Why the Cross?

Statue of the Crucifixion of Jesus outside of ...
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Today is the day we celebrate the Crucifixion of Christ. In the minds of most unbelievers, celebrating something as bloody as crucifixion could be seen as just plain strange, if not a bit ghoulish.

At the heart of this, I think a lot of misunderstandings exist about the nature of the cross of Christ, and I’m afraid that the church has only exacerbated the matter by misconstruing what the atonement really is.

What the atonement is not

  • Simply a moral example to humanity to inspire us to lift ourselves out of sin and grow towards union with God.
  • A payment that God paid the devil to ransom our release from the devil.
  • Merely what God required to forgive sins, or what you see in the typical Christians tracts that present the “Romans Road”. Don’t misunderstand me, it is that in on a certain level, but there is much more to it than simply that.

So…why then the cross?

Jesus’ words in John 12:24 are particularly enlightening about this subject:

I assure you, most solemnly I tell you, Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains [just one grain; it never becomes more but lives] by itself alone. But if it dies, it produces many others and yields a rich harvest. (Amplified Bible)

Often Christians interpret this passage as something they must do; that they must die to their own selfish desires to become more Christ-like. While I think there is some truth to that, I think Jesus is referring to himself in this passage. Throughout the first 19 chapters of John’s gospel are references to Jesus being the only begotten Son. After the resurrection however we see Jesus tell Mary Magdalene to “Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” (Jn. 20:17) The only begotten Son (the one grain) is planted and dies, but in the end it produces many other sons. Satan thought that by inciting Judas’ betrayal he was ridding himself of a problem, but in doing so the life of Christ was reproduced in believers many, many times over!

The writer of Hebrews elaborates further:

In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered.

God, who is Love, wanted many sons participating in his glory. As sons, we partake in Christ’s divine nature, or at least those which can be communicated – love, joy, peace, faithfulness, etc. This participation in the divine life is further illustrated in Paul’s analogy of the body of Christ, and Jesus’ metaphor of the vine and the branches. How could a perfect being communicate this type of life to us? Robin Collins has come up with an interesting theory of the atonement that he calls the Incarnational Theory, and I’ve personally found it to be helpful, at least in some respects. Here it is in a nutshell:

As finite creatures, something such as the nature of God is completely foreign to us. You can’t do something ridiculous like graft in a tree branch to a lion, but only another tree, that is to say you have to find something of the same nature.  Through the Incarnation and Passion, God entered into our human situation of death and suffering and overcame the this alienation. Jesus was fully human/fully divine and acted in complete moral perfection. Jesus exercised the virtues (faith, love) that God intended man to exercise in the face of human suffering, persecution, uncertainty, opposition, etc.

Interestingly, God could not personally, actively exercise these virtues apart from the incarnation. Apart from the incarnation, God could not experience temptation, danger, uncertainty, vulnerability, weakness, lack or victimization. We now can take part in this life by being “grafted in the vine” by placing our faith in Christ, and it is this that saves us from sin.

We “tap in” to the divine virtues come not only from reading or hearing scripture, but these spiritual disciplines are also intertwined with the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit, our Connector to Christ. The indwelling Holy Spirit also supernaturally transmits to us Christ’s subjectivity. One analogy Collins uses that I actually think is really cool is we can imagine somehow through technology a future in which a person can tap into and adapt the desires exercised by an extremely courageous or loving person.  Imagine we could all tap into Mother Teresa’s subjective compassion for the poor, or Muhammad Ali’s confidence in the face of a fight.

Or another example is how children pattern themselves after their parents. Our view of the world and behavioral patterns are often unconsciously picked up or patterned after those in our environment whom influence us. Paul speaks of following God, as dearly loved children follow after their parents. (Eph. 5:1-2) What we could not change through the self-effort of our distorted human desire, God “works in us both to will and to do his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13)

The cross was not merely the price that was paid for our forgiveness, but where our warped, selfish, sinful selves died; where we partake of Christ’s full facing of human frailty and alienation and yet in the face of it we overcome through the resurrection. We now gradually learn to put off selfishness and grow into godly maturity as we tap into the mind of Christ through the help of the Holy Spirit. Through doing so, we get a victorious mentality, a son of God mentality. (1 Corinthians 2:10-16, Romans 12:2, Eph. 2:6, 4:22-24).

The cross is not just where we become forgiven sinners, but where we also died. As we tap into the mind of Christ we see ourselves in Him; dead to the praises of men and our selfish impulses, and moreover, alive with Him, victorious over the loneliness and powerlessness that world tries to hold us captive to.

There are other theories of the atonement I find worthwhile; in particular I’m a fan of the “Christus Victor” interpretation, which I hope to tackle in a future post because I see that I’ve hit the 1000 word mark, so if you’ve got this far, thanks for tapping into Christ’s patience to get to the end!

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ec82DmqBKyA&w=425&h=349]

Why Pray?

Prayer is the language

I’ve thought about the subject of prayer lately and it’s striking how our view of providence plays such a role on our urgency to pray. Thinking particularly of this passage in Ezekiel:

And I sought for a man among them who should build up the wall and stand in the breach before me for the land, that I should not destroy it, but I found none.  Therefore I have poured out my indignation upon them. I have consumed them with the fire of my wrath. I have returned their way upon their heads, declares the Lord GOD.”

Ezekiel 22:30-31 (ESV)

We see that God was looking someone who would intercede for Israel, just as he did when he had Abraham intercede for Sodom and Gomorrah. The other example from the Bible would be Moses, who took it upon himself to intercede for Israel, and interestingly enough, the Bible says that God changed his mind about the judgment that He intended to bring upon Israel.

The traditional view of providence believes that the future is exhaustively settled from all eternity by God. If that is the case, then what difference would it make if an intercessor had not came forward? Is God being sincere here? Moreover, if the future is exhaustively settled in God’s mind, how could he honestly say he’s looking for someone who He knows for certain is not there?

In saying these things, I guess I’m letting the cat out of the bag: I think I’ve been an open theist all along and I’m just now realizing it. (I understand that in some Evangelical circles this view is anathema, but this view is at home among many Pentecostals-and I’m one of them!). For prayer to have real integrity and not be a mere showpiece, it has to have some affect on God and truly influence the outcome of certain events. But if our prayer is ultimately brought about by God; I don’t see how it can truly persuade God.

On the open view, while part of the future is settled by God, it is also partly open. God may also have certain plans and purposes that we can hinder through sloth and unresponsiveness, or we can help him bring to pass through our co-operation. In other words, God in his sovereignty allowed himself  to be dependent upon our prayers; He will allow what we allow and he will forbid what we forbid.  This point seems to be driven home by God’s words to Solomon.

“..if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land”

2 Chronicles 7:14 (ESV) (Emphasis added).

Allow me to illustrate using a personal story. Once when I was in prayer, I perceived that my mom – who lived miles away at the time – may be involved in a car accident. I believe this was the Holy Spirit warning me. I prayed my mom would be delayed. Several weeks later, I asked my mom about it. I was pretty confident that I had heard from God, but I could have been mistaken. As it turned out, my mom confirmed that she did indeed get distracted and was late to work, and on her way she got stuck in traffic because there was a multi-car pile up on the freeway. She recalled that seeing the wreckage that day was unnerving and, she was quite shocked with what I shared with her! (This story doesn’t refute the open view, but rather it was a revelation of what was going to happen under the present circumstances given the most probable free choices of people, and perhaps even angels, at the time.)

Now if the future is exclusively a realm of comprehensive settled facts, then what good would it have done for God to call upon me to pray? Can God act to change what he infallibly knows will happen?  While I don’t deny there are some things God settles ahead of time, I believe there are also real future possibilities of blessing that will come to pass or fail to come to pass through our prayers, which spurs a sense of urgency.

Now the big question is this: Why would God make himself vulnerable by allowing some of his plans to be carried out or hindered by our prayers, or lack thereof? I really think that is a more interesting question than the question about providence alone. Some theologians have suggested that prayer is “on the job training” for Christ’s bride, the church. The crown is for the victor, and the Bible speaks of a kingdom to be handed over to his saints. (Rev. 2:26-28, 3:21, 5:10) At least to some degree, God will not override the will of the church. Through prayer we enact God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, the Lord’s prayer says. Prayers can also affect the amount of people who come to know God, and we see from the scripture that God is waiting for the “precious fruit of the earth” before He returns. (James 5:7, 16) This is why I believe E.M. Bounds said:

“God shapes the world by prayer. The more praying there is in the world the better the world will be, the mightier the forces against evil …. The prayers of God’s saints are the capital stock of heaven by which God carries on His great work upon earth. God conditions the very life and prosperity of His cause on prayer.”

And John Wesley said:

“God will do nothing but in answer to prayer.”

For the sake of time, I won’t go too in-depth as why this seems to be the case, but we do see that from the beginning, we’ve been made in God’s image and given responsibility to care for the world God has created. (Gen 1:26-28)  Biblically, an argument can be made that man fumbled the ball, so to speak, as the New Testament multiply attests to the fact that Satan the ruler of this world. (John 12:31, 2 Corinthians 4:4, 1 John 5:19) This is why we see in the Gospels and Acts a picture of Jesus and his trainees healing the sick, exorcising demons, etc. Jesus saw this as a sign that the Kingdom of God arriving. We even see Christ addressing natural evil, such calming storms.

At the end of His life on earth, Christ tells his disciples that they’ll do “the works that He does”, and He instructs them on the use of his name. (Jn 14:12-14) In His resurrection, he conquers Satan (Col. 2:15) and removes Satan’s claim over man as his slave, and gives his followers “power of attorney” so to speak to act in his stead. Intercessory prayer is one way we  can wage warfare against these evil powers that corrupt nature and influence men to steal, kill and destroy. (Jn. 10:10) The oft quoted C.S. Lewis famously said:

“Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.”

The traditional view of God seems to have to attribute everything – good, bad, and indifferent – to God’s sovereignty. This seems to paint God as some sort of schizophrenic autocrat. How can we be assured of any answer to prayer if this is the way God is? The biblical picture as demonstrated by Jesus was not a puppet master, but “Our Father”. He said that if we’ve seen Him, we’ve seen the Father, and in Him we saw someone triumphing over evil and death, and as the one who “gave us the keys of the kingdom”, able to bind Satan’s plans and loose God’s ultimate ends on the earth.