Monday, April 23, 2012

The Meaning of the Cross

Models Of The Atonement


Every religion or ideology has its representative symbol. The lotus flower depicts the emergence of purity from murky waters in Buddhist thought. The Star of David is a symbol for modern Judaism while the crescent moon became internationally associated with Islam. Even secular Marxism is signified by a hammer and sickle to represent industry and agriculture of the proletariat. At least since the 2nd century A.D., the cross has been used as the visual emblem for Christianity. For believers, it signifies that the death of Jesus is central to their faith even though crucifixion was a much-feared form of capital punishment.

Throughout the centuries, Christians have cherished and grappled with this mystery of how His death brought about reconciliation with God. The canonical Gospels devoted such disproportionate attention on events surrounding the final week of Jesus’ life on earth that they are sometimes described as “passion narrative with an extended introduction”. It is as if the action shifts into high-definition, bullet-time motion when the story reaches its climax in the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. But what exactly did Christ accomplish on the cross of
Calvary? Several frameworks for explaining the atonement have consequently gained wide acceptance in various historical contexts.

Models of the Atonement

Surrounded by pagan occults, many early Greek Fathers interpreted Christ’s death as a ransom paid to Satan to redeem captive humanity from his clutches. In Mark 10:45, Jesus said, “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.” Origen has a popular analogy that likened Satan to a ferocious fish that swallowed the bait of Christ’s human form and got caught by the hook of His deity. The forces of hell bit off more than they could chew when Christ rose victoriously from the grave. 

Drawing from these patristic sources, Gustav Aulen, a Swedish theologian, viewed the cross as Christ’s public triumph over evil powers in a cosmic battle to unshackle humanity from bondage. The Christus Victor motif found biblical support in passages like Hebrews 2:14: “Since the children have flesh and blood, (Christ) too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.

Influenced by Roman legal codes, early Latin Fathers such as Ambrose construed the cross as Christ satisfying the requirements of God’s law. They drew support from Galatians 3:13, which read, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us”. During the medieval period, the satisfaction theory of the cross was developed further by Anselm as satisfying God’s honor. In feudal societies, an overlord whose dignity was offended could either punish the guilty peasants or forgive them when his honor is satisfied by another. Although God was dishonored by our rebellion, Anselm believed that we are forgiven because Christ’s obedient, meritorious death compensated for His honor. 

Peter Abelard, a younger contemporary of Anselm, reacted strongly against the prevailing theories and insisted that Christ’s suffering is primarily a display of how great God’s love is for us. “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). His sacrificial death melts away our enmity, awakens moral change and moves us to seek forgiveness. Some proponents of the moral influence theory also reject any objective requirement to appease God’s anger. Rather, the sole obstacle to salvation lies in the subjective resistance of sinners. Consequently, the cross as an expression of God’s love is required to inspire us to imitate Christ’s self-giving ethics.

Last but not least, some influential Church Fathers such as Athanasius in the East and Augustine in the West (to name just a few) also held that Christ took upon Himself the deserved penalty of fallen humanity as a sinless substitute in their place. The penal substitutionary view was further developed by the Reformers. 1 John 4:8-10 declares, “God is love. . . . This is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” In explaining this biblical passage, Calvin wrote that God, at the same time when he loved us, was also hostile to us because of our transgressions. [1] Reconciliation was made possible because Christ appeased His holy wrath and opened the way for our pardon. By doing so, God can be both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:21-26).

Pierced For Our Transgressions

Although penal substitutionary atonement has been the predominant theme in evangelical preaching, some theologians today seem to favor a plurality of atonement theories. In differing degrees, the various models stress crucial facets of Christ’s work on the cross that should be recovered. They need not be mutually exclusive. Indeed, it appears that when we understand the centrality of the cross as something accomplished primarily in relation to God Himself that its implications for the cosmos, demonic powers and ethics come into more balanced perspective.

Let us attempt a synthesis of these themes: The heart of the cross is, first and foremost, Christ’s vicarious sin-bearing to take upon Himself the just wrath of God (Isaiah 53). He absorbed the punishment that we deserved as a substitute so that sinners may be forgiven while satisfying the righteous demands of God’s law. However, the moral law ought not to be seen as a higher abstract entity independent of the Law-giver, but a reflection of God’s own holy character.

Unless the cross objectively rescues us, it would be an empty show of sentimentality just like a silly lovesick boy who declares, "Darling, I will prove my love for you by jumping off Niagara Falls". It is only a meaningful act of love if the beloved is in real danger so that diving into the waters would be an attempt to rescue her. And would it not be inappropriate to conceive of the cross as Jesus paying the devil a “pound of flesh”? God owed the devil nothing but retribution. Rather, the ransom was paid to God on behalf of sinners so that we now could belong to Christ.

And yes, by looking at the cross, we can learn much about Christ’s obedience even unto death and denying one's will to do the Father's. 2 Peter 2:21 says,Because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.” Yet, it is because Christ has rescued us from moral condemnation that we have the most powerful, liberating motivation for obedience in life. Otherwise, our moral performance degenerates into yet another self-salvation project.

Furthermore, a painful death by crucifixion is not apparently victorious if we conceive it exclusively as cosmic warfare. The demonic powers were stripped of their condemnatory weapons and made a public spectacle precisely because Christ forgave our trespasses by nailing our legal debts on the cross (Colossians 2:13-15).

The first Passover serves as an illuminating paradigm for connecting the deliverance of God’s people from spiritual bondage with penal substitutionary atonement. Nine plagues had fallen upon their Egyptian oppressors while the Israelites were spared in a protracted “power encounter”. But Pharoah stubbornly refused to let His people go. The stage was set for the climactic “judgment on all the gods of Egypt” (Exodus 12:12). If the tenth plague followed the same pattern as the preceding ones, it would be a coherent narrative of how divine judgment liberated humanity from evil powers. But unlike the other plagues, the firstborn of the Israelites were not automatically spared when God struck down the firstborn of Egypt. Instead, they were instructed to slaughter a spotless lamb and apply its blood to the door so that the wrath of God would “pass over” them. The Passover lamb was a sacrificial substitute for the Israelite firstborn so they may be spared from divine judgment (Exodus 13:11-16). What a sobering caution against triumphalism to realize that God’s people are not merely victims but guilty sinners in need of atoning grace! Similarly, our own liberation from Satan’s accusing condemnations is secured on the grounds of Christ’s once-for-all atonement as the Lamb of God (Hebrews 9).

The Divine Conspiracy

In summary, we can make much sense of various biblical themes of atonement through the lens of Christ's vicarious sacrifice. But in and of themselves, these motifs are emptied of their power. Unfortunately, this doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement has recently been described by critics as 'cosmic child abuse', portraying a fierce Father who needs to punish the innocent Son before He could forgive the guilty. But the objection fails to see that Jesus is not just a third-party bystander.

He is the Judge Himself receiving the punishment. He is the incarnate God, eternally one with the Father. The cross is biblically portrayed as a Trinitarian conspiracy of love where the Father ‘so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son’ (John 3:16) and the Son voluntarily accepts the cross as the supreme expression of His own love: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends.” (John 15:13) That’s the kind of love that continue to inspire countless choruses of worship devoted to the Sinless One who became sin on our behalf that we might become the righteousness of God in Him:

In Christ alone! who took on flesh
Fulness of God in helpless babe!
This gift of love and righteousness
Scorned by the ones he came to save:
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied -
For every sin on Him was laid;
Here in the death of Christ I live.[2]

[1] Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book II. xvii. Section 2.   
[2] “In Christ Alone”, Words and Music by Keith Getty and Stuart Townsend, Copyright @ 2011 Kingway Thankyou Music

No comments: