Tag Archives: atonement

Forgiven? How Do We Know?

My academic teaching and writing require me to consider all aspects of Christian teaching and theology. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the atonement, that is, the meaning of Christian confession that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3). In the past year I’ve read thousands of pages looking for insight into this great theme. In the semester just completed my students and I spent five weeks reading and discussing N.T. Wright’s book The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. What events led the first believers to view Jesus’s death as a saving event? What do Paul and other New Testament writers mean when they say that Jesus died for us? How does his death deal with our sin? These questions and many more have been on my mind for months.

In a chapter for a book I am currently writing I briefly discuss seven theories of the atonement: (1) The Ransom Theory, which says that Jesus offered his soul to the devil in exchange for all human souls; (2) The Christus Victor Theory which says that by dying Jesus defeating the evil forces that hold us in the miserable condition of slavery, weakness, deception, corruption and death; (3) The Recapitulation Theory, which says that by living through all stages of human life, including death and resurrection, and getting it right Jesus undoes Adam’s wretched history and gives humanity a new start; (4) The Deification Theory, which argues that the Son of God by living a full human life, dying and rising, makes his divine life available to all who become united to him; (5) Satisfaction Theory in which Jesus’s death in our place pays the debt we incurred by offending God’s dignity and honor in our disobedience; (6) The Penal Substitution Theory in which Jesus voluntarily endures the just punishment merited by human violation of God’s eternal law; and (7) The Moral Influence Theory in which God’s love demonstrated on the cross provokes our repentance and evokes our love in return.

While meditating on this subject day and night for a year, something dawned on me. I asked myself this question: why do I believe I am forgiven? Why do I believe God loves me and extends me grace? Why do I believe I am free from the power of sin, death and the devil? Why do I believe God gives me a new beginning every day…that I do not need to carry a burden of guilt? What is the bottom line my assurance?

It’s not because I deserve it! If we could deserve it, we wouldn’t need forgiveness in the first place. Also—and here is the main point—it’s not because one or more of these seven theories of the atonement makes everything clear to me. In my view, each of them points toward a truth, but each is also troublingly obscure in some way. So, here is my bottom line: I believe that God’s loves me, that I am forgiven, and that God is my Father because Jesus said so. And I believe Jesus told the truth in all sincerity because he sealed his word with his blood. And I believe Jesus knew the truth of the matter because God raised him from the dead and placed his own seal on the new covenant.

Perhaps there are more reasons, more profound explanations of the atonement, more nuanced treatments of the justice and mercy of God…but this is my bottom line. When my best reasoning fails to bring peace to my heart, I cling to Jesus’s words: “Do not be afraid; you (Ron…and Susan and James) are worth more than many sparrows!” (Luke 12:7).

 

Advertisements

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.

Forgiveness Is Not Enough

Forgiveness is not enough. If sin is as destructive as the New Testament claims, if it’s a condition of the will as well as a quality of the act, if it attempts the absurd, destroys the self, and produces death (see the posts of January 06, 16, and 23), divine forgiveness is only the beginning of salvation. In forgiving sin, God deals with the insulting aspects of sin not by becoming angry and taking revenge but by renewing his standing offer of reconciliation and fellowship. God, so to speak, absorbs, ignores, and neutralizes the insult to his dignity. But what about the damage sin does to others and ourselves? Sinful acts cause damage that sometimes continues long after the act. A person who steals your possessions or injures your body or harms your child sets in motion a cascade of ill effects in the world that may cause damage far beyond the their original intention or control. Such sinful acts affect others at every level, physical, social, psychological, and spiritual.

Suppose for example that someone lies about you so effectively that you lose your job, are abandoned by your closest friends, and your marriage is on the brink of divorce. You determine that you will not allow your enemy’s hatred to evoke hatred in your heart and provoke you to take revenge. Suppose further that your enemy comes to realize his sin, repents, confesses his wrong to you, asks for forgiveness, and seeks reconciliation. You respond by assuring your former enemy that you will not seek revenge and harbor no hatred. Does repentance and forgiveness heal the damage sin has caused? No, not fully. Even the best efforts of the repentant person to replace property and mend relationships cannot restore things to their original state. Repentance and forgiveness cannot replace a lost limb or bring the dead back to life or restore trust to a betrayed heart. It cannot undo past suffering or erase traumatic memories. Our willingness to forgive does not cause us (or others) to forget. We don’t have complete control over our psychological nature any more than we have complete control over our physical nature. Damage to the psyche can be as lasting as damage to the body. We cannot change the past or stop the cascade of cause and effect flowing from past sin.

Human repentance and forgiveness is not enough. Nor is divine forgiveness enough; it is only the beginning of salvation. In last week’s essay on divine forgiveness I asserted this:

“the work of Jesus Christ was not designed to change an offended and revenging God into a loving and forgiving God. Jesus’ suffering is not the cause of divine forgiveness. No. Jesus Christ is the visible, temporal enactment of divine forgiveness, of God’s eternal selfless love for us.”

In the same way, I do not think it is correct to think of the work of Jesus Christ as making it possible for God to heal the world of the destructive effects of sin. Jesus Christ is the enactment of this divine healing. God always has been the creator, the giver of life, the healer of our diseases, and the Lord who “works all things for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28). God has determined from all eternity that “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

Jesus enacted divine forgiveness by willingly enduring the fullness of sin’s insult and injury, without retaliation. What could be worse than annihilating humanity and blaspheming God? Healing impossible and forgiveness unthinkable! From a human point of view, the result of the sin done to Jesus was totally irreversible, completely hopeless. No human regret, repentance, or attempted restoration could change the deed that was done. In the suffering of the cross we see divine forgiveness happening before our eyes and, in the resurrection of Jesus, we see sin’s damage healed and turned to God’s service and glory.

Jesus’ resurrection was not merely the healing of his private wounds and the restoration of his personal life. The New Testament gospel understands Jesus’ resurrection as the beginning of a new humanity, the first fruits of the resurrection of all the dead (1 Corinthians 15:20), and the liberation of creation from its “bondage to decay” (Romans 8:21). In Ephesians, chapter one, Paul speaks of the mystery of God’s eternal plan “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (1:10). The history of Jesus Christ from his birth to his suffering, death, and resurrection sums up the history of all creation from beginning to end. God’s hidden work in creation, providence, forgiveness and redemption becomes visible and concentrated in Jesus Christ. In Jesus, we can see how all the damage, destruction, and death caused by sin, from the beginning to the end of time, will be and has been healed. Christianity reads history backwards, from the future revealed in the resurrected and glorified Jesus Christ to the act of creation and the course of providence. Every divine act in creation and providence finds itself fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus Christ is, was, and always will be the life-giving, forgiving, and healing God with us and for us.

Next week: we’ve seen how God forgives insult sin directs at God and heals the damage cause by sin, but how can we be saved from the condition of sin, which the New Testament describes as corruption, sickness, slavery, powerlessness, blindness, and death?

 

What is Divine Forgiveness?

In the previous post I asked you to consider the question, “What is so bad about sin that we should want to be saved from it?” And the answer that forced itself upon us was that the nature of sin is “absurdity, death, emptiness, wretchedness, isolation, despair, and destruction.” Only when we understand sin’s destructive effects on us does the gospel of Jesus Christ become good news to us. The gospel tells us that Jesus Christ came to rescue us from these ills, restore our health, and lead us to a destiny glorious beyond our imagining. What must Jesus do in order to save us?

Forgiveness

For most believers, the first idea that comes to mind in answer to this question is forgiveness. We need forgiveness for our sins, and Jesus secures divine forgiveness for us. So let’s think about forgiveness. Forgiveness makes sense only in a personal context. Sin causes damage to us and to others. (Let’s leave aside for the moment the interesting question of whether we need forgiveness from ourselves for the damage we cause to ourselves and focus on the damage we cause to other people.) Some damage we cause to other people is reparable and some is not. If you steal my cash, you could correct that harm by repaying the money. However, if you take my life or cause permanent bodily harm, you cannot repair the damage and restore the body to its original condition. But whether the physical damage is reparable or irreparable, great or small, there is another kind of damage that accompanies all sins against other people: insult or offense. Sin against others treats them as having less than human dignity. You put the disturbing thought into their minds that they are unworthy–unworthy of life, possessions, or respect. Of all the possessions a person has, a sense of their own worth is the most precious. If I do not feel that I am worthy of love and respect, I will be afraid of everyone in every situation. I will trust no one. Life becomes a burden.

The instinctive reaction to insult is anger, hatred, and desire for revenge. In revenge, people assert their dignity by attempting to balance harm with harm and insult with insult. Revenge releases anger and provides a momentary sense of relief. It is an effort to restore our damaged sense of worth, to assert and reestablish our dignity. Of course, revenge doesn’t really work to restore confidence in our dignity, because our desire for revenge shows that we never had confidence in our worth! If we had such confidence, the original insult would not have caused us to hate and desire revenge so intensely in the first place.

Now we are prepared to understand the concept of forgiveness. Forgiveness is refusal to take revenge for insults against us. Where do we find the power to forgive, and why should we forgive those who insult us? Forgiveness is withholding revenge, but this forbearance arises from a deeper source. The forgiving person has the spiritual power to neutralize, absorb, or be immune to insult. The insult does not shake their confidence in their own worth. Hence it does not cause fear, evoke hatred, and provoke violence. But the forgiving person is not only unshakably confident of their own value, they are also unclouded in their perception of their enemy’s dignity. Even while being insulted, they are compassionately aware of their enemy’s lack of clarity about her or his own worth. When you forgive your enemy, unlike when you take revenge on your enemy, you are witnessing to your enemy’s worth as well as your own in a dramatic way. If your enemies can receive your forgiveness, they may also come to perceive their true dignity. Only forgiveness can “balance” the books on the worth of individuals. Only forgiveness can convert an enemy.

Divine Forgiveness

Divine forgiveness follows the same logic as outlined above. When God forgives, God refrains from taking revenge. Divine forgiveness deals with the personal offense and insult sin directs at God. We cannot damage God physically as we can God’s creatures. But when we damage, insult, and withhold love from human beings, we also disbelieve, disobey, and mistrust God. We refuse his love and reject his guidance. We insult God’s dignity indirectly. (Blasphemy is direct insult of God.) God deserves our faith, obedience, and love, but when we sin against his beloved creatures, we display our ingratitude and disrespect. But God does not take revenge. God absorbs and neutralizes the insult, not returning violence for violence. God does not allow our refusal to love him to cause him to stop loving us. Our insults cannot place in God doubt of his divine dignity or lessen his love. Instead, God demonstrates his unchallenged dignity and eternal love by forgiving us. God affirms our worth by maintaining his eternal love for us unchanged

Jesus Christ is the incarnation of the loving and forgiving God. Jesus’ action of forgiving his enemies is the expression in time of God’s eternal love and forgiveness. Let’s get clear on this: the work of Jesus Christ was not designed to change an offended and revenging God into a loving and forgiving God. Jesus’ suffering is not the cause of divine forgiveness. No. Jesus Christ is the visible, temporal enactment of divine forgiveness, of God’s eternal selfless love for us. Jesus is “the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world” (Rev 13:8).

In Jesus Christ, God absorbs and negates human offense and insult. Jesus is the embodiment of God’s sheer, gracious, unexpected, and incomprehensible forgiveness of insult to his divine dignity! In the humanity of Jesus Christ, God became able to suffer and die for us. Jesus’ human love for his Father in time corresponds to his divine love for the Father in eternity and his human suffering and death for us in time corresponds to God’s love and forgiveness for us in eternity. In the suffering and dying of Jesus Christ, divine forgiveness becomes effective for the conversion and salvation of humanity. In Jesus, God’s refusal to take revenge (forgiveness) becomes the negative side of a positive act of rescue from the power of sin and death.

Next Time: Forgiveness is not enough. We need healing, purification, transformation and glorification.

 

The Good Friday War

Last week I wrote about our tendency to use Christian words and phrases without really getting inside them and understanding their meaning. I talked about the resurrection of Jesus and our difficulty of grasping its reality and living in its power. Today I want us to think about Jesus’ death and that basic Christian belief that “Jesus died for our sins.”

Jesus’ death on the cross stands at the center of the Christian gospel. Paul placed it first among those things of “first importance” in his list in 1 Corinthians 15:3. But why would I discuss the death and resurrection in reverse order to that in which they happened? Because the disciples did not understand the meaning of Jesus’ death until he was raised! And we too have to view his death from the perspective of the resurrection or it won’t make sense.

From Crushing Defeat to Glorious Victory

Apart from his resurrection, we would have to view Jesus’ death as a crushing defeat. His enemies won. To the chief priests, Jesus’ defeat proved he was a blasphemer. To the Romans, Jesus was shown to be powerless against the mighty Roman Empire. And the disciples found themselves disillusioned and confused. Was Jesus a deluded fanatic or just another prophet martyred for speaking  truth to power? In any case, he lost the battle. It’s over, hope is gone, the kingdom won’t come, and nothing is going to change. Apart from the resurrection, the meaning of Jesus’ death is simple: he was a martyr, a fanatic, or a blasphemer.

But Jesus was raised! Death has been defeated, and Jesus has been vindicated. Looking back from the resurrection, his disciples no longer saw his death as a tragic mistake or a foolish martyrdom. It had to be part of a divine plan, a divine act working somehow for our salvation. The meaning of the cross could no longer be explained by such human motivations as fear, jealously, hatred, feelings of self-importance, and wishful thinking. In view of the resurrection, the cross is revealed as a divine mystery as deep as God’s own being. But what does it mean? Why did God allow it? What did it accomplish? And how does it relate to our salvation?

The resurrection conquered death. That much is clear. But throughout the Bible, death is connected to sin. You can’t deal with one without dealing with the other. Paul makes this point concisely when he says in 1 Corinthians 15: 56, “The sting of death is sin” (1 Cor 15:56). Sin is like a poisonous animal whose sting brings certain death. And this connection makes perfect sense. Sin is our turning away from communion with God in an attempt to become the source of our own lives. But since God alone is the source of life, sin brings death. Sin and death are two sides of the same coin. So, the apostles drew the obvious conclusion: since death has been defeated by the resurrection, sin must have been defeated also. And that is what happened in the death of Jesus.

From the perspective of the resurrection—but only from that perspective—the death of Jesus is revealed as a deep mystery, inexhaustible in its meaning. The NT brings out its meaning in many ways. (1) It is a ritual sacrifice in which Jesus, as our representative or substitute, secures for us forgiveness, righteousness, cleansing, and reconciliation.  Or (2) it is a battle in which Jesus is the warrior who takes up our cause, defeats our enemies, and brings freedom and peace to us. Or (3) it is a revelation of the love of God. Of course, since it is a divine mystery, it can be all those things and more. All these meanings converge in the faith that God did something for us in the cross we could not do for ourselves: he saved us from sin and death.

For the rest of the essay, I want to focus on the second meaning, the battle Jesus waged and the victory he won.

Jesus the Warrior

Who were the enemies Jesus fought? How did he fight? And what victory did he win? In his ministry, Jesus faced spiritual powers that worked visibly through the falsehood, evil, and violence embodied in the religious and political authorities of his day. He fought not with sword and shield; these enemies cannot be defeated by physical force. He fought with his teaching, his prophetic activity, and his obedience. He proclaimed divine truth to the corrupt powers, and this led to his death because the powers will not be persuaded by prophetic speech. To defeat them Jesus had to let them kill him.

Perhaps an even greater battle was his inner, spiritual conflict. He struggled with the human desire to live and not suffer, especially not to suffer as a criminal, blasphemer, and a rebel. The choice that lay before him was between accepting his Father’s assignment and preserving his life at all costs. This is the test Adam faced and failed. But Jesus did what Adam did not. He won the battle. He did not sin. Jesus trusted God absolutely and gave everything into the Father’s hands. Adam’s assignment was to preserve and perfect what he had been given. And because Adam failed, Jesus had to correct what he did, regain what he lost, and defeat the powers he unleashed.

According to the Gospel of Mark, chapter 3, Jesus began his public ministry by facing Satan in the desert and casting out demons. Some accused him of casting out demons by the power of the devil. But Jesus said it makes no sense for Satan to fight against Satan. He compared himself to a robber breaking into Satan’s house to rob him. You need to tie him up before you can haul away his goods. (Mark 3:20-30). Jesus entered our world and assumed our flesh and blood. He even entered death itself to do battle with sin and death in all its forms. And he won!

 

Jesus Our Brother

We can see clearly that Jesus won the victory for himself. He conquered sin, and God raised him from the dead. But how does his victory help us?

We have a much more difficult time understanding how Jesus victory could help us than did people in Jesus day. Modern culture is very individualistic. It defines humanity as an aggregate of self-contained and self-defined individuals. Since Jesus is a separate individual and we are individuals, we wonder how his victory can remove our guilt and free us from sin’s power. In Jesus day people possessed much greater awareness of the interconnectedness of human beings. They understood better how the acts and suffering of one individual could affect others. But with thought we can recover some feeling for the deep connections we have to others.

When a nation finds itself under attack by an enemy and its soldiers defeat that enemy, the whole nation is saved. As Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the Moon for the first time and said, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” everyone rejoiced! When a scientist discovers a cure for a dreaded disease or unlocks one of nature’s secrets, everyone benefits!

Our humanity is a shared possession. We cannot become fully human alone, and we recognize our humanity in each other. We can think the same thoughts, feel the same feelings, experience the same sufferings and dream the same dreams. Humanity is one spiritual possibility that is partially manifested in each of many persons. I need you to awaken what is possible for me and you need me for the same reason.

And in Jesus Christ, God became one of us; he shares our humanity and we share his humanity. He achieved something in our humanity that no one else had or could achieve: One of us resisted sin, did not fall, and trusted God absolutely. One of us gave himself to God unreservedly and is united to God unbreakably. He passed through death to eternal glory. One of us! One of us sits at the right hand of God in heaven! In him the fullness of humanity has been saved! And he knows how to make this happen for us, for you and for me. What he accomplished he can share with us because he is one of us.

Jesus Our Commander-in-Chief

We don’t have to follow the plot of Adam’s fatal story. Our brother Jesus invites us to enjoy his victory. We already share a natural bond with him simply because he is one of us…but he invites us to form a personal and spiritual bond with him. We do this by getting to know him, trusting him, loving him, and following him. And he has something for us to do. Jesus won the decisive battle, so the enemy cannot win the war; but the war is not over. Jesus is our Commander-in-Chief, the Holy Spirit is our strength, and our faith is the victory that overcomes the world (1 John 5:4). And I am so glad we get to join the fight! There are no living veterans of this war, because our tour of duty lasts to and through our death. You can’t outlive your assignment. As long as you are alive you have work to do! Important work!

It is not accidental or arbitrary that in the NT baptism is the first response of faith to Jesus Christ. Baptism reenacts in a symbolic way the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. And it sets out a pattern for the Christian life. In submitting to baptism we publically declare that we need and accept the victory Jesus won for us. Symbolically we die and become new people, and we promise to follow the pattern of his life. In some Christian traditions, baptism is called a sacrament. The English word sacrament comes from a Latin word sacramentum. A sacramentum is the oath of loyalty Roman soldiers took when they entered the Roman army. Paul comes very close to this meaning when in Romans 6 he calls on the Christians in Rome to remember what they did in their baptism. You died and were raised with Christ. Baptism is a representation of the battle Jesus fought and the victory he won. It is our promise to fight that battle, and it anticipates our victory through the power of his death and resurrection.

Conclusion

“Jesus died for our sins.” What does it mean? It means at least this: Like a courageous soldier Jesus faced, fought, and defeated our most powerful and deadly enemies, which are sin, death, and the devil. To win this battle he had to allow himself to be killed, because no life can be declared faithful until it’s completed in death. But by killing him, our enemies made him the victor and ensured their own defeat. Because it was through Jesus’ complete faithfulness to his Father unto death that he won the battle. And it was all “for us.” Jesus fought the most difficult battle ever fought and gained the greatest victory ever won. It is no small honor to be invited by this Commander to join this army to fight this war.

Divine Forgiveness—Is it Possible? Is it Just? Forgiveness And The Christian Life (#3)

We receive power to forgive those who injure and insult us from our confidence that God will restore our dignity, dry our tears and heal our wounds. And by exercising this power, we invite God to work through us to begin the work of restoring, comforting and healing the world even in this life. But what gives us confidence that God can and will forgive and make all things right?

There are two distinct issues in this question: how do we know God will make all things right? And how can God do this without neglecting justice? The first issue is a bit easier to address. In the Old Testament, God’s people were given means by which to restore themselves to God’s favor after they sinned. Through sacrifice, repentance and prayer, the people were able to find forgiveness and renewed confidence in God’s favor. The assumption underlying these means of grace and forgiveness is that God is willing and able to forgive, though not condone, sin. God’s forgiveness serves his ultimate purpose of creating a faithful people. God is willing to forgive in view of a future where sin is overcome completely.

In the New Testament, God’s willingness to forgive takes surprising and dramatic form. God sends his eternal Son to live as a human being should live and die as a sinner. In the tradition of Old Testament sacrifice, Jesus Christ bore the sin of the world in his death. Jesus takes the injury and insult of sin into himself and overcomes it. And God raised him from the dead. The gospel is the good news that God has unambiguously demonstrated his willingness to forgive and his desire to free us from the power of sin and death. As the Apostles Creed emphasizes, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.” God’s revelation in the life and work of Jesus Christ is blessed assurance that God will make all things right.

The second issue is concerns how God can forgive without condoning sin and injustice. And this is not an easy thing to understand. With reference to the injustice human beings do to each other, perhaps we can gain some insight. Unlike us, God possesses the power and the know how to work things out in his providence in history and in the future resurrection of the dead so that injustice is overturned and made to serve the good. Paul says this clearly, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us…No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (Romans 8:18-37). Injury and insult will be eclipsed by glory. And we will be more than conquerors, that is, the victory will be so triumphant that it makes the enemy look insignificant and battle effortless. Hence God can forgive injustice in the present in view of his plan to overcome it in the future. [And, in case you are wondering about it, Paul tells us that plan is “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” (Eph 1:10)]

But what about the insult and injury that injustice directs toward God? How can God forgive that? Where else could we turn for an answer to this question other than to Jesus Christ! How did Jesus deal with the insult and injury toward himself? He endured it and neutralized it. Since Jesus reveals the heart of God toward sinners we must conclude that God forgives sin by enduring it, suffering it and overcoming it through love. Jesus’ sacrifice is the historical event of God’s eternal love toward sinners. Jesus revealed and made effective in human life God’s eternal willingness to endure the hostility of sinners in view of his future plans for their salvation.

And when we forgive our enemies we also participate in a historical event of God’s eternal love toward sinners in hope for their ultimate repentance and salvation.