Before my wife and I even began to date, we volunteered alongside each other in our church’s youth group. In one volunteer meeting, some of us shared our struggles of connecting with students. My wife, who naturally understands and serves others well, was not one of these. I, on the other hand, was.
“Just do whatever you normally do and have a student tag along. That’s an easy start. You can show that you value them just by sharing your time. So what do you normally do?”
“I read books,” I truthfully responded. A blank stare followed. And somehow with that response, I still won the affections of the questioner...many months later.
Though a slow reader, I do consume much literature. Over the years, a number of those books have shaped me in significant ways. What I hope to offer here in this series is not so much a thorough-going book review but the impression these personally influential writings have left, in many cases after several years of having poured over the book.
Significance of the Cross
The Cross of Christ by John Stott is one of these books. As the title so aptly informs, the book delves into and unravels for the reader the riches of the cross. This instrument of torture and death, as Stott instructs, has always — and should always — play a central role in the life of the church. Though the tendency to shy away from Jesus’ cruel execution and focus on his moral life or victorious resurrection confronts us frequently, the cross historically speaking, to say nothing of its biblical centrality, played the central role in the Christian community’s worshiping life. For evangelicals who too frequently lack a historical sense of the faith, and for Catholics and mainline Protestants who more frequently, but by no means always, do have that historical sense, the reminder is fitting. When I begin to shift the centrality of my worship, this reminder helps me to refocus.
Stott explains well, in addition, the necessity of the cross from a thoroughly biblical perspective. Explicating sin and sacrifice, he helped me consider questions like:
Why couldn’t God just forgive sin without the gruesome death?
Isn’t the cross a sign of divine child abuse?
Can a loving God really have sanctioned such an act?
If you have similar questions about what makes the cross truly necessary, this is a great resource.
Satisfaction of the Cross
In particular, I remember Stott’s discussion about the satisfaction of the cross. Theologians have typically discussed the cross in terms of what it satisfied. Some have argued that upon the cross, Jesus satisfied our debt of sin by paying the penalty to Satan. This ransom theory has actually been popularized in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Aslan, the Jesus-figure of Narnia, lays down his life to the evil witch, who holds Edmund for ransom. His vicarious suffering frees Edmund from his bondage to the witch. But Stott shows that in this conception of things, besides not finding a basis in Scripture, the devil holds power over God. He has something God wants and cannot have. This cannot be.
Others will point out that the penalty of sin is death (Romans 6:23). Thus, since death is deserved by our sin, the cross satisfies the demands of justice. Death is owed; death is paid. Here again, we posit something above God. It’s as if justice can make this demand of God. Replacing justice with love and emphasizing God’s need to satisfy his loving nature actually falls into the same error. Love becomes a force over and above God, dictating his actions. Stott suggests something different. In the cross, God satisfies himself, his very nature. His attributes — his holiness, justice, and wrath against sin; his mercy, grace, love towards sinners — are all displayed in this singular act. These attributes do not work against each other but harmoniously find fulfillment in Jesus’ suffering for us.
Images of Salvation
Christians will speak of Christ’s sacrifice as having effected our salvation. But what is the nature of this salvation? Scripture reveals a number of images to give us a sense of what our salvation consists, and Stott has done more than any other author I have read to clarify this point and bring out the various facets of our salvation.
The image of redemption sweeps us into the marketplace (e.g., Ephesians 1:17; Romans 3:24). Those who were in bondage have been purchased, “not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:18-19). This image calls to mind the Hebrew slaves in Egypt as the Passover lamb purchased their freedom in a sense.
At other times, the New Testament writers speak of the cross as having achieved our reconciliation with God (e.g., Romans 5:11; 1 Corinthians 5:18). This image evokes familial, friendly language. Those who were estranged, even enemies and hostile with one another, have been brought back into fellowship with one another. The relationship has been restored.
Again, justification, a legal image, describes salvation (e.g., Romans 3:21-26; 1 Corinthians 6:11; Galatians 2:15-17). Standing in sin and unrighteousness, the sentence declared against us is condemnation. However, when we are found in Christ, his righteousness counts as our own. Before the eternal Judge, he declares us cleared of all charges.
Finally, Stott discuss Jesus’ sacrifice as a propitiation, an image of the cult (e.g, Romans 3:25; Hebrews 2:17; 1 John 4:10). By cult, do not think of a group with an aversion for society and a liking for strange ritualistic sacrifices or Kool-Aid drinking. He uses “cult” to refer to the ritualistic worship of any religion. Propitiation was a ritualistic act which appeased a deity. The finer points of Stott’s argument have not necessarily stayed with me, but a helpful article on this point can be found here. In essence, we must remember that our sin makes us enemies with God (Romans 5:10; 8:7) and the ensuing just wrath must be placated. The sacrifice of the cross does this.
Stott’s list is not exhaustive, but it set me on a journey of paying attention to other images of our salvation. For example, Jesus’ cross achieved our expiation from sin, adoption into the family of God, and victory over sin and death. Expanding our view of God’s salvation for us, the lavishness of God’s grace opens up even further before us.
One last one-liner has stuck with me concerning human worth and dignity. My summary runs: You are unworthy, but you are not worthless. The cross reminds us that before a relationship with Christ, in our sinful nature, we certainly are unworthy to stand before a holy God. But being made in his image, we cannot count ourselves or another human being as worthless. If we bear his image, even polluted and marred, dignity attaches to us. However, to be truly worthy before God, Christ must act as Savior, and we must respond in faith.