And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.—Acts 13:48
The Canyon and the Cross is a guide to help someone understand the saving work of God in Jesus Christ from the beginning. That understanding can be helpful in a number of ways. For example, it helps people make an informed decision about trusting God for salvation. It helps those who have trusted Christ to see their place in God’s story. It is also a good teaching tool for parents who helping their kids understand the faith. It equips us to share the good news of the gospel with those who may be confused, hurting, feeling guilty, or loosing hope. It’s helpful to practice using this one with people you know and trust and ask for their feedback.
Figure one: No Separation between God and People.
This is how things were in the beginning. In Genesis 1 and 2, we learn that God created the world and it was good. The last thing God created were human beings. He created so that we would have a fruitful, productive life, enjoying fellowship with one another and with himself. Everything was right. There was no shame, no corruption, no sin. There was peace—or shalom. God, people, and creation were in a right relationship with one another. Nature was gentle, fruitful and productive. Work was satisfying.
Figure two: Vast Separation Caused by Sin.
In Genesis 3, sin entered creation. Adam and Eve rebelled against God by choosing to do the one thing (the only thing) that God has told them not to do. They believed that be doing so they would “be like God.” (Genesis 3:5) And indeed, once they had done so, they saw everything differently. The relationship between Adam and Eve was damaged – they felt exposed. They felt shame for the first time. They made excuses. They made clothes for themselves to hide their shame and they hid from God. As a result, peace was broken and a wide canyon of sin separated them (and us) from God and from one another. What they had done was to make a mess of everything.
We still participate in this. Even when we try hard to do what is right, we still get tired, lazy, self-indulgent, or worse. We hurt others. We create misunderstanding. We participate, actively or passively, in things that are harmful to the creation, that hurt people, and hurt the heart of God. The Bible says all of us sin and fall short of God’s glory. (Romans 3:23) Even though we try, nothing we can do can make it right. Our best attempts at getting to God often backfire one us. We cannot build a bridge across the canyon of sin.
Figure three: God comes to us.
But in Genesis 3, the story changes. God immediately began taking action to set things right. He made Adam and Eve clothes from animal skin. (Note: Blood was shed. Life was given so that life could be restored. Covering their sin required a sacrifice.) In the Old Testament, God provided the law and a system of sacrifices. But God’s ultimate plan was to give himself for us. When God became one of us in Jesus Christ, he crossed the canyon created by our sin to restore our relationships with himself. God did for us what we could not do for ourselves. By giving himself, he assured the eventual complete undoing of the destruction that Adam and Eve and each of us had done. He assured that all things will be made new. (Revelation 21:5) The love of God, which was demonstrated most powerfully on the cross, is greater than the sin that separates us from God. When we trust in Jesus, we are trusting in the power of God to forgive of sin and change us from the inside out. Furthermore, because of the resurrection of Jesus, we can be confident that God has the power to make all things new and to give eternal life. And God has offered that. “To all who received him (Jesus), even to those who believe in his name, he has given the right to be children of God.” (John 1:12)
Atonement is a theological and biblical word that refers to the way Jesus Christ has paid the price for our sins and saved us. There are three prevalent theories of atonement—each is biblical and each is helpful in its own way. At times, followers of Jesus have pitted one against the other. However, it is better to recognize the saving power of God at work in all three understandings and let each shape us as we follow Jesus.
Christus Victor—Jesus is the victor. Jesus Christ has saved us by achieving a great victory over sin and death and the power of evil. He has conquered evil and given us all a new start. It reminds us that there is no other name in all of creation that is stronger than the name of Jesus. Thus, we pray from victory more than for it.
Christus Exemplar—Jesus is our example. Jesus invited his disciples to follow him and learn to live as he did. Just by following his example—even imperfectly – they find a transformed quality of life. There is no better way to live than the way Jesus lived. Jesus saves us from a meaningless empty life as we follow him.
Substitutionary Atonement – Jesus took our place on the cross. Sin requires punishment or sacrifice. Jesus chose to receive the punishment that should have been handed down to us. In so doing, he satisfied the justice of God. We are the beneficiaries with nothing to do but to receive and respond to God’s grace.
Perhaps you can see how each of the theories of atonement can be used with the Canyon and the Cross. Victor: Jesus crossed the divide we could not cross. Examplar: Jesus left heaven to come to us—and now sends us in the same way. Substitute: Jesus took our place on the cross so that sin would no longer keep us separated from God.
This Gift of God is Received By Faith.
The scriptures teach that we cannot earn our way to God. Another way of thinking about that would be thinking we could cross the canyon created by our sin on our own. So what are to do? Believe what the Bible says about this. Let us place our faith in Jesus, trust in the grace of God, and live our lives in response to his love. If we do so, we’ll find ourselves swept into God’s amazing story!
Questions for Reflection:
1) How would you use this tool with a disciple?
2) If you were sharing this with someone for the first time, what are some of the questions people might raise?
3) Which of the atonement theories resonates best with you?
4) Do you know anyone, or do you know stories of people trying to earn their way to God? How did it go?
5) Why is it comforting that in Jesus Christ, God came to us? How is it instructive in terms of mission?
6) How could you use this tool to help someone surrender to Christ? How would you help them cross the line of faith?