Holy Week is a good week to think about the meaning of the death of Christ on the cross. One troubling word in talk of the cross is 'wrath': in a great modern hymn, In Christ Alone, for example, we come to this line, which apparently some Christian contexts have felt moved to change:
"The wrath of God was satisfied"
Is this true? What does this mean? Here I attempt to explore this line over the next few days. I begin with some introductory thoughts, excerpted from a day presentation I made last week on the themes of Cross, Covenant, Communion.
The death of Christ on a cross is central to the Christian faith; it is the focus of the gospel narratives; it was the content of Paul’s preaching (1 Corinthians 2:2); yet the meaning of the cross is much debated.
Let’s remind ourselves of the main lines of understanding of the meaning of the cross:
Demonstration of God’s love for us - Romans 5:8
“But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”
Example of sacrificial love - 1 Peter 2:21-23
“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’ When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.”
Victory over evil and the Evil One - Colossians 2:13-15
“And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.” (see also Colossians 1:13).
Bearing consequences of human wrongdoing (sin) – 1 Peter 2:24
“He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed”.
Note how in texts such as Colossians 2:13-15 and 1 Peter 2:21-24 Scripture refuses to play one understanding of the cross against another understanding.
How do we respond to the idea of Christ being the sin-bearer for the world? That the wounds of our wrongdoing are healed through his bloody death?
Christ as sin-bearer is not an eccentric idea within Scripture. It is deeply embedded in John’s Gospel for example:
“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29, cf. 1:36).
Later, according to John’s narrative of the cross, we find that Jesus died on the day of ‘Preparation of the Passover’ (19:14, 31), that is, he was on the cross dying as the lambs for the Passover meal were being slaughtered (cf. ‘For Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed’, 1 Corinthians 5:7, also Revelation 5). When Jesus says ‘It is finished’ and dies (John 19:30) we conclude that Christ’s ‘passover’ work – bearing sins, redeeming God’s people – is now completed.
In John’s Gospel this work is described in terms of salvation:
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’ (John 3:16-17)
In the First Epistle of John this work of sin-bearing is explained in language which troubles some (many?) Christians today:
‘But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation* for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.’ (1 John 2:1b-2 ESV).
*Or ‘expiation’ (RSV) or ‘atoning sacrifice’ (NRSV) from hilasmos. Arguably ‘atoning sacrifice’ is preferable because it neutralises the sharp, potentially unhelpful debate between ‘propitiation’ and ‘expiation’, especially where the former is defined as “appease” and the latter as “amend”.
Behind all such NT explanations of the significance of the death of Jesus lies Isaiah 52:13-53:12. Here I cite only words pertinent to texts given above:
“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed ... and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all ... like a lamb that is led to the slaughter ... stricken for the transgression of my people ... when his soul makes an offering for sin ... my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities ... yet he bore the sin of many and makes intercession for the transgressors.”
Whether or not we wish to associate ourselves with ‘the penal substitutionary theory of atonement’ (which is easily caricatured into (e.g.) God holding a cricket bat threatening to hit us and Jesus stands between saying, ‘Don’t hit them, hit me.’) Scripture itself does not shy from presenting Christ as the One who sacrifices himself that we might live, who confronts the powers of darkness and fulfils the demands of God’s just justice.
We live in a world loathe to bring judgment against ourselves, reluctant to admit that we are wrongdoers, and disturbed by the thought that God might be angry (wrathful) with us (e.g. Romans 1:18-32) - though paradoxically a world which readily points the fingers at others, that divides the world into goodies and baddies, and expresses wrath through talkback radio, blogs, and tweets.
Note, incidentally, that John’s Gospel (“the gospel of love”) does not shy away from talk of God’s wrath (3:36) and judgement (3:19).
How might we make sense of this talk within Scripture that speaks of Christ being our substitute in receiving the judgment of God on our sins?
Continued tomorrow ...