(Icon: "The Crucifixion," by Emmanuil Lampardos, 17th cent., Cretan school)
58.) The Meaning of the Cross: Substitutionary - The first meaning of the cross is that it was a vicarious substitution. Scripture teaches clearly that when Christ accepted death on the cross, he was doing it not just to suffer the penalty of a misguided conviction for sedition: he was intentionally taking on himself the consequences of humanity’s sin. This dynamic was prefigured through the sacrificial traditions of the Old Testament. Those traditions held that since spiritual death was one of the results of the way sin estranged us from God (and, estranged from God, we are left with our own natural mortality, with no assurance of eternal life—thus, because of sin, death is our “wages”), we could symbolically renounce that sin through a manifestation of death, symbolically replace our daily, surface-driven No to God with a Yes that came from the bottom of our hearts by offering up a sacrificial victim (sheep, goat, etc.) to suffer death. In doing so, worshipers expressed an acknowledgment of the consequences of their sin and their desire to move beyond the “wages of sin” toward the possibility of a cleansing from God that would make us holy, not just for a day or for a year, but forever. Jesus fulfilled this typology and became our vicarious sacrificial victim, presenting himself to God as humanity’s ultimate Yes to the Father, even to the point of accepting the consequences of sin (which he didn’t have to do, since he himself had no part of sin). Only in his full humanity, mystically sharing the same nature with all of us, could he do this. He, as the new representative of humanity, took Adam’s place and declared that our Yes to God was so great that not even death would keep us from pursuing his love. Of course, on our own, we had no power to purge ourselves of sin, heal our natures, and lay claim to his love—only as God could Jesus bridge the gap for us, meeting his own human nature’s willingness to suffer death for the sake of being restored to God with his own divine nature’s outreaching love. He took our place, represented our sinful state before God (though without actual sin himself), and in himself restored human nature and made us clean.
59.) Contrast with Penal Substitutionary Atonement - This view of “the wages of sin” as referring to the logical consequence of sin is, of course, a different view than the popular Anselmian view of penal substitutionary atonement, in which “the wages of sin” refers to a legal penalty against sin. Such an Anselmian view might at first glance be lent credence by Paul’s use of the terminology of the “wrath” of God in the same passage. However, a careful reading of Romans seems to show that Paul is conceiving of this “wrath” of God as being manifest in our present lives, in being given over to our own free-will pursuit of sin to the point that we continue to twist our natures ever more towards further depravity, thus adding to our own misery; that is to say, he does not seem to have eternal damnation in view in that passage as the logical end of God’s wrath. The terminology of wrath is actually a fitting way of speaking of the manner in which God confronts the sin of the human race—indeed, if he truly does love us, then the best way to describe his approach to sin, which cripples and terrorizes his beloved creatures, is in terms of hatred and wrath, much as a loving father might hate the drugs that have turned his son into an addict. So, although the Anselmian view is a possible interpretation, it need not be our only interpretation of Romans. Nor, logically, does it seem to be consistent with what we know of God. It is difficult to understand why creatures who are predisposed by nature toward sin should suffer a legal penalty of death simply for sinning. Nor does it make much sense to call God’s grace towards us “forgiveness” if that forgiveness requires someone dying before it can take effect. I am able to forgive offenses against me without asking for a sacrificial victim; am I then morally superior to God because I can offer true forgiveness more freely than he can? It seems to me that the logic of the love of God leads us to interpret Paul’s theology of Christ’s vicarious sacrifice in terms of him dealing with the logical consequences of our sin (death and the corruption of our natures) where we could not, rather than in terms of him accepting the penalty of a divine wrath which requires execution to atone for even a single infraction. This view of substitutionary atonement, which does not assent to the later "penal" view so prominent in Western Christianity, is, in fact, the consistently-held position of the Eastern churches on the subject since the time of the early church.
Next week: The Meaning of the Cross - Exemplary & Christus Victor