THE WRONG QUESTION:
A REVIEW AND EVALUATION OF A FORMER ELCA SEMINARY PRESIDENT’S THEOLOGY OF THE CROSS
The second reading for the Sundays of the Epiphany season have been coming from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. As we begin our Lenten journey it is good to be reminded of what Paul said in the first chapter of this letter. For those who are being saved “the message about the cross is . . . the power of God” (1: 18). Tragically, Paul also talks in that same chapter about people who find the message of the cross to be “foolishness” and “a stumbling block” (1: 23). That kind of a view of the cross is running rampant today.
I wrote an article for the May 2022 issue of our CORE Voice newsletter about the fact that many within the ELCA and other liberal/progressive, mainline denominations reject the teaching that Jesus died in our place for our sins. Instead they make Good Friday into the supreme example of Jesus’ bold political protest against the Roman empire, even unto death. And now we need to follow Him as we join in the work of dismantling empires and all other oppressive, political and social power structures. According to this view, Jesus’ death on the cross does not provide for our salvation. Instead it merely tells us what we need to do. A link to that article can be found HERE.
One of the examples I gave was a Huffington Post editorial by the Rev. Dr. David Lose, former president of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (now part of United Lutheran Seminary) and author of “Making Sense of the Cross” (published by Augsburg Fortress). Here is a LINK to his blog.
In this article I will give a detailed analysis of what Dr. Lose has written. My argument will be that Dr. Lose is asking the wrong question. The right question is not, Is God angry? Instead, the right question is, Is sin serious?
I begin by commenting on some language that Dr. Lose uses in the second paragraph, where he makes the claim that the one who led us astray in this matter was the eleventh century theologian, Anselm of Canterbury. According to Anselm, the god-man Jesus became our substitute. He saved us “by voluntarily substituting himself for guilty humanity and (receiving) the punishment for sin we deserve.” According to some proponents of so-called Progressive Christianity, a perspective like that makes God into some kind of Cosmic Child Abuser. The loving Son offers Himself in order to satisfy the demands of the mean Father. But that is not the way it happened. It is not that Jesus volunteered. Instead it is that God provided the substitute to die in our place. And that was not something that Jesus came up with in order to satisfy the mean and demanding Father. Rather that had been God’s plan from the beginning (1 Peter 1: 20).
In the third paragraph Dr. Lose criticizes the view that Jesus died for our sins on the basis that it is “so terribly rational.” He says, “You can understand it in legal terms. . . . Or you can approach it in accounting terms. . . . Either way, all the pieces fit.” But arguing that something is “terribly rational” and able to make “all the pieces fit” is a not valid criticism. Being “terribly rational,” able to make “all the pieces fit,” and capable of being explained in legal and/or accounting terms does not mean that something cannot be true.
The apostle Paul often explains the meaning and significance of the cross in legal and/or accounting terms. For example, in 2 Corinthians 5: 19 and 21 Paul says, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their sins against them,” and, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in turn we might become the righteousness of God.” Christ took our sins upon Himself, and God credits Christ’s righteousness to us. Part of the brilliance of Paul’s theological mind is his ability to explain salvation and the cross in legal and accounting terms.
In the fourth paragraph Dr. Lose makes the claim that the view that Jesus died for our sins “begs several huge questions.” Among those questions are “Why should one person’s punishment – even if that person is the Son of God – count for all others?”, “Doesn’t that essentially negate the idea of personal responsibility?”, and “If it’s true that Jesus has endured punishment for all sins that have been or ever will be committed, why wouldn’t we be motivated to sin all the more knowing that the penalty has already been paid?”
The only way that I can fathom someone’s asking questions like these would be if they do not realize the seriousness of their own sin.
Paul clearly states in Romans 6: 23, “The wages of sin is death.” Jesus told a parable in Matthew 18: 24-27 about a man who owed ten thousand talents. A talent was worth more than fifteen years’ wages, so ten thousand talents would be worth more than 150,000 years’ wages. That would be an impossibly huge amount ever to be able to repay. I think of a young pastor whose wife gave birth to a child shortly after he graduated from seminary. Because of the child’s severe health issues, their medical bills soon soared to over one million dollars. The young pastor said that without very good insurance the bill could never have been paid.
It is only someone who does not realize the seriousness and dire consequences of their own sin that would ask questions like the above. It is only someone who does not realize the seriousness of owing an amount equal to more than 150,000 years’ wages, or a recent seminary graduate who does not realize the overwhelming burden of having medical bills totaling over one million dollars, who would be so ungrateful as to say, “Why should someone else’s paying the debt count for me?”, “Now I am relieved of all personal responsibility,” or “Now that my huge debt has been paid I can go off and spend lavishly.”
In the fifth paragraph Dr. Lose asks, “Can you really call it forgiveness if someone else had to pay?” Dr. Lose’s argument is that “Forgiveness is releasing someone’s debt, not distributing it to another.” The problem with that line of argument is that someone always has to pay the debt – either the person who owes the debt, someone who pays the debt on behalf of the person who owes the debt, or the one to whom the debt is owed. In Jesus’ parable in Matthew 18 the man to whom ten thousand talents was owed would have ending up himself paying the ten thousand talents if he were not going to be able to collect the ten thousand talents. Somebody always has to pay.
In the seventh paragraph Dr. Lose responds to those who say that Jesus died in our place for our sins but then try to soften the blow by saying that it was out of love that God sent the Son to take the beating we deserve. Dr. Lose insists that in that line of argument “the fact remains that God can’t act toward humanity in a loving way until blood has been shed.” Could God have forgiven sin without the shedding of blood? Who am I to say that God could not have or what would be impossible for God? The point is this. God has a standard, a way He does things, a way by which it happens. Paul tells us in Romans 3: 24-26 that God put forth Christ Jesus “as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood . . . to show his righteousness . . . to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.” God is both just and justifier. God sets the standard. God consistently maintains and acts according to His standard. But then God also meets the requirements of His standard.
Dr. Lose makes the comment in the eighth paragraph, “The major problem with this understanding of God and the cross is that it enjoys relatively little support from the Biblical witness.” If by “this understanding of God and the cross” Dr. Lose means the understanding that God is angry and vengeful and Jesus needed to do something to satisfy and placate Him, then that is true. There is no support for that view from the Biblical witness. “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son” (John 3: 16). But if “this understanding” is the understanding that Jesus died in our place for our sins, there is ample Biblical support. For example –
Romans 5: 8 – “God proves His love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.”
1 Corinthians 15: 3 – “Christ died for our sins” (a teaching that Paul identifies as “of first importance”).
Ephesians 1: 7 – “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses.”
Hebrews 9: 26 – “He has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.”
1 John 2: 2 – “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
Revelation 1: 5 – “To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood.”
How could we interpret the Gospel writer John’s recording of John the Baptist’s saying, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1: 29) as anything other than Jesus’ being the one that the whole Old Testament sacrificial system was pointing to when the sins of the people were transferred to the lamb and the lamb died in their place? Why would Jesus have chosen to give His people the Lord’s Supper within the context of a Passover meal if He did not view Himself in terms of the Passover lamb who died in place of the first born and whose blood protected the family? The Gospel writer Luke also supports this interpretation of seeing Christ in the Old Testament when he tells us that “beginning with Moses and all the prophets (Jesus) interpreted to (His friends on the road to Emmaus) the things about himself in all the scriptures” (Luke 24: 27).
Also in the eighth paragraph Dr. Lose puts forth the strange argument that Jesus’ death on the cross could not have been necessary for forgiveness of sins because “Jesus doesn’t wait until after his sacrifice on the cross to offer God’s forgiveness.” That is true. Jesus did offer forgiveness, and Jesus got into trouble for offering forgiveness, before the cross. But the reason why Jesus was able to offer forgiveness before the cross was because He would be dying for us on the cross. The reason that the Old Testament sacrificial system worked and that it was the means through which forgiveness could and would come to the people is because that is the means God provided and that means looked forward to Jesus. “In his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed” (Romans 3: 25). The means of offering and providing forgiveness before the cross were powerful and effective because of the cross.
I would certainly agree with Dr. Lose in the ninth paragraph that “Jesus didn’t come to make God loving but because God is loving.” But if you follow his line of reasoning, then the only reason why Jesus died on the cross was because “the political and religious authorities put Jesus to death to quash the hope he created and retain their power.” According to Dr. Lose, the cross was not part of God’s plan from the beginning. Rather “the religious and political authorities . . . crucified him for daring to declare the unlovable beloved and the God-forsaken saved” (thirteenth paragraph). Was the cross central to the fulfillment of God’s plan, or did the cross happen only because of opposition to God’s plan? The way you answer that question is crucial.
Dr. Lose also says in the ninth paragraph that God’s vindicating Jesus’ message by raising him from the dead is “something notoriously underemphasized by substitution theologians.” I completely agree with Dr. Lose that the resurrection of Jesus was a vindication of Jesus and His message. Dr. Lose is right that the resurrection of Jesus is a demonstration that “self-giving love is more powerful than hate and that God’s promise of life is stronger than death.” “God in Jesus joins us in absolute solidarity by taking on our lot and our life, even to the point of death, and at the same time promises that death does not have the last word; that, in the end, life and love win.” All that is true, but that does not mean that Jesus did not die in our place for our sins. Rather what it does mean is that there is more involved. The story of God’s work for our salvation does not end with the cross. It continues to the resurrection – God’s winning the victory over sin, death, and the devil.
Dr. Lose concludes in his final paragraph, “The penal-substitution theory promotes the seductive illusion that we know just how God works and can therefore determine who enjoys God’s favor.” And yet the problem according to Dr. Lose is that “pretty much whenever you draw a line between who’s in and who’s out, you’ll find this God on the other side of the line.”
The implication here is that those who believe that Jesus died in our place for our sins see themselves as in and others as out. The accusation is that they believe that Jesus died for them but not for others. That is an unfair characterization. What do the Scriptures say? “God our Savior . . . desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2: 3-4). If that is God’s desire, then that needs to be our desire as well. “While we were still weak . . . Christ died for the ungodly.” “While we still were sinners Christ died for us.” “While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son.” (Romans 5: 6, 8, 10) The three words weak, sinners, and enemies describe all of us.
It deeply disturbs and concerns me that someone who has a theology of the cross like Dr. Lose’s would have been the president of an ELCA seminary.
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HERE is a link to our You Tube channel. In the top row you will find both our Video Book Reviews as well as our CORE Convictions Videos on various topics related to Biblical teaching, Lutheran theology, and Christian living. You will find these videos in the order in which they were posted, beginning with the most recent. In the second row you will find links to the Playlists for both sets of videos. This month we want to feature a video book review by NALC pastor Brian Hughes and a CORE Convictions video by NALC theologian Robert Benne.
A REVIEW OF “SPEAK OUT” BY BRIAN HUGHES
Many thanks to NALC pastor and Lutheran CORE board member Brian Hughes for his video review of the book “Speak Out” by Father Michael Breen. A link to his video can be found HERE. Brian writes concerning the book –
“My wife and I were coached by Father Mike and Sally Breen as he was developing the content for this book. That was several years before it was published and rereading it for this review I was reminded of how impactful it was and still is. The effectiveness of my preaching dramatically improved, making it easier to contextualize Law and Gospel in ways that were unexpectedly received.
“At the time of publication Karen Heist, our discipleship pastor who was also coached with the content, introduced it to the laity in our church and the results were astonishing: rising comfort level for sharing the Gospel at work and in their neighborhoods (with great stories in the process; the coin of a discipling culture) as well as doing so in public worship. Cogent and impactful messages from lay leaders signaled to the entire congregation that our embracement of building a discipling culture had been worth it. Pastors I’ve coached have told me it revolutionized their preaching too and completely changed their understandings of how to communicate outside the pulpit. Buy this book. Read it.”
“LUTHER ON VOCATION” BY ROBERT BENNE
Many thanks to Robert Benne, professor of Christian ethics at the Institute of Lutheran Theology, for his video on what Martin Luther taught regarding vocation. A link to his video can be found HERE.
According to Luther, all Christians, not just the clergy, have a calling or vocation, and all callings are equal in religious and moral significance. The only difference is in function. Every person is called by God to work in the world, fulfilling their calling gladly and conscientiously as they serve the neighbor. This teaching had great historical affect as it unleashed unprecedented commitment and energy to worldly work in the Western world. It gave everyday activity a religious significance.
With Luther’s concept of vocation, work is no longer just a job or occupation. Instead it is a calling and summons from God that gives great purpose and meaning to life.
A CRITIQUE OF THE WWW.ALTLITURGIES.COM WORSHIP RESOURCE BY CATHY AMMLUNG
The March issue of CORE Voice will feature another fascinating and insightful CORE Convictions video by NALC pastor Cathy Ammlung. In the meantime HERE is a link to her video, in which she powerfully and effectively argues that “however well-intended this resource is as it addresses some legitimate concerns, its fatal flaw is that Christ is not the Center.”
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May the Lord bless you as you begin your Lenten journey.
Dennis D. Nelson