Chapter Three of John Stott’s The Cross of Christ* promises a “look below the surface,” in fact that is what he entitles his chapter. As we leave Basic Christianity and return to The Cross, we recall the previous in-depth discussions of the highly symbolic acts in the upper room [“Remember Him” posted on St. John Studies on February 10, 2021], the Garden of Gethsemane [“What Will Our Acceptance of God’s Will do for Us?” posted on February 17, 2021], and when Jesus cried out on the cross [“Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” posted on February 24, 2021]. Stott begins Chapter Four of The Cross of Christ with an apology. He apologizes for complicating everything with “torturous theologizing;” he apologizes for Chapter Three.
This past Sunday April 4th 2021 was the celebration of Easter, the culmination of the forty day Christian season of Lent. Of course most Easter services were marked by joy, beautiful music and jubilation. Christ rose from the dead! Christ conquered death! Jesus died on the cross forgiving man’s sin! Whoa…
Jesus dying on the cross was the method God utilized for His forgiveness of our sins? Jesus had to go through all that pain and misery for us? Could God have taken another route?
Some may wonder why God brought about man’s forgiveness this way? God has the power to forgive us without all that suffering doesn’t He? The agony of Christ on the cross seems so incongruent with the joy of the season. Why didn’t God allow man to forgive other men for sins without all that pain? Stott writes “Why can’t God practice what He preaches and be equally generous? Nobody’s death is necessary before we forgive each other. Why then does God make so much fuss about forgiving us and even declaring it impossible without His Son’s sacrifice for sin?” [Stott, 89]. God expects us to be generous with other people regarding their sin; He expects us to forgive others. Why is our own forgiveness impossible without the sacrifice of His Son?
This is a good point that Stott wants to explore in Chapter Four, “The Problem of Forgiveness.” “This insistence that the death of His Son is essential for forgiveness “sounds like a primitive superstition that modern people have long discarded” .
But let’s stop and consider God’s attitude toward all this. Let’s be humble and admit that it is highly unlikely that we will understand “God’s attitude” but Stott is willing to try [is he about to do more “torturous theologizing”?].
First of all, we must consider the seriousness of sin. When a Christian simply states man should forgive other men their sins and leave it at that, is that enough? Jesus did teach us to pray “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” But what does that mean? It is a simple act? Is it an adequate act? Is this prayer admonition on par with what God intended when He had His Son go to the cross for our sins? Is God’s act similar to man forgiving other men their sins or is God doing much more?
Stott thinks God’s forgiveness is much, much more. Jesus is saying to man that it should not be impossible for us to forgive others; He clearly states: as we have been forgiven, it is essential for us to forgive others. “He was not drawing a parallel between God and us in relation to the basis of forgiveness” . To do so is to take a very shallow view of sin. What Stott is essentially saying is that God looks at sin on a much higher plane than we do. “We are private individuals, and other people’s misdemeanors [against us] are personal injuries. God is not a private individual however, and sin against God is much more than just a personal injury. God is the Maker of the laws we break, and sin is rebellion against Him” [Stott, 90].
Man is fallible but we know that God is perfection. Every man knows that human forgiveness can be hard in certain circumstances but God’s forgiveness seems almost impossible for us to accept. This raises a problem because it is a common idea among Christians that God is love, but too often we think of this “God is love” statement in terms of human love and not Divine love. Maybe God’s love should be referred to as “Holy Love.” Yes God cares for all of us including those who sin, but God is being asked to forgive sinners and at the same time preserve His holiness. His task is much more complex than human forgiveness.
Stott feels that this is the basic idea that makes the cross necessary. God is accomplishing at least two purposes when He forgives. God is choosing to save man and is maintaining His righteousness at the same time. I don’t know how many times I have heard Christians say that “Christ paid the penalty for our sin. He took our judgement in order to bring us the forgiveness we did not deserve.” Are those sentences being said without a thorough analysis of their import? Do Christians say them because they “sound Christian?” Have they become meaningless catchphrases?
Stott thinks they may be…
He intends to carefully consider the careful balancing act that God has to perform. He knows that sin is a serious rebellion from God’s laws and at the same time a majestic God has chosen to forgive that serious rebellion. To do so he will examine the gravity of sin, human moral responsibility, true and false guilt and the wrath of God. In the rest of Chapter Four, Stott says “We will see ourselves successively as sinful, responsible, guilty and lost.” This will not be an easy discussion. It will not be a pleasant discussion. It will test our integrity.
At the end of the chapter, we may again feel we are victims of torturous theologizing but maybe we will have more appreciation of what we just experienced this past Easter Sunday. Maybe we will have some small inkling of what Easter means from God’s perspective.
Maybe, just maybe, we will really benefit from trying to understand that perspective…
Why did Jesus have to die on the cross?
It had to be that way…
* Addendum: My first post on The Cross of Christ made reference to Basic Christianity so I am going to insert comments on that book in between posts on The Cross… I think readers may find this approach interesting. For my opening comments on Basic see the post “Studying Stott Again” on October 25, 2020. I have never worked on two books at a time but now is the time to do that. Now we return to commenting on The Cross.