nativity mosaic

The Cross in the Manger

There has been a strand within the Western theological tradition—one that is especially prevalent in contemporary American Evangelicalism—that construes the significance of the cross in strictly soteriological terms. The cross is central, in this view, but only in the sense that the reason Jesus came to earth was to pay the price for our sin by dying, thereby allowing God the Father to vent his wrath on him in our place. This myopic focus, combined with this “penal substitutionary” understanding of the atonement, tends to relegate everything else Jesus said and did leading up to his passion to a secondary status. Hence, far from providing the thematic center of Jesus’ identity and mission, this perspective tends to divorce the cross from every other aspect of Jesus’ identity and mission.

The union of God and man in Jesus is “one dynamic event from the incarnation to ascension,” as T. F. Torrance wrote. God did not unite himself to a man and then, as a secondary thing, act. Instead, in Jesus, his personhood, his words and his acts are inseparable.

If this is true, then we can never separate who Jesus is as the God-man from what he did. We can also no more separate Jesus’ atoning work on the cross from the Incarnation and/or any other aspect of his life and ministry. Torrance writes, “we must think of [Christ’s] incarnate life and his redeeming activity as completely interwoven from his conception and birth to his crucifixion and resurrection.” And again, “Incarnation and atonement intrinsically locked into one another constitute the one continuous movement of God’s saving love for the world.”

Moltmann makes a similar point, when he asserts:

The incarnation of the Logos is completed on the cross. Jesus is born to face his passion. His mission is fulfilled once he has been abandoned on the cross. So it is impossible to speak of an incarnation of God without keeping this conclusion in view. There can be no theology of the incarnation which does not become a theology of the cross. As soon as you say “incarnation,” you say “cross.”

We cannot separate his death out from his life. The cross is the quintessential expression of who Jesus was and everything he was about. The indivisible and perfectly integrated wholeness of the one in whom God became human is oriented, from manger to ascension, around the cross. We could say the same thing by claiming that Jesus’ mission centered on sacrificially reconciling humanity to God, or by claiming that Jesus’ mission centered on revealing God’s true, self-sacrificial, loving nature to humanity. The atonement and revelation are two sides of the same coin. God reconciles humanity to himself by revealing his true loving character, and God reveals his true loving character by reconciling humanity to himself. And this revelation-that-is-reconciliation and reconciliation-that-is-revelation takes place in the Word made flesh, understood as “one dynamic event from incarnation to ascension”.

If it is the whole unity of the person and work of Jesus that reveals God to us, then this unity must be centered on the love of God that was supremely revealed on the cross. Hence, while the common, myopic, Evangelical understanding of the cross tends to isolate the cross from other aspects of Jesus’ identity and mission, this view centralizes the cross as the thread that weaves together every aspect of Jesus’ life, from the incarnation first displayed in the manger to his ascension.

Photo Credit: jimforest via Flickr

Related Reading

God is Not What You Expect

Jesus came, in part, to finally reveal the absolute truth about God. He is the way and the truth (alethia) and the life (Jn 14:6). The word “truth” means “uncovered.” And what we find once God is uncovered is that he’s completely different than what we fallen humans generally expect God to be. As we…

One Hope

When Jesus was crucified by his enemies instead of conquering his enemies, the hope of Jesus’ disciples came crashing down in utter despair. They had hoped that Jesus would establish the kingdom of God in the same way that other kingdoms were established. However, the resurrection reveals that the kingdom of God is not like…

5 Differences Between The Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of the World

Image by matthijs rouw via Flickr The kingdom of God looks and acts like Jesus Christ, like Calvary, like God’s eternal, triune love. It consists of people graciously embracing others and sacrificing themselves in service to others. It consists of people trusting and employing “power under” rather than “power over,” even when they, like Jesus, suffer because…

The Deepest Reality of Christmas

Christmas is about so much more than what our culture has made it to be. It’s about the unraveling and reversing of the curse. It’s about the coming of God to us in love and humility. That’s the real gift and the deepest reality of Christmas. Bless you all today as you reflect on these…

Tags:

Creating God in Our Own Image

How have we created God in our own image? In this short video produced by The Work of the People, Greg reflects on various ways that humans typically think about God in terms of power, and how Jesus reframes the nature of power. The Christian revelation of God is the opposite of what we most often imagine…

The Cruciform Beauty of Horrific Divine Portraits

“Only a person who is aware of the crucified Christ can properly understand Scripture.” Luther (Table Talks) In the last three posts I’ve been wrestling with how insights from Matthew Bate’s book, The Hermeneutics of the Apostolic Proclamation might help us interpret violent portraits of God in the OT in a way that discloses how…