Early on in his masterful book The Cross of Christ, John Stott quotes Emil Brunner saying, “The cross is the sign of the Christian faith, of the Christian church, of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. . . . He who understands the cross aright—this is the opinion of the Reformers—understands the Bible, he understands Jesus Christ” (44).
To my mind, this rigorous cross-centeredness is healthy and biblical. For one thing, the cross is the immediate cause of atonement, the reconciliation of God and sinful, repentant human beings. But there always lurks the danger of centrality morphing into exclusivity, such that the periphery becomes hidden from view. After all, Jesus did more to save us than simply die. If that were all that was necessary, he might have simply beamed down in a human body on Maundy Thursday (or for that matter early Friday morning) died on the cross, and then immediately risen back to life and ascended to heaven before sunset. All in a day’s work! No need for those 30 wasted years beforehand and 40 pointless days afterward.
How do we maintain the centrality of the cross without displacing the empty tomb, the manger story, the final trumpet call? To what extend is our gospel Good Friday, and to what extent is it also Easter and Christmas? On the one hand, we don’t want to focus on Christ’s crucifixion so much that we simply have nothing to say about his temptation or his transfiguration, his representation or his return. On the other hand, we don’t want to so flatten out the narrative so much that Christ’s crucifixion loses its central, dramatic significance.
We need a balanced focus on the broader narrative as well as the cross (or the cross and resurrection together) as the crucial turning point within that narrative. In other words, we need to explore other elements of Jesus’ saving work, but always in relation to the cross (or cross/empty tomb). A good metaphor is a novel, where one needs to know both the broader narrative as well the climactic turning points within that narrative.
In an effort at stimulating more thought about the broader narrative arc of Christ’s saving work, here are six other “moments” in Jesus’ saving work that tend to sometimes get short shrift (and even this is not an exhaustive list).
1. Incarnation and (Virgin) Birth
I remember reading through medieval liturgy when studying ecclesiastical Latin and being struck again and again how much the early and medieval church emphasized Christ’s incarnation and virgin birth—though they never divorced it from his death. (It makes modern theologians like Brunner who question the virgin birth look quite foolhardy: they are not at odds with just two small passages in Matthew and Luke, but also with the weight and bulk of Christian worship over the centuries.)
Theologians like Irenaeus and Athanasius and Anselm viewed the incarnation itself as reconstituting and glorifying human nature. I find this an intriguing idea, partly because I can’t fathom that the union of divinity and humanity in one person would have zero saving influence on the rest of humanity, and partly because of that often neglected story in the Synoptics, the transfiguration. The transfiguration shows that Christ’s human body was unique even before his resurrection—or better stated, that his resurrection was the organic completion of the incarnation, not the imposition of some alien glory onto Jesus. To my mind, this evidence suggests that the significance of Christ’s resurrection cannot be divorced completely from his incarnation.
2. Sinless Life
Christ’s sinless life is important because it recapitulates the failure of Adam and Israel to image God, and because (at least, in a Reformed view) it fulfills the law in its active and passive dimensions, which is then credited to believers at their conversion. But even if one scruples over the notion of recapitulation and balks at the notion of imputation, Christ’s obedient life must be seen as a saving event because it is of one piece with his atoning death. Indeed, Christ’s dying on the cross was part of his sinless obedience (at one point in time did “sinless life” end and “atoning death” begin?).
I’ve heard Tim Keller repeat in countless sermons, “Christ lived the life we should have lived; Christ died the death we should have died”—and it occurs to me that the two halves of Keller’s statement should not be isolated from one another. Christ’s life and death are ultimately one organic reality that contains both positive fulfillment (“life we should have lived”) and negative absorption (“death we should have died”); both inclusive substitution and strict substitution; both representation (“in him”) and replacement (“for us”).
Detecting the notion of substitution as the common denominator, we are in a position to view Christ’s death as the climactic, pinnacle expression of the process already initiated in his life. Thus Luther spoke of Christ’s death as one “moment” of a larger “exchange,” and Calvin could write:
Now someone asks, how has Christ abolished sin, banished the separation between us and God, and acquired righteousness to render God favorable and kindly toward us? To this we can in general reply that he has achieved this for us by the whole course of his obedience. . . . From the time when he took on the form of a servant, he began to pay the price of liberation in order to redeem us” (Institutes 2.16.3).
If we presuppose that the events/facts of Jesus’ activity are connected to its purpose/significance, we may ask questions like, “Why was it important for Christ to actually die, and not merely suffer the wrath of God on a cross for a few hours?” Or, “Why was it important for there to be a sequence of time between his death and resurrection (Friday afternoon to Sunday dawn), rather than for him to die and then instantaneously come back to life?”
Once again it is interesting to read the medieval theologians on this question. They basically argued that salvation must be as wide as sin, and must therefore deal with not just sin itself but its consequences, like guilt and death. I think that is right. With a slight twist on the classical dictum from Gregory “that which is not assumed is not healed,” one could possibly assert, “that which is not experienced is not atoned for.” Like an antidote that must touch all of the sickness to heal it, Jesus has to submit to all that he saves us from: not just sin, wrath, guilt, and God-forsakenness, but also consequent spiritual and physical death. Only when the one who is “the life” (John 14:6) enters the state of death does death itself start “working backwards,” as C. S. Lewis put it in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The antidote must spread through the entire system.
Christ’s resurrection receives a lot of focus, but usually in regard to its historical reliability or apologetic use. We often quote 1 Corinthians 15:17 and insist that there is no hope without the resurrection, but we don’t explore as often why this is the case. What is its theological meaning? What import does it have for our everyday lives?
Richard Gaffin’s Resurrection and Redemption is a particularly insightful book on this topic that should be more widely read and studied. He argues that in Paul’s thought, Christ’s resurrection is as thoroughly messianic and representative as his death, and that not even atonement is complete without the resurrection. I explore three aspects of the soteriological significance of the resurrection in this article, and people could give it a glance if they are interested in this topic.
5. Ascension and Heavenly Session
In The Glory of Christ John Owen put great stress on the fact that Jesus’ ascended life is still a human, bodily life: “but that he is still in the human nature he had on earth, that he has the same rational soul and the same body, is a fundamental article of the Christian faith.” Why is Christ’s bodily, ascended life so important? In his ascended life Christ intercedes for believers (Rom. 8:34, Heb. 7:25, 1 John 2:1-2), He rules the nations and advances his kingdom as the promised Davidic king (Acts 2:30-31), and he sends the Spirit to convict unbelievers of the truth of the gospel and equip his church (Acts 2:33, John 16:7-11, Eph. 4:7-8). At this moment, therefore, and all throughout church history, Jesus is engaged in saving activity (interceding, ruling, sending the Spirit).
6. Second Coming
Christ’s second coming is portrayed in the New Testament as a saving event (e.g., Heb. 9:28), and it's not difficult to conceive it as such. But interestingly, some Reformed theologians like Bavinck held that Christ will continue to function in a mediatorial role between God and glorified humanity even after this point. As the second member of the Trinity will always be the God-man (the incarnation was a permanent divine movement), so Christ’s mediatorial role between infinite God and finite humanity will continue into eternity. Specifically, Bavink acknowledged that Christ’s “mediatorship of reconciliation” will discontinue in the new earth, but maintained that his “mediatorship of union” will continue for all eternity. “Those who would deny this must also arrive at the doctrine that the Son will at some point in the future shed and destroy his human nature; and for this there is no scriptural ground whatever” (Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 3, 482).
There are two concluding caveats for how we might construe a “cross-centeredness” that is rigorous and yet narratively situated. First, while all of these other “moments” are peripheral to the cross in one way or another, not all are equally peripheral. For instance, the resurrection plays a much more dominant role in our salvation than, say, Christ's 40-day temptation or high priestly prayer. In some respects we might want to say that cross and resurrection should together be considered the center of Jesus' saving work, though at that point the conversation becomes quite nuanced. Second, in discussing the various components of Jesus' saving work, we must take care not to give the impression that they are in competitition with one another, as though the center and periphery were each fighting for our attention. In truth, a deeper understanding of the various “moments” of Jesus' saving work will lead to an expanded, not diminished, view of the cross, because all these other moments find their deepest meaning in relation to that great moment. So long as the peripheral is seen as peripheral, it can only enhance the visibility of the center, just as—to put it in terms of our earlier metaphor—understanding the broader narrative of a novel only enhances the understanding of that novel's climax. Ultimately, Jesus' great saving work is a unity (as much as his person is a unity) whose components can be distinguished but never divided.