Power, Grace, and the Cross of Christ

by J. R. Daniel Kirk

How we tell the Christian story matters. It matters because in every telling there will be a depiction of God. And because it is a Christian telling of the story, this is a depiction of the God who is for us, who is on our side. And because this is a depiction of what we believe God to be like, we will measure ourselves by how well we are reflecting the image of that God in our engagement with the world.

1jesus on crossThe story we've told

This is why the conversionist gospel story that so many of us learned, that drew so many of us to place our faith in Jesus, is bankrupt.

The story is so simple and compelling: We are the bad guys, God is the ultimate good guy, the good guy cannot leave the bad guys unpunished, Jesus steps in to bear the punishment of the bad guys, therefore we have to accept his lordship to escape punishment for ourselves.

It can feel like a story of grace because we escape the judgment ourselves. But it's not a story of grace because the economy is one of strict justice.

And it is only those who trust in Jesus who are able to escape the punishment that's coming to them. Everyone else is fair game.

This is what happens when we try to make sense of the end of the Jesus story without the beginning. It's what happens when we try to make sense of the beginning of Paul's telling without understanding its continuation and conclusion.

We make God viciously consistent in meting out judgment. We make God the punisher of all those who do not fall within the circles demarcated by ourselves. We imitate God by marking out all those on the outside as worthy of death and only ourselves as worthy of life (because of Jesus, of course).

Let's not kid ourselves: The story by which we have so often invited people into our family plays out with perfect consistency in calls to kill our enemies. The God of that story would do no less. The story by which Christian camps show the need for salvation to our kids plays out with perfect consistency in calls to protect our borders.

For the salvation of our own souls, we need to tell a better story. For the sake of the world, we need to follow a better narrative thread.

A better story line

Advent is the perfect time to reconsider our story.

Advent is the time when we hear about "God with us." We have the possibility to recognize the story of the God who lays aside power in order to walk among us.

We have a fresh opportunity to see that the coming Prince of Peace did not make the promised peace through destruction of his enemies but through the offering of himself to God.

We have an opportunity to imagine, for just a moment, that the cosmic transformation that needed to unfold was not so much changing God's mind about a sinful humanity, but changing a sinful humanity's mind about a gracious and forgiving God.

There is the real scandal of grace: not that we and people like us get to be on the inside, but that God embraces us through self-giving, self-offering love. The scandal of grace is that the boundaries established by religious and theological correctness could neither facilitate nor contain the embracing grace of the God who loved the world.

The the real scandal of grace is not that we and people like us get to be on the inside, but that God embraces us through self-giving, self-offering love.

If there is a perpetual failing in our apprehension and telling of the story–a mistaken telling that reaches all the way back to the first disciples who stumbled behind the Master–it is the notion that this story is, at its core, about how God enables me to have the life I've always wanted.

In truth, this is the story about how God enables me to lay down my life so that my neighbor can have the life s/he has always wanted.

This is not the story of a god who protected the life of his children by slaughtering their enemies. It is the story of a God who protected the life of his enemies by allowing his Son to be slaughtered.

The power of the gun, the power of the border, the power of leadership in the church is simultaneously too cheaply wrought and gained at too great a cost. When we embrace such power, it costs us the very soul we were thinking to save.

Assessing our telling

I have a very simple metric for assessing our (in)fidelity to the story. These are the questions I ask whether I'm thinking through challenges at home or civil engagement or managing conflict or what I long to see from the church. The questions I ask are these:

Am I playing the part of the crucified Christ or that of the crucifying soldier?

Am I pursuing the good of my neighbor (even my enemy) at the cost of my own good? Or am I pursuing my own good, even if it comes at some cost to my neighbor or enemy?

Maybe another way to look at it is something like this: Every time we act as Christians we are, in fact, replaying the story of the crucified Christ. The only question is "What role are we playing in our dramatic performance?"

J. R. Daniel Kirk is Associate Professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of Unlocking Romans: Resurrection and the Justification of God and Jesus Have I Loved, But Paul? A Narrative Approach to the Problem of Pauline Christianity. This article originally appeared on Kirk's blog, "Storied Theology," and appears here by kind permission of the author.

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2 Responses

  1. Dale Davis says:

    A nice little advice column on the right proper way of loving others, but man oh man, does this article have problems—serious and conspicuous problems!

    Why on earth would you guys publish this piece? Clearly the author has unresolved issues with the teachings of Paul, Jesus, and other scriptural and historical authorities concerning the atonement and other aspects of redemption–such as the classic doctrines of satisfaction, propitiation, the vicarious nature of mediatorial religion, and the "kissing" of mercy and justice. I am very sad indeed to find ESA and Ron Sider approving of this misguided writer, whoever he is. I am a tireless worker for peace, justice, and non-violence, but I rigorously maintain traditional Christian views. Indeed, the very reason I work for peace, justice, and non-violence is because this is traditional Christianity and cross-centered living. Don't you good folks know that thousands of your evangelical and Catholic readers will be turned away by this kind of unnecessary theological confusion and flirtation with harmful heterodoxy? (the regrettable divide between those who do and don't whole-heartedly embrace true disinterested benevolence and the Pax Christi is already far too great, do you want to make the gulf wider?) Can ESA really condone this doctrinal aberration and cartoon of traditional Christian doctrine (I would say Protestant or Evangelical, but all traditions of orthodox, historical, and global Christianity accept some version, albeit more sympathetically worded, of the doctrine of vicarious atonement for remission of sins—which is precisely what the writer is parodying in the following caricature: "This is why the conversionist gospel story that so many of us learned, that drew so many of us to place our faith in Jesus, is bankrupt. The story is so simple and compelling: We are the bad guys, God is the ultimate good guy, the good guy cannot leave the bad guys unpunished, Jesus steps in to bear the punishment of the bad guys, therefore we have to accept his lordship to escape punishment for ourselves." Are you serious? This is your gripe with other evangelicals? Not that they are cold-hearted hypocrites, but that they can't help turning away non-Christians because of their lousy espousal of the atonement? My, my, now that good people like us no longer believe in capital punishment, what are we to do with a writer like this?

    I'm sorry, truly so, that this clever fellow does not accept scriptural Christianity and finds passages such as Isaiah 53 so morally and theologically "bankrupt." I am happy to conform to ESA's kinder and gentler comment policy and simply say that I will pray for this innovator from Fuller. But Sir, let me candidly warn you in the Lord Jesus Christ, the apostles have some very nasty names for people who belittle the doctrines they gave their own lives and blood to advance in their letters. I suggest you spend more time reading them, and acquiescing, and less time on your own cleverly crafted attacks on orthodox Christianity.

    Your two closing questions as a metric of self-examination are fine, indeed helpful, and very much like several that I try to apply myself. But Mr. Kirk, you have some stupendously unfinished self-examination to do yourself concerning the very foundations of the faith that was once delivered, and that you are pretending to write about. We must always be reviewing and reforming ourselves and the Church, but we are not to reinvent Christian doctrine, however fabulous and useful we fancy our own ideas. I myself am often lit afire by the stunning brilliance of my own pen. But I rush to snuff it out when it begins to smell like the sulfurs of that unspeakable fire. Tell you what, I'll do you a deal. As a reader I'll do my best to adopt your acceptable rubric and advice for fidelity to Christ and the Christian story (found toward the end of your article), and I will pursue the orthopraxy of sacrificial love. But in turn, good "Christian," you must learn to beat into ploughshares the swords of your thinly veiled contempt for (possibly) slightly unpolished presentations of Christ crucified and the atoning work of redemption (which I urge you to embrace over and against your newer niceties of distinction). And if I accept your visionary metrics for living like a lover, you must accept the authoritative spectacles of holy Scripture for viewing life, the nature of God, and his ways with those that he has chosen to create and to redeem (in the fashion that pleases him and not you). That's the covenant I proffer; shall we sign in blood? (or is that too icky-poo?) It may just be the deal that ends up saving both our souls. Or do you have a problem with the traditional and scriptural notion of a soul as well? Perhaps because as a child you heard some ranting revivalist refer to it once or twice without properly stroking the tender psyche of the anxious bench? Behold (in your eyes) how many have erred in telling the Christian story.

    Dude, excuse me, Dr. Dude, take some sober advice. Do any degrading thing you feel you must do to receive the Christian faith as it has been passed from the Spirit of God, to prophets, to apostles, to confessors, and to every humble disciple of every epoch of Christ's Church. Dumb yerself down, crudify and rusticate your principles, read a puritan book, go watch a chick movie, whatever you have to do to straighten yourself out, please do it before you meet the one whose atoning sacrifice you find so uncomfortable, and certainly before you write another article that I might perchance happen upon.

    [Editorial board for ESA: You are so much better than this. A concealed diatribe posturing as a plaintive innocent, spinning out unfounded half-truths in every paragraph? An attack (not a helpful critique) from within. People trust you! I myself have directed so many people to you over the years. If you cannot better vet what you publish you will destroy your credibility and gospel witness. Serve others with all the compassion you can muster, please. But it must not be without the biblical gospel. There are serious problems with this article. I don't need to be a semi-heretic to love or to point others to a God of love.]
    – kdd

    • Kristyn Komarnicki says:

      The author responds:

      (1) It is important to remember that the church has never dogmatized one interpretation of the atonement. Falling within the purview of Christian orthodoxy simply entails the confession that Jesus died for our sins and was raised–without further specifying how that death works in the divine economy.

      (2) There are numerous ways that Christians throughout history have interpreted the atonement, and many evangelical Christians have chosen options other than penal substitution as their working metaphor (one thinks of the work of Joel Green and Mark Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross).

      (3) I want to affirm the radical centrality of the cross for the Christian message. The cross changes everything. It is the means by which the hostile world is reconciled to its gracious God. It leads to the defeat of the powers of sin and death. It leads to the forgiveness of our sins.

      J. R. Daniel Kirk
      Associate Professor of New Testament
      Fuller Theological Seminary
      Menlo Park, CA

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