Posts Tagged ‘Christus Victor’

A nice defense of penal substitution

November 18, 2014

In this fine blog post, “The Beauty of the Cross: 19 Objections and Answers on Penal Substitution Atonement,” Derek Rishmawy answers every objection to PSA that I’ve read.

The objection that’s closest to my heart—in that I struggle with it myself—is #4: How is moral guilt transferable from sinful humanity to Christ? I agree with C.S. Lewis, who said that it’s far more important to understand that it happened than to understand how it happened. After all, we’re delving into the deepest mysteries of God. Why do we imagine it would be easy to understand?

Even still…

Although the transfer of guilt accords with scripture, especially the Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah 53, it isn’t quite satisfying to answer, “Because the Bible tells me so.” As an evangelical, I’m willing to live with that answer if that’s all I’ve got, but Rishmawy offers much more.

We already believe that Christ represents humanity in so many other ways, including the fact that Christ wins his victory over sin, evil, and death on our behalf—and his appeal to early Church Father Irenaeus’s view of recapitulation is precisely on point. Proponents of the “Christus Victor” theory of atonement could hardly object that Christ can represent us in this one way but not in the other.

The key for Rishmawy is this: whereas a merely human being can’t suffer moral guilt in place of someone else, Christ is no mere human: he is also fully God. This is why courtroom analogies break down. What Christ does on the cross is unique, without adequate analogy, because he is fully human and fully God.

Here’s Rishmawy’s full response to this objection:

4. Classically, some have objected that PSA is morally repugnant because moral guilt is not transferable. It is wicked to punish the guilty in the place of the innocent. In response to this, some have noted that some forms of debt are transferable. People can pay off each other’s financial debts all the time. Why not Christ? Well, as long as it is thought of financially, yes, that seems unproblematic. But moral debt seems different and non-transferable. We are not usually supposed to punish the guilty in the place of the innocent. At this point, it seems that a few things ought to be made clear.

First, Jesus is the Christ, not just any other person. Christ is not just a name; it is a title meaning “Messiah”, the Anointed King. In the biblical way of thinking, kings of nations stood in a special representative relationship with their people. As N.T. Wright says, when you come to the phrase “In the Messiah” in the NT, then, you have to think “what is true of the King, was true of the people.” So, if the King won a victory, then so did the people, and so forth. The King was able to assume responsibility for the fate of a people in a way that no other person could. This is the underlying logic at work in the Bible text. We do not think this way because we are modern, hyper-individualists, but he is the one in whom his people are summed up.

Though sadly this gets left out of many popular accounts of PSA, this is actually what classic, Reformed covenant theology is about. Jesus occupies a unique moral space precisely as the mediator of the new covenant relationship. Most people cannot take responsibility for the guilt of others in such a way that they can discharge their obligations on their behalf. Jesus can because he is both God and Man, and the New Adam, who is forging a new relationship between humanity and God. This, incidentally, is just a variation on Irenaeus’ theology of recapitulation (re-headship). As all die in Adam, so all are given life in Christ (Rom. 5:12-20). If Christ dies a penal death for sins, then those who are in Christ die that death with him (2 Cor 5:14). His relationship is, as they say, sui generis, in its own category.

This is where modern, popular analogies drawn from the lawcourt fail us. We ought not to think of Christ dying to deal with the sins of people as some simple swap of any random innocent person for a bunch of guilty people. It is the death of the King who can legally represent his people in a unique, but appropriate fashion before the bar of God’s justice. He is our substitute because he is our representative. Strictly speaking there are no proper analogies, but there is a moral logic that is deeply rooted in the biblical narrative.

Billy Graham wasn’t wrong to emphasize Jesus as a “personal Savior”

September 15, 2014


A pastor friend of mine asked me to share my thoughts on this blog post about contemporary evangelism by a Northern Seminary professor named David Fitch.

Fitch opposes “formulaic” presentations of the gospel, “[w]hether it be a Billy Graham Crusade, a Seeker Service or a 4 Spirtual Laws booklet,” because they rely on “techniques to convince someone of their need/sinfulness and a process for receiving the gospel. Today, among the masses, these techniques are perceived (most often) as coercive.” Worse, because the goal of these techniques is to convince someone of the truth of the gospel, they effectively “deny the prevenient work of the Holy Spirit.”

Let us always believe God is drawing people to Himself, including us through our non-believing friends. Then let us tend to His presence by being present to the other person allowing for His presence between us. This space then becomes the arena for the in breaking Kingdom.  Evangelism happens in the space of His presence between us and other people, not in a coerced set-up presentation.

He also believes that it’s time to abandon or at least deemphasize “forensic” theories of atonement such as penal substitution in favor of the Christus Victor model, which emphasizes the victory that God has inaugurated over the powers of sin, death, evil, and violence.

Substitutionary models of atonement in my opinion (and this includes Anselm) were later contextualizations (not that there is anything wrong with that). Their forensic nature connects less and less with cultures of the West. Expand your understanding of the gospel. Read Scot McKnight, NT Wright, Gustaf Auelen as a start.  Come to see evangelism as the inviting of people into the world where Jesus is Lord, not merely leading people to accept Jesus as their “personal” Savior.

Finally, he argues that evangelism should be aimed less at convincing people of the truth of the gospel than proclaiming that truth and letting the Holy Spirit do the heavy lifting within the non-Christian’s heart.

I think I’ve fairly represented his argument.

As for my response, if you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you can probably predict it. First, I disagree strongly that substitutionary atonement was some medieval innovation by Anselm with which we Protestants later fell in love. I believe it is the primary (though hardly exclusive) biblical way to understand how the cross of Christ reconciles us to God. Christus Victor is fine and true enough, but it doesn’t offer an explanation of how the victory of the cross happens.

Wherever we come down on atonement, I would insist that we emphasize that God has done something—objectively, once and for all—to take care of my guilt (and your guilt) for the sins that I’ve committed (and you’ve committed). This is incredibly good news to me personally, so if that means that I overemphasize Jesus as a “personal” Savior, well, so be it.

How can the gospel not be deeply personal? Eternity hangs in the balance of a person’s decision to accept or reject God’s offer of salvation through Christ. What a relief that God has done something through the cross of his Son that saves me from the eternal consequences of my sin!

Billy Graham and his fellow evangelicals didn’t invent the doctrine of hell, and Jesus himself spoke about it more than anyone in scripture. Was Jesus being coercive when he did so?

Well, I’ve covered all this ground before. If you have doubts about penal substitution and its central place in scripture, please see Dr. Robert Gagnon’s excellent essay, which I discuss and link to here.

Here’s what I wrote, rather quickly, to my pastor friend (who agrees with me):

Thanks for the link. I actually disagree… Strongly, I’m afraid. How would we (in the mainline especially) know whether the Billy Graham approach works anymore? When was the last time anyone tried it? We can “be present” with non-Christians all we want… At some point we must use words to share the gospel. This author’s words have a nice post-modern ring to them, but they seem to endorse the status quo of evangelism is mainline churches. The status quo doesn’t work.

As for substitutionary atonement versus Christus Victor, first, it doesn’t have to be one or the other, but I’m sorry: each of us must confront the fact that we are sinners. Christus Victor doesn’t say how the cross reconciles us to God, only that it does. How? What happens? To the credit of “forensic” models of atonement, they purport to offer an explanation—one which, frankly, is writ large across Paul’s letter to the Romans and which makes good sense of the suffering servant of Isaiah 53.

Any atonement model that fails to say that each of us is a sinner who needs God to have accomplished something objective on the cross to deal with our “personal” sin against a holy God is deficient, in my opinion. Substitutionary atonement does that very well. And Tim Keller is one of the world’s great preachers, in my view, because he communicates that clearly in every sermon!

And I’m tired of the old knock against the “personal” Savior and Scot McKnight’s put-down of what he calls the “soterian” gospel. Of course the gospel is deeply personal to those whose lives have been changed by Jesus! It’s personal first of all… then we can talk about where we go from there!

Is there any decision that an individual can make that’s more important than to accept God’s gift of salvation through Christ? Unless there is, don’t tell me Billy Graham has been surpassed!

The words about how the old model fails to depend on the Holy Spirit? Oh please! Should we instead do a really crummy job presenting the gospel—one which fails to address felt needs of an individual’s life, one that is unclear and confusing—because, if people still convert in spite of our efforts, then we’ll know that the Holy Spirit was responsible?

“The Hunger Games” and the cross

April 2, 2012

I guess I’ve been living in a cave for the past few years because I only just read The Hunger Games last week. I stayed up until four in the morning on Friday to finish it. It’s a breathtakingly good and important book. Why didn’t somebody tell me?

I saw the movie, a surprisingly faithful adaptation, last night. (The novel’s author, Suzanne Collins, co-wrote the screenplay.) It goes without saying that it’s not nearly as full-bodied as the book—not to mention horrifying—but how could it be? The novel is a first-person narrative. Unless Katniss narrated the drama through internal monologues—I’m sure contemporary audiences would love that!—the movie would naturally miss many of the nuances. This ain’t Twilight, after all, even if it is marketed to young adult audiences. My advice, as always, is to read the book first.

Since I’m always looking for sermon illustrations, and vicarious suffering is an important theme of the book, The Hunger Games was a natural tie-in to yesterday’s sermon related to Good Friday. How original! I bet I was the only preacher in America yesterday who thought of using Hunger Games in a sermon illustration! 😉

But I was original… I used it for not one but two illustrations. One young teenager in my congregation told me afterward that while I mostly got the book right—I had to quickly summarize the premise in a couple of paragraphs—there were a couple of small details I got wrong, including Katniss’s age. I confused her with Gale and said she was 18, and that this was her last year of eligibility for the Games. (I’m just glad that a teenager was listening!)

I used the fact that Katniss volunteered for the Games (and thus to die, or so she thought) to save her little sister—an exchange of one life for another—as a way of talking about Jesus, Barabbas, and substitutionary atonement. As Adam Hamilton said, “Barabbas is the first sinner for whom Jesus died.” That was an easy point to make.

But I went further than that. In case you think I’m not a good Methodist, and I’m hung up on penal substitution, I found another atonement theme in the book, less obvious but clearly present. If you’re a theology geek who’s keeping score at home, this theory of atonement is traditionally called Christus Victor: On the cross, God won a decisive victory over sin, evil, and death. Through faith in Christ, we get to share in that victory. Christus Victor is a biblical motif, fully compatible with and complementary to penal substitution.

Here’s how I described it in my sermon:

Katniss and her friend Peeta, a fellow Hunger Games “contestant,” contemplate what’s about to happen to them the next morning, after the Capitol sends them off to the arena to fight to the death. Peeta tries to tell Katniss how he wants to die, but he can’t find the words. Peeta says, “‘I don’t know how to say it exactly. Only… I want to die as myself. Does that make any sense?’” But it doesn’t make sense to Katniss, at least not at first. She wonders, “How could he die as anyone but himself?” Peeta explains: “‘I don’t want them to change me in there. Turn me into some into some kind of monster that I’m not.… I keep wishing I could think of a way to… to show the Capitol they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their Games.’”[1]

The two of them will spend the rest of novel demonstrating a willingness to die as themselves—to not let this evil system change them, own them, or turn them into monsters. To refuse to become just another tool in their enemies’ twisted game. To refuse to let the system prevent them from loving and showing compassion—no matter what it does to them. And in so doing, they defeat the system. Love defeats the system. Love conquers their enemies.

And in a similar way, on the cross, all the evil forces of the world conspired to do their very worst against God’s only begotten Son—to make God the Son become something other than what he was: the embodiment of Love Itself. They did their very worst to change him, to own him, to turn him into a monster, to make him into another tool for the Enemy. And they failed. Christ won the victory. Love won the victory. Christ defeated sin and death. Love defeated sin and death. God defeated sin and death… On our behalf.

That’s not bad, right? Someone might object that, at the end of the first novel at least (I haven’t read the other two), the evil system that Katniss and Peeta “defeated” continues unabated. It’s not like The Capitol decides to call off The Hunger Games forevermore.

Two responses: First, Katniss refers to her Hunger Games victory as a “defeat” of the Hunger Games[2]—perhaps only one defeat in a larger war, but a defeat nonetheless. And I suspect that Suzanne Collins will show through the next two novels that Katniss and Peeta’s victory for love has sown seeds of the Hunger Games’ (and The Capitol’s) destruction. But don’t tell me… I still need to read the books!

My second response is that sin, evil, and death, likewise, seem to continue unabated in our world, despite what Christ accomplished on the cross. The whole creation groans with labor pains, as Paul writes, waiting for Christ’s victory to become manifest. In this in-between time, we suffer and wait patiently. But we do so with hope.

[1] Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games (New York: Scholastic, 2008), 141-2.

[2] Ibid., 358. “Funny, in the arena, when I poured out those berries, I was only thinking of outsmarting the Gamemakers, not how my actions would reflect on the Capitol. But their Hunger Games are their weapon and you are not supposed to be able to defeat it.”