Jesus’ Death as Primary Marker of Christian Identity

Jerry Sumney provides a survey of the significance of Christ’s death in his article “’Christ Died For Us’: Interpretation of Jesus’ Death as a Central Element of the Identity of the Earliest Church”[1] in which he also demonstrates that the question of a defining aspect of Christian identity has been around since the beginning.

Though scholars are divided about the exact nature of Paul’s opponents in 1 Thessalonians, Paul does not have to correct them regarding the death of Christ.  In correcting their misconceptions regarding the Second Coming and their fears regarding their believing loved ones who have already passed into eternity, Paul points to the death of Christ, without elaboration, to establish his point and in so doing explains the significance of Christ’s death for this most important of questions.

In the Epistle to the Romans, Paul bases his entire argument in chapters 3-8 on the death of Christ and assumes “that his readers believe Jesus’ death is important.”[2]  As Jerry Sumney points out, Paul “gives interpretations of that death, but does not defend its importance.”[3]

In 2 Corinthians (I will address 1 Corinthians in a moment), though Paul speaks harshly to his critics and to those who have aligned with his critics, even correcting their “claims about possession of the Spirit” Paul never corrects their view of the cross and “assumes the church already recognizes the cross as a central part of the church’s message.”[4]  Neither does Paul engage in “polemic against the other teachers’ understanding of the centrality of Jesus’ death and the implicit differences in their conceptions of it concern only how it should shape one’s view of leadership in the community.”[5]

The same may be said of Galatians, where Paul’s issue is with Torah observance for Gentiles but without giving any “indication that this other gospel leaves out or diminishes the importance of Jesus’ death”[6] and in Philippians where Paul calls refers to “enemies of the cross of Christ” without correcting their understanding of his death.  As Sumney says, “given [Paul’s] willingness to engage various issues in this and other letters, it seems unlikely that he would pass over this matter with just a few disparaging descriptors of its bearers’ character.  More direct engagement would have been forthcoming is Paul had thought his church was encountering a significantly different understanding of Jesus’ death.”[7]

As I have already noted, in 1 Corinthians Paul points to the death of Christ without elaboration to staunch the sectarianism that has become prevalent in the Corinthian church.  That Paul offers no extended teaching or correction to their views implies that “he assumes the Corinthians church agrees with the basic understanding of Jesus’ death that Paul asserts is the view he was taught and that he taught them.”[8]

It is interesting to note Paul’s mission statement in 1 Corinthians 2:2 where he writes, “I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”  This is an interesting statement considering that Paul does not speak at length about the death of Christ in 1 Corinthians.  If Paul is using the death of Christ as the central element of Christian identity then this verse may well give us some insight into how Paul uses the death of Christ with regard to controversies and questions.  Paul uses the death of Christ as he has in the places previously mentioned to orient these dilemmas, ethical issues, and questions toward the cross.  Everything about Christian identity is explained in light of the cross of Christ so that the death of Christ and its benefits for believers is the informing, guiding, and defining principle of the entire Christian life.


[1] This section summarizes and builds on Jerry L. Sumney, “’Christ Died for Us’: Interpretation of Jesus’ Death as a Central Element of the Identity of the Earliest Church” in ” in Reading Paul in Context: Exploration in Identity Formation, Essays in Honor of William F. Campbell Kathy Ehrensperger and J. Brian Tucker, eds. Library of New Testament Studies 428 (London: T & T Clark, 2010), 147-172.

[2] Sumney, 156.

[3] Sumney, 156.

[4] Sumney, 152.

[5] Sumney, 152.

[6] Sumney, 154.

[7] Sumney, 155.

[8] Sumney, 151.

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About Michael R. Jones

Pastor and PhD candidate writing on Paul's theology of suffering.
This entry was posted in Soteriology, Theology, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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