Book Review: The Forgotten Cross

Lee GatissIn this short but stirring work, Lee Gatiss calls Christians back to “the poetry of the gospel, and the multifaceted beauty of the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (p108). As Gatiss states in his preface, such a work is necessary because the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) has become embattled. Gatiss notes how this has drawn much of our attention away from the wonder of the cross. However the motif behind this book is not to enter into that debate. Thus Gatiss writes, “I want to affirm with all my heart that God the Son’s punishment-taking, in-my-place death is the magnificent centrepiece for all Christian theology” (p9-10), but, “The Bible explores and applies what Jesus did on the cross in a multitude of different ways. Penal substitution is one of them—indeed, it’s the most important one…because without it other ways of looking at the cross end up being inadequate for my salvation. But that’s not to say that penal substitution alone is fully adequate to meet my needs” (p11). Therefore as the book’s title suggests, Gatiss seeks to draw out “some forgotten or at least neglected dimensions to Christ’s death that we would to well to recover.”

To claim that PSA is not comprehensive in and of itself may raise some heckles, but that only reveals how narrow our understanding of the cross has become amidst recent theological debates. Gatiss repeatedly identifies Christ’s substitutionary death for sinners as the glorious focal point and source of salvation. But his very appropriate concern is that our focus has become myopic, meaning we are failing in our preaching and teaching to explore the spectacular depths and glory of Christ’s self-giving love, not to mention the broader implications of salvation for all of life. “This is what I often neglect,” Gatiss writes, “I think of the cross as having done something in the past…But I so often forget that it has implications in this present age” (p83). That is one of the resounding points of this book, as well as one that Gatiss models. He allows us to rest in the clear and undeniable biblical teaching of PSA, but shows how that truth is inseparable from others. For example, in his exposition of Ephesians, “We are saved by his precious blood. But there is also a corporate dimension to what the cross achieved. Jesus didn’t just come to save me personally so I can go to heaven when I die” (p62).

If I may interpose something C. S. Lewis wrote in his Reflections on the Psalms, “A man can’t always be defending the truth; there must be a time to feed on it.” One of the greatest strengths of Gatiss’ book is the application, which is both practical and offers some invaluable development of truths too often ignored. There are too many examples of this pointed and expansive application, so I will highlight just three.

Firstly, a repeated theme of The Forgotten Cross is how glory is promised after suffering and service, as we emulate our Lord. “The question we’re left with here is very simple: would you give up everything you have, and everything you’d like to have, to follow Jesus to the cross? It may not be glamorous. But in the end, even for Jesus, it’s the only way to true and lasting glory” (p40). Towards the close of the book, Gatiss baldly states, “Defeat and obscurity in the eyes of the powerful is utterly unimportant. Only the eyes of faith can perceive where true victory lies” (p107).

The forgotten crossSecondly, and tied to the aforementioned theme, Gatiss challenges the worldly desire for impressive ministry. In his first chapter we read, “When we see that the church in Corinth could boast of strong, well-educated, wealthy, successful people and leaders—that it was a strategic and important church…we’re not a million miles away from the culture of many evangelical churches today” (p17). In the chapter on Mark 10, Gatiss puts his finger on the temptation faced by many ministers: we have the nagging sense that we are made for something greater, to be more influential and successful. Concluding that chapter he writes, “It’s noble to want to make the biggest impact we can for the gospel. But it’s probably better for most of us, especially for the health of our souls, if that’s in a place that nobody’s ever heard of” (p40). Thus Gatiss reassures us, “[Jesus] knows our weakness. So we don’t have to collapse under the strain of having to appear together, to having to compete in the game of who’s the best and keenest Christian. Our saviour was crucified, crushed to death by the weight of our sin and God’s wrath against it, so that we can be free of that pressure to perform” (p26).

Thirdly, chapter 5 (on Titus 2) draws out the intractable link between the cross and our sanctification. The glorious point Gatiss reminded me of is this, “What we see going on at Calvary, the place where Jesus died, is of monumental significance. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit acting together in concert and perfect harmony to achieve their purpose in our salvation. And part of that salvation is…our holiness, godliness, purity, and goodness” (p80). The work of Jesus on the cross is in fact the joint work of the Triune God to make us his, therefore that work extends far beyond the atonement. “[The cross] saves us from a life of going with the flow of the world. Jesus died to save us, but he also died to make us different. That was the plan. So if we’re not different we’ve missed something in our doctrine, and are not adoring the gospel in the eyes of the world—however good we are at talking about” (p89).

This review is already too long, so I will offer just one short criticism, before concluding: Gatiss’ treatment of 1 Peter (chapter 3). On the whole this is one of the best chapters in the book. But I think that merely suffering with the same resolve and faith that Christ did fails to do justice to Peter’s epistle. Jesus stood before his enemies without sin, any harsh words or retaliation, and with full confidence in his Father who judges justly. But I am unconvinced that we are called to simply do the same. Suffering like Christ has the express purpose of vividly presenting the gospel to others, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honourable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see you good deeds and glory God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:12). Added to that, a little later, “Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for that hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:14-15). Christ undoubtedly set an example for us in the way that we are to suffer, but how we suffer can present us with opportunities to declare the gospel of Christ, as we share in his sufferings.

I read The Forgotten Cross in preparation for Easter and my heart was warmed, welcomingly challenged, and joyously reminded of the multifaceted glory of the cross. And I was convinced, most of all, because in the end Gatiss teaches the plain sense of Scripture, unpacking what God has revealed, and applying it with the caring but incisive sharpness of a pastor.

I received this book for free from Evangelical Press in exchange for this honest review. I was not required to write a positive review of the book. Previously I reviewed Stuart Olyott’s short work on the Trinity, also published by Evangelical Press, and offered a slightly nuanced critique of it.

Good Friday: The Cry of Dereliction

The day had turned to dark, long before the sun set, as Jesus Christ hung on the cross. His enduring faith in his Father in heaven had brought him to this end; obedience to his Father had culminated in the cross. But as he struggled to take his last few breathes, while his arms grew too tired to relieve the pressure on his chest, and the darkness enveloped and gripped him tightly he cried out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). What are we to make of these final excruciating words? Michael Wilkins calls them “some of the most profoundly mysterious words in the entire Bible.” Derek Tidball writes that they uncover the awfulness of Calvary, which we prefer to forget. Alister McGrath goes further, arguing that Jesus’ cry shatters the moulds of our thinking and reveals the fundamental uncontrollability of God. The cross presents us with an unnerving and mysterious question: in what sense does God the Father forsake his Son at the cross?

“If it is possible, let his cup pass from me”

Icon Jesus prayingBefore attempting an answer, let us start with Jesus’ familiar, though often domesticated, prayer in Gethsemane; when the man of sorrows, despised and rejected, well acquianted with grief who had experienced the many hurts and hardships of human life balked at Calvary (Matthew 26:39). The prospect of the cross brought Jesus into tormented fear and dread. In his short life he had known suffering but his agonised prayer suggests a greater significance and uniqueness of what loomed ahead. Before he was stretched out on that cruel tree, Jesus could say, “I am not alone, the Father is with me” (John 16:32). And throughout his fraught life Jesus would have enjoyed assuring fellowship with the Father. But Jesus’ pleas and prayers in Gethsemane force us to ponder what Jesus was to endure. We must conclude that it was not merely physical suffering that Jesus feared, but the death that he was to die.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

In addition to the above, to answer our question we must consider Jesus’ use of Psalm 22. Some have called it total despair or claimed that Jesus is utterly disorientated, even confused about why he was dying. But when we consider the content of the Psalm, we can say that the cry is not entirely desparing because the psalmist anticipated divine intervention. Furthermore, Jesus was aware that he was dying for sins. In fact, something that is often glanced over, the Psalm expresses faith in Yahweh to vindicate. Even though Jesus’ suffering threw him into the darkest of places, he trusted his Father to the bitter end. Significantly, Psalm 22 moves from lament and despair, to prayer, and climaxes in Yahweh being entroned over the nations. Jesus’ faith was unremitting as he cried out to his Father, whom he knew would establish his kingdom, even when it seemed the gates of hell were prevailing against it. Jesus knew his death would not be the end of his story. So onlookers at his crucifixion, familiar with the Psalter, would have heard an affirmation of Jesus’ faith, clinging with certain hope to the will of his Father.

Was the Son truly forsaken or the Father fully absent?

Crucifixion IconAs Jesus hung dying, being publically mocked and humiliated, it appears that God is absent from Golgotha. As Wayne Grudem comments, Jesus’ sweet fellowship with the Father, his source of unfailing strength and the element of greatest joy in a life full of sorrow, appears dashed. But as Alister McGrath writes, instead of understanding Jesus’ God-forsakeness as total privation we should see God’s presence in the most remarkably paradoxical way. Martin Luther called this the hiddeness of God at Calvary. As the sky is literally tarred, figurative darkness descends on the Son and God’s familiar protective presence and love was withdrawn from Jesus. In biblical symbolism, darkness is separation from God who is light. Jesus’ experience extends beyond deep spiritual darkness to enduring God’s wrath. Darkness is stressed by each Gospel writer, emphasising that God had not only turned away from the Son and their close communion but towards his Son in judging sin. Alone Jesus hangs, being made sin and fully identified with sinful humanity. And it this – the penalty of sin, not the Roman punishment – that weighed most heavily on the suffering servant. Calvin wrote that it was Jesus’ soul that bore the worst torment, the terror of God’s condemnation. As John Stott said, Jesus was plunged into that engulfing darkness for us; our sins blotted out the sunshine of the Father’s face.

Conclusion

When we ask in what sense the Father turned his face away from the Son on the cross we must agree with the authors of Pierced for Our Transgressions that the language of ‘abandonment’ or ‘forsakenness’ is a metaphorical way of referring to divine judgment. But it is not that simple, as we have seen, for the God who abandons his Son is fully present at the cross resolving the problem of sin. This great paradox prevents us from giving a glib answer to our question. Luther viewed the cross as a great mystery. Calvary should both humble and move us to adoration; while we cannot fully explain the enigma of Jesus’ cross or even grasp the anguished horror, suffering and abandonment that Jesus went through, let us not forget that he endured it on our behalf, so that we do not have to. If we understand none of the cross and Christ’s experience, praise God that it will never be ours.

Holy Week: What Lies Ahead

‘The hardest action to take is the course previously unexplored.’ That is a line from William Horwood’s Duncton Quest, an epic tale about heroic perseverance amidst tragedy and hopeless circumstances. There is much truth in Horwood’s words: the unknown is daunting. But was that the reason for the trepidation with which Jesus went about his task? Was Jesus unaware of what would be demanded of him? There is a wonderful theological word in Christology: nescience, meaning that – as a man – Jesus knew only as much as God the Father revealed to him. Should we conclude then that Jesus was in the dark regarding his messianic task? In this short post I want to explore that question, a fitting reflection for Holy Week.

Jesus ChristIf you have not formally studied theology then are forgiven for being unfamiliar with Albert Schweitzer’s contributions, especially in the search for the historic Jesus. To my shame I have not read Schweitzer and must resign myself to the perils of drawing on secondary sources to represent him, though the point I will be touching on is widely reproduced. One such place is in the writing of N. T. Wright, who borrows Schweitzer’s analogy in Simply Jesus (p183): Jesus is said to desperately throw himself onto the wheel of history after his actions had failed to bring about the kingdom of God. According to Schweitzer, Jesus expected the kingdom to arrive in the immediate future during his itinerant ministry but he was painfully mistaken. David Seccombe summarises Schweitzer’s position like this: after nothing monumental had taken place during his ministry, Jesus was forced to rethink his position and die in order to bring about the denouement. Seccombe continues, “For two years Jesus he had believed that God would intervene to reveal him as the glorious Son of Man and establish his kingdom. Now he realizes…God does not break into human history” (The King of God’s Kingdom, p558). Jesus, previously left in the lurch, at the last, recklessly abandons his life in vain hope; and the cry of dereliction, that tortured utterance of despair, is Jesus’ moment of inglorious truth.

Most of you would read this post will disagree with Schweitzer on a few points, the most glaring being that Jesus was in fact God breaking into human history, as the Son of God incarnate. Other points of departure might be over the timing of God’s kingdom, which in Jesus’ parables is both inaugurated and incremental; the remarkable signs Jesus performed in his ministry indicative of restoration and redemption; and whether the cry of dereliction reveals Jesus’ abandoning his mission or fulfilling it. But I want to challenge Schweitzer’s view of Jesus’ knowledge, which is where we started.

Holy WeekSchweitzer would have us believe that Jesus was largely unaware of God’s purposes, seen in him having unfulfilled expectations during his ministry and most clearly demonstrated in the cross being no more than a last throw of the dice. This ‘recalculation theory’, as it has been called, does not square with what we read in the wider Gospel accounts. For starters, if my post on Jesus’ temptation in Matthew 4 is right, which I think it is, Jesus was tempted from the outset of his ministry to avoid the messianic rejection, suffering and death. But if that sounds too assumptive, C. H. Dodd (in The Founder of Christianity, p62-64) highlights Jesus’ uniquely personal and intimate relationship with the Father and how that energised him for what in glimpses appears as an unbearable mission; “Certainly we cannot miss a pervading sense of dedication to a mission, which at times was a terrible burden…It is not surprising that there should have been moments when the sense of isolation in an unresponsive society became almost intolerable”. Jesus came to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45), early on in his ministry we are told that he set his face towards Jerusalem (Luke 9:53), and at his baptism he fails to renounce John the Baptist’s proclamation, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Jesus knew full well what his task entailed; indeed it is his self-sacrifice that gives fullest meaning and significance to the incarnation. We do not follow a man who did what he thought best, acting boldly despite inadequate information. We worship the Son who did his Father’s will even though the knowledge terrified him.

Jesus’ course was, returning to Horwood’s phrase, previously unexplored and incredibly hard. But we must retain that this was only because Jesus had never known anything other than happy and unbroken fellowship with his Father. The depth of Jesus’ work is not seen in Schweitzer’s vision of a desperate Jesus throwing all caution to the wind, unsure whether it would bring about any real change; it is seen in the deliberate Jesus, sure that that through his death the world would be forever changed.

Bonhoeffer on the Cost of Discipleship

Photo of BonhoefferEarlier this year I was asked to preach at the first of our quarterly youth rallies. After deliberating for a few days, I decided to preach on discipleship and the cost of following Christ. In my preparation I planned to frame the talk with writings from and references to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and death. This was not to be, since wisdom told me most 15 year old South Africans would simply switch off at the mere mention of World War 2. That is a pity, because fewer stories from history epitomise the cost of Christian discipleship more than Bonhoeffer’s.

At the age of 31 he wrote his outstanding Nachfolge (German for ‘Discipleship’). Largely a critique of the nominal and secularised Christianity rife in Germany, this work is legendary, and should never be forgotten, for Bonhoeffer’s illuminating distinction between costly and cheap grace. Read it. In the preface Bonhoeffer asks where answering the call to discipleship will lead, what decisions and partings it will demand. And his answer is that we need to go to Christ, for only he knows the answer. “Only Jesus Christ, who bids us follow him, knows where the path will lead. But we know that it will be a path full of mercy beyond measure. Discipleship is joy” (p40, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 4).

Flossenberg concentration campFor anyone who does not know the rest of his story: Bonhoeffer died 8 years later in a Nazi concentration camp for plotting to assassinate the Führer. When Bonhoeffer penned the words above he had no inkling that faithfully following Christ’s call to discipleship would lead to his own death. Did he still consider it joy when he sat in Flossenbürg concentration camp awaiting that fateful hour? Did he wonder where Christ’s mercy was in his latter life and execution? I think Bonhoeffer would tell us that the costliness of the call is unavoidable, yet full of God’s wondrous grace. Perhaps the most famous quote from his Nachfolge is this, “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ” (p45). Note how he saw God’s grace and Christian cross bearing as inseparable, and far from divergent.

Bonhoeffer bookApparently the last thing Bonhoeffer said to anyone was a relayed message to George Best, through a fellow inmate at Flossenbürg: “This is the end, for me, the beginning of life.” But Bonhoeffer approached that end as he had lived his entire Christian life, well acquainted with the intertwining of grace and cost, discipleship and death, and was not deterred from trusting his God’s sovereignty. A doctor at the camp wrote of Bonhoeffer’s last moments, “I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God” (Quoted in Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, p531).

Jesus said this about such disciples, “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” While Bonhoeffer undoubtedly gained life, I fear many of us consider loss to be incongruent with faith in Christ. We all long for cheap grace. In our age of consumerism we spend eagerly and enthusiastically. But when discipleship becomes costly we shake our heads. Many Christians today are unwilling to be disciples who know and experience the cross to be part of our discipleship. To these Bonhoeffer would pose this question, ‘How can we cheapen something that was so very costly to God?’

Luke’s Innocent Jesus: A Point From Repetition

Golden Icon: Jesus crucifiedSix times in Luke 23 the author wants us to see that Jesus really was innocent, and this comes from the lips of four different people. Three times Pilate states that he found no guilt in Jesus (23:4, 14, 22). Sandwiched between the second and third of those concerned public declarations, Pilate tells the crowd of Herod’s verdict on this itinerant preacher: Jesus was not deserving of death, merely ridicule (23:15). Hanging alongside Jesus, staring death squarely in the face, a convicted criminal, guilty by his own admission, holds that Jesus had done no wrong (23:41). Finally we hear the shout of the Roman centurion, ‘This man was innocent’ (23:47). Luke wants us to see that the Innocent dies.

Despite Pilate’s exasperation and Herod trivializing the charges, it seemed nothing could stop the wheels of injustice that were in motion. You might ask, “Why?” The entire scene might sicken you. Perhaps, like the thief, the truth that an obviously innocent man dying for something he did not do causes you to become indignant, furious at how unfair this good man is treated. If that is how you feel then I think you have begun to understand this section of Luke’s gospel. The repeated point of Jesus’ innocence combined with the trial hurtling towards execution is paradoxical; the reader is left frustrated by the tension, the irreversible course of Jesus’ trial. The words of the thief and the centurion bring no comfort or hope; they do not alleviate the tension. Rather, with the death of the Innocent it seems that all is lost.

Are we meant to feel pity? Like we are too often forced to do today, we throw our arms up in despair as we are stunned by another case of gratuitous injustice, another miscarriage of legal system. Or maybe Luke intended to rouse and stir our hearts and emotions, as we are in awe of this valiant sufferer. He said nothing to Pilate; he gave no answer to the trumped up charges. On the cross he prayed for those who hated and scorned him; and he even offered a glorious vision of undying hope to the thief suffering alongside him. Are we left to choose between a picture of somber failure and a gallant renegade? Stanley Hauerwas highlights the singularity of Jesus’ death and cautions us against likening it to any other; the Innocent is no mere martyr. There is more we must gather from Luke’s gospel.

Jesus at Mount of OlivesIn the preceding chapter of Luke’s gospel we meet Jesus and hear his heart wrenching prayer on the Mount of Olives. This is the crucial backdrop to the Innocent being tried and abandoned at the cross. There on the Mount we hear an echo from Isaiah 53:10, ‘It was the LORD’s will to crush him.’ The Father’s will would be done (22:42). Derek Tidball makes the point that Jesus was not an unfortunate victim with bad timing; instead he says we should see Jesus’ death as the deliberate result of a number of powers. I think Jesus’ agonising plea for rescue,  his weakness supplemented by an angel’s strenth, and the sweat like blood prevents us from saying that Jesus was bold before the death he was facing (22:42-44). At the Mount of Olives we meet a man with only one thing greater than his crippling fear: faith in God the Father.

With this point in mind I think that we can are better able to understand Luke’s intention: while Jesus’ death was the outworking of selfish and sinful men, manipulated by the destructive Satan, only one will prevailed at the cross: the Father’s. Jesus was not a victim tossed about by the evil engineering of men or the corrupting power of evil. He was the Innocent who dies according to the Father’s will in accordance with God’s promise to save those who are truly guilty and without hope. Jesus was not powerless in those last, fateful hours. It was not that the plans of men or Satan triumphed. That day was not an unflinching display of bravery, nor was it the unwitting and helpless death of weak man.

Luke wants us to see that the Innocent died for the guilty. And it could not have happened any other way because of the Father’s will and the Son’s faith.