In Christian teaching, how things are framed and the angle we take on them makes all the difference in the world. For example, some of us think Jesus is our savior because he died on the cross. For others, he died on the cross because he is our savior – period. These are not subtle differences because they have completely different ripple effects. Let’s explore them just a little bit.
If I say Jesus is our savior because of his death on the cross, I am placing Christ himself to the side of his death. What I’m really saying is that his death is our savior. This makes perfect sense if one has been taught one of the “blood atonement” theories. I have written extensively about that in other posts.
However, If I say Jesus died on the cross (for our sin) because he is our savior, I am saying two key things: 1. He is our savior in his person, his “being” and that does not depend on anything he did; and 2. I am placing “blood atonement” theories on the back-burner behind recapitulation theory.
These are some pretty thick theological statements, so I will unpack them in as concise a manner as I can. Most of the time, when religious people speak of “the cross,” or “the blood,” they are using the language symbolically – pointing to the crucifixion. This is because their theological and doctrinal model places the crucifixion at the center as relating most-essentially to our salvation. This is because they have been taught a doctrine that says Jesus died to appease God in some way, be it God’s righteousness/justice or those things and God’s supposed wrath. Entire books have been written on this subject, but our purpose here is to look at framing and the difference it makes in how Christian teaching is internalized by the faithful. In the case of blood-based atonement doctrine, the death of Jesus on the cross is framed in the Temple sacrifice of the Old Testament. In the O.T., religion painted a picture of a god who was mad at human transgressions – the things we do that break God’s law. God couldn’t just up and forgive this; a penalty had to be paid and people thought that meant giving a sacrifice. They thought God had instituted this system in order to make forgiveness possible. Again, this is a concise summary.
Flash forward to Christ. Part of the benefit of framing his death in Temple sacrifice is that it enabled the church with a doctrine they could use as a tool. They could say God gave a sacrifice so huge that it applies once and for all. This enabled people to move beyond their felt-need to appease God by killing animals every year at the Temple. They believed God needed or required this; now they can move beyond that and explore new understandings of who God is. In that void, the church had a new understanding of God to present to them that revolved around Christ as “the image of the invisible God.” Not divorced from Christ’s “doing,” this places focus on Christ’s person.
So, if a Christian says Jesus died for our sin because he is our savior, one is placing focus on his person. He is our savior, not his death or (symbolically) the cross itself. One is also placing emphasis on the separation (sin) that took place in the Garden of Eden, more so than on the sins, or sinful acts, we commit as a result. When we place the emphasis on the root issue, we are boiling things back one more step from Jesus “doing” to his “being.” So, now his death on the cross is an extension of the role he plays as our savior in his person. In this role, the early church taught that Christ is God’s “New Adam” who recapitulates the separation Adam is held responsible for in the Garden of Eden.
When our understanding of atonement moves from Temple sacrifice as a framework, which as a doctrine dates no earlier than the 10th Century, to framing it in Christ’s role as the New Adam, which dates back to the end of the 1st Century, we can see the significant difference framing means to religious teaching.
The meaning of the cross is not diminished in the least, but when we further explore the ripple effect, we could go so far as to say our atonement was ushered in when Christ was born. Christmas and Easter are One. They play something like the set of book ends on what theologians call “salvation history” from Genesis to Revelation – except we are still living out the timeline.