I’m not actually going to try to answer the question of why Jesus died. But Adrian Warnock has reopened the controversy on this issue in the way that he has started his new series on the atonement. In doing so he has ruffled a few feathers, including making Dave Warnock write “It seems I have no gospel”, and has apparently suggested that Steve Chalke, Spring Harvest and the Evangelical Alliance teach that “Christ Did Not Die for Sin!”
The first part of Adrian’s post is not too controversial. Adrian quotes Article VII of the T4G statement on the atonement:
We affirm that Jesus Christ is true God and true Man, in perfect, undiluted, and unconfused union throughout His incarnation and now eternally. We also affirm that Christ died on the cross as a substitute for sinners, as a sacrifice for sin, and as a propitiation of the wrath of God toward sinners. We affirm the death, burial, and bodily resurrection of Christ as essential to the Gospel. We further affirm that Jesus Christ is Lord over His church, and that Christ will reign over the entire cosmos in fulfilment of the Father’s gracious purpose. …
So far, so good. While I don’t think the word “propitiation” is suitable for general purpose Bible translations, I understand what is meant by it here, and I am happy to see it as one of a list of the reasons why Jesus died. But the statement continues:
… We deny that the substitutionary character of Christ’s atonement for sin can be compromised without serious injury to the Gospel or denied without repudiating the Gospel. We further deny that Jesus Christ is visible only in weakness, rather than in power, Lordship, or royal reign, or, conversely, that Christ is visible only in power, and never in weakness.
The last part is excellent. But what do they mean by the substitutionary character of the atonement being compromised? I can agree that the substitutionary death of Jesus is a central part of the Gospel message, along with Jesus’ life as an example and his resurrection and ascension as victory over death and the devil. But am I, or is anyone else, to be accused of compromising this for drawing attention to Jesus’ life and his resurrection as being of comparable significance to his death? Or for pointing out that certain distorted ways in which Jesus’ death has been described are neither biblical nor evangelistically and apologetically helpful?
Now for the more controversial part. Adrian certainly seems to imply, without explicitly stating, that he considers Steve Chalke to be one of those who have compromised the substitutionary character of the atonement. Referring to him, as made explicit in the posts linked to, Adrian writes:
one of the most prominent people in the Evangelical Alliance and the Spring Harvest Conference in the UK would not feel comfortable with this language.
But does Chalke really “not feel comfortable with” the language of this T4G statement? Well, he may agree with me that words like “propitiation” are not helpful for most modern audiences, but that by no means implies that we reject the concept. But what Chalke called “cosmic child abuse” was not the basic concept of substitutionary atonement, as outlined in the T4G statement, but distorted versions of it, such as (quote from Chalke and Mann taken from the first comment here) that:
at the cross this God of love suddenly decides to vent his anger and wrath on his Son.
Adrian then moves without a break from his discussion of Chalke to quote the Sunday Telegraph headline Easter Message: Christ Did Not Die for Sin! The way in which he does this is dishonest because it seems to suggest that this is the teaching of “one of the most prominent people in the Evangelical Alliance and the Spring Harvest Conference in the UK”, which libels not only the person involved but also these two well-known and respected Christian organisations in which he is prominent. In fact the clergyman who made the remarks reported in the Sunday Telegraph (not a “vicar”, Adrian, but a Dean) is very far from being connected to the Evangelical Alliance or Spring Harvest. Adrian really should apologise for this unfortunate collocation.
Indeed, two leaders of Spring Harvest who are also bishops have released a statement criticising the Dean’s supposed position as reported in the Sunday Telegraph. I doubt if Adrian will find anything to disagree with in the two bishops’ presentation of the atonement, such as:
the truth that Jesus died as our sin-bearing substitute carrying the punishment for our sins on the cross is the glorious heart of the Gospel.
For the Evangelical Alliance’s position on the atonement controversy and some helpful comments, see this article.
On the cross Jesus dies for our sins; the price of our sin is paid; but it is not paid to God but by God. As St Paul says, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.
Now I don’t expect Adrian to agree with everything that the Dean says; nor do I. But the Sunday Telegraph headline and much of the article was clearly more about sensationalism than accurate reporting of anyone’s teaching on the atonement.
But I can agree with Adrian that
part of the reason for this new wave of concern about this [doctrine] is that we have not been very good at articulating its truth well.
When the doctrine has been presented in such immoral terms as
at the cross this God of love suddenly decides to vent his anger and wrath on his Son
and “the Father killed the Son”, language which indeed “makes God sound like a psychopath”, then is it not surprising that some people, failing to see the truth behind the ways in which it has been distorted, reject the whole package? What is needed is proper clearly nuanced teaching, which avoids the error that the Father somehow became opposed to the Son with a split in the Trinity, yet upholds the truth that God and his Son working together through the death of the Son saved humans from the penalty and power of sin.
So, Adrian, I have no trouble at all agreeing, and I am sure that Steve Chalke, Spring Harvest and the Evangelical Alliance also have no trouble agreeing, with this which you write in the second post of your series:
I remain convinced that what happens at the cross lies at the very heart of the Gospel — that without the death of Jesus we cannot be saved!