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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

The Context of the Cross

Published Tuesday, July 7, 2020 By Harrison Perkins

It is usually cliché to open essays with a statement of a universal truth, but it is true that Christ’s death on the cross is at the center of Christianity. Paul described his preaching ministry by focusing on the cross: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2) Although the cross has remained a focal point throughout Christian theology, not everyone has explained the cross in the same way. Oliver Crisp’s recent book, Approaching the Atonement: The Reconciling Work of Christ, outlines some of the major historical interpretations of Christ’s death and offers Crisp’s own understanding of how the cross accomplishes reconciliation between God and humanity. This post is not a book review, but it does engage with some of the questions that Crisp’s book left lingering. This post argues that we must relate the cross to the proper biblical category of covenant to understand sin, death, and reconciliation.

To summarize quickly, Crisp’s book provides a very helpful overview of the major historical interpretations of Christ’s death and how it brings about our reconciliation with God. Crisp clearly describes various views, points out their strengths, and raises some criticisms and questions. Even the criticisms and questions he raises are clear and careful enough that readers get a clearer sense of what areas they need to refine as they think about even their own view of the atonement. In the end, Crisp draws on Jonathan Edwards to argue for a view that is very close to penal substitution – which argues that Christ bore the punishment due to our sin when he died on the cross. Crisp states:

Christ is not guilty of sin; yet he takes on himself the penal consequences of the other members of redeemed humanity that are guilty of sin (and therefore, also members of the fallen humanity) because they are “parts” of the same entity extended across time (2 Cor. 5:21). (175)

This passage is not the whole of Crisp’s position, but it is perhaps the most crucial premise that places him very close to penal substitution. It seems that one of Crisp’s main objections to being grouped fully with the penal substitution camp is his objection to the language of “punishment.”

Although I think Crisp’s view is close to a penal substitution view in some respects, the problem that confessional Protestants will have with Crisp’s position is that he rejects the category of imputation.[1] Reformed theologians have argued that Adam was our representative in the covenant of works. Because Adam sinned as the representative of all humanity, God legally counted us all as sinners. Adam’s sin was credited or imputed to us, since he represented us, which makes sin a legal category. On the other hand, Reformed people also believe that our sins were imputed to Christ, so that when he died on the cross, he actually paid the specific penalty for the sins of his people. Our sins were credited to him as our representative, and then his death and perfect righteousness are credited to us by faith. Crisp rejects this view of imputation as a “moral or legal fiction” (169). I contend that this is the significant fault in Crisp’s argument.[2]

The problem that undergirds Crisp’s rejection of imputation as a supposed “legal fiction” is that he does not adequately set the problem of sin, and therefore Christ’s atonement, within its proper context. One of the consistent problems throughout modern theology, especially in liberal and revisionist understandings of the atonement (which is not to say that Crisp is liberal or overly revisionist), has been the tendency to resituate Christ’s work of reconciliation in light of modern concerns. Jürgen Moltmann recontextualized Christ’s death in light of World War II to argue that the cross shows that God takes human suffering into his own being. Feminist theologians, such as Rosemary Radford Ruther, have recast Christ’s death in light of feminist ideology to suggest that Jesus died as the first martyr for women’s rights. These views and others suggest that the context of Christ’s cross and the need for reconciliation are left to our imagination. Even though they may accept Jesus’ death as the solution to the human problem, they determine that problem in light of their own concerns. Although these examples are by far more extreme than Crisp’s view, his rejection of imputation also suffers from an inadequate sense of the context of Christ’s death.

The point is that any understanding of Christ’s death that does not properly relate Christ’s death to the concept of covenant will not adequately explain the atonement. A covenant between God and a human person(s) is simply our agreed relationship with God. Of course, God is the one who sets the terms of these agreed relationships, since creatures have no ground to bargain with our Maker. Still, covenant simply emphasizes that God is not distant and our relationship with him is not fluid. God has made covenants with his people in order to define and establish our relationship with him. The categories of sin and atonement need to be located within the structure of our covenant relationship with God.

When someone articulates a doctrine of the atonement that does not clearly relate sin and the cross to our covenant relationship with God, it can create vague notions of the meaning of Christ’s death, which then leaves open the possibility to resituate the cross into another context other than bringing reconciliation to a breached covenantal relationship. Some patristic theologians, such as Irenaeus and Athanasius, understood Christ’s death as a death that releases us from the consequence and power of sin, which is death. The medieval theologian Anselm of Canterbury argued that Christ’s death was to satisfy our obligation to undergo the penalty of sin. Both of these understandings of the atonement have real continuity (although not exactitude) with the view that is today called penal substitution – that Christ died to pay the penalty owed to us for our sin – but some readings of their views might suggest that sin and death are abstract categories.

Rather than thinking vaguely about sin and death, we should see in it the context of our covenant relationship with God. One way of reading Irenaeus, Athanasius, and Anselm’s views might suggest that sin is against some abstract rules and death is a force of the universe that repays a breach of those rules. If that sounds a little vague, it is, which is the problem. In reality, sin is against God (Ps. 51:4). The Lord had made a covenant with Adam at creation, which included the condition that Adam not break the law (Rom. 5:12–14). Adam also represented all humanity, so when he sinned by breaking the law, every person was counted as a sinner because our representative sinned. Just like an Olympic athlete wins a gold medal as an individual, but “gold” is attributed to the whole nation that he or she represents, so too Adam earned the label “sinner” and it was attributed to everyone whom he represented. Death then is not a vague universal force, but is the penal consequence of our rebellion against the covenant relationship that we have with God. Because sin is against the God who made a covenant with us, so too then God himself inflicts the penalty of death upon those who rebel against him (2 Thess. 1:9).

The point is that sin and death are categories that are linked to our relationship with God. They are not vague universal forces. The reason that we die is not because there is an abstract consequence of death hanging over us. We die because the God against whom we have rebelled has pronounced condemnation and a death penalty upon those who are his enemies. This context of the covenantal relationship is so important because it highlights how sin is a personal act of defiance against the God who lovingly made us.

This covenantal context is also important because it highlights that sin and death are legal problems. Sin is rebellion against the God who made a covenant with us in that we break the law that our covenant God revealed to us in general and special revelation (Rom. 5:12–14). Death is God’s penalty – a legal category – for those who are his enemies. Sin and death are personal and legal problems as we stand in relation to God.

This explanation of sin and death brings us back to Crisp’s rejection of imputation as a legal fiction. He proposes instead that the redeemed humanity has a real participation in Christ, which means that Christ was able to pay our sin debt on account of that real union (167-175). The problem here is that it is not clear what this real participation is, means, or is like. “Participation” in Christ can mean a great many things, but Crisp is not fully precise about what he means or how that participation occurs. His preference for this “real” explanation of how Christ can pay our debt for sins leads him to reject imputation as legal fiction.

Jesus’ work on our behalf is undeniably covenantal. He is the guarantor of the better covenant (Heb. 7:22). His self-sacrifice as our great high priest is within that covenantal work on our behalf (Heb. 7:23–28; 1 Pet. 3:18). The framework of our relationship with God from creation had a legal dimension, at least in that Adam had and broke the law (Rom. 5:12–14), but also in that Adam was in covenant with God and violated that covenantal relationship as the representative of all humanity. His sin was then imputed to the rest of us, not as a fiction, but because the absolute reality of all human relationships with God has a legal and covenantal context. The same context then holds true as Christ now represents his people. Our sin was imputed to him as our mediator, and he paid our sin-debt of death to God for us. This is not a legal fiction but the exact covenantal context of the cross.[3]



Harrison Perkins is the assistant minister at London City Presbyterian Church, a visiting lecturer in systematic theology at Edinburgh Theological Seminary, and the author of Catholicity and the Covenant of Works: James Ussher and the Reformed Tradition (Oxford University Press, forthcoming).



[1] Cornelis P. Venema, The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ:An Assessment of the Reformation and the New Perspective on Paul (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2006), 232–56; John Piper, Counted Righteous in Christ: Should We Abandon the Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002); J.V. Fesko, Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2012), ch. 9.

[2] Crisp, Approaching the Atonement, 169.

[3] Of course, his perfect righteousness is also imputed to us by faith, but that is not precisely related to the issue of understanding the cross’ context.

  • Harrison Perkins

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