Jesus’ death is all about me (part 1)

In Turnov. Taken by Amy Jacober.

Christ on the Cross, Turnov

“The life of Christ is just extra, it’s what He did on the cross that really matters.”

This is what a graduate student said…out loud…in class to me earlier this year. I hardly knew how to respond and thought that, a) surely I misheard, or, b) surely he did not realize the implications of what he was saying.

Not only was I stunned that he said this, but also that only one student in the entire class seemed to have any problem with it. In fact, I began to listen closely for this idea, and it seems that, in class after class, this is where the students I’m encountering are landing. The problem with this idea is that most aren’t thinking through the implications of what they are saying when they embrace death on the cross as the only meaningful action of God incarnate.

In that original encounter, I asked this student about the resurrection. Was the resurrection significant? Nope. He went on to say that we should focus more on the cross. The resurrection was just the natural progression of events since Jesus was deity. The real action was on the cross. This student honestly didn’t care if he knew anything else about Jesus, that this would be all he needed. He noted that while he was raised marginally within the church, he has recently come to learn that it was the crucifixion of Christ that allowed him the blessing of being a Christian. This newfound understanding perhaps contributes to his enthusiasm for this idea, but in no way explains the short-sited adherence to a crucifixion-only theology.

Probing again, I tried asking about the passion week, the Lord’s Supper, the tradition of the via dolorosa, even Jesus’ statements from the cross, anything else. He was adamant. It was the death of Jesus on the cross, and only the death of Jesus on the cross that mattered. The rest are nice stories that offer insights, but all point back to this one moment. Breath to no breath. Life to the absence of life. Presence to absence.

He spoke of his great desire to share this “good news,” that Jesus died for others. In fact, he said that a crucifixion-only theology could encompass all evangelism and apologetics. It was merely about the intellectual acceptance of the significance of the crucifixion. It was all about doctrine and believing this one point. The rest, from his perspective, didn’t matter.

But why hang your hat here? What was the rationale or motivation to ignore the larger context of Jesus’ death and resurrection, life, or incarnation?

Here’s my theory. This crucifixion-only theology allowed this student to focus on and elevate the notion of what he received (or receives) in this encounter. By Jesus’ death, our sins are forgiven. That is the story we’ve shared with one another. And it is true. But in this sound-byte culture, the rest of the meme gets lost.

So everything becomes about how one’s sins are forgiven and we are released into a life of freedom. The crucifixion becomes a personal catharsis. Where I leave my baggage behind. This is the good news the student shares. Come to Jesus. Leave your baggage. And go on your merry way.

Without the resurrection, or at least the insistence of the resurrection’s significance, there is no awareness of the reconciliation of humanity to God. No awareness of our need for ongoing discipleship. No awareness of my need, and privilege, to grow closer to the Creator of the Universe, the great and power and personal God.

A crucifixion-only theology places the emphasis on the bill that is paid. Jesus covered the cost, and so I no longer have to. A crucifixion-only theology is really about me and what I get. It is an intellectual assent to yet another idea that I can consume.

God sent his Son in order to reconcile humanity to himself. As such, I get to enter into relationship with God with a clean slate. Yes, Jesus paid the cost for my sins so to speak. But that is the beginning of the story. Not the end.

I’ve just got way too much anabaptist in me to be OK with anyone saying the life of Jesus doesn’t matter, but that will come in the second half of this post later this week.

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About Amy Jacober

Amy Jacober (PhD, Fuller Seminary) is a youth ministry veteran with ministry and teaching experience. She focuses on practical theology, urban ministry, theology & disability, and marginalized communities. She is a volunteer youth worker in her church and community, lead consultant with Youth Ministry Architects and serves on the Young Life Capernaum national board. In her free time she can be found playing with her three young children, husband, and oversized dog.