“The Essence of the Gospel” (Sunday Recap)

22 March 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

The following is a recap/expansion of what I shared during yesterday’s services.


To speak of the cross of Christ demands an understanding of the graphic and horrifying nature of the cross in the ancient world.

The writer Demosthenes describes ‘being nailed up’ as the worst form of death (Oratio 21.105). It was described by the writer of Hebrews as a “sign of shame” (Hebrews 12:2), and Latin writers described it as an “infamous stake” (Anthologia Latina 415.23), the “barren or criminal wood” (Seneca, Epistulae Morales 101.14 ), and “a most cruel and disgusting punishment” (Cicero, Contra Verres, in The Verrine Orations, 2.5.64).

So horrifying was the practice that for the Christian community to adopt the cross as its central focus was considered the highest form of “foolishness.”

“[T]hey say that our madness consists in the fact that we put a crucified man in second place after the unchangeable and eternal God, the Creator of the world.” (Justin Martyr, Apology, I, 13.4)

“What death is more shameful than to be crucified? What death is worse than this condemnation is conceivable? Even now he remains a reproach among all who have not yet received faith in him!” (Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel, 10.9)

Pliny the Younger says that in examining Christianity, “I discovered nothing but a perverse and extravagant superstition.” (Epistulae 10.96.4-8) Suetonius called Christianity a “new and pernicious superstition” (Suetonius, Nero 16.3).

Minucius Felix writes,“to say that their ceremonies center on a man put to death for his crime and on the fatal wood of the cross is to assign to these abandoned wretches sanctuaries which are appropriate to them and the kind of worship they deserve” (Minucius Felix, Octavius, 9.4), elsewhere saying Christians are full of “sick delusions” (11.9) and “a senseless and crazy superstition” (13.5).


Some, avoiding this negative association (Gal 6:12, Rom 1:16), redefine the cross as something other than the payment for sin.

Much of the error of “post-modern,” emerging-type Christianity is a repetition of the liberalism of the previous generation, particularly that of the late nineteenth century. The reason I make such explicit mention is that it is an increasingly influential view, especially among those in my generation.

In this system:

  1. Jesus is a humble, poor, marginalized peasant (one website sells t-shirts touting “Jesus was homeless”)
  2. Sin is not individual, but systemic. The problems of our culture include racism, poverty, sexism and homophobia, but never personal sin. There are therefore no sinners. Only victims of social injustice.
  3. The cross was the means by which Jesus showed solidarity with the poor and oppressed. His death was therefore an example for us to follow (known as the Christus Exemplar model of the atonement) and/or the victory over the evil powers of the world (known as the Christus Victor model).

Without going into detail, I believe that many things happened at the cross. But there has been such an assault on one particular view that it is worth exploring Paul’s theology of the cross, with special attention to what’s known as the “penal substitutionary” view of the atonement.


First, atonement means – at minimum – dealing with sin. More specifically, it meant “covering” sin (to borrow language from the Old Testament sacrificial system).

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul says that Christ died “for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3).

The point here is that Christ, on the cross, bore the penalty for us. That’s what the “for” is for in this verse. It is what Isaiah meant when he said:

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. 5 But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53:4-5 )

The argument has been made, however, that Paul derives his theology from the Grecco-Roman worldview, and therefore he cannot be trusted or, that we should follow this example and not worry about making the cross an absolute in our lives.

But that won’t fly. Paul most consistently, especially to the Corinthians borrows language from Passover (1 Cor 11:23, 5:7), that is Jewish tradition to speak of the Cross.

Atonement and Passover were not the same thing, but by the first century, all bloodshed came to be associated with atonement for sin.

On the Day of Atonement, the ritual included the sacrifice of one goat, whose blood was sprinkled on the mercy seat in ceremonial fashion, and another on whom was laid the sins of the community and driven into the wilderness, symbolically bearing away the guilt of the people.

There are at least two words we must learn here: propitiation and expiation.


Propitiation refers to the appeasement of God’s wrath. The Greek word hilesterion comes from the word that would also give rise to the English word “hilarious.”

God was violently angry at sin. Bloodshed satisfies this anger and restores our relationship.

In the New Teatament, the word hilesterion is used to refer to the “mercy seat” proper (Hebrews 9:5), but then later it refers to the work of Christ:

whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” (Romans 3:25 )

“He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:2)


Expiation is what happened with the other goat. Expiation refers to the lifting away of guilt and shame.

“I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.” (Isaiah 43:25 )

“I will cleanse them from all the guilt of their sin against me, and I will forgive all the guilt of their sin and rebellion against me.” (Jeremiah 33:8)

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)


The resurrection was a distinctly Jewish belief that emerged from the Old Testament and even the inter-testamental period. While the cross displayed forgiveness of sin, the resurrection displayed victory over the consequence of death. The resurrection authenticates the reality of the Christian message as well as providing the basis for the Christian hope.

Its importance is also found in the fact that in contrast to the “homeless,” marginalized Jesus of emerging Christianity, it is the risen Christ, seated at God’s right hand, to whom we now relate.


The gospel is what links the traditions of the past to the experiences of the present. It was Martin Luther who called scripture the “swaddling clothes” in which we find the Savior. I would add that tradition can be like the star of Bethlehem, leading us to Him.

The problem is that if that star no longer leads us to His side, we become empty stargazers who are mindlessly led to tradition for its own sake, rather than in service to the gospel. When we become enamored with temporal tradition, the gospel will lose its eternal significance.

The dangers therefore are to elevate tradition for its own sake, with all its structure, pageantry and rules, and neglect the atoning work of the cross. The equal and opposite danger is to advocate experience itself. Christianity is about an “authentic” or “transparent” human experience, and therefore this error is found in its emphasis on self-discovery over self-abnegation and transformation.

The solution is not to find some “middle ground,” but to be true “soldiers of the cross,” men and women who keep the main thing the main thing.

22 March 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

Chris is a writer and speaker from the Charlottesville area. He regularly serves as a research writer for Docent Research Group in addition to doing some guest speaking.

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