Posts Tagged ‘Robert Gagnon’

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 biblical case for marriage goes beyond “thou shalt not”

March 2, 2016

A couple of weeks ago, a United Methodist theologian named Donald Haynes published an article, “A Biblical Analysis of Homosexuality,” in the United Methodist Reporter, an independent denominational news source. As we United Methodists move closer to General Conference in May, expect more pastors and theologians to publish articles and blog posts such as these, in support changing our church’s doctrine on human sexuality.

Meanwhile, the evangelical United Methodist lobby Good News posted a fine two-part response to Dr. Haynes’s article here and here. This response was written by Rev. Thomas Lambrecht.

Of course, I’ve also responded over the years to the objections that Haynes raises. (Type in “homosexuality” in the search field in the upper left of this page.) But one glaring oversight in Haynes’s argument is that he examines only verses that condemn homosexual behavior; he disregards the positive case that scripture makes for heterosexual-only marriage.

Lambrecht notices Haynes’s failure, too:

One of the most significant shortcomings in Haynes’ article is that he ignores the consistent and complementary heterosexual thread through Scripture based on Genesis 1 and 2, reaffirmed by Jesus in Matthew 19:1-12 and Mark 10:1-12. When asked about the possible circumstances of divorce, Jesus pointed his listeners back to God’s original intention for marriage and human sexuality, quoting Genesis 1:27 and 2:24. God created us male and female, as complementary and equal persons who jointly exhibit the full-orbed image of God (1:27). Out of this gender difference and complementarity, God forges a one-flesh unity in the commitment of heterosexual marriage (2:24). Throughout Scripture, the expression of our sexuality is envisioned to lie only within this God-sanctioned relationship.

It is to heterosexual marriage that Paul turns to picture the relationship of Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5). Here the difference is as important as the complementarity. Christ and the Church are different in many ways, yet the Church aspires to a Christ-like life, and the two find unity in their relationship as Bride and Groom, culminating in the great marriage feast of the Lamb in Revelation.

Haynes does not explain how the constant thread of heterosexual marriage from Genesis to Revelation supports the affirmation of same-sex relationships. He also does not explain how such affirmation would affect the theological significance given to marriage as a symbol of the union between Christ and the Church.

To reinforce Lambrecht’s point, I would underline the complementarity of male and female as a prerequisite for sexual activity. In the Garden of Eden, God takes the “rib” (or better, “side”) of the man and forms the woman. Adam, therefore, finds his “missing part” not in a sexual union with another man (who is, after all, missing the same part) but only in a sexual union with a woman. As Kevin DeYoung writes in his recent book on the subject, “The ish [man] and ishah [woman] can become one flesh because theirs is not just a sexual union but a reunion, the bringing together of two differentiated beings, with one made from and both made for the other.”[1]

At this point, theologically progressive United Methodists will often object that Genesis 1 and 2 are not meant to be taken “literally.” I disagree to the extent that they these chapters, alongside the rest of the Bible, are meant to be “taken” the way that the author intends for them to be taken. When the author speaks literally, we take these words literally; when he speaks figuratively, we take them figuratively.

Be that as it may, this progressive Christian objection begs the question: O.K., what do they mean non-literally? Because inasmuch as they are non-literal, they still communicate some metaphorical, figurative, or poetic truth. What is it?

As Robert Gagnon, a mainline Protestant New Testament professor and ordained PCUSA minister at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, puts it in his classic book on the subject: “Even though evaluation of same-sex intercourse is not the point of the text, legitimation for homosexuality requires an entirely different kind of creation story… Male and female are ‘perfect fits’ from the standpoint of divine design and blessing. Male and male, or female and female, are not.”[2]

1. Kevin DeYoung, What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 28.

2. Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 61-2.

Why don’t “affirming” UMs simply admit that Jesus and the Bible are wrong?

July 23, 2015

The biggest theological celebrity at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, New Testament professor Luke Timothy Johnson, supports overturning the unanimous verdict of two millennia’s worth of Christian reflection on the subject of homosexuality.

Does he do so because his scholarly research has shown him that St. Paul was referring only to non-consensual, exploitative, and idolatrous homosexual relationships? Or that Jesus’ “silence” on the subject was tacit approval? Or that, when it comes to condemning same-sex sexual relationships, most Christians are guilty of unprincipled picking-and-choosing?

Not at all.

In fact, Dr. Johnson, in a 2007 essay in Commonweal, agrees with people like me that the Bible condemns homosexual practice unambiguously. “The task demands intellectual honesty. I have little patience with efforts to make Scripture say something other than what it says, through appeals to linguistic or cultural subtleties. The exegetical situation is straightforward: we know what the text says.”

In other words, Johnson says, the Bible got it wrong. Since “the Bible got it wrong” is the unchallenged presupposition of most theological and biblical education at my alma mater, Johnson’s position is hardly newsworthy. Since Johnson is relatively conservative, however, believing, for example, that Paul is the author even of the disputed Pauline letters and being an outspoken opponent of the “Jesus Seminar” movement, his affirmation of same-sex sexual behavior—at least for the reasons he gives—is surprising.

To his small credit, though, at least he doesn’t perform exegetical gymnastics to make the Bible say what it doesn’t say.

And writer Brandon Ambrosino also deserves some credit for making a similar point in his new article: Of course Jesus believed that homosexual practice was a sin!

Revisionist hermeneutics can seem pretty silly when we consider who Jesus was. Jesus, a first-century Jewish theologian, would almost certainly have held the traditional Jewish belief about same-sex relations—that is, he would have believed such sexual activity was sinful. Had Jesus departed significantly from Jewish tradition on this front, we can be sure that his disagreement would have been recorded (just like his reconsideration of divorce or his new interpretation of adultery). None of his biographers include a single instance of Jesus challenging the mainstream Jewish understanding of homosexuality, and Jesus more than once affirmed a male-female pattern of coupling as the proper domestic arrangement; it’s safe to conclude, then, that Christ would have agreed with the Levitical assessment of homosexuality as a sin. Any confusion about this seems motivated by contemporary politics, not ancient history.


Ambrosino is happy to concede, however, that Jesus is simply wrong, a product of his first-century Jewish culture and upbringing. This, he says, shouldn’t be a problem for us Christians—after all, as a “devout gay Christian who confesses both the divinity of Jesus and the inspiration of the Holy Scriptures,” he has no problem with it.

Nevertheless, in a Facebook post this week, Robert Gagnon, a New Testament professor at the mainline Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, puts the problem in sharp relief:

Contrary to what Ambrosino suggests, Jesus’ position on the male-female matrix for marriage was not an offhand comment or an undigested morsel of his first-century Jewish cultural environment. Nor did Jesus view the matter as ancillary to Christian faith. He treated this as part of the foundation of creation upon which all sexual ethics is based. He predicated on the God-intentioned duality and complementarity of the sexes a principle about number: There should be a duality of number in the sexual union matching the duality of the sexes required for that union. In other words, the twoness of the sexes in creation, obviously designed for sexual union, is a self-evident indication of the Creator’s will for the twoness of the sexual bond.

In my experience, I have yet to see one of my fellow UMC clergy who want to change our doctrine take seriously the implications of Jesus’ words about marriage in Matthew 19 and Mark 10. But few of them would say that Jesus is simply wrong.

But if he’s right, how many would be willing to revise their revisionism?

The “affirming” word to Christians like me: “You have a message of death and I pray for your soul”

April 27, 2015

This week’s episode of Unbelievable, a podcast I praised a while back, hosted a debate on The Issue last week between Dr. Robert Gagnon, the foremost mainstream (and mainline Protestant) Bible scholar defending the church’s traditional doctrine on homosexual practice, and Jayne Ozanne, an evangelical Anglican revisionist on the subject, who came out as gay earlier this year.

I have often cited on this blog Gagnon’s seminal book from Abingdon Press, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, which defends the historic Christian position.

I linked to this debate on Facebook, inviting gay-affirming clergy colleagues and those in the infamous “Methodist Middle” (who, let’s face it, are often one and the same) to listen. I said: “Pay attention to the care with which each one uses scripture to make his or her case. Which side is more faithful to our Wesleyan understanding of the role of scripture in guiding our faith and practice?”

A friend commented that the affirming side was poorly served by Ozanne, who seemed unprepared to match wits with Gagnon on what the Bible actually says about homosexual practice. Why not have a gay-affirming Bible scholar go at it with Gagnon? Wouldn’t that be a fairer fight?

Two responses: First, Dr. Gagnon himself, who is a Facebook friend, pointed out that while he’s “happy to debate any biblical scholar, theologian, ethicist, etc. at any time at any place,” he can’t get anyone to do it any longer. “For the first 5-7 years after my first book came out, I could get debates. Then I went through them all and word spread. This includes Brownson, Gushee, and Vines, none of whom will meet me for a rigorous discussion of what Scripture says and how it is to be appropriated faithfully in our contemporary context.”

Second, the debate was useful because it lays bare the shallowness of the arguments upon which so many of our colleagues are willing to overturn the church’s unanimous, two-millennia verdict that homosexual practice is a sin. Ozanne, who mostly argues from personal experience, repeated many of the things I’ve heard from our colleagues. What Ozanne believes, they also believe.

If, like Ozanne, my “affirming” colleagues are unwilling to engage scripture on the subject in the same serious way in which Gagnon does, then what they are saying, in so many words, is this: “I don’t care what the Bible says: here’s what it means.”

In doing so, they have moved far beyond any Wesleyan, much less Protestant, understanding of the authority of scripture.

Around the 49:00-minute mark, Ozanne, unable to meet his arguments head-on, resorts to attacking Gagnon’s character and Christian faith.

Sadly, this feels familiar to me: In my limited experience defending the same doctrine that, at one time or another, all of my fellow clergy said they agreed with, even some of them have resorted to ad hominem attacks against me. That’s fine—sticks and stones and all that. But let’s call a spade a spade.

That’s what Gagnon does in the following exchange, and good for him. Please notice that Ozanne insinuates that something is spiritually wrong with Gagnon for having these convictions—convictions that I share. So his problem is also my problem—and Pope Francis’s problem, for that matter.

What is wrong with all of our souls?

In the following transcript, which begins at 49:04, after Gagnon has just finished citing gay-affirming Bible scholars who agree with him that the Bible’s witness against homosexual practice is unambiguous, Ozanne begins her personal attack.

OZANNE: Robert, I admire your certainty on everything, and I have to be honest, I frankly don’t care how many hundreds of pages people have written. I’m very much reminded of the ‘wisdom of the wise I will frustrate.’ For me it’s about the nature of God and his love for us.

I’m afraid your certainty that this is so wrong leaves no room whatsoever for giving life to people who, um, I thinking of a teenager who’s just committed suicide. I mean, you have a message of death, and you’re so certain about it, I pray for you and your soul. Because I think—I hope—that your listeners, Justin, will listen with their hearts about what they feel is truly happening here… And the ultimate thing is, what is going on in our spirits beforehand to try and help us interpret [what scripture says about homosexual practice].

And I would suggest the ultimate place to start is looking at what Christ has done for us, which is to ensure that in his death on the cross, there is nothing else that is needed to bring everyone into the kingdom

GAGNON: I think you’ve distorted and given a truncated version of the gospel, and I think that’s part of the problem with your whole picture. But I also want to address the fact that earlier you had somewhat of an ad hominem attack on me with regard to my certainty, which I think is inappropriate.

O.K., first of all, it may be that a particular case in scripture does have overwhelming evidence. So it’s then a kind of manipulative argument to say that your ‘certainty’ is a problem. Maybe it’s your lack of an ability to respond to the arguments in question, and then you lash out with an ad hominem attack at somebody—that it’s their ‘certainty’ that’s the problem. Maybe your problem is your inability to actually defend the position.

And then you have an overarching presentation of the gospel that seems to completely leave out the fact that Christ doesn’t just call us to get what we want. He calls us to take up our cross, to lose our lives, and to deny ourselves. That doesn’t, to me, sound like getting what I want, when I want, with whom I want.


Let me finish my train of thought because you’ve interrupted me again… My train of thought is that you have a notion about what fullness of life is. And that fullness of life is not reflected in the gospel. Paul, on a regular basis, had a life that was much more troubling than yours, mine, or anyone else around here. Every day he would get up in the morning, he could be beaten by rods by secular authorities. He could be whipped forty lashes minus one in the synagogues. He could be stoned, and we’re not talking about drugs here. He was poorly sheltered, poorly clad, poorly fed. In constant anxiety for his churches.

By your token or definition of what a meaningful existence is, he should have been absolutely miserable, and blamed God every day of his life for the kinds of experiences he had—even beaten up en route to share the gospel without actually sharing it—what’s the point of that? Shipwrecked, et cetera.

His point is that he’s rejoicing, because as he’s carrying around in his body the dying of Jesus, the life of Jesus is being manifested in him. As he’s brought to the point of whether he’s even going to live the next day, as he talks about in 2 Corinthians 1, he is brought to the point of relying on the God who has raised Jesus from the dead.

Does “inclusiveness” include unrepentant tax collectors?

March 17, 2015

Over at First Things, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary’s Robert Gagnon, a mainline New Testament scholar and ordained PC(USA) minister who has done more than anyone to reaffirm the Bible’s case against homosexual practice, wrote an excellent piece about San Francisco’s City Church, a large evangelical church that no longer requires gays and lesbians to be celibate, at least within the bonds of redefined marriage.

I recommend the whole piece, in part because he briefly reviews the (unambiguous) biblical case, but also because he makes a point that theological liberals, especially, ought to appreciate but don’t: that Jesus’ love for first-century tax collectors demanded that they change their behavior. Who would have it any other way? Who would argue that repentance in that case should be a matter of theological indifference? Why a double standard when it comes to sexual sin?

Although the City Church letter appeals to Jesus’ mission to outcasts as a basis for jettisoning a male-female requirement for marriage, it is difficult to claim that the Jesus we encounter in Scripture would have countenanced homosexual sex in the context of a “marriage.” Jesus appealed to the two-sexes requirement for marriage (and thus for all sexual activity) given in Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 as the foundation upon which all sexual ethics must be based, including the limitation of two persons to a sexual union. Just as Jesus did not reach out to exploitative tax-collectors in order to justify their exploitation of the poor, so too Jesus did not reach out to sexual sinners in order to provide a platform for impenitent sexuality. He reached out to both groups in order to call them to repentance so that they might inherit the very Kingdom of God that he was proclaiming. That is true love, not the impersonation of love now being peddled by City Church leadership.

Sympathy for Victoria Osteen

September 3, 2014


Since I’ve become a pastor in charge of a church, I’ve become far more sympathetic with fellow pastors who are held up to public ridicule and scorn. It’s a tough job, being a pastor. And I’m not so different from other pastors—even the ones who have far larger flocks than I have. I feel an impulse to defend them, sympathize with them, and give them the benefit of the doubt.

For example, I like this guy, no matter what the comments section on YouTube says:

I’ve defended Mark Driscoll during his recent troubles, here and here.

And once again, I feel myself wanting to defend a fellow pastor, even if she’s the “co-pastor” of America’s largest church, her husband Joel’s Lakewood Church in Houston.

Victoria Osteen has been widely criticized and lampooned for these remarks:

I don’t disagree that Osteen is wrong here (see Dr. Gagnon’s even-handed, but substantial, criticism below, with which I agree). But let’s notice something: she’s clearly speaking extemporaneously. And God knows all of us public speakers risk saying dumb things when we do that! I perceive that she realizes (after she begins saying it) that she might be getting carried away in her enthusiasm. It happens! Notice her qualifying words: “I mean, that’s one way of looking at it”; “You’re not doing it for God, really.” I sense that she’s trying, in vain, to rein herself in.

But let’s affirm at least one small part of what she’s saying: True happiness is found in God alone. Christ promises us a full and abundant life now. Eternal life is not merely a quantity of life, but a quality of life. The New Testament urges us to be joyful no matter what circumstances we face. This implies that only in Christ will we find the spiritual resources necessary to be not merely happy, but deeply joyful: even as we face possible martyrdom, as Paul was in Philippians.

Given all that—not to mention the prospect of heaven or hell when we die—how is following Jesus as his disciple not, at least in part, a matter of self-interest?

So, to her point, even as we love and serve Christ, we are also doing it for ourselves.

Why not be charitable and assume this was her main point? After all, she says this is “one way of looking at it.” It’s possible she isn’t ruling out that other way, which of course is far more important. So it’s not either/or; it’s both/and. Read the rest of this entry »

“If the church has changed its view of divorce…”

March 27, 2014

I’ve blogged at least a few times about the analogy that Adam Hamilton and others have tried to draw between slavery and the ordination of women on the one hand and church’s traditional stance toward homosexual conduct on the other. If the church disregarded or reinterpreted scripture in the former cases, why can’t they do the same in the case of homosexual conduct?

The difference, as I’ve said, is that the Bible itself offers a trajectory away from slavery and female subordination. If every slaveholder in the first century treated their slaves as fully equal brothers in Christ, the way Paul urges Philemon to treat his runaway slave Onesimus, the institution of slavery would be undermined. (If you don’t believe me, read Paul’s crafty letter to Philemon. It’s a short book.) As for women, the Bible is replete with positive examples of women in leadership. We have, for example, Mary Magdalene serving as (literally) the first apostle, commissioned by the resurrected Lord to bring news of the resurrection to the other, male disciples. We have Paul’s praise of female coworkers, including the identification of Junia, in Romans 16:7, as an “apostle.”

And for both slavery and women, we have Paul’s liberating words in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

I hope that even my fellow Christians who disagree with the United Methodist Church on female ordination can at least agree that we are making a biblical case. That’s what good Protestants ought to do: the Bible is our primary authority guiding Christian doctrine and practice. The UMC, along with most of the universal Church, doesn’t believe that such a case can be made for acceptance of homosexual behavior.

But what about divorce? Hasn’t the church jettisoned the New Testament’s clear teaching that divorce is wrong? Yet don’t we permit divorce and remarriage all the time?

Even yesterday, in the wake of World Vision’s reversal of its policy on same-sex marriage, many critics complained that the organization hires Christians who are divorced and remarried. Isn’t that hypocritical? In February, Andy Stanley made the same point about Christian cake bakers who refuse to bake cakes for gay weddings. “Jesus taught that if a person is divorced and gets remarried, it’s adultery. So if (Christians) don’t have a problem doing business with people getting remarried, why refuse to do business with gays and lesbians?”

Are Andy Stanley and these other critics right?

My first response is, it doesn’t matter. If they are right, it only proves that many people who believe that homosexual conduct is a sin are hypocrites, not that homosexual conduct isn’t also a sin.

Regardless, Robert Gagnon, New Testament professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, tackles the question head-on in his book The Bible and Homosexual Practice. I find this very helpful.

(Gagnonwriting mostly for his fellow mainline Protestants, accepts the scholarly consensus that Matthew himself added Jesus’ divorce exception for “sexual immorality.” Since it’s in the Bible either way, it hardly matters.)

For example, on the question of divorce, there are New Testament authors that moderate Jesus’ stance. Jesus’ words were so radical that both Matthew and Paul found ways to qualify them. Matthew allowed for the exception of “sexual immorality” (Matt 5:32; 19:9; agreeing with the school of Shammai), while Paul permitted divorce for believers married to unbelievers who wanted to leave (1 Cor 7:12-16). Of course, one could also point to the availability of the option in the Old Testament (Deut 24:1-4). These kinds of qualification at least provide a basis for further exploration of the issue. Some divorce is permissible for some biblical texts so that one cannot say that the Bible has achieved a unanimous position on the subject. Alternatively, one could argue that the church has become too lenient on the issue in recent years and needs to do what Jesus did: stand against rather than with the culture.

There are other factors that make divorce a very different issue than that of homosexual intercourse. First, few in the church today would argue that divorce is to be “celebrated” as a positive good. The most that can be said for divorce is that in certain cases it may be the lesser of two evils. Second, unlike the kind of same-sex intercourse attracting the church’s attention divorce is not normally a recurring or repetitive action. For the situation to be comparable to a self-affirming, practicing homosexual a person would have to be engaged in self-avowed serial divorce actions. Third, some people are divorced against their will or initiate divorce for justifiable cause against a philandering or violent spouse. Such people should be distinguished from those who divorce a spouse in order to have love affairs with others or to achieve “self-fulfillment.”[†]

Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Nashville: Abingdon, 2000), 442-3.

Sermon 03-16-14: “Faith and Works”

March 21, 2014


Today’s scripture from James serves as a necessary antidote to the “easy-believism” that often afflicts popular Christian theology: “Jesus paid it all, and I don’t owe a dime!” While it’s certainly true that we’re saved by faith alone, saving faith will include good works. James isn’t pitting “faith” against “works,” as is popularly thought: he’s pitting living faith against dead faith. What kind of faith do you have?

Sermon Text: James 2:14-26

The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.

When I was at Georgia Tech, there was a series of three physics classes that every engineering major had to take. The second of these was famously difficult. It was called electromagnetism, “E-mag” for short. E-mag was considered a weed-out course—a way of separating the men from the boys. And I know that sounds sexist, but I almost mean it literally. Because it is around the time you’re struggling in a class like E-mag when you begin to notice that there aren’t many girls in class with you, and there aren’t many girls on campus… And you wonder why you didn’t go to a school like UGA, where the odds are much more favorable—and where you don’t have to take classes like E-mag!

I said the class was called E-mag, but the class’s nickname was really “Re-mag,” because so many students flunked it the first time and had to repeat it. And if you were taking the class as “Three-mag,” you were really in trouble! Read the rest of this entry »

“‘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.

Confessing “Jesus is Lord” is no magic charm

March 13, 2014

I’ve been leading a small group discussion on the Letter of James on Wednesday nights. Last night, we talked about God’s judgment (while looking at James 2:8-13) and the frightening prospect of backsliding and even losing one’s salvation. Is it possible? By all means! Wesley would say.

But I’ll be honest: My heart resists this Methodist doctrine.

In my defense, I grew up Southern Baptist, which generally emphasizes eternal security (“Once saved, always saved.”). And I see the logic of it: if we’re saved by faith and not works, then how can we do anything that would disqualify us from salvation?

But if scripture is our primary authority and not tradition—even the tradition of Protestant Reformers like Luther and Calvin, who believed in eternal security—how can we not say that backsliding is real?

I read the following this morning, and it felt like a punch in the gut. Dr. Robert Gagnon, New Testament professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, is discussing Paul’s view of sin in Romans and the necessity of sanctification after justification. If we are being led by the Spirit, we Christians simply can’t continue in our sins as we did before. If we do, Paul says, we risk eternal death.

The confession “Jesus is Lord” (cf. Rom 10:9) is no magical charm. If one lives as a slave to sin, it is sin and not Christ or God that is Lord of one’s life and it is sin that will pay one back with death. In other words, the “free gift” does not remain with those who do not experience liberation from sin’s power (6:15-23). Those who lead lives under sin’s primary control will die and be excluded from the life of God’s kingdom, whether they are believers or not. Only those who are fundamentally led by the Spirit will live (8:5-14). Although salvation does not come by personal merit, unrighteous conduct can disqualify one from salvation. [Here, in a footnote, Gagnon cites Rom 11:22: “God’s kindness to you, if you continue in that kindness; otherwise, you will be cut off.”] One must recapitulate the Christ event in one’s own life by undergoing the transformative experience of dying to one’s self and rising to a new life for God, through the indwelling power of Christ’s Spirit.[†]


The only question I might raise is, does “unrighteous conduct” alone disqualify us, or the lack of faith in Christ that such conduct (perhaps) betrays?

In my sermon last Sunday, which I’ll get around to posting eventually (I realize I’m two sermons behind!), I offered a strong message of grace and reassurance to Christians whose consciences convict them about their past sin: “Am I still saved?” they wonder.

I hope I’m not contradicting that message here!

But if their consciences convict them, such that they can still repent, then they likely are still saved. My urgent warning would be for those Christians who have numbed their consciences about their sin, have become complacent about their salvation, and are unaware that there’s a problem. God help me, I have been that person at times in my life!

Regardless, as James himself writes, “Mercy triumphs over judgment.”

Thank God that our Lord is “gracious… and merciful and slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” who  “relents from disaster” (Jonah 4:2). He is our only hope!

But let us not live as if we presume upon God’s grace and mercy!

Robert A.J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 282.