A participable cross


This should perhaps be included in my ongoing thoughts on Fleming Rutledge’s demanding, and rewarding, book on the Crucifixion. In a previous post I claimed that ‘if you can’t join Christ on the Cross, you’ve got the wrong Cross.” It was a question I asked against the backdrop of readings of the Cross that construe it as a place of incommunicable suffering, a place where God suffers godforsakenness, where he pours out upon Jesus the wrath we deserve. There are good reasons for thinking this is not what is transpiring on the Cross, and one reason, I argued, was that if the Cross is where God abandons Christ to godforsakenness it becomes impossible to see the Cross as something Christians are to participate in and be united to.

Paul (Phil 3.8-11) wants to “participate in Christ’s suffering, becoming like him in his death,” even to “fill up in his flesh what is lacking in Christ’s sufferings” (Col 1.24), a desire particularly incomprehensible if Paul viewed the Cross in substitutionary terms, as least as those terms are proposed by advocates of penal-substitutionary views of the Cross. The author of Hebrews (Heb 13.13) instructs us to “go to Christ outside the city, bearing the disgrace he bore…for I will never leave you nor forsake you.” The logic of the dependent clause is shocking: Go join Christ on the Cross “for God will never leave you nor forsake you.” For the same reason already noted this too becomes an impossible instruction to follow if the Cross is where godforsakenness and estrangement are borne by God on our behalf. In the penal-substitutionary sense, Christ suffers what we don’t have to (viz., wrath and godforsakenness). But in this case what are we bearing or participating in when we join Christ on the Cross? Moreover, Hebrews instructs believers to join Christ on the Cross with the assurance that “I will never leave or forsake you,” an assurance which standard substitutionary models of the Cross deny by supposing the Cross is where Christ was in fact godforsaken and estranged.

Fleming’s book proceeds with a key question: What sort of predicament must you and I be in that we should require the crucifixion of God? She suggests that the severity of the Cross requires us to posit a human predicament equally severe. Fair enough. But another question of equal import is this: What really transpires on the Cross if the gospel compels us to join Christ on it, if the salvation it extends becomes ours through participating in its sufferings? I don’t see Rutledge exploring the biblical call to participate in Christ’s suffering as a key to understanding that suffering. Though Rutledge briefly discusses the Rom 6 passage I’ll refer to below, as well as Heb 13.13, she doesn’t ask this question.

If we are to participate in Christ’s sufferings, become like him in his death, and bear the disgrace he bore, then it has to be the case that those sufferings are communicable, participable. But if Christ bears a divine judgment instead of us, if he suffers the dereliction of godforsakenness and estrangement we are saved from – then there’s nothing to participate in. We can at best be thankful spectators. I may simply be way off in my thinking, but I suspect more work needs to be done to see if there’s a way sensibly to construe the Cross both as Christ substituted in our place and as him suffering as our place.

That said, let me quote from Mark Heim again (Saved From Sacrifice, 229f) because he makes the same point from a passages that I previously overlooked: Rom 6.3-5.

Baptized into His DeathMichelangelo,_Crucifix
Paul says “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom 6:3-5).

Baptism is the ritual entry into the Christian community. This initiation is an act of identification with Christ and his death as an unjust scapegoated victim. It was common for initiations in the ancient world to involve sacrifice and bloodshed. Baptism does not. Consistent with belief in the cross as a sacrifice to end sacrifice, and a death “once for all,” each baptized person enters into what is in effect a reversed sacrificed, looking not to share in the benefits of an offered victim but to walk in the newness of life of one who overcame scapegoating. The baptized are to be united with Christ in a resurrection like his, participating in that new creation. Peter preaches in Acts that when God raised up Jesus, he sent him “to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways” (Acts 3:26). This bears on our peculiar individual sins, but certainly it applies with special force to our shared, collective wicked ways.

We were not actually killed with Jesus, but we associate ourselves with that death through baptism, aligning ourselves with the victim, not the persecutors. In this act we step into the place of the sacrificed one, at the same time identifying with Christ and with every other member of this new community, who has likewise been “buried with Christ…”

If baptism is a dramatic identification with Jesus’ death, it throws us back to the tension we have repeatedly discussed. Is this an identification with the sacrificial intent of those who persecuted Jesus or with the parallel but opposite divine purpose to end sacrifice? The description of the new life that is to follow on baptism clearly opts for the latter. Sacrificial language itself is redefined to this end.


Paul in Rom 6 makes essentially the same point he makes in Phil 3 and Col 1. The Cross (never without the resurrection – Rom 6) names the mode of our participation in Christ. We participate in his suffering, become like him in his death, and now in the language of Rom 6, “are untied with him” in his death, “buried with him,” etc. So at the very least, if we define the Cross as a kind of suffering from which we are excluded because Christ suffers there a judgment we deserve but are freed from, have we not placed the Cross out of the reach of participation? It would seem so.

I don’t think Paul could be any more explicit: the Cross isn’t the Incarnate God dying instead of us (however legitimately talk of ‘substitution’ may expresses a perspective on an aspect of what’s happening — and I haven’t seen ‘substitution’ described in that sense anywhere), it is the God-Man dying ahead of us — showing us how to die, how life is found in a fallen world, and also how to suffer redemptively as a victim of the world’s violence for the sake of its salvation. So instead of being a place defined by godforsakenness and estrangement (except so far as the world considers the violence they do to us evidence of our godforsakenness), the Cross is where all estranging narratives, including narratives of the Cross as estrangement, are exposed as false precisely because they do not offer us a suffering we can participate in, a death to which we can conform.

3 comments on “A participable cross

  1. Thanks Tom,
    You’re walking on really life-giving, fertile ground here.

    Life (salvation) is entered into when we relate to God, people and things the way Jesus did.

    Eschewing “me-centredeness” (seperatedness from others, ego-driven thought and behaviour) and seeing and valuing as God does is a large part of how we do this, I think.
    On the cross, Jesus (among other things, but very importantly nonetheless) is living this to the max- showing its absolute centrality to ‘eternal’ life.
    Another consequence of the cross was to expose violence for the senseless, fallen human anti-God activity that it is- completely demonstrating this, to those with eyes that want to see, along with our totally misplaced trust and dependence on it and our false attribution of it to God.
    We can never stop beholding the brilliance and humility and ferocious love of our Lamb-God.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Tom says:

    “On the cross, Jesus is living this to the max.”

    Exactly! Yes.


  3. Tom says:

    “If you suffer with him, with him you will reign, grieving with him, with him you will rejoice, dying with him on the cross of tribulation, with him you will possess mansions in heaven among the splendor of the saints.” St. Clare of Assisi (Thanks for the reference Dwayne!)


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