The Public Cross


Jesus was crucified in a public way, and His death necessarily has public ramifications. There is no way to be fully faithful to the message of His death and resurrection in private. Private faith in this public event cannot, in the very nature of the case, remain private.

The Text:

“For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified . . . Howbeit we speak wisdom among them that are perfect: yet not the wisdom of this world, nor of the princes of this world, that come to nought: But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory: Which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory . . . “

(1 Cor. 2:1-10).


In this text, we have many glorious things stated, and a number of other (surpassingly glorious) things only hinted at. When St. Paul came to the Corinthians, he did not come as a showboating preacherman (v. 1). He resolved to know nothing among them except Christ and Him crucified (v. 2). But this does not mean what individualistic moderns assume. Paul says that he was among them in a real state of inadequacy, as men would measure it (v. 3). He recalled his messages as being the same way (v. 4), not with man’s wisdom, but with God’s power. He did not want them to have faith in the wrong thing—in pretty boy preachers instead of God’s power (v. 5). We do speak wisdom, but it is not the wisdom of this world’s princes, who are coming to nothing (v. 6). We speak a hidden wisdom, now revealed (on the cross, remember), which God ordained before the world for our glory (v. 7). If the princes of this world had known what was up, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory (v. 8). In doing this, they arranged for a spectacular blessing for those who love God (v. 9). And what this consists of is revealed to us by the Spirit (v. 10).

Nothing But Christ and Him Crucified?

You have many times heard us warning against the dangers of radical individualism. That danger can be clearly seen in this phrase from verse 2, “not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Now if this truth is all about getting individual souls into heaven after they die, then application of this will create private clubs (perhaps called churches) where people will think about this saving datum, to the saving of their private individual souls, by and by. I grew up in a church which thought it was the responsibility of the church to preach the gospel every Sunday, with an invitation every Sunday. And why? Because of an assumption about the gospel. Preaching Christ and Him crucified was taken in a truncated way, limiting it to the salvation of invisible souls after they depart from this world. But note how St. Paul approaches this. This message is a message that topples the princes of this world, and every thing that previously had been under their jurisdiction—and this means arts, politics, economics, exploration, scientific investigation, cooking, and anything else that men might do. Rightly understood, preaching Christ and Him crucified is as broad as the world.

Theories of the Atonement:

In the history of the Church, three basic theories of the atonement have developed. They have frequently been articulated in opposition to each other, but this is not necessary at all. They all have a scriptural basis, and we have to learn how to see them together. If we do, instead of opposing them to each other, we will start to see something of what Paul is addressing here. And when we take one view in isolation from the others, we start to drift toward a rejection of what Paul is describing in our passage.

Anselm—this is the view that has been emphasized in the Protestant Reformed world. First systematically developed by Anselm of Canterbury, this is the idea that Christ died as a “penal substitute.” We are familiar with the language of the substitionary atonement, and it is right and proper that we are. It is very common in the New Testament. For example, “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit” (1 Pet. 3:18).

Abelard—this is the vew that Christ died in order to set an example for us to follow. The idea is that by sacrificing Himself in this way He provides a pattern of moral influence. We see immediately that this is pitifully inadequate in isolation, but it is in the Bible. “For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps” (1 Pet. 2:21).

Christus Victor—in this view, the death of Jesus is seen as Him triumphing over the devil and his angels. This too is biblical, but not in isolation. “And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses; Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross; And having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it” Col. 2:13-15).

All His Offices:

Notice that when we see this all these together as parts of a whole, we can see that Christ is exercising all His offices—prophet (Abelardian), priest (Anselmian), and king (Christus Victor).

The New Humanity and the Old Princes:

Jesus was not murdered in private by thugs, only to come back from the dead in secret, with a select band of initiates being told to whisper the news to another handful: “Pssst! Pass it on.” No, He was executed publicly by the authorities, and He rose from the dead in such a way as to declare His absolute authority over all the kingdoms of men, and over everything that they contain. We have to learn how to see the cross in these terms, which is what St. Paul is insisting on in our text.

When we preach Christ and Him crucified, we are preaching the hope and glory of the world. What God has prepared for us (who love Him) here, on this earth, has not begun to enter the heart of man. What is God preparing to pour out over this whole planet? What is He planning to give to us? What is His saving intent for this world? He is going to inundate our sorry and sinful world with the “deep things of God.” When the earth is finally as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea, those seas will be infinitely deep. In thinking about the greatness of the Great Commission, you do not have to worry about overdoing it.

Still Trying to Find a Rock to Throw

This editorial column ran in our local paper last night in response to a front page article that they ran some days before. That article described the release of a book by a local academic as a response to what I have written and said about slavery.

So Why Isn’t the Record Straight?

Here is my difficulty. On November 2, 2006, The Daily News carried a front page article with the headline “An attempt to set record straight; UI professor’s book contradicts writings of Moscow pastor.” The book in question is entitled From Slavery to Freedom in Brazil, and covers the years 1835-1900 in Bahia. So the book is all about slavery in Brazil.

In my book, Black & Tan, there were a handful of passing references to Brazil. One of them was “If the slaves were not sold in the South, they were taken on to Haiti and Brazil, where the condition and treatment of slaves was simply horrendous” (p. 54). There was a footnote on this comment, which simply talked about the percentages of slaves going to various countries, including Brazil. Another comment of mine in the book was this: “The point was not to laud American slavery as a positive good, but rather to show that it was benign when compared with ancient Roman slavery (concerning which St. Paul wrote), the slavery that existed elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere (Haiti and Brazil), and the rhetoric of the abolitionists” (p. 64). In short, my treatment of Brazilian slavery was brief in the extreme, and the statement I was making about it was that it was “horrendous.”

Dr. Graden’s book is not about slavery in North America, and, judging from the footnotes and index, it is not an interaction with anything I have written or said. If his book shows that Brazilian slavery was an atrocious affair (as it clearly does), then he has not contradicted me—that was part of my point. I agree with that and have said so in print. If he wants to say that he differs with me because I believe there was a difference in the treatment of slaves in Virginia and slaves in Bahia, and, contrary to this, he believes that the slaves were basically treated the same, he is certainly free to make that argument. But where does he make that argument in this new book? So there appears to be no contradiction here either.

In short, Dr. Graden and I both have written about events concerning slaves in the Western hemisphere in the 19th century. In what we have written about Brazil, we appear to agree. Now—and here is my basic question—what on earth is this doing on the front page of The Daily News, tricked out as though it were a genuine debate or engagement of ideas? The connection between my book and Dr. Graden’s appears to be really tenuous. So, what was the point in running this article? Was it an editorial determination that our community hasn’t gotten tired enough of all the disputing, and we all needed another fracas about slavery, this time set in Brazil? I have been waiting, thus far in vain, for someone to do some real reporting on the genuine story in all of this. I have been waiting for The Daily News to realize that this is not about conflicts in other centuries and other countries, but rather is a conflict right here. The real reasons for the conflict are so far all still under the surface. Thus far The Daily News has been caught up in the conflict in various ways, but has not really done any reporting on it. If our local conflicts were a badminton game, The Daily News has been the shuttlecock.

The first line of the article says that this new book of Dr. Graden’s continues the “academic response” to the slavery booklet. But in order to constitute a genuine academic response it needed to have done several things it did not do. It should have taken into account the publication of Black & Tan last year, which was a readily available clarification and amplification of my basic arguments. In addition, it should also have noted that there has already been an “academic response” to my book. Dr. Eugene Genovese (one of America’s first-rate historians on this time period) said this about the arguments in my book. He said that Douglas Wilson “has a strong grasp of the essentials of the history of slavery and its relation to Christian doctrine. Indeed, sad to say, his grasp is a great deal stronger than that of most professors of American history, whose distortions and trivializations disgrace our college classrooms.”

Then You Qualify

We gather around this Table, week after week, month after month, and year and year. The mere fact that we do this means that we are defining the boundaries of our lives by it. At the same time, we are responsible to understand what is happening here, so that we do not drift into a faithless observance.

Jesus said, “Take and eat,” not “Take and dispute,” or “Take and study,” or “Take and torment yourself.” This does not mean that there is no place for study or disputation or self-examination. But we must do all such things thoughtfully, that is to say, with wisdom.

If we study foolishly, or debate foolishly, or examine ourselves foolishly, we will always find ourselves, at the end of the process, disobeying the one thing we were explicitly commanded to do, which is, “Take and eat, take and drink.”

Any study of obedience that ends in disobedience is to be rejected. Rather, we embrace the truth that obedience is the great opener of eyes. As we come, as we eat, as we drink, as we discern the Body of Christ in one another, we grow up into wisdom. We are not commanded to get wisdom so that we will then be qualified to come to the Table. We are commanded to come to the Table so that we might get wisdom. The wise woman of Proverbs tells the simple to come to her Table.

This is wisdom here. Are you foolish? Then come. The wine is deep red, a deep wisdom. Are you simple? Then drink. The bread is nourishing, and designed to fill the hungry. Are you hungry? Then come. The Table is set. The place is reserved for you, and you were not invited because you have your spiritual act together. You were invited, I was invited, precisely because we don’t.

Are you a spiritual mess? Then, glory to God, you qualify. This is a Table set with nothing but the grace of God. Do not dare to turn it into something else. Take and eat. Take and drink.

No Doctrinal Grape Nuts

As many of you noted, the front page newspaper article last weekend made clear that some local unbelievers are very unhappy about the influence that our church is having in the community. We are grateful that we are having enough influence to be noticed, and we are equally grateful that our opponents have been judicially blinded so that they do not understand the nature of our influence. They worship the god of politics, and so they think that we love that idol too.

At the same time, we are concerned that we do not fall into the same trap. Politics will be saved, but politics is no savior. It is true that members of our congregation do hold political office, and they want to honor God there, but this only has happened for the same reason that you run into kirkers at Les Schwab or WalMart.

We are culturally engaged, but never forget the principal weapons of that engagement. We are seeking to transform our community by worshipping God rightly on the Lord’s Day, a day of rest and gladness. By God’s grace, we will transform our community through Sabbath observance. But we still have a long way to go here—some of us still disregard the obligations of the Sabbath. Others honor it, but it is an impotent honor; they are still concerned about what we can’t do on this day, rather than on what we get to do. Reject Sabbath crankiness. Why? Because it is inconsistent with the festival.

Secondly, we want to transform our community by truly loving our wives, genuinely respecting our husbands, sacrificing for our children—all done in gladness and humility. Reject all arid formalism in catechism and education. Your little ones need breast milk, not doctrinal grape nuts without any milk at all.

Third, we want to transform our community by learning and singing the psalms. The history of the church is replete with stories about the culture-transforming power of the psalms. We are not pursuing these psalms in order to develop a weird sectarian quirk. We know that these Stinger missiles are a little more complicated to operate than the rocks and sticks we used to throw. But there is a reason for that.

Art As Death Throes

“For the Enlightenment was to change the world. It is a period in which we today are still living, though at its end. Its aims have been fulfilled” (H.R. Rookmaaker, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, p. 41).

No Frictionless World

“‘What would you do if everyone let you?’ is actually the same question as ‘what are you actually trying to accomplish?’ But such thought experiments are dangerouis because they require that we postulate a frictionless world, which is not the world we live in. Thus it is all too easy to drift off into utopian speculations. And having just escaped from the twentieth century, who needs those anymore” (The Case for Classical Christian Education, p. 207).

Murderous Myth or Gospel Unveiled

“The spirit born of the sacrificial murder inspires the community of its perpetrators to remember the murder as holy and creative. The Spirit of the Gospels, on the other hand, remembers the false accusations, sordid plots, the sham trials, and the weak faith of those who fled” (Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, p. 130).

Not Just a Mirror

“Believing as I do that the arts in general are not merely a mirror reflecting social and cultural values, but are, on the contrary, powerful forces which shape and mould the way in which people live and behave (a view, incidentally, held by every major literary critic from Plato to T.S. Eliot), I have examined contemporary literature, drama, music, painting and those two powerful ‘moulders’, the cinema and television. In all these various manifestations of the contemporary scene, one finds not only an absence of ‘moral control’ and ‘spiritual order’ but in most instances an overt and deep hostility to any such restraining concepts” (Duncan Williams, Trousered Apes, p. 152).