I have been reading Hilary of Poitiers and Gregory Nazianzen, both early church greats (Hilary in the West, and Gregory in the East). What strikes me is the way each of these brothers are so completely consumed with the incarnation of the Father’s Son, and the anointed One. Any, and every, hint of insult to the shocking union of Jesus with us in our fallen existence catches their quick scrutiny. They never pretend to explain how this most beautiful union came to be; they simply defend it with a vengeance. For both of these men, and for other great leaders of the early church—Irenaeus, Athanasius, Cyril, Basil, and Gregory of Nyssa, to name a few—the whole work of Christ is bound up with his union with us. For me, this is the fundamental difference between the early church and us today in the ‘modern’ West. Within the legal framework, which is normal to us, the incarnation gets a mere nod, as it is perceived as essential to having a pure sacrifice for the cross. The incarnation, like the ascension of Jesus, is orthodox as we all know, but when is the last time you heard a sermon on the ascension, or on the incarnation for that matter? For these men, however, the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus are all of a piece, all part of the same stunning act of the Father, Son and Spirit working to unite us as we are in our brokenness and sin with the trinitarian life. What could be more beautiful?
It is here that my understanding of the crucifixion of Jesus has changed over the years. As a young boy I was taught that Jesus suffered the wrath of his Father on the cross, the wrath that was intended for us—and I was to be grateful. Such an interpretation made sense to my Western mind, but it never made sense to my heart. When I read Athanasius over 35 years ago my heart heard another message, with a different God, and a different issue. Some years later I heard the same message in T. F. Torrance, James Torrance, John McLeod Campbell, Thomas Erskine, George MacDonald, and C. S. Lewis, and not least Karl Barth. Without being too complicated let me say that how we frame the problem that Jesus came to ‘fix,’ or what we assume about the problem, determines the way we interpret what happened on the cross.
In the modern West, generally speaking, at least on the right, the problem is that God is holy and we have sinned. Since God is holy; he cannot simply forgive us. Thus, there must be some kind of satisfaction (Anselm) or punishment (penal substitution). Hence, Jesus steps onto the scene of history as the pure, spotless lamb who gives himself to suffer the punishment due to fall on us as guilty sinners. In this framework, and its extreme versions of a fiery, angry, furious God, Jesus suffers from his Father. His sufferings are on our behalf and for our salvation, but the suffering is afflicted from his Father. The cross, on this reading, is about satisfying the Father’s (rather different from the Son’s) holiness.
When I read the brothers mentioned earlier, the frame is different. For them the fundamental issue is not ‘how can a just God forgive sinners’ or be legally satisfied to forgive (not to concede that penal substitution is forgiveness, for there is no forgiveness in this theory at all, only justice, and a non-relational, abstract justice at that). For these brothers the question is ‘how can God unite himself with us in our fallen humanity.’
Anything less than this union—real, personal union between the Father’s Son and the anointed One with us as broken, sinful, shame-riddled sinners—is for these men unworthy of the word ‘salvation.’ For it leaves us outside of the divine life. So the question is not so much as to the satisfaction of divine law as it is the uniting of the divine life with us in our death. This distinction, to me, constitutes two different pair of glasses through which to read the story of Jesus’ death. It may well be that both pair need to be honored, in some way, but at the moment I am simply contending that the ‘union’ pair be brought back into the conversation. This perspective has been disastrously lost in the modern West.
The discussion comes to this: Is the cross about Jesus’ suffering wrath from his Father or about his suffering wrath from us? If the goal is to satisfy his Father’s justice (leaving aside how this could possibly be different from his own) then the death of Jesus will be interpreted as his suffering the righteous wrath of his Father against sinners in our place. If the goal is to unite himself with us as fallen sinners (and with his Father and the Holy Spirit in shared life) then the goal is to reach the real, sinful us. And how does the Father’s Son, and the anointed One unite himself with us in our iniquity? How does Jesus connect with us in our estrangement and alienation? All four Gospels shout a straightforward, simple message. He willfully submitted to our rejection. We crucified Jesus. Nothing could be more clear. The wrath poured out on Calvary’s hill did not originate in the Father’s heart, or in the Holy Spirit’s, but in ours. It was the Jews and the Gentiles (us), not his Father or the Holy Spirit who mocked Jesus, ridiculed him, unjustly condemned him, beat him, and tortured him to death. (See Matthew1:21, 23; 16:21; 17:12, 22, 23; 20:18-19, 28; 26:2-4, 45, (53) 59, 66; 27:1, 25-26, 31, 35, 46; Mark 8:31; 9:12, 31; 10:33-34, 45; 14:1, 11 (27) 41; 15:24-25; Luke 9:22, 44; 17:25; 18:31-33; 19:47; 20:13-17; 22:2, 53; 23:18-23, 33; John 16:32; 17:26; 18:35; 19:15-16, 18; Acts 7:52; Heb 12:3; 9:28; IPet 2:24; 3:18; Gal 3:13, not to mention the rest of Paul).
How does the blessed Trinity, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit find a way to unite themselves in their unutterable oneness and love and life with us in our iniquity, and sad, broken, hellish destitution (and what is ‘salvation’ without this union)? This is the question, to me. Anything less than this union (with the sinful us) may get us forensically ‘declared’ legally clean, perhaps, but the broken us is still outside of the abounding life of God. What exactly is ‘salvation’ if it does not include our real place in the trinitarian life?
The shocker, as Scripture is at pains to shout, is submission, divine submission—to us in our sin. Far from being the place where he poured out his wrath on his beloved Son, the cross is about the human race pouring out our wrath on the beloved and anointed one. And the cross is about the Father using our treachery as his way of finding us in our iniquity—in his union with Jesus—and accepting us as we are, embracing us, including us in his own relationship with his beloved. Who saw this coming? Yet what could be more obvious? On this day millennia ago Jesus submitted himself to us in our loathsome pain, in our collusion with the dastardly one’s vile hatred of the blessed Trinity and of all things living and beautiful. We were trapped in the darkness of the evil one, lost to life in the Father’s arms, without light, life, and hope. Jesus submitted his life to us, and we—in the madness of evil’s spin—crucified him. He died in the arms of our disgust. He bowed before humanity in our great darkness. In his submission he made contact with Adam hiding in the bushes. Therein he reached us, the real us. Submitting to our diabolically schemed, murderous betrayal he found his way inside our iniquity—and he brought his Father and the Holy Spirit with him—uniting all that he is as the Father’s beloved and faithful Son, and all that he is as the One anointed in the Holy Spirit with us in our sin. This is the at-onement. Jesus is the mercy seat, the place where heaven and all it contains meets all that we are as sinners in divine, inconceivable mercy. This Jesus is real hope. He is Good Friday.