If there was any doctrine that reinforced fear, for me it was the Atonement. Growing up studying the Heidelberg Catechism in the basement of my Christian Reformed Church, I learned such things as Lord’s Day 15, Question and Answer 37:
“Q. What do you understand by the word “suffered”? A. That during his whole life on earth, but especially at the end, Christ sustained in body and soul the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race. This he did in order that, by his suffering as the only atoning sacrifice, he might deliver us, body and soul, from eternal condemnation, and gain for us God’s grace, righteousness, and eternal life.”
This image seared into my mind and heart. God the Father was full of wrath. He took this out on his supposedly beloved and innocent Son so that we would not need to pay the penalty for sin. This articulation of penal substitutionary atonement caused me to be very afraid of God the Father. If Jesus, his perfect Son, could be the object of his wrath, what protection did I really have that would prevent him from becoming so disappointed and disgusted with me? Intellectually I understood that this theory of the atonement counted on Jesus having fully absorbed the Father’s wrath. But at an emotional level, there was a deep insecurity.
When I began to understand the Trinitarian life of God more deeply it became clear that the Father and Son were not at odds in the action of the atonement. Baxter Kruger says it this way, “Far from being a moment when the wrath of God is vented upon the Son, the cross is the moment when the relationship of the Father and the Son is most triumphant in the greatest darkness. On the cross, Jesus penetrated to the core of Adamic estrangement, where everything shouts that God has rejected us and abandoned us to the abyss. But it was precisely there, precisely in the experience of that estrangement and horror, that the fellowship of the Father and Son and Spirit stood fast.” This reality changed everything. If the Father, Son, and Spirit were united in the action of the atonement, then the fear that God the Father might turn in rage upon me was unfounded. Not only that, it meant that the good news was actually true, that our Triune God was essentially love and had planned from the very beginning to reconcile all things into the fullness of life in God. This meant that I could look at Jesus and know the Father’s heart. Hebrews 1: 3 reminds us, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.”
If the incarnation, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ was in the mind of the Triune God even before creation, why was death needed at all? Couldn’t God, being God after all, have made another way?
“The death of Jesus Christ is the revelation of the fact that the Father has never abandoned us, never forsaken us, that He refuses to go back on his dream to include us in the circle of life. Jesus’ death is part of the fulfillment of the eternal purpose of God, part of the seamless movement designed to lay hold of the human race and lift us up into the Trinitarian life of God…..But within this larger picture of the eternal purpose of God and its fulfillment in Jesus, there is a second reality that figures into the meaning of the death of Christ: The only way to move from the catastrophe of Adam and Eve to the right hand of God the Father almighty is through death. For the Fall of Adam was such a disaster that to rescue the human race and fulfill the eternal purpose of God for us necessitated nothing short of our recreation through death and resurrection.”
Kruger will go on to say that the catastrophe of the fall is not some sort of legal ledger, a series of bad things that put us in deficit. Rather, the fall is like a disease, inherited generation to generation, that causes people to no longer believe in and be able to see the freedom from self-centeredness and freedom for self-giving love that is God’s very being, and what humanity was created for. Believing the lie that “God was holding out on them, that He was not giving them everything they should have, that they were not yet everything they could be,” humanity lost trust in God and lost their assurance and security in God’s self-emptying love. Believing this lie caused human beings to fear God and to project their own pain and anxiety in expecting God’s anger, judgment, and ultimate rejection. It is this estrangement and alienation from God that Jesus took into himself when he took on human flesh. “Jesus’ mission was to bring the fallen human race to the right hand of God the Father almighty. His mission was to reconcile us to God, to heal the breach, to undo the Fall and bring us to glory.”
Jesus Christ holds in tension the reality of participating in perfect communion in the Trinity, knowing the complete freedom of perfect trust and self-emptying love, and the reality of fully entering the human experience, feeling what humans feel – and yet not believing the lie (this is how Jesus was without sin) about God. “He entered into fallen human existence and steadfastly refused to be “fallen” in it.”
“The death of Jesus Christ was not punishment from the hands of an angry God; it was the Son’s ultimate identification with fallen Adam, and the supreme expression of faithfulness to his own identity as the One who lives in fellowship with the Father in the Spirit.” Jesus entered human brokenness, carried that awful contradiction (of knowing the love of the Triune God and yet experiencing the estrangement of the human race) and resolved it through dying to that human experience on the cross, and rising as both the Son of God and a human being “in whom no trace of the Fall can be found” to celebrate the divine triumph of self-emptying love (which is the true image of God and what humanity was created to experience). In Jesus Christ, humanity’s broken trust in God and humanity’s inability to see the fullness of God’s love and God’s absolute refusal to give up on humanity or allow humanity to perish came to an end – so that humanity might have a new beginning where participation in the divine love of the Trinity and the incredible freedom of self-giving love is experienced. And while we live in the tension of the now and the not yet, we do have the invitation to glimpse, to believe, to live in this truth now.
This is the good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
And nothing and no one can tell any other human being they are disqualified from this new beginning. Human trust and assurance was broken in the fall. But in the accomplished work of Christ, this trust and this assurance is restored. “Repent (change your mind from viewing God as untrustworthy, stingy, angry judge) and believe the gospel (everything that is needed to free humanity from estrangement and fear has been accomplished by Christ).”
My conviction that Father, Son, and Spirit are unified in the gift of reconciliation through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has shaped my values and approach in pastoral ministry. This work of reconciliation is complete and offered as a free gift to all. I am therefore free to meet people where they are without a fear-driven compulsion to move them towards a place of moral purity with sin-avoidance as the priority. I am free to prioritize nurturing receptivity of the good news of this reconciliation in the confident security of the love of the Triune God.
This confidence undergirds the posture of generous spaciousness. There is room within the accomplished work of Christ, for people to encounter and interpret God’s word in different ways within their own contexts. What unifies us is the belief that we have been freed to live out self-emptying love. When this is our focus, when we are actually emptying ourselves on behalf of the other – even if the other holds a different interpretive perspective on gender complementarity than we do, then we are living into the truth of redemption. Then we are loving God and loving our neighbour – the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. Then we are participating with the Triune God, if now in part ……
“For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” 1 Corinthians 13: 12, 13
Reference: Kruger, C. Baxter. Jesus: and the Undoing of Adam. Perichoresis Press c.2003