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When I Survey the Wondrous Cross

Have you heard the one about the musician, the Presbyterian, and the wrath of God?  OK, maybe it’s not exactly a joke, but in my twisted mind, it is more than a little funny.  It seems that the newest hymnal created for use in worship by the Presbyterian Church, USA, has been in a bit of a controversy lately.  One of the hymns that was being considered for their new hymnal was the hymn by the Gettys and Townend, “In Christ Alone.”  There is a line in the hymn that the committee members were not crazy about: “the wrath of God was satisfied.”

The committee’s concern with the line was that it represented a view of atonement that suggests that God required a sacrificial death to atone for the sin of humanity.  Their anxiety was about the use of the word “satisfied.”  Much of the posts and blogs that came out railed that they were trying to take the “wrath” of the hymnal.  The committee responded, “we still have plenty of wrath in our hymnal!”  The whole thing was actually a little humorous, on one level.

But on another level, it’s not a joke.  It is a deeply important conversation.  Sure, people can get a little too caught up in fights over hymns or worship style or majoring in the minors.  But what I like about the conversation is that it recognizes that the words of our hymns matter.

One of the articles about the controversy I read this week quotes Mike Harland, director of LifeWay worship, the Southern Baptists.  He is quoted in the article saying, “The faith of current generations and future generations is shaped by what we say and what we sing,” he said. “That’s why you stress over every word.”

I like his point.  The words of our hymns matter.  What we sing matters.

I made this point last week, reminding folks to not turn your brain onto autopilot as soon as the introduction to the hymn begins.  As much as we have emotional connections to the songs we sing, we also must think about what we are singing.  On that, the Presbyterians and the Southern Baptists agree: the words of the hymnal matter.

Case in point.  The Presbyterian hymnal controversy brings up some significant theological questions about the nature of the atonement of God.  It is the same question that Paul wrestled with in the passage I read about a few moments ago.  In verse 15, he speaks of the way that God has brought about a new creation.

But how does that happen?  How are we a new creation in Christ?  What did Paul mean when he named this as the reason to boast, the reason for our faith?  Why must we boast in the cross?  What did Jesus do on the cross?  How are we a new creation in Christ?

For an answer to that question, I’d like you to open in your hymnals.  Not to a certain hymn number, but to the back of the book.  Turn to page 738.  On that page begins the Topical Index of Hymns.  Most of you might have had no idea that this section is back here.  If you have ever had to organize a worship service, you know exactly where that index is, because it is the first place you flip when you are trying to find a hymn that matches with the Scripture, the sermon topic, or the worship theme.

“Who cares?” you might ask.  Well, for one, you should.  And here’s why.  If we pay attention to what the Presbyterians and Southern Baptists were saying, we recognize that hymns matter.  The words we sing matter.  Our songs are one of the primary ways that we learn about our faith, what we believe.  The way we sing about the cross determines what we believe about the cross.  The way we sing about the atonement determines what we believe about atonement.  The way we sing about becoming a new creation determines what we believe about becoming a new creation.

So, let’s look at some of the options that our hymnal  — and our Bible – teaches us about the cross and atonement.  Some of you heard a part of this during the summer, when Pastor Meredith and I talked about the meaning of the word atonement.  We named four different Scriptural theories of atonement.  Today, I want to review those again, with the hymnal in front of us.

First, is the cross as sacrifice, or substitutionary atonement.   You’ll find this a lot in Romans, especially chapter five.  The short version of this theory is that God required a sacrifice in order to atone for our sins.  It is an echo of the Old Testament idea that a sacrifice of an animal: a bird or a bull or a lamb was required to atone for our sin.  In this theory, Christ’s death on the cross was a once-and-for all sacrifice for all of our sins.  Christ was the substitution for us, his death satisfied God’s wrath.  We become a new creation because of Christ’s death.

And you will find this theory ALL OVER the hymnal.  Flip in the Topical Index to the section titled, “Jesus Christ – Cross.”  Most of those show one version or another of this theory.  (Read the section… You’ll notice that many of the hymns that speak of blood operate out of this theory.)

These are some of my favorites!  I remember singing these on hymn sing night growing up at Calvary Baptist Church (irony noted) in Monticello, Illinois on Sunday nights!  So later in life, when I began to learn that a substitutionary atonement was not the only theory of atonement in the Bible, I had a hard time believing it.  Because these songs were deep in my soul and their theology was deep in my soul.

Without throwing them out, or rejecting this theory, I want to name the danger of defining atonement only in these terms.  If you step back and look at the transaction that this theory requires, you might start to ask some questions.  Why did God have to require a sacrifice?  Does God not have the freedom and power to offer grace in any way God sees fit?  Does that make God out to be the vengeful bad guy, with Jesus as the hero?  Aren’t they supposed to be on the same side?  These are some of the questions that the Presbyterians asked when they wondered if the wrath of God had to be satisfied?  Was God unable to forgive without the presence of a bloody death?

So, such questions send us back to the Bible to keep looking for other models of atonement, other ways that we become a new creation.  The next one could be summarized as the cross as victory.  This one is sometimes referred to as Christus Victor.  The short version of this one is that there is a cosmic battle between forces of good and evil in the world, and the cross is the ultimate victory over death and Satan and evil.  When Paul talks in Ephesians about the armor of God, about our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual forces of evil, he is using this theory.  We become a new creation because God has defeated evil through the cross.

Again, our hymns name this theology for us.  Look under the section named Courage.  Am I a Solider of the Cross.  Be Strong in the Lord.  Stand Up, Stand Up For Jesus.  Others not in that section (but of this same theology) would include: A Mighty Fortress is Our God.  Victory in Jesus.  Onward Christian Soldiers.  Most of the hymns that speak about battle or victory are examples of this language and this theory.

Again, these are song from my childhood and I love them!  But again, we have to be careful if we settle on this theory alone.  We have to ask: Are the forces of good and evil really evenly matched?  Was God unable to defeat death or evil before Christ’s death?  Does it matter what we do or say, or is the battle already over?  If the battle is over, why does evil seem to be winning quite often in the world around us?  Or, a more complex question: Does singing of battle and victory tend to bless our battles and our victory…every battle and victory, whether or not they are really of God?  An important question this month.  Again, words matter.  Does it matter how Jesus lived, or does it only matter how Jesus died?

It is the last question that brings us back to search again for another theory to help figure this out.  A third model for atonement is the cross as moral example.  Sometimes called the subjective theory, it suggests that Christ’s life and love are demonstrated on the cross.  We become a new creation as we emulate Christ’s model.

The hymn we sang earlier is a wonderful example of this theory (186…read each verse again).  These are examples of the model that Christ was – for us and to us.  Just as the passage in Galatians suggests, “why should I boast in anything except the cross?”  Christ’s example to us is to empty ourselves, humble ourselves, and give our all, just as he did.

There is danger to this one as well.  The danger here is that if Christ is only an example, a good person, a moral exemplar, then where is the divinity of Christ?  Does it matter that Jesus is God?  Did Jesus’ death on the cross accomplish anything, or was it just a good example for us to follow?

So, we have three options, none of them completely satisfying or complete, but each of them with roots in Scripture and Christian tradition (as exemplified in the hymns) and bringing something to the table theologically.  But, I told you there were four.  And as I have preached before, seminary taught me that if there are four options, the fourth one is always the “right” one.  And as we presented this during the summer, there is another option that we call “Trinitarian Reconciliation,” or the “Trinity of Trinities.”  This Scripture passage that I associate most fully with this model is from 2 Corinthians, where Paul names us as ambassadors of reconciliation.  There are three separate Trinitarian ideas – three-part ideas – that must be kept in tension when we speak of the work of atonement.

The first Trinity is, well, the Trinity.  Creator, Christ, and Spirit.  When we look to how God has made us into a new creation, we have to recognize that was in the Trinitarian work of all three persons of God.  Creator and Christ are not at odds.  The Holy Spirit is God fully present, in the same work of Christ, but today.  We are a new creation because of the work of God as Creator, as Redeemer in Christ, AND as Holy Spirit.  It is a part of the same work, involving God fully and not separately.  It is work that judges evil in the word, unleashes God’s wrath on that evil, and achieves victory over death.  We must understand atonement in these Trinitarian ways.

The second trinitarian – or three-part – idea is that atonement is about individuals, the whole of humanity, and all of creation.  We cannot simply see ourselves as a new creation in individual terms only.  “I got my ‘get out of hell free card’ so, later, suckers!”  That is sometimes the unspoken message we convey.  Instead, our atonement is reconciliation in three parts.  The first is our individual reconciliation with God.  But also, that reconciliation is tied up with one another throughout humanity.  I have shared before one of my favorite MLK quotations about the network of sin and the network of grace. “In a real sense all life is inter-related. All persons are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the inter-related structure of reality.”  We become a new creation together, not separately.

Likewise, I believe that when the Bible speaks of a new creation, it is speaking of more than simply individuals or humanity alone.  I believe that it speaks of the entirety of creation.  Perhaps you know that the Greek word in John 3:16 for “world” is cosmos – all of creation.  “For God so loved the cosmos, that he gave his only son…”  Not just the people in it…the whole thing!  The love of God and atonement of the cross was not just for humanity, but for the whole of creation.  We are a part of a wide new creation.

Finally, there is a third trinity to speak of in our “Trinity of Trinties”.  Creator…Christ…Spirit.   Individual…Humanity…Cosmos.  And finally, it is the trinity of the work that was accomplished by Christ.  His work was not only accomplished on the cross alone.  But it was accomplished in his life, his death, and the Resurrection.  Some of these theories of atonement get stuck only talking about what happened on the cross.  But we are a Christmas people – Christ’s incarnation and life and teachings have to be a part of the story of our new creation.  But we are an Easter people – Christ’s victory at Easter has to be a part of the story of our new creation.  We are not only a good Friday people!  If we were only about the cross, then it would seem a little silly to be preaching on this topic in September.  Good Friday was six months ago…six months from now.  But we recognize that every Sunday is a little Easter!  Every Sunday, we celebrate the power of the Easter story!  When we recognize how we are a new creation, we recognize it in three ways:

  • How Christ modeled and taught us in his life.

  • How Christ showed us true sacrifice and power over death by submitting to death and sacrifice on the cross.

  • And how Christ triumphed over death in the joy of Easter Resurrection.

The third trinity of reconciliation.  So, crazy as it seems, today I want to interject a song of New Creation in the middle of our autumnal season.  I want to sing an Easter song!  It is a healthy reminder of our place as an Easter people, and our role as beloved children of God’s eternal grace.

It is actually a fitting representation of the passage from Galatians we read this morning.  Our English translation does not represent this well, but the passage is actually grammatically a little jarring.  When verse 15 talks about a new creation, it actually is an interjection in the middle of the sentence, as if Paul was writing along and, mid-sentence, had to write NEW CREATION.  It doesn’t really fit grammatically.

It is not unlike the 3 year old who is telling a story and can’t quite wait to get to the end: “It was Christmas and there was a tree and we came downst…PUPPY!  THERE WAS A PUPPY THERE!”

So, likewise, we interject NEW CREATION into the midst of our world today.  Today, in the middle of our story of autumn, I want to interject, EASTER!  For we are an Easter people, and celebrate year-round the power and majesty of this story: Christ the Lord is Risen Today!  And let us believe the words that we sing!

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