(Appeared first in July 2010, The Mennonite. Reprinted with permission.)
By Ervin Stutzman
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the
Twelve.—1 Corinthians 15:3-5 (NIV)
In his letter to the church at Corinth, Paul reminded the believers of first things—the basics of the Christian message. He urged them to recall the gospel message he had first delivered to them. His reminder opens a window through which we can peer into the heart of the first-century church. Paul set forth the core of the gospel message. Part of that message was that “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.”
It takes spiritual perception to plumb the depths of Paul’s teaching, especially his understanding of Christ’s death on the cross. I look forward to a thorough and spiritually energizingexploration of this matter at the next biennial convention ofMennonite Church USA in Pittsburgh, scheduled for July 4-9, 2011. The theme, “Bridges to the Cross,” is drawn from a passage in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthian believers—2 Corinthians 5:16-20. In that passage, Paul declares that through the cross “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them.” Further, he proclaims, “God made him [Christ] who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” All these echo the importance of what happened on the cross. To neglect that message is to deny the transforming and reconciling power of God in our lives. It will negate the message of the gospel that was of first importance to Paul.
If you read Mennonite periodicals, you will notice an occasional article or letter regarding the meaning of Christ’s death for our sins. These writings often mirror a broader theological debate about the nature of Christ’s atonement. In recent years, many have publically questioned the widely received view of Anselm and the later Reformers. Anselm understood Christ’s death as a penal substitution—a spiritual transaction by which God vented on Jesus the wrath deserved by others, releasing them of their guilt. As Anabaptists, we believe that God’s love invites us into a covenant relationship, resulting not only in forgiveness of sins but transformation of our daily lives. “And he has committed to us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19).
Controversy about the nature of Christ’s death on the cross is not new. Beginning on the day of Pentecost, the disciples testified that Jesus’ death meant far more than met the eye of those who viewed his execution by the Romans. It was a spiritual event through which God demonstrated his ability to make right the wrongs of the world. Some of their fellow Jews responded by trying to squelch that message. Paul later reflected that the message of the cross was a “stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”
We do well to reflect on the many different ways the biblical writers reflected on the meaning of the cross. Taken together, the numerous metaphors and motifs in Scripture explain the heart of the matter. The cross of Christ reveals the wisdom, power and love of a gracious God who makes possible a new creation and a new community. Without a spiritual understanding of the crucified Messiah and his suffering love on our behalf, we will never experience the salvation that God intended for us.
It is sobering to reflect that as believers, we may downplay or ignore what Paul considered of first importance. Whatever theory we espouse of the atonement, let’s take to heart Paul’s reminder that Christ died not only as a martyr but also for our sins.