for Marilyn, in memory of Tina Harrell (1946-2013)
Attempt great things for God,
Expect great things from God.
“How shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard?
“How shall they hear without a preacher?
“And how shall they preach except they be sent?”
~Romans 10:14, 15
“If the trumpet give an uncertain sound,
who shall prepare himself to the battle?”
~1 Corinthians 14:8
People will believe most anything,
so long as it is not in the Bible.
The evangelical mentors of my youth, in laboring to make the Gospel simple to communicate, unintentionally stripped it of much that makes it understandable. In the long run, this excessively and needlessly complicates the Gospel. Theologians will often scramble proof texts together and substitute inferior ingredients that are not in the Bible. These have tended to officially supplant the original contents of Scripture, for many purposes. Consequently, the primitive Gospel in the New Testament gets debased by words without knowledge, which come to replace the pattern of sound explanations that Paul, the pioneering missionary to the nations, forged so painstakingly under the heat of fervent opposition. Is it any wonder the trumpet gives an uncertain sound?
The Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, arguably the most distinctive element of the faith once for all delivered to the saints through a baker’s dozen of chosen apostles and corroborated by hundreds of eyewitnesses, has suffered a further, conceptual scrambling. My purpose in this essay is to struggle free of habitual confusions that have overtaken the fundamental New Testament teaching about the climactic events in the history of salvation. The genuine Gospel should be easily communicated even to children, or how can we expect to win our Youth for Christ? Granted, it takes a Village to work out the implications in living history, with a course of performance that testifies its fuller truth by its good fruits among ordinary folk who dwell not on a mountain top but in the Valley.
First of all, let’s get the facts on record. To this end, I hope to clarify and reassert the native categories and concepts of New Testament Scripture as superior to traditional theological substitutes. Some unfamiliar terms are my attempts to better translate Greek or Hebrew words, or to countervail traditional concepts that have achieved dominance and may need to be exchanged for those more compatible with Biblical thought.
* * * * *
It has always seemed rather silly to me to deny the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. There is plainly too much written testimony concerning the event from diverse non-literary prose writers who appear to have little to gain from recording it. There were too many witnesses to Jesus’ own predictions of the unprecedented event. He had too much credibility as a miracle worker for anyone to seriously deny the possibility he might actually pull it off. Yet there was still too much disbelief among his followers that it could happen for it to pass scrutiny if solid proof to the contrary could have been produced. There was too much certainty surrounding his official, public, gruesome execution for it to have been faked as part of a messianic conspiracy. There is no evidence of political ambition on his part that might have motivated staging it. There was a military detail officially charged to secure the tomb and prevent theft of his body, on penalty of death; nevertheless, they veraciously reported an earthquake and a frightful descent of angels who moved the stone that sealed the entrance. There were too many eyewitnesses of his return to life to deny it happened. There was too much risk of getting persecuted or even similarly executed for proclaiming it. Might as well roll over and play dead as deny the stone was rolled away irresistibly to make way for the Lord of life.
Even so, the bare fact that Jesus did somehow get raised from among the dead scarcely accounts for its role in the salvation of others. Which is why the speeches in the Book of Acts and the substance of the New Testament letters simply assert or assume his resurrection and his present reign from Heaven, but then hasten on to the theological and ethical meaning for the everyday lives of mortals here on earth. It will be my purpose to focus primarily on the theological significance of Jesus’ resurrection.
Problem is, the history of theological reflection on the Resurrection came to a virtual standstill well before the modern era dawned. It got bogged down under the weight of death-oriented thinking that hyper-focused on the cross of Christ to the eclipsing of his resurrection. The story is very long and tediously grim. Nor is it particularly edifying to review, at the risk of boredom. Only to say that the Cross and Resurrection got switched around in meaning and importance so that what should belong to one got assigned to the other in a tragic-comedy on a cosmic scale. The Gospel got turned back to front, upside-down, and inside out. Theology became massively scrambled just where the most clarity was needed. Therefore, Gospel proclamation has been grievously handicapped for many centuries, not to mention the ethical influences that would normally have flowed from it. Devotion and liturgy were likewise profoundly altered.
Here I will deal mainly with theological scrambling of the Cross and Resurrection, evaluating according to the apostolic testimony of the New Testament. I will assume that those writers knew what they were talking about, since they had extensive, unhindered communication with Jesus and firsthand acquaintance with his teaching both before and, most crucially, after his resurrection. Thereafter, some also had direct revelation, such as Saul/Paul’s oft-recounted, revolutionary experience of encountering the risen Lord, or, as Luke, had access to the necessary eyewitnesses and extant written narratives, plus the motivation to report consecutively and accurately.
Moreover, I will assume that the New Testament authors and compilers said what they meant and meant what they said, even if later theologians cannot always quite say what they meant. It seems the better part of humility to recognize and admit both our personal limitations and the dominant influences of our inherited traditions to potentially obscure the ancient truth, especially because we know, if we believe Scripture, that we have a daunting Enemy whose full-time job is to falsify the truth and thereby deceive us, to our destruction. Forewarned is forearmed…or at least should be.
Accordingly, the outline of this document is roughly framed by the following either/or ‘loaded’ or ‘leading’ questions to help identify and unscramble the crucial elements to be distinguished and sorted out in terms of Christ’s Cross and Resurrection, respectively. Posed in this deliberate, if delicate, manner, I hope the answers will become obvious, in some cases without further elaboration, and progressively more convincing. But if it appears that I am posing any false dilemmas, I would only counsel continued reading and attentive pondering of the elaborated arguments that follow (although not always in identical sequence or proportionate length). I have not flinched from severity where I felt it necessary to expose entrenched departures from Biblical teaching, but in a spirit of love and deep concern for the healing of Christ’s body that only the truth can bring.
1. Good Friday vs. Easter Sunday
- If Good Friday was good, then what was Easter Sunday?
2. The Exodus
- Was Israel delivered from bondage by their oppression in Egypt or by their Exodus through the Reed Sea?
- Was Jesus saved from death by his Cross or by his Resurrection?
- Was death “swallowed up in victory” at the Cross or at the Resurrection?
- Did Israel’s daily sin offerings achieve atonement by the death of the sacrifice or by the spattering of its blood?
- On the annual Day of Atonement, was atonement for all the uncleannesses, transgressions, and sins of Israel made over the Holy Place at the altar of sacrifice or at the ark of the covenant?
- On the Day of Atonement, did the scapegoat make atonement by dying or by escaping free?
- Did sacrificial blood signify death or life out of death?
- Did Jesus “shed his own blood” or were others guilty of shedding his blood?
- Was atonement for sin achieved at Christ’s crucifixion or by his resurrection?
- Was Paul’s “word of the Cross” a “theologia crucis” (theology of the Cross) or a theology of Resurrection from such a demonstrably certain death?
4. Substitution and Satisfaction
- Did Jesus save us by substituting himself in our place or by including us in his?
- Does God require payment for the debt of sins or pardon of sins?
- In dying on the Cross, was Jesus paying the debt of sins, or was he bearing sins?
- Did Christ’s death on the Cross, pay for sins, or did it pay for us?
- Were we once dead “in” trespasses and sins, or are we now dead “to” trespasses and sins (and the ‘uncircumcision’ of our flesh, if Gentiles)?
5. Wrath and Grace
- Was the immediate purpose of atonement to avert God’s wrath or to protectively shelter around sins?
- At the Cross, was God’s disposition toward His Son one of wrath or of grace?
- On Calvary, did God forsake Jesus in wrath, or in graciousness?
- Was Christ’s crucifixion a revelation of God’s wrath or of Satan’s rage?
- After crucifixion, did Christ descend into Gehenna to suffer the wrath of God further, or into Hades to declare his victory to the dead?
- Did Jesus prophesy that God’s wrath would fall on him at Golgotha (30 A.D.) or on Jerusalem, along with its Temple (70 A.D.) for rejecting all God’s prophets?
6. The Righteousness of God
- Was Jesus saved from death by God’s mercy or by His justice?
- Is God’s saving justice penal (punitive) or premial (rewarding)?
- Was God’s justice to Jesus penal or premial?
- Did God execute justice to Jesus at the Cross or at the Resurrection?
- Are we saved by the righteousness of Christ or by the justice of God?
- Is the righteousness of Christ imputed to us by faith, or is our faith imputed for righteousness by God?
- Was sin imputed to Christ by God or by sinners?
- Did the Cross reconcile God to sinners, or does it conciliate sinners to God?
- Were God and sinners reconciled once-for-all at the Cross, or do sinners get conciliated to God one-by-one when they believe in Jesus?
8. Concluding Easter Eggsortation: Which Came First, the ‘Chicken’ or the ‘Egg’?
1. Good Friday vs. Easter Sunday
We mustn’t ever confuse the abysmal evil of so-called Good Friday with the super-compensating good that God brought out of it. Unless we give full weight to the actual Sin of the Lord’s unjustified execution, our sinful, mortal, human hearts cannot properly appreciate the goodness and love in God’s heart that was displayed, manifested, and revealed in overturning such a malicious deed when, with perfect timing, He went into authentic judicial overdrive to execute rewarding justice by justifying His worthy Son through raising him from the dead on the third day and exalting him in glory with all authority in Heaven and on earth. Thus was a bad Friday atoned for by a good Sunday.
2. The Exodus
Even as it was not their oppression and bondage in Egypt that saved Israel from her enemies, but the Exodus through the Reed Sea, so likewise it was not the Cross on Golgotha that saved Jesus from destruction, but his Resurrection from the tomb, for Heaven’s sake! “If he is God’s Son, let him come down from the cross…save himself!” But he came to save the world, so he had to await his Father’s salvation, including exuberant, super-compensating graciousness. It follows that wherever Jesus got saved from death is likewise where death was swallowed up in his resounding victory. Can that place be other than his resurrection out of death’s gaping maw?
A. The Day of Atonement
On the annual Day of Atonement mandated by God through Moses, the blood of an unblemished goat, slain on the altar of sacrifice, was taken into the Holy of Holies by the Chief Priest and spattered seven times on and before the Ark of the Covenant to make atonement over the Holy Place (representing the vicinity of God’s throne in Heaven), then similarly over the tabernacle, and finally applied to the four horns of the altar itself, for the sins of the whole nation of Israel during the previous year. At least that served to depict part of the atonement, for where, ‘exactly’, did all those sins go? The living scapegoat sent away into an inaccessible land to bear away Israel’s annual backlog of depravities, confessed over it while the Chief Priest laid both hands heavily on its head, was the other part, signifying complete pardon, without residue. Only Jesus Christ, the slain Lamb of God raised alive from the dead, could fulfill both types in actuality.
B. An “Atoning Effect” of Christ’s “Atoning Death”?
The exceedingly common expression “atoning death” among evangelical Protestant theologians and preachers is—I shall be frank—exceedingly misleading. It is literally non-existent in Scripture, for starters. Furthermore, and all but inexplicable but for the pervasive influence of alien assumptions, it has displaced the “atoning blood” from its authentic biblical prominence. In effect, “death” is substituted for “blood,” presumably because they are equivalent concepts, which they most certainly are not. “Blood,” when resulting from a sacrifice, always signifies the power of life to function in all the ways this blood was employed in the Levitical system of ritual. The Messianic events narrated in the Gospel reveal precisely that kind and quality of life to have been released at Messiah’s resurrection from his sacrificial death. This stupendous historic fact, then, underlies all the metaphorical ritual usages that can only prophetically foreshadow those resoundingly defining Events.
Pentecost further extended that agelong life to the whole company of believers then assembled, and thence to all nations under heaven, wherever people believe the Proclamation.
It should be said, reverently, that Jesus’ death is highly overrated by theologians who are legally blind to his resurrection. Their boasted “penal substitutionary” death amounts to substituting death for life as the active ingredient in the Gospel. Shouldn’t this strike us as faintly preposterous, to say the least?
Granted, there is usually enough admixture of biblical truth along with this unbiblical error to bring salvation to many hearers, thank God! But why keep hobbling under such a handicapped proclamation when the full Truth is so readily available and so much more plausible, not to add, gripping?
It is quite understandable how theologians might get confused; after all, you don’t get an honest resurrection without a bona fide death. And since Scripture, naturally, would associate ritual atoning resurrection tightly with ritual sacrificial death via the symbolism of spattering (thus “covering”) with the lifeblood of a living soul, theologians with preconceptions might easily get things switched around. Quite understandable. But before wasting too much sympathy on poor theologians, let us remind ourselves how many centuries have been mercifully extended for their enlightenment and repentance. Alas, what meager results. And after such prolonged graciousness from God!
Our poor, tortured theologies of the Atonement suffer grievously from extraneous verbiage and conceptual overload. When finally we come to grasp that God’s raising Jesus from the dead is what atoned for even his death (i.e., the “sin [-offering],” which was the crucifixion), then we will have come to realize that the only “atoning effect” of his death was his resurrection out of death itself, entailing the Spirit of life there unleashed and thereafter made available wholesale to all sinners who believe, after Pentecost.
This singular observation renders limp the use of “effect” in this connection, because such a term might imply a casual unmediated reflex, whereas the actual engine that “effected” this revolutionary reversal of plight was God’s restorative justice—by divine necessity! Without that “missing link” of “the righteousness of God” executed on behalf of His profoundly aggrieved Son, the authentic apostolic view of the Atonement will not make sense. Then we’re perpetually doomed to wander in the wilderness of theological limbo, beating any likely bush for a rationale of the “atoning effect” of the Lord’s death where it can by no means be found. Vanity of vanities.
C. The Meaning of Sacrificial Blood
The explicit and consistent biblical meaning of all sacrificial blood should have been our first clue. The blood is a “dead giveaway”: it prophetically depicted the gratuitous giveaway of life from the dead. More specifically, it presages the resurrection of the Messiah from his grossly wrongful death. Its Levitical ritual uses make this ‘clear’ in a shadowy sort of way. Whatever atoning “effect” ensued from Messiah’s death must ipso facto be some “effect” of his bloodshed, and that effect is not far to be sought. Key Scriptures in Leviticus explain the sacrificial blood as have atoning effect because of the [living] soul it flowed out of, and which it now ritually symbolizes (Leviticus 17:11, 14).
What if such a living soul should happen to be not that of a mere animal, but of the just, holy, morally flawless and blameless, in fact actually sinless, Son of God Himself—in other words, someone who did not deserve the curse of death in the slightest? What then? Then: super-compensated life via resurrection must follow as day follows night. For the Father’s covenant with the Son is no less sure and certain than His covenants with day and night (Jeremiah 33:20-21).
The sinless blood of the Lamb of God, wrongfully shed by sinners, is what triggered God’s rewarding justice to repay Jesus the life he deserved—agelong, immortal, superabundant, and overflowing to all who believe him. This super-compensating reward from God is both the proof and very substance of God’s graciousness to Jesus, the manifest Messiah and Lord Almighty, and, through his liberation, to all mankind, for free. Their wrongful shedding of Jesus’ blood made peace by calling forth his Father’s graciousness to him instead of, in place of, or in lieu of, God’s wrath to them. It is precisely the News of such graciousness, ‘substituted’ for their deserved wrath, that conciliates sinners at enmity with God. Jesus bore (‘absorbed’) their undeserved envy, hatred, fury, and rage, without retaliating in kind. He acted out the essence of forgiveness. He accepted and submitted to the loss of that which he deserved from them—namely, their admiration, respect, honor, glory, authority, and more—in exchange for all the good he did them by his teaching, healing, provision, etc. (for he had thereby proved himself to be their true King and Messiah from God). Then he waited for exaltation from God alone, in due time (i.e., after he had been wrongly humiliated and descended as far as he could possibly go—even past the very gates of Hades) by the unimaginable leverage of God’s restorative justice, theretofore only meagerly disclosed. For God, he knew, was equal to the task of restoring his losses with rightly superabundant surpluses…to graciously give away to his loyal subjects to celebrate with. And the party has barely begun!
How can you not fall in love with a God like that?
D. The Apostle Paul Defends Himself Against a “theologia crucis”
Not surprisingly, then, the apostle Paul would be appalled to learn that theologians had somehow distilled a “theologia crucis” (theology of the Cross) from his radically resurrectionary epistles. He would doubtless grow indignant and demand to see some evidence that he meant to emphasize the cross of Christ except as a counterpoint to leverage the weighty truth of the genuine resurrection of atoning power, along with its encouragement to endure under our own ‘crosses’.
Where did I ever so much as mention the Cross in any of my speeches in Acts? (Answer: Just once: Acts 13:29—and only to attest his being taken down from “the pole”!)
And if I really intended to expand on a ‘theology of the Cross’, where, exactly, did I mention any word for “cross” in my most comprehensive and sustained argument, my epistle to the Romans? (Answer: Not even once.)
Furthermore, if I meant to give it such prominence, where did I actually treat such a ‘doctrine’ in my very early epistle, to the Thessalonians, or at least in my follow-up letter to them, just in case I somehow overlooked it in my first one? (Answer: Never.)
And what about my other early letter, that to the churches of Galatia? To be sure, there I mention the Cross or Stake a whopping eight times—more than in any other epistle of mine. But notice, not as some ‘theological doctrine’, but simply as the graphically cruel and humiliating event it actually was—a cursed event of official, public shame and degradation from which all my former Jewish compatriots (not to mention every Roman citizen, including myself) naturally recoiled in shock and disgust…unless and until they should happen to see the light, as I did (literally!) and realize that Jesus was raised from that certain death and is now certifiably alive and reigning at God’s right hand! Being forensically blind to that shimmering fact of resurrection from the dead, by reflex they covered up the naked, bloody truth, which became therefore a snare to their embracing it heartily, much less joining me in “taking up your cross daily” and suffering abuse for it. They were too comfortable “in their sins” to avail themselves of this narrow way of escape from them.
Those of us who did accept our cross “daily,” as the Lord charged us, were ever exposed to their taunts and torments, just as our Lord was. In fact, in the surety of our own resurrections, we were prepared, like the Master, to endure even a death of the cross, “despising the shame,” as I wrote in my anonymous treatise to my fellow Hebrews (who, naturally, would never have read anything from my pen if they could have recognized the handwriting or my characteristic jargon or signature salutations). And even in that document, the only other time I ever alluded to the cross was to warn that, having started down the path of faith, they dare not shrink back in fear of routine persecution lest they risk “re-crucifying for themselves the Son of God” (as we had already been guilty of doing once!) and “holding him up to infamy,” which would bring them, ironically, “near a curse” themselves. But where did I ever expound any sort of elaborated “doctrine of the Cross” even there? (You guessed it: Nowhere at all.)
Moreover, would anyone who claimed to pay attention to my writings dare assert that I developed a “theology of the Cross” in my letters to the Ephesians or Colossians? For to them I simply accentuated, in my only three references to it, how Messiah made peace and reconciliation bi-laterally between the circumcised Jews and uncircumcised nations—whoever would bravely believe the Proclamation of God about the risen Lord Jesus Messiah—through the blood of the Cross, by which I meant the sinless soul of God’s Son surrendered to that hideous injustice as a sacrifice—a sin-offering—for our sakes (both Jew and Gentile), so as to reveal, manifest, or display God’s justice in raising him from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit in superabundant compensation and thereby provide that Gracious Gift, promised by the Father, to whoever believes, for cleansing from sins and empowerment to testify of God’s coming Kingdom.
Isn’t it obvious that I was only using the Cross as leverage to propel my readers to seek peace and mutual reconciliation in the power of the Resurrection called for by Messiah’s innocent, faithful blood getting wrongfully shed by wicked men? The Cross cannot stand alone—has no ‘standing’ on its own! The Cross only certified the authentic death that demanded to be somehow reversed; the Resurrection, however, is what actually showed up to fill the bill! Beyond that, I had nothing to say about the Cross in those letters to churches struggling with interracial tensions that might have sunk them but for my message of peace and mutual reconciliation in one body, raised beyond any distinction of mortal flesh.
Nor did I ever touch on the Cross in my letters to Timothy, Titus, or Philemon.
Finally, and most decisively of all, how dare anyone twist my words to the saints at Corinth about the cross of Christ into an alien ‘theology of the Cross’ that would pump it full of imaginary ‘saving’ value! Except for a single mention at the end of my second letter to them, where I only re-emphasized what I had stated at the outset of my first letter—namely, that Christ was crucified out of weakness, as a foil to magnify his resurrected life that immediately followed, by the intervention of the power of God to do him proper justice—I repeat, except for that deliberate reiteration of the very same emphasis as in my entire first letter (which started with the Cross and finished with the Resurrection, adding very calculated and weighty elaboration), I only mention the Cross in I Corinthians 1:17 through 2:8 (as you reckon it). That’s it! My reason for that proportionality got lost from sight completely in the theological scramble to credit me with creating a whole ironic ‘theology of the Cross’ about the risen Lord! That was the furthest thing from my mind. Actually, I was only setting them up to comprehend the absolute necessity of a real, bodily resurrection as the sine qua non of our salvation from looming death. That was my whole point, for Heaven’s sake! Who can read my finale (Chap. 15) and possibly miss what I had been leading up to all along? In fact, my much-brandished “Word of the Cross” (I Cor. 1:18) simply refers to my Explanation that Messiah’s Cross was necessary to magnify the genuineness of his Resurrection from the dead. All glory to God!
I must add that, even with all the best intentions, my wannabe interlocutors have managed not to hear my always predominant theme of Christ’s resurrection from the dead—to be sure, a death on a cross! But only moments afterward came the officially divine nullification of that sinful condemnation—one that condemned sin itself by a mighty resurrectionary coup, as I tried to explain in my letter to Rome (8:3). Didn’t I write clearly enough? I guess not! Cephas was quite right; some things I wrote are “hard to apprehend, which the unlearned and unstable are twisting, as the rest of the Scriptures also [which, of course, include his own less complicated epistles], to their own destruction” (II Peter 3:15-16). This is all the more sad since, as he had just written a few sentences earlier, the Lord himself is “not intending any to get destroyed” (II Peter 3:9). In fact, however, there are a great many things in Peter’s two epistles quite easy to apprehend, which, nonetheless, even the learned establishment contorts out of shape to propagate their pet doctrines among the young. May God Himself remove the veil over so many eyes and open them up to understand the Scriptures, as my dear associate Luke wrote (Luke 24:15-49). Yet I much fear that, as he reported me declaring at the conclusion of his account in the Acts, where I quoted Isaiah (6:9-10):
In hearing, you will be hearing, and may by no means be understanding…for stoutened is the heart of this people, and with their ears heavily they hear, and with their eyes they squint, lest at some time they may be perceiving with their eyes, and with their ears should be hearing, and with their hearts may be understanding, and should be turning about, and I should be healing them.
Nevertheless, I still have some hope, even as I had then, for,
Let it be known to you, then, that to the nations was dispatched this salvation of God, and they will hear. (Acts 28:26-28)
That, after all, was my special commission:
For thus the Lord has directed us: I have appointed you for a light of nations for you to be for salvation as far as the limits of the earth. (Acts 13:47, cf., Isaiah 49:6, 42:6)
To me, less than the least of all saints, was granted this graciousness: to get to proclaim the untraceable riches of the Messiah to the nations, and to enlighten all as to what is the administration of the secret that has been concealed from the ages in God. (Eph. 3:8-9a)
Well, so much for what I actually wrote on the subject. Turning now to you modern Christians, I have noticed that you tend to preach and even sing about “the power of the Cross.” You never got that from me! I taught that “the Explanation which is of the Cross” “of [the risen!] Christ” (I Cor. 1:17) “is the power of God” “to us who are getting saved” (I Cor. 1:18), and that, in my day, we were “heralding Messiah crucified” (I Cor. 1:23) as “power of God and wisdom of God” (I Cor. 1:24). The reason I was intent to focus on “Jesus Messiah and him crucified” (I Cor. 2:2), is because without that foundation of a well-attested, official, unjust, public, undeniably gruesome, and bloody death, any alleged “escape” (much less by a full on resurrection!) would have appeared dubious, hollow, delusive, not to add devious and manipulative. The point of Jesus’ crucifixion was to give theological weight to his resurrection. That is why I intended I Cor. 1:23 to be interpreted indissolubly in tandem with 15:12—“Now, if Messiah is being heralded that he has gotten raised from the dead, how are some of you saying that there is no resurrection of the dead?” For you see, the problem at Corinth is that they didn’t believe in the future “resurrection of all” because they denied resurrection in principle, which obviously impugns the Gospel of Christ’s own resurrection. That’s why I strategically led off my letter with strong language affirming a thoroughly successful crucifixion (I Cor. 1-2)…so that my marshalling of overwhelming testimony for his resurrection could not be minimized by denying he had ever been fatally crucified. Am I clear?
So you see, I had to write in no uncertain terms to the saints at Corinth because they had been imposed on by the Jewish philosophical pretensions of Philo of Alexandria, who taught a less than full-bodied immortality. (I was, naturally, distressed that our eloquent brother Apollos seemed to be echoing his emphasis to some degree.) Please understand that I urgently had to press for a resurrection of the body as a solid expectation for all saints, founded on the thoroughly eye-witnessed living Jesus, now having returned irrefutably alive, “with many proofs” (Acts 1:3), after “having gotten [undeniably] crucified” (I Cor. 1:23, 2:2).
And why did I argue so vehemently in this manner? Simply because ‘theologically’ the cross of Christ means nothing. You read that right. As I strategically divulged only in the climactic culmination of my first letter to the Corinthian brethren, “If dead [bodies] are not getting raised, neither has Christ gotten raised! Vain is your faith! You are still in your sins!” (I Cor. 15:16-17). And why is that, I hope you ask? Prepare yourself. The obvious answer, at least to those who pay close attention to all I have written, is that the power to atone for sins came only through Christ’s resurrection. It was only then and there that the prior unrighteous outpouring of Messiah’s just soul to death, in cold, innocent blood, was overmatched by the righteous outpouring of life-making Holy Spirit, first of all, to raise Christ from death and Hades, as the “Firstfruit of those having gotten repose” (I Cor. 15:20). Otherwise, “those also, who have repose in Christ got destroyed” (I Cor. 15:18). But, secondly, that Holy Spirit of life was poured out at Pentecost “on all flesh” (Acts 2:17-18, 34, 10:45, Rom. 5:5, Tit. 3:5-6)—whoever believe, whether Jew or Gentile—as a sign of what was to come at the consummation of God’s Kingdom. Included in that package, that Present, that Gift of Holy Spirit promised by God, is cleansing from sins (Acts 2:38, 3:19, 5:11-12, 10:43-47, 26:17-23, Luke 24:46-49, Tit. 3:5-7, etc.). That’s what atonement is all about, and that’s how it got achieved.
Once again, there is no ‘theology of the Cross’ in anything I ever wrote. Period. I repudiate every Johnny-come-lately attempt to eisegete a ‘theology’ of the cross of Christ into any of my writings. An Event, certainly! An ethic, absolutely! Precisely as our Master Jesus taught! By any of my mentions of the cross of Messiah, I never meant to go a fraction of a cubit beyond what my crucified and risen Savior taught about renouncing myself, picking up my cross, bearing it daily, then following after him (Matt. 10:38, 16:24, Mk. 8:34, 10:21, Luke 9:23, 14:27), even if that should mean a similar fate (Matt. 23:34), for our blessed resurrection lies just beyond.
Indeed, this is what I emphasized when I urged Timothy to “suffer-evil with the Gospel in accord with the power of God, Who saves us” (II Tim. 1:8-9) through “our Savior, Messiah Jesus, who, indeed, abolishes death, yet illuminates life and incorruption through the Gospel” (II Tim. 1:10), and also to “suffer-evil with me, as an ideal soldier of Messiah Jesus” (II Tim. 2:3), “Remembering Jesus Messiah, who has gotten raised from among the dead, is from the seed of David, according to my Gospel, in which I am suffering-evil unto bonds as a malefactor—but the Explanation of God is not bound. Therefore I am enduring all because of those who are chosen, that they may be happening upon the salvation that is in Messiah Jesus with glory agelong. Faithful is the explanation: ‘for if we died-together, we shall be living-together also; if we are enduring, we shall be reigning-together also’” (II Tim. 2:8-12a). So when I wrote there about “suffering-evil with the Gospel,” etc., I meant suffering abuse for the vibrant Message about Messiah’s resurrection from the dead! For to suffer in that way is to bear our cross.
Hence, the very idea that I intended the Cross to be the center and heartbeat of my Gospel instead of the Resurrection is preposterous in the literal sense. Lo, their ‘theology of the Cross’ stinketh! It hath not the fragrance of the Resurrection. That wayward impulse to ‘Crossify’ the atonement is a radically counter-resurrectionary move that has cost the church of God dearly. It is a Crucifiction. God forbid that my name should continue being associated with such a travesty!
4. Substitution and Satisfaction
In what sense, then, was Jesus a ‘substitute’ ‘in our place’ in order to bring salvation? We usually think of a substitute as something used in place of another item, as a replacement for it, rendering it needless or unnecessary. When used of humans it often refers to a person who fills the role, function, or job of another in order to free them up to do something else, if only temporarily. We should discover, then, in the case of Jesus Christ, what he did in the role of substitute that achieved such ends. Was it his life, that is, his personal history of actions, his career, or professional practice? These do not readily compute. How about his suffering of abuse and his death? Whose suffering and death did his own substitute for, take the place of, or replace? Whose suffering or death did his own render needless or unnecessary? How about Jesus’ resurrection? Whose resurrection did his render needless or unnecessary? Am I missing something? Am I setting up straw men?
Perhaps the above definition of substitution is too narrow. Sometimes we hear it expanded to include deeds or services for others that they cannot do for themselves. But this verges onto the field of meaning of ‘vicarious’, which includes the sense of delegation or deputization, where the affairs or concerns of one person are handled by another, often specially appointed, person. Hence also representation comes into view, where one person acts as the official representative of another’s interests, whether political, legal, financial, parental, and so forth. This involves exercising authority on behalf of another by agreement or election.
Are any of these extended senses appropriate in reference to the work of Jesus Christ? Unquestionably he has done something for others—for all mankind!—which they could never have done for themselves. This is his priestly role. But this is not precisely the point at issue; the point is whether he did this as a substitute proper. It seems to me that, according to Scripture, he did not. In fact, I would venture to say that even the modern concept of representation must be heavily qualified and nuanced in his case, since no human beings appointed Christ as their delegated ‘representative’ before God in any proper sense. Thus his work is not ‘vicarious’ in that respect either. He does, however, now represent before God as intercessor all who get baptized into his name. This is a curious and notable difference from human customs and kingdoms. It appears that there is really no sense in which the earthly deeds of the Lord Jesus Christ, whether his teaching, miracles, healings, suffering, dying, or rising were even ‘vicarious’ in the usual sense, much less ‘substitutionary’. Only after God exalted him at his own right hand did Jesus have authority on behalf of his fellow human beings. He even explicitly disavowed authority of that sort while among us. (To be sure, before his exaltation he certainly had, and often exerted, authority over demons and diseases, and even delegated others to exercise that same authority, but this is a different matter.)
Therefore, after taking into account the above exclusions, we are left with an understanding of Christ’s work on earth as ‘vicarious’ (although not ‘substitutionary’), but only in the sense that it was “for,” “on behalf of,” “for the sake of,” or “for the benefit of” others. This, indeed, is the proper range of meaning of the Greek preposition huper throughout the New Testament. What Jesus did by his cross-and-resurrection was unique and impossible for any other human being, and he did it for others. This was love at its apogee. It made possible, without coercive necessity, human salvation by voluntary faith and baptism. Thereby we enter God’s Kingdom and subordinate ourselves to the authority and directives of the Lord Jesus, receive his Holy Spirit, and enjoy the benefits of his intercession for us before the Father. Yet even this array of blessings is not procured by any ‘substitutionary’ action of Christ even after our baptism; it is participatory, a privilege of premial inclusion, which bequeaths us access to the “riches in Christ Jesus” by way of the blood of the New Covenant.
My hope is that the glory of these solid realities of the career accomplishments of our risen Lord Jesus may come to eclipse the popular but misplaced devotion of so many Christians to the unbiblical idea of “substitution.” I would only add that the locution “substitutionary sacrifice” is at best a mere redundancy and at worst a deflection of emphasis from the “pattern of sound explanations” we have received by authentic communication from the apostles. Such departure has played all too conveniently into the hands of “penal substitution” ideologists who have thereby denatured the genuine Gospel of God’s premial justice into a punitive caricature. The actual language of Scripture is not nearly so amenable to such abuse, and if for this reason alone we should give it high honor and reflexive preference.
Furthermore, even in connection with ransom metaphors of salvation, the legitimate teaching that Jesus became “a ransom-in-exchange [antilutron]for [huper] all [mankind]” (I Tim. 2:5-6, cf. Matt. 20:28, Mk. 10:45), must not be forced into a substitutionary corset, for his “exchange” (anti[lutron]), in historical reality (as distinct from rhetorical figure) did not preclude or render null and void the decree of death over any other human being, or hadn’t you noticed all the funeral processions? “As in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive” (I Cor. 15:22). Thus human death is not “substitutionarily” nullified by Christ; instead, he makes our resurrection from the dead possible…nay, utterly certain! This highlights what does, in fact, transpire in our stead: being raised to agelong life instead of staying dead or suffering the second death.
We must exercise and stretch our renewed minds around this larger, more glorious, more attested reality of the resurrectionary supersession of temporal death by agelong life if we are to give proper expectancy to God’s people and to draw into His Kingdom the myriad others He wants to save from death and destruction.
Note: This view entails a stance towards “the wages of sin” qualitatively and quantitatively different from the turn taken by orthodoxy after Augustine (354-430). He represented those wages as ‘eternal conscious punishment’. Such a notion never entered the inspired head of any penman of Hebrew Scripture (and scarcely even of the Apocrypha). The wages of Adam’s sin was Adam’s death by being deprived of the fruit of the Tree of Life. He lost that primal privilege; his descendants never had it to begin with. So in their case it was not the penalty of their own sins that they suffered, but of Adam’s. This death—and not some materialized “original sin” itself—is what was “passed down” to the whole human race in consequence of Adam’s original sin, “whereupon [epho] all sinned” (Rom. 5:12). But in neither case would it entail ‘eternal’ death, much less ‘eternal conscious punishment’. (That may be the penalty God assigns to theologians who propagate such fabrications, but it does not appear to be the final fate of anyone else except Satan and his minions [Rev. 20:10].) Adam’s sin simply resulted in temporal death, but did not preclude coming back to life again. In hard Gospel fact, that too is as necessary, due to the achievement of Christ. The main question remaining is whether we then get to stay alive for “the ages of the ages,” or must suffer “the second death” [Rev. 20:6, 11-15] in the Lake of Fire, that is, total destruction of body and soul by ‘extreme cremation’. The frightful anticipation of such a fate during the proceedings of the Final Judgment, not to mention its foretaste experienced by those in the outer darkness of Hades in the meantime, will naturally evoke lamenting and gnashing of teeth!
If we must have a “substitutionary” atonement, then it must be of this nature: the resurrection of God’s sinless Son was “accepted” in lieu of the permanent death of Adam’s sinful race. Why should this striking exchange even seem odd to our sensibilities but for the prevalence of the yet stranger teaching that the death of the sinless Christ was “accepted” by God in lieu of the death of sinful mankind? For how could yet another death, per se, make up for, pay for, or atone for, all those myriad deaths of sinners? Indeed, no one has ever succeeded in accounting for such an exchange except by invoking the theory of yet a further and inconceivable injustice: a just God punishing a purely sinless man in order to “satisfy” or “pay” for sins. Such a solution is profoundly ironic in view of the following consideration: in actuality, what God was “accepting”—for the sake of which He was moved to unveil His premial justice with such shocking promptness on the third day—was Jesus’ own authentically human obedience, to the bitter end, without wavering. Here at long last was a truly faithful covenant partner, whose moral perfection got “exchanged” for a superexcelling inheritance of every last blessing bequeathed by the Old Covenant, following his wrongful, premature death. Now that’s recognizable justice without qualification!
Therefore, if God instead (i.e., as a “substitute” for the usual onerous scenario) undertook a further and more profound justice by rewarding the murdered Innocent with a new immortal life and a throne of universal authority in the bargain, then the necessity for any penal satisfaction by those sinning against him would be completely obviated. For in this marvelous case the harm done evaporates in a burst of super-compensating glory and authority for the victim—now the Victor! Then a deeply and truly satisfying forgiveness of sins can be extravagantly proclaimed by the universal authority of that offended and wounded Sovereign to the whole benighted human race “as far as the curse is found”!
So either God’s saving justice was penal, in which case it was an undeserved and substitutionary payment by Jesus to God in exchange for injuries others deserved and hence was buying God’s favor for others and reconciling God to humanity; or God’s saving justice was premial, in which case it entailed a deserved and direct repayment from God to Jesus in exchange for his undeserved injuries by others, thereafter mediated by Christ to them at his sovereign discretion, so conciliating the alienated back to God!
In short, the main reason “substitution” is so desperately clung to is from traditional attachment to punitive misconceptions of how justice saves and rescues. But when we start analyzing along premial lines, “satisfaction” takes on a vastly different hue. For then God is understood as “having to” faithfully satisfy the covenantal stipulation to bless the upright regardless of adversarial or adventitious setbacks or even outright curses, when endured righteously. Were it not for our entrenched, exclusively punitive reflexes, we could easily grasp the divine necessity of satisfying premial justness on behalf of the resolutely just. After all, isn’t it this that we really crave when we cry out for justice? We are hardly pleading for punishment, but exactly the opposite, for restoration of our losses! This is what God stands for. Accordingly, the Law of Moses required that what was penally exacted from an offender be premially restored to the victim, with a surplus.
5. Wrath and Grace
A. God’s Judicial Reputation
The Psalmist declared, “Jehovah is known by the judgment He executes” (Psalm 9:16a). “As is Your Reputation, O God, so is Your praise unto the ends of the earth; Your right hand is filled with justice. Mount Zion shall rejoice, The daughters of Judah shall exult. On account of Your judgments, O Jehovah!” (Psalm 47:10-11). Is that so? Then what do we make of a God who “has to” show His wrath against the innocent Jesus in order to “pay for sins” and “demonstrate His holiness”? And what kind of “holiness” (wholesomeness) “has to” punish the sinless on behalf of the guilty in order to prove his “hatred of sin”? Wouldn’t that sort of conduct by a judge constitute a great Sin? Shouldn’t we impeach a judge who dares to exhibit such judicial misbehavior? What sort of judge would do such a thing? What kind of reputation does such a judgment give Jehovah? How can we live with such gross distortions of God’s good judgment, wholesomeness, uprightness, and decency? Moreover, how can God live with them? But evidently He can. He has tolerated other defamations as well. Yet why should we tolerate this disgraceful vestige of a barbaric era any longer? Dare we continue to rattle off “Hallowed be Thy Name” yet not lift a finger to restore God’s wholesome reputation in our own day? It seems such a light duty to remove this reproach from Him. Yet even if it proves costly, how much is genuinely fruitful proclamation, not to mention a new Reformation, worth to us . . . to God?
Furthermore, what kind of example does such “divine” behavior set for aspiring disciples? If you rationalize that “there are some things God can do that human beings ought not to do,” then how can you learn to distinguish exactly when to “be, then, imitators of God, as beloved children, and be walking in love, just as the Messiah also loves you, and surrenders himself for us, an approach-present and sacrifice to God, for a fragrant odor” (Eph. 5:1-2), and when to imitate his alleged substitutionary punitive righteousness and holiness instead? “The trumpet gives an uncertain sound”! Didn’t Christ come to unveil the very heart and authentic character of his Father, God? If so, then such sacrifice ought to represent what the Father Himself does and not what God “requires from His Son as a payment for sin.” In other words, it was necessary for Christ to die on a cross in order to reveal how God both could and would reverse the injustice of his death in order to give us new life for free on account of it. No imagined “payment for sin” could ever procure this exorbitant feat of true love.
The traditional Protestant theory of the Atonement poses the disturbing enigma about which “person” and which “attribute” of God we should imitate, and when. Is it the graciously pardoning Son or the penally demanding Father? Is this where and how “wrath and mercy meet” and “kiss”? Or are these, one or both, imposters in costume, acting out a bad script? Was that merely a stage kiss? Do the pardon of sins and the “payoff for sins” have equal claim on us ethically? Are they complementary? Are they in tension? Do we have to blend them somehow? Father and Son seem at odds. Is this an illusion? A paradox? A contradiction? Are they modeling how to make peace? Does this couplet pose a pattern we likewise need to process through for our own interpersonal reconciliations? Does this throw healing light on interracial, interreligious, and international relations, or just the opposite? What an equivocal tangle! Who can untie this Gordian knot?
We can start to unscramble this conundrum by noting that the hymnic image of “justice and mercy” “meeting” or “kissing” is nowhere to be found in Holy Scripture. Not that it would be an unholy kiss, just more like kissing your sister…for the two are much more closely related that our theologians or hymns have taught us. So what of “wrath and mercy” “meeting” or “kissing”? Different scenario, same problem. That’s a rendezvous that never happened either…in Scripture! Check it out. So who should we believe? If we keep bowing to these images, we’ll expect theology to conform, to our confusion.
B. Raised from the Dead by God’s Lovingkindness
Psalm 119:159—“See how I love Your precepts; O Jehovah, according to Your benignity revive me!” It was God’s merciful benignity or lovingkindness that raised Jesus from the dead. In that cosmic event the invisible Creator actually made visible His secret motive of benignity toward humanity. In indissoluble connection with all that the Lord Jesus did, taught, claimed, and prophesied about himself—and all of these against the backdrop of the Old Testament prophecies and types concerning the coming Messiah—the Resurrection openly exhibited God’s deepest impulse of restorative, rewarding justice.
The Explanation of the Cross—oh the many facets of it!—shows that even as the Son bore the sins against him (rather than retaliating), so the Father Himself ultimately bore all the losses Himself by exerting Himself to recreate the destroyed Victim by way of repayment…and then some! For if Jesus fulfilled Isaiah 53:3-4 and “bore their diseases” by healing them from their morbidity (Matt. 8:16-17), then it stands to reason that God, in turn, would bear their sins of crucifying Jesus by raising him from his mortality. Like Son, like Father! Such a ‘Creatorly’ response is over the top in terms of what humans can do to effect justice and peace after gross injustice (much less a capital one) has taken its destructive toll. But Jehovah is to be outdone by no one. Thus do justice and peace kiss (Psalm 85)…and what a smacker!
Now brace yourself. I regret to have to break the Good News to you like this, but there was no wrath of God at the cross of Christ at all. Zero. Zip. In fact, despite Israel’s persecuting or killing all the prophets He sent her previously—and in the end, even His own beloved Son—God patiently held His fire of wrath against Israel for one more generation, until 70 A.D. Yet on Crucifixion Day, 30 A.D., it was all favor from God’s side, and that’s what He proved on the third day.
“Yet now, apart from [works of] Law, a justness of God has gotten manifest (getting attested by the Law and the Prophets), yet a justness of God through Jesus Christ’s faithfulness [pistis], for all and on all the believing [pisteuo]. For there is no distinction, for all sinned and are getting deficient of the glory of God, getting justified gratuitously to His [resurrectionary!] graciousness through the liberation which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forth [as] a protective cover through the faithfulness in his blood, for a display of His justness because of the passing over of the penalties of sins which occurred before in the forbearance of God, toward the display of His justness in the current era, for Him to be just and a Justifier of the one who is of the faithfulness of Jesus” (Rom. 3:21-26), and not merely a Justifier of that single Faithful One, exclusively.
In other words, without the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, God would not have been able to reveal (Rom. 1:12), manifest (Rom. 3:21), or display (Rom. 3:25-26) His own justness in raising him from the dead and giving him glory. Resurrection and glorification are the contents of the deliverance or liberation from sin that Christ achieved. His own vindication or justification was his being “designated Son of God in power, according to a Spirit of holiness, from resurrection of the dead” (Rom. 1:4), although God’s Son “comes to be of the seed of David according to the flesh” (Rom 1:3), and so was fully human, albeit royal. Thus he “was manifested in flesh, justified in Spirit” (I Tim. 3:16), or in other words (the apostle Peter’s), “Christ also for our sakes once died concerning sins, the just for the sake of the unjust, that he may be leading us to God; being put to death, indeed, in flesh, yet vivified in Spirit” (I Peter 3:18).
In yet other words, Christ’s resurrection (of flesh) and vivification (of Spirit) constituted both his justification from the false imputation of sin by sinners, and also his vindication as the Son of God after all, exactly as he had claimed! And it is for precisely such immortalizing vindication/justification that we ourselves wait (Gal. 5:5, Rom. 8:18-25).
Needless (?) to say, there was no wrath entailed in this revelation of God’s life-restoring justness (Rom. 1:17) to the Lord Jesus Christ, and thence to us through his liberation when we are baptized into his body upon believing. This means of access to God’s graciousness and peace (Rom. 5:1-2) is in stark contrast to God’s wrath “getting revealed from Heaven on all irreverence and injustice of humans who are retaining the truth in injustice” (Rom. 1:18). Paul is distinguishing two contrasting revelations of God’s justice in history: first, of His wrath breaking forth periodically against buildups of human injustice; and secondly, of his graciousness revealed uniquely—for superabundantly and philanthropically—by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ from his once-for-all (ephapax, Rom. 6:9-10) death to sin. Both are patently revelations of justness, but the first is penal (destructive), while the second is premial (atoningly protective).
To summarize, the protective cover (hilasterion) activated by Christ’s faithful blood was God’s just resurrection in super-compensating repayment…with enough graciousness in tow to bless all mankind with the Holy Spirit of life agelong, if they but believe.
C. “Judgment and Wrath He Poured out on Sodom,
Mercy and Grace He Gave Us at the Cross.”
— Rich Mullins, “Awesome God” (emphasis added)
Rich Mullins, in these daring words from his justly famous song, made a splendid start at sorting out God’s wrath and grace. By diverting God’s wrath away from the Cross onto one of many recurrent occasions where it was undeniably displayed in biblical history, Mullins poetically relieves the Cross of that undeserved onus. (This illustrates how gifted musicians and other artists can start to remove the obscuring blinders of wayward, prosaic traditions in their own subtle, nuanceful ways. This, however, does not cancel the necessity of coming out for the truth in stark prose. Do theologians sing “Awesome God”? Do they ponder it? Do they repent?) Unfortunately, however, the Cross then gets oddly attired with attributes hardly more apt. For rather than replacing the erroneous attribution of divine wrath with diabolical wrath and rage instead, as Scripture teaches, Mullins mistakenly glorifies the Cross as a unique manifestation of God’s grace. To the contrary, whereas it is altogether true that God’s grace never departed from His well-pleasing, beloved Son at any particular point of his earthly life, yet it was by no means revealed especially at the Cross! In fact, that was the precise cosmic moment of its strategic hiddenness, making it look as if God’s graciousness had wholly forsaken him in a dramatic tableau of its diametric opposite! Indeed, this is the very conundrum that has stumbled so many theologians.
The perplexing mystery is solved by grasping the wise rhythms of God’s judgments, as Psalms 22, 27, 31, 37, 42, 44, and others so nicely trace out, if somewhat perplexingly, until Messiah finally appeared to dispel the enigmas, like a morning Sun rising to disperse a murky fog and unveil the shrouded silhouettes in digitally enhanced VISTAVISION, 3-D technicolor.
We observe a striking sample of how the apostolic evangel unscrambles cryptic Psalm 44 when Paul cracks it open in Romans 8. The psalm’s first eight verses kick off with a triumphal paean of Jehovah’s salvation, followed by a much longer dirge that plaintively questions why God’s people are now suffering woes despite their pure hearts. Why is God concealing His face, casting off, forgetting, ‘forsaking’, His chosen ones? Paul snatches a single thread and tugs hard to start the unraveling. “What shall be separating us from the love of God in Christ Jesus? Affliction, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? [Paul’s epitome of Psalm 44:9-25.] Just as it is written, that ‘On Your account we are being put to death the whole day, we are reckoned as sheep for slaughter’ [Psalm 44:22]. Nay! in all these we are more than conquering through Him who loves us. For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angelic messengers, nor sovereignties, nor the present, nor what is impending, nor power, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord” Rom. 8:35-39. For “God was in Christ, conciliating the world to Himself, not reckoning their offenses to them, and placing in us the explanation of the conciliation” I Cor. 5:19.
And what was that “explanation of the conciliation”? The resurrectionary rationale for the Cross would be a good guess. That would elegantly account for the inspired Psalmist’s total lack of suspicion that God’s wrath was behind all the misery they were dished out. Yet even if we still refuse the psalmist’s hints, who can doubt that Paul got it right by writing the rigor of wrath right out of the ring! In this climax of Romans 1-8, the most exultant passage Paul ever penned, there isn’t the slightest intimation of even sinful saints being “in the hands of an angry God,” much less our sinless Savior!
In those puzzling Psalms, we are allusively informed that the abomination of the Cross made possible the revelation of God’s righteous judgment at the Resurrection—a judicial decision that decreed superabounding graciousness to the now dead Son via a vast infusion of the Spirit of life immortal as a just recompense for the unjust suffering of fatal Satanic thrashing. This munificent award of damages, with a fitting surplus, constitutes the forgiving sea of God’s forgetfulness, the fathomless ocean of His graciousness, into which sinners are baptized when they acquiesce in the glorious Gospel.
Therefore Rich Mullins is to be commended on his lyrically nuanced disavowal of divine wrath at the Cross of the Lord Jesus. What remained to be corrected by the beloved songsmith was the proper assignment of the Adversary’s wrath and fury to the Cross and of God’s grace to the Resurrection. Not surprisingly, “the grace of the Resurrection” was, in fact, a phrase used in the so-called “Apostolic Fathers”—the first generation of early church authors after the Apostles, including their direct disciples—, but also Athanasius, as late as the early 4th century.
And what of mercy? To be sure, the Cross did reveal God’s mercy…but only after the Resurrection had proven the divine identity of the Man they dared to lay wicked hands on, at the risk of divine retaliation. For only then did God’s merciful forbearance become obvious in shuddering retrospect.
Thus the unscrambling continues in pursuit of the original Gospel. Even the full dimensions of God’s mercy were not visible—could not become visible!—until the glory of the Resurrection illuminated that attribute in hindsight, which, as we know, is 20-20.
D. Charles Spurgeon’s Equivocations
In contrast to the distinct note, if all too brief, that Rich Mullins blew so clearly, the great preacher of the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London, Charles Spurgeon, gave a decidedly ambiguous sound in his extended remarks on Psalm 44. (C. H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David: An Expository and Devotional Commentary on the Psalms. Volume II, Psalms 27-52. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978 , pp. 338-39, 341.)
The psalmist sets forth the brutality of the enemy in many words, in order to move the pity of the Lord, to whose just anger he traced all the sorrows of his people; he used the very best of arguments, for the sufferings of his chosen touch the heart of God far more readily than any other reasonings [p. 338, emphasis added].
One constant blush, like a crimson mantle, covered him both before God and man; he felt before God that the divine desertion was well deserved, and before man that he and his people were despicable indeed now that heavenly help was gone [p. 339, emphasis added].
Long enough hast thou deserted us; the terrible effects of thine absence are destroying us; end thou our calamities, and let thine anger be appeased [p. 341, emphasis added].
Not so! Such intrusions of Spurgeon’s vigorous penal satisfaction dogmatism as I have emphasized in these texts (although having no basis whatever in the text of this Scripture itself) stand side by side with his lovely expositions of the psalmist’s more valid martyrology. The contradiction appears to be entirely invisible to Spurgeon. Paul, as we have seen, apostolically trumps both King David and Pastor Spurgeon.
Therefore, it is nothing short of astounding that, after the apostle Paul recounts the grim history of human depravity and correlative divine wrath, from Romans 1:18 through 3:20, the plucky champions of “penal substitution” proceed to insist, in effect, “That’s not nearly enough fireworks to prove how much God hates sin! Oh, no, no!! God also had to rear back and hurl withering bolts of wrath upon His Son” (although well beloved, admittedly innocent, and amenably obedient—worthy only of superlative graciousness!) Says who? And why, for Heaven’s sake? Well, the argument goes, in order to appease, pacify, placate, or propitiate God’s righteous wrath against all those sins previously committed and, of course, still to follow ad nauseum. Oh, really, we should ask? But what could “wrath upon wrath” accomplish atoningly to express hatred for sin, especially when unleashed against a Sinless One? Where in Heaven’s name does grace then show up atoningly in history, especially for that Sinless One? What does unrelieved wrath achieve for that purpose? I thought we needed an antidote to sin, salvation from death, relief from wrath. After all, isn’t that what a credible Atonement ought to furnish? Why beat around the bush so furiously in a show of wrath, especially when the smidgen of wrath “evident” at the Cross, in comparison with all the divine fireworks evident throughout human history up to that moment, not to mention ever since, hardly stacks up in the balance, and more especially when exerted against a morally flawless victim? How can this detour around the mulberry bush land us anywhere but the briar patch of theological, not to add psychological, affliction? For how does that gesture definitively prove God’s hatred for sin when, to poor sinners themselves—the alleged audience of this spectacle—this looks like a case of misplaced aggression with aggravated assault?
Nor does such suffering at the Cross look “infinite.” By all accounts it wasn’t “eternal.” In fact, in historic context, for all the world that hideous execution looks like it was done by enemies, full of hate, envy, rage, fury. Why would God want to take up with that crowd? Why add His two cents to their disendorsement of His precious Son to be the promised Messiah, their rightful Lord and Master?
So did Christ bear sins on the cross because God bore grudges against sins from which He had to unburden Himself, and the only way was to express His displeasure against His sinless Son? This would appear to be the gist of “penal substitution.” This heavy-handed theory represents such alleged unburdening as a demonstration of “holiness” and “righteous indignation” against sin. However, it appears from Romans 1:18-3:20 that God was sufficiently capable of displaying His indignation (Rom. 1:18) in the broad sweep of history quite independent of the cross of Christ. This is presumptive evidence that something qualitatively different was secretly occurring at the Cross, strategically, in order ultimately to reveal God’s “righteous graciousness” as a counterpoise to all that “righteous indignation”! “Yet now, apart from [works of] Law, a justice of God is manifest…through Jesus Christ’s faithfulness.” This is purely premial justice.
E. “My God! My God! Why have You forsaken me?” — Psalm 22:1, Matt. 27:46, Mark 15:34
There is a simple answer to this agonizing question: God was expressing His righteous wrath against His Son to show how much He hates sin and to make Jesus pay (rationalized as “voluntarily,” of course) for the sins of the world/elect as their punitive substitute (“out of love,” of course). But like so many simple answers, it’s wrong—dead wrong. Jesus himself very well knew his beloved Father had only split the dark, wrenching scene of “Truth on the scaffold” momentarily, for Christ’s own Spirit had inspired Psalm 22, of which the above passage is but the threshold. Jesus also knew the rest of the Story: yes, God had left for good…but only for good! He would be back in a couple of days with a wonderful surprise!
God had exited the stage to build dramatic tension. So far, the only plot evident was a murder plot. God’s surprisingly startling surprise (which should not have taken Jesus’ disciples by surprise, for they had been apprized of this Messianic prize well in advance) unveiled the transcending trajectory of this traumatizing tragedy that would trade the travesty for triumphant transformation! The advent of the Father’s premial justice on Easter Sunday morning not only transformed mourning into jubilant dancing at the Jubilee of liberation from Death’s dark night of slavery to sin, it also transfigured the crucifixion of the Son of God into the resurrection of the son of mankind! Here is no cosmetic comedy but a cosmic comity of Heaven and earth. God’s overarching plot line had landed peace on earth! What Israel, along with Rome, had meant for evil, God had meant for good (Genesis 50:20, Romans 8:28).
And for good measure, if not already obvious, even as Joseph was not suffering any wrath from God by his unjust treatment and long imprisonment in Egypt (the combined evils of Israelites, Ishmaelites, and Egyptians), likewise Jesus was not suffering any wrath from God by his unjust treatment and brief imprisonment in Hades (the combined evils of Israelites, Idumaeans—descendants of Esau, whence the Herodian dynasty—and Romans alike). Satan, the dark prince of the power of the air, was behind them all.
But further, although to a superficial assessment Joseph may seem to have been “paying for the sins” of his brothers, who surrendered him virtually to death, or at least for his own youthful indiscretion in the “coat of many colors” episode, or even for Jacob’s folly in showing favoritism to him, none of these judgmental options represents God’s own judicial opinion, any more than any of Job’s presumptuous “friends”—surely theologians, all!—were ever inspired by God to spew their “wisdom” at righteous Job in his Satan-inspired misery. I believe I can start to hear a mounting chorus of “Amen! and Amen!” from all the martyred prophets of old whose righteous blood cried out from earth to a justly avenging Heaven.
Just so, neither did their prophetic archetype, Jesus, ever “pay for” a single sin by his taking abuse. Such a myth may still win acclaim among death-obsessed theologians. But to transmute the sinless blood of Jesus from the supreme symbol of life-raised-from-the-dead into a symbol of death itself, is surely to be guilty of substance abuse.
F. Suffering in Hell or Evangelizing in Hades?
John Calvin notoriously renounced the early Christian account that Christ “descended into Hades,” even denying that the statement to that effect in the so-called Apostles’ Creed was well-attested or authentic. He had preconceived that such a descent must be penal or punitive, whereas early Christian literature unanimously interprets it as liberating and victorious. This teaching did not comport with Calvin’s penal satisfaction preconceptions, so he poked fun at it and cavalierly dismissed it out of hand. For Calvin, Christ was suffering the pains of Gehenna under divine condemnation and curse in order to finish paying the penalty and debt of sin he commenced at the Cross—a doctrine never articulated in the early church! Accordingly, he minimized the common early interpretation of Matthew 12:38-41, Ephesians 4:9-10, I Peter 3:17-22 and 4:6. Calvin’s penal dogmatism thus impelled him to play the Bible critic, twisting even Scriptures not particularly “hard to understand” (as Paul’s could be). Calvin’s penal subversion has nearly won the day. It is long overdue to turn the tables as Jesus did in the Temple.
So the question surfaces, why should anyone today even doubt for a moment that the Lord Jesus descended into Hades “for no other reason than to preach the Gospel,” as Clement of Alexandria unabashedly declared (The Ante-Nicene Fathers, edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson: 1885-1887; repr. 10 vols. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994. Vol. 2, 490, 491)? Clement was only echoing the consensus of written testimony spanning the entire early church for more than three centuries, and there was not a dissenting voice among them on this point. (See David Bercot, ed., A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1998. Pp. 205-207.) This means that Calvin dared to denounce the united witness of the church catholic during its most authentic era, when apostolic traditions were all but undisputed by its diverse and widely scattered authors, defenders, and, most poignantly, martyrs. Will modern Calvinists and concurring Evangelicals repent of their glaring departure from the premial outlook of the faithful early church, or will they continue to bury their heads in the shifting sands of penal dogma?
Whatever their fateful choice, we can fairly surmise that those generations of antiquity “will be rising in the Judging with this generation [of Calvinists, et al] and will be condemning it, for they repent at the heralding” (Matt. 12:41) of Christ! Indeed, will not the whole early church rise in the Judgment to condemn Calvin’s penal penchant, which has brought even the positive elements of his theology into question, not to say disrepute, by association? Thoughtful Christians and wary prospects are scandalized at the thought of God’s injustice to those who have never heard the Gospel. Not to mention the thought of “eternal conscious punishment”! Calvin has much to repent of, including blood on his hands. But we cannot repent for him. We can only repent of following him into his errors instead of calling a halt to the grim march to penal demise. Shouldn’t we stop playing follow-the-leader like stampeding lemmings?
G. “Jesus! Come Forth!” — The Prelude: John 11
Does John 11 teach us that Lazarus died because ‘Jesus forsook him’? Okay, in a manner of speaking, yes. For when Jesus heard that Lazarus was infirm (asthen-), “then, indeed, he remains in the place where he was two days” (John 11:6). Who can miss the obvious? For God Himself likewise stayed put for two days before rousing Himself to execute justice and save him of whom He “was fond” (phileo, John 11:3, 36). I venture to say that fondness (John 5:20) neither varied nor flagged one iota throughout the ordeal. The apostle Paul complements the theology of the apostle John’s account very nicely. “For even if [Messiah] was crucified out of weakness/infirmity [asthen-], nevertheless he is living by the power of God” (II Cor. 13:4a), as did Lazarus. And what is true for him is true for us, as well. “For we also are weak together with him, but we shall be living together with him by the power of God for you” (II Cor. 13:4b). Just so, Jesus declared concerning the weakness of Lazarus, “This infirmity is not to death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God should be glorified through it” (John 11:4). Which predicament would give God greater glory—preventing Lazarus from dying, or reversing his death outright, after he was good and dead? Or did Jesus have to work up a little wrath against Lazarus so that the latter’s resurrection would have something to “prove” concerning his death from an infirmity, to make it meaningful? I don’t think so either.
Still, isn’t it true to say, “Lord, if you were here, my brother [Lazarus] would not have died” (John 11:21, 32)? Naturally! There can be absolutely no doubt about that. Yet even so, “Jesus weeps” (John 11:21, 32), which prompted the Jews to remark, “Lo! How fond he was of him” (John 11:36). Jesus’ sympathizing tears, however, only highlight the mounting enigma: “Could not this one who opens the eyes of the blind also make it that this man should not be dying” (John 11:37)? Well of course! But that’s not the point, for Heaven’s sake! The whole point of this testimony, as with the report of the healing of the man born blind, two chapters earlier, “is that the works of God may be manifested in him” (John 9:3). Accordingly, Jesus responds to Martha’s remark about Lazarus “already smelling, for it is the fourth day” (John 11:39), “Did I not say to you that, if ever you should be believing, you should be seeing the glory of God” (John 11:40)?
Jesus knew perfectly well what was up. And, as usual, the apostle Paul elaborates to make the theology concerning the event more explicit. Even as Paul entreated the Lord “thrice” (II Cor. 12:8) to “withdraw” from him the “splinter [skolops, ‘a large pointed stake used to form palisades’] in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, that he may be buffeting/battering [kolaphizo] me” (II Cor. 12:7), so also the Lord Jesus had prayed three times that the cup of Satan’s affliction might “pass by” (Matt. 26:37-45) or be “carried aside” (Mark 14:32-42, Luke 22:39-46) from him lest he get “surrendered into the hands of sinners” (Matt. 26:45, Mark 14:41). But God had other plans, as Jesus very well knew: “Not as I desire but as You” (Matt. 26:39); “Not what I desire but what You” (Mark 14:36); “Not my desire, but Yours” (Luke 22:42). Paul expands: “Sufficient for you is my graciousness, for my power in infirmity/weakness is being perfected” (II Cor 12:9). You read correctly. It was God’s graciousness that sustained the Lord Jesus Christ during his affliction from sinners—his battering by Satan—at the Cross. This is what cheered the afflicted apostle to continue, “With the greatest relish, then, will I rather be boasting in my infirmities, that the power of the Messiah should be tabernacling over me. Wherefore I delight in infirmities, in outrages, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses, for Messiah’s sake, for whenever I may be weak, then I am powerful” (II Cor. 12:9-10). And where do you imagine he learned how all this graciousness and power operate? Do you suppose for a moment that Paul was nervous about the “wrath of God” lurking behind any of those difficulties?
The Master, Jesus, had already mastered the art and wisdom of the Cross (I Cor. 1:17-2:16) and thereby became “the Lord of glory” (I Cor. 2:8, Psalm 24:7-10). Therefore, although he acknowledged, “Now has my soul gotten disturbed [tarasso]” (John 12:27), even as he was disturbed when he observed all the lamenting on account of the death of his friend Lazarus (John 11:33), yet he pressed on: “‘And what may I be saying? “Father, save me out of this hour”? But therefore I came into this hour! Father, glorify Your name!’ A voice, then, came out of Heaven, ‘I glorify it also, and shall be glorifying it again’” (John 12:27-28).
The glory of the Father and the glory of the Son are strictly bound up together (John 11:4, 5:41-44, 7:18, 8:49-54, 12:23, 26-28, 13:31-32, 14:13, 15:8, 17:1-26).
Psalm 22, then, which begins, “My God! My God! Why have You forsaken me?” must be understood in this light of God’s glory of justice revealed, manifested, and displayed most fully only in the aftermath of weakness/infirmity, affliction, persecution, buffeting/battering, outrages, necessities, and other distresses of all kinds. And it is precisely the outcome, the results, that give proper meaning (‘glory’) to the agonies of passing through the threshold experience, the constricting birth canal to glorious fruitfulness and productivity. The seeming enigma of Psalm 22:1/Matt. 27:46/Mark 15:34 is ultimately ironed out only by the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. This culminating justice of God similarly unlocks the mystery of many another ‘Messianic Psalm’: repaying extreme exaltation for shameful humiliation.
H. The Apostle Peter’s Testimony
If you now agree that John and Paul and David are clear and unambiguous (to an unprejudiced reader), you ain’t seen nothin’ yet! Peter’s first epistle is the crowning treatment of this theme in the New Testament—God’s graciousness unleashed in response to suffering obediently, faithfully, that is, successfully!
I Peter 2:21-25 explains, “For what credit is it if, sinning and being buffeted (kolaphizo) you will be enduring it? But if doing good and suffering you will be enduring, this is graciousness with God. For for this were you called, seeing that Christ also suffered for your sakes, leaving you a copy that you should be following up in the footprints of him who does no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth; who, being reviled, reviled not again; suffering abuse, threatened not, yet surrendered to Him Who is judging justly [that is, by deserved resurrection, not by undeserved “substitutionary” (after God imputed others’ sins to him) execution!], who himself carries up our sins in his body on the pole, that, coming away from sins [i.e., being “dead to your offenses and sins,” Eph. 2:1, Col. 2:13, Rom. 6:6-14], we should be living for justness, by whose welt you were healed. For you were straying sheep, but now you turned back to the Shepherd and Supervisor of your souls” and became “conciliated to God through the death of His Son” (Rom. 5:10) when you realized how that “welt”—the Shepherd’s own abusive death—came about to win us back! “For thus God loves, so that He gives His only-born Son,” commissioning him into the world to save it (John 3:16,18). For He is “the God of peace Who is leading up our Lord Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep, from among the dead by the blood of the agelong covenant” (Heb. 13:20)—the New Covenant. “This is the true graciousness of God, in which you are to stand” I Peter 5:12. Accept no “substitutes.”
6. The Righteousness of God
The pivotal truth about God’s premial and super-compensating justice is hidden in plain sight all over the Bible. It’s not obscure, not mysterious, but almost embarrassingly public. After all, this is public justice. However, a fair review of the Protestant Reformation from a nearly five-century retrospective should bring its flaws to the surface in this respect, painful and unflattering though this exposure may be.
The apostle Paul might state the problem this way: “They, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own [version of] righteousness,”—namely, ‘the imputation of Christ’s own righteousness’ to themselves—“were not subject to the righteousness of God” (Rom. 10:3). This orthodox Protestant alternative may sound pious; to some defenders it may seem blasphemous to deny it. Yet it is brazenly at odds with the actual “pattern of sound explanations” advanced by Paul and other writers of inspired apostolic Scripture. It amounts to heavy-handed Scripture-twisting.
Is this Protestant version of righteousness superior to the judaizing variety that Paul had to contend with? According to that view, people could boast in their own tawdry gestures at Law-keeping, for which Paul had only the most withering scorn. And he should know, for he had attempted it in younger days. But when Jesus, the resurrected Messiah, suddenly confronted him, he was laid low by the unveiled glory of God’s actual justice/ righteousness (Greek and Hebrew each have a single word that covers both domains of meaning; “justness” might be a serviceable linguistic makeshift), which had thus rewarded the Savior for his faithfulness to the full obligations of Israel’s ancient covenant with Jehovah. Such faithfulness, as judged by its manifestly stunning outcome, far transcended Paul’s vaunted exertions. He literally had a blinding insight into the true eminence of the Person whose resurrected existence now powerfully testified retroactively to the utter perfection of his obedience to God, even as the Christians whom Paul had been chasing down and killing had proclaimed all along. This Man had evidently won agelong life already—the very prize Paul had been vainly striving for (Acts 13:4-8 11-16). This could be none other than the Messiah promised to the fathers! He was worthy of worship and pre-eminence over all earthly sovereigns! He must be, in truth, the Son of Israel’s God, Jehovah!
So when Paul’s chain of reasoning gets around to explaining how other human beings—sinners—could be justified to inherit agelong life, even as Jesus clearly had already, his logic all turns on how we can link up to the same award of immortal life that Jesus won, on the identical basis of faithfulness, yet gratuitously, in graciousness, instead of as individual earnings, imperfect as they are, since, as he so well knew, that was another illusory substitute.
B. The Qualities of Divine Justice
The solution rested on the nature of God’s saving justice as being both 1) ‘premial’ (from the Latin for ‘rewarding’—the opposite of penal) and 2) super-compensatory (as required by the Law of Moses). Whereas sinners could expect penal justice as their deserts for becoming hardened in their sins, Jesus had no backlog of sins, so deserved only rewards for his good conduct and extraordinary good activities, and even more so when achieved in the face of opposition. Furthermore, when he persisted in doing good even when actually suffering abuse for it, and especially when threatened with death for it, he became worthy of extraordinary repayment by the rules of premial justice, which not only stipulated rewards of blessing for the just (Rom. 5:7a) and the good (Rom. 5:7b), but proportionately more for remaining just and good under adverse conditions (Rom. 5:8).
Such “supererogatory” (beyond what was required on his own behalf) achievements as Christ exhibited were deserving of super-excessive premial repayment at the bar of divine justice. This is the reason why “Christ is the consummation of [Moses’] Law for righteousness to everyone who is believing” (Rom. 10:4). By his extreme quality of justness and goodness, in fact his assertively proactive love, he became worthy of a yet more extreme rightful award (dikaioma) in return for being temporarily deprived of his due. And those rightful spoils he was at liberty to dispense for free, by virtue of his gracious disposition, to whomever else he pleased—indeed, to those who pleased him, by their faith! “Now apart from faith it is impossible to be well pleasing, for he who is coming to God must believe that He is, and is becoming a Rewarder of those who are seeking Him out” (Heb. 11:6). For “it is of faith that it may accord with graciousness” (Rom. 4:16). Thus God “accounts faith for justness” (Rom. 4:3, 4, 9, 11, 20-22, 23-24, 10:10, Gal. 3:6) so as to bequeath all believers (whether Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free) portions or allotments from Christ’s own rightful award as Heir of the universe. This, then, is the modus operandi of Christ’s becoming, by his self-sacrificial toil, “The consummation of Law for justness, to everyone who is believing.” “For if a Law were given that is able to make alive, really justness were out of Law. But the Scripture locks up all together under sin, that the promise out of Jesus Christ’s faithfulness may be given to the believing” (Gal. 3:22).
C. The Role of Faith
Notice, it is not that his own proper, personal justness was somehow accounted to anyone else, but that a faith which “deems the Promiser faithful” (Heb. 11:11) is itself “counted for justness” by the Promiser and, accordingly, thereupon rewarded with “the promise of the Father” (Luke 24:49, Acts 1:4), namely, “the promise of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:23, 28-9, Gal. 2:21-3:29, Eph. 1:13), “which is an earnest [down payment] of the inheritance” (Eph. 1:14) “of the justness which accords with faith” (Heb. 11:7). This faith, in turn, whenever it is seen by “God, the Knower-of-hearts,” He “testifies to” by “giving the Holy Spirit…cleansing [our] hearts by faith” (Acts 15:7-8).
This, then, is the true and authentic “righteousness of God through Jesus Christ’s faith[fulness] [pistis—the Greek term encompasses both faith and faithfulness] for [eis] all and on [epi] all who are believing [pisteuo]” (Rom. 3:22). Thus, not our own, “but that which is through the faith[fulness] of Christ—the justness which is from [ek] God on [our] faith—to know him and the power of his resurrection” (Phil. 3:9-10), exactly as the risen Lord Jesus Christ promised: “And lo! I am commissioning the promise of my Father on you. Now be seated in the city of Jerusalem till you should be putting-on power from on high” (Luke 24:49), and again, “But you shall be obtaining power at the coming-on of the Holy Spirit on you, and you shall be my witnesses…” (Acts 1:8), especially of Christ’s resurrection (Acts 2:22-32, 3:12-16, 5:29-32, 10:38-48, 13:26-39, 26:6-23). This “dispensing of the Spirit” (II Cor. 3:8), the very power of Christ’s resurrection by God, is identical to the “dispensing of justness” (II Cor. 3:9). And thus “the dispensing of death, by letters chiseled in stone” (II Cor. 3:7), that is, “the dispensing of condemnation” (II Cor. 3:9), has been gloriously nullified by this “dispensing of a New Covenant of the Spirit,” for “the Spirit is making alive” (II Cor. 3:6) and thereby constitutes our justness, to reward our receptive faith (Gal. 3:21-2). And all because of God’s “one just award [dikaioma] [to Jesus Christ!] for [eis] all mankind [who believe] for life’s justifying” (Rom. 5:18).
D. The Dispensing of the Holy Spirit
To summarize, “the justness of God” promised by the Old Testament prophets is nothing other than, nothing less than, the coming of the Holy Spirit of God Himself, literally, into [eis] and upon [epi] all believing humanity (Luke 24, Acts 1-5, 10, 13, 15, 26, Rom. 1:1-4, 3:21-28, I Cor. 1:1-2, II Cor. 3-5, Gal. 2:15-6:9, Phil. 3, I John, etc.).
It is precisely because of the centrality of the promised gift [dorea] and gratuity [charisma] of the Holy Spirit that baptism/immersion into the Holy Spirit and communion/participation in the Holy Spirit are so prominent, in fact absolutely fundamental, in the New Covenant Scriptures and the universal practice of the early churches. The New Covenant in Christ’s blood effected the acquisition of the Holy Spirit for all of Gospel-believing mankind. This promised Spirit is the down payment of our enjoyment of Christ’s full inheritance of God’s Kingdom.
Hence, to believe the Gospel and be baptized “in [en] water” is to get immersed “in [en] the name of the Lord Jesus,” or “into [eis] Christ,” which is functionally equivalent to getting immersed “in [en] the Holy Spirit” of Christ promised by his Father. Being thus implanted by baptism, we participate in the Holy Spirit, that is, “the divine nature” (II Peter 1:1-4), in order to bear the fruit of all of God’s character qualities visible in the Lord Jesus (II Peter 1:5-9, Gal. 5:16-26). Through being immersed in the Spirit of Christ, we “become [the] justness of God in him” (II Cor. 5:21), for “from [ek] [God] are [we] in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, besides justness and holiness and deliverance” (I Cor. 1:30). And that’s for starters!
E. False Imputation
Accordingly, to “put off [apothe-]” (Eph. 4:22, 25, Rom. 13:12) or “strip off [apekdu-]” (Col. 3:9) the “false/old humanity” or “acts of darkness” and “put on [endu-]” the “new/young humanity” (Eph. 4:24/Col. 3:10) or “implements of light” (Rom. 13:12), is to walk around in the persona and character of Jesus Christ (Col. 3:12-4:6, Eph. 4:24-6:20), that is, to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 13:14). This process is a joint communal labor of the people of God following baptism—“For whoever are baptized into Christ put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27)—it is not a bare figment of “the imputation of Christ’s righteousness,” which is but a deceptive pattern of unsound words. We must all “be rejuvenated in the spirit of [our] minds” (Eph. 4:23) to stay motivated for the transformation—a virtual personality transplant, incremental though it may be.
Jesus died “as a sinner” in the eyes of humans (Isaiah 53:3-4), but not in the eyes of God. He was never “imputed sin” before God’s bar of judgment; much rather, that bar of judgment totally acquitted him, raised him from the dead, and installed him on a throne, for Heaven’s sake! He certainly need not have been deemed a criminal by God “first,” somehow, in order to be eligible for that exalted honor! Yet some theologians teach that he did. But the bald facts? The Lord Jesus was criminalized by Satan and sinners. His utter obedience through that ordeal won him his spurs and, in turn, our benefaction.
Much of what the Cross of Christ achieves never happened at the Cross at all—most notably, conciliation of human beings back to God. This occurs one by one as people hear the Explanation concerning the exaltation of Jesus by God, through his resurrection from death on a disgraceful cross, and believe it in their hearts. The human heart, then, is the actual locus of conciliation with God—a unilateral process infinitely replicable.
Furthermore, neither did “reconciliation ‘between’ God and man” happen at the Cross. The Bible nowhere intimates (much less explicitly teaches) that God either needed to be, or ever actually was, conciliated with human beings, whether individually or aggregately. Evangelicals routinely override this Biblical silence in a hasty flutter of words without knowledge, in order to invest the Cross with an efficacy the Bible does not claim for it. This spurious glory then detracts from the emphasis that Scripture does directly place on both the objective resurrection of Christ and the subjective faith of the believer. Such upstaging has wrought havoc in theology and ruin in ethics.
In particular, John Calvin’s punitive image of God backed up also into his conception of “reconciliation.” Accordingly, instead of picking up on the apostle Paul’s clues that “reconciliation” in the vertical direction—between God and mankind—was entirely unilateral, hence more accurately “conciliation” of human beings with God, he insisted that God harbored “hostility” against all of humanity on account of their sins. Calvin allowed this punitive penchant to overrule the Bible’s silence on the issue in the matter of “reconciliation” and to interpose his own shaky inference instead. This assumption of his domineered his handling of Scripture. He understandably concluded, given his faulty assumption, that if God needed to be “reconciled” with mankind, the Cross would be the obvious occasion to accomplish it. Ergo: “reconciliation” must be a once-for-all event that happened way back then. This hypothesis (for that is all it amounts to) then proceeds to twist and squeeze the passages that deal with conciliation (katalla-, apokatalla-) into its disfiguring corset. And so the corpulent bounty of God’s graciousness gets choked off considerably, when not actually transmuted into its diametric opposite.
“Reconciliation” with God, to the contrary, is unilateral, not bilateral; consequently, it is not really reconciliation at all (which is two-way), but exclusively conciliation of humans to God. If you must have hostility, you will find it not in God, but in “the handwriting of the decrees [of circumcision, etc.] against us, which was hostile to us.” For His part, however, God Himself, “dealing graciously with all our offenses, erasing” that handwriting, “has taken it away out of the midst, nailing it to the Cross, stripping off the sovereignties and authorities, with boldness He makes a spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it” (Col. 2:13-15). Now that’s a genuine graciousness worth shouting about!
8. Concluding Easter Eggsortation: Which Came First, the ‘Chicken’ or the ‘Egg’?
Translation: Which came first, the Resurrection or the Cross? Did the Cross demand the Resurrection, or did the Resurrection require the Cross? By posing this riddle, I hope to clarify the real reason why the cross of Christ was necessary. It is self-evident from the long, tortured history of crucifixion in antiquity—stretching long before Romulus and Remus ambled along the Tiber—that not one of the multiplied tens of thousands of crucifixions ‘demanded’ a resurrection. Coincidentally, none were reported.
On the other hand, there was this single lone Resurrection, extraordinarily well attested by any ancient or modern standard, in the aftermath of a singularly bloody crucifixion. Did it require that crucifixion, or was that optional, superfluous, an afterthought, mere window dressing, a doily? Let me put it another way. If there had not been such a death preceding it, would that resurrection ever have made history at all? What would such an event even amount to, in the final analysis? Simply another puzzling anomaly or cryptic myth? A fluke? And so what? Bottom line, what worth is a resurrection from the dead, dropping into history out of the blue, if it has no warrant, no rationale, no implications for anyone else? A meaningful resurrection has to have credentials, a lead-up, a follow through, an aftermath, a sufficient historical, cultural, and political context as adhesive to make it stick. A bona fide rising from the dead, above all, must possess a pedigree, a substantial literary prehistory of expectancy as a narrative matrix, or a realistic resurrection cannot come to live birth. If it happened in a corner, it don’t mean nothin’. It’s abortive, a non-starter.
A. The Judicial Rationale for the Resurrection
Against all the odds, this resurrection got off to a solid launch under the thrust of all the aforementioned prerequisites. But there’s more. This resurrection had a judicial rationale impelling it to prominence, because the preceding damnation by crucifixion was itself damnably wrong and deserved to be overruled. It cried out for overturning… and yesterday! This juridical element lends the whole subject a special ambience, an urgency, a necessity, otherwise absent from your merely hypothetical resuscitation.
In the wake of the travesty that is “penal substitution,” the full glory of Messiah’s resurrection is disturbingly dimmed by the implication that it was the limp gesture of a Deity whose first priority was to unload some measure of wrath (either enough for all mankind or, so as not to waste effort imprudently, just enough for the projected “elect”) on His compliant Son to “vindicate” His justice, law, or personal honor. How bitterly ironic, then, that this supposition should actually serve to condemn God’s justice, besmirch His honor, and disgrace His grace. After relieving Himself of His duty (yet who, or, more impersonally, what was forcing Him to that scenario?), He then turned around, beaming at the mangled victim of His own paternal “necessity” (in order to make forgiveness tidy and legal) and brought him back to life now that sin had been sufficiently “paid for” and the Father’s depleted account “reimbursed” by the Son! What kind of Wall Street economics is behind this, and who really gets the sordid kickback from the fall guy?
The actual perversity of this only slight caricature of Protestant evangelical orthodoxy is always quickly covered up by the much flaunted but dubious rationale: “love.” Thereby Evangelicals bury the snare and trap the unwary, to their discomfiture.
B. Where Was Love?
But where was “love,” exactly? Certainly not in the “punishment” that Messiah was alleged to bear for our sins. No, they all agree that was God’s “justice” being demonstrated. What, then? Was God cleaning up His own mess at the Cross? We expect children to do that much, at least before giving them a treat. This is not compelling. Who made this big mess? Did the bloody mess move God to take pity on His victim (the rare criminal might express such regrets or remorse, perhaps even repentance) and thus wave His hand magically to undo His own work? Is this the “change in God” insisted on by so many penal atonement advocates in order to “reconcile God with man”? Doesn’t that make of the whole grim spectacle a macabre bit of playacting to “prove” something rather inconsequential? For whatever that may be, it can hardly be “God’s hatred of sin” since it was bought at the unacceptable price of genuine logic, empathy, good conscience, fairness, graciousness, yes, even of love itself!
Viewing from another angle, did Jesus “shed his own blood,” as we often say (but Scripture never does), or did others shed his blood? For most certainly God did not! The biblical witness is unitary and unambiguous: “This One, surrendered in the specific counsel and foreknowledge of God [although not culpable of what was to follow], you, gibbeting by the hand of the lawless, assassinate” (Acts 2:23); “this Jesus whom you crucify!” (Acts 2:36); “Jesus, whom you, indeed, surrender and disown before the face of Pilate, when he decides to release him. Now you disown the holy and just One and request a man, a murderer, to be surrendered to you as a favor. Yet the Inaugurator of life you kill…” (Acts 3:14-15); “Jesus Christ, the Nazarene, whom you crucify…this is the Stone that is being scorned by you builders…” (Acts 4:10, 11); “Jesus, on whom you lay hands, hanging him on a pole.” (Acts 5:30); “the Just One, of whom now you became the traitors and murderers…” (Acts 7:52); “Whom they [the Jews] assassinate also, hanging him on a pole” (Acts 10:39); “those dwelling in Jerusalem and their chiefs, being ignorant of him and of the voices of the prophets which are read on every Sabbath, fulfill them [according to the Spirit of God’s foreknowledge, not with His complicity] in judging him. And, finding not one cause of death, they request Pilate to have him dispatched. Now as they accomplish all that which is written concerning him [by foreknowledge, not “predestination”], taking him down from the pole…” (Acts 13:27-9).
We see, then, that not only did God not shed His Son’s blood, neither did Jesus “shed his own blood.” The Jews, at the hands of Gentiles, plotted this villainy that God was thereby exquisitely set up to set right! So, where was love amid this whole sad scenario? Is it too much to suggest that it just might be evident in the Father and Son’s identical forbearance from any immediate show of penal justice in response to this horrific miscarriage of justice? Yet the follow-up was even more extravagant: graciously bequeathing the Holy Spirit of everlasting life to the condemned race—Jews, Romans, Greeks, barbarians, and beyond! For “in their [Jews] offense is salvation to the nations” (Rom. 11:11). In sum, God saved Jesus from sinners in order to save sinners through him, and consequently for Himself. Thus did Jesus “buy us for God” (Rev. 5:9) by voluntarily submitting to the vicious shedding of his blood, without which “there is no pardon” (Heb. 9:22)—but, you see, for a vastly different reason than is usually alleged!
By grating contrast, the tradeoff of “God’s grace for Christ’s payment” is such an insult to the Jehovah of the Old Testament that no wonder it is scarcely recognizable from any Old Testament narrative, psalm, proverb, prophecy, or analogy. As a concept, “penal substitution”—simply a more virulent species of “vicarious satisfaction”—is so strange, so unusual, so unexampled in Scripture that its alien nature long ago aroused a reaction from devout students of Scripture.
C. No Mere Love Potion
However, not even the classic objections of Peter Abelard (1079-1142), the early challenger of satisfaction theory, could put the record straight or lay the controversy to rest. For to react against virtually all application of juridical categories, as he did, is to deprive oneself of precisely the legal antidote called for by the ailing legal doctrine. Abelard’s “love potion,” although it at least had the virtue of highlighting what the Cross, rightly grasped, should reveal, could not heal the deadly wounds inflicted upon the body of doctrine, especially by Calvin’s later introduction of hard-nosed criminal jurisprudence. The “love” it prescribed simply did not possess the full apostolic potency of awarding divinely justified super-compensation to the worthy Victim as its active ingredient. This is an indispensable component of divinely “tough” love. Appealing though it may seem at first blush, Abelard’s famous alternative formula lacked adequate potency to out-compete the deceptive appeal and impact of its punitively armed rival.
The apostolic proclamation, on the other hand, happily does have the judicial rationale, drawn from the covenantal structure of Biblical authority, to completely rout the exclusively penal commandeering of “justice” and “satisfaction.” The Hebraic roots of the apostolic message are rugged enough to withstand the nine-century onslaught since Anselm (1033-1109) first articulated a full-blown satisfaction theory of atonement, and also to re-emerge now in authentic premial regalia. It is with such restorative, rewarding, resurrectionary justice that God is romancing the whole human race and inviting all comers to become true lovers, with Him. This is the genuine Romance of the Atonement.
D. The Doctrine of Substitution Is Subversive of Christ’s Judicial Resurrection
The prevalent emphasis on a “substitutionary” atonement is inversely proportional to the apostolic and early Christian prominence of Christ’s resurrection. This explains why Anselm, the prime inventor of “vicarious satisfaction,” had virtually nothing substantial to say about the resurrection of Jesus Christ, as scholars of the subject are well aware, and any reader can readily observe. It didn’t matter to him theologically. He had “no need of that hypothesis” whatever, because all God’s justice was diverted toward a “substitute,” Jesus, instead of being executed upon its proper objects—the sinners who deserved it. These awkward mechanics were necessitated by Anselm’s assumption about justice being exclusively punitive satisfaction (although in a modality of civil law, in preference to criminal law, which Calvin was to assume several centuries later, to much greater and more negative historic effect). Had Anselm grasped the Biblical view of premial justice, he might well have forestalled Calvin’s fateful turn to the dark side of justice, which built further, and more detrimentally, upon Anselm’s legal and economic metaphors. In actuality, God’s premial justice was exerted directly toward Jesus at his resurrection, and it is this identical ransoming power that furnishes the atoning energies of regeneration, life, healing, holiness, etc., to sinners—namely, the Holy Spirit of promise.
Ergo: the theological centrality of Christ’s resurrection cannot be fully restored to its original, apostolic prominence so long as any version of “substitutionary” atonement predominates. You can either have “substitution” (penal) or resurrection (premial) as centerpiece of the Atonement, but you cannot have both, at least not without irresolvable tensions and paradoxes, if not flat out contradictions, in soteriology (the doctrine of salvation). We must settle once and for all which justice is operant in the Lord Jesus Christ’s Cross-cum-Resurrection, and whether it is prudent to neglect “a salvation of such proportions which, obtaining a beginning through the speaking of the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who hear him, God corroborating, both by signs and miracles and by various powerful deeds and partings of Holy Spirit, according to His desire” (Heb. 2:3-4).
A corollary to the above observations is that the degree to which the idea of penal (whether civil or criminal) substitutionary satisfaction dominates the doctrine of salvation, is the degree to which the significance of the Holy Spirit in salvation will be suppressed or minimized as well, and for a parallel reason as with the Resurrection.
Penal justice warps soteriology by forging an artificial mechanism for conveying justice toward a saving end. Penal justice necessitates some prosthetic conveyance for relaying safety to its objects. It needs a substitute route for its expression because the direct route of penal justice would terminate on the guilty sinner in a destructive scenario. Thus the conjured “need” for a bypass that detours around direct destruction en route to salvation.
Now, when such a punitive justice terminates on a perfectly innocent victim, then even worse dynamics take over—strange, enigmatic, even shocking and repugnant to any developed sense of fairness and conscience. God’s beloved Son is brutally slain; how can anything worthy of the name justice be “satisfied” by that! We’ve touched off a hornet’s nest. We need to ponder its deleterious effects on personal and social ethics, etc.
On the other hand, when premial justice is the operant modality in salvation, everything becomes luminous. Naturally, such justice requires a worthy object of its reward, although the very human beings that need it obviously cannot qualify. Yet the Lord Jesus Christ did qualify for that judicial award of salvation—the inheritance of agelong life and glory in God’s Kingdom, including the requisite authority over it all. Moreover, he was eligible to receive all of it directly.
It follows “directly” from this revolutionary truth that what God was enacting when he raised His Son from the dead was what we might justifiably dub “premial satisfaction.” And that by divine necessity! It was payback (apodo-) time on behalf of God’s faithfully obedient and sinless Son. For retributive justice (which is to say, all real justice without exception) cuts two ways: either premially or penally, depending on the deserts of the defendant (Matt. 6:4-6,18, 16:27; Luke 14:12,14; Rom. 2:2-16, 3:19, 12:19; Col. 3:24; 2 Thess. 1:6; 2 Tim. 4:8,14; Heb. 10:30; Rev. 5:8-10, 18:6, 22:12). Let’s not overreact by equating retribution with retaliation, reprisal, or revenge, then dismissing it wholesale!
Yet that’s still not the whole story. Possessed of “all authority in heaven and on earth,” Christ bestows the right to life upon whomever he pleases. He obtained this right from God and uses it according to his already proven graciousness and royal magnanimity. In this extraordinary scenario, what God restores to him he gives away for free, on faith!
These distinctions should help clarify more precisely what we mean—and what others may mean—by the term “vicarious.” If the much vaunted “substitutionary” recourse is precluded by premial justice, then the word “vicarious” need not support the unwieldy load of “substitutionary” meaning that has been imposed upon it during centuries of sedimentary layering by theologians of a blindly penal substitutionary persuasion.
If the above argument is substantially correct, then the role of Jesus in salvation is not that of a “Substitute” but of a Benefactor. He, according to this mode of dispensing justice, relays portions of his own judicial award to his loved ones, that is, those who trust and obey him as Lord. He is the Mediator who channels his own gifts to us—both the booty his victory recovered from the usurper, Satan, and his further award from God for his obedient faithfulness. In his jubilant triumph, he “gives gifts to mankind” (Eph. 4:7-10). As the mediating Benefactor of God’s own bounty, Jesus never experienced God’s wrath as a roundabout object of His penal justice, i.e., as our penal “Substitute.” He only “tasted death” as a wrongful penalization by sinners so that his Father could magnify His favor toward him by executing the premial justice he had “earned” (better: deserved) by his lifelong obedience of faith, and of which he had been wrongly deprived by his own people, Israel, under Satan’s lying, thieving, murderous tactics.
Within this premial framework, the Holy Spirit assumes a much more significant role as the sum and substance of the great salvation that the Lord Jesus Christ procured for us and for all mankind—whoever follow him, taking up their cross daily, trusting him to the end. This is why baptism into Christ is, by the same token, baptism in the Holy Spirit.
To the question, “Which came first, the Resurrection or the Cross?” I hope the answer is now clearer than ever. We have been taught to think of the Resurrection as the apologetic clincher—a sort of happy afterthought—to an Atonement that happened a few days earlier at the Cross. In reality, the other way around would closer approximate the facts, although much is necessarily left unsaid in a document of this size. Christ’s cross was the apologetic seal of his no-nonsense death; his resurrection from that death, by contrast, is what made atonement possible, permitting God to magnify His extraordinary benignity and graciousness, while simultaneously retaining the high ground of justice, correctly understood. This Gospel is to die for!—and then to live and love for.
I find such considerations convincing and motivationally transforming. How about you?
(March 7-8, 10, 12-13, 18-20, 22, 26-29, 31, April 2-3, 5, 16, 18, 22, 24-26, 28-30, May 1-3, 5, 7-8, 10, 14-17, 22-23, 26, June 1, 12-14, 16-25, 29, July 1-11, 14, 18, 30-31, Aug. 5, 9, 11, 14, 16-17, 22, 29, Sept. 2, 15, 28, Oct. 2, 4-5, Nov. 3-4, 2013, Feb. 20, 26-27, May 6, 8, 2014)
© 2013, 2014, Ronald L. Roper
Scriptures in heading, King James Version. All others:
New Testament quotations adapted from the Concordant Literal New Testament
Old Testament quotations adapted from the Concordant Version of the Old Testament