Category Archives: Christian Theology

Theological thoughts written for interested non experts

The Church’s Christology Or The Real Jesus?

In the previous post we began a study of the identity of Jesus Christ. We looked at many New Testament texts that speak about Jesus’ identity. We spent most of the time examining the Gospel of Mark. We saw there and in the rest of the New Testament a very important distinction being made between the offices and functions that Jesus is said to have held and performed and his person, that is, the personal characteristics that qualified him to perform these functions. Perhaps divinely chosen and empowered human beings could hold some of these offices and perform some of these functions, for example, prophet, priest, and king. There were other lawgivers, exorcists, and miracle workers. But the New Testament makes clear that Jesus performs many of these functions by his own authority and some of the titles given to him clearly refer to his person as well as his offices. This is clearly true of the title “Lord” and “Savior” and “Word” and “Son of God.” It is impossible to imagine designating a mere human being by these titles.

Jesus’ Authority Over Kosher Laws

Before I move on to the question of the validity of the New Testament’s Christology, I want to consider one other text in the Gospel of Mark. Mark gives 23 verses to the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees and the teachers of the law over the disciples’ eating without observing the traditions about ritual cleansing before eating (Mark 7). Let’s take up the story at verse 14:

14 Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15 Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”

17 After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18 “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? 19 For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)

Notice Mark’s extension and application of Jesus’ statement in verses 18 and 19. “Jesus declared all foods clean.” Compare Mark’s observation with the story of Peter’s vision in Acts 10. Peter sees a sheet full of clean and unclean animals being lowered from heaven. A voice from heaven tells Peter to “kill and eat” (10:13). Peter protests. But the heavenly voice, whom Peter addresses as “Lord” (Jesus?) rebukes Peter, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (10:15). Because of this encounter with the Lord, Peter understands that God has opened the door of the kingdom to gentiles. Mark contends that even during his earthly ministry Jesus had implicitly declared all foods clean. Mark clearly views Jesus as having the authority to change the Old Testament kosher laws. Jesus does not need a vision and a voice heaven to give him the right to make this declaration. He already has that right because of who he is.

The Origin of Christology

The New Testament views Jesus Christ as the eternal Son of God, the Word of God who has taken on human nature for our sakes. The wording of the Nicene Creed (381) in reference to Christ does not differ in content to the New Testament teaching:

And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
begotten from the Father before all ages,
God from God,
Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made;
of the same essence as the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven;
he became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary,
and was made human.
He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered and was buried.
The third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again with glory
to judge the living and the dead.
His kingdom will never end.

But were the first disciples, Paul, John, and the writer of Hebrews making legitimate inferences from their knowledge of what Jesus actually said, did, and what happened to him to their high Christology? Can the church’s Christology be justified by the facts about Jesus? I dealt with this question from the angle of apologetics in the January 2015 posts on the resurrection. I shall address it here briefly as the question of the origin of Christology.

Apart from their belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the apostles’ embrace of such an exalted view of Jesus Christ as we find in the New Testament is inconceivable. [Note: the term “bodily resurrection” is redundant, but I use it anyway since Liberal Christianity claims Jesus was “raised” only in a spiritual or metaphorical sense, a use of the term resurrection I consider duplicitous.] It would never have occurred to anyone to see in the crucified, dead Jesus God’s triumph over sin and death. No one would have dreamed of preaching that Jesus’ death on the cross was the turning point of the history of salvation. Pursuing the question of the identity of Jesus would not have been worth the effort. Only the bodily resurrection could have provided justification for developing Christology. This much is certain.

The question I am asking, however, is not whether the bodily resurrection of Jesus provoked the origin of some type of Christology but whether or not it justifies the exalted Christology of Paul, John, Hebrews, and the Nicene Creed. For it is (superficially) conceivable that God could raise a human being from the dead for a reason other than declaring him to be the eternal Son of God. In the case of Jesus no such ambiguity was possible for at least three reasons:

(1) clearly the resurrection would be understood as God’s validation of Jesus’ teaching and activity and a declaration of his innocence of the charges that lead to his death. But as we have seen, Jesus taught and acted with unprecedented authority and his claims about his relationship with God were considered blasphemous by the Jewish rulers. By rescuing Jesus from the dead God declared Jesus’ claims to be true. Hence Jesus claims, his teaching, and his actions—as the disciples remembered them—became significant for the development of Christology.

(2) Jesus’ resurrection was not merely a return to his former life. It was the definitive salvation into eternal life promised for the end of the age. Jesus is the bringer of salvation. In him the end of all things has appeared and the meaning of creation has been completed. Christology seeks to understand the connection between the one through whom God brings salvation to the world and the God to whom Jesus prayed.

(3) Paul and the original apostles experienced Jesus alive after the resurrection in a way that convinced them not only that Jesus was alive but also that he was united to God, permeated with the Holy Spirit, and endowed with divine authority. Hence they called him “Lord,” worshiped him, prayed to him, obeyed him, and expected salvation from him. Their experience of the resurrected Jesus made necessary the development of an account of his person and his relationship to the God of Israel and the Spirit of God.

Taking all three of these aspects into account, we begin to understand why the apostles and Paul developed the very exalted Christology we find in the New Testament. Nothing less could do justice to the facts of their experience of Jesus.

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Who is Jesus?

The first generation of Christians was occupied with grasping for themselves and explaining to others the identity of Jesus of Nazareth.  One of the earliest identifiers is expressed in the confession, “Jesus is Lord” (1 Corinthians 12:3; Romans 10:9). His original disciples also designated Jesus as Messiah, Son of God, Savior of the world, Word of God, and many more titles. Jesus saves and judges the world. He is the one through whom God created the universe (Hebrews 1:1-3) and the one in whom the fullness of God dwells (Colossians 2:9).

He existed in the “form of God” but took on the “form of a servant” (Philippians 2). The eternal Word became flesh and lived among us (John 1:14). He is the “true God and eternal life” (1 John 5:20). Jesus is not identified in a one-to-one correspondence with the God of Israel to whom Jesus prayed as “Father.” He is distinct from but in the closest and most intimate relationship with the God the Father.

Though Jesus is called a prophet, lawgiver, messenger and teacher, he is more, much more. The Gospel of Mark begins with the affirmation that this is the story of “Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). Mark’s gospel tells the story of how Jesus came to be recognized as “Messiah” and “Son of God.” John baptized with water, but Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit. What a contrast! Jesus speaks with authority and casts out demons, which recognize him as “the Holy One of God” (1:24). He heals the sick and raises the dead with a simple command and in complete confidence.

In Mark 8, Jesus asks the question “Who do people say that I am?” At this point in the narrative, Jesus’ actions and words have asserted such unprecedented authority and provoked such wonder that none of the usual labels can do him justice. Peter replies to Jesus, “You are the Christ” (8:28). But not even that label says all that needs to be said about Jesus. For “messiah” means one anointed to be “king,” and Jesus, we discover, is more than a king.

In the next chapter (Mark 9), Jesus is transfigured and meets with Moses and Elijah. The three disciples wish to honor Jesus as the equal of Moses the great lawgiver and Elijah the greatest of the prophets. But God, speaking from heaven declares, “This is my Son listen to him.” Jesus is greater than the law and the prophets! He is God’s “Son.” Mark wants us to view Jesus’ messiahship or kingship—which could be viewed simply as an office like those of prophet and priest—in light of his “Sonship.” When the human beings in Mark’s gospel speak about Jesus’ identity, they speak of him as the bearer of an office such as king or prophet, but when God or demons speak, they speak about Jesus’ person, that is, the inherent personal qualities that make him qualified for the work he does and the offices he holds.

In Mark, as well as the rest of the New Testament, the title “Son of God” means more than an office; it means an intimate relationship with the Father based not simply on a divine choice but on something analogous to natural kinship. John calls Jesus “the only-begotten” Son of God, emphasizing the uniqueness of Jesus relationship to the Father (John 1:15), and Paul contrasts Jesus the Son of God with “the sons of God” who are adopted into “sonship,” in an obvious contrast between natural born and adopted children (Romans 8:15). Jesus is “Son of God” by nature. There never was a time when he was not God’s Son.

 Israel’s lawgivers, prophets, judges and priests were chosen by God from among the people and endowed with the authority of the office. Whatever authority they exercised or wisdom they displayed derived not from their own persons but from their divine appointment. Apart from that divine choice, they are just like their brother and sister Israelites. But Jesus was not only chosen and appointed for his work in this world. He was sent from the Father. He is not qualified because he was appointed but he was appointed because he was qualified. And this fact distinguishes Jesus Christ from all prior and succeeding prophets, priests and lawgivers. Jesus is Lord.

To be continued…

 

Baptism as a Prayer

Last week we examined the New Testament’s teaching about baptism “before controversies, speculations, and hypotheticals.” I endeavored to compile the texts that speak about baptism and examine them in their context without detail theological analysis and application. Today I want to present a rather modest theology of baptism in view of the questions and concerns that have arisen in the history of the church. Before I do this, let’s summarize the NT statements on baptism:

  • Jesus was baptized (Mark 1:9-11).
  • Jesus commanded his apostles to baptize (Matthew 28:18-20.
  • Baptism was the universal practice of the church (Ephesians 4:5; 1 Cor 12:13).
  • Baptism is associated with the working of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38; 1 Cor 12:13).
  • We are baptized into Christ (Romans 6:3; Galatians 3:27).
  • Baptism brings “forgiveness of sins” (Acts 2:38).
  • Baptism (with the Spirit) brings new birth (John 3:5-6).
  • Baptism is a washing that removes sin and makes holy (Ephesians 4:25-27; Acts 22:16).
  • Baptism is a burial and resurrection with Christ (Colossians 2:12; Romans 6:3-4).
  • Baptism “saves us” (1 Peter 3:21).

 

Baptism in the Creeds and Confessions of Faith

Given the NT teaching and practice summarized above, it should not be surprising that nearly all the creeds and confessions of faith mention baptism. Below I list representative creedal statements on baptism:

The Niceneo-Constantinopolitan Creed (Ecumenical, 381)

“…and I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins.”

The Council of Trent (Roman Catholic, 1563)

“If any one saith, that baptism is free, that is, not necessary unto salvation: let him be anathema”

Longer Catechism of the Eastern Church (Moscow, 1839)

Baptism is a Sacrament, in which…[the baptized person] dies to the carnal life of sin, and is born again of the Holy Ghost to a life spiritual and holy.”

The Augsburg Confession of Faith (Lutheran, 1530)

“Of Baptism they [Lutherans] teach that it is necessary to salvation, and that by Baptism the grace of God is offered….”

The Heidelberg Catechism (Reformed, 1563)

Question 69: “How is it signified and sealed unto thee in holy Baptism that thou hast part in the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross?

Thus: that Christ has appointed this outward washing with water and has joined therewith this promise, that I am washed with his blood and Spirit from… [sin].”

The Scotch Confession of faith (Church of Scotland, [Presbyterian], 1560)

The sacraments are “Baptisme and the Supper or the Table of the Lord Jesus, called the Communion of his Body and Blude….And this we utterlie damne the vanitie of thay that affirme Sacramentes to be nathing ellis bot naked and baire signes. No, wee assuredlie beleeve that be Baptisme we ar ingrafted in Christ Jesus, to be made partakers of his justice, be quhilk our sinnes ar covered and remitted.”

The Westminster Confession of Faith (English Puritan, 1647)

Baptism is “a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his engrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God….Although it be a great sin to contemn or neglect the ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it as that no person can be regenerated or saved without it, or that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated….The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance the grace promised is not only offered, but really conferred by the Holy Ghost….”

The Baptist Confession of 1688; also known as the Philadelphia Confession of Faith (Calvinist Baptists)

”Baptism is an ordinance…to be unto the party baptized a sign of his fellowship with Christ…of being engrafted into him; of the remission of sins….”

Confession of Free Will-Baptists (1834, 1868)

“This is the immersion of believers in water…in which are represented the burial and resurrection of Christ, the death of Christian to the world, the washing of their souls from the pollution of sin…”

A Modest Theology of Baptism

I might as well acknowledge that there have been debates and disagreement among believers in Christ about the mode of baptism, its purpose or effect, its proper candidates, who is qualified to administer it, and other aspects of baptismal practice. Today, I shall ignore all of these debates except one: does baptism, properly performed—whatever that means—really effect the gifts and promises to which the New Testament connects it? In answering this question, we need first to be reminded of how strong and realistic the New Testament language about the effect of baptism is. On the face of it, it asserts that God, the Spirit and Christ really act in and through baptism to bestow the gifts associated with it. The Nicene Creed and all Roman Catholic and Orthodox creeds maintain this same realism of divine action through baptism. Among Protestants, Lutherans also continue the realism. But the Reformed side of the Protestant Reformation weakened and eventually dropped the realistic language and began to use the language of metaphor, symbol, sign, representation, and seal to describe the connection between the “external” rite of baptism and the “spiritual” promises associated with it.

The reasons why Reformed Protestants and those churches that derive from this tradition shifted from realism to symbolism in their understanding of baptism are more complicated than I can explain in this post. But two reasons stand out as relevant to today. (1) The Roman Catholic Church seemed to Protestants of that era to claim in its view of the sacraments to control where and when God acted for human salvation. And this idea is an offense to the freedom and sovereignty of God. (2) To some Reformed theologians—Zwingli, for example—the realistic view of divine action in the sacraments seemed superstitious and magical. The Reformed solution to these two problems was to shift from a realistic to a symbolic understanding of baptism and the other sacraments. God cannot be manipulated to act simply by our performance of a rite such as baptism. So, the human act of performing and receiving the rite of baptism is dissociated from God’s act of forgiving, giving the Spirit, the new birth, union with Christ, washing away sins, saving, etc. And this view is very popular among contemporary evangelical Christians.

Must we simply choose one side or the other, the purely symbolic or the manipulative and magical view of baptism? I don’t think so. The realistic tone of the New Testament drives me to seek another way to preserve the freedom and sovereignty of God and the realistic connection between the human performance of the rite and God’s action of grace.

Baptism as a Prayer

What if we considered baptism a prayer? Protestants usually believe that Jesus’ commanded us to pray and gave us a model prayer, that we are to pray always, that we are to petition the Father in Jesus’ name, that we are to pray according to the will of God, and that prayer is effective. Perhaps some people treat prayer as manipulative and magical. But most Protestants understand that God invites us to pray and sometimes wishes to give his gifts in response to prayer. I don’t know of a theology of prayer that completely dissociates our prayers from God’s hearing and acting to answer our prayers the way some theologies of baptism dissociate the human act of baptism from God’s action. Not many people refuse to pray for fear of offending divine sovereignty. Few view the connection between a sincere prayer and God’s act in answer to that prayer as “metaphor, symbol, sign, representation, or seal.” Instead, we view prayer as a precious gift God gives to his children that enables us to partner with God in this world.

Why not view baptism in the same way? The church, in performing the rite of baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and the candidate for baptism, by asking for baptism and submitting to it, offer this act to God as a prayer to God requesting the gifts he has promised to give when we ask. Sincere prayer is not manipulative or magical. It is not a work meriting anything from God. It is an obedient act that appeals to the gracious God for blessings that he has promised to give those who love him. In the same way, baptism is a beautiful prayer embodied in a physical action in response to a divine command and invitation. It seeks the blessings God has promised to those who trust in Jesus Christ. And we know that the prayer of baptism will receive a positive answer because God is faithful to his promises!

 

 

 

What Has FAITH Got to Do With Salvation?

In recent essays we considered how God deals with three aspects of the sinful human condition through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Jesus enacts God’s forgiveness in his dying on the cross, and in the resurrection of Jesus by the power of the Spirit, God heals the damage and death sin causes. The power by which God raised Jesus from the dead will also raise us to a new life free from the power of sin. But how does God’s work in Jesus Christ affect us here and now?

In addressing these questions we must keep two things in mind. (1) The New Testament sees Jesus Christ not only as the Savior but as the first truly saved human being. His action is not only divine but also human. His acts of obedience were not only righteous as divine but also as human. Jesus Christ was one of us as well as one of the Trinity. Hence we can say that one of us, flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone, lived a righteous life completely pleasing to God. With God all things are possible! What God did for Jesus he can do for us through Jesus! (2) The New Testament sees the salvation that God enacted in and through Jesus as the realization of God’s eternal plan for creation. Jesus’ human salvation, that is, his deliverance from the deadly consequences of sin (other people’s sin) and his glorification, happened to him alone. And it happened to Jesus before the end, before it happens to the rest of creation. Jesus is the first of a future, new humanity.

How, then, does what God did in Jesus affect us? How do I begin to experience the salvation that Jesus experienced? First, consider that the salvation described in the New Testament involves objective and subjective elements. Salvation involves the whole person, and our existence is comprised of conscious and unconscious dimensions. God could forgive (that is, not take revenge for sin’s insult) and prevent the worst consequences of sin from running their course even if you were unaware of it. But you cannot stop sinning and come to love God and your neighbor without consciously willing to do so. Salvation involves liberation of the will, so that we truly will God’s will above our own private interests. Or, let me put it another way: no one can be saved apart from their own knowledge and will, without their own active participation. You cannot unwillingly or unconsciously love God or become holy or experience glorification.

The New Testament message proclaims that we can enjoy the salvation that has appeared in Jesus Christ. It is not meant for him alone. God unites us to Christ and we join ourselves to Christ so that his qualities become ours and we enjoy the salvation he experienced. (Note: God’s grace always precedes and empowers our action, but our act is really ours.) God has demonstrated in Christ that he does not want to take revenge on us. Instead he wants to heal and liberate us. And the power for this healing and liberation is at work in the sphere of Christ and the Holy Spirit. And we need access to that power and presence.

The most basic act by which we join ourselves to Christ is faith. It’s not love or obedience or repentance or any other subjective act of our wills. Of course, faith implies all of these virtues, but the New Testament places the priority on faith. Faith is such a rich concept that I can only begin the plumb its depths. There is a mysterious side to the act of faith because, apart from the preaching of the gospel and work of the Spirit, faith in Christ as Savior and Lord would be impossible. But I want to concentrate in this essay on the visible, human side of faith.

For many reasons, faith is a fitting human response to God’s work in Jesus Christ. (1) Faith is an act of knowing. It embraces the apostolic testimony to Jesus Christ as the truth. By believing the apostolic witnesses, it gains access to the knowledge that God raised Jesus from the dead and to other aspects of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. This knowledge enables us to think of God, pray to God, obey God, and direct our love to God as we see him in the face of Jesus Christ. The act of believing is already the beginning of our transformation. It changes what we think of God and allows us to direct all our energies toward the true God. God is always near, the risen Jesus Christ fills the universe, and the Spirit is closer to us than our own spirit whether we know it or not. But in faith we come to know his true identity and the true depth of his love for us.

(2) The act of faith is acknowledgment. Faith acknowledges its poverty, its total dependence on God for everything good. Faith is not an adventurous act of human discovery, a brilliant insight into the nature of things, or an exceptional act of righteousness. It is a humble admission that God is God and we are not and that Jesus Christ is Savior and Lord; we cannot save or rule ourselves. (3) Faith is affirmation. The act of faith not only admits that God is God, it joyously affirms this and celebrates it. Faith affirms that the distinction between the Creator and the creature is good and right. The believer finds his/her joy in being a creature given existence by the Creator and a sinner saved by the Savior.

(4) Faith is an act of trust. It takes the promise of the gospel as certain. In faith, we embrace the word of Jesus Christ as completely reliable. We believe he will forgive us, heal us, and purify us. He will deliver us from death. (5) Faith is an act of certainty. Faith embraces Jesus Christ wholeheartedly and confidently as the truth about God and human destiny. Hence it inspires bold action. It gives rise to courageous acts of love, forgiveness, repentance, obedience, grace, and holiness.

(6) Faith is an act of uniting ourselves to Jesus Christ. In saying this I am returning to the theme of the first half of this essay. If we are to benefit from Christ’s salvation, we must be united to him and receive the divine power at work in him. Jesus Christ is not merely a historical figure about whom we have some information. He is alive. In the power of the Spirit, he is present and active everywhere. But Jesus speaks to us today through his words and deeds that are remembered and preached by his apostles. By believing, we know he is alive and available to us. We know who he is, what he is like, how much he loves us, and what he has promised us. When faith listens to the words of the gospel, it hears the voice of One alive and present.

By the time you read these words of mine, my act of saying them will be past. Nevertheless by reading them you will be joining your mind to my mind, your heart to my heart. Even when we read the words of someone long dead we have a feeling of understanding and knowing them. But Jesus is not dead; he is alive. His words remain his living voice. They are not echoes from the past but trumpet blasts in the present. And through his living voice we have fellowship with him, mind to mind and heart to heart. In this conversation and find ourselves united to him through faith. In view of these thoughts perhaps the words of John may take on a meaning we had not perceived before:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ (1 John 1:1-3).

Original Sin and Perfect Salvation

Jesus Christ is Savior and Lord. This is the heart of the good news Christians proclaim to the world. Too often, however, we find ourselves unable to explain what this confession means, that is, how it illuminates our situation and why it is good news. In response to the question about how Jesus saves us, we resort to other confessional assertions: Jesus “gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Galatians 1:3). Or, Jesus was “delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Romans 4:25).  Or, “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them” (2Corinthians 5:17).

These words were no doubt overflowing with transparent meaning for Paul and his hearers when he first uttered them. But after 2,000 years of use in worship and teaching they tend to become formulas we are taught to repeat on certain occasions. We assume we know what they mean because we know when to say them. I do not question the genuine faith, commitment, and spiritual experience of anyone who confesses these words. We need not understand our faith to great depth in order to love Jesus Christ for who he is and what he has done, to feel deep gratitude for God’s mercy, and to live for him our whole lives. Nevertheless, wouldn’t our genuine faith be strengthened, our love deepened, our commitment reinforced, and our witness emboldened by gaining a deeper understanding of our faith that Jesus is Savior and Lord? And this is what I am hoping to accomplish in this miniseries on Jesus as Savior.

In the previous four essays I’ve addressed the nature of sin, the forgiveness of sins, and the possibility of healing sin’s destructive consequences. Today, I want to address one of the most difficult and mysterious aspects of Jesus saving activity, that is, how Jesus liberates sinners from sinful condition of the will that makes sinful acts inevitable. In the first essay in this series I defined sin in these words:

Sin is a condition of the human will in which we affirm our own private interests and trust our own private judgment about good and bad instead of trusting and affirming the perfect will of our Creator. Out of this condition of the heart arise sinful acts, acts that attempt to force God’s creation into conformity with our wills. In sin, we substitute ourselves for God. We attempt to become our own protectors, providers, and judges. We act as if we were wiser, stronger, and better than God. Rejecting our own created nature, we try to remake ourselves according to our fanciful image of what we wish we were. Then we begin working to remake the rest of the world into our distorted image, creating death and destruction everywhere.

Paul, John, and all other New Testament writers are completely confident that “all have sinned” (Romans 3:23; see also 5:12) and that “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us…If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us” (1John 1:8-10). They are certain that human nature is always accompanied by a condition that inevitably produces sinful acts. How can Paul and John be so confident that everyone who has ever lived and ever will live sins? (Jesus Christ is the one exception. For how could Jesus save us from a condition from which he suffers and needs to be saved?) Do they think sin is part of our created nature? No, this answer is not an option because it makes sin a divine creation and sinful acts an innocent expression of human nature. It is neither. How can we understand this strange situation? As you have already guessed, this paradox or mystery has been addressed in the traditional doctrine of original sin.

The Western (Roman Catholic and Protestant) church’s doctrine of original sin derives its classic formulation from Ambrose and Augustine (4th and 5th centuries). The Eastern church (Orthodoxy) rejects it. The term original sin possesses several nuances of meaning. It means Adam and Eve’s original sin that brought sin and death into the world. The doctrine differentiates between the created nature of Adam and Eve and their act and its results. Because of Adam’s sin, created human nature now finds itself wounded, weak, and bereft of the support it needs to fulfill its task of living as God’s image in the world. And in a second sense, the term original sin refers to the condition into which every human being is born, that is, wounded, weak, and bereft of the support it needs to fulfill its task of living as God’s image in the world. (*For another meaning of “original sin,” see the note below.)

And because human nature is born in this weakened state, a person’s first interior acts of will turn inward to affirm their own private interests above those of others and the divine will. By the time a child reaches the age of reason and can make free choices among alternatives, the will to private interest, conditioned first by weakness and ignorance, has been reinforced by habit to form a sort of second nature impossible to escape. This second nature feels like our true self. The prospect of losing this “self” strikes us as a threat of slavery, alienation, and death. In our personal sins, our weakened condition and our false self expresses itself in our own acts in the world. In this way our inherited weakness becomes our enacted guilt.

How does Jesus Christ save us from this condition? As we saw in previous essays, Jesus embodies and enacts God’s forgiveness in his cross, and in his resurrection grounds our hope that sin’s destructive effects will be repaired. How does Jesus liberate us from the original condition from which sinful acts continually arise and cause offense and harm? It should not surprise us that a radical problem demands a radical solution. If our original weakness becomes a second nature (a false self) through our in-turned will and our sinful acts, the only way out is death and resurrection. The old self or the sinful nature must be purged and human nature strengthened, healed, and supported so that we can live as images of God. This change is so dramatic that the New Testament speaks of it as a new birth or a new creation that results in a new human being.

The resurrected Jesus Christ is first of these new human beings. Paul contrasts Jesus with Adam:

20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive (1Corinthians 15:20-22).

45 So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. 46 The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. 47 The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. 48 As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. 49 And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man (1 Corinthians 15:45-49).

God saves us from our sinful condition by including us by the power of the Spirit in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, so that we share in the effects of his death and resurrection.

Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life (Romans 6:3-4).

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here (2Corinthians 5:17)!

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory (Colossians 3:1-3).

In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (1Peter 1:3).

We must still die our own death, but we do not have to die alone. The meaning of our personal death is completely changed. Apart from Jesus, our death would be merely the final results of sin, which wishes to live without God. With Jesus, our dying will be definitive separation from the second nature or false self of sin and irrevocable joining Jesus Christ in his resurrection from the dead. In this state, we will be completely liberated from the conditions that made sin possible and inevitable. We will be forgiven, healed, and liberated. This is, in part, what we mean when we confess that Jesus Christ is Savior.

In future essays we need to consider the question of whether our liberation from the power of sin is still altogether in the future. How does Jesus’ liberating power affect us here and now, before we actually join him through our dying and rising?

*Note: In the traditional western doctrine of original sin, the term original sin also means the “guilt” of Adam’s sin we inherit from Adam. Without going into it in this essay, I reject this teaching as unbiblical and self-contradictory.

Why We Really Do Need a Savior

The Savior

From the beginning, confession of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior has been the defining mark of Christianity. The two titles and the works to which they refer complement each other. How could Jesus save us if he didn’t have the authority and power needed to do this great work? And what would his authority and power mean to us if he did not use them for our benefit? For the next few posts I will examine Jesus’ work of salvation. I will address such issues as “From what does Jesus save us?” “How does Jesus save us?” and “For what does he save us?” Today, I want to begin exploring the first of these questions. If Jesus is the Savior, what is the danger from which he saves us?

The Danger

Christianity proclaims a message of salvation. Ordinarily, when we speak of something as having been “saved” we mean that it was under threat of being damaged or lost but through the intervention of some power it was removed from danger and prevented from suffering damage. Usually, we don’t speak of things saving themselves. You can save money but money does not save itself. You can save data to a hard drive; data doesn’t save itself. If you are saved from drowning, it’s through the intervention of someone else. Something needs saving when it is powerless to protect itself from damage or loss.

What is the danger, damage, and loss from which Jesus Christ offers to save us? The first answer that comes to the believer’s mind is “sin”: “Here is a trustworthy saying: Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim 1:15). Indeed, that is a good summary of the Christian message of salvation. But simply quoting a saying is not the same as understanding it. What is sin? And why does it constitute danger of damage and loss? Why is that danger so great and why are we so helpless against it that being saved from it required the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Son of God?

The Paradox and Mystery of Sin

Answering the question “What is sin?” is not as simple as quoting 1 John 3:4: “Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness.” Of course, every act of sin breaks the law of God. But more questions beg to be asked and answered. Why do we all sin? Is a particular act “wrong” only because it is forbidden by the law? Are its only destructive consequences the divine punishment imposed on the lawless act?

The biblical doctrine of sin presents many paradoxes and puzzles for our contemplation. Sin is a general condition and a specific action. It carries its own destructive consequences within it, but it is also met with divine punishment. Sin is universal, but it is not an aspect of our created nature. We cannot be coerced to sin against our wills, yet we cannot escape sin by the power of our own wills. Sin is slavery but also rebellion. It is a sickness and a choice.

The Essence of Sin

What is the essence of sin? (In a sense that I will need to define later, sin has no essence because it is not a real thing or a real act; it is a defect in a real thing or act. Nevertheless, we need to speak of sin as if it were a thing if we are to speak about it at all.) God created human beings with the potential to know him and to become like him in character and action. Human nature is designed for knowing and loving God. This is its proper activity. Only by doing this can we thrive and fulfill our potential as living images of God. If human beings refused to know and love God, they would be contradicting their nature, thwarting their fulfillment, and throwing away their happiness. Sin consists in this absurd choice and this miserable condition.

Sin is a condition of the human will in which we affirm our own private interests and trust our own private judgment about good and bad instead of trusting and affirming the perfect will of our Creator. Out of this condition of the heart arise sinful acts, acts that attempt to force God’s creation into conformity with our wills. In sin, we substitute ourselves for God. We attempt to become our own protectors, providers, and judges. We act as if we were wiser, stronger, and better than God. Rejecting our own created nature, we try to remake ourselves according to our fanciful image of what we wish we were. Then we begin working to remake the rest of the world into our distorted image, creating death and destruction everywhere.

Why do we make this absurd choice and embrace this miserable condition? There is no answer to this question. For there can be no reason to make an absurd choice. That’s what being absurd means. You may ask about Adam and Eve. They brought sin into the world and we “inherit” the broken world they made. But why did they make that absurd choice? And even if we do inherit a tendency to sin from them, we reaffirm that original sin in our own willing and acting. We inevitably do what they did. Why? God alone knows the answer to this question. For us, however, it is just a brute fact.

Next Time, we will consider the inherent and natural consequences of sin and the idea of punishment for sin. Does sin contain its own punishment as a natural out-working of its essence or does God add pain and destruction above and beyond sin’s natural consequences?

Christmas…Apart from the Resurrection it’s Just Winter Solstice

Judging by the length of the season and the visibility of the signs and celebrations, one would think that Christmas was the center of the Christian faith or even the essence of the faith. Yet there is no Christian sacrament that refers back to the virginal conception and birth of Jesus. Baptism re-presents the death and burial of Christ, and the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist makes present the body and blood of the Lord. Paul does not use the special manner of the Jesus’ birth to make a theological point; nor do John, Peter, James, or the writer of Hebrews. The sermons in Acts never mention it. The New Testament focuses overwhelmingly on the death and resurrection of Christ as the saving events. Even Matthew and Luke place the central emphasis on Jesus’ suffering and resurrection. So, as we celebrate Christmas—if you do—we would do well to remember this:

The birth of Jesus would be of no more significance than the birth of any other human being had not God validated his claims and reversed the court’s verdict of blasphemy and sedition by raising him from the dead. We probably would never have heard of him. And if we had heard of him, he would be just one more Jewish prophet martyred for preaching against injustice, one more apocalyptic fanatic deluded into thinking God would come to his rescue if he acted with enough faith. Indeed we gentiles would probably never have heard of the Jews or the Hebrew Bible; for the Jews became a world historical people only because of Jesus’ resurrection, and the Old Testament is the Old Testament because of the existence of the New Testament. And the New Testament exists because Jesus was raised.

Apart from the resurrection, the miracle of the virgin birth loses its significance as a sign of the incarnation of God. Isaac’s birth was a miracle and so were those of other prophets. And Isaac did not become the savior of the world. Islam teaches the virginal conception of the “prophet” Jesus but denies that Jesus is the incarnation of God. Ironically, Islam, which denies that Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead, can teach that Jesus was born of a virgin only because Jesus was raised from the dead. Otherwise the story would never have been told in Arabia.

At Christmas we celebrate the coming of the Son of God into the world, but we must remember that that Advent was hidden and ambiguous, as was the true meaning of the life and death of Jesus, until the resurrection. We know that Jesus is the Son of God, the Savior of the World, the union of God and man, very God and very man only because, contrary to all expectations, God raised the crucified Jesus from the dead. If God had not raised him from the dead, he would not be the Son of God or the Savior of the world, even if he had been born of the Virgin Mary. And we would not be celebrating Christmas.

If Christ had not be raised, this Christmas would be just another winter solstice, and we would be would be celebrating the birth of the New Year rather than the birth of the Savior.