The 6th Sunday After Easter: The Ascension of Christ, Evil, and the Sovereignty of God

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Update: This post is embarrassingly incomplete, and because I set it to an automatic uploading schedule, it was published prematurely. I hope to expand and complete it in the coming days. Rather than deleting, I’m going to leave what I have so far up until I can get to finishing it.

Update 2: Finally finished this piece. 

According to the Church Calendar, 40 days after Easter (this year, that was Thursday, May 25) we celebrate and remember Christ’s Ascension to Heaven. During this time, we contemplate the implications of the Ascension–including our faith that He has been enthroned, and now rules Creation.

In the Book of Acts, the disciples are given a picture of the Ascension of Jesus Christ from the standpoint of the world.

Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”

Acts 1:6-11.

In the Old Testament, Daniel is given a picture of the Ascension from the viewpoint of Heaven:

“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

Daniel 7:13-14. The letters of the apostles confirm that with the Ascension, Jesus Christ was enthroned in Heaven and now rules over Creation, judging it and extending His reign until all powers submit to Him.

“Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.” 1 Peter 3:22.

“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ; and He will reign forever and ever.” Revelation 11:15.

“Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Philippians 2:9-11.

“Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” 1 Corinthians 15:24-26.

 It is through the lens of Ascension, and Jesus’ overcoming of opposing powers, that I want to examine the second question raised in response to my post from two weeks ago, The Resurrection and a Multi-Faceted Gospel. To recap, here were the questions: 

  1. How can justification by faith be reconciled with your critique of an overly individualistic Gospel? (I tried to answer that in last week’s post, The Resurrection, Justification by Faith, and the People of God.)
  2. How can capital-E Evil as a rebellious force be reconciled with the sovereignty of God?
  3. So what? Why does your critique matter in the big scheme of things for our worship or mission?

Again, today I’m going to focus on the second question: How does Evil fit with the Sovereignty of God?

Please remember that these thoughts are offered in the context of continued learning and dialogue, not an arrogant belief that I have everything figured out.

My proposed argument follows this outline:

  1. God, as Creator, is the ground of all being, “Being itself,” and so He is the fountain of all existence.
  2. But as Christians, we confess God is Father, Son, Holy Spirit; because God is Trinity, “Being itself” must be understood as “being-in-relation.”
  3. Evil is the absence of God, not an independent power in itself.
  4. But there are forces of evil that are genuinely in opposition to God and His purposes.
  5. Although the biblical account of God’s sovereignty does establish His authorship–and therefore, His ultimate responsibility–of all things, it is primarily concerned with God establishing His rule over and against genuine opposition, and it does not neatly reconcile the tension between those two ideas.
  6. Remember the Trinity! God’s authorship and relationship to time is complicated because He is both a) sovereign over time as Creator and b) committed to time through covenant, Christ, and the Spirit operating in the Church.
  7. This all matters because it has important pastoral implications, including the way the Church should communicate assurance, comfort, and meaning to people in suffering, and the valid place of lament in the life of the Church.

WHAT MAKES GOD GOD?

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,

‘For we too are his offspring.’

Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

Acts 17:22-31. Emphasis added.

In trying to explain who God is to the people of Athens at Mars Hill (the Areopagus), Paul appeals to the poetry of Aratus, who himself was influenced by the philosophy of Plato. Paul quotes Aratus, who is trying to explain that the ruling god Zeus, if he truly were the Creator God, could not simply be a supremely powerful “god” within the cosmos; The universe must somehow spring forth from the Creator God, who stands over and against it, not contained within it.

This is why Aratus writes of this Creator God, whom he identifies as Zeus–“In Him we live and move and have our being.” Paul quotes Aratus to identify this Creator God as the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ.

The Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, in his book The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, and Bliss,* distinguishes between the different things we mean when we use the word “god.”

(*I highly recommend the book, because every page is brilliant, but it’s a tough read. DB Hart has a few annoying tics–1) He repeats profound but difficult to grasp points endlessly, without much unpacking, as if by repetition he can force the reader to understand, 2) he adopts a condescending tone to his intellectual opponents, and 3) his writing is so dense I had to re-read some paragraphs three times just to make sure I was still tracking with the argument. Also, it helps to keep a thesaurus handy.)

According to Hart, all of the world’s great religions have distinguished between “gods”– divine beings who reign over some part of the cosmos or even rule the entire universe as the most powerful beings within the universe–and “God”:

“the one infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things.”

As Hart demonstrates, this insight is indeed shared by all the great religions. Whether we are examining Sufi Muslim poetry extolling the transcendence of Allah, the Hindu philosophers discussing the God Brahman in the Upanashids, the Jewish Torah scholar Moses Maimonides, or Thomas Aquinas insisting that God is ipsum esse subsistensthere is basic agreement that the Creator God, properly understood, is not a discrete object within a set of objects within the Universe, but the ultimate transcendental ground of being itself.

Therefore, the quality that makes God “God” is that He is absolute, and all other realities are contingent. By this I mean, all other realities depend for their existence upon Him, whereas He is the ground of being–“Being Itself”–He depends only upon Himself for His existence.

Perhaps you think all the above is less than useful. While it may helpfully show agreement among philosophers trying to understand who God is without the gift of revelation, it does not have much bearing on a Christian who is trying to be faithful to Scripture.

But consider Exodus 3:13-15 (emphasis added):

But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:

This is my name forever,
and this my title for all generations.

The Covenantal God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, when asked for His Name by Moses, revealed Himself to be the Creator God who is Being Itself, the sheer act of Being without whom existence is not a possibility, the Sustainer of all that is, the Great I AM. This is why Jewish teachers have always identified the transcendent god of the philosophers as YHWH.

But there’s more. As Christians, we confess that the Creator God who is the transcendent Reality that undergirds all other realities is Three-in-One: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, eternally One God in Three Persons. This should complicate and distinguish our understanding of “Being Itself” from that of the ancient philosophers.

This is a major theme of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in his book, Introduction to Christianity. If God is Being Itself, and  if God is Trinity, then that means that at the very heart of Being is “being-in-relation.” Since all things that are in existence are created and sustained by the Triune God who Himself is “being-in-relation,” then that means that at the heart of existence is relationship. And not just any relationship–the relationship within the Trinity is a never-ending economy of self-giving and pouring out to glorify the other. In other words, as the apostle John said in his old age, the covenantal God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who revealed Himself as the transcendent ground of being to Moses, is the God who is Love.

Why am I going into this? What does this have to do with evil’s relationship to God?

I think we have to have a very firm understanding of what makes God “God” in order to refute any attempt to make God the author of evil. Evil does not spring from God. God’s “Godness” is fact that He is the transcendent source of all reality, without which no other thing would exist, not from the fact that there are no wills able to oppose Him or resist Him or fight Him.

If we think of God as a Supreme Being within the Universe, then the fact that there are wills able to oppose Him may threaten our confidence in His sovereignty. But if we understand that God is Being Itself, we know that genuine opposition to His Will is no threat to His Godhood. God’s “Godness” is found in the fact that, at every moment, He imparts the gift of being to all that exists. It is not in the fact that no created will can resist or oppose His will. As Christians, we confess that this transcendent God is the Triune God of Love–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–who invites the world He created into His Love. 2 Peter 3:9, 1 Timothy 2:3-4.

WHAT IS EVIL?

But then this raises the question, what is evil and what is its relation to this transcendent God?

The great Church Father Augustine was once a Manichaean, who believed that good could not exist without evil. When Augustine converted to Christianity, he rejected his old Manichaeanism, with its belief that all of life was a battle between two, equal powers of good and evil struggling for supremacy.

However, this left him with a problem. If 1) God created everything, and 2) evil is a thing, then 3) God created evil. This was repugnant to Augustine, not least because it contradicted Scripture:

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.

Augustine’s ingenious solution was to question the second premise in the above syllogism: “Evil is a thing.” Instead, Augustine came to the opposite conclusion: Evil is not a thing.

This was a brilliant insight. Augustine was not denying that evil is real. He simply insists that evil is not a thing in itself–evil is a privation. This means that evil is an absence or corruption–a deprivation–of something created to be good so that it is less than would it should be.

Just as there is no such thing as “cold,” but a lack of heat, and just as the darkness is really a lack of light, evil is a lack of goodness. Under this understanding, as the apostle John said in his old age, God can never be the author of evil, because He is light and in Him there is no darkness at all. Neither is evil an independent power in and of itself equal to God. Evil is simply how we describe what God is not. Therefore, to the degree that something is not participating in God’s being and purpose–which is the definition of goodness–it is evil.

We must be faithful to the biblical witness that there are forces in the world that do not participate in God’s being and purpose, and that even oppose Him. This is a hard concept to grasp, but it is what I believe we find in Scripture: Evil is real, but it is not a thing. It is an absence of goodness, and there are powers and wills created by God who turn away from God and toward this absence, which means their ultimate obliteration, as God is the source of all being and life.

HOW IS GOD’S SOVEREIGNTY ESTABLISHED IN SCRIPTURE?

I believe the above is important to get straight because otherwise we can confuse understandings of God’s sovereignty as related in Scripture.

God is certainly sovereign as Creator and Sustainer of all things–even the ability of someone to choose to degrade themselves with an evil act is a choice that must be preserved and upheld by God, who creates and sustains all things by giving them the gift of their being. This is the kind of sovereignty Paul was talking about in Acts 17.

As the philosopher Herbert McCabe wrote in Faith Within Reason, pp. 75-76:

God’s activity, then, does not compete with mine. Whereas the activity of any other creature makes a difference to mine and would interfere with my freedom, the activity of God makes no difference. It has a more fundamental and important job to do than making a difference. It makes me have my own activity in the first place. I am free; I have my own spontaneous activity not determined by other creatures, because God makes me free. Not free of him (this would be to cease to exist), but free of other creatures.

The idea that God’s causality could interfere with my freedom can only arise from an idolatrous notion of God as a very large and powerful creature—a part of the world. We see an ascending scale of powerful causes. The more powerful the cause, the more difference it makes. And we are inclined to locate God at the top of the scale, and to imagine that he makes the most difference of all. But God does not make the most difference. He makes, if you like, all the difference—which is the same as making no difference at all.

And again, in God Matters, pg. 13:

So neither motives nor dispositions are causes of action; it remains that a free action is one which I cause and which is not caused by anything else. It is caused by God. From what we were saying last time it will, I hope, be clear that this is not the paradox that it seems at first sight, for God is not anything else. God is not a separate and rival agent within the universe. The creative causal power of God does not operate on me from outside, as an alternative to me; it is the creative causal power of God that makes me me.

(Both citations taken from an excellent blog post on Divine and Human Agency at the site Eclectic Orthodoxy).

This is heady stuff, but I think if I understand it rightly, it means that I can affirm the thought of some of the Protestant Reformers: Our decisions are 100% our own, and 100% God’s. God’s will is not on the same plane of causation as our own, and therefore His will is not a rival that “crowds-out” my will; Instead, He is the Act of Being that creates, allows, and seals my will to be my will.

Then there is God’s sovereignty as it’s talked about in Psalm 2, where it is established against opposition and conspiracy:

Why do the nations conspire,
    and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
    and the rulers take counsel together,
    against the Lord and his anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds asunder,
    and cast their cords from us.”

He who sits in the heavens laughs;
    the Lord has them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
    and terrify them in his fury, saying,
“I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.”

I will tell of the decree of the Lord:

He said to me, “You are my son;
    today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
    and the ends of the earth your possession.

You shall break them with a rod of iron,
    and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”

Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
    be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear,
    with trembling  

kiss his feet,
or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way;
    for his wrath is quickly kindled.

Happy are all who take refuge in him.

Much of Scripture is caught up in telling us the story of this conflict, which culminates in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and His Resurrection. Scripture tells us of a battle in the Heavens; it shows us Abraham leaving a city of idols for a city that God would architect and build; it demonstrates YHWH’s power over the ten great Egyptian gods with ten plagues; it shows us Joshua cleansing the land of the Anakim; it relays how Solomon succumbed to foreign gods and thereby defiled the land; it tells us how Elijah triumphed over the priests of Baal; and on and on.

Finally, Scripture shows us the Lord’s anointed sweating in blood and agony at the Garden of Gethsamene, preparing for the climactic battle with the powers and principalities–the Sanhedrin, Herod, and Pilate, and the ruler of the world who He would now drive out.

Jesus wages war against the forces of evil.  Luke’s Gospel makes a mockery of Rome’s claim to having the greatest military in the world by showing that Jesus’ birth is heralded by a great multitude of the heavenly host. At the beginning of his ministry in the Gospel of Mark, an impure spirit cries out to oppose and attempt to silence Jesus. The Devil faces off with Jesus in the wilderness. Gazing at the Cross, the apostle Paul exults:

And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.

And again, Paul reminds the church in Ephesus that though the decisive battle has been won, the war continues until our Lord’s return:

 For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

My point here is that none of this is play-acting. In Scripture, the sovereignty of God that we see is a sovereignty that is established and won as the result of a great struggle and victory in history and time.

Evil is not a thing in itself–it is the absence of God–but it is real in the sense that there are powers and forces that align themselves with this nothingness when they turn away from God. Scripture tells us that this world is in some sense hostage to these hostile forces. Jesus’ Death and Resurrection was a great victory against these dark powers, and the Church as the Body of Christ is implanted with His Spirit so that it can now continue this war to re-take all of Creation for our Sovereign, who will rule until He is all in all.

To the extent the struggle of  the Cross to establish God’s sovereignty is overlooked in our preaching and teaching, I think we are being unfaithful to the great drama presented in Scripture, which lives on in the present life of the Church.

I will confess there is a tension here between God’s sovereignty as Creator and His sovereignty as established by the Cross in Redemptive History. As Creator, God holds ultimate responsibility for Creation. Different theologians have proposed different theodicies that attempt to explain why a good God would create a world with evil and suffering as real possibilities within it. These explanations range from Irenaeus’ hypothesis that evil is necessary for humans to mature to the likeness of God, to CS Lewis’ explanation that God must imbue his creatures with some exercise of free will so that their love might be genuine, and the existence of free will necessarily risks evil.

Ultimately, as interesting as these theodicies are, they will probably always be unsatisfying as full explanations this side of the eschaton. Instead, we must remind ourselves that God is Trinity–He is a God of covenant who has committed Himself to history through the Incarnation of Christ, and through the gift of the Spirit that is pulling His Church into a beautiful future where death will be swallowed up by life.

When we look to Christ, we see that he is not very interested in giving explanations for why evil exists. Instead, he goes about the business of crushing it and absorbing it into himself. Christianity doesn’t just tell us that there is evil in the world. We can already know that by the simple act of looking around.  Instead, Christianity tells us, in the words of the Catholic writer Pascal Emmanuel-Gobry:

…all of this suffering and evil in the world has been taken by God Himself and utterly destroyed, so that when the Universe is finally realized all will be radiant and glorious and every tear will be wiped from every eye. It says that all suffering and evil is born by the only one who can bear it, who helps you bear it, and can even help you turn it into good. It says that suffering and evil in the world is, indeed, a grievous injustice that cries out for all men of good will to combat it, and it enrolls you in God’s Army in this cosmic battle against evil, a battle where victory is certain.

Christianity is not an explanation for why things are. It is an encounter with the man on the Cross, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Behold this broken form, crowned with thorns, and kneel at the altar of his mighty Cross, and kiss his pierced, bloody feet. That’s your theodicy.

What can I add to that except “Amen.”

PASTORAL IMPLICATIONS

A final word on why this discussion of God’s relationship to evil matters so much to me. It seems to me that we do the church and God a great disservice when, in the course of trying to assure the flock that God is sovereign and in control, we simply re-describe suffering and evil as simply the outworkings of God’s sovereign will in accord with a universal teleology.

I encourage you to read the linked-to post by the Anglican theologian Alastair Roberts, but here is a short excerpt:

I fear the tendency to normalize the brokenness of this present order by presenting it as the outworking of the sovereign will of God. I do not believe that my suffering is inherently meaningful. Death, suffering and evil are parasitic and destructive. God may use evil as an occasion for the working of grace and may bring about His good will in spite of the wicked actions of man and the power of Sin and Death, but He does not will the rule of Sin and Death and the wicked actions of man; He merely permits them. I believe that there is an important distinction to be maintained here.

In our haste to give God His due by acknowledging His sovereignty, and to assure fellow believers that He is in control, we fail to acknowledge the destructive, parasitic forces opposed to God against whom we are called to struggle as the Church.

He goes on to write:

I have come to believe that God wants us to feel the tension between His will and the way things are in the world. Arguing that bad events are merely inscrutable manifestations of God’s will eases the deep and painful tension that we should be feeling between the way things are and the way that things were designed to be. However, it achieves this easing of tension at great expense. As we turn a blind eye to raw reality and try to explain it away we end up treating God as one who is not big enough to be confronted with things as they really are. The God of our fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob does not need to be protected from our cries of pain, suffering and despair. We also end up further alienating ourselves in our suffering and other sufferers. No voice is given to the anguish and meaningless of suffering within the Church. Whilst contracting the language of the Church by refusing to voice to the sufferer might make us feel more cosy, it leaves the sufferer out in the cold.

When we are faced with illness, tragedy, and death, we should not first consider them as the indecipherable, mysterious outworkings of God’s will. Instead, we ought to first recognize in them the face of our Great Enemy opposed to God’s holy and good purposes.

God can and will work good out of evil, so that even our scars and wounds will be filled with radiant light, but this is not license to simply re-describe evil as good by encouraging those who are suffering to simply shift their perspective. We must oppose sickness and death with prayers for healing, trusting that our God is able to save. Even if the physical healing is not forthcoming, we must trust that He is still working a great victory over evil in us, even if Satan’s thorn is not withdrawn. And we must always remember that even death has been defanged, as its sting has been taken away forever.

In addition to prayers for healing, God has given the church the gift of lament in the Psalms. The Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann writes that in the laments, Israel goes from articulating its hurt and anger, to submitting its suffering to God, and finally relinquishing control over the suffering to God’s control and authority. After Israel has relinquished its authority over its suffering to God, it fulsomely praises God.

These laments help the Church avoid the problem of re-description. Following the tutelage of the Psalms, we are not supposed to simply re-describe our searing pain at the loss of our loved one as simply part of God’s larger plan for the world. That can sound scarily close to something like, “I’m so sorry, but as you know, your dear sister was just a small cog in the wheel of God’s divine machinery.”

Instead, we are invited to plead with God, wail against God, and even bring our feelings of anger and hateful longing for revenge before God. We are invited to press and implicate God into the present situation of pain, and even to demand that He answer. In the course of doing so, the Spirit will come to bear on our hearts, and we will be given a vision of Christ, the God-Man who does not distance Himself from our suffering, but who willingly enters and takes our suffering into Himself. The Spirit then pushes us out into the world to conquer the world with our co-suffering love in imitation of Christ. As we gaze at the Cross, we become confident in God’s promise to grant meaning to this senseless suffering, and we can trust that in the end all shall be well.

Death has been vanquished; your sister is asleep, but our God will raise her on the Last Day, and you will both be presented in glory before the throne to inherit the New Creation. In the words of the Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart:

We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes”and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”

I will give Alastair Roberts (and really, you should be reading his blog) the last word:

Our confidence must flow from the knowledge that God works all things together for good for those who love Him. This does not mean that evil is really an illusion after all and that everything takes place exactly as God wishes it to. Rather, this verse teaches us that, even in the face of radical evil and agonizing suffering, God’s purpose is still at work and will finally triumph. No suffering or evil can thwart God’s purpose to deliver His creation into the formation of a new humanity in His Son. In fact, God even uses the weight of suffering and evil against them. Things that Satan designs for evil, God can use to accomplish good.

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How do you worship?

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What is the practice of corporate worship in your church? Here are some thoughts spurred on by this article by Aaron Niequist, a worship leader in Chicago. To quote Niequist:

It recently occurred to me that 95% of modern worship music is about God or about me. We largely sing about who God is (“Good Good Father”), what God has done for me (“This is Amazing Grace”), and what I’m going to do for God (“The Stand”). I affirm all three of these postures as deeply good and necessary.

However, Jesus didn’t only teach about God and me. Much of Jesus’ teachings were about how we treat one another and how we treat “the other.” In fact, Jesus directly tied our love for God to our love for others, and directly linked God’s forgiveness for us with our forgiveness of others. (Matt 6:15) Notice how much of his most famous sermon (on the mount) explores how we treat those inside and outside of our community, rather than our own relationship with God. We find this all over the scriptures (the laws of Moses, Paul’s letters, etc). God seems intent on creating a holy people, not just billions of holy individuals. Much of what it means to follow God in the way of Christ has to do with how we treat each other.

Niequist has clearly been influenced by the recent work of Glenn Packiam and James K. A. Smith, who themselves have been influenced by the early church saying “lex orandi lex credendi”–the rule of prayer is the rule of faith. In other words, the way we worship forms the way we believe.

Accordingly, as Niequist writes, “an unbalanced practice of worship will form us into unbalanced people.” More pressingly, if our practice of worship is centered around “God and me,” it will form us into an individualistic faith– one where our sacrificial love for the neighbor and the stranger is an optional “add-on,” not an integral part of the Gospel.

Niequist advises a path forward for worship leaders,

At the end of each month, look at every song, reading, prayer, and practice in your services and ask:

(1) Did we worship God for who God is?
(2) Did we help people express their personal love/devotion to God?
(3) Did we empower our community to speak to each other
with psalms, hymns, & spiritual songs?

(4) Did the worship open our hearts (and lives) to those outside of our tribe?

God, me, us, everyone.

This is not the thrust of Niequist’s article, but one thought that struck me is how well the traditional liturgy is able to respond to his proposed set of questions for worship leaders:

  1. God: Worship of God for who God is–The hymns, songs, and prayers that focus on who God is, particularly the prayer of Adoration of the Trinity that begins many liturgical worship services.
  2. Me: Personal expression for God–Confession and Assurance, where the people silently confess their sins before God and neighbor before praying the corporate prayer of confession.
  3. Us: Speak to each other with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs–The spoken, chanted, or sung liturgy.
  4. Everyone: Open our hearts to those outside our tribe–The intercession of the church for the life of the world.

Of course, the manner in which this is implemented in the traditional liturgy can be better or worse. However, I think this question-set helps respond to some critics of traditional liturgies, who claim liturgy is a “dead” form of worship. The key question for liturgy is whether it is true or false, not whether it is dead or alive.

I am someone who accepts that there is room for experimentation in traditional liturgies. They are not handed down by the Angel Gabriel on stone tablets, and they can and should be carefully adapted to better speak to changing cultural contexts.

But I think the question-set above shows the danger of unthinkingly throwing away traditional liturgies in favor of more “relevant” styles of worship. There is no such thing as a neutral style of worship. Everything is a liturgy–a repeated pattern of behavior in which we order our worship. If we are not careful, we may end up buying into reigning cultural idols, and unwittingly train the congregation in a different Gospel.

In modern America, this would mean that through our worship, we would train the congregation to be consumers, spectators, and fans of Jesus–not sacrificial disciples in community and on mission.

Back to the article–Niequest suggests some ideas on how to faithfully answer the four questions he posed, and I encourage everyone, regardless of church background, to read them. I particularly liked this portion on “Everyone”:

Finally, our worship practices must open our hearts (and lives) to those outside of our tribe. John Robinson states powerfully in Honest to God:

The test of worship is how far it makes us more sensitive to “the Beyond in our midst”, to the Christ in the hungry, naked, homeless, and the prisoner. Only if we are more likely to recognize Him there after attending an act of worship is that worship Christian rather than a piece of religiosity in Christian dress.

Whoa. This messes with me. And it challenges us to always frame our worship experience (1) Inside the grand story of what God is doing in human history, and (2) In context of a beautiful and broken world that God loves so dearly. This can happen through songs about God’s love for the whole world (which are unfortunately hard to find), praying for current events, worshiping with those outside our tribe, and hearing stories from people involved with the poor and oppressed among us. My friend Kellye Fabian created a fantastic practice called “praying through photos.” She finds 6 online photos from that week that capture the pain and need in our world (usually 3 local and 3 global), and leads our community in a time of prayer for the deeply loved son or daughter in each photo. Whether focused on Syria, Paris, Chicago, or Palestine, this has been a profoundly shaping worship practice.

An excellent idea. Again, read the rest of the article here.

The 5th Sunday After Easter: The Resurrection, Justification by Faith, and the People of God

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I want to thank everyone who read and commented on my last post, The Resurrection and A Multi-Faceted Gospel. I want to spend these next three weeks responding to some of these questions and requests for clarification.

In doing so, I hope that I am not sending the mistaken impression that I have everything figured out. These are topics of continued study and learning for me; everything that I am saying here is an invitation for further dialogue and critique. Hopefully, all of us will gain in the process.

I would say that the critical responses to my post fell in three main categories:

  1. How can justification by faith be reconciled with your critique of an overly individualistic Gospel?
  2. How can capital-E Evil as an independent, rebellious force be reconciled with the sovereignty of God?
  3. So what? Why does your critique matter in the big scheme of things for our worship or mission?

This week I will try to tackle the first question–Where does justification by faith fit in this picture?

The Lutheran theologian Balthasar Meisner claimed that a proverb of Martin Luther, which fueled the Reformation, was that “Justification is the article upon which the Church stands or falls.” This is a very high and lofty claim, and I affirm it.

However, I must lay my cards on the table: I think my understanding of how justification fits in the larger picture of the Gospel probably is different from the evangelical versions I have heard. Because I have a different overarching framework in which justification fits, I may have a different understanding of what justification means

One caveat here–whenever we start talking about the overarching framework to interpret Scripture, further questions regarding election, predestination, and the relation between the divine and human wills inevitably rise up. The framework I am sketching out below is what I have discerned as areas of agreement among the Church Father Irenaeus, Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Richard Hooker. So whether your theological commitments are Reformed, Lutheran, Orthodox, Catholic, or Arminian, I think you can profit from the proposed framework I will outline without having to abandon your view of election, Divine Providence, and Human Agency.

The argument will be a little long (sorry), but here’s the basic framework:

  1. The Trinitarian Purpose of Creation
  2. The Frustrated Vocation of Humankind
  3. The Promise to Abraham
  4. Israel and the Law
  5. The Faithfulness of Jesus Christ
  6. Justification by Faith

THE TRINITARIAN PURPOSE OF CREATION

Why did God create? The Western Church’s answer (Augustinian, Lutheran, Reformed)  is “For His Glory.” But let’s attempt to unpack that idea. Creation surely was not for any lack within God. Therefore, it was not because He was lonely, and it was not because He needed worship. To put a finer point on it, it was not to display or augment His excellencies, as if He needed an audience in order to magnify His perfection.

The Western Church’s understanding that God created for His Glory is rooted in the idea that Creation was not a necessity for God to be God. God is completely perfect, infinite, and absolute within Himself–perfect in Love, perfect in Glory, and perfect in Worship.

As Christians, we have to acknowledge that God’s glory is a Trinitarian glory. Before the foundations of the cosmos were laid, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit existed in perfect harmony, love, and glory. The act of Creation did not spring out of a need; Creation sprang out of this perfect love. When stated this way, the Western Church’s understanding of Creation coheres with the Eastern Church’s understanding of Creation–Creation is pure grace, a superabundance of the eternal generosity where God is freely pouring Himself out of love for God, a gift that stems from the mutual, eternal exchange of Divine Love that is our Triune God.

Perhaps my fellow evangelical friends will ask, how can this be justified on the basis of the Bible? I think this idea is well-expressed in the Messianic Poem of Colossians 1:15-20, and in the speech by Lady Wisdom in Proverbs 8:22-31.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence. For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell,  and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross.

–Colossians 1:15-20

“The Lord possessed me at the beginning of His way,
Before His works of old.
I have been established from everlasting,
From the beginning, before there was ever an earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
When there were no fountains abounding with water.
Before the mountains were settled,
Before the hills, I was brought forth;
While as yet He had not made the earth or the fields,
Or the primal dust of the world.
When He prepared the heavens, I was there,
When He drew a circle on the face of the deep,
When He established the clouds above,
When He strengthened the fountains of the deep,
When He assigned to the sea its limit,
So that the waters would not transgress His command,
When He marked out the foundations of the earth,
Then I was beside Him as a master craftsman;
And I was daily His delight,
Rejoicing always before Him,
Rejoicing in His inhabited world,
And my delight was with the sons of men.

–Proverbs 8:15-22

All things are created by Christ, through Christ, and for Christ. Even before the Fall, the purpose of Creation was Christ. Further, Lady Wisdom in Proverbs, the poetic “craftsman” or “handmaiden,” with whom the Father created the world, is sometimes identified with Christ but I think more accurately identified with the Holy Spirit. Creation is an expression of God’s delight with God.

Here’s my point: The act of Creation was a thoroughly Trinitarian act, and Creation’s telos or purpose is similarly Trinitarian:  Creation is meant to be summed up in Christ by being filled with the Spirit so that God can be all in all. God’s eternal purpose was to bring Creation to perfection by filling it with the greatest gift He could give it, Himself. The incarnate Jesus is “the Firstborn of all Creation,” the central focus and blueprint and Logos for which God created.

I think this idea is well-captured in the Orthodox idea of theosis–that the glory of God is found in His Trinitarian purpose of union with mankind, a kind of union that actually glorifies humanity and even divinizes it. I think this idea of theosis sometimes makes evangelicals nervous, especially when we hear the Church Father Athanasius riffing off 2 Peter 1:4 to say things like “God became man so that men might become gods,” which we fear obliterates the Creator-Creature distinction.

But even Augustine, Luther, and Calvin adopted a similarly high view of union with God–that through the Spirit, we are united with Christ, and therefore are invited to participate in the life of God. This participation gives us rights as Sons, where one day we will even judge angels. J. Todd Billings, in a scholarly article, summarized Calvin’s view in this way:

Nevertheless, classical Reformed theologians do not hesitate in speaking about the uniting communion that we experience now – and will experience in fullness – in Christ. As Calvin asserts, in our present life of union with Christ by the Spirit – which is nourished through the preached and sacramental Word in community – believers are “participants not only in all his benefits but also in himself.” Indeed, “day by day, he grows more and more into one body with us, until he becomes completely one with us” (Institutes 3.2.24). Moreover, believers are “fully and firmly joined with God only when Christ joins us with him” (Institutes 2.16.3). Yet this union with Christ is impossible without a participation in the Spirit, who unites the believer to Christ (Institutes 3.1.2). Indeed, through the Spirit “we come to a participation in God (in Dei participationem venimus)” (Institutes 1.13.14). As the “perfection of human happiness is to be united to God,” this union takes place in redemption (Institutes 1.15.6). Yet this union does not make us “consubstantial with God” like a fourth member of the Godhead, but it is in Christ, through “the grace and power of the Spirit” (Institutes 1.15.5).

It is through this reconciliation and union of humankind with God that Creation itself will be restored and glorified, as recounted in Romans 8 and pictured in Revelation 21 and 22.

With this background understanding of Creation’s purpose in place, we can see how Paul uses the concept of “justification by faith” to explain the purpose and identity of the people of God, and how it fits into the larger biblical narrative. He does so most straightforwardly in the Letter to the Galatians.

THE FRUSTRATED VOCATION OF HUMANKIND

Mankind was created with a vocation: Adam and Eve were commissioned to steward Creation as God’s royal priests, who gather Creation’s praises up to God and reflect God’s glory back to Creation. But as Paul writes in Galatians 4, we surrendered the authority God had given us to “the elements of the world,” lesser created realities that we worshipped as idols. Our betrayal was not just sin understood as a breaking of God’s law; As Martin Luther wrote, all sins are really a manifestation of idolatry, where we place something as higher and worthier of devotion than God.

Tim Keller expands on Luther’s idea in a recent Gospel Coalition article–sin is is the result of incorrect and improper worship. By our nature, we will offer our covenantal, committed worship to something. And if we do not offer it to the Creator God revealed in Christ, we will offer it to lesser created things that deceive, enslave, and destroy us.

The Adam and Eve narrative explains humankind’s fall into sin and idolatry, and the rest of the Genesis narrative from chapters 3 through 7 details our continuing downward spiral into deeper and deeper corruption. The first murderer builds the first city; his descendant’s story shows how humankind is decaying as it moves further and further away from God; and finally God is so angry at the corruption of human civilization that He judges it and starts again with the family of Noah.

But the rot in the human heart has not been dealt with: Noah’s family itself falls into the same pattern of sin and corruption. Soon Noah’s descendants will build Babylon and be claiming for themselves the exalted status of God, a recapitulation of Adam and Eve’s story.

THE PROMISE TO ABRAHAM

It is from this mess of human corruption that God purposes to honor his original commitment to Creation and humankind’s high vocation by calling forth the Chaldean Abram, re-naming him Abraham, and promising him that He would build his family into a great nation through whom all the nations in the world would be blessed. This is the promise Paul refers to in Galatians 3 (see Galatians 3:8-9, Galatians 3:14-16).

Paul in Galatians clarifies that the promise was made not only to Abraham, but also to “Abraham’s Seed,” Jesus Christ. Jesus is the true heir of Abraham who fulfills the promise. He brings blessing to all the nations of the world through the pardon of His Cross. Through Jesus, humankind can be delivered from the elements of the world, freed to worship the Creator God and participate in His original purposes for Creation.

But this raises a question–what does this mean for Israel, and what was the purpose of the Law if the promise would be fulfilled in Jesus?

ISRAEL AND THE LAW

Israel understood itself as God’s chosen people who would be God’s royal priesthood, and from whom the blessings to the world would flow as God kept His promise to their forefathers. Israel is rescued from Egypt out of God’s love for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and then given the Law at Mount Sinai to live as His distinctive people who would display His Glory to the nations. In Moses’ farewell speech to the second generation of free Israelites as they prepare to enter the Promised Land, he summarizes the Law to remind them that Israel has a vocation: To be God’s first-born son, who would image God to the world and participate in His mission of Justice and Healing (summarized in the rabbinical Jewish concept of tikkun olam).

The Law is given as a means for Israel to live up to this vocation, the original vocation of mankind, to represent God’s presence in the world. It explains how God can dwell with a sinful people through the purity codes and atonement rites, and it outlines the high moral behavior expected from Israelites to set them apart from the other nations and to represent the beauty and goodness of God to the world. Israel was to be a community of true worship that lives out God’s true justice.

But Israel fails over and over to live up to this vocation. First the nation is divided into northern and southern kingdoms because of the idolatry and oppression of the Davidic dynasty. The northern kingdom of Israel is ultimately conquered and scattered because they failed to keep the Mosaic covenant. The prophet Isaiah warns the southern kingdom of Judah that the sacrificial system has become meaningless because of the people’s continued idolatry and oppression. Judah does not heed the warning, the glorious presence of God leaves the Temple, and Babylon conquers and carries off the Jewish people into exile.

During the time of Exile, the Jews hold on to to the prophetic dream that God will smash the idolatrous empires that He allowed to conquer Judah, that in the fullness of time He will allow the exiles to rebuild Jerusalem, and thereby allow the Creation-Salvation project–including judgment of evil–to continue through the restored Jewish nation.

Eventually, under the reign of Cyrus the Persian the Jewish exiles are allowed to return to their homeland and rebuild Jerusalem. They rebuild the Templere-discover the Law, and commit to reforms under the Law.

But strangely, they do not sense the return of God’s presence. Malachi chastises the bored priests of the Second Temple, and warns them that one day the Lord will return, and a messenger will come to prepare His way–implying that He has not yet returned.

In fact, the Jewish people continue under oppression for centuries–the Persians give way to the Greeks, who give way to the Syrians, who give way to the Romans. How can God’s salvation project be working through the Jewish nation if they continue to labor under the domination of foreign, idolatrous empires? Has Judah been forgiven, or is it still being punished for its sins? Will God remember His covenant?

THE FAITHFULNESS OF JESUS CHRIST

This is why Zechariah bursts into prophetic song when John the Baptist is born:

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
    for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty savior for us
    in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
     that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
    and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
    to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness
    before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
    by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
    the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
    to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Mary rejoices with a similar song of prophecy when she visits her pregnant cousin Elizabeth, understanding the birth of her son as fulfillment of the promises to Israel and Abraham:

 And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
 His mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
 He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
 he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.
 He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

The Christ, in fulfillment of the prophets’ assurances, will somehow restore, redeem, and purify Israel so that God can dwell with His people again and His salvation project for Creation–and judgment for evil–can move forward.

Jesus Christ is both the true Israelite who faithfully executes the vocation of Israel, and the Divine Logos who embodies the Lord’s return to Zion. I’ve written about this at length here, but let me give a brief summary. Where Israel failed in the wilderness, he succeeds by overcoming the Devil. He constitutes around himself 12 disciples to announce a new Israel, and teaches that loyalty to his way will be a true fulfillment of the Law. As his fame and popularity grows, he becomes a threat to the ruling elite. He enters Jerusalem in triumph, and the crowds hail him as Messiah, but he knows that they will turn on him because he will not be the Messiah they expect him to be.

Jesus is handed over to the authorities, abandoned by his friends, sentenced to death, crucified, and mocked. Finally, he dies.

But three days later, God vindicates Jesus and raises him up from the dead. The crucifixion–an act of torture and shame–has to be reinterpreted with the Resurrection, so that now it is a moment of pardon and victory. As the Church Father Gregory of Nazianzus wrote in the 4th century:

He lays down his life, but he has power to take it again. And the veil is rent, for the mysterious doors of Heaven are opened; the rocks are cleft, the dead arise. He dies, but he gives life, and by his death destroys death. He is buried, but he rises again. He goes down into Hell, but he brings up the souls. He ascends to Heaven, and shall come again to judge the quick and the dead.

The risen Jesus himself tells the disciples:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Within himself as the true Israel, Jesus has founded the Church to be a new nation able to bear the fruits of Justice, Healing, and Restoration for the world, in fulfillment of the promises to Abraham. In this way, the Triune God’s purpose to fill Creation with Himself and raise humankind to maturity can be fulfilled.

JUSTIFICATION BY FAITH

And it is here we finally come to justification by faith. The question facing the early church was, if Jesus is the Messiah, who unexpectedly established God’s Kingdom by dying and rising again, what does this mean for Israel, and what does this mean for the Law?

As I wrote above, the Jews were the faithful remnant of Israel who believed that salvation for the world would come through them. And the Law was the means by which they demarcated who were the people of God in whom God was working His purposes, and who were outside God’s family.

The Gospel is the apostolic announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus Christ is king of the world, and that all who turn to him will be delivered from destruction. All who submit to His Lordship, regardless of ethnicity and tribe, will be joined to Him and inherit his rule, glory, and mission. This is the fulfillment of Isaiah 56:6-7–“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

This is why Paul was so angry at Peter’s hypocrisy in Antioch in Galatians 2:

But when Cephas* came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?”

(*Note, the church consensus has been that Cephas and Peter are the same person, as Cephas is the Aramaic version of the Greek word Petros, which became Peter in English. Both words mean “Rock” or “Stone,” and there is no record of these words being used as a name before Jesus re-named the disciple Simon as “Rock”–Cephas in Aramaic, Petros in Greek, Peter in English–in Matthew. It is also commonly accepted that Jesus spoke Aramaic.)

By refusing to eat with the Gentiles when the Jewish emissaries from James came, Peter was making it seem that either 1) there was some division within the people of God, where some were superior because they kept Jewish Law, or 2) those who were uncircumcised and outside the bounds of Jewish Law were not truly members of God’s family.

For Paul, table-fellowship among Jews and Gentiles is joined at the hip with justification by faith in the Messiah Jesus. They cannot be separated. Paul is telling the story of the confrontation with Peter in Antioch to the Galatians to support his core thesis in the letter: The Gospel of the crucified and risen Messiah forms a new, multi-ethnic family in fulfillment to the promise to Abraham, and this family is transformed by the power of the Spirit to bear fruit for the world.

The new people of God in Jesus will fulfill the failed vocations of Adam and Israel to be God’s royal priests, but only in, through, and because of the faithful vocation of Christ.

This is why Paul writes:

 “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.

“But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we Jews find ourselves also among the sinners, doesn’t that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! If I rebuild what I destroyed, then I really would be a lawbreaker.

“For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. 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. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”

The idea of “justification” is that someone is declared righteous. More specifically, it is the Old Testament idea that God declares that someone is in a right relationship with Him. It is Paul’s conviction that no one can be declared righteous by keeping the Law; the story of Israel itself shows that. Instead, the only way to be declared righteous is on the basis of the work and person of Jesus.

As he says, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” In Romans 6:3-4 he says much the same thing, “Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized in his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism in to death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”

At the heart of Paul’s Gospel is this idea: That when people trust in Jesus, what is true of Him becomes true of them. His death becomes their death, and His resurrection and new life becomes their resurrection and new life. As Paul says in Colossians 3:3, “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” And this is why in Galatians 2 he says, “I no longer live, but Christ lives within me.” Paul is clear that we belong to Jesus’ New Covenant family, not because we keep the Law, but because Christ has died and risen for us, and because we have been united to Him.

This has huge implications for 1) who can be included in God’s family, and 2) what it means to live as God’s family.

First, Paul looks to the story of Abraham as an example of someone who was declared righteous by faith, because he trusted in God’s promise that all nations would be blessed through him and his offspring. Paul is careful to say this was God’s purpose all along: To have a people who related to Him on the basis of faith and trust, not by keeping Torah (the Jewish Law). See Galatians 3:1-18.

But then this raises a question: Why have the Law at all? Paul in Galatians 3:19-29 very tightly packs an argument he unspools at greater length in the Letter to the Romans

  1. The promise to Abraham came long before the Law was given to Israel at Sinai.
  2. God always intended the Law to play a role as a temporary guardian.
  3. As such, the Law had both a negative and positive role.
  4. The negative role was to highlight and magnify Israel’s sin, showing that even a holy people set apart for God would fail to serve His purposes without new hearts.
  5. This does not make the Law evil–the Law is good!–but it had the effect of clearly showing that Israel was guilty and worthy of condemnation, just like every other people.
  6. The positive role of the Law was to be a moral tutor which, despite Israel’s sin, kept together a faithful remnant until it could be whittled down to Abraham’s Seed**, Jesus Christ.
  7. Jesus fulfilled the Law in His life, work, and person. He was the faithful Israelite who truly loved God and neighbor.
  8. Jesus died to take the curse of Israel’s failure on to Himself, and He is free from the hold of Sin, Death, and the Devil.
  9. Anyone who holds on to the faithfulness of Jesus has “clothed themselves with Christ.”
  10. Because we are now found in Jesus, we become heirs to the promise of Abraham–the multi-ethnic people of God through whom God is repairing the world.

(**Paul expands on this in Romans 9, where he clarifies that not all of Abraham’s children are heirs of the promise. Ishmael and Isaac are both Abraham’s sons, but Isaac is the child of the promise. Jacob, not Esau, bears the promise in the next generation. Judah, not his brothers, is given the scepter. From the tribe of Judah, the Lord anoints David, not his brothers. And from the line of David, the heir of promise–Abraham’s True Seed, who fulfills the promise–is Jesus Christ.)

Paul is concerned because the teachings of the Jewish Christians make it seem like Jesus didn’t fulfill God’s promise or deal with our sins. This would constrain the new freedom given to us in Jesus’ Spirit, and would limit the inheritance of God’s promise to one ethnicity. He argues this at length in Galatians 4.

Paul then seems to anticipate a question in Galatians 5:13-14 when he writes:

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

As stated above, the Law is good, but if the Law was temporary and Christians now live in freedom, how can we be sure they won’t abuse that freedom?

Paul’s answer is that those who are clothed with Christ are given His Spirit.

So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

To say again, the Law is good–the command to love God with our entire being, and to love our neighbor as ourselves, is good. But the instruction did not give in itself the power to obey the Law. Our flesh desires our own security, advancement, and status, and these desires are in conflict with the Law.

The Good News is not only that Jesus fulfilled the Law on our behalf, but that He lives in us through the Spirit. This forms us into a new kind of human being–one able to properly image God in the world again.

Again, the old humanity (“the flesh”) objectifies people for our own satisfaction and destroys relationships and communities. But Jesus put the flesh to death on the Cross. So when we trust in Jesus and “walk in the Spirit,” we become a new humanity. Jesus’ life becomes ours, and we bear the fruit of the Spirit–love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Paul says, “Since we live in the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.” Galatians 5:25. Only if we are justified by our trust in the work of the Messiah, so that the work, life, and person of Jesus is the very ground upon which we build our lives, can we organically bear the fruit of righteousness. Paul’s instructions in Galatians 5 and 6 are meant to be heeded as tools for our pruning and cultivation: Through the Spirit, Jesus shapes us into people who love God entirely and who love our neighbors as ourselves. In doing so, we will fulfill what Paul calls “the law of Christ.” Galatians 6:2. Paul warns us: We either sow to the flesh or to the Spirit, and we will reap accordingly. Galatians 6:7-10.

Paul’s conclusion takes us back to the earlier parts of this post. Stirringly, Paul closes by saying that observing or not observing the Jewish Law is beyond the point; God’s eternal purposes are much bigger than circumcision! What matters is New Creation–In Jesus the true Israelite, God is uniting a multi-ethnic family of believers to be a New Israel, who will fulfill God’s original purpose for humankind to be His ruling royal priests who will steward Creation into glory so that God can flood the Universe with His presence, and be all in all.

Here’s your hymn for the 5th Sunday of Easter–

this is my father's world

In keeping with what we’ve talked about in this post, I wanted to highlight the last verse:

This is my Father’s world, O let me ne’er forget

That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the Ruler yet

This is my Father’s world, the battle is not done.

Jesus who died shall be satisfied, and earth and heav’n be one.

Jesus who died, was raised from the dead, and He will be satisfied. But, until the day of satisfaction, the battle is not done, and we who have been joined to Christ’s Body now join in the fight–for reconciliation, for justice, and for New Creation.

Happy Easter!

 

Fourth Sunday after Easter: Christ’s Resurrection and A Multi-Faceted Gospel

caravaggio_-_the_incredulity_of_saint_thomas

Over the weekend, I (Bryan) had a few conversations on the multi-dimensional reality of the Gospel and my dissatisfaction with certain common evangelical presentations of it. I don’t think I articulated my concerns well during those conversations, so I thought I would try spelling them out here. A lot of these thoughts are prompted by reflections on Jesus’ resurrection.

As I understand it, the common evangelical Gospel presentation is as follows:

  1. God is holy.
  2. Holiness cannot abide imperfection.
  3. In His Law, God has specified what behavior is in keeping with His Holiness, and what behavior is not (what behavior is imperfect).
  4. No one can keep God’s Law.
  5. Therefore, we are all imperfect.
  6. Therefore, we cannot be with God.
  7. Though our bodies are perishable, our souls are eternal and imperishable.
  8. Because our souls are eternal, they will either be eternally with God or eternally away from God.
  9. See 4-6 above; Therefore, all our souls will be eternally away from God.
  10. The realm where souls are cast away from God is called Hell, where souls are eternally punished for their sins.
  11. See 1-10; We all deserve Hell.
  12. God is Just and must obey these principles of Justice. However, God is also Loving and wants to save.
  13. Therefore, God sends His Son Jesus Christ to live as a perfect human being who keeps all His laws.
  14. Despite His perfect life, Jesus dies on the Cross in punishment for our sins.
  15. Because He is God, the value of Jesus’ punishment is infinite and therefore can pay for an infinite amount of imperfection.
  16. Jesus’ Resurrection proves that He is God and that He is available for us to believe in.
  17. We must repent of our sins, and believe in Jesus, and His punishment pays for all of our sins.
  18. Because our sins are paid for, our souls can now go to Heaven when we die.
  19. This logical scheme satisfies God’s requirements of Justice and Love.

This is a very blunt version of an evangelical Gospel presentation, but I don’t think it’s inaccurate. Once you strip away the flowery rhetoric, this is what is often presented.

I want to first affirm my own evangelical commitments before explaining what I find so problematic about this Gospel presentation. I believe in the supremacy of Jesus Christ, the authority of Scripture, the atoning work of Christ on the Cross, the need to appropriate and personalize the truths of the Triune God to create an on-going relationship with Him, and the centrality of grace as the foundational gift that precedes, pervades, and activates Christian life. So first, I want to emphasize that I share common evangelical beliefs.

Also, I think that many of the 19 points above are not wrong, even where I would phrase them differently or place the accent elsewhere. My objection is that at certain moments, these points have been abstracted away from the larger biblical story, and then placed together and developed in ways that are not faithful to the biblical witness. Other key points are left out altogether. My concern is that this leads to a distorted picture of the Gospel, of what Jesus’ work on the Cross accomplishes, and of who God is. This distortion harms our ability to witness the beauty of the Gospel to non-Christians, and to pass on the faith compellingly to future generations.

I hope my objections don’t seem like petty nitpicking. I think the three main problems are that 1) In the search for an easily explainable formula, we reduce the Gospel into a problem about my individual destiny to be solved rather than a wonderful claim about how all of reality is grace-filled, charged with light and life, 2) Lurking in the background of this formula are assumptions about Heaven and Hell as final destinations of bliss and punishment that have little connection to the beautiful New Creation God has been moving toward since Genesis 1, and 3) A lack of recognition that Sin is not just a transgression against God’s law, but a Power, Agent, and Force opposed to God’s purposes. Most of my objections to the 19 points above would be resolved if these 3 problems were addressed.

Here are my objections in full:

  1. Implicit Gnosticism. There is insufficient focus on the fact that the physical Creation matters, and that God is rescuing it. Instead, the focus is on the destiny of the soul, and whether it goes to Heaven or to Hell. Further, the soul is understood as the real, authentic self. The soul is set against the body, which is extraneous and unnecessary. This leaves too many Christians thinking that “this world is not our home” and that the point of Christian living is to be a special people who will one day be evacuated from this sinful world, which will ultimately be destroyed. This is very similar to the Gnostic heresy that the early Church fought against, which denied a) the Goodness of Creation, b) God’s commitment to Creation, and c) the importance of the Resurrection as a sign that all of material reality itself, including physical bodies, will be redeemed and restored.
  2. Radical Individualism. This gospel is thoroughly individualistic. Salvation is about putting right the individual relationship between the soul and God. The church under this picture is where souls come to hear how they may be saved, be assured of their salvation, and sent out to save more souls. This gospel leaves out: a) the formation of the new family in Christ that smashes individual and tribal agendas, b) the building of a new Temple on the Living Stone of Christ that blesses the world, c) the in-breaking of a new Kingdom in Christ that crushes the idolatrous empires that oppress the poor and marginalized, and d) the establishment of a culture of peace and pardon which operates through us as the Body of Christ.
  3. A formula to satisfy divine logic. I think this presentation hinges on the idea that there is some opposition between God’s Justice and God’s Love, and that Jesus is the solution to this logical problem. Justice is seen as primarily penal and punitive–even a slight infraction of God’s Law deserves eternal punishment in hellfire, but Jesus takes that eternal punishment instead so I can escape the legal consequences of my sin. The emphasis is placed not on dealing with the reality of my sin and its corrupting effect on Creation, or on defeating the forces of evil that keep me captive to sin, but on removing the legal consequences of sin from me. Under this view, my salvation is just a legal status change. I don’t think this takes sufficient account of the reality that Divine Love is the fundamental truth about God, and that God’s Wrath, Justice, and Holiness are subordinate, necessary implications of that Love.
  4. The Relationship Between Heaven, Hell, and Earth. Hell is the threat that looms over the entire presentation as a realm of everlasting torture. Heaven is primarily good because it is not-Hell. The earth is really an arena in which we come to make a decision for Christ or reject Christ–with the implication that this world will burn up and is ultimately of little importance. I don’t think this is faithful to the broad sweep of Redemptive History–a) that Creation was set into bondage to corruption and death and the powers of darkness when mankind, God’s royal priests, sinned, and now groans for the sons of God to be revealed so that it can be purified, b) that Heaven is not some far-away realm that will be our final destination, but the realm of God that overlaps and interlocks with our world through the worship of the church, and which will one day be united in the New Creation, and c) that Hell is a true reality where people are cast out from the presence of God, a place of regret, tragedy, and barrenness for those who reject the Pursuing, Fiery Love of God.
  5. Where is Evil? This Gospel presentation has nothing to say about Evil as a malevolent force in the world truly opposed to God, other than to say that evil dwells in human hearts. But I think this doesn’t take sufficient account of the powers and principalities that Christ came to oppose–the human institutions that exercise power and seek to define good and evil for themselves, and the spiritual forces that stand behind them.
  6. Where is the focus? The central focus of this Gospel is on us–what we must do to be saved. We must turn to God, ask for forgiveness, and hope that Christ’s perfect record will be placed to cover over ours. While none of this is untrue, I think this again places the Gospel out of focus. The central focus of the Gospel, as reflected in the first sermon by Peter, is that the crucified Jesus has been raised from the dead by God and is now ruling the world as Lord and Messiah. This is the Gospel–it is a claim about reality, not advice about what we should do in response to it. Our response should organically flow out from the claim.
  7. What is the Good News? Again, the bottom line here is that your soul can go to Heaven, the not-Hell where you won’t be punished. The main attraction about Heaven is that it is not Hell. There is no sense that your relationships right now are being redeemed–that your love for your father and mother, for your spouse, for your child, for your friend, and for the stranger, all have cosmic significance. It is only important in that it is evidence that you have been saved and now can enter Heaven. There is no sense that, contra Ecclesiastes, now your labor is not in vain, and that your work will mysteriously be brought and continue into the New Creation.

Formulas can be helpful, but over-reliance on them can falsely communicate that the formula is all that is going on. The great evangelical preacher John Stott was once asked what he thought the irreducible minimum Gospel was, to which he responded, “Who wants an irreducible minimum gospel? I want the full, biblical gospel.”

The Gospel is not a formula that solves the problem of my anxiety. It’s an entire world to be entered into–and it’s Good News because this claim that Jesus is Lord has all sorts of implications that speak to all sorts of people with all sorts of problems. For some people–particularly young people in our status-obsessed, anxiety-ridden culture–an assurance that they are eternally loved and worthy is the main way to speak the Gospel into their lives. But this isn’t the only Good News the Gospel has to bring, or that we need to hear.

We need to hear the Good News about Justice–real Justice for the poor and oppressed, and punishment for the Evil that has denied them their dignity and due. We need to hear the Good News about Death–that Death is not the final word over our existence any longer, but that a God who is the Fountain of Life can raise us and those we love from the dead. O Death where is thy sting?

We need to hear the Good News that is dominated by Joy, not Fear–animated not by a desire to avoid Hell, but by a desire to be with the Loving God who is so abounding in Goodness that He has promised by the cost of divine blood to make all things new. We need to hear the Good News about the New Humanity–the royal priesthood we human beings are called to be right now, and how God’s own Spirit now dwells in our hearts so that we are walking, living stones of a new Holy Temple.

We need to hear the Good News about the New Creation–that your work, your family, your friendships, your stewardship of the world’s material resources, all resound with cosmic meaning; that they will somehow mysteriously be included in the New Heavens and New Earth; and that your life on earth is not just play-acting to determine whether you are admitted into the pearly gates.

We need to hear the Good News about God–that God is not some mysterious, hidden figure with abstract, strange, and perhaps malevolent purposes, but that He has been fully revealed in Christ as a Love willing to die to reconcile enemies and raise them to share in His own glory.

Here are my own suggestions on elements to keep in mind when presenting the Gospel. As I said above, different elements should be stressed with different people, depending on their own struggles, idols, and stories. And of course, we will need the guidance of community and the Holy Spirit to communicate with wisdom and love.

  1. Matter matters. Unlike the Gnostics, who saw physical reality as filth they wished to escape, Christians saw physical reality as something that will be redeemed and included in the New Creation. This is why Paul cares so much about what we do with our bodies; we are not disembodied souls, but enfleshed human beings who are promised the resurrection of our bodies–bodies that will somehow be transformed, but bodies where we will eat, touch, and hug.
  2. The New Humanity and the Kingdom of God. Jesus calls us so that we will die to the old humanity enslaved to sin and death and rise to New Life united in Him. A key theme in the New Testament letters is the restoration of the image of God in us by being conformed to the Son, the perfect Image. Jesus promises us that in our unity we will display the nature of God’s own character to the world. Every Christian community becomes a colony of Heaven established on Earth, an outpost of the Kingdom of God that lives according to His Rule and acknowledges His ReignWith God’s own Spirit knitting our hearts together into a Temple, we now walk the earth as the pardon of God, flooding the world with grace and forgiveness.
  3. A Story of Divine Love, Not a Formula to Satisfy Divine Logic. In Scripture, God does not give us a logical formula to satisfy abstract principles of justice. Instead, God gives us a drama that weaves together all the micro-stories of the Old and New Testaments–the plots about Abraham and Sarah, Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar, Paul and Peter–into a majestic epic recounting how the Creator God is invading a world fallen into darkness with His marvelous light. This drama meets its climax when the Word takes on Flesh, and then is written upon our hearts by the Spirit. All the plots of our lives are now included as continuing extensions of this divine drama, moving toward the glorious and satisfying resolution we have been promised.
  4. New Heavens and New Earth. God created an immature world that was good, but wild, and He commissioned man to garden and nurture it into full maturity. That growth was stunted and then twisted because of sin. God promises to return with His full presence to Creation to heal it and bring it to glory. God’s Goodness is so abundant that it brings rivers of life to barren deserts and dead seas. Christ’s work on the Cross liberates Creation from the bondage of death and decay by restoring the image of God in humanity. Now, we who belong to Christ can participate in Creation’s liberation and glorification. This world will not be discarded, though it will be judged. The renewed cosmos will become a Temple charged with God’s Holy Presence, as promised in the Old Testament. Hell does not take a dominant frame, but is a negative picture of God’s underlying commitment to Creation and its Glorification. Hell explains the grievous state of loss for those who reject God’s image in ourselves, others, and Christ.
  5. All Powers Placed Under the Feet of Christ. The Hebrew prophets dreamed of a time of justice and judgment, where all the earthly powers that rule the world with oppression would be crushed and replaced with God’s own righteous rule. God’s Just Rule would be healing and restorative–He will wipe away tears and lift up the orphans and the widows. Paul clarifies that in our struggle against the earthly powers, we are really warring against spiritual principalities that are in rebellion against God. This is why Christ’s work on the Cross was a decisive victory against the powers of sin, death, and the Devil, and why Christ’s reign must continue until all rebellious powers are placed under His feet, so that God may be all in all. As the Body of Christ, we participate in this war, and must daily gird ourselves for the battle.
  6. The Supremacy and Centrality of Christ. The focus on this Gospel is not upon ourselves, but on Christ. Not Christ as a solution to a problem, but Christ as the glorious Messiah and Lord who reveals the heart of God and rules the nations with justice and truth. The purpose of God for Creation is Christ. In Christ’s relationship with the Father, we have a foretaste of God’s aims for humanity and Creation. In Christ’s work, we are brought to participate in the Triune Life of God by sharing in His Spirit. In Christ’s life, we see the life of perfect worship and gratitude that now typifies our lives. Christ should be the central focus of any Gospel presentation, not the logical demands of justice or our response in fear of damnation. Our response is really an afterthought–an organic response to the unveiled beauty of Christ.
  7. The Good News of Resurrection, Welcome, and Renewal. Finally, the Resurrection in this Gospel is not a miracle that “proves” that Jesus is God, but the great victory over death that assures us of God’s final victory. Christ is the first-fruits of the New Creation, and He welcomes sinners to be washed by His blood and enter His New Life. God has promised to make all things new–when we gaze at the Risen Christ, we are given the confidence to say, Yes and Amen!

Here’s your hymn for the Easter season–

Easter Hymn

I just love this first verse:

Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
does its successive journeys run,
his kingdom stretch from shore to shore,
till moons shall wax and wane no more.

Our God–the God perfectly revealed and manifest in Jesus Christ–reigns forever, over everything. And this is Good News because He is entirely, bountifully, and joyously Good. Hallelujah and Happy Easter!

7 Ways the Resurrection Gives Meaning to the Cross

mancross

And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

–Ephesians 3:17b-19

When we look at the Cross, we are confronted with the question: What does this mean?

On one level, the crucifixion of Jesus is exactly what it looks like: The unjust execution of an innocent man by conspiring Jewish leaders and the Roman Empire. It is just another example in a long series of how the powerful define for themselves truth, justice, and reality, at the expense of the weak and powerless.

But with the Resurrection, God vindicates the life and work of Jesus. Accordingly, the Cross as a symbol of Roman torture and domination becomes re-interpreted. The Cross, the most terrible form of execution the Romans had come up with, was now held up by Christians as if to say: “Because of our Lord, we are not afraid of you or of any other power.” The Resurrection, which the church reflects on throughout the season of Easter, infuses new meaning into the crucifixion.

So I want to list below several themes of Scripture which meet their unlikely fulfillment in the crucifixion of Jesus. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it should give a flavor to the multi-dimensional reality of the work achieved by the Cross and vindicated by the Resurrection.

The Recapitulation

Jesus Christ proves that he is the true Adam, the true Son, the true Man who bears the divine Image, in his absolute obedience to the Father. Adam disobeyed the Father in the Garden of Eden, even though the Father’s command was to preserve Adam’s life. Jesus obeyed the Father in the Garden of Gethsamene, even though the Father’s command was for Jesus to march to his own death.

Through his obedience in life and in death, Jesus restores the right relationship between mankind and God by living a perfect life of devoted worship. Now, by being joined to His death and new life, we can receive the Holy Spirit and be renewed divine Image-Bearers.

The Conquest

Lurking in the background of the biblical narrative is the shadowy figure of the Accuser, who uses the power of sin to enslave mankind to destruction and death. In Mark’s Gospel, at the very beginning of his public ministry (Mark 1:21-28), Jesus drives out demons and declares war on the forces of evil.

This confrontation grows to its crescendo and resolution at the Cross. This view of the Cross as the victory of Christ over Sin, Death, and the Devil, has long been advocated by various streams of Christianity.

In the words of John Calvin in the Institutes II.xvi.7:

Death held us captive under its yoke; Christ, in our stead, gave himself over to its power to deliver us from it. So the apostle understands it when he writes, “He tasted death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9). By dying, he ensured that we would not die…Finally, his purpose was “that through death he might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the Devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage” (Hebrews 2:14-15).

This is in accordance with what the Reformer Martin Luther taught, as captured in the Lutheran confession, the Formula of Concord:

We believe simply that the entire person, God and human being, descended to Hell after his burial, conquered the devil, destroyed the power of Hell, and took from the devil all his power.

And nobody has explained the concept of the Victorious Christ more fully and more beautifully than the Church Father Athanasius in his work, On the Incarnation:

Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered his body to death in place of all, and offered it to the Father. This he did out of sheer love for us, so that in his death all might die, and the law of death thereby abolished because, when he had fulfilled in his body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men. This he did that he might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of his body and by the grace of his resurrection.

By death, Christ entered into Death, so as to fill Death with Himself. Death believed that it had swallowed up Christ, little knowing that in doing so it was being swallowed up by Christ’s New Life. All things are on Heaven, on earth, and under the earth are under the sovereign rule of Christ.

The Devil no longer has any realm from which he can plot against from the holy ruling power of God; for now Christ has the keys to Death and Hades.

The Substitution

Another important theme is the idea of Christ’s legal substitution in our place. He enters the curse of death in an exchange for our curse under the law. This image is powerfully made manifest in the explicit substitution of Jesus Christ for Barabbas in the Passion Narrative:

Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over.  

Notice the names. Barabbas means “son of the father.” So Pilate is asking the crowd, who do you want me to release? Jesus, son of the father, who is a violent revolutionary? Or Jesus, Son of the Father, who claims to be Messiah–though perhaps not in the way you were expecting? And the crowd chooses the violent Barabbas to be freed, and the innocent Christ to be executed.

John Chrysostom, an early Church figure famous for his powerful sermons, explained the substitution this way in his commentary on Galatians 3:

Cursed is every one that does not continue in the things that are written in the book of the Law. (Deut. 27:26).

To this curse, I say, people were subject, for no man had continued in, or was a keeper of, the whole Law; but Christ exchanged this curse for the other,

Cursed is every one that hangs on a tree. (Deuteronomy 21:22-23 and Galatians 3:13)

As then both he who hanged on a tree, and he who transgresses the Law, is cursed, and as it was necessary for him who is about to relieve from a curse himself to be free from it, but to receive another instead of it, therefore Christ took upon Him such another, and thereby relieved us from the curse. It was like an innocent man’s undertaking to die for another sentenced to death, and so rescuing him from punishment. For Christ took upon Him not the curse of transgression, but the other curse, in order to remove that of others. For, He had done no violence neither was any deceit in His mouth. (Isa. 53:9; 1 Peter 2:22.) And as by dying He rescued from death those who were dying,so by taking upon Himself the curse, He delivered them from it.”

On our own merits, we stand condemned before the holiness of God, answerable for our failures to govern the world and ourselves in accordance with His Love, Light, and Life. Out of love for us, though he himself obeyed and fulfilled the law, Christ freely subjects himself to the curse to free us from the curse of the law. Now, when we are united to His life, we inherit and enjoy the riches of His Sonship.

And with the gift of the Spirit, we now have the law written on our hearts. As Paul writes in Galatians, it is paradoxically our freedom from the tutelage of the law that allows us to bear the fruit of justice and righteousness to which the law was always pointing,

The Ransom

This view is closely related to Christus Victor. Jesus says in Mark 10:45, “For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Christ as a ransom payment to buy back God’s people from slavery to evil is associated with the biblical theme of redemption. The word “redemption” had a specific meaning–to purchase from a slave auction. The greatest act of redemption in Israelite history was God’s purchase of Israel from Egypt for His own holy uses.

CS Lewis drew upon this view of the Cross in his children’s book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The Christ-figure, Aslan, confronts the Devil-figure, the White Witch, for the life of Edmund. The witch reminds Aslan:

You at least know the Magic which the Emperor put into Narnia at the very beginning. You know that every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery I have a right to a kill…That human creature is mine. His life is forfeit to me. His blood is my property…Unless I have blood as the Law says all Narnia will be overturned and perish in fire and water.

Aslan acknowledges that the White Witch is correct, and freely gives himself to the witch to be slaughtered. But three days later, he rises again from the dead. When Lucy asks Aslan how this could be, he replies:

“Though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.”

The Greek Church Father Gregory of Nyssa spoke of the Cross in this way. All mankind had freely subjected themselves to the dominion of the Devil. We are all now enslaved by his murderous lies. For this reason, God buys us back from the Devil by exchanging his Holy Son in human form. The Devil willingly enters this exchange, because never has he seen a human so perfect and sinless. But death could not contain the Son, for the Son is God Himself–Abundant Life. And so the gates of Hades are cracked and shattered, and the Devil has no hold over the Son or any of his former captives.

The Sacrifice

This view is closely related to Substitution. Throughout the Old Testament, God instructs the Israelites in the sacrificial system so that He can continue to dwell with them despite their sin. The blood of the sacrificed animal is especially important, as it purifies the Temple-space so that God can truly be present.

This sacrificial system is strange and disturbing to us. But when John the Baptist sees Jesus in the Gospel of John, he says, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!

Christ is God’s own sacrifice of Himself, offered up for our behalf, so that we can be washed in his blood. In Revelation, Christ is revealed as the Lamb who was slain before the foundations o the world. By the purification of his blood, our hearts become a claen place where God Himself can dwell, and as the church we are knit together to be the new Temple of God.

The Birth-pangs of New Creation

In John 16:21-23, Jesus explains his coming crucifixion in these terms:

When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. On that day you will ask nothing of me Very truly, I tell you, if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you.

Jesus employs the image of a woman with the birth pangs of labor, an image common to the Hebrew prophets as signaling a period of intense suffering before the inauguration of a new age where God will do a new work. See Isaiah 26:16-19 and Isaiah 66:8-14.

The death of Jesus Christ was the termination of an old world order, and the exposing to light of the rotten foundations of human civilization. The Cross was Jesus in labor; the Resurrection is the New Birth now offered to all of human society. As Revelation 1:5 puts it, Jesus Christ is the firstborn of the dead; as the Apostle Paul puts it, Jesus is the first-fruits of a New Creation.

It is through the birth pangs of the Cross that the new birth Jesus talks about with Nicodemus in John 3 is made a living possibility. This new birth, accomplished by Jesus, is now accessible by us. As we access it, we provide hope for all of Creation.

In Romans 8, Paul makes clear that what God accomplished for Jesus in the glorification of his person and physical matter into a New Creation will be appropriated to apply to us, and by us, for all Creation. He writes in verses 22-25:

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

The Spectacle/Example

In John 12:27-33, Jesus addresses a crowd after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem and hints at his imminent death. He says,

 “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

With his unjust trial and cruel execution by Cross–a death the Romans reserved for traitorous scum–Jesus Christ exposes the rotten foundations of human civilization and the deep corruption within every human heart.

Like the serpent lifted up on a pole to transfix Israel’s gaze when they are wandering in the desert to heal them, as recounted in Exodus, Christ’s broken body is lifted up to transfix our gaze for our healing.

When we gaze at the innocent man who is beaten, mocked, stripped of clothing and dignity, who suffers cosmic thirst and abandonment for our behalf, who prays for the forgiveness of his enemies even as the pressure of gravity upon his hanging body slowly collapses his chest over his lungs so that every additional breath grows more pained and ragged–when we see all this, and realize that all of our human systems of justice and goodness are so much moral filth in the eyes of a Holy and Loving God because it could result in the death of the only truly innocent man in all history–then our eyes are truly opened, and our view of reality is forever changed

All human structures are built on the basis of power, the twisting of truth to serve power’s ends, and the employment of violence to secure power. As Thrasymachus retorted to Socrates, in the final analysis all human justice necessarily devolves to the rule of the strong over the weak.

All men are created equal–well, some men are only 3/5 equal. We are a capitalistic society that respects property rights–unless you area savage native whose tribe isn’t sufficiently developing its property.

Every great civilization harkens back to the myth of the noble founder on a great white horse, but we build these marble monuments to cover up the graves of forgotten innocents. The reminder of the basic violence and injustice that underpins our society would rudely intrude on the narrative of national greatness we have told ourselves, and would threaten to unravel the social order.

By becoming the ultimate victim, Jesus Christ gives each murdered innocent a face and a name. His unjust crucifixion is a divine indictment of all human empires and enterprises seeking their own good apart from the Sovereign Rule of God.

Those of us who see Christ crucified realize that this rot in all human systems reaches all the way down into our own hearts. At the sight of the innocent man crucifixed, we are transfixed by a sickening horror and dread at the sight of pure evil unmasked.

But mingled with that horror, we also experience awe, gratitude, and devotion. For we are also transfixed by the divine word of mercy offered at the Cross. Christ not only exposes the rotten foundations of human civilization–he also refounds a new civilization based on his ethic of co-suffering love.

As Luke 23:34 tells us, as Jesus Christ neared the end of his life, he prayed,

Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

The people continue mocking and sneering. But as time goes on, and as they continue to see him hanging there, something changes. There is a realization–this man is innocent. This man is Truth. This man is Goodness. This man is Love.

Luke 23:44-47–

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land[l] until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent.” And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts.

Instead of accusation, Christ on the Cross offers advocacy. Instead of rivalry, Christ on the Cross offers brotherhood. Instead of violence, Christ on the Cross offers self-sacrifice. And instead of empire, Christ on the Cross offers the Kingdom of God.

As the Centurion looks at the spectacle, he confesses the innocence as Christ. As the bloodthirsty crowds gaze at Jesus on the Cross, they repent of their violence and beat their breasts.

The Revelation of God

As Hans Urs von Balthasar said,

“Being disguised under the disfigurement of an ugly crucifixion and death, Christ upon the cross is paradoxically the clearest revelation of who God is.”

In John 1, the apostle claims that no one has ever seen God, but that in these last days we have seen him in the flesh in the Word Incarnate, Jesus Christ.

This can be confusing. Didn’t Adam and Eve walk with God in the Garden? What about Abraham and Moses and Joshua’s and Isaiah? Didn’t they see God?

Clearly, John is saying that compared to the revelation of Christ, all prior revelations of God were helpful, trustworthy, and true, but incomplete. Jesus Christ is the full, complete, final, and clear revelation of who God is and what God is like.

The writer of Hebrews thinks similarly. In Hebrews 1:1-3, the writer says,

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.

This means that we cannot separate the attitude of God the Father from the work of God the Son on the Cross. Jesus on the Cross is not a picture of cosmic child abuse. Jesus on the Cross is a revealing portrait into the very heart of God–A Fiery Love that longs for you to be redeemed, sanctified, and glorified.


It may be tempting to elevate one of the views explained above  as “the real atonement theory.” But that would be a mistake. To elevate one view as dominant over the others would be out of line with the multifaceted picture of the Cross presented in Scripture, and it would leave unexplored rich veins of theological treasure mined in church history. All of these dimensions of Christ’s reconciling work on the Cross must be held in harmony together under the framing glory of the Resurrection, so that we can possess a full, glorious picture of the Gospel.