Monthly Archives: May 2012

77 Questions about the Atonement (Q&A #5)

5.     Aren’t Christ’s merits transferred to our account when we have faith in Him?

The Scriptures do not speak of merits at all, much less any transfer of them from the Lord to others, nor of any requisite penance or purgatorial atoning for wrongdoing.  This vocabulary is medieval in origin and an impediment to sound apostolic understanding.  The Lamb, indeed, is worthy, but his worthiness is never spoken of as divisible or legally transferrable as merit.

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77 Questions about the Atonement (Q&A #4)

 4.     Weren’t our sins imputed to Christ at the Cross?

The Scriptures say nothing like this, and if they don’t teach it, we are not obliged to believe it.  They say that Jesus bore or carried our sins—a very different matter.  God surrendered him to the sins of his people to suffer their abuse and thereafter to receive an overcompensating reward for his heroism in this mortal combat that overturned Satan’s strategy in a sting operation on a cosmic scale.

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77 Questions about the Atonement (Q&A #3)

3.     Isn’t Adam’s ‘original sin’ washed away at baptism?

Since Adam’s own sin was not in fact imputed to following generations, and only the penalty of that sin continued to reign, namely, death (through being deprived of the regenerating fruit), then that original sin, no less or more than any other, was dealt with by Christ’s achievement in the same way as everyone else’s.  Since that sin itself was not passed on to Adam’s descendants, naturally there is no need for any of us to get cleansed from it, by baptism or otherwise.

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77 Questions about the Atonement (Q&A #2)

2.     Wasn’t Adam’s sin imputed to his descendants?

This is altogether contrary to sound teaching.  Rather, because of his sin, Adam suffered the penalty of losing access to the Tree of Life and therefore eventually died.  All his descendants automatically lost this right, too.  Thus death passed down to all mankind and reigned unchallenged over the whole race, whereupon, perforce, everyone became enslaved to sin, which in turn reigned in the resultant cravings and pervasive fear of death.  Sin became endemic and, but for divine intervention, all but inescapable—a raging tyrant.

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77 Questions about the Atonement (Q&A #1)

PENTECOST SUNDAY

Introduction

Today is the fifth anniversary of the debut of my most extensive treatment of the Atonement.  Therefore I would like to revisit this document over the next few weeks, but this time at a more comfortable pace, and with the added benefit of your own comments, questions, criticisms, suggestions, whatever.  Since it’s conveniently arranged in a question-&-answer format, I’ll simply focus on one question/answer per day.  These parcels of information will usually be much briefer than my previous blog posts.  I hope you find the daily portions more amenable to busy schedules and able to facilitate your quick response.  I am using this occasion to make yet more editorial adjustments, mostly minor, in the interest of readability and clarity.  Enjoy!

What follows is a revision of my “77 Questions on Atonement (Q&A)”, a playfully catechetical exposition of a resurrectionary re-centering of Christian teaching about the Atonement.  The original version was written during the two weeks preceding Pentecost Sunday, May 2007.  The corrections, clarifications, and suggestions gleaned mainly during the few months following its dissemination as an e-mail attachment were incorporated in a second edition in preparation for Pentecost season, 2009.  Those intervening two years brought much elaboration of detail and many minor breakthroughs, but no fundamental alteration of approach.  This may have been due in no small part to an unhurried (indeed unsuspected) mounting of insights gathered over decades of study until a critical mass was reached.  I did not included Scripture references since I aimed to bring to the surface and quickly consolidate several exceedingly important, occasionally subtle, but seemingly forgotten connections among biblical contexts and concepts, yet without interrupting the flow of thought by features that might distract.  This also accounts for my routine use of long sentences, which, though irritating, I know, and hence regrettable, still seem to me the best vehicle for splicing back together what our traditions have strangely and even more regrettably separated, to our grievous loss.  Similarly, I readily confess to considerable repetition and over-qualifying of explanations.  Again, these seem the lesser of evils in an attempt at doctrinal restoration.  I hope I may be forgiven such stylistic barbarisms so long as I have conveyed a truer understanding of the faith once-for-all delivered.  But you must be the judge of that.

Since key elements of this configuration finally clicked together quite suddenly for me, effecting something of a personal paradigm switch, I fondly hope this question/answer format facilitates such clarification for you as well.  Perhaps this somewhat stylized repartee will reinforce Spirit-led intuitions that have come to you in your own study of the Bible, from time to time, on this subject.  Many a familiar Scripture passage will suggest itself as you proceed through the Q&A’s.  My vocabulary and phraseology, however, may seem unfamiliar; here I beg your patience as their inner logic unfolds.  I wish to thank Herb Schlossberg for his critical thoughts about these matters.  I have also tried to compensate for these difficulties by steering clear of technical theological terminology, where at all possible.

For reasons similar to the above, I have not quoted or cited other authors, although my debt is great to a host of them down the centuries, as may be evident to the alert reader.  [You may now refer to the nominal “blogroll” at the right for many of my valued mentors.]  I must take a moment to express special thanks for the scholarly critique of Peter H. Davids, who rendered courteous and valuable responses at dozens of places in the text, and also to my friend Ralph Vunderink for stimulating interaction and counter-thoughts from his own authoring of a recent chapter on the atonement for a Festschrift.  Ted Gossard kindly served as an intelligent sounding board over many a late-night coffeehouse discussion.  Several people urged me to add an introduction.  The wonderful staff of librarians at the Steelcase Library of Grand Valley State University (Pew Campus) have been endlessly helpful, accommodating, and patient with me as a guest user of their computer lab.  Finally, inexpressible thanks are due to Dean Luurtsema, without whose saintly indulgence the original version surely would not have been written.  Naturally, none of the above is to be held responsible for the errors that remain.  This piece is meant as a popular and edifying treatment in preparation for a thoroughly documented work where I hope to satisfy the normal reflex to check sources.  Your own comments, criticisms, and hesitations would likewise be most welcome.  Here’s nothing that can’t be improved!  Without further ado, as an esteemed former mentor of mine used to conclude his editorials, “Come, let us reason together.”

1.     Why did God become a human being? (“Cur Deus homo?”)

God’s personal Explanation of graciousness and truth (troth—covenantal loyalty, solemn pledge of fidelity, veracity of one’s promises, faithfulness to binding commitments) through which everything in the universe exists, was begotten after His kind before the ages of time.  In time he became a human being by emptying his entire divine contents, graciousness and troth, out of his glorious celestial form and letting God adapt to it the humble earthly form of a slave—a mortal body descended from Adam, Abraham, and King David, composed of deteriorating, craving flesh just like our own.  His divine Spirit and human flesh combined into a unique living soul, Jesus of Nazareth, so that in the power of the Holy Spirit, successively increased by virtue of his steady growth in graciousness through learning obedience and nobly resisting every temptation and attack of Satan, making no provision to consummate the covetousness or lusts of his mortal flesh, he could thereby become worthy of an incomparably great reward upon sacrificing it all, in the sight of his upright and observant Father, at the cruel hand of Satan, while committing his existence to the faithful Creator in expectancy of an unfailing display of His justice in return.  And he was not disappointed.  Thus not only could he teach the true way of life with real authority, but he could walk it confidently to its bitter end, our Example.  Hence, he was recompensed so abundantly that we too, as his fellow but fallen human beings, can share bountifully in his reward, even now.  Beyond that, we can have expectation of outliving our deaths and inheriting allotments in his promised Kingdom on the new earth.  Unless Jesus, though fully Deity as the only-born Son of God, had been anointed additionally with the Holy Spirit beyond the measure of his human peers, he would have been as powerless to become worthy of supreme exaltation as any other of Adam’s fated progeny.  Further, had he not been fully human as the son of mankind, the overcompensation for which he qualified could not have accrued to the rest of mankind but would be alien to our kind.  Yet in Scripture God promised Abraham a vast multitude of descendants and pledged to David a Son to reign on his throne for the ages.  Therefore, being uniquely begotten by God his Father through the Holy Spirit, and getting born into the world miraculously through the virgin Mary, Jesus, by means of his historic Crucifixion and Resurrection, became a “second Adam” and therefore head of a new humanity, winning prodigious benefits from God that could properly devolve on the collective body of all who trust in him and hence get born above as citizens of New Jerusalem, adopted as his siblings to become fellow heirs in the future new earth.

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God’s Resurrectionary Wisdom Graciously Outsmarts Oppressors

The derivation of the ancient Greek word for love (agape) may suggest giving away (apo) something wholesome (hagi-) and good (agath-).  Accordingly, it is manifested in self-sacrificial acts.  Is it possible to practice love for very long merely out of idealistic altruism?  For such self-emptying would seem self-impoverishing unless one has access to an enriching and refilling source.  God alone is capable of reimbursing us for such sacrifices and offerings.  Thus our trust is the key to keeping us loving because it relies on God’s giving us what we need to help others.  The Wholesome Spirit of God is His supreme gift to us, accessible abundantly now, even superabundantly, through the self-sacrificial death and Divinely restorative Raising from death of Messiah Jesus.  Our love for others is powerfully activated and energized by this Spirit poured out since Pentecost in divine overcompensation for Messiah’s unjust execution.  Such love is thus intentional, robust, and durable, overcoming many potential offenses in its object.  In this way it contrasts with fondness (phil-), which is an attraction sparked by evocative qualities in the object.  [4/24/98]

The resurrectionary justice of God was potently visible, even before Jesus was raised from among the dead, by the latter’s own vivid reactions to Roman oppression:  he hardly addressed the subject at all!  Instead he healed the oppressed, he expelled demons that oppressed, he fed those oppressed by hunger, he threw out oppressive Jewish moneychangers from the temple, he severely denounced  oppressive Jewish leaders, scholars, lawyers, priests, teachers, et al.  He thereby gave the oppressed an expectation and a motivation.  In fact, at Pentecost Jesus gave them his very own Spirit of wholesomeness and power.  God gave the oppressed who trusted Jesus a Divine power to counter the vicious effects of oppression, thereby proving stunningly that there exists a power stronger than the oppressor’s, one that can even reverse the tragic effects of oppression even after they have taken effect!  This reality is a testimony against the pathetic posturing of all oppressors as well as a witness for the existence of God’s liberating Reign over this earth–one that is unexpectedly and immeasurably superior to the blustering interlopers’.  [9/13/98]

The penal payment theory of the Atonement appears to underlie the belief that every sin must be punished.  This may explain why some people have trouble understanding how God could forgive the brutally oppressive Ninevites when Jonah proclaims repentance to them (see Phyllis Trible on Jonah).  [10/15/98]  To be sure, a generation or so later Nineveh was, at length, destroyed, yet not before a vast number of residents had first been saved from its idolatrous ways.  [7/21/07]

Who “paid the debt” of the crime against Jesus, God’s own Son and chosen Messiah–his shamefully public mistreatment and gruesome execution, though he had done no wrong and was, not only in this respect but in all respects, absolutely innocent?  God the Father Himself “paid” that debt by more than  totally reversing the unjust sentence against him, penalty and all!  God undid his death and endowed him with an overflowing superabundance of life sufficient to give away for free to others!  This is the glory of God’s favor!  But for those who, in spite of learning about such incalculable and undeserved favor, refuse to accept it so as to start obeying Messiah’s teaching (superseding even Moses’ Torah), they are storing up for themselves only God’s terrifying fury and anger, which will eventually destroy them for the ages to come.  Although God is patient far beyond our deserts, yet He will not restrain His anger forever.  Vengeance will certainly be forthcoming if not met by repentance.  But, no, God was not waiting around for vicious humans to “repay” Him for their crime, for obviously that was an utter impossibility.  [12/21/98]

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Jesus’ Miracles: Non-coercive Proofs of His Kingdom of Peace

The way some theologians downgrade miraculous proofs gives the impression that unless everyone is persuaded by them, their probative power is negligible, as if God’s intention were brute coercion!  But coercion is contrary to God’s character and His purpose to bring willing believers to full maturity of sonship.  Miraculous demonstration, strong as it is, does not override determined resistance to the truth, nor could such bulldozing fulfill God’s intention to honor human trust, which must be amenable to taking risks into the future (blindfolded for a season, granted, but not “blind” in principle) on the grounds of a strong presumption raised by a mounting record of past fulfillments, i.e., by the testimonies preserved in the covenantal documents known as biblical Scripture, and not on the “grounds” of irresistible suasion (whether conceived as logical, moral, psychological, or even “spiritual”).  Therefore, although miracles are not irresistible proof–a good thing, since false and deceptive miracles do exist!–and despite the fact that they are not even sufficient proof, considered on their own merits, yet they are absolutely necessary proof when understood as corroborating the identity of a God Who claims the power of a Creator almighty and the intention of a Savior benign.  Against this backdrop and foil, false miracles can be more easily and accurately discerned.  They are often trivial, magical, occult tricks.  They are demonic child’s play, with no redeeming value, some even achieved by the dark power of Faustian contracts with vicious spirits.  Beware, all who dare walk this dread path!  [2/04/98]

The vast cloud of witnesses to Jesus’ teaching, to his miraculous powers, and to his Resurrection from a horrible death of public execution on a cross, has forever altered the baseline of empirical expectation concerning what is possible in ‘the natural order’.  For this testimonial evidence is inductive near the highest level of human corroboration.  Jesus’ super-exceptional career could not be denied, even by his fiercest foes.  At most it could only be radically reinterpreted (as, e.g., sorcery).  Wherever God pours out His own Wholesome Wind of refreshment to renew and revive the earth, Satan manages to follow up with a diabolical twister to ravage, revile, and reverse progress.  This is so predictable that Jesus’ apostles virtually all warned their readers and future generations to steel themselves for the backlash.  However, this warning has been so generally disregarded that many believers themselves have been transmuted into mere pawns and parrots of the Serpent to slander veritable works of God’s own Spirit rather than build them up by gentle correction, pastoral advice, and selective endorsement that could thereby fan the new flame into a steady blaze of white light.  The names of Charles Chauncey, James Monroe Buckley, Benjamin B. Warfield, John MacArthur, and Hank Hanegraaff may be sadly remembered as grievously counter-revivalistic, incorrigibly undiscerning, and even adversarially co-opted figures of modern Christian history.  [2/16/98]

It seems to have escaped most commentators on the Kingdom of God (from the one side) and most writers on the subject of so-called supernaturalism (from the other side) that a categorical substitution has transpired within popular and scholarly thought alike, whereby “the Kingdom of God” has been largely replaced by “the supernatural” when the discourse concerns miracles, healing, prophecy, etc.  But these verbal “isotopes” do not have identical properties semantically, and the substitution has proved corrosive to the Biblical teaching about God’s Kingdom.  The “atomic” structure of apostolic teaching has, as it were, undergone a reverse transmutation from gold to lead!  In the New Testament, The Kingdom of God is always associated with and accompanied by extraordinary power for creational restoration and rescue.  When this power is alienated from its true and authentic associations in Scripture, it becomes a vagrant, a maverick, a wildcard.  “Proofs” for and against its properties and existence (past or present) become strained and strange, all but estranging it from its real identity, function, and meaning.  For to equate the Kingdom of God only with the “supernatural” is to exclude God’s reign over “nature.”  But to affirm only its relation to “the natural” order of the universe (as many Christians do) is to alienate “supernature” from its proper Owner, alas!

This categorical confusion, misappropriation, and misallocation plays into the hands of God’s detractors, and we are well advised to beware its entrapment.  Scripture never distinguishes a “natural realm” from a “supernatural realm.”  All of God’s activities in creation and salvation (these two are distinguished, but clearly not as “realms”!), properly understood, are orderly and in accord with His character.  Moreover, both creation (which, ironically, is usually thought of as His “ordinary” work, a reflex of the prevalence of naturalistic dogma) and salvation (which is generally deemed “extraordinary,” although it encompasses a diversity of operations, some clearly recreative in a way that can only evoke amazement, awe, and astonishment, such as miracles of instantaneous or very rapid healing; while other operations entail control over familiar created phenomena such as volcanoes, earthquakes, storms, rains, tornadoes, winds, waves, pestilence, etc., yet in such timely salvific ways that the unbeliever nervously wishes to write off the conjunctions as pointless “coincidences”) are phases or facets of God’s universal reign and should equally call forth praise, thanksgiving, worship, and celebration, as indeed a host of amenable Psalms supply!

Nonbelievers are biased toward isolating under the label “natural” whatever they presumptuously regard as under “human” (read: “their own”) control and predictive power.  And because they refuse to subordinate themselves to God on His terms, they have no orderly comprehension of His (actually even somewhat predictable) control over all other phenomena as well.  In short “they know not God.”  Thus even their knowledge of “nature” (as they like to say) is partial and systematically flawed by their blindness to unsettling data and their own perversity of disposition against Deity.  [2/23/98]

Jesus surrendered not only his earthly existence to his Father when he sacrificed himself in death, but also his very words.  The only record we have about his writing anything is in the critically contested account of the woman caught in adultery at the beginning of John 8…and there he wrote in the sand!  That we have any recorded words of Jesus at all we owe to the power of the Resurrection and the promised Spirit of Pentecost.  For all of Jesus’ words would have fallen to the ground and perished if he had not been raised back up by God.  There likely would have been zero “sayings of Jesus” ever recorded and taught beyond his first hearers if he had not actually been the bona fide Messiah and Son of God he admitted to being.  For his declarations about “morality” or “ethics” were verified by his Resurrection no less than were his prophetic predictions about his own public torture, execution, Resurrection, and enthronement.  It is a single neat and indivisible package.  It is inconceivable that his learners would have bothered to preserve a word from his lips, in view of his transcendent claims about himself, for without a reversal of his unjust sentence of death, he would have been, all the more, a colossal embarrassment and a ridiculed byword, even his numerous miracles notwithstanding.  He wagered his all at one toss…and won the universe!  [2/26/98]

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