Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Vicarious Not Cumulative Atonement

I suppose it is possible to look upon the passion of Christ--it's beatings, whipping, stabbings, humilitations, crucifixion, and rejection by God--in pity and say, "that was awful," while simultaneously doubting whether it was really tantamount to all the punishment for all the sin that has ever been and will ever be committed. Really, people have been treated to far worse fates before and since, and their deaths are not looked upon with any wonder. The reasoning in such an approach seems to calculate that what occured was not sufficient to bear the cumulative weight of sin. There was not enough blood shed, nor enough anguish experienced to account for every sin ever sinned.

The problem in such logic, as I see it, is that the atonement of Christ was not suffered cumulatively, but vicariously, prototypically. For Christ's passion to be effective vicariously for any individual whatsoever, it would only have to be sufficient for the very worst individual that ever lived. Adam and Eve were prototypically the best that mankind would ever be, Christ on the cross had to be prototypically the worst that mankind could ever be. So the cross does not have to "mathematically" reflect the sum total of all punishment against sin, it merely has to be sufficient to encompass the very worst individual any individual could be.

Really, we're not all that different from one another. Our conceptions of degrees of sin and punishment are a bit stilted, imo. Does being Hitler or Stalin, and missing out on God differ substantially from being grumpy Uncle Charley who refused to believe in Christ and missed out on God too? The Lake of Fire may have warmer eddies in one spot than another, but how much does it matter when one is swimming in fire and drinking flames? If there are gold medals awarded in the race to hell, they can only be made of fool's gold.

What the atonement had to be in order to be for all, was sufficient for any sinner to gaze upon it with faith and say, "that was me." We aren't saved in groups but as individuals, the atonement of Christ was masterfully fashioned by God to work perfectly in that regard. It does so because it functions vicariously, not cumulatively.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Awfulness of Life Reflects the Awfulness of Hell

I was taken to task by a commenter a little while ago about my assertions concerning hell and its purpose. Hell is an unpleasant and an unpopular topic--as difficult to talk about as it is to hear about. Perhaps as a result, there is not enough cold-blooded, biblically-accurate, analytical teaching on the subject. It requires a certain bluntness and fearlessness if one is to deal with it sufficiently and effectively. I've given it a shot before on this blog, but I think I need to visit it again.

The Apostle Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, said that creation can reveal quite a bit about the person of God, particularly in regard to his power and the unchanging attributes of his divine nature. When I look at creation, even though I see exquisite natural beauty, I also see overwhelming ugliness. I see people die agonizing, untimely deaths; I see a tooth and claw natural realm which fights the living staying alive at every turn. If storms and quakes don't swallow the living whole, there's always sharks in the ocean (or on Wall Street) who'll get the job done. It's rough out there!

It's not at all unusual to find people who think life is unfortunate and unjust, and who associate those characteristics with the God behind it all. For some Christians, the most immediate response to such thoughts is that there is someone other than God working such mischief. Really, what does that solve? God is the creator of that mischief-maker too, so he's still on the hook for the way things are. The truth is that there's no avoiding responsibility for what is when one is omnipotent!

Folk treading water in the swamp that is life may think that things are terrible and unfair, and blast the Creator for making it so, but from God's perspective life is anything but. The God who sees all, knows all, and is everywhere would be doing himself and all he has made a disservice to allow what he knows is not right to exist. That may seem to necessitate the instant annihilation of anything that steps out of harmony with God, but that would miss God's ultimate, and ultimately righteous, redemptive purposes in creation. Instead, God has ordained that fallen creation take a slow spiral down to a crash and burn, which is the milieu of all that lives in the here and now, and then after the crash will come the appointed judgment.

Would it be better for everything here in life to be hunky-dory, totally blind to God's perspective on sin and the sinners of this world, only to have them surprised by the furies of hell afterwards? If life was pleasant, just, and right, we would never give God a second thought. We would never consider our death and suffering and its meaning and never know we were at odds with an eternal, ominscient God who can't pretend nor just forget. We'd live idyllically to a ripe, old age and die, and then, pow, be hit in the kisser with everlasting fires of eternal punishment.

We may find this life of suffering and death frustrating and unfair, but if life was going to continue for some measured time after the introduction of sin, it was actually good of God to give us at least a sensored preview of hell. The awfulness of life is a prophylactic demonstration of the utter awfulness of hell. Life is not meant to demonstrate that all is well in the world and that God is in his heaven, but that God is at odds with sinful humanity and his fury over it is white-hot. 

The only question that matters is whether or not the trailer has gotten your attention enough to take steps to avoid it?

Friday, February 12, 2010

How Does the Atonement Work for Me?

The human condition is bondage: bondage to sinfulness, subjection to the evil one, and sentenced to death. Mankind has not been sold into this condition so much as, in Adam and Eve, mankind has chosen it. The Apostle Paul tells us we are slaves to whomever we yield ourselves, whether to God or to sin. So our bondage is not something imposed upon us by third parties in an enterprise we had no part in, even though it may be hard to see what part we had in the actions of Adam and Eve. Yet, they were pristine at the time of their ultimate test, not subject to any kind of decay, and as absolutely good as the model could get. I think they were more than capable of representing all the rest of us-- I'm positive I would have done no better than they did; in fact, I'm sure I would have done what they did if not worse.

So mankind, as a species, fell into sin, became subject to death, and bound in soul. To redeem this circumstance, both sin (and with it death) and the bondage of the soul have to be undone. The atonement of Christ is God's solution to this dilemma. Throughout church history there has been some confusion about how Christ's atonement actually functions: some have seen it primarily as a penal satisfaction, others the payment of a ransom, still others as a typical example or an illustration. The earliest nonbiblical testimony seems to favor the ransom theory; the Bible itself, I think, casts the efficacy of the atonement in the light of penal substitution. The debate is silly, really, for the atonement actually entails and accomplishes all of these functions.

Although the notion of ransom is well attested in the OT, and spoken of very directly in the NT, I see the penal substitution aspect of the atonement as more vital than any other aspect. If I'm standing in fellowship with the saints before God, but have no clear, final disposition of my past sin; even amongst the throng before the throne, individual doubt would arise within me, and guilt with it. Reflexively my eyes would turn from him who sits on the throne. So redemption apart from penal substitution won't produce what the gospel invites us to-- guiltless, intimate, barrierless fellowship and interaction with the Holy God.

In my mind, the idea of group redemption does no more to salve the individual conscience than the concept of inherited sin does to convict the individual conscience. How can a person truly own either one? Even the sacrificial system of the OT, which pointed to Christ, shows that both communal and individual sacrifice was necessary to alleviate guilt and provide restoration with God. So, though Christ was prototypical in the way that Adam and Eve were, and what he did on the cross delivered a kingdom, it is still its application to the individual that makes the difference. It is the individual who must so identify through faith with Christ's death and resurrection that he or she sees themselves upon the cross, in the tomb, and coming out to new life in Christ.

That is the message of Romans 6. The atonement works for the individual through uniting by faith with Christ in his vacarious sacrifice. The word translated united really carries the meaning of entwined. The atonement works for the individual when he or she sees not Christ on the cross, or buried, or walking alive out of the tomb, but his or herself! Jesus gave himself as the vessel that can be any of us vicariously, that's how the atonement gets out of the realm of theories and does its practical good for me. Thank you Jesus!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

How Does the Atonement Work?

Back in the 1500's, William Tyndale coined the word atonement in an effort to more fully translate the biblical concept of an expiating sacrifice which had a propitiating effect. Getting right with God, it seemed to him, had two parts: 1) dealing justly with sin, and 2) restoring fellowship with God. To actually effect reconciliation, both parts had to be in place. Unfortunately for the sinner, accomplishing the first part would render him or her lost for eternity, thus making the second part moot.

The solution, born in God's grace, was the notion of vicarious sacrifice. By identifying with the sacrifice [see also Leviticus 4], the penitent could acknowledge and embrace the just retribution against his or her sin, while living on to experience reconciliation with God. God and the sinner would be seeing sin the same way, and God and vicariously punished sinner could be at one again. Atonement is about being on track with God, after the just dust of punishment has settled.

Sin is untenable if you think about it--withstanding an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, omnitemporal God just doesn't have a future! For God to allow sin to continue, sin would have to be part of who he was. Since he cannot cease being what he is, sin must be eradicated. That is, really, what death is: the quashing of sin (the Lake of Fire is the logical and ultimate conclusion to the problem of sin among spiritually eternal beings). From God's perspective, then, sin has already been dealt with, for all sinners die and then face the Lake of Fire.

From our perspective, that's not pleasant news at all. There is in the human soul a bit of Adam and Eve cowering in the bushes with the foreboding knowledge that our dying and death is the result of being rebels at odds with God. We're in a quandary: we don't want to die, but at the same time, we want to do what we want to do, even if God doesn't like it. Even if God waved a magic wand over us and returned us to life, without a change of heart we'd be dead again in a heartbeat!

So, to take care of sin, we first must repudiate it. Then its effects must be reversed and our consciences cleansed of the memory. Only then could we be emboldened enough to come out from behind the bushes and meet our Maker face to face. Then we'd have to go on with him, if he'd have us, walking trustingly, always in agreement with him.

If such an atonement is to take place, God must take the initiative, for we have no power or standing to do so. His heart must make a way to reach past the wall of sin and death and bring home the prodigals who would want to come home. In doing so, he'd have to retain the perfection of his justness (Godhood) while simultaneously justifying sinners who are not just. Substitution is the only avenue.

That which isn't guilty, must willingly adopt our sin as his own and take the heat for it, literally. Thereby, the cathartic that frees the penitent to stand unashamed in the presence of the holy God would be provided. This was accomplished in Christ Jesus. The sinless Son of God, became a man, offered himself in our place, to be our sin and to suffer our death.

The punishment of God against us was fully poured out on Jesus Christ. He died in our sin, forsaken by the Holy God. However, since he was faithful to God's will unto death, he rose from the dead on the third day, victor over our sin and death. By such, he became the means by which we can stand assured before and reconciled to God. Those that trust in this atonement made by Christ are, by the means of it, made one with God.