Saturday, October 31, 2015

After the Lake of Fire

Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:15)
The three main views on the nature and function of hell each understand the “lake of fire” differently. All agree that anyone whose name is not found in the “book of life” is thrown into the lake, but the important question that separates them is, what comes next?
  • The Eternal Conscious Torment answer is that those who are cast into the lake of fire suffer eternal conscious torment.
  • The Annihilationist answer is that those who are cast into the lake of fire suffer for a time and are eventually destroyed.
  • The Restorationist answer is that those cast into the lake of fire suffer until they repent and call on the name of the Lord, and then, having done so, are reconciled to God through Christ.
One support used for ECT is Revelation 20:10, “The devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.” There is the “lake of fire” (or “burning sulfur”) and the words “torment” and “forever and ever” all neatly joined together.

But the book of Revelation is written in the apocalyptic genre, which is a very symbolic, stylistic and even hyperbolic, form of literature. The “lake of fire” is neither a literal lake nor a literal fire. The experience of torment is very real — the anguish of the soul — for those who oppose God. How long does it last? “Forever and ever,” English translations say, but the Greek words, tous aionas aionon, have to do with ages or eons. That may be a long time, although the length of an age in the Bible can vary considerably. But it is not the same as eternity or endlessness. If aionas actually meant “forever,” it would be unnecessary to add ton aionon, i.e., “and ever.” A literal rendering would be “to ages of ages,” but whether that indicates endlessness or eternity is a matter of interpretative opinion. (See also, Eternal Punishment, Eternal Destruction?)

The “lake of fire” comes up again in Revelation 21, which is about the new heaven and new earth, and the New Jerusalem that comes down from heaven to earth, uniting them. It is the home of the faithful, who are called the victorious and who inherit the city. But in verse 8, we read of the wicked, who have no part in the city: “But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars — they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” That might seem to be the end of the matter — except that as we continue to read just a few verses later, an interesting development comes to light:
The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. (Revelation 21:24-26)
Who are these nations? Earlier, they are shown being prophesied against (10:10-11), as the angry recipients of God's wrath (11:18), as drinking the “maddening wine” of Babylon the Great (14:8 and 18:3), as those whose cities collapsed in their war against God (16:19), as part of the waters upon which the Great Prostitute was seated (17:15), as led astray (18:23) and as struck down by the “sharp sword” coming out of the mouth of Christ (19:15). Yet, now they are seen walking by the light of the New Jerusalem. What has happened that accounts for this change?

And who are these kings of the earth? They, too, have been mentioned several times earlier in Revelation. They are chief among those who hid in caves and begged the mountains to fall on them, to hide them from the face of the Lord and the wrath of the Lamb (6:15-17). They are the ones who have “committed adultery” with the Great Prostitute, “intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries” (17:1-2). They “committed adultery” with her (18:3) and mourned over her destruction (18:9). Finally, they aligned with the “beast” and gathered their armies together to wage war against Christ and the saints, but they are defeated and dispatched, destroyed by the “sword” from the mouth of Christ.

These are not nice people, and we should not expect to see them again in Revelation, certainly not in the New Jerusalem — yet that is exactly what we find. They enter into the Holy City, bringing all their tribute with them to honor Christ. Again, what has happened that accounts for this change?

May I suggest that perhaps what has happened to them is the “lake of fire.” The nations and kings of the earth, as wicked as they were, would surely be cast there. But they are not destroyed or consumed by that experience — they are refined. Their anger and rebellion are burned away and they have turned to God and his Christ in repentance and faith. Elsewhere, we see that the judgment of God is for the purpose of correction, not retribution. So, too, the fire, brimstone and torment.

The nations and kings of the earth eventually returning to God in faith agrees with the purpose Paul attributes to God, that all things in heaven and on earth be reconciled to God through Christ (Colossians 1:19-20, Ephesians 1:10), that every knee bow and every tongue confess Jesus as Lord (Philippians 2:9-10) and that, in the end, God will be “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28). Whatever the “lake of fire” is or how it functions in the apocalyptic imagery of the book of Revelation, it does not ultimately prevent the reconciliation of all things to God through Christ and his cross.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Divine Justice and Eternal Conscious Torment

The view that hell is eternal conscious torment creates several problems in regard to divine justice. One is that, in the ECT version of hell, justice is never fully or finally accomplished. Another is that it relies on an understanding of justice that does not derive from the Bible but from medieval feudalism. A third problem is that the justice of God revealed through Christ is restorative but ECT is not.

Justice is Never Fully or Finally Done in ECT Hell
Proponents of Eternal Conscious Torment have often explained that since God is infinite in nature, then offenses against him, though they may happen in a brief moment in time, are infinite in nature and therefore must be punished infinitely, or eternally. But if they must be punished endlessly then there is never a point at which justice will ever be accomplished. It will be eternally incomplete, for there will always be more punishment to be endured.

God’s Justice is Not Feudal Justice
Of course, the idea that offenses against an infinite God require infinite or eternal punishment raises another problem. In the law God established in the Old Testament, punishment for an offense was based upon the offense itself and never upon the prestige of the person who was offended. Rich and poor were to be treated alike, regardless of the status of the offender or of the offended. There was no greater penalty for sinning against a rich man than there was for sinning against a poor man. To base punishment upon the status of the person who was offended, whether rich or poor, would not have been considered justice but injustice. The idea that punishment should be based on the status of the offended is a feudal idea, not a biblical one. So, too, the idea that offenses against an infinite God require infinite or eternal punishment is not a biblical one.

God’s Justice is Restorative, ECT is Not
A third problem is that the justice God has revealed in Jesus Christ is restorative, not retributive. But the Eternal Conscious Torment view of hell is the opposite: retributive, not restorative. Paul shows how God’s righteousness, which is the same thing as God’s justice, is addressed through Christ and his cross.
But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood — to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished — he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26)
Christ did not come so that retribution might be satisfied, nor was the cross God’s retribution upon him, or on us. But Christ came for the purpose of redemption, to deliver all from the power of sin, so that all might be justified — reckoned fit for fellowship with God and his people. In the cross, God refrained from punishment and retribution so that there might be restoration. That is the righteousness and justice of God.

God’s Purpose in Christ: Reconciliation
God’s purpose revealed in Christ is to reconcile all things in heaven and on earth to himself through him (Colossians 1:20), “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (Ephesians 1:10), so that God may be “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28).

The ECT view, however, does not allow God’s purpose to ever be fulfilled, for the one who is being punished eternally is never finally reconciled to God and brought into unity with all things in heaven and on earth, and God will always be something less than all in all. But Paul affirms that in the end God will be “all in all.”

Eternal Conscious Torment, then, does not measure up to the justice of God but falls short in significant ways. The Annihilationist view also falls short because it supposes that, after an indeterminate season of suffering, the wicked will be utterly destroyed, and so never finally reconciled to God and restored to unity with creation.

The Restorationist view, which I believe is indicated by the Scriptures I have cited above (see Hell and the Restoration of All Things), seems to me the only view that adequately addresses God’s stated purpose. If God’s purpose is truly to reconcile all things in heaven and on earth to himself through Christ, this does not mean that there is no hell or no judgment, or that there is no need for repentance and faith, but it suggests that the purpose of hell and judgment is not endless torment but to turn the soul back to God through faith in Christ.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Repentance: A New Orientation Toward God

The meaning of a word is not necessarily determined by its etymology but by how it is used. So, though metanoia, the Greek word translated as “repentance,” is a compound of meta (a prefix that is sometimes used to indicate change) and noiea (to consider, think, perceive or understand), its meaning is not discovered simply by “totaling up” or combining the meaning of those two words. It is discovered by how the new combination functions as a whole in particular contexts.

In the Bible, the meaning of the verb metanoeo or the noun metanioa does not flatten out to “think after” or “think again” or “have a change of mind,” as if it were nothing more than a mental transaction. It indicates a new orientation, a new disposition that results not only in a new way of thinking but a new way of living.

So, John the Baptist, who preached a “baptism of repentance,” said this: “Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8; Luke 3:8). And Paul related to King Agrippa the testimony about how he preached at Jerusalem, throughout Judea and to the Gentiles “that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance” (Acts 20:26).

Likewise, Apostle Peter said to Simon the Sorcerer, who tried to buy the power of God, “Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord that, if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you” (Acts 8:22). He did not mean, “Just change your mind about how wicked this is, but it is okay if you go ahead and perform it.” Rather, repentance would mean that the wickedness Simon had formerly intended to do, he would no longer do.

Preaching at Solomon’s colonnade, Peter said, “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord” (Acts 3:19). Where the NIV has “turn to God,” the KJV and NKJV have “turn back” and the LEB has “be converted.” The Greek word is epistrepho. Simply and literally, it indicates a turning. In regard to human beings in relation to God, it functions in a way similar to metanoeo. Sometimes, as here in Acts 3:19, it is even directly associated with metanoeo. Even on its own, it is often about turning to God:
  • In Luke 1:16, the angel of the Lord said to Zechariah, concerning John the Baptist that “he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God”
  • In Acts 11:21, “The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.”
  • In Acts 14:15, where Paul evangelizes at Lystra, telling them to “turn from useless things to the living God.”
  • In Acts 26:18, where Paul recounts how King Jesus sent him to the Gentiles, “to open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light and from the power of satan to God.”
  • In Acts 26:20, Paul “declared first to those in Damascus and in Jerusalem, and throughout all the region of Judea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent [metanoeo], turn to God, and do works befitting repentance [metanoia].”
  • In 1 Thessalonians 1:9, about how the believers there “turn to God from idols to serve the living and true God.” Notice that “turning to God” here resulted in a disposition to serve Him.
  • In James 5:19-20, to turn or turn back one who wanders from the truth (that is, from God).
  • In 1 Peter 2:25, where Peter, referencing Isaiah 53, says, “For you were like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and overseer of your souls.”
All of these tell us something about how the New Testament uses the idea of repentance. It is not merely having a mental transaction or giving mental assent to a proposition about God. It is turning to God, away from idols, away from “useless things,” away from wicked works. More particularly, in the New Testament it is about turning to God through Jesus the Messiah. It is a turning that brings a new attitude, a new disposition, and a new intention that will be evidenced in how one lives.

Dictionaries, Lexicons, Wordbooks
There are several dictionaries and lexicons of Greek words that understand metanoeo and metanoia, as more than merely a mental transaction, especially as used in the New Testament.
  • The Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament recognizes metanoeo as more than a change of mind. It can also mean to “feel remorse, repent, be converted.” Likewise, the range of meaning of metanoia includes the idea of remorse, “repentance, turning about, conversion,” and can indicate a turning away from something as well as a turning toward something.
  • Moulton and Milligan’s Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament says that metanoeo is more than merely a change of mind but “indicates a complete change of attitude, spiritual and moral, towards God.”
  • Vine’s Expository Dictionary says that in the New Testament, metanoeo always involves “a change for the better, an amendment,” and that, with the exception of Luke 17:3, it always involves “repentance from sin.”
  • Strong’s Greek Dictionary says that metanoeo is: “to think differently or afterwards, that is, reconsider (morally to feel compunction).”
  • Thayer’s Greek Definitions defines metanoeo as, “1) to change one’s mind, i.e. to repent, 2) to change one’s mind for better, heartily to amend with abhorrence of one’s past sins.”
  • Renn’s Expository Dictionary of Bible Words says that metanoeo refers exclusively to turning from one’s sin.”
  • Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words says that both the noun and the verb (metanoia and metanoeo) “denote a radical, moral turn of the whole person from sin and to God.” He adds that, “In the New Testament, metanoeo essentially supersedes epistrepho as the word of choice to denote a turning form sin to God.” In other words, where epistrepho was used in the LXX to translate the Hebrew word shuv, metanoeo carries that meaning in the New Testament, and is used synonymously with epistrepho. “When metanoeo and epistrepho appear together in the New Testament, the former emphasizes the turn from sin and the latter emphasizes the turn to God.”
  • The Westminster Theological Wordbook of the Bible lists “Repent, Repentance, Turn, Return” all under one heading and finds that the New Testament writers used metanoeo and metanoia in the same way shuv was used in the Old Testament (where it is usually translated as “turn”).
There are several translations that render metanoeo as more than just a mental transaction. For example, consider Mark 1:15, which is explicitly about the gospel: “Repent and believe the good news [i.e. the gospel].”
  • The Contemporary English Version has, “Turn back to God.”
  • The Bible in Basic English has, “Let your hearts be turned from sin.”
  • The Good News Bible has, “Turn away from your sins.”
  • J. B. Phillip’s New Testament in Modern English has, “Change your hearts and minds.”
  • The Message has, “Change your life.”
  • The New Century Version and The Expanded Bible have, “Change your hearts and lives.”
  • Now, of course, those are all dynamic translations, not word-for-word, but giving the thought conveyed by the word as found in context. But for a more literal rendering, consider Young’s Literal Translation, which has, “Reform ye.”
  • Wuest’s Expanded Translation of the New Testament, which strives to “bring out the richness, force and clarity of the Greek text,” has this: “Be having a change of mind regarding your former life.”
  • Also interesting is Franz Delitzsch’s Hebrew New Testament, which translates metanoeo with the Hebrew word shuv (or shub), a word used frequently in the Old Testament and generally translated as “turn” (for example, in Isaiah 55:7, about “turning” to the LORD, and in Isaiah 59:20, about “turning” from sin).
A New Orientation Toward God
In the Bible, metanoia is more than a mental transaction but has to do with a new disposition toward God. Through repentance and faith in Jesus the Messiah, we have a new orientation toward God, toward his kingdom and toward his ways that results not only in a new way of thinking but a new way of living: entrusting ourselves to Jesus and following him.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Vengeance, Jesus and the Gospel

Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. (Romans 12:19 NKJV)
“Vengeance is mine, I shall repay.” Paul is quoting from Deuteronomy 32:35, concerning God’s attitude toward those who turned away from him. But how shall we understand those words and Paul’s use of them? Is God a vindictive deity who cannot be satisfied until he has exacted retribution on those who have offended him? As we consider that question, let’s pick up just a little bit earlier in Paul’s letter:
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. (Romans 12:14-18)
Now ask yourself, who does that sound like? It sounds like Jesus, doesn’t it. He not only taught us to forgive but in the Sermon on the Mount he preached,
You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:43-45)
It is important that we approach the treatment of those who persecute us in the way Jesus would approach them, and we should never suppose that God ever approaches them in a way that Jesus would not. For Jesus, we are told in Hebrews 1:3, is the “exact representation” of God, the “express image of his person” (NKJV). Jesus did only what he saw the Father doing and said only what he heard the Father saying. He taught the disciples concerning himself, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” and “The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work” (John 14:9-10). If you want to know what the Father is like, look at Jesus. If you want to know what the Father does, look at Jesus. In the Sermon on the Mount, then, Jesus was not just telling us how we ought to be, he was telling us how God is. In other words, God practices what Jesus preached.

So now we come to Romans 12:19, where Paul says, “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” Is this about a vindictive God who hates his enemies, curses those who curse him and repays them evil for evil or blow for blow? That would go against how Jesus says we should treat them, and what Paul said just a couple of verses earlier in Romans 12. It would also go against the very nature of God, for God is love (1 John 4:8), and love is not vindictive.

How should we understand this, then, in view of Jesus and the gospel? I believe the key is Paul’s admonition, “but rather give place to wrath,” by which he means that we should leave it to the wrath of God. This is not the first time Paul has mentioned the wrath of God in this letter. He expounded on it quite a bit, right up front, in the first chapter. I wrote about this several months back in a post called, How the Wrath of God is Revealed. The upshot is that the wrath of God is not something God does to the wicked, but something to which he gives them over: He gives them over to their own sinful desires, shameful lusts, depraved minds — and natural consequences thereof.

However, God gives them over not as a retribution but as a correction, so that they might repent and turn to God. This is a recurring pattern in the New Testament (see He Gave Them Over, That They Might Return). God is love, so how he deals with evil will manifest love both for the perpetrator as well as for the victim. Retribution, or vindictive punishment, helps neither victim nor perpetrator. But a punishment that has correction as its purpose ultimately benefits both because it ultimately results in reconciliation. So God gives the wicked over to their own dark selves until, like the prodigal son when he was off in an alien country, far away from his father, they “come to their senses” and are reconciled to God and his people.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Eternal Punishment, Eternal Destruction?

Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. (Matthew 25:46)

These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power. (2 Thessalonians 1:9 NKJV)
In my last post, I talked about Hell and the Restoration of All Things and presented a view known as Universal Reconciliation or Christian Universalism. Though it was the dominant view for about the first 500 years in the Church in the East, it is largely overshadowed in the modern Western Church by the view of hell that has been called Eternal Conscious Torment. It is no surprise, then, that there is much pushback to Christian Universalism as well as misunderstandings about what it teaches. Before I address some of the objections, let me first clear up a common misunderstanding: The restoration of all things in heaven and on earth does not happen apart from Jesus, apart from the blood of the cross, or apart from turning to God through faith in Christ.

Now to the objections: There are a couple of passages in the New Testament that are used in an effort to disprove Christian Universalism. One speaks of “eternal punishment” and the other of “eternal destruction.” It is assumed from the English translations of the underlying Greek words that, since the punishment and destruction are described as “eternal,” ultimate reconciliation is thereby excluded.

In the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Jesus says this concerning the “goats” (the wicked) and the “sheep” (the righteous): “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Matthew 25:46). The words usually translated as “eternal punishment” are kolasin aionion. The words for “eternal life” are zoen aionion.

Let’s look at aionion first, since it is the common denominator. Though it is often translated as “eternal” or “everlasting,” it is not actually about eternity or everlastingness. The word comes from aion, which is about an “eon” (you can even hear “eon” in the pronunciation of aion). It is about an age or ages. The Bible knows of many ages — for example, Paul speaks of ages past (Romans 16:25 and Ephesians 3:9) and ages to come (Ephesians 2:7).

Of itself, aionion is not about eternity, or everlastingness or endlessness. As is true of all words, its meaning and how it is used depends upon the context. When used to speak of God, it can have the connotation of eternity, since God is without beginning or end and encompasses all ages. It can also indicate eternity when it is used of the immortal, incorruptible life God imparts to those who turn to him in faith. But in those instances, the meaning “eternal” derives not from the word aionion itself but from its object: God or the life of God that is imparted. In the Gospel of John particularly, zoen aionion is not about a quantity of life but about a quality: that it is the life that comes from God. In general, then, aionion is not about eternity but about an age, usually the age that is to come. In that sense, zoen aionion is about the (divine) life pertaining to the age to come.

Now let’s look at kolasis, the word that is translated as “punishment” in Matthew 25:46. It is from the word koladzo, which has to do with chastisement, or curtailment. Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon gives the first meaning of koladzo as “to lop or prune, as trees and wings.” It began as a horticultural term. The purpose of pruning a vine or tree was not in order to exact retribution on the tree or to destroy it but, rather, that it might bear fruit. So the words koladzo and kolasis are used in the sense of chastisement or correction.

However, there is a Greek word that is used for punishment as retribution or retaliation for evil, and that is the word timoria. Clement of Alexandria (circa AD 150-215), one of the early Church Fathers who taught universal reconciliation, demonstrates the difference in one of his miscellaneous writings:
For there are partial corrections which are called chastisements [kolasis], which many of us who have been in transgression incur by falling away from the Lord’s people. But as children are chastised by their teacher, or their father, so are we by Providence. But God does not punish [timoria] for punishment [timoria] is retaliation for evil. He chastises, however, for good to those who are chastised collectively and individually. (Stromata, Book 7, Chapter 16)
Timoria is not the word Jesus used in Matthew 25:46 (or one that is found anywhere else in the New Testament, for that matter). The word Jesus used is kolasis. So kolasin aionion, in Matthew 25:46, is not about endless retribution exacted upon the “goats” but about chastisement of the “goats” in the age to come. How long will this chastisement last? There is no reason to suppose that it must last longer than is needed for correction.

In 2 Thessalonians 1:9, Paul speaks of olethron aionion, which is not about endless or eternal destruction but about destruction in the age to come. Olethros, the word for “destruction,” does not necessarily indicate finality. In 1 Corinthians 5:5, for example, Paul speaks of a man who committed adultery with his father’s wife: “Hand this man over to Satan for the destruction [olethron] of the flesh,” Paul instructs them, “so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.” The purpose was not that the man would be ultimately destroyed but that he would be saved on the day of the Lord.

Neither Matthew 25:46 nor 2 Thessalonians 1:9 disprove Christian Universalism or preclude the final reconciliation of all things in heaven and on earth through Jesus Christ. Indeed, as I showed in my last post, Paul affirms elsewhere in several places that the ultimate reconciliation of all things is God’s plan and purpose in Christ.

For more on this, see Dr. Marvin R. Vincent’s notes on Olethron Aionion, from his Word Studies in the New Testament.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Hell and the Restoration of All Things

Historically, there have been three main views in the Church concerning hell. All three of them express a belief in hell and claim scriptural support, but they each understand the function and purpose of hell differently. The Church has never held a unified position on the matter, nor were any of these views addressed in the early and ecumenical creeds of the Church. Briefly, these views are:
  • Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT). Common in modern Western theology, this is the view that the “fire” of hell, whether understood literally or symbolically, is the endless torment of the wicked.
  • Annihilationism (also known as Conditionalism). In this view, the wicked are tormented for a time before they are finally destroyed. The “fire” of hell is a fire that consumes completely.
  • Restorationism (also known as Universal Reconciliation). The restorative view understands hell as a fire that refines so that there may ultimately be restoration.
All three views are represented to some extent among the early Church fathers, but the Restorative view prevailed in the eastern portion of the Church for about the first 500 years. It was the view held by some very influential Fathers of the Church, such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory Nazianzen (and his brother Basil), Gregory of Nyssa, Theodore Mopsuestia and Eusebius (Bishop of Caesarea and early historian of the Church). There were six major schools or centers of Christian theology back then. Of them, one taught hell as endless punishment and another taught Annihilationism. Four of them taught Restorationism.

The Restorationist view was taken quite seriously by some of the heavy hitters among the Church Fathers. But there were also many lesser known Church Fathers who taught Restorationism, including Didymus the Blind (appointed by Athanasius to the Catechetical school of Alexandria, where he served for 60 years), Diodorus of Tarsus, Marcellus of Ancyra, Ambrose of Milan, Ambrosiaster, Serapion (colleague of Athanasius), Macarius Magnes, Marius Victorinus, John Cassian, Theodoret the Blessed and others.

Up until recent years, I held to ECT, which is the view that Fundamentalists and many evangelicals have traditionally grown up with. But now I have noticed some things in Scripture that have persuaded me differently, and I cannot go back and unnotice them. I have no dogmatic position to offer on the matter; I can only report on what I have seen and what I have been persuaded towards. What I have begun to see is the universal nature of the language Paul in particular uses when he speaks of what God had done or is doing through Jesus Christ. What if “all” really does mean all?
Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act 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)

When he [Christ] has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all. (1 Corinthians 15:28)

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)

He made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment — to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ. (Ephesians 1:9-10)

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11)

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Colossians 1:19-20)
There are also other Scriptures and several biblically-based arguments that can be offered in support of Restorationism. But, of course, seeing that ECT is still a very prominent view in the Church today, there are also several objections that have been raised against the Restorationist view, and I will be addressing these in future posts. For now, though, I will add this important provision: The restoration of all things in heaven and on earth does not happen apart from Jesus, apart from the blood of the cross, or apart from turning to God through faith in Christ.

Friday, August 28, 2015

And the Lord Will Redeem All Our Years

This is a song I wrote years ago (back in the 80s) based on Psalm 126. It was part of a project I did on Psalms 120-134 (aka, Ascent Psalms). I call them the “Pilgrim Psalms.” This song came to mind again as I was praying through Psalms 126-130 the other day (my practice is to pray through the book of Psalms each month — which means five psalms every day).

As time has relentlessly added to my years, I am perhaps too aware that in many ways they have not been what I wanted them to be — yet in many other ways they have been more wonderful than I could have imagined (my wife, my children and my wonderful little granddaughter come to mind here). God has done great things for me, and I am glad. And I live in the joyful expectation that there are greater things yet to come, and that the Lord will redeem all of my years.

Redeem All Our Years

When the Lord brought us back to our homeland
We were like people who dream
We had begun to believe that
It was something we never would see
And our hearts were all filled up with laughter
And our laughter was filled up with joy
And the joy inside us was singing
Of the things that were done by the Lord
Things that were done by the Lord

As the rain swells the streams of the desert
And the water brings life to the land
May the Lord look upon us from heaven
To bring life to His people again
For we’ve sown many seeds in our sorrow
And we’ve sown many seeds in our tears
But we wait for the joy of the harvest
When the Lord will redeem all our years
And the Lord will redeem all our years

Thursday, August 27, 2015

That Death Reign No More

For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ! Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous. The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:17-21)
The problem Jesus solved on the cross was not that God needed someone to punish for our sin and so have his honor satisfied before he could forgive us. The problem was that sin and death reigned over us. However, Jesus did not die on the cross because death was the punishment for our sin. He did not die to overcome a penalty, he died to overcome sin and death itself. He died to overcome the very one who had the power of death, which was not God but the devil:
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)
Death is not a thing in itself but, rather, the absence of life, just as darkness is the absence of light. God is not the God of death, or of the dead. He is the God of life and of the living. What the devil did was draw humanity away from God and in doing so drew us away from life. Death is what happens when we are drawn away from life, and it leads to the bondage of fear. But Jesus came precisely to break the power of the devil, who holds the power of death, and indeed, to break the power of death itself, freeing us from bondage and fear.

In Romans 5, Paul draws a sharp contrast between what Adam did and what Christ did, and what each led to. When Adam turned away from God, he turned away from the source of life and so was left with death instead. His broken relationship with God soon led to broken human relationships, one with another. Through the unfaithfulness of Adam, everything became brokenness and death. But through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah, even to the point of death on the cross, God’s grace abounds to life and right relationship with God for all trust him.

“The law was brought in,” Paul says, “so that the trespass might increase.” He is talking about the Law of Moses. The law could no more create unrighteousness that it could create righteousness. But the law reveals the terrible nature and extent of sin, the depths of the brokenness of our relationship with God and each other. As Paul said earlier, “Through the law we become conscious of our sin” (Romans 3:20).

Likewise, when sin increased, it became an occasion for the even greater abundance of God’s grace to be revealed. For God was not willing that unfaithfulness and human brokenness should reign, producing death. His desire and design was that grace and favor would reign through restored relationship and covenant faithfulness, producing in us now the life of the age to come. So instead of being under the dominion of sin and death because of Adam, all who take hold of God’s abundant grace in Jesus the Messiah now have dominion in life.

That is the work of the cross. The expression of Roman wrath became the sign of God’s grace. It was where Lord Jesus broke the power of sin and death and manifested the overcoming power of God’s favor and faithfulness.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Justice, Righteousness and the Faithfulness of God

Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin. But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood — to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished — he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:20-26)
The Greek words behind “righteous,” “righteousness,” “justified,” “just” and “justifies” are all different forms of the same word — used eight times in this passage. They are legal terms that pertain to covenant relationship. The same is true for the Old Testament Hebrew words for righteousness and justice.

The justice and righteousness of God is not some abstract concept about the goodness of God — although God is thoroughly good in every way — but about the faithfulness of God to the covenant he has made.  It means that God has not scrapped the promise he made to Abraham, his plan for saving the world through Israel.

In the West, we are accustomed to thinking of justice as a matter of innocence or guilt in a criminal justice system. But what Paul has in mind here is covenant faithfulness, in which the justice of God is not about retribution but, rather, always works towards the restoration of covenant fellowship. Punishing sin simply does not solve the problem because it does not restore the broken relationship.

The Law of Moses was never God’s plan to save the world, for it could never create righteousness — it could only reveal unrighteousness. It was, as Paul said to the Jesus followers in Galatia, a “schoolmaster,” a “guardian,” a “custodian” (Galatians 5:24). Paidagogos is the Greek word he used, and it referred to a servant who took charge over his master’s children to keep them out of trouble until they came into their maturity. So the Law was not a solution but a stop-gap.

Even the Law itself, along with the Prophets, gave witness to a covenant faithfulness of God which was quite apart from the Law. This righteousness was revealed though the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah to all who have faith in him. Just as both Jews as well as Gentiles were shown to be sinners, because the Law could only reveal unfaithfulness and sin, so also both Jews as well as Gentiles are justified — counted as being in right relationship — as a matter of God’s grace and faithfulness through what Jesus did on the cross.

The word Paul uses to describe this is apolytrosis, “redemption.” It is a word the Septuagint (ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament) uses for what God did when he delivered the children of Israel out of Egypt (Exodus 6:6). In the Exodus, it meant freedom from bondage for Israel, but the “redemption” that is now available in Jesus the Messiah is freedom for both Jews and Gentiles together. God accomplished this redemption by presenting Jesus as a sacrifice of atonement and a place of mercy for all who trust in him.

Three times in this brief passage, Paul emphasizes that God did this as a matter of his justice, his righteousness — his covenant faithfulness. Israel, God’s covenant people, was supposed to be a testimony to the nations (Gentiles) about God’s mercy and faithfulness so that the nations might turn to the LORD. But Israel herself proved time and again to be unfaithful to God. In a former time, the Law kept this problem in check, somewhat, and God tolerated this state of affairs out of mercy until the coming of Messiah. Jesus is the “Righteous Jew” in whom the promise of God and the calling of Israel finds its fulfillment.

At the cross, Jesus dealt with the problem of Israel’s unfaithfulness and the sin of the world once and for all. Instead of merely containing or tolerating the problem, God has now shown his faithfulness to the covenant, and through the faithfulness of Messiah, even to the point of death on the cross, he declares all to be in covenant rightness who trust in the Lord Jesus, whether they be Jew or Gentile.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Freedom and Forgiveness at the Cross

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace. (Ephesians 1:7)

For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Colossians 1:13-14)
In these passages, Paul speaks of redemption, ransom and remission. They all add up to the freedom and forgiveness we have in King Jesus the Messiah, through what he did at the cross.

The Greek word for “redemption” is apolytrosis. It is a release or deliverance from bondage through the payment of a ransom. It is a compound word, and one of the words that it is made from, lytron, means “ransom.” Some early Church Fathers, taking the notion of ransom very literally, wrestled with the question of exactly to whom this ransom was paid. Origen and Gregory of Nyssa believed it was paid to the devil. Others disagreed, recognizing that the devil had no rights and nothing was owed to him. None of the Fathers understood the ransom as being paid to God.

However, the point of redemption and ransom language was not about who got paid what but about the deliverance that was brought about. The great salvation act in the Old Testament was the deliverance of the children of Israel out of Egyptian bondage, and it was spoken of as a redemption. In Exodus 6:6, God tells Moses:
Therefore, say to the Israelites: “I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment.”
The Septuagint translates the Hebrew word for “redeem” with the Greek lytroo (from lytron), the word for ransom. Yet, who was a ransom actually paid to? Certainly not to God. He was the one who delivered his people with “an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment” — he was not paying ransom to himself. Nor was any ransom paid to Pharaoh. There was never any negotiation about a price for release. In fact, when the children of Israel departed, they stripped Egypt of her treasures. So there was never actually anyone who was paid a ransom for their freedom. God came and rescued them by the power of his own might and defeated the enemy. Yet that was spoken of as ransom and redemption. Likewise, when we read about God’s great salvation act in the New Testament, the language of redemption and ransom is not about who got paid but about the deliverance of God’s people through the defeat of the enemy.

Now let’s look at the Greek word for “forgiveness,” which is aphesis. Paul uses it only twice, in Ephesians 1:7 and Colossians 1:13, and in both cases it amplifies the idea of redemption. Paul does use the verb form, aphiemi, several times, but only once where it clearly refers to forgiveness, and that is in Romans 4:7, where he quotes Psalm 32: “Blessed are those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.” He uses it four other times but in ways that are clearly not about forgiveness. In Romans 1:27, he says, “In the same way the men also abandoned [aphiemi] natural relations with women.” We find it three times in 1 Corinthians 7:11-13, where the NIV translates it as “divorce.” In these instances, the verb form, aphiemi, is about what is put away.

The noun, aphesis, can mean forgiveness, pardon or remission, but that is a secondary meaning. The primary meaning is about release or freedom from bondage. So it is in Thayer’s Greek definitions as well as in Strong’s Greek dictionary.

Paul has much to say about sin, and though he speaks about forgiveness of sins on a few occasions (using the words aphiemi or charizomai), he has much more to say about the deliverance from sin we have through Christ. So, when the two times he uses the word aphesis, he combines it with redemption (release from bondage), it seems to me that he is using it more in the primary sense: deliverance. Now, I don’t doubt that he would include forgiveness within that, but as part of a richer dimension than we usually have in mind when we think of “forgiveness.” Not only would it mean that our sins are no longer counted against us (forgiveness) but that we also have deliverance from its power — sin no longer has dominion over us — and that is freedom.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Random Thoughts

More thoughts culled from my random file. About love, prayer and new life in Christ. Some have come to me in moments of quiet reflection, some in interaction with others. Many have been tweets and Facebook updates. Offered as “jump starts” for your faith.
  • The judgment of God does not come to condemn us but to transform us.
  • Breath prayer: Thank you, Holy Spirit ... for lighting my way.
  • Breath prayer: Speak, Lord ... for your servant is listening.
  • How does your worship connect with your grocery shopping, or washing your car?
  • We have a tremendous capacity for fooling ourselves. Lord, have mercy.
  • Love is persuasive where logic is not.
  • How easy it is, when we criticize the Pharisee, to become one ourselves.
  • Forgiving other is an act of faith in the God who forgives us.
  • Love that is for self alone is no love at all. For love gives of itself to others, but in self-love there is no other to whom it can give.
  • In the silence of the world nothing can be heard. In the silence of the heart nothing needs to be said.
  • In the silence of the heart there is only one voice — God’s.
  • Lord, let my words today arise from the silence of humility.
  • Love cannot demand or be demanded, it can only be freely given and freely received.
  • Love does not think about sacrifice. It thinks only of the one who is loved, and pout all it has to give.
  • Jesus let go his life so that he could be the life of God for us, and became the firstfruits of resurrection.
  • Hell is not something God does to anyone. It is something people do to themselves. In Jesus Christ, God does not send people to hell, he brings them out of hell.
  • The cross of Christ revealed his divinity as well as humanity. When Jesus died, the Centurion said, “Truly, this was the Son of God.”
  • The death of Christ on Good Friday was not a defeat that awaited the victory of Easter Sunday but a victory that was revealed on Easter Sunday.
  • In the wake of the Resurrection, Christ builds his Church.
  • The Holy Spirit shows us the Light by whom we see the Father.
  • The Holy Spirit Guides me, the Lord Jesus rescues me, the Father embraces me. The Three enfold me in their love.
More random thoughts …

Saturday, August 1, 2015

God Gave Them Over, That They Might Return

The judgment of God is not about retribution but about restoration. So also the wrath of God, which for Paul is revealed in the words: God gave them over. We can find several examples of God’s restorative purpose in this in the New Testament. Let us begin, first, with Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32):

A man had two sons. One day the younger son came to his father and asked for his inheritance. This was tantamount to saying that he was done with the father and that it would be just as well if the father were dead. It was a tremendous dishonor to the father, but the father let the son go with his inheritance.

The son wandered off to a far country, far way from his father’s house, and squandered his inheritance on things that are dishonorable. Soon reduced to nothing, he took a job slopping pigs, which was a shameful occupation for a Jew. He was so hungry that he would gladly have filled his belly with the pods the pigs were eating, except that they were indigestible for him. And nobody gave him anything. Then one day he came to his senses, remembering his father’s house.

How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.

So he got up and headed home to his father. The father saw him coming, for though the son had turned away from the father, the father never turned away from the son but watched patiently for his return. When he saw the son, he ran out — quite an undignified thing for a man of his position to do — and met his son, embracing him and smothering him with kisses.

The son said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father hardly heard, he was so busy giving instructions to the servants: “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

The father demanded no restitution for the inheritance that had been squandered. He required no satisfaction be made for the dishonor that had been shown him. What mattered was that his son, who had been lost was now found, and who had been dead was now alive. And they both greatly rejoiced together.

Another example of God’s restorative purpose is found in the book of Acts, in the gospel preaching of Stephen. In it, he reviews the history of Israel, how they had often turned away from God — and it first happened not long after God delivered them by the hand of Moses from bondage in Egypt.
That was the time they made an idol in the form of a calf. They brought sacrifices to it and reveled in what their own hands had made. But God turned away from them and gave them over to the worship of the sun, moon and stars. (Acts 7:41-42)
They turned from God to idols, and God gave them over to it. But that was not the end of the story, of course, for the history of Israel is also the history of God’s covenant love and faithfulness always seeking to reconcile Israel to himself once again. That is why Jesus the Messiah came, about whom Stephen was preaching.

We find the same principle several times in the writings of Paul. In his letter to the church at Corinth, he addressed the situation of a man who was into a form of sexual immorality that not even the pagans would tolerate — yet the Christians at Corinth we tolerating it, and the man was unrepentant (1 Corinthians 5:1-5). Paul’s instruction to them was this: “So when you are assembled and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.”

They were to put the man out of the fellowship. The purpose was not he should ultimately be destroyed but, quite the contrary, that he might delivered from his depravity and come to his senses. This discipline soon had the desired effect, for in a follow-up letter, Paul writes, “The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him” (2 Corinthians 2:6-8). The man repented of his immoral behavior and was restored to fellowship.

We find another example in Paul’s letter to his young protégé, Timothy, concerning two leaders who had turned away from the gospel and were teaching a false message:
Timothy, my son, I am giving you this command in keeping with the prophecies once made about you, so that by recalling them you may fight the battle well, holding on to faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and so have suffered shipwreck with regard to the faith. Among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme. (1 Timothy 1:18-20)
Again, Paul does not hand them over so that they would be permanently “shipwrecked” and ultimately destroyed but that they might come to their senses and return to the message of Christ.

One more example we find in Paul, in Romans 11, concerns Israel, particularly those who had rejected Messiah and were, because of their unbelief, broken off like branches from the “olive tree,” Israel. Gentiles were grafted in through faith in Jesus the Messiah, and Paul uses that as an opportunity to provoke unbelieving Jews to faith in Jesus, too, so that they might be “grafted in” again. Paul speaks specifically to Gentile believers here:
Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. After all, if you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree! (Romans 11:22-24)
The purpose was not the branches that were cut off should be destroyed but that they might be grafted in again. And Paul was confident that this is exactly what would happen: “And so all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:26).

Restoration was always in Paul’s heart, and indeed, that is the way it is with God, too. Though God may give someone over to their depravity, he never gives up on them, because his purpose is not retribution but restoration. He gives them over so that they might one day come to their senses and rejoice in the Father.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

How the Wrath of God is Revealed

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. (Romans 1:18)
“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven,” Paul says. But what is the wrath of God, and how is it revealed? We often tend to think of divine wrath as environmental catastrophes: floods, families, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis and the like. When one of those hits the news cycle, there is always some high profile religious figure rushing in to pronounce that it is the judgment of God on this or that. But Paul speaks about the wrath of God very differently.
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. (Romans 1:20-23)
First, he describes how there are things that may be known about God, how his eternal power and divine nature are evident from creation, how it is inherently known that we ought to honor God as our creator and give him thanks. He concludes that those who suppress the truth about God are without excuse, having traded wisdom for foolishness and turned to all sorts of idolatry, giving glory to the work of their own hands instead of to the God of all life.
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator — who is forever praised. Amen. (Romans 1:24-25)
And now, here is the wrath of God revealed: Therefore God gave them over. To what did God give them over? To their own sinful desires. To the idolatry that was in their hearts, the idolatry of their own sexuality, by which they worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator of everything. It was their own sexuality they wanted above all, so God gave them over to it. Anything we worship other than God debases us, curves us in upon ourselves and eventually brings us to nothing. The danger, if we persist in it, is that God will simply give us over to the self-degradation that is the natural consequence of every idolatry.

Paul speaks of sexual idolatry because he was addressing people who lived in a very sexually charged culture, very much like the world we find ourselves in today. The idolatry of modern culture is the self, expressed not only in materialism but also in the worship of sex. Money, sex and power are still the powerful motivators they have always been.
Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error. (Romans 1:26-27)
For the second time, Paul speaks the words of God’s wrath: God gave them over. Then he describes the “shameful lusts” God hands them over to. My point is not to debate the nature of the lusts Paul speaks against here — leave that for another day. But clearly, we are living in highly sexualized times and there are many shameful things related to it. My point is simply that, for those who turn away from God and insist on the idolatry of shameful lusts, God abandons them to their shame, degradation and emptiness.

The idolatry of sex, however, is by no means the only category Paul has in mind. Now he broadens his scope to an array of the consequences that can result from turning away from God:
Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them. (Romans 1:28-32)
Paul repeats the terrible words for a third time: God gave them over. And what God gives them over to is a depraved mind. Then Paul lists the manifestations of that depravity, an awful inventory that defines the problems of the world today.

The wrath of God is not about floods or earthquakes or tsunamis. It is revealed when God leaves us to our own sinful desires, shameful lusts and depraved minds. “God gave them over,” Paul says, and those are the saddest words of all.

Next time, we will look at God's redemptive purpose in this.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Atoning Love and Holiness of God

God is love. The greatest demonstration of his love for the world is that he gave his one and only son to rescue and redeem us. Even while we were yet in our sins, God’s love was toward us. “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

God is holy. He is unique and incomparable. He is not like any other god that can be imagined. He transcends every category. His holiness is his otherness, but also his nearness. He is mystery, yet he is light, and by his light we can see. He is creator, and far beyond his creation in every way, yet not far away from his creation in any way. He is always present. Heaven and earth reveal his glory, and he has made humankind in his own image, to be like him.

The love of God and the holiness of God are not in contention. God’s holiness is not something that is separate and distinct from his love, but his love is holy and his holiness is revealed in his love. God is love, something that can be said only of God and of no other. We are created to reflect his love, through love for each other, but it cannot be properly said of us that we are love. But God himself is love, and there is nothing holier than that. There is nothing in God’s holiness that prevents him from being love, and nothing in his love that prevents him from being holy.

Atonement is about reconciliation between God and humankind. We rebelled and turned away from God, but God never turned away from us. God has never needed to be reconciled to us, for his love has always been toward us. We, however, needed to be reconciled to God, turned back toward him. But God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son in order to do just that.

The atonement resolves a problem, but it is not a problem between the love of God and the holiness of God. It is the problem between a God who is holy and a people who are not. The holiness of God is not a problem for the love of God, nor is the love of God a problem for the holiness of God.

There is nothing about the holiness of God that prevents the love of God from forgiving us our sins. Nor is there anything about the holiness of God that requires that God must first take retribution or have revenge on someone before he can forgive us our sins. God, in his holy love and his loving holiness, is free to forgive whomever he chooses.

The problem, however, is that forgiveness does not free us from our brokenness. It does not set us free from the power of the devil. It does not set us free from death. It does not produce a holy life in us. It does not turn us back to the Father. It is for this reason, then, that Jesus went to the cross.

It was at the cross that Jesus not only wiped out the list of charges that was against us but he also disarmed the principalities and powers, the malignant entities behind evil in kingdoms and cultures. He made an open spectacle of them and triumphed over them by the cross (Colossians 2:14-15).

It was at the cross that Jesus destroyed “the power of him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil” and set free “those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14-15).

And it was at the cross the Jesus broke the power of death itself, for “God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him” (Acts 2:24).

So now the life and faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah himself is available to us, to dwell within us, to transform us, conforming us to God-likeness, to the image of Jesus himself, the image we were originally created to bear. “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). This is the atonement (at onement) that not only forgives us but sets us free and changes us, turning us back to God and holiness. Not through retribution or wrath but through the holy love of God revealed in Christ.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Atoning Sacrifice

God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood — to be received by faith. (Romans 3:25)
Quite simply, our English word, “atonement,” is the joining together of two words: “at onement.” It is essentially about reconciliation, restoring oneness where there has been estrangement. Theologically, there are two words that have been used to talk about the atonement we have with God through the blood of Jesus the Messiah. The first is propitiation, which is about appeasing and averting the wrath of God. The second is expiation, which is about removing the sin or offense.

The words used for “atonement” in the Bible are the Hebrew word kippur and the Greek hilaskomai (and its related forms). You might recognize kippur from the Jewish holy day, Yom Kippur, “Day of Atonement.” The Septuagint version of the Old Testament translates kippur as hilaskomai. Kippur generally has to do with covering, cleansing or the removal of sin (expiation), although there are a few instances of interpersonal relationships where it may have the sense of appeasement (propitiation). The sacrifices related to atonement are about expiation, purification, sanctification or dedication. The “mercy seat” in Leviticus 16:2 is the place of atonement. The Hebrew word there is kapporeth, from the word kippur. The Septuagint translates it as hilasterion, from the word hilaskomai.

Let us look now at how Paul speaks of the “sacrifice of atonement” in Romans 3:25. “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement.” The Greek word translated by the NIV as “sacrifice of atonement” is hilastarion, the word used in the Septuagint for “mercy seat,” the place of atonement. There are a few English versions, including Young’s Literal Translation and the Lexham English Bible, that translate it that way in Romans 3:25.

Several English versions translate it — wrongly, I think — as “propitiation.” This make no sense, for this reason: It was God himself who offered Jesus as the atoning sacrifice. If it were propitiatory, seeking to avert the wrath of God, then we should have to suppose that God was trying to appease himself — as if he were at odds with himself and needed to be reconciled to himself. But the fact that it was God himself who offered the sacrifice of atonement indicates that God was already graciously and mercifully disposed toward us. It was because “God so loved the world,” not because God was so angry at the world, “that he gave his one and only Son” (John 3:16).

This was not an act of retribution but an act of mercy. It was not an offering God made because he needed to be appeased but an offering he made because he already wanted to be gracious to us. God was not trying to gain God’s own good will toward sinful humanity but the cross was the manifestation of God’s good will toward sinful humanity. God was not reconciling himself to us, turning himself back toward us — for he had never turned away from us. Rather, in offering Jesus as the “sacrifice of atonement,” God was turning us back toward him, that we may be at one with him.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Did God Abandon Jesus at the Cross?

And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). (Mark 15:34)
Jesus’ cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” has often caused Christians to think that God had abandoned him there. Some have further supposed that this was because God is too holy to look on sin, and so, too holy to look on Jesus as he was bearing our sins.

This cry, however, does not mean that God had forsaken him. It does not even mean that Jesus felt abandoned by God on the cross. It is, rather, the first line of Psalm 22 and, in typical Jewish fashion, Jesus was evoking the whole psalm. There are several elements in that psalm that prefigure the cross, and what we discover when we read through the entire prayer is that God did not forsake the author at all. In verse 24, the author even affirms that God has not forsaken him. In fact, in the latter half of Psalm 22, we see that God heard his cry — and delivered him.

Likewise, at no time on the cross did the Father ever forsake the Son. Quite the opposite, we see that Jesus commended his Spirit into the hands of the Father, and the Father delivered him from death by means of the resurrection.

The Christian faith is that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit — the Trinity. Though there are Three Persons in the Godhead, this does not mean that God is divided into three parts, each being one-third God. They co-inhere, existing together in one substance. Early Church Fathers as well as some modern theologians, have referred to this as perichoresis, the divine interaction and interpenetration of the Three in one Being. It is impossible, then, for one person of the Trinity to ever forsake another. It would be God forsaking God’s own self and that would be the dissolution of God.

The prophet Habakkuk, in the Old Testament, prayed to the Lord and said, “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing” (Habakkuk 1:13). This has been offered by some as the reason God had to abandon Jesus on the cross. Jesus was bearing the sin of the world, so God turned away from him because he is too holy to look upon sin. However, in addition to the ontological problem created by God forsaking God’s own self, there are a couple of other problems with that supposition.

First, it ignores what Habakkuk immediately went on to say. Within the same verse where he tells God that God is too pure to look on evil, he then asks, “Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” In other words, “Why then do you look on evil?” What Habakkuk had assumed to be true of God in the first half of the verse is contradicted by his complaint in the second half.

Second, the life of Jesus suggests something different. In the Gospel, Jesus is seen having table fellowship with publicans (tax collectors) and sinners (Mark 2:16). This was one of the complaints the Pharisees had against him. In the book of Hebrews, however, Jesus is called the “express image” or “exact representation” of God’s being — yet that did not mean that he had to turn away from publicans and prostitutes and sinners. He looked on them, beholding them with eyes of love, because he came to redeem them.

When we consider the context of Psalm 22:1 and the identity of Jesus in relation to the Father, there is no reason to imagine that God the Father could not look upon God the Son, Jesus, in his sin-bearing role. It becomes nonsensical and contradictory to the nature and being of God to suppose so.

God never turned away from Christ. Indeed, God has never turned away from us. For it was not God who needed to be reconciled to us — it was we who needed to be reconciled to God. And that is exactly what God was doing at the cross. “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:19-20). The cross was not God’s act of retribution but God’s act of reconciliation.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Not Divine Wrath But Divine Willingness

What Christ suffered on the cross came as no surprise to him, or to the Father. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son,” John 3:16 says. “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). It was necessary for the salvation of the world, and the LORD, whom Christians understand as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, was willing for it to be so. We see this in Isaiah 53, which the Church has understood from the beginning to be about Christ and the atonement.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away. Yet who of his generation protested? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was punished. He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand. (Isaiah 53:6-10)
The LORD was willing to lay on the Son the “iniquity of us all,” but notice that it does not say he laid divine retribution on him. The St. Athanasius Academy Septuagint version puts it this way: “The Lord delivered Him over for our sins.” The Brenton translation of the Septuagint translates it: “The Lord gave him up for our sins.” It was not God’s wrath that Jesus faced on the cross but the terrible perversity and waywardness of sin that infects us all. That is what put him there, and the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were willing for it to happen. The purpose was not retribution but restoration. It was a “chastening,” a correction for the people of God in order to bring them shalom — wholeness.

Clement of Alexandria, an early Church Father (AD 150-215), spoke about it this way: “‘The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all,’ that is, to correct our iniquities and set them right. For that reason, he alone is able to forgive our sins, he who has been appointed by the Father of all as our educator, for he alone is able to separate obedience from disobedience” (Christ the Educator 1.8.67-68).

We also see the willingness of Jesus the Messiah in his humanity. In Isaiah 53, though Messiah was oppressed and afflicted, he did not open his mouth in defense but let himself be led like a lamb to the slaughter. In the Gospel, Jesus said of himself, “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life — only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father” (John 10:17-18). He offered his life willingly, for love. “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). In the Garden of Gethsemane, betrayed by Judas and surrounded by an armed mob, Jesus told Peter, “‘Put your sword back in its place,’ Jesus said to him, ‘for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?’” (Matthew 26:52-53). He showed divine restraint and went willingly to the cross.

As Isaiah continues, we see that it was the LORD’s will to “crush” Messiah and “cause him to suffer.” In a recent post, we looked at how the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew text) speaks of this, not as crushing and causing the wounds of Messiah but as cleansing his wounds. However, even taking the Masoretic Hebrew text into consideration, it is not the wrath of God but the willingness of God that is portrayed here.

God is said here to be the cause of Messiah’s suffering, but the injury of Jesus the Messiah was actually done by faithless Jews leaders and pagan Roman hands. God did not make them do it, as if it were not already in their hearts to do so, but God allowed them to do what was in their hearts, having a greater purpose in mind — making the life of Messiah an “offering for sin.”

In the Old Testament, a “sin offering” was not a propitiation, averting the wrath of God, but an expiation, removing the offense. It was not about divine retribution but about removing the sin and cleansing the sinner. Notice in Isaiah 53 that it was the LORD who was making Messiah an offering for sin. This was not God trying to placate himself toward his people. Rather, the fact that he himself was the one making the offering demonstrates that he was already graciously disposed toward his people.

In the New Testament, John the Baptist called Jesus, “The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Not, “The Lamb of God, who takes away the wrath of God.” In First John, the sacrificial death of Messiah is understood not as averting divine wrath but as cleansing us from sin: “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin” (1 John 1:9).

Isaiah 53 is not a demonstration of God pouring out his wrath on the Suffering Servant, nor is the sacrificial death of Jesus the Messiah on the cross. It is a display of the loving willingness of God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — to forgive, cleanse and restore God’s people to fellowship.

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Cross Was Not Divine Retribution

Isaiah 53 is about the Messiah, the Christ, showing him as the Suffering Servant. Christians find in this a portrayal of the cross and the atonement. Many Christians — certainly not all, nor even all evangelicals — understand the atonement to be about Christ suffering the wrath of God in our place, being punished by God for our sake. I held this view myself for many years but have given it up because I cannot find it taught in Scripture.

More than that, it seems to me to contradict the example and teaching of Jesus Christ, who is called the “exact representation” of God (Hebrews 1:3). He taught us to love our enemies, to bless those who curse us, to do good to them and to forgive. In view of that, it seems a major disconnect to understand the cross as God taking revenge. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at Isaiah 53 and notice a few things.
He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:3-5)
By whom was Jesus despised and rejected — by God? No, certainly not by God. Not at any time. It was men who held Jesus in contempt and sought to be rid of him, even though he identified with them in their suffering and pain. In the Gospel, Jesus’ ministry of healing and exorcism is understood as the fulfillment of this.
When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: “He took up our infirmities and bore our diseases.” (Matthew 8:17-18)
There is not the slightest hint here that it had anything to do with Jesus the Messiah bearing the wrath of God.

Jesus came to heal his people and deliver them from bondage and oppression. Yet, on the cross, he was thought by some to have been the object of divine retribution. Pounded by God. Stricken by God. Afflicted by God. But the truth of the matter was quite different, on two counts.

First, what happened to Jesus was not on account of any lawlessness or sinfulness of his own. It was because of the lawlessness and sinfulness of his people, which came to full force at the cross. See how Stephen describes it in Acts 7:51-53.
You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him — you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.
It was not the wrath of God but the rage and wickedness of men that put Jesus on the cross.

Second, what happened to Jesus was not divine retribution, not on his own account nor anyone else’s. The Hebrew word Isaiah uses, musar, speaks of something very different. The NIV translates it as “punishment,” but it is not the same word translated as “punish” in the previous verse. Several other versions translate it as “chastisement,” because it is about discipline and correction, not about retribution or wrath.

“The chastisement that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed,” Isaiah says. Notice how he speaks indirectly about it. God was not chastising Jesus on the cross — there was nothing in Jesus that needed correction. But what happened to him there served as a chastening and correction for the people of God. We can see an example of this in Acts 2, when Peter preached the gospel to the Jews gathered at Jerusalem for Pentecost. He told of Jesus and how they had crucified and killed him by wicked hands (v. 23). He concluded his sermon with, “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah” (v. 36).

Now, notice the response, in verse 37: “When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’” Friends, those people were chastened by the realization that they had rejected and crucified the Messiah, whom God anointed as Lord over all. They were filled with regret and shame and desired to be put right with God. Peter answered, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off — for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

What happened at the cross chastens us, corrects us and turns us back to God. The cross is where we receive forgiveness, where we find our peace and are made whole. What happened at the cross was not angry God pouring out retribution on Christ instead of on us. It was Christ facing the full force of evil and wickedness in the world — and defeating it for our sake! It was where he disarmed the principalities and powers, where he broke the power of sin, the power of the devil, even the power of death.

At the cross, it was the world that sought retribution and poured out its anger. But God poured out his love for the sake of restoration. For God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.