacrifice. While the Temple sacrifices had been sufficient for temporary forgiveness, humans were always likely to sin again and thus be libel for punishment. In Christ however, we have the perfect sacrifice (because Jesus is the perfect man) and this brings about perfect, lasting forgiveness based in a renewed relationship with God.
The Moral Influence theory, while not as dependent on Jesus' death as the other three theories has still been influential across the entire history of the church. This theory claims that Jesus, through his teachings, his examples and ultimately his death on behalf of the world, provided a clear example of the life that God wishes humans to lead. The Holy Spirit then took that example and made it possible for the human beings to align their lives to Jesus' examples. This matters, according to Moral Influence because judgment will be based on the content of our character and not on a particular set of beliefs. In a sense then Jesus' death did not "accomplish" something specific, but instead offered us a perfect example of one who would "lay down his life for his friends."
The gift of scripture is that it offers us a wide variety of ways in which we can understand how Jesus saved and transformed us. The challenge for us is to live into the new life we have been given.