I still remember the day I picked up my first John Piper book, the popular preacher, teacher, theologian, and resident spokesperson for many in the ultra conservative brand of the Reformed Calvinist camp. The book was called “Desiring God”, and at the time it represented a major shift for me in how I understood my faith. It was an effort to return to scripture and a more intellectually concerned and robust way of being a practicing Christian.
Piper represented a movement of fellow disgruntled Christians, long caught up in popular forms of what called Church “lite”, towards a worship that could better reflect good and proper theology. I bought into it and even craved it, reading one, and then another, and then another yet. The well was deep, and there were many impassioned voices willing travel deep into the well along with me. I even passed along his name (and books) to skeptical friends, thinking they need to read this with me and be enlightened to its wonders.
The irony was, at the time I had no idea what “Reformed” actually meant, or the difference between a Calvinist and a Methodist or a Lutheran and Arminian. All I knew was that I was attracted to the promise of greater, intellectual engagement.
Calvinism, The Cross and A Growing Disillusionment
It would be a number of years later (and a good number of Seminary years later) that I would gain a better understanding both on what I was craving at the time (and still do) and the ways in which this movement, rather than satisfy this craving, actually left me greatly unsettled and kind of dead inside.
Which is not to belabour my spiritual journey since this point. I have written about that in this space at length already. Rather, the reason I bring this up is because one of the areas in which I was left greatly unsettled was in the way this movement had taught me to understand the work of Jesus on the Cross. The essential belief of popular Calvinism is what you would call “penal substitution”, and it is this belief that John Piper preached and wrote about on a daily basis (along with others in his camp). To borrow from a very simplified definition, penal substitution choses to see Christ as taking the punishment for our sins on our behalf in order to appease God’s anger. When one applies the layers that go along with this, which are written and expressed all over the Desiring God series, what you then discover is a God who not only cannot look at us because of our sin, but a God who when he does look at us sees not us but rather Jesus in our place.
This way of thinking about the Cross, and Jesus’ work on the Cross, has led me through years of crisis and self doubt. It not only came to seem strange to me, particularly as I began to engage more with scripture itself, it seemed incredibly harmful and misplaced. If sin is an idea that we find in the Christian story, and I believe it is, it was as if this understanding had reached in, extracted it from the Gospel story and turned it into some form of an idol meant to glorify God at the expense of His creation. And what’s interesting to note about this idea is that most of what I had been taught and experienced up to this point was a form of Penal Substitution. It was simply filtered through a different theological expression, and articulated in a way that failed to narrow down (intellectually speaking) to such a pointed and expression theoretical position.
Rediscovering The Cross
Although I had long since distanced myself from Calvinist teaching, it was perhaps fitting that both Piper and N.T. Wright, someone who would become an invaluable source on my journey out of that Calvinist bubble, would go on to pen two complimentary conversational pieces regarding their competing views on the “justification” of God, which is simply a theological term that describes the specific “act” of God removing our guilt and our sin and claiming us as righteous in its place. In any case, what has become important for me over the years, and necessary as I continue to wrestle with these theological ideas, is a continued reconciling and meditating on what Jesus’ work on the Cross means for my life, for the life of others and for the world. It seems necessary to me, because if I cannot reconcile this confession (and for me it is confessional), it seems that my Christian faith loses much of its relevance.
Not unlike the topic of prayer, the idea of Jesus’ death and resurrection is something I find I need to return to over and over again in order to reconcile that tension that still exists within me, between the oppressiveness of what I felt and the freedom that I know Jesus’ death and resurrection declares as a Gospel reality. While this reconciliation certainly happens through the liturgy of our weekly Sunday Worship, thanks to a book recommend, along with the reality of this current Easter season, I have found yet another opportunity to come back to this Gospel reality over the coming weeks by engaging with a book by Fleming Rutledge, an “American Episcopal priest, author, theologian and preacher”, called The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ.
Here is a link to the author: https://generousorthodoxy.org/
And a link to the book, which is currently available for $3 on Amazon for the Kindle version. Can’t turn that down :): https://www.amazon.ca/Crucifixion-Understanding-Death-Jesus-Christ-ebook/dp/B01AJ5P014/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=The+Crucifixion&qid=1586114618&sr=8-1
A Process of Self Reflection in Self Isolation
My hope in the coming weeks is to be able to use some of this global self isolation time we all find ourselves in at the moment to reflect on and think about some of the things that come out of my reading of this book. I’ve only just read the introduction and already I find my highlighter going a bit crazy, so I have high hopes for the journey.
I’ll be honest though, any time I approach a book on the subject with an author I do not know I find myself treading with much trepidation, fear and caution, waiting for the bomb to drop that this individual is going to present an “argument for…” this theory or that theory. She set me at ease on page nine when she took to task our tendency to boil theology down into theories. As she writes,
“Theory is a poor word to choose when seeking to understand the testimony of the Bible. The Old and New Testaments do not present theories at any time. Instead, we find stories, images, metaphors, symbols, sagas, sermons, songs, letters, poems. It would be hard to find writing that is less theoretical.” (Page 9)
Later she goes on to talk about the shifts in modern scholarship and current trends that she identifies as moving towards a more “literary style of interpretation” and rediscovering the “plain meaning of a text.” She sees this as an important facet of conversing about the death and resurrection of Jesus, because this can lead “to a discussion of the Word and a discussion of Jesus not being a reconstruction of the past but a living and breathing reality in the here and now.”
This aspect of our faith feels deeply important to Rutledge, and in fact vital and necessary for the Cross to hold any meaning in our lives at all. As she says, “Christian faith has never- either at the start or now- been based on historical reconstructions of Jesus, even though Christian faith has always involved some historical claims concerning Jesus. Rather, Christian faith (then and now) is based on religious claims concerning the present power of Jesus…” (Page 29).
Which resonates for me as I continue to discover the power that the “Word of the Cross” has, to borrow her descriptive, to reform and transform my life on a daily basis. What I have come to hold onto over the years is that the Cross is less of a statement on my condition and more of an invitation into something new and something healing. I have no problem understanding dissatisfaction and dissolution with the present, be it in my own life or within the present reality of our world. Somehow and in someway the Cross speaks to this in a necessary and life giving way. That is the hope that I have come to cherish, not this idea that God can only see my sin (and even worse then, subsequently the sin of the world), but that the incarnate God continues to pursue me in hopes of inviting me into the work that Jesus is doing in this grand vision for the New Heavens and the New Earth. After all,
“If God is not truly incarnate in Jesus as he accomplishes his work on the cross, then nothing has really happened from God’s side and we are thrown back on ourselves. If there is no incarnation of the Godhead in Jesus’ sacrifice, then there is no salvation apart from what human nature can contribute.”(Page 31)
and that to me feels hopeless. Thank god that the Gospel brings us good news.