Continuing his discussion of the cross as a tough issue Chris Wright turns to the HOW question – how does the cross work? And specifically to where this ‘how’ question that has caused all sorts of fall out over the last few years, especially in England.
These ‘Atonement Debates’ were sparked by Steve Chalke’s (in)famous reference to the doctrine of penal substitution as ‘cosmic child abuse’ in his book The Lost Message of Jesus, co-written with Alan Mann. It’s the penal bit they (and others) don’t like. Penal refers to the cross as the place where the Son bears the punishment for our sins instead of us. Critics like Chalke see this as:
– a vengeful father taking out his anger on an innocent son
– immoral in that our punishment is transferred to an innocent party
– an impersonal legal transaction
– fixated on sin and guilt
– sucked into the pagan idea of appeasing angry gods
– glorifying the myth of redemptive violence (violence can solve our problems)
Wright responds by arguing these sorts of views fail to hold several things together:
Love and Anger – if God doesn’t love the world he would not be angry at evil. If he is not angry at evil he cannot not claim to love the world. The cross is the supreme place where love and anger meet. In light of this, Wright suggests a rewriting of the end In Christ Alone by Stuart Townend adding ‘and love’ in the final line:
‘Til on that cross as Jesus died
God’s wrath and love were satisfied’
I see what he means but the idea of God’s love being somehow ‘satisfied’ seems to me to be an unfortunate one. Wrath is particular response to evil and sin – and this will be overcome in the new creation. Love is eternal and defines God. It’s wrath that can be satisfied, love has no limits.
Father and Son – the cross is a work of the Triune God in salvation. It is failure to understand the unity of purpose within the Trinity that could begin to see the cross as some form of child abuse.
Guilt and shame – Alan Mann in his Atonement for a ‘Sinless Society’: engaging with an emerging culture argues that a sense of objective guilt before God has virtually disappeared from today’s world. It has, he suggests, been replaced by a pervasive internal subjective sense of shame at our personal failings and broken relationships. Therefore we need to talk and think about the cross as overcoming shame, not in terms of dealing with sin and guilt. Wright finds this another false dichotomy. Shame and guilt need to he held together as both being answered at the cross.
He finishes with a moving personal story of how the cross liberated him from both guilt and shame. I love his candour here. It is a reminder of how the cross is not just a theological puzzle but impacts the heart, emotions and self-esteem. The gospel is good news after all! One of my favourite biblical verses is Galatians 5:1:
“It is for freedom that Christ has set you free”.