King's Evangelical Divinity School

22 May 2012

Have Evangelicals Downplayed the Power of the Cross?

Christian contemporary music doesn't much appeal to me. On the whole I think the secular world does a better job (and at least when its artists behave badly you're expecting it). I also find some loud rock contributions somewhat distracting during worship. But that's just my personal preference.

One exception is Ricardo Sanchez's Power of the Cross which I first heard at a US conference earlier this year. What immediately stood out was the song's lyrics. While some rock worship songs are rather empty of theology, Sanchez's song focuses strongly on Christ's work at Calvary.

The power of the cross, of course, is a scriptural theme. The Apostle Paul explains how the cross lies at the heart of the gospel, so that for those of us being saved it is the very power of God. He writes:
For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. 18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Cor 1:17-18 ESV)
Evangelicals have always strongly affirmed and proclaimed this salvific aspect of the cross. An emphasis upon the cross is a defining characteristic of Evangelicalism. Evangelicals preach the good news of salvation through the cross, and indeed are even named after this good news (euangelion). The cross is also a central aspect in Bebbington's now famous quadrilateral (generally regarded as the standard definition of Evangelicalism): biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, activism.

However, I wonder if too many of us Evangelicals have focused so much upon the power of the cross in the life of the individual that we have relegated its wider power.

The power of the cross: It's not just about individuals

Evangelicalism is strongly individualist in nature. For example, Evangelicals emphasise a one-to-one relationship with God, brought about by an individual's decision to accept Christ as their personal Lord and Saviour. Furthermore, the theology of personal regeneration, sanctification and empowerment through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit emphasises further a strongly idiosyncratic focus upon the cross and its aftermath for individual believers. Meanwhile the Evangelical movement strongly emphasises individual ministries and have a well-developed culture of ministerial entrepreneurship and independence (much to the chagrin of others across Christendom). 

This is fine and good, and make no mistake, I fully recognise the gospel's bearing and impact upon the life of the individual (I'm a fully conformist Evangelical in this regard). But I wonder if this focus on the cross in the life of the individual limits the full power of the cross. Consider, for example how, at its most banal, the contemporary worship scene (Sanchez' rather powerful song aside) presents the Christian faith in today's highly individualist and consumerist society as a path to personal success, a power to help worshippers "overcome" everyday struggles, problems, or addictions, as well as making you a nicer person. 

To be sure, the gospel does (or at least should) make us much nicer people (unfortunately not always the case), while the indwelling of the Holy Spirit indeed guides and helps us to lead lives pleasing to God. But "overcoming" is not necessarily what the Bible is all about. Sometimes it's about surviving in the midst of adversity through God's grace (consider, for example, Paul's infamous thorn in the flesh and God's decision that His grace was sufficient for the apostle).

Meanwhile there are too many godly yet frail Christians who have not yet "overcome", believers who still struggle with problems, issues and challenges, including - yes - addictions and besetting sins (even the apostle anguished over the battle within him concerning what he should and shouldn't do, Ro 7:21-5). Conversely there are people who have rejected Christ but nonetheless have completely turned their lives around, exhibiting incredible personal discipline and willpower to "overcome" their particular struggles, as well as achieving great success by the world's standards. Thus it is surely a slightly perverse theology that maintains the cross is the ultimate device which will help you overcome in a way the world cannot, while some in the world succeed in a way many Christians long for. (Some of the "overcomers", of course, would suggest these frail Christians have somehow "let down the side", having failed to claim and project the fulness of their faith. But that, of course, is another matter best left for another time.)

So while I do believe that salvation and regeneration can lead to transformed lives, that is not always the case. Paul's own personal battle detailed at the end of Romans 7 is testimony to that. The work of the cross and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit transforms our status in God's eyes, together with our attitudes, motives, and yes, sometimes our physical, emotional and psychological wellbeing. But if we make the cross the magic pill that does all these things in every single case, instantly we're on dangerous ground. Doesn't the Bible indicate we are being gradually transformed, a piece of clay to be worked by the potter, in short, a work in progress? Aren't we to crucify the flesh daily? To say otherwise leaves open the cross for ridicule.

More importantly, doesn't focusing on power of the cross in the life of the individual alone downplay the full power of the cross? I think it does, and as Evangelicals perhaps some of us should seek to move beyond individualism to broaden our understanding of the full power of the cross.

The communicative power of the cross

As the first chapter of Corinthians makes clear, to the unbeliever the cross is utter folly, foolishness. But actually the message is profound. Yes, it brings about a transformational, salvific outworking for the individual, and for each and every believer this is life-changing. But the cross is so much more than that.

Consider what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:18-31. First he juxtaposes the words and philosophical reasoning of eloquent wisdom with the word of the cross. In short, he's not interested in the eloquent words or philosophical reasonings of men, but rather the word, or raw yet profound message of God, which the cross transmits/broadcasts, to the world. Thus John's gospel refers to Jesus as the Word of God: He is God's word or message - better, God's communication -  with humanity. In other words, a "wholly other" God, a completely inconceivable, unknowable, indeed alien God as far as humanity is concerned, nonetheless makes Himself known to humanity through His Son. And his vehicle for speaking through His Son in this manner? The cross.

In short, a wholly other God communicates His Word (or message) for some inexplicable reason (though fully explicable to those of us who are being saved) through an historical, heinous act carried out against His beloved Son upon, of all things, a Roman instrument of degradation, torture and execution: a cross.

So the power of the cross is not just that we are saved as individuals, but ultimately that God Almighty uses the cross to communicate with humanity as a whole.

The cosmic power of the cross

We've noted how the cross is all about salvation. Of course it is. But the salvific realm, or the economy of salvation, is not limited to individuals, or indeed humanity alone. The Fall affected creation in its entirety. We do not for a moment believe God created an imperfect world where there is pain, suffering, disease, violence, and ultimately, death. Quite the opposite. Neither is He responsible for their causes, which are directly attributable to fallen mankind and sin. 

It is inconceivable that such features of this imperfect life will survive beyond the eschaton. How can they? How can humanity share in eternity and still be ravaged by the very things Christ's death at Calvary reversed, at that time when the Kingdom of God is brought to fruition? Thus passages relating to Christ's return indicate a reversal of the old enmities associated with the Fall (e.g. Is 11:6-9), while the Kingdom of God, demonstrated in microcosm during Christ's ministry on earth, will be fulfilled in its fulness when He returns.

The miracles of Jesus have massive theological significance in that they demonstrate the Kingdom of God, currently in an inaugurated state, in its fulness. The people whom Jesus encountered and were healed by Him were offered a tiny glimpse of what the Kingdom will look like. When Christ inaugurated the Kingdom here on earth, and in the process took away pain, suffering, misery and marginalisation through His miracles, these acts pointed to the institution of the Kingdom in its fullness one day. Where there is currently pain, suffering, marginalisation, misery and death, one day the institution of the Kingdom when Christ returns will bring freedom from pain and marginalisation, joy, peace and life.

Which leads me to a final manner in which some Evangelicals arguably downplay the power of the cross.

The eschatological power of the cross

I've heard several scholarly Evangelicals refer to the eschatological nature of the cross, almost as if when Jesus said, "It is finished" God's work on earth was completed, salvation had come, and that's the end of the story. But how can that be the fulfilment of all things? Yes, Christ's work on earth was finished and the Christological aspect of God's salvific work was accomplished. But that is not the end of the divine plan. 

As we look around and see the desperate situation humanity and the world as a whole find themselves in, it's pretty dismal to say "this is it", God has accomplished everything. And of course, wider Christian theology doesn't maintain "this is it", proclaiming there is more to come. But the focus on the cross in the life of the individual, of "overcoming", totally downplays not just the communicative power of the cross, or its cosmic power, but the very eschatological power of the cross which brings about the fruition of all things God has foreordained.

In his very useful The God of Israel and Christian Theology R. Kendall Soulen warns of downplaying, or relegating God as consummator of the age at the eschaton, or the Day of the Lord. The cross is not the zenith, or climax of God's work. Rather, it's a means to an end, not an end in itself. The cross brings about what God planned from the foundations of time: God and man in perpetual communion brought about through Him at the consummation of the age.

The work of the cross in the life of the individual, then, is indeed a very real, powerful thing, while the indwelling of the Holy Spirit equips us in a way the world is to be pitied for not experiencing. But there is so much to the cross than how it affects us as individuals. So while some Evangelicals overemphasise the individual (so much so that Evangelicalism's ecclesiology is notoriously weak), conversely the cross has a massive bearing not just on our individual relationship with God, but also our communal relationship with both God and each other. Beyond that, the cross is the means through which a wholly other God speaks to humanity as a whole. Meanwhile the cross brings about the eventual transformation of society, this world and the universe as a whole... it has a cosmic impact. And the cross brings about the consummation of the age - the end, or rather the beginning, of eternity.

So by focusing on one - almost selfish - aspect of Calvary (getting to heaven, overcoming and becoming successful), aren't we downplaying the full power of the cross?


ELP said...

Nice post, Calvin, thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Like you, I do believe that Evangelicalism has downplayed the Cross. This is largely due, in my opinion, to the blurring of the doctrine of penal substitution. The great neo-orthodox Niebhur thus described the message of the Liberalism of his days: "A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through a Christ without a Cross."
I wonder if this does not describe a significant portion of evangelicalism today...

I do believe evangelical circles have suffered from an unhealthy hyper-individualism. In reaction to this trend, I see new forms of "Social Gospels" emerging (whether in neo-reformed circles or among the followers of NT Wright). I do not believe they will be more succesful than the old ones...

Pastor Thomas Constantini
student at KEDS

Andrew Sibley said...

Very interesting Calvin - you cover several points. Many evangelical churches preach grace instead of the cross directly. Of course grace is the outworking of the effect of the cross in the lives of believers. There is an important personal dimension to the cross as you rightly say - and grace, but it is also about the community of believers sent into the world to transform it within the context of the outworking of the Holy Spirit and divine grace. The church is the body of Christ.

I find the neo-calvinism of Abraham Kuyper to be of interest - he believed the church should engage in every area of life to redeem it for God's kingdom - the basis for this was Augustine's idea of the City of God, acting as a beacon to the world as Rome collapsed. The City of God being the New Jerusalem of Revelation and Ephesians. We also see the Messiah seated on David's throne in Isaiah, upholding it with justice, and where the increase of his government and peace shall know no end. However, the danger is that neo-Calvinism (and strong Augustinianism) will lead to dominionism which seeks to force people to live in a theocracy before Christ returns - i.e. it seeks to pull up the weeds before the great harvest. Personally I think we have stop short of dominionism even as we engage in the world in a meaningful way.

Many charismatics focus upon the kingdom of God - now (even thought not yet in fulness), but this is often criticised by some Christian ZIonists - although clearly not all. I would raise a question then - to what extent does some CZ teaching encourage Christians to have a low, non-Augustinian, non-Calvinistic, view of the church? The church is then not seen in continuity with God's purposes through Abraham and Israel, but becomes a sort of 'club for gentiles.' (One reason I left the Brethren and joined with charismatics was because of the last-days-holy-huddle mentality that arose from JN Darby's teaching). NT Wright suggests Christians should have a vision of hope that includes Israel as part of God's narrative of salvation for the world, but one that is 'in Christ'.

Calvin L. Smith said...

Thomas, thank you for your comment.

Andrew, I am struggling to understand how even in response to a post such as this you insist on bringing up Christian Zionism. Neither is it the first time. Your intense dislike of CZ is noted, but increasingly you come across as obsessive.

Andrew Sibley said...

Calvin - surely you can respond to my reply by playing the ball. I think this is an important issue that you raise, but my concern is how such thinking arises because of the teaching of some forms of Christian Zionism, and if I am obsessed it is because of a passion to build God's kingdom and challenge those who are willing to give up on Christ's Church. Individualism arises partly because of a fragmentation of the Protestant movement - the reformation was the triumph of Augustine's doctrine of grace over Augustine's doctrine of the Church (as BB Warfield noted), but it caused greater fragmentation because of rejection of Roman Catholic authority. A division that needs to be healed without returning to the abuse of power entailed by an over bearing central authority - neo-Calvinism of Kuyper is perhaps one step on this road, but it needs care.

Fragmentation though is encouraged in some quarters by the exclusivist teaching of Darby, Schofield etc (although not all). Consider why those Brethren such as myself, brought up under Darby's influence, so readily adopted charismatic teaching of the house church movement (i.e. Arthur Wallis, Bryn Jones, Terry Virgo etc) which focussed upon the restoration of the Church in the last days and a rejection of Schofield/Darby eschatology. That was my personal spiritual journey.

I would encourage Christian Zionists to not give up on the Church as some I know do. I would challenge those teachings which say that God is now replacing the Church that is the New Jerusalem, with an Earthly state trying to rebuild Old Jerusalem. I would challenge those who seem to give up on our evangelical protestant heritage as some seem to do - one of your friends recently wrote in a document in response to CATC2 that Augustinianism, Calvinism, and Fulfilment theology are part of a 'corrupt tree.' Although these are not perfect positions (what are?) such thinking is in danger of cutting off the branch on which one sits. Instead, whether we like it or not, we are part of one body in Jesus - Jews and Gentiles together. So I think we are entitled to ask how some CZ teaching may lead away from a corporate understanding of the body of Christ and so lead to an increasingly individualistic, fragmented and declining church. So I think my conceren is in line with addressing the question of your post.

Calvin L. Smith said...

Like I said, obsessed. And in your desperation to turn this post around to criticism of CZ you've made several rather elementary theological errors.

Feel free to comment but from now on please stick to the issues raised in each post. Thank you.

Andrew Sibley said...

Calvin - perhaps Jeremiah was obsessed when he faced insult from his countrymen. He wrote this. "...the word of the Lord has brought me insult and reproach all day long. But if I say, “I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name,” his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot." Jer 20:9-10

Leaving aside the question of CZism for now (although it is I believe intrinsically tied up with Darby's theology), I think my post at least deserves some consideration in light of your own questioning. I don't pretend to have all the answers, but I am asking for your thoughts on what you think is the origin of an emphasis on an individualistic gospel? You could propose post modernism, but what is the origin of post modernism?

My thought is that individualism in the church may have arisen in part because of the Brethren movement's (from Darby) promotion of an ecclesiology and eschatology that did not emphasise the kingdom of God being fulfilled on Earth through an inclusive gentile-Jewish Church. The local church became autonomous (more protestant fragmentation) with the hope of escaping to heaven at the rapture. Perhaps the gospel then became concerned with individual decisions for Christ, and not about making 'disciples of all nations' and hope of a transformed world through the spirit filled life of the Church.

If you then look at the rise of restorationism out of the Brethren you perhaps begin to see a return to an ecclesiology that emphasises the Church's role in redeeming the world through the gospel. Tom Wright's 'Surprised by Hope' makes some of these points.

Calvin L. Smith said...

Evangelical individualism existed long before postmodernism, Darby and CZ. A weak Evangelical ecclesiology was inevitable given the movement's primary emphasis on salvific transformation and nonconformism.

In comparing yourself with Jeremiah, I suggest the circumstances are quite different.