The God I Don’t Understand 7: How does the Cross work?


My apologies to those waiting for the next chapter in Wright’s book. Some other writing assignments require me to put down my fun books and pick up some work-related reading these days. But enough of my excuses… In chapter 7 Chris Wright admits that one answer to the question, “How did the cross achieve salvation for us?” is simple and from Scripture: “Because it did.” But he like many others would rather not stop there. And he contends the bible doesn’t stop there either.

He reminds the reader that evangelical interpreters of the Bible regard the most helpful metaphor of the cross as judicial–substitutionary atonement. There are other metaphors used in the bible to explain the “how” but 1 Cor 15:3 underlines and emphasizes that Christ’s death on the cross was sacrificial and substitutionary. Here Wright brings up the controversy surrounding “penal substitution” and the grounds by which some reject this forensic focus to substitutionary atonement. Of the 7 reasons he lists, the primary ones (in my eyes) are the sense that penal substitution focuses too much on guilt, portrays God as mechanistic or always angry, and emphasizes the only way to deal with sin is with violence.

Wright believes the arguments for rejecting penal substitution would be good if in fact evangelicals held them. But he fears that the arguments against the penal metaphor are caricatures. From this point he looks at how the bible paints God’s love and anger. His anger and love must be, he contends, taken together as part of a whole, rather than having one negate the other. The two expressions are not contrary to each other any more than we may be angry with a loved one for bad behavior and yet still love them at the same time. He suggests the Cross satisfies both God’s love and anger.

He further rejects the conflict between God the father and Jesus the son. God is not the angry father and Jesus the loving son who steps between us. That viewpoint would destroy God’s essential unity (see John 17 for this). He uses extensive quotes from John Stott here to bolster his argument

Finally, he addresses the concepts of guilt and shame. The argument has arise that penal atonement only makes sense in cultures with a “developed sense of personal and objective guilt.” Shame cultures, it is suggested, would not be able to identify as well. Further, in a postmodern world it appears that shame is the more likely experience (of not being internally consistent with oneself). But Wright says that both shame and guilt are addressed by the cross and both are related. He points to Ezekiel who talks about being shamed and feeling shamed (36:16-32). The cross (and the forgiveness behind it) takes away the shame quality even though they still feel it when they remember what God has done. Wright suggests that ongoing feeling is healthy. He quotes from another of his books

Israel were not to feel ashamed in the presence of other nations (36:15), but they were to feel ashamed in the presence of their own memories before God (36:31-32). Similarly, there is a proper sense in which the believer may rightly hold up her head in company.

He then talks about how God in the OT and Jesus in the NT publicly affirms those who were shamed. God removes their shame, no matter what others think of them. They now hold their head high. And yet, Wright tries to articulate that this person may still feel shame when remembering past sins but he is quick to point out that this feeling does not crush but fuels “genuine repentance and humility and for joy and peace that flow from that source alone.”

While the content of this chapter seems a bit more about confronting a wrong he sees in the penal substitution debate than about answering how the cross works, nonetheless I find his writing about guilt and shame quite helpful here–especially how he distinguishes the kinds and sources of shame. I think it might be helpful for those who trust in Jesus but who struggle with shame to consider for a moment what their shame drives them to do. To hide? To be grateful for God’s restorative work?

Next week, we’ll look at his final chapter on the cross.

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Filed under anger, Biblical Reflection, book reviews, Christian Apologetics, Christianity, Doctrine/Theology, sin, Uncategorized

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