Thursday, April 26, 2007

Was Jesus condemned on the cross?

Continuing our look at the cross, we now drill down to the heart of the controversy: did it please the Father to crush the Son the cross, condemning him to die? Was the Father furious and mad at sin and sinners, and since all that sin was piled up onto Jesus on the cross, did the Father delight in the smashed up body and death of Jesus, knowing that his wrath was satisfied?

As I have discovered in the past few days, there are many models of substitutionary atonement, and indeed many models of penal substitution. I think I understand enough to outline the various different positions I have come across.

  1. pagan propitiation model: In this understanding, the Father was mad because the wonderful people he had made in his image were all running around, committing sin, and therefore hurting each other and alienating themselves from God. "Someone has to pay!" is the Father's somewhat annoyed response. Looking around, the Father sees perfect Jesus down on earth and decides he will do. In fact, no-one else will do, as the Father requires a pure sacrifice and only Jesus is 100% pure and without sin. So Jesus dies so that the sin can be taken out of the sinners. This act appeases the wrath of God, and he is no longer mad at the sinners, because their sin has been taken away. To me, this model is based on a pagan understanding of propitiation and is therefore sub-biblical.

    I think some Christians with a poor understanding of the scriptures can sometimes espouse this model. I've certainly heard someone share a "vision" they had of heaven which pretty much summed up this model: in the vision the Father was mad at some "sinner", but Jesus stepped in front of the Father's wrathful gaze, put his arms around the sinner, and said "Mine!" or some such. Clearly nonsense, as the Father and Son and not in some eternal battle over the atonement!

  2. "hard" penal substitution. In this traditional, reformed viewpoint, the Father and the Son worked together in love to rid the world of sin and to avert the Wrath of God. Although God (inc the Father and the Son) loved the world, he was angry because of the all of the harm and hurt that existed within the world. His solution involved sending himself, the Son, to become human and live among his people. He would take upon himself the sins of the world, and respond in grace, not anger. Ultimately, he would die on a Roman cross, and somehow as the Last Adam our sin was transferred to him. God then crushed Jesus on the cross, and condemned him, as Jesus in that moment became a sinner became infused with the sins of the entire world -- he became sin -- even though he was sinless man. Then the Father turned his back on Jesus, as the scripture says that God cannot look upon sin. As a sinner As a sin-filled sinless person, he then died, but since the sin wasn't really his, Death couldn't hold him, and he rose again.

    Is this the Calvinistic point of view? It certainly sounds like it. I believe new-reformed-charismatics such as Mark Driscoll hold to this particular model. Adrian Warnock has also defined his view of the atonement in a similar way, and he notes that John Stott has also explained the atonement in a similar fashion. I also believe that it is this kind of model (and certainly the previous!) that Steve Chalke has rejected. I also used to believe in this model, but I'm now thinking, thanks to Wright, that this might not be the best model (see next paragraph!)

  3. "soft" penal substitution. Starts off the same as above, but note what Wright says: "Paul says explicitly that God condemned sin in the flesh of Jesus Christ ... he does not say that God condemned Jesus; rather, that he condemned sin; but the place where sin was condemned was precisely in the flesh of Jesus, and of Jesus precisely as the Son sent from the Father. And this, we remind ourselves, is the heart of the reason why there is now 'no condemnation' for those who are in Christ Jesus." (N T Wright, The Cross and the Caricatures). We should also note that in this viewpoint, we have something which is more akin to penal union than anything else: this model remembers the biblical truth that in some real way, we died in Christ as he died, and we will rise as he rose (from death), if we trust in him as our Lord. Also, I am not sure if Wright had said this, but I believe that those that believe in this model would say that the Father DID NOT turn his back on Jesus during his darkest hours.

    Regarding this model of atonement, apparently J I Packer says something similar, as does John Stott (although he has appeared to affirm the "hard" model as well -- see above), so perhaps Steve Chalke isn't so crazy after all. (Although Peter Kirk has proposed an alternative model (see below), he has emphasised in the comments section of this post that he has no problem with model.)

  4. non-penal substitutionary atonement. Peter Kirk has proposed this tentative model: "We humans sin and as a result our fellowship with God is broken. Nothing that we can do can restore this fellowship. God could punish us for our sin. But he chooses not to punish those who repent and believe, but to forgive them. However, this does not fix the problem of our broken fellowship with God. We cannot fix this problem. But in some way which we cannot understand, the eternal Son of God was able to fix it, and when the Father asked him he voluntarily agreed to do what was necessary. By becoming a man, dying on the cross, and rising again, he was able to restore the fellowship between God and humans."

    This model seems to be saying that basically Jesus died, but it had nothing to do with the wrath of God, and he certainly didn't die instead of us. (He did die for our sins, however.) Jesus' death somehow manifests God's forgiveness for all humanity, which is offered without anyone "paying the price" per se. It seems God is simply willing to forgive and forget, now that Jesus had died. Some people would find philosophical problems with this viewpoint: if you have a spare hour, read Why can't God just forgive sin, instead of demanding justice?, by Glenn M. Miller, a defense of the penal nature of the atonement.

Some of my readers may be wondering, "what the hell does this have to do with anything?". Well, I think its important for many reasons. If we are sharing the gospel, and we end up turning people away for the wrong reasons, we have failed. Also, if we get the wrong view of the atonement, we will probably have an incorrect view of God in general. Which is never a good thing. I also think that if we get the atonement wrong, we can end up believing strange things, such as hell doesn't exist any more, or that everyone will end up in heaven (because the atonement is simply that God is love), things I have personally heard Christians start to say.

BTW, its not easy to summarise all this stuff, so if I have misquoted anyone, or misrepresented anyone's position, please add a comment and let me know!

Other folks discussing this: see Peter Kirk's blog posting on "What is Penal Substitutionary Atonement?".

The Wright view of the cross

As we ponder the meaning of the gospel, its perhaps appropriate that we focus into what is arguably the key event in the Christian story: the suffering and ultimate death of Jesus on the Roman cross. Yes, I know lots of other things are important too (his birth, his life, his teaching, his resurrection, his ascension to name a few!), but we can't get away from the fact that his death is a major theme, not only in his own understanding of his mission, but in later writers such as Paul, John, and the author of Hebrews.

Recently there has been a bit of a fuss made over the evangelical doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement, a doctrine which basically means that Jesus suffered and died for us and instead of us. Leading evangelical Steve Chalke in particular has been accused of blasphemy and charged with abandoning the gospel.

So it seems its important to have the right view of the cross, or rather, the Wright view. N T Wright, who is the best theologian I have ever read, and probably one of the finest in the world, has weighed in on this important and controversial topic. In typical Wright style his essay is long and wordy, but definitely worth a read if you are into this sort of thing. For those without 30 mins to spare, I'll give you some highlights:

In going to the cross, Jesus acted out his own version of the total story, according to which Israel, represented by himself, must be the people in and through whom the creator God would deal with the evil of the world and of humankind. The cross, as the execution of Israel's Messiah outside Jerusalem at the hands of the pagans, was thus the great summation of Israel's exile, which was itself the fulfilment and completion of the ambiguous and tragic story of Israel as a whole. At the same time, the cross was the supreme achievement of Israel's God, returning to Zion as he had promised, to deal with his people's sins and their consequences.

It is to be observed . . . that in the New Testament the "love" and the "wrath" of God in relation to sin and forgiveness are closely connected, and that is an important sense in which the assertion of God's "wrath" against sin is the indispensable presupposition of any properly Christian doctrine of forgiveness. There can be no forgiveness where there is indifference towards either the offender or the offence.

The Cross is a satisfaction for sin in so far as the moral order of the universe makes it impossible that human souls should be redeemed from sin except at a cost. Of this cost the death on the Cross is the expression ... Thus the Cross is a "propitiation" and "expiation" for the sins of the whole world [*]

The biblical doctrine of God's wrath is rooted in the doctrine of God as the good, wise and loving creator, who hates - yes, hates, and hates implacably - anything that spoils, defaces, distorts or damages his beautiful creation, and in particular anything that does that to his image-bearing creatures... If God is love, he must utterly reject, and ultimately deal with, all that pollutes, distorts and destroys his world and his image-bearing creatures.

There are so many more great bits, but you must simply read the article itself. I'll finish with a quote regarding this whole Steve Chalke nonsense:

There are several forms of the doctrine of penal substitution, and some are more biblical than others...[Steve Chalke believes that] on the cross, as an expression of God's love, Jesus took into and upon himself the full force of all the evil around him, in the knowledge that if he bore it we would not have to; but this, which amounts to a form of penal substitution, is quite different from other forms of penal substitution, such as the mediaeval model of a vengeful father being placated by an act of gratuitous violence against his innocent son.

[*] N.B. : Peter Kirk has argued against this quote, which came from a previous Anglican report on the atonement (a report which was quoted in Wright's article, but probably does not represent Wright's own viewpoint). Check out his blog here, and if I get time I will try to figure out what is this debate is really about.

Monday, April 23, 2007

No News is Good News?

There is saying in the UNIX world that "no news is good news". The context was that when a program finished running, if it did not print out any output, you could assume everything worked. Actually the saying goes back to King James I. Anyway: here I am talking about the gospel - that is, the good news. But in some churches it seems that the gospel has fallen out of fashion. There is no longer any good news preached...which is not good news at all, in any sense of the phrase!

Further confusion abounds in that many Christians are unsure as to what the good news actually us (i.e. see previous blog post). Others are more sure as to the news, but believe that "no news is good news" - in other words, they will not share the gospel unless forced at gunpoint. We are somehow led to believe that (Apostle) Paul would have done a better job if he had just stuck to making tents and waiting for his customers to ask why his tents has fish logos sewn all over them, or something. At least that way he would have not started all those crazy riots...

OK, sarcasm aside, many folks these days would say they are not sure about sharing the good news, but they are down with this Missional church thing. Certainly I am happy to stand up and be counted in the missional church camp. But I also think we need to continue to emphasise the importance of sharing the gospel: no news is bad news in this case. So, it is in the context of discussing where "sharing the good news" - evangelism - fits into missional church that I have posted this comment on Rupert's blog, and I encourage folks to join in the conversation. Please comment on Rupert's blog if your comment is relevant to this discussion there, otherwise feel free to comment here.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

So what is the good news then?

Rupert is currently blogging about mission. I recommend folks go over and check it out. Don't be afraid to comment! On a kind of parallel theme, I think its time to think again about what the gospel (Good News) actually is. I've blogged on this before, but I didn't exactly cause a storm. I'm hoping to get some more response this time.

So, as well as thinking about what our mission is, we need to think about what our message is. Previously, I said this:

These days its all too common for people to talk about the love of God. The gospel has become "God loves you and died for you", or sometimes just, "God loves you". But is that the gospel? Did Jesus incarnate, die, rise again, and ascend to heaven just to ensure he got his message through that God loved the world? Is the atonement just that God loves us?

Clearly not. Surely every good jew must have known already that Yahweh loved his covenant people dearly, as a husband loves his bride.

On other hand, proclaiming that God hates you, is mad at you because you a filthy sinner, and you will burn in hell unless you believe in Jesus, is not in any shape or form the gospel either.

I am asking my readers to chuck in their tuppence worth, and comment on how they understand the gospel message. To get the ball rolling, here's what various folks say the gospel is:

N T Wright: "the gospel is that the crucified and risen Jesus is the Lord of the world. And that his death and Resurrection transform the world, and that transformation can happen to you. You, in turn, can be part of the transforming work."

Loraine Boettner: "The Gospel is the good news about the great salvation purchased by Jesus Christ, by which He reconciled sinful men to a holy God."

Jeff Purswell: "The gospel is the good news of God's saving activity in the person and work of Christ. This includes his incarnation in which he took to himself full (yet sinless) human nature; his sinless life which fulfilled the perfect law of God; his substitutionary death which paid the penalty for man's sin and satisfied the righteous wrath of God; his resurrection demonstrating God's satisfaction with his sacrifice; and his glorification and ascension to the right hand of the Father where he now reigns and intercedes for the church."

Adam Walker Cleveland: "The gospel is the uncontrollable and uncontainable inbreaking of God's hopes and dreams for this world, and beyond. Through the gospel, God the Creator, God the Redeemer and God the Spirit, bring peace, love and hope into the world, while also presenting an alternative way of life, challenging the powers and principalities that be in the world today."

Brian McLaren: "The core gospel message is the kingdom of God and [it] contains all the dimensions of Jesus' mission: the social, the personal and the saving work of the cross."

What do you think? How would you put it? After a while I will post a sequel to this post, with some of my thoughts on the gospel.

Monday, April 09, 2007

The best news since year one?

I've just finished reading Megashift, by James Rutz. An enjoyable book to read, if you can get past the the hype.

The book is all about the new (as opposed to the historical) house church movement, which is picking up speed all across Western world. The book starts by looking at the examples of house churches in primarily non-Western countries, noting countless miracles and healings that occur in their midst. The book is worth it simply for this first chapter alone.

Jim is convinced that traditional (and by that I think he includes most of contemporary) Christianity is going downhill, fast. He sees cities full of small house churches, interconnected by relationship. These holy-spirit filled house churches would meet up city-wide, say once a month, for encouragement, corporate worship and apostolic input.

I think Jim is partly right. I do see this coming to the Western world. In the United States, its now a fact according to Barna that there are more Christians out of church (unchurched/dechurched) than there are in church. Barna reckons that 100 million US Christians are currently not tied to a local church. Lets face it folks, church as we know it is not cutting it! I don't know the statistics for the UK, but I've often estimated that around 50% of Christians are unchurched, dechurched, or floating aimlessly between churches.

Why is this? I think there are two, probably related reasons.

1) Cultural connection: traditional and contemporary churches often seem to be locked into various layers of culture which increasingly push people away from the church. The main cultural issue for the church to address currently is the broad shift from modernity to post-modernity.

2) Somewhat related to the first point, there is a move across the church worldwide (even in cultures that are not experiencing post-modernity) to practise church with what can only be described as an organic Hebrew methodology, as opposed to the prevalent Roman/Greek methodology that the traditional and even contemporary churches identify with.

3) Further points, perhaps related to the above two points, would also includes movements such as post-evangelical, post-charismatic, post-protestant and for some it seems, post-Christian.

So when you chuck all this into the melting pot, what comes out? The answer is of course, the emerging church.

Going back to Jim, I do believe that one expression of the church of tomorrow will be the emerging house churches. However, as others have said, I also think that the Megachurch model, in second and first-world countries at least, is here to stay. Despite all the predictions to the contrary, Megachurches continue to grow and prosper, even with younger post-moderns members (originally it was said Megachurches would only appear to the Baby-Boomer generation i.e. Willow Creek). For example, Mars Hill Church, Seattle, started off as post-modern post-evangelical post-charismatic bible study. Its now has over 6000 members and shows no sign of stopping its constant 60% growth. Meanwhile, over here in the UK, we think 6% church growth is a practically a Holy-Spirit fuelled revival! Other churches have no growth to speak off and continually make up reasons why this is a good thing. "Its not all about numbers", people continually chant in some sort of weird mantra. "A perfect community has less than 100 people" is one I've heard a few times as well. Last time I checked, each "number" was an individual soul (person), loved by the Lord Jesus, who earnestly desires his or her salvation. Is there a verse in the bible that says "And the Lord said thus: It is not about numbers". If anything, it is about numbers, if the book of Numbers teaches us anything :-) Even the Yellow Pages folks realise that.

So Jim, I love the book, but I think we need to make room for other expressions of the body of Christ. I anticipate many house churches starting up in my local scene over the next 10 years. No sign of a mega-church yet, though :-)

This post has brought up a bunch of other thoughts in my mind, so if I get time I will blog some more on all of this. Especially on this meme going around that preaching no longer works (only if you suck at it, according to Mark Driscoll!).