Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The wrath of God was satisfied (1/4)

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 ...


Howard Pilgrim said...

Peter, this theme is most appropriate during Holy Week. In the interest of making your four-part discourse a conversation along the road towards the Cross, and without prejudicing anything you are about to write next, I will join you with a two-part comment.

1. Some Christians find all discussion of God's wrath very threatening. I agree with them in this: God's love is more fundamental to his nature than his wrath, and is the whole basis for his wrath. If God is angry with us, it is because he loves us. Even then, we all know about petty tyrants who justify their rage for punishment by claiming "This is for your own good." I will never encourage anyone to believe in an image of God that is a projection of bad parenting. Rage is an expression of impotence, and the loving God I believe in is by no means powerless.

2. You remark that "Scripture refuses to play one understanding of the cross against another understanding." I prefer to frame it that the NT writings express multiple possibilities for understanding the cross. It was the task of later theologians to attempt to reconcile these understandings with one another in a single Theory of Atonement. We are still trying!
I also think it is no coincidence that the classic Atonement theories arose at about the same time as the classic Trinitarian credal formulations. What God has done to save us cannot be separated from who God is.
From this historical observation I draw the following theological principle. Whatever the wrath of God means in scriptural passages, when the early church got clear that it must speak of Jesus as God it also decided that Jesus and his Father were inseparably united in redeeming us. Were love, anger, punishment and suffering present on the cross? Certainly. Were these four redeeming qualities unequally shared within the godhead? Unthinkable! The redeeming love of Jesus is the love of God. His anger towards evil is the redeeming anger of God. Jesus' suffering is the redemptive suffering of God. When Jesus takes the consequences of our sin upon himself to ensure justice, it is God who has taken our place in the judgement.
In short, it is the trinitarian nature of our developed theology that forbids us from accepting biblical images of an angry God transferring our punishment to a suffering Jesus as anything other than a metaphorical and partial attempt to understand the mystery of our redemption. Jesus was God - so he was angry at our sin. Jesus stood in our place of judgement - so it was God who suffered on the cross.
May the mystery of God's suffering enfold us all as we walk together towards Easter.

Anonymous said...

Thankfully the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd N. T. Wright, has already dealt with this song's [and your] caricature of the Gospel and suggested the words be changed from, "the wrath of God was satisfied", to "the love of God was satisfied" to bring this song closer to Biblical faith:

"This is what happens when people present over-simple stories with an angry God and a loving Jesus, with a God who demands blood and doesn’t much mind whose it is as long as it’s innocent. You’d have thought people would notice that this flies in the face of John’s and Paul’s deep-rooted theology of the love of the triune God: not ‘God was so angry with the world that he gave us his son’ but ‘God so loved the world that he gave us his son’. That’s why, when I sing that interesting recent song ‘In Christ alone my hope is found’, and we come to the line, ‘And on the cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied’, I believe it’s more deeply true to sing ‘the love of God was satisfied’. I commend that alteration to those who sing that song, which is in other respects one of the very few really solid recent additions to our repertoire. So we must readily acknowledge that, of course, there are caricatures of the biblical doctrine all around, within easy reach."

Peter Carrell said...

Thanks Howard and Anonymous for perceptive responses!