Results tagged “Atonement” from Reformation21 Blog

Standing Firm on the Slippery Slope

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A few weeks ago, the editorial team at Ref21 asked me if I would be willing to write something regarding Fred Harrell (pastor of City Church, San Francisco) and his recent postings in which he attacked the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. In doing so, I made a connection between Harrell's prior shifts (first, adopting the ordination of women and, second, endorsing homosexual relations) and his most recent movement away from the clear teaching of God's Word. My conclusion was to posit this as evidence of a slippery slope, further noting that in our cultural moment the slippery slope is usually entered at the point of ordaining women to office in the church.

It would be an understatement to observe that this post touched a raw nerve for some readers.* Two responses, however, were somewhat surprising to me. First, in commenting on Harrell's trajectory, I found it necessary to provide some context. In doing so I noted some of his former ministry associations, drawing an accusation that I was smearing particular people and groups--as if to suggest that they too must hold similar views to Harrell. This criticism seems to me to arise from a most uncharitable reading of what I wrote. But I am happy to clarify that my point was simply to note that Harrell is a product of reputable ministries and not a wild-eyed liberal whose trajectory bears no relevance to his former denomination (the Presbyterian Church in America). I do not mean to suggest that his former associates inevitably share his views. Likewise, if someone was to draw conclusions from my career it would be necessary to note my association with James Boice and Tenth Presbyterian Church. To do so would not be to tar Boice with my failings but simply to provide necessary context.

A second response to my post was to deny that there is validity to the idea of slippery slopes. My initial response to this criticism is to marvel that people can take this position in light of recent church history. Cue the Santayana reference! Still, the topic is important enough that I think it good to defend the position I took earlier.

First, let me define what I mean in referring to the slippery slope. The slippery slope simply notes that those who remove the restraint against worldly conformity place themselves in peril of further and more damaging accommodations. The slope becomes slippery when the source of friction is removed. Far from the logical fallacy of which it is charged, there is a logical basis for the slippery slope argument: when the authority of Scripture is yielded to cultural demands, the loss of that authority renders us vulnerable to further cultural demands. Herein lies the wisdom of Scripture: "If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?" (Ps. 11:3). Indeed, the very first Psalm begins with a portrayal of the slippery slope, charting a progression from "the counsel of the wicked" to "the way of sinners" and ultimately (one thinks of the so-called Jesus Box) to "the seat of scoffers" (Ps. 1:1).

In making these observations, I do not mean that anyone who changes his or her view in the direction of cultural preferences is irrevocably bound to further concessions. It is blessedly true that people and churches have taken a perilous step to the left (or right) and later reconsidered, and to note examples of this happening does not prove that their previous action had not been imperilled. It is because the slippery slope can be escaped by recommitting to Scripture that warnings of peril are of value. Moreover, I do not mean to suggest that those who make any concessions to culture over Scripture have already abandoned the atonement of Christ. I am suggesting, however, that the slippery slope is...well, slippery. Those who remove traction from their feet may very well slide much further than they first thought possible. As Fred Harrell's progression illustrates (together with those of the PC(USA), CRC, RCA, Church of Scotland, and other denominations), the abandonment of clear biblical teaching at one cultural pressure-point (women's ordination), imperils us with further capitulations (homosexual acceptance), and if unchecked will find itself challenged to avoid "touching the Jesus Box."

Second, I noted that in our time, the slippery slope is usually entered at the point of women's ordination. This tendency is not surprising, since the assault of secular culture against the Bible is most tenaciously focused on gender and sexuality. To uphold biblical gender norms, including the Bible's clear teaching on male-only ordination (see the recent PCA study committee report), is the single most inflammatory position that Christians may hold in our culture. For this reason, it is hard to find an example in recent history when a Christian leader or church denomination moved from biblical conservatism to unbiblical cultural conformity when the slide did not begin with the ordination of women to church office. It stands to reason, then, that we should avoid thinking that we can conform to the worldly demands regarding gender and avoid further accommodations of greater significance.

This brings me to the topic of women deacons. Several critics accused me of asserting that to support the ordination of women to the office of deacon is to abandon the gospel. This response is noteworthy because I made no mention of women deacons in my post. I will admit, however, to being unpersuaded that the move to ordain women deacons is unrelated to a broader agenda of cultural accommodation. In saying this, I do not mean to question the sincerity of those individuals who advocate the position that women should hold the office of deacon. But I would note the growing tendency among these same persons to employ women in roles that are as associated with the office of elder. For example, in many churches pastored by ministers who are supportive of the ordination of women deacons, women are placed in the pulpit during worship services for the public reading of Scripture and to offer the congregational prayer. Women are assigned to distribute the elements of the Lord's Supper (an action historically associated with what the BCO calls "the admission of persons to sealing ordinances," i.e., church discipline). These are functions associated with the office of elders, not deacons. Moreover, it is a matter of record that increasing numbers of men are seeking exceptions from their presbyteries on the matter of women elders and pastors. Word has recently come that pressure is being exerted in one PCA presbytery to install a woman as its stated clerk, making her a member of a court composed exclusively of ruling and teaching elders. Where is the outcry against these tendencies from those who say that they are only wishing to ordain women as deacons?

In light of this growing body of evidence, and without wanting to question anyone's sincerity, I would suggest that unity and mutual trust are strengthened not only by assurances but by actions. The slippery slope runs in many directions, of course, depending on the cultural pressures. Everything I have noted about the gender pressures of the left, for instance, equally pertains to racist pressures on the right. If we are to have unity in the coming years, it behooves us all carefully to consider how our actions line up with our assurances. Moreover, since the sole restraint to all our sin and tendency to compromise is our obedience to the voice of the Spirit of Christ speaking in Holy Scripture, the counsel given by Jeremiah at another moment of cultural of peril seems urgent: "Stand by the crossroads, and look and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls" (Jer. 6:16). In this way alone will we navigate the perils of our times, fortifying both our fidelity to Christ and our mutual bonds of unity and trust.

 

*One well-known pastor wrote me privately to accuse me of being schismatic. It is a feature of our times, I am afraid, that to defend the consensus on which we have built unity is to be labeled as divisive.

Double Black Diamonds: Navigating the Slopes

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In his helpful blog post "The Slippery Slope and the Jesus Box" Rev. Rick Phillips explains that there is indeed a slippery slope about which we must be concerned in theology.  I say indeed, because many will be aware that the slippery slope is typically considered a logical fallacy: one assumes that adoption of one position will lead to the adoption of another position, without showing causal relationship between the two.  However, if you can demonstrate a causal relationship then the argument becomes plausible.

In theology, it does indeed seem to be the case there is a valid concern regarding a weak doctrine of Scripture as a plausible slippery slope.  So Phillips writes: "It is the unstoppable descent into liberalism and unbelief that begins when the authority of Scripture is compromised out of cultural accommodation. The slope is slippery because without the friction of an inerrant, divinely authoritative Bible, faithfully interpreted, there is nothing left to restrain the downward gravitational pull of the world's demands."

I would suggest that we label this type of slippery slope the Hermeneutical Slippery Slope.  The sin of our heart and the pressure of our culture place special tension upon those passages of Scripture that oppose them.  Jesus says, "The Scripture cannot be broken" (John 10:35). But that does not mean that the world, our flesh and the Devil won't try.  As Phillips notes, in a culture hostile toward distinctions of roles based on gender, passages that restrict ordination to males will come under extreme pressure.  At the personal level, a person struggling deeply with sexual temptation may find special tension upon passages forbidding extra-marital sexual gratification.  When we are reading Scripture and feel this tension from without or from within we have three options before us:

(1)   In faith, we can let Scripture push back against the culture and the sin of our hearts.  Under the power of the Holy Spirit the living and active Word of God will wage war against the sin of our flesh and sustain us against the pressure of the culture.

(2)   In unbelief, we can reject the Scriptures entirely.  In some ways this is a position of integrity. Rather than twist the Scriptures, we own the reality that we no longer believe them.  It is ultimately foolish because we are rejecting the word of God, but it is an honest kind of foolish.

(3)   In self-deception, we could adopt hermeneutical strategies that allow us to yield to the flesh and the culture while attempting to hang on to our faith.  Unfortunately, there are a number of strategies to assist in this effort.  If one finds limits on women's ministry in Ephesus too restrictive (1st Tim. 2), emphasize the local and historical context in that city when Paul was writing while downplaying the normative aspects of Paul's argument which are intended to ground those restrictions in creation.  If clear prohibitions against homosexual sex are offensive, then look for local and historical reasons in Rome, Corinth or even throughout the Roman Empire that you may use to relativize what, on first reading, would appear to be normative for all people in every age.

Option three above is a Hermeneutical Slippery Slope.  It is valid to regard it a slippery slope because one cannot use one hermeneutic for one set of hard texts without applying the same method to other hard texts.  So we observe the slip and the slide: a change in one's view of women's ordination precedes a change in one's view on homosexuality. The hermeneutical strategies employed to arrive at those positions are very similar; indeed, in some cases identical. The slippery slope does not always materialize, but if it does not it is against the force of logic not with the force of logic.  This slip and slide won't stop at social issues either.  Miracles, the doctrine of the Trinity, and God's holy demand for justice will all come under the scrutiny of the world, the flesh and the Devil.  Indeed, we must be on guard against the Hermeneutical Slippery Slope.

But there is another type of slippery slope in theology and church life that is fallacious and spiritually dangerous.  It is akin to the way that the Pharisees read certain commandments, being sure to put a hedge around certain laws so as to not get even close to violating them.  We might call this slope the Slippery Slope of Fear. One may be tempted to react against a certain position for fear that it will lead to a more permissive position or action contrary to Scripture.  It is not the immediate position in question that is the concern, but fear of some future position that may come later.

On the Slippery Slope of Fear, however, Scripture is still not being honored.  Rather than breaking the Scripture, the one slipping down the Slope of Fear seeks to add to Scripture.  Some comfortable distance is located between his actual practice and what Scripture allows or encourages.  For example, one may choose to object to the Session appointing godly women to assist the deacons in ministry to the congregation not because it is unauthorized or unbiblical (it is authorized in BCO 9-7), but for fear that it will lead to women being ordained to the office of deacon or elder.  "Won't they just want to be deacons next, then elders?  Why get on that train?"

I have characterized this type of thinking to my own officers as the temptation to respond to error with its opposite.  It may feel right, but it is not right.  We don't respond to error by its opposite.  When the culture goes left we don't go right.  We go Biblical.  The Biblical response may be the natural opposite in some cases, but it is not always.  We must let Scripture guide us in responding to error or adopting policies and practices.  We should always endeavor not to add to God's word by placing additional burdens on people that God has not made clear in Scripture.

Discerning the Slippery Slope of Fear can get a little more complicated, however. The reason is that for some people positions that are a matter or wisdom can become Slippery Slopes of Fear when made normative for all people.  A common example is the consumption of alcohol.  There are those who cannot consume alcohol because they know that they will be led down a destructive path of addiction.  For them that position is a wise one to take. But to restrict all people from consuming alcohol because Scripture forbids drunkenness is to go down the Slope of Fear that any consumption of alcohol will lead to drunkenness.  Ultimately when we fail to discern the difference between matters of wisdom for individuals and matter of law for all we end up in a place of legalism: forbidding what God allows.  That distorts the gospel and creates an unhealthy church culture too.

Next time you are in a theological or pastoral discussion of whether an issue or decision is a slippery slope try to discern whether it is a Hermeneutical Slippery Slope or a Slippery Slope of Fear.  In both cases the Scriptures are not given the clear and final word in matters of faith and practice.

The Slippery Slope and the Jesus Box

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Over twenty years ago, while in seminary, I was present during a hallway conversation with a professor who then seemed to be moving toward liberal theology. A student asked how this man's higher critical methods would enable him to remain a Christian. The professor gave quite the revealing answer: "I have a Jesus Box that I never touch." By this, he meant that he had drawn a line of piety around his faith in Jesus to keep out the implications of his liberal scholarship. I remember thinking at the time how vain was this hope. Method always gobbles up message, and no pietistic zeal will ever protect us from our actual lack of faith. That professor has long since moved on, and from his seat in a liberal college he has not surprisingly revised his former evangelical faith in Jesus.

This conversation came to mind yesterday when I learned of Fred Harrell's tweet endorsing a denial of Christ's propitiation on the cross.1 He commented: "As the living Word of God, Jesus regularly forgave sins without the need for retributive justice." The article to which Harrell linked, written by Derek Vreeland on Missio Alliance, asks: "Is the Cross Even Necessary?" Informed readers will recognize the argument made here, which amounts to a blend of Abelard's moral influence theory and the New Perspective on Paul.

More interesting than Vreeland's standard denial of penal substitutionary atonement is Fred Harrell's endorsement. Trained in ministry under Tim Keller at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, Harrell planted a high-profile and well-funded PCA church in San Francisco in 1997. His career charted a path that progressive ministers in the PCA long to emulate: RUF campus minister; associate at progressive-leaning urban church; pioneering church plant in a progressive city. In 2006, Harrell led City Church out of the PCA and into the liberal RCA on account of a change of heart regarding the ordination of women (which the PCA does not permit). At the time, defenders chalked up the change to the pressures of charity in an uber-progressive setting. In 2015, however, Harrell announced that City Church had changed its view on homosexuality, so as to "no longer discriminate based on sexual orientation." Harrell insisted that City Church had not abandoned its high view of Scripture. Yet it was clear from Harrell's explanation that the shift resulted from factors other than more careful exegesis: LGBT men and women were coming to the church, wanting to be Christian while also enjoying homosexual marriage; Harrell lamented hearing "stories of harm" resulting from the church's rejection of homosexuality; and based on "pastoral conversations and social science research," he and his elders decided to change their view of Scripture's teaching. Those who defended Harrell argued, "What's the harm if they are trying to reach people for the gospel?" Yesterday's tweet supplies the answer: the method of cultural accommodation in theology and Bible interpretation eats up the gospel and demands that it, too, accommodate to the doctrines of the world.

What are some of the lessons of Fred Harrell's progression from the ordination of women to the acceptance of homosexuality and now, apparently, to the rejection of penal substitutionary atonement and the propitiation of Christ? I can think of at least three:

  1. There is such a thing as a slippery slope in theology and faith. While this claim infuriates progressives, Fred Harrell serves as exhibit no. 4,742. What is the slippery slope? It is the unstoppable descent into liberalism and unbelief that begins when the authority of Scripture is compromised out of cultural accommodation. The slope is slippery because without the friction of an inerrant, divinely authoritative Bible, faithfully interpreted, there is nothing left to restrain the downward gravitational pull of the world's demands.
  2. In the late-20th century and early 21st century, the slippery slope has tended to begin over the issue of women's ordination. The reason for this is not because there is something especially nefarious about women being ordained, but because this is the point of maximum cultural outrage at which progressives have tended to capitulate. "We will never accommodate homosexuality," they then cry, "and we will certainly never abandon an evangelical understanding of the gospel." Yet - let the PCA beware! - the fact is that the cost of abandoning the clear biblical teaching of male-only ordination is the abandonment of the authority of Scripture against all further demands of secular culture. As Paul Gilbert once wrote about Harrell: "The principles of biblical interpretation employed in embracing the ordination of women opens the door wide for these same principles to be employed in more devious ways in relation to the core doctrines of Scripture."
  3. Yes, the slippery slope will destroy your "Jesus Box." In short, it is not an aberration that Fred Harrell has tweeted in rejection of penal substitutionary atonement and the doctrine of propitiation. It was only a matter of time. And this will not be the end. Harrell's example adds just one more straw that is breaking the camel's back in proving where the slippery slope ends up: in a blatant rejection of the very gospel, on behalf of which well-meaning progressive Christians called themselves humble, gracious, and open-minded--when, in fact, they were proudly and callously abandoning the authority of God through his Word.
Leon Morris once suggested that "the atonement is the crucial doctrine of the faith" and that "unless we are right here it matters little . . . what we are like elsewhere" (The Cross in the New Testament, p. 5). He is surely right. But the saving work Christ accomplished on the cross has been interpreted in various and sometimes even conflicting ways from the beginning of Christian theology right down to the present. If a proper understanding of how Christ's death saves his people were as crucial as Morris suggests, then we would seem to have a somewhat embarrassing and possibly even paralyzing problem. How did the church endure when she was so long confused and conflicted about "the crucial doctrine of the faith"?

While the cross is absolutely this crucial to our theology it is not strictly necessary to understand precisely how Christ's death saves sinners to benefit from it. This is welcome news, reminding us that we are not saved by our ability to reason our way through to theological truth but by God's grace and faith in the crucified who lives and reigns and is willing and able to save all who call on him. Abelard had this in view when, in opposition to Anselm's view the atonement expounded in Cur Deus Homo, he set out a moral-influence theory in his commentary on Romans.

In Cur Deus Homo, Anselm explains that our savior had to be both God and man in order to satisfy the offended honor of our Sovereign on our behalf. Along the way he corrects a basic error in the ransom-to-Satan view advanced by many before him and gently pushes back on the close association of the number of the elect with the number of fallen angels--a popular piece of speculation at that time. Contrary to conventional wisdom, however, Anselm does not argue "the death of Christ was an actual penalty inflicted on him as a substitute" in our place (Erickson, Christian Theology, p. 807). He instead reasons that "it is a necessary consequence" of the logic of forgiveness "that either the honor which has been taken away [from God by our sin] should be repaid, or punishment should follow" (Cur, 1.13, emphasis mine).

If the offended honor of God is not satisfied by a payment worthy of his divine dignity and majesty, he argues, then we will be punished for our sin. The Son of God, however, became man and voluntarily offered up his life on the cross as just such a payment. Because the Son's sinless, voluntary, and sacrificial gift of himself to the Father has infinite worth it not only satisfies the offended honor of God but also wins a reward that is graciously lavished on us. In this way, Anselm's theory of vicarious satisfaction of divine honor is compatible with the medieval scheme of merit that the Reformed theory of penal substitution overthrows.

Abelard found Anselm's argument from God's offended honor repugnant. Appealing to Paul, he countered that the cross is actually how "God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). As sinners, we need the assurance of God's love for us that the cross publicly supplies to convince us that he yet loves us and is willing to receive all who call on him. So, while the demonstration of God's love is as objective for Abelard as the satisfaction of God's honor is for Anselm, on this view reconciliation occurs through the conversion of the sinner's affections as he convinces us "how much we ought to love him 'who spares not even his own Son' for us," rather than by the satisfaction of God's honor or justice (Abelard, "Exposition of the Epistle to the Romans," p. 279).

The death of Christ, however, cannot be a display of divine love if it is not necessary in order to save us from our sin. If I was out on a date with my wife one rainy night and turned to her, as we were strolling down the sidewalk huddled under our umbrella, and said "I love you this much" and then hurled myself in front of an oncoming bus, I don't think she would feel the love. Such a senseless act would more likely confirm her suspicion I'm really an idiot and probably leave her half peeved and utterly dismayed. The only way throwing myself in front of a bus counts as a loving act is if her welfare somehow demanded it--if my sacrifice was somehow necessary to save her.

Likewise, for the cross to demonstrate God's love for sinners it is not enough that Christ dies or that he dies voluntarily or even that he voluntarily dies "for us" in some sense. We must go further and hold that nothing less than Christ's voluntary death on the cross was sufficient to meet our need before God. Only, in other words, if his death is an objective satisfaction for all that has offended God and alienated his people from God can the death of Christ also be the demonstration of God's love for sinners that it is.

Three Mistakes to Avoid in Good Friday Preaching

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Preaching "Christ and him crucified" is core to the job description of any minister of the Christian gospel (1 Corinthians 2:2).  Good Friday drives this home more than any other day in the church calendar. On that day, the preacher's task is to proclaim and explain why the bloody spectacle of the Son of God murdered upon Golgotha is "good news." How is this moral rupture the center of God's great act of atonement--of God reconciling the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19)? 

Christ's cross itself has always provoked hostility and scorn whether among pagan Greeks or Jews and is, in many ways, no easier to stomach now than it was then; it still confronts us with our sins and bids the old Adam to come, submit to death, so that the New Adam may rise to new life. But that's not the only difficulty involved. 

The fact of the matter is that many have rightly recoiled at some of the defective ways pastors have preached the cross--especially its penal and substitutionary dimensions--in the past. When we make mistakes in this area, it's easy to give people a distorted and destructive view of both God and the gospel. This is tragic. Both because we deprive people of the beauty of the cross, but also because, as C.S. Lewis points out, the more powerful and good something is, the more destructive it can be if it goes wrong. Much as a doctor cannot be careless in wielding a life-saving scalpel, so preachers cannot treat the preaching of the cross lightly or carelessly lest we bring death instead of life. 

While there are a number of ways preaching the cross can go wrong, here are three key mistakes to avoid in your preaching of the cross this Good Friday. 

Don't Break Up the Trinity

One popular, but dangerous, mistake that gets made is to speak as if the cross was an event that momentarily split the Trinity up into pieces. We sing hymns with lines like "The Father turned his face away" and think that on the cross God the Father poured out his judgment on God the Son in such a way that the eternal Father is somehow ontologically or spiritually separated from God the Son. To suggest this is to teach a split in the being of the eternal, unchangeable, perfect life of the Father, Son, and Spirit, which is unthinkable. 

What's more, this is not the historic, orthodox view of penal substitution--at least not as we encounter it in the best teachers in church history. John Calvin himself is quite clear on this:
Yet we do not suggest that God was ever inimical or angry toward him. How could he be angry toward his beloved Son, "in whom his heart reposed" [cf. Matthew 3:17]? How could Christ by his intercession appease the Father toward others, if he were himself hateful to God? This is what we are saying: he bore the weight of divine severity, since he was "stricken and afflicted" [cf. Isaiah 53:5] by God's hand, and experienced all the signs of a wrathful and avenging God (Institutes of the Christian Religion, II.xvi.11)
This is where having a properly Chalcedonian Christology matters. We have to remember that Christ the Mediator is not solely divine, nor solely human precisely because he is fully divine and fully human. The teaching of Scripture is that divine, eternal, perfect Son assumed human nature (adding humanity) to himself in the incarnation in order that he might live, die, and rise again on our behalf as man (John 1:1-14; Col. 1:15-20; 2:8). This is why Calvin (along with the Fathers), said it is appropriate to speak of some realities being "according to" his divine nature (eternality, omnipotence, etc) and others according to his human nature (thirst, hunger, sleepiness) even though they are both properly spoken of Christ as he is one person in two natures.

When we speak of the Son suffering the consequences of sin, judgment, the wrath, or the abandonment of God on the cross, we speak truly, but we speak these things according to his human nature. You have to be able to say that the divine Son suffered these things because Jesus is the divine Son. But you also have to say that the Son suffered them according to his human nature. This is not a dodge or over-subtle, logic-chopping. This is the metaphysical logic of the incarnation--God is unchangeable and impassible. God cannot suffer in his own nature, so the Son takes on our nature in order to suffer with and for us in his human nature, which is now really and truly his, alongside and on behalf of his brothers and sisters (Hebrews 2:14). God the Son suffers and dies in his human nature. 
In other words, if you forget orthodox Christology in the preaching of the cross, you'll be in danger of losing the Trinity and the gospel itself. 

Don't Forget--Love Comes First

A second mistake we can make in preaching the atonement is connected to the first. Many critics have rejected the atonement as the satisfaction of God's justice and wrath because they've gotten the impression that somehow the picture is about a loving Jesus going to the cross in order to satisfy an angry Father who's just out for blood. And even when it's not explicitly taught this way, unless corrected, many people in the pews can get the impression that God somehow has to be convinced he ought to be merciful. 

But this is not what we see in Scripture. Instead, we have a portrait of the triune God of holy love who purposes from all eternity to redeem sinners for himself, before it ever entered their minds to repent he looked to embrace us in Christ (Eph. 1:4-5; 1 Peter 1:20). God revealed his love for us in that while we were still sinners, cursing God with every breath, that the Son came to die for us (Romans 5:8).  God doesn't have to be convinced or persuaded to love us, nor does the Father need to be convinced by the Son. 

Indeed, Jesus makes it clear that the Father loves the Son precisely because the Son goes willingly to lay down his life for the sheep just as the Father desires because of his great love for us (John 10:14-18).  Hebrews makes clear that the Son does so in the power of the Spirit (Hebrews 9:14). This is the triune shape of the gospel: Father, Son, and Spirit beautifully and harmoniously accomplishing the salvation of sinners. 

In that case, we have to understand that God is not moved from wrath to love because of the death of Christ. He is moved by love to satisfy his wrath (ie. judicial opposition to sin) against us by removing our guilt and enmity through the blood of his cross. Whatever else our people understand, they must see that mercy and grace are God's idea and accomplishment before it ever enters our minds, because God, by his very nature, is love.

It's Not All About Wrath  

Finally, I've focused on issues connected to wrath and punishment simply because Reformed and Evangelical preaching tends to focus on some form of penal substitution in its cross-preaching. Don't forget, though, that the cross is about much more than those issues. Scripture is clear that Christ got a lot of work done in his life, death, and resurrection. Herman Bavinck notes the diversity of the New Testament witness at this point and says, "Like the person, the work of Christ is so multifaceted that it cannot be captured in a single word nor summarized in a single formula." We must remember not to sideline the various other aspects of Christ's cross-work. 

For instance, when was the last time you preached on Christ's conquering over the powers of sin, death, and the devil? The drama of the gospel isn't only about interpersonal reconciliation between God and humanity, but about the liberation of God's people from the clutches of his enemies. The same apostle John who tells us that Christ came to make atonement for sin (1 John 2:2) also came to utterly destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8) . Paul says that through his death for our sins, Christ removed the record of transgressions that stood against us, bringing our forgiveness, and thereby disarming the powers and principalities (Colossians 2:13-15). Satan can no longer accuse the saints (Revelation 12:10-12). In doing so he liberates us from guilt and the fear of death (Hebrews 2:14). 

And this is just one of the many aspects of Christ's multi-faceted work on the cross beyond the satisfaction of God's justice. 

We need to be careful, then, to avoid giving our people a lopsided view of the cross so that they might begin to perceive the height, breath, and depth of the good news of Good Friday.


Derek Rishmawy is a Ph.D. student in Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois. He writes regularly at derekzrishmawy.com

Is the atoning blood of Christ central?

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Inter Varsity Press (UK) have made this announcement in the last couple of weeks regarding a merger with SPCK. It's pretty depressing news, which appears, in many ways, to be driven by market forces and the need to survive. The official announcement states 'SPCK will ensure IVP is fully resourced to thrive as an evangelical Christian publisher in the digital era. IVP will maintain its brand identity, conservative evangelical ethos, and relationships with authors, publishers and long-time customers.'  If church history teaches us anything it is that SPCK is more likely to influence IVP than vice versa.
 
The announcement reminded me of John Stott's preface to the Cross of Christ. Stott wrote 'It is appropriate that a book on the cross should form part of the Golden Jubilee celebrations of Inter-Varsity Press to which the whole Christian reading public is greatly indebted. For the cross is at the centre of evangelical faith.' He goes on to recount how CICCU (Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union) disaffiliated from the Student Christian Movement in 1910 over SCM's liberal tendencies:
 After the First World War ended in 1918, many ex-servicemen went up to Cambridge as students. CICCU  by now was much smaller than the SCM. Yet the SCM leaders (notably Charles Raven, the Dean of Emmanuel) made overtures to CICCU, hoping that they would rejoin and supply the missing devotional warmth and evangelistic thrust. To resolve the issue, Daniel Dick and Norman Grubb (President and Secretary of CICCU) met the SCM committee in the rooms of their secretary Rollo Perry in Trinity Great Court. Here is Norman Grubb's own account of the crucial issue:
... After an hour's talk I asked Rollo point blank, 'Does the SCM put the atoning blood of Jesus Christ central?' He hesitated, and then said , 'Well, we acknowledge it, but not necessarily central.' Dan Dick and I then said that this settled the matter for us in CICCU. We could never join something that did not maintain the atoning blood of Jesus Christ as its centre; and we parted company''. (Stott, The Cross of Christpp. 13-14)
 
One might wish that someone like Norman Grubb had been in the room when IVP merging with SPCK was discussed.

Interview on the Atonement and Hypothetical Universalism

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Historical theology is an important discipline for the church. There are views that have been held by Reformed theologians in the past that I don't necessarily agree with, but must nevertheless do my best to understand so that I know precisely what I'm disagreeing with. Regarding the atonement, I hold to an "Owenian" position. But not all theologians from our tradition have held to Owen's view. Here I've asked Michael Lynch to answer some questions on the atonement in order to perhaps give us a wider and more historically informed perspective on this doctrine in the Reformed tradition.


Mark: Michael, please introduce yourself (tell us where you are studying and what you are studying?)


Michael: I am a PhD student at Calvin Seminary. I am also a research assistant at the Meeter Center for Calvin Studies. My interests range from early modern Reformed theology to nineteenth century American Presbyterianism, with particular interest in discussions and debates on the extent of Christ's satisfaction.


Mark: You've done a fair bit of reading on the extent of Christ's satisfaction. Would you say that to be a Calvinist you need to hold to particular redemption? Didn't the early reformers hold to the "L" before the TULIP was eventually planted in the Reformed garden?


Michael: Great question Mark. To be Reformed according to the Synod of Dort, yes, you must hold to particular redemption. But, of course, we need to define what we do and don't mean by that term. If we take the Canons of Dort as our starting point, then Head 2, Arts. 8-9 clearly teach that Christ died with the purpose of saving the elect alone. God decreed a quickening and saving efficacy in the death of Christ to be applied to the elect alone. This is generally denied by the Remonstrants and Lutherans in the early modern period. (Note, e.g., the Remonstrant, Nicolaas Grevinckhoven)

 


Yet, we must equally keep in mind that this "particularism" doesn't rule out other designs in the death of Christ, which some Reformed theologians wished to deny; others wished to affirm. But let me be clear, if a theologian denies this "particular" aspect, then by Dortian standards he or she is taking a non-Reformed position.

 


Your latter question is tied with what I said above. If by the "L" you mean limited atonement, which most often connotes a limitation of Christ's satisfaction to the elect alone, then no, I don't think we can say that the early reformers held to the "L" in TULIP. If you mean by "L" nothing more than particular redemption as defined in the first paragraph, then yes, all the early Reformed I have read affirmed that God willed the death of Christ to be effectually and infallibly destined and applied to the elect alone.

 


I should also add that this "particular redemption" is affirmed in the best (and majority) of the patristic and medieval tradition. Particular redemption so defined is also affirmed in the Lombardian formula, in my estimation.

 

Mark: Okay, you speak of the Lombardian formula, which is commonly understood as the sufficiency-efficiency distinction. Those with a basic knowledge of Reformed theology sometimes say that Christ's death is sufficient for all who have ever lived and will live, but efficient for the elect only. Does this use of the formula have any weaknesses?


Michael: Also, a good question. I think the Lombardian Formula is without weakness as understood by the Schoolmen (i.e., medieval scholastics) themselves and the early Reformers. Yet, as is often the case in theology, a helpful distinction or theological point can often become detached from its original use and become employed in a way foreign to its original intention. The distinction in its substance can be found as far back as at least the 4th century, though Peter the Lombard's wording from the 12th century is the most well-known form

 


I don't think the formula, even in its truncated form, has any weakness beyond its truncated form. It is only weak because it doesn't express every nuance that Lombard's actual wording admits. For example, I already mentioned that I don't think Lombard's original formulation allows for the Remonstrant denial of a particular intention of Christ's death. Christ died for the elect alone effectually.

 


On the other side, I think that Lombard means more than what some Reformed have meant when they speak about sufficiency. "Christ dying sufficiently for all" cannot exclude an intention on God's part to give Christ for all human beings. In other words, it seems foolish to me to say Christ died sufficiently for all, and then claim that he was offered up for some [i.e., the elect] only. In my reading of the original intention of the formula, using much of Peter of Lombard's original language, God the Father offered Jesus Christ as a priestly sacrifice on behalf of all men sufficiently, yet efficaciously for the elect alone. Note that in both of my clauses, "the offering" of Christ is in view--for all men (sufficiently); for the elect alone (efficaciously).



One last thing. I think the formula is best appropriated as a hermeneutic to understand Scripture rightly. We all admit that there are some passages that seem to speak of Christ's death in universal terms and some texts that seem to speak of it in particular terms. The formula allows us to treat the universal texts universally and the particular texts particularly. This is precisely the way Zachary Ursinus (the primary author of the Heidelberg Catechism) and David Pareus use the formula in Ursinus' commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (cf. Q. 40.3 in the Williard ed.)

 

Mark: How would this Lombardian formula relate to Hypothetical Universalism? And what, for our readers, is Hypothetical Universalism?


Michael: Let's start with the latter question. Hypothetical universalism often denotes a significant strand of Reformed theologians who argued that God willed Christ's death to be a universal cause of salvation for all men on condition that if all repent and believe, their sins will be remitted. As Richard Muller has often noted, there are clear versions of hypothetical universalism found in Musculus, Ursinus, Zanchi, Bullinger, et al. The idea that hypothetical universalism is an awkward cousin of Reformed theology or that it is a doctrine that only came about in order to "soften" the harsher elements of Reformed theology is untenable. Scholarship is starting to recognize this.

 


To the first question, I think we need to understand that by the early seventeenth century and with the rise of Remonstrant theology, the Lombardian Formula was routinely reinterpreted, revised, or downright denied by a whole host of Reformed theologians. The hypothetical universalists were typically quite accepting of the formula, while those who emphasized the particularity to the exclusion of the universality of Christ's death were more uncomfortable with the formula as time progressed.


Mark: Okay, one last question, and a little tougher perhaps than the others. The "irenic" Edward Reynolds says: "This opinion cannot be asserted by any that can say he is not of the Remonstrants' opinion...upon a condition that they cannot perform, and God never intends to give them." It was in response to Edmund Calamy's first articulation of his hypothetical universalism. Gillespie later says that one who holds this "must needs deny absolute reprobation."

 

Michael, what do you make of this?


Michael: Your last question is a bit cryptic given that all we have from Reynolds is a partial description of his objection towards the hypothetical universalism of Calamy. Even so, maybe I can highlight some aspects of the debate over universal redemption among the Westminster Divines.

 


That Reynolds judges Calamy's hypothetical universalism as no different than Arminianism on the point of the extent of Christ's satisfaction is hardly surprising. But as already noted, all Reformed--including the advocates of hypothetical universalism--affirmed a special design in the death of Christ for the elect alone. In fact, this is precisely the response of Calamy: "The Arminians hold that Christ did pay a price for this intention only, that all men should be in an equal state of salvation. They say Christ did not purchase any impetration..." According to Calamy's hypothetical universalism, however, Christ did purchase the efficacious application of Christ's death (i.e., impetration) for the elect alone.

 


Reynolds objection is that Calamy's universal redemption is founded on "a condition [the non-elect] cannot perform, and God never intends to give them" is also a standard objection levied against the hypothetical universalists. The minutes of the assembly do not seem to indicate whether Calamy responded to that objection.



The objection Gillespie makes against Calamy's understanding of John 3:16 and the term "world" denoting each and every human being is very curious. It is not evident to me why Calamy's understanding of John 3:16 cannot be held in tandem with absolute reprobation. John 3:16 does not promise the giving of faith to any, therefore it seems odd to expect that the decree not to give faith to some (i.e., absolute negative reprobation) is undermined in any way. In other words, Calamy understands John 3:16 as a conditional decree, and it is difficult to see how the promise attending the conditional decree (i.e., everlasting life via belief) prohibits a theologian from positing an absolute decree whereby certain persons are not given the condition (i.e., belief) attached to the conditional decree.

 


All that to say, I'm not convinced that Gillespie completely understood Calamy's position; yet this all comes from a rather choppy second-hand account of the Westminster Assembly minutes! While Calamy's exegesis of John 3:16 may, in truth, undermine absolute reprobation, it cannot be doubted that other hypothetical universalists like John Davenant wrote able defenses of the absolute decree of predestination and reprobation. No less than William Cunningham, the nineteenth century Reformed Scotsman, called Davenant's treatise (De Praedestinatione et Reprobatione) on the topic "a most thorough and masterly exposition and defence of the views ordinarily held by Calvinists in regard to election and reprobation. Indeed, we do not believe that there exists a better or more satisfactory vindication of the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination, in both its branches of election and reprobation." (The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation, 205).

Andrew Fuller (1754-1815)

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Two hundred years ago today, on the morning of Sunday 7th May 1815 dawned, the sixty one year old Andrew Fuller was grieved that he had not the strength to go and worship his God with his people. As his end approached, so his faith had increased. When his dear friend John Ryland Jr. heard that Fuller had testified to a brother minister, "My hope is such that I am not afraid to plunge into eternity," he declared it the most characteristic expression his friend might have uttered.

Fuller spent his last half-hour seemingly engaged in prayer, though the only words which could be distinctly heard were, "Help me!" He died, said his friend Mr Toller, an Independent minister, "as a penitent sinner at the foot of the cross."

Just a few days before going home, as Fuller considered his approaching death, he was able to write this to Ryland:
I know whom I have believed, and that he is able to keep that which I have committed to him against that day. I am a poor guilty creature; but Christ is an almighty Saviour. I have preached and written much against the abuse of the doctrine of grace; but that doctrine is all my salvation and all my desire. I have no other hope, than from salvation by mere sovereign, efficacious grace, through the atonement of my Lord and Saviour. With this hope, I can go into eternity with composure. Come, Lord Jesus! come when thou wilt! Here I am; let him do with me as seemeth him good!

"How can this guilty sinner flee"

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C.M. (Godre'r Coed)
How can this guilty sinner flee
The judgement that is mine?
How can a wretched man escape
The punishment divine?

Tell me where wrath and mercy meet;
Show me God reconciled.
Where can a rebel find true peace,
Rest for a heart so wild?

Come, take the path to Calvary,
Climb up her shadowed side:
This is the way that Jesus went,
This is where Jesus died.

This is where Christ poured out his blood;
This is where peace begins;
This is where wrath and mercy meet:
Pardon for all our sins.

Here is the wisdom of our God,
And here his power divine;
Here is a full atonement made,
And righteousness does shine.

Sinner, would you escape God's wrath?
Would you be truly blessed?
Here God in Christ is reconciled;
Here is eternal rest.
Jeremy Walker

See other hymns and psalms.

Discussing Atonement

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I'll be on the Janet Medford show tomorrow (Thursday) at 1 PM CST discussing the book I edited a couple years ago, Atonement. You can catch it online here.

Carl Trueman, C. S. Lewis, and the 'Devil Ransom Theory'

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For this my inaugural post as a Ref21 blogger, I want first of all to thank Derek Thomas and Jeremy Smith for their gracious invitation to join this august group.  Although I'm sure I won't be able to match either the verve or the volume of our friend Carl Trueman and his various alter egos, I hope I can offer something of value to the Ref21 audience. 

 

Carl's January 18, 2011 post entitled "Bonhoeffer and Anonymous Evangelicals" caught my eye.  I too have puzzled over Evangelical attempts to appropriate figures such as Bonhoeffer and C. S. Lewis--efforts that bespeak, I suspect, both a fuzziness about the identity of Evangelicalism and an insecurity that compels some to claim noted figures of the past for "our side." 

 

I agree with Carl that Bonhoeffer was no "evangelical."  To be sure, he is a compelling figure on many levels--his opposition to the Nazi regime was nothing short of heroic, and he was a theological thinker of considerable substance.  On the other hand, I have enjoyed watching my students puzzle over those enigmatic suggestions about "religionless Christianity" on pp. 279-281 of the Letters and Papers from Prison.  I don't know what Bonhoeffer meant either, but it seems to me that the "secular theologians" of the 1960s can legitimately look to Bonhoeffer as an antecedent for their concerns. 

 

Likewise, unless the term "evangelical" has become the proverbial nose of wax (which is, unfortunately, a distinct possibility in the current context) C. S Lewis was no "evangelical" either.   As a high-church Anglican he certainly does not fit David Bebbington's influential definition of Evangelicalism as presented in his Evangelicalism in Modern Britain.  This may explain why the Billy Graham Center and the Marion E. Wade Center (devoted to the study of Lewis and the other "Inklings") are located on opposite ends of the Wheaton College campus.  Like matter and anti-matter, such dissimilar impulses are best kept separate. 

 

What I'm not so sure about is Carl's contention that Lewis was a devotee of the "Devil ransom theory of the atonement."  Of course, Lewis does present that memorable depiction of the death of Aslan at the hands of the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe, a narrative that recalls the church fathers and their conception of the death of Christ as a ransom paid to the devil.  This ransom to the devil theory takes a variety of forms in the patristic literature.  According to Gregory of Nyssa the deity of Christ is the "hook" hidden within the "bait" of his humanity, and like a fish the devil finds himself overcome.  According to Augustine's more sophisticated version, the devil abused his power in killing the sinless Jesus and so forfeited his power over Christ and those united with him.  Of course, the thrust of this "ransom" or "classic theory" of the atonement is to emphasize that the cross of Christ more than just a satisfaction of the penalty of sin; it is a mighty victory over the power of sin, death, and the devil--something that many of us confessional Protestants could emphasize a bit more.  That is to say, the cross is just as much about our sanctification as it is about our justification.  And although Gustaf AulĂ©n clearly overstated his argument regarding Luther in his Christus Victor, the fact that Luther does utilize this theme suggests that the evangelical pedigree is more substantial here than some would allow. 

 

What I find interesting about Lewis, however, is that when he deals with this issue theologically in his Mere Christianity, he goes in a rather different (and frankly more disappointing) direction.   In a chapter entitled "The Perfect Penitent," after telling us that the key truth is the fact that "Christ's death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start," Lewis opines that "theories as to how it did this are another matter."  Then, after describing the substitutionary atonement view  as "a very silly theory," Lewis suggests that what we really need is true repentance, and he presents the death of Christ in terms of a sort of vicarious repentance theory reminiscent, perhaps, of the deposed nineteenth-century Scottish Presbyterian John McLeod Campbell.  In other words, it seems that ol' Clive Staples was not one to let theological precision get in the way of a good story, and that his actual view of the atonement may in fact be more problematic than some have realized.  But all that will not stop me in the least from continuing to read and to enjoy C. S. Lewis! 

Books on the Atonement (1)

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The cross of Christ is at the very center of Gospel proclamation, and thus a thorough, biblical grasp of this central truth is necessary for every Gospel minister. Yet our day has seen (like ages before us) much confusion on this vital point of truth.

As a part of my contribution to Together for the Gospel this year, it was my joy to contribute an annotated bibliography to a wonderful little book by J.I. Packer and Mark Dever called In My Place Condemned He Stood. We offer it as an aid and encouragement to Christians who want more deeply to understand the nature and accomplishments of Jesus' death, and thus to be lost in wonder, love and praise to the gracious Father who gave and delivered up his only begotten Son on our behalf, and to the Son who loved us and gave himself for us, by the Holy Spirit, who alone enables us to say truly "Jesus is Lord."

The task of preparing the bibliography got me to thinking on the subject of what handful of books would bless and aid growing Christians and faithful pastors the most. So, I am going blog through eleven recommendations here (but this is not the exact list I gave as my "top ten" in the book!).