Friday, July 30, 2010

Gandalf And The Atonement (Part 2)

In my previous post I published a comment made by "Gandalf" which criticized my series on NT Wright. More specifically my emphasis on the importance of correctly teaching (and understanding) how the doctrine of the atonement actually works. There are several objections/points raised by Gandalf and I will respond to his first one today. Gandalf wrote:

First: Theories about how the atonement works (including PSA with all its content) are not the atonement or belief in the atonement itself. Therefore what Christians must believe in is the atonement of their sins through death and resurrection of Christ whereas ideas on how this works are secondary to this (In C.S: Lewis book Mere Christianity there is a discussion about this issue which I find very convincing).

Gandalf, what you say is true in part which can help to let the flaws in your comment sneak under the radar. It is very similar to NT Wright's modus operandi of reinventing the issue at hand. For example, when Wright objects (with regards to the doctrine of justification) that people are not saved by their ability to correctly formulate the doctrine of justification it serves as a very clever smokescreen to the real debate (RC Sproul responded brilliantly to this very issue here). When God graciously saved me as a biblically illiterate 20 year old I was certainly incapable of theologically formulating the doctrine of justification. But I clearly understood that I was a sinner with nothing to offer God. I knew that my salvation depended solely on the completed work of Jesus Christ. I clearly understood that my human works played absolutely no part in my redemption. I also clearly understood that my human works (or wickedness) were the main reason that I needed a Savior to rescue me from the damnation that I deserved. The issue is not our ability to formulate the doctrine of justification, it is whether we are trusting Christ's completed work alone, by faith, or trusting any other system that involves even the smallest level of works righteousness. And to consciously teach any view of justification that involves any degree of human achievement is a damnable offense. It is the reason Paul wrote to the church in Galatia.

Likewise, we might not understand all the inner workings of the doctrine of the atonement. But we do need to understand that the cross Jesus died on is what we all deserve. Remember these words:

One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, "Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!" But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong." And he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." And he said to him, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise." (Luke 23:39-43)

Here we have a criminal who is most likely uneducated and lacking a deep working knowledge of the theology being played out on the cross beside him. But he does know that he is evil and deserves wrath. He does know that Christ is fully righteous. He does know that he has nothing to offer the Lamb of God. He does know that his only hope is to completely humble himself as a wretched sinner and beg the Savior for mercy. And it is to these that God grants pardon!

Thus says the LORD: "Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest? All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be, declares the LORD. But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word. (Isaiah 66:1-2)

It is here we get to ground zero. In order to be saved we must respond in repentance and faith. And different models of atonement elicit different responses to the Gospel. We don't hear the thief thanking Jesus for identifying with the pain of his human experience. We don't hear the thief calling out as a poor victim of Satan awaiting his rescue. We hear a thief who sees his own enormous guilt. We hear a thief who sees the righteousness of the Son of God. And we hear a thief crying out in genuine repentance, trusting in the One Who was heading for His throne. Jesus did not come to provide therapy for victimized people. He did not come to feel the pain of hurting people. He did not come to coach untrained people. He came to save sinners - even really bad ones like me! He came to fulfill the law that everyone broke and endure the wrath that everyone deserves. Which brings us to the word Paul Washer discussed in my previous post - propitiation:

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:23-26)

Propitiation is a very special and important word that describes a sacrifice that takes away sin and satisfies wrath. God has wrath and you can't solve that problem by pretending that He doesn't. Every time you break God's law by lying, stealing, sex outside of marriage, or even a lustful thought, or any other part of God's law - God cannot violate His demand for justice because He is good. Most people try to reassure themselves as they face eternity with the thought that God is good and loving. Yes God is good and loving - and that is exactly the problem. If God overlooks sin He stops being good and loving and becomes corrupt. So either we must burn in hell for all eternity to satisfy His wrath or a substitute must endure God's wrath in our place.

Gandalf, it is true that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. We are not saved by rightly understanding the correct view of the atonement. But it is also true that different views of the atonement impact greatly on our view of God. They impact greatly on how we view ourselves. They impact greatly on our view of Christ's life, death and resurrection. Hence it impacts greatly upon our response to the Gospel and whether we find true repentance. Ignorance of this is one thing, but conscious denial is another thing altogether. And to actively teach against penal substitution is a crime of epic proportions. Even, as in NT Wright's case, when it is a failure to acknowledge penal substitutionary atonement as the transcendent meaning of the cross. The doctrines of Christ as our example (Philippians 2:5-8), our compassionate intercessor (Hebrews 4:15-16), and our liberator (Hebrews 2:14-18) are only made possible through the satisfaction of God's wrath - that God can be both "just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus".

We have seen that the doctrine of penal substitution is necessary to safeguard the justice and holiness of God, for to deny it is to suggest that God is content simply overlook evil whenever He forgives someone. To discard penal substitution would also jeapordize God's truthfulness, for He has promised that sin will lead to death. Moreover, other aspects of the atonement cease to make sense if penal substitution is denied. Penal substitution is essential to Christ's victory over evil powers (something that Gustav Aulen's Christus Victor theory fatally missed), to His restoration of the relationships between sinners and God (reconciliation) and to the liberation He brings from captivity to sin and Satan (redemption and ransom). Far from being viable alternatives to penal substitution, they are outworkings of it. As the hub from which all of these other doctrines fan out, penal substitution is surely central.

To take another example, it is impossible to understand how the atoning death of Jesus could usher in the new creation and bring new life to the corrupt and degenerating cosmos if He did not endure and exhaust the divine curse on the old creation. The renewal of the cosmos by means of Jesus' death is explicable only by reference to penal substitution. (p211 Pierced For Our Transgressions - Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, Andrew Sach)


Go On To Part 3
Go Back To Part 1

4 comments:

Jeff Godley said...

"It is true that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. We are not saved by rightly understanding the correct view of the atonement. But it is also true that different views of the atonement impact greatly on our view of God. They impact greatly on how we view ourselves. They impact greatly on our view of Christ's life, death and resurrection. Hence it impacts greatly upon our response to the Gospel and whether we find true repentance. Ignorance of this is one thing, but conscious denial is another thing altogether. And to actively teach against penal substitution is a crime of epic proportions. Even, as in NT Wright's case, when it is a failure to acknowledge penal substitutionary atonement as the transcendent meaning of the cross."

Amen! Thank-you Cameron for this post, it has helped clarify my thinking on this issue.

If we lose penal substitution, we lose the gospel.

Michael Gormley said...

Sola Fides... Saved by faith alone.

The fundamentalist believes he is assured of salvation.

All he has to do is to accept Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and savior and salvation is automatic and irrevocable no matter what he does for the rest of his life.

Oh Yeah? What happened to the ten commandments?

A. Many verses in Scripture attest to salvation by faith alone. Joel 2:32, "...that every one that shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved."

Acts 2:21 says the same almost word for word, and likewise for Romans 10:13. "...I live in the faith of the Son of GOD...", is from Galatians 2:20. Again, these are beautiful words that should be heeded by all.

B. However, elsewhere in Scripture there is quite a different side of the story. Start with Matthew 7:21, "Not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter the kingdom of Heaven; but he who does the will of my Father in Heaven shall enter the kingdom of Heaven."

Very clear that you have to do the will of the Father to gain salvation.

I like 1 Corinthians 10:12, "...let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall." That one says you cannot be guaranteed of salvation.

Then James 2:14-26 says over and over, "...Faith too without works is dead...Faith without works is useless...so Faith also without works is dead." Again, words to be heeded by all.

C. So what is the answer to this dilemma? Is this one of those Bible 'conflicts' you keep hearing about? No, not at all.

The answer is very simple. There are two types of salvation, 'objective salvation', and 'subjective salvation'.

The verses in 'A' are examples of objective salvation. Jesus Christ did atone for all of our sins, past, present and future.

He did His part and did it well, but He left the burden upon each one of us to complete the second side of the story by atoning for our own sins, by doing the will of the Father.

We have to keep the commandments. We have to practice 'subjective salvation'. There is no salvation by accepting only part of Scripture as shown in 'A', and by rejecting, or trying to explain away the verses in 'B'.

Yet this what Protestants are doing. Again, we have to combine 'A', and 'B', to have the full truth. A+B=C = TRUTH.

gandalf said...

Cameron,

I have read your post twice to make sure I understand everything as good as possible.
I Think I have identified three main argumentations you follow to establish some baselines towards the issues at hand:

1. "The issue is not our ability to formulate the doctrine of justification, it is whether we are trusting Christ's completed work alone, by faith, or trusting any other system that involves even the smallest level of works righteousness"

2. "He came to fulfill the law that everyone broke and endure the wrath that everyone deserves"

3. "the doctrine of penal substitution is necessary to safeguard the justice and holiness of God, for to deny it is to suggest that God is content simply overlook evil whenever He forgives someone"

The first issue I have known for long, because the works vs. faith righteousness debates are legion. I have nothing to add to your statement, but I would like to argue that PSA (or more precisely the language reminiscent of penal rcourts) must not necessarily be understood as the only possible doctrine that avoids any level of works righteousness.
Probably the whole process could also be formulated in terms of exchange of asset vs. debt, old creation (under the curse)
vs. new creation (curse lifted) men declared guilty vs. men declared righteous (through Christ), see also Romans 8, 3-4, 2. Cor. 5,21.

The second issue is plain sailing.

Regarding the third issue I disagree with your statement that denial of PSA leads to thinking that God simply overlooks evil when he forgives sins.
In my understanding, PSA is one specification out of the older substitutional atonement theories (SA) with the introduction
of certain juridical formulations. This might be o.k. if it is properly communicated what is meant by terms like "satisfaction" or "righteousness".
Many people tend to think of satisfaction as if God feels insulted by man's sins the way as noblemen felt insulted by other
noblemen's behaviour and therefore wanted a duel for the satisfaction of their wounded ego. And I think that is not how "satisfaction" in PSA should be seen. If reformed theologians rightly teach that "God is independent from everything
in the universe whereas man is dependent upon God for both existence and value" (John Piper, DG National Conference note, 2006), how can man's sin affect Gods dignity, joy and sovereignty? Man's sin however can effectively bring disorder into the created world, including himself, for
which he is the appointed steward. The common conception and favourite straw man for detractors of PSA is the notion of God "demanding a sacrifice to satisfy a condition in Himself that He requires to grant forgiveness. Whereas the real story is, that men
needed a perfectly obedient man (Christ) who paid the price for the disobedience of all in order to bring us back to God (1. Peter 3,18).

Some Catholic sources (newadvent.org) point out, that Anselms "Cur Deus Homo" was instrumental to silence the support of ransom theory in the medieval church, and it may be that the legal and juricial style stems from the circumstances of
confronting another theory that operated with "rights claims" towards human souls and a "ransom" that had to be paid.
But I admit that this is not more than a marginal note on the topic.

One weakness of PSA (or maybe better, how it is sometimes communicated) is the neglect it pays to the matter of resurrection being necessary.
Without Christ's resurrection all hope is vain and we would be still in our sins (1. Cor. 15,12-19).
Generally, I suppose speaking about the atonement should always be about cross AND empty grave.

Michael Gormley said...

Dear Jeff,

There are three sides to every dispute, side A, side B, and the one side of truth.

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but opinions are just that, and are not to be taken as a substitute or stand-in for doctrinal truth.

Then Peter proceeded to speak and said, "In truth, I see that God shows no partiality."(Acts 10:34)

"What is Truth?" (John 18:38)
There is only one truth, and that one truth is one person, the person of Jesus Christ.

In John 14:6, Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth and the life". Therefore, we have only one teacher, and one truth.

What does Holy Scripture tell us about speaking the truth?

"But the king said to him, How many times shall I adjure you that you speak to me nothing but the truth in the name of the LORD?" (1King 22:16, 2Chron 18:15)

Continue here, Jeff!