Reversal and Paradox: A Christian Theme
Again the darkness is past, again Light is made… The people that sat in the darkness of ignorance see the Great Light of full knowledge. Old things are passed way, behold all things are become new. The letter gives way, the Spirit comes to the front. The shadows flee away, the Truth comes in upon them... He that was without mother becomes without father.
Close to the heart of the Christian faith are reversal and paradox. In God’s wisdom and grace He has worked a radical salvation for miserable mankind. He gives no superficial solution to sin and mankind’s estrangement from him, but one of dramatic and far reaching change, such that what was can hardly be imagined in the blessing of what is. And this unimaginable power of change is worked by God in a manner that no human could fathom, in a way that even seems contradictory.
Plainly yet beautifully such gospel reversals and paradoxes may be stated: in Christ’s death is our life; where the old man once lived, now the new man lives; where slavery once held sway, now liberty reigns; because God became man, and the innocent made guilty, sin has given way to righteousness.
The Foundation of Folly
In the past, some theologians have become caught up in particularly paradox as key to the Christian faith, and have strayed into the uncertainties of existentialist philosophy. But our faith rests on more than simple word opposition – we who were dead now live only because of the penalty Christ paid for us to the Father. But against the background of those teachings about our legal standing before God, we may marvel at this theme of paradox and reversal running through the Christian faith.
The gospel’s fundamental alteration Martin Luther loved to speak of, dubbing it “the joyful exchange.” This exchange is that Christ’s righteousness becomes our righteousness, our sin his sin. Indeed, sometimes this gospel might be framed as an exchange or “reversal” (Christ went from innocence to guilt, we from sinners to saints), or sometimes as a “paradox” (in Christ’s suffering is our comfort).
To ponder these most fundamental changes can serve to highlight the complete unexpectedness of it. Humanly speaking, who could have dreamed of it in this way? This is the scandal of the gospel over which so many stumble, thinking it foolishness or a contradiction in terms. The reversal of our sinful reality, brought about by the offence of the cross, can only be the work of God;
The foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.1 Corinthians 1:25
Remembering the Reversal
We can find a meditation on this reversal in the Form for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper in the Book of Praise. In the section on the remembrance of Christ, we find a long paragraph about the suffering of Christ in our place. “From the beginning of his incarnation to the end of his life on earth, He bore for us the wrath of God, under which we should have perished eternally.”
And then the paradoxical sufferings of our Lord are described – somehow in the different elements of his pain is the richness of our gain.
He was bound that He might free us from our sins. He suffered countless insults that we might never be put to shame. He was innocently condemned to death that we might be acquitted at the judgment seat of God.
The Form continues with a brief summary of the atonement, “By all this He has taken our curse upon himself that He might fill us with his blessing.” Finally, Christ’s anguished cry on the cross is used to highlight a climactic, blessed reversal, “Then He called out with a loud voice, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ that we might be accepted by God and nevermore be forsaken by Him.”1
Antilogy in the Atonement
Other details of the Lord’s life and death have been treated in this way, already early in church history. Cyprian, a third-century church father from North Africa, wrote a treatise called On Patience. He starts with the reversal inherent in the Son’s earthly life and task:
His immortality being in the meantime laid aside, He suffers himself to become mortal, so that the guiltless may be put to death for the salvation of the guilty.
Then on Christ’s time of suffering in the wilderness Cyprian observes this: “For forty days He fasts, by whom others are feasted. He is hungry, and suffers famine, that they who had been in hunger of the word and of grace may be satisfied with heavenly bread.”
Cyprian next arrives at the passion, and sees much merciful paradox – things that, to say them out loud, seem at once contradictory, yet are wonderfully true and real:
He was crowned with thorns, who crowns martyrs with eternal flowers. He was smitten on the face with palms, who gives the true palms to those who overcome. He was despoiled of his earthly garment, who clothes others in the vesture of immortality. He was fed with gall, who gave heavenly food. He was given to drink of vinegar, who appointed the cup of salvation.
Then, in conclusion Cyprian marvels, “That guiltless, that just One – no, He who is innocency itself and justice itself – is counted among transgressors, and truth is oppressed with false witnesses.”2
Speaking on Jesus Christ, in the next century Gregory Nazianus would continue this theme, “(He is) King of all upon earth, but subject to the King above; earthly and heavenly; temporal and yet immortal... halfway between greatness and lowliness; in one person combining spirit and flesh.”3
Such oppositions are also found in a few places in the Scriptures to describe Christ’s atoning sacrifice and its impact for us. In 2 Corinthians 5:21 we read, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Or think of 1 Peter 2:24, “by his wounds you have been healed,” and 2 Corinthians 8:9,
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.
If we begin with Christ and those things in his work that appear self-contradictory, then we might also look at paradoxes in the lives of Christ’s followers. Indeed, the behaviour of Christians has always been striking to outside observers. A letter from the early period of the church, The Epistle to Diognetus, describes the conduct of believers as immediately contradictory.
They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners... They have a common table, but not a common bed.
They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all.
They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evildoers… They are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.4
A treatise (probably falsely) attributed to the philosopher Francis Bacon expands the idea of Christian paradox even further. In The Characters of a Believing Christian in Paradoxes and Seeming Contradictions the author covers many aspects of the Christian religion. He sees paradox and contradiction in the Christian’s doctrine, in his ethics, in his attitude, in his home life, in his future – illogic everywhere he turns.
(A Christian) believes three to be one, and one to be three… a virgin to be a mother of a son, and that very son of hers to be her maker… He believes the God of all grace to have been angry with one that has never offended him; and that God, who hates sin, to be reconciled to man though sinning continually, and never making, or being able to make him satisfaction... He believes himself to be precious in God’s sight and yet loathes himself in his own... He loses his life and gains by it, and while he loses it, he saves it... The more he forsakes worldly things, the more he enjoys them... He is the best child, husband, brother, friend; yet hates father and mother, brother and sister… He is severe to his children because he loves them….
He believes the angels to be more excellent creatures than himself, and yet accounts them his servants… He believes his prayers are heard, even when they are denied, and gives thanks for that which he prays against… He cannot sin, yet he can do nothing without sin… He is a serpent and dove, a lamb and a lion, a reed and a cedar… He counts self-murder a heinous sin, yet is ever busied in crucifying the flesh, and in putting to death his earthly members… (At the last day) his Advocate, his Surety shall be his Judge, his mortal part shall become immortal… and a finite creature shall possess an infinite happiness.5
The apostle Paul did not systematically recount the Christian contradictions as others have, but especially from his second letter to the Corinthians we know he was well acquainted with such paradoxes. To Paul was given the work of preaching Christ, whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light. This work was not without struggle. As Paul writes of his ministry in 2 Corinthians 6:9-10 he sees several paradoxes, things that are contradictory and seem nonsensical – yet he rejoices that in the heavenly perspective these experiences make perfect sense:
Known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
Paul has been forced to give his résumé of suffering to the Corinthians. He says how despite all his sincere work, the churches still favoured those who claimed higher position and greater gifts. Tortured, wasting away, having very little – and all this met by some with indifference, or with comparison to those apostles who appeared so much better. But somehow Paul bears up all this physical and mental pain, for it is borne for the sake of the gospel. Even in his losses is gain, in his torture is contentment.
So how can Paul and we today recount our struggles and always give that yet? Even in a Christian’s grieving and losing he can be “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing… having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” It is because we know that in our lives before God, it is not about our strength, wisdom, or standing, but about the grace and power of God that dominates all. By our own effort, we could not reverse our sin to righteousness, nor turn evil to our good. We could not do it, but Christ has done it, bearing our curse for our blessing and enabling us to serve Him in the thankfulness He asks of us.
In the cross Christ answers our sorrowful prayers, “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in your weakness.’”
With Paul we may all say, Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.2 Corinthians 12:9-10
Who could without contradiction boast or delight in such things? Only the Christian who acknowledges his own emptiness but his fullness in Christ, the Christian who has his inheritance already, and who awaits it in full.
Believing the gospel of the cross that appears foolish and contradictory, even paradoxical, we can go on with all our praying, serving, and struggling, for in Christ the Christian’s joyful paradox is always this, “When I am weak, then I am strong.”