Review: The Cross of Christ

The Cross of Christ
The Cross of Christ by John R.W. Stott
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“This is the best book we have read in this group.”

So commented a faculty member recently in a campus book group that discussed Stott’s book. And we’ve discussed some pretty significant books by the likes of Augustine, Pascal, Calvin, Kierkegaard, Barth, and others!

I think what marks this book by John Stott, that I first read when published nearly 30 years ago, is a combination of theological clarity and pastoral application that help one deeply root one’s understanding of the work of Christ on the cross not only in belief but in Christian devotion and practice.

The book consists of four sections. The first is introductory, “Approaching the Cross” and explores the centrality of the cross in Christian belief and practice and considers why such an instrument of torture would become so central that it even shapes the architecture of our great cathedrals. This leads to a focus on why Christ died, considering not only the historical events but the deeper reasons in the purposes of God and the need of human beings.

This brings us to what I think is the central section of the book, which is appropriately enough titled, “The Heart of the Cross.” It is here that Stott carefully lays the groundwork for his defense of the substitution as foundational to our understanding of how Christ atoned for sin. But this isn’t Jesus simply “taking one for the team” that leaves itself open to questions of divine child abuse. Allow me here to quote Stott at some length:

“Our substitute, then who took our place and died our death on the cross, was neither Christ alone (since that would make him a third party thrust in between God and us), nor God alone (since that would undermine the historical incarnation), but God in Christ, who was truly and fully both God and man, and who on that account was uniquely qualified to represent both God and man and to mediate between them. If we speak only of Christ suffering and dying, we overlook the initiative of the Father. If we speak only of God suffering and dying, we overlook the mediation of the Son. The New Testament authors never attribute the atonement either to Christ in such a way as to dissociate him from the Father, or to God in such a way as to dispense with Christ, but rather to God and Christ, or to God acting in and through Christ with his whole-hearted concurrence.” (p. 156 in the 1986 edition)

The third section then moves on to describe “The Achievement of the Cross” in the salvation of sinners, the revelation of God, and the conquest of evil. Particularly striking was his focus on what we see of the glory, justice, and love of God coming together in the cross. Equally wonderful is his explanation of how the victory of the cross frees us from wrath, sin, the law, and death.

The last section then considers “Living Under the Cross.” He begins with a discussion of how we are a community of celebration and how our worship and the Lord’s table indeed celebrate the work of the cross. I was surprised in this chapter with the extended discussion of differing views of the eucharist where he distinguishes Anglican from Catholic practice. He then moves to how the cross helps us understand ourselves as both sinners and redeemed and of great worth in a way that releases us for great service. This even empowers us to love our enemies and find meaning in suffering.

Stott then concludes with a summary of the pervasive influence of the cross in a chapter that summarizes the book using the letter to the Galatians as a means of review.

What John Stott gave us here, as in all of his writing is a theologically rich but evangelically orthodox account of the cross. He is gracious and pastoral and yet willing to surface theological differences and to clearly set forth arguments from the scriptures for his own positions in a way that demarcates the matters that need to be honestly faced if the Church is to be one not merely in sentiment but truth. Above all, he shows us how the work of the cross is indeed central to the message and life of the Church when we may be tempted to get caught up in moralism, activism, or speculative theology. This may be a word we need as much in our day as when Stott wrote in 1986.

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Review: The Cross and Gendercide: A Theological Response to Global Violence Against Women and Girls

The Cross and Gendercide: A Theological Response to Global Violence Against Women and Girls
The Cross and Gendercide: A Theological Response to Global Violence Against Women and Girls by Elizabeth Gerhardt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is a war going on that knows no national borders or physical territories. It is a war that occurs in clinics, ritual ceremonies, sweatshops and brothels, college campuses and religious homes. It is a war against half of the planet’s population. It is the war against women. One manifestation of this war is that there is not a woman I know who feels safe walking alone at night. Sometimes the warfare is expressed “merely” in leering looks or harassing comments. But the war is far more serious in many parts of the world.

In some cases, girls do not even have the chance to be born or are killed shortly after birth. Female genital mutilation is practiced in many parts of the world, affecting both sexual intimacy and exposing women to problems with infection and incontinence. Women are trafficked for sex and labor in forced servitude. Rape is used as a tactic of war. And sadly, even in homes of church leaders, women and girls are exposed to physical and psychological abuse and this has too often been justified or covered up by religious leaders.

In the first part of her book, Elizabeth Gerhardt chronicles both the current extent and historical roots in societal, political and religious contexts of the violence against women that scars or takes their lives. What must be faced is the complicity of many churches in this violence, sanctioning cultural rituals like female genital mutilation in some contexts, or in attributing blame to women when they are abused by husbands with no repercussions or discipline toward the husband.

This is not just an advocacy piece however. Gerhardt, as a theologian, believes that the church’s response to violence in various forms against women must be shaped and informed by the central reality of Christian faith–the cross of Christ. In the cross, we see the identification of the Son of God with those who suffer violence. In entering into the suffering of those who have faced such violence, we walk in the way of the Savior who suffered. In understanding that the cross is the Triune God’s just response to human sinfulness and injustice, we are challenged both to repentance and advocacy on behalf of and care for those who suffer injustice and resistance toward the political structures and persons that perpetrate that injustice.

Gerhardt considers Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany as a model of this Christ-shaped response to evil. She traces the three-fold response of advocacy, care, and resistance in which the Confessing Church and Bonhoeffer participated and its confessional roots. And she applies this as a model for how the church in various countries may respond today whether in denouncing abusive patterns in marriage, supporting micro-finance efforts that help women experience economic independence that makes them less vulnerable to abuse, or in forms of resistance to corporate or governmentally supported attacks upon women.

My one question in this treatment is what the cross means for the perpetrators of evil against women. Perhaps this book was more or less silent on this issue so as to make unequivocal its advocacy for women and the Christian implications of the cross for them and for the church. But it seems that something needs to be said of both the cross’s implications of judgment against evil and the possibility of repentance, forgiveness and transformation of the worst offenders. This can’t be spoken of lightly in a way that sweeps violence under the rug. It means confession of wrong-doing, legal consequences, restitution where this is possible, and a reformation of life and in the treatment of women.

This consideration aside, Gerhardt’s book is a singular and important contribution to a uniquely Christian response to the global concern of gendercide. So often, Christian activism is not grounded in Christian belief but rather a kind of “us too” response. Hopefully books like this can help galvanize a response in the church that contributes to protecting the lives of women and girls and pushing back the individual and structural forms of oppressive injustice afflicting our mothers, wives, sisters and daughters.

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