God’s love in the cross of Jesus

At the heart of the Good News about Jesus Christ is the message that Jesus died to free us from all that oppresses and blemishes our humanity. The Apostle Paul writes, “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Jesus died for our sins . . .” (1 Cor. 15:1; Matt. 26:28). Yet why would a loving God need Jesus’ horrific death by Roman crucifixion to forgive and repair human beings? Isn’t human sacrifice the most appalling of religious practices? And while some people do commit terrible acts, most of us seem hardly guilty of misdeeds requiring such a drastic remedy.

Our paradoxical humanity

According to the Scriptures humankind is created “in the image of God” (Gen. 1:27). We are made to experience God’s love in its fullness and to express that love back to God, to others and to all creation in joy. We have been entrusted with the responsibility in love to shape the world with creativity and justice. We each carry in ourselves the imprint of what is Good, True and Beautiful. We are even better than we think we are – wonderfully so!

Yet something is clearly wrong. We too often turn away from our truest identity and destiny. That’s easiest to see when we look at the world as a whole. In spite of the existence of tremendous good, we can’t help but recognize that something is terribly amiss. G.K. Chesterton, the British essayist and author of the Father Brown stories, once quipped that humanity’s corruption was “the one Christian doctrine that is empirically verifiable.” Wars, injustice, oppression, racism, and horrific crimes throughout history, and our own individual misdeeds, show the truth that we are not what we should be — sometimes far from it. 

At the root of humankind’s wrongdoing is idolatry. Idols aren’t just stone images. Idolatry is the allegiance to wealth, power, status, security, pleasure, nation, party, “tribe” or self-interest as the most important thing in lifeIdols are also distorted views of God that are cruel and life-destroying. When we give our highest allegiance to any of these falsehoods, we become its prisoner. We become enslaved by what we worship. Inhuman actions (“sins”) follow. We are unable to fully live out our purpose as human beings reflecting God’s self-giving love.

God loves us so much that he has acted in Jesus to free us from idolatry, absolve our wrongdoing, and heal our brokenness. God is restoring our best identity and purpose. No matter how bad our behavior or disastrous our mistakes, our captivity can be ended, our guilt erased. We can experience union with God, who is Absolute Love. We can start growing in the likeness of Jesus’ faithfulness to God and self-giving love for others. We can become God’s co-workers repairing a damaged world in love and sharing in the world’s wonderful future. 

The cross isn’t only a matter of the forgiveness of sins, but of Jesus’ sharing humanity’s deepest suffering. In his crucifixion Jesus made himself one with each and every person in our most desperate and tortured condition. That God has united himself with us in our sorrow is the measure of his immeasurable love. Who could not love such a God in return? And who could fully love a god who has not loved us so completely?

The promise of liberation 

Scripture contains various images and metaphors that help us understand, if only in part, the meaning of Jesus’ death. For example, a series of Isaiah passages (chapters 42-53) about the “Servant of God” gives us a glimpse of how Jesus’ crucifixion, on the surface a catastrophic loss, instead brought about defeat of the destructive powers ravaging humankind. Isaiah 53 reads, “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced because of our transgressions, he was crushed because of our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” 

Here the “Servant” is an innocent victim, mistakenly thought to be punished by God, who suffers the full repercussions of idolatry and wrongdoing as a substitute for others. Those consequences — as prophesied by Moses — were destruction by the malevolent powers – spiritual and physical — dominating the world. In Isaiah 53, these Powers launch an all-out attack of unspeakable violence crushing out the Servant’s life. Yet somehow in that punishing assault they wear themselves out, so that they have no more strength to condemn and destroy us. The Servant’s sacrifice in our place and on our behalf brings us peace and healing.

According to the New Testament this passage was filled full in the crucifixion of Jesus by Rome and the spiritual powers animating it. In a profound expression of God’s love, Jesus absorbed the full assault of the destructive forces unleashed by human idolatry, so that in union with him we could escape their destruction.

Some Christians think that on the cross God was punishing Jesus for our sinfulness. That Jesus’ death was necessary to appease God’s wrath and satisfy God’s justice. This falsely imagines a violent, retributive God. Instead, Scripture tells us that human idolatry and wrongdoing have intrinsic consequences – they carry with them their own punishment — that can’t be simply wished away. 

The Good News is that in love God himself in Jesus bore, absorbed and dissolved the intrinsic guilt and power of our idolatry and wrongdoing, uniting us with himself. On the cross God “condemned sin” (Rom. 8:3) – not Jesus and not us. Jesus’ death means that no matter what terrible things we’ve done and how awful the damage, Jesus’ death was sufficient. Jesus’ cross is the place where we now find peace and new life. For many of us who are keenly aware of the harm we’ve done to others, Jesus’ death as the basis of our forgiveness isn’t a bizarre and incomprehensible doctrine. We feel deeply that Jesus’ death is enough – as nothing else could have been. 

In his life and his death Jesus identified with the outcasts of humanity. The cross was a horrific form of executing those who were considered worthless — criminals, rebels, outcasts. Accordingly, Jesus calls his followers who are impoverished, imprisoned, subjugated, and despised in the hope of liberation. And he calls all of us in solidarity with the most marginalized. The cross tells us that no one is beyond the pale of God’s love, or ours.

But why Jesus’ death?

The question arising for many is, if God wants to forgive and repair our lives, why wouldn’t he just do that? The answer is that forgiveness and healing costs God. Genuine love is costly.

We ourselves sometimes bear the wrongs of others in love – in the hope of transforming the offender. And we sometimes voluntarily take on ourselves the costs of wrongs done to others by those we love, in order to save our loved ones from consequences too heavy for them to bear. This sin-bearing love requires a kind of death – a voluntary acceptance of pain, a death to self, a self-sacrifice for others. 

In this way we understand that forgiveness and healing are costly, and we can relate to the idea that in Jesus’ death God takes the cost and consequences of our wrongdoing on himself in love. As Dostoevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” God loves us, and acts to make things right, but at a cost to himself.

Cheap Grace?

Undeserved mercy doesn’t leave us unchanged. It’s not enough to say we believe (Matt. 7:21). Where faith is genuine, those who receive this grace let it transform them. Our old ego-centric self is being put to death, so that we no longer live for ourselves, but for God and others. “I have died with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). We are liberated and declared not guilty because we too have died, since “anyone who has died is freed from sin” (Rom. 6:7,8). The cost to us of receiving liberation in Jesus’ death is the death of our “old self,” of ego-driven, self-centered living (Eph 4:22-24). We are no longer our own, but Christ’s.

The cross was God’s decisive act inaugurating the repair of creation — a repair that we carry forward through the Spirit of Christ, by growing – albeit in fits and starts — in self-giving love, replicating Jesus’ love on the cross. As a result, the world is a place of hope, not a lost cause. Individuals are being transformed, and relationships are being renewed. Ultimately creation itself will be set free from corruption and decay (Rom. 8:21), as heaven and earth are united as one (Eph. 1:10, 2 Peter 3:12-13, Rev. 21:1- 22:5).

Accordingly, Jesus’ cross is an invitation to enter, even now, the dawn of new creation. In the words of poet-song-writer Leonard Cohen, “the New Jerusalem glowing, why tarry all night in the ruin?”

God’s love

We cannot fully understand the how Jesus’ death frees us and set in motion the world’s transformation. But we can catch glimpses of the incredible wonder of the selfless love of the Creator for his creation, and the lengths that God has gone to unite us to himself and to repair the world. This is the Gospel — the Good News of God’s immeasurable, unconditional, sin-bearing, violence-ending, liberating, world-repairing, creation-healing, unstoppable love. That love is all we really know, and all we need to know.

Martin Shupack