Sunday, August 09, 2009

Vacation & Writing Leave

I just sent the following message to the church I serve. Please, if you read this blog, join us in prayer:


Dear Glory of Christ,

I have just returned from two weeks of vacation which were very good and refreshing weeks for me. I am now taking one week of "writing leave" during which I am going to try to finish the book I've been working on for several years now. It's entitled "Preach the Word: Why I am Passionate about Expositional Preaching" and I'm writing it to explain why I think the way I think about preaching and teaching ministry in the life of the church.

Please pray for me while I work. The world does not need more books--there are already so many. But the world is desperate for books that smell of the aroma of Jesus Christ and my highest prayer is that this book will smell like that. Whatever one thinks of what I write I pray that they will sense that the book was conceived and gestated and born in the atmosphere of prayer and worship.

I will be working in the Isanti area. The Prange family, out of the kindness of their hearts, has allowed me to use their trailer for the week so that I can hibernate and focus! May the Lord richly bless them for their kindness to me and their partnership in this ministry. I will be checking my e-mail and phone messages each evening and will be glad to get back to you at that time if you need me so please do not hesitate to call or write and leave a message. Pastor Kevin is away on a church camping trip this week so if you have an emergency please contact Kim (763-464-9104) and she'll get ahold of me right away.

Glory of Christ, I truly love you and count it a great privilege to serve you. I long to share with you the fruit of my labor so again let's join together in this endeavor through prayer. May the Lord exalt his name as we seek to exalt his Word together.

In the great and gracious name of Jesus Christ,
Pastor Charlie

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Quick Facts about Abortion in Minnesota in 2008

One of the great privileges of my life is serving on the board of the Abba Pregnancy Resource Center in Elk River, Minnesota. Yesterday the Director of the Center, Amber, sent us the following quick facts about abortions in the state of Minnesota in 2008. Please read these carefully and join me in prayer that the day will come when abortion is as unthinkable as genocide.

Quick facts about the abortions performed in Minnesota in 2008:
12,948 abortions were performed — an average of 35 every single day.
30% of the abortions were paid for with taxpayer funds.
30% of the abortions were performed by Planned Parenthood — more than any other provider.
17% of the abortions used the dangerous and sometimes lethal RU486 abortion drug.
5% of the abortions were performed on women under age 18.
43% of the abortions were performed on women ages 18 to 24.

Abortion as birth control:
41% of the women reported that they had at least one previous abortion.
923 of the women reported that they had three or more previous abortions.
22 of the women reported that they had nine or more previous abortions.

Abortion complications:
20 complications were reported by women at the time of the abortion, including cervical laceration and hemorrhage.
132 complications have been reported by women after leaving the abortion provider, including hemorrhage, infection requiring hospitalization and incomplete abortion.

Reasons given for abortions:
33% of the women reported “Economic reasons.”
72% of the women reported “Does not want children at this time.”
> 1% of the women reported that the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

The Glory of Jesus & our Freedom in Him

Here are a few texts I've been thinking about this Independence Day morning. They speak of a freedom far greater than what we have in the United States of America.

John 8:31-32, 36: “So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’…So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

Acts 13:38-39: “Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.”

Romans 6:17-18, 23: “But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Romans 8:1-2: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.”

2 Corinthians 3:17-18: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”

Galatians 5:1, 13-14: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery…For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

1 Peter 2:16-17: “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.”

Revelation 1:4-6: “John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.”


Thursday, July 02, 2009

The Atonement: Suggested Reading

This morning I finished reading The Atonement Debate (Zondervan, 2008) and though there is much that could be said, let me just recommend a few books which would give one a good start in understanding the issues and stakes involved with this debate.

First, in defense of the penal substitutionary view, I would recommend two books: In My Place Condemned He Stood (Crossway 2007) by J. I. Packer and Mark Dever, and Pierced for Our Transgressions (Crossway 2007) by Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach. Second, contra the penal substitutionary view, I would recommend Recovering the Scandal of the Cross (Intervarsity Press 2000) by Joel Green and Mark Baker. Many scholars and books could be arrayed on various sides of this debate but I think these three works make a good start of it.

Now, before I close, I simply must say something about the second to last essay in The Atonement Debate, or at least about its title.It is written by Lynette J. Mullings and entitled "The Message of the Cross is Foolishness: Atonement in Womanist Theology; Towards a Black British Perspective." This title arouses so much in my mind that I'm tempted to write a long entry about it, but I cannot. So let me just say this: perspectivalism does not provide the right solutions to theological problems.

I do not deny that culture and experience play a part in theological formulations and biblical understandings so that there is real value in listening well to persons from a variety of backgrounds. However, it is an existential fact that Christ is not divided--he is not one Christ for one culture and another Christ for another culture. I am eager to listen to the mind and heart of a black woman from Britain, but I am deeply concerned about scholars spending their precious little time developing hyper-perspectival theories of the atonement. I simply cannot see how this will move us towards the center of the glory of what God has done in Christ.

For where does it stop? Is there need for me to write an article entitled, "Towards a white, male, american, californian, irish- (paternal) jewish (maternal) heritage, adult convert, married with child, health-conscious, pet-owning understanding of the atonement"? I'm going to a great extreme to make a point: yes there are particular implications of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ for my particular social situation, in every detail, but Christ himself is not divided. Thus, the body of Christ is not helped by falling into the world's divisive perspectivalism, and indeed that is the birthpace of this impulse within Christendom.

Am I eager to listen and learn from those who have contemplated deeply on the cross in their particular social context? Absolutely. But I'm equally concerned that confusing essential meaning with application will be disastorous, not helpful, for the unity of the body of Christ.

Oh bother, as my hero Winnie the Pooh would say, I'm out of time. Hope my point is sensible.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

On the Atonement in Hebrews

Yesterday I said that I would comment today on Steve Motyer’s essay “The Atonement in Hebrews” (in The Atonement Debate [Zondervan, 2008], 136-49). I hesitate to follow through on this because I have so much to say and yet so little time to do so that I fear these few comments will be misunderstood. But I’ve decided to take that risk and briefly state my issues with his essay. I will raise four particular issues but first I want to say that, despite my strong tone and rejection of his position, I do appreciate Motyer’s work and I do not consider myself his jury, judge, or executioner! I would greatly value the opportunity to converse with him face to face over these things, but that’s not possible so I must simply respond to what he has written. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that vigorous debate does not imply disrespect.

Having said that, I do not think the issues at hand here are small or peripheral. We are dealing with the atonement which means we are dealing with the very core of Christianity—get this wrong and you will necessarily get all else wrong. I was speaking with a brother about the atonement debate the other day and he lamented that he sometimes grows weary of the theological nit-picking in the body of Christ. I understand the sentiment, and to be sure, some theological debates are nothing more than that. However, others are worth spilling blood over as when Paul actually took a hiatus from his missionary work to travel to Jerusalem and debate the law and the cross. He was willing to lay it all down, and even oppose someone so prominent as Peter, for the sake of getting the truth right at this point. Much was at stake and it was worth fighting over. I think the atonement debate rises to this level—we must get this right or we will of necessity get all other things wrong.

Having said that—I feel like I’m playing ping pong here—I don’t want to give the impression that I think I have this doctrine right at all points for I do not think that of myself. However, I am passionate about seeking truth until I do get this right at all points because this doctrine is just that important and just that precious.

Okay, so much for the preface. I have four issues to raise with Motyer’s essay. First, near the beginning of his essay, Motyer’s argues for letting the author of Hebrews—whoever he was—speak for himself. He warns against importing ideas into the book that are foreign to its logic and purposes. This isolationist perspective has taken hold in certain scholarly circles in the last few decades and I would love to pause and say a few things about it but time will not permit. So let me just say this: okay, Motyer, I would want to qualify what you said in several important ways, but good enough—let’s let the author speak on his own terms.

However, not too far into his essay it became apparent to me that his agenda overpowered his ideal. Motyer tries to argue that the author of Hebrews contrasts the old and new covenants so as to highlight the incongruities between them, not the congruities. Specifically, he points to five contrasts: place—the old covenant was enacted on earth while the new covenant was enacted in heaven; focus—the old covenant focused on regulations for the physical body while the new covenant focused on the cleansing of the conscience; scope—the old covenant dealt with sins of ignorance while the new covenant deals with all sins, including deliberate rebellion against God; means—the old covenant utilized the blood of bulls and goats while the new covenant utilized the blood of Jesus Christ; timing—the old covenant relied upon repetitious sacrifices while the new covenant relied upon the “once for all” sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

From this Motyer concludes, “So in all these crucial respects, the sacrifice of Christ is different from those of the old covenant. This means we cannot use the Old Testament to explain what God was doing in Christ. He has done something new” (139). This is a perfect example of drawing a false conclusion from questionable premises. In other words, Motyer first articulates the contrasts between the covenants in a dubious way and then draws a conclusion that is not even necessary given the shaky premises he has built. Oh how I wish I had the time to show you more particularly what I mean, but alas I do not. Therefore, I can only hope you see some of the issues related to his premises and the ensuing tenuous nature of the conclusion he draws, or more pointedly, the absurdity of it. It is ludicrous to suggest that we “cannot use the Old Testament to explain what God was doing in Christ.” This is isolationism in the extreme.

Second, Motyer argues, on the preceding premise, that “The work of atonement in Hebrews focuses upon our deliverance from death, because that is our fundamental existential problem. The accent falls not so much on our guilt as on our mortality: not on our sinful lives before a holy judge but on our hopeless death in impurity and alienation” (140). All I will say in response is this: Dr. Motyer, death is the result of our guilt! In order for death to be overcome the cause of death had to be removed, and permanently so, which the blood of bulls and goats could not do. Thus, the blood of Jesus was necessary to remove the sins which caused death so that death could then be overcome forever. Our “fundamental existential problem” has a more fundamental existential cause.

Third, Motyer argues that the point of Jesus entering into suffering, of his learning obedience through suffering, is that atonement “arises fundamentally out of the incarnation, rather than just out of Jesus’ death and resurrection” (144). Therefore, he goes on to say that the “atonement proceeds from relationship” and “the fundamental action in atonement is, therefore, that he goes before us,” he becomes our forerunner who leads the way into the most holy place where we too can have communion with God (144). “Jesus is perfected first (2:10; 5:9; 7:28), then we are perfected after him (10:14; 11:40; 12:23)”—this is the essence of the atonement (145).

Oh there are so many issues here but I must be brief. I agree that the life of Jesus Christ is an integral, a profoundly meaningful, a necessary part of his saving work but this fact does not undo the force of Hebrews 9:22: “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” The only way Jesus could become our forerunner is by first becoming our Savior because without holiness no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:14). Thus, Jesus’ dealing with the legal, or judicial, realities of our sin by suffering as our substitute is not to be held in contrast with the relational goal of communion with God. It is the means of this communion! Thus, while it’s true that Jesus was perfected and we were also perfected in him, it is not true that we were perfected in the same way. He became perfect through obedience in that he earned the status of one who did not sin at any point; we become perfect through faith in him because in him alone are our sins removed. Thus, he is our forerunner, but he is more than our forerunner—he is our “atoner,” if you will, and this is rightly and necessarily focused on the shedding of his blood, even in Hebrews. One does not have to import ideas from elsewhere to show this.

Fourth, Motyer asserts in the conclusion of his essay, “This [the picture of atonement in Hebrews] is not penal substitution but something even more compelling and rigorous. We are not dealing here with a static satisfaction of a principle of justice in God or a negative dealing with wrath on our behalf. These ideas are completely foreign to Hebrews” (146). As soon as I read that I thought, “How in the world, then, does he makes sense of the warnings and examples of wrath all throughout the book?” This must have been a predictable question because almost immediately Motyer himself raises the issue and answers as follows: “This argument relies on importing a perspective from elsewhere—most usually from the Old Testament. A penal substitutionary interpretation of Hebrews argues that in the Old Testament, the judgment of God is the fundamental presupposition of atonement and must be in Hebrews also, since the letter views the atoning work of Christ through Old Testament spectacles” (146).

This is such a convenient way to argue—the author of Hebrews is writing on an island and no idea from anywhere can be brought to bear in order to interpret his meaning. And not only is it convenient, it is utilitarian because it is the only way Motyer can sustain his argument. If there is any substantial link between the sacrifices of the old and new covenants then his house of cards falls down. And I would suggest that there is such a link: the contrasts between the covenants in Hebrews have to do with differences in the quality of the two so that the new covenant is superior, but they do not have to do with the essential nature of function of sacrifice in those covenants. The same fundamental problem is being addressed in the same fundamental way in both covenants and this assertion is most certainly not imported from outside of Hebrews.

In the end, I find Motyer’s exegesis, and criticism of penal substitution, to be almost completely without merit because he builds his case on premises that cannot be sustained and then draws unnecessary conclusions based on those premises. And again, this is not theological nit-picking—much is at stake here, the whole gospel is at stake here. In order to mount a respectable case against Motyer, all one would have to do is show that, in the mind of the author of Hebrews, there was not total incongruity between the covenants. I’m sure someone has already done this, and when I find his or her work I will let you know!

For now, I must conclude by saying that I really feel the weight of these words in my soul right now:

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15).

“I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (2 Tim 4:1-5).

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

I. Howard Marshall, Holy Love, & the Atonement

The book I'm reading right now, The Atonement Debate (Zondervan 2008), is neatly divided into five sections: introductory essays (2 essays), biblical foundations (6 essays), theological contributions (5 essays), historical perspectives (3 essays), and contemporary perspectives (3 essays). (For more information about the genesis and aims of the book, see a few posts below.)

Today I read the section on biblical foundations. The first essay, by I. Howard Marshall, is a basic overview of the biblical foundation of the penal sustitutionary view of the atonement. I'll come back to this in a moment. The next two essays, by Christopher J. H. Wright and Geoffry Grogan, respectively, provide an overview of the doctrine of atonement in the Old and then the New Testaments, while the fourth through sixth essays detail into specific portions of the Scripture. Sue Groom's essay explores the meaning of Is 52:13-53:12, Rohintan K. Mody's essay explores penal sustitution in Rom 3:25-26, and Steve Motyer's essay explores the nature of atonement in Hebrews. Tomorrow, Lord willing, I will return to comment on Motyer's essay because I think he makes several critical mistakes and I'd like to offer a bit of a rebutal. Not to say I didn't appreciate his work, because I did, but again I think he is mistaken at several important points.

Now, as for I. Howard Marshall's essay, it was such a confirming experience to read his work because several days ago I laid out a basic pattern of how I would respond to critics of the penal substitutionary view, and in essence Marshall followed this very pattern. The one thing he dealt with that I left out of my overview but realized later I would also add, is a discussion of the holiness and love of God.

A rightful treatment of both the holiness and love of God, each envisioned in light of the other, solves many of the problems that honest critics of the penal sustitutionary view have (I say "honest" because some critics want to destroy this point of view at any cost and are not actually asking authentic questions--their minds are made up). For instance, Marshall shows, following the work of P. T. Forsyth at this point, that when the holiness of God is understood in light of his love, one cannot come away with the idea that God is tyrannical, that he lashes out and seeks vengence for vengence sake, or is otherwise not in control of himself. God is always love--this is a constant in his being--and therefore when he is aroused to anger he always expresses that anger in a way that is congruent with his love and holiness and glory.

Thus, in the end, Marshall (and I) would agree with critics of the penal sustitutionary view that we must not envision God as an out of control tyrant, or as a sort of schizophrenic being who is merciful one minute and wrathful the next. But he (and I) would disagree with these critics that the penal sustitutionary view does in fact proport this to be the case. To the contrary, we simply argue that when the holiness and love of God are held in proper balance we derive a vision of God as one who must deal with sin, because of his holiness, but one who is loving in everything he does and always in control of himself.

Let me share one more example of how careful exegesis helps us to avoid unnecessary and unbiblical errors with regard to this doctrine. Some critics of the penal sustitutionary view argue that it paints a picture where Jesus Christ sees the anger of God the Father toward sinners and essentially positions himself between the two in an effort to keep the Father from acting out his anger. In other words, these critics argue that this view of the atonement necessitates a division in God, where God stands against God. This division is displayed on the cross, they argue, when the Father becomes angry at the Son and punishes him as though he were a criminal.

Marshall responds to this criticism by first showing that Calvin himself abhored the idea that the Father was angry at the Son. In the Son, Calvin pointed out, the Father was well pleased, and he was always and only well pleased. This fact was never altered for a moment. Hence, the teaching of penal sustitution is that the Father, out of the love and mercy in his own heart toward sinners (Jn 3:16; Eph 2:4), sent the Son to live a life of obedience and then to die in the place of sinners as though he were guilty of their sin, so that through the suffering of the Son the Father might simultaneously (1) honor his holiness by executing his perfect justice against sin and (2) honor his mercy by forgiving sinners who look to Jesus Christ by faith. Having briefly laid out this case, Marshall then challenges the critics to point to one single scholar who actually argues for this division between the Father and the Son. In other words, he asks a pointed question to show an inherent weakness in this criticism: the critics are attacking penal substitution for something no proponent of the position actually argues. He admits that there may be a preacher here or a teacher there who inadvertently argues in this direction, but insists that no serious, careful exegete in fact does.

I would love to give more examples of how Marshall's careful work clears up misunderstandings about the penal substitutionary view, but it's late and I'm tired! I hope I've been clear enough to help you see my point and to make you want to read Marshall's essay. If you do want to read it--and I really hope you do--you can find it here.

Soli Deo Gloria

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Rejoicing in the Wrath of God

Over the last couple of days, I have been blogging in response to Steve Chalke’s essay in the book The Atonement Debate (Zondervan, 2008). I have argued that, contra Chalke, the Bible does teach that God is angry at sin and sinners, and that his justice must be satisfied, and his wrath appeased, if we are to be reconciled to him. I have stated several times that I am not eager for an angry God, but rather I am eager to be faithful to the Bible and I’ve asked you, dear reader, to join me in this eagerness. We all fall short of absolute fidelity to the Word of God but we ought, nonetheless, to strive for the same and try as best we can to understand God as he has revealed himself, not as we want him to be.

At the close of my comments yesterday I asserted that the wrath of God causes the people of God to rejoice. I said that, in order to avoid confusion, I would sketch out today how this is so. More needs to be said than I can say here, but I want at least to provide a brief summary of the biblical ground on which this claim stands.

One of the first essays I wrote in college was on the wrath and love of God, and probably the main effect it has had on my life is to cause joy to rise up in my heart whenever I contemplate the wrath of God. A few years ago I shared this with a pastor friend of mine and, though he said nothing in response, the look on his face seemed to say, "If you knew anything about the wrath of God you would not rejoice in it." At the time, I wasn't sure how to respond, but I knew that the joy in my heart was not stemming from a belittling of the horror of the wrath of God.

Not too long after that conversation, I was reading the book of Revelation and came across several passages that helped me to comprehend and articulate the joy in my heart. The first passage is Revelation 11:15-18: “Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.’ And the twenty-four elders who sit on their thrones before God fell on their faces and worshiped God, saying, ‘We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, who is and who was, for you have taken your great power and begun to reign. The nations raged, but your wrath came, and the time for the dead to be judged, and for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints, and those who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying the destroyers of the earth.’”

Then in chapter 15:1 we read this: “Then I saw another sign in heaven, great and amazing, seven angels with seven plagues, which are the last, for with them the wrath of God is finished." And what was the reaction of those who heard that God was about to pour out that great and terrible and final wrath? "And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, 'Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations! Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship you, for your righteous acts have been revealed'" (15:3-4).

And finally in the middle of the sixteenth chapter, right after the third bowl of the wrath of God was poured out, there was another outburst of praise: "And I heard the angel in charge of the waters say, 'Just are you, O Holy One, who is and who was, for you brought these judgments. For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and you have given them blood to drink. It is what they deserve!' And I heard the altar saying, 'Yes, Lord God the Almighty, true and just are your judgments!'" (Rev 16:5-7)

These texts display, beyond a shadow of doubt, that the wrath of God causes the worship of God to arise in the hearts and mouths of those who love him and are called according to his purpose. This worship does not come out of nowhere but rather is based on at least three grounds.

First, those who love God rejoice in his wrath because his deeds are great and amazing (15:3). The essence of worship is delighting in the glory and greatness of God, and thus seeing a visible display of the same, even in terrible wrath, strikes awe and joy in the souls of those who love God, by grace, and this causes them to worship.

Second, those who love God rejoice in his wrath because God is holy and his ways are just and true (15:3; 16:5-7). Indeed, as the Psalmist has written, "You are good and do good" (Psalms 119:68). Even in his wrath the children of God rejoice because they know that he is infinitely holy, that his motives are pure and right, that he does not lash out in unholy anger as do they. And they know, therefore, that his judgments are just and right and fair, and that everything he thinks and says and does are perfectly in accordance with truth. He never gets it wrong—NEVER! Can you imagine being so perfect in your character that you never misstep with your words or actions? This is true of God, and this truth strikes awe and joy in the hearts of those who love God, by grace, and this causes them to worship.

Third, those who love God rejoice in his wrath because they know that, in the end, "All nations will come and worship [God], for [his] righteous acts have been revealed" (15:4). They know that, in the end, "...every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Phil 2:10-11). They know that, in the end, everyone will honor and revere this God who they have come to love, by grace, and this causes them to worship.

So in short, the reason the children of God rejoice in the wrath of God is because it is a display of his infinite power and holiness, and because it is a sign that the day is drawing near when every knee will bow before the Almighty and gracious Lord of heaven and earth. The children of God do not rejoice in death and destruction in and of themselves, rather they rejoice in God himself who does all things well—even wrath.

Building a Case for the Wrath of God

Yesterday I blogged about Steve Chalke’s essay in the book The Atonement Debate (Zondervan, 2008). In response, I argued that, whereas Chalke wants to denounce the idea of the wrath of God altogether—at least in the sense that it means God is angry at sin and sinners—the Bible would seem to teach otherwise. I quoted a number of texts, without commentary, to show this point.

As I said then, I am not eager to have an angry God. If God is angry at sin and sinners then he is angry at me. I am personally implicated in the wrath of God and thus I do not approach the study of his wrath and its consequences as if I were studying a bug under a microscope. In other words, I do not approach this study impersonally. However, having said that, my personal comfort is not the sine qua non of the matter; fidelity to the Bible is. If God has revealed to us in his Word that he is angry at sin and sinners, then we must accept this fact and learn to understand in the light of the rest of Scripture.

To be fair to Chalke, he did try to argue that there is little point in debating particular texts because the overall flow of the Bible moves away from the idea that God is angry at sin and needs to be appeased. But as I mentioned yesterday, he simply asserts this without support and that will not due for me. I must see his ideas in the actual words of Scripture, not in platitudes, however sensical those platitudes may seem. The Word of God endures forever and thus the Word of God must be the source of our ideas about God.

If I were to mount a thorough defense of what I think the Bible teaches about the anger of God toward sin and sinners, I would proceed as follows. First, I would carefully define the biblical words for anger and try to remove misunderstandings that exist on the basis of flawed definitions.

Second, I would try to show that righteous anger must arise in the face of injustice and that this fact is displayed on the face of the earth, many times over, every single day. For instance, how would you react if a father whose daughter had just been raped, said to the rapist, “What you did wasn’t right but I forgive you and choose to forget what you’ve done; would you please come over and join us for dinner?” If word of this got out, it would saturate the news cycle and outrage the world because sometimes the absence, not the presence, of anger is the injustice. I am not saying that there is no place for forgiveness and restoration—there most certainly is. But that place is found through, not around, righteous anger.

Righteous anger is a necessary response to injustice and the reason we experience it, and rightly so, is because we are made in the image of God. In other words, the righteous anger that rises up in us is an echo of the righteous anger that rises up in God. The difference is that God’s standard of justice is high and perfect, and he sees every single infraction against it at every moment, at all times. This infinitely vast and high perspective implies, among other things, that God must be angry at sin and sinners, for if he is not, he is no better than the man who invites the rapist over for dinner. Again, we must understand that at times the absence, not the presence, of anger is the injustice.

Third, I would spend the majority of my time showing that God in his anger is not like us in ours. I think a good deal of the objections against the anger of God stem from the false premise that God in his anger is like humans in theirs. But he is not. God is perfectly in control of himself. He never “looses it.” God is perfectly wise and therefore utilizes anger according to that wisdom. God is infinitely good and holy and righteous and therefore dispenses punishment and discipline in a way that displays his character. God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and so his anger must always be comprehended in the light of the totality of his being.

Indeed, in order to talk about the wrath of God in a way that’s true to the Bible and helpful to people, we must always hold it in balance and tension with the love and mercy of God. Ephesians 2:3-5 says this: “…among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved…” Deuteronomy 7:9-11, which I quoted yesterday, says this: “Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and repays to their face those who hate him, by destroying them. He will not be slack with one who hates him. He will repay him to his face. You shall therefore be careful to do the commandment and the statutes and the rules that I command you today.”

Beloved, our God is a God of immense and immeasurable love and mercy, and he is also a God of terrible and overwhelming wrath. When we emphasize his wrath to the exclusion of his love or his love to the exclusion of his wrath, we obscure who he has revealed himself to be and we expose ourselves and others to grave danger. Thus, we must always remember to hold these two aspects of God in balance and tension: when we talk about wrath we must remember mercy, and when we talk about mercy we must remember wrath. As Paul said in Romans 11:22, “Note then the kindness and severity of your God.”

Fourth, in light of all of the above, I would move, text by text, from Genesis to Revelation and show the fact that God is, and always has been, angry at sin and sinners, and that his justice demands satisfaction if he is to forgive sin. In other words, I would show that Chalke is wrong when he tries to argue that the overall flow of the Bible is away from the idea that God is angry at sin and needs to be appeased.

Again, for the third time in two days, I am not eager for an angry God. I am, however, eager to be true to the Word of God. I am eager to deal with God as he is, not as I want him to be or as the culture wants him to be or as the people in the pews want him to be. It is always best for us to learn to grapple with God as he is, even if that is very unpleasant at times.

Finally, I would round out my comments by showing how the wrath of God actually evokes worship in the hearts of those who love him. I know this sounds odd, and perhaps even wrong, but there are a couple of texts in Revelation that show this to be the case. In fact, so that I don’t leave you scratching your head, I think I will sketch this out in a blog entry tomorrow.

It would take a lot of time to lay out this case, and I do not have that time right now. But I wanted to explain to you how I would proceed to develop a biblical case for the wrath of God because I want to help guide you on your way. You can tread the path I just sketched. But whether or not you do, I pray that you will join me in the effort to build your ideas about God on the basis of the Word of God. We all do this imperfectly, but we must never stop straining toward the same.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Steve Chalke & the Wrath of God

I started another book on the atonement today entitled The Atonement Debate (Zondervan, 2008). The book is a collection of nineteen essays, most of which were delivered in July 2005 at the London symposium on the theology of the atonement. As such, it presents a variety of positions in the hope of gaining a better understanding of one another, though probably not in the hope of building a new consensus. I’m not sure how likely that is given the current theological climate in England and the United States.


The first essay, written by David Hilborn, simply lays out the context for the current debate, while the second, written by Steve Chalke, rehashes the theological position that created the debate in the first place. Chalke, along with Alan Mann, published a book entitled The Lost Message of Jesus in 2003, in which they strongly condemned the penal substitutionary view of the cross as a form of “cosmic child abuse.” They argued that this view of the atonement is unnecessarily violent and pre-Christian, and has no biblical basis whatsoever. They assert that it developed, not in the early church, but through the writings of Charles Hodge in the nineteenth-century, and that it is not orthodox but novel, and needs to be denounced rather than nuanced.


(I should mention here that I’ve not read The Lost Message of Jesus, I am simply summarizing the argument based on Chalke’s essay.)


Key to Chalke’s and Mann’s argument is the idea that God is not so angry at sin, or at sinners, as those who hold to the penal substitutionary view would make him out to be. They assert that if God were thus angry he would be contradicting his mandates to love our enemies and bless those who curse and so forth. He then attempts to show several unfortunate implications of the penal substitutionary view in the arenas of history, culture, and pastoral care, arguing in the end that this theology and its consequences must be rejected. He concludes: “The cross is not a form of cosmic child abuse—a vengeful Father punishing his Son for an offense he did not commit. Rather than a symbol of vengeance or retribution, the cross of Christ is the greatest symbol of love and a demonstration of just how far God the Father and Jesus his Son are prepared to go to prove that love and to bring redemption to their creation” (44).


I agree that the cross is the greatest symbol of love the world has ever seen, as well as the greatest symbol of the extent of God’s love. But I simply cannot embrace the notion that it’s not also a symbol of the wrath of God toward sin and sinners. It’s not that I’m eager to have an angry God, it’s that I cannot escape the myriad of texts which teach us that God is indeed angry—terribly angry—at sin and sinners, and that Jesus came to rescue us, in part, from the wrath of God. Chalke either doesn’t care about proving his case on textual grounds or he doesn’t think it necessary, but one way or the other he gives no biblical support whatever and this, for me, will not do. I must see ideas in the actual words of Scripture or I will remain un-persuaded.


Contra Chalke, there are a number of texts which display the anger of God toward sin and sinners. First let me briefly define the wrath of God, after which I will close this entry blog by quoting several of them. Tomorrow, Lord willing, I will add a few other thoughts.


In the Bible, there are more than twenty Hebrew and Greek words used to describe the anger or the wrath of God, the most common of which are translated burning anger, intense anger, wrath, fury, indignation, vengeance, rebuke, chastening, discipline, punishment, recompense, and repayment. Lactantius, one of the early church fathers, perhaps articulated the meaning of the wrath of God as well as anyone when he said this: “Righteous anger is the mind arousing itself for the restraining of evil; wrath is the expression of this anger in various ways to restrain evil, to correct the sinner, and to punish the hardened and stiff-necked rebel.” The only thing I would add to this definition is that the primary reason God’s anger is aroused is because his glory has been offended by sin, and the primary purpose of his wrath is to vindicate his glory.


Thus, if I were to rewrite the definition I would put it this way: “Righteous anger is the mind arousing itself for the vindication of glory and the restraining of evil; wrath is the expression of this anger in various ways to vindicate the glory of God, to restrain evil, to correct the sinner, and to punish the hardened and stiff-necked rebel.”


With this in mind, here are a handful of texts—only a handful—which display the wrath of God toward sin and sinners. Please read them carefully and consider them on their own terms. My aim in quoting them is not to argue for a particular position on the atonement, or to argue against another, but rather to understand the Bible as it is. If Chalke’s arguments are true to the Bible, then I’m with Chalke; if his arguments are not true to the Bible then I cannot be with Chalke. I hope your fundamental commitment is, likewise, to the Bible. Please read carefully and prayerfully. (The following texts are quoted from the ESV.)


Deuteronomy 7:9-11: “Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and repays to their face those who hate him, by destroying them. He will not be slack with one who hates him. He will repay him to his face. You shall therefore be careful to do the commandment and the statutes and the rules that I command you today.”


Nahum 1:6-8: “Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and the rocks are broken into pieces by him. The LORD is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him. But with an overflowing flood he will make a complete end of the adversaries, and will pursue his enemies into darkness”


John 3:36: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”


Romans 2:6-8: “He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.”


Romans 5:9: “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.”


Romans 11:22: “Note then the kindness and severity of your God.”


Ephesians 2:1-3: “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”


Ephesians 5:6: “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.”


Colossians 3:6: “On account of these the wrath of God is coming.”


1 Thessalonians 1:9-10: “For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.”


1 Thessalonians 5:8-10: “But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him.”


2 Thessalonians 1:5-10: “This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering—since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.”


Revelation 6:15-17: “Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?’”


Revelation 16:5-7: “And I heard the angel in charge of the waters say, ‘Just are you, O Holy One, who is and who was, for you brought these judgments. For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and you have given them blood to drink. It is what they deserve! And I heard the altar saying, ‘Yes, Lord God the Almighty, true and just are your judgments!’”


Revelation 19:11-16: “Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.”