Posts Tagged ‘atonement’

Would you follow Jesus even if he weren’t God?

May 19, 2017

I argued theology recently with a clergy acquaintance who said that he would continue to follow Jesus—and teach others to do the same—even if the classic Christian doctrines were wrong (not to mention the Bible, from which these doctrines derive) and Jesus were merely human. When I asked him why, he said that his personal experience has taught him that following Jesus is the path to joy and fulfillment.

“But you can’t really say that, can you?” I said. “Because if your personal experience is based on anything real—and you aren’t merely playing mind games—then Jesus must be God.” Because at least part of what has made following Christ so satisfying—for example, the work of the Holy Spirit in your life and the heartwarming feeling that Christ is with you—is made possible by the fact that Jesus really is God. 

I went on to argue that if Jesus isn’t God, then Christ’s death was meaningless, since only God can impute our sins on Himself and suffer the penalty for them. And if that didn’t happen, as Paul says, we are still in our sins. “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Cor 15:18-19).
(Yes, I realize that Paul is talking about resurrection here, but for him the resurrection only has meaning in relation to Christ’s atoning death on the cross. As he says, “I resolved to know nothing but Christ and him crucified.” The cross is the center of the gospel, not the resurrection.)

When my friend talked about “following Jesus,” he mostly meant obeying Jesus’ ethical teaching. He cited the Sheep and the Goats from Matthew 25 and Jesus’ foot-washing in John 13: We ought to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the imprisoned, he said. We ought love others as Christ loved us. (To which I said, citing Romans 7, “Good luck with that!”)

Apart from Christ’s atoning death on the cross, however, which is made possible by the fact that God himself was dying for us, following Jesus’ ethical demands are impossible. For example, when my clergy friend reads the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, does he not first recognize, with terror, how much he’s like a goat rather than a sheep? And when he reads John 13, does he not sympathize with Peter’s objection that Jesus wash not only his feet but “also my hands and my head”?

Our primary need, as Peter rightly understands, is to be rescued from our sins, not to be given a new set of commands to follow, no matter how good these commands are! This was the angel’s message to Joseph in the annunciation of Matthew 1: “[Mary] will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (v. 21).

Besides, why would a minister of the gospel even entertain the thought of following Jesus even if…?

Well, I think I know… It’s a hedge against doubt and fear. Doubt about the truth of God’s Word and fear that we’re wasting our lives—especially us pastors of all people! We had to pay for a master’s degree to do this job—not to mention the opportunity cost of failing to find more lucrative work! If Christianity isn’t true, at least “following Jesus” remains a worthwhile endeavor.

Not for me… I would not follow Jesus if he isn’t God. As Lewis famously said, if he isn’t God, he’s a liar or lunatic—not someone to whom we can entrust our lives. If Jesus isn’t God, I freely admit I’m wasting my life. I am “most to be pitied.”

So it’s a good thing that Jesus is God! I believe it, and I happily and passionately defend it. I pray that God will strengthen the faith of any of my fellow clergy who doubt. I pray that they’ll share my convictions about the trustworthiness of God’s Word. I pray—as I told my friend, alluding to Paul in Acts 26—that he and the rest of my fellow clergy would “become like me, except for these chains”—the chains in my case being whatever prevents me from being a more winsome, at times less angry, messenger. 😑

Help me, Jesus! Thank God for the cross!

We love you, Tom Wright, but haven’t you said this many times before?

October 27, 2016

No one on this blog will question my bona fides as an admirer of N.T. Wright. Heck, I just quoted him a couple of hours ago!

But I don’t think I need to read his new book on atonement. I feel like I’ve already read it, based on Scot McKnight’s blog posts about it, including this one. I had to reply to one commenter who said the following about Wright’s views on penal substitution:

He uses a lot of plural pronouns (as in “…we have paganized soteriology”) and hints at widespread distortions (as in “The danger with this kind of popular teaching, and examples of it are not hard to come by…”). As though he, and all the rest of us, have been doing it all wrong. Or is it maybe just us?

I’m a fan of his, even when I disagree, but he often does come off as being the guy who’s finally figured it all out. Most of the caricatures he tilts at are routinely spoken against by committed PSA advocates. So who and what exactly he is refuting?

To this I wrote:

Exactly! Very well said. Even Wright’s constant refrain against speaking of “heaven” as opposed to “new creation” rings a bit hollow to me—at least by the 348th time he’s labored to emphasize that distinction.

One of my eccentric hobbies is collecting sermons by Billy Graham on vinyl records. My point is, I’ve heard a lot of old sermons. Most of these are from the ’50s and ’60s. It’s true that Graham always referred to our eschatological future as “heaven,” but he never did so in a way that implied, as Wright would have us believe, that heaven was disembodied or independent of resurrection and new creation. On the contrary, he spoke of these things, too.

Wright’s “Yes, but…” approach regarding heaven also misses one important point: While I totally appreciate that Christ’s victory on the cross and his resurrection mean so much more than “heaven when I die,” I can’t escape the fact that, selfishly speaking, the best part of Christ’s victory is… ahem… heaven when I die. Say whatever you want about it, that’s incredibly good news!

That when I die, I don’t lose the best of this life, including my loved ones within it… How could that not be the best news of all?

I don’t think I’m wrong to feel that way, even as I appreciate the importance of new creation, victory over the principalities, etc.

The grace of Israel’s sacrificial system

September 22, 2016

rutledgeFor the sake of his contrarianism, my Old Testament professor in seminary, the late John Hayes, enjoyed telling his class of incredulous mainline Protestants—many of whom rarely used the word “sin,” or did so only in non-traditional ways—that Leviticus was his favorite book of the Bible. Why? Because it takes sin deadly seriously. It demonstrates the costliness of sin.

He had a point—and one with which Fleming Rutledge, author of Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, would sympathize. In one chapter, she examines the cross of Jesus Christ through the lens of blood sacrifice in the Old Testament. Of the sacrificial system described in Leviticus, she writes:

Basic to the ritual is the idea that atonement for sin costs something. Something valuable has to be offered in restitution. The life of the sacrificed animal, together with the sense of awe associated with the shedding of blood, represents this payment. “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb. 9:22). The blood represents the ultimate cost to the giver. There is something powerful here that grips us in spite of ourselves. The use of the phrase “blood of Christ” in the New Testament carries with it this sacrificial, atoning significance in primordial sense; we cannot root out these connections even if we wanted to.

Leviticus 5:14 maintains that one who sins must bring a guilt offering to the Lord “valued… in shekels of silver.” Note the emphasis on assigning value to the offering. The suggestion is that there should be some correlation of the value of the offering with the gravity of the offense. If the supposed sacrifice is just something we are getting rid of, like those old clothes in the back of our closet that we haven’t worn for years, then restitution is not made. Anselm’s word “satisfaction” seems right here, wth its suggestion of comparable cost. We are familiar with this notion; we are infuriated when people who have committed great crimes get off with light sentences. The trouble is that there is no adequate punishment for a truly great crime. How could there be any offering valuable enough to compensate for the victims of just one bombing let alone genocides of millions? Anselm’s point is one again apposite: “You have not yet considered the weight of sin.” The obvious conclusion, explicitly drawn in Hebrews, is that the sacrificing of animals just isn’t enough. One of the simplest ways of understanding the death of Jesus is to say that when we look at the cross, we see what it cost God to secure our release from sin.[1]

The trouble is that there is no adequate punishment for a truly great crime. Indeed, as Rutledge points out in a footnote, blood sacrifices in the Bible cover only “unwitting sin.” There was no sacrificial provision for “high-handed” or deliberate sin. See Numbers 15:30-31: Israelites are to be “cut off.” Indeed, see Hebrews 10:26-31, where the author alludes to this scripture in a stern warning to potential backsliders. (By the way, isn’t this one of the most frightening passages of scripture in the New Testament? It should give pause to any of us who so easily presume upon God’s grace.)

Rutledge’s point is, as a matter of justice, anything less than the blood sacrifice of God’s Son Jesus would be inadequate to remedy the problem of sin’s guilt. We intuitively understand this, as she says, whenever we see “people who have committed great crimes get off with light sentences.”

And yet, as she points out, blood sacrifices and guilt offerings, no matter how costly, are also “light sentences.” They were never meant to be otherwise. They were meant to symbolize both the costliness of sin and the sheer graciousness of God—which itself prepares us for God’s sacrifice on the cross. Contrary to the widespread stereotype, God always related to God’s covenant people on the basis of grace.

None of this will be persuasive to anyone who does not already know himself to be within the sphere of God’s grace. In view of the widespread notion that the Old Testament is all about sin and judgment, there is an urgent need in the church for more intentional teaching of the enveloping grace in the First Testament. God’s redemptive purpose in electing a people (Gen. 12:1-3; 17:1-27) was put into effect long before the giving of commandments and ordinances. God has already told them, You are my people. God has ordained the means whereby we may draw near to him. The ordinances of the Torah are not a catalogue of tribal customs. They are gifts from the living God.[2]

If we miss this point, then we won’t understand, for example, Paul’s argument in Romans. We might wonder instead what was wrong with God’s original covenant with Israel, such that they, too, are under God’s judgment. Why couldn’t Israel have its means of atonement through the Law and we Gentiles ours through Christ, and both groups be fine?

Of course, many Christians already believe that, unfortunately. If so, they need to read Rutledge’s new book.

1. Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 245-6.

2. Ibid., 246.

Was Jesus forsaken on the cross?

April 5, 2016

rutledgeI’m aware that I’ve spent a lot of bandwidth on this blog recently complaining about my seminary education. But these days I continue to be reminded of ways in which mainline Protestant seminary let me down.

One important way it did this, to say the least, was in its teaching about the cross and atonement. For example, I was taught that Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross—”My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—didn’t really mean that Jesus was forsaken on the cross. Rather, he was reciting the first verse of Psalm 22 as a way of recollecting the entire psalm, which ends in the narrator’s vindication.

I haven’t believed this for years, of course, and I’ve preached often that Jesus experienced complete abandonment by God. I say “experienced” because I don’t want to imply that the Trinity was somehow broken on the cross. Still, he experienced abandonment, which is nothing less than hell. I am deeply suspicious of any attempt to soften that.

I’m pleased, therefore, that Fleming Rutledge, herself a retired Episcopal minister, also affirms Jesus’ God-forsakenness. In her new book on the cross, she puts it like this, in a footnote:

Was Jesus truly forsaken by God on the cross? It may be that Luke omits the cry of dereliction because he does not want to leave the impression that God was actually absent. On this point, Raymond E. Brown offers a stirring insight. He suggests that, in the cry of dereliction, Jesus is experiencing the silence of God even though God is present and “speaking” in the sign of the darkness at noonday, “but Jesus does not hear him“… I have no better commentary than that of Clifton Black: “It seems to me suspect to rush to the Almighty’s defense in Matthew and in Mark, protesting that the apocalyptic ambience of their crucifixion accounts demonstrates that God’s beloved Son was truly not abandoned at three o’clock that afternoon… sub specie aeternitatis, under the appearance of eternity (Spinoza), that is true. Sub specie cruciatus, under the aspect of torturous execution, it is no less true—from the evangelists’ point of view—that Jesus ultimately, faithfully prayed to a God whose presence he could no longer perceive”… Both of these quotations suggest that it was Jesus’ own perception that the Father and withdrawn from him.[1]

1. Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), 98.

“For you will not delight in sacrifice”

September 29, 2015

goldingay_psalmsIn my recent re-reading of Numbers, I noticed something that I had overlooked my entire Christian life: the sacrificial system of ancient Israel never presumed to forgive all sin, only sins of ignorance and uncleanness. As Numbers 15:30 puts it, “But anyone who sins defiantly, whether native-born or foreigner, blasphemes the Lord and must be cut off from the people of Israel.” Defiant, “high-handed,” intentional, or deliberate sin (depending on your translation) isn’t covered by sacrifices, including the sacrifice of the high priest on the Day of Atonement. As the author of Hebrews writes in Hebrews 9:7: “but into the second [room, the Most Holy Place] only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people.”

John Goldingay makes this clear in his commentary on Psalm 51:16-17: “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

Sacrifices can deal with small problems of uncleanness but not serious sin; and sacrifices that express praise and commitment are nonsense when your relationship with God has broken down. When your wife has caught you being unfaithful, a gift of flowers or even a new car is not going to get you anywhere. It’s the same with God. All you can do when you have committed serious sin is cast yourself on God’s grace as someone who is crushed and broken by the price you have paid for your wrongdoing—as the Jerusalem community was in the exile. Then, if God forgives you and answers the prayers that come in the psalm, and does see to the city’s rebuilding, you can recommence your regular life of worship, in which sacrifice has its proper place as an expression of praise and commitment.[1]

Why does this matter? Two reasons: First, it makes better sense of our need for Christ. It’s not as if the old covenant was already sufficient to atone for people’s sins; it was never intended to be. Second, whereas David could only “cast himself on God’s grace,” hoping that the truth about God to which the Old Testament bears witness—that God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness”—would enable him to have a restored relationship, we have the objective certainty that on the cross of God’s Son Jesus, forgiveness for all sin has been made available to all. There’s no hoping, no guesswork.

Again, as Hebrews says, “For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”

What else can we do but praise God when we consider this?

1. John Goldingay, Psalms for Everyone, Part 1 (Louisville: WJK, 2013), 163-4.

Penal substitution and 2 Corinthians 5:21

July 8, 2015

esv_study_bibleMy workaday Bible is the ESV Study Bible, which I recommend to all serious students of the Bible. As I was reading 2 Corinthians 5 this morning, I came upon this helpful exposition of verse 21. The author refers to it as “substitutionary atonement.” I prefer penal substitution because one of the missions of this blog is to reclaim and rehabilitate that classic term from its cultural despisers:

2 Cor. 5:21 This verse is one of the most important in all of Scripture for understanding the meaning of the atonement and justification. Here we see that the one who knew no sin is Jesus Christ (v. 20) and that he (God) made him (Christ) to be sin (Gk. hamartia, “sin”). This means that God the Father made Christ to be regarded and treatedas “sin” even though Christ himself never sinned (Heb. 4:15; cf. Gal. 3:13). Further, we see that God did this for our sake—that is, God regarded and treated “our” sin (the sin of all who would believe in Christ) as if our sin belonged not to us but to Christ himself. Thus Christ “died for all” (2 Cor. 5:14) and, as Peter wrote, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Pet. 2:24). In becoming sin “for our sake,” Christ became our substitute—that is, Christ took our sin upon himself and, as our substitute, thereby bore the wrath of God (the punishment that we deserve) in our place (“for our sake”). Thus the technical term for this foundational doctrine of the Christian faith is the substitutionary atonement—that Christ has provided the atoning sacrifice as “our” substitute, for the sins of all who believe (cf. Rom. 3:23–25). The background for this is Isaiah 53 from the Greek (Septuagint) translation of the Hebrew OT, which includes the most lengthy and detailed OT prophecy of Christ’s death and which contains numerous parallels to 2 Cor. 5:21. Isaiah’s prophecy specifically uses the Greek word for “sin” (Gk. hamartia) five times (as indicated below in italics) with reference to the coming Savior (the suffering servant) in just a few verses—e.g., “surely he has born our griefs” (Isa. 53:4); “He was crushed for our iniquities” (Isa. 53:5); “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6); “he shall bear their iniquities” (Isa. 53:11); “he bore the sin of many” (Isa. 53:12). In a precise fulfillment of this prophecy, Christ became “sin” for those who believe in him, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. This means that just as God imputed our sin and guilt to Christ (“he made him to be sin”) so God also imputes the righteousness of Christ—a righteousness that is not our own—to all who believe in Christ. Because Christ bore the sins of those who believe, God regards and treatsbelievers as having the legal status of “righteousness” (Gk. dikaiosynē). This righteousness belongs to believers because they are “in him,” that is, “in Christ” (e.g., Rom. 3:22; 5:181 Cor. 1:302 Cor. 5:17, 19Phil. 3:9). Therefore “the righteousness of God” (which is imputed to believers) is also the righteousness of Christ—that is, the righteousness and the legal status that belongs to Christ as a result of Christ having lived as one who “knew no sin.” This then is the heart of the doctrine of justification: God regards (or counts) believers as forgiven and God declaresand treats them as forgiven, because God the Father has imputed the believer’s sin to Christ and because God the Father likewise imputes Christ’s righteousness to the believer. (See further notes on Rom. 4:6–85:1810:310:6–8; see also Isa. 53:11: “the righteous one, my servant, [shall] make many to be accounted righteous”).

Sermon 02-22-15: “The Meaning of Christ’s Death”

March 3, 2015

lenten_sermon_series

In today’s scripture, Jesus sheds light on the meaning of his death when he says he came not to serve, but to serve and to “give his life as a ransom for many.” What does it mean that Christ was our ransom for sin? The answer gets to the heart of what we mean when we talk about atonement: how the cross reconciles us to God. My prayer is that this sermon will help us fall in love with Jesus all over again.

Sermon Text: Mark 10:32-45

The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.

Tonight is Oscar night, which means all the biggest stars of Hollywood will turn out to walk the red carpet, and one of them will surely be actor Will Smith, one of the most successful leading men of all time. In an interview this month, Smith was talking about his biggest box office flop, a 2013 science fiction film called After Earth. No, I didn’t see it, either. The weekend after it opened—and he got word how disappointing the box office returns were—he was crushed. He had never failed like that before. But, after a 90-minute workout on his treadmill, he said he had an epiphany: He realized that he was trying to fill a hole in his life with worldly success. He said that for years he had strived to be a bigger star than anyone, and if he achieved that, then and only then would he would have the love his heart yearned for. But after this movie flopped, he realized how shallow this goal was.

will_smith01

So he realized something. He said, “Only love is going to fill that hole. You can’t win enough, you can’t have enough money, you can’t succeed enough. There is not enough. The only thing that will ever satiate that existential thirst is love.” On that day, he said, “I made the shift from wanting to be a winner to wanting to have the most powerful, deep, and beautiful relationships I could possibly have.”

In today’s scripture, James and John aren’t so different from Will Smith. They want glory and power and worldly success. They want to be on top. They want to be winners. And they thought that once Jesus became king—which they knew would happen soon—he could give them all that! Read the rest of this entry »

Being forgiven by God is more than realizing how “forgiving” God already is

December 5, 2014

 

My margin note on the top of page 58 of Adam Hamilton's Not a Silent Night.

My margin note on the top of page 58 of Adam Hamilton’s Not a Silent Night.

I realize I’m in danger of making penal substitution a hobby horse on this blog. I’m happy to do so, however, given the important theological questions at stake: Did Jesus’ death on the cross accomplish something objective, which deals once and for all with with humanity’s problem—my problem—with sin?

Or is the cross effective only inasmuch as it inspires us to change? In other words, does the effectiveness of the cross depend on our response to it?

What’s at stake, therefore, is the question of whether or not the Atonement is objective or subjective.

hamilton2I hope for my sake that the Atonement is objective. If the effectiveness of the cross depends on my weak and waffling response to it—even after 30 years of being a baptized, professing Christian—I’m afraid I’m in trouble.

That is, unless our sins aren’t really a problem for God after all. But if that were so, how do we make sense of most of the Bible, not least of which Romans 1-7? More on that in a moment.

In his new book on Christmas, Not a Silent Night, Adam Hamilton sides with those who believe that the Atonement is subjective. He writes:

Precisely how Jesus’ death saves is a mystery; there are multiple theories of the Atonement, and each carries some important truths. Some view the Atonement—God’s use of the cross to redeem, forgive, and restore us—as though it were a mathematical, economic, or juridical formula. But to me the cross makes the most sense when I recognize it more as poetry, as a divine drama meant to touch our hearts, move us to repentance, and lead us to acceptance of the truth that we are sinners and Jesus is our Savior. It is meant to lead us to accept a love and mercy that we don’t deserve and cannot afford. And it is meant to lead us to an assurance that he has, in the famous words of John Wesley, “taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”[1]

Elsewhere Hamilton writes, “Sin alienates us from God, but on the cross God was seeking to help us see the seriousness of our sin, the costliness of our forgiveness, and the magnitude of his love.”[2]

This is about as succinct a statement of the subjective theory of Atonement called “moral influence” as I’ve read. And I don’t disagree that the cross, to some extent, does these things. But notice the emphasis is almost entirely on how we respond to what God has done on the cross: we’re “touched” and “moved,” until we are “helped to see” and “led to accept.”

One of the things that the cross “leads us to accept,” Hamilton says, is the truth that Jesus is our Savior. But I wonder if he isn’t begging the question: Saved how? Saved from what?

If Hamilton is right that the objective theories of Atonement get it wrong—reduced, so he says, to “mathematical, economic, or juridical” formulae—then we are saved from our ignorance: ignorance of our sins, ignorance of the costliness of God’s forgiveness, ignorance of how much God loves us. And how are we saved? Hamilton implies that we’re saved when the cross melts our hardened hearts, and we finally see the truth.

While he’s not entirely wrong, his words don’t go nearly far enough: I would say that we mostly need to saved from our sins themselves—not our ignorance of them or anything else!

Hamilton says that our sin alienates us from God. And I agree, but why does it alienate us? Paul answers this question nicely in his Letter to the Romans: God is holy; God has justifiable wrath toward sin; God is committed to seeing to it that justice is fully and finally done. Among other things, this means that sin must be judged and punished. God was telling the truth in Genesis 2:17 when he warned Adam that eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil would lead to death. Paul, inspired as he was by the Spirit, was telling the truth when he said in Romans 3:23 that the wages of sin is death.

Hamilton says that our sins are a serious problem, but they only seem to be problem from our side of the relationship: again, they prevent us from “seeing” properly. If our sins are a problem on God’s side, Hamilton doesn’t say.

Instead, from Hamilton’s perspective, being forgiven isn’t a matter of accepting God’s gift of forgiveness made possible by Christ’s costly, atoning death on the cross, which he suffered willingly out of an incomprehensible love for us; rather, being forgiven is a matter of realizing how “forgiving” God already is.

Which of these alternatives makes better sense of the biblical witness?

1. Adam Hamilton, Not a Silent Night (Nashville: Abingdon, 2014), 57-8.

2. Ibid., 60.

“‘Til on that cross as Jesus died…”

March 17, 2014

Yesterday I preached on James 2:14-26, which includes Abraham’s offering of Isaac as a sacrifice as evidence of faith and good works “cooperating” with one another. Since I preach Christ crucified in every sermon these days (and I’m sorry for those early years in which I didn’t), I used the Abraham story to make an obvious connection to the cross:

Now consider this: God didn’t ask Abraham to do anything that God himself wasn’t willing to do—when God the Father sent his only Son Jesus to the cross in order to pay the price for our sins, our disobedience, to ransom us from death and hell, to win a victory for us over the forces of evil, and bring us into a saving relationship with God.

By doing so, hasn’t God proven how much he loves you and me?

In these two sentences, you can see that I covered a few different atonement bases (including Christus Victor and moral influence), but my central message, as always, was penal substitution or “substitutionary atonement”: that on the cross Christ takes our place, pays the penalty for our sin, suffers God’s justifiable anger over sin and evil, and meets the demand for justice. In classic Reformed language, the cross satisfies God’s wrath.

As is my wont, I recently got into an online argument with a fellow United Methodist pastor who believes that penal substitution is a misguided way of understanding atonement. That’s putting it mildly. He actually says, among other things:

If God will not forgive us until his Son has been tortured to death for us then God is a lot less forgiving than even we are sometimes.

If society feels itself somehow compensated for its loss by the satisfaction of watching the sufferings of a criminal, then society is being vengeful in a pretty infantile way.

And if God is satisfied and compensated for sin by the suffering of mankind in Christ, God must be even more infantile.

This is me, making the gagging motion with my hand to my mouth.

This pastor/blogger is a smart and theologically well-educated guy, and he knows better than to reduce substitutionary atonement to this kind of caricature. I called him on it in the comments section. He allowed that while there was a “place for God’s wrath” when discussing atonement, it’s “inconsistent” with God’s character for us to make God’s wrath, or justice, or punishment for sin a central motif of the cross.

If he were merely saying that we need to emphasize God’s love above all else, well, I completely agree! But what’s more loving than a God who pays with his very life the debt that we ourselves are unable to pay? As I said in yesterday’s sermon, we can’t comprehend God’s grace without knowing why God needs to be gracious toward us in the first place!

To me, my fellow pastor’s viewpoint trivializes the problem of sin, but he’s hardly alone in doing so. In fact, while penal substitution has always been the primary way that Protestants have understood atonement (not that Catholics haven’t also emphasized it), I’ve read many contemporary Protestants who speak as if this emphasis misreads the Bible and the history of Christian thought. They say that no one considered substitutionary atonement until Anselm in the 11th century, and then Thomas Aquinas came along and set him straight. And that it wasn’t until the 16th century, when the Reformers came along, that penal substitution became a central doctrine among a minority of the Church.

Is that right? Have we gotten the Bible and tradition so badly wrong?

A resounding “no” on both counts, and if you doubt it, read this fine essay by Presbyterian theologian Robert Gagnon, who was himself responding to last year’s controversy over the PCUSA’s decision to reject “In Christ Alone” from their new hymnal.

He makes his primary biblical case from Romans 1:18-3:20. Among other things he writes:

The message here has everything to do with the debt that humans incur before God for their wrongdoing and nothing to do with paying off a debt to Satan. Lest one miss the point that God is an active judge in all this, Paul adds a quotation from Prov 24:12 (= Ps 62:11): God “will repay to each in accordance with his works” (2:6). It is not as if death and permanent exclusion from God is merely a natural or mechanistic outgrowth of one’s choices over which God has no active involvement. God actively repays. And what does God repay to the impenitent? Paul is clear: “wrath and fury” (2:8) and “affliction and distress” (2:9). By “wrath” he clearly means the punishment that God actively inflicts of exclusion from eternal life (note the contrast with “eternal life” in 2:7). Later in ch. 2 Paul refers to “the day when God judges the hidden things of people” (2:16)…

After showing in 1:18-3:20 that all humanity rightly stands under God’s wrath and deserving of God’s cataclysmic judgment because of their sins, Paul offers in Rom 3:21-26 what is arguably the single most important unfolding of the core gospel in the Pauline corpus. According to Paul (and it is “according to Paul” whether or not there is a hymnic fragment in 3:25-26a), we are

24being justified (= pronounced righteous) as a gift by his (= God’s) grace through the redemption [or: the ransoming] that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God set before himself as an amends-making offering [or: propitiatory gift, atoning sacrifice] in [= by] his blood, through faith, for an indication of his righteousness, because of the letting go of the previously occurring sins 26in God’s holding back…

As Gagnon makes clear here, humanity owes a debt to God alone (and not Satan, as a version of the “ransom theory” holds), which means, among other things, that the “ransom” that God the Son pays, he pays to God the Father. And God’s wrath isn’t simply letting human beings suffer the natural consequences of sinful choices (as some theologians and pastors argue): God actively punishes.

What’s the objection to this? That sin isn’t a big enough deal for God to be so concerned, much less angry? How does that not minimize the crisis of sin and evil?

Dr. Gagnon even takes issue with an idea that has become conventional wisdom in mainline seminaries:

It is commonplace for theologians to claim that there are many different ways of conceiving the atonement, of which “penal substitution” is only one alongside of many others such as redemption, justification, reconciliation, victory over spiritual powers and Christ-as-example. This is an instance where theologians are commonly wrong, confusing the results or effects of the atonement (or, in the case of Christ as example, not even an effect) with the atonement proper. Paul indicates here that believers are justified “through” or “by means of” something. From the Godward side it is “by his grace” and from the human side it is “through faith.” When talking about the Christward side it is “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,” a means that is further clarified as God setting “Christ before himself as an amends-making offering by his blood (i.e., death).”

For example, the popular “Christus Victor” theory of atonement argues that the cross is the means by which God won a decisive victory over sin, Satan, and the forces of evil. Well, yes… But how is this victory won? What happened on the cross to make this victory possible?

What happened is that Christ took our place and suffered God’s wrath on our behalf, thereby liberating us from sin and Satan and the forces of evil that enslaved us. To say that a “victory” is a means makes no sense. Christ’s substitutionary death is the means.

In an appendix to his essay, Gagnon also gives the lie to the popular myth that Christian theologians never considered penal substitution prior to Anselm. He quotes heavy hitters like Eusebius, Athanasius, Chrysostom, and Augustine, who expressed the idea of “satisfying God’s wrath,” even if they didn’t use those words.

“Cutting little deals with God”

March 3, 2014

In my sermon yesterday, I borrowed an analogy from Tim Keller to speak about our idolatrous impulse to “fill up our spiritual tanks” on some “fuel” other than the things of God. “Everything we need to fill up our tanks,” I said, “comes from God alone—and he doesn’t charge us for it, and we can’t pay him for it, and we don’t have to earn it. It’s all grace.” Continuing:

I’ll be honest: As a man, I have a hard time trusting that my value, my worth, comes from Christ alone by grace, and not from my own strength, my own work ethic, my own intellect—not from anything I can do or accomplish or pay for. It wounds my pride to have a debt that I can’t pay. So I sometimes live my Christian life as if I am earning God’s love, as if I am paying him back.

And then when I fall short and sin, I feel terribly guilty! Like how could God forgive me this time—I mean, sure, I needed God’s grace to forgive my previous 14,326 sins, but I’ve been paying my own way since then, and somehow I’m still in the red with God. Surely God will grow weary of continuing to bail me out, right?

Of course not—the cross of his Son Jesus has covered all my sins, past, present, and future. So when it comes to sin, we repent and move on, confident that God nailed every sin of ours to the cross of his Son Jesus!

Have you noticed I’ve been preaching the cross in nearly every sermon I’ve delivered over the past few years? I confess it feels a bit unfashionable—certainly nothing I learned at mainline Protestant seminary prepared me to do this—but I don’t care: On the cross, God did something objective, once and for all, to pay the debt of our sin for those who accept his gift of forgiveness. I care less for what particular theory of atonement you hold (though I have my strong opinions!) than that you affirm that the cross is the objective means by which we are reconciled to God.

In a series of helpful blog posts, the Gospel Coalition’s Trevin Wax (a Southern Baptist) has been reflecting on issues pertaining to atonement theology, including this one about propitiation. I’ve heard a few seminary-educated United Methodists argue passionately that Christ was not offered as propitiation for our sins. I guess it gets back to that old “cosmic child abuse” caricature of penal substitution—who knows? The idea of Christ as propitiation seems uncontroversial to me.

I especially liked this part from his blog, which reminds me of what I said in yesterday’s sermon. Indeed, we are not “big enough or good enough to propitiate the true God,” and our sin “isn’t small enough to be set aside by those little offerings.”

One reason it’s so important to grasp what biblical propitiation is, is so that we can make sure our plan is the biblical one rather than one of our own devising.

In daily life there is a constant temptation to ignore Christ as our God-given propitiation, and to seek other ways of cutting little deals with God, to curry his favor and appease his wrath, to give him something he’ll like so he’ll at least refrain from smiting us, and maybe even reward us with various blessings and goodies.

Don’t do this.

To lapse into pagan modes of propitiation is to take way too much onto your own shoulders (you’re not big enough or good enough to propitiate the true God) and attempt to solve it with entirely inappropriate resources (your sin isn’t small enough to be set aside by those little offerings).

Everybody needs a plan for getting on the right side of the gods. But if the true God has made his character known as it is found in the Bible, then there’s only one way of propitiation: the one that God himself put forward in the blood of Jesus, to be received by faith, the one who is his only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.