20 I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. 21 I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain.”
The New King James Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982), Galatians 2:20–21.
A friend recently asked me about the cross. The way he had always thought about it was like this: “God finds me so loathsome that the only way he could accept me was by torturing and killing his son.”
My heart hurt for him.
Another friend could not understand how the cross, that ugly instrument of death and unspeakable agony, could demonstrate the love of God.
I can understand that.
It is especially difficult for survivors of childhood sexual assault or other forms of abuse. The abuser convinces his victims that they are worthless, ugly, stupid, and bad. And then they head off to church and hear a fire and brimstone sermon.
“God agrees with the verdict of your abuser” they hear. “He also thinks you are worthless, ugly, bad and worthy only of abuse and degradation. But he degraded and abused Christ instead.”
This is a twisted presentation of an otherwise correct doctrine known as “substitutionary atonement”. It is true that Christ died in our place. But it is NOT true that God finds us loathsome and hateful. These two thoughts are not contrary, but complementary. It has to do with Christ as the head, we as the body; union with Christ before the foundation of the world; and the justice and mercy of God. I probably won’t be able to get to all of that in one blog.
It is no wonder that so many people have a hard time seeing the love of God in the crucifixion of Christ! Today, my prayer for you, dear reader, is for you to know the depth of the love of Jesus. No matter how great and broad and deep his love, it will never be great and broad and deep enough. We will spend all of eternity learning about his love and never exhaust it.
John Calvin famously said that a shepherd must have two voices. One for gathering sheep and another for driving away wolves. One of the big problems of modern preaching is that the wolves are comforted and the sheep are driven away.
The voice to gather sheep is a voice of welcome, of invitation, of patience and peace, shining the love of God. You can’t throw rocks and garbage at the sheep, screaming obscenities at them (I’m looking at YOU, Driscoll), and expect them to come.
The voice to drive away wolves is a voice of rebuke, sharpness, condemnation – in the hopes that they will see themselves as God sees them and flee to the cross for mercy. A wolf is one who views the sheep as his prey. You will know them by their fruits. They have the right words to say in public, but they are abusive to their families, demand recognition and deference, destroy the wounded soul with words, are constant overbearing busybodies, and live according to the lusts of the flesh.
There is one voice to use for the confident and entitled. Another to use for the weak and trembling soul.
In other words, when you threaten the weak, the outcast, the poor, the afflicted, with words of terror, you wound the weak conscience and drive the hurting heart from the love of Christ.
So with that being said, I would like to look at some of what the bible teaches about the cross of Christ.
First, it is never used as a devise to increase toxic guilt and manipulate shame-driven behavior. “Jesus suffered all of this for you! Shouldn’t you repay him by being a better person?” If guilt and shame were capable of rescuing us from ourselves, Christ would not have needed to die in the first place. It is shame and guilt that drive us away from God in the first place. It is new life that draws us back into fellowship. New life does not come by shame and guilt, but by the putting to death of the old man in Adam, and making alive the new man in Christ. Crucifixion, and resurrection – as Paul writes in Galatians 2, quoted above. Jesus did not give himself for us that we might live by the law; but so that we might live by faith in Him.
“If righteousness could come by the law, then Christ died in vain.”
When the preacher tries to increase your guilt and shame, using the cross as a tool to try to manipulate you into better behavior, then he is missing the point of the cross. Toxic guilt never works the righteousness of God.
There is a place for redemptive guilt. Redemptive guilt is the honest appraisal of the soul, the cleansing light that shines in our dark places and brings us out of hiding. We all have those places in our hearts that we try to keep carefully hidden. We think we have those dark holes under control, until they burst out on us, driving us to sleepless nights and even fear of exposure and punishment. Redemptive guilt is the work of the Holy Spirit, like a skilled surgeon, exposing the cancer so that we might be healed by the blood of Christ. It is the voice of Nathan, pointing the finger and saying, “You are the man!” so that David can finally quit hiding and be forgiven and healed. Redemptive guilt bursts forth into the words of Psalm 51.
The first thing that we must do is prayerfully consider the distinction between toxic guilt and redemptive guilt. Toxic guilt is the voice of Satan, driving you into hiding, heaping on your soul things that don’t belong to you. Toxic guilt pounds into your head at night, telling you that you are worthless; that if you were a better person, he wouldn’t have hurt you; hat if you dressed differently or had a different body, or didn’t show your arms, then he wouldn’t have hurt you. Toxic guilt drives you into hiding, crushing you under heavy burdens and leaving you hopeless, dejected, walled off, silent… My parents rejected me because I’m bad. My mom hurts me because I’m not the right sort of person. It is the voice of the accuser, and it is not designed to drive you to Christ. It is designed to crush your soul in despair. Satan is a liar and a murderer. Toxic guilt works effectively for both.
Redemptive guilt is the conviction of the law designed to call you out of hiding. That time you stole from your employer, drank too much and drove home anyway, cursed your neighbor’s child for walking on your grass, used your words to wither and scald the souls of your loved ones. That time you hurt a coworker thinking you were being funny. The damage you did with that one-night stand when you were younger; the flirting with the coworker that definitely went too far.
The Holy Spirit convicts us of these things, so that we are not overcome with despair, so that shame doesn’t continue to destroy us, so that we can finally understand freedom and peace. We stand under the cool, refreshing water, flowing from the rock, and close our eyes while that water washes away the filth of the soul. But it is not the guilt that cleanses our soul. It is only the blood of Christ. That is, he took all of that shame and guilt and pain upon himself. Like a head suffers when a body is wounded and cancerous. He is, after all, flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone. He joined himself to us and to our dying flesh and took all of the tears and shame and pain and death and sorrow upon himself, because he loves us, and he put it to death. Redemptive guilt drives us to repentance and restitution to those we have harmed.
Toxic guilt is not of God. You are not worthless, you are an image-bearer of God. You are not loathsome in his sight, you are like a wandering sheep, waiting to be gathered by the arms of the shepherd.
Redemptive guilt does indeed belong to you. There are real sins that you have committed, because you are human and a child of Adam. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God. God does not teach you about the nature of sin so that you can take part in some kind of self-flagellation exercise. There is no redemption there. God’s desire for you is for you simply to confess your sins and be free from them.
Jesus has already born those sins on the cross. He was crucified so that you might know for certain that he took upon himself the curse that was on you. That curse of shame and death that you bear in your deepest part is taken away completely and fully, so that you might be reconciled to God – because the death of the cross was cursed by God. The curse no longer belongs to you. You have been crucified with Christ in order that you might live by faith, not by law.
Shame and hiding no longer belong to you. Jesus took them away, having nailed them to his cross. You have your voice back, your humanity back, your will back. That is the new man, alive in Christ, a life lived in faith, a life fully human and fully alive.
Jesus went to the cross so that you might know for certain that you are NOT loathsome in the eyes of God, but a beloved child. The cross of Christ creates for us a safe space to come into the innermost circle of the dwelling-place of God, the Holiest Place of all.
Hebrews 10:19–22 (NKJV)
19 Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus,
20 by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh,
21 and having a High Priest over the house of God,
22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
And, to clarify another misunderstanding, Jesus and the Father are never at odds. There is only one true eternal God. Jesus is God. The Father is God. The Spirit is God. The Father sent the Son because he loves you. The Son gave himself for you because he loves you. That love in the divine nature is not divided. It is correct to say that God gave his Son. It is also correct to say that the Son gave himself.
But we also need to talk more about the justice of God. But this will take another blog.