Posts Tagged ‘penal substitution’

Sermon 10-29-17: “Christ Alone, Part 2”

November 2, 2017

This is the second of two sermons on this passage from Hebrews 2, and the final sermon in my “Reformation 500” series. Among other things the author of Hebrews says that on the cross, Jesus “destroye[d] the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil.” How is this true, especially since Satan remains alive and active in our world? How did Christ win a victory for us?

Sermon Text: Hebrews 2:5-18

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Think back with me to the Exodus, when God delivered his people Israel out of bondage in Egypt. If you’ll recall, he sent a series of ten plagues as punishment against Egypt, until finally the Pharaoh relented and let Israel go free. And then the Pharaoh changed his mind and sent his armies after the Israelites, before being drowned in the Red Sea. But the climactic and most destructive plague—you may remember—was the Passover. Remember? The Lord told the Israelites in Exodus 12 to take the blood of a lamb, without blemish, and sprinkle the blood on their doorposts. An angel would then pass through the land and kill the firstborn son of every household that didn’t have blood on the doorposts—which would mean many, many Egyptians would die. And of course, this final plague was so effective that the Pharaoh let them go… at least at first.

When we read or hear about this event, we think of God’s anger toward and judgment against Egypt. Right? “The Egyptians are getting what they deserve for their sins! God is punishing them!” But not so fast… If the Passover were all about God’s anger toward and judgment on Egypt—if it were all about punishing Egypt for their sins—why would God bother having the Israelites sprinkle this blood? Couldn’t he just have sent the angel through the land and killed all the firstborn Egyptian sons? Why did the Israelites have to do anything? They were the good guys, right? They were the heroes! They were the innocent victims!

Right?

Wrong… It’s clear that if the Israelites hadn’t obeyed God and sprinkled the blood on the doorposts, they would have fallen under the same judgment as Egypt. Their firstborn children would have died as well. To be sure, God was incredibly merciful and gracious to give Israel the opportunity to be spared this judgment. But in sparing them God was not giving them what they deserved. Like the Egyptians, they too deserved death because of their sins. And their lives were only spared by the blood of the lamb. Their deliverance from slavery and death was made possible through an act of God’s grace by the blood of the lamb.

And it should be clear to us Christians why God did it this way: to point to that future sacrifice, when God himself, in the person of his Son Jesus, would shed his own blood to spare us from God’s judgment. The prophet Isaiah, in Isaiah 53, looks forward to Jesus’ sacrifice when he says that Christ was “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter.”[1] John the Baptist looks forward to Jesus’ sacrifice when he sees Jesus coming in John chapter 1 and says to his own disciples, “Behold, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Jesus looks forward to this sacrifice when he has the Last Supper with his disciples—which was a Passover meal—and he says, “This is my body and this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”[2] Jesus is telling the disciples that he will be the Passover lamb.

The Bible’s message is crystal clear: If God is going to forgive us, justify us, save us, deliver us, liberate us, give us eternal life, give us abundant life—however you want to phrase it—he is first going to have to deal with our sins by offering the bloody sacrifice of the lamb of God, Jesus Christ. On the cross, Christ absorbed God’s wrath—God’s justifiable anger—toward sin.

I talked about God’s wrath two weeks ago in my sermon two weeks ago, but I realize that some of us don’t even want to consider the idea that God has wrath toward humanity because of our sins. But what’s the alternative? Some will say, “God is love. So why would he be angry at us because of our sin?” But of course, he wouldn’t be loving if he weren’t angry. N.T. Wright makes this point in the following way:

The biblical doctrine of God’s wrath is rooted in the doctrine of God as the good, wise and loving creator, who hates—yes, hates, and hates implacably—anything that spoils, defaces, distorts or damages his beautiful creation, and in particular anything that does that to his image-bearing creatures. If God does not hate racial prejudice, he is neither good nor loving. If God is not wrathful at child abuse, he is neither good nor loving. If God is not utterly determined to root out from his creation… the arrogance that allows people to exploit, bomb, bully and enslave one another, he is neither loving, nor good, nor wise.[3]

But… if God is going to “root out” all this evil, well… he’s going to have root us out as well! What does the psalmist say? “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?”[4] And the answer? None of us!

But please, please, please don’t miss this: While it’s absolutely true that every one of us who’ve ever lived—with one exception—deserve God’s judgment and God’s wrath because we’re sinners, in the same breath we also say that God so loved the world—including us—that he planned before the foundation of the world to save us from God’s judgment and God’s wrath. We know just how loving God is by his willingness to come to us, in the flesh, and absorb his Father’s wrath, suffer the penalty for our sin, and suffer hell on the cross! For us! As the Bible says, “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”[5]

Now I want to look at two things that the author of Hebrews says Christ accomplished for us on the cross: First, verses 14 and 15, through his death he destroyed “the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver[ed] all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” And in verse 17, he became our “faithful high priest” who made “propitiation for the sins of the people.” I talked about “propitiation” in Part 1 of this sermon: this is what Christ did to turn away God’s wrath from us—sprinkling the blood of the lamb on the doorposts during Passover, for example, was propitiation.

But the author of Hebrews wants us to know that these two events—the defeat of Satan and the turning away of God’s wrath—are related. How?

For one thing, as we look around the world and scan the news headlines, it seems clear that Satan is alive and active in the world. And, as I’ve preached before, the Bible is clear that the devil has real power in the world. God’s Word says that in the beginning, Satan was an angel, created by God with free will, who chose to use his freedom to rebel against God—along with other angels. And like us, Satan can use this freedom to work great harm in the world. He has a limited power, to be sure—Satan can’t do anything in the world that God doesn’t permit him to do. And whatever Satan does, God can transform it into something good. But he does have real power to affect our world and our lives within it.

I was listening to an interview recently with Alvin Plantinga. He’s a world-renown philosopher who’s argued persuasively for God’s existence and the truth of Christianity. Plantinga has taught at Notre Dame and Calvin College. He also happens to be an evangelical Christian. And just this year, he won the Templeton Prize, which is awarded to the person who’s made the greatest contribution in the area of religion and spirituality—Mother Teresa, for example, was a previous winner of the Templeton Prize. The award is presented by Prince Philip at Buckingham Palace. And the cash award is over $1.5 million. It’s a big deal!

But I was listening recently to an interview with Dr. Plantinga. And he was talking about the “problem of evil,” and how a good and loving God could allow it. And he talked about how important it was for God to give us free will, which helps explain human evil. But then the interviewer asked about so-called “natural evil”—hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, and the like. Or what about diseases like cancer. Why would a good and loving God allow those things? And Dr. Plantinga said, “I know this isn’t a popular answer today, but I believe those kinds of events happen in part through the power and influence of Satan.”[6]

That blew me away! But then I looked back at Job chapters 1 and 2: Satan literally has the power to affect the weather and cause all kinds of disease and pestilence. It’s right there in the Bible!

But as bad as these things are, they’re not nearly the most harmful weapon in Satan’s arsenal. What does Jesus say? “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”[7] No disease, no pestilence, no natural disaster has the power to cause any of us ultimate harm: Because none of these things—even if they kill us—has the power to send us to hell. Only one thing can do that: our sin. And Satan is at work in the world right now doing everything he can to keep us enslaved to sin; keep us from repenting of sin; keep us from trusting in Christ and being saved. Or, if we’ve possessed saving faith in the past, he’s tempting us right now to abandon our faith.

Satan’s power to tempt us is the most destructive weapon in his arsenal. And he’s still wielding that weapon. So how is that Christ’s death has destroyed “the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil,” as verse 14 says?

Because of what the author of Hebrews says in verse 17: Christ became our “merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” Through Christ’s sacrifice—offered once for all time—all of our sins, past, present, and future, have been taken away.

At Bible study last Wednesday, we were talking about the pervasiveness of sin in our lives—even after we’ve become Christians. We talked about the importance of repenting of our sins as we become aware of them. As the apostle John says, “If we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”[8] And someone asked, “What if, despite our best efforts to confess our sins and repent, we die with unconfessed sin? Will we still be forgiven? Will we still be saved?”

What do you think? How would you answer that question?

Before we answer that question, consider this: we can’t begin to know all the sins we’ve committed in this life—even the sins we’ve committed this morning! Even in church! We’re not just talking about the things we do. We sin with every judgmental thought; we sin with every lustful thought; we sin with every prideful thought. We sin when we lose our temper. We sin when we lose our patience. We sin every time we fail to trust in the Lord with all our heart and lean not on our own understanding. We sin when our love for God and neighbor isn’t one-hundred percent pure! How often do we manage to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and our neighbor as ourself? Not often.

So… will we die with unconfessed sin? Of course we will. Will we still be forgiven?

The answer is a resounding yes! We will be forgiven, so long as we continue to trust in Christ!

How do I know? Because Christ our high priest has made propitiation for the sins of his people—all of our sins—past, present, and future! The Old Testament has a sacrificial system in which priests offered the blood of bulls and goats, but the author of Hebrews tells us that these sacrifices were just a “shadow of the good things to come… For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”[9] But Christ’s sacrifice was different: as the author says in chapter 10, verse 10, “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”[10]

Once for all! Did you hear that?

I’ve told you before that I was adopted. I always knew, from my earliest memory, that I was adopted. So I never thought much about it. Until around fourth grade when some of my classmates found out. And let’s just say back then schools were not a “Bully Free Zone.” As far as we knew, when you were bullied, you fought back. And so I did. I got in a fistfight. I got sent to the principal. And my parents got involved, and suddenly the fact that I was adopted became a very big deal!

And my parents wanted me to know that I was one-hundred percent a full-fledged member of their family. In fact, they said I was extra special because, after all, unlike a natural born baby, I was chosen. They “chose” me. I’ll be honest: even as a ten-year-old I didn’t quite believe I was chosen: I didn’t imagine that they rolled out a bunch of basinets in the maternity ward at the hospital and told my parents, “Take your pick.” I figured my parents would have been happy with any baby they got. But still… I got their point.

I was a one-hundred percent, full-fledged member of the family. In a sense, I was chosen. And everything that belonged to my parents and my older sister Susan, who wasn’t adopted, now belonged to me: including their name and everything else. And one thing is for sure: my adoptive parents would have sacrificed their lives for me if they had to—just as I would for my own children.

The same is true of the One who adopted us and made us part of his family. Look at verse 11 of today’s scripture: “For he who sanctifies”—that is, Jesus—“and those who are sanctified”—that is, those of us who’ve accepted Christ as our Savior and Lord—“all have one source”—or as the NIV and other translations put it, we all have the same Father. Now listen to this: “That is why he”—Jesus—“is not ashamed to call them brothers” and sisters.

Everything that belongs to our big brother Jesus now belongs to us—including his very righteousness. It’s not that we Christians don’t sin, but from God’s perspective, we are as holy as his Son Jesus.

So… what can Satan do to us now? He can accuse us. His name means “Accuser,” after all. He can say, “When you die, God’s not going to save you. Look at all these sins you’ve committed!” He can remind you, again and again, of your past sins and try to make you afraid of meeting God in Final Judgment after death. But if you’re in Christ, you’re in his family now. And your adoption papers are signed in the blood of the Lamb.

So Satan’s power over you is destroyed. Amen?

Why can’t God forgive sin without the cross?

October 28, 2017

As I’ve argued on this blog many times before, I’m a proponent of the doctrine of penal substitution, or penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). I believe that it isn’t merely one way of understanding what God accomplished through his Son Jesus Christ on the cross—as if we can choose among several equally compelling alternatives: it’s the main way of understanding the Atonement.

In advocating for PSA, I’m standing on the shoulders not only of the Protestant Reformers but also Jacob Arminius, John Wesley, and most of the classic Methodist theologians who followed in their wake.

But these are only men, of course. More than anything, I believe PSA is most faithful to the Bible, and its depiction of the way in which God reconciles us to himself.

PSA means that, ultimately, we sinners need to be saved from God’s wrath, which is God’s perfectly justifiable anger toward sin. (I preached on that topic last week.) Notice I say “perfectly justifiable.” I like the way N.T. Wright puts it in this essay:

The biblical doctrine of God’s wrath is rooted in the doctrine of God as the good, wise and loving creator, who hates—yes, hates, and hates implacably—anything that spoils, defaces, distorts or damages his beautiful creation, and in particular anything that does that to his image-bearing creatures. If God does not hate racial prejudice, he is neither good nor loving. If God is not wrathful at child abuse, he is neither good nor loving. If God is not utterly determined to root out from his creation, in an act of proper wrath and judgment, the arrogance that allows people to exploit, bomb, bully and enslave one another, he is neither loving, nor good, nor wise.

But how can we be saved from this wrath?

We need a human representative to endure it for us—one who is himself without sin. Who would be qualified to do that? Only a human being who is also (somehow) God. As St. Anselm of Canterbury put it in the eleventh century, “If it be necessary, therefore… that [salvation] cannot be effected unless the aforesaid satisfaction be made, which none but God can make and none but man ought to make, it is necessary for the God-man to make it.”[1]

This is, of course, precisely what the God-man, Jesus Christ, has done for us. When Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me,” the “cup” is a reference, as in Isaiah 51:17 and 22, and Jeremiah 25:15, to God’s wrath being poured out. PSA means, in a way, that God saves us from God. Because of God’s perfect justice, God requires a payment. Because of God’s perfect love, God makes the payment. This payment, by the way, is what the Bible means, even in last Sunday’s scripture, when it speaks of “propitiation.” PSA does not pit God’s justice against God’s love: on the cross, they are in perfect harmony.

I like the way one commentator, quoted by N.T. Wright in his defense of PSA, puts it in a nineteenth-century commentary:

God is love, say [some], and therefore he does not require a propitiation. God is love, say the Apostles, and therefore he provides a propitiation. Which of these doctrines appeals best to the conscience? Which of them gives reality, and contents, and substance, to the love of God? Is it not the apostolic doctrine? Does not the other cut out and cast away that very thing which made the soul of God’s love to Paul and John? . . . Nobody has any right to borrow the words ‘God is love’ from an apostle, and then to put them in circulation after carefully emptying them of their apostolic import. . . . But this is what they do who appeal to love against propitiation. To take the condemnation out of the Cross is to take the nerve out of the Gospel . . . Its whole virtue, its consistency with God’s character, its aptness to man’s need, its real dimensions as a revelation of love, depend ultimately on this, that mercy comes to us in it through judgment. (James Denney, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, Expositor’s Bible, Hodder, 1894, p. 221f.)

Notice the last sentence: PSA is “consistent with God’s character.”

The appeal to God’s character answers an objection we may have: If God’s justice demands propitiation (because of our sin) and God’s love offers it (through the death of God’s Son Jesus—who is also God, remember), isn’t this—to put it in human terms—like withdrawing money from one account, which belongs to you, and depositing it another account, which also belongs to you? After this transaction, you’re neither richer nor poorer. So why bother? Why can’t God merely forgive us without the cross?

Because we remember God’s character. God’s law emerges from his very nature. In a sense, then, as Stephen Wellum puts it, God is the law. Therefore all sin—which kindles God’s wrath—is against God.

Since God is the law, he cannot forgive our sin without satisfying his own holy and righteous demand. For God to forgive sin apart from the punishment of our sin or its full satisfaction is impossible. God cannot overlook our sin nor can he relax the retributive demands of his justice because he cannot deny himself. The God of the Bible is a se: self-existent, self-attesting, and self-justifying, which entails that he must punish sin because our sin is against him. Sin is not foremost against an external, impersonal order outside of God; it is against him, the triune-personal God of holy love, righteousness, and justice.[2]

This helps me.

If we would never expect or want God to do anything to compromise or contradict his love and mercy—which spring from his nature—why should we expect God to do something (or avoid doing something) that compromises or contradicts his justice? His love and justice are both part of who God is.

1. Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 157-8.

2. Stephen Wellum, Christ Alone (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 178.

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.

That satisfaction “which none but God can make and none but man ought to make”

July 15, 2016

rutledgeIn her most recent book, The Crucifixion, Fleming Rutledge devotes a chapter to rescuing St. Anselm, the turn-of-the-second-millennium archbishop of Canterbury, from his modern critics. Anselm, she points out, “has been blamed for everything from the Crusades to the Iraq War. His ‘theory’ of ‘satisfaction’ has been reviled as juridical, feudal, rigid, absolutist, vengeful, sadistic, immoral, and violent.”[1]

His theory, in case you’re wondering, is a relatively early—and certainly the most famous—formulation of what is known as the penal substitution theory of atonement (PSA). I strongly disagree that Anselm “invented” the theory—as if it weren’t writ large across the Bible. In fact, as Fleming writes in a footnote:

Sometimes Anselm is depicted as having single-handedly introduced an illegitimate perspective into Christianity (at the portentous and suspiciously precise date of the turn of the second millennium). This is inaccurate. Anselm’s insights are anticipated by Ambrose, Hilary of Poitiers, and Victorinus, among others… (not to mention Isa. 53:4-6; Rom. 5:12-21; 8:3-4; II Cor 5:21; Gal. 3:10-14; I Pet. 2:24; 3:18; etc.).[2]

Indeed… Let’s not mention all these scripture passages! I love that she includes an “etc.” after seven references.

(For more on PSA and the Bible, New Testament scholar Robert Gagnon, of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, wrote an excellent essay defending penal substitution, arguing that it is the primary way that scripture understands the atonement, and that the Church Fathers themselves embraced it. I blogged about it here.)

I find the following excerpt from Rutledge (and Anselm) helpful (“Boso” is the name of Anselm’s imaginary dialogue partner.):

We can identify the center of Anselm’s logic in 2.6. Here, he urges that the weight of sin is so great… that there is no possibility of atonement or satisfaction unless the price paid is “greater than all the universe besides God.”

Boso. So it appears…

Anselm. Therefore none but God is able to make this satisfaction.

Boso. I cannot deny it.

Anselm. But none but a man ought to do this [he has already established that it is the guilty party, and no one else, who ought to make the restitution].

Boso. Nothing could be more just.

Anselm. If it be necessary, therefore… that [salvation] cannot be effected unless the aforesaid satisfaction be made, which none but God can make and none but man ought to make, it is necessary for the God-man to make it.

Boso. Now blessed be God! We have made a great discovery.[3]

Rutledge has already argued in the chapter that when Anselm uses the word “satisfaction” he means “atonement” or “rectification”—God’s way of putting things right.

Finally, this eloquence:

And here is Anselm himself, speaking through Boso, giving a summary of the achievement of Christ that could hardly be bettered: “He freed us from our sins, and from his own wrath, and from hell, and from the power of the devil, whom he came to vanquish for us, because we were unable to do it, and he purchased fro us the kingdom of heaven; and by doing all the things, he manifested the greatness of his love toward us” (1.5).”[4]

1. Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 146.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid., 157-8.

4. Ibid., 164.

The cross of Christ in Numbers 21

February 1, 2016

John Sermon Series Graphic

Allan Bevere, a fellow United Methodist pastor and blogger, has a nice reflection on different theories of atonement in this post. I largely agree with him, except I would make an important distinction between the different theories that he fails to make: between objective and subjective theories of atonement.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I do have a theological axe to grind when it comes to penal substitution: although I’m eager to distinguish the true theory from the caricature, I believe it’s the primary biblical motif of how atonement is accomplished.

But forget the label “penal substitution” for a moment. The main question, in my mind, is, “Do you believe that Christ’s death on the cross does something for us, objectively, to deal with our sins and reconcile us with God?” We can argue about the particulars all we want: if we agree on the answer to that question, we probably don’t have any important disagreement on the matter. As a sinner in desperate need of God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness at every moment, I need to know that my saving relationship with God, at least to a very large extent, doesn’t depend on me.

If it mostly depends on me—on my response to the cross, my will, my efforts—I’m doomed. This is why Abelard’s “moral influence theory,” which seems to be the only classical theory that theological progressives are willing to embrace, is, for me, least important. Yes, the cross inspires love within me, but that love itself can’t save me apart from the fact that my sin is imputed to Christ and Christ’s righteousness is imputed to me.

I talked about penal substitution in yesterday’s sermon, without using the term, when I talked about Jesus’ reference to Numbers 21:4-9 in his conversation with Nicodemus in John 3. I asked how it is that we experience the new birth that Christ talks about. I said:

Jesus gives Nicodemus an illustration from scripture to help him—and us—understand how it is that this new birth is accomplished. In verses 14 and 15, he says: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” “Moses’ lifting up this serpent” is a reference to something that happens in Numbers 21, beginning with verse 4. The Israelites have become impatient with Moses while wandering in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. And they’re grumbling: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” They’re referring to manna, the miraculous bread from heaven that God has graciously provided them. They’re literally blaspheming against God.

“Then,” it says in verse 6, “the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.’ So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.”

Get the picture? The Israelites would get bitten by these poisonous snakes, and when they did, they would look up at this bronze snake on a pole and their lives would be saved. Similarly, Jesus says, when he is “lifted up”—by which he means lifted up on the cross, on Calvary—it’s like Moses lifting up this bronze snake on a pole. Christ on the cross is like that snake on the pole. I know this sounds like a really strange comparison, but let’s think about it:

Because of their blasphemy, because of their unfaithfulness, because of their sin, Israel was facing God’s judgment and God’s wrath. God was justifiably angry because of his people’s sin. As punishment, he was sending these poisonous snakes to kill them—until the people repented and Moses intervened and prayed to God. The bronze snake, please notice, wasn’t preventative medicine; it was only needed by those who were already snake-bitten. Once they had been snake-bitten, their only hope for rescue was to look upon this image of a snake—a symbol of the very thing that was killing them. That’s how they would be saved.

In a similar way, Jesus is saying, we are all snake-bitten by sin. We’re all dying. Because of our sin, we’re all under God’s judgment, and, unless we’re rescued, we will all face God’s wrath for our sins. And what do we do to save ourselves? Just as the Israelites looked at a symbol for the very thing that was killing them, we, too, look to the symbol of the very thing that’s killing us—not a poisonous snake this time, but our sin. That’s exactly what Christ represents for us on the cross. When we look at the cross of Jesus Christ, the Bible says we are looking at our sin. Remember 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” On the cross, Christ became our sin—it’s as if he took within his own body the deadly venom that was killing us—and died in our place!

“Behold, the Lamb of God!”

January 4, 2016

I sometimes wish I were one of those megachurch pastors who was able to preach for 45 minutes or more, because yesterday would have been a good time to do so. My sermon text, John 1:19-34, was rich with meaning, to say the least. And I never got to the best part of the text: John 1:29, in which John the Baptist says, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” 

The good news, since this is just the beginning of a sermon series on John’s gospel, is that I will have another crack at this “Lamb of God” metaphor in next week’s scripture (John 1:35-51). In verse 36, John says to two of his disciples, “Behold, the Lamb of God!”

I was surprised to learn in my research last week that there is some controversy surrounding the meaning of the “Lamb of God.” Some New Testament scholars doubt that it refers to Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross. After all, in the Old Testament sacrificial system, goats and bulls were sacrificed for sins, not lambs.

This strikes me as a bizarre objection by scholars motivated by a refusal to believe in substitutionary atonement. There are at least three very clear atonement-related Old Testament passages that relate to John’s metaphor. The first is the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22.

And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”

After God stops Abraham from killing his son, scripture says:

And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.

Can I confess with embarrassment that I only learned last week that a “ram” can be either a male goat (as I always pictured it) or a male sheep?

Regardless, here we have a lamb sacrificed in exchange for the Isaac’s life, just as Christ is sacrificed in exchange for ours. While this passage doesn’t mention propitiation for sins (which doesn’t necessarily mean that Abraham didn’t understand it that way), we have other scripture passages that point to propitiation: Exodus 12 and Isaiah 53.

In the Exodus passage, the blood of the lamb, sprinkled on the lentil and door posts, is a propitiation—for the sins of the Egyptians, obviously, but also for the sins of the Israelites.

I think we often miss this point. Although the occasion for the Passover was to punish Egypt, both Israel and Egypt are guilty before God and deserving of judgment, wrath, and death—as are all human beings (see Romans 3:23 and 6:23). So if the angel of death is going punish for sin, God is nothing if not fair: Israel isn’t exempt from this judgment, either. The only reason that Israel is spared is by the blood of the lamb.

In Isaiah 53, which prophesies Christ’s substitutionary death explicitly, we’re told that the Suffering Servant, who carries our iniquities, is “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent.”

Finally, if the John who wrote Revelation is the same author of the gospel (as tradition holds), we’re not surprised that atonement imagery for the Lamb of God returns (Revelation 5:12, among others).

Am I missing anything else?

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.