The Scandal of Telling the World that They are Lost: The Scandal of No More Death Penalty
"Consider the Noahic covenant: The death penalty mentioned in Genesis 9 was not merely an a-religious means of maintaining law-order.... The cross has eliminated all sacrifices because no sacrifice is left except Christ Exclusively (Hebrews 9, 10).... Human sacrifices by means of the death penalty are abrogated...." Mark McCulley, Studies in History and Ethics (1982), p. 68.
We have with us today a brand of holiness which falls far short of radical conformity to the politics of Jesus. Assuming that the only way to become involved is through traditional politics like voting, pious "nonresistants" warn us against any "particularly Christian" concern with material realities. I think there are two major reasons for this failure: (1) a refusal to take seriously other people's profession to be Christian; and (2) a sacred/secular distinction which assumes that the Cross has nothing to say about the death penalty.
We are warned that it is foolish "to attempt to persuade the unsaved to live like Christians. They cannot do it." We are even told that "the job of the sinner is to sin." Therefore, the sinners are to fight wars and execute the death penalty instead of us who are Christians. This is a strange kind of substitutionary double-ethic. Of course God does ordain that non-Christians will "take our place" in doing the necessary "dirty" work, but that is no reason for us to Approve what they do or to call what they do good or "Christian". The "hyperCalvinist" who assumes that the pagan "inability" to understand and obey Jesus is somehow an excuse ends up thinking like an Arminian when it comes to "responsibility and ability".
We need to tell the religious world (including Arminians and academic Calvinists) that they are lost. When they assure us that "Christ died for me" because "Christ died for everybody", we need to tell them the truth that Christ died only for the elect and not for the reprobate. We don't tell them that in order for them to figure out before they believe the gospel if they are elect. Rather, we tell them this so that they will know what the gospel is and so we can command and invite them to believe on Christ instead of the god of their own making.
We do not tell them that they are lost without telling them why. When we tell them what the gospel is, they will soon understand that we think they are lost. And they will be offended. People don't mind being told that they are sinners. They DO very much object to being told that they are lost, and that their religion is idolatry.
The false gospel says that you must believe in order to receive salvation. The true gospel says that you must first be given salvation in order to believe in Christ as He is described in the gospel. The false gospel says that we come with our sins and give our sins to the Son. The true gospel says that the Father gave the sins of the elect to the Son and that all these elect will be given hands to receive.
The false gospel still has God trying to give something away. The true gospel says that God has given, does give, and will give the elect not only the Son but everything else, including faith and receiving. (Romans 8:32)
Saying that you are saved because YOU "renounced your works" is just as much of an abomination to God as saying that you are saved because of works. As long as the Calvinist says that the difference between him and the Arminian is not as important as saved and lost, that Calvinist is right: because that Calvinist is still lost! There is only one true gospel, but many false gospels, and many different standards of saved and lost. All these false gospels are ignorant and un submitted to the righteousness of God. There is no robe at God's feast for those to whom God does not give a robe of righteousness.
When a vast majority of a society thinks of itself as Christian, as our American society does, we need to treat that claim seriously. My atheist friends are certainly convinced that America is a Christian society. Think of our next door neighbors, whether Roman Catholic, mainline Protestant, Arminian or legalist: if we are really so suspicious that they aren't Christian, why haven't we shared our concerns with them and given them the reasons why we don't believe them when they say that they're Christian. Or is our "non-resistance" only a cover for indifference to our neighbor?
The Great Commission says that all authority on earth has been given to Jesus Christ, and that we are to make disciples, baptizing them, and teaching them to obey everything Jesus commanded. In other words, we are go to the world with the power of the gospel which can change idolaters into saints. Most who profess to be Christians are not Christians indeed. Let us be bold enough to tell them that and to tell them why. But we must be careful not to give anybody, no matter what their confession or profession, an excuse for not acting like Jesus. We say either, "you've been baptized, you can't kill" or "killing's wrong, believe the gospel, then be baptized and then stop killing".
One problem is a sacred/secular distinction which assumes that the Cross has nothing to say about killing. Under this distinction, we think the Cross is ONLY about God being just and the justifier, and therefore NOT about us not killing. We think that our killing is justified (apart from Christ) and therefore not something we need to have forgiven. As Plato separated the form from the particulars, as the Gnostic separated the spirit from the material, most of us still have an orderly picture of the world which depends on dividing religion and politics, soul and body. There is in our minds a neat and tidy difference between Jesus dying as the substitute for the elect on the Cross, and the victims killed by secular wars and secular death penalties.
Our indifference to "secular" victims is built on a sacred/secular dichotomy which misreads the Gospel accounts that tell us who Jesus was and what Jesus did. That is why we are so silly as to think that Jesus only spoke out to Jewish religious authority but not to Roman civil authority. And that Jesus is the new priest but not the new lawgiver.
Thus we ignore the political power and collaboration of the Jewish religious leaders; and we overlook the religious idolatry of the Romans. We fail to see that it was a collaboration of religion and politics that made Jesus a victim, just as it was a collaboration of the politicians and professing Christians who declared "just" the bombing and killing of professing Christians in Iraq.
Even though Jesus rejected the political kingdoms offered by Satan, Jesus did not retreat from His kingdom and His call for repentance. Beginning in Galilee, he proclaimed the nearness of his kingdom. Jesus refused to confine himself to the spiritual. In healing bodies, Jesus freed people from their overwhelming debts to the "sacred" temple and thus angered the teachers of the law. Were these teachers religious or political?
Reading of the Gospels shows us that our neat sacred/secular difference will not work. In his "religious" mission to tie up the strong man, Jesus was resisted by his biological family and finally was killed not by spiritual demons but by the Roman legions. John the Baptist also was killed by politicians. How then can we continue to assert that his preaching was only spiritual?
In condemning Herod's political alliance through marriage, John the Baptist was turned into a sacred sacrifice to the anger of Herodias. John the Baptist was telling Herod what not to desire. And the more he preached, the more Herod desired to acquire, the greater the war against John and those like John who followed Jesus. And so Herodias taught Salome to desire the head of John, and so the teachers of the law taught Pilate to desire the death of Jesus. And the politics and the religion won't separate out so clean as many of us want to read it.
As Moses led Israel on a political exodus from Egypt, Jesus walked on the water and led his disciples away from the sacred violence of the temple and of the Romans. "Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod." Mk 8:15 Watch for both religion and politics, and don't think that religion is not political or that the political is not religious. After all, they got together to kill Jesus.
Who do we say Jesus is? Somebody who gave blood only as our great high priest and didn't get involved in prophetic kingly politics? Or somebody who was so involved and active that the religious politicians murdered him? Does it matter to us HOW Jesus happened to die? Do we even care that he was murdered as a criminal?
Does submitting to the gospel of imputed righteousness (this one rule of the cross! Gla 6:14-16)mean only that we affirm a more "precise" theology and a separatistic "spiritual" non-active ethic? Or does the Cross mean that the world is crucified to us, and we to the world? Are even our politics is to be transfigured by our new King so that we reject any other sacrifices? What kind of "salt" are we anyway, if by voting or by silence we assent to the wars and death penalties of a pagan society that still pretends to be Christian when it goes to war or kills a criminal?
Our sacred/secular distinction may give us an illusion of peace and order. As we read the Gospel of Jesus, we bracket out what we don't want to imitate. But Jesus does not attempt to reform the Temple and silently approve the killing of the Romans. Jesus attacks scapegoating at its root: when we pray for forgiveness, we cannot if we hold anything against anyone. The elect are not forgiven because they are more "forgivable". The salvation of elect sinners is not conditioned on the elect. This means that the elect should not now behave as if their forgiveness of others (even the criminal and the reprobate) is conditioned on those others. The elect have no right to hold a grudge. The elect have no rights. The elect have been judged, and the judgment is that the sins of the elect demanded the death of the elect. As the elect rejoice in death by imputation, they have no calling and no liberty to put anybody else to death.
Mk 11:24 To not hold anything against anyone is not only the end of killing but the end of religion and politics as we know it. Of course, the teachers of the law challenged the authority of Jesus to teach such a Gospel. They could see that the Cross meant the end of law and order and religion as sinners naturally invent those things. The gospel of the cross is not only about the end of legal fears in "getting saved" but also the end of legal fears in living the Christian life.
In Mark 13, Jesus prophesies that the sun will be darkened, and that at that time people will see the Son of Man coming. In this way he points ahead to the revelation of God that took place at the Cross -- at the sixth hour darkness came and the curtain of the temple was torn. And for those of us who have eyes to see, there is no more legitimacy for either animal or human sacrifices.
But we defend ourselves against Jesus, saying, "We don't believe in sacrifices anymore. But we do believe in the death penalty not as redemptive or expiation, but as a deterrent and as a sacred duty. We do believe that the final judgment of works will consider not only one's state of justification or condemnation but also 'factor in' works and we who did more will get more."
"Blood calls for blood." So why did God protect Cain? "Blood calls for blood." So why does the blood of Jesus speak a better word than the blood of Abel? At the last supper, all the disciples dipped bread with him and they all betrayed him. But instead of demanding blood, Jesus said, "This is my blood."
The disciples still thought he was going to be their messianic hero, the instrument of their resentment against all the sinners who had been in power so long. Instead of watching and praying with Jesus, one of them even took out his sword. And at the end, when we are told that Jesus is alive again and going ahead of us (into Galilee), we are still tempted not to follow. We are offended, even we who have submitted to the cross and to that righteousness established at the cross. The Spirit of Truth fights our flesh.
"Trembling and bewildered, we flee, saying nothing to anyone, because we are afraid." Mk 16:8
Jesus being killed instead of killing is both the establishment and the revelation of the righteousness of God. The Cross is something we are still not prepared to take seriously. We think "taking it seriously" means "taking it legalistically". So that we ask: ok, now what do I have to do to prove to myself that I am one of those for whom Christ died? But taking the cross seriously means that the Cross is our one and only rule, so that we judge everything by the gospel. Do we believe in the imputed righteousness when we behave in churches and in our lives as if other Christians cannot be sinners (at least not against us!)?
We want the Cross to be only God's way of justice and salvation. But we don't see that the cross was the greatest demonstration not only of God's wrath but of HUMAN WRATH against God'S GOSPEL.
And what we don't see about the Cross is related to our tolerance and pluralism in regard to the false gospel of our neighbors. Only by the grace of God will we avoid the self-righteousness of accepting the false gospel as a "basic" (dumbed down) version of the gospel, so that we begin to think the cross is not the only difference. WE after all "have a strong grasp on" the doctrine of God's sovereignty. WE after all are more moral and orderly than some other people we know.
Perhaps we are afraid of the social tension Jesus provoked, the controversy that resulted in Jesus being killed. We flee from it. We want no part of anything that hints of the political. Thus we excuse not only ourselves but also our Arminian neighbors who profess to be Christian. We say that we don't want to offend. But aren't we really just afraid? Yes, but if we are elect, not so much that we will not also (along with the fear) confess with our mouths what God has put in our hearts -- that the only hope we have (and anybody has) is not our killing, and not our not killing, but only the Death of Christ for the elect.
Copyright © 2000 by Mark McCulley. All rights reserved.