Thoughts on Embracing the Cross
by Michael E. Wittmer, Ph.D.
If desperate situations call for extreme measures, then extreme measures are a sign that we are in a desperate situation. When a police car flashes its lights behind me, my wife turns to me and says in her disapproving voice, “What did you do?” If my car is surrounded by police cars and a television helicopter is hovering overhead, my wife’s tone will become more accusatory, “What did you do?” If a fighter jet joins the chase, dropping bombs in the direction of our car, my wife might scream like the leading lady in a Schwarzenegger movie, “What did you do?!”
Consider what God did to save us. He didn’t hand us a brochure or ask us to attend a seminar, as if our problem was merely ignorance. He didn’t hold an intervention or send us to boot camp, as if our problem was merely stubbornness. He answered our need with the cross, which can only mean that we have really messed up. If the cross is necessary to save us, then What did we do?
The cross is a dagger through the happy talk of “you’re okay, I’m okay” and through the belief that if we just try harder we can get past our issues and change the world. The center of history is a weapon of torture—imagine holding hands around a guillotine or electric chair and you’ll get the idea. The cross informs us that things have gone horribly wrong, and they won’t be right unless somebody dies.
That somebody is Jesus. It’s fashionable to deny that Jesus died to pay the debt which we owed to God (the penal substitution view of the atonement). I agree that penal substitution doesn’t explain everything that happened on the cross (Jesus also defeated Satan and left us an example), but it does express the most important thing. Take away penal substitution, and you can’t explain what happened there.
Consider William Channing, a Unitarian who said that his liberal friends “have no desire to conceal the fact that a difference of opinion exists among us in regard to an interesting part of Christ’s mediation,—I mean, in regard to the precise influence of his death on our forgiveness” (The Works of William E. Channing, 378).
Or Greg Boyd, whose Christus Victor view contributes a necessary aspect of the atonement. Nevertheless, without penal substitution, Boyd is forced to concede that “Obviously, this account [Christus Victor] leaves unanswered a number of questions we might like answered. E.g., precisely how did Calvary and the resurrection defeat the powers? …at the end of the day we must humbly acknowledge that our understanding is severely limited” (The Nature of the Atonement, 37).
Perhaps the reluctance to embrace penal substitution—despite its explanatory power—lies in part in an overly optimistic view of ourselves. We don’t think we’re really that bad, surely not bad enough to deserve God’s wrath, and so we are unable to say precisely why Jesus died.
Jesus died instead of us but not without us. We don’t get away scot free, but are called to take up our cross and be crucified with Christ (Matt. 16:24; Gal. 2:20; Rom. 6:1-14). Karl Barth explains: “That Jesus Christ died for us does not mean, therefore, that we do not have to die, but that we have died in and with him, that as the people we were we have been done away and destroyed, that we are no longer there and have no more future” (Church Dogmatics IV/2, 295).
Salvation is free but it’s not cheap. It cost Jesus his life, and if you accept his gift, it will cost yours.
About the Author:
Mike Wittmer's latest book Don't Stop Believing: Why Living Like Jesus Is Not Enough is an urgent call for both right practice and right belief. Wittmer's first book, Heaven Is a Place on Earth: Why Everything You Do Matters to God, gently but firmly strips away common misconceptions about the value of this world and the meaning of the Christian life. As of this writing, at mikewittmer.wordpress.com he is blogging through the questions in Brian McLaren's latest book.
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