Jesus’ cross is hard to talk about. It’s an impossibly awkward, illogical mystery. It’s very easy to oversimplify it and get it wrong. So here are some both/ands that I think are essential to how we think about the cross as we ponder it on this Good Friday.
1. Jesus’ cross is both a crime against God and part of God’s plan
When we turn Jesus’ cross into a simple math equation by which God resolves the problem of sin, we erase the most important historical fact about it. Israel’s true messiah was condemned to death by its religious authorities and then executed by the Roman Empire. The first sermon about the cross did not exhort its listeners to accept Jesus as their personal Lord and savior to get into heaven. The punchline of the original sermon about the cross is what Peter says in Acts 2:36: “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”
In other words, God’s plan is not simply to kill off his son to “pay for” sin. God’s plan is to subvert the sinful plans of people who thought they knew God better than anyone else in order to undermine their power and sabotage the stronghold of sin in the world. It’s very important to understand God’s role in the cross as subversive. Too many Christians are so intent on affirming God’s sovereignty that they erase the subversive aspect of the cross, which makes God into the Caesar who straightforwardly approves everything that is done to Jesus as a way of expressing his wrath against sin. A straightforward Caesar God is much easier to make it into a self-justifying imperial puppet than a God whose plan exploits and sabotages Caesar’s way of doing things.
2. Jesus’ cross both vindicates victims and justifies sinners
To me, the core human need that Christian atonement addresses is the need to be liberated from the ruthless prison of my self-justification. I cannot grow spiritually if I am always trying to prove myself right. I need atonement because it needs to be safe for me to be openly wrong, which requires my placement in a community of people who expect to be wrong and understand themselves primarily as redeemed sinners. That’s completely different than being part of a community of people who see themselves as “basically okay.” Basically okay people cannot be proactively merciful and vulnerable the way that redeemed sinners can.
I don’t just need Jesus’ solidarity as a victim and his atonement as a sinner. I need to see Jesus’ solidarity with the victims of my sin. I need to see that I have crucified him with my sins against them. Likewise I need to see Jesus’ atonement of those who have victimized me. Only Jesus has the authority to take my hand in one of his nail-scarred hands and ask me to make peace with someone who has sinned against me.
3. Jesus’ cross defeats both individual and systemic sin
Often conversations about Jesus’ cross either focus on how it addresses the sin of generic individuals (the personal morality gospel) or how it addresses systemic sin (the social justice gospel). There’s no reason for this bifurcation. The cross destroys sin on a cosmic level by conquering the power of imperial terroristic violence with the power of self-sacrificial love. The cross destroys sin on an individual level by giving me a reason why I can confess my sin and ask God’s deliverance from it.
4. Jesus’ cross is both a completed deed and an invitation to be crucified with him
On the one hand, it’s important to understand Jesus’ sacrifice as entirely sufficient for my justification as a sinner. On the other hand, Jesus does define discipleship as taking up my cross to follow him. The apostle Paul describes the goal of Christian salvation as coming to a state of being in which I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives within me. When we put together the theology of the New Testament, we see that atonement is not just substitutionary; it’s also participatory. Jesus’ cross is not just a gift I receive; it’s also something I’m invited to join.