"Bear With Me In A Little Foolishness"

(2 Corinthians 11:1) ~ Thoughts of a fool for Christ

The Bible & Preaching (pt. 1)

This semester in seminary I am taking a course, “Preaching to Modern Listeners,” the second of two courses on homiletics that are required for the M.Div. Whereas the first course focused mainly on basic methodology—taught with Haddon Robinson’s now famous book, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages—this course devotes most of its attention to the latter part of Robinson’s process: application and communication of biblical concepts to modern listeners. The governing metaphor for the class is drawn from John Stott’s book on preaching, also very well known, called Between Two Worlds. As preachers (so goes the metaphor), we stand astride a great chasm separating the world of the bible from today’s world, and are faced with the task of conveying the message of the bible to the ears of modern listeners.

Gordon-Conwell is widely recognized for its outstanding homiletics instruction. Though Haddon Robinson himself just recently retired, the other faculty (Jeff Arthurs and Scott Gibson in particular) have gained a reputation for offering some of the best training in expository preaching available at evangelical seminaries. I have benefited immensely from these classes, and will certainly grant that Robinson’s method provides brilliant tools for preparing and delivering sermons.

At the same time as these tools have proven themselves helpful in preparing sermons (or for that matter, writing) effectively, I have also found myself repeatedly perplexed by certain aspects of the homiletics instruction I’ve received—hence this post and the ones that will follow. What I mean to say is, though I quite like the homiletical methodology on offer here, I find the theology that is supposed to support it wanting—threadbare, to be honest. Granted, I am in full agreement with the philosophy, so admirably evident in Robinson’s writing, that the preacher submits his or her thoughts to the text of scripture. What is to be preached is ultimately, one way or another, what is written. But a problem I consistently perceive in my classes is that a basic, all-important issue is never thoroughly addressed: what purpose does preaching have, and how does it relate to the purpose of scripture itself for the life of the church? A host of unexamined assumptions about both these questions seems to underlie much of our instruction, and I have felt repeatedly the need to reflect on them in greater depth.

This will be an ongoing focus for the fall; I consider the matter worthwhile as a topic for reflection, seeing as there is more at stake in the matter than just a grade on a transcript. I love the scripture that we recite at the beginning of every class:

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.

2 Timothy 4:1-2

Preaching, like the kingdom of God, is not a matter of talk but of power, and a grave responsibility. It behooves us, then, to consider carefully how we ought to understand the task, its relation to the scriptures we rely upon to preach, and its purpose in the life of our churches. If we grasp this, our methodology will prove even more useful.


“What Makes a Full Atonement Full?”

Over at the gospel coalition blog, Mike Wittmer wrote an excellent post on various atonement theories and their need for one another conceptually (rather than having them work as standalone theories). He helpfully identifies the three main theories of atonement as providing interrelated answers to various questions the atonement poses. Christus Victor gives us the “why” of atonement; penal substitution the “how,” and moral influence the “for what.” I encourage you to go check out the post yourself. Below I have copied in my own reply to his post.

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First off, I greatly appreciate this post and what it does with atonement theory in general. There is a huge need today in theology on this topic to incorporate and adequately relate the different aspects of atonement into a holistic and multi-faceted picture that benefits from all its different parts. I’ve personally been dissatisfied with treatments (e.g. Scot McKnight’s book, good though it is) that attempt to treat each theory as a coherent whole in and of itself without any significant reference to the others, so that how we account for the atonement becomes simply a pragmatic matter of which one will “do the job.” In fact, I would go so far as to say that “theories” is a misnomer—they simply aren’t adequate on their own as entire explanations. We can call them theories if we wish, but what we are actually dealing with are different features of one whole “thing” that is going on at the cross. Wittmer’s proposal in this regard is excellent: (1) Christus Victor gives us the “why” of atonement, (2) Penal Substitution gives us the “how,” and (3) Moral Influence gives us the “for what.”

There are a few additions I would want to make by way of critique. First, I think it should be pointed out that the great insight of Gustaf Aulen’s book, “Christus Victor,” was not mainly that Jesus needed to defeat Satan. (That is where it might be best to distinguish a fourth “Ransom” theory of atonement.) Rather, Aulen’s biggest point is that *sin itself* is the ultimate objective problem that had to be dealt with in the atonement, through Jesus’ victory. Aulen’s critique of Anselm and his theological heirs is that, despite claiming the title of “objective” for their atonement theories, they have in fact evacuated the model of its truly objective content. The real problem—sin—isn’t given its proper objectivity, whereas in CV its status as a power ensures that sin is actually a “thing” that can be dealt with in Jesus’ death. Instead, in Anselm and his successors, the locus of the problem shifts from sin itself to God’s wrath. And that is precisely the root of all the caricatures of Penal Substitution: it seems to make God the “problem,” and not sin. (This objection can be answered in a sense, of course, but I think the real problem lies deeper, in our failure to accord sufficient objectivity to sin. Aulen’s book has the virtue of doing that.)

When we properly recognize sin to be the real problem, God’s wrath makes perfect sense. Sin is not merely a “record” of wrongdoing that we have amassed in the recollection of God, “about which” God is angry. Sin is a whole state of affairs in the created order that *embodies* and *perpetuates* our guilt: it is the complex entirety of our “missed-the-mark” fleshly existence that has stemmed from our initial breach in our relationship to God. This existence then not only embodies the broken relationship and all its effects, but also the wrath of God: we are consigned to this condition of creaturely futility in death, because we have violated our unique status as God’s filial image-bearers carrying his dominion into all creation, preferring to deify ourselves instead. God’s wrath, in this picture, exists precisely toward the end of bringing this perverted state of affairs we have brought about to an end—in death.

When we get that, the meaning of Jesus’ death becomes clearer than ever, in precisely the holistic way that Wittmer wants to advocate. Jesus bears our guilt on the cross and disposes of it as our substitute precisely by bearing our created existence as his own, with all of the perversion that resides in it because of our broken relation to God. He receives our death penalty because he shares fully in our condition in the flesh: a humanity distorted and subject to sin, embodying our guilt, and facing the creator’s judgment. But he shares this condition sinlessly—in a perfect and right relation to God in the midst of our broken condition, faithfully loving and obeying God in the power of the Holy Spirit that conceived and anointed him. This fidelity is precisely the instrument of his victory as our substitute (“simul victor et vicarius,” we might say). He carries our guilty flesh to the cross and offers it to God’s judgment, to be abolished and made new in death and resurrection. What results is a new humanity—the risen humanity of our savior, free from the power of sin in the flesh, restored to perfect life and fellowship with God, and recovered for its task of bearing the creator’s dominion in his creation. All of this is accomplished in Jesus, and then through the gospel Jesus himself is given to us, to be the new seat of our identity—our life, our new man, our death and resurrection that will become manifest in our own mortal members. That’s his victory; that’s his substitution; that’s his influence. That’s atonement.

I suppose I get carried away; the point is, Jesus doesn’t just “happen” to accomplish “each” of these things described in these theories in the course of his atoning work. Rather, the three models are describing parts of the same thing (which I take to be among Wittmer’s great insights). Our human condition, marred as it is by sin, is simultaneously an embodiment of the powers’ sway over creation, and an embodiment of the creator’s wrath against sin. Therefore in the judicial termination of that sinful human condition on the cross, and its creation anew in the resurrection, God is judging and condemning sin in the flesh *precisely* in Jesus’ act of overcoming the powers through his own sinlessness and obedience. (Incidentally, this means that a strong dichotomy, as in John Goldingay’s essay that Wittmer quotes, between “vicariously punished” and “vicariously cleansed” is inappropriate.) Meanwhile, the complete work in its entirety demonstrates the greatness of God’s love for us—a love that takes as its own the burden of our humanity and disposes of its brokenness in God’s very self, for the sake of all. The triune God, adopting our humanity in his Son, cleansing it through the judgment of the cross and resurrection, and giving his Son to us to be our new humanity, righteousness, blessedness, and life—this is the love of God made manifest. How great is our God!

Lastly, the degree to which this constitutes a “moral influence” over us lies not just in our feeling inspired by it and determining to do likewise (e.g. love our enemies, forgive them even the point of death). Rather, the “moral influence” is also rooted in something objective: our incorporation into Christ by the Spirit. We don’t merely “imitate” him: his love, his grace, his dying and living becomes manifest in our own lives through our union with him and our possession, by faith, of his vicarious humanity. The cross doesn’t just “influence” us to act a certain way—it transforms our whole existence by bringing us to new birth, disassociating us from the sinful flesh that has been crucified in Christ, and empowering us to live out of our identity in Christ as God’s adopted sons and daughters, so that his image is displayed in us and our human vocation is realized.

So much more could be said, but anyway—thanks for posting this!

Previews of “Paul and the Faithfulness of God”

Fortress press has released .pdf previews of Wright’s forthcoming magnum opus, Paul and the Faithfulness of God. The Previews include the table of contents (overview of the whole and a detailed t.o.c. of the first part), the preface, and the opening—and 74-page!—chapter of the book. Have a look at them here:

Table of Contents


Chapter 1: Return of the Runaway?

Interview with N.T. Wright on Forthcoming Book

 Yesterday on his blog, Michael Bird posted a video of his interview with N.T. Wright about Wright’s forthcoming book, Paul and the Faithfulness of God. In it, Wright discusses at length some of the distinctive features of his treatment of the Apostle’s theology, which will be released on November 1st.


Reading the Psalms in One Week

In the previous post I mentioned N.T. Wright’s new book on the Psalms, and also gave a link to a bible reading plan that would get you through the Psalms once a month, or once a week. For those interested in the weekly reading plan, I have come up with an alternative ordering, which puts the Psalms in their ordinary sequence. (The other plan, based on Eastern Orthodox tradition, puts them in a different order and also omits one day.) If you want to read the Psalms once a week, you could try it as follows, in two sittings each day, morning and evening:

  • SUNDAY: (m) 1-17 / (e) 18-26
  • MONDAY: (m) 27-37 / (e) 38-48
  • TUESDAY: (m) 49-61 / (e) 62-71
  • WEDNESDAY: (m) 72-78 / (e) 79-89
  • THURSDAY: (m) 90-99 / (e) 100-106
  • FRIDAY: (m) 107-118 / (e) 119
  • SATURDAY: (m) 120-135 / (e) 136-150

Seriously, give it a try—if not as a continual habit, perhaps when you’re on a winter holiday or summer vacation!

“The Case for the Psalms: Why They Are Essential”

“The Case for the Psalms: Why They Are Essential”

A new book on the psalms (popular level) was published today by N.T. Wright (see link). I hope this book will arouse some interest in one of the most neglected parts of scripture today. The Psalms were practically the guidebook for all Christian worship throughout the whole history of the church, and their virtual absence from contemporary evangelical worship is astonishing (a few noteworthy exceptions granted). From the book’s back cover:

Reading, studying, and praying the Psalms is God’s means for teaching us what it means to be human: how to express our emotions and yearnings, how to reconcile our anger and our compassion, how to see our story in light of God’s sweeping narrative of salvation. Wright provides the tools for understanding and incorporating these crucial verses into our own lives. His conclusion is simple: all Christians need to read, pray, sing, and live the Psalms.

For some years now, I have been in the habit of reading through the Psalms every month, and I cannot commend the practice enthusiastically enough. The morning and evening rhythm of readings from the Psalms anchors one’s prayer life in scripture in a way that nothing else can. If you’re at all interested in giving this a try, check out this schedule for reading the Psalms monthly (or even weekly), based on the divisions found in the Book of Common Prayer. Another thing worth adding to it, if you wish, is daily reading a chapter from Proverbs, which gets you through the book once a month as well.

Thanksgiving and the Christian Life

So, just as you received the Messiah Jesus as the Lord, let your conduct in him be firmly rooted and built up in him and strengthened in the faith, just as you were instructed, overflowing with thanksgiving. ~Colossians 2:6-7

Lately on the side, as I’ve worked on some online classes, I’ve been slowly reading through David Pao’s book, Thanksgiving: An investigation of a Pauline theme. Pao’s study is both helpful and accessible; what I’ve appreciated most so far is Pao’s needed clarification of the purpose of thanksgiving in Christian devotion: “God-centeredness.” Whereas “thanks” and “thankfulness” in the contemporary consciousness is mainly about fostering and expressing my gratitude in avoidance of “taking things for granted”—in other words, a form of self-expression—thanksgiving in the ancient Judeo-Christian understanding is a covenantal practice consisting in God-focused acts of remembrance. What matters more than simply “feeling grateful” to God all the time (though gratitude might accompany the act as well) is remembering the things that God himself has done—supremely, in Jesus Christ his Son, for the world and for us personally.

For the people of Israel, knowledge of God was organized around the key saving events of their history. Through the covenantal remembrance enshrined in the Passover year by year, they re-enacted YHWH’s rescue of his people out of slavery in Egypt, and by doing so they reinforced their understanding of God and of themselves in a way that made them actual participants in his mighty acts. In Pao’s words, “While the mighty acts of God provide the definition of who the people of God are, thanksgiving provides further affirmation of the identity of God’s people when God’s gracious acts are remembered” (55). So, Pao argues, thanksgiving is more about remembering than about feeling grateful, as much as gratitude may stem from doing so.

This is the assumption that underlies Paul’s prayer that the Christians in Colossae would be “always giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light: he has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:12-13). We give thanks because God has acted, decisively, on our behalf. In this regard, “Thanksgiving…is understood as an act of faith. Thanksgiving becomes ‘an expression of faith’ as it remembers what God has done for us in Christ” (71). When we give thanks, we are acting on the assumption that something remarkable has happened; we are founding our lives and identities on it, and choosing to see reality in a way that is dependent on God and what he has done, and not on ourselves: “To give thanks to God is to remember what he has done for us. The call to thanksgiving is therefore a call to transcend the present moment as one searches for an anchor in which reality can be comprehended” (60). Or as Pao says elsewhere:

God, and not his gifts, is the primary focus of Pauline thanksgiving. In the constant act of thanksgiving, the relationship with God is nurtured. Through thanksgiving, the gracious acts are remembered and the life of a person is thereby changed. Thanksgiving then becomes an act of submission when the performance of such an act is not aimed at coercing God to act, but is a way to acknowledge him to be the Lord of all…. We are changed in thanksgiving, then, as we encounter this gracious God. In the words of Karl Barth…thanksgiving signifies ‘the change of the being of man before God brought about by the fact that God has altered His attitude to man’. (37)

The effect of a life “overflowing with thanksgiving” (Col. 2:7), then, is a God-centered life. It is a life rooted in the gospel, around the good news of what God has done for our sake. It is a life that sees reality truthfully: as God defines it through creation and redemption, and not as I do by living in it however I please. To give thanks to God is to acknowledge a new gravitational center to everything, and to put ourselves and everything we experience in orbit around it.

This needn’t be complex. It simply needs to come into our prayers and into our thoughts, more and more, in the face of the diverse realities that confront us on a daily basis: God our Father, I thank you that you have sent Jesus Christ to break into my condition, to live and die for me and for the world; I thank you that you have begun the new creation in him, and that in sheer grace you have united me to him by the Holy Spirit and forgiven my sins; I thank you that I am alive in him, and dead to sin through his death for my sake; I thank you for your love that says an unreserved “Yes!” to us in Jesus Christ; I thank you that you have loved the world you made, and have taken its sin and rebellion upon yourself to raise it up from the dead. By giving us perspective, our habits of thanksgiving help us respond rightly to the conditions of our own personal lives: we simply cannot live and act and make decisions in the same way, when we know that Jesus Christ has died and risen.

As I reflect on the topic of thanksgiving along these lines, the implications of all this for the worshiping life of the church seem profound. For Christians, it is precisely this understanding of thanksgiving that gets reiterated when we gather regularly for our own “Passover” meal, around the Lord’s table. In my Anglican church every week we recite the familiar words: “We lift our hearts up to the Lord…. It is right to give him thanks and praise!” And as the “Great Thanksgiving” or “Eucharist” proceeds, our pastor recites the mighty acts of God and brings them to our remembrance:

All glory be to you, Almighty God, for in your infinite love you made us for yourself, crowning us with glory and honor to rule over the works of your hands. But we did not give thanks to you or honor you as God, but turned away. Falling into sin, we and all your works became subject to misery and death. But you in your tender mercy sent Jesus Christ, your only and eternal Son, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all. He stretched out his arms on the cross, and offered himself there in obedience to your will—a perfect sacrifice for the whole world, once and for all. He died in our place, making a full atonement for our sins; by your mighty power you raised him from death, and crowned him with great honor at your right hand on high.

And after a prayer is said and the story of the last supper is recited, the thanksgiving concludes:

We celebrate this covenant with joy and await the glorious appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ, who will unite all things in heaven and on earth, raising us from death and making all things new! By him, and with him, and in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all honor and glory is yours, Almighty Father, now and forever. AMEN!

The bread and wine is then held forth and the pastor tells the congregation: “These are the gifts of God for the people of God: take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.” The whole act centers around (1) what God has done, (2) how this gives us our identity now, and (3) what our hopes for the future must be in light of this world-changing event. In all of this, we are being tugged into a new orbit around a new center—the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ—and being renewed in God’s image as a result, as we share in our new identity as members of the body of Christ.

But as the eucharistic liturgy in my tradition says, “It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty…” In other words, what we are doing here is practice for what the Christian life is supposed to be all about, all the time. Our lives are to be chiefly ordered by thanksgiving to God through the remembrance of his mighty act in Jesus Christ, which then issues in praise and joy, and in a perspective on the world that is rooted in its creator’s purposes.

So I would encourage you, having read this post, to adopt these habits as your own. A good way to start is by memorizing and reciting the opening part of one of the communion liturgies in the Book of Common Prayer every day; start coming up with your own ways of giving voice to what God has done in your own words; over time, integrate these habits of thanksgiving into your everyday life—let the remembrance of what God has done in Christ emerge again and again in your thinking, as you confront every decision, event, conversation, prayer, or whatever else it may be. The fruit of your labor in this will be a profound joy, arising from the ultimate aim of all our thanksgiving: God-centeredness.

The Sinlessness of Jesus, pt. 3

In this third and final post of the series (see part one & part two), I want to look at how a proper understanding of the sinlessness of Jesus and of the cross redefines our whole idea of what “truth” even means. In the earlier parts of this series, I have set forth a view of Jesus sinlessness as something he enacted within our naturally fallen humanity, showing himself to be God’s obedient and faithful Son in the power of the Spirit, over and against all the temptations and powers of sin at work in the realm of “the flesh”—the natural array of dynamics and relationships that constitute the world as we experience it in the present age. Within the conditions of an existence pervaded by sin, conditions that he made his own by becoming man, Jesus sinlessly offered up to God all that is naturally twisted and broken in our human existence on the cross, and by his death and resurrection has become the beginning of a new humanity, liberated from sin and death through his obedience on their behalf.

This radically determines our whole idea of God’s saving action at the cross, most profoundly by showing that at the cross God deals with the objective problem of sin itself, as it has become embedded within created existence. The problem that the cross “solves” in other words, is not merely how God “feels” about sin, but sin itself (though surely, in resolving the problem of sin itself God is pleased and his wrath against sin satisfied). The cross brings God’s judgment against sin (i.e., death) to bear upon the fleshly human existence of Jesus, who accepts God’s judgment against sin in the flesh, not as a peaceable and loving Son placating the rage of his Father, but as the one who in the incarnation willingly became the true bearer of the problem of sin—to be the place where God determines to destroy sin, as opposed to sinners having to bear sin’s destruction along with themselves. In yielding himself fully to God on the cross as God’s own Beloved, fit to bear the problem of sin without himself being a sinner, the Father and Son by the Spirit in a joint action of the trinity recreate the human condition through the death and resurrection of Jesus, exhausting and terminating the problem of sin and raising up a new creation in its place, in the risen body of Jesus. By faith we come to share in Jesus’ new humanity, through the Spirit which unites us with him so that he becomes our death and our life, our salvation and our substitute; the old humanity of our sinful flesh, though persistent in our experience, is no longer what we really and truly are in Jesus Christ. He is our life, and when he appears at the end of the age, what we shall be will finally appear in all its glory—we will be made perfect in his new humanity, never to be touched by sin and death again.

What we “really and truly are,” then, is not defined by mere “truths” and “principles” abstracted from the world of our experience, but by what God has actually done in Jesus’ human existence, in time and in space, for our sake. Where most religions and philosophies devote their energies to describing the static order of things—the “way things are”—Christians are meant to concern themselves with the dynamic movement of God in history—with “what has happened.” All of our cosmologies, our philosophies, and other assumptions about “the way things are” meet their reckoning at the cross, where the old order of things—whatever that may be—is terminated and replaced by a new order in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The implication of all this for our understanding of God, of the world, and of ourselves, is that theological truth is not ultimately about “ideas,” but about persons and events. Truth is about beings and realities that move and interact within our very world, that change the way things are in our world, in a way that places demands upon us whether we are willing to acknowledge them as true or not.

That is the inevitable implication of the gospel message that in Jesus Christ, God in person has dealt decisively with our sin, and by his resurrection inaugurated his kingdom and the birth of a new age in the midst of the old. The claims of Christianity are not “true” because they accurately reveal a timeless “order” of things that somehow accurately pertains to a “higher reality” that we (or at least some) call “God” and the world that he created (and that perhaps other religions and philosophies see in an equally valid way from a different angle). Rather, those claims are true because they happened—because God has done something within time and space that actually changes time and space forever. The abstract claims that a Christian might make about God—that “God gives life,” perhaps, or that “God is love”—are all subordinate to the deepest claims of the Christian faith: that God has given new life, that God has loved, because in his Son Jesus Christ he has gathered the corruption of the present age to himself in our own humanity, and through the events of his kingdom ministry, his death, and his resurrection has acted decisively, putting to death an old creation and beginning a new in himself, which he offers to the whole world freely in prodigal, everlasting grace.

If truth is to be understood in this sense—as God’s personal reality encountering us in time and in space through his actual intervention in history in Jesus Christ—then the whole focus of our lives as “truth-seekers” must change. The reality of God presses upon us as Truth in the deepest possible sense: God has taken up our own humanity and made a fundamental decision about us, that he would lavish his love upon us and, in his own human life on our behalf, liberate us from all of the things that captivate our sinful existence, that enslave and degrade us and distort the image of God in which he made us. The ultimate concern of our lives is not with mastering our own existence through our own self-understanding, our own morality, philosophy, dreams of accomplishment, power or whatever else it may be. Our ultimate concern is, rather, with this person, this flesh and blood human being through whom God has come near to us and set our existence on a new basis. The humanity of Jesus—God in the flesh, healing and restoring and welcoming, condemning evil, bearing our sin and death, rising to new life and exalted to God’s right hand to offer himself to the whole world—this is the concern of our lives, this man. He himself is “the truth” (John 14:6), and we live in and come to be shaped by the truth when their fundamental concern is with him. The God who became man and bore the burden of our existence to its death and resurrection, who resolved the real problems of the real world in his own equally real being—he is Truth, and our life’s occupation.

The Sinlessness of Jesus, pt. 2

In the first entry of this series, I discussed the question of how exactly we should understand Jesus to be the sinless Son of God. Contrary to the view that has prevailed within the western, Latin theological tradition (in which Jesus’ sinlessness is an ontological feature of his “human nature”), I have sided with the view that Jesus’ sinlessness is something he enacts within the same fallen humanity that you and I share, such that his sinlessness is the actual means by which our humanity is restored to redeemed fellowship with God through his life, death, and resurrection. This understanding of Jesus’ sinlessness yields a distinctive picture of the atonement in which the objective problem of sin is dealt with in Jesus’ own human existence through his death, as substitute on our behalf. God condemns sin in the flesh of his Son—in a moment, we shall discuss precisely how—and inaugurates a new creation through his death and resurrection. Because Jesus, even as a sinless person, nonetheless carried the problem of sin in himself, his death and resurrection actually dealt with the problem of sin decisively by taking it into the very life of the triune God himself and terminating it there for the sake of all.

This brings us to my concern in this entry: now I want to look at how this construal of Jesus’ sinlessness affects our understanding of God’s “self-substitution” for sinners. The protestant tradition in particular has (rightly) made much of how, in Jesus, we see God himself occupying the place of the sinner, for our sake. As we have normally described it, this substitution consists in a forensic exchange whereby our sin is “reckoned” to (an ontologically sinless) Jesus, who in turn bears the penalty of the sins reckoned; we in turn have his righteousness reckoned to us, and in consequence do not bear the penalty. So Jesus is understood to “stand in the place” of sinners—by receiving the penalty due to their transgressions. (This in turn raises the question of “limited atonement”—of whether the number of sins reckoned to Jesus and punished are those of every individual in the world, or of only the elect who will believe—which is a topic we will be considering in future posts as I discuss some of the research I have been doing lately on the topic.)

This picture of God’s self-substitution remains the same in its essentials, but gains a new depth of clarity as we consider it in light of how Jesus actually bears the problem of sin in himself. We could sum up God’s self-substitution in the statement: “God condemns sin in the flesh—by letting us condemn it to death in him.”

In other words, God deals with the world’s sin through the world’s own sinful rejection of him. By coming to us in Jesus Christ, bearing the problem of sin in his own humanity, he uses our rejection of his Son at the cross to destroy sin itself in his very being for our sake. The God whom we have rejected in Adam draws near to us in Adam’s flesh to bear our corruption as his own, and to receive our rejection in this new and utterly astonishing way, by taking on our stained and broken humanity, our captivated existence permeated by sin and estrangement, and as a sinless person accepting the death penalty we impose upon him, such that his innocent death and vindication in the resurrection at last put the whole problem of the sinful human condition to an end in his very person, and make it possible for sinners to find liberation and forgiveness in being joined to him through the Holy Spirit, by faith.

With the sinless Jesus of Nazareth, we sinners drove the nails and plunged the spear into our own fallen flesh and blood; we pressed the crown upon and smote the head of our own Adamic nature, innocently held before us by the Word of God made flesh; we in our sinfulness eradicated sin forever when we banished the Son of God into the outer darkness of Golgotha, bearing our sin-nature in himself. God has substituted himself for the sinner, by placing his only Son at the hands of our “justice” to be rejected, despised, and crushed, so that the sinner himself becomes the executor of God’s judgment against sinupon God himself! Because God gives himself to us even in the uttermost of our rejection, bearing our fallen existence and approaching us in our own flesh and blood, our rejection that he willingly accepts becomes one and the same with his own rejection of sin forever.

This, then, is God’s self-substitution: he reverses our death penalty in himself, by bearing that penalty at our hands and by his faithful obedience rising again in victory; he then offers himself to us as the risen Lord, to be our substitute—our new humanity in which sin has been forever annihilated, in which the filth of our fallen condition has been washed away in his blood and a new creation raised up by the power of God’s Spirit. “You have died,” Paul writes, “and your life is hid with Christ in God…. Christ is your life” (Col 3:3-4). Because we are born again as a “new creation” through the Holy Spirit, Christ’s humanity is now the objective center of our own existence; we are “in him,” as Paul says over and over again. “I no longer live—Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20). Jesus is our surrogate humanity, our true life and meaning; because he is our life and we are now objectively situated in him by the Spirit, we have no penalty to undergo, no sin for which to face condemnation, for our Head has faced it already for us, and we are his Body.

That is how Jesus is our substitute, and how God substitutes himself for us. It is not most fundamentally a “reckoning” of something to someone, but an actual bearing of the burdens of those for whom the substitute acts, and an actual re-creating of sinners that places them “in Christ” by the Spirit, forgiven and no longer identified with their old and fallen humanity. Jesus gives himself to be the place where sin is condemned and its hold on the creation—specifically, on Jesus’ own humanity as the creation’s representative—is broken, and as the reigning King of the new creation gives himself to sinners like you and me to become, really and actually, the new seat of our identity through the Holy Spirit. Our death to the power of sin has already occurred; our old humanity has already been dissolved, because Christ has died and risen, and we are “no longer in the flesh but in [his] Spirit” (Rom 8:9)—what is true of Christ, our Life, is true of us, for our birth is of his Spirit and now no longer of the sinful flesh.

The Apostle Paul wrote, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2). In God’s self-substitution, we discover just how integral to the life and identity of God himself this really is—the “law of Christ” is none other than the law of God himself! God is the one who carries the burdens of his creation—not in any metaphorical or sentimental way, but in real space and time, becoming flesh and blood and making the weight of our broken existence his own, in order to bear its pains to the uttermost and to renew it in faithfulness as one of us. God carries the burden of our sin in Jesus his Son, and he gives himself to us in his Son to be the fulfillment of everything we need, to be the new creation in whom all things are united and re-created in life and freedom. That is God’s unfathomable, invincible love: to become what we are—broken, bowed down, under sin and death—so that we might become what he is: alive forevermore in the image of God, his Son.

In the third (and probably final) post of this series, we will consider how this understanding of Jesus’ sinlessness and the corresponding nature of the atonement determines our idea of what “truth” really is, and how this differentiates our gospel message from the claims of other philosophies and religions.

The Sinlessness of Jesus, pt. 1

In the past semester I’ve had something of an epiphany regarding the nature of the atonement, and as I reflect back on it, it seems to me that what really lay at the heart of it all was a shift in my understanding of the sinlessness of Jesus. This issue illuminates a great deal of what exactly happened on the cross and in the resurrection, and all of our theology that issues from that event will be decisively colored by our grasp of just exactly how God, in Jesus his Son, somehow bore the problem of sin in himself, as a sinless human being.

To the question, “Was Jesus sinless?” the Christian answer has always been (and must be) an unequivocal “Yes”; but the church tradition has given more than one answer to the further question, “How was Jesus sinless?” From about the fourth century onward, mainly in the western Latin theological tradition, the sinlessness of Jesus has been treated as an attribute of Jesus’ “essential” humanitysomething intrinsic to his “human nature,” as distinct from your human nature or mine. In other words, Jesus’ humanity was not touched in any way by the fall, but represented humanity in its original state: sinless in a qualitative and ontological (not just an active and moral) sense. Following Augustine, this got bound up with the church’s understanding of “original sin,” and together with Augustine’s somewhat dubious notion of original sin’s transmission through sexual intercourse, came to form part of the tradition’s basic apologetic for the virgin birth: the reason Jesus had to be conceived of the Spirit in the virgin Mary is that he would otherwise have been tainted by original sin, and would therefore have been a sinner. (Later on in the Roman Catholic tradition this impulse created a felt need to remove that taint even from Mary, and so it was concluded that her own conception was also free from original sin—this is the doctrine of the “immaculate conception.”)

My own view of Jesus’ sinlessness is different, and more comparable to the early (particularly Greek) church fathers, as well as some notable theologians of the twentieth century like Karl Barth and T.F. Torrance. Among the earliest church fathers, it was generally recognized that the incarnation was not only God’s act of putting himself in the right “position”—that of a human being—to deal with the broken relationship of humanity to God. More profoundly, the incarnation was God’s assuming of the problem of our corrupted human condition to himself, in order to deal with that problem in his very own existence through the events of his life, death, and resurrection. In Jesus of Nazareth, God draws near to us not in an immaculate “humanity” different from ours, but in the selfsame broken, corruptible, fallen human existence in which we all live, and that is precisely the context in which his own sinlessness becomes all-important.

This second view is, in my opinion, much more in accord with the apostolic mind as we see it in the New Testament. The apostles didn’t regard human beings chiefly in terms of their individual “natures” in distinction from others around them, such that one human being could be “fallen” and another might not be. Rather, they saw all of humanity, and the rest of the created order along with them, as sharing in a mode of existence in the present age called “the flesh”—the natural and corruptible array of relationships and dynamics in which our whole created reality consists, and according to which it operates. This reality of “the flesh” is the creation as God has made it—originally good, but now because of the invasion of sin through human disobedience, utterly pervaded by sin, broken by a “missing of the mark” within created existence that has hijacked the world and taken it off into slavery to evil, sin and death. Within this picture, to be personally sinful is, quite simply, to be an agent who operates independently and self-reliantly according to this reality in which we are all bound up—a way of life that, despite the temporary satisfactions and delights it may afford, is actually a form of slavery to the broken world in which we live.

That’s a biblical anthropology as I see it. And, I might add, at this point the growing majority of biblical scholars (including those of the evangelical stripe) see the same thing in the apostolic writings. We humans are “of the flesh, sold under sin” (Rom 7:14), subject to a condition in which sin’s power is pervasively at work ruining, perverting, misleading, and polluting. We have nothing in ourselves with which to escape, to get to God, or to give ourselves true life as we were made to have it. The best we can manage is to fabricate idols in the world that we feel can serve our own ends, that can provide us with ultimate security and satisfaction; but in reality we are blinded by ourselves—enthroned at the center of our own universes, but ultimately as much slaves to futility and death as everything around us. But into this bleak picture steps Jesus of Nazareth, the Word of God who “became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). Precisely where the power of sin in the flesh made it impossible for us to have life, God did the impossible: “having sent his Son in the exact likeness of sinful flesh and for a sin-offering, he condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom 8:4); “our old humanity was crucified with [Jesus], so that the body of sin might be destroyed, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (Rom 6:6); “he has now reconciled [us] in his body of flesh through his death” (Col 1:21); “God made him who knew no sin to become sin for our sake, so that in him we would become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). In Jesus of Nazareth, God has taken the flesh of this present evil age to himself, and made its burden his own. He has worn the garment of our stained humanity; he has shouldered the weight of our corruption and ruin and captivity to the present evil age; and in astonishing grace and mercy, he has sinlessly borne it to its destruction at the cross, and to its renewal in the resurrection. Standing in our place, Jesus has done within our broken humanity what Adam was unwilling to do, and what we were incapable of doing: saying to God in the power of the Spirit, “Not my will, but yours be done.” By putting to death the reality of our fleshly existence at the cross, and by raising Jesus from the dead to a new and transformed mode of embodied life by the Spirit, God has brought the old age of sin and death to an end and inaugurated the new age of God’s kingdom in Jesus’ very body—in which all may share by faith, through the Holy Spirit, for the forgiveness of sins and for release from the bondage of the present age. That is atonement.

The sinlessness of Jesus, in other words, is not a feature of his incarnate humanity considered in itself, but rather is a statement about how he, in the power of the Holy Spirit, lived his life blamelessly before God in perfect fidelity to the Father, in the face of all the temptations that sin resident in the flesh posed against him. Because our humanity was what needed saving, God made the problem of the human condition his own in the incarnation, in order as our substitute to restore it to reconciled fellowship with himself. In this picture, reconciliation between God and man takes place in the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth, for the sake of all, and is then shared with the world through the gospel proclamation of the church in the power of the Spirit. In Jesus, God has met our deepest needs by doing in our broken condition what none of us could do: bear that condition before him and offer it up in love and faithfulness and obedience to him as our Abba, “father.”

In the next post on this topic, we’ll look further at the implications for this understanding of Jesus’ sinlessness, not least at how it affects our understanding of God’s self-substitution for us in his death, and how this action on God’s part reveals to us who God really is in the depths of his own identity.

List of relevant sources for further reading:

  • T.F. Torrance’s lectures on Christology: (vol. 1) Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ; (vol. 1) Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ (vol. 2)
  • T.F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ
  • Robert C. Tannehill, Dying and Rising with Christ
  • Susan Grove Eastman, “Apocalypse and Incarnation: The Participatory Logic of Paul’s Gospel,” in Apocalyptic and the Future of Theology: With and Beyond J. Louis Martyn (Joshua B. Davis & Douglas Harink, eds.)
  • James Dunn, “Paul’s Understanding of the Death of Jesus
  • J. Louis Martyn, Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul