Disputes flare up regularly in cyberspace about the Atonement, especially in the context of evangelism. This is no accident. The Cross, however we understand it, stands at the heart of Christianity.
(My Covenant colleague Christopher Yoder addressed much of the theological debate in “The good news of God’s wrath.”)
The Apostle Paul knew this would be a problem: “For the message about the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18). And he adds:
For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Cor. 1:22-24).
Paul is saying here that the Cross is the center of salvation, with the dual implication that we need to be saved and that the Cross is the way to salvation. Everyone has a problem with this, Paul says. Is not “Jew and Greek” a shorthand for “the whole world”? Nothing has changed in the 19-odd centuries since Paul wrote these words. We look for a way around this embarrassment.
For people who have a hard time with anything that makes them look weak, the Cross is threatening because it is the ultimate sign of weakness. Feeling strong and self-sufficient is a favorite way to avoid the embarrassment of the Cross.
Another way to avoid the cross is to stress only God’s love. Such teaching merely tweaks the title of a Beatles hit: “All You Need Is [God’s] Love.” As, Katie, a pastor friend of told me, “What Anglicans hear in the pews is love, without any reference to the particularity of Scripture.”
That phrase “the particularity of Scripture” is most telling. Our view of love has been molded more by the Top 40 than by Scripture. Is love a kind of magical elixir that makes trouble go away (only to come back double-fold when the drug wears off)?
Christians seek a definition of love in the sources of our faith. Ah, we say, when we read in 1 John 4:8 that “God is love.” Now we’re getting somewhere. God is love, and God loves us. It seems we are back to “All You Need Is Love.”
The Bible says more interesting things about love, however: it is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22); perfect love “drives out fear” (1 John 4:18); and nothing can separate us from God’s love (Rom. 8:39).
Paul describes love in the beloved passage often read at weddings (1 Cor. 13:4-8):
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
This sort of love seems like the kind of thing that we all really want. And we are tempted to conclude that if this is how God is oriented to us, then love is all we need.
However, if we dig a bit deeper, we see something else about God’s love, something counter-cultural, offensive, and ego-insulting. It is not free. It is costly. Again and again Scripture says that God does indeed love us. But where it affirms that, it reminds us of something else: God sent Jesus to die for us (see Rom. 5:8, 1 John 4:10, Eph. 2:4-5, and John 3:16). Once again, we stumble over the Cross.
At the very point we think God could not love us, the point of our sin, we discover instead the very “breadth and length and height and depth of God’s love” (Eph. 3:18). The more you face up to the brokenness and darkness in yourself, the more the light of God’s love will pour down on you.
When a person asked Karl Barth during his visit to the United States in 1962 to summarize his faith, he cited a different lyric, learned at his mother’s knee: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
Love is all we need, if by that love we mean God’s love as expressed in Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross.