Tag Archives: Cross

Wise and Innocent

A newspaper article a few weeks ago reported on a federal inquiry into the status of religious freedom in Australia (see Rebecca Urban, “Christians Under SeigeThe Australian May 6, 2017). Urban detailed several instances in which Christians have faced social pressure on account of their convictions:

A Melbourne IT specialist engaged to work on the Safe Schools program was sacked after privately expressing concerns about the contentious initiative during a staff meeting, with his employer later accusing him of “creating an unsafe work environment”. Lee Jones, a Christian who was general manager of a business at the time, had told his boss he would work on the project despite his views but was dismissed regardless. He was in a staff meeting when asked his opinion about Safe Schools. His response was that he would not want his own children to be taught some of the more controversial elements of the program…

In another case, a pub­lic servant in Victoria was given a warning for complaining about being pressured to take part in a gay pride march. The man, also a Christian, later asked to be taken off the email list of the department’s LGBTI network as he found emails “offensive by reason of his religious background”. He was issued a notice to show cause why he should not be disciplined…

An Alice Springs teacher was threatened with disciplinary action last year for expressing opposition to same-sex marriage on a Facebook forum. Despite the comments being made outside school hours, he was issued a notice to show cause. The Northern Territory Education Department has since dropped the action…

Finally, an Adelaide ­university student was suspended last year after offering to pray for a student who was stressed over her workload and later voicing his opinion about homosexuality. The student had said that he would treat a gay person kindly “but (didn’t) agree with their choice”. He was ordered to undergo “re-education” but sought legal advice and the university withdrew the allegations.

It seems that hostility toward Christian faith is increasing in our culture, and Christians would do well to be prepared to endure it. Perhaps more “progressive” Christians will not need to be so concerned, especially if they have found ways to affirm those things that progressive culture also affirms.

But what of those of us who are not so comfortable with aspects of the progressive social agenda, who perhaps even find them antithetical to Christian convictions? What are Christians to do when it is wrong to withdraw from public engagement, but threatening to so engage? What might appropriate response look like?

In this context, Jesus’ words from Matthew 10:16 provide guidance: “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves” (NASB).

Because Jesus has sent us out, our place is indeed, “in the world,” and even among the “wolves.” Christians must not withdraw from public space and public dialogue, but their presence is to be wise and innocent. Sometimes Christian engagement in the public sphere is less than wise; at other times it is far from innocent. Wise engagement is required lest we be ravaged; innocence is necessary lest we give ground for accusation or inflame existing tensions.

Jesus’ choice of animal imagery in this text indicates something further about this engagement: the wolf and the serpent are carnivorous, seeking prey, while the sheep and the dove are not and do not. Though they have no fangs, however, the sheep and the dove are not without some defence. Both may flee when danger presents, though the sheep will also certainly lose even if it flees. I once saw a small flock of sheep react when the sheepdog entered the paddock. They stood shoulder to shoulder facing the dog, turning as it walked by keeping it always in view, always presenting its united front to the intruder. Such a strategy would hardly work against a pack of hungry wolves, however; in that case the sheep can do little more than hope that their shepherd is close at hand. The sheep is inherently vulnerable and so needs both shepherd and flock; so too perhaps, the believer in the world.

Jesus applies the serpent image to the disciple, though this is not a commission for the church to grow fangs, to hunt, to seek prey. It is to be shrewd as a serpent and innocent as a dove, the two qualities mutually conditioning. “Without innocence the keenness of the snake is crafty, a devious menace; without keenness the innocence of the dove is naïve, helpless gullibility” (Wilkins, Mattthew [NIVAC], 392). It is “tempting” to recall the Genesis 3 passage where the serpent cunningly tempted Eve with deceptive argument, drawing her away from God and his word of command and promise. Perhaps the church can similarly learn to argue shrewdly but innocently, using truthful argument to draw interlocutors toward God and the word of his grace.

“Let your speech be always with grace,” says Paul, “seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person” (Colossians 4:6). This, too, is good counsel. “Salty grace” suggests a winsome, though steadfast presence, one which communicates both truly and truthfully. Too much salt, of course, destroys a dish; but some salt is necessary, especially when conversation is bland or clichéd. So, too, grace is essential, especially when conversation has become polarised or hostile. To “know how you are to respond” will require a thoughtful Christianity, which suggests that believers must have thought through their convictions to such a degree that they can articulate them in interesting, rational, non-defensive, and persuasive ways. Perhaps a good dose of humour and light-heartedness will lubricate the conversation, reminding us also that the battle is Lord’s.

Further to this, however, is the life of genuine innocence and virtue in community. Unless believers inhabit communities of grace their witness will surely fall flat. Both doves and sheep flock, and corporate witness of the church’s life adds substance to its arguments. The corporate life of the community is also necessary to sustain the believer in their witness within the world. The knowledge of Christian truth-claims and the nurture of Christian convictions, the courage to stand firm under trial, and the hope that undergirds it: all these are part of the formation that occurs in the Christian community as a community of grace, theological instruction, and moral deliberation.

Above all is the wisdom and innocence of the cross as the way of the true God and so also the true disciple in the world. This is the way of intentional vulnerability:

Jesus does not say that we are to “become” sheep, but, more fundamentally, that when we go into the world in his obedience we are in fact going out “as” sheep. . . . This “sheepishness” is due to the nonviolent nature of Jesus’ work, as we learned from the Sermon on the Mount. We are not primarily fighters, we are not allowed to be haters, and we cannot even use the arsenal of invective that revolutionary movements find necessary for motivation. . . . Jesus’ cross is not an exception to the rule of discipled life; it is the rule (Frederick Bruner, Matthew, Volume 1, 472).

Christianity Today’s Book of the Year, 2017

Fleming RutledgeChristianity Today have nominated Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion as 2017 Book of the Year. 

“Fleming Rutledge has always had a reputation for bold, relentlessly scriptural, and Cross-centered preaching. In this book, the work of a lifetime, she pulls back the lid on the deep well of exegetical, theological, and spiritual reflection that has nourished her ministry. If previous generations of evangelicals looked to John Stott’s The Cross of Christ as their definitive work on Christ’s atoning work, I predict future generations of evangelicals will return again and again, in the same way, to The Crucifixion. This book is a classic in the making, one that will go on nurturing gospel-rich preaching for decades to come.” —Wesley Hill, assistant professor of biblical studies, Trinity School for Ministry

An excerpt from the book:

It makes many people queasy nowadays to talk about the wrath of God, but there can be no turning away from this prominent biblical theme. Oppressed peoples from around the world have been empowered by the scriptural picture of a God who is angered by injustice and unrighteousness. If we are resistant to the idea of the wrath of God, we might pause to reflect the next time we are outraged about something—about our property values being threatened, or our children’s educational opportunities being limited, or our tax breaks being eliminated. 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 has temper tantrums. It is a way of describing his absolute enmity against all wrong and his coming to set matters right….

Where is the outrage? It is God’s own; it is the wrath of God against all that stands against his redemptive purpose. It is not an emotion; it is God’s righteous activity in setting right what is wrong. It is God’s intervention on behalf of those who cannot help themselves.

The Blood of His Cross (3) – C.E.B. Cranfield

agnusdeiRomans 3:25
Whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed (NRSV).

Whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed (NASB).

In his widely-acclaimed commentary on Romans, C. E. B. Cranfield supports the traditional interpretation of this verse which understands Christ’s sacrifice on the cross in terms of a propitiation that averts the divine wrath which would otherwise have been directed against humanity on account of their sin.

Cranfield begins his exposition of this verse by arguing against the interpretation of the opening phrase of the verse in the two translations cited above. The key phrase is ὃν προέθετο ὁ θεός (hov proetheto ho theos, “Whom God displayed publicly”). Cranfield argues that the verb προέθετο (proetheto) as used in the New Testament can mean either (a) propose to oneself and so to purpose, or (b) to set forth publicly or display. It is clear that the two translations opt for the second of these options whereas Cranfield argues, “There is, in our view, little doubt that ‘purposed’ should be preferred to ‘set forth publicly’” (Cranfield, Romans Vol. 1, I-VIII, International Critical Commentary, 209). It makes better theological sense, suggests Cranfield, to understand Paul’s concern in terms of God’s eternal purpose than as a reference to the Cross as something accomplished in the sight of humanity.

Paul means to emphasize that it is God who is the origin of the redemption which was accomplished in Christ Jesus and also that this redemption has its origin not in some sudden new idea or impulse on God’s part but in His eternal purpose of grace (210).

The second important term in this verse is the word ἱλαστήριον (hilastērion), translated in the NRSV as “sacrifice of atonement” (in a footnote a further option is given: “place of atonement”), and in the NASB as “propitiation.” In the Septuagint (the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament), this word refers twenty-one times to the mercy-seat, that is, the place where the high priest sprinkled the blood of the sin offering on the day of atonement (see Leviticus 16). As such, it is quite possible that Paul is referring to Jesus Christ here, as the place where God effected his saving work. Cranfield, however, demurs. Following Leon Morris, he notes that in the Septuagint references, the noun in all but one case appears with the article when referring to the mercy-seat, whereas in this text it is anarthrous. Further, given Paul’s understanding of the intensely personal and costly nature of Jesus’ sacrifice, Cranfield considers it unlikely that Paul would liken Jesus to a piece of furniture in the temple. Rather, the mercy-seat would more appropriately be a type of the Cross itself, than of Jesus Christ (215). Cranfield, therefore, opts for the term ‘propitiation,’ or more precisely, “a propitiatory sacrifice” (216-217).

Many theologians find this interpretation of hilastērion deeply unsatisfying since it appears to portray God as full of wrath toward humanity, and requiring the blood sacrifice of an innocent victim before he will consider forgiving humanity. The idea that God must be appeased—and that by blood—before he will forgive seems contrary to the God of love revealed in Jesus Christ. Nevertheless Cranfield insists that this is the correct interpretation of this term:

Indeed, the evidence suggests that the idea of the averting of wrath is basic to this word-group in the OT no less than in extra-biblical Greek, the distinctiveness of the OT usage being its recognition that God’s wrath, unlike all human wrath, is perfectly righteous, and therefore free from every trace of irrationality, caprice and vindictiveness, and secondly that in the process of averting this righteous wrath from man it is God Himself who takes the initiative (216).

Further, the decisive factor for Cranfield is that this hilastērion occurs “in his blood” (en tō autou haimati), which indicates that a propitiatory sacrifice is intended.

The purpose of Christ’s being ἱλαστήριον was to achieve a divine forgiveness, which is worthy of God, consonant with his righteousness, in that it does not insult God’s creature man by any suggestion that that is after all of small consequence, which he himself at his most human knows full well (witness, for example, the Greek tragedians) is desperately serious, but, so far from condoning man’s evil, is, since it involves nothing less than God’s bearing the intolerable burden of that evil Himself in the person of His own dear Son, the disclosure of the fullness of God’s hatred of man’s evil at the same time as it is its real and complete forgiveness (214).

We take it that what Paul’s statement that God purposed Christ as a propitiatory victim means is that God, because in His mercy He willed to forgive sinful men and, being truly merciful, willed to forgive them righteously, that is, without in any way condoning their sin, purposed to direct against His own very Self in the person of His Son the full weight of that righteous wrath which they deserved (217).

In his treatment of this text Cranfield hits exactly the right notes. He acknowledges the reality of divine wrath as the overarching backdrop against which the saving work of Christ occurs. He insists that God’s wrath is righteous, and as such is entirely different to human wrath. That this wrath is occasioned by human wickedness indicates the seriousness with which God views this wickedness, displays the righteousness of God’s character in his response to sin, and affirms the genuine significance of human value, decision and act. Most importantly, he shows that God’s eternal purpose toward humanity was and is mercy, not wrath, and that God has determined to direct against himself—in the person of his Son—the wrath occasioned by human sin, in order to be merciful toward humanity and righteous in his mercy. This opens up a crucial window of understanding with respect to this verse and the atonement in general: it must be understood in trinitarian terms.

Finally, and with an eye on the topic I am exploring in this short series of posts, Cranfield is correct to insist that this hilastērion is “in his blood.” “It was by means of the shedding of His blood that, according to the divine purpose, Christ was to be ἱλαστήριον. … A sacrificial significance attaches to the use of the word αἷμα [‘blood’]. … There is little doubt that this is so in the verse under consideration” (210-211). The “blood of his cross” was the sacrificial means by which God has shown mercy to us while maintaining his unimpeachable righteousness.

Scripture on Sunday – The Blood of His Cross

agnusdeiThis morning in worship we are singing Blessed Assurance which includes the phrase “washed in his blood.” George Hunsinger has remarked that modern dogmatic theology, where it still speaks of the saving death of Christ, usually does so without reference to the blood of Christ (Hunsinger, “Meditation on the Blood of Christ,” in Disruptive Grace, 361).

I was recently challenged on this theme by someone who asked, when speaking of the atoning work of Christ, “must there be blood?” The person was concerned that reference to Jesus’ blood signified a violent atonement and thereby legitimised violence in the world. Given the violence this person has seen in their life and work, their concern is not surprising. Despite their unease, however, I was concerned that this was a bridge too far for those who, like myself, see Scripture as something more than writings reflecting human religious experiences and ideals. Trevor Hart has commented,

Whenever the story which the church tells appears to dovetail neatly and without wrinkles with the stories which human beings like to tell about themselves and their destiny, it is likely that the church is cutting the cloth of its gospel to fit the pattern laid down by the Zeitgeist rather than the heilige Geist” (Hart, in Gunton (Ed), The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine, 191).

I do not think Hart’s critique can be fairly levelled at this person. In some respects the gospel this person is telling is not at all consonant with stories human beings like to tell about themselves. We like stories of heroism, of sacrifice, of power that triumphs, and yes, of victory won, even at the cost of violence. Violence is deeply embedded in human relationships and structures; it seems we are all capable of violence in one way or another, and so this person’s gospel wants to disrupt, challenge and overturn this pattern of human sinfulness.

And yet; I am still concerned that the person is cutting the cloth of their gospel in a way which is not sufficiently attentive to the Holy Spirit’s witness in Scripture. The following verses show that the blood of Christ was a prominent theme in the biblical writers’ understanding of the saving work of Christ on the cross. Indeed, almost every New Testament writer shares this understanding, indicating its pervasive influence in the thought-world and faith of New Testament Christianity.

Mark 14: 23-25
Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.’

Acts 20:28 
Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son.

Romans 3:25 
Whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed

Romans 5:9  
Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.

Ephesians 1:7 
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace

Ephesians 2:13
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

Colossians 1:20 
And through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Hebrews 9:12-14
He entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!

Hebrews 9:21-22
And in the same way he sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship. Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.

Hebrews 13:12
Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood.

1 Peter 1:18-19  
You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish.

1 John 1:7 
But if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.

Revelation 1:5 
And from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood.

In all these texts and others like them, we see that the blood of Christ functions as a sin-offering on behalf of humanity, and as the institution of a new covenant between God and humanity in Jesus Christ. The answer to my friend’s question must be, on the basis of the New Testament witness, an unqualified “Yes!” The blood of his cross is the basis of our forgiveness and reconciliation with God, and of the new covenant of which we have become heirs. More must be said, of course. Does Jesus’ bloody death implicate God in violence? I will endeavour to address this important question next week.