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Owning Up to Our Evil and Its Cure at the Cross

Owning Up to Our Evil and Its Cure at the Cross

I confess, I’m a typical older guy who enjoys watching the evening news. Often I find myself holding one-way conversations with the broadcast. This usually happens after the requisite report on the latest shooting, drunken car crash, or child abuse episode. I’ll shout something like, “How can people be so evil?”

The evening news certainly highlights the evil of humanity. Yet, many people deny the existence of evil even in the face of daily, graphic evidence to the contrary.

Reinhold Niebuhr once said that the doctrine of original sin is “the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.” Niebhur was convinced that the evidence of ingrained sinfulness is apparent everywhere. He cited violence, the mistreatment of the vulnerable, and the greed built into economic systems as proof of original sin and pandemic evil.

Most of us, when honest, live in two minds about the presence of evil in human nature. Humans can be incredibly loving. They can be horribly cruel and nasty. Our tendency is either to deny evil all together, or, lump all the “evil people” into a separate category from the rest of us “good people.” Of course, we are the good people. “Those” other people are the bad people who cause all the world’s troubles. The Spirit of Phariseeism is strong in us all.

Fleming Rutledge warns against such demarcations that arise from denial of our personal complicity with evil. She wrote, “There is nothing more characteristic of humanity than the universal tendency of one portion of that humanity to justify itself as deserving and some other portion as undeserving…To speak of ‘deserving’ is to divide up the world in a fashion that is utterly alien to the gospel (Rom. 5:6).”In other words, we are all participants in evil at some level. Yet, we are all in the habit of imagining ourselves as innocents.

When a newspaper posed the question, “What’s Wrong with the World?” G. K. Chesterton reputedly wrote a brief letter in response:

‘Dear Sirs:

I am.

Sincerely Yours,

G. K. Chesterton.’

Thank God, and I mean this literally, there is a residual goodness in people, although it’s a tainted goodness. There are untold instances of God’s love and grace shining through people in our fallen world. The world hasn’t totally descended into darkness, thanks in part to the leavening salt of God’s people and the Holy Spirit at work in the world.

However, let’s not fool ourselves. Our world IS fallen. Evil IS pandemic. Those who believe in “humanity’s progressive self-liberation” are self-deceived.

Evil is strong and infects us all. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). We are all complicit, to some degree, with the world and the evil in it. “All of us in one way or another are either potential perpetrators, potential participants, or (most likely) passive enablers of horrors”, writes Rutledge.

In the face of Evil the Lenten season calls us to contemplate deeply what Christ accomplished at the Cross to dismantle the Evil Powers. Such a recovery project summons us to get real and face the devil in you and the devil in me.

In facing the evil in our world we as Christ-followers would do well to wrestle with this question: Why would Jesus go to the cross on His own initiative if each of us are essentially good?

If people just needed a little enlightenment to release the “good within” Jesus should have launched a world-wide education project, or social re-engineering effort. Easy peasy compared to dying on a cross.

Instead, Jesus moved into the epic center of Evil to defeat the Devil on his own turf. By submitting to the cross Jesus stepped as deep into Evil as a Savior could do. And in that place He allowed Evil to have its ultimate way with both God and humanity as it snuffed out His life. Evil working through Death won a penultimate victory on Good Friday. If Jesus remained in the grave, Satan would have achieved his final, permanent victory over God.

We know, however, that the ultimate word was shouted in Victory over death through the Resurrection on Easter morning. But first Jesus had to descend into evil to defeat it. And in His kenotic act of dying on our behalf we discover that the grip of Evil and Death on humanity was broken. We are set free to live in the life-giving power of Christ’s resurrection. For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey~ 1 Peter 3:18-20a

In order to embrace fully the Good News of Christ’s death on our behalf we have to own Peter’s brutal description of us. Individually and collectively we are “the unrighteous.” In doing so we can now receive the Good News that the Righteous One has set us free through His death.

The great exchange of the Righteous Man dying for the Unrighteous brings us to God, makes us alive in the Spirit, and gives us the ability to resist sin and evil. This is why we glory in the cross and its power. Satan’s hold over us is broken, and the righteousness of Christ takes over, to the glory of God.

Alas, and did my Savior bleed?
And did my Sovereign die?
Would He devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?

Was it for sins that I had done
He groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity! grace unknown!
And love beyond degree!

Well might the sun in darkness hide,
And shut His glories in,
When Christ, the mighty Maker, died
For man, His creature’s sin.

Thus might I hide my blushing face
While His dear cross appears.
Dissolve my heart in thankfulness,
And melt mine eyes to tears.

But drops of grief can ne’er repay
The debt of love I owe;
Here, Lord, I give myself away,
’Tis all that I can do.

At the cross, at the cross where
I first saw the light,
And the burden of my heart rolled away,
It was there by faith I received my sight,
And now I am happy all the day!

~ Isaac Watts

P.T. Forsyth On the Cross of Christ

I'm a big fan of P.T. Forsyth (1848-1921), a Scottish theologian writing at the turn of the 20th century. Although trained in liberal theology in Gottingen, he came to the conclusion that liberalism failed to adequately deal with the fallen state of human beings. This led to his own deep reflection and subsequent transformation. He renewed his belief in the atoning work of Christ and he developed a great interest in holiness and the atonement. His study resulted in several outstanding works on the Cross and the Atonement of our Savior. In particular are The Cruciality of the Cross and the classic, The Church and the Sacraments. If you can find a copy, these, along with his masterful Preaching and Modern Mind and The Person and Place of Jesus Christ, are well worth studious reading and reflection. Here are a few quotes for this Holy Week.

In writing about the early believers' worship of Jesus, Forsyth explains:

"What produced this [worship], so amazing, so blasphemous to the Jews? It was the cross, when it came home by the resurrection...It was then that Jesus became the matter and not merely the master of gospel preaching. It was then that He became Christ indeed, then when He became perfected! Perfected! He became the finished Savior only in the finished salvation. And, for those who worshiped Him first, all He was to them centered in the cross and radiated from there. It was the Christ who was made sin for them in the cross that became for them God reconciling the world to Himself. He was all to them in the cross, where He died for their sin, and took away the guilt of the world, according to their Scriptures...That was the starting point of the Gospel, that made it missionary, made the Church. It is the content of the Gospel. And it is always to there that the Church must come back, to take its bearings, and be given its course." ~ The Cruciality of the Cross, pg. 15

And, in writing about the church as a supernatural body of the risen Christ he posits: "Where does the super-natural and Church-building element in Christ lie? It lies not in His character and teaching but in His office and work--in His atoning Cross and Resurrection...there He is the Son of God with power. His spirituality is evangelical. It is moral power so radical and revolutionary that it is regenerative and nothing less. He is the Christ of the Holy Father, not as the Ideal of the pure, but as the Savior of the lost. What makes Christ Christ is what He did as His life's crowning work; not how He was born or grew up, not even what He said and did from day to day--except as such words and deeds take their consummation, and have their last meaning, in His condensed word and summary work of the Cross." ~ The Church and the Sacraments, pg. 33

2009 © Dr. Charles Revis, ABC Northwest
[This article is from Dr. Revis’ blog, www.missionnorthwest.blogspot.com]