What do the scholars say today about the meaning of the cross? Okay, that’s an impossible question to answer. But what about certain scholars who are highly influential in Reformed circles though they themselves are not Reformed or are on the far fringes of Reformed circles? (I’m not going to name names here). How have they tended to speak about the cross lately, and how helpful is it? I will refer to their language about the cross as the “covenant-historical, Christus Victor” approach. That’s a mouthful, but what does it mean?

These authors are zealous to guard what we mentioned could be lacking in the “potential pitfalls” section of the Reformed shorthand expressions: the wider historical and covenantal context of the cross. They are very sensitive to abstractions about “Jesus dying to satisfy the wrath of God against sinners.” Some are even skeptical of that notion at all, at least without intense qualification (more on this below). They are also skeptical of certain aspects of traditional Reformed covenant theology that draw too straight of a line between Adam in the garden and the work of Christ (in the covenant of works/covenant of grace scheme).

They want us to realize that Jesus came at a specific point in redemptive history, when Israel was as desperate as ever for rescue from her enemies—crushed and oppressed for centuries by four of the most powerful kingdoms the world has ever known, and without any new prophecy or revelation for the whole time—to deliver, first and foremost, them, out of the hands of their enemies. Little did they acknowledge that their truest enemies were spiritual enemies (they had broken their covenant with God and been “handed over,” in deeper ways, after all), that their deliverance would be by the way of a suffering Messiah, and that the meek would inherit the land (not violent zealots). The power of the “flesh” would be of no avail in this battle (a truth to which the covenant sign of circumcision pointed for millennia).

These authors are also very zealous to point to the wider sociological and even cosmic implications of the cross beyond individuals being made right with God. The “evil age” of the flesh, which is characterized by the dominion of the Satanic powers of darkness, is overcome by the cross, with the result of the repair of relationship between God and man, yes, but also between man and man (quintessentially seen in renewed Jew-Gentile relations in the NT). Babel is reversed at Pentecost because the dividing wall of hostility was broken down in Christ’s flesh (Eph. 2). And sinners now need not be continually enslaved to their own lusts and idols, which is ultimately slavery to the devil. Through faith in the Lord Jesus, they may become truly human once again, reflecting God’s image faithfully to the creation.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of approaching the meaning of the cross in this way?

Positively, the covenant-historical aspect of this approach keeps us grounded in the wider narrative of Scripture, and helps us keep our priorities straight when we think about the meaning of the death of Jesus. It also helps us to nuance our covenant theology such that even when we do draw “straight lines” from Adam to Christ (as Paul himself does in at least two places: Rom. 5:12-21 and 1 Cor. 15:42ff), we will remember, at least implicitly, that God’s gracious covenant dealings with His people developed greatly in shape and color through Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and the latter prophets, until Christ came and fulfilled everything that was said to and through them. While the fundamental dynamic of salvation by grace through faith in the promised Messiah has been the same ever since Gen. 3:15, God has progressively built an enormous context throughout the whole OT through which we are to view the multidimensional accomplishment of His Son on the cross of Calvary.

This approach also reminds us that while individual salvation is an important implication of the gospel, that the biblical concerns include much wider realities as well: Christ died to bring reconciliation among all peoples, for His blood speaks a better word than that of Abel; neither can the flesh-accommodated dictates of the Law to “touch not, taste not” separate peoples religiously into “clean” and “unclean” any longer. Also, along the lines of the “Christus Victor” theme, which is certainly one strand of NT teaching on the cross, Christ died to win a cosmic victory over the powers of darkness, and to enthrone Man once again as the benevolent vice-ruler of the earth, under his Sovereign Creator Lord.

Negatively, there can be a tendency here to be too skeptical of certain terse formulations of biblical atonement theology, even expressions which are faithful when understood charitably. I can’t help but concentrate on the aversion that often exists to expressions of Jesus “saving His people from the wrath of God by drinking it Himself” on the cross. Sometimes people articulate this to the effect that, “God sent Jesus to rescue us from Himself,” and this draws harsh criticism. I can understand why this could be a confusing statement to people if it is never thoroughly and carefully unpacked in detailed biblical terms. However, it is not far at all from the way Paul himself talks in Rom. 5:1-11! God graciously reconciled His enemies to Himself through the blood of His Son, and they will now most certainly be saved from divine wrath on the Last Day.

Sometimes the criticism against evangelical or Reformed atonement slogans comes to a finer point regarding technical formulations of penal substitutionary atonement. God the Father punished His Son in the place of sinners who actually deserved the punishment, even though the Son Himself was righteous. “What a miscarriage of justice!” the critics say. So some try to tweak penal substitution and say two things at once: yes, God condemned and punished sin in some sense on the cross, but it wasn’t Jesus who was condemned; after all Paul is careful to say in Rom. 8:3 that God condemned sin, not Jesus. And then God vindicated Jesus in His resurrection (far from condemning Him)!

This may be a clever move, but it wasn’t “Sin” in the abstract that suffered, bled, and died under the curse of the Law. It was our Lord Jesus—inasmuch as He freely identified Himself with sin and with His sinful, exiled people, even the whole of Adamic humanity driven east of Eden—who suffered and died outside the holy city. Yes, in Himself, He was sinless and righteous. Yes, He was personally vindicated in His resurrection, ascension, and judgment-coming on Jerusalem. But if it wasn’t Jesus who was condemned in some sense by God as a sinner, in sinners’ place (by His voluntary identification with them), then the fact that He went to the cross would be ultimately unjust! God doesn’t treat people as sinners whom He does not reckon as such. And His reckoning of Christ as such was not some kind of legal fiction (any more than is our justification in union with the risen Christ). Rather it was redemptive baptismal identification.

Finally, there can be a tendency for such writers to downplay individual implications of the cross to such an extent that a reader might wonder whether it is appropriate at all to make individual application (I’m sure these writers would ultimately agree that it is). Thinking pastorally, though, what must a robust doctrine of the benefits of the cross do for a person on their death bed? What does a minister say to a person in their last hours, in connection with the cross? It’s not that the wider biblical themes mentioned above have no relevance; but what is a direct way to address their most immediate need? Is it not the doctrine of the cross as the ground of their justification, adoption, and reconciliation with God? Is it not Christ’s fulfillment of all righteousness as the Last Adam? Is it not the abolishment of death itself in Christ’s death and resurrection? There are times for “shorthand,” individual-focused preaching of the cross.