I mentioned in my last post that we had started to sing the song “Jesus Thank you (The Mystery of the Cross).” In the first verse, you have the line “You the perfect Holy One crushed your Son.” Some people have expressed discomfort at singing this line, so we took time out one Sunday evening to look at it.
This is because it is right to stop and question lyrics to make sure we know what we are singing and that we should be singing it. In this case I admitted that the words caused me some discomfort too. However, the crucial point is that they are following Isaiah 53:10 very closely. So I need to give serious attention to that. This requires us to work through the theology and the pastoral application a little.
- We don’t want people to think of Christ’s substitution as being “cosmic child abuse” as it has sadly been distorted as being by some. When people talk about God punishing Jesus, it can sound like that. So I tend, when describing Penal Substitution, to start by focusing on Jesus willingly going to the cross and saying that he bore the penalty of sin. To do this, we will go to Scripture that emphasises this (e.g. John 10:17-18).
- However, I can be so keen to emphasise this point that I can end up losing the other part of what happened. Reading “It was the Lord’s Plan to crush him” forcibly reminds me of the Father’s very active involvement in this. It also points me to 2 Cor 5:21 where God makes the one who was without sin become sin for us. Then, in Romans 3:25, we read that God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin (NLT) or “propitiation” – ESV.
This brings me up sharp. I cannot stick with the passive “Christ was crushed” or “Jesus was punished.” The passive voice still implies that someone was actively doing something. In Scripture, it usually points to something that God is doing. So I need to face up to my discomfort here. Remember how we have talked about the need to allow Scripture to disagree with us? These Scriptures bring into sharp focus the Father’s active involvement. People want to keep him at a distance so his hands are clean. They can cope with the Father and the Son agreeing the plan and then the Father permitting Jesus to go to the cross. In this view, Jesus on the cross sucks up all the power and effect of evil onto himself (this is Steve Chalke’s understanding of the Cross). So then, Jesus is crushed by wicked people. But the Bible is clear that death is the punishment, not just the consequence, of sin that God actively delivers. The Father, unlike Pilate, does not attempt to wash his hands of the whole thing.
So where does that leave us pastorally?
- We’re starting to say that some of our songs may challenge us. Some of us may not even be able to sing them yet. They take us to Scriptures which force us to confront the true awfulness of sin. We thought we had grasped the full cost of Calvary, but we look again and see that it cost God even more than we had already grasped. I think that’s why this song starts by talking about “The mystery of the cross, I cannot comprehend…”
- We want to make sure that what we sing is balanced and reflects the whole counsel of God. So what I do at this stage is look and see whether the song itself gives the broader picture. I believe it does and having lyrics addressed to the Father and the Son help with this. I also would look at the songs chosen around it. We will sing “Worthy is the Lamb” which points to the high and exalted Jesus. He is not just some helpless victim. For more on planning a service that ensures the songs chosen balance each other, see Bob Kauflin’s excellent book “Worship Matters.”
- We need to work hard at explaining things clearly and gently. There’s so much room for misunderstanding here. We don’t want the congregation to be crushed by our own careless handling of God’s Word. I realised after the study in conversation with others that there was still a lot of work to do. We could not duck the fact that the “crushed” imagery is there in Scripture and that God the Father is active in this but:
- We want to be very, very clear that the imagery here is not in any way meant to make us think of a cruel God or even a frustrated God who turns on his Son maliciously and acts to cause him physical pain. In fact, I would suggest that the crushing imagery is more to do with the sense that the Son bears the penalty of sin.
- We keep emphasising that the oneness of God. This means it is not about one stronger person turning on the weaker and abusing them. It is about the Father and the Son being united in will before the creation of the World. It’s about something that the Son is able to do. It’s not about the destruction of the Son. It is as we have seen above about something that works for the Son’s glory not just our salvation.
- At the same time we must not lose sight of the three persons in the Trinity. We should not talk in a way that leads to modalism. The Father and the Son are one God, but distinct persons when it comes to what happens on the Cross.
- We need to keep coming back to the goodness of God.
- I want to come to something important about the victims of abuse here. The Bible does speak to them so lovingly and gently. I think 1 Peter is very relevant to this and it puts Isaiah 53 and the Cross centrally. Now, they are going to need some walking with for this. But what we will do is find the right people to sit down with them and gently work through Scripture with them. We may even find that, handled correctly, we give people permission to open up about the hurt and the secrets that they are carrying.
- We need to be teaching on these tough things. Partly that will come from the worship leader stopping to explain a song choice. We might want to use the Isaiah reading. We might want to say something like “This song reminds us that Jesus willingly bore the penalty for our sin. Where we deserved for God to crush us, Jesus took our place. We cannot underestimate the cost of the Cross.” (I may even then link this song with the words of “Oh to See the Dawn,” especially “What a love, what a cost, we stand forgiven at the Cross.”)