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)
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Weekend A La Carte (January 24)
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