At the cross I don't bow my knee

This is part of a great song At The Cross from the 2006 Hillsong album Mighty to Save:

At the cross I bow my knee
Where Your blood was shed for me
There’s no greater love than this
You have overcome the grave
Your glory fills the highest place
What can separate me now?

Or is it so great? I like the music, as we sang it in my church last night. But what about the words?

I am not thinking so much about the strange last line: separate me from what? After all, well taught Christians will immediately spot that this is an allusion to Romans 8:38-39 and “from the love of God” is implied.

The issue I have is with the first line that I quoted, “At the cross I bow my knee”. No, I don’t. I bow my knee only to God, and he is not on the cross. As the angel said to Mary (Matthew 28:6), “He is not here; he has risen”. OK, that was about the empty tomb, but surely it is all the more true of the cross: Jesus is no longer hanging on it, he is alive!

Protestant Christians give this as their reason for displaying empty crosses in their churches, rather than the crucifixes more typically used by Roman Catholics. But the cross is still given the central place in most church buildings, whereas the resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit are so often ignored in our church decoration.

The problem is that the Protestants have taken away from the image not the cross but Jesus! I am not actually advocating putting statues or pictures of Jesus in our churches, but there is a striking contrast here with the more typically Eastern Orthodox depictions of the living and reigning Jesus, such as Christ Pantocrator.

The danger with giving too much prominence to the empty cross is that it becomes an idol, something which we worship in place of the living God. It is not just a matter of the cross as a physical object or a symbol. In many branches of evangelicalism the cross, or what happened on it, is given so much prominence relative to the other events of salvation history that it becomes something of an idol in our thinking. Indeed surely it is this kind of thinking that lies behind the prominence we give to this symbol in our church buildings.

The bronze snake which Moses made in the wilderness was a great means of God’s deliverance (Numbers 21:8-9), and prefigured the cross itself (John 3:14). Nevertheless King Hezekiah had to destroy it because it had become an idol, an object of worship in itself (2 Kings 18:4). If the cross of Jesus has become an object of worship in itself, something which we bow down before rather than worshipping God, it too needs to be put in its proper place. If we bow down before the cross in a church building, it should only be because we recognise that God, the risen Jesus, is there.

Jesus is alive!

Easter is coming up, and I have been invited by Slipstream, which is the Evangelical Alliance’s leadership resource, to post about the resurrection of Jesus, and what it means to me. This is supposed to be part of a synchro blog, whatever that means. I admit that I have not listened to the Gary Habermas and Tim Keller podcast to which the synchro blog is linked, although I have read the tasters. So these are just my own thoughts. Anyway, here goes…

1. Validation

My first point about the resurrection is that it validates Jesus’ ministry. It is this that proves decisively that he was not just a good teacher, or a crazy one, but the one sent by God, indeed more than just a man.

Yes, the miracles Jesus performed also validated his ministry, but it is hard to prove that these are genuine especially after two thousand years. However, there is one miracle which cannot be doubted: that a man officially executed and formally declared dead by the Roman authorities, and buried by Jewish leaders, rose again and was seen alive by hundreds of witnesses. Even in modern times sceptical lawyers who have examined the evidence have been forced to conclude that there is no other explanation for the records, that Jesus must have truly risen from the dead. And if this can be accepted, then there should be no problem with all the other miracles.

From this evidence we are also forced to believe that Jesus really was sent by God, not just as a teacher of truth but also, according to the content of his teaching, as the one who would save us from our sins and bring us to eternal life.

2. Victory

Jesus’ resurrection was far more than a validation of his ministry. It was also the culmination of his work of bringing salvation to humankind.

God sent his Son into the world to defeat the powers of evil which had taken over so much of it, which had brought men and women down to the depths of sin and despair. God’s purpose, which is still being worked out, is to bring the world fully into his own Kingdom, where evil and sin would no longer have a place. He sent Jesus to fight and win the decisive battle to achieve this purpose.

Throughout Jesus’ time on earth he was attacked by evil, in demonic and human form. Eventually the devil thought that he won the victory, by having Jesus put to death on a cross. But he had no idea what was really happening on that cross, that Jesus’ death as a sacrifice for sins was, in a way which is beyond human as well as demonic full comprehension, a key tactic in the final defeat of evil. Three days later the powers of evil were taken completely by surprise when Jesus rose from the dead, and it became clear that they had been completely defeated. The resurrection of Jesus is both the final act and the public demonstration of his complete victory over death, sin and all forms of evil.

3. Vision

It was hard to find a third “V” to summarise this third aspect of what the resurrection of Jesus means to me, not just as a past act but also as a living reality today. But certainly one aspect of it is that he gives me vision for what to do with my life.

After Jesus rose from the dead, he didn’t die again, as Lazarus presumably did. His resurrection was not just the resuscitation of a corpse. His resurrection body was taken up into heaven and so is no longer visible to us today. But he is still alive, as we celebrate every Easter. And this means that I can and do have an ongoing daily relationship with him.

In that relationship I mustn’t forget that Jesus is not just an ordinary man, not even as he was when he walked in Galilee. He is still filled with the power of his resurrection life. And, amazingly, those of us who are “in Christ”, who are Christians with that same relationship with Jesus, are also, through the Holy Spirit, filled with this resurrection life and power. In the words of a recent worship song from Hillsong (the link is to an MP3 of just one chorus):

The same power that conquered the grave
Lives in me, lives in me.
Your love that rescued the earth
Lives in me, lives in me.

Because Jesus is alive and working, demonstrating his love, in and through me, I can do even greater works than he did when he was on earth. And the same is true for you, if you truly believe in Jesus. We can do more spectacular miracles than he did, healing and even raising the dead – as long as this is not just as a public spectacle but to show God’s love and bring him glory. But probably more importantly we can continue and bring to completion the work of Jesus in reconciling the world to God.

Yes, Jesus in rising from the dead won the great victory which made this reconciliation possible. But we still see a world far from God as people allow themselves to be dominated by evil. The kingdom of God is here, but it is not yet here in its fullness. Jesus as one man on earth could only reach and bring his personal touch to a few people. But now he has a community spread throughout every nation, and he calls every one of this community, that includes you and me, to bring that touch of love in one way or another to needy people, those far from God, all around the world. This is the purpose which God has for us, his people, and the vision which he sets before us.

Of course, in our own strength we can do little to solve the great problems of the world. But as we are filled with Jesus’ resurrection power there is no limit to what we can achieve, to bring about God’s great purpose of bringing the world fully into his Kingdom.

I didn’t really mean to write a sermon, and I won’t be preaching this as one, at least this Easter. But if anyone reading this still needs an Easter sermon and wants to use this material, you are welcome – but I would prefer if you let me know.

The Faith of Christ

There has been quite a storm of blogging about the phrase πίστις Χριστοῦ pistis Christou, literally “(the) faith of Christ”, which is found in a number of Bible passages, including Romans 3:22. Traditionally this has been translated “faith in Christ”. But in recent years many scholars (especially as part of the “New Perspective on Paul” movement), and at least one translation, the NET Bible, have preferred to understand the phrase as “the faithfulness of Christ”. The noun πίστις pistis can indeed mean “faithfulness” as well as “faith”. Also many people consider that the simple Greek genitive construction is more naturally understood as “subjective”, i.e. with Christ as the subject of faith or faithfulness, rather than as “objective”, i.e. with Christ as the object of faith.

But not everyone is happy with this new interpretation, not least the pseudonymous blogger NT Wrong. Now I generally avoid reading pseudonymous blogs, unless there is a good reason for not giving a real name as in the case of Roger Mugs. So I have not read Wrong’s own arguments. But I have read various reactions to them, most notably those of Doug Chaplin, who grants Wrong no mercy, here, here and here. The matter has also been discussed at Better Bibles Blog, in a post which also links to a number of others.

I will not attempt here to settle the question of what the Greek phrase can or cannot mean. If the many scholars who have looked at the issue cannot settle it, then what chance have I? But I will express some more theological thoughts about this matter.

Several blog commenters have questioned whether there are only two alternative understandings, “faith in Christ” and “the faithfulness of Christ”. Indeed there are not. There is a third alternative which I would like to suggest: “the faith of Christ”. And while that English expression could be understood in a rather general way, something like “Christian faith”, the meaning I have in mind is “the faith which Christ had”. That is, I am suggesting that human salvation depends in some sense not only on our faith but on Jesus’ faith.

I thought I had blogged before about Thomas Aquinas’ teaching that Jesus did not have faith, but all I can find is a passing mention in this BBB post. The great mediaeval theologian’s argument was that Jesus as Son of God was omniscient and so had no need for faith. But I see two inadequacies in this argument: firstly, Jesus as a man on earth chose to limit his omniscience and so did know everything about the future; and secondly, the implied definition of faith as intellectual assent to propositions not known to be true is highly inadequate.

Against Aquinas there is a biblical argument, and not only from the phrase I am discussing here. True, I don’t think that anywhere does the Bible speak explicitly of Jesus believing or having faith. Probably the only example of Jesus being the subject of the verb pisteuo “believe” is John 2:24, where in context it means “entrust”.

But it is in Hebrews 12:2, which should be understood as the finale of the great Hebrews 11 chapter on heroes of faith, that we see that Jesus had faith, and how it relates to our own faith. Here we read that Jesus was “the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (TNIV). The word translated “pioneer” means something like “the one who opens up a new path”. And so this expression suggests that Jesus was the first to tread the new and better path of faith  (compare 11:40) and to open up the way for others to follow. As the rest of the verse explains, he did this by enduring the cross, “for the joy that was set before him” which he could see only by faith.

On this understanding or model of Jesus’ life and death, as a model or guide for our faith as well as the opening up of a path, it should be clear how πίστις Χριστοῦ pistis Christou can be understood, according to its literal rendering, as “the faith of Christ”. Of course on this model there is no clear distinction between “faith” and “faithfulness”: Jesus’ life of faith meant faithfulness to his calling, and the same should be true of our life of faith. Romans 3:21-22 can then be understood as the righteousness or justice of God being revealed to us through the way in which Jesus lived his life of faith which led him to the cross. This life of faith then becomes an example to us but also more than an example, indeed an atoning sacrifice.

Avery Dulles (1918-2008) on Jesus' Atoning Death

Since this blog is back on the subject of why Jesus died, I thought it would be interesting to link to the views of the recently deceased Avery Dulles, a Roman Catholic cardinal described by John Hobbins as “an enthusiastic supporter of the Evangelical Catholic movement” (John’s link replaced by a more appropriate one). Michael Barber has posted an extract from Dulles’ writing which is of great relevance to the atonement debates on this blog and others.

Here is a large part of what Michael quotes from Dulles:

One person may represent another, but cannot substitute for that other except in a merely functional way. As Dorothee Sölle has brilliantly explained, substitution is the definitive exchange of reified objects, whereas representation is the provisional intervention of persons on behalf of other persons. To retain this distinction, it seems preferable to avoid speaking of “substitutionary atonement” in the case of Jesus Christ. Sölle herself proposes to speak rather of Christ the Representative…

Because there is no mechanical substitution of one person for another, the representative death of Christ does not automatically remit the guilt of sinners. The merits of Christ are not simply imputed to us by some kind of juridical fiction; rather we are truly and inwardly healed through the infusion of the grace that flows from him. We have to allow ourselves to be taken over by Christ as he stands in for us. This we do by appropriating Christ’s action on our behalf through free and personal acts of faith, hope, and loving obedience…

Does the vicarious nature of redemption mean that Jesus is punished in our place? Some authors, indulging in very powerful rhetoric, describe in lurid terms the way in which the wrath of the eternal Father was visited upon the guiltless Son, so that he felt rejected and even hated by God…

Against these views, I would insist that Jesus remained at all times the well-beloved Son, living in close communion with the Father through the incomparable grace that flooded his soul…

The advantages of the representational sacrifice theory, and the answers to the objections raised against it, may be clarified by a review of the alternative theories described at the opening of this paper. In some ways the sacrificial interpretation, as I have proposed it, resembles the first theory, that of penal substitution, but the differences are important. Both theories maintain that Jesus suffered terrible ordeals and thereby won for sinners a release from the pains they deserve. But the penal substitution theory makes it appear that God punishes the innocent in place of the guilty, thereby suggesting that God is unjust. The theory of representative headship, by contrast, looks upon Jesus as one who offered satisfaction, rather than endured punishment. These are true alternatives. As Anselm insisted, sin requires either punishment or satisfaction; satisfaction takes the place of punishment… Satisfaction is voluntarily given, whereas punishment must be coercively endured. Satisfaction, unlike punishment, can be offered by the innocent as well as by the guilty.

Punishment, as an act of justice, must be strictly proportioned to the offense, but satisfaction, as a work of love, may be superabundant. According to Thomas Aquinas, Christ “offered to God more than was required to compensate for the sin of all humanity.”

For more of this, read Michael’s post, or follow his link (which I have not done) to the whole of Dulles’ article.

What Dulles wrote seems to me to make a lot of sense. Penal substitution is sometimes seen as a mere variant of Anselm’s satisfaction model of the atonement. But Dulles makes it clear how different it is – or at least how different certain popular understandings of penal substitution are. And it is against these popular understandings that writers like Steve Chalke and Jeffrey John reacted so strongly.

But, to be fair, the position of the more careful proponents of penal substitutionary atonement, such as J.I. Packer, is not so different from that of Dulles. Packer writes:

The Trinitarian principle is that the three distinct persons within the divine unity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, always work inseparably together, as in creation, so in providence and in every aspect of the work of redemption. … It was with his own will and his own love mirroring the Father’s, therefore, that he took the place of human sinners exposed to divine judgment and laid down his life as a sacrifice for them, entering fully into the state and experience of death that was due to them. Then he rose from death to reign by the Father’s appointment in the kingdom of God.

I would be surprised if Dulles would have had serious disagreement with Packer’s article.

What or who are we saved from: my thoughts

In my previous post I asked simply “What or who are we saved from?”, repeating a question asked by Brian McLaren. I am grateful for five comments so far, not counting my own one. Now I will move on to giving some kind of answer.

TC, MzEllen and Alastair are of course right that the question as originally posed presents a false distinction, with an implication that the answer is either/or when, at least according to these three, the correct answer is both/and. But is it really a matter of both/and? I would suggest not, at least not in the way this is sometimes understood.

So, are we saved from God? Does God hate us and want to destroy us, until Jesus somehow persuades him not to? This is how the matter is sometimes presented by popular preachers, and by the church noticeboard in my town which (I am told) proclaims “God hates you”. I am with Ferg on this:

I always found it a strange concept to think that God would send Jesus to save us from Himself.

To me, this idea is not only immoral and repugnant, it also goes against the Bible which, while occasionally (but only in the Old Testament and one quote in the New) stating that God hates sinners, consistently proclaims God’s love for the world and for humankind, and that that is why he sent Jesus.

Of course the Bible does speak of the wrath of God being poured out – but on what? Read Romans 1:18 carefully: this wrath is revealed not against sinners but against human ungodliness and wickedness. True, those who fail to heed God’s warning to separate themselves from ungodliness and wickedness find themselves experiencing God’s wrath, but they are not its intended target:

God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.

1 Thesssalonians 5:9 (TNIV)

From this perspective, the gospel is like a flood warning. God is sending his wrath as a destructive flood (now metaphorically, but the literal flood in Noah’s time prefigures this) to cleanse the world of all kinds of wickedness. Anything that the flood touches will be destroyed. But first he sends a warning to every human being (Romans 1:19,20), to flee from the coming wrath (Matthew 3:7), separate themselves from evil and find safety in Jesus Christ.

So, yes, we need to be saved both from evil and from the wrath of God. But this is not because God is or ever was against us: rather he is always for us and wants the best for us, which is our eternal salvation. His wrath is a danger only to those who ignore his warnings about what will certainly happen to those who stay in the place of evil which will be destroyed.

What or who are we saved from?

This is the question being asked by Brian McLaren, as reported by John and Olive Drane, thanks to Sally for the link:

One other thing we’ve been thinking about is the way Brian focused the atonement debate, with this question: what or who do we need to be saved from – from God (who is angry with us), or from evil, which is against both us and God?

Before I attempt to answer this question, I will give you, my readers, the chance to tell me what you think.

Atonement: the Warnock wars

I am keeping up my resolution not to read Adrian Warnock’s blog. But that doesn’t stop me reading about his latest offerings at his unrelated namesake Dave’s blog. And what I read there doesn’t encourage me to start reading Adrian’s again. It seems that these two have restarted what Adrian has called the “Warnock wars”, and on most issues here I am firmly on Dave’s side.

In his latest series Adrian, as reported by Dave, returns to the issue of the atonement, and Steve Chalke’s view of it. The first of Dave’s new series of posts ends with:

Well thank-you very much Adrian, I am sure we are all grateful for your attempts to break up reconciliation between evangelical Christians.

Make sure you read several other posts and comments before moving on to Dave’s latest post, which ends as follows:

Near the start of his post Adrian writes:

One of my major concerns about this whole debate is what a rejection of PSA does to our view of the Bible.

Absolutely it challenges a simplisitic partial reading of Scripture in favour of a thorough and respectful dialogue with the whole of Scripture – a truely evangelical approach to scripture. What a wonderful idea that is, fopr me the wonder of opening up models of atonement and considering others besides Penal Substitution is that we find new ways of understanding God that are far more in tune with Jesus the Son of God as revealed in Scripture. Go on try it, I promise the view on this side of the fence is fantastic. What a wonderful loving God we serve!

Was Jesus' work finished on the cross?

I was made to think by part of a comment here by Bud Press. Bud listed a number of what he called “serious problems” with the teaching in Todd Bentley’s book The Reality of the Supernatural World (which I haven’t read) including this one:

– Jesus’ act of redemption was not completed on the cross, but when he ascended into heaven.

Now why does Bud consider this a problem? I know that it is a commonplace in certain strands of evangelicalism to refer to Jesus’ finished work on the cross. And his final word before he died, as recorded by John, tetelestai “It is finished!” (19:30) is often understood as a triumphant declaration that Jesus has finished his work. But is this understanding correct?

The word tetelestai in itself, introduced simply by eipen “he said”, does not necessarily imply anything triumphant. Indeed it can equally be interpreted as a dying man’s cry of despair, John’s equivalent of the words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” recorded by Matthew (27:46) and Mark (15:34), but not by Luke (who has “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit”, 23:46) or John. The interpretation of tetelestai as a shout of triumph is based not on the word itself but on a broadly based theological understanding of Jesus’ work.

But does this broader theological understanding in fact support the concept that Jesus’ work was finished, completed, with his death on the cross? I think not. While much evangelical theology has relegated Jesus’ resurrection and ascension to being not much more than an afterthought in God’s plan, these subsequent events have always been given much greater importance in many strands of theology, especially in Eastern Orthodoxy where they tend to be given more emphasis than the cross.

There are certainly some aspects of Jesus’ work which are specifically linked to the cross alone and so were complete at Jesus’ death. This would include his sacrifice and satisfaction for sins, according to the substitution and satisfaction model of the atonement. On the rather different model presumed by Bud’s (or was it Todd’s?) use of the word “redemption”, that of slaves being bought and given their freedom, the price of this redemption was already paid on the cross. So in a rather narrow sense I might be able to agree with Bud’s implicit position that Jesus’ act of redemption was completed on the cross.

But there are other important senses in which Jesus’ work could not be completed without the subsequent resurrection and ascension. Concerning the resurrection, Paul writes to the Corinthians:

if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.

1 Corinthians 15:17-18 (TNIV)

So, although in principle sins had been dealt with on the cross, it took the resurrection to apply the benefits of the cross to individual believers, so that they would not remain in their sins and be lost when they die, but be forgiven and attain eternal life.

As for the ascension, this may not be essential for believers’ salvation, but it does seem to be essential for the Christian life. For, in ways which I do not claim to understand, it was necessary for Jesus to ascend back to his Father before the Holy Spirit could be poured out fully on humanity, as happened on the Day of Pentecost just days after Jesus ascended. Before he died he had said:

But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.

John 16:7 (TNIV)

And Paul wrote, quoting Psalm 68:18:

But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. 8 This is why it says:
“When he ascended on high,
he took many captives
and gave gifts to his people.”
11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, …

Ephesians 4:7-8,11 (TNIV)

So, if Jesus had not ascended, it might have been possible for individuals to be saved, but they would not have received the power and gifting to bring others to that salvation and to come together as a community, to live as God’s people in the world.

So I must conclude that Todd Bentley (as reported by Bud Press) is right to teach that the work of Jesus, his “act of redemption” in the full sense of the word as redeeming for himself a people for his own possession (Ephesians 1:14), “was not completed on the cross, but when he ascended into heaven.”

The Exchange Made at the Cross

There is one, and only one all-sufficient basis for every provision of God’s mercy: the exchange that took place on the Cross.

Jesus was punished
that we might be forgiven.

Jesus was wounded
that we might be healed.

Jesus was made sin with our sinfulness
that we might be made righteous with His righteousness.

Jesus died our death
that we might receive His life.

Jesus endured our poverty
that we might share His abundance.

Jesus bore our shame
that we might share His glory.

Jesus endured our rejection
that we might have His acceptance with the Father.

Jesus was made a curse
that we might enter into the blessing.

This list is not complete. There are other aspects of the exchange that could be added. But all of them are different facets of the provision which God has made through the sacrifice of Jesus. The Bible sums them up in one grand, all-inclusive word: salvation. Christians often limit salvation to the experience of having one’s sins forgiven and being born again. Wonderful though this is, however, it is only the first part of the total salvation revealed in the New Testament.

From “The Divine Exchange” by Derek Prince (1995), p.19 – posted here partly in response to this.

Justification and felicity

I have not written a serious post here today partly because I have been busy following up on a post I wrote at Better Bibles Blog, with the same title as this one. This is a rather technical matter of linguistics and Bible translation, which is why I posted it there, not here. But it does also link up with what I have written here about the atonement and the New Perspective on Paul. So some of you, my readers, might be interested in following my link to that post and the resulting comment thread.