Saturday, August 01, 2009

The Cross and our affections (1)

Great High Priest, we view Thee stooping,
With our names upon Thy breast,
In the garden groaning, drooping,
To the ground with horrors pressed.
Holy angels stood confounded,
To behold their Maker thus,
And shall we remain unmoved,
When we know ’twas all for us?

Joseph Hart


The message of the cross is intended to make a deeper impact upon us than a mere acceptance of its truthfulness. The message of Christ crucified is to engage the mind, and to be received as the wisdom of God, but it is to do more that that. We are to be intellectually satisfied that the substitutionary atoning death of Jesus is no human theory but God's own interpretation in Scripture of the cross. It commands our assent, in all its glorious aspects, as the very truth of God.

Not, of course, that we can ever fathom the depths or fully grasp the mystery of the death of Christ. But the cross was not an event without explanation. Crucially, ever before the hours of darkness at Calvary, the person who would suffer there, the nature of his sin bearing wrath averting death, and the effects of his sacrifice were all foretold. The categories of thought that explained Christ's offering of himself were already laid down in the Old Testament. They demand and deserve our assent. The eye of faith must see and our lips confess that at the cross Christ became sin for us.

The effect of the cross upon those who believe and refuse to believe goes deeper than mental assent or rejection. Zechariah and John speak of those who will mourn on account of the crucified Christ (Zechariah 12:10-12; Revelation 1:7). Paul made his boast in the cross (Galatians 6:14). God commands that we rejoice in his Son with trembling (Psalm 2:11), and that the right response to the free forgiveness that he bestows is to fear him (Psalm 130:4). Peter speaks of our loving an unseen Christ. We believe in him, and rejoice with a joy that is inexpressible and full of glory (1 Peter 1:9). Indeed the believer's assessment of Christ is that he is precious, and that his precious blood has redeemed us (1 Peter 1:18-19; 2:4).

In the words of J. I. Packer “To affirm penal substitution is to say that believers are in debt to Christ specifically for this, and that this is the mainspring of all their joy, peace and praise both now and for eternity.”

The vital role of the affections has perhaps not always been given due prominence in the more recent exposition and defence of the atoning work of Christ. To see the truth of penal substitution not only rejected but caricatured brings pain and sorrow to those who believe that it is what the Word of God teaches.

Writing about the revolt against penal substitution at the turn of the twentieth century B. B. Warfield noted that those who rejected this doctrine were not only offering to their audiences, in its place, something they believed to be much better but that

A tone of speech has even grown up regarding it which is not only scornful but positively abusive. There are no epithets too harsh to be applied to it, no invectives too intense to be poured out on it.”

(“Modern Theories of the Atonement,” in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, Volume IX: Studies in Theology, p. 287).

As insulting, inappropriate, and offensive as a phrase such as “cosmic child abuse” may be, the impulse to verbally deprecate penal substitution is, at least, not a contemporary phenomenon. Nor for that matter are 21st century alternatives to penal substitution anything other than older forms of atonement theology repackaged for contemporary audiences. What has perhaps been underplayed is the emotive nature of this attack on the atonement. This was not lost upon Gresham Machen in his landmark work Christianity and Liberalism. Though written in 1923 they deeply resonate with today's conflicts over the cross:

They (liberal preachers) speak with disgust of those who believe ‘that the blood of our Lord, shed in substitutionary death, placates an alienated deity and makes possible welcome for the returning sinner. Against the doctrine of the cross they use every weapon of caricature and vilification. Thus they pour out their scorn upon a thing so holy and so precious that in the presence of it the Christian heart melts in gratitude too deep for words. It never seems to occur to modern liberals that in deriding the Christian doctrine of the cross, they are trampling on human hearts.”

(J. Gresham Machen,
Christianity and Liberalism, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1923, p.120.)


Augustinian Successor said...

'Cosmic child abuse' is an understatement. And it shifts the blame back to God. We are all 'implicated in the act' of crucifying the Son of God. It is our sins not in the general sense which crucified Him, i.e. not just sins against our fellow humans, but precisely the original sin of unbelief - refusing to let God be God, an unbelief which is hateful of the one true and living God. It is this sin which ultimately put the Holy One to death. Jesus was murdered and that not only by the Jews and Romans, but by those He came to save. All of us are guilty of the death of the Son of God.

So, when Liberals hurl the charge of 'cosmic child abuse,' they do not understand the love of God revealed on the Cross. As it is, the Cross is foolishness. It is meant to be. God displaying His love concretely where we are guilty most and least expect Him to be so, that is in the act of crucifying Him.

Augustinian Successor said...

Thus, God saves us at the moment where we kill Him. God's love is displayed at the point where we displayed our greatest hatred. Jesus revealed His divinity when we refused to recognise so. The Cross can only be grasp by faith alone.

Marcus said...

Good post Martin. I wonder however we downplayed the affections when something as mighty, glorious and wonderful as the cross-work of Christ is the object? We aren't meant to approach it for comprehension (alone), so much as to hurl ourselves humbly in the dust before the cross, in awe, delight, homage and unashamed worship.

As you know I fully agree that the "cosmic child abuse" phrase (and understanding) is atrocious (and blasphemous). However I have two questions, neither of which I know the answer to. Maybe you can help:

1. Is it still doing the rounds? If so, we need to keep hammering away. If not, then might we be in some danger of responding to something people were saying 5 years ago but aren't now?

2. If it is still doing the rounds, do you have a view on to what extent it is a railing against a doctrine, and to what extent a railing against some of us who hold the doctrine, who are perceived to have been uncompassionate?

Always amazed what people will say to make a point that they claim is about a doctrine when in fact they just want to stab at a person. I have had someone online persistently claim that I support genocide this week, despite strong protestations to the contrary. I can't imagine he believes it, its just a good way of point-scoring against someone he thinks he wouldn't like. I wonder if some of that kind of thing may go on with the cosmic child abuse rhetoric?

Martin Downes said...

Thanks gents,

Is it still doing the rounds? No idea. That section of the post is lifted from something I wrote a little while back but wanted to use again to illustrate a point about appropriate and inappropriate language.

All of which fascinates me. Our language for, or against, a particular subject is rarely clinical, and more often is tied to our affections. It can be misused to create prejudice or unwarranted favour, and of course can be quite appropriate to the subject (e.g. NT examples of false teachers as wolves, error speading like gangrene, all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge found in Christ etc.)

Martin Downes said...


On your second point I tend to think that it works on a case by case basis.

So I'd want to ask questions such as:

Has this person fairly stated the truth that they are rejecting? Or are they offering a caricature of it?

If their presentation is at fault do they really understand that truth or are they reacting against a faulty view of it?

I may also want to ask: To what extent is their rejection bound up with their experience of those who hold to that truth?


Are they spiritually restless? Have they ever got their thoughts and roots down into this truth or was their grasp of it superficial at best?

[But I am not going to automatically or uncritically go for an "unpaid debts" theory of why people embrace errors. It may be true, and that is why the whole thing works case by case. The Galatians, after all, didn't go after errors because Paul had done a bad job teaching them the gospel. They went for them because the errors offered something that pandered to their sinful desires]