Can a Lutheran say, "My sin killed Jesus"? Or is it better to say, "The wrath of God the Father killed Jesus on the cross"?
The question was posed by a fellow pastor on Facebook a few days back and stirred up a few answers from various people. Here is my response: If my sin did not kill Jesus then the Gospel is null and void. Not only is this statement "ok", it is a necessary aspect of the proclimation of God's Word.
The concern raised by several pastors was that by placing the blame for Jesus' death upon my sin I might be attempting to take some credit for the redemption of the cross. This is, of course, not the case as anyone could easily tell you. Saying that my sin caused the death of Jesus does not give me any credit from the positive effects of that death and more then saying that my drunkenness killed three innocent bystanders gives me credit for the foundation started by their family to combat drunk driving. When I say that my sin killed Jesus I am accepting nothing other than the guilt of his murder.
There are two Scriptural points that I would like to make here.
First, Peter clearly places the blame for the crucifixion of Jesus upon the people of Israel in his preaching in the opening chapters of Acts.
"Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified." Acts 2:36
"The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him. But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and you killed the Author of Life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses." Acts 3:13-15
Here Peter asserts that his hearers killed Jesus. Peter is not, however, preaching to anyone directly involved with the crucifixion. His audience is not the Roman soldiers who drove in the nails, nor is it the priests, scribes, elders, and Pharisees who condemned Jesus to death. He preaches to common hearers, some of whom were nowhere near Jerusalem on Good Friday. (Acts 2:8-12)
More than this, Peter indites "all the house of Israel". It is not merely the Jews close at hand, but all the people of God, all the descendents of Abraham, who bear the guilt and shame of Jesus' death.
Second, peppered throughout Paul's letter to the Romans, and stated explicitly in chapter 11, is a theology of the salvation of the Gentiles. Gentiles are saved by being "grafted in" to Israel, the people of God. (Romans 11:17-20) Those who were once not God's people are now God's people.
If we are to be the people of God, if we are to receive that identity in faith, then it means accepting not only the redemption of Israel, but first its guilt. If Israel is responsible for the death of Jesus as Peter proclaims, and I am grafted into Israel, then I am grafted into the sin of murdering the Author of Life. As with Dante, if we want to enter heaven we must begin at the gates of hell.
What happens if this guilt is not applied to me? I gain a false sense of arrogance. I can say to myself, "I am not as bad as the Jews because they killed Jesus. I only acted in ignorance." By being grafted into Israel, both its guilt and its redemption, all boasting is taken from me. I stand equally guilty with all sinners. I stand equally forgiven with all Israel.
Another negative, and perhaps the real issue, is that the "for me" is taken out of the Gospel. If my sin did not kill Jesus then who did Jesus die for? Did Jesus die for the Father?
No, Jesus died for me. If I were not a sinner, then Jesus would not have had to die for me, just the rest of the world. I would, however, be exempt from the guilt of his death. This is clearly not the case. Christ died for all! (II Corinthians 5:14-15) By God's grace that includes me.
What we have lost a bit in Lutheran circles is the ability to simply affirm what the Scriptures profess. In our dogmatic organization of theology we sometimes lose the language of the Bible. We are more comfortable with systematic language, Lutheran formulas. The Bible is not a systematic text. It does not speak in simple formulas, but it preaches the word of God to sinners as they need to hear it. We need to be ready, not to explain away the Scriptures, but to gladly affirm them.
The proclamation of the death of Jesus functions as both Law and Gospel. It must. His death is caused by my sin in the sense that I bear the guilt for his murder. His death is caused by the Father in the sense that God has sent Jesus for this purpose, to be the sacrifice for my sins. Therefore from Israel's greatest sin God works his greatest salvation.
It is not, it cannot be, an either/or. It must be both/and.
My sin killed Jesus. I bear the guilt.
God the Father sent Jesus to the cross for the atonement of my sin. I receive the forgiveness won there and God in Christ gets all the credit.
Your sin killed Jesus, but Jesus died to appease God's wrath for you.
(Photograph from bigfoto.com)