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Everybody loves Jesus. Marxists love Jesus, because He was such a radical revolutionary. Unitarians love Jesus, because He befriended the social outcasts. Liberals love Jesus because, well, because He was liberal. Even some conservatives love Jesus, because He was so conservative. It was Mark Twain who quipped that God made man in His own image, and ever since man has been returning the favor. The same is true with respect to God the Son. We make Him out to be just like us, only, nearly everyone will concede, slightly better. Jesus, in short, is universally loved because He, just like us, is deemed to be such an upstanding man.

Which is true enough. Jesus was in fact an upstanding man. His moral character was impeccable. He was, as it is still safe to say, a great moral teacher. This even garners Him some minimal level of authority. Quoting Jesus will score you at least as many points as quoting Confucius, at least if you choose the right quotes. There is, however, a profound chasm that separates a “great moral teacher” from a perfectly obedient man. It is one thing to believe Jesus was better than we are, another to affirm that He kept the law of God perfectly. The cultural restraint that keeps those friends of Jesus from making such a claim for Jesus, however, isn’t that they don’t want to praise Jesus too much, that they harbor some internal fear that somewhere along the line He might not have measured up, but that they don’t want to recognize a law, any law. To the Greeks the cross was foolishness. To the Jews it was a stumbling block. To the post-modern, however, the problem isn’t the cross, but what preceded it, the obedient life.

Theological liberalism, which is short-hand for worldly thinking about God and other stuff the Bible sometimes talks about, can handle the cross. The purpose of the cross, according to those who think Jesus stayed dead, was simply to set an example for us, to show us how far we ought to go to love our neighbor. There is, in this thinking, no atonement. There is no atonement, however, not because such would be too much for Jesus, but because it would mean we have sins that need to be covered. It would mean that outside of Christ, we are under the wrath of God. To think in terms of atonement, we would have to think about the unthinkable.

The righteousness of Christ, however, is a little more difficult for the world to squeeze into its self-righteous wineskins. You can’t easily turn that into something sweet, sticky, and easy to swallow. It burns as it goes down. Which is why the world speaks not of the life of Christ, but of His teachings. His teachings can be made abstract, amorphous enough that with just a pinch of intellectual dishonesty, and a smidgen of deconstructionism, we can turn them into our own teachings. But we cannot turn His absolute obedience to the law of God into our own, at least, without conceding that God has a law, conceding that we don’t keep it, and, well, without trusting in His complete work and actually becoming a Christian.

This is, however, the dilemma of the postmoderns. Without a standard, how can one distinguish between a great moral teacher and a reprehensible moral cretin? Without a moral measuring stick, Jesus and Osama Bin Laden are not only on the same moral plane, but they are on the same moral plane with all of us, because there is only one plane. If there is no target, no one is closer to it than anyone else.

Therein is the offence of the Gospel in our age. Postmodernism’s very reason for existence is to escape a transcendent moral law. It is a philosophy that was created not to remove the guilt of sin, to remove the stigma of sin. We who profess Christ are wrong, because we profess that there is a right, even as we confess that only one Man ever attained it.

What separates our peculiar age from that which Paul faced isn’t, however, the different offenses that the world takes to the gospel message. Rather it is the response of the church. It was the Cross that offended the Greeks and scandalized the Jews. But it was the Cross that Paul preached. In our day the obedience of Christ offends, and so we never speak of it. The church in our day seeks to hide the offense, and in so doing, puts its light under a bushel. Jesus the hero upon the cross is just fine. Jesus the obedient Son must never see the light of day.

The Scripture calls us the first born of many brethren. In a show of the depth of the grace of God, we are told that Jesus is not only the husband of the church, but our elder brother as well. If, in fact, we belong to Him, we must profess Him. We must declare not only the glory of the cross, but the glory that led to the cross. We must profess His obedience, His righteousness that by faith is ours. We must remember that He was not crucified because He was a great moral teacher. Rather, He was crucified because He obeyed His heavenly Father. They hung Him because they could convict Him of nothing. And because He is the firstborn of many brethren, we must in turn see the cross not only as the only atonement for our sins, but also as our example.

Our Fourth-Century Fathers

The Sacrifices of the Law

Keep Reading A Defining Era: The History of the Church in the Fourth Century

From the August 2004 Issue
Aug 2004 Issue