Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection is the central event in the Christian story. What we believe about what happens in this short period shapes everything else we believe. Little has been more confusing for many Christians than what happened when Jesus died.
When Jesus is on the cross, he cries out
My God, My God! Why have you forsaken me?
What did Jesus mean when he called out those words? How we answer that question informs a lot of what we believe: who we understand God to be, what our relationship with God looks like, how we live out our faith in the world.
Many Christians have heard that Jesus’ statement means that the Trinity was broken in these moments. That God the Son became sin, so God the Father abandoned him. That because Jesus became our sin on the Cross, the Father poured all his wrath onto Jesus (instead of us), so now God can love us because his wrath has been satisfied.
All of those statements are completely, dangerously wrong.
In his excellent new book Forsaken, theology professor and pastor Thomas McCall comes to the Cross, arriving with a robust, fully-formed and orthodox Trinitarian theology. Looking at Jesus’ death through the lens of the Trinity helps us to understand the God who rescues us more fully.
Dr. McCall arranges the book with four questions that take us through his argument clearly and succinctly:
1. Was the Trinity Broken?
In a word, No. McCall boils some complex and often-confusing theological positions on the nature of the Trinity down to accessible, understandable concepts. Because God is fundamentally Love, because God is essentially relational, McCall argues that
If the being of God is a relational being, and if the relationships are sundered, then surely there is no God at all.
To say that the Trinity is divided is to say that God ceases to be God. To say that any one person of the Trinity ceases to be God is to claim that all persons in the Trinity cease to be God.
As McCall concludes:
The works of God in creation and redemption are always undivided, and the Son’s communion with the Father is unblemished.
2. Did the Death of Jesus Make it Possible for God to Love Me?
An important issue in dealing with the Crucifixion is the relationship between divine Love and divine Wrath. As McCall notes, we often pit these against each other to the extent that Jesus the (loving) Son is in tension with God the (wrathful) Father.
Having established that the Trinity is always and fully undivided in the last chapter, McCall is able to go on to show that
The Son does not love me and bless me while the Father hates me and curses me (or would like to do so, and would do so, if not for the presence of the Son between us). Rather, it is God who is for us.
Working carefully through exactly what divine Love and Wrath are (and what they are not), McCall demonstrates that these attributes are never in conflict. Rather, God’s Love (the essence of who God is), is the foundation of God’s wrath.
God’s wrath is God’s judgment of sin, but it is a judgment in which God asserts that he is the God of the sinner and that the sinner is God’s creature… Holy love is the "source" of God’s righteous wrath. Wrath is not essential to God’s nature; God would be God without it. In short, God doesn’t love us because Jesus died for us. God died for us because God loves us.
3. Was the Death of Jesus a Meaningless Tragedy?
Obviously, McCall answers No. But this chapter is really an exploration of how Jesus atoned for our Sin. McCall explores all three major models of Atonement – Penal Substitution, Christus Victor and Moral Influence. After carefully defining each theory, McCall weaves all three together. He claims that we can’t discard any of them without missing some vital aspect of what Jesus’ death accomplished.
As the sin offering, Christ makes satisfaction for our sin and guilt. As the one who gives himself away, Christ shows us how to live a life pleasing to God in the power of the Spirit. As the one who wins the decisive victory for us in his death and resurrection, Christ defeats the enslaving powers of sin.
4. Does it Make a Difference?
Rightly observing that most discussions on the Cross center on what we were saved from (justification), McCall reminds us that we were also saved for:
Forensic justification, important and precious though it is, is not and cannot be the whole sum of the gospel message… It is impossible to read Scripture carefully and come away with the conviction that God’s only (or even primary) purpose is to change our legal status.
McCall is talking about Sanctification, the process by which we are made holy. With language as clear and compelling as it’s been throughout the book, McCall dispels the legalism that often accompanies discussions of sanctification.
This final chapter is a wonderful summary of themes McCall sketches throughout the book. Sanctification is God inviting us into the holy, Trinitarian love that is God’s essence. We are not just saved from Sin and Death, we are also saved for Life.
Bottom Line: Though it’s a bit technical, Forsaken deserves to be read carefully and discussed thoroughly. It’s an excellent reminder of who God actually is, and a helpful corrective to a lot of the bad theology that’s out there.
YOUR TURN: Have you explored theological categories like justification and sanctification? What experience have you had with these concepts?
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free for review purposes from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”