Recent debates about the meaning of the cross may serve one purpose: they make us take another look at the cross and its meaning.
When talking about the cross, we typically make two mistakes. One is to focus on substitution exclusively; the other mistake is to ignore or reject substitution. Both approaches are wrong.
There is so much in the cross that Scot McKnight can write a book with the name A Community Called Atonement. There’s more to the cross than the idea of substitution. In The Cross of Christ, Stott writes, “It would be hard to exaggerate the magnitude of the changes that have taken place as a result of the cross, both in God and in us…a new day has dawned, a new age begun.”
Still, the place to begin is substitution, which, according to Stott, is at the heart of the cross. “Substitution is not a ‘theory of the atonement.’ Nor is it even an additional image to take its place as an option alongside the others. It is rather the essence of each image and the heart of the atonement itself.” (p.199)
Substitution leads to the accomplishments of the cross:
- Salvation (chapter 7) – including propitiation (God in Christ dying to appease God’s wrath), redemption (the purchase of our freedom at the cost of Jesus’ life), justification (the opposite of condemnation), and reconciliation
- Revelation (chapter 8) – the revelation of God’s glory, justice, love, wisdom, and power
- Conquest (chapter 9) – the triumph of God over evil
As I read this section, I realized again how easy it is to be reductionistic and to focus on only a part of the meaning of the cross. The big challenge is to understand as much as possible about the cross, to try to avoid some common caricatures, and then to let the cross shape our lives and ministries in profound ways.
I look forward to reading McKnight’s book. I should get looking for more resources that cover this area clearly. We need teaching that articulates the meaning of the cross in a way that’s accessible, clear and practical. It is, after all, the heart of the Christian faith, and it’s too good to leave to the theologians alone.