Justification, God’s Wrath, and The Reforming Work of The Cross

I had the great privilege of hearing a recent interview with Fleming Rutledge, the author of The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death Of Jesus (a book I am currently working through and reflecting on), talking about her body of work and what a lifetime of preaching, pastoring, and writing have taught her in terms of big ideas, significant markers, and important themes/focuses (on the On Script Podcast if you were interested).

New to Rutledge’s body of work, I found this interview helpful in offering me a glimpse inside the life, the mind, and the spirit that guided her to pen this particular work that I am reading through now. Of interest to me was hearing her expound on the idea of the “Powers” of Sin and Death that I reflected on in my previous blog. These Powers for her are the third part of three central “agencies” reflected in Paul and the Gospels (and the whole of the apocalyptic tradition that we see throughout the latter part of the Old Testament and the whole of the New) that are active in this world- God, Humanity, and Satan (which in scholarship gains and holds many different names and references).

I wrote in my previous blog about how seeing Sin (and Death) as an agency rather than a matter of works and moral conditioning, an idea I first encountered in N.T. Wright, is necessary for expounding on the different facets of the Christian life in appropriate ways. This is especially necessary when it comes do discussing and approaching the Cross, because beginning with these three essential agencies protects these auxiliary theological ideas (like small letter “sin”) from turning salvation into a works based belief system and ending up with a Cross that is thrown off balance and that symbolizes our ideas of how God works as opposed to the work God is doing on the Cross.

Understanding the Cross, and Jesus’ death on the Cross, as something that speaks to a world that is not right and that is being made right is best understood not in the trenches of working out our salvation, but rather from within the larger narrative to which this discussion of salvation belongs. Seeing “Sin” as “Power” allows us to see that a not right world is under bondage to a third agency that holds a real (and active) presence and force, and that the Cross is ultimately Jesus’ declaration/proclamation that this world (including you and I) is no longer under its power because, at is declared, God is not under its power. This is the Cross’ primary, declarative force, and it is the means through which we can begin to make sense of the death of Jesus as necessary, and the means by which we can begin to flesh out the theology that this informs.

The Cross and God’s Justification
It is, then, from here that we can begin to appropriately move from the Cross to matters of what, theologically speaking, we can call justification. What is important to understand about the idea of justification (a word that carries close to mirror relationship to “righteousness”, or the idea of being made right) is that matters of “justice” and “injustice” are its primary concern. For Rutledge, “The all-important connection between the method used to execute Jesus and the meaning of his death cannot be grasped unless we plumb the depths of what is meant by injustice.” (p106) Understanding the unjust death of Jesus as something that is concerned with shedding light on the injustice that we encounter in this world is a two fold awareness, one that begins with that larger narrative of the Powers and flows out into a concern for our (humanities) place in this narrative as the second of these three primary agencies.

A Justice For the World 
Just to dial this back once again to reinforce that connective piece that was so important for me in rediscovering the Cross over these last number of years, if we begin, as many Christians do, with the Cross primarily emphasizing our small letter “sin” (as in, because we were sinners Jesus died for our sins, and on the Cross atones for those sins), what we end up with is a story that moves from us out towards the concerns of the world. And yet the concern of the Cross and the reason for Jesus’ death begins with His concern for the world. As Rutledge writes, The condemnation of Jesus means redemption for the world, and by extension God’s condemnation of the sin of his people is part of his redemptive purpose. (p106)

What we encounter in the Cross is not simply the declaration that our sins have been forgiven, but that the Powers of Sin and Death have been defeated. This is more than simply a matter of semantics. What we are stepping into on the Way of Jesus is the declaration that this world is not right and God, through Jesus, is making it right. This is what we are called to be participants of, is the New Creation, the New Heavens and the New Earth.

And the key marker of this New Creation? God’s justice.

“God’s justice is not vague or amorphous. It is not general or indeterminate. It is specific and particular, showing that God is attentive to the material details of human need.” (p109)

And just to underscore this point, Rutledge goes on to say,

“When we speak of setting right, we are not talking about a little rearrangement here and a little improvement there. From the perspective of the Old and New Testaments, the whole creation has gone drastically awry. The incarnation of the Son of the God should not be understood as the divine benediction on all that is. It was an incarnation unto the cross, and therefore an incarnation that sets a question mark over against the way things are.” (p126)

This is what bears out our hope. Is small letter “sin” part of this? Absolutely. All of us are called to be participants in the work God is doing, and by nature of this work sin is a product or outflow of the Powers that hold this world bondage. But the concern of God’s salvation, Christ’s saving work is much bigger than our sin. It is concerned with seeing all of Creation being made new.

Justification and The Wrath of God
One of the most difficult aspects of the Cross to deal with is the idea of God’s wrath. But if the Cross is about God’s concern for the injustice in this world, it means that God’s wrath must play a role. And one of the biggest obstacles to understanding God’s wrath is the tendency to define the Cross and Jesus’ death according to our small letter sin. When we do this, God’s wrath ends up solely squared on us rather than on the injustice that we find in the world. And we begin to imagine or shape God’s work according to retribution rather than restoration. We are left with some form of salvation that understands God needed to punish us for our sin, and therefore Jesus takes on the punishment in our place so that we can be saved. And it’s only from here that we are then able to reconstruct a Christian idea of a God for the world.

When we begin with the Cross as God’s interest for the whole of creation, a creation in bondage to the Powers, this allows us to then to see the whole work of God as being manifested in our lives rather than the other way around. This is an incredibly freeing thing, because it allows us to then reframe what God’s wrath is directed towards. As Rutledge puts it,

All of us are capable of anger about something. God’s anger, however, is pure. It does not have the maintenance of privilege as its object, but goes out on behalf of those who have no privileges. The wrath of God is not an emotion that flares up from time to time, as though God had temper tantrums; it is a way of describing his absolute enmity against all wrong and his coming to set matters right. (p129)

And then she goes on to outline a crucial point when it comes to matters of God’s wrath.

To be sure, most people, of whatever color, tend to be intensely interested in justice when it is for themselves. It is the notion of justice for all that is missing from much of our public discourse. (p128)

At least one of the problems that arises with the idea of God’s wrath is that when we see it as God’s anger towards us, we deprive ourselves of the ability to see God’s wrath in the context of God’s saving work. This is why so much of our theology and our theological discourse remains so limited. When we narrow God’s work down to the saving of individual lives according to a works based mindset, we limit our ability to exercise what C.S. Lewis called the “Spiritual Imagination” in the injustice spaces that we encounter in the world. We are forced to find something other than the Powers to attach our anger to, which opens us up to that inevitable practice of creating ins and outs of perpetrators, villains and victims

The real problem, and this is something that Rutledge does an amazing job of unpacking, is that when we narrow salvation down to what God is doing in my life in saving me from my sin, the danger is that we either a) fail to see the injustice in this world, or b) contribute to these acts of injustice through our oppression and condemnation of others. “Righteousness has the character of a verb rather than a noun’ it is not so much that God is righteous but that he does righteousness.” Which plays out into this idea of the Cross as making this world right as opposed to the righteous one making me “righteous”.

But to think of the Cross in this way is messy. We like our formulas. And formulas that can easily define who is in and who is out are even more attractive. The reality of God’s wrath though remains a fluid force. As Rutledge points out, it can be as concerned with an individual as it is with large groups who are either being oppressed or doing the oppressing. It is constantly condemning while at the same time reforming. It attends to at times while in other times responding to in pain and remorse. God’s wrath is both judgment and salvation at the same time. And the truth is that none of us are operating on the same plain at the same time all the time. Sometimes we are doing the oppressing, and sometimes we are the oppressed. And as Rutledge points out, “Even more astonishingly, he (JEsus) underwent helplessness and humiliation not only for the victimized but also for the perpetrators” (p151) all at once. Which in the grander picture of things suggests, “in the final analysis, the crucifixion of Christ for the sin of the world reveals that it is not only the victims of oppression and injustice who are in need of God’s deliverance, but also the victimizers. Each of us is capable, under certain circumstances, of being a victimizer.”

To encounter the Cross is the encounter the messiness of this reality. It exposes what we all share in common- the desire for justice in the unjust places of our lives, but moves us to consider, as God sees, the injustice that we encounter in the world and the injustice that we all partake in. This is shift the Cross forces us to consider, and this shift forces us to move in this direction precisely because this is the work the Cross is interested in and where the Cross points us towards. The good news is, this is where God’s wrath can begin to take shape as a more hopeful and life giving reality.

“We are not likely to be attracted to a righteous God unless we are looking for justice. The meaning of the word righteousness in Hebrew, however, is a world away from our idea of legalism or moralism. When we read in the Old Testament that God is just and righteous, this doesn’t refer to a threatening abstract quality that God has over aginst us. It is much more like a verb than a noun, because it refers to the power of God to make right what has been wrong.” (p133)

The Cross is, as Rutledge puts it, “the movement of God toward us even when our backs are turned away from him.” And once again, this is an uncomfortable idea because it means that we are not in control. “The radical message underlying it, and the one we resist, is that God does this right-making in spite of our resistance. This is the real meaning of Pauls use of dikaiosis, traditionally translated justification, but better translated rectification (rectify from the Latin rectus) or righteousness.” And it is because we are not in control that Jesus’ death calls into the realm of our awareness, into our line of sight the reality of the injustice in our lives and in this world as God’s main concern. The Christian faith does not allow us to remain ignorant about this. It is not static and it is not apathetic towards the Power that Sin holds in this world.

Building A Bridge Between My Salvation and the Salvation of the World
One of the things Rutledge does which I found so helpful in trying to make sense of the messiness of God’s justifying work in my life and in the world is that she creates these inroads between the individual and the collective in matters of injustice. These two things are of equal concern in the eyes of God. He sees us as readily as he sees the death of millions. One is not more or less tragic than the other. One of the things this frees us to do is take what we know and experience personally and apply it to places that we could not and would not be able to understand. And what frees us to do this is our understanding of capital letter Sin as the same Power that holds this whole world in bondage. It recognizes that in the fluidity of God’s saving work, the one place that God’s saving work must make sense is in the injust places, the not right realities of our world. “God’s new creation must be a just one, or the promises of God will seem like mockery to those whose defenselessness has been exploited by the powerful.”

And as Rutledge points out, this truth encompasses the whole of God’s justification (or righteousness), including the spiritual paradigms of forgiveness, restoration, judgment and salvation. “Forgiveness must be understood in its relationship to justice if the Christian gospel is to be allowed its full scope.” 

How can we begin to speak even of forgiveness, let alone transformation, in the worst of the worst situations? The extermination of millions does not cry out for forgiveness. Never mind millions; what about just one baby burned up in a microwave oven by its own father? After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Forgiveness is not enough. There must be justice too. (p126)

And further,

If we think of Christian theology and ethics purely in terms of forgiveness, we will  have neglected a central aspect of God’s own character and will be in no position to understand the cross in its fullest dimension. Furthermore, if we fail to take account of God’s justice, we will miss the extraordinary way in which it is recast in the New Testament as kerygma.

Kerygma simply means “proclamation.” And the proclamation is this. That God is making this world right. That God sees, identifies (the two primary starting points for Rutledge) and acts towards injustice. And we can trust that He is because Jesus, through His death on the Cross, saw, identified and acted towards the injustice that holds this world in bondage by taking on the oppression of this world.

“Who would have thought that the same God who passed judgment, calling down woe upon the religious establishment (Matt. 23; Luke 11), would come under his own judgment and woe? This is a shockingly immoral and un-religious idea; as we shall see over and over again, however, the crucifixion reveals God placing himself under his own sentence. The wrath of God has lodged in God’s own self. Perfect justice is wrought in the self offering of the Son, who alone of all human beings was perfectly righteous. Therefore no one, neither victim nor victimizer, can claim any exemption from judgment on one’s own merits, but only the merits of the Son.”

And Jesus does this by way of giving us a picture of His wrath over and against His mercy. “The wrath of God, which plays such a large role in both the Old and New Testaments, can be embraced because it comes wrapped in God’s mercy. To appropriate the inspired misstatement of Shakespeares Dogberry, the cross shows us how we, in Christ, are condemned into redemption. ” And it is because of this that we can see the fuller picture of what Jesus is doing in dying on the Cross. The goal is restoration and renewal”, a truth that has the power to reframe our perspective of God’s relationship to us and to this world, and open up the Christian Imagination to the immense and incredible picture and possibility of a world renewed.

Thus the whole area of God’s justice and righteousness has been relocated from the usual tit-for-tat scheme of crime and punishment into a completely new sphere where the righteousness of God (dikaiosyne), understood as power to grant what it requires, has dismantled the old system of righteousness by-the-law and incorporated us into the new-world-creating righteousness of God. When this is enacted in our world by faith, however imperfectly, we know that God is on the move.”





Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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