As we ponder the meaning of the gospel, its perhaps appropriate that we focus into what is arguably the key event in the Christian story: the suffering and ultimate death of Jesus on the Roman cross. Yes, I know lots of other things are important too (his birth, his life, his teaching, his resurrection, his ascension to name a few!), but we can't get away from the fact that his death is a major theme, not only in his own understanding of his mission, but in later writers such as Paul, John, and the author of Hebrews.
Recently there has been a bit of a fuss made over the evangelical doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement, a doctrine which basically means that Jesus suffered and died for us and instead of us. Leading evangelical Steve Chalke in particular has been accused of blasphemy and charged with abandoning the gospel.
So it seems its important to have the right view of the cross, or rather, the Wright view. N T Wright, who is the best theologian I have ever read, and probably one of the finest in the world, has weighed in on this important and controversial topic. In typical Wright style his essay is long and wordy, but definitely worth a read if you are into this sort of thing. For those without 30 mins to spare, I'll give you some highlights:
In going to the cross, Jesus acted out his own version of the total story, according to which Israel, represented by himself, must be the people in and through whom the creator God would deal with the evil of the world and of humankind. The cross, as the execution of Israel's Messiah outside Jerusalem at the hands of the pagans, was thus the great summation of Israel's exile, which was itself the fulfilment and completion of the ambiguous and tragic story of Israel as a whole. At the same time, the cross was the supreme achievement of Israel's God, returning to Zion as he had promised, to deal with his people's sins and their consequences.
It is to be observed . . . that in the New Testament the "love" and the "wrath" of God in relation to sin and forgiveness are closely connected, and that is an important sense in which the assertion of God's "wrath" against sin is the indispensable presupposition of any properly Christian doctrine of forgiveness. There can be no forgiveness where there is indifference towards either the offender or the offence.
The Cross is a satisfaction for sin in so far as the moral order of the universe makes it impossible that human souls should be redeemed from sin except at a cost. Of this cost the death on the Cross is the expression ... Thus the Cross is a "propitiation" and "expiation" for the sins of the whole world [*]
The biblical doctrine of God's wrath is rooted in the doctrine of God as the good, wise and loving creator, who hates - yes, hates, and hates implacably - anything that spoils, defaces, distorts or damages his beautiful creation, and in particular anything that does that to his image-bearing creatures... If God is love, he must utterly reject, and ultimately deal with, all that pollutes, distorts and destroys his world and his image-bearing creatures.
There are so many more great bits, but you must simply read the article itself. I'll finish with a quote regarding this whole Steve Chalke nonsense:
There are several forms of the doctrine of penal substitution, and some are more biblical than others...[Steve Chalke believes that] on the cross, as an expression of God's love, Jesus took into and upon himself the full force of all the evil around him, in the knowledge that if he bore it we would not have to; but this, which amounts to a form of penal substitution, is quite different from other forms of penal substitution, such as the mediaeval model of a vengeful father being placated by an act of gratuitous violence against his innocent son.
[*] N.B. : Peter Kirk has argued against this quote, which came from a previous Anglican report on the atonement (a report which was quoted in Wright's article, but probably does not represent Wright's own viewpoint). Check out his blog here, and if I get time I will try to figure out what is this debate is really about.