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.”

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Atonement: The Kaleidoscopic View

Earlier today I finished reading Four Views: The Nature of the Atonement (Intervarsity, 2006). Specifically I read Joel Green's essay on what he calls the kaleidoscopic view of the atonement, along with the responses to it.

Green begins his essay with two assertions: First, "Jesus' demise at the hands of Roman justice, represented theologically in the motto 'Christ crucified,' is the means for comprehending the eternal purpose of God, as this is known in Israel's Scriptures" (157). Or as he says elsewhere, "There is no Christianity apart from the cross of Christ" (184). Second, "the significance of Jesus' death is woven so tightly into the fabric of God's purpose that we may never exhaust the many ways of articulating its meaning for salvation" (157). In other words, the death of Jesus is such a profound historical event, and the eternal purposes of God in it are so deep and varied and rich, that we will most likely never fully comprehend or articulate its meaning, no matter how many models or metaphors we use.

This is the heart of the kaleidoscopic view: the atonement is simply too profound to be comprehended by any one model of it, even if that model allows for others which are subordinate to it.

So far so good, by which I mean, I at least have some sympathy for Green's view at this point. I can at least understand where he's coming from. However, he moves on from these premises to summarize several historical probabilities about the nature of capital punishment in the Roman and Jewish worlds, which somehow leads him to this, somewhat stunning, statement: "Jesus was no masochist looking for an opportunity to suffer and die, but he saw that his absolute commitment to the purpose of God might lead...to his death" (163). Might lead? Did I read that right? Yes, I read that right: "might lead."

Then after a brief foray into the relationship between Jesus' life and death, Green states, "This means that God's saving act is not God's response to Jesus' having become 'obedient to the point of death--even death on a cross' (Phil 2:8). Rather, God sent his Son to save, and this is worked out in a kaleidoscope of purpose statements...God's saving act is the incarnation, which encompasses the whole of his life, including his death" (164). Excuse me? While I agree that the death of Jesus cannot be comprehended and explained apart from its relation to the life of Jesus, as well as the resurrection, I think it's pushing the bounds of orthodoxy to say "that God's saving act is not God's response" to Jesus' death. "Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins" (Heb 9:22).

As tempting as it is to camp out here and say a few things in response, in the interest of time I need to move on to his next jarring statement, which is also rather esoteric. I had to read several times to get his point. In an attempt to argue for why multiple views of the atonement are necessary, Green asserts, "the church's glossolalia with regard to the soteriological effect of the cross is a function of the catechetical and missiological needs and impulses of the church" (166). To put it in plain language, the way the church speaks about the saving effect of the cross is owing to its own needs and impulses to teach and do. The way the church speaks about the cross arises, not from objective truth, but from contextual needs and agendas.

This seems to me at once an obvious and yet also potentially dangerous statement. On the one hand, it is beyond question that the church, beginning with the biblical writers, had to strain for language and metaphors to describe what happened at the cross in a way that did justice to the event and also made sense to people. Scholars and pastors have always, and will always, do this. But on the other hand, this way of stating the matter comes dangerously close to suggesting that the meaning of the atonement is not in the atontement but in the application thereof. In other words, it treads on the thin ice where the death of Jesus takes its meaning, not from any objective criteria, but from the subjective needs of those attempting to understand it.

Green does somewhat assuage my concern in the final section of his essay where he summarizes two views of the atonement, one of which is the model of atonement as sacrifice. And yet, I still get the sinking feeling that in his mind the writer of Hebrews, who develops this model in the most depth, is simply trying to make sense of the death of Jesus for a Jewish (and perhaps gentile) audience, rather than explaining how that death is in fact central to the eternal purposes of God--central in an objective way, not just a contextual way. (Another issue I have with this portion of his essay is that Green attempts to argue that the wrath of God is not retributive, but I'll have to address this some other time.)

I'm just about out of time tonight so I'm not going to say much about the responses to this essay. I was least impressed with Greg Boyd's response, and most impressed with Tom Schreiner's--not just because I agree with his overall view of the atonement but because I think he gets to the heart of the problem with Green's essay. namely, that there is more to the meaning of the cross than the context in which it is communicated. In other words, there is objective meaning there, and it is well within the realm of possibility that, although that meaning is infintely deep, it is organized around a central theme. "In other words, the kaleidoscope has an anchoring color (penal substitution) that brings coherence to all the dimensions of the atonement" (193). Someday I hope to write about just how this is so, but for now I'll have to leave you to think about Schreiner's assertion on your own.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Atonement: The Healing View

Today I read the third of four views of the atonement in the book, Four Views: The Nature of the Atonement (Intervarsity, 2006). The third view is called "The Healing View," or as it is sometimes called, "The Therapeutic View," and is presented and defended by Bruce Reichenbach. This view focuses on the OT theme of "shalom," which in Hebrew does mean peace--the definition with which we are most familiar--but more broadly means "wholeness," or something along those lines.

The argument goes like this: before sin entered the world, humans had "shalom" with God, each other, and creation. However, when sin entered the world there came a devastating rift between God and humankind, humankind and one another, and humankind and creation. In other words, the shalom of God granted to his creation was all but destroyed. This breakdown of "wholeness" is why God either causes or allows such things to exist as discipline, punishment, sickness, and calamities. These are the just response of a just God to the injustice of sin. Furthermore, the restoration of this breakdown is the point of the OT sacrificial system for it was instituted, in essence, to restore shalom where it had been shattered.

However, animal sacrifices could only take this restoration so far and thus Christ, the infinitely perfect Lamb of God, came to offer himself as the means of the ultimate restoration of shalom. Thus, when a person believes in Christ, the result is that he or she is reconciled to God, to others, and to the created order. In other words, for him or her, shalom is restored. This is the central meaning of the atonement.

Some 12 or 14 pages into his essay (pgs. 129-30), Reichenbach summarizes his view by saying that atonement as healing means, first and foremost, that sinners are restored to God because Jesus Christ has absorbed their sin, and second, that the consequences of their sin--most notably the wrath of God meted out against them--is also absorbed in Christ and so removed. These two interrelated meanings have many consequences but they are at the heart of what the atonement was all about.

Greg Boyd's response was predictable: he said a few nice things, then dismissed the view and argued for why his view (Christus Victor) is better. Joel Green's response was somewhat more stimulating. For instance, he asked why, in Reichenbach's view Jesus had to die. I asked myself the same question as I read the essay. Of course, Reichenbach did argue that it was because the blood of bulls and goats could only go so far, whereas the precious blood of the Lamb provided for perfect restoration of shalom. But this doesn't get to the heart of the matter: why, in this view, is the shedding of blood necessary at all for the restoration of shalom? He may have a good answer, but I did not perceive it in his essay.

Green's final question was even more penetrating: "In what sense can we speak of 'healing' as a way of making sense of the saving work of Jesus on the cross?" (155) In answer, he briefly shows that there are a plethora of "healing" motifs in the NT surrounding the subject of salvation, but that these are implications of the atonement and not the central meaning of it. "In short, it is far easier to argue that salvation itself must be understood as healing or that healing is really a consequence of salvation than to argue that healing is the means by which salvation through Christ's (life and) death is made available" (155). Well put.

As much as I appreciated Green's response, I thought that Tom Schreiner really put his finger on the heart of the matter: "The fundamental problem with the therapeutic view is that it centers on human beings instead of God himself. The God-centeredness of biblical revelation is shunted to the side and the consequences of the atonement for human beings comes to the forefront" (149). I agree with this critique wholeheartedly. As I read Reichenbach's essay, I just could not escape the feeling that it envisioned the event of sin, the consequences of sin, and the solution for sin in an all too human way. The consequences for us in these things are there, and they are very important, but they are not at the center. And this book is supposed to be about what's at the center. At many points in the essay I found myself thinking, "Indeed, the restoration of shalom is an important, and biblically defensible aspect of the atonement, but it's a consequence of something else and not the center."

So, in the end, I feel that this view gets many things right but that it misses the main point: the central problem with sin is that it is a rejection of, and offense to, the Most Holy God. His law, his justice, his wisdom, his goodness, his holiness--his very being--is violated every time sin is committed and therefore it must be punished in a way commesnsurate with the violation. Since "the wages of sin is death" (Rom 6:23), it follows that "without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins" (Heb 9:22). God graciously allowed for the blood of bulls and goats to atone for our sins, but in the end the problem of sin demanded an infinite solution--the blood of Jesus Christ, the infinitely holy and perfect and spotless Lamb. Once sin and its consequences are removed in Christ, by grace through faith, then shalom is indeed restored. But the heart of the matter is not our healing; the heart of the matter is the vindication of the glory and justice and mercy of God.

There's so much in this brief note that begs for further comment but I need to go enjoy dinner with my beautiful bride! If what I've said is confusing, please write and let me know so that I can clarify. Otherwise, you can always look up Reichenbach and read him for yourself. As I said at the end of the last note, regardless of your view, let's all (1) strive to remain faithful, and close, to the actual words of the Bible, and (2) let us not fail to worship this God who made a way to deal with our sin and reconcile us to himself in Christ.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Atonement: The Penal Substitutionary View

This evening I continued reading Four Views: The Nature of the Atonement (see a couple of posts below for details). Specifically, I read the essay on and responses to the penal substitutionary view of the atonement.

Simply put, this view argues that the central meaning of the atonement is that it served to pay the penalty due for our sins. It is substitutionary because Christ stood as a "substitute" in our place, the infinitely innocent lamb for thoroughly guilty sinners; it is penal because his sacrifice satisfied the legal debt owed by sinners for their sin.

Here's how Schreiner defines it: "I define penal substitution as follows: The Father, because of his love for human beings, sent his Son (who offerd himself willingly and gladly) to satisfy God's justice, so that Christ took the place of sinners. The punishment and penalty we deserved was laid on Jesus Christ instead of us, so that in the cross both God's holines and love are manifested" (68).

In defense of this view, Schreiner begins by discussing the nature and depth of sin, then moves on to muse on the holiness of God and his just and necessary response to our sin, followed by an explanation of how the sacrifice of Christ met the demands of God's holiness and also expressed his mercy and steadfast love.

To be honest, I thought Schreiner's essay was a good attempt at an explanation and defense of this view, but I found lacking at several points. The parameters of this particular book kept him from exploring several key areas, which he himself admits more than once. So I extend grace to him. But I found myself longing for him to say more about the nature of covenant relationship and the corallary relational nature of sin. He admitted that sin is more than simply breaking God's laws, but then the "more" he offers is that it is a rejection of his lordship. This is indeed true, but it's more than a rejection of lordship--it's a rejection of the Lord. It's a violation of the being of God. Like an adulterous spouse violates the being of his or her mate, sinners violate the being of God. They destroy the relationship. They break the covenant.

I am persuaded that the penal substitutionary view is indeed central to the meaning of the atonement, but I must admit that I hear, and feel, certain criticisms of it well, especially the criticism that it is too detached, too legalistic (in the sense of legally-oriented), and does not allow for the profound relational nature of God as expressed in his covenants. But, as an adherent of this view, I am persuaded that the biblical truths expressed in it can be expressed in such a way as to make allowances for the relational nature of God, sin, the atonement, reconciliation, etc.

I have so much more to say about this but it's late and I'm wiped out! So goodnight and God bless! Whatever you think about the atonement I pray that you will (1) found your thoughts in the actual words of God's Word and keep yourself from the temptation of relying too much on the philosophies and words of men and women, and (2) get down on your face and praise God for what he has done in Christ!

Prayer for a Missionary Friend

This morning I received a prayer request from a missionary friend of mine who serves in west Africa. She and her husband are just home on furlough and have been informed that her dad is having major surgery. Here are her words, will you please join them in prayer?


"In this last week, an urgent need for prayer has come up for my family... My father is going to be having a 3 hour back surgery tomorrow, Friday, June 19th, to help correct some pinched nerves in his back that have really affected his ability to walk over the past year or so. We thank the Lord for bringing us up here at the perfect time to help and support my parents during this time. My father is fearful of a secondary staph infection -- the lst time he had major surgery he almost died from one. Would you please pray with us for the Lord's peace for my parents and the Lord's guiding hands and wisdom for the doctors as they operate. Thank you so much!"

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Atonement: The Christus Victor View

Lately I've been reading a lot of books on the atonement, partially because I'm trying to sharpen my theological edges, but mostly because preaching about the breastplate of righteousness (Eph 6:14) has caused me to rejoice deeply--very deeply--in what Christ accomplished for his precious bride on the cross. In other words, I've been reading much that I might rejoice all the more. I want to see what Christ has done, as clearly as I can, so that I might worship him as I ought.

The book I'm reading right now is part of the "Four Views" series and is entitled, as you might expect, Four Views: The Nature of the Atonement (Intervarsity, 2006). The book presents the Christus Victor view (Greg Boyd), the penal substitutionary view (Tom Schreiner), the healing view (Bruce Reichenbach), and the kaleidoscopic view (Joel Green), in that order. Each author first makes his argument, and then each of the others briefly respond. Cool idea for a series.

Today I read the essay and responses on the Christus Victor. This view argues that, whereas the church has fashioned many "atonement models" over the centuries, the idea that Christ defeated Satan and his forces on the cross is the central one. It is the unifying meaning of the cross that does not deny other meanings but rather embraces and makes sense of them all. Boyd begins by surveying the motif of warfare, and especially of spiritual warfare, throughout the Bible, and then he attempts to show that the main thing Jesus Christ accomplished, through his life and death and resurrection, was ultimate victory in this warfare.

In some ways I found his essay compelling and feeding and inspiring, but overall I found it unconvincing. I don't mean to be uncharitable, but I don't think Boyd reads the Bible very carefully. For instance, he argues at one point that the redemption described in Eph 2:1-10 is predicated upon the fact that "all things" have been put under the feet of Jesus, which he interprets to mean the rulers and authorities et al. which become prominent at the end of Ephesians. I don't have time to go into details right now, but even a cursory reading of Eph 1 - 2 will, I think, show this reading to be unfounded.

More generally, while it is true that the life and death of Christ dealt a decisive blow against Satan and his forces, and while I was inspired to read Boyd's vivid account of that truth, I very much doubt that this truth is at the center of the center of Christ's redemptive purposes, at least in the way Boyd protrays it.

Each of the respondees basically said the same thing, in their own way. I found Reichenbach's critic most poignant: "Frankly, if Greg Boyd's thesis is true, a Christian should have some significant worries. It is not that Boyd's warfare model lacks biblical support or is illogical. Rather, making divine warfare the centerpiece of creation and redemption and giving enormous powers to Satan and his minions has serious implications for Christian faith" (54).

Amen. Christ is indeed the Victor over all the powers of darkness, but I think there are realities and truths that are yet closer to the center of his redemptive purposes.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A Letter from a Friend, or I have Nothing to Whine About

This is long but oh so worth reading.

Today wasn’t the typical (but then again I don’t know what day is while living and ministering in this part of the world).

Just thought I’d share a day in the life…

I woke up this morning at 4 am, had my devotions, did some wash and hung the clothes inside to dry since the possibility of rain is high during the monsoon season. (Yes, the monsoons have begun – evidenced by my yard that looks literally like a jungle. The weeds and grasses have grown tall – a good hiding place for snakes.)

I left my house around 6 am the second time this week for the closest ATM, which is about an hour and a half drive from the land. By the time I returned I quickly showered, grabbed something not quite dry off the clothes line and was ready for devotions with the children and staff by 8 am.

Pastor Paul called at 8:30 and said the funeral for one of the believers in the local church would start at 9 instead of 10 so we drove promptly to the home of the deceased person. When we arrived, it was obvious that the time of prayer and funeral observance was not going to start anytime soon. The men were only just beginning to put the box together. They cut and hammered while my friend and I went inside to see the deceased lying on the floor with an old bright orange and white sheet covering his body. His nose and mouth had been stuffed with white cotton and his face looked yellow (probably due to the overworked liver that had been partly responsible for his death).

His wife sat on the bare cement floor waving a small evergreen branch back and forth over her husband’s face in order to keep the flies away. Several women were sitting on small stools in the tiny room around the body. Someone offered me a stool.

I sat quietly but prayerfully as the grieving woman began to cry and speak of her fear of the future – the uncertainty of it. Mostly I think it was the fear of not being able to feed her children. She had just spent her last 800 rupees ($20) to help care for her dying husband.

From behind the dingy, bluish curtain which was used to divide the small room into two smaller rooms, a small boy of maybe 7 or 8 years old appeared. This was his father lying on the floor.

Another woman, very petite but with fat, almost chipmunk looking cheeks also came from the other side of the curtain. This was the boy’s grandma who lived with them. Looking behind the curtain I noticed two single beds (not twin). Each bed was originally (by western standards) intended to sleep one person, but with no spare space. I realized that the entire family – father mother, grandmother, older sister and this boy – his name means “blessing”—shared these beds and living space.

The woman on the floor continued crying and making clear to everyone in the room her dire situation. She also explained that only one year earlier her middle child had drowned in the river. As none of the other women in the room had anything to say, I asked my friend to translate for me. Together we tried to comfort and encourage her in the Lord.

After about an hour the wooden box was ready. The corpse was placed into the plain, roughly-milled wooden box and then carried outside. All the relatives of the deceased man were Hindu. I prayed that they would come to know the hope and joy we have in Christ, even in death. I was reminded of Paul's words from the book of Philippians 1:21 "For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain."

The sun was beating down. The air was humid and still. Perspiration was quickly becoming large drops of sweat dripping from every pore. As the minutes passed and people were asked to pray, the pastor read some Scripture. I continued trying to dry the sweat from my neck and face and soon realized the heat was beginning to affect my body poorly. I felt as if I would faint.

After an hour I finally went inside the neighbor’s home where I had a chance to cool down and take an aspirin.

It was time to take the body to the burial site.

The coffin was loaded in a vehicle similar to a pick-up truck. Most the people who were going also got in the truck and stood around and held the sides while the coffin sat in the middle. I opted not to go as it was already getting late.

There was a blind woman at the funeral service who sang with the most beautiful voice. We stayed back for a little while to talk with her. As it turned out the blind woman could speak English (it's rare I meet someone in this area who can speak English!) and she had heard about me sometime ago. She was so excited to finally meet. We had a delightful conversation and in the end she agreed to come and teach some of the children of Beracha House the guitar.

My friend and I departed around 12:30 and needed to stop at the local market for vegetables before returning to the land. We made it home around 1:30, ate lunch and from there I had to go into town to make a payment to the hardware store where we purchase all our building supplies.

After that I decided instead of going early tomorrow morning to the ATM (we owe everyone money this week and I can only take out a certain amount of rupees each visit to the ATM) I would go this afternoon since the day was almost gone anyway. I made the drive to the ATM and the attendant notified me that there was no electricity. I asked him how long it had been out. “About 45 minutes.” Well I sure didn’t want to go all the way back without making a withdrawal so I waited and waited. Finally after about an hour the electricity was working again.

Class 6 has a math exam tomorrow. It was suppose to be today but because of the funeral we didn’t have classes. Unfortunately, I still haven’t had time to even make the exam. And why you may ask have I used my time this evening writing to tell you what my day was like?

Because out of the 12 to 15 red flags in my mailbox every day, all of them are junk mail! And I wanted you to know I’m thinking about you and praying for you as well!

One more thing…The last few weeks before I returned to India I was thinking and praying about something in particular. A home for widows and/or old folks. Would you pray with me about this?

His grace. His amazing grace. How sweet it is.

alex