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The Cross and Salvation

Wooden cross in a field

Sunday 3rd March
Year B: The Third Sunday of Lent
Liturgical Colour: Purple or Lent array


  • Psalm 19: 1-14
  • Exodus 20: 1-17
  • 1 Corinthians 1: 18-25
  • John 2: 13-22

New Testament reading: Background

In the reading from 1 Corinthians (c54 BC) St Paul is addressing a congregation in Corinth, which he had founded several years earlier. Corinth was a large and prosperous urban centre with an ethnically, culturally and religiously diverse population. The church was predominantly gentile and probably mirrored the diversity of the city’s population. Paul’s epistle is thought to have been written, at least in part, in response to a letter (now lost) from members of the church in Corinth asking him to mediate, or perhaps offer judgement, in a number of disputes. It appears that there were some serious disagreements between different factions that had formed, including about what was to be considered moral and immoral conduct. This had led to the marginalisation of some members, especially it seems, the disadvantaged. The crux of the matter was how Paul had taught the heart of the gospel when he founded the church there and how that good news had come to be interpreted differently over time by some within the cosmopolitan city.

The Cross and Salvation

In today’s passage Paul is urging his listeners to remember how the power of the cross seems foolishness by worldly understandings, and how those claiming to be wise will not grasp it. This was particularly pertinent among the descendants of Greek philosophers and in a place where rhetoric, the ability to argue convincingly if not always truthfully, was highly prized. By Roman times rhetoric had evolved into something aimed at pleasing the crowds and being entertaining. Paul rejected this way of proselytising and argued that the power of the cross is revealed not to and through those who were skilful with linguistic tricks and clever phrases, but rather to and through those considered simple and foolish by the sophisticated orators, but who did indeed get and share its straightforward, if challenging, message.

Disputes about the meaning of the cross did not end in Corinth and indeed have continued over the millennia. These are part of bigger arguments, which pivot around how Jesus might be said to: a) reveal God, b) be the bearer of salvation and c) define the shape of the redeemed life. These massive topics are more for a book than a blog(!) and we can only deal with a tiny bit at a time, even though they all fit together in what are called systematic theology, although we should say systematic theologies, because there are many.

There are centuries worth of speculation as to how salvation, understood as deliverance from sin and death to health and new life in Christ, and atonement, understood as a return to a state of acceptance and ‘at-one-ment’ with God, might have been brought about through Jesus’ death on the cross.

These may be distilled into five (some would argue more) main views: a) the cross as sacrifice (drawing on Old Testament imagery to present Jesus as both priest and victim), b) the cross as victory (Jesus triumphing over sin, death and Satan), c) the cross as ransom (Jesus taking our place and paying the price for our sins and buying our freedom with the price of his death), d) the cross as enabling God’s forgiveness (Jesus representing humanity to God and God to humanity enabling our participation in his death and resurrection thereby restoring rightful relations with God through propitiation and satisfaction of our sins by logical and ‘just’ means), and e) the cross as moral example (Jesus demonstrating the ultimate love of God through his death as well as his life, which effects change in the world by inspiring a change in human hearts).


I think I agree with St Paul that fancy and forceful words alone cannot convince a person to truly trust in Christ for their salvation. I also have no idea which, if any or all, of the theories of atonement I believe; although I find some more convincing and appealing than others’. I do however believe that the good news is simple; God loves me and everyone I see and Jesus makes that real.