Thoughts on “Christ crucified” and the gospel according to Jesus and Paul

Recently I was listening to a pastor describing the gospel in the predominant Reformed fashion as the message that sinners are absolved of guilt because Christ died in order to allow God to punish sin without condemning vile, sinful humanity (at least those of us who are fortunate enough to be among the elect). Under this rubric, “the cross” becomes shorthand for “the way in which Christ received our justly deserved penalty and condemnation”, the so-called penal substitution theory of the atonement. At one point this pastor used Paul’s insistence that he preached nothing but “Christ crucified” as evidence that Paul preached the gospel as defined above.

Have you ever heard that? Someone claiming that the gospel is all Christians need to focus on, all that’s necessary, the only thing we have any business preaching (I do not intend to challenge these assertions here), and in the same breath asserting that “the gospel” means “God punished Jesus in our stead”? Downplaying our utter wickedness and the fact that we deserve to rot in hell for eternity (or even just be consumed) and a primary focus on the ethics of Christianity are seen as tantamount to rejecting the gospel of Christ.

The question that sprang to my mind as I heard the aforementioned pastor, eventually prompting this post, was whether Paul’s phrase “Christ crucified” in 1 Corinthians 1-2 in any way depends upon or implies penal substitution. I believe the answer is a resounding no, so resounding that answering either yes or the more modest yes and no present the danger of propping up a massive distraction from the important message Paul was trying to convey.

The contextual thrust of the passage in which “Christ crucified” is found is unequivocal: Paul is attempting to correct a fundamentally incorrect attitude in the church, an attitude that was hardly unique to Corinth or the first century. He is displeased to have learned that factions have sprung up in the church at Corinth, a faction of Apollos, a faction of Paul, and – with no exemption from criticism – a faction of Christ. Appealing first to those who set themselves up as his followers, he calls attention to the basis of his own leadership, which was not power or eloquence, but humility.

“For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.” (1.17)

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Building cliques around leadership meant calling attention away from the very power source of the “cross of Christ”, namely, submission. That was counter-intuitive to be sure, but…

“…it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.'” (1.19)

It is this immediate context in which the assertion that “we proclaim Christ crucified” is first made:

“‘…but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (1.23-25)

Nowhere present here or within this entire passage is so much as a passing mention of the wrath of God justly levied against our utterly depraved state. The focus is somewhere else entirely: for Paul, this principle of inversion, the reversal of strong/weak, wise/foolish is a thoroughgoing program, the hallmark and curriculum of the Kingdom.

“Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.” (1.26-29; cf. Philippians 2)

Paul appeals to his own example of self-abasement in the interests of others as the only possible basis for his credibility, which basis simultaneously disqualifies him from exaltation:

“…I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling.” (2.1-3)

“For when one says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ and another, ‘I belong to Apollos,’ are you not merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each.” (3.4-5)

“So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future–all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God. Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.” (3.21-4.1)

Both to those who uphold and who question his authority, Paul repeats his insistence throughout chapters 1 through 3 (as indeed in various places throughout both letters to the Corinthians) that he wielded a leadership exercised only through and valid only because of his submission, sacrifice, and willingness to be persecuted. It’s a sustained, focused argument: Paul’s focus on the message of a crucified Messiah was intended to show his own Christ-like, “cruciform” bona fides.

When we hear “Christ crucified”, we should avoid losing the focus and intent of that phrase in Paul’s argument. For Paul, Christ’s crucifixion was the exemplar of submission and self-sacrifice, paradigmatic of the whole new world order over which Christ has been made king (again cf. Philippians 2, and also see here). If one insists that “Christ crucified” is the gospel, then at very least the gospel must be defined not as “God punished Jesus in our stead” 1 but as “the Messiah has through self-abasement become Lord of all.”

However, even framing it that way is anachronistic, for the same reason that it should be manifestly clear that the message of the gospel could not be “that Christ received our justly deserved punishment and condemnation”: the gospel long predates Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus preached the good news of the Kingdom of God from the very beginning of his ministry, and we have absolutely no reason to believe that his own future death was the subject of his main message. The good news, the gospel, was of the coming of the Kingdom of God, an original conception of which was anticipated by other sects of Judaism before him and found its roots in the canonical Old Testament (e.g. Isaiah 40.4-5). Jesus took up the mantle to fulfill those hopes: the oppressed would be vindicated and the oppressors laid low. Originally, and even in the first century, this eschatological corrective was envisaged as taking place by the restoration of national Israel’s political fortunes. However, it seems that the earliest Christians saw in Jesus a Messiah, a divine restorative agent, who did not overcome might with might, but with self-sacrifice.

No one searching for Paul’s unity with the teachings of Jesus should miss this unifying, early Christian motivating vision of the reign of God: mutual submission and voluntary servanthood is at the heart of the Kingdom of which Christ is king. Interestingly, here we find one of the least disputable indications of the content of the historical Jesus’ teachings, since this principle of inversion not only dominates the first few chapters of 1 Corinthians, the earliest known Christian writing, but also features prominently in the Synoptics (and, for what it’s worth, the Gospel of Thomas as well).


1 Despite my oft stated misgivings with the doctrine, I do not mean to claim that there is no trace of the idea of penal substitution intimated or implied within Paul’s writings. However, the frequent use of the expression “Christ crucified” as a proof that Paul thought the core of Christian soteriology to be God’s wrath against sin appeased through punishing Jesus is surely wrong-headed. For if Jesus was exalted to lordship for accepting the cup, what part would that person play who demands satisfaction for wrongs done him –even if that person was God Himself? Would he not be the last, the lowest, the least Christ-like? Jesus would not in that case be exemplifying the Father to humanity, but showing Him up.

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