This article is part of our new Head to Head debate feature. This week, in concert with our Engaging Easter coverage, Joel and I are engaging the Progressive Channel’s Mark Sandlin on “Why Did Jesus Die on the Cross?” Sandlin has given his answer to the question where he talks about what Jesus’ death doesn’t do (atonement) and then concentrates on what Jesus’ death does do (demonstrates that that love urges people to stand up to those in power).
The Cross as Political and Theological
When I read Sandlin’s blog post I was reminded of a story that Tom Wright told about his time as a Sunday school teacher in Canada. He once asked a class, “Why did Jesus die?” Some kids said “Because he made the leaders angry” and others said, “To take our sins away.” The fact is that both are true! Jesus died as a messianic claimant making a vehement protest against the nationalistic agenda and economic exploitation perpetrated by the temple hierarchy. And yet that is not the end of the matter, because Jesus I think also believed that Israel’s sin – and that of the nations too – would not be removed until a particular Israelite suffered fully the curse of the law and was vindicated on their behalf. Then there would be a new exodus, a new Israel, a new covenant, a new temple, and the nations would at last throng to join God’s people. That is what the cross achieved if we read passages like Mark 10:41-45 and Gal 3:13-14 where we see that Israel’s restoration, the inclusion of the Gentiles, and the removal of sins are indelibly linked together. Sandlin’s attempt to reduce the cross to a placard for political protest might sit well with some brands of liberationist theology, but it comes at a great price. First, Sandlin’s Jesus is a wonderful martyr for the cause, but he is not a saviour. He is a symbol for socio-economic struggle, but does he does not take my sin away from me. The thing that keeps me separated from God – guilt, shame, impurity, or whatever – is not addressed by Sandlin’s Jesus. Second, Sandlin’s Jesus does not seem to be part of the biblical storyline about a world lost in sin, where Israel was called to be a light in the darkness but became trapped in the darkness, and God’s promise to put the world to right is made good through the Messiah and his cross and resurrection. That storyline is not only irrelevant to Sandlin’s Jesus it seems to be affronting that Jesus came to fix the problem begun at Gen 3:15 about humanity’s fall into sin.
The Cross Deals with Sin
I have to confess that I was utterly puzzled by Sandlin’s statement:
When [Jesus] said, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill,” in Matthew:5:17, what he was really saying is, “I did come to destroy how you are using the Law,” (and, thus, how you understand sin).
Always be cautious when people use the word “really” to make someone say something the opposite of what he or she says. I don’t think this has anything to do with what Jesus said or even how Matthew understands Jesus in relation to the Torah. What Sandlin means in his exposition of the Sermon on the Mount is that sin is (and only is) acting in unloving ways towards others. At one level that is definitely true, however, a basically study of the Hebrew and Greek words for “sin” might suggest that there’s quite a bit more to it than that. I for one think that sin has a lot to do with the rebellion in the human heart against God and that rebellion leads us to do unloving things. In addition, the thing we have to remember is that, irrespective of the bad the effects of our sin on others, that God is the party most offended by our sin. God is the one who stands affronted and hurt by our sin because it is willful defiance of his plan and purposes for humanity to know him and love him. And it God who will hold us to account for our unloving actions and our rebellion against him in an event that we call judgment. That Jesus died “for our sins” means and can only mean that he died to remove them from us by way of his sacrificial death to make atonement for our sins.
The Cross as Mystery
Sandlin rejects any idea of transaction whereby Jesus dies to take our sins and its consequences upon himself. He writes: “[The cross] wasn’t a moment that erased our sins by some mystical magic show from above.” What Sandlin calls “magic” I call “mystery” and a glorious mystery at that! The mystery is that Jesus bears my sin so that I will not suffer the consequences for it. Hence the words of Paul:
There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood–to be received by faith. (Rom 3:22-25 NIV)
A similar point was made in the Epistle to Diognetus, a second century writing, celebrating the glorious exchange between Jesus and sinners:
But when our wickedness had reached its height, and it had been clearly shown that its reward, punishment and death, was impending over us; and when the time had come which God had before appointed for manifesting His own kindness and power, how the one love of God, through exceeding regard for men, did not regard us with hatred, nor thrust us away, nor remember our iniquity against us, but showed great long-suffering, and bore with us, He Himself took on Him the burden of our iniquities, He gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for them that are mortal. For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! that the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors! (Ep Dio 9:2-5).
Sandlin’s Jesus isn’t much different from a Gandhi or a Nelson Mandela, great leaders who inspired people to suffer and die for the sake of others, but he cannot take your sins away. I’m all for justice and helping the vulnerable, but I do that from the strength of the “sweet exchange” that Jesus made atonement for my sins, that I’m forgiven, redeemed, reconciled, and justified. At Easter I don’t sing hymns that go:
On that cross condemned he died
By corporate forces who have lied
Called us to global protest
Jesus bids us to do our best
Rather I sing:
Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
In my place condemned He stood;
Sealed my pardon with His blood.
Hallelujah! What a Savior!