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The Whole Jesus

Next month, the British Columbia Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches (of which the church I serve at is a part) will be holding another event to further discuss some of our differences (or perceived differences) regarding how we are to understand the cross of Christ. The atonement debate has been simmering in these parts for a while now (I’ve reflected on it here, here, here, and here if you’re interested in any background). Some see a decreasing emphasis in the penal substitution component of what the cross accomplished, and think that this represents a compromise of the gospel. Others see room for locating penal substitution within a broader understanding of what was achieved at Calvary. This event is an attempt to better understand and talk about these differences.

The upcoming event came up at a recent meeting I was a part of where one of the comments was something to this effect: “We just need to get back to preaching the cross of Christ.” On one level, this sounds good. Just get back to the basics. Keep the main thing the main thing. The cross is obviously a crucial part of the salvation story. But as I read Scripture, it seems to me that the main thing is the whole career of Jesus, not just the cross. His incarnation, life, teaching, and ethics matter. They are not incidental to the “real” gospel which is that because of what took place on a Roman cross two thousand years ago your forensic status before God can be changed. They are important parts of a gospel package that goes far, far beyond declaring individual human beings “not guilty.”

As is so often the case, I think N.T. Wright’s thoughts on the matter are instructive. This is from Jesus and the Victory of God:

For many conservative theologians it would have been sufficient if Jesus had been born of a virgin (at any time in human history, and perhaps from any race), lived a sinless life, died a sacrificial death, and risen again three days later… The fact that, in the midst of these events, Jesus actually said and did certain things, which included giving wonderful moral teaching and annoying some of his contemporaries, functions within this sort of orthodox scheme merely as a convenience. Jesus becomes a composite figure, a cross between Socrates defeating the Sophists and Luther standing up against the Papists. His ministry and his death are thus loosely connected.

The force of this is lost, though, when the matter is thought through. If the main purpose of Jesus’ ministry was to die on the cross, as the outworking of an abstracted atonement-theology, it starts to look as though he simply took on the establishment in order to get himself crucified, so that the abstract sacrificial theology could be put into effect. This makes both ministry and death look like sheer contrivance.

It all goes together—incarnation, life, kingdom proclamation/demonstration, death, resurrection, ascension, current reign, and future consummation. I don’ t think we can just isolate the cross as the “saving part” of the Jesus package. Indeed, if I were to point to any part of the package as the “most important” it would be an empty tomb. Paul certainly is clear that we preach Christ and him crucified (1 Cor 1:23), but the same Paul is equally clear in the same letter to the same church that unless Christ is raised from the dead our faith is futile and we are still in our sins (1 Cor 15:17). We need more than a transfer of forensic status; we need new life. We need to hear “not guilty” but we also need to hear “set free.”  We are saved from sin and death and evil, but we are also saved for life—resurrection life. The church and the world need to hear about the cross, certainly, but the cross comes in the context of a much bigger and more exciting package. We need the whole thing.

I don’t quite know what to expect from our meeting next month. Will we grow in understanding of and appreciation for each other, even if we don’t see things in exactly the same way? Will we fortify the walls around already existing “camps?” Will some of us even change or modify our views? We shall see. I am hopeful that whatever happens at our meeting, we will walk away—all of us—with a renewed commitment to proclaim—in word and deed—the kingdom of God and Jesus as the means by which this kingdom is inaugurated, implemented, and will one day consummated.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Preach it, brother! (wink) Seriously though, well said.

    October 7, 2010
  2. EDH #

    Hey cool, I found a new blog for my RSS Feed 😀

    To add my two cents. Just a couple observations: Concerning the God of the OT you said elsewhere: “If we draw too sharp a distinction between the two covenants, we walk perilously close to Marcionism.”

    I would posit the same thing when venturing (exclusively) into other theories of atonement. I’m sure you’re more widely read in this area.. but it’s my impression that other theories of atonement (apart from penal substitutionary atonement) seem more palatable to people because it sidesteps God’s wrath. And I think that is why people find it so attractive, it makes it easier to sweep the rest under the rug.

    But it seems glaring in the face of the Old Testament. I sure don’t blame people for making a big deal out of God’s wrath against sin and how that is satisfied on the cross. After all, who wants to face that? Yet, I agree, I don’t think any one particular ‘theory’ is exhaustive. But it seems inauthentic if we get to pick and choose our own adventure through Calvary. And I hope that is all those people are trying to say. There is a lot to be staked, because I do think substitutionary atonement is a package deal. PSA makes no sense without the incarnation, the unity of the trinity, and of course the resurrection. On the flip side, when liberals make Jesus out to be merely an example it seems to downplay that whole package, it almost becomes unnecessary. Everything is up for grabs.

    “We need more than a transfer of forensic status; we need new life.  We need to hear “not guilty” but we also need to hear ‘set free.'” It seems bang on. But I don’t think PSA negates any of that. If we are to be forensically declared dead in the death of Christ, then we are also declared to be alive in Christ. In Romans 6 we are declared to be dead in baptism. And then Paul says “Consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” If we are alive to God we also have the Spirit of God. “But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Romans 8: 10,11).

    Anyways, your blog has lots of good topics, and interesting conversations. I hope everything goes well for your communion when you gather to stir the pot, so to speak. 🙂

    October 7, 2010
    • Thanks for your comment and the kind affirmation. I think we are mainly in agreement—PSA is an important part of the package but not in itself the whole package. I am certainly not advocating anything like a “choose your own adventure through Calvary.” Sin is real and so is human culpability. But at the same time, I don’t think it’s just a desire for a more palatable view of the cross that motivates those advocating of a bigger view of the atonement. Are we uncomfortable with wrath? Maybe. But I think we really do need to be reminded that wrath isn’t the whole story. We’re not just guilty sinners, we’re also victims of sin in an unjust world that contains structures of evil and forces that go far beyond our own personal responsibility. The cross represents the defeat of evil in the biggest imaginable way. Our individual sin is a part of the picture, but not all of it. I think there is plenty of room for a robust understanding of sin and wrath within this bigger picture.

      October 7, 2010
      • EDH #

        Totally. It just concerns me the way other Christians of the Emerging persuasion seem to trash talk psa.

        October 8, 2010
  3. Ian Lawson #

    I’d love to be at your conference discussion next month. I trust it will be enlightening and fruitful. Atonement theory is a topic of much interest and debate, as you know. Other biblical dimensions of the atonement are worthy of discussion and exploration providing the PSA is not pushed aside in favour of a more “acceptable” theory. I agree with EDH that the trash talk on the PSA is divisive and unhelpful.

    Many of my old friends are serving with your conference. I look forward to hearing the outcome of the event.

    October 8, 2010
    • I hope it will be enlightening and fruitful. In past forums where the topic has come up there hasn’t been much light or fruit produced (at least in my view), but there are good signs that this gathering could be different.

      I don’t think anyone in our conference is advocating eliminating PSA or pushing it aside (although some might disagree :)). There are certainly some who are wondering if there are better ways of explaining PSA and/or locating it within a more multi-dimensional package. There are some who seem to feel that PSA simply is the gospel, end of story. And there are undoubtedly folks at all points between. So there is a spectrum, certainly, but in the much bigger picture of how Christians of all kinds have historically understood the cross, ours is a very small spectrum indeed. I hope we can see this.

      October 9, 2010
  4. Larry S #

    Thanks for this post Ryan.

    From what I know of the MB debate it seems that we all agree on substitionary part of the atonement – not everybody agrees so much with the penal (or how PSA can be presented).

    So there are those of us who aren’t too sure about the P in PSA. Plus we see this as debate imported from outside the anabaptist camp.

    by the way, Happy Thanksgiving

    October 9, 2010
    • Yeah, I agree that it’s not a uniquely Anabaptist debate, but I think that even if the terminology and categories are imported from elsewhere, the question of how we understand the cross is hugely significant. As you say, how PSA (especially the “P”) is presented matters. Like you, I don’t think that anyone’s trying to drop the substitutionary component of the cross or to say that human beings are not sinners or that our sin doesn’t deserve punishment. But at the end of the day, I think that one of the most fundamental truths we get from Scripture is that God is good and that he is for us. If how we are understanding/describing the cross of Christ doesn’t powerfully communicate this (and some presentations of the atonement don’t, in my view), we need to rethink some things.

      Happy Thanksgiving to you too, Larry.

      October 10, 2010

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