The reason I do this is not because I’m a terrible cynic and a curmudgeon who likes to split hairs and find fault. It’s because, as one who was involved in leading worship for twenty-five plus years, I believe that the words we sing matter very greatly. And they matter not only as an expression of what we believe, but also, and perhaps more importantly, as a powerful vehicle in forming what we believe. I’m not the first person to suggest that the songs we sing are often more formative for our theology than the sermons we listen to.
So, with that preamble out of the way, I’d like to spend a few moments considering the implications of two lines from the song This Is Amazing Grace by Phil Wickham. If you don’t know it, take a moment to listen as you watch the video below:
I’d like to hone in on two lines from the chorus, highlighted below:
This is amazing grace
This is unfailing love
That You would take my place
That You would bear my cross
You lay down Your life
That I would be set free
Oh, Jesus, I sing for
All that You’ve done for me
Now, the highlighted words and the ideas they convey are hardly unusual in contemporary Christianity. Indeed, many Christians would say that to speak of Jesus taking our place on the cross is to express the very heart of our faith. In that sense, I’m not really going to critique this song so much as I’m going to use it as a vehicle to ask, and attempt to answer, a crucial question: what do we mean when we say that Jesus took our place on the cross?
I’m reasonably confident that the answer that would be given to this question in the vast majority of evangelical churches is something along these lines: we, being sinners, deserve punishment for our sin, and the just punishment for sin against a holy God is death; but Jesus, the sinless Son of God, offered himself up in our place and took upon himself God’s punishment of death for our sin so that those who put their trust in him might go free.
It’s a neat and appealing answer that offers a pleasantly satisfying logic. And, of course, it’s an answer that scripture can easily be marshalled to support. I contend, however, that it raises at least three problems:
1. If God decrees that I must die for my sin, then it seems to me that God loves some abstract concept of justice more than he loves me as his child. In effect, to believe this, I need to believe that God’s love is not strong enough on its own to forgive me and free me from the clutches of sin; only if a transaction occurs in which someone else dies in my place will he forgive me.
Bluntly, this makes God a death-dealing God, not a loving God who is the giver of life.
2. If Jesus died in my place to appease the wrath of God, God is essentially no different from the Ammonite god Molech, to whom the Canaanites and many other ancient peoples offered human sacrifices. Yet throughout the Old Testament Law and the Prophets, we read of God categorically outlawing any attempt to engage in such abominations as human sacrifice. Is God a hypocrite, engaging in and condoning an act that he elsewhere describes as an abomination?
If you counter that God is not like Molech because he didn’t demand Jesus’ sacrifice, I’ll respond that he at the very least accepted it, which in my opinion is frankly not much different. And if you counter that it wasn’t human sacrifice because Jesus was the Son of God, I’ll respond that you’re grasping at straws. The church has always affirmed that Jesus was both fully God and fully human.
3. If the required punishment for sin is death, we have another problem, because there are clearly vast numbers of people going their merry way sinning left, right and centre, not putting their trust in Jesus’ substitutionary death and yet not dropping dead. They will, of course, drop dead one day, but that will be because physical death is the common fate of all humanity, not a specific punishment for their sin.
In order for the schema outlined above to work, then, we have to conclude that the death that we deserve for our sin is something that happens to us not in this life but in the life to come. And thus we create and sustain the vital need for hell within our framework of sin and salvation. And the problem with hell is that… well, any god who would consign billions of people to eternal suffering because they did not believe correctly is neither loving nor worthy of worship. (I unpacked this idea more fully in a recent post.)
The question remains, then: if Jesus did not die to secure forgiveness and freedom from God’s wrath on our behalf, does it make any sense at all to speak of him taking our place and bearing our cross?
As it happens, I don’t think we can simply throw out this language just because one particular understanding of it raises major theological problems – even if that understanding happens to have become the predominant one in contemporary Christianity. After all, it is language that has a rich biblical heritage: for example, the Apostle Paul will describe Jesus as the one “who loved me and gave himself for me”. It is therefore incumbent upon us to find ways to interpret and give meaning to the idea of Jesus’ death in our place that are less theologically problematic and more faithful to the all-forgiving, patient and compassionate God revealed in the person and work of Jesus.
In conclusion, then, allow me to suggest three such ways:
1. Jesus died in our place in that he took on the inevitable effects of human violence. Violence breeds violence, and Jesus himself said that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. I firmly believe that humanity’s number one problem is violence (and I don’t just mean of the armed variety), and that as such, without some external intervention to break the cycle of violence, we would all end up being consumed by the escalating reciprocal effects of our violence. Jesus died on the cross to demonstrate in graphic fashion the inevitable terminus of unchecked violence, and to show that God’s response, even when such violence is directed against his own person, is to offer forgiveness and peace.
2. Jesus died in our place in that he took on the judgement that we, by our own standards of justice, deserved. We humans have an understanding of justice in which eye must be given for eye and tooth for tooth. And the fact is that we want to see others punished for sins we consider beyond the pale, while keeping the blackness in our own hearts hidden from others. In dying not under God’s judgement but under ours, Jesus threw a spotlight on our limited and ultimately distorted and inadequate understanding of justice.
3. Jesus died in our place in that he did for us that which we could not do for ourselves. In some strange and mysterious way, he received all of our sin and violence into his very body and took it down into the grave, where it remained, defeated and destroyed, when he rose again to new life. Through his broken body and the blood of his forgiveness, he transformed our sin and the death it always reaps into life and peace.
[ Image: Tim Hamilton ]