Tag Archives: the meaning of the cross

Conversations About God: Summary of Chapter Eight, “The Most Costly and Convincing Evidence”

The way Jesus suffered and died is the greatest revelation of the truth about God the universe will ever see or ever need. Correctly understood, it means defeat for the accuser of our Heavenly Father. No wonder Satan has sought to obscure, even pervert, the meaning of the cross! So why did Jesus have to die? Why was it not enough for Jesus simply to tell us the truth about His Father? Why couldn’t His own gracious treatment of sinners demonstrate that God is not the kind of person His enemies have made Him out to be? Why did Jesus also have to die? Why was there no other way?

The cross is “the most costly and convincing evidence” because the unique and awful way in which Jesus suffered and died reveals something about God and His government that had to be clarified before trust and peace could be restored again. Our God has been accused of being unworthy of the trust of His created beings, of being arbitrary, vengeful, and severe. He has particularly been accused of lying to His children, of lying about death being the result of sin. It does no good for God to simply deny such charges or to claim that He is speaking the truth. It is only by the demonstration of trustworthiness over a long period of time and under a great variety of difficult circumstances that trust can be re-established and confirmed.

There are three fundamental questions that were raised by Satan’s rebellion and the great controversy over the character and government of God. God could have answered these questions with assertions and arbitrary shows of force. But God values freedom so much, that the only way to answer these questions is through demonstration over a long period of time and in a wide variety of circumstances. At the heart of these “circumstances” is the cross. The suffering and death of Jesus answered the three great questions about God’s character:

1) Can we trust God to tell the truth about sin and death? If God does not tell the truth, then we can’t trust Him. In the Garden (Eden) God warned Adam and Eve that to eat of the Tree of Knowledge would cause their death. But the same adversary told Eve that God had lied (Gen 3:4-5). In the Word of God and His dealings in history, God provided abundant evidence that what He says can be trusted. But is sin really the cause of death, as God has claimed? In another Garden (Gethsemane), Jesus fell to the ground dying, a consequence of human sin. Already in Gethsemane, Jesus clearly demonstrated that sin leads to death, and that God was telling the truth about sin and death.

2) What is God’s role in the death of the sinner? Does justice demand that God
torture His children to death for refusing to love Him? The experience of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane also demonstrated that God was not killing his Son. To the contrary, God sent an angel to sustain Him (Luke 22:43). If Jesus had died in the Garden of Gethsemane, it would not have been because His Father had killed Him. He did not lay a hand on His Son. Many, nevertheless, believe that justice requires God to torture His children to death. But it was not God killing His Son in Gethsemane, Jesus was laying His own life down (John 10:18). Death is the result of sin, but it is not torture and execution at the hands of our gracious God. But there was a third question that also needed to be answered. Gethsemane by itself would not have been enough, the answer to the third question required the cross.

3) Why is it so important to understand that God does not execute his sinful
Children? The simple answer: Because obedience that springs from fear produces the character of a rebel. If God kills and tortures those who refuse to obey Him, even His followers will not serve Him out of love and trust, they will serve Him only out of fear. Obedience that springs from fear produces the heart of a rebel. This was clearly demonstrated at the cross, where Jesus not only died, but was also tortured and crucified. By whom? By the Father? Or by allies of the most devout group of Sabbath-keeping, tithe-paying, health-reforming, Bible-quoting “adventists” the world has ever known? The religious leaders who crucified Jesus were serving God out of fear. And the obedience that springs from fear produces the character of a rebel.

The Cross is Good News

To some of us, nevertheless, the cross is great good news. Yes, it is true that sinners will die, but that doesn’t mean we need to be afraid of God; in fact, He died to prove that we don’t need to be afraid. And this message has great power to win all who will listen to repentance and to trust. Paul was so proud of this good news. Notice what he says in 1 Corinthians 1:17, 18:

For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel. And not with eloquent wisdom lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. 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 (RSV).

The gospel is the powerful good news about the cross, which is the clearest revelation of the truth about God and His government. Now compare 1 Corinthians 1 with Romans 1, where you find that very famous verse about righteousness by faith:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith . . . for in it the righteousness of God is revealed” (Rom 1:16-17, RSV).

This text tells us that the gospel (good news) is powerful for those who trust in God, and that power is in the revelation of God’s righteousness. The good news is that God is not the unrighteous kind of person his enemies have made him out to be. Even in the Old Testament, before the clarity of the cross, it’s wonderful to see that God had good friends who trusted Him to always do the right thing. They were proud to know Him and proud to speak about Him to others. Look at Jeremiah 9:24:

Let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight, declares the Lord (NIV).

Jeremiah was able to repeat those words with feeling long before the cross. But now such confidence in God has been confirmed by the way Jesus suffered and died. And among God’s friends, whether angels or men, this meaning of the cross will have power to hold God’s great family together in loyalty and in peace forever.

The Importance of Our Picture of God

But there was a third question that needed to be answered. Gethsemane by itself would not have been enough. The third question is this: Why is it so important to understand that God does not execute his sinful children? This question had to be answered, too. And so an angel came to strengthen Jesus in Gethsemane so he could continue on out to Calvary. And there, once again, He answered the first two questions. But He was also this time tortured and crucified. By whom? By the Father? Or by most devout group of Sabbath-keeping, tithe-paying, health-reforming, Bible-quoting “Adventists” the world has ever known? Before they tortured him to death, they even said He had a devil (John 8:44). They obeyed God out of fear because they did not really know God. Look at John 19:31:

Then the Jewish authorities asked Pilate to allow them to break the legs of the men who had been crucified, and to take the bodies down from the crosses. They requested this because it was Friday, and they did not want the bodies to stay on the crosses on the Sabbath, since the coming Sabbath was especially holy (GNB).

You see, they nailed their Savior to the cross and then rushed home to keep that Sabbath especially holy. They did it to prove they were God’s true people. That’s the awful result of serving God from fear because you do not know the truth about God. Now the three questions were fully answered. Does sin result in death? Indeed, it does! But is it torture and execution at the hands of our gracious God? Indeed, it is not! What’s so dangerous about misunderstanding this and serving God from fear? The service of fear produces the character of a rebel. Fear turns people who are dedicated to obedience into harsh rebels, and they become God’s worst enemies!

Jesus did not die to win over His Father. Paul is extremely clear about this. 2 Corinthians 5:19: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (RSV). Nowhere does the Bible suggest that God had to be reconciled to us. Never once! Instead God paid the price to reconcile us to Himself! Jesus did not die to pay a mere legal penalty. He died to reveal the truth about God and the falsity of Satan’s charges. And even the angels had to learn this. Look at Colossians 1:20: “. . . And through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (RSV).

John 12:32 agrees with this: “When I am lifted up from the earth I will draw everyone to me” (GNB). The “everyone” here is not limited to the human race, it is everyone in the whole family of the universe. These texts point us to the larger setting of the Great Controversy in order to understand the cross. The way in which Jesus suffered and died is the greatest revelation of the truth about God and His government that the universe will ever see or ever need. Correctly understood, the message of the cross is final defeat for the adversary. No wonder Satan has worked so hard to obscure, misrepresent, and even pervert the meaning of the cross.

Fundamental Belief Number 9 (Life, Death and Resurrection of Christ)

In Christ’s life of perfect obedience to God’s will, His suffering, death, and resurrection, God provided the only means of atonement for human sin, so that those who by faith accept this atonement may have eternal life, and the whole creation may better understand the infinite and holy love of the Creator. This perfect atonement vindicates the righteousness of God’s law and the graciousness of His character; for it both condemns our sin and provides for our forgiveness. The death of Christ is substitutionary and expiatory, reconciling and transforming. The resurrection of Christ proclaims God’s triumph over the forces of evil, and for those who accept the atonement assures their final victory over sin and death. It declares the Lordship of Jesus Christ, before whom every knee in heaven and on earth will bow. (Gen. 3:15; Ps. 22:1; Isa. 53; John 3:16; 14:30; Rom. 1:4; 3:25; 4:25; 8:3, 4; 1 Cor. 15:3, 4, 20-22; 2 Cor. 5:14, 15, 19-21; Phil. 2:6-11; Col. 2:15; 1 Peter 2:21, 22; 1 John 2:2; 4;10.) (John 3:16; Isa. 53; 1 Peter 2:21, 22; 1 Cor. 15:3, 4, 20-22; 2 Cor. 5:14, 15, 19-21; Rom. 1:4; 3:25; 4:25; 8:3, 4; 1 John 2:2; 4:10; Col. 2:15; Phil. 2:6-11.)

Aside from a reshuffling of the biblical evidence at the bottom, there are no changes in the wording of FB9. Since this fundamental focused on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, one wonders why it isn’t listed after number four, which dealt with the nature of Christ. The answer probably is that the first five fundamentals focus on the persons of the godhead and the next five or so focus on the actions of the godhead. There is never a perfect grouping of beliefs like these, the order that was chosen is probably as good as any.

The religion scholars at Loma Linda have historically expressed concerns that legal substitution not be seen as the controlling metaphor of the atonement, as it often is in Protestant Christianity. But this statement certainly does not limit itself to legal substitution. This statement offers an excellent balance among the various biblical metaphors of the atonement. Legal, substitutionary atonement was seen as liberal and “new theology” in the 1970s, and therefore suspect, but now it has become the conservative view. It is interesting how theology changes over time and people hardly notice, because a new generation sees what was recently new and the new normal. In our resistance to change we often end up changing without realizing it.

In the broadest sense, atonement is seen as having both objective and subjective elements in it. The objective side of the atonement focuses on what happened outside of us on the cross. Did the cross in some way change God’s mind? Did it defeat Satan in some way? Did it somehow satisfy the justice of God? The subjective side of the atonement, on the other hand, focuses on how the cross changes us. Through the cross we learn that God is fair and just, that the law is for our good, that God is on our side. We are moved from serving God on account of fear to trusting Him. Another way to express this contrast is this: Which is more important, the Christmas story or the Easter story? Do you focus on the life of Jesus or on His death and resurrection as the driving forces behind the atonement? At Loma Linda there is a tendency to focus on the life and death of Jesus as the ultimate revelation of God’s character, the strong emphasis of chapter one in Steps to Christ, whereas at Andrews and other places, the emphasis is more on the death and resurrection of Christ as an atoning sacrifice. This fundamental affirms both as part of a balance and tension.

For SDAs it is good to see an increasing focus on atonement at the cross, but it would be unwise to lose the pioneer sense that the cross has ongoing significance. It represents the way that God behaves and rules in all times and places. The gospel is not about sinners in the hands of an angry God, it is about God in the hands of angry sinners. In addition, the cross is not just about how God behaves on this earth; past, present and future. It also has a cosmic dimension, it changes everything at the level of the whole universe, not just earth.

2 Corinthians 5 has an interesting universal tone. God was reconciling the whole world to Himself in Christ. But a universal tone is not the same thing as universalism. The very ones who are reconciled to God at the cross still need to “be reconciled” to God. Having said that, the availability of universal salvation involves the possibility of universal salvation. No one is excluded, all have equal access to God and salvation at the foot of the cross.

In our discussion we considered one possible corrective to this excellent fundamental. The way this fundamental expresses the cross focuses much more on us than on God. It might have been helpful to explore a bit more questions like, What did it cost God to go to the cross? What does it mean when divinity suffers? Did the experience of sacrifice leave a mark on God? Did He lose something that He doesn’t get back? The natural human tendency to focus on ourselves is not easy to overcome, even in the writing of fundamental beliefs!