Thoughts on Kingdom, Church, and Grace from an American living in Hong Kong

Monday, April 5, 2010

Bart Campolo and the Cross of Christ

When John the Baptist sees Jesus approaching at a point early in the Gospel of John he declares, "Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." The sacrificial lamb John was referring to was first required by God as a sacrifice to save his people, the Israelites, as he brought judgement on the nation of Egypt. Exodus 12 says that as death passed through the land taking the first born, he would "passover" the houses of the Israelites whose doorpost had the slain blood of a perfect lamb.

The whole scene was a foreshadow of Jesus, the perfect lamb, being slain and his sacrifice being the requirement for judgement to "passover" us. For years I have heard two views on the crucifixion. Some people believe that the Jesus is the Son of God and His sacrifice on the cross was the perfect love offering reconciling us to a God whom, through our sin, we were estranged and those who didn't believe Jesus was the Son of God; that the whole story was nonsense.

Lately, I've been seeing a new group emerge.

Those that claim Jesus as the Son of God but believe the sacrifice of Christ was not orchestrated by God at all (or if it was, it was ancillary to other, more important, goals). I recently saw a video clip by Bart Campolo (son of famed minister Tony Campolo) where this view point is explained.

What's the Point of Jesus? from Recycle Your Faith on Vimeo.

The disappointment I found in this clip was that some valid elements of the Grace of God that Mr. Campolo brings to the table are diluted by his rejection of the Cross of Christ being the focus of the mission. The intricately crafted plan that God lays out from Man's first sin in the garden is sidelined in favor of basically what Mr. Campolo would do if he were God. Which is simply forgive...without sacrifice.

Paul the Apostle promised that the cross of Christ would be a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks, and in watching the video I'm still unsure what view Campolo leans toward but it certainly seems like it is a distraction to what he views was the central mission of Jesus which is the messages on love and forgiveness he taught before his crucifixion.

The problem with that is scripture, as a whole, is like a beacon pointing to the cross of Christ. The Old Testament prophets declare its going to happen, the Gospels share how it happens, and the Epistles exclaim, "Wow, look what happened!" Paul even says in 1 Corinthians 2:2that he is "resolved to know nothing...except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.

Again, its a shame that the wonderful truths of Christ's message on grace and forgiveness that Campolo so lovingly demonstrates is diluted because he creates a false dichotomy by presenting them as an antithesis to judgement and sacrifice. Somehow in this equation love becomes antagonistic to justice. Whereas I believe the cross is so focal to the Christian faith because it is there that love and justice, judgement and grace, and sacrifice and mercy converge in one beautiful act of redemption.

Here's to increased dialogue on Grace and Forgiveness...but rooted in the Cross!


Bob said...

I have written previously on how I'm negotiable on a lot of things about Christianity but remain firm in my feelings about the crucifixion and resurrection. That seals the deal and to try and water it down is, in my opinion, foolishness. Great post.

Andrew said...

I agree that Paul emphasizes the message of the cross. I am just questioning what that message is. If God forgives through sacrifice, then there really was no forgiveness. There was payment. It is those kind of double speak messages that folks are dragging into the light. Either God loves, or he doesn't. Either he forgives, or he doesn't. This is one area where I give credit to the hyper-calvanists, they are consistent. They present a god who is very conditional in his forgiveness and love and they do not apologize for saying so. Of course, I would argue that is neither forgiveness nor love; but again, that is what this whole debate is about.

Andrew said...

As I read over the scripture, it also makes me wonder: What part of the message of the cross would the Greeks have found foolish? I do not think they were rejecting penal substitution theory, but something more like a Christus Victor position. The thought that victory could be achieved through surrender, through sacrifice, through non-violence, would have been "foolish" to them. I assume their reaction would be similar to the British when Gandhi told them they would just "leave". They chuckled and joked amongst themselves over Gandhi's "foolishness".

Logan said...

Good post, I enjoyed reading it. Like you I completely agree that justice and love do not need to conflict, and that preserving the importance of the Cross is part and parcel to Christianity. To piggyback off what Andrew wrote, my beef is with substitutionary atonement theology, especially in its vicarious sacrifice and penal substitution forms. Like George MacDonald I find the idea that God was unable or unwilling to forgive humans without a substitutionary punishment to be completely unjust.

What's interesting is that that particular theology isn't universally accepted in mainstream Christianity-Eastern Orthodoxy does not accept it at all (the Roman Catholic Church's understanding isn't exactly the same as the standard Evangelical Protestant position). Orthodox writer Frederica Mathewes-Green described Christ as "like the firefighter, who comes out of the burning building with the baby in his arms. People tend to ignore his wounds and scars. Christ's victory was that He snatched everlasting Life out of sin and death." More good commentary on that subject here:

I believe strongly the Cross plays a role in salvation, though I'm agnostic as to exactly how it works metaphysically (and I consider salvation to be more than "rescue from hell"). There is no greater lesson taught from Scripture, in my mind, than how Christ willingly gave himself up to such agony-his willful deliverance, combined with the validation of the Resurrection, is enough for me that the Cross was necessary in some sense...I just don't believe it was a transaction to "buy us out of Hell".

CS Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity (and I'm using the paraphrase from Wikipedia, emphasis mine) "that before becoming a Christian, the doctrine of penal substitution had seemed extremely unethical to him, and that while he had since found it to be less so, he nonetheless indicated a preference for a position closer to that of Athanasius, in which Christ's death is seen as enabling us to die to sin by our participation, and not as a satisfaction or payment to justice as such. However, he also stated that in his view, no doctrine about the atonement is as relevant as the fact of the atonement".

Steve H. said...

Bob: Thanks!

Andy: I purposely didn't use terms like "penal substitution" and "Christus Victor" as I find they carry the baggage of competeing atonement theories. However, there is a difference between payment and forgiveness. If Gabriel spraypaints a building and is caught by the police, he can ask forgiveness, I can grant forgiveness, but there is still the issue of the spraypainted building. Unless I pay his fine, bad things are going to happen to him quite apart from my forgiveness.

Logan & Andy: I can see where the use of violence by God can be a stumbling block and nothing I will say is going to change your mind but I will add as a talking point something I was thinking about this week: Jesus had the scars in his hands and side and I don't think its because God was not powerful enough to give him a shiny new body. No, they are symbols of violence that he has with him to be seen by his followers. Quite possibly those symbols of violence will remain throughout eternity...

Andrew said...

I think though there is a difference. The way it is typically taught is that forgiveness can't happen without the payment. And again, I don't think it helps if Jesus "pays" for my error. I need to make restitution for my error. Of course that notion wouldn't work in a totally depraved framework, but that is another part of my rejection of that premise.

I also agree that Jesus seems to carry those scars, but we disagree on the reason why.

Steve H. said...


Your argument tends to rob sin of any real consequences. There is no "price" to be paid for breaking it. Again, if Gabriel breaks a window. He can ask my forgiveness and I can forgive him (and this you and I agree on) but who pays for the window? If he can't (which the Bible says in regards to sin) we can't, then someone who can pay, must.

Why doesn't it help if Jesus pays for your error? Since you are unable to, again, someone has too.

This goes back to my original argument to the Campolo video. IMHO, there is no seriousness to real price to be paid. I mean, with his view of sin, I'd be questioning the need for the cross as well

Andrew said...

But I am wondering if the evangelical take on this actually ends up robbing sin of its seriousness. Sin becomes so big, so bad, so insurmountable... that we almost end up disregarding it. It becomes hyperbole to the point of cliche'. It makes us shrug it off, because Jesus will take care of it. What is the point of attempting to improve our character when there is no way that we can?

By making sin this vague, unpayable offense against God, no one does any self examination... what would be the point? This is what I mean when I say that Jesus paying it doesn't solve anything. This accounts for much of what I see and have seen in evangelical churches. In your example, the rich father pays off the authorities for the son's vandalism. The son walks away with all debts paid. Whereas, I think taking sin seriously is not making it into some gigantic abstract that the son cannot overcome, but rather giving him a scrub brush and having him clean up the mess. To me that is a price that has value.

Steve H. said...


You bring up excellent points and I won't attempt to argue on areas where we agree. But I do think that that our faith in Christ and our acceptance of his sacrifice on our behalf is the degree in which we attempt to transform our life afterwards.

In Les Miserables, the proof of the transformation of Valjean after he had been given the gift of freedom through the Bishop was the fruit of his life from that point on.

You seem to be unusually antagonistic towards evangelicals in your arguments...

Andrew said...

I don't mean it antagonistically, it is just that evangelicalism is where the vast majority of my Christianity occurs and has occurred. It is my biggest influence and biggest reference point. Also, I know there are many other opinions out there on this so I don't want to speak as if all of Christianity feels this or that way on the issue.