ESSENTIAL METHODIST TEACHINGS:
THE CROSS (PART 1)
By Dr. Riley B. Case
Many years ago, when I was quite young, I sensed my mother was unhappy with a special preacher who was doing a series of meetings at our Methodist Church. I asked her if that was so and why. She hesitated and then spoke two words: “No cross.” I think of this when I hear sermons from time to time by some of our preachers. I think of this when I go through some of our Sunday school material. I think of this when I hear some pronouncements from bishops or from some of our boards and agencies. No cross.
I was aware of these things during our recent Confessing Movement board meeting when there was a discussion about what should the Confessing Movement be about during these days when we are waiting for a General Conference (can it be held in 2022 or will it be delayed until 2024?) that will allow a vote on the “Protocol,” a plan endorsed by a number of evangelical as well as progressive leaders that should lead to an amicable separation. Many persons are concerned that the indecision about what the church is about these days, along with the fall-out over COVID 19, is diminishing the vitality of our churches.
The response of the board was, basically, that we should be doing what we set out to do from the beginning of the Confessing Movement, confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and be an advocate for the historic Christian faith as interpreted by the Wesleys and our United Methodist tradition.
A place to start is with the Atonement, or the truth that Christ died for our sins, that we might be saved by grace through faith. The atonement is, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son...” The atonement is “Just as I am without one plea but that thy blood was shed for me…” The atonement is, “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith (Rom. 3:23-25). It was so important for John Wesley that he stated on occasions that one cannot be a Christian without believing in the atonement. “Indeed, nothing in the Christian system is of greater consequence than the doctrine of the Atonement. It is properly the distinguishing point between Deism and Christianity” (Letters, VI, pp. 297-298).
But someone might ask, “What is the problem? Isn’t this what all Christians have always believed? Don’t all of our churches observe Good Friday and celebrate Easter? Do not all of our churches use the cross as the focus of worship in our sanctuaries? Do we all sing “He breaks the power of cancelled sin, he sets the prisoner free, His blood can make the foulest clean, his blood availed for me?”
Unfortunately, if the truth be known, the truth of Christ’s atoning death on the cross has been compromised for some time. For some Christian educators blood and dying on crosses is not appropriate for children. When I was working with the Curriculum Resources Committee I learned UM material never shows Jesus on the cross until junior high (which I realized as a young pastor one day when I sorted through our otherwise fine collection of Cokesbury teaching posters looking for the crucifixion scene to explain Good Friday to our nursery school). When UMs introduced confirmation in the early 1970s I was appalled by the newly published denominational materials which emphasized confirmation as a responsible decision without making any mention of sin, the cross, redemption, or repentance. I remember seminary professors who taught that the words of Jesus, not the cross, are the essence of Christianity. I also remember discussing with a seminary professor about John Wesley’s view of the atonement and was told that Wesley had it wrong. Much more common is the interpretation that says that nothing objective happened when Christ died on the cross except that it is meant to be an example for us (the Moral Influence theory). Our official United Methodist doctrine is quite specific that something objective really did happen that changed the relationship between God and humanity; …”Christ, very God and very Man, who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for the actual sins of men.” Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church Article II (1784). The key idea is not that we change or reform ourselves but that the Father is reconciled to us. That truth is not affirmed by any modernist I ever read, or any progressive.
Often when I teach Christianity 101, I start with Original Sin and the Atonement. Unfortunately, many church attenders, whether evangelicals, moderates, or liberals, operate with a salvation by good works ideology. Do good and consider yourself a child of God.
A key idea in considering such religious words such as forgiveness and atonement and grace and justice is that justice and grace do not go together without atonement. Justice is about consequences for doing wrong. In civil society you violate the laws of justice, you pay a price. If there is no penalty the result is chaos. It is back to the laws of the jungle. In the Sermon on the Mount we are taught an ethic that goes beyond justice and fairness ("love your enemy.” “Turn the other cheek.” “Judge not…”). The goal is that relationships are restored between God and us, and us and other people. But there is a cost and it is borne by the one who forgives or who extends grace. So, if a man runs a stop sign and damages my car to the tune of $10,000, I seek justice, usually through his insurance company. If the man has no insurance then I demand that he, or someone else, pay the $10,000 to repair the car. But what if the man has no money to pay? Then I argue he should go to jail. Or I make him pay by punching him in the nose or, more likely, by getting angry and railing about an unfair world. But suppose I say, “I know you did not mean to do it, and you are facing hard times. Therefore, we’ll act as if this never happened. I forgive you.” Fine, but who pays the $10,000? The one who forgives.
It is more complicated, but the same truth applies to all manner of moral failure--adultery, sexual abuse, bullying, or lying on a tax return (or to put it in other words—sin). In justice the violator pays; in mercy the violator is forgiven. But who is responsible for the harm done by the sin? The answer is the one who forgives. In our modern world people do not like to talk about an angry God. Isn’t God love? But maybe we should realize we talk about the wrath of God precisely because God is love. Prejudice, racism, poverty, all represent human failure (sin). That failure brings suffering and pain upon others, the very ones created in God’s image that God loves. So God is angry; so there is justice and wrath. But through Jesus Christ God takes it upon himself. Through Christ’s death God is reconciled.
But we must accept that reconciliation. It is difficult when we (humankind) are not willing ourselves to repent and accept that reconciliation through faith. The serpent’s temptation in the garden was to eat the fruit, then “your eyes will be open, and you will be like God, knowing God and evil.” Relating that to our modern day it means apart from God, we set our own standards of right and wrong or justice and we judge how the standards are to be applied. In some ways there is nothing more horrifying than the present phenomenon known as “cancel culture.” In “cancel culture” no one rescues us from the consequences of our sin. Progressive judges make us pay. A racist word and I lose my job. A slaveholder from years ago has a monument recognizing other accomplishments torn down. Association with the wrong people disqualifies a person from a college lecture.
Racist words break the heart of a loving God, as does slaveholding even if it was 200 years ago, as does association with the wrong people, as does adultery and abuse and selfish action and cruel words. But a loving God takes the guilt upon himself (expiation) in order to forgive so that grace can be extended. Is that fair? No. Is God an unfair God? Yes. But that is what “gospel” is all about. Good news, as to the criminal on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
So, we call out to a weak and weary and hurting and sinful world, “Come to Jesus; he will save you, he will save you now” (early American Methodist camp meeting invitation hymn). And as we are forgiven we forgive others. We don’t need to be angry and vindictive and bitter and despondent and wrapped up in cancel culture. And we sing “Gone, gone, gone, gone, yes, my sins are gone, now I am forgiv’n and in my heart a song. Buried in the deepest sea, yes that’s good enough for me. I shall live eternally, praise God, my sins are gone.”
That is the essence of Christian faith. That is what the Confessing Movement wants to keep alive for today.