No, You Can’t Get Rid of Jesus as Your Substitute on the Cross

Jason Micheli —  March 28, 2018 — 1 Comment

St. Paul’s argument for Christ’s resurrection is older than the Easter narratives themselves, and in it the Apostle presents the resurrection as the necessary corollary to Christ’s dying “for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.” The two together, along with his burial, comprise what Paul proclaims as “the Gospel.”

     We like to say that every Sunday is a little Easter.

But, really, every Sunday is a little Good Friday too.

That Christ was raised from the dead is an unintelligible message apart from the news that his empty tomb is the sign that your slate is empty of any sins.

The “therefore” of God’s absence of condemnation of us hinges on the “because” of Christ’s death for us.

Its cliche, for those in mainline and progressive circles to say they favor the Church Fathers’ emphasis on the incarnation rather than the modern, Western emphasis upon the cross.  Such a position however, ignores how, in the Church Fathers especially, God’s conquest of Sin and Death is the only way we’re incorporated into an incarnate new humanity and that this new humanity is a present, social reality nowhere else but in the community that preaches Christ crucified and baptizes its members into his death.

Criticisms of (sub)versions of substitutionary atonement are valid, but, as Fleming Rutledge argues in her book, The Crucifixion: the solution to the abuse of the tradition’s atonement language is not to jettison it. Not only is the language of substitution the dominant key in which scripture speaks of God’s redemptive work, substitutionary atonement’s concerns echo throughout the bible:

Something is terribly wrong in the world and needs to be set right.

God’s justice demands that sin not go unheeded.

Compassion alone will not make right what is wrong.

Rectification requires the action of God from beyond our sphere.

As Rutledge notes, the popular impressions of Anselm’s God as petty and capricious, easily offended and demanding a tribute of blood in order to forgive us, are so wildly off the mark it makes one wonder if anyone has actually read Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo or, if they’ve paused to consider the title of it: ‘Why the God-Man?’

The title itself indicates that Anselm does not commit the misstep of which he’s commonly accused; namely, he does not pit the Father and Son against one another nor does he posit Christ’s humanity as the sole agent of our salvation, another frequent charge against him. As the title makes clear, from the front cover forward, Anselm sees salvation as a fully Trinitarian work enfolding incarnation and unfolding from it.

Those who resist substitutionary language disregard the extent to which the claim Christ’s death is “for sin” is found all over the New Testament.

And, in most instances, that “for” means “for the sake of” or “on behalf of” or “in place of.”

It simply overwhelms any other manner of speaking of the cross. Much of the resistance to substitution rightly resists what sounds like an individualized reduction of sin, but again we should not erase the bible’s primary motif for understanding the cross simply because of errors in its application. The substitutionary death of Christ is a death for our collective sin, as the long record of the prophets shows.

A theology of the cross is deficient if it neglects an account of the corporate and systemic nature of sin. As Rutledge distinguishes, Sin is an alien power to which we’re in bondage, but sin is also a kind of contagion of our nature, for, in our bondage, we become active agents of Sin. We require, therefore, two modes of deliverance. We need God to remove our guilt but also to liberate us from the Power of Sin. The cross is ground zero for both.

While the wages of sin merit his death for us, his death is where God wages battle against Sin and Death.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jason Micheli

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One response to No, You Can’t Get Rid of Jesus as Your Substitute on the Cross

  1. Love it!
    I’m progressive on a great many topics, but atonement theory isn’t one of them. Your a brave, beautiful needed voice Jason. Preach on!

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