When Sin shows its power
“Gross injustice demonstrates a basic premise: in our world: something is terribly wrong and cries out to be put right.” I’ve pulled this quote from Fleming Rutledge’s excellent book, The Crucifixion. And as it happens it powerfully intersects with another book I am currently reading (in the evenings), Richard Bessel’s Germany 1945. Both document the terrible dominion over human nature wrought by the power of evil – and our urgent need for rescue. To quote the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, “there is no health in us.” We need help from outside, a Saviour. Anyone with any doubts on our propensity for sin should consider how Germany suffered complete moral collapse in the final years of WW2, above all how Hitler managed to maintain his terrible grip even as the Russians fought their terrible path to his Führerbunker. The Nazis showed no mercy even to their own people, sacrificing entire populations in so-called fortress cities to the advancing Red Army with their mass rape and pillage. A time of unspeakable cruelties and much suffering – which didn’t end with Hitler’s suicide. The greatest movement of people in world history was soon to follow, nearly 15 million ethnic Germans forcibly removed into a much-reduced Fatherland. It doesn't make for easy reading as the German nation, to quote the Old Testament prophet Hosea, reaped the whirlwind from the wind they had sown over the previous 12 years. Ordinary people for the most part, caught up in the most terrifying trauma. And all this in living memory. However, if you really want to behold the terrible potential of our human nature, there is one place where it is exhibited without any blandishments: Golgotha. As Rutledge observes: “The world’s religions have certain traits in common, but until the gospel of Jesus Christ burst upon the Mediterranean world, no one in the history of human imagination had conceived of such a thing as the worship of a crucified man.” As in Bessel’s book, she spares us no detail in showing how crucifixion is designed not just to exert maximum pain but to completely humiliate the victim, even to deny their very humanity. It is utterly godless. It was not just that Jesus was put to death, the crucial fact is that Jesus was nailed to a cross. Only by crucifixion, as the Hebrew scriptures make clear, does he become a curse on the land, repulsive to both man and even to God himself. £The apostle Paul is awe-struck: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’” (Galatians 3:13) And yet the cross is at the heart of the message of good news. Against every expectation “the word of the cross” has incalculable power. “The scandalous “word of the cross” is not a human word,” she argues. “It is the Spirit-empowered presence of God in the preaching of the crucified One.” For the cross of Jesus shows us in vivid detail the depth and urgency of our need. Otherwise we might come to the conclusion that we are not too bad. Just pull ourselves together and get rid of the occasional bad apple and we’ll do okay. We explain away Germany in 1945 and the like as simple aberrations. But all this is to disallow the power of Sin. Fleming is very good on Sin, a subject which she admits would not normally make her very popular. As she begins chapter four, “who is going to read a whole chapter about sin?” She makes the important point that for the writers of the New Testament Sin – capitalised - is not so much a collection of individual misdeeds but a power, “a malign force over which the unaided human being has no control.” Our individual sins are simply signs that there is a malign cosmic agency at work. For the cross of Jesus shows that Sin is an enslaving power which has us all in its grip, just as Hitler held an entire nation in subjection. There was simply no way the ordinary citizen could break free. We need a Saviour not just to forgive our guilt for what we have done but also to free us from a power which enslaves us. So she quotes a much-loved hymn to make a powerful point. All for sin could not atone Thou must save, and thou alone Be of sin the double cure; Save me from its guilt and power. Something has to be done and the good news is that Jesus, through his death on the cross, has done it! “Modern attempts to interpret the cross without reference to sin, “she argues, “make no sense either form the standpoint of scripture or from the overwhelming evidence in our own time that the entire human race is heir to what John Henry Newman called a ‘a vast primordial catastrophe.’” I’m only half way in both books – how remarkably the German people managed not only to survive but even flourish once Hitler had been deposed, and also how the Bible writers use a whole variety of metaphors to help us understand how the cross of Jesus works, above all to understand that the cross is Trinitarian. Intriguingly she writes: “The Christ event derives its meaning from the fact that the three-personed God is directly acting as one throughout the entire sequence from incarnation to ascension to Last Judgment.”
Such is God's steadfast love.