I’ve pointed before to one of my favourite passages from Oliver O’Donovan’s On The Thirty Nine Articles. There, he insists that the ‘evangelical tension’ — without which the gospel collapses — involves recognising that when we say ‘God suffered for me’ it matters that it’s God who suffered. How else could the One who suffered with and for us actually do something about it?
Newbigin (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p 225) observes that ‘While [Jesus], responded instantly to the touch of human need, he yet retained the sovereignty in his own hands. He chose the times, place, and manner of his acts.’ This is dazzlingly clear in John’s version of the passion narrative. Read again it — carefully. Asking yourself at each point, Who’s in control here? Who’s calling the shots?
Time and again, Jesus brings His divine apatheia (His impassible invulnerability to being forced in to anything) to bear even in the midst of His passion — the supreme moment in which something is (apparently) done to Him. For this is the One who has the authority to lay down His life and to take it up again (John 10.17).
Yet the cross is no suicide. It’s the culmination of Christ’s self-emptying identification with us, taking our plight upon Himself, draining it to the dregs, exhausting it in the depths of His own divine life. His apatheia is no silent stasis of death but the brimming and overflowing triumph of life and love.
The cross is thus the coronation of the King. The exaltation — the ‘lifting up’ — of the One who is high and exalted: the One Isaiah saw in his temple vision, the LORD, the living one.
Newbigin (p 226) puts it beautifully:
In serving human need, Jesus remains master. The servant who washes the feet of his disciples is their master and lord, and it is in serving that he exercises his lordship.
This is how to maintain the evangelical tension evangelically — on the basis of the gospel rather than smuggled in philosophical convictions about the impossibility of God suffering.