The Power of the Cross - Galatians


It was 10 years ago, almost to the day. I was sat in a theology lecture at the start of a course which was to reshape my faith forever. A passing remark from the lecturer, thrown into the conversation like a proverb plucked from a hard-learned memory, has stuck with me. When Paul narrates his story to the Galatians, he says that after his dramatic conversion he took himself off to the Arabian Desert and waited fourteen years before discussing his gospel with the other apostles. ‘You’ll encounter new ideas here’, said my lecturer. ‘Don’t rush to share them, but take your time; fourteen years if you need to. There’s no shame in waiting, but there definitely is wisdom.’

I say this because, other than issues of sexuality, it seems to me that the doctrine of the atonement is the most contentious issue in the (broadly) evangelical church today, certainly here in the UK.

After ‘Chalkgate’, the furore prompted by the publication of The Lost Message of Jesus by Steve Chalke and Alan Mann in 2003 (in which they described the general perception by people outside the church of what is known as the penal substitutionary doctrine of atonement as ‘cosmic child abuse’) the issue took on a new sensitivity. In particular, defenders of ‘penal substitution’ found themselves unable to recognise what appeared to them a caricature of the doctrine, while its critics seemed bemused that the defenders appeared unaware that this caricature was being preached week in, week out in churches up and down the country.

Where consensus has been reached it has generally taken the form of a recognition that there are different biblical models of the atonement, and that an evangelical faith should be able to adequately embrace them all. At the more ‘progressive’ end, this might mean adding ‘not prioritising one model above others’. And a fragile consensus just-about holds.

I have spent the last 10 years reflecting in depth on the doctrine of the atonement. But it’s been the theological subject I’ve chosen to speak about the least; in public in any case (my friends and family will give you the opposite story). My lecturer’s advice stuck with me. And I’m glad it did, because I’ve refined my thoughts on several occasions. But now – in a moment that almost none of you have been waiting for – I feel ready to start writing about what I think.

This long, possibly rambly and almost-certainly too self-involved preface is here for two reasons. The first is, unfortunately, saying anything on the subject feels like a risk. And I guess the more I drag this intro out, the more I put off the inevitable! But the second is to give some context to the way I’ve decided to write. I have to confess I’ve written and rewritten this article several times over. I’ve added whole sections and savagely cut others. Desperately, I’ve been grasping for a perfectly coherent doctrine that tackles every question and acknowledges every debate. And I’m beat. I’ve failed! Even as I’ve critiqued a point of view I’ve been reminded of its value. Even as I’ve thrown out an idea it’s come back like a boomerang to strike me in the heart. All I can say is that surely the atonement is a deep mystery, a sacred source of meaning which forever resists control! I’ve felt overwhelmed by my own ignorance and stupefied by my arrogance.

So it seems that there are reasons why, on this topic more than perhaps any other, I should write diplomatically, humbly, aiming for conciliation. But the people who motivate this article, are the countless people I have spoken to over many years whose lives are overshadowed by a God in whom they believe but whose love they cannot know; a God shaped by doctrines which appear unshakeable and yet suffocate their spiritual life – indeed their whole life. And so I find myself in deep empathy with Paul’s provocation to the Galatians on behalf of those trapped by a faith that does not bring freedom.

So I have chosen, in the spirit of honesty, to speak my mind; to passionately say something rather than to carefully say nothing. To offer my frail, faltering ignorance as if I had to right to speak about things beyond me. And to plough through the fertile fields of the Scriptures with nothing more than the tools in my hand and the gasp of belief on my breath.

I am sure I will offend some people here. Not least because, despite my best efforts, I will no doubt stumble over words and unfairly caricature others’ arguments. I ask your forgiveness – I hope you understand that I have crafted my words on behalf of damaged friends. I hope that we can continue an honest, robust dialogue as we continue to travel together along the furrowed path of faith.

** ** ** ** **

The power of the cross

For being small, Galatians packs quite the punch. It’s a curt, deeply profound provocation in which Gentile faith is both challenged and encouraged. Paul’s theme is freedom and Galatians points to a life lived in step with the Spirit (5:16, 25), bearing her fruits (5:22-23) and doing good to all (6:9-10). It’s an invigorating and life-changing read.

There's a good chunk of Galatians that sounds like Romans – the Law can't save you; justification comes through faith. (I've written on 'justification by faith' in this post on Romans, explaining why I believe we've really misunderstood Paul on this.) But in Galatians Paul's focus is slightly different. Whereas Romans attempts to reconcile Jewish and Gentile Christians, Galatians (probably an earlier letter) slams the Gentile Christians for following Jewish custom.

The main problem Paul addresses is the 'Judaizers', a movement of conservative Christians who insisted that Gentile converts adhere to strict Jewish practices such as circumcision in order to fulfil the Law of Moses. This group were insistent that the Law required such behaviour and that therefore anyone who wanted to profess to following Christ must submit to its authority.

But Paul is adamant that this is not the gospel he preached - and calls down curses on anyone who preaches differently! (1:9) The story as Paul tells it is that Christ has set the Galatians free from the Law of Sin and Death. The Law was a guardian until Christ came, but now believers have 'come of age' (4:1-7). They are justified by faith and not by the Law. If the Galatians let themselves be circumcised, claims Paul, Christ 'will be of no value' to them (5:2).

Out with the Old, in with the New?

There's been a lot of debate over the last decade about the 'atonement'. What does the death (and resurrection) of Jesus really mean? According to Galatians, Christ died to redeem people from the curse of the Law. He became a curse so that we can be free (3:10-14). The word ‘curse’ can seem a bit confusing, like we’ve wandered into a chapter of Harry Potter. But it draws from the Old Testament covenant framework of ‘blessings’ as a reward for keeping the covenant, and ‘curses’ as punishment for breaking it (see Deuteronomy 29-30). When Paul says that Christ redeems the Galatians from the curse of the Law he is saying that Jesus has renegotiated the covenant between God and humankind. In other words, they have been rescued from that old covenant and brought into a new covenant characterised by freedom. By bearing the curse – the punishment – that the Law specifies as the proper consequence for breaking the terms of the covenant, Jesus redeems humankind from its power.

So when Paul says that Christ will be of no value to the Galatians if they let themselves be circumcised, he means that their regressive actions will enforce the validity of the old Law and therefore place them once again under the terms of its covenant. However, if they have faith in Christ and his redemptive suffering, the power of that old covenant over them is broken.

But reading Galatians and Paul’s doctrine of the atonement raises an important question:

Do we need to school people into an Old Testament worldview in order to save them with the New?

Paul writes to people well and truly caught in the trajectory of the Jewish covenants. The central issue was whether they should live and die by the Law of Moses. During the course of my life I have met lots of people who would not call themselves Christians. Many of them have been genuinely wrestling with issues of morality. Not one of them appeared to be struggling with whether to obey the Law of Moses!

Should they?

Is Paul's theology in Galatians a universal theology? Does it apply to everyone? Or was it a specific theological solution to a specific theological problem (albeit an overwhelming problem at the time Paul wrote)?

Our most accepted heresy

At the heart of the answer to this question is another question: Was the Law of Moses a universal Law? Or was it a specific theological solution to a specific theological problem?

Many would say that though the Law of Moses has been surpassed by Jesus, it still stands. Jesus still now redeems us from its curse (its punishment) because that curse is a very present truth about the universal relationship between God and humankind. In other words, the Old Covenant with Moses is the de facto reality to which all other ideas – including the New Covenant of Jesus – must respond.

That is a very standard Christian position (though exactly in what ways the Law still stands is a matter of debate). However, the problem with this stance from the point of view of Galatians is that Paul presents the story of faith as a historical narrative in which the Law has a clear historical moment; a time when it had validity and a time afterwards when it did not. Abraham was given a promise. Then Moses was given the Law (which did not supersede the promise) to guard the Jews until Christ came to fulfil the promise and liberate people from the guardianship - or ‘slavery’ - of the Law. (3:15-25)

Protestant faith has tried to give this historical journey contemporary value by making it metaphorical. People may not be living under the Law of Moses, but they are all striving for God's acceptance. Good works can't achieve this, because the Law curses everyone who breaks it (and since no one is perfect, in reality that curse is for everyone). And so the Law in this scenario is a metaphor for ‘God’. Suddenly it is not the Law that is prescribing punishment on the basis of a specific covenant, but God dealing out punishment on the basis of universal human sin. We tell a story that God is too holy to come near that sin – a (largely misunderstood) feature of Moses’ Old Covenant framework (see my post on Leviticus for more on this) – and that therefore without Jesus we are irrevocably separated from God. So then Jesus, by becoming a curse – taking the punishment – in our place, saves us from the punishment that results from our sin and opens up the way to a free relationship with God.

But there are serious problems with this metaphorical extrapolation from a specific covenant scenario to a universal human condition. In terms of Galatians the problem is that the historical journey that Paul narrates gets undermined. Because according to Paul, the Law that does the cursing was only valid for a specific period: from 430 years after Abraham until the time of Jesus (3:17,22). The Law was a guardian, keeping the heirs to the promise enslaved until Jesus was revealed. But now he has been revealed!

Forgive me a moment of Paul-esque exasperation: we have to get to grips with this… Jesus has come. Not in a metaphorical sense. In a historical reality! The power of the Law of Moses has been broken. It does not apply (and hasn't done for a very long time!) Yet in the version of the story that often - if not almost always - gets told, the perceived God of Moses, the 'too-holy-to-be-near-sin' God, would still be dealing out punishment for sin if it wasn't for Jesus.

We no longer follow the Law but we've injected its deepest assumptions about God and humankind.

To claim that God is too holy to be near sin and that Jesus has to bear our punishment in order for us to get near to God is to uphold (a skewed version of) Moses against Paul's teaching in Galatians in which he labels the Law a merely temporary ‘guardian’. (It is also to go against his teaching in 2 Corinthians - that on the cross God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not the other way around (5:18-19), not to mention John 1, where God becomes a human being and gets thoroughly involved with the unholy mess that is real life!) Our persistence in perpetuating this distorted Old Testament idea is still our most accepted heresy; the most commonplace twisting of the good news of the gospel!

Who cut in on you?

Now in my experience, this is the point in the conversation when someone claims that God’s justice is beyond our understanding, that his love and wrath are a mystery, a paradox that should not be tampered with by mere human minds.

But this doesn’t help those confused by the story of a Father who loves us so much that he gave his only Son to bear the wrath he feels towards us! This is hardly the running father of Jesus’ famous parable!

The bottom line is: we know we could do better than this God. We actively forgive people who offend us all the time; why can’t God do that for us? Why does he have to take out his violence on somebody – let alone his own son – in order to be satisfied? No loving father does that. At worst, we know the kind of father who does. At best, we secretly and inwardly – sometimes even just subconsciously – recast God to be a disappointed father who welcomes us because Jesus persuaded him.

This is where I fight back! Because this is where I have found so many times that people are prevented from really believing they are truly loved.

You can cite justice, you can cite wrath, you can cite love; at the end of the day we cannot understand why anyone – let alone God – would require a sacrifice like that in order to forgive.

So we follow, forever cowed; always straining, sometimes subconsciously, for our Father’s futile approval. Or we walk away, angry. If this is what God is like, I don’t give a s**t about him! Though deep down we still care, because the ache of possibility – of what might have been – tears our spirit.

‘You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and diverted you from the truth?’ shouts Paul (5:7). The Galatians made justification by the Law the basis of their theology when it was Jesus who now laid claim to that place. Their lives were diverted from freedom in Christ – daily steps with the Spirit of Jesus – and placed under the rule of Moses. We have made the theology of that same, long-superseded Law the basis of our theology despite the fact that Jesus ruptures those ideas, demanding that we acknowledge God’s agenda is not punishment but reconciliation. Who cut in on you, that you held to the God of Moses who reconciles only after he punishes? This theology does not lead to freedom, but to spiritual paralysis. Who cut in on you?

We need to look for the destination of the trajectory Paul set through his letter to the Galatians. If he is looking to help people obsessed with Moses to get free from Moses’ Law and live instead for Jesus then it surely makes sense to say that in a context like ours – where no-one gives a hoot about Moses – the story should be about Jesus, not Moses! Why would we introduce them to Moses’ God in order to save them with Jesus?

The truth is that because many of us believe that Moses’ God is Jesus’ God then we also assume that Jesus doesn’t challenge some of Moses’ most central theological ideas. But as I read Galatians, just as when I read the gospels and Paul’s other letters, I find the New Testament challenges the theology of the Law head-on and carefully-but-forcefully charts an alternative.

Who took God off the cross?

The cross of Jesus Christ is the climax of all Christian faith. That I believe with all my heart. The world is awash with the effects of our sin; injustice claws at communities and oppression tears them apart. But on the cross, God is not aloof from his creation; he is revealed in Jesus as a God in pain. God takes the initiative with his creation; Jesus suffers, as a sign of the raw cost of God's forgiveness, offered freely.

Jesus death is a pivotal moment; the violent earthquake in salvation history. It is when God becomes subjected to the worst oppression of humankind and suffers on our behalf; takes on himself the sin of the world and, despite that, holds out his arms in the thunderous power of a Father's open embrace

Who took God off the cross? Who invented the idea – not found in the Bible – that Jesus was separated from his Father in that moment? And when did we let this story rob us of the very heart of our faith: that God himself became a human, and experienced our life, and shared in the pain of our death, and beat it – giving us eternal hope! And did it all because he loves us.

Our God is not a retributive God; punishment is not his style. But that does not mean he is not a God of justice. However, the justice of the God revealed in Jesus is restorative. In Jesus we are brought face to face with the truth of our lives, both good and bad, in order that we can be reconciled with God (a word that means in part the healing of a relationship and in part getting in line with God’s agenda for the world). And we have been given this ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:19) to bring justice to the world around us with this same restorative approach.

God is a God of powerful, provocative, uncontrollable love. Many people will argue that they can believe in a God of love and a God of righteous retribution. But on behalf of all of us who cannot, let me say this: God loves us because he wants to, not because he has to. Everyone who knows love knows that difference is everything.

Who took God off the cross? God was there – you couldn’t stop him: dying, suffocating, with open arms; reconciling the world he loves to himself.

To the Jews this is liberation from the curse of the Law. To the rest of us, this is the healing knowledge that the Creator bore the pain of his death-ridden, malfunctioning creation. And lives to tell the tale through our lives.

This is the power of the cross.