Blood: Is the purpose objective or subjective?

October 8, 2007 at 11:44 pm 11 comments

I’ll move on from the theme of the cross soon, but since it’s on my mind at the moment, I can’t help posting a few more thoughts.

What, exactly, is the barrier that stands between us and God, which Christ’s death removed?

Most evangelicals tend to see the problem of sin as an objective problem: we’ve sinned, now the law demands death. On this view, the cross accomplishes the objective result of paying our sin debt, fulfilling the penalty of the law, and satisfying the demands of justice.

In other words, the barrier between us and God is justice and the law.

In the New Testament, however, one of the most important functions of the cross is to accomplish not an objective result, but a subjective result. The cross is not so much about effecting a change in the sinner’s legal standing before God, but is rather about effecting a change in the sinner’s attitude toward God.

In other words, the barrier between us and God is in our minds.

The result of the cross, then, is to (subjectively) disarm human hostility to God and reconcile us to Him. The most significant text in this respect is probably Romans 5:8-10:

But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by his blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.

In the middle chapters of Romans, the problem addressed by the cross is not merely that the law requires death for sinners (an objective problem); the larger problem is that God’s creation is hostile to him (a subjective problem).

For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so.

Note which is the hostile party in this text: It is not God who is hostile to sinners, nor even the law that is hostile to sinners, but sinners who are actively hostile to God. The purpose of the cross, then, is to dissolve that (subjective) hostility through its manifestation of the divine character.

2 Corinthians 5:18-21 is also significant here:

Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation.

Again, the purpose of the cross is to effect a subjective change in the attitude of humanity toward God.

I realize this verse is often interpreted in a more objective sense to mean that Christ was reconciling our debts and removing the legal penalty of the law against us, but I don’t think that interpretation adequately accounts for vs. 20:

Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

Clearly, this is a subjective appeal. Through Christ, God petitions humanity to drop their enmity, put down their weapons, and re-enter the experience of at-one-ment.

What stands between us and God is thus not the penalty of the law, nor is it the demands of justice. What stands between us and God is us—our attitude, our subjective enmity.

Reactions and critiques?



1. I am not exactly espousing the moral influence theory drawn from Abelard. As I understand it, the moral influence theory is too shallow to adequately explain the cross.

2. I am not wholly denying any objective significance of the cross. I believe there is an objective purpose of the cross, although I remain unsure as to exactly what it is. Regardless, though, I think the subjective aspect of the cross is too often overlooked, and I feel that dimension of the cross needs to be more fully explored. That’s why I emphasize it here.


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Who needs sacrifices? Just to forgive

11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Stephen  |  October 9, 2007 at 8:25 am

    By way of confirming your point —
    I’ll just point out that the reconciliation texts always point in the same, unilateral direction. God is not reconciled to us; nor are we and God reconciled to each other. Always, we are reconciled to God.

    This supports your point that we are hostile to God, not the reverse. Of course, Romans 1 speaks of God’s wrath toward sin. But toward us, God’s attitude is love (per Ro. 5:8).

    Therefore God does not need to be reconciled to us; there is no enmity in God’s heart. The enmity that needs to be dealt with is ours.

  • 2. Jamie  |  October 9, 2007 at 9:43 am

    Stephen: Yes, thank you. The New Testament does speak of God’s wrath toward sin, and that isn’t a point that should be overlooked. But the thing standing in the way of our forgiveness is apparently (at least in the middle chapters of Romans) not the injustice of unpaid-for sin, but our enmity against God.

  • 3. Stephen  |  October 9, 2007 at 9:44 am

    Some further thoughts ….
    Is Abelard’s moral influence theory shallow? Let me play “devil’s advocate” and argue in support of Abelard here.

    First, here’s my summary of Abelard’s view (off the top of my head, so I hope I’m not too far off). Abelard maintained that Jesus’ death sets an example for us of self-sacrificing love; and the example has the power to reform our behaviour because we find it so emotionally compelling.

    And indeed, there are NT texts — Php. 2 and 1Pe. 2 come to mind — that do appeal to the crucifixion as setting a moral example for us.

    The idea that Christ’s crucifixion could serve as an example for us to imitate is radical. How do human beings typically respond to conflict? Aggressively.

    The cross asserts that aggression is man’s way, not God’s way. God would have been justified to destroy all of us, as in Noah’s generation. But he allowed us to destroy his Son instead — a renunciation of violence even in response to a most extreme provocation.

    The aggressive tendency of human beings isn’t limited just to individuals, but characterizes human society. In one of his books, Walter Brueggemann writes:

    “The dominant scripting of both selves and communities in our society, for both liberals and conservatives, is the script of therapeutic, technological, consumer militarism that permeates every dimension of our common life.”

    Note that “militarism” makes Brueggemann’s list. But the message of the cross is a different script; it speaks decisively against the militarism practised by most nations.

    The moral influence theory may be shallow in one sense. It suggests that all we need is an example of a more excellent way: but the Bible teaches that what ails us is deeper in our bones than that.

    But the moral influence theory is profound and radical insofar as it calls for an astonishing reversal of our instinctive tendencies.

    As developed by contemporary liberals, the theory goes far beyond Abelard’s presentation of it. But they are still recognizably building on Abelard’s foundation. And I think there’s much to be said for it, even if (again) it is only a piece of a larger puzzle.

  • 4. James Pate  |  October 9, 2007 at 10:37 am

    I don’t know. What you are saying, Jamie, sounds like the moral influence theory as I have heard it. What do you see as the difference?

    I tend to believe in the objective approach. Romans 1-3 talks about God’s wrath. That tells me that it needed to be appeased.

    John may have some moral influence stuff, though, like I when I am lifted from the earth will draw all men unto me.

  • 5. Jamie  |  October 9, 2007 at 6:37 pm

    Stephen: Is Abelard’s moral influence theory shallow?

    No, definitely not. Personally, I’m highly attracted to his model. It’s just a matter of whether Abelard’s ideas are deep enough to fully explain the cross. Maybe they are, but I suspect there’s still another element somewhere that the moral influence theory doesn’t quite capture.

    Abelard maintained that Jesus’ death sets an example for us of self-sacrificing love

    It’s true that it does set an example for us, and that is in some ways important. But I tend to balk at the idea that merely providing an example was the extent of what Christ came to do. That implies we can change our behavior on our own if only we can see a model of how to do it, and I don’t think that’s true, strictly speaking.

    What might be true, however, is that the beholding the revelation of Christ has a transformative effect in itself. In that sense, Christ isn’t so much being an example as he is fundamentally altering us simply by his revelation of himself. The two ideas are similar, but despite the apparent similarities, there are fundamental differences between the two concepts.

    Regardless, though, I like what you’ve said, and I appreciate your sympathetic take on Abelard. For the most part, I agree with you.

    James: What I said in my post does sound a lot like the moral influence theory, you’re right. But my main issue with the moral influence theory (as explained in my above comment to Stephen) is that I think Abelard saw the cross merely as a demonstration of love, to which we respond almost as if in pity. To me, that doesn’t seem right. It seems to suggest that we can save ourselves, which I adamantly don’t accept.

    (Also, the moral influence theory sees Jesus as an example, as Stephen described above, and I don’t think Jesus is merely an example per se.)

    I suspect it is better to say that the revelation of the cross somehow has a transformative effect, rather than an exemplary effect. The distinction is this: If the cross is a transformative power, then the power to live righteously lies in the cross, not in us. But if the cross is simply an example, then the power to live righteously lies in us.

    Make sense?

  • 6. doclucio  |  October 11, 2007 at 6:43 pm

    I agree with what you were possibly hinting at, Jamie, that Moral Influence is good but not sufficient. The cross somehow put us in right standing with God as Stephen said. But what does that mean? Is it a legal thing?
    Luke 7 contains a parable where Jesus concluded that the one who is forgiven more (with the analogy of owing a debt) loves more. The implication is that all owe God something and that He has the power to forgive the debt. We understand that that debt was paid in Christ on our behalf. So the goal then is to figure out how He paid it and to whom/what. Perhaps the “how” is that He took on sinful flesh and lived/died in our place. OK, so the penalty is negated. So did He pay the Law? The Father? Satan? I don’t believe in the Ransom theory, but it brings up interesting questions.

    I generally agree with your appraisal of MI Theory. However, I believe you misquote Brueggemann on “militarism.” He was talking about consumer militarism…not martial. But I agree that the cross is against human nature. The fact that the cross (i.e., love) is contrary to human nature is not the sole property of Abelard’s theory…I believe it’s found in most/all theories, but he just emphasizes it more.

  • 7. Stephen  |  October 12, 2007 at 8:24 am

    Actually, I think Brueggemann is referring to four separate elements of human (including American) society: “therapeutic, technological, consumer militarism”. I would have put a comma after “consumer”, but grammatically it isn’t required.

    I believe Brueggemann is part of a pacifist movement in modern, liberal Christianity. I’m not quite a pacifist myself, because I think life in the real world forces us to compromise our ideals. But I agree with Brueggemann that the ideal both taught and exemplified by Jesus is one of non-violence — later emulated by Gandhi (who was familiar with this Christian ideal) and Martin Luther King, Jr.

    After some struggle, the position I’ve come to is this: the Church should not be cheerleaders for war. War may be necessary and (extremely rarely!) even just: but let the secular authorities make that case.

    The Church’s role is always to defend the Christian ideal. The example set for us is a willingness to die rather than kill. Which is to say, I think American evangelicals have behaved disgracefully with respect to the Iraq war.

  • 8. doclucio  |  October 12, 2007 at 8:33 am

    I see what you mean and sit corrected on Brueggemann. I totally mis-read it. I agree with you on the “practical pacifism” thing. American evangelicals are a complete disgrace to Christianity as they march outside abortion clinics, bully politicians into accepted the Christian “agenda”, and have preached loudly against homosexuality (but not against lying, apathy, or any other sin). It’s given us a bad name.

    My complications with supporting war (and I supported Iraq in principle at most) as a Christian is that it’s very difficult for me to decide which is a “just” war and which isn’t. For instance, was the Revolutionary War just? Our biggest gripe was that England was treating us poorly, giving us goods that were late, second-hand, and twice as expensive. But Paul tells us to submit to the government…and the Roman Empire did much worse to him and he didn’t rebel.

    So, was it immoral for American’s to rebel? Alas, this is another post…

  • 9. Sveta  |  October 13, 2007 at 10:32 am

    hey girl, wow another deep thought, i really enjoy reading your posts Jamie, I have a very shallow understanding of the cross and it’s always a blessing to read your ideas and your research. Thanks for sharing, from the verses presented it does seem as though Christ didn’t only die for us to cover the sin, but to change our outlook on God, when His character was revealed on the cross to the entire universe, the love of God was seen for the wretched, rebelious “creation”, yet He still went with the plan to sacrifice His Son. God is so GREAT!!!

  • 10. Jamie  |  October 14, 2007 at 9:34 pm

    DocLucio: I don’t believe in the Ransom theory, but it brings up interesting questions.

    Yes, definitely. Personally, I believe there is a sense in which Christ’s death was a ransom, because it did involve “paying a price” (Christ’s death) for the purpose of rescuing us from a captor (sin). But I don’t believe it was a ransom in the literal sense of the word, and I don’t think it was actually paid “to” anyone. The idea of a ransom is just one metaphor among many used in the Bible to describe Christ’s death. Each metaphor contains certain truths, but since there are so many of them, I don’t think they were meant to be taken too literally. If you do take them too literally, they break down (as with trying to say that Christ was actually paying a ransom price to a particular person or entity).

    Sveta: Glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  • 11. Rob  |  October 23, 2007 at 12:51 am

    In the New Testament, however, one of the most important functions of the cross is to accomplish not an objective result, but a subjective result. The cross is not so much about effecting a change in the sinner’s legal standing before God, but is rather about effecting a change in the sinner’s attitude toward God.

    In other words, the barrier between us and God is in our minds.

    Hi Jamie. As I understand it, our position before God is as sinners in need of a Savior. Being in that position, we are headed for judgment and eternal condemnation, because our sin separates us from a holy and perfect God who can have no sin is His presence.

    Thus, our problem is not in our minds, but is positionally — we stand condemned, even from the womb, even as a child or a young person, our very being, riddled with a cancer called sin.

    We cannot alone solve the problem — it is a divine work of a hold God which results in a positional change before Him. We now, as believers, stand clothed in righteousness, unstained, having put on Christ.

    Our minds are not absent of course — they are to be renewed, conforming to the likeness of Christ, more and more every day. Thus we are, as you say, changing in our attitude toward God. This is part of becoming more like Christ, out glory, our Savior, our King.

    Blessings from New Zealand !


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profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

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