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.