Showing posts with label Atonement. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Atonement. Show all posts

Friday, March 8, 2024

God Reconciling Us to Himself

What does “separation from God” mean? Inasmuch as all are created through Christ, by Christ, for Christ and in Christ (Colossians 1:16-17), it is therefore actually impossible to be separated from God, for Christ is God, and everything exists in him, or else does not exist at all.

God has never separated himself from us. Though we turned away from God, God did not turn away from us. When Paul speaks about the reconciliation brought about by Christ and the blood of the cross, it is not about God reconciling himself to us but about God reconciling us to himself (Colossians 1:19-20; 2 Corinthians 5:19). 

Whatever sense of separation there may have been was only in our own minds, not in the mind of God. It is the enmity of the fleshly mind (not controlled by the Spirit/spirit) that Paul speaks about in Romans 8:7, “The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so.” The Cross did not change God’s mind about us but it changes our minds about God.

This enmity that was in our own minds was not any kind of punishment from God, nor does Scripture speak of it as such, but it is part of what we needed to be delivered from.

Inasmuch as “separation from God” is not any punishment imposed upon us by God, the Cross and the Atonement was not about Christ taking any such punishment upon himself in our place.

The Incarnation demonstrates that God did not separate himself from us. Quite the opposite, by the Incarnation, Christ, who is God, united himself with all humankind, joining God with all humanity.

It is simply not possible for Christ to be separated from God, because Christ is God. To speak of any separation within the Godhead (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is to speak incoherently. Any theory of atonement that posits such a separation fails to understand the historic Christian faith and the doctrine of the Trinity.

So, the Cross was not about Christ being punished in our place. Nor was it about Christ being separated from God. It was not about reconciling God to us but about reconciling us to God. At the Cross, Christ was not drawing God to us but, rather, drawing all to himself (John 12:30-33; see The Cast Net).

When we make the Cross about Christ appeasing God, or changing God’s mind about us, or turning God back toward us, we have gotten the whole directionality of it exactly wrong. Penal theories of the atonement get it all backwards.

Monday, February 26, 2024

The Gospel of Recapitulation

Adam blew it. Christ renewed it. Recapitulation. 

Recapitulation as atonement is a very biblical idea. Paul speaks of it expressly as the plan and purpose of God. It is the saving work of Christ, through the Incarnation and the Cross:

God did this when he revealed to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, toward the administration of the fullness of the times, to head up all things in Christ – the things in heaven and the things on earth. (Ephesians 1:9-10 NET)

The Greek word for “to head up” is anakephalaioo, meaning to gather up into one, to sum up — quite literally, it means to head up. It is recapitulation, or as we would say in today’s jargon, “recap.” Paul tells us that all in heaven and on earth are summed up, headed up, “recapped” and brought to unity, to oneness, in Christ. St. Irenaeus of Lyon (AD 130-202), picking up on Paul, here and elsewhere, speaks specifically of recapitulation as the saving work of Christ:

Wherefore also He passed through every stage of life, restoring to all communion with God ... For it behoved Him who was to destroy sin, and redeem man under the power of death, that He should Himself be made that very same thing which he was, that is, man; who had been drawn by sin into bondage, but was held by death, so that sin should be destroyed by man, and man should go forth from death. For as by the disobedience of the one man who was originally moulded from virgin soil, the many were made sinners, and forfeited life; so was it necessary that, by the obedience of one man, who was originally born from a virgin, many should be justified and receive salvation. St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.18

For the Lord, taking dust from the earth, moulded man; and it was upon his behalf that all the dispensation of the Lord's advent took place. He had Himself, therefore, flesh and blood, recapitulating in Himself not a certain other, but that original handiwork of the Father, seeking out that thing which had perished. — St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5.14

That the Lord then was manifestly coming to His own things, and was sustaining them by means of that creation which is supported by Himself, and was making a recapitulation of that disobedience which had occurred in connection with a tree, through the obedience which was [exhibited by Himself when He hung] upon a tree, [the effects] also of that deception being done away with. — St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5.19

These things, therefore, He recapitulated in Himself: by uniting man to the Spirit, and causing the Spirit to dwell in man, He is Himself made the head of the Spirit, and gives the Spirit to be the head of man: for through Him (the Spirit) we see, and hear, and speak. — St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5.20

He has therefore, in His work of recapitulation, summed up all things, both waging war against our enemy, and crushing him who had at the beginning led us away captives in Adam, and trampled upon his head, as you can perceive in Genesis that God said to the serpent, “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall be on the watch for your head, and you on the watch for His heel. — St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5.21

The words of St. Irenaeus echo the author of Hebrews:

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil — and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (Hebrews 2:14-18)

Recapitulation means that what Adam got wrong, Christ put right. And humankind, which was once headed up in Adam, is now headed up in Christ.

Consequently, just as one trespass [Adam’s] resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act [Christ’s] resulted in justification and life for all people. (Romans 5:18)

For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. (1 Corinthians 15:22) 

Paul tells us in Ephesians 1:9-10 that all in heaven and on earth are summed up, headed up, “recapped,” brought to unity, to oneness, in Christ. If Christ is the head, then humankind is the body. St. Gregory of Nyssa understood this very well: “Now the body of Christ, as I have often said, is the whole of humanity.”

This is Recapitulation.
This is Atonement.
This is the Gospel.

Sunday, January 28, 2024

Neither Payment Nor Penalty

The Cross was not about a debt paid or a penalty satisfied, though some have taken passages such as Colossians 2:14, as teaching such. But this passage does not describe some cosmic debt service or penal satisfaction. Rather, it shows us the obliteration of all written charges against us; not by payment but by crucifying them, putting them to death. They were simply removed from all consideration. Why? Because as Paul shows in verse 13, though we were dead in our transgressions and in the “uncircumcision” of our flesh, Christ nevertheless made us alive with him, having forgiven all our sins.

And even though you were dead in your transgressions and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, he nevertheless made you alive with him, having forgiven all your transgressions. He has destroyed what was against us, a certificate of indebtedness expressed in decrees opposed to us. He has taken it away by nailing it to the cross. Disarming the rulers and authorities, he has made a public disgrace of them, triumphing over them by the cross. (Colossians 1:13-15 NET)

This forgiveness was not the result of the Cross but was the cause of it. The Cross did not win God’s forgiveness for us but revealed God’s forgiveness to us. We see this also in Romans 5:8. “But God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

If the Cross reveals God’s forgiveness, then it is not about payment of debt. There is either debt payment or debt forgiveness. If a debt is forgiven, then it is not paid; if the debt is paid then it has not been forgiven but paid. There is no such thing as a debt that has been forgiven yet still must be paid.

So, what happened at the Cross was not about a debt paid or a penalty satisfied before God could forgive us. Rather, it was the greatest revelation of God’s forgiveness.

The Cross was about destroying everything that was against us. Not only the indictment, which was not satisfied but, quite the opposite, completely set aside, but also the “principalities and powers,” the “rulers and authorities,” the dark spiritual entities behind human institutions and powers, which rise up against God to enslave us. They have been completely disarmed and no longer have any power or authority to hold us in bondage. They have been put to open shame by the Triumph of the Cross. The author of Hebrews puts it this way: 

Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, he likewise shared in their humanity, so that through death he could destroy the one who holds the power of death (that is, the devil), and set free those who were held in slavery all their lives by their fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14-15)

The power of death has been destroyed, so also the one who held the power of death (which was not God but the devil). And so also the fear of death which so long held humankind in slavery to sin. We no longer have to fear death; we no longer have to be in bondage to sin, to our desires, to our passions. Now we can, as Paul says, reckon ourselves dead to sin and alive to God (Romans 6:11).

This is the work of the Cross and the meaning of the gospel. Not the payment of some penalty to satisfy God, but deliverance from, and the destruction of, all those things that worked together to destroy us.

Monday, January 15, 2024

The Cross, Creation and the End of Evil

Why is there evil and suffering in the world? Here is a different take that comes to me the more I meditate on how central Christ crucified and risen is to everything. Here it is for your consideration, and it goes like this:

First, understand that evil is not a thing in itself, and has no existence in itself. Evil is nothing more than the lack of good, therefore the lack of thingness. For Christ, the Creator of all things, creates only the good. So, the evil we see is the void, the nothingness into which Christ, the Logos, speaks the world into existence. 

Christ crucified and risen is both the beginning and the completion of all creation. For he who is the firstborn of the dead is the firstborn of all creation (Colossians 1). The cross is the very center of time and eternity, yet it encompasses time and eternity. Christ crucified and risen is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.

When we see the Cross, we are witnessing evil, the darkness and chaos of non-being, doing the very worst it can do to God, even to the point of crucifying Christ. But the moment of the Cross and Resurrection is the very undoing of all evil, chaos and darkness. It is the very moment of Christ creating the heavens and the earth, the moment of humankind being made in the image of God, to be like God.

So, if we want to know what the creation of the world looks like, look to the cross, to Christ crucified and risen. If we want to know what the end or consummation of the world looks like, look to Christ crucified and risen. If we want to see what the defeat of all evil looks like, look to Christ crucified and risen. 

It is all accomplished there, certainly in eternity, but also in time. For the Incarnation of Christ is the union of eternity with time. We can see, in time, where it is all done in eternity. We can point to it and say, “There it is, right there!” We can be immersed in it and taste it on our tongues in the sacraments. Everything in time, both forward and backward, is worked out from the Cross.

The Cross means that we no longer have to understand time as neverending cycles, or in linear fashion, with “before” and “after,” for our eternal Lord Jesus Christ has united himself with time. Now we can see the consummation of all time and the unveiling of history right there at the Cross, in Christ crucified and risen. 

This, I believe, is the point of the book of Revelation, the Apocalypsis, the Unveiling that “pulls away the curtain” to show us the Lamb of God, slain from the foundation of the world, seated upon the Throne, making all things new. And this is why we find, in Revelation, the most exquisite worship, because it is in worship of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world that we behold everything — the Beginning and the End, all fulfilled in our Lord Jesus Christ.

“The darkness is passing away,” John the Elder tells us, “and the True Light is already shining” (1 John 2:8). At the Cross, we can simultaneously witness the passing away of darkness and evil, and the shining of the Light of Christ, who is the True Light that gives Light to everyone in the world (John 1:9).

Friday, September 20, 2019

Gathering All Unto Himself

At the cross, the Lord Jesus Christ, through whom, by whom and for whom all things were created, and in whom all things hold together, and who by the Incarnation joined himself with all humankind, disarmed the principalities and powers, and broke the power of sin and death and the devil. God was in Christ reconciling the cosmos to himself, not counting our sins against us (2 Corinthians 5:19).

Looking to the cross and the manner of his death, Christ said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all to myself” (John 12:32). The Greek word used for “draw” is one that is used of fishing nets being drawn or dragged, gathered in.

Christ has been lifted up, exalted, at the cross, where the glory of God has been revealed. And Christ is now drawing all, everyone and everything, gathering all unto himself.

This is the glory of the cross.

Friday, August 16, 2019

All-Encompassing, All-Redeeming Christ

(adapted from Colossians 1:15-20)

Christ is all-encompassing,
In every dimension and every degree.
The fullness of Christ in all things,
the fullness of all things in Christ,
with nothing left out at any point.

All things and everything.
Christ is the firstborn over all creation.
Not some,
not most,
but all.

All things have been created in Christ
and through Christ
and for Christ.
Not some,
not most,
but all.

Christ is before all things.
Not some,
not most,
but all.

And in Christ all things hold together.
Not some,
not most,
but all.

Christ is the head of the body,
the Church.

Christ the beginning,
and the new beginning,
the firstborn from
among the dead,
so that in all things
Christ might have
the supremacy.
Not some,
Not most,
but all.

For it was pleasing to God to have
all fullness dwell in Christ.
Not some,
not most,
but all.

And through Christ
to reconcile to himself all things.
Whether things on earth
or things in heaven,
by making peace
through his blood,
shed on the cross.

Not some,
not most,
but all.

Friday, June 29, 2018

The Gospel Changes How We See Each Other
From now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. (2 Corinthians 5:16)
The gospel changes how we view every human being. The cross certainly does, for Christ died for all of us. And referring to the cross, Jesus said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” That being so, we can no longer look at each other through the lens of “us” and “them.” That lens is a “worldly” point of view, how the world determines things. But it is a failed way of seeing each other, and the cross of Christ puts the lie to it. There is no “us” and “them,” but only those for whom Christ died, which is everyone.

Along with the cross, we must also consider the Incarnation, through which the death of Christ could be effective for any of us and, by the same reason, was effective for all of us. For it is through the Incarnation that God joined himself with all humankind; in Jesus Christ, divinity and humanity became one. All the fullness of divinity dwells in Christ in bodily form, in whom also all the fullness of humanity dwells, so that, in Christ, we are made complete and become partakers of the divine nature.

In the Incarnation, Christ did not just become one of us, or even just one like us, but he became one with us. This union does not depend upon anything we have done or ever could do; it does not even depend upon our faith. Rather, it depends upon Christ and his faithfulness, who is completely faithful. It is this union that made the cross of Christ effective for every one of us, so that Paul could say, “one died for all, and therefore all died.”
For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. (2 Corinthians 5:14-15)
Christ died, therefore all died. This could only have been possible because of the Incarnation. Indeed, the Incarnation made the cross inevitable, because the one who has joined himself to us is Life and would therefore confront the human mortality to which we are all subject. And in confronting death, he overcame it, even as light overcomes darkness. The death of Christ is our death and his victory, our victory, so that his life has now become our life. This is true of every one of us because of the inclusive nature of the Incarnation.

This is why Paul could say, “So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer.” Paul had once considered Christ from a death-bound point of view, but then having met the living Christ on the way to Damascus, he could no longer see him that way. Christ, who died for all, had been raised from the dead for all, and the death-bound perspective of the world no longer made any sense.

“Therefore,” Paul says, “if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Elsewhere, Paul calls Christ the “firstborn over all creation” and the “firstborn from among the dead” (Colossians 1:15,18). Christ, by whom, for whom and through whom all things were created, and in whom all things consist, became part of his creation, joining himself to us through the Incarnation. When Christ died, all creation died; when Christ was raised from the dead, all creation was raised to new life with him. The new creation has come!

When Paul says, “If anyone is in Christ,” he is not suggesting that there are two groups: those who are in Christ (“us”), and those who are not (“them”). That is the old, worldly point of view that has been done away by the gospel. Rather, all are in Christ, for when Christ died, all died. Paul could not have asserted that all died when Christ died unless all were in Christ. But the “if” in Paul’s statement makes a logical connection and shows what it means that we are in Christ, that we have new life and are part of the new creation.

We see this same dynamic at work elsewhere in Paul’s letters. In Romans 5:18, for example, he says, “Just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people.” The one trespass was Adam’s, and it resulted in condemnation for all, because all were in Adam. The one righteous act was Christ’s and resulted in justification and life for all people, because all are in Christ. In 1 Corinthians 15:22, Paul says, “As in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” Paul sees everyone as being in Christ, as having died with Christ, as having been raised to new life with Christ, and even as having been seated with Christ at the right hand of the Father (Ephesians 2:4-6).

So, for those who are in Christ, which is all of us, the new creation has come, and we are part of it. This is why we can no longer view each other through the old way of the world.
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:18-19)
In Christ, the whole world has been reconciled to God, and God has not counted our sins against any of us. All are forgiven, and this has been demonstrated at the cross. The good news of the gospel is the announcement of that reconciliation and forgiveness — our at-one-ment, as the word “atonement” literally means.
We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:20)
This reconciliation is objectively true, but clearly, not all have known it or experienced it. Our subjective response to it is a matter of faith, but our faith does not make it true, nor does our lack of faith undo the truth of it. It is objectively true of us that we are in Christ and reconciled to God whether or not we have any subjective sense of it or response to it. The work of evangelism, of bringing that message of reconciliation, is so that others may begin to know and experience what has been done for us in Christ and live in the truth of our fellowship with God.
God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)
God was in Christ, and Christ became sin for us. This happened in the Incarnation. In Christ, God became a human being (though no less God), joining himself with all humankind, even at our very worst, taking all our darkness, all our brokenness, all our shame into himself. For whatever in us he did not join himself to, he could not deliver us from.

Why did God do this? So that in Christ we would become the righteousness of God. In Christ, we have, and are, God’s own righteousness. Not by imputation, nor by impartation, but by Incarnation. That is, this righteousness is not a legal fiction, or something that is merely reckoned to our account (imputation). Nor is it merely something imparted to us, as if it were some discrete substance delivered to us from the outside. But we have it by the Incarnation, in which we participate in Christ and Christ participates in us. By that participation, then, we participate in God’s righteousness. We share in it because we share in Christ and Christ shares in us.

Because we are in Christ, chosen in him from before the creation of world (Ephesians 1:3), and have been reconciled in him, have died with him, have been raised with him and seated with him in the heavenlies, and share with him in the righteousness of God, we can no longer see each other through the old eyes of the world. The gospel changes that, giving us new eyes to see.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Trampling the Fear of Death

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil — and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14-15)
For the past couple of posts, we have been looking at the relationship between sin and death, particularly at the question of whether we are mortal because we sin, or we sin because we are mortal. My understanding of Scripture is the latter, that we sin because we are mortal. (See Whereupon All Sinned and The Sting of Death.) But how is it that mortality leads to sin? I think Hebrews 2:14-15 provides a clue.

First, let’s notice what the author of Hebrews identifies here as the problem that is solved by the death of Christ. It is not sin but death, which is to say, the power of death, and the power of him who holds the power of death. It may come as a surprise that the one identified here as holding the power of death is not God but the devil. But God is not the one who kills.

God has the power of life, not of death. Death is nothing in itself; it is the absence of something. Just as darkness is nothing but the absence of light, so death is nothing but the absence of life. Christ is life, and when he encounters the power of death, as he did at the cross, it is “game over” for death. There is simply no contest.

In Revelation 1:18, Christ says, “I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.” But what does he do with those keys? In Revelation 20, both death and Hades (the place of the dead) are cast into the “lake of fire,” but before they are, they are emptied out.

At the cross, Christ broke not only the power of death, but also the power of the one who held the power of death, that is, the devil. In 1 John 3:9, we read that Christ came to destroy the works of the devil. This, too, happened at the cross and was revealed in the resurrection when Christ broke the gates of Hades and set its captives free.

Now, let’s look at how the author of Hebrews describes what the power of death and of the devil does: It causes us to fear, and that fear leads us into bondage. But Christ has broken that power so to “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”

Fear of death is a terrible bondage, causing people to do all sorts of things to avoid it, or else to get all the pleasure they can out of this life before they meet their inevitable end (supposing that death has the last word). It is fear of death that whispers in us, “What shall we do? How shall we survive?” Jesus speaks to this deep anxiety in his Sermon on the Mount:
So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:31-33)
We live in bondage and the fear of death when we do not know we have God as our loving Father who takes care of us in every way. It causes us to live as orphans, believing we must make do for ourselves in whatever way we can. Fear of death blinds us to the truth: “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father’” (Romans 8:15). “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 4:7).

There is an illuminating scene toward the end of the comedy movie, Moonstruck. It is a brief conversation between Rose Castorini (Olympia Dukakis) and Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello).
Rose: Why do men chase women?

Johnny: Well, there’s a Bible story ... God ... God took a rib from Adam and made Eve. Now maybe men chase women to get the rib back. When God took the rib, he left a big hole there, where there used to be something. And the women have that. Now maybe, just maybe, a man isn’t complete as a man without a woman.

Rose: [frustrated] But why would a man need more than one woman?

Johnny: I don’t know. Maybe because he fears death.

[Rose looks up, eyes wide, suspicions confirmed]

Rose: That’s it! That’s the reason!

Johnny: I don’t know ...

Rose: No! That’s it! Thank you! Thank you for answering my question!
Fear of death is a terrible bondage. But Christ rescues us from it, having delivered us from the power of death and of the devil — and so from the power of sin. He did this:
  • By the Incarnation, in which he fully participates with us in our humanity (and we participate with him in his divinity).
  • By the Cross, where he experienced the full measure of our mortality, destroying the power of death and the works of the devil.
  • By the Resurrection, shattering the gates of Hades through the victory of his death, binding the strong man — the devil — and liberating captive humanity.
  • By his Ascension to the right hand of the Father, leading captivity itself — death and Hades — captive, showing himself as Lord and victor over them. And being emptied out, they are finally cast into the “lake of fire.”
  • By Pentecost, where he poured out upon all people the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit by whom we cry out “Abba, Father,” so that no longer need we live in fear of death or of anything else.

Monday, May 7, 2018

The Sting of Death
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. (1 Corinthians 15:56)
Last time, we looked at the question of what Paul meant in Romans 5:12, on whether universal sin resulted in universal death, or conversely, it was universal death that resulted in universal sin (see Whereupon All Sinned). That brief study brought to mind another passage where Paul speaks of the relationship between death and sin. It is at the end of 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s extended discussion of Christ and the resurrection. In verses 55-56, Paul taunts death, the defeated foe: “‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law” (1 Corinthians 15:55-56).

The Greek word for “sting” is kentron and refers literally to the sting of creatures such as bees or scorpions. This sting of death is sin, Paul says (metaphorically, of course). Commentary on this verse usually seems to have the sting, sin, as the cause of death. But would that not be like saying that the sting of a bee is what causes the bee? Is it not rather the bee that causes the sting? So when Paul says, “The sting of death is sin,” is he not saying that it is death that causes sin rather than sin that causes death?

Besides this passage, kentron appears two other times in the New Testament. In Revelation 9:10, it is used of the sting of scorpions. “They had tails with stingers [kentra], like scorpions, and in their tails they had power to torment people for five months.” Again, should we suppose that the sting was what caused the scorpion to be? Rather, it is the scorpion that produces the sting. But what the sting does produce is a temporary torment.

The other occurrence of kentron is in Acts 9:5, where Saul (Paul), heading to Damascus to hound the Christians there, encounters the risen Christ. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Jesus says. Saul asks him, “Who are you, Lord?” and receives the answer: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (NKJV). The word for “goad” is kentron. A goad was used for prodding oxen or other beasts of burden. In this case, something was prodding Saul, trying to move him in the right direction, but Saul was resisting, and it was painful for him. (This bit about kicking “against the goads” does not appear in the oldest manuscripts of this passage but it does show up in later ones, and so is instructive for us about what kentron means.)

If we translate kentron as “goad” in 1 Corinthians 15:55-56, we have: “Where, O death, is your goad. The goad of death is sin.” The direction of causality should become apparent: it is not the kentron that produces death, but death that produces the kentron. What is the kentron death produced, and toward what does it prod? Sin.

So, it is not our sin that causes our mortality; it is our mortality that prods us or stings us with sin. Sin is brokenness of relationship, the alienation we experience toward God, each other, the rest of creation and even within our own selves. Death took full advantage, revealing itself as sin.

Next time, we will look at an important clue to how that happens — and how Christ delivers us from it.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Whereupon All Sinned

Therefore, just as sin entered into the cosmos through one man, and death through sin, so also death pervaded all humanity, whereupon all sinned. (Romans 5:12 DBH)
Here is a very interesting rendering of this verse, particularly at the end, presented to us by David Bentley Hart in his recent translation of the New Testament. Other translations end it with “because all have sinned” (for example, NASB, NIV, NKJV, ESV, CSB, LEB). Hart’s version, “whereupon all sinned,” is substantially different from that. The difference is in whether Paul poses universal death as the result of universal sin (“because all sinned”) or whether he puts it the other way around, that universal sin is a consequence of universal death.

The Greek text at this point is εφ ω (eph ho), a preposition followed by a pronoun. It is found no more than six other times in the New Testament:
  • “Jesus replied, ‘Do what you came for, friend.’ Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him” (Matthew 26:50 NIV). We may put it as the Context Group Version does: “[Do] that for which [eph ho] you have come.”
  • “And when they could not come nigh unto him for the press, they uncovered the roof where he was: and when they had broken it up, they let down the bed wherein [eph ho] the sick of the palsy lay.” (Mark 2:4 KJV). The Greek text used in most modern versions does not have eph ho but uses a different word that is translated similarly.
  • “Immediately he stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God” (Luke 5:25). The Context Group Version has, “and took up that whereon [eph ho] he lay.”
  • “For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (2 Corinthians 5:4 NIV). Both Robertson’s Word Pictures and Vincent’s Word Studies translate the phrase as “Not for that [eph ho] we would be unclothed.” Perhaps eph ho might work okay as “because” here, but that is not so clear. It would work as well, or better, to take it as meaning, “so that.”
  • “Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which [eph ho] Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me” (Philippians 3:12 NIV).
  • “I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it” (Philippians 4:10 NIV). In this and in other versions, it is difficult to identity the eph ho in back of it, but Young’s Literal Translation locates it more clearly for us: “And I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now at length ye flourished again in caring for me, for which [eph ho] also ye were caring, and lacked opportunity.”
“For which,” “wherein,” “whereon,” “for that” — Hart’s rendering of eph ho as “whereupon” in Romans 5:12 seems quite in line. In his translation notes on this verse, Hart points out that, “Typically, as the pronoun [ho] is dative masculine, it would be referred back to the most immediate prior masculine noun, which in this case is θανατος (thanatos), ‘death,’ and would be taken to mean (correctly, I believe) that the consequence of death spreading to all human beings is that all became sinners.”

This reading, however, does interfere with a certain theological bent in the West, one influenced by the Latin version of the New Testament. In the Latin version, Hart’s reading, “whereupon all sinned,” would not be possible.
First, it retains the masculine gender of the pronoun (quo) but renders θανατος by the feminine noun mors, thus severing any connection that Paul might have intended between them; second, it uses the preposition in, which when paired with the ablative means “within.” Hence what became the standard reading of the verse in much of Western theology after the late third century: “in whom [i.e. Adam] all sinned.” This is the locus classicus of the Western Christian notion of original guilt — the idea that in some sense all human beings had sinned in Adam, and that therefore everyone is born already damnably guilty in the eyes of God — a logical and moral paradox that Eastern tradition was spared by its knowledge of Greek.
But we must also consider the context here. The idea that death came to all because all sinned seems to contradict the verses that immediately follow.
To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone's account where there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come. (Romans 5:13-14)
Sin was in the world before the time of Moses, when the Law was given. But notice: where there is no Law, sin is not charged against anyone. From the time of Adam to the time of Moses, then, sin was not charged against anyone. And yet, death still reigned upon all during that period. Everyone died, though not all sinned.

But how can this be if death came to all because all have sinned. The Western theory of “original sin” (more like, original guilt) is that all sinned in Adam and are therefore guilty of sin. Even if they have not actually committed any sin, they are nonetheless judged guilty. This is not what Paul says in Romans 5:12-14.

From both the context and how the words eph ho are normally used elsewhere in the New Testament, it appears that in Romans 5:12, Paul is not attributing the sin of all as the cause of the death of all but, quite the opposite, that it is the mortality that pervades humanity that causes all to sin.

The good news of the gospel is that through the Cross and Resurrection, Christ has delivered us from the power of death and, therefore, from the power of sin.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Divine Love, Holiness, Mercy and Justice

Recently, I came across this quote by J. C. Ryle, who was an Anglican bishop (the first one in Liverpool, England, according to Wikipedia). It is from a sermon he wrote called “The Great Separation”:
Beware of new and strange doctrines about Hell and the eternity of punishment. Beware of manufacturing a God of your own: a God who is all mercy — but not just; a God who is all love — but not holy; a God who has a Heaven for everybody — but a Hell for none; a God who can allow good and evil to be side by side in time — but will make no distinction between good and evil in eternity. Such a God is an idol of your own imagination!
Ryle was, no doubt, a good Christian, a fine man of God, and rightly to be celebrated. But if it may be permitted, I do have a problem with what he has said in this rather popular quote (and one that has often been echoed by others). In the body of his sermon, Ryle is anxious to safeguard the doctrine of an eternal hell, which is the reason for the distinctions he makes in this quote. For Ryle, anyone who disagrees with that doctrine is presenting a “strange and new” doctrine.

Perhaps such a view that differed from his was new and strange to him, but it was not new to the Church, which has never come to a settled understanding on the nature and duration of “hell.” In fact, for about the first five hundred years, the predominant view of the eastern branch of the Church was very different from Ryle’s. They understood the Scriptures as teaching a universal restoration in which God would finally be “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28), that the purpose of hell was for cleansing and that it was therefore of limited duration.

But whatever view one takes about hell and everlasting punishment, the problem with Ryle’s quote is that it seems to me to pit God’s love with God’s holiness, and God’s mercy with God’s justice. As if a God who is all love cannot also be holy, and a God who is all mercy cannot also be just. Or as if the love of God must be qualified by the holiness of God, lest God’s love be taken as overly loving, even to the point of offending God’s holiness. Or likewise, as if the mercy of God must be balanced out by the justice of God, lest God’s mercy be understood as too merciful, even to the point of offending God’s justice. But this does not seem to me to adequately understand the nature of divine love and holiness, or of divine mercy and justice.

The First Epistle of John tells us that God is love (1 John 4:8, and again in 1 John 4:16). Love is not merely a part of God (as if God had parts), or something God has, or does or chooses. It goes deeper than that: Love is what God is. And what God is, he is wholly, not just in part. And not just potentially, either, but fully actualized, fully expressed. In other words, God is all love.

That God is all love tells us about the holiness of God. The Greek word for “holy” refers to what is “set apart.” Holy things are those set apart for God. God’s people are “set apart” for him and are called “holy ones” (another word for this is “saints”). The holiness of God’s own self is the utter uniqueness of God — there is none other like God.

Only of God can it be said that he is love. Human beings may have love, choose love and act in love. But it cannot be said of any of us that we are love. Whatever love, or capacity to love, we may possess, we do not have it in and of ourselves. It is a gift we have received from the God who is love. This uniqueness, that God is love, sets him apart from everything.

God is all love. Every act of God, then, is a manifestation of both the love and holiness of God. A god who is not all love cannot be a god who is truly holy but is a divided, conflicted deity, because it is possible for him to act in ways that are not of love.

We can reckon with the holiness of God as much as we like, but in the end, it does not differ from his love one bit. So, the love of God does not need to be qualified by the holiness of God. For if the holiness of God is the same as his love, then to qualify God’s love with his holiness would be to qualify God’s love with his love. On the other hand, if the holiness of God is different from his love, then to qualify God’s love with holiness would be to qualify it with something that is non-love. In that case, God’s love would itself then be something less than all love: love qualified by non-love. The God of whom it is said that he is love would also then be something less than love — and God would not be truly holy after all.

The love of God does not work against his holiness, and the holiness of God does not work against his love. Nor do they balance each other out. Likewise, the mercy of God does not work against his justice, and the justice of God does not work against his mercy, or his love. But both the mercy and justice of God are manifestations of the holy love of the God who is all love.

Because God is all love, the justice of God is loving toward all. God’s justice, then, is not about retribution, for love is not retributive. But God’s justice is always restorative, because love always seeks what is best for the one who is loved. So, God, who is love, always seeks what is best for his loved ones (which includes everyone), even when they consider themselves enemies of God.

If God’s justice is restorative, is this not divine mercy? To speak of the mercy of God and the justice of God, then, is not to speak of two different things but to speak of the same thing in two different ways. For both divine mercy and divine justice fully manifest the love of God toward us, or else they have no place in the God who is love.

The restorative justice of God means that, though good and evil exist side by side in the present age, this shall not always be the case. The loving justice of the God who is wholly love will by that holy love remove all evil from his loved ones until they are fully restored, and then God will truly be “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28). Otherwise, evil would continue to exist in God’s good creation forever — and would that not be a failure either of God’s love or God’s power, or both?

Friday, April 14, 2017

On This Day

Good Friday and what God was doing in Christ: On this day, God demonstrated his own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
  • On this day, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting our sins against us.
  • On this day, God reconciled to himself all things in heaven and on earth through Christ by the blood of the cross.
  • On this day, Christ, who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!
  • On this day, Christ the Good Shepherd laid down his life for his sheep.
  • On this day, Christ the Mercy Seat took away the sins of the world.
  • On this day, Christ died for our sins, fulfilling the Scriptures.
  • On this day, Christ made cleansing for our sins.
  • On this day, Christ freed us from our sins.
  • On this day, Christ ransomed us from all bondage.
  • On this day, Christ cancelled out the “handwriting of requirements” that was against us, nailing it to the cross.
  • On this day, Christ disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
  • On this day, Christ judged the world, driving out the “prince of this world,” and now draws all people everywhere to himself.
  • On this day, Christ destroyed the works of the devil, breaking their power.
  • On this day, Christ broke the power of him who holds the power of death, that is, the devil.
  • On this day, the righteous act of Christ resulted in justification and life for all.
  • On this day, we were crucified with Christ, to make us alive to God with him.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Death of All Humanity

For much of my life as a Christian, I accepted the theory known as “Penal Substitutionary Atonement.” There are three aspects to that: Penalty, substitution and atonement. The atonement aspect is about reconciliation, at-onement — union with God. That is what Christ came to bring about. “God was in Christ,” Paul tells us, “reconciling the world to himself, not counting their sins against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19). It is the ultimate expression and goal of the gospel — and praise God for it!

But over several years, I began letting go of the penal aspect and finally rid myself of the last vestiges of it in my thinking. It is centered on the idea that God was angry and could not forgive us without first somehow being appeased by bloody sacrifice. To me, that smacks of paganism, which is one reason why I have given it up. But the greater reason is that the Scriptures do not speak of the cross and the atonement as divine punishment or penalty. Nor was that how the early Church understood them. The penal idea did not arrive on the scene until the time of the Reformation, in the 16th century. Now, to be clear, the cross was a sacrifice, and it was for our sake, but it was not a penalty Christ paid on our behalf to appease an angry deity.

That leaves the substitutionary aspect of the atonement, and I have no problem with it. What Jesus did on the cross was for our sake, and something we never could have accomplished for ourselves. But I do want to qualify the nature of that substitution. What we usually think of as substitution is an exchange between two things, where one thing is treated or dealt with in place of another. In the penal substitutionary view, God’s anger, holiness and justice required a penalty that we could not pay, so Christ came and paid it on our behalf, and being God as well as man, he could pay an infinite price and satisfy an infinite debt. But that sort of substitution does not begin to grasp the depth of how Christ’s death on the cross relates to us. It was not a matter of Christ dying instead of us, as if thing A were exchanged for thing B. Rather, it was that thing A became thing B.

That brings us to the mystery of the Incarnation, when God “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) and was called Jesus. In becoming a man, Christ did not just become one like us, or even just one of us — he became one with us. In the Incarnation, God joined himself with all of humanity.

The truth about humanity is that we are all connected, for though there are many human beings, there is only one humanity. We are not merely a collection of individuals but we belong to one another. What affects one, though we may not necessarily realize it on the local level, ultimately affects us all. “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” So begins John Donne’s famous poem, which ends with the line, “therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” This connection, the relatedness of all humanity, is as old and as deep as Adam, and Paul tells us a profound and sobering truth about it: “In Adam all die.” The sin of one human being infected all humanity, bringing death to all, because we are all connected.

Of course, Paul’s message does not end with those sad words — there would be no good news in that —but he leads us to a deeper truth, and more joyful: “Consequently, just as one trespass [Adam’s] resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act [Christ’s] resulted in justification and life for all people” (Romans 5:18). “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22).

In Christ, God has joined himself to all humanity. The death of Christ on the cross, then, was not instead of the death of all humanity — that would have simply been the substitution of A for B. But the death of Christ on the cross was the death of all humanity. Christ did not just die for all humanity but as humanity, and all humanity therefore died with him. “We are convinced,” Paul says, “that one died for all, and therefore all died” (2 Corinthians 5:14).

But if we died with Christ, then to what did we die? For one thing, we died to sin, to the power and slavery of sin. “For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin — because anyone who has died has been set free from sin” (Romans 6:6-7). Sin is not the infraction of a divine law or code but the brokenness of fellowship with God, in whose image we were created. In turning away from God, humanity turned away from the source of life and thus was bound to die. We were under the power of death because we were under the power of sin. But the death of Christ frees us from power of sin.

In the death of Christ, all humanity died. Now, of course, where there is a death, there must also be a burial, and that brings us to the mystery of baptism. Paul says, “We were therefore buried with [Christ] through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:4). In baptism, we are buried with Christ so that we may live a new kind of life, a life of fellowship with God.
Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:8-11)
The death of Christ frees us from the power of death. Indeed, it was the death of death itself, for death had no power over him who is life. His death was our death so that his life could be our life. One day, even our bodies will be raised from the dead to be like that of Christ in his resurrection.

Yet, even now, we participate in the resurrection life of Christ, for we share in the same humanity with Christ. Paul speaks of how, “God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions — it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:4-6).

Made alive with Christ, raised with Christ, seated with Christ in the heavenlies — this is not just a promise about the future but a present reality. For the Incarnation of the Son was not temporary but eternal. He did not merely put on humanity like a suit to be taken off at the end of the day but he became fully human, yet remaining nonetheless fully divine. Nor did he merely lower himself down into our humanity — he raised humanity up into his divinity. Divinity and humanity are perfectly united in Christ, so that we may be one with God.

The death of Christ was the death of humanity. The resurrection of Christ is the resurrection of humanity. And the Ascension of Christ to his throne at the right hand of the Father, where he reigns forever as Lord of the Universe, is the ascension of humanity. This is the New Creation.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Did God Curse Jesus on the Cross?

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” (Galatians 3:13)
Did God curse Jesus on the cross? Now, that may seem to you quite an odd question, and I am very glad if it does. From a Trinitarian viewpoint — which understands the one God as Three Persons in mutually interpenetrating, mutually indwelling union — the idea of the Father cursing the Son makes that union sound very dysfunctional. Is that what the Scriptures teach?

In recent discussion about the atonement — how the death of Christ on the cross saves the world — a friend of mine took the penal view, that the cross was a divinely imposed penalty Christ paid for us. I agree that what Christ did on the cross, he did for our sake and on our behalf, accomplishing for us what we never could have done for ourselves. But I do not believe it was a matter of paying any sort of divine penalty. In support of his view, my friend offered this passage:
For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.” The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, “The person who does these things will live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit. (Galatians 3:10-14)
For those who believe the penal view of atonement, this may at first sound like God cursed Jesus in order to deliver us from the curse. After all, did not the Law of Moses say, “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole?” And did not Jesus hang on a cross, a pole? But let us look carefully at the Scripture Paul quotes, understand it in its own context, and then compare it with how Paul uses it. The line Paul cites is from Deuteronomy 21:22-23.
If someone guilty of a capital offense is put to death and their body is exposed on a pole, you must not leave the body hanging on the pole overnight. Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse. You must not desecrate the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance.
As we compare this passage with how Paul uses it, there are three important things to note. First, this passage is about someone who has been guilty of a capital offense, been put to death, and their body exposed on a pole or tree. Does this apply to Jesus in the way that it is written? We know that Jesus was put to death and nailed to a cross, but was he guilty of any capital offense — or any offense at all, for that matter? No, not by the Law of Moses, he wasn’t. And though Scripture speaks of Christ bearing the sins of the world, it never holds him guilty of any of them.

The Law of Moses made no provision for putting an innocent man to death, not even for the sake of another. Indeed, the Law always condemns the shedding of innocent blood. So, if the Law had cursed Jesus, it would have violated itself and shown itself to be illegitimate for condemning an innocent man.

Second, in the Deuteronomy passage, the one hanging on the tree is said to be “under God’s curse.” But in Paul’s citation, that idea is conspicuously absent. Had he meant to teach that God cursed Jesus on the cross, this would have been the perfect opportunity for him to do so. Yet Paul deliberately leaves out “by God” when he quotes the Deuteronomy passage. The reason for that should be clear enough. Paul did not believe that God cursed Christ.

This is further supported by a third point: Paul does not tell us that Christ was cursed. Rather, he explicitly states that Jesus became a curse. Notice carefully: Jesus did not become cursed but he became a curse, and that is a very different thing. To understand why, we must look to see what Paul was addressing in the first place. We find that just a few verses earlier, in Galatians 3:10, “For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law’” (Paul here quotes from Deuteronomy 27:26).

The Jews had failed to keep all the Law and by that very Law they stood condemned — under the curse. So, Jesus took the part of those who were under the curse of the Law. Yet it was impossible for him to be cursed either by God (because Jesus is God, and the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is not a dysfunctional relationship), or by the Law of Moses (which could not condemn an innocent man without condemning itself). The curse had no right to him, so Christ became a curse to the curse.

In Colossians 2:14, Paul tells us what Christ did with the curse of the Law: He “wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (NKJV). Or as the NIV says it, “having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.”

Now, Christ did not curse the Law itself but the indictment it brought, the “handwriting of requirements,” or the “charge of legal indebtedness.” At the cross, he wiped it all out. He did not pay a penalty to satisfy the “requirements,” or pay off whatever was the “indebtedness.” Instead, he cancelled it, rendering it null and void. He condemned it by “nailing it to the cross.” He cursed it with the curse of hanging it on a pole.

Why, then, did Paul quote a line from Deuteronomy that would otherwise seem to indicate the that one on the tree was cursed? It was because he was not offering a grammatical-historical exegesis — the Jewish interpretative tradition did not approach Scripture that way, nor did Paul or any of the other New Testament authors read the Old Testament that way. In Galatians 3, Paul was not explaining the way things were under the Law of Moses but showing what God has done in Christ, and what the true significance of the Law is in light of that. So, he related the two Scriptures he quoted from Deuteronomy on the basis of the word “cursed” — linking Scriptures by a shared word was a common method of Jewish interpretation. Then he picked up on the word “pole” in the latter text to make the very different point that the former curse was itself dealt with by a curse.

Christ was not cursed by God, by the Law or by anything at all. By his death on the cross, he became a curse to the curse that was on the Jews, and in that way not only redeemed them from the curse of the Law but opened the way for the long-promised blessing of Abraham to come upon the Gentiles as well.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Do You Not Perceive It?
Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland. (Isaiah 43:18)
The Lord says through Isaiah, “Forget the former things.” These were not just the bad things that had happened to Israel, such as the bondage in Egypt or even the Babylonian exile Israel now found herself under. They included even God’s great saving act of the Old Testament, the deliverance of Israel out of Egyptian bondage.
This is what the LORD says — he who made a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters, who drew out the chariots and horses, the army and reinforcements together, and they lay there, never to rise again, extinguished, snuffed out like a wick: Forget the former things. (Isaiah 43:16-17)
That was a wonderful redemption, and the basis of Israel’s relationship as the covenant people of God. But it was a past event, and what they needed now was a present-day deliverance. God would soon bring them out of Babylon and back home to Jerusalem. Yet even that would become a “former thing” because, historically, although Israel was restored to the land, they still remained under foreign dominion.

But all the Law and the Prophets are ultimately about Jesus the Messiah and are fulfilled in him. It is to him that all the former things point and in whom they find their true meaning. In the Lord Jesus, God brought forth the new thing he had long promised Israel. Jesus is not just another in a long series. He is God’s final word, the perfect expression of God and the one by whom everything in heaven and on earth is turned back to God.

Jesus is the “way in the wilderness” that God promised his people, the way who leads us back to the Father. But he does not just lead us on the way — Jesus is the way. There is no path to follow by which we may find our way home. There is only a person, Jesus the Messiah, the Shepherd who brings us safely back to God.

God also promised “streams in the wasteland,” and it is in Jesus that we discover these waters. To the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus said: “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:13-14).

On the last and greatest day of the Feast of Tabernacles, while priests performed the water-drawing ceremony that foreshadowed God’s promise of rivers of life-giving water flowing from the temple (see Ezekiel 47:1-23), Jesus stood up and announced, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them” (John 7:37-38). John tells us, in verse 39, that Jesus was speaking of the Holy Spirit.

The way in the wilderness. Streams in the wasteland. Do you not perceive it? It is not a matter of observation. It does not come to us by reason but by revelation. God’s ways are not our ways. Yet God has revealed his way — revealed himself — to us in Jesus Christ, by the Holy Spirit.

There are physical aspects to this revelation: The Virgin Birth, the miraculous ministry of Jesus, the Cross, the Resurrection, the Ascension, Pentecost, and also the sacraments, such as baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These are historical, for in Christ, God has stepped into history in a singular way and joined himself to humanity — he became a human being and dwelt among us. But the meaning of it all must be imparted to us by the Holy Spirit, for it is mystery, and we should otherwise never be able to perceive it at all. Paul speaks of this in one of his letters to the Church at Corinth.
However, as it is written: “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived” — the things God has prepared for those who love him — these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person's thoughts except their own spirit within them?

In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words.

The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, “Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:9-16)
In Jesus Christ, God has done a new thing and now it springs forth.

Do you not perceive it?

Father of Glory, give us the Spirit of wisdom and revelation that we may know you more and more. Open the eyes of our heart that we may know the joyful anticipation of what you have called us to, the wonderful inheritance you have placed in us, and the incomparable greatness of the power you are working for our sake ~ through Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever. Amen.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Atonement and the Lamb of God
The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)
John the Baptist recognized Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. There are several significant things to notice about this. First, John identified Jesus as the “Lamb of God.” By this, he was recognizing the nature of what Jesus came to do. In the Old Testament, sacrificial lambs played a very important part in Israel’s devotion to God. The sacrifice of a lamb without blemish was an important part of the Passover, not only the original meal when God delivered the children of Israel out of Egypt, but also in the yearly remembrance of that event. It was also part of the daily ritual in Israel’s worship.

Second, notice that John did not identify Jesus as the one who takes away the wrath of God, but rather, who takes away the sin of the world. By his death on the cross, Christ was not placating an angry God, as if God were going to rain down his wrath and punishment upon us but then Jesus stepped up and said, “Father, punish me instead.” No, he was delivering us from death, and from the sin that naturally and inevitably results from it. In theological terms, this was expiation, not propitiation. Expiation is the removal of sin; propitiation is the appeasement of anger. The sacrifices of the Old Testament were about cleansing the people from sin, not about assuaging an angry deity. Appeasement was not necessary, for God was already graciously disposed toward his people in providing them with a way of cleansing.

Third, John identified Jesus as the one who takes away the sin of the world — not sins (plural) but sin (singular). Individual sins could simply be forgiven, but at the cross, Jesus destroyed the very power of sin itself. Sin (singular) is the brokenness of our relationship with God, with each other, with the rest of creation and even within our own selves. Sins (plural) are the countless ways this brokenness reveals itself in the world. The individual acts are merely the symptom of the underlying sickness, and it is the underlying sickness that Jesus came to deal with.

Finally, by his death on the cross, Jesus did not take away the sin of only certain individuals or groups — he took away the sin of the whole world. “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). “The death [Christ] died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God” (Romans 6:10). For “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19). God does not hold any of our sins against any of us — and never has. It was never God who needed to be reconciled to us but we who needed to be reconciled to God, for God never turned away from us but we turned away from God. In Jesus Christ, through his death on the cross, the power of sin has been broken and the healing has come for us all. Therefore, “count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11).

At the cross, the Lord Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, allowed sin and death to do their worst to him. He broke their power, shattered the system of accusation and scapegoating and shame, and destroyed the works of the devil. This is the atonement, how the death of Christ saves the world. Behold, the Lamb of God.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Against the Powers of This Dark Age
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 6:10-12)
There are dark powers at work in the world. The Greek word for “world” in this passage actually means “age.” The world itself is God’s creation, and it is a good creation. But this present age is a different matter, and the powers Paul is talking about are the powers of this dark age. “Rulers of the darkness of this world,” is how the KJV puts it. These dark powers are connected with the forces of evil in the spiritual realm.

Against these dark powers and evil forces, Paul advances quite a different power. It is a power he has already spoken of earlier in this letter, a power that God already exercises toward us, on our behalf and for our good. It is the power by which God raised Christ from the dead and exalted him to the highest place.
That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. (Ephesians 1:19-23)
The power by which God raised Christ from the dead and seated him at the right hand of the Father, far above all rules, authorities and powers is not only at work in us but also through us. It is the resurrection life of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Church, Paul says, is the body of Christ, the “fullness of him” — which is to say that Christ has filled the Church with himself. So his life and power are in us. There is a mystery here, an open secret that God reveals to us in Christ.
Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Ephesians 3:8-11)
This mystery, now revealed to us, is God’s eternal purpose in Christ from before the creation of the world. This divine purpose is, as Paul said in Ephesians 1:10, “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.” The revelation is that it has already been accomplished — it happened through the cross and resurrection of Christ. But God does not do this apart from the Church (and the Church certainly does not do it apart from God). Rather, God has chosen to reveal, through the Church, his stunningly great and multifaceted wisdom to the “rulers and authorities,” which are the spiritual powers behind the nations and cultures of this present age.

This is why Paul prayed, at the beginning of the letter, that our hearts be enlightened to know the hope to which God has called us, the glorious inheritance God has in us, and the greatness of the power that God is working for us and in us, the same power by which he raised Christ from the dead (Ephesians 1:15-18). It is not that these things are not already true of us — they are and have always been so, inasmuch as God chose us in Christ from before the creation of the world — but what we need is to understand, and not just with our intellect, what is going on deep within the core of our beings, “behind the scenes” of the world, in the realm of the Spirit. For it is through us that God has chosen to answer the powers of this dark age.

This brings us back around to Paul’s exhortation to “be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power,” and “put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.” As our warfare is not against flesh and blood, so also the weapons of our warfare are not material but spiritual.
Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6:14-17)
Elsewhere, Paul tells us to “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (Colossians 3:10), and to “clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 13:14). These are all hues of the same truth. The mighty power in which we are to be strong is God’s resurrection power at work in us.

The “full armor” is Christ himself. He is the belt of truth buckled around our waist and the breastplate of righteousness we bear. It is Christ who makes our feet ready to hold firm in the peace of God. Christ is the shield we hold out in faith and the helmet of salvation we wear. The message of his gospel is the sword of the Spirit we wield. It is Christ, who fills everything in every way, who is doing this through and through — and he has chosen to do it through his body, the Church.

In this armor, we are able to stand with Christ against the dark powers of this present age. For “the true light that gives light to everyone” has come into the world (John 1:9). “The darkness is passing and the true light is already shining” (1 John 2:8). Let us, then, join in the wonderful doxology Paul sings in this same letter:
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. (Ephesians 3:20-21)

Monday, May 30, 2016

Wrath That Remains?
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on them. (John 3:36)
A common view among evangelicals is that we are saved not only by God (through Christ) but also from God. One verse used to support that is John 3:36, in which the wrath of God is said to remain on those who reject Christ. It is assumed that if one needs to be saved from the wrath of God, one therefore needs to be saved from God himself. I have addressed the wrath of God in other posts, particularly about how Paul understood God’s wrath. Simply put, it is not God’s retaliation against the wicked but God giving the wicked over to their own devices, not for the purpose of retribution but that they might repent and be restored.

We may understand the wrath of God in John 3:36 in the same way. If we follow this chapter from the beginning, we can see that the wrath of God is not for the purpose of condemnation. We find this particularly in the middle section:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God's one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. (John 3:17-21)
God did not send Christ to condemn us. He sent Christ to rescue the world from condemnation. Those who reject Christ were already condemned before Christ came. But what was the nature of that condemnation? It was not a matter of some eternal decree or because God damned them or was unforgiving toward them. It was because they loved darkness rather than Light, so they turned away from the light. God did not withhold the Light from them; they simply did not want it. That was the state of condemnation they were in: they preferred darkness rather than the Light. God’s verdict did not decree that they should therefore be condemned. It simply pointed out what was true of them: they did not want the Light.

The “wrath” of God in verse 36, then, is that verdict concerning those who reject the Light of Christ. They love the darkness, so God leaves them to it. They will continue in darkness until they turn to the Light. And until they do, the Light will be a torment to them, for it exposes the evilness of their deeds. We can just as well say that the wrath of God is the Light of Christ shining in the darkness — not as a decree, or as a retaliation, but as a grace. For the Light of Christ is a manifestation of God in his love. We are saved by God, not from God.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Saved from Wrath
Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! (Romans 5:9)
In my previous post, I wrote that we are saved by God, not from God. This contradicts a certain way many Christians have come to think, a view often known as penal substitutionary atonement. It teaches that God was offended by us because of our sin and that only the penalty of death could assuage his fierce and holy anger. So God became a man, Jesus Christ, in order to die that death and pay that penalty on our behalf. According to this theology, we are saved by God but also from God.

Such was the view I held for several years myself, but I have since come to see differently: Christ did not come to save us from God but to deliver us from the bondage of sin and death and so turn us back to God. Understandably, this has received some pushback from those who hold my former view.

One line of criticism has to do with the wrath of God, and Romans 5:9 is the prime go-to. The NIV and several other translations have it that we are, “saved from God’s wrath.” The Greek text, however, simply says σωθησομεθα δι αυτου απο της οργης — “saved through him [Christ] from the wrath.” Note that the text itself does not identify the wrath as belonging to God, but the translators have assumed it to be so.

Is it God’s wrath that Paul has in mind? Possibly, and I’ll address that in a moment. But first, let me suggest a different possibility. In the context of Romans 5, I think Paul could be referring to the persecutions suffered for the sake of the gospel. He speaks of such persecutions just a few verses earlier: “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Romans 5:4-5).

Paul “gloried” in those sufferings, not because of what they were in themselves but because of what they resulted in, namely, a hope that “does not put us to shame.” He goes on to explain that hope in the verses that follow. When he speaks of being “saved” from the “wrath” in verse 9, then, he could be referring to the wrath of persecution and the hope which saves us from being shamed by it.

But let’s also consider verse 10, where Paul asks, “For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” Like verse 9, it is a “how much more” comparison, and along the same lines. Notice what it is that saves us in this instance. Yes, in verse 10, we are reconciled to God through the death of Christ, just as we are justified by the blood, or death, of Christ in verse 9. But in verse 10, notice that Paul says it is the life of Christ that saves us; this matches “saved from wrath” in verse 9. In other words, the parallelism of these two verses would seem to indicate that what saves us from wrath (v. 9) is the life of Christ (v. 10).

What is the wrath that the life of Christ saves us from in this context? The wrath of God? That hardly seems likely, especially considering that those who believe Christ saves us from the wrath of God usually believe he does so by his death on the cross. But the salvation Paul refers to in this passage is achieved by the life of Christ. Again, I suggest that the hope we have in the gospel — the expectation we have in Christ, and of his life in us — saves us from being ashamed of the gospel because of persecution.

But what if we assume, as many do, that it is God’s wrath that Paul has in mind — then what is that wrath and how does it work? Paul has already discussed the wrath of God at the top of this letter, in Romans 1 (I have blogged about that in How the Wrath of God is Revealed). In short, it is not about God inflicting something on the wicked in retaliation for their wickedness. It is God giving them over to the depravity of their ways, and to the consequences that naturally arise from them.

If the wrath Paul speaks about in Romans 5 is the wrath of God, then, contextually, we should understand it in terms of Paul’s discussion of that wrath in Romans 1. So if we are saved from the wrath of God, and the wrath is that he gives us over to our own sinful desires and self-degradations, then what we are really saved from is our own selves, the bondage of our depraved and sinful desires.

What saves us, then, is that we are reconciled to God, which is to say, turned back to him. For in our depravity, we turned away from God. But God did not leave us in that condition. Instead, through Christ and by the work of the cross, he delivered us from the sinful desires, shameful lusts and depraved thinking that held us captive.

The reconciliation we have in Christ, in Romans 5:10, is not about mollifying God, appeasing his anger or preventing him from retaliating against us. For it is not God who has been reconciled to us. Rather, it is we who have been reconciled to God. Just as it was not God who turned away from us; it was we who turned away from God.

The death of Christ on the cross does not change God’s attitude toward us. It changes our attitude toward God, by freeing us from death and darkness and depravity of mind so that we can return to God. By turning us back to God through Christ, God delivers us from shame by the life of Christ now at work in us.

Through the death and life of Christ, then, we are saved from death, from sin, from darkness, from depravity of mind — in a word, from ourselves. We are not saved from God but by God. For God was already kindly disposed toward us to deliver us from all those things. Paul tells us in Romans 5:8 that God demonstrated his love for us in that even while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. This was not the emotionally disordered action of a confused deity who, on the one hand, desired to save us but, on the other hand, what he must save us from is his own angry, retaliatory self. That would be simply incoherent. Rather, it was the gracious response of God who is love and who therefore looks on us always and only with love.