Spring Lecture, Saint Thomas Fifth Avenue

Spring Lecture, Saint Thomas Fifth Avenue

Spring Lecture, Saint Thomas Fifth Avenue

March 8, 2017

            This is the longer version delivered as a lecture (very successful).

            A slightly shorter version was given at Trinity Columbia in Lent 2017.

Crucified by Sin for Me

The theme of substitution in the death of Christ


            Preliminary remarks:

            Wall Street Journal article two days ago:

            “Free Our Churches From the Ugly and Stupid”!

            We don’t have to worry about that at St Thomas. That’s why I pledge…


            Two questions for us:

            In The New Yorker a few years ago, the admirable journalist and writer Philip Gourevitch wrote a remarkable paragraph. He is, as far as I know, a secular Jew, which makes this even more striking:

…the dominant symbol of Western civilization is the figure of a nearly naked man, tortured to death—or, more simply, the torture implement itself, the cross. But our pictures of the savage death of Jesus are the product of religious imagination and idealization. In reality, he must have been ghastly to behold. Had there been cameras at Calvary, would twenty centuries of believers have been moved to hang photographs of the scene on their altarpieces and in their homes? – (“Annals of War, ” March 24, 2008)

            Note the construction of this sentence, “he must have been ghastly to behold.” Most people would have written, “He must have looked ghastly.” Gourevitch knows how to put together a powerful sentence. The word “ghastly” conveys something extreme—and yet it’s not the most important word. The most important word is the verb, which has been postponed to the end: “He must have been ghastly to behold.” As syntax, this is theological dynamite—probably more so than Gourevitch realized. All crucified men must have looked ghastly, but the word “behold,” and its position at the end of the sentence, carries with it something more than just “looking.” It’s a particular defect of the new versions of the Bible that they insist on trivializing the Hebrew and Greek words for “Behold!” which they have translated as “See!” or “Look!” You don’t have to speak Jacobean English to recognize that the word “behold” means something special. In both Testaments, the word translated “behold” conveys a sense of extraordinary disclosure, a pulling back of the curtain, an intervention by nothing less than the divine hand. Something is happening on Golgotha that can only be “beheld” by an act of God upon the eyes of the beholder.

            Is the crucifixion an act of God? That’s a central question. In preaching the cross, we should always ask ourselves, “Is anything special actually happening here?” or is it just an unfortunate event that occurred on the way to the resurrection? The message of the cross should convey a sense of amazement, of revelation, and above all a surge of power: “Surely this man was the Son of God!” Matthew is particularly notable for this: as Jesus is on the cross, “the curtain was rent asunder, the rocks were split, and the bodies of the dead were raised.”  These apocalyptic signs signify the direct action of God “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” When Paul writes in I Corinthians about the message of the cross, he uses the word “power” (dunamis, as in dynamite) three times in seven verses, and then brings the passage to a ringing climax by telling us what the power of God actually accomplishes:

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are do not exist, to bring to nothing the things that are,

            That’s power. Indeed, it’s called creation ex nihilo: creation out of nothing. A crucified man was, precisely, a nothing—a nonhuman. A crucified man was no longer a person, but a reviled specimen pinned up like an insect. Notice the crescendo: God chose what is foolish, what is weak, what is low and despised, what is a nothing—in order to create something that did not exist before: the crucifixion of “the things that are.” As Paul puts it elsewhere, “God forbid that I should boast save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified to me and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14) Sometimes Paul speaks in terms of the entire world, and at other times he speaks of himself personally:

I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. (Galatians 2:20)

            In these passages, we see very clearly that the apostle speaks of a uniquely powerful event, an event that radically changes everything in the entire universe and in the unique life of every single person. But what, exactly, is it that happens?

            I’m often asked if there is anything new in my book. I do think it has at least one unusual feature. I am urgently asking a question that few, as far as I know, have asked: Why was Jesus crucified? Why not some less cruel, less barbaric, less dehumanizing and above all less shameful method? No one can plumb the depths of this question in this life, but I have tried to put forward at least a partial answer to it.

            One of my important chapters expounds the Christus Victor theme. (One of the most thrilling moments of the year at St Thomas is right after the reading of the gospel on Easter Day when the whole congregation, led by the choir, bursts into “Christus Vincit, Christus Regnat, Christus Imperat!”

            I had several choices today of themes. I could easily have given you a synopsis of my chapter on Christus Victor. This particular lecture, however, is largely about the theme of substitution. I argue that all of the biblical motifs interlock and interpret each other, but I will try to explain why substitution is so important.

            The word “for us” (huper in Greek) as in “Jesus died for us” comes into play here. “For us” can mean “on our behalf” and it can mean “in our place.” Sometimes it means one, sometimes the other, and can mean both at once. The problem arises when interpreters insist that it can never mean “in our place.”

            For the past fifty years or more, the motif of substitution has been under attack in the church. This attack takes various forms, but it has been very successful in its goals. I myself have not heard a powerful sermon about Jesus dying for us, in our place, in the Episcopal (Anglican) church for fifty years.

            Now, part of the problem is the 19th century phenomenon sometimes referred to as Protestant Scholasticism, with its theme called “penal substitutionary atonement.” Anselm of Canterbury is supposed to be the villainous progenitor of the penal substitution scheme, and his reputation has suffered accordingly. (In my book I offer a vigorous defense of Anselm in this regard.) Contempt for Anselm and “penal substitutionary atonement” has been ubiquitous in the Episcopal church for so many decades now that most people in the pews have never heard it preached.

            Here’s what “penal substitutionary atonement” looks like, more or less. Humanity was so far gone in sin that we were deserving only of judgment and condemnation (“we were by nature children of wrath”—Ephesians 2:3). God, in his infinite love, sent his only Son to become incarnate among us and to take upon himself the wrath of God and the punishment that we deserved for our sins. On the cross, we see this wrath and punishment descending upon Jesus, claiming him and torturing him to death.  Thus, as a line from an evangelical hymn says, “The wrath of God was satisfied.” Jesus, in absorbing the punishment that we deserved, deflected it from us and took it himself.

            When I was a Christian teenager in the late 1940s, I heard this interpretation at mass meetings of young people. Sometimes it was elaborated with a scheme of merits. We would be asked to imagine the merits of Jesus on a balance sheet, and our demerits listed in the opposite column. His merits are so great that they cancel out the entire list of sins committed by the entire human race. At the heart of all this is the idea that Jesus substituted himself for us, placing himself in the path of destruction that we deserved. I still love the line from Cranmer’s eucharistic prayer: “not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offenses,” which I heard every Sunday until 1978, when the Prayer Book was revised. (It’s still in there, in Rite One, but almost never used.)

            I was very convicted by this “atonement theory” when I was a teenager and to some extent I still am, in spite of its manifest and much-reviled flaws. In my book I argue that we should entirely rule out the idea of “theories,” in favor of the rich tapestry of  themes and associations that emerge from Scripture. One of these themes is the idea of exchange, or, if you will, substitution. For instance, we read in Colossians that God has “forgiven us all our trespasses, having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:13-14). I’m not sure we should interpret this literally, but still, we can easily imagine an actual list of commandments violated by us, accusations against us, transferred to Jesus on the cross. In II Corinthians there is a verse of extraordinary importance: “For our sake [God] made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” The syntax here is a bit mysterious; we aren’t sure exactly what Paul meant by “he made him to be sin.” It’s important to note that Paul, in his undisputed letters, usually refers to sin as he does here, in the singular—Sin.[1] In any case, there is certainly an idea of exchange here: the sinless one becomes sin for our sake. Can we say therefore that Jesus was crucified for us “in our place”?

            This interpretation is sometimes called “forensic penal substitution,” a phrase nowadays usually uttered scornfully (I remember the beloved writer Madeleine l’Engle referring to it with great indignation at Grace Church where she knew that at least some of us still thought there was something to it). The word “forensic,” as you know, refers to the setting of a law court, with a verdict and sentencing. Despite the unpopularity of this notion in many circles within the church, there is ample evidence in the Old Testament to the effect that God has a case against us. For instance, in various places in Isaiah we see scenes from the divine courtroom:

The Lord has taken his place to contend, he stands to judge his people. The Lord enters into judgment with the elders and princes of his people: “It is you who have devoured the vineyard, the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?” says the Lord God of hosts.(Isaiah 3:13-15)

            So you can see that I am defending “forensic penal substitution”—up to a point. But there have been a number of problems that have caused it to fall into serious disrepute. I have made a long list of these difficulties in my book; here are some of them:

            1) It became rationalized and schematized, forced into a narrow channel that was more like a “theory of atonement” than the multifaceted, fluid, wide-ranging imagery of the Bible. The language of the Bible from beginning to the end is far more like saga, poetry, and wisdom than it is like a series of propositions.

            2) Penal substitutionary atonement crowded out the other themes. One of my chief arguments is that we should find ways to honor all of the biblical motifs and “idea-complexes.”[2]

            3) Penal substitution, when preached, sometimes seemed to dwell unhealthily on wrath and judgment.

            4) It was used as a litmus test of orthodoxy and “soundness” (I can remember being called “not sound” when I protested that the Epistle to the Romans had almost no substitution imagery. Which it doesn’t. Look to Galatians for that.)

            5) Perhaps most seriously, penal substitution often seemed to sever the Father from the Son, with the Father cast in the role of the wrathful, tyrannical Judge and the innocent Son as the appeaser. This should never have been allowed to happen; it is a violation of the Three Persons of the Trinity.

            It is particularly important to emphasize this last point. The act of God in the crucifixion of Jesus is an action from within the three Persons of the Trinity.[3] If Jesus is not the only-begotten Son of God—“very God of very God, being of one substance with the Father,” the whole thing collapses. Listen to the “tympanic power” of the first chapter of Colossians:

He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1: 15-20)

            Without this high Christology, which is explicit in the Epistles and in the Johannine writings, the cross cannot be preached as Paul preaches it—as “the power of God.” If Jesus Christ’s identity is diminished, then nothing transcendent is actually taking place in the crucifixion.

            Now it’s important to say, I think, that the resurrection does not cancel out the cross. The resurrection is the vindication of the crucified One. That’s a very important distinction. It’s depicted in the imagery of Revelation, where the Lamb “in the midst of the throne” is standing “as though it had been slain” (Revelation 5:6); a better translation has been proposed as “the Lamb forever slain.” The resurrected Christ bears the marks of his execution into the eternal Age. This ought to convince us once and for all that Good Friday is not just an unpleasant day to be passed over as quickly as possible enroute to Easter, although the majority of people who identify as Christians treat it that way, with little or no attention to (or attendance at) the liturgies of Holy Week.

            Now for the question I have posed. Why was Jesus crucified? The cross, as a symbol, has become so commonplace that few stop to ask why the man who came to be worshiped as the living Son of God should have been tortured to death—in public—in the most “ghastly,” the most cruel, and most dehumanizing manner possible. What does it signify that Jesus Christ was crucified instead of being dispatched by some less extreme mode of execution? Even Henry the Eighth spared Thomas More from being hanged, drawn and quartered, and he ordered an expert swordsman from France so that Anne Boleyn would not suffer from a misplaced blow of an axe.

            Crucifixion is often called the death of slaves, and that’s correct. Roman citizens were never crucified. However, it’s important to recognize that it wasn’t just a matter of putting slaves in their place. Crucifixion was an anti-insurrection, anti-sedition tactic. It was designed to keep the population down, under the heel of the Roman oppressors. The Roman officials in Jerusalem were far removed from their center of power. They had a subject people to control. The public, spectacular nature of crucifixion was designed to impress upon the entire restive population: this can happen to you, too, if you so much as lift a finger or speak a word against the might of the Roman Empire. When Spartacus led a slave revolt forty years before the death of Jesus, the victorious Romans crucified six thousand men along the Appian Way. I don’t think any of us can imagine such a thing, can you? No more can we imagine the sight of the man whom we call Savior and Redeemer in his agony. I’m not going to dwell further on this, but the sight, the sounds, the smells must have been beyond description.

            The Passion narratives don’t go into any detail about what a crucified man suffering public torment looked like. They didn’t need to. Everyone in the Roman-occupied territories had seen crucifixions; the whole intention was to make it as public as it was possible to be. The Evangelists don’t emphasize the physical details. They want us to see something else. What is emphasized is the shame of crucifixion. The gospels speak of the scourging, the mocking, the crown of thorns. Isaiah the prophet says he “hid not his face from shame and spitting.” Hebrews makes a point of it, how the Son of God went willingly to the cross, “despising the shame.” What shame is the author speaking of?

            We can easily identify two aspects of shame in our story. The first is that of being completely naked (no loincloth, you may be sure) and in unspeakable pain, exposed to untrammeled public contempt and loathing. Matthew and Mark particularly emphasize the public shaming, a central feature of the whole process. It was a kind of spectacle. The crucified men were displayed for maximum exposure. Reviling them, insulting them, flinging insults at them was part of the ritual. The more they suffered, the more the abuse. The very worst aspects of human nature were called out and given full rein. ===

            Therefore, it’s particularly important to understand who it is that is being shamed. If this is just one among many admirable religious figures, then we are distressed, we are shocked, we are outraged; but those are not adequate reactions to what the gospel tells us—namely, that this public, shame-filled torture-murder is the murder of the only-begotten Son, “God of God, light of light, very God of very God, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made….” If this isn’t made explicit and emphasized, then we are summoned to pity and amazement, yes, but for what, in the end?

            The question, “Why did Jesus die?” is often answered like this: “to show us how much God loves us.” That is true. But is it anywhere near adequate? How does it show anything of the kind, actually? Suppose you see a Buddhist monk on fire. He has immolated himself as a protest against the oppression of the Tibetan people. A young man in Tunisia started the Arab Spring by burning himself up. These were (and still are)  important causes, martyrdoms on behalf of others—and death by burning causes exceptional pain. But do these deaths have universal significance? Do they show us how much God loves us? How can the ghastly death of Jesus show us how much God loves us unless he himself is God? The indispensable matter of the identity of Jesus comes to the fore.

            The second aspect of the shame of crucifixion is the religious curse laid upon it. It would be difficult to exaggerate the degree of shame felt by a Jew at that time at being exposed naked. Modesty was a well-known feature of the culture.[4] But there is something more specific about crucifixion in the Jewish Scriptures. We find it quoted in Galatians. I think it’s electrifying to think of what went through Paul’s mind in this passage. He has found a text in the book of Deuteronomy, to the effect that any man hanged on a tree must be taken down the same day, because he is cursed by God and his body must not be left to pollute the land (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). This must have been a significant moment of insight for Paul. He reshapes it in this way in Galatians: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed be every one who hangs on a tree”(Galatians 3:13) It is one of the clearest examples of the substitution theme in all of scripture, yet it does not appear anywhere in the lectionary, not even during Holy Week. Therefore preachers have to be intentional about bring it into the pulpit.

            So to return to the question: What is happening when Jesus is crucified? In preaching the cross, we should not let any disdain for “penal substitutionary atonement” prevent us from mining the depths of the theme of substitution, which is present in so much of the imagery of the biblical accounts of the death of Christ. One of the best way to do this is to take a look at some of our classic hymns.

            I’m very concerned that the church at large (though not St Thomas!) is losing our classic hymn texts. Very little of the new music has the biblical and theological depth of the older hymns. Here’s a verse, very simple, from the turn of the last century:

Here the king of all the ages

            Throned in light ere worlds could be,

            Robed in mortal flesh is dying,

            Crucified by sin for me.

            There in four straightforward lines we have the highest possible Christology combined with the astonishing words, “crucified by sin for me.” There in those five words is the secret of the question, why was Jesus crucified? Here is the answer: he was crucified by Sin. In Paul’s extraordinary declaration,  “For us, God made him to be sin who knew no sin.”(II Corinthians  5:21) To what does the hideousness of crucifixion correspond? It corresponds to the hideousness of Sin, understood not as individual transgressions but as the great Power, the Enemy of God’s love, who works Death in us as we cooperate with him and serve him in numberless acts of rebellion against the goodness of God. What we see on the cross is the Son of God interposing his own self between the onslaught of the Enemy and the human race that God loves and will not give up.[5]

            One of the greatest of all Christian hymn texts was written in the first century of the Reformation by Johann Heerman, a significant though minor poet in the German language. (The 20th century English translation by Robert Seymour Bridges is remarkably powerful in its own right.) Even though my mother played the organ and chose the hymns in the little church I grew up in, and my sister and I sang in the choir until we went away to college, I do not recall ever singing this hymn, “Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended?” About thirty years ago, if I’m not mistaken, it entered into regular use in many Episcopal churches as the concluding hymn on Palm Sunday. The power of this service cannot be overemphasized. For me, it is the greatest service of the entire year. I make a point of being here at St Thomas on that day. The drama of Holy Week is enacted and we are full participants in it. There is festivity and an elaborate procession. We wave palms and shout hosanna. We sing “All glory, laud, and honor” and “Ride on, ride on in majesty.” Then we sit down to listen to the very long, solemnly enacted reading of the Passion narrative. We play our parts: we all shout “Crucify him!” At the point in the reading when Jesus arrives at Golgotha, we all stand for the final scene. It is shattering. I can’t imagine how anyone can be unaffected by it. But for me, the most powerful moment of all is the singing of the Heerman hymn on the way out, followed by total silence. The words indicate as clearly as possible that Jesus on the cross is there in our place—the Great Exchange. The words in their extraordinary devotional effectiveness carry the day and are beyond criticism. It is as though the hymn, sung in response to the reading of the passion narrative, stops all argument:

Lo, the Good Shepherd for the sheep is offered;

            The slave hath sinnèd, and the Son hath suffered;

            For our atonement, while we nothing heeded,

            God interceded.

            God interceded. That is what is happening on the cross.


Again, the striking personal confession of St Paul in Galatians:

            I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.[6] – (Galatians 2:20)

            Do you believe that? If you do, and with every fiber of my being I hope you do, then you are called to embrace it, not with hesitation, not with timidity, not with uncertainty, but with unquenchable confidence in “the power of God for salvation.” (Romans 1:16).


[1]This is an important point, but there was no time to elaborate on it here. In my book I go into it in great detail, in the chapter called “The Gravity of Sin,” and also in the Christus Victor chapter.

[2]“Idea-complexes” is a term coined by Stephen Sykes.

[3]This is the phrasing, if not the exact words, of Robert Jenson.

[4]And still is, among Orthodox Jews—as well as Muslims. Shaming is a major aspect of torture—witness the Abu Ghraib photographs.

[5]This is the apocalyptic landscape that pervades the entire New Testament (and later portions of the Old). I expound this in detail in the Christus Victor chapter in my book.

[6]A significant number of New Testament scholars agree with Richard B. Hays that this should be translated as “the faithfulness of the Son of God” rather than “the faith of the Son of God,” let alone “faith in the Son of God.” It is not our faith in him, but his faithfulness to us that gives us his life.

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