Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Why Did Jesus Die? or, Avoiding a Reduced Gospel

The previous post which argued that we ought to be able to affirm BOTH the new-creation-inaugurating aspect of Jesus' death AND the sin-atoning accomplishment of it leads me to a broader observation: sometimes those of us who speak about the value of Jesus' death on the cross tend to reduce the benefits of it to one or two areas while the Bible itself seems happily to move between many. While some of these benefits are overlapping, none of the following five are easily reduced to a single achievement: Because of the cross 1) the sinner's impurity is cleansed through a sacrifice (Heb.9:13-14), 2) Jesus pays a ransom for the debt that sin has created (Matt.6:12; Mark 10:45; 1 Tim.2:6), 3) Jesus conquers the power of sin, death, and the devil (Col.1:12-14, 2:14-15), 4) the personal hostility between God and the sinner is removed (Rom.5:10), 5) the legal judgment of sin was transferred from the human law-breaker to Jesus (Gal.3:13). While it may be true that the church sometimes makes the mistake of emphasizing some of these benefits while neglecting others, we should resist the temptation to respond to one kind of reductionism with another. Not just biblically, but even intuitively, would we not expect that the multiple manifestations of falleness from which creation suffers would all be reversed by the work of Christ (even if only in an inaugurated extent)? This is the long-awaited Savior of the whole sinful creation, afterall, and his arrival brings a restoration "far as the curse is found", not just to the curse as summarized by one family of biblical images of falleness. Broken bodies will one day be given resurrected bodies like his in which to experience a restored world, but also they will enjoy the forgiveness of a God they have offended, the cleansing from their shame, a victory over spiritual and temporal powers that used to enslave them, etc. To put this another way, when we spot the limitations of some theory of the cross, we should remember that a limitation is not necessarily an un-truth. Did the old "ransom theory" of the atonement have its problems? Yes, but this doesn't free us from somehow including the clear ransom metaphors used in the New Testament to complete our view of the atonement. Is N.T. Wright mistaken if he does not believe that the imputation of our sin for Christ's righteousness is a New Testament teaching? Yes, but that doesn't detract from the value of his work on the new creation themes surrounding Jesus' work which is manifestly biblical if we open our eyes to it. Christ announces a big gospel, good news all around, and not easily reduced. Our preaching, to stay scripturally balanced, should probably dance between all the New Testament portraits of what Jesus accomplished. A good example of the both/and approach to the cross (and the resurrection) can be seen in Michael Horton's responses to Frederica Mathewes-Green in The Church in Emerging Culture: Five Perspectives, pp.143-190).