And it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in him, and through him to reconcile all things to himself, having made peace through the blood of his cross; through him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven. (Colossians 1:19-20)
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 series of shapes we call the Canyon and the Cross is a guide to help someone understand the saving work of God in Jesus Christ from the beginning. Another way of looking at this, it is the unfolding story of scripture from Genesis to Revelation. I often introduce it as “The Story of the Bible in Five Minutes.” That understanding can be helpful in a number of ways. For example, it helps people understand what it means to follow Jesus within the context of the whole of scripture and all of history. People gain insight and a framework for understanding how their own story might fit into this larger narrative. It gives people a sense of how the Kingdom of God is more than just “going to heaven when you die.” And as people grasp it, they begin to see how following Jesus shapes and impacts our relationships with others. It is a more complete depiction of the gospel than is often presented. It allows those who are invited to follow Jesus to make an informed decision. It is a good teaching tool in small groups or with kids. It’s a great conversation starter. Even skeptics can find parts of the story they celebrate. Finally, it equips us to share the good news of the gospel with those who may be confused, hurting, feeling guilty, or losing hope.
Like many of the shapes, this one is helpful to practice with people you know and trust at first.
In the Beginning: (Figure 1): 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. After all other things were created, God created human beings. We were created in such a way that we would have a fruitful, productive life, enjoying fellowship with one another and with God. Everything was right. There was no shame, no corruption, and no sin. There was peace — or shalom.
We often think of peace in terms of the absence of conflict. “Shalom” is a Hebrew word that means more than that. With shalom, things are right. As theologian Lisa Sharon Harper says, in the beginning things were “forcefully right”. In Genesis, we read that God placed the man and the woman in a garden. They enjoyed a rich relationship with God. In Genesis 3, we learn that God would walk in the garden in the cool of the evening with them. There was a right relationship between God and his people. And there was no sin and no shame. “They were naked and not ashamed.” (Genesis 2:25) Things were right between the people. They got along in harmony. There was no need to hide or blush about. They were light and free. On a personal level, things were right. They did not feel the weight of the world on their shoulders. There was no internal conflict. They were wonderfully healthy both mentally and physcially. And God gave them work to do in the garden. Work as it was meant to be was part of God’s good creation. Their work of caring for the garden gave them a sense of dignity and noble purpose. It provided them with food and health, and everything they would need for life. They were in right-relationship with one another, with themselves, and with creation. This is shalom. God, people, and creation were in a right relationship with one another. Nature was gentle, fruitful and productive. Work was satisfying.
We use this shape to help us remember:
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. God said, “Do not eat the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil.” Nevertheless, they faced temptation and decided eating the fruit was worth the risk. They believed that by doing so they would “become like God.” (Genesis 3:5) And though they did not become like God, they did saw everything differently. The relationship between Adam and Eve was damaged – they felt exposed. They felt shame for the first time. They made clothes for themselves to try to hide their shame and tried to hide from God. As a result, shalom was disrupted and broken. When they stood before God, they blamed, accused, and made excuses. Things were no longer right with them, between them, with creation, or with God. All creation suffered. Work and fruitfulness became difficult and painful. A wide “canyon of sin” separated them from God and from one another. Shalom was lost.
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 unjust and harmful to God’s creation. We intentionally or unintentionally hurt people around us. We make excuses, blame and accuse and this hurts 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 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: So God comes to us.
But before the end of Genesis 3, the story begins to change. God immediately began taking action to set things right. He made Adam and Eve clothes from animal skin. Note that blood was shed to create these clothes. Life was given so that life could be restored. The covering their sin and the protection of their bodies from a now harmful creation required a sacrifice. In the Old Testament, God continued to intervene to set things right. He would reveal himself to people. He would act to bless the world. He would deliver his people from slavery and provide the law and a system of sacrifices to reconcile people to himself. But God’s ultimate plan unfolds most completely when he gave himself for us. When God became one of us in Jesus Christ, he crossed the canyon opened by our sin. In was the greatest possible sacrifice and the ultimate act of reconciliation. He did this out of love so that each of us could have a relationship with him. God did for us what we could not do for ourselves. By becoming one of us, he showed us what human life could be like. Furthermore, he revealed who God was and what God was like. His action of paying for our sin on the cross and rising from the dead provides assurance and hope that shalom will be restored.
Eventually, God will complete the undoing of the destruction that Adam and Eve started and that each of us has continued. He has assured us 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. 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)
So that’s the story. The question is, how will we respond.
Atonement is a theological and biblical word that refers to the way Jesus Christ has paid the price for our sins and has saved us. It is very helpful to be aware of these when sharing the story. 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. Note: depending on the make up of your audience, you may or may not want to use the terms themselves. But they ideas behind them can be woven into the story.
Christus Victor—Jesus is the victor. Jesus Christ has saved us by achieving a great victory over sin, death, and the all the powers of hell. He has conquered evil and given us all a new start. Christus Victor reminds us that there is no other name in all of creation that is stronger than the name of Jesus. He can deliver us from what things circumstances, additions, and the sin that enslaves us. 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 – we 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. Righteousness and justice requires restitution, punishment, or sacrifice for sin. Jesus chose to offer himself to pay the debt we owed and elected 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.
It is worth considering 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. He invites us to follow his example, live a new life, and extend his love to others. Substitute: Jesus took our place on the cross so that sin would no longer keep us separated from God. We have forgiveness because of what Jesus did.
This Is a Gift of God and Is Received By Faith.
The scriptures teach that we cannot earn our way to God. We cannot cross the canyon created by our sin. So what are to do? Believe what the Bible says about this. Let us place our faith in Jesus the Victor who is greater than our sin. Let us believe that Jesus took our place and that we are no longer condemned. Let us follow Jesus who has shown us grace and live our lives in response to his love. If we do so, we’ll find ourselves swept into God’s amazing story know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord!
Questions for Reflection:
1) How would you use this tool with someone who is already 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?