why it’s so hard to explain how the cross works

I don’t know if you’ve ever found it hard to explain (or illustrate) how the cross works — how God achieves what he does through the execution of Jesus.

How does the cross demonstrate God’s character and inner nature as Father, Son and Spirit?

How does it accomplish the defeat of Satan and the hostile ‘powers’?

How does it effect the condemnation of sin?

And how does God reconciles sinners to himself through all of this?

These are huge questions. And the answers aren’t always straightforward.

Of course, that there’s a problem may never have occurred to you. Much popular Christian piety works hard to reassure us it’s all very simple.

The songs we sing, the sermon illustrations we hear time and again — all of them beckon like the Sirens: God punishes Jesus in our place. That’s how it works. Easy…

And there’s something to this. The New Testament does tug us in this direction. Think of Jesus’ cry from the cross: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

Likewise, the language of exchange — of substitution — is shot through the ways Paul, Peter, John and the others explain Jesus’ death.

And just as the reality of holy God’s fierce and personal response to human wickedness and hard-heartedness — his wrath — can’t be avoided, so Christ’s bearing of that wrath is (at least) implicit everywhere.

But we must resist.

We must resist the Siren call. Because divine child abuse is only the most extreme charge that can be levelled against us if we head this way.

And we’ve got to stop short at the edge of the abyss. Because the New Testament does.

Consider the language of ‘condemnation’. Who or what is condemned to secure a condemnation-free future for us?

God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh. (Romans 8.3)

God condemned sin. He didn’t condemn Jesus.

Father and Son (and Spirit) are united in the achievement of the cross. They’re working together as active, loving, and willing subjects.

So where does that leave us in trying to explain how the cross works?

With a problem!

As Graham Cole points out, ‘Perhaps trying to illustrate … penal substitution is like trying to illustrate the Trinity. The analogies and illustrations fail at crucial points because the Trinity and its involvement in the atonement is sui generis.’ (God The Peacemaker, page 255).



  1. Hi Chris. I’m not convinced that the “Theory” of penal substitution is the best one. Nor am I convinced that the preaching of this theory was a priority for the Apostles and something that they did preach.

    I think that the cross points to death and the resurrection points to eternal life, proving that God has forgiven all who believe…

    1. No worries, Craig. That’s a mistake I’ve made before too!

      In response to your comment, I’d like to hear more about what you mean by the cross pointing to death and the resurrection pointing to eternal life.

      While I want to push against simplistic renderings of penal substitution or overzealous attempts to insist that it’s the whole picture, I’m less inclined to ditch it — especially if we have nothing particularly substantial to replace it with. (This, I feel, is the biggest problem with Rob Bell’s proposal in Love Wins — not his tilt towards universalism or his view of hell, but his sub-Christian view of Christ’s death and resurrection.)

    2. I haven’t read Bell’s book…seems like I am behind the times and must be the only one đŸ™‚ And therefore am not sure about what his sub Christian views are on a first hand basis. Leon Morris wrote an excellent article about the atonement theories. http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/atonementmorris2.html

      Each of the theories he presents have scriptural backing as well as apparent weaknesses – my issue about the atonement is whether or not we are trying to work out and lock in a theory that the gospel writers didn’t try and present.

    3. It may well be that, as Morris concludes, “we are small minded sinners and the atonement is great and vast” and so “we should not expect that our theories will ever explain it fully”. And that would be quite congruent with the point in my original post.

      But I wonder if there’s a difference between acknowledging this and regarding the notion of penal substitution with suspicion (although we may want to regard caricatures and popular simplifications of it like this).

  2. I have been challenged through reading Luke, how simple God’s forgiveness is… Jesus constantly tells stories, parables about forgiveness and plainly encourages and comforts many telling them they are forgiven…and then draws out the point in Acts that God has even forgiven them for the act of killing of the promised Messiah. (Which is the point of the call to repent in Peters first sermon)

    Therefore I believe its not so much on the cross where we are forgiven..rather the cross points to Christ and our sinfulness, the resurrection points to life – proving Christ had the authority to forgive…and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit confirming that we are forgiven.

    1. Thanks Craig.

      Those stories in the Gospels are striking, aren’t they? I’ve been looking at them again as I’ve read Kenneth Bailey’s excellent book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes.

      I’m still not sure I understand what you mean by “the cross points to Christ”, though. Rather than a clear sign-post to his identity, the fact that the Messiah would die on a cross seems to be one of the big problems the first Christians felt they needed to explain and justify from Scripture.

    2. I’ll keep my reply to both comment threads here – to make it easy.. That book you mentioned sounds like a good read.

      I don’t think that the early church had to justify why Christ died on the cross…rather they proved that it was for-told that the Messiah would die on the Cross…and Peters first sermon pointed towards the Jewish hearers was one of “Hey guys – you have come here with expectations of the messiah’s coming…but hey…he came and you guys crucified him because you didn’t recognise him he came”

      Within the narrative story of ‘waiting for the messiah to come’ the early church engaged with the Jews as to how he had come, wasn’t recognised, was executed and raised to life again.

      Within the concept of PSA there seems to be no acknowledgement that God was able to forgive outside of the cross…whereas the gospel stories seem to make it clear that forgiveness was freely given.

      Certainly I want to avoid any caricatures of PSA and there is some scriptural backing for it – but as Morris says so do all the other theories and often PSA is presented as a fact and not as a theory.

    3. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts, Craig.

      I guess proving that the Messiah would die on a cross ‘according to Scripture’ even when that flew in the face of popular expectations about the Messiah was what I had in mind when I said that early Christians had to justify why Christ died on the cross. So I don’t think we’re disagreeing much there.

      I’m interested, though, by your suggestion that penal substitution seems to contain ‘no acknowledgement that God was able to forgive outside of the cross’ — that is, that forgiveness is given freely.

      The way I see it, penal substitution attempts to follow the logic of the overall narrative of the Gospels (which drives inexorably from the incarnation to the atonement). Just thinking off the top of my head, I’d say that what this says about forgiveness is that it is free in that: (a) it arises unilaterally from God’s free and gracious initiative, and (b) it embraces sinners regardless of qualification or merit (or lack thereof).

      But it’s not free in the sense that this gift of forgiveness was tremendously costly. During his life, it cost Jesus in terms of hostility from the Pharisees and even from the otherwise-sympathetic crowds in the case of Zacchaeus. And I think a good case can be made (and Bailey goes a long way towards making it) that this is a foretaste of the cost he bears on the cross.

      I struggle to see why else Jesus was crucified. If there was any way to bring forgiveness — other than facing a criminal’s death and the curse of God Deuteronomy that speaks of (“cursed is anyone who is hanged on a tree”) — then why does Jesus end up here?

  3. I’m enjoying this conversation Chris. I haven’t fully fleshed out what I totally believe regarding the atonement, but have found myself on a soul searching transient journey from where I started from an absolute PSA beginning and have been challenged through reading Luke / Acts.

    I look upon the crucifixion more as God willingly being killed by sinful men, rebelling against God…what could be a better example of sinfulness…thinking they were pleasing God by killing God.

    Jesus died a criminal death…but also died a sinners death…for death came about because of sin. Cursed are those who are hung on a tree / cross… so in the Jews mind the curse was the punishment and torture of a painful death…

    But think about why the religious leaders killed Jesus? It’s because he did freely proclaim God’s forgiveness to sinners. And he freely claimed that he was God…what better way to disgrace a prophet and prove he wasn’t from God by killing him via that method.

    But the resurrection proved God’s love for us… God didn’t wipe his hands of us. Nor did he wipe us out… rather he came back alive…presenting many truths of it, explaining the scriptures to those he showed himself. So yes the act of forgiveness is costly.

    Prior to the cross Jesus tells his disciples to keep on forgiving….he doesn’t tell them to forgive through the cross…or that God forgives them through the cross… he plainly says – you are forgiven.

    1. Hi Craig. I’m enjoying the conversation too!

      I’m particularly appreciating your observations about and reflections on Luke and Acts — I think you’re quite right to draw attention to the ‘horizontal’ relational dynamics of Jesus’ extension of forgiveness. I also appreciate your emphasis on the resurrection as indispensable for what God achieves through Christ. Too many expositions of the atonement leave the resurrection off to the side as something they don’t want to deny but don’t quite know what to do with.

      Two thoughts: First, I wonder if rather than competing with more traditional ‘vertical’ explanation of the way Jesus offers forgiveness, the kind of account you’re developing could lead up into and enrich it. This, I think, is what Kenneth Bailey begins to do really well in the book I mentioned.

      Second, while I’m convinced the resurrection must be seen as God’s vindication of Jesus and his mission, overthrowing the human verdict on him and it (which led to crucifixion), I don’t think we can stop there. What the resurrection invites us to see (and what the apostles begin to say in Acts, and what John seems utterly gripped by in his Gospel) is that at a deeper level and behind the scenes, the cross wasn’t even a momentary victory for sinners but rather the lynchpin of God’s plan to forgive sinners, reconciling them to himself by personally bearing the cost of that reconciliation.

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