Results tagged “penal substitution” 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.

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