The Power of the Cross - by Revd Dr. Alan Spence


by the Revd Dr. Alan Spence 

From Augustine till the nineteenth century the key interpretive idea used by the Western Church as it sought to understand the meaning of the cross has been the concept of justification.  ‘God justifies the wicked.'  It is an odd sounding notion when you try to get your head around it.  The Scriptural promise appears as a paradox:

However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness. (Rom4:5)

Some might wonder how one could be expected to trust a God who justifies the wicked.  Such an idea seems to undermine all that theists hold to be true about the justice of God and the ethical nature of the universe.  Surely God upholds the cause of the righteous rather than the unrighteous? Yet in this perplexing phrase we also catch a glimpse of the power that a doctrine of justification has always had to provide a life-line of hope to those who find themselves adrift in the sea of moral failure.  No other concept in the history of the Church has given rise to so large a body of learned literature; has evoked so much passion and controversy; and has tragically fueled an inter-Christian conflict of so implacable a nature.  In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries many in the Reformed tradition came to believe that the doctrine of justification encapsulated the essence of God's saving action, that it lit up, as it were, the God-given path from death to life.  Others felt that such an interpretation of the meaning of the cross was no more than a license to lawlessness, undermining all true godliness and moral accountability.   It is no wonder then that the discussion generated such intense heat in its time.

The fires of this religious controversy have, of course, long since died down.  As they kick around among its remaining embers many Christians today will struggle to conceive how sensible persons of faith could once have been prepared to risk their lives in the ravages of war or go to the stake in defense of this particular view of salvation.  For the past century or so most theologians have held that there are a number of ways that the atonement is portrayed in the Scriptures and that justification is but one of the metaphors or models that the New Testament employs to disclose the mystery of the cross.  It is therefore quite hard for the majority of modern enquirers to examine the carefully nuanced exposition of this doctrine in earlier debates without an element of impatience or even condescension.  The enormous energy spent on them seems to have been sadly misplaced.  It is generally only historical theologians or those with a strong commitment to particular confessional traditions who appear to be at all interested in trying to understand the ideas motivating this ancient discussion.

Why is this?  How can the idea of justification which once held so central a place in the confessions of all the early Protestant churches and in the formulations of the Roman Catholic Reformation, now find itself on the periphery of theological interest?   One answer is that the context has changed.  A doctrine of justification is generally no longer recognised as resolving the most pressing religious needs of the community. 

Let us consider this theory a little more closely.  It would seem that there is a close relation between our understanding of the human predicament and our interpretation of divine deliverance, for salvation by its nature is rescue from some sort of problem confronting us.  Historical theology gives strong support to the existence of such a relation.  The Eastern Church has tended to understand our human plight in terms of spiritual blindness, bondage to the forces of evil, along with moral and physical corruption.  Corresponding to this, it has interpreted salvation in the categories of spiritual enlightenment, redemption from demonic power and participation in the divine life.  On the other hand, the particular concern of the Western Church has been on the ubiquitous and recalcitrant nature of human sin and the alienation from a holy God and prospect of divine judgement that it entails.  Alongside this, salvation has been understood in the West primarily in terms of forgiveness, mercy and divine reconciliation. And it is in a world-view shaped by these concepts that a doctrine of justification has flourished.  When concerns about sin, alienation and final judgement are no longer an integral aspect of the prevailing religious world-view the doctrine, as it has been expounded historically, is bound to lose its persuasive force or spiritual relevance.

What then are the great concerns of modernity?  How does our age interpret the human predicament?  The understanding of human plight has, in more recent times, certainly shifted away from ideas of final judgement and estrangement from God.  One might say it had become more secularised.  By the end of the nineteenth century Western thought tended to interpret our plight in terms of our unrealised possibilities, our yearning for love, for freedom and for meaning, all of which can never be properly satisfied.  In the twentieth century, partly influenced by Marxist analysis, the understanding of the human predicament came to focus on the institutionalised social, economic and racial injustices that dehumanise the lives of so many. Today, one of the most widely shared aspects of the way we perceive our plight has to do with the threat that human greed brings to our planet as a safe place where life in all its fullness may flourish and be sustained.  In all of these perspectives the act of divine judgement against sin has gradually but steadily been shifted to the periphery of our consciousness.  And as the perception of our plight has changed so too has the view of salvation which serves as solution to it.  It is not at all easy within such a world-view to offer a persuasive explanation of the death and resurrection of Christ as bringing about a resolution to these issues.  It is extremely difficult, for example, to explain how the cross finally and for all time sorts out the consequences of carbon emission.  And the more we view our plight through the eyes of modernity, the more irrelevant becomes the preaching of the cross as the justification of the ungodly.  The cross loses its potency and becomes little more than a sentimental symbol of divine suffering, God's embodiment in the pain of this world, a far cry from the message of the Gospel that we find in the New Testament.

The question that confronts us is this: does the Church have no more to say of the human situation than what is derived from an informed and sensitive secular culture?  Are the ideas of estrangement from God and the prospect of divine judgement no more than obsolete vestiges from the Middle Ages concerned as they were with avoiding eternal damnation?  Or is divine judgement a very Christian idea, one which most fully enables us to understand what it means for God to love us so much that he gave up his Son to die for us?

The only way to answer such a question is to look again at the Scriptures.  Leaving aside, for the moment, other themes let us then consider briefly the text of the New Testament and in particular its record of the teaching of Jesus to see what they have to say about final judgement


Parables of the kingdom

There is something rather enigmatic about the nature of the kingdom of heaven that was proclaimed by the young rabbi from Galilee.  It is not easy to be certain whether he was claiming that the kingdom was already present in his ministry or was something that still lay in the future; whether it was internal to the believer and therefore hidden and needing discovery or a public and external reality obvious to all; whether it had political and social dimensions that touched the wider world or was narrowly religious and affected only the people of faith.  Perhaps it is because of its somewhat mysterious character that Jesus often used parables to explain it.  The kingdom of heaven seems to be a truth that only those with ‘ears to hear' can properly understand.  There is, however, one particular feature of the kingdom that appears to be remarkably clear.  And it is this aspect we will now examine.  In doing so, we will, at least initially, limit ourselves to a consideration of the words of Jesus as we find them recorded in Matthew's Gospel.

Jesus likened the coming kingdom of heaven to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but an enemy came after him and sowed weeds among the wheat (Mt13:24-30).  The servants of the landowner were eager to pull up the weeds, but he ordered them to allow both weeds and wheat to grow together until the harvest.  Jesus went on to explain what the parable meant: ‘As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age.  The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil' (Mt13:41). 

Likewise Jesus taught that the kingdom of heaven can be compared to a net that caught all kinds of fish.  When it was full the fishermen collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away.  Again he explains the parable.  ‘This is how it will be at the end of the age.  The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous...' (Mt13:49).  It would appear from these parables that the kingdom of heaven has to do with an act of judgement, a separation of those who do evil, from those who are righteous.

Jesus explained to his disciples that: ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne.  All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats' (Mt25:31).  The same basic idea that we found in the previous two sayings is repeated here, but the basis of the judgement is rather more explicit.  It has to do with how those now standing before his throne in judgement treated the brothers and sisters of Jesus when they found them naked, thirsty or in prison.  The idea is spelled out a little more clearly earlier in the Gospel.

Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me...And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly be rewarded. (Mt10:40,42)

The parable of the wedding banquet (Mt22:1-14) develops this emphasis on the eternal significance of our actions and focuses on the way we respond to the Gospel.  Jesus speaks of the destruction that will be brought on those on the guest list who, for a variety of reasons, refused the king's invitation to his son's wedding.  It also emphasises the king's judgement against the man who attended the celebration improperly dressed.  We find then that for Jesus the kingdom of heaven is not merely an act of separation of the good from the wicked, but takes the form of an authoritative judgement rewarding those who have behaved in an appropriate way and punishing those who have not.

Also to be found in Matthew's Gospel is a set of parables that refer to the way the Lord will deal with his servants who have been idle while their master is absent and who are consequently ill-prepared for his return.  The parable of the talents (Mt25:14-28) tells of the reward that was given to those who faithfully employed what was entrusted to them and the punishment that befell the man who failed to use what had been placed in his care.  The parable of the virgins (Mt25:1-13) promises exclusion to those who are not properly prepared for the bridegroom's return.  The parable of the tenants (Mt21:33-45) indicates that there will be a fearful end for those who did not offer the fruit of the vineyard to their rightful master, but abused his servants and murdered his son.  All these, Jesus explains to his followers, indicate what the kingdom is like.  It is reward for those who faithfully serve God in preparation for his Son's return, but it is punishment for those who abuse the stewardship that has been assigned to them.  Again we see that the kingdom of heaven is conceived of by Jesus as an event whose principal feature is an act of divine judgement.

In all these sayings the kingdom of God corresponds closely to the expression ‘the day of the Lord' found in the Old Testament prophetic expectation.  This is uniformly anticipated to be a day of divine judgement, leading either to destruction or to salvation (see Is2:17, Joel1:15, Is25:9). One might say it is a day of final decision.

Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision!

For the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision. (Joel3:14)

The coming of the kingdom is understood as a time when the divine government of the one true king will be manifest on earth, the people of God will be vindicated openly and the unrighteous condemned.


Confession and baptism

Now if at the heart of the message of the kingdom lies the idea of divine judgement, did those who heard it proclaimed publicly recognise it as such?  We catch a glimpse of the common understanding of the kingdom in the way many responded to the ministry of John the Baptist.  Like Jesus, John announced the coming kingdom of heaven.  His words in Matthew's Gospel take much the same form as those of Jesus recorded in Mark's Gospel. ‘In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, "Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near"' (Mt3:1-2).  The result of John's preaching, as we have it in the Scriptures, was that multitudes came down from Jerusalem, Judea and the whole region of the Jordan to be baptized by John on confession of their sins.  It was as though an amnesty had been declared and vast crowds of concerned Judeans hurriedly made their way down to the Jordan River to take up this offer of grace before it was too late.  So it was that when John saw a group of Pharisees jostling their way towards him through the throng, he said to them: ‘You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?' (Mt3:7)  For one reason or another John was surprised to see these Pharisees join with the ordinary folk in their flight from the coming judgement.  He warns them of its imminence: ‘The axe is already at the root of the trees and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire' (v.10).  This theme of impending judgement is also present in the way John goes on to describe the ministry of Jesus.  ‘He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire' (vv.11,12).  The message of John is remarkably similar to Jesus' parable of the weeds.  Judgement is a key feature of the proclamation of the kingdom and it is in the expectation of this divine judgement that the people confessed their sins and received the cleansing water of baptism.


Warning against sin

Jesus, like John, was deeply concerned with certain ways of behaving that he encountered in his public ministry and he sternly warned those practising them of the reality of final judgement.  One of these had to do with the treatment of children.  ‘If anyone causes one of these little ones - those believing in me - to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were drowned in the depths of the sea' (Mt18:6).  There is a sense of righteous anger behind these words that it is easy for us to identify with as we hear of so many of the children of our own day being ‘groomed' on the internet.  The warning would seem to apply, however, to all those knowing adults who lead impressionable youngsters away from the path of truth.  Another major concern of Jesus was with those who profess faith but who fail to forgive those who are in some way indebted to them.  In the parable of the unmerciful servant (Mt18:21-35) the one who had been set free from a great debt was unable to forgive his fellow servant for what was in effect no more than a small loan.  On finding out what had happened the master orders the unmerciful servant to undergo terrible punishment until he should repay his original obligation.  Jesus concludes: ‘This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive a brother or sister from your heart' (v.35).

Although sins like these can be considered as personal or individual, Jesus also responds to what we now sometimes refer to as corporate sin, a behavioral pattern that is embedded in the life of a community.  Although he had a number of friends among the Pharisees, they as a group are the subject of his most severe words of condemnation (Mt23:1-36).  In the eyes of Jesus the principal darkness that stains the lives of this party of religious elite is their hypocrisy.  It can be observed in their love for religious dress; in the way they strive for positions of religious honour; and in their desire to be addressed by their religious titles.  It is all about outward appearance (vv.5-7).  The Pharisees were scrupulous over the external details of the law, but continually missed the heart of the matter (vv.23-24).  Outwardly they appeared to be righteous, inwardly they were full of hypocrisy and wickedness.  Jesus says of them: ‘You brood of vipers.  How will you escape being condemned to hell?' (v.33).  

We see then that the prospect of final judgement is employed by Jesus as a dire warning to those caught up in ways of behaviour that undermine both the truth and practice of the gospel.  Although his words are uncompromising, he is not displaying the vindictiveness of a moral legalist.  Rather, out of deep love and a desire for integrity he is drawing attention to issues that really do matter - the abuse of children; the heartless and unforgiving treatment of those who are in our debt; and the overweening sense of self-importance and hypocrisy of the clerical classes.  Behind his warnings lies the conviction that God is not so unjust as to turn a blind eye to such ways of behaving but will hold to full account all those who participate in them.


The agent of judgement

An important feature of the New Testament emphasis on divine judgement is that the ascended Christ is recognised as its principal agent.  Jesus, the one who had shared fully in our humanity and had given himself up for our sins will return as our judge.  In Matthew's Gospel Jesus is reported as saying: ‘For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father's glory with his angels, and then he will reward everyone according to what they have done' (Mt16:27).  He taught that it is the Son of Man who will judge the sheep and the goats (Mt25:31).  Likewise it is the Son of Man who will send his angels to weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil (Mt13:41). 

Peter's sermon on the Day of Pentecost, as we find it in the Acts of the Apostles, gives some indication of how Jesus began to be viewed by his followers with a new sense of awe after his ascension.  When the assembled crowd heard that he had been raised from the dead and exalted to a position of authority at the right hand of God they were cut to the heart and were desperate to know what they should now do (Acts2:36,37).  Recognising the implications of his divinely appointed status of authority they repented of their sins and were baptised.  

This understanding of Jesus as the plenipotentiary of God who will return to judge the living and the dead was an integral feature of the faith of the New Testament church.  It is to be found not only in the Gospels, but across the Epistles (see 2Cor5:10, 2Thes1:7-8), and most graphically in the book of Revelation where Jesus leads an army of horsemen clad in white to execute the judgement of God (Rev19:11-16).  The theme of the Son of Man as judge on the Last Day is perhaps the clearest indication we have of the way the idea of final judgement shaped the worldview of New Testament thought. 

In our brief study of the text of Matthew's Gospel we have seen that final judgement was an integral element of the coming kingdom of heaven; that it was a principal motivation for multitudes who heard of it to be baptised; that it was repeatedly used by Jesus to warn of the consequence of certain forms of behaviour; and finally that it is the role assigned to the risen and ascended Christ as he returns in glory.   To the question: ‘Is the broad theological vision of a final judgement firmly based on the teaching and preaching of the New Testament?' the answer would of course have to be ‘yes'. 

It is in the context of the teaching of judgement that the message of the cross is such good news.  For those who like the publican in the temple know themselves to be in serious trouble with God there is hope.  The one who cries ‘be merciful to me' is the one who returns home justified.  At its heart the Gospel is about forgiveness and reconciliation - Jesus died for our sins.  And to the one who believes in the God who justifies the wicked their faith is credited as righteousness.  For those who come to Jesus in humility and faith the cross is now, and will always be, the power of God for salvation.


The Revd. Dr. Alan Spence

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