The Apostle Paul was constantly fighting an uphill battle. Among the Gentiles his message of the cross was mocked as foolishness, devoid of any profitable wisdom. Worse still, it was declared a curse from God by his own people. Despite this, Paul took his unattractive message of the crucified Messiah into these cultures of beauty, power and wisdom.
But what was it about the cross that Paul found so compelling? Reading his letters it becomes apparent that he found in the cross a moment of incomparable salvation. Though paradoxical, the power of God was on display at the crucifixion; power to reduce even the wisest to complete foolishness.
To understand the Pauline vision of the cross we look to 2 Corinthians 5 as an outline and then Romans 5-8 for a fuller exposition.
“For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.”(2 Cor 5:14-15)
The idea that Christ died for all is agreeable to most Christians. Perhaps less agreeable though, is Paul’s declaration that through Christ’s death, everyone died. Christ’s death and the Christian’s death are inseparably tied in Paul’s thought.
One should ask then, what is gained from the death of the believer? For Paul, the death of the believer meant a freedom from slavery to sin which he believed was the universal condition of humanity(Romans 3:9). This salvation affected by the cross is the transformation of one’s very nature.
Christ’s death, and thus our death through participation in his, allows us to live no longer for ourselves but for Christ. This is the beauty of the cross for Paul. The self-seeking life, the one which pays death as its wage is undone(Romans 6:23). The resurrected life of Christ is now available to all.
“From now on, therefore we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2 Cor 5:16-21)
To the believer, a profoundly new way of understanding Christ and his cross has become apparent. It is neither a stumbling stone, nor foolishness any longer, but the very power of God to renew the whole of creation. Paul calls this salvation more precisely reconciliation, the making of peace. The believer is reconciled to God because of Christ.
Now, some have interpreted this reconciliation as a kind of appeasement of God’s wrath. That through Christ’s death, God was no longer wrathful at the world. This misreading cannot, fortunately, be reconciled with the text. The fundamental problem at the heart of everything for Paul, is not a wrathful God but a wrathful, rebellious creation. Creation can do nothing but rebel as she is enslaved to sin having a mind set on the flesh.
“To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s laws-indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” (Romans 8:6-8)
For Paul, hostility and death are tied to the life of the flesh, but peace and life are tied to the life of the spirit. What the cross does for humanity then, is unshackle us from the life of wrath towards God. The creation, despite her trespasses, is made new by Christ. She is finally at peace with her Creator.
It seems common to have this understanding of God exactly backwards. But does God need appeasement before He can love? Is not His every movement compelled by love?
Romans 5:9 can be a stumbling block for this understanding. Most translations read “saved through him[Christ] from the wrath of God.” The translators have assumed the words “of God” as they do not appear in the Greek. Based on its context though, we must take this verse to be describing salvation from our own wrath, not God’s. Paul correctly calls all people ungodly, sinners and enemies of God(5:6,8,10). Despite all this, he says, God sent Christ to die for us because of love. It is clear then, that we are the hostile enemies of God, not the other way around. We have broken the peace, and severed the relationship, not God. With steadfast endurance we violently resist the God of peace. All of this to say that despite our hatred for Him, God’s fundamental posture towards His creation is love and pity. Through our death in Christ, God has offered us a way to put an end to our hostility.
Therefore, Romans 5-8 also supports a view of the cross that is participatory rather than penal. We may now resume our analysis of 2 Corinthians 5.
Back to our 2 Corinthians passage, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor 5:21) The first half of this verse is initially difficult to understand. The struggle, I believe, stems from the pre-existing framework we have brought to the text. Though Christians often come to this passage with a penal understanding of the cross, it just will not fit. Paul has not all of a sudden ceased to think of the cross in terms of participation. Remember, “Christ died for all; therefore all died.”
For clarity we must turn to Romans once again. “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin.” (Romans 6:6-7) Notice first, the lack of retribution language in both of these texts describing the cross. Christ’s death here is not a kind of punishment for humanity’s sins. Instead, the believer participates in Christ’s death and resurrection. By doing so, he gains freedom from his sinful nature(body of sin). The believer hands over his sinful body to Christ so that it too might be crucified.
“He made him to be sin” Here Paul is setting out to prove that the body of Christ that was on the cross is analogous to our own sinful bodies. This is very important for Paul. Christ’s death is only effective for us if his body is like our bodies. Christ, though he was blameless, became a body of sin, our body of sin, and destroyed it once and for all.
The effect of this death therefore, is not forgiveness per se, but new life. Just as God was faithful to raise Jesus to new life, He is in the same way faithful to the believer. Our new life, as with Christ’s resurrected life, is no longer vulnerable to sin and death. In becoming the very righteousness of God, the believer lives a life of the spirit. The sinful body can no longer compel him on towards destruction.
Thus, at the center of Paul’s thought is participation in the death and new life of Jesus Christ, our Lord. In the death of Christ, weakness has become power, sin has become righteousness, hostility has become peace, death has become life upon life, and the repulsive cross has become unimaginable beauty. What is foolishness to the world has proven to be the pearl of greatest price. “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him”(Philippians 3:8).