Lent 2021: Fleming Rutledge. The accursed death of Christ

We continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

This post relates to chapter 2 on ‘The Godlessness of the Cross’.

We are into some serious theology here – serious both in terms of depth and also subject matter.

What is so refreshing about Rutledge is this seriousness – Christianity is a serious faith about big issues the answers to which will shape our lives.

Questions arising out of this post for me are these:

How seriously is a theology of the cross taught, talked about and understood in the church today do you think? Especially during Lent and climaxing at Easter? How seriously is theology taken in general do you think?

The final section of chapter 2 focuses on Galatians 3:10-14 along with two or three other texts which, take together, Rutledge argues represent ‘the accursed death of Christ’.

Galatians 3:10-14

  • Everyone is living under the power of God’s curse, because the Law (Torah) pronounces that curse on all lawbreakers
  • Rectification (which is Rutledge’s rendering of ‘justification’ – to be ‘set right’) by the Law is impossible since the Law does not give life, only faith can.
  • Only God can do the rectifying and has done so through his Son who took the full curse of the Law onto himself at the cross.
  • A Christian’s identity is not found in the observance of the Law but from the gift of the Spirit through faith in Christ. (99-100)

Rutledge comments on popular caricatures and misunderstandings here. To the objection that it would be a monstrous sort of Father who allows his Son to be abandoned and cursed on the cross, she rightly shapes a reply around the Trinity – Jesus takes the accursedness that is ours on himself by his own decree.

2 Corinthians 5:21

A second text Rutledge turns to is a famous one – probably the strongest text in the NT for some sort of imputation (exchange) of Christ’s righteousness to believers and our sin to him.

For our sake he [God] made him [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Much ink has been spilt over this verse. [N T Wright famously and controversially rejects imputation here and elsewhere in the NT, as if we are ‘given’ the righteousness of Christ].

Rutledge says no-one can say for sure what it means that Jesus is ‘made sin’. Wisely, things are framed around Sin with a capital ‘S’ – in Paul sin is a power that is in league with death, opposed to the good work of God. It is much more than merely ‘missing the mark’, but a hostile spiritual force that, in effect, uses the Law to condemn us to death.

Coming back to Galatians 3, Paul’s quotation of Deuteronomy 21:23 is in effect saying Jesus is condemned by the curse of the Law.

In his death, Paul declares, Jesus was giving himself over to the enemy – to Sin, to its ally the Law, and to its wage, Death (Rom. 6:23; 7:8-11). This was his warfare. That is one of the most important reasons – perhaps the most important – that Jesus was crucified, for no other mode of execution would have been commensurate with the extremity of humanity’s condition under Sin.  (102)

This is where Rutledge is so good, she gets beyond one-dimensional theologies of the cross to how, in Paul, it is a rich kaleidoscope of images and themes converging to form a complex, powerful and beautiful portrait of the love of God in Christ.

By one-dimensional, I mean reducing the cross down to a mere individual transaction – ‘my sin problem resolved’. Yes, the atonement includes this, but there is much more going on, particularly in terms of who the enemy is and the scope of the victory won.

Rutledge draws a creative and memorable parallel here: Jesus’ treatment under Rome is similar to humanity’s condition under Sin. Jesus is:

  • Condemned
  • Rendered helpless and powerless
  • Stripped of his humanity
  • Reduced to the status of a slave
  • Declared unfit to live and deserving of death

So, at one level Jesus takes the literal form of a slave on the cross, but ‘behind the scenes’ the cross is ‘an apocalyptic battlefield where the Lord of Hosts goes to war with the forces of the Enemy’. (103).  [Rutledge returns to the atonement as a battlefield in chapter 9 – Christus Victor].

This is what happened at the cross. The Son of God gave himself up to be enslaved by Sin, condemned by the Law, and subject to Death … Linking all these passages together then, we see that Jesus exchanged God for Godlessness …

… What we see happening on the cross is that Jesus, who dies the death of a slave, “was made to be sin”. Does this mean that Jesus become his own Enemy? It would seem so. Just as his own human body turned against him on the cross, smothering and killing him, so his human nature absorbed the curse of the Law, the sentence that deals death to the human being (Rom. 7:11). By making himself “to be sin”, he allied himself with us in our farthest extremity … Thus he entered our desperate condition. No wonder he cried on the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (103)

[Note: This is a re-post from a daily series I ran during Lent a couple of years ago on Rutledge’s book. This Lent I will do some re-posts from that series].

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