The Inverted Sword

Justin Martyr: “We will not ask you to punish our accusers. Their present wickedness is sufficient punishment.” (c. 160, E), 1.165.

This world is full of people crying for justice, seeking someone to avenge their suffering. And it is onto this scene that Jesus steps, completely upending how we conceive of God’s justice. He established a community of followers who were to carry his cause into the world and proclaim his peace from upon the cross. And what we see in Jesus is the realization that everything that has gone wrong in this world is not set right through vengeance but love, even self-sacrificing love. Therefore, to the Christian mind, as Justin Martyr pointed out, the sword drawn out and ready to smite the guilty is not necessary to punish wickedness, for wickedness itself is its own punishment (See Romans 1:24-27).

For this reason, Christians are not called to be agents of wrath, seeking to execute vengeance upon the wicked, but to be agents of peace, seeking rather to bring about their redemption!

The logic of the cross is not to give the wicked what they deserve, but rather, to restore to them what they have lost through the tragedy of their sin.

One of the great failures of Christian thinking since Constantine placed the power of this world in our hands (i.e. “the power of the State”) has been to imagine that we are called to heroically bring God’s divine retribution upon the wicked as this world’s defenders of the innocent. We have imagined that in so doing we had found a better way to overcome evil. Instead of overcoming evil with good, as Jesus taught, we would overcome evil by force, as Rome’s Pax Romana had promised so long ago. Finally, if we could simply secure enough power in this world, we could establish peace and justice by the sword. But the Christian mission has never been to bring about “divine retribution”. Instead, our mission has always been to proclaim the good news of God’s “divine redemption” in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord!

For these reasons I think it fitting that the means of our redemption in Christ was the “inverted sword” (i.e. “the cross”). Just as the sword inflicts death upon the guilty for the sake of the innocent, so the inverted sword of the cross inflicts death upon the innocent for the sake of the guilty. And this cross is the way of life to which everyone who would receive God’s mercy is called. And, although, this is the wisdom of God that’s so despised as foolish by the world, it is this great love by which God overcomes the terrible evils of this world, and saves the broken, choosing instead to love his enemies so that by the mercy of his blood they might be saved and transformed from the inside out.

The proud have always scoffed at the inverted sword of Jesus’ cross because the thought that the innocent should die for the guilty has always been foolish to their ears. To their minds, nothing could be more reprehensible than that someone might call them to die just so that the wicked might have the chance to live and receive mercy. But to those blessed paupers of spirit, who have come face to face with their own inward bankruptcy, and felt the depths of their own brokenness, this is the wisdom of God that saves them in which they have placed all their hope! They not seek this mercy for themselves while refusing it to others. Instead, they gladly take up the cross of Christ in order to lay their own lives down for the guilty so that those who do wickedly might taste the mercy of God and be saved.

This distinction between the world’s thinking and the fiery logic of the cross is most piercing in Jesus’ call for discipleship:

Luke 9:23-24 (CSB) – 23 Then he said to them all, “If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of me will save it.

Those who wish to save their life will lose it because Jesus calls us to carry his cross into the whole world. Every subsequent generation of disciples has been called to take up the cross and overcome various evils by laying down their lives for the guilty. This is Jesus’ way of overcoming evil. Every generation of believers has been faced with some darkness against which they were called to stand as an unrelenting bulwarks, confronting the evils of their time with the goodness of Christ.

Therefore, the wisdom of the cross is the light that guides every aspect of Christian living. We find in Jesus the gloriously good news that there is, indeed, another way of dealing with the oppressive darkness that we see around us, that you really can do what so many have scoffed at, and overcome evil with good. In the resurrection of Jesus we find evidence of precisely this, that good really does triumph over evil in the end. You really can eschew evil now, even when it appears that everything you care about hinges on your taking up the weapons of this world to defend your just cause, because the power for your victory is not found in the destruction of your enemies, nor does your victory stand on your ability to subdue your enemies, but instead, your victory hangs entirely upon the cross of Christ!

So I believe Christians must regain the wisdom we once possessed so long ago, and understand that wickedness is punishment enough for this world. Our purpose is not to bring about the world’s punishment, but to proclaim their salvation through the cross of Christ. Our purpose is to overcome evil with good.

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