Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Dead with Christ

I've written about this briefly before, but over the past week or so as we've particularly remembered the atoning sacrifice of Christ it has struck me again: we (evangelicals, I guess) are pretty good at talking about the glorious truth of Christ's substiutionary sacrifice, with its happy consequence that we no longer face the wrath of God.  We are less good at talking about the glorious truth of Christ's representative sacrifice, with its happy consequence that we are no longer the sinners we were.

To unpack that a bit, we say quite clearly that Jesus bore the penalty for sin that we deserved, thus taking it from us.  He, the righteous one, stands over against us and takes from us the burden of our guilt, suffering in our place.  We say that, and let's be clear: we can't say it enough.  This is glorious, it is Scriptural, it is beautiful.  Bless the Lord.

But we don't say, or at least we don't say nearly so much, that when Jesus died as our representative on the cross he really brought about our deaths.  But that is a big part of the New Testament message.  "One has died for all, therefore all have died."  "We have been united with him in a death like his...  our old self was crucified with him."  "I have been crucified with Christ."

These verses, and many others - I would argue that this is the dominant theme of the NT presentation of the atonement - are saying something different from substitution.  They follow the way of Christ into the presence of sinners, accepting solidarity with sinners at his baptism, maintaining that solidarity throughout his ministry ("a friend of tax collectors and sinners") - not resisting or avoiding the appearance of guilt, crucified between two obvious malefactors.  Born in scandal, living with sinners, dying with criminals; he, the sinless one, with us sinners, really with us.  And in his death, therefore, us with him, really with him.  And therefore dead, died, executed.

This has hugely important consequences. 

Why is God satisfied in the atonement which Christ makes?  For sure the penalty is paid, but there is more: the sinner who stood opposed to God is taken away, crucified and dead in and with Christ his sinless representative. 

Why should we do mission, taking the gospel out?  For sure because of the good news of substitution, but even more because in Christ the death sentence on sinful humanity has been pronounced and carried out (2 Cor 5!); the situation for all people, each individual person, has changed, and they need to know.

Why should I live a distinctive and holy life?  For sure the sacrificial death of my substitute is a powerful motive to love, but the standard New Testament appeal is not to gratitude but to simple reality: you, the sinful old you, died; how can you continue to live as if that old self was still around?

Maybe I've just missed it, but I don't think this theme is big enough in our preaching and teaching.


  1. I've become convinced this is at the heart of what needs to change. As you sum up well, union with Christ much more naturally ties in transformation as being central to what the gospel is about (i.e. not just primarily or only about being let off the hook).

    Perhaps time to crack open Irenaeus again... recapitulation captures the NT doctrine of salvation more faithfully than the theologies you critique, I think.

    1. Yes to Irenaeus, one of my absolute favourites. The only thing I'll say - and I think this is important biblically and strategically - is that substitution, indeed *penal* substitution, is still true and crucial. It just isn't enough to only say that.

    2. I agree, although probably even that can't be isolated from the purgative aspect of the atonement (not that you'd want to do that). I wrote about this a while ago, that the OT punishments were not just to satisfy a standard of justice, but also to protect the community and discourage particular behaviours. I don't think those elements are seperable without the distortions we see in large swathes of evangelicalism.