Who is Easter for? The Woeful Exchange

Cross of ChristDespite the cultural forces that persistently sideline the celebration Easter in favour of Christmas, for most Christians Easter has retained its significance in their lives and faith. However, in my admittedly limited experience and therefore tentative opinion, many churches work against the church’s historical, traditional and deeply biblical emphasis on Easter weekend. How is this done? In South Africa some hangovers of Christianity remain, in even the most secular societies. Because of this, with some certainty, churches can predict unusually large numbers in attendance over Easter weekend. Those making their annual pilgrimage are – rightly or wrongly – deemed non-Christians. So Easter is considered an “evangelistic highpoint” or “mission focal point” in the year—and is treated as such. This ungainly pragmatism masked as evangelistic mindedness is almost as trite as it is tragic. It is, as the title of this post suggests, ‘the woeful exchange’. 

Some readers will be familiar with the similar phrase, which I am playing on, ‘the wonderful exchange.’ Though that exact phrase is not found in the New Testament the truth of it is plain throughout. One of my favourite occurrences is in 1 Peter 2:24, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” You could spend an entire sermon unpacking the glorious truth wrapped up in that short verse, along with its context: Christ’s crucifixion is for our sins, in that he bears the punishment for rebellion against God even though he was only ever righteous. The purpose of his death was that we might become righteous, as we die to the self-destructive patterns of sin and live a life patterned after Christ’s. The effect of Christ’s death is healing, being made well or whole, restored to the image God originally created us in. Other verses are clearer that in the exchange we are credited with Christ’s righteousness (Romans 1-3). But this post is unfortunately about the woeful rather than the wonderful exchange.

It is Good Friday, the morning service at your church – kudos if you have any evening services over Easter – and the auditorium is packed, the stewards are frantically waving to each other in search of empty spaces or more chairs. The atmosphere is electric as the band does a final check on stage before your most energetic service (or worship) leader steps forward to start the show—I mean- church gathering. The vibe steadily grows as people speak over each other and compete against the carefully selected ‘outsider friendly’ playlist pouring from the speakers. It is almost time. This is it: ‘go big or go home’. Once the almost unrecognisably bare liturgy is out of the way we come to the Bible reading. But it is when the preacher stands up that the woeful exchange is at its ugliest. Instead of holding out the gloriously rich treasures millennia of Christians have celebrated at this point in the year the gathered church is told that Jesus died for our sins. In fact, the gathered church, probably making up the majority of those present, are forgotten entirely in order to present a lazily rehashed sermon about the cross. The woeful exchange leaves believers with almost nothing to reflect on because they were not even considered.

At this point some readers will be hastily offering a retort: ‘The same gospel saves non-Christians and transforms believers.’ True, if reductionistic. For example, if all that was needed to nourish Christian faith and mature believers was the cross why did God provide us with a gospel tapestry of 66 books? Why did he present his character and love in a range of genres, through a host of unique human voices and emphases? I mean, if it is the same gospel – i.e. the cross – why do we ever wander outside of the four passion narratives found in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? If we affirm that all of Scripture finds its centre in the person and work of Christ then why do we retreat to a simple passion text and sermon on Good Friday? I have become convinced that the answer to my last question – the only one that was not rhetorical – is that many churches are guilty of the woeful exchange. Perhaps if we spent more energy in presenting the splendid riches of Christ’s work at Easter rather than offering the same old tired and predictable gospel presentations those visitors would be gripped by God’s truth. Do not ignore the fact that those in your church desperately need Easter themselves. Hold out the wonders of the gospel. Do not pragmatically trade it in this Easter.

This post fits roughly with a short series on the work of Christ. The first challenged the overly narrow view of Christ’s death as a legal event, highlighting for Christians the love of God. The second explored other aspects of the atonement, reminding Christians that God’s work is much richer than Christ in our place (the wonderful exchange), for faith is deeply transformative. Both posts bemoaned presentations of Christ’s work as merely external; it is rather the unparalleled evidence of God’s love that is effective in making us those who love like him.

The Work of Christ: Not Merely Substitution

Jesus Christ iconLast year the church I was part of worked through Paul’s letter to the Philippians. On one occasion at a leaders’ meeting an argument broke out over Philippians 1:27-2:11. The line of application we were pressing was that Christ’s death is an example of sacrificial service, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus” (2:4-5). Paul then goes on to recount Christ’s incomparable humility in serving others (2:6-8). Some present felt that emphasising Christ’s death as an example might weaken our grip on Christ’s death as substitutionary, when he satisfied God’s justice at the cross by suffering the penalty for sin we deserved. However I do not think that we are forced to choose one of these over the other.

After his lengthy section presenting and critiquing what are called ‘the theories of atonement’ in The Work of Christ, Robert Letham writes, “No one theory has ever commanded universal support. Moreover, no one viewpoint appears to answer all the questions that surface when we reflect on what Christ came to do on the cross” (p174). Reformed Christians typically have a mature understanding of justification by faith alone. This strong emphasis however often completely overshadows the manifold blessings and benefits of Christ’s work. The result is Christians who see the work of Christ in purely legal and transactional terms, a deficient view I argued against in my previous post. Letham does an excellent job of presenting the different atonement theories, pointing his readers to their respective biblical foundations, potential pitfalls and obvious errors. I attempted to do something like this, thinking about what is called the Christus Victor theory of atonement. Returning to the post at hand, if the extent of your appreciation for Christ’s work is merely substitution it is likely you have an underdeveloped scope of humanity’s plight and God’s powerful salvation. 

The argument about Philippians I mentioned pertains to the Christus Exemplar theory of atonement, also called moral influence. Remember, neither Letham nor myself are presenting this as an exclusive, or even capping, approach to understanding Christ’s work. But we would have to exclude vast swathes of the New Testament in claiming that we are not called to imitate Christ. Furthermore, I am not presenting the moral influence theory of atonement as historically without fault. Letham shows that the unbiblical tendency of those who advocate for a pure Christus Exemplar reduce the atonement to human effort. The subjective change resulting from our imitation of Christ is what brings us back into relationship with God, or atones for sin. However, he also writes, “Christ’s death does produce a subjective moral change in those who contemplate it in faith by the power of the Holy Spirit” (p167).

Robert LethamIt is perhaps this lost emphasis that has lead to us practising a purely memorial or Zwinglian Lord’s Supper. But that is a topic for another post. Christ’s self-giving sacrifice is both the effective power and powerful example for transformed lives. If we always retreat into preaching Christ’s death as substitution why are we surprised that churches are full of rudimentary faith and nominalism? Many churchgoers today will gladly profess the name of Christ as long as they never need to put on his character.

Similar language of ‘subjective change’ through participation in Christ’s death can be argued from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Paul yearns for the Philippians with the affection of Christ (1:8). He prays that they will be filled with fruit of righteousness through Christ (1:11). Suffering together and supporting each other in hardship is said to be for the sake of Christ whilst merely believing is inadequate (1:29). The encouragement to be shared is in Christ (2:1). Paul can even say that believers must have the same mind as Christ (2:5). Even the section of the letter that comes closest to a fully orbed idea of justification by faith in Christ, most often exclusively tied to the substitution view of atonement, in 3:2-11 concludes with striking language of participation and subjective change: “That I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (3:10-11). Go and read the book in its entirety and tell me if I am missing something.

Let me wrap this post up. The gospel teaches that Christ gives himself over to death and judgment, in the place of sinners so that those who place their faith in him can be declared righteous. But the gospel also teaches us how to live. To put it another way, at the cross we see God’s self-giving love. But when we experience that love, or participate in Christ by faith, his death and all that it embodies begins to shape our hearts. We might think of faith in Christ’s substitutionary death like the air pumped into the lungs of someone who has stopped breathing. The process is incomplete until that person has started breathing again for themselves, when the air has given life to their dead body. The atonement brings about new life, a life fixed on Christ our example.

The Work of Christ: More than God’s Justice

Robert LethamTony Reinke said in his book Lit! that, along with whatever else he is reading, he tries to always be in book on the work of Christ. This desire surely needs little explanation if you are a Christian. But before you think I am laying on the guilt, let me admit that in 2018 I read only two books on the work of Christ, and both of those were at Easter. One of them was Robert Letham’s The Work of Christ. And it is my intention to post some reflections on it over the next month as we head towards Easter this year. You are reading the first post in this series which – along with the second – will be thinking about penal substitutionary atonement (PSA), which Letham defines as, “Christ himself willingly submitted to the just penalty which we deserved, receiving it on our behalf and in our place so that we will not have to bear it ourselves” (p133).

Numerous objections have been raised against PSA through the years and today the doctrine is perhaps facing some of its harshest criticism to date. Letham outlines and addresses two popular objections to PSA: (a) it seems unjust; (b) and therefore raises questions about God’s character. Letham more than adequately rebuffs these criticisms and defends the biblical, just and loving doctrine of PSA. But I want to touch on a third issue he interacts with, “Today there is almost universal distaste for thinking of God and salvation in legal categories” (p137). In other words, many feel that PSA reduces God’s grace to a cold transaction devoid of affection, or “stock-exchange divinity”, as Edward Irving called it. How do we answer this objection?

Briefly Letham shows how the Bible speaks very positively about God’s law. Quoting from a handful of Psalms he argues that God’s judgments are deemed perfect, and those who meditate on his justice are called wise. In the Gospels we do not see Jesus abolishing the law but rather pressing its demands upon the entire person, “requiring total and lifelong dedication to the service of God’s kingdom.” Furthermore, while Paul asserts the law’s inability to save in Romans he is careful and clear not to reject it (Romans 3:31; 7:12, 14). So, regardless of our dislike for legal categories, the Bible affirms them; God’s justice, righteousness and judgment are not merely good, but perfect.

Letham then provides a second argument against those who would reject PSA, on the grounds of it being abstract, too ledger like, or extrinsic. He writes, “It may be helpful for us to see the penal substitutionary death of Christ in the context of God’s loving provision for the deliverance of those who otherwise were without hope…The atonement stems from the love of God and, since God’s love is just love and his justice is loving justice, the cross is a demonstration par excellence of that love in a way that is commensurate with his justice” (p138). You should probably read that quote again. Letham’s point is that instead of divorcing God’s love from legal categories, the Bible holds them together. “God’s amazing love had to be righteous as well” (p139).

This post is more technical than I aim to be here, so let me keep it short and attempt to offer a neat conclusion. PSA is a central idea in both Old and New Testaments. But far from seeming to reduce God to justice crazed tyrant, in God’s provision of a substitute – ultimately his own Son – we see God’s crazy love (thanks Francis Chan). The cross beautifully demonstrates God’s love and his justice. In love Christ faces my judgment. His perfect justice partners his love and removes the penalty for sin. Hear Letham one last time, “Sin is so central to to the New Testament portrayal of the atonement that a theory which leaves it on one side is deficient” (p163). PSA upholds God’s perfect justice, presents us with God’s great love and pardons us of our sin. To adapt a few lines from O Church Arise: Come see the cross, where love and justice meet.