The Cross is offensive to everyone, religious people (“Jews”) and secular people (“Greeks”) alike. It is this radical undercutting of who is in and who is out that makes the cross so deeply threatening to many. All human achievement, especially religious achievement, is called into question by the godlessness of Jesus’ death. If God in three persons is most fully revealed to us by the Son’s accursed death outside the community of the godly, this means a complete rethinking of what is usually called religion.” (p105)
I have spent a lot of time, far too much to count, reading the Bible over my lifetime. Over that time I have found inspiration, challenge, a bolstering of my belief, and a reoccuring call to step out in confidence with faith and action. All good things that are meant to come out of my daily devotional life and the teachings of the Church.
What I didn’t always understand, and still don’t fully do if I am being honest, is that this inspiration, this bolstering, this call to step out, they all formed the basis by which I was to be a Christian and live out my Christian life as one who is “saved” according to a specific doctrine. They were truths given to me to help declare myself as an insider, one of the faithful within this doctrinal system. These teachings helped to form a line in my mind between who was in and who was out, thus providing me with the tools I needed to judge the world accordingly against God’s good grace afforded to me in His saving work and from my privileged position being one of the saved.
I think the moment my life was really turned upside down in my understanding of this connection between my Christian life and my salvation is when I began to recognize just how much of scripture actually stands as a condemnation of these privileged positions. The Gospel arrives from the places that least expect, condemning the safety and piety of our religious positions. It is really quite striking and unsettling when this hits for the first time, and it also revealed to me how convoluted and dangerous my ideas of salvation had unkwoingly become in the process of missing this reality.
The reason scripture was inspiring and comforting and bolstering of my beliefs is because it tells me how and why I am on the “inside”. It tells me why I am on the right side of the truth. And yet, scripture, by nature of its coming to us from those outside places, exposes this way of thinking as dangerous, not just for us but for the world. And all of the grand theories and belief structures and formulas that I had spent so much time constructing and holding near and dear suddenly became sign markers of this condemnation.
The more I thought about this the more it made sense though. The very things that seemed to assure me of my salvation were the things that also seemed to continuously leave me in fear of it. Back and forth this would go, even though I didn’t realize this was pendulum was swinging or even why I felt the things it was making me feel. The more I tried to find confidence and assurance in my salvation, the harder I would crash when scripture threw this off balance, because the words I thought were bolstering my beliefs were actually condemning my privileged position.
At the core of this struggle sits the Cross. There is no other symbol in Christianity that so directly implies and reflects the idea of salvation in its essence. And at the root of my understanding of the Cross sat this idea that it was my sin that killed Jesus, and that the reason Jesus had to die in my place was because, as God, He was the one who had committed no sin.
The real problem with this way of thinking about the Cross is that it turns Jesus into the very thing that scripture, and His ministry, condemns. If, as I had so often been taught, the law cannot save us, but Jesus in turn does save us from the law, how can it be that Jesus salvation then comes by way of the law? To make the Cross synonymous with this way of thinking holds salvation in bondage to the very thing the Cross is meant to deconstruct. It sets Jesus under the law and makes salvation a works based endeavor, creating a conundrum that is difficult to ignore. I would eventually come to discover that nearly every modern denomination was born from a desire to address this problem innately particular way and with a particular motivation, but in the meantime my own emotional state was certainly affected by this conundrum in a very real way.
Sin As Sin, Sin as Power
It was through N.T. Wright that I first encountered a way of seeing God and seeing Christianity that freed me from this way of thinking, and subsequently this awful pendulum of fear and anxiety that it induces. And it all comes down to the way we understand this tricky and precarious word “sin”.
As I mentioned in my previous reflections, my enslavement to fear and anxiety over my salvation had never been more heightened than when I walked into a particular belief system that elevated the notion of sin to the highest of levels to . In the idea of penal substitution, the cornerstone of this particular belief system that I had inherited, sin causes us to be removed the from equation entirely. Salvation comes by way of Christ’s ability to not sin, it comes through the death of the one who committed no sin, and it is given to us in the fact that God can now see Christ (Himself) in our place rather than us because of the sacrifice He endured. This is how we then are saved.
And yet, in the modern, highly evangelical way of thinking which holds this kind of penal substitutionary thought captive, the way we know that we are one of the saved is through our lives imitating Christ and being a witness to our salvation by echoing this same sinless nature. The fear that I had remains, only it is now heightened within this more concrete understanding that Christ chooses some to be saved and some to perish, which by nature, according to this approach, is what makes God sovereign and supposedly gives us the confidence we need to trust in our salvation.
Ironically, the immediate effect it had on me personally was that it made me even more piously protective of that insider position (I am the chosen one), and made the crashes on the other side of that never ending pendulum that much harder every time I encountered scripture and it caused me to question whether my life was doing enough to prove that I was in fact one of the chosen at all. Again, it is striking how much grace scripture gives to those on the outside and how condemning it is of those on the inside of these protective, theological structures.
What really offered me freedom though was this. The idea of “Sin” in the Bible is not primarily seen as human activity, a list of rights and wrongs that define whether we are saved or not, but rather denotes the idea of “Power.” Sin is the “Powers” that hold this world and us in bondage. It is the state of being in which the world sits. In the second chapter of her book The Crucifixion, the book that has been inspiring these personal reflections on the Cross, Fleming Rutledge writes this.
“He knew no sin; he was made sin. Note that Paul does not say “Jesus never sinned” or “Jesus did not commit sin.” That is because Sin in Paul is not something that one commits; it is a Power by which one is held helplessly in thrall.” (p101)
Rutledge shares much in common with N.T. Wright here, recognizing that before we arrive at any sort of attempt to unpack ideas of “justification” (the means by which we are made right through salvation), we must make sure to see Sin in the light of its Pauline, and very Judeo-Christian centric understanding. Because if we don’t we are very likely to end up somewhere lost in the endless systems of theology (systemic theology) that try to wedge it into some corner of Christendom and turn it into an idol, the danger of course being that we then miss the Jesus and the Cross that was so central to the Pauline witness.
“For Paul, it is not God, but the curse of the law that condemned Jesus. In his death, Paul declares, Jesus was giving himself over to the Enemy- to Sin, to its ally the Law, and to its wage, Death (Rom. 6:23; 7:8-11). This was his warfare.” (p101)
There is a reason why Rutledge spends time outlining in her introduction some of the terms she feels needs qualification. Sin is one of the most apparent of those terms, because it is the word upon which we find so much division within our religious systems. And it is the single word through which we find so many in the New Testament scripture building their case against Jesus, simultaneously being condemned by their own desire to position their piety over and against Jesus’ ministry, undercutting the reality of the “Word of the Cross”, or the Way of the Cross as the Way of Christ into the world.
What is being condemned in scripture over and over again is the act of the religious using religious theories and constructs to identity the nature of what it means to be on the inside or the outside of God’s saving work. And not surprisingly, the measure of these religious constructs come by way of the “Law”, the very thing many modern Christians like to condemn while working to recreate a new Law in the likeness of their new life in Christ.
Sin and the Law
What I really like about what Rutledge does in Chapter 2 is that she uses our understanding of Sin as a way to then expose our understanding of the “Law”, both in what it is and what it does. Many of us, as Christians, are taught that the Law is what condemns us and that Jesus is the one who saves us from the Law. It’s in how we understand the Law to function that this gets tricky. Once we interpret it as a list of to do’s and to don’ts, we are then able to place the Law back within the its Jewish context as the key measure of their judgment and their salvation. The Law is what they must follow in order to be saved, and yet their reliance on the Law is also what condemns them. We are left once again with a conundrum.
And in truth, it doesn’t take long in the New Testament, be it in Paul’s writings or later in the Gospels, for us to see this is precisely what the religious elite were preaching as well.
The problem comes when we try to re-apply this and reframe this against the Cross. In the arrival of Jesus the Law now holds no power. Jesus has fulfilled it in His sacrifice and thus we ar no longer underneath it. And yet Jesus is seen to do this by following the law perfectly in a way that se could not do for ourselves. The truth that emerges in this train of thought though is that the Law, then, still holds power. And it still holds power because it remains the measure of the salvation we hold near and dear. The Cross becomes a symbol of a salvation dependent on dos and don’ts.
Here is where the understanding of Sin’s relationship to the Law becomes important. Rutledge writes, “Paul shows that Sin and the Law are partners in a conspiracy involving a third partner, Death.” (p100) She goes on to say, “In Romans 7:11, Paul depicts Sin using the Law as an instrument to deal Death to humanity, almost as though Sin were using the Law as a lethal club. And indeed that is more or less what Paul is saying.” (p101)
According to Rutledge (and Wright), the Law in scripture is not the measure of our salvation, rather it is the natural (and necessary) measure of our reality. It is the thing that declares the Powers that holds this world bondage to be real and active. And it reveals Sin as the Power that wields it. The Law signifies the great spiritual war that is waging between Life and Death around us, in which injustice, suffering, hurt and struggle find their way.
The Cross and Spiritual Warfare
One of the most glorious things about encountering both Wright and Rutledge is the way in which they seem free to tap into a long lost aspect of the Christian faith we find in the West- the idea of spiritual warfare. In the West, the idea of Spiritual Warfare has been either ignored or abused. Both writers appear to have a connection with and a value for more Eastern ways of thinking, a tradition and practice which retains closer ties with the ancient world and more ancient ways of understanding our faith. In their perspectives, the idea that the Cross must be placed directly in the context of the “Powers”, if it is to be properly understood, is as natural as saying in the evangelical, Western world “Jesus Saves.” Further, this is precisely why they can declare that Jesus Saves so readily, is because of what the Cross declares to us about this great spiritual war.
And I know, to speak in a Western context using such seemingly supernatural terminology is to sound ludicrous and foolish. But to borrow from Wright, to distinguish between the natural and the supernatural is the first sign that our thinking might be off track. As Rutledge writes, “It (the cross) is foolishness to secular people not only because of its intrinsic nature but also because of its affront to the educated, sophisticated mind.” (p85) More surprising sometimes though is how foolish it sounds to Christians who feel like using this language somehow poses a threat to rational and systematic thought. We much prefer the language of sin, as it is something that we can control, manage and locate in the rational world.
And yet, to understand such grand ideas as Law and Sin in this light is to be freed from that never ending pendulum that our addiction to these rational and systemic enslaves us to. It is, in the end, the very thing that brings us to where many of our theologies believe and declare we already are- freed from the constraints of the law, and freed from our own abilities to save ourselves.
Finding My Way Back to the Cross
Let me be clear here. This is not to do away with Christian ideas such as sanctification, forgiveness, and small letter “sin”. These are still relevant aspects of our Christian lives. It is simply to say that if we cannot approach these ideas theologically without seeing the Cross first in light of the Sin (Powers) that hold us bondage, we stand in danger of elevating any of those ideas to prominence over and above the Cross as the means of our salvation. And that is dangerous territory to tread.
Most importantly though, beginning with the idea of the Powers as that which Jesus is engaged with on the Cross freed me to look again in wonder and marvel at the Cross as the source of Christ’s saving work in this world and my life. Rutledge writes, “It has always been difficult for the Church to hold on to the cross at its center.” (p82) This is true for both secular and the religious, if one can be so bold as to resurrect those problematic terms. And it is true for so many reasons, not the least because of its intellectual affront. As Rutledge has pointed out, the Cross has been scrutinized in light of its most valued source of witness in both its ancient and modern context, including the Women who first declared it to be, the Pauline traditions that bear its earliest witness, the seemingly contradictory Gospel writings, the offensiveness of trying to read God as a human and a human as God, and the affront it presents to our rational and progressive way of thinking.
By and large, by breaking into our world from the outside in, from the margins to the inner circles, from the perceived sin soaked places to the pious faithful, “the cross is irreligious because no human being individually or human beings collectively would have projected their hopes, wishes, longings, and needs onto a crucified man.” (p75) And yet, somehow and in someway the Cross still holds immense power in this world, in our lives and in our theologies. It remains today as seemingly absurd as it was for the ancient world, even if for slightly different reasons. But, when seen in the light of what God was and is doing, it has the power to free us and bring us hope in the most hopeless of places.
This is what it means to discover and rediscover the Cross over and over again. It’s a reminder that where this world is not right, we can know that it is being made right. And to re-engage the stories of those who first encountered it is to know that it is in the ability of the Cross to reorient our way of seeing this world, our faith, God, Salvation, and even ourselves, that remains the most alluring aspect of it. As Rutledge writes,
“.. the early church was threatened by far worse consequences than the contempt of the fastidious. During the first three centuries, the cross was not the sign in which the emperor conquered. It did not adorn medals and honors. It was not bejeweled, enameled, or worked in precious metal. It was a sign of contradiction and scandal, which quite often meant exile or death for those who adhered to the way of the crucified One.” (p82)
The Cross might be scandalous and foolishness, even to the religious and religious elite, but it is its declarative presence that can tell us that the Powers that hold us bondage need not hold sway over us anymore. And that is a great hope indeed.