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Church Matters: The 9Marks Blog: Of FIRST importance

Greg Gilbert at 9Marks writes an outstanding summary of what is truly of FIRST importance and how we can drift away from that.  I’m reproducing it here in its entirety:

In my blog post a week ago, I wrote that I thought Andy Crouch’s book had missed the point of the cross and therefore of the gospel. His is not the first book about which I’ve said that. Actually, one of my jobs here at 9Marks is to read books (and watch videos) that have become popular among evangelicals, and review them. For whatever reason, the critique that the cross has been redefined—or even is missing—seems, sadly, to be a common theme in those reviews.

What really surprises me, however, is the response I run into from people who leave comments here or post responses on other blogs. Time and again, what I see is self-described evangelicals defending authors or video-makers for their shoddy treatment of the atonement—even when those video-makers say things like “The cross was about….” or “This is what the gospel’s about…” or they title a section of their book “Gospel.”  In other words, it’s not that the author isn’t talking about the cross because the book isn’t about the gospel or the cross; it is in fact about the cross, or at least they mean it to be; they just want to articulate a new understanding of the gospel or the cross. Moreover, it’s not that the responses I hear point to some section of the book and say, “Look, there. A clear explanation of penal subsitutionary atonement. You must have skipped that page.” No, it’s usually something more like “I’m sure he wouldn’t deny penal substitution if you asked him. He just doesn’t focus on it here.” Or “Why should we have to talk about penal substitution anyway? That’s only one image of the cross, and I think the image of reconciliation communicates better to my generation.”

A few years ago, it seemed to me that people like Brian McLaren might actually manage to reshape evangelical thinking about the gospel. I was worried about it because I saw so many young men my age being swept up by his way of thinking. Over the last two or three years, though, I’ve become pretty well convinced that evangelicals have effectively cut the legs out from under “emergent” theology, considered as a system. First Don Carson’s Becoming Conversant, and then Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck’s Why We’re Not Emergent were the one-two knock-out punches, it seems to me, that finally convinced people that there was no “there” there in emergent theology.

Even so, I think there are a few barbs from emergent theology that have managed to hang on in evangelicalism, some of them more worrisome than others. I am convinced that one of those—and without a doubt the most dangerous—is the temptation among many young evangelicals to rethink and rearticulate the gospel in a way that makes its center something other than the substitutionary, wrath-enduring death of Jesus in the place of sinners for their sin. I see that happening in a couple of different ways, depending on what you’re reading—or watching.

Sometimes that impulse works itself out in authors simply shunting the cross over and (wittingly or unwittingly) making the center of the gospel story something else entirely. Maybe it’s Jesus’ lordship, or God’s kingdom, or God’s purpose to remake the heavens and earth, or His call for us to join him in his work of cultural transformation.  Time after time, in book after book coming off of Christian presses, the highest excitement and joy is being ignited by something other than the sin-bearing work of Christ on the cross, and the most fervent appeals are for people to join God in doing this or that, rather than to repent and believe. In the process, the story of the gospel is made to be (deliberately or not) rather cross-less. That’s one dangerous problem.

Another problem is not so much the shunting of the cross out of the center, as the remaking of it into something other than the substitutionary, wrath-bearing death of the Savior in the place of sinners for their sins. Thus Jesus’ death is often said to be the result of human evil or greed or power-lust or culture-making or any number of other things coming to their lowest, worst, most concentrated point and killing Jesus, who then conquers that worst-of-all-evils through his resurrection.

Don Carson hit on this in a blog-post some time ago when he wrote that,

“In recent years it has become popular to sketch the Bible’s story-line something like this: Ever since the fall, God has been active to reverse the effects of sin. He takes action to limit sin’s damage; he calls out a new nation, the Israelites, to mediate his teaching and his grace to others; he promises that one day he will come as the promised Davidic king to overthrow sin and death and all their wretched effects. This is what Jesus does: he conquers death, inaugurates the kingdom of righteousness, and calls his followers to live out that righteousness now in prospect of the consummation still to come.”

Carson calls this presentation of the Bible’s narrative “painfully reductionistic,” and he’s right. There is no understanding here (explicit understanding, anyway) that sin is an offense against God rather than just an unfortunate circumstance humans have brought on themselves. There’s no sense of Jesus standing in the place of sinners to take the punishment that rightly should fall upon them. And for that matter, there’s no sense that there’s any punishment involved at all—just consequences. No divine wrath, just bad results. In other words, such a presentation of the gospel essentially leaves out of the meaning of the cross exactly what the Bible makes central to it: A) that Jesus was dying in the place of his people, and B) that on the cross he endured punishment for their sin (not just the results of it—the punishment for it), meted out by God the Father in his righteous wrath.

It’s amazing to me how willing many evangelicals are to excuse both those moves—the move to de-center the cross and the move to make it something other than penal and substitutionary. It’s just a thought, but I wonder if the impulse to do those things might come from the bare fact that the world just doesn’t like the cross as it’s presented in Scripture. At best they think it’s a ridiculous fairy tale, and at worst a monstrous lie. Add to that the fact that we really want the world to be attracted to Jesus, and you can see where the enormous pressure comes from to find a way not to have to talk about “bloody cross religion” quite so much. So we shade toward a gospel that centers on world-renewal rather than the cross, or a cross that has nothing to do with Jesus taking God’s wrath and punishment for another’s sin, all in the hope that the world will perhaps think us a little less crazy.

I’m not going to make a sustained case for penal substitutionary atonement here. I and others have done that elsewhere, over and over and over again. I’ll just assert (again) that penal substitution is not just one more image of the cross among many, from which buffet we may pick and choose depending on what we think will communicate best at any given moment. It is, rather, the underlying reality upon which all the other images depend and are built. So, you say you prefer to talk about the cross in terms of reconciliation instead of penal substitution? Great. All I ask is that you be honest about it and trace that image all the way down. Why, for starters, is reconciliation needed in the first place? Is it because we are angry at God, or is it because God is angry at us? And exactly how is reconciliation with an angry God effected at the cross? Is it by something other than Jesus taking the wrath that was owed to us? You see? You can talk about “the Bible looking at the cross from a multiplicity of perspectives” all you want, but all those perspectives, when you trace them down, come right back to Jesus taking the punishment his people deserved—that is, to penal substitution. (Of course you can—and people have—simply made up a few perspectives that don’t trace back down to penal substitution. But that’s beside the point. We’re talking about biblical images here.)  And if you argue for something short of that, you are missing the point of the cross entirely.

At the end of the day, and really in the face of all the comments to the contrary, Scripture makes it clear that the cross—that is, the death of Jesus in the place of sinners, taking the punishment they deserved—must remain at the center of the gospel. We cannot move it to the side, we cannot replace it with any other truth, and we cannot reimagine it as something less offensive than it really is. Otherwise we present the world with something that is not saving, and that is therefore not good news at all.

Think about what Paul said about all this in 1 Corinthians. He knew the message of the cross sounded, at best, insane to those around him. He knew that by proclaiming the message that “Christ died for our sins” (1 Cor 15), he would incur the world’s ridicule. But even in the face of that sure rejection, still he said, “I preach Christ crucified.” In fact, he resolved to “know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

That’s because, as he put it at the end of the book, the message that “Christ died for our sins” was not just important, not even just very important.

It was “of first importance.”

There are quite a few evangelicals out there who could stand to give that some serious thought.


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