April 6, 2023

During this Holy Week, Christians around the world will be reflecting upon the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The cross has become a cultural symbol that is found everywhere: T-shirts, wall hangings, church steeples, and I have even seen cigarette lighters with the cross printed on them (someone explain that one to me!). Our over-saturation of the cross in Western society can sometimes breed an overfamiliarity in which we no longer feel the scandal or offense of the cross.

Those of us who are evangelical also tend to hold to only one perspective when it comes to the meaning of the cross: we understand it to be a symbol of Christ’s substitutionary atonement on our behalf to pay the price of our sins. This way of understanding the cross was first written about by St. Anselm of Canterbury (1034-1109) and was the perspective that was held by most of the Protestant Reformers. That is something that we should absolutely be preaching, teaching, and proclaiming during this Holy Week. Believing that Jesus’ death is the bridge between God and humanity is at the very heart of the Gospel. It reminds me of the words of the hymn, Jesus Paid It All:

Jesus paid it all
All to him I owe
Sin had left a crimson stain
He washed it white as snow 

However, if we only ever see the cross as simply an act of atonement, then we run the risk of our religious faith simply being about the management of sin. Jesus’s death as an atoning sacrifice is a crucial image of the cross in the Bible, but it’s not the only one.

The cross is also about the victory of God’s kingdom. Prior to Anselm, most of the Christian church held a different way of viewing the cross which is called the Christus Victor (“Christ the Victor”) perspective. In this image of the atonement, the cross is the means by which Jesus Christ has been made victorious over the powers of darkness, sin, and evil. This way of viewing the cross reminds me of the words of the hymn, Lift High the Cross:

Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim,
Till all the world adore his sacred name!
Come, Christians, follow where the Master trod,
Our King victorious, Christ the Son of God.

The truth is, we don’t have to choose between different images we find in the cross. Jesus’ death was both an atoning sacrifice and a symbol of the triumph of self-sacrificial love. The cross is about both the forgiveness of sins and the victory of the kingdom of God. These images and motifs work together to form the scandalous beauty of the cross of Jesus Christ.

During this Holy Week, do not let the scandal of the cross pass you by. Linger with it. Wrestle with it. It is the most enduring symbol in human history. As Fleming Rutledge writes in her masterful volume on the crucifixion: “The preaching of the cross is an announcement of a living reality that continues to transform human existence and human destiny more than two thousand years after it originally occurred.”

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