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3 Reminders Why Evangelical Theology is Crucicentric — An Excerpt from "Evangelical Theology" By Michael Bird

Categories Theology New Testament Book Excerpts

9780310494416"Christ crucified" has been an anthem for generations of confessing Evangelicals, and for good reason. Today we provide a timely excerpt from Michael Bird’s new book Evangelical Theology to remind us why. In it he gives three good reasons:

  1. Scripture: From Jesus’ own self-consciousness of the necessity of his death to Paul’s cross-centric preaching, the NT message pivots around the death of Jesus.
  2. History: From Mathetes to Barth, throughout history Christian leaders have spent much time preaching, interpreting, and meditating on the death of Jesus.
  3. Discipleship: “The cross is the crux of the gospel and also impacts discipleship,” Bird writes, “to the point that following Jesus entails cruciformity or being conformed to the pattern of the cross.” (387)

As we march toward Good Friday may Bird remind you why we preach Christ crucified. And may it impact your own discipleship in ever-increasing, crucicentric measure.

-Jeremy Bouma, Th.M. (@bouma)


Evangelicals have a crucicentric gospel and for good reasons. To begin with, Jesus knew what destiny lay ahead of him in Jerusalem, and yet he believed that his death would not be the end of his kingdom message; rather, it would actually inaugurate the very kingdom he was proclaiming (e.g., Mark 9:1; 14:22 – 25). Early Christian preaching identified the cross as part of God’s design for the renewal of Israel and for the salvation of all peoples (Acts 3:18 – 21; 13:24 – 30). Primitive hymns and confessions of the early church demonstrate that the death of Christ was a key article of faith and determinative for salvation in the early church (Rom 4:25; 1 Cor 15:3 – 5; 2 Cor 5:15; Phil 2:5 – 11; 1 Thess 4:14). The two emblems of the gospel, baptism and Eucharist, were reminders of believers identifying with and participating in the death and resurrection of Jesus (Rom 6:3 – 4; 1 Cor 10:16;1 Pet 3:21).

The message of the cross was central to the preaching of Paul (1 Cor 1:18 – 2:5; Gal 2:19 – 21; 3:1, 13). For the apostle to the Gentiles, the cross was the cosmic event that defined a people and purchased salvation (Gal 3:28; Col 3:11). All the canonical Gospels emphasize the crucifixion of Jesus as the climax of his kingdom ministry (Matt 27; Mark 15; Luke 23; John 19). The Catholic letters, especially Hebrews and 1 Peter, give significant attention to the death of Jesus as a sacrificial act that effects the salvation of those who trust in him. It is not too much to say that the first Christians preached, remembered, and ordered their lives around the story of the cross.

Unsurprisingly Christian leaders over the centuries have spent much of their time preaching, interpreting, and meditating on the death of Jesus. The second century author of the Epistle to Diognetus sounds much like Paul when he wrote: “He took upon himself our sins; God himself gave up his own Son as a ransom for us, the holy one for the lawless, the guiltless for the guilty, the just for the unjust, the incorruptible for the corruptible, the immortal for the mortal” (Diogn. 9.2). According to Cyril of Jerusalem: “Every deed of Christ is a cause of glorying to the universal church, but her greatest of all glorying is in the cross”; and “He stretched out His hands on the cross, that He might embrace the ends of the world; for this Golgotha is the very center of the earth.”

John Chrysostom described what the cross achieved with these poignant words:

For the cross destroyed the enmity of God towards man, brought about the reconciliation, made the earth Heaven, associated men with angels, pulled down the citadel of death, unstrung the force of the devil, extinguished the power of sin, delivered the world from error, brought back the truth, expelled the Demons, destroyed temples, overturned altars, suppressed the sacrificial offering, implanted virtue, founded the Churches. The cross is the will of the Father, the glory of the Son, the rejoicing of the Spirit, the boast of Paul, “for,” he says, “God forbid that I should boast save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” [Gal 6:14]. The cross is that which is brighter than the sun, more brilliant than the sunbeam: for when the sun is darkened then the cross shines brightly: and the sun is darkened not because it is extinguished, but because it is overpowered by the brilliancy of the cross. The cross has broken our bond, it has made the prison of death ineffectual, it is the demonstration of the love of God.

The centrality of the cross was a leitmotif of the Reformation. For the German Reformer Martin Luther, true Christian theology was not a theology of glory (theologia gloriae) but a theology of the cross (theologia crucis). In his Heidelberg Disputation Luther wrote: “He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross,” and “a theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.”

For Luther, it was not just a matter of setting before God your virtue and hoping he would crown it with salvation. Rather, for Luther, the cross meant that one had to lay one’s own sin and inability at the foot of the cross and beg for forgiveness from the God who is rich in mercy. Liberal theologies of the late nineteenth century reduced the cross to an example of divine love given to spur men and women on to loving deeds. This not only evacuated the cross of any objective achievement, but it supposed that a sincere suicide was God’s answer to the evils of this world. The theological bankruptcy of liberalism was evident to many. In the early twentieth century Peter T. Forsyth, in the tradition of the Reformers, wrote: “Christ is to us what his cross is. All that Christ was in heaven or on earth was put into what he did there....Christ, I repeat, is to us what his cross is. You do not understand Christ till you understand his cross.” Neo-orthodox and evangelical believers have genuinely agreed on the centrality of the cross though often differing on what the cross achieved.

Neo-orthodox theologians labored to move beyond the subjective atonement theories of old liberalism and to recapture a theocentric vision of the cross. Emil Brunner accented the notion that Jesus’ death was a “must,” a divine necessity: “If man is to be brought back into contact with God, if he is to be able to receive the salvation which God has provided for him, then the Cross of Jesus Christ ‘must’ happen.” For Brunner, the cross is a revelation of the “incomprehensible, unconditional love of God” and “the revelation of righteous ness is combined with love.” The atonement is both objective and subjective. The cross is an objective sign of God’s right judgment against sin, but only effective when people identify themselves with Christ and comprehend that Christ suffers and bears the penalty that they deserve.

Karl Barth’s volume on reconciliation in Church Dogmatics made a resolute emphasis on the vicarious nature of Jesus’ death. Barth weaved together the various themes of his theology: election, fulfillment of the covenant, threefold offices of Christ, and Jesus as the God-man. In the end, Barth regards Christ as the judge, who is judged in our place and establishes judgment and justice thereafter: “Man’s reconciliation with God takes place through God’s putting Himself in man’s place and man’s being put in God’s place, as a sheer act of grace. It is this inconceivable miracle which is our reconciliation.”

The cross has been no less significant for modern evangelicalism, with several significant works written on the cross and several edited collections that tirelessly assert the centrality of penal substitution. David Bebbington points out that in nineteenth-century British evangelical churches, the verse that inspired the most sermons was Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”  John Stott speaks for much of evangelicalism when he says, “There is then, it is safe to say, no Christianity without the cross. If the cross of Jesus is not central to our religion, ours is not the religion of Jesus.” The cross is the crux of the gospel and also impacts discipleship to the point that following Jesus entails cruciformity or being conformed the pattern of the cross (see Luke 9:23 – 24; Phil 2:5 – 11; Heb 12:3; 1 Pet 2:21).

But the neo-orthodox and evangelical focus on the cross is simply an outflow of an ancient theological phenomenon. Christian theologians over the ages have bound themselves to the cross. The sign of the cross has been made in prayers, hymns, and baptisms. Paintings and icons of the crucified Jesus have adorned the walls of churches for centuries. But what is the problem that the cross solves and what type of remedy is offered?

In the Christian story, God, at the cross, deals with the problem of sin, Satan, and humanity’s separation from himself through a redemptive action that draws together the offender and the offended party in reconciliation. The traditional theological code word used to describe God’s response to the problem of evil in the world is “atonement,” which derives from the Old English “onement,” meaning to unite or to attain a state of “at-one-ness.” There are a variety of images in the New Testament for what the cross achieved in terms of salvation…Nobody doubts that Jesus’ death “achieves” something beneficial, but the questions are: what, how, and for whom? (pgs. 385-388)

Evangelical Theology

Evangelical Theology

By Michael Bird

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