Lesson 15: Summary of Theology of the Cross

bearing the crossLet’s be honest. I started this series after trying to understand how so many people could support leaders who profess and practice values I regard as unChristian. I had noticed that a theology of the cross, a central part of my Lutheran background, was conspicuously absent in everything I was reading. Now after investigating this further, I believe regaining the insights of this theology would go a long way in correcting many of our current problems.

I also came to realize I was not talking about any particular system so much as recognizing that any Christian theology must do justice to the biblical account of Jesus’ crucifixion. That would mean at least acknowledging that the established religious and political authorities with the approval of the general public executed this man who represented God and that this inspired the formation of a community who tried to transform lives by living according to the executed man’s teachings.

It became obvious that this very bare bones understanding is distorted in many contemporary Christian expressions. For example, the penal substitution theory of atonement and some readings of justification by grace eliminate the transformation. They interpret the crucifixion as a divine sacrifice that overlooks rather than transforms human sin. Jesus’ words of forgiveness from the cross excuse everything but change nothing. God’s grace simply allows things to remain as they are.

A second distortion exemplified by the evangelical crusade and altar call is closely tied to the first. It speaks of transformation but only in terms of one’s destination after death. The sacrifice on the cross enables the believer to be with God in another place in another time.

A third, found in the Power of Positive Thinking and Prosperity Gospel groups, ignores the cross completely. It interprets Jesus’ teachings as a formula for success in this world. In one way or another, they supposedly provide good health, good family, and good finances. Of course, these groups disregard that Jesus’ actual teachings led to his execution.

The fourth might be the most dangerous. American Exceptionalism presumes that the transformation has already taken place in the US nation. However, its establishment operates more like the Roman Empire and the Jewish Sanhedrin than the Christian community. It maintains control with the power of weapons. It supports its wealth on the exploitation of poor nations. It favors the privileged in its courts. And lately its politicians, like Pilate, interpret truth as data that supports their positions. The American system deserves great respect but hardly operates by Jesus’ teachings of love, sharing, and truth.

As you have probably discerned, I think the critical element lacking in all four is significant transformation. In the biblical story of salvation, God acts in history to heal his creation. The whole plot of the Bible is destroyed if you eliminate the need for change.

A theology of the cross reveals this need for transformation with stark reality. You might imagine birth in a manger as a cute crèche scene, you might see a rural ministry in a poor country as pastoral, but there is no way you can explain away the horror of a crucifixion. Sin no longer can be trivialized as drinking too much coffee, having bad thoughts, or making small mistakes.

The crucifixion reveals the repentance or rethinking that Jesus calls for in his ministry involves radical transformation. He makes that clear when he follows the prediction of his own suffering by defining discipleship as denying yourself and taking up your own cross.

That is not to say a theology of the cross lays out any particular program for the transformation. It begins by honestly considering what Jesus’ teachings mean in our day, but acknowledges Jesus often answers questions with open ended stories or additional questions. So now, pondering the crucifixion forces us to ask life’s persistent questions repeatedly and dismisses any oversimplification or finger-pointing. The transformation is ongoing.

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