This past week, I had the opportunity to have a discussion with someone who had some challenges with some implications of a message I recently posted online.

It was a discussion about sin and the cross, and for that individual, my understanding of both, according to him, had strayed a wee bit too far. Although differing views on even the atonement is okay, he took the opportunity to try to convict me of the errors of my ways.

He tried to change my mind and my belief in as loving and respectful a way possible.   Or maybe I should say, as loving as possible when you believed the other person to be dead wrong and destroying your faith.

Anyways, let me try to summarize his position.

He, without apology, embraces the belief that all humanity is beyond repair. We are born sinners and sin constantly.   God, in contrast, is complete, perfect, holy, and ultimately hates sin.   God, among the many characters of God’s being, is also the perfect expression of justice.

For you and me, it is in our nature is to continually sin, adding more and more wrongdoing to our resume of misdeeds.   No matter how we pay for the mistakes of this moment, we have more on our horizon. It’s who we are.   We are sinners who sin boldly and repeatedly.

His understanding of what happened on the cross – classically known as the Penal Substitution Theory of the Atonement and embraced by not only this individual but a large percentage of the church, argues that this is precisely where Jesus comes in.

Understanding the inadequacy of our own attempts to reconcile ourselves to God, God instead chooses to punish Jesus in our place. In that infinite act of sacrifice by the perfect man, God’s wrath is moved from us and poured out fully, completely, and finally on his son.   As a result God remains the perfect Judge by embracing perfect justice, and because of the enormity of that perfect sacrifice all of humanity has been forever reconciled and made new with God.

As I have said, this is not only historical but for many accepted as the standard of the church.

At the same time – hold on to your seats – this is not my understanding of what happened on the cross.   In the end, it leaves me with more questions than I am willing to stomach.   It was more or less this denial that led to the confrontation of the moment.

As he went back and forth, I found myself listening a bit more intently than in times past, and I found myself focusing on smaller key points in his argument.   Eventually, one phrase kept hitting me like a plank.   Each time he used it I cringed more and more.   Throughout his dissertation he kept saying that he, that you, that I, are simply broken.

I started to think about that as he was speaking.

Broken; I have used that word countless times myself.

Yet, the more I thought about it as we spoke, I realized that from this moment on, I will use it considerably less.   Hopefully, I will find a way to remove it from my vocabulary in its entirety.

Why? You and I; we are not broken.

We may be flawed.   We may be bruised.   We may be beaten. We are not broken.

When I think of broken, I think of things like our old rusty bathroom scale.   I think of a scale that no longer registers anything but 15 pounds, no matter who stands on it.   I think of that scale that is no longer good for anything, and certainly no longer able to live out the very purpose of its existence.   That is how I see something as broken.

We may be wounded and we may not have realized all we can be, but we are not broken.

For me the cross is not about taking this broken man, and making him worthy to approach and be in communion with God.   I have been on an endless trip through the Gospel for the last two decades and this understanding does not jive with the man, mission, ministry and messiah revealed in its pages.   This world is in communion with God, long before we understand, acknowledge, and own what occurred on the cross.

Instead, The cross for me is a beautiful reminder.

The cross is the story of those incredibly beautiful, miraculous, radical, transformative and paradigm shattering things that can happen when God finds his way into our everyday.   The cross captures the reality that in this world we live; Love can take us to wonderful and beautiful places, but it can also lead us places of immeasurable pain, heartbreak and hurt. Love can bring me to paradise and it can bring me to the muck and mud of Calvary.

Yet we are reminded by what happened in that one moment, that throughout my incredible journey from one extreme to the other, while bumping along every point along the way, God has made himself part of the trip.   God is entering into this journey, in radical, life changing, transformative and miraculous ways.

As I declare this, I think of the scriptural accounts of the aftermath of the cross.   Jesus appears to his followers and countless seekers.   When he holds out his hands there were still holes in his palms.   He walked with a hole in his side.

The promise of what happened – at least for me is not about – taking broken parts and making them whole, but instead recognizing that God is beside us, through the cross, and as we make it to the other side, we may still have scars.

Yet like the post resurrection Jesus, our wounds no longer bleed.   Our wounds no longer drain the life from us.

For me, this is the power of the cross, and this is why that individual will be likely always be wrong in my eyes.   For me this is the source of my hope.   This is what I celebrate and hold onto.    When I pass the peace of Christ on Sunday mornings, this is the peace that I know, and want more of.

(CCL,, Photo by Bernat Casero, 2008)

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  1. While I understand your struggles with substitution, to flatly rule out an understanding of the Cross that has been around so long, and has so much support in scripture, is foolish. Whatever the distortions, some of the truth of what happened at Golgatha is contained therein. I certainly would never deny that there is much truth and power in the subjective understanding you embrace. The mystery of our redemption in Christ is much too incredible to flatly reject any of the understandings that have been expressed over the millenia.

    The undead get around quite OK with wounds that do not bleed.

  2. pastorscott2007

     /  June 2, 2014

    I appreciate your post, and would love to reply in two parts, first through thankfulness.

    I thank you for the opportunity to express more on my beliefs in regards to this. It is so easy to close our browsers when we stumble upon ideas that stand contrary to our own. It takes Grace and courage to open yourself to a holy discussion, and I thank you. Hopefully, I can respond with an equal portion.

    That said, and acknowledging your concerns; I assure you that nothing was “foolishly or flatly” ruled out, but arrived at after a great deal of struggle, study, angst, and prayer. At the same time, I am firmly convicted that even in rejection we can learn more about the nature of God. Even those beliefs we reject can help each of us articulate our faith to higher and richer levels.

    But… I must be clear…After that journey…rejection was where I arrived.. Please allow me just a few moments to express a couple more points as to why…

    First, I discovered that it doesn’t have as great a historical backing which at first we assume. I remind you that the early church never taught the penal substitution theory (PSTA). It wasn’t until St. Anselm’s “Cur Deus Homo” that the foundation of this theory found root; well over 1000 years after the cross. I would argue that much of what we see so ‘clearly’ in our scripture reading today, results from our desire to see it there. Many scholars are positing that the dominant theories on the atonement, and theology in general, result for reading our culture and society into both, or failing to see without our filters. They would likely argue that the PSTA is a result of the feudal world where nobility – ala game of thrones – kept order. In this culture wrathful but loving lords were commonplace and became our filter to understand God’s power, Grace, justice, and mercy. We can argue that if we want a true understanding of what happened on the cross we need to strip those filters first.

    Second, I would argue that the PSTA is anything but consistent with the Biblical record. It can be just as easily and clearly surmised that this theory is indeed, non-scriptural and in the end, incorrect, after one reads the palms, the story of Jonah, or countless other portions of our scripture that remind us that the consistency of God’s forgiveness is always front and center. In the end, for my own purposes the countless straightforward passages of scripture such as Proverbs 17:15 (“ Judging the righteous wicked and the wicked righteous—the LORD detests both of these”) are – in combination – enough for my own purposes to declare that it doesn’t pass Biblical muster.

    Ultimately, Beyond how the PSTA stands contrary to what I see so clearly revealed in scripture, history, and reason, I find myself arriving at a point where I must cast it aside only for what it does to my understanding of the Trinity. What the PSTA does to my understanding of the Trinity becomes the ultimate factor – for me – in affirming that it will not be a theology I embrace.

    Using the words of David Smith: “It places a gulf between God and Christ, representing God as a stern Judge who insisted on the execution of justice, and Christ as the pitiful Saviour who interposes and satisfies his legal demand and appeases his righteous wrath. They are not one either in their attitudes towards sinners or in the part that they play. God is propitiated, Christ propitiates; God inflicts the punishment; Christ suffers it; God exacts the debt; Christ pays it. This is the fundamental postulate of the theory; God and Christ are not one in character or purpose of disposition toward sinners” [Smith, David The Atonement in the Light of History and the Modern Spirit, 1918, p. 106]. When we pit the ‘persons’ of God against each other, or ultimately against you and I which seems to be the final destination of the PSTA, it stands contrary to our understanding of not only the trinity, but God and our communion with him. If what we are left with is such a God, my heart tells me my understanding must be wrong.

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