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We think that Paradise and Calvarie,
Christ’s Crosse and Adam’s tree, stood in one place.
Looke, Lord, and finde both Adams met in me;
As the first Adam’s sweat surrounds my face,
May the last Adam’s blood my soul embrace.


Today marks one of the greatest paradoxes of the Christian faith. The somber day we call “Good Friday,” when we remember that our Savior and Lord “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” On this day two thousand years ago, when a deep darkness descended on Golgotha, Jesus cried out from a Roman cross, “It is finished!”, and gasped his last breath.

But what do the Scriptures mean when they declare that Jesus “died for us?” And how can it be that an ancient imperial instrument of torture, death and utter humiliation is the primary means by which the triune God reveals God’s love for us and reconciles all things to God’s self?

For Lent this year, I preached a sermon series I’ve always wanted to preach. I titled it “The Wondrous Cross,” and each Sunday we explored a different biblical image or motif (“atonement theory”) of what the Cross means and why it matters. I did this in part because of my own wrestling with how to interpret Christ’s crucifixion. But I also thought it would be helpful to my congregation as so many of us think of atonement primarily (even exclusively) in terms of “penal substitution.” For some, penal substitution is confusing and deeply troubling. Why would God lash out in anger and need to kill his Son in our place? Is this really what salvation and forgiveness is all about? (For the record, I do see substitution as a key biblical theme, but I agree with N.T. Wright that substitutionary atonement needs to be reframed.)

My goal has been to draw from the richness of Scripture and the treasures of church history to show that there is no singular way to interpret the crucifixion. Instead, we discover multiple images and themes, often weaved together. I’ve encouraged my congregation to think of the crucifixion more like a mosaic where all these different images/motifs, taken together, provide us with a fuller and more beautiful picture. So we explored the Cross as God’s victory over sin, death and the tyranny of the devil (Christus Victor); the Cross as God’s act of restoration for humanity and all creation (recapitulation); and the Cross as God’s sacrifice for the purification of sins, to name a few.

The feedback from parishioners has been really positive. Even more, preaching these sermons has had a profound impact on me personally. I read Fleming Rutledge’s phenomenal book The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ from cover to cover (all 612 pages, including the footnotes!). Rutledge’s theological insights and pastoral sensibilities have not only increased my understanding of Christ’s death, but more importantly, they’ve aroused in me a deeper wonder and awe at this “love so amazing, so divine,” it “demands my soul, my life, my all.”

I’ve especially gained a fresh appreciation for the early church fathers, who seemed less concerned about working out a fully developed doctrine of atonement and instead held together a variety of biblical images and metaphors. They also embraced a more robust view of the Incarnation, seeing the entire person and ministry of Jesus as crucial to God’s work of salvation (which certainly culminated in the Cross), along with a strong trinitarian framework. It is not God the Father acting alone or acting against the Son in the crucifixion (and empty tomb); it is the Father, Son and Spirit all acting together, in concert– a community of self-giving love for the sake of the world. Here’s one of my favorite quotes, from the 2nd century Letter to Diognetus:

“Oh sweetest exchange!…The sinfulness of many is hidden with the Righteous One, while the righteousness of the One justifies the many that are sinners…Not here some grim balancing of accounts, but rejoicing with liberation. The Son of God has given himself where we were so that we might be where he is, participants in the life of God.”**

Grotesque … the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald. Photograph: Heritage Images/Getty Images

I still have lots of questions and there is much about the crucifixion that remains unresolved in my own mind and heart. While I have found so much value in doing a deep dive into these atonement theories, in the end, I agree with C.S. Lewis that what’s even more important than nice, tidy theories about what exactly happened on the Cross is the reality that it happened. Christ’s crucifixion is shrouded in mystery, and yet it is the event that has changed everything.

Let me close with this. One of my favorite descriptions of the Cross comes not from some theory or abstract argument but from art—from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov. Here’s the scene. Two brothers, Ivan the steely-eyed atheist and his younger brother Alyosha, who is a Christian, are sitting around discussing things philosophical. Ivan has Alyosha in a philosophical headlock. He is strangling him with the age-old conundrum, “If God is good, why is there so much bad?” Alyosha doesn’t know how to respond. He holds his bewildered head in shame just inches above his soup. Finally, he looks up into the eyes of his brother and stammers his answer: “(I know this) there is one who can forgive everyone everything, because he shed his innocent blood for everyone and everything.”***

And maybe that affirmation is enough. On this Good Friday, regardless of where you’re at in your own wrestling with the crucifixion and what it all means, may you experience the self-giving love of One who can forgive everyone everything, because he shed his innocent blood for everyone and everything, including you and me.

*John Donne, “Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness,” available at Poetry Foundation website.
**Quoted by Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Eerdmans, 2015), p.530.
***Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, Part II, Book 5, Chapter 4.

Brian Keepers

Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa.


  • Doug says:

    I would have enjoyed that sermon series.

  • RZ says:

    I also! I just finished reading up on Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory. Good, but inconclusive, still unresolved.
    Just HOW God atones is really God’s business, I guess. We can wonder and speculate but it feels a bit presumptuous to declare. St. Paul did his best to reconcile what he thought he knew with what had just rocked his world. If CS Lewis and NT Wright can continue to ponder, I guess I can also. God did it. I believe it. That “settles” it.

  • Paul Janssen says:

    When we obsess on the mechanics of the cross, we lose the mystery. Through the lens of linen cloth, temple curtain, and white garment, preaching the marvelous exchange this year. Thanks for this.

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    Thanks for this Brian.
    I’ve composed a hymn celebrating the four main “theories” of the atonement.
    I’ll send it to you.

  • David Timmer says:

    Thanks, Brian. We should understand atonement less as a univocal theory (or set of competing theories) and more as a repertoire of images, each with its own integrity and limitations. Of course, that’s a lot to expect of the faithful in the pews. Even (perhaps especially) the “educated” among us are shaped by habits of thought that favor the literal and logical over the metaphorical and aesthetic. It takes good preaching to break us of those habits!

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I am sure your congregation profited enormously from that series. Great of you to do it.

  • Kent Fry says:

    Brian, thank you for your article about the series on the cross of Jesus Christ. A blessing to you and your congregation. We say too easily, “Jesus died for our sins,” without reflecting on the meaning or articulating what this means. And yet I am reminding of the words of the hymn we sang at our Noon Good Friday Service today: “What language should I borrow to describe Thee dearest friend?”
    The language of the temple and sacrifice for sin
    The language of the marketplace and thus the cancelling of debts
    The language of slavery and thus freedom and redemption
    The language of the lawcourts and thus declaration of acquittal or not guilty
    The language of parade and triumph and thus victory.
    The language of example and modeling and thus love and service.
    No one image in the Bible captures the fullness of the cross of Christ. And that is also true for our theories of the cross and atonement.

    This reminds me of a particle physicist that was in my congregation in Holland. He would say to me, “We sometimes think that we are looking at reality when we use our equipment and experiments to explore things at a sub-atomic level, but what we are looking at are maps of reality and not necessarily the reality itself. And yet the maps or analogies are helpful at getting at the reality.” This might be helpful when we reflect and meditate on the reality of the cross. The cross is a mystery, better captured in some of the words of our great hymns, and yet the preachers and theologians should help us get a sense of the reality of the love of God in the cross of Jesus Christ.

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