Flinching at the Cross

Taking the Good Out of Good Friday

Yesterday was Good Friday 2020. I preached a sermon which is typically in line with what I normally focus on during Good Friday services; Penal Substitutionary Atonement. That phrase might be foreign to you, but if you’re a Christian, the concept is not. Otherwise known as Substitutionary Atonement (SA), it is the doctrine of Christ becoming our sin-bearer. The idea is that Jesus was held accountable for the sins of His people, and God the Father poured out His wrath upon Jesus on the cross to satisfy the justice due to the sins Jesus carried. In other words, Jesus took your sins, and received the divine punishment they owed in your place, as your substitute. In other words, Jesus died for you sins. He paid for your sins.

I preach this message every year because Secularism is on the move in America. An important part of secularism is liberal theology. Liberal theology is the necessary bridge that allows Christians to exit the faith and join the ranks of the secularist movement. Liberal theology is the off ramp from Christianity. With liberal theology comes a denial of the most basic aspect of the Christian faith, SA theory being no exception. So I preach this sermon to help inform God’s people of the truth of cross, and to combat the false ideologies seeking to minimize Jesus’ accomplishment.

Typically, the person I have in mind when I craft the objections is Brian Zahnd. Zahnd has become famous for denying SA (referring to God as a “monster God”), along with other very important Christian truths. So it did not surprise me to see he wrote a Good Friday blog critiquing SA, to which I am going to respond here.

Zahnd says many true things about the Gospel and the cross, and often writes them poetically enough to make me covet his rhetorical talents. Nonetheless, the article is crawling with liberal theology, a case that needs extermination.

Red-Letterism

At one point, Zahnd writes:

So today above all days we look unflinchingly at Christ crucified. To enter deep into the mystery of the cross is to encounter the greatest revelation of who God is. For being disguised under the disfigurement of an ugly crucifixion and death, Christ upon the cross is paradoxically the clearest revelation of who God is. To interpret the meaning of the cross is more than a life’s work — in fact, it has and will remain the work of the church for millennia. The cross is the ever-unfolding revelation of who God is, and it cannot be summed up in a simple formula. This is the bane of tidy atonement theories that seek to reduce the cross to a single meaning. 

While I could find much to disagree with here, for our purposes, I won’t make this a point of contention, with one important exception. The concept of the cross being “paradoxically the clearest revelation of who God is” is disputable, especially when I know how men like Zahnd apply this truth. I conservative argument could be made for this statement. I would agree with it depending on exactly what that means. The problem is Zahnd uses this as an excuse to subtly promote red-letterism, and an idiosyncratic, truncated form of it to boot.

Liberal theologians make the cross the interpretive lens by which they read the rest of Scripture, and it essentially creates a canon within a canon. Once we believe the cross tells us all we need to know about God, we can then reject Paul and the Old Testament when they don’t match up with how we subjectively interpret the cross. The cross is revelation of God about Himself, but it is not a blank canvas on which we project all of our subjective sentimental hopes. The bottom line is Scripture presents the whole Christ as the revelation of God (John 1:18; John 14:9-11; Hebrews 1:1-2), not merely His crucifixion, and the Prophets and the Apostles have the authority from Jesus Himself to elaborate on Christ and His works.

Pacifism

[The crucifixion] is the abolition of war and violence.

Zahnd is also well known for his Pacificism. I won’t blame this entirely on liberalism; it was the position of the most of the Early Church until Augustine changed the landscape with his “Just War” theory. Nonetheless, the idea that the cross abolishes all war and all violence could not be substantiated by the New Testament, but more to the point is the awful irony that, if it did, Jesus Himself didn’t get the memo:

Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords (Revelation 19:11-16).

This serves as a fine example of how dangerous it is to assume we can interpret the cross apart from the Apostle’s. Anything goes.

Substitutionary Atonement

It’s the eternal moment in which the sin of the world is forgiven.

This may be where my readers breathe a sigh of relief. But I assure you, now is not the time for comfort. First and foremost, Zahnd is a Universalist. What he means above is not what you and I (or the church historic) believe. But more than that, notice the careful way he worded the above statement. The cross is the eternal “moment” in which the sin of the world is forgiven. Zahnd believes the cross is when sins were forgiven, but he does not believe the cross is how sins were forgiven. For him, the cross is merely an accident to forgiveness. It’s a borderline coincidence. But the death of Christ was not necessary for forgiveness in Zahnd’s theology. Jesus was not paying for sins on that tree. In fact, listen to how Zahnd describes that idea:

The cross is not the appeasement of an angry and retributive god. The cross is not where Jesus saves us from God, but where Jesus reveals God as savior. The cross is not what God inflicts upon Jesus in order to forgive, but what God in Christ endures as he forgives.

Zahnd can characterize the justice demanded by a holy God with terms like “anger” and “retribution,” but appeasement is not a concept of which the biblical authors are embarrassed.

Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities (Isaiah 53:10-11).

Zahnd objects to the idea of God being appeased, but the text says God was satisfied by the anguish of His soul. Zahnd objects to being saved from God, but the question is whose wrath would we face without Christ? Zahnd objects to cross as being something God inflicts on Jesus, yet Isaiah said that it was the will of the Lord to crush Him; Isaiah said God is the one Who put Him to grief.

The early church agreed with this, giving ultimate credit to the Father for the cross,

“[F]or truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:27-28).

Zahnd claims that Good Friday is the day “above all days we look unflinchingly at Christ crucified.” But all he is doing right now is flinching. This entire post is a flinch.

The Scriptures are clear from Testament to Testament about the substituitionary nature of the atonement. From the time that a ram took the place of sacrifice instead of Isaac, to the moment Jesus took our place on the wooden altar of God in order to bear our sins, the Bible is consistent in it’s message about how sins are forgiven. Hebrews makes this same covenant to covenant connection, stating that the need for blood to forgive sins and ratify covenants is present in both the Mosaic and the New Covenant; stating,

“Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22).

And Isaiah made sure to prophesy of the substitutionary nature of Christ’s atoning death,

But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:5-6).

The Apostle Peter the went on to borrow this language in order to remind us that this prophecy was fulfilled by Christ,

“He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Peter 2:24-25).

And leave it to the Apostle Paul to add forensic flare to the description, speaking of the cross in legal terms, describing our sin as a debt to God, one that Jesus paid by His death.

“And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:13-14).

All throughout the Scriptures, the authors of the Bible make clear that Jesus’ death was Him drinking the cup of God’s wrath to pay for our sins. And He did not due this because of God’s hateful, retributive, disposition toward us, but because He is full of love for us.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Plead the Fifth

Zahnd says many true things about the Gospel and the crucifixion of Jesus in his blog. One of his moments of brilliance comes across when he says,

Any attempt to make Christianity less offensive and more palatable by de-emphasizing the cross is a betrayal of Jesus Christ himself.

Yes and amen. He stole the words right from out of my mouth. The problem is that, as we have seen, this makes for a devastating case of self-incrimination.

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