Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God
February 23, 2020
“The God that holds you over the pit of Hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes as the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.”
This is an excerpt from what is probably the most famous sermon ever preached in America. It’s a sermon by Jonathan Edwards, the great 18th century revivalist preacher, titled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Lovely isn’t it? God depicted as a sadistic juvenile torturing bugs over the fire. If nothing else we have to admit his writing is very descriptive. Edgar Allen Poe would be proud.
It is said that Edwards’ congregation was pretty shaken up by this sermon (I can’t imagine why), with some even writhing on the floor begging for God’s mercy – which I guess means the sermon was a success. Once the congregation is sufficiently traumatized and terrified of God’s wrath, Jesus could now swoop in and save them from this enraged God before he can torture them for eternity. What a relief!
This sermon has been called the most important sermon in American history, because unfortunately more than any other single sermon, it has shaped the religious imagination of Americans for 300 years. And we still see its mark today. The gospel that many of us grew up with probably isn’t so different than the gospel Edwards presents—we just received it in prettier packaging that didn’t terrify our socks off.
This is the gospel I grew up with. And while it was never presented to me in such a way as to scare me, it did at times. I mean, how else do you respond to the news that God in his raging anger can’t be around your sin, and so he will be forced to throw you into hell for eternity unless you believe in Jesus? And thank God for Jesus! I loved Jesus because Jesus stepped in and bore the punishment for my sin – or so I was told. God’s wrath burned against my sin and so he was bound by some abstract sense of justice to punish my sin. But Jesus stepped in front and took the bullet. I was taught that on the cross Jesus received the punishment that I deserved. God’s wrath was satisfied because he had a sufficient amount of blood and torture on the cross, and so now God was free to love me again, free to forgive me.
This is the gospel that I believed for most of my life, even up until just a couple years ago. This gospel worked for me for awhile until I started asking questions: does God really hate sinners? Because Jesus seems to spend a whole lot of time around them. Is the heart of God really a volcano of seething rage? Did God really need a blood sacrifice in order to forgive me and love me again? When I began to ask these questions, more and more things seemed off. If the heart of Christianity is Jesus, and if Jesus, as we state in the creeds, is really God in human form, then why does the Jesus I see in the Gospels look nothing like the angry wrathful God who needs to punish our sin? What is going on here? Jesus looks nothing like the monster-god of Edwards’ sermon, so what am I missing?
As I kept asking questions and brought my questions into conversation with other pastors, theologians and church traditions, I realized that I’m not the only one asking these questions and I also realized that blessedly, church history has offered a different way of viewing the cross that doesn’t paint God as a wrathful monster who needs a sufficient amount of blood and sacrifice in order to pardon sin.
With Lent and Easter coming up, I thought it important to offer another way of viewing the cross. Some of you in this room may not have a problem with the idea that God needed to punish Jesus in order to forgive us, and that’s ok. This sermon isn’t meant for you. This sermon is meant for all of us who struggle with this image of God, who have a hard time believing that the God who showed up as Jesus needed a blood payment in order to forgive. This sermon is meant for all of us who look at this wrathful God and say, “wait a minute, this God doesn’t seem all that different than every other god who hurls lightning bolts and needs a ritual sacrifice in order to be appeased.”
What we’re really talking about is a fancy theological term called “atonement theory.” Atonement theory is how we make sense of how we’re reconciled with God through the cross and how our sin is dealt with. Jonathan Edwards’ version of the gospel, and the version many of us grew up with, says we were reconciled with God because God’s wrath was satisfied through Jesus’ blood and death, thereby allowing us to be reconciled to God. Jesus was punished for us, so we’re free to be forgiven (the fancy theological term for this is penal-substitutionary atonement).
Penal-substitutionary atonement, while it is the most popular and well-known way of explaining how we as sinful humans were reconciled to God, it is not the only explanation the church has historically offered. So my goal today is to offer another option, another way of viewing the cross that is, in my opinion, more beautiful and more fitting of the God we see in Jesus. And I think how we understand the cross is important, not only because it’s at the heart of the Christian faith, but because where we think God is standing in relation to the cross determines everything about how we view God, view ourselves and view others. Is God standing at the cross with him arms folded, saying “more blood, more punishment”, or is God up there on the cross, forgiving us even as we brutalize him?
If we worship a God who redeems through violence—who can only redeem, forgive and heal after a violent sacrifice has been given—we will always be able to justify our use of violence in the name of redemption. If we worship a God who sees sinners as objects of wrath, then we will also see sinners (ourselves included) as objects of wrath rather than objects of God’s love.
I’m going to start off by presenting some problems with this penal-substitutionary view of the cross, and then I’ll offer another option of viewing the cross that is faithful to church tradition, and to Scripture and is, I think, more faithful to the image of God we see in Jesus.
Also, I hope that this sermon is the beginning of what can be a longer conversation. This sermon won’t be one and done – my whole Lenten series will continue to unpack this topic that is too large to fit in just one sermon. But I also want you all to feel free to talk with each other and to talk with me about this. Some of you might be going: “hmm, I’m not so sure about this, Matt” and that’s great! Tell me about it. I want to talk about it. This is what church is for; I am not the final authority on all things—I’m also human. So please feel free to push back, to ask questions, to wrestle, because this might be very new and foreign for some of you. Lean into that foreignness for just a bit. And let’s jump in.
1. The first problem with a view of the cross that requires Jesus to be punished for our sins in order for God’s wrath to be satisfied, is that forgiveness is not really forgiveness, and grace is not free. Let’s say that you broke my car window and you come ask me for forgiveness. I tell you, “hold on one minute.” I go into my house, grab my son and give him five spankings. Then I come back out and tell you, “Yes, I forgive you. I took the punishment out on my son that you deserved. So you’re good to go now.”
While this may be a trite and trivial example to compare the cross to, I think it gets the point across. What I described is not true forgiveness, nor is this justice in any sense of the word! That’s not what forgiveness is! Forgiveness is not receiving payment for debt; forgiveness is the gracious cancellation of debt. There is no payment in forgiveness. Forgiveness is grace. And grace is not really grace unless it is freely given.
In the parable of the prodigal son I preached on last week, the father doesn’t rush to the servants’ quarters to beat a whipping boy to vent his anger before he can forgive his son. No! The father bears the loss and forgives his son from his treasury of inexhaustible love. He just forgives. There’s no payment. That’s what forgiveness is.
At this point some of you might be thinking: ok, that makes sense, but what do we do with all of that sacrifice in the Old Testament? Great question. And for that, we turn to our Hebrews passage that Roger read for us this morning. The author of Hebrews in chapter 10 is answering the question of why animal sacrifice is no longer necessary after Jesus’ death and resurrection. And the author points out that God never actually wanted their animal sacrifices: “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired…in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure.”
This echoes the prophets in the Old Testament who tell the Israelites that God couldn’t care less about their sacrifices; God just wants a pure and contrite heart. The author of Hebrews is basically saying that animal sacrifices were for your sake, not for God’s sake. God never needed your animal sacrifices…but you needed to give them in order to be reminded of your sin. God acquiesced to the culture of the time in which every religion used sacrifice, most of them human sacrifice, and God said, “you can do animal sacrifice, but no humans.” He made that clear with Abraham and Isaac.
But God was ultimately moving us on a trajectory away from blood sacrifice. First, he inched the Israelites away from human sacrifice, and then at the cross he moves us away from sacrifice entirely. The author of Hebrews writes: “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” Blood and sacrifice is not what removes sins, but it is forgiveness. This Hebrews passage does call Jesus’ death a sacrifice, but it is a different kind of sacrifice. It is a sacrifice to end the bloody monstrosity that is sacrifice once and for all. It is not the sacrifice that God demanded. It was the sacrifice that we demanded. It was not God who cried “Crucify him!”, it was us. We’ll return to this Hebrews passage, but for now recognize that as it speaks about Jesus’ sacrifice, it says nothing about punishment from God. Even in the OT, nothing is said about animal sacrifice taking the punishment meant for us.
2. The second problem with a view that sees that cross as necessary to placate God’s wrath, is that the cross becomes a reaction to our sin, rather than an utterly free initiative of love. Did God enter the world and die because he needed to vent his wrath on our sin? Or did God enter the world because he so loved us? I seem to recall a famous verse that says something like that.
3. The third, and I think biggest problem with a view of the cross that sees the cross as paying a cosmic debt to God’s wrath in order to free us, is that the cross becomes a transaction, rather than a symbol of transformation. Now, there is transactional language used throughout the NT, especially in Paul. The cross is spoken about in economic terms and in court room language—it is spoken about as a debt paid, a sentence carried out; but we need to recognize that what happened at the cross was so huge, so mysterious, so ineffable, that the only way we can talk about it is in metaphors. And so the cross was put in terms that were understandable to Paul’s audience: it was put in the context of Old Testament sacrifice, of economic transactions, of a court room case—“they were images that would have spoken powerfully to a people formed by temple sacrifice, animal offerings, and a quid-pro-quo kind of mind” (Rohr). These metaphors are helpful, but when we seize them and say, “This is exactly what happened at the cross,” then we miss the point of it; we reduce it to a mere transaction that balanced the cosmic scales.
The problem with this view of the cross is that it fails to take sin seriously enough. As pastor and theologian Brian Zahnd writes: “The idea that the cross is a blood payment violently extracted from a sinless victim to somehow balance the cosmic scales trivializes sin. Viewing the cross as payment to God for our personal debt of sin ignores the deep problem of systemic sin. When we turn the cross into a payment for our personal sin debt to an offended God, we leave unchallenged the massive structures of sin that so grotesquely distort humanity. If the cross is simply Jesus purchasing our ticket, our ‘get out of jail free’ card, then the principalities and powers are left unchallenged to run the world the way they always have. The world is left unsaved.”
What if the cross wasn’t meant to be a mere transaction, buying our ticket out of hell, but what if instead the cross shows us how God deals with sin, and what if it becomes a symbol that transforms the way we try to deal with sin?
These problems I presented are by no means an exhaustive list of problems, nor do they deal with all of the counter points and questions some of you might have. If you have questions, good. Let them percolate. Come talk to me and talk to your friends about them. We do not grow without being challenged. We don’t come to conclusions without first asking questions. Let’s continue the conversation.
But now I want to offer us a more beautiful view of the cross, a more beautiful gospel that I really do believe is good news!
The whole book of Hebrews, but especially our passage today, subtly, but deliberately moves from the language of ‘sacrifice’ of animals to the language of ‘offering’ of Jesus: “we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once and for all” (10:10). “The bottom line is that in Hebrews, even at the level of word usage, whatever sacrifice is being offered, it is first and foremost God-in-Christ’s self-offering – not a sacrifice to God in order to placate the angry deity, but rather a self-offering by a loving God to save an estranged people” (Brad Jersak). Do you see the subtle, but important difference?
We can still speak of Christ’s death as a loving sacrifice, because it certainly was, but Christ did not lay down his life to receive God’s cosmic spanking in our place; instead, Christ laid down his life to reveal the ugliness of our sin and to reveal the incredible love of God for us in spite of that sin.
Jesus did pay the price for our sins. He didn’t pay it to God though. He paid it to us as he was subjected to all the brutality, the hatred, the violence that we humans are capable of. Jesus willingly offered himself to us, and we killed him. Hanging on the cross we see what we and our sins are capable of: it’s ugly, it’s disturbing, it’s gruesome. We literally sinned our sins into Jesus. Jesus bore the full weight on the cross.
And as Jesus hangs limply on the cross bearing the weight of our sins in his body, even as we demand his death, the first words out of his mouth are: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” At the cross, Jesus, who is God embodied, shows us how God deals with sin. It’s not through violence, through sacrifice or through a debt to be paid. It’s through forgiveness.
At the cross we see God absorbing the violence of the world, the sins of the world, and instead of responding with more violence, God says: “I forgive you.” This is amazing grace. It is grace freely given. At the cross we see a God who would rather suffer alongside us than punish us and lash back. We worship a crucified God. We are the only religion that is crazy enough to worship the victim, the scapegoat.
If you want to know what God is like, then look at Jesus; Hebrews says that Jesus is the “radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:3). The God we see in Jesus is not some angry God trying to find somewhere to dole out his wrath. But in Jesus we see God bearing the weight of our sins and choosing to forgive. “In the crucified body of Jesus we see the death of our mistaken image of God…we see the death of the monster-god” (Zahnd). We see the death of our notions of God as angry and wrathful; instead we see a God who loves and forgives, even at God’s own expense.
And we also see that the cross is not the final word; we see that sin and death do not get the final word, but God’s final word is resurrection. God overcomes and redeems our sin, not through paying a debt or through sacrificial punishment, but by taking it to the grave and leaving it there. God doesn’t use violence and punishment to deal with sin – that’s what we do; God deals with our sin through forgiveness and sacrificial love.
At the cross we see what pastor and theologian Nadia Bolz-Weber calls “the blessed exchange.” She writes: “Some would say that instead of the cross being about Jesus standing in for us to take the really bad spanking from God for our own naughtiness, what happens at the cross is a ‘blessed exchange’. God gathers up all our sin, all our broken junk, into God’s own self and transforms all that death into life. Jesus takes our crap and exchanges it for his blessedness.”
This is forgiveness, love and redemption like the world has never known. And it is only forgiveness and love like this that has the power the transform the ugliness, the sinfulness, the brokenness of our world. Christ’s death and resurrection was God’s guarantee that nothing and nobody is beyond forgiveness, that nothing is beyond redemption, and that nobody is beyond reconciling. The cross shows us how sin is transformed into something beautiful and redemptive; the cross shows us how death is transformed into life. Jesus absorbed all the death and all the sin and redeemed it. As the apostles Paul and John write, Jesus put to shame the powers and principalities of darkness, he pilfered the keys of Hades and he has conquered the eternal hold that sin and death had on our life. This view of the cross is called “Christus Victor”, latin meaning Christ is Victorious. It’s a view of the cross that has existed in the church since its beginning, and it was the dominant view for the first thousand years of its history.
In this view of the cross, the cross is not some abstract cosmic transaction that took place, but it becomes a transforming symbol that shows us how to deal with sin in the world. It shows us that the only thing powerful enough to overcome hate is love; the only thing powerful enough to overcome sin is forgiveness; the only thing powerful enough to overcome violence and bloodshed is loving sacrifice; the only thing powerful enough to overcome death is resurrection. Jesus came to show us the way forward. Jesus came to give us hope that sin and death have been dealt with once and for all; Jesus came to show us how to join in on his redemptive mission to transform the whole world through forgiveness and love.
“Jesus did not come to save us from God, he came to reveal God as Savior. Jesus did not come to enable God to love us, he came to reveal God is love. Jesus did not come to reconcile God to the world, he came to reconcile the world to God” (Zahnd). Jesus did not come to change God’s mind about us, he came to change our minds about God. God is forgiving, self-sacrificing love. This is the good news of the gospel!