The Narrative Arc of Christ’s Saving Work


Early on in his masterful book The Cross of Christ John Stott quotes Emil Brunner’s statement:

“The Cross is the sign of the Christian faith, of the Christian church, of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ…. He who understands the Cross aright—this is the opinion of the Reformers—understand the Bible, he understands Jesus Christ” (44).

To my mind, this emphasis on the primacy of the cross is healthy and biblical. The cross is the center of our salvation and the heart of our faith. There is always, however, the danger of centrality morphing into exclusivity, such that the periphery becomes hidden from view. After all, Jesus did more to save us than simply die. If that were all that was necessary, He might have simply beamed down to earth on Maundy Thursday—or for that matter early Friday morning—died on the cross, and then immediately came back to life and ascended to heaven before sunset. All in a day’s work. If the mere event of death on a cross is all that matters, this arrangement would be much more convenient and could avoid 30 wasted years beforehand and 40 pointless days afterwards.

Of course, one might argue that the rest of Jesus’ life (incarnate + glorified) matters, but not for the purposes of salvation. That is roughly what Stott comes to in The Cross of Christ (see especially pages 232-234). But it feels a bit awkward for the events and meaning of Jesus’ life to be so pulled apart: as though one could discard the majority of the raw data without losing any of the significance. I also wonder if such a view obscures some of the nuances in the New Testament regarding Christ’s saving work. Take Christ’s resurrection, for instance: Paul says Christ was “raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25); Peter twice attributes saving efficacy to the resurrection (I Peter 1:3, 3:21); and the apostles’ preaching in Acts proclaims Christ’s resurrection as the fulfillment of the Davidic covenant (2:30-32, 13:30-37), the cause of the Spirit’s coming (2:33), and present proof of future judgment (17:31). This doesn’t sound like the resurrection is simply there, as Stott puts it, “to confirm the efficacy of his death, as the incarnation had been to prepare for its possibility” (233).

I want to keep the cross at the center because I think the cross is the direct causal agent of atonement, the reconciliation of God and sinful, repentant human beings. However, there is more to our salvation than atonement (for instance, glorification of our bodies)—and even atonement would be ineffectual without the broader work of Christ. Take Christ’s resurrection again: in recent years there has been a renewed appreciation of the saving and eschatological significance of Christ’s resurrection, as opposed to its mere historical/apologetical importance. Richard Gaffin’s Resurrection and Redemption is particularly helpful on this point, showing that not even atonement is complete without the resurrection.

Could we broaden our focus even further? What about the rest of Jesus’ earthly and heavenly life? How do maintain the centrality of the cross, while at the same time not sidelining other valid and biblical aspects of our salvation? On the one hand, we don’t want to so centralize his crucifixion that we simply have nothing to say about his temptation or his transfiguration, his representation or his return. On the other hand, we we don’t want to so flatten out the narrative that Christ’s crucifixion loses its central, dramatic significance.

What we need, I think, is a balanced focus on the broader narrative as well as the cross (or, as we might cash it out, the cross and resurrection together) as the crucial turning point within that narrative. Just as in a novel, the entire story is important: but the climax of the plot has special significance. In fact, the climax makes no sense without its narrative context, and the narrative serves to build up to the climax. They have a reciprocal relationship. In other words, what we need is to explore other “moments” in Jesus’ saving work, but always in relation to the cross (or cross/empty tomb).

In an effort at stimulating more thought about the broader narrative arc of Christ’s saving work, here are 6 other “moments” in Jesus’ saving work that tend to sometimes get short shrift (and even this is not an exhaustive list).

van_hornthorst_adoration_children_800x5831) Christ’s incarnation and (virgin) birth

God’s assumption of a human body is itself a saving event. In fact, the early church tended to put the emphasis on the incarnation more so than Christ’s death as such (though they did not divorce the two). I remember reading through medieval liturgy when studying ecclesiastical Latin and being struck by this point again and again. Perhaps that is partly why Christmas has always been a more dominant holiday within Christendom than Good Friday and Easter. I’ve got the shell of an article sketched out exploring the question, “is the incarnation itself a saving event, or does it merely prepare for the saving stuff?” Theologians like Irenaeus and Athanasius and Anselm would say both: the incarnation prepares for Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension, but as an event in itself it also reconstitutes and glorifies human nature. I find this an intriguing idea, partly because I can’t fathom that the union of divinity and humanity in one person would have zero saving influence on the rest of humanity, and partly because of that often neglected story in the synoptics, the transfiguration. The transfiguration shows that Christ’s human body was unique even before his resurrection—or better stated, that his resurrection was the organic completion of the incarnation, not the imposition of some alien glory onto Jesus. To my mind, this suggests that everything we say about the dramatic significance of Christ’s resurrection cannot be divorced completely from his incarnation.

2) Christ’s sinless life.

I think Christ’s sinless life is a huge piece of his saving work, partly because I hold to the notion of imputation and see Christ’s life as the fulfillment of the law in both its active and passive dimensions, credited to believers at their conversion. But even beyond imputation, one has to ask whether there is any sense of Christ’s righteous example and his recapitulation of Adam and Israel’s failure (say, in his wilderness temptation) can be considered within the scope of his saving work. If for no other reason, Christ’s obedience life is saving because it was of one organic piece with his atoning death and impossible to separate from it. Indeed, Christ’s dying on the cross was simply part of his sinless obedience (at one point in time did “sinless life” end and “atoning death” begin?). So Luther spoke of Christ’s death as one “moment” of a larger “exchange,” and Calvin claimed:

“now someone asks, how has Christ abolished sin, banished the separation between us and God, and acquired righteousness to render God favorable and kindly toward us? To this we can in general reply that he has achieved this for us by the whole course of his obedience…. From the time when he took on the form of a servant, he began to pay the price of liberation in order to redeem us” (Institutes 2.16.3).

3) Christ’s burial.

If we take it as a presupposition that the facts of atonement are connected to its meaning, that the significance and the narrative go along together and interpret one another, we may ask questions like, “why was it important for Christ to actually die, and not merely suffer the wrath of God on a cross for a few hours?” “Why was it important for there to be a sequence of time between his death and resurrection (3 days), rather than for him to just die and then instantaneously come back to life?” Once again its interesting to read the medieval theologians on this question. They basically argued that salvation must be as wide as sin, and must therefore deal with not just sin itself but its consequences, like guilt and death. I think that is right. With a slight twist on the classical dictum from Gregory “that which is not assumed is not healed,” one could possibly assert, “that which is not experienced is not atoned for.” As our substitute and representative, Jesus has to substitute Himself into the experience, not merely of guilt and God-forsakenness, but of consequent spiritual and physical death. Like an antidote that must be infected with the disease to kill it, Jesus must be himself conquered by death to in turn conquer it. Death cannot hold the One who is “the life” (John 14:6), and therefore, when he enters into the state of death, it starts “working backwards,” as C.S. Lewis put it in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. He beats it from the inside out.

empty-tomb4) Christ’s resurrection.

Christ’s resurrection receives a lot of focus, but its usually in regards to its historical reliability or apologetic use. People frequently quote I Corinthians 15:17 and insist that without the resurrection we have no hope, but we don’t explore as frequently why the resurrection is so essential. What is its theological meaning? What import does it have for our everyday lives? I explore three aspects of the soteriological significance of the resurrection in my 2011 JETS article, and people could give it a glance if they are interested in this topic.

5) Christ’s ascension and heavenly session

Christ’s ascension to heaven, and ascended in life in heaven, is part of his current saving work. John Owen put great stress on the fact that Jesus’ ascended life is still a human, bodily life: “but that he is still in the human nature he had on earth, that he has the same rational soul and the same body, is a fundamental article of the Christian faith” (The Glory of Christ). Why is Christ’s ascended life so important? For starters, in his ascended life Christ intercedes for believers (Romans 8:34, Hebrews 7:25, I John 2:1-2), He rules the nations and advances his kingdom as the promised Davidic king (Acts 2:30-31), and He sends the Spirit to convict unbelievers of the truth of the gospel and equip His church (Acts 2:33, John 16:7-11, Ephesians 4:7-8). At this moment, therefore, and all throughout church history, Jesus is engaged in saving activity.

6) Christ’s second coming

Christ’s second coming is portrayed in the New Testament as a saving event (e.g., Hebrews 9:28), and indeed the completion of our salvation. But interestingly, some reformed theologians like Bavinck held that Christ will continue to function in a mediatorial role between God and glorified humanity even after this point. As the second member of the Trinity will always be the God-man (the incarnation was a permanent divine movement), so Christ’s mediatorial role between infinite God and finite humanity will continue into eternity. Bavink acknowledged that Christ’s “mediatorship of reconciliation” will discontinue in the new earth, but nevertheless held that his “mediatorship of union” will continue for all eternity. “Those who would deny this must also arrive at the doctrine that the Son will at some point in the future shed and destroy his human nature; and for this there is no scriptural ground whatever” (Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 3, 482).

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  1. Great post! I am planning an upcoming youth group retreat on seeing Jesus as King, and this will help immensely.

    Quick question: Where would you place Christ’s proclamation of the kingdom in this arc? Pointing to the resurrection, the present reality of heavenly session, or glimpse of the second coming?

  2. This is a great article. “That which is not assumed is not healed” is an excellent dictum that doesn’t even need to be re-worded in my opinion. Having ministered in a traditionally Eastern Orthodox country for years I can share two things: (a) Holy Saturday is a big deal in Orthodoxy and Christ’s entombment is reinforced year after year in an evening service acknowledging the totality of his death [and this is good]), and (b) Easter is bigger than Christmas, at least in the Orthodox countries I’ve been in. In fact, in some Slavic languages (not all), Easter is “The Great Day” (in others it’s simply “Resurrection Day”). Local sayings reinforce this with “Every day can’t be Easter,” and so on. This is also good. Some of the good things about being a Protestant missionary in such a context is to happily affirm so many of the right things that Orthodoxy has emphasized, and then spurring/challenging the committed Orthodox devotee on to a full-orbed faith by sharing the contributions of the Reformation. Your larger point that the cross of Christ should not obscure his life, his burial, or his resurrection is one that I would say is already appreciated among those Orthodox who take Christology seriously.