Archive for May, 2008

What Is the Gospel? Part 3

May 30, 2008

(See Part 1 and Part 2 if you haven’t already.)

Through the cross we are saved from our greatest threat: God himself, in his wrath against us.  But what about the other threats mentioned: ourselves, each other, and Satan?  How does the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection for us save us from them as well?  I believe our deliverance in these realms flows directly out of our deliverance from the wrath of God.  In other words, the atonement as penal substitution is the center from which the manifold dimensions of our salvation extend. 

Some have argued that the cross was aimed primarily at our hostility to God.  By showing us how much he loved us in Christ, the enmity on our side is overcome and we repent and turn to God in love.  I have already critiqued this view in part 2.  However, I do believe this subjective impact of the cross can be grounded on the truth of penal substitution.  How do I know that in the cross God extends love to me?  I know it not because the event, in and of itself, communicates love.  Rather, I know it because of what the cross means in the context of my rebellion against God and need for a Savior.  I know God’s love in the cross because I see Christ bearing the punishment of sin in my place.  Through willing self-substitution, God has turned away his own wrath from me.  Far from diminishing the love of God expressed in the cross, penal substitution enhances it, sharpens it, and makes it deep and rich beyond imagination!  Now, for me, the cross is the very standard by which love is measured. 

Some have argued that the cross absorbs our hostilities and exposes the cycle of violence inherent in human society, thereby overcoming it and reconciling us to one another.  Again, I believe this achievement could only occur in the context of penal substitution.  If the cross exposes us all as sinners and places us all on level ground, no matter what our various distinctions as human beings (ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, etc.), then the cross also provides the theological rationale by which we embrace one another.  I cannot pretend that I stand on higher ground before God than does someone else who is not like me.  Before the cross, we are all on our faces.  Jews cannot boast in the law, for it only condemns them.  Greeks cannot boast in wisdom, for the cross is foolishness by human standards.  None of us have any ground on which to boast against another.  Therefore, we who stand together under the cross have no basis on which to be enemies.  We have the power to embrace otherness precisely because that is what God has done for us in Christ. 

Finally, we face the threat of Satan and the powers of evil.  A long and venerable tradition in the church has affirmed that the atonement overcomes Satan’s power, but the trick has been explaining how.  I believe penal substitution offers the best explanation.  If defeating Satan were merely a matter of divine power, then God could have done so with minimal effort.  Before the infinite power of God, no other power even registers on the scale.  And yet Satan does appear as a formidable enemy in Scripture.  Why?  It is because it is not through the exercise of raw power that he is defeated.  Rather, God disarms him by removing from him all legal claims against us.  God’s means of doing this was very costly: the death of his own Son.  The very word “Satan” means “accuser,” and thus Satan’s power over us revolves around his power to accuse us.  But when we are justified by faith, declared righteous on the basis of Christ’s active and passive obedience, forgiven of all sin, Satan has been stripped of his greatest weapon.  The power of evil over us depends on the power of the law against us.  The only reason we stand under the dominion of Satan in the first place is not because we are passive victims of his malice; rather, we are willing prisoners of his deception, justly held under his power because of our sin.  Only by removing our guilt can God then free us from the power of Satan. 

Therefore, the heart of the atonement is the removal of our guilt before God and the turning away of his wrath from us.  This, in turn, is the heart of the gospel, the good news of our salvation.  It is not the sum total of the gospel, for there are many dimensions to our salvation.  It is, however, the foundation of everything else that is good news for us. 

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New Link

May 27, 2008

I just added a fellow seminarian, David, to my blogroll.  David preached for me when I was away back on May 18th.  He has a nice post about our church (Corn Creek Baptist) and its “ministry of listening”. 

A New Kind of Pacifist

May 13, 2008

I am not a pacifist.  I don’t see how pacifism squares in any way with Genesis 9 or Romans 13, two passages that clearly indicate that God has delegated a measure of authority to certain people to use violence in order to restrain evil in society.  A denial of this authority results in a failure to employ one of God’s primary means of keeping sin in check, and the results of such a failure would be disastrous.

Having said that, I do want to say that I have a great deal more respect for the pacifism of old than I do of the new form of pacifism that has arisen in recent years.  Historically, Christian pacifists have grounded their opposition to violence in their affirmation that vengeance, expressed in terms of violent judgment, belongs only to God.  The reason we do not take up the sword is because the sword belongs to God, not us.  I see much merit in this view, and I believe in the realm of personal ethics, it is right on target (see Romans 12:19-21).  The place where this view goes wrong is in its failure to recognize that God wields the sword in part through the state, an authority he has ordained for the purpose of punishing evil and rewarding good (Romans 13:1-4). 

But the new pacifism makes a different argument.  Instead of saying that the sword belongs to God, not us, the new pacifist says that the sword belongs to no one.  Violence is inherently immoral, no matter what the context.  I don’t know the philosophical roots of this view, but I can say that it has no place in the historic teaching of the church (or, for that matter, in Scripture).  It has a lot more of Rene Girard in it than Jesus. 

Brian McLaren, in his most recent book Everything Must Change, espouses what sounds like the new pacifism: “Many of us have been increasingly critical in recent years of popular American eschatology in general, and conventional views of hell in particular.  Simply put, if we believe that God will ultimately enforce his will by forceful domination, and will eternally torture all who resist that domination, then torture and domination become not only permissible but in some way godly.”  Again, he writes, “The eschatological understanding of a violent second coming leads us to believe (as we’ve said before) that in the end, even God finds it impossible to fix the world apart from violence and coercion; no one should be surprised when those shaped by this theology behave accordingly.” (I do not have a copy of the book; I am quoting from an article that quotes from the book.  If it turns out that the article has totally distorted McLaren’s meaning by quoting him out of context, and that he doesn’t mean what he appears to say in these snippets, then I will retract these comments). 

McLaren’s error here is in thinking that whatever God does is okay for us to do.  Those who believe that God acts violently will pattern their behavior accordingly and will see violence in the human realm as a godly pursuit.  But that is simply not the case.  The absurdity of his argument may be shown with a human analogy.  Suppose a group of police officers receive knowledge about a meth lab in their jurisdiction.  At a particular time when they know the operators of the lab are at home, they bang on the door, identify themselves as the police, and demand to be let in.  When the perpetrators refuse to comply, they kick the door in and come in with guns drawn.  Still finding the perpetrators resistant, they wrestle them to the ground and forcibly cuff them before locking them inside their cars and driving them to the local jail. 

Now suppose that a mother with two small sons who lives across the street witnesses the whole episode.  What is she going to say?  If she plays the role of McLaren, she would say this: “I can’t believe the police acted so violently.  If my sons grow up in a world where this kind of violence is acceptable, they will feel that they have an obligation to invade the property of others, point loaded guns at them, and then wrestle them to the ground and bind them.”  But of course, no sensible person draws that conclusion!  The reason ordinary people don’t have a right to do that kind of thing, as everyone knows, is because the police are the ones who do that kind of thing.  The moment private citizens begin acting like police officers, vigilante justice takes over, and there is no more justice or stability in society.  Sensible people know that copying the actions that police are uniquely authorized to perform is wrong and illegal. 

In the same way, copying the actions that uniquely belong to God (and to those whom he has authorized specifically, i.e., the state) is likewise wrong.  The primary reason why I will not act violently toward those who persist in unbelief is because I know that is God’s unique prerogative, to be carried out in his way at his timing and discretion.  It is not because violence is inherently wrong.  If McLaren and the other new kinds of pacifists really believe that violence has no place in Christianity, then they will have to revise virtually every doctrine of the faith, especially the atonement.  But I guess they have already done that anyway.  After all, “everything must change.”    

Go See It

May 10, 2008

Yesterday I saw Ben Stein’s movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.  If it is playing at a theatre near you, you really must go see it.  It is informative, entertaining, challenging, even moving. 

The film is a documentary about the Intelligent Design movement and its marginalization from the academic establishment.  Stein interviews a number of accomplished scholars who are linked in various ways to the ID movement, most of whom have either lost their jobs or have been disciplined in some way by their schools or the watchdog groups that dedicate themselves to making sure ID never gets off the ground. 

Stein also interviews a number of Darwinians on the opposing side, including the most radical and vocal of them all, Richard Dawkins.  The interviews are truly eye-opening.  They expose the Darwinian agenda for what it really is: a religion unto itself.  Stein himself does not preach in this film.  He never says whether or not he believes in God (though I’m sure that he does).  The point of the film is simply to show that the scientific establishment has determined arbitrarily that certain answers to difficult questions are impermissible, no matter what the evidence says.

The most important part of the film, in my view, is the way it traces out the worldview connections inherent in this discussion.  Scientists who say that the only explanations permissible in biological studies are those that claim that life exists and develops under an undirected process (rather than by a process directed by intelligence) are not making a scientific claim; they are making a metaphysical one.  They are pretending that mere observation of the scientific evidence qualifies them to be philosophers and set the ground rules for inquiry from the start.  They naively believe that they approach the evidence from a neutral perspective and that they derive their atheistic worldview as a result of an unbiased evaluation of the world.  But the truth is, no one is a neutral observer.  No one can interpret evidence apart from the framework of an overarching worldview.  And what this film exposes is that you can hold to a worldview that automatically eliminates certain metaphysical claims (i.e., an appeal to intelligence as crucial to the origin of life), or you can broaden your horizon and allow various viewpoints to compete by offering rival interpretations of the evidence.  Science is supposed to be about free inquiry, but the Darwinian establishment will have none of it.

The worldview connections inherent in one’s approach to the question about the origin of life and the species run all the way to the deepest questions of life.  Stein investigates the connections between Darwin and Hitler, arguing not that Darwinism is a sufficient condition for Nazism (for there are many Darwinists who are not Nazis), but that it is a necessary one.  In my view, every once in a while a person comes along who is able to see more clearly the ramifications of rejecting a belief in God than most any other atheist has ever seen.  Nietzsche was one such person.  Hitler was another.  These kinds of people are dangerous, for they are able to trace atheism to its logical, ethical conclusions.  Most atheists, as human beings made in God’s image themselves, don’t ever reach that point.  By God’s restraining grace, they are never able to go that far in denying their own humanity.  But Hitler did it.  He applied Darwinism to the human race, and he decided that, so long as we give care and aid in the survival of the weakest in our society, we hinder our own evolutionary development.  In the animal kingdom, the rights of the weak are not protected.  They die off, as they should.  Therefore, we should eliminate the weak for the good of the human race as a whole.  If God is not the giver and taker of life, then dictators and doctors will be.  (In the U.S., Planned Parenthood was born out of a similar philosophy). 

Go see the film.  It will be well worth your time and money.

What Is the Gospel? Part Two

May 8, 2008

We know we are saved through the cross of Jesus Christ.  But saved from what?  If our greatest threat is not ourselves, not each other, and not Satan and the powers of evil, then who or what is it?

Our greatest threat is none other than God himself.  This truth is spelled out for us clearly and repeatedly from Genesis to Revelation.

God is the one who cursed the ground in his wrath and drove Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden, fencing the Tree of Life from them and sentencing them, and all their posterity, to death.  God is the one who executed the entire race of humanity–save Noah and his family–by the waters of a flood.  God is the one who later, and in similar fashion, drowned the idolatrous Egyptians who pursued his people through the Red Sea.  God is the one who commanded Israel to approach him through the mechanism of the tabernacle, the altar, and the blood sacrifices, communicating his holy distance from the people and his danger to them if they did not regard him as holy.  God is the one who broke out against them at select moments in history when they did not take him seriously: Nadab and Abihu were consumed by flames, Korah and his band were swallowed by the earth, and Uzzah was struck dead on the spot when he merely reached out his hand in a cavalier manner to steady the ark of the covenant when it tottered on the ox’s cart.  God is the one who overthrew an entire generation in the desert between Egypt and the Promised Land.  God is the one who ordered the slaughter of the pagan peoples who possessed that land at the time of the conquest.  God is the one who sent his prophets to Israel for centuries, warning them repeatedly of his wrath because of their idolatry, hypocrisy, and social injustice, beckoning them to repent lest they fall under the curse of the law.  And that they did.  God is the one who fulfilled his word by driving his people out of the land and away from his presence–much as he drove Adam and Eve out of the Garden–and left their holy city and temple in ruins.

The wrath of God is just as prominent, if not more so, in the New Testament.  John the Baptist came proclaiming amnesty to repentant sinners, but he warned those who would not repent of the Messiah’s winnowing fork, which would divide the righteous from the wicked and send the latter like chaff to the fire.  Jesus himself came preaching the same message about the arrival of the Kingdom, and the consequences for those who would not receive the King.  Jesus is the one who, in the face of seemingly random tragedies where many lives were lost, told those who heard him that if they did not repent, they too would perish.  The epistles of the New Testament likewise testify repeatedly of the coming of wrath of God.  And perhaps more than any other book, the book of Revelation unfolds as an apocalyptic drama, whose every movement is a more intense expression of the wrath of God and of the Lamb.  It is in the book of Revelation that the inhabitants of the earth cry out for the mountains to fall on them to hide them from God.

Our greatest threat is God, and no other.  Jesus made the point crystal clear: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.  Rather, fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in Hell” (Matthew 10:28). 

Most people do not like this view of God, so they invent another god to suit their fancy.  Many cloak this god in the veneer of Christian terminology.  But one thing they cannot do is claim that the god who is not the greatest threat to sinners is to be found anywhere in the Christian Bible.  The only God to be found in Scripture is the God who, in unrivaled holiness, stands against sinners and threatens to destroy them for belittling his name. 

And God, who is our greatest threat, is also our greatest hope.  Putting these two ideas together brings us to the heart of the gospel.  We may not understand how a God who hates us can love us at the same time.  But if we do not accept this truth, Scripture makes no sense, and there is no gospel for us after all.  God, who stands against a sinful world, is also the God who so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son to identify with sinners and die in their place as a substitute, bearing in himself the wrath that his people deserved.  Three days later he was raised from the dead, demonstrating that the sentence of death had been carried out and exhausted; the wrath of God against his people has now been forever spent.  At the Father’s right hand, the ascended Christ is our high priest and advocate, pleading his wounds as sufficient payment for sin and satisfaction of the holy wrath of God.  In this way, God is both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

This message, combined with an appeal for all sinners to trust in Christ alone for deliverance from this threat, is the gospel.  It is the good news of what God has done through Jesus Christ for the salvation of humanity. 

But even though the other threats mentioned (ourselves, each other, and Satan) are not our greatest threats, they are still threats to us in some way.  Does the gospel affect them as well?  In Part Three we will see that it does.      

What Is the Gospel? Part One

May 1, 2008

The gospel is the good news of God’s saving work for sinners through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  This is basically how Paul defines the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11.  But how is it that the death and resurrection of Christ saves?  What is it about the cross that makes it our hope for salvation?  These questions really take us to the heart of the gospel.

Through the cross we are saved.  But saved from what?  In order to be saved, you first have to be in danger.  What is the greatest threat facing us?  How we answer this question will determine what we understand the gospel to be. 

Some have argued that our greatest threat is us.  God loves me, but I am a sinner who has turned away from him.  What needs to be overcome is my hostility to God.  So God sent his Son to die in order to show me how much he loves me.  When I come to understand this, I will relinquish my hostility and turn to him.  If I am my own worst enemy, then this is the kind of gospel I need.

There is certainly truth in this view.  The cross does reveal the love of God to us (John 3:16; 1 John 3:16).  But why did Jesus have to die the most horrible death imaginable in order to show me that?  This view asserts something true about the cross (namely, that it is an expression of God’s love), but it does not explain the cross.  This is not the gospel.

Others say that our greatest threat is each other.  We are caught in a cycle of hostility and violence toward one another that only continuously spirals into more and more hostility.  One person or group attacks another, and then the other must retaliate with a more severe act, and then vice versa, until finally we collectively aim our hostilities at a convenient target, an “other,” a scapegoat.  So, for example, in Nazi Germany the Jews became the scapegoats, targets of this spiral of hostility.  The scapegoat mechanism perpetuates the cycle of violence and keeps it alive.  On this view, Jesus came to absorb everything we could throw at him and then to rise again from the dead and not retaliate, thus exposing the cycle of violence and scapegoat mechanism for what it is.  When we see this revelation in the cross, we relinquish violence as a way of life and follow Christ in a life of love toward others, especially toward outsiders who were formerly the targets of violence. 

Again, this view is not totally without merit.  The cross does indeed heal horizontal divisions between us.  It brings together Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, etc. (Gal 3:28).  But the idea that it does so simply by exposing our violence will not do.  We don’t need just to be shown our sin.  We need to be forgiven of it and transformed inwardly.  Furthermore, the idea that Jesus will not retaliate against sinners does not square with the teaching of the New Testament (see 2 Thess 1:5-10).  This is not the gospel.

Others have argued that Satan and his spiritual forces of evil are our greatest threat.  We live in a world that is captive to the evil one, and we must be liberated from his death-grip.  So God sent his Son to die and rise again in order to claim victory over Satan and the powers.  Again, there is certainly truth here.  The cross did defeat Satan and his forces (Col 2:13-15).  But like a view already mentioned, this one simply cannot explain why it was necessary for Christ to die.  General Washington did not have to die in order to claim victory over the British.  Why, then, if our biggest threat is captivity to evil spiritual forces, did Christ specifically have to die for us?  Why didn’t God just destroy Satan?  Why didn’t he perform one giant exorcism over the planet?  No, this view is not the gospel either.

If our greatest threat is not ourselves, each other, or Satan, then who or what is it?  The answer will take us to the heart of the gospel.