Posts Tagged ‘penal substitution’

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.

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.

Are we creating our own version of the “Jefferson Bible”?

November 10, 2014

In his most recent blog post, Roger Olson asks whether we can dispense of the “wrath of God” from our theology, sermons, and hymns. Remember the dust-up in the PCUSA regarding “In Christ Alone”? Olson, of course, doesn’t believe we can or should but notices that even most evangelicals seem to be doing so. Here, Olson makes a startling but insightful connection between the infamous “Jefferson Bible” and what many contemporary Christians are doing with the concept of God’s wrath.

When was the last time you heard a sermon in a non-fundamentalist context about the wrath of God? I haven’t heard the wrath of God mentioned in church in a very long time. Very few theology books discuss the theme of God’s wrath. I would argue that it is gradually becoming otiose if not dying out completely (outside of fundamentalist circles).

There’s only one problem with that (assuming it is happening): the Bible, which most Christians claim as their main source for faith and life, contains a great deal about the wrath of God. Are we perhaps joining Thomas Jefferson in excising Scripture of all that we find unreasonable or offensive?

That last question should give us pause.

One of Olson’s main points—which I’ve preached many times—is that God’s wrath must be a necessary consequence of God’s love.

I also found these words from Olson about atonement, from the comments section, very helpful. God the Father, to say the least, was not committing “cosmic child abuse” on the cross:

I do not know of any serious historical-theological theory of atonement that says God violently punished Jesus without adding immediately that Jesus was God voluntarily suffering God’s own wrath. Both the satisfaction theory of Anselm and the penal substitution theory of Calvin (as opposed to caricatures of both) emphasize the triunity of God and deity of Christ. He was not just a man picked up by God to be made a victim for us; he was God himself voluntarily suffering the consequence of sin in order justly to forgive us.

Billy Graham on Vinyl, Part 8: “The Frontiers of Tomorrow”

October 1, 2014


In honor of Billy Graham, a hero of mine, I’m digitizing some of his sermons from long out-of-print records and making them available as MP3s. This sermon is found on an LP called Two Sermons by Billy Graham from 1963 (Word Records W-3243-LP).

In this sermon on Jeremiah 6, Billy Graham compares the United States of 1962 to a faithless and oblivious Judah, living on the brink of destruction and exile during the prophet Jeremiah’s day. Our nation’s biggest threat doesn’t come from communism, he said, but from moral deterioration. Referring to President Kennedy’s New Frontier, Graham admonishes his audience to return to some old frontiers that they’ve abandoned, namely faith in Christ and obedience to his Word.

We’ve had all of our fill of amusements and pleasures, and yet we’re still we’re not happy. And we don’t have peace. And we haven’t found joy. We’re running up one blind alley after another, searching, searching for peace and joy and happiness and rest of soul, and we can’t find it. Our moorings are gone. We’ve become tethered to time instead of eternity. And we’re filled with fears and frustrations and disappointments and sin. If you ask me, whether a country with so highly developed sense of national purpose, with the overwhelming accent of life in personal comfort, with insufficient social discipline—if you ask me if a country like this has a good chance of competing with a purposeful, serious, and disciplined society like the Soviet Union, I have to answer “no”!

The reference to the Soviet Union seems quaint now. But even when I was coming of age in the late-’70s and early-’80s, the Soviet Union was portrayed in popular culture as a highly disciplined society, however misguided its political and economic system was. Surely no one imagined in 1962 that it would cease to exist within 30 years—at least apart from a U.S. victory in World War III.


From the album’s liner notes.

Toward the end of the sermon, Graham turns his attention to Christ and the cross. And what follows is about as good a statement about Christ’s atoning death as I’ve heard in a sermon. Graham appeals to penal substitution (as do I), but he places it in the context of God’s love. With humility, he admits that he doesn’t know how God places our sins on Christ—he calls it “mysterious”—only that the Bible says he does.

At the moment we nailed him to the cross, Graham said,

God did a glorious thing: Instead of sending angels to sweep that whole crowd into hell and destroy the planet, the Bible teaches that God took your sin, even though you hadn’t been born… God doesn’t see things in the future. God doesn’t see things in the past. Everything is present with God. Listen to that! Everything is present with God. It’s in the eternal present. What you did yesterday is not yesterday with God. What you will do tomorrow is not tomorrow with God. What you do tomorrow is today with God. Everything with God is today! And God took your sins and laid them on Jesus Christ! And in the eternal mind of God, Jesus Christ is dying on that cross for your sins!

He took your sins and my sins. He made him to be sin for us [sic] who knew no sin. He laid on him our sins. Don’t ask me how he could do it, I don’t know! Don’t ask me to explain it. I cannot! I only know the Bible tells me that all the sins I’ve committed and the laws that I read a moment ago—I’ve broken them, you’ve broken them. The Bible teaches that we have broken the laws of God, and we deserve hell, we deserve death, we deserve judgment. But God took our sins and put them on Christ. And when Jesus Christ prayed that prayer, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” in that terrible and mysterious moment, Christ was dying in your place… for you!

Notice the theological nuance with which Graham handles God’s perspective on time: from God’s eternal perspective, all of history is present to God. There is no past or future with God. This may prove pastorally helpful as we think about the cross: For instance, at times we may doubt that Christ’s death continues to atone for our sin—after all this sin, after all this time, after all these years. But of course it does! From an eternal perspective, Christ is dying right now for our sins!


From the back cover.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button above or right-click here to download as a separate mp3 file.

Click here for Part 1.

Click here for Part 2.

Click here for Part 3.

Click here for Part 4.

Click here for Part 5.

Click here for Part 6.

Click here for Part 7.

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?

Jesus drank the “cup of God’s wrath” for me

June 30, 2014

I’ve spent many posts on this blog defending penal substitution, not because I think it’s the only biblical way of understanding God’s atoning work on the cross, but because penal substitution is the point at which the rubber meets the road for me. I need to know that on the cross God accomplished something objective to deal with my sins—my ugly, wrath-deserving sins—and it has nothing to do with my (feeble) subjective response.

By all means, Christ won a victory over sin, Satan, and death and demonstrated the love of God to the fullest extent possible, but where does that leave me and my guilt? I need to know that he paid for my sins in full.

Trevin Wax has a nice reflection on N.T. Wright’s affirmation of penal substitution. Wright often gets criticized in more Reformed corners of the evangelical world for refusing to justify Reformation-era doctrines on anything other than biblical grounds as construed by him rather than Calvin, Zwingli, or Luther. Wright will often say something like, “Of course they’re right, but there’s so much more to it than that!”

As Wax points out, Wright does the same with penal substitution.

One insight I hadn’t considered before is that Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane also speaks to penal substitution:

When speaking of “the wrath of God” on Jesus at the cross, Wright turns to the Gethsemane narrative, and specifically Jesus’ use of the “cup” terminology from the Old Testament. Since, in the prophetic writings, the “cup” refers to God’s wrath, Wright believes it is historically sound to affirm that Jesus was referring to God’s wrath when He willingly faced the cross, in order to drink of the cup. Nowhere does Wright articulate the idea of the “cup” more powerfully than in his Matthew commentary:

“The Old Testament prophets speak darkly about the ‘cup of YHWH’s wrath.’ These passages talk of what happens when the one God, grieving over the awful wickedness of the world, steps in at last to give the violent and bloodthirsty, the arrogant and oppressors, the reward for their ways and deeds. It’s as though God’s holy anger against such people is turned into wine: dark, sour wine which will make them drunk and helpless. They will be forced to “drink the cup,” to drain to the dregs the wrath of the God who loves and vindicates the weak and helpless. The shock of this passage… is that Jesus speaks of drinking this cup himself.”

Notice how Wright maintains the “cup of wrath” in historical context. This is the way he avoids the picture of God as a tyrant taking out His vengeance on His Son for others’ mistakes. Wright sees the wrath of God in historical events. “Jesus takes the wrath of Rome (which is…the historical embodiment of the wrath of God) upon himself…” In fact, God has set Jesus forth as a hilasterion (propitiation).

It is because Jesus took upon Himself the wrath of God in order to shield His people that He uttered His cry of God-forsakenness on the cross. In that moment in which Jesus was most fully embodying God’s love, He found Himself cut off and separated from that love. Furthermore, Jesus’ taking upon Himself the wrath of God against sin (through the Roman crucifixion) frees us from sin and guilt.

“Jesus, the innocent one, was drawing on to himself the holy wrath of God against human sin in general, so that human sinners like you and me can find, as we look at the cross, that the load of sin and guilt we have been carrying is taken away from us. Jesus takes it on himself, and somehow absorbs it, so that when we look back there is nothing there. Our sins have been dealt with, and we need never carry their burden again.”

Again and again, Wright affirms the penal substitutionary view of the atonement. Theologians may quibble with him for not putting this at the center of his atonement theology; others may chide him for not speaking of it more often. But no one who has read Wright fairly can charge him of denying this doctrine. I close this section with a paragraph from one of Wright’s early works, which he has since affirmed in other ways in later writings:

“On the cross Jesus took on himself that separation from God which all other men know. He did not deserve it; he had done nothing to warrant being cut off from God; but as he identified himself totally with sinful humanity, the punishment which that sinful humanity deserved was laid fairly and squarely on his shoulders… That is why he shrank, in Gethsemane, from drinking the ‘cup’ offered to him. He knew it to be the cup of God’s wrath. On the cross, Jesus drank that cup to the dregs, so that his sinful people might not drink it. He drank it to the dregs. He finished it, finished the bitter cup both physically and spiritually… Here is the bill, and on it the word ‘finished’ – ‘paid in full.’ The debt is paid. The punishment has been taken. Salvation is accomplished.”

No Jesus other than the one revealed in scripture

April 29, 2014

Recently, someone asked me in a text message what I thought of this Holy Week-themed blog post about atonement from Brian Zahnd, a pastor and author from Missouri. “So let’s be clear,” Zahnd writes, “the cross is not about the appeasement of a monster god.” As I texted to my friend:

Oh good! I’m glad he clarified that. Because didn’t you think that’s what the cross was about?… This is a straw-man argument. Put forward the worst caricature of substitutionary atonement and then tear it apart. “Well, yes,” I would tell him, “If this were what God’s wrath looks like, then I agree that [penal substitution is] horrible.”

I write these strong words as someone who once censored a praise-and-worship song that the band performed years ago. It included this couplet (from memory): “You died upon that tree/ You killed your Son for me.” I explained at the time that this song was wrong on two counts: The first problem is a nitpicky liturgical mistake: the song addresses Jesus in the first line, and then it addresses the Father in the second. We’re supposed to be consistent throughout our prayers and songs.

The second problem, however, relates to the same thing that Zahnd criticizes: that it’s not theologically appropriate, even among those of us who endorse penal substitution as the primary understanding of atonement, to say that the Father killed the Son.

No: the Romans and the religious authorities—who represent all of us sinful humans—killed the Son. And the Son, who wants what the Father wants—namely, to reconcile sinful humanity to God—offers himself as propitiation for our sins. (Yeah, that’s right… I said propitiation! To say that Jesus was a propitiation for sin is fighting words among many revisionist-minded mainline Protestants.) I wholeheartedly endorse the words of this 19th century Anglican commentator, James Denney, whom N.T. Wright quotes with appreciation in an essay he wrote about penal substitution:

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.)

Regardless, Zahnd doesn’t write as if he’s aware that penal substitution could mean anything other than a vindictive “monster god” murdering his son in order to be appeased. I suppose this was the version of substitutionary atonement he learned and taught when he was evangelical? Who knows…

But it causes me to wonder: Are there really so many disaffected former evangelicals nursing wounds from their upbringing? They’re all over the place these days! Rob Bell and Brian McLaren are a couple of famous examples… Donald Miller… Rachel Held Evans… In fact, her blog—seemingly her entire writing career—is devoted to the subject of being hurt and angry about the conservative evangelicalism she endured as a child.

Aren’t there any happy evangelicals out there?

Well, of course there are. As someone who has moved in the opposite theological direction—from the liberal mainline Protestantism to conservative evangelicalism—it’s funny how differently I see problems within American Christendom than these ex-evangelicals!

My recommendation to my disaffected evangelical brethren is to stop being so American and start reading British evangelicals—most of whom are or were found within the Church of England. Some examples I know of: the late John Stott, N.T. Wright, Alister McGrath, Michael Green, John Goldingay, and C.S. Lewis (of course). These are Christian intellectuals who faced exile within a post-Christian culture long before we Americans did, who’ve already reasoned their way through the tough questions, and emerged on the other side with their strong commitment to the authority of scripture intact.

These are my role-models.

I only just heard of Brian Zahnd a few months ago, when someone quoted this statement from him:

God is like Jesus.
God has always been like Jesus.
There has never been a time when God was not like Jesus.
We have not always known what God is like—
But now we do.

The first few sentences are great: “God is like Jesus. God has always been like Jesus. There has never been a time when God was not like Jesus.” But what about the last part? By all means, our understanding of God is made complete by the Incarnation, but Jesus himself doesn’t reveal anything about God that contradicts the God who is revealed in the Old Testament. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Jesus (and the whole New Testament) teaches us to read the Old Testament in light of his revelation, but when we do, we find that it’s very consistent.

Moreover, there are plenty of red-letter words in the Bible about judgment, hell, and God’s wrath, too. It’s as if Jesus went around saying, “Your sins are forgiven,” without adding, “Go and sin no more.”

Just as there’s no God other than the one revealed in Jesus, there’s no Jesus other than the one revealed in scripture.

Not quite as pithy as what Zahnd writes I know… but still true.

Over at the Gospel Coalition, Matt Smethurst blogs about the danger of reading Jesus’ red-letter words as somehow more authoritative than the New Testament’s black-letter words. He writes:

Another related mistake is the popular tendency to imply that since Jesus is the Word of God, Scripture must be something else. But once again this is a false dilemma. The Bible tells us that Jesus is God’s Word (e.g., John 1:1-2Heb. 1:1-2Rev. 19:13and that it is God’s Word (e.g., John 10:35Acts 17:11Heb. 4:1213:7). The urge to wrest an “either/or” out of a “both/and” smells more of Enlightenment rationalism than biblical Christianity. What God has joined together, let no man separate.

As Kevin DeYoung observes:

God’s gracious self-disclosure comes to us through the Word made flesh and by the inscripurated Word of God. These two modes of revelation reveal to us one God, one truth, one way, and one coherent set of promises, threats, and commands to live by. We must not seek to know the Word who is divine apart from the divine words of the Bible, and we ought not read the words of the Bible without an eye to the Word incarnate. When it comes to seeing God and his truth in Christ and in holy Scripture, one is not more reliable, more trustworthy, or more relevant than the other. Scripture, because it is the breathed-out Word of God, possesses the same authority as the God-man Jesus Christ.

Diminishing the integrity of the Word inscripturate in the name of upholding the integrity of the Word incarnate is, ironically enough, the quickest way to domesticate and diminish him.

“‘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.

No theory of the cross should make us the “good guys”

January 28, 2014

I’ve been outspoken on this blog and in sermons over the past few years about my support for the good, old-fashioned “penal substitution” theory of atonement. It argues that on the cross Jesus suffered the penalty for our sins, dying our death and experiencing our hell—in our place, so that we wouldn’t have to: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Indeed, when I hear “In Christ Alone,” I want to hear the couplet: “And on the cross where Jesus died/ The wrath of God was satisfied.” That sounds like great news to me.

In the last Billy Graham television special, Christian hip-hop artist LaCrae put it like this: “Jesus lived the life that we couldn’t live and died the death we deserved to die.” That sounds exactly right to me. I’ve used that in sermons since then.

Still, to say that I believe in penal substitution isn’t to say that I believe that that theory exhausts the full meaning of the cross. By all means, throw in some Christus Victor and even a dash of Abelardian Moral Example (because it does move us by the power of love it demonstrates).

I’m with C.S. Lewis who said that it’s less important to know how the cross reconciles us to God than to know that it does. And, I would add, it’s important to know that whatever the cross means, it means that something objective has happened that takes away our sins, and it doesn’t simply depend on our subjective response to it. Because if it depends on my response (aside from saying “yes” to the gift of forgiveness that it affords), I’m in trouble.

So for my brothers and sisters who object to penal substitution (usually because they object to some caricature of it as “cosmic child abuse”), I would ask them to at least agree with me that the cross represents something objective. I don’t know of a better alternative to penal substitution that makes more sense of the full scope of scripture.

In this blog post, Scot McKnight puts his finger on one interesting problem with the Moral Example theory and its variants (so popular in mainline Protestant circles):

But the Abelardian and Girardian have an oft-missed sinister side, even if you may object to my saying so. In these theories we side with Christ and God and not those who put him to death. We end up being the good guys, the victims, while the bad guys — Roman and Jewish leaders, the gutless disciples, the whole damned human race — are the ones who put him there. We, on the other hand, know better. We’re innocent, they’re guilty.

We are not the authorities, pockmarked as they are by injustice; we are for justice, and we see Jesus as suffering a colossal injustice. We tell a story in which we side with Jesus against the world and against the sinners and against the perpetrators of injustice. We thereby become guiltless and just. The opposite of what the cross’s message teaches. We end up where the Holocaust perpetrators were: we see in the leaders those who killed God. But not us, we are on Jesus’ side. We find Jesus as our model for sacrifice for justice. He becomes a moral example — not against us but as one of us.

Such approaches mask their inner reality: self-righteousness.

To use the words of Francis Spufford, in Unapologetic, we make the crucifixion scene “a story about a special shiny person, whose side we’re all on as we listen, being abused by especially evil persons.” He says such an approach to the crucifixion scene is no longer about Jesus being crucified but Jesus being crucified. He’s innocent, we know it, and we’re for him. Cheer the just man on, folks, cheer him on! Raise a toast for justice as activists for justice!

But the cross contains another message: that we, each of us, because we are sinners and hate to be confronted with the utter sickness that stains us, are the ones who put him there. To read that narrative well is to see ourselves as complicit in the condemnation of the innocent man.

The only “theories” of the cross that make any sense of the cross then are theories that begin right here: I am guilty of that death.