Y is for Yes (an alphabet for penitents)

Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”” (Matthew 26:39, NIV)

No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”” (John 10:18, NRSV)

Yes was Jesus’s answer to God in submitting to the cross. Yes is God’s answer to us through the cross.

It was late in the evening as Jesus knelt in the garden, full of dread at what awaited him— the desertion of the disciples, night time trials, beatings, flogging, mockery, and derision from law enforcement, the rejection of his people, and death on a Roman cross. Luke’s gospel tells us that he the sweat on his brow as prayed was like drops of blood (Luke 22:44). He was in anguish, anxious about the horrors he’d soon face. He prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.” He knew how hard it would be and part of him didn’t want to do it.  But then he adding his yes to God, “Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

When he refused to offer a spirited defense of the trumped up charges against him, he was willfully accepted his fate. Nobody took his life from him. He laid his life down of his own accord.


Why the cross? Why did our salvation take this shape? If you spend time in Christian circles, you have probably heard debates about the nature of Christ’s atonement—the way the cross saved us from our sin. The dominant theory for Evangelicals since the Reformation is a penal understanding: God is just and therefore must punish sin, we are sinful deserving of death, Jesus—both God’s Son, and sinless human—took our punishment for us on the cross. This is just one understanding of the work of Christ, but there are others: Christus Victor and Ransom models(Jesus’ victory over the powers), Moral Influence and subjective models(Jesus dies on a cross to make vivid the love of God for us), the Satisfaction model (like penal substitution, but more focused on God’s honor),  Sacrifice, mimetic atonement (Jesus breaking the cycle of  mimetic human violence), and variations on each of the above.

I don’t have a definitive answer for why the cross. I know that there are caricatures of God we need to avoid in whatever atonement theory we ascribe to or construct (i.e. ones that make the crucifixion seem like divine child abuse, and those that deny the unity of God in His plan for salvation) and I would say the cross is some combination of all the above. In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor 5:19). The Triune God was acting to welcome humanity back into their (His) embrace.  In the wisdom of God, this was the plan, God’s  yes.


My seven-year-old daughter asked recently, “Why do we call it Good Friday when it is the day Jesus died?” Anyone who has grown up in the church has asked that same question. Today could have just as easily been called Bad Friday, the day we killed God. We call today good because of what the cross accomplished, the way Jesus’s death opened for us. There he hung—his arms stretched out while his body slumped forward, a”Y”— God’s yes for us.


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10 thoughts on “Y is for Yes (an alphabet for penitents)”

  1. I would set atonement aside in favor of efficacy: Jesus imposed no impediment to the healing flow of the love that emanates from the Most High. As he commanded, to carry a cross is to do the same. He was an exemplar, not a sacrifice.

      1. I would say that the subjective models are in accord with the model of efficacy. Love was looking for a means to anchor itself to the world. Jesus was that means. The consequences of that service far exceed “making vivid” that love.

        This may seem like semantics, but Jesus promised that he was going to “remake heaven and earth.” To think of him as defined solely by human experience is problematical to all of the interpretations of atonement. Transformation obviates the need for atonement. What difference does it make what happened before, so long as we love NOW? Isn’t that the whole point of his ministry – to convey that truth to those bound by the transactional fraud of the Law?

      2. I disagree that ‘transformation obviates the need for atonement.’ I think God has acted decisively in Jesus to bring about our at-one-ment, our union with the Divine. This is what makes transformation possible.

      3. Well, that’s an interesting redirection. “At-one-ment” is a portmanteau that leads to interpretations very different from the Oxford definition of “atonement.” And – unless you believe that the New Jerusalem is already established – we are not yet one with God.

        Do you have direct experience that validates your opinion? What I mean is: is the concept of atonement essential to your own ability to facilitate such transformations?

        My experience is contrary. Interpreting Jesus’s ministry as atonement inhibits my capacity to make the love of the Most High palpable to others.

        My initial comment was intended to be supportive of your conclusion that we’ll never know the “why” of atonement. That there are so many ratiocinations regarding atonement suggests to me that it doesn’t lead directly to truth, and so is susceptible to human fashion.

      4. Maybe not Oxford, though the point of the expiation of sin (which the Oxford definition has) is to bring us into union with the define. At-one-ment is not the definition, it is just what it means 😉

        My point is that I don’t have ‘my own ability to facilitate my transformation.’ Transformation is always an act of grace.

        As to the multiple understandings of atonement, I think the many ‘ratiocinations’ is because we are describing a mystery beyond human understanding. We fail to describe the how and the why of what happened (though I think the various models also capture a facet of the truth).
        As a Christian, I believe the with-God life begins and is enabled by Christ and his cross.

        Happy Easter!

      5. As Jesus taught, to “Love your God” is to call Unconditional Love into the world. Understood properly, there’s circularity. To “Love your neighbor” is to present God to them. God enters the world through us. The resurrection undermines the root fear that prevents us from grasping that potential.

        Happy Easter to you as well!

      6. I think we may be arguing semantics a little bit. I have resurrection hope, but without death there is no resurrection. My reflections on Friday was on that part of Jesus’ journey and what it means for us. But today, “Where O death is your victory? Where O death is your sting?”

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