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There are typically two ways that people talk about the Father and Son in relation to the cross. The first emphasizes the role of Christ as the Mediator between humanity and God. He came to put us right with God, to reconcile us to God the Father. The second way emphasizes the love of the Father. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). Both ways can claim biblical support, but focusing on either to the exclusion of the other can produce problems.

Christ as Mediator between God and Humanity

This is at the heart of what Christians believe about the work of Christ. And it is thoroughly biblical: “There is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5).

This is a major theme of the letter to the Hebrews. “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb. 9:22). On the cross, Christ “offered himself without blemish to God [the Father]” and His blood purifies our consciences (v. 14). Paul and John both refer to Christ’s death as the propitiation for our sins (Rom. 3:25; 1 John 2:2; 4:10), that which deals with our sins and puts us right with God. Christ suffered for our sins, “that he might bring us to God [the Father]” (1 Peter 3:18). Again, “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2).

Popular forms of evangelism often portray this visually, with God the Father and us on opposing sides of a canyon and the cross of Christ represented as a literal bridge that brings the two sides together. Our sins have created the gulf between ourselves and God. Christ bridges that gulf.

It is also represented in hymns and worship songs. Stuart Townend and Keith Getty’s well-known “In Christ Alone” contains the lines:

Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied;
For ev’ry sin on Him was laid.

In 2013, these lines caused some controversy. Because of these lyrics, the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song removed “In Christ Alone” from the official hymnal of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), after the authors refused to allow the wording to be changed to “the love of God was magnified.” Bob Terry, editor of an Alabama Baptist newspaper, agreed with the committee, stating that “sometimes Christians carelessly make God out to be some kind of ogre whose angry wrath overflowed until the innocent Jesus suffered enough to calm Him down.” In response, John Thweatt, another Alabama Baptist, argued that to remove the original reference to God’s wrath would “gut the gospel.”1

So, who was right? Well, it is true that denying the work of Christ in propitiating the wrath of the triune God would gut the gospel. And it is also true that we can talk about propitiation in ways that create a false impression of God’s character. But that is not the fault of the doctrine but of our expression of it. And propitiation is not portrayed in such a way in the hymn “In Christ Alone,” which certainly does not speak of God as an ogre or deny His love. Nevertheless, in speaking of divine wrath, we also need to make it clear that God took the initiative in saving us because of His great love for sinners. In fact, the biblical doctrine of propitiation depends on it (John 3:16).

The Father Loved Us So Much That He Sent His Only Son

Whereas one approach to the cross of Christ focuses on how His mediatorial and propitiatory work has opened up the way to the Father, another approach focuses on how the Father, out of His great love for sinners actively sent Christ. The latter is the thrust of that most famous verse, John 3:16: “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Or, as Paul put it, so great was the Father’s love for us that He “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all” (Rom. 8:32). This approach emphasizes the obedience of Christ (Phil. 2:8) in response to the initiating love of the Father. In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus as the incarnate Mediator subjected His will to that of the Father, praying, “Not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36).

It was Jesus' delight to obey His Father as much as it was to die for His people.

Just like the first approach, this approach that emphasizes the Father’s initiating love is found in popular evangelism. That can be seen from the fact that John 3:16 is regarded as such a basic gospel text.

Again, just like the first approach, this approach is represented in hymns and worship songs. A good example is another hymn by Stuart Townend—“How Deep the Father’s Love for Us,” especially the first verse:

How deep the Father’s love for us
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure

This song has not proved controversial in the same way that “In Christ Alone,” has, but that does not mean this second approach isn’t in danger of imbalance. The danger with this approach is that if we are not careful, we can end up portraying Christ as a Son who merely submits passively to the will of the Father. Two feminist theologians provocatively referred to this as “divine child abuse.”2 Their language has been taken up by others, and it has been used by some people who are critical of penal substitutionary atonement, the idea that on the cross Jesus bore the punishment that was due to us.

The accusation makes a good sound bite, but is wilfully misleading. It gains its force from the implication that Jesus was an underage child. Also, although it is used specifically against the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement, it would apply equally against any doctrine that gives atoning significance to the cross. So, for example, the doctrine that Jesus came to reveal God and show us His love by dying for us is just as vulnerable to the charge of divine child abuse as is the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement.

Again, the problem is not the biblical doctrine of the atonement or the hymn “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us.” The song does not deny that Jesus actively and willingly took the punishment His people deserved, nor does the biblical understanding of the cross. When there is a “problem,” it is because we have not stressed Christ’s active willingness to suffer in our place.

Resolution

We have two ways of talking about the Father and Son in relation to the cross that run the risk of imbalance. The first talks about Christ as coming to reconcile us to God, to open up the way back to God. The initiative lies with Christ, the Mediator and reconciler. But, without a concomitant emphasis on the initiating love of the Father, this first approach might suggest that Christ’s role is to persuade a reluctant God to forgive us. This can easily convey the impression of a harsh, vengeful Father whose anger and hatred of us are only mollified by the intervention of His Son. The second way talks about God’s great love for us and how He sent His only Son to die for us. The initiative here clearly lies with the Father. But without the concomitant emphasis on Christ’s willingness to come as the Mediator, this second approach might portray Christ as an obedient but reluctant victim. This can easily obscure Christ’s active desire to seek and save the lost.

How are we to regard these two different approaches? Both are clearly biblical. Indeed, both are combined in one verse: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). Both approaches are well established in popular evangelism and in worship. We need them both. Yet at the same time, viewing either to the exclusion of the other has led to criticism and misunderstanding. So how should we regard them?

Let us take the criticisms first. The criticisms only work against one view in isolation from the other. Christ’s propitiatory work makes God out to be “some kind of ogre whose angry wrath overflowed until the innocent Jesus suffered enough to calm Him down” only if we ignore the fact that the Father loved us so much that He sent His only Son. The latter view, in isolation, could wrongly lead someone to accuse the Father of the charge of divine child abuse only if we ignore the fact that “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2). Either view on its own, in isolation from the other, is vulnerable to accusation; held together, they are not.

What about the accusation that the two approaches contradict each other? On the one hand, Jesus loved me and gave Himself for me (Gal. 2:20). On the other hand, He was obedient even to death on a cross (Phil. 2:8). But these understandings are complementary, not contradictory. There is nothing illogical about Christ willingly dying in our place even though He obeyed God in doing so. He willingly obeyed the divine purpose. It was His delight to obey His Father as much as it was to die for His people (Heb. 7:5–7).

As we consider the two emphases or approaches often made regarding the work of Christ, it is right and proper to seek to explain how they are compatible. In fact, we must do this in order to capture the full biblical picture of the Savior and what He has done for His people.

 

  1. “Atonement and the Wrath of God; the Great Hymn Debate Widens,” Huffington Post, August 8, 2018, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/18/hymn-wrath-of-god-_n_3775498.html. ↩︎
  2. Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker, “For God So Loved the World?” in Christianity Patriarchy and Abuse: A Feminist Critique, eds. Joanne Carlson Brown and Carole R. Bohn (New York: Pilgrim, 1989), 2. ↩︎

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