An Easter Reflection: 1 John 4, love, life, wrath and the cross

In 1 John 4: 7-10, the apostle writes this:

7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9. This is how God showed his love among us: he sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

That is 9 occurences of the noun or verb for love of [agapē (love) and agapaō (to love)] in 4 verses. I John is easily the most ‘love saturated’ book in the Bible and these verses represent the most ‘love saturated’ section of the epistle.

Famously – and uniquely in Scripture – John states that ‘God is love’. Love ‘comes from God’ because God, in himself, in his essential being, is love. This means everything that he does is loving – whether creating, sustaining, redeeming or judging.

For John, love is never abstract; it is always concrete and practical. God’s love takes the visible and tangible form of sending his one and only Son into the world – in John a realm of sin, death, rebellion and hate. If love is the motive, the result is that we might have life through him.

John thinks in big picture theology rather than systematic details. The ‘sending’ of the Son is shorthand for the whole story of Jesus – his incarnation, life, ministry, death and resurrection. His focus here is on the cross as verse 10 makes clear.

The Son is sent in love to give us life. But how does this work?

1. Somehow the death of the beloved Son is an ‘atoning sacrifice’ (hilasmos) for our sins – yours and mine. Despite some attempts to evade this, hilasmos has the sense of propitiation – turning away divine wrath against sin and sinners via an acceptable sacrifice. The love of God sits right alongside his anger and judgement against sin. It is at the cross that the love and judgement of God meet. To see Easter and the cross only as a supreme example of divine love and to airbrush atonement for sin out of the picture is to depart from the apostolic gospel.

2. In atoning for our sins, the death of the Son gives believers life. This implies a doctrine of regeneration. To be in the world is to be in a realm of death. Through God’s loving initiative, we are given the gift of eternal life. We no longer are to belong to the realm of the world.

3. Easter is solely dependent on God’s love and is God’s initiative alone – we are utterly unable to deal with our sin or be reborn into new life. It is only God who can  atone for sin and give us life. He does so at supreme cost to himself.

4. If the whole point of Easter is to give us life – what does this life look like? Quite simply it is a life of love. John’s focus is our love for each other. If we do not love, it reveals that we do not actually know the God who is love. Love is the ‘proof’ that we have received new life and our sins have been atoned for in the death of the Son. As we enter this Easter weekend, let’s first and foremost remember that both the motive and the ultimate purpose of the cross is love.

Easter is therefore a good time to reflect on our ‘love lives’ – how well are we loving?

Easter is an appropriate time to pray, repent and ask God to help us love – to be the people that the atoning death of Christ is designed to make us be. Perhaps there is someone we need to act to be reconciled with this Easter.

Easter is most of all a time to rejoice and worship the God who is love and who acts in love so that we might have the privilege and joy to know him.

Comments, as ever, welcome.


How does the cross trouble you?

The CrossThis Good Friday Christians remember, reflect upon and celebrate the death of Jesus, the Messiah.

Christianity is nothing without the cross. (And the cross is nothing without the resurrection – but that’s for another day).

Paul would only boast in the cross (Gal.6:14). Christians are baptised into the death of Christ. The share the Lord’s Supper to remember and proclaim Christ’s death. The gospel begins with ‘Christ died for our sins’.

But to boast about or celebrate the cross would have been utterly bizarre for a first century person, especially a Jew. It should strike us as pretty weird too but we are inoculated by over-familiarity.

A positive assessment of a barbaric pagan execution method? Impossible. A crucified Messiah? Grotesque.

If Good Friday reminds us of anything, it is of the shocking ‘otherness’ of God. His ways are not predictable or nice or neat.

The life and mission of Jesus began and ended in violence and bloodshed. His ministry was shaped by increasing conflict that climaxed in a solitary,  brutal and unjust death at the hands of Empire.

And yet the united witness of the NT writers is that this was no accidental or insignificant event,  but God’s dramatic confrontation of sin and death and evil in his Son made flesh.

No-one imagined that this would be the identity and calling of the Messiah until Jesus burst on the scene, healing people, announcing the coming kingdom and uttering dark predictions about his voluntary, sacrificial and substitutionary death (Mk 10:45).

The cross announces to all that our lives and this world are so broken and distorted by sin that absolutely nothing else can begin to set things right except the death of the Son. For if there was any other way to effect forgiveness and avert the wrathful judgement of God, then the cross would indeed become a symbol of an unjust and unloving Father who allows his Son to suffer unnecessarily.

This death is the decisive event in God’s saving purposes for individuals and for all of creation. It is a place where something so deep and mysterious happened that the Bible talks about it in multiple ways. For centuries Christians have wrestled with what happened at the cross – how atonement ‘works’ – and it’s remarkable how no one explanation can ‘capture’ the atonement, it is simply too big and rich and breathtaking to tie down in one image or idea.

But, however understood, it calls each and every person to worship of the self-giving God who in himself and out of love atones for sin, enacts just judgement, defeats sin and death and overcomes evil.

Too often, Christians can think of the cross as only a ‘past event’.

But the cross is never an end in itself – it is only the beginning of a whole new life within the bigger picture of salvation. Consider Titus 2:11-14

11 For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. 12 It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, 13 while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.

The self-giving Messiah dies to redeem his people from something to something else: from a life lived for the self in this age, to a life shaped by the age to come.

All of the Christian life is to be lived under the shadow of the cross – the Christian life is nothing if not cruciform. To follow Jesus in living life for the good of others; in putting to death the old and putting on the new; in being willing to face suffering.

As I think about Good Friday I am troubled by how comfortable and untroubled I am by this God.

This cross confronts my self-sufficiency – it announces to you and me that there is no human way of salvation for if righteousness could be gained in any other way then ‘Christ died for nothing’.

The cross confronts my theology of God himself. I fear that in studying the big picture unfolding narrative of the Bible and being able to see something of how it fits together, God can be all too easily boxed away; his present and future actions fitting safely within the boundaries of an already written story that we, as NT Christians, now have a much fuller understanding of than in the OT.

But at the cross, God exploded his people’s understanding of who he was and what he could and would do. I wonder how and where he might do the same for his people today?

Comments, as ever, welcome.





Falling over themselves to explain Easter

Sacrifice, justification, redemption, penal substitution, ransom, healing, victory, example, reconciliation …..

The writers of the New Testament are falling over themselves to explain the saving work of God on the cross. All of these pictures or metaphors are ways to explain what happened at the cross.

And all of them would be meaningless if it were not for the resurrection (1 Cor 15). The resurrection is the seal, the vindication, the visible triumph of God in Christ through the Spirit over sin and death and evil. We celebrate today Resurrection Day.

They are not, however, random pictures. They are creatively and imaginatively chosen in the midst of ‘flesh and blood’ letters and gospels  consistently to interpret the cross of Jesus through the lens of the biblical story. In a very real sense, the entire New Testament is a theological reflection on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in terms of fulfilment of God’s promises to Israel. And these fulfilled promises now extend wider than Israel. The astonishing good news of Easter and Pentecost to come, is that this is a victory won by no localised Jewish Messiah, but a saviour for the world.

We can’t understand the depth and wonder of the cross without that OT framework. And even then, we will only scratch the surface. Such is the magnificence of saving work of God, there is no one picture that can possibly capture its scale and beauty.

To change the metaphor to a golfing one (from Scot McKnight in A Community Called Atonement – an excellent book ) we need to play with all the clubs in the bag if we are to play well. Each club is designed to do a particular job. If we play with one club all the time, our game will become one-dimensional and much less effective. And there are a lot of clubs in the Bible’s bag …

All of these pictures of the atonement are different ways of explaining HOW the gospel of Jesus the Messiah is good news (forgiveness, peace with God, right relationship with God, adopted as children into the promise, victory over sin and death etc).

God’s work of salvation is comprehensive and complete; it cannot be bettered.

They point to the COST of salvation. Jesus died for a purpose. The cross is necessary.

They show us WHY we need salvation. Enslaved, under judgement, captives who need releasing, facing death …

They point to the immeasurable LOVE of the triune God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit  (1 John 4:9-10)

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

With best wishes to you for a joyful Resurrection Day

The call of the cross

A Good Friday Reflection

Without the croMonasterboice High Crossss, Christians have nothing whatsoever distinctive to say.

The cross is at the heart of all truly Christian theology. The Christian life is a life lived under the shadow of the cross.

The gospels can be described as passion narratives with extended introductions. While you might be uneasy with this (does it not relegate Jesus’ birth, life and preaching of the kingdom to secondary importance?) the fact is that the birth, life and teaching of Jesus are all cross-directed. They lose all sense and coherence without the cross.

Matthew captures the developing conflict with the authorities which leads to his climatic abandonment and death. All happening to fulfil the words of the prophets.

Mark consistently talks of discipleship in terms of suffering and the way of the cross  (8:34-8). Jesus’ own clear self-understanding of his mission is famously summed up in 10:45 where he comes not to be served but to give his life a ‘ransom for many’ – a reference to the servant of Isaiah in 52:13-53:12.

Matthew also links to Isaiah 53, a profoundly important framework for the mission of the Messiah (Matt. 8:17; 12:17-21).

Luke describes Jesus setting his face to Jerusalem, the place of his death and the focus of mission (9:51).

John opens with Jesus ‘the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (1:29). His whole gospel is focused on the death (and glorification) of the Christ. His link to Passover is echoed by Paul who calls Jesus ‘our Passover lamb’ (1 Cor 5:7). Here is the cross as sacrifice for sin, a theme expanded on at length in the book of Hebrews.

Paul wants to know nothing but know nothing but “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 1:1-2). He talks of Christ crucified being the power and wisdom of God. While Jews look for miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, ‘we preach Christ crucified’ (1 Cor 1:18-25).

The foundational act of fellowship within the early Christian communities is a meal to remember and proclaim Christ’s death (1 Cor 11:26). In terms of the gospel, it is of first importance that Christ ‘died for our sins’ (1 Cor. 15:1-5). To be a Christian at all means to be ‘baptised into his death’ (Roms. 6:3). If Paul is to boast in anything, he will only boast in the cross of Christ (Gal. 6:14).

Take Colossians 2: 13-15. It is at the cross that sin is atoned for and forgiveness achieved. It is at the cross that condemnation and judgement are dealt with through Christ our substitute taking the penalty for sin. It is at the cross that a decisive victory is won over the powers and authorities opposed to the reconciling work of God.

“When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”

Or back to Corinthians: It is at the cross that the rulers of this age are ‘outsmarted’ – they did not comprehend the wisdom of God seen in the mystery of the cross, “the hidden wisdom which God predestined before the ages to our glory; the wisdom which none of the rulers of this age has understood; for if they had understood it they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor 2:7-8?)

Take Romans 5:1-11: It is the cross which supremely reveals the depth of the love of God “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” It is the cross which speaks of the immeasurable grace of God since we are powerless to save ourselves. It is the cross which leads to justification (being declared righteous) and reconciliation (peace with God). It is the death of Christ which saves us from God’s wrath.

Yes, yes, the cross must never be separated from the resurrection – otherwise it remains a brutal form of execution; a place of death and despair. Yes, the cross lead to Pentecost where the victory won at Golgotha leads to the outpouring of the promised Spirit.

But the Scriptures are insistent that something unique happened at the cross. The texts are packed full of images and stories and metaphors of what went on there – and quite rightly we should unpack and explore each one. But the very diversity of images should tell us something. No-one image or picture or theme can neatly capture the cross. We need so many of them because what happened at the cross is something that is profoundly mysterious and beyond easy explanation.

So let’s never get so wrapped up in debates about how the cross works, or what it achieves, that we miss what the cross of Christ calls us to.

It calls us to worship, to adoration, to thanksgiving, to humility, to self-giving lives lived to honour God. It calls us to die to ourselves and live for him. It calls us to be willing to suffer for our faith. It calls us to give up power and control and manipulation as routes to ‘success in ministry’. It certainly calls us to reject violence as followers of a crucified Messiah. It calls us to daily repentance and fresh seeking of the generous grace of God. It calls to wholehearted love of the one who first loved us.

The God I Don’t Understand 12: The Cross

Chapter 8 of Chris Wright’s excellent book The God I Don’t Understand ties up his discussion of the cross as he answers the question ‘How does the cross work?’ by taking on a further false dichotomy:  Human Sin or God’s Judgement?

Those that reject the idea that the cross involves God’s punishment tend to emphasise instead that it is all about Jesus overcoming sin. At the cross, Jesus deals with human wickedness, violence and evil by taking it upon himself, drawing its sting or ‘absorbing’ it as it were. In other words, Jesus bears mankind’s wrath against God, not God’s wrath against mankind.

Wright argues that we need to hold onto both. The cross is the place where the victory of God is won over evil and sin (Col 2:15). But it is also the place of divine judgement. [This is a bit like Scot McKnight’s nice golfing illustration that when we come to the atonement we need to play with all the clubs in the bag, not just one – in this case both the cross as the supreme act of love by God as well as penal substitution]

Chris Wright has a life-long passion for encouraging Christians to understand their faith in light of the story of the OT and it is there that he roots his argument. There is a double truth about Israel. One the one hand she is the beloved people of God, the nation of promise; the focal point of God’s love for the world. On the other hand, she is a people in rebellion; the focal point of the world’s sin against God. And in 587BC she suffers defeat and exile; an event which is simultaneously a result of divine judgement and an act of cruelty and violence perpetrated by the Babylonians.

Here’s the big point. Jesus’ death is in many ways a ‘re-play’ of 587BC but at a much deeper level. Jesus represents Israel, as her Messiah, he embodies the Israel and fulfils her mission and destiny. [the other Wright, the N.T. one, has argued this point at length]. As he represents her in life, so in death. Jesus suffers human evil and divine judgement. Jesus himself links his coming with the imminent destruction of the temple (Jn 2:19-22). Again divine judgement falls, but the difference is that Jesus’ death is wholly undeserved. As Wright says, “every word in Paul’s definition of the gospel is important: “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.”


According to the atheist Christopher Hitchens, the idea of divine judgement amounts to a form of totalitarianism; punishing people for ‘thought crime’ that makes Christianity a callous, reprehensible, indefensible and poisonous form of manipulation and control. Well, you can’t say he doesn’t have a point of view.

The Bible has a different perspective. It has no problem saying that sin deserves to be punished. The fate of the wicked is summarised as: “They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and the glory of his might” (2 Thess. 1:9). For God not to judge sin is to abandon justice and any hope of the ultimate victory over evil. For God not to judge sin is to rob ‘grace’ and ‘mercy’ of meaning since there are no ultimate moral consequences to our actions.

Wright puts it memorably this way. To see the cross as ‘cosmic child abuse’ is a gross caricature. However, “it is equally a grossly deficient caricature to reduce the cross to nothing more than a cosmic sympathy card, in God’s handwriting, ‘I share your pain.’ The astonishing good news is that God takes the punishment on himself in Jesus Christ. Love and judgement meet at the cross.

The God I Don’t Understand 11: the Cross

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”.

The God I Don’t Understand 10: the Cross

The third ‘hard to understand’ issue Chris Wright discusses is the cross. ‘Sure what’s so hard to understand about the cross?’ Well, the more we get into it, the more we realise that there is much mystery behind the familiar. And as Chris Wright points out, the issue is not so much one that disturbs or baffles, but one that is beyond full comprehension and leads to gratitude, joy and peace.

Chapter 6 takes up the ‘WHY’ and the ‘WHAT’ of the cross. Why did God do it this way? Why was the cross necessary? What did it achieve?

The WHY question is summed up well here:

“Why Bethlehem? Why Calvary? Because God loves us. This of course is the right answer. Right, biblical, true, terrific. And utterly inexplicable.”

But why does God love us? Why did he love Israel? Not because of who they were or what they had done. Often the exact opposite. God loves Israel, Wright argues, because his love for them is a mirror image of how he loves the whole fallen world. Why he loves in this way or why he demonstrates that love most supremely in the cross, is a mystery.

The cross also poses a ‘WHAT’ question to which Scripture has multiple answers that Wright summarises:

–          It brings the Christian ‘home’, into God’s household. Eph 2:11-13, 19

–          It enables the Christian to experience the grace and mercy of God Eph 2:3-7

–          It delivers and redeems the Christian, setting him/her free from sin Eph 1:7

–          It brings forgiveness and healing of relationship Acts 2:23-4; 38 3:15-19

–          It effects reconciliation and peace with God and with each other. Rom 5:10-11; 2 Cor 5:8-11. Eph 2:13-18

–          It justifies the Christian, or puts him/her in a right relationship with God  2 Cor 5;21

–          It cleanses the Christian, enabling fellowship with God, 1 Jn 7-2:2

–          It brings spiritual life from spiritual death. Eph 2:4-5

And this is all possible because the cross is directed ‘at us’ and is ‘for us. It effects what we could not possibly do for ourselves and does this because, in a crucial sense, Jesus is our substitute. He bears “in himself what we would otherwise suffer because of our sin”, and gains for us “what we would otherwise eternally lose.”

Lots of reasons indeed for gratitude, joy, peace and worship.

The ‘HOW does this work?’ question is harder to grasp and has been the source of a fair bit of controversy over the last few years. We’ll look at this next.