Brief Notes Towards a Reformed Theology of Religions (With a Bit of Bavinck on the Unevangelized)

theology of religionI’ve been reading Gerald McDermott and Harold Nestland’s new theology of religion A Trinitarian Theology of Religion: An Evangelical Proposal and it’s been quite stimulating. While I used to give the problem of other religions and the Christian faith more thought, I haven’t as of late. Still, McDermott and Nestland’s stimulating work have gotten the juices flowing again. With that in mind, I thought I’d offer 7 brief, tentative notes towards my current “theology” of other religions. What, in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ, can we say is the truth about what we typically think of as other faith-systems?

1. Jesus Christ alone is the crucified and resurrected Lord over all creation. The confession of Christ’s preeminent, sole, unique, saving Lordship is baseline for any Christian theology of other religions.

2. Consistent with this, as the uniquely Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ alone is and reveals the ultimate fullness of truth about God, the world, and everything else. Jesus’ revelation is not one among many, or merely a slightly clearer revelation of a broader religious truth.

3. Jesus reveals the Triune God to to be ultimate spiritual reality. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not merely the names we’ve given to our Christian experience of some deeper Real that every other faith is describing by some other name. Hard Pluralism about religious reality is inconsistent–well, just in general–and with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

4. There is no other name under heaven by which men may be saved than that of the Lord Jesus. This means at the very least that salvation comes by, in, and through the work and person of Jesus Christ alone. It is only by union with his obedient life, atoning death, and life-giving sacrifice that any can be redeemed from their sin and brought into a saving relationship with God. For that reason, other religions cannot be the mechanism or method for the salvation of any person. Salvation is solely by the grace of Jesus Christ, not the result of human works or merit.

5. Other religions, just as all other philosophical thought systems that do not flow from the truth of gospel, participate in idolatry. While they testify to the basic human need to worship, they do so in a disordered fashion, according some part of creation with the honor, dignity, and function that only God may rightfully occupy. Note though, this is true as much with Hinduism as it is with Marxism or Aristotelian philosophy.

6. The complementary reality is that within other religions there can be elements of truth found within them through God’s work of common grace. Note, this is not saving truth, or special grace. That said, some religions’ teachings may be the result of the Holy Spirit’s restraining work of mercy, though not likely his illumining work of salvation. That a Muslim knows there is one God and does not fall into the obvious idolatry of animism or ancestor worship, I take to be the restraining work of common grace. Also, it seems possible to see those aspects in Buddhism that teach compassion, or at least militate against socially-destructive forms of obvious selfishness, to be truths of common grace as well. Many of us would have no trouble affirming something like this about the truth of systems of thought we call “philosophy” such as Aristotelianism and Platonism. I take this to be as true for the systems of thought we typically designate “religious” in the West.

7. Finally, as to the very sensitive question of the salvation of members of other religions who have never had the opportunity to explicitly respond to the gospel, unsurprisingly, I suppose I hold decently conservative views on the subject. When I was younger I used to straight-forwardly affirm a C.S. Lewis-style inclusivism–God saves some on the basis of their response to the truth they could respond to, yet only on the basis of Christ’s merits. Lately though, in light of the types of concerns summarized by this excellent little article by Kevin DeYoung clarifying the case for exclusivism, I have become me much more cautious about affirming something speculative on this issue and wary about going that route.

My thought in this area has been rather unreconstructed since my shift Reformed, though, so I decided to do a little digging in Bavinck and I find this interesting section on the fate of unevangelized pagans and children who die in infancy. After discussing some historical positions–for instance, Augustine and others believed some pagans like Socrates were in a position similar to OT saints–he goes on to write this fascinating passage:

In light of Scripture, both with regard to the salvation of pagans and that of children who die in infancy, we cannot get beyond abstaining from a firm judgment, in either a positive or a negative sense. Deserving of note, however, is that in the face of these serious questions Reformed theology is in a much more favorable position than any other. For in this connection, all other churches can entertain a more temperate judgment only if they reconsider their doctrine of the absolute necessity of the means of grace or infringe upon that of the accursedness of sin. But the Reformed refused to establish the measure of grace needed for a human being still to be united with God, though subject to many errors and sins, or to determine the extent of the knowledge indispensably necessary to salvation. Furthermore, they maintained that the means of grace are not absolutely necessary for salvation and that also apart from the Word and sacraments God can regenerate persons for eternal life.
Thus, in the Second Helvetic Confession, article 1, we read: “At the same time we recognize that God can illuminate whom and when he will, even without the external ministry, for that is in his power”…And the Westminster Confession states (in ch. X, §3) that “elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who works when, and where, and how he pleases”, and that this applies also to “all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.” Reuter, accordingly, after explaining Augustine’s teaching on this point, correctly states: “One could in fact defend the paradox that it is precisely the particularistic doctrine of predestination that makes possible those universalistic-sounding phrases.”
In fact, even the universalistic passages of Scripture cited above come most nearly and most beautifully into their own in Reformed theology. For these texts are certainly not intended universalistically in the sense that all humans or even all creatures are saved, nor are they so understood by any Christian church. All churches without exception confess that there is not only a heaven but also a hell. At most, therefore, there is a difference of opinion about the number of those who are saved and of those who are lost. But that is not something one can argue about inasmuch as that number is known only to God. When Jesus was asked: “Lord, will only a few be saved?” he only replied: “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many … will try to enter but will not be able” (Luke 13:24). Directly important to us is only that we have no need to know the number of the elect.
In any case, it is a fact that in Reformed theology the number of the elect need not, for any reason or in any respect, be deemed smaller than in any other theology. In fact, at bottom the Reformed confessions are more magnanimous and broader in outlook than any other Christian confession. It locates the ultimate and most profound source of salvation solely in God’s good pleasure, in his eternal compassion, in his unfathomable mercy, in the unsearchable riches of his grace, grace that is both omnipotent and free. Aside from it, where could we find a firmer and broader foundation for the salvation of a sinful and lost human race? However troubling it may be that many fall away, still in Christ the believing community, the human race, the world, is saved. The organism of creation is restored. The wicked perish from the earth (Ps. 104:35); they are cast out (John 12:31; 15:6; Rev. 22:15). Still, all things in heaven and earth are gathered up in Christ (Eph. 1:10). All things are created through him and for him (Col. 1:16)

Reformed Dogmatics Volume 4: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, pp. 726-727

Bavinck is about as orthodox Reformed as you get–rejecting pluralism, universalism, affirming predestination–and yet still he finds some space for the possibility of the regeneracy unevangelized. I find that interesting, even if I’d need to give it more thought. In any case, I’m quite sure whatever God does do is consistent with the astounding mercy, love, and justice demonstrated on the cross.

None of this is particularly astonishing, new, or controversial (I hope). Still, it seems profitable to be laid out for reflection and discussion.

Soli Deo Gloria

God Has More Than One Name–And We Need Every One of Them

bavinck sin and salvation imageI’ve said this before, but theology is an issue of finding your balance. This can happen in various ways, but one of the simplest is to pick out one element of biblical truth and elevate it above all others, ignoring, or sidelining important balancing themes. For instance, some have issues with accounts of salvation that emphasize, or indeed, merely teach that God does not accomplish his forgiveness apart from atonement. Is he not a loving Father? Do not fathers forgive all the time without requiring payment or retribution? If even human fathers can do so, how can our heavenly Father be any less merciful or gracious by requiring satisfaction for sins?

Bavinck shows us the problem with that sort of thing:

God is most certainly the Father of humankind, but this name is far from describing the entire relationship in which God stands to his creatures. He is also Creator, Maintainer, Ruler, Sovereign, Lawgiver, Judge, and so on, and it is one-sided and conducive to error if one takes one of these names—disregarding all the others—to be the full revelation of God. Thus, in relation to sin, God is not just a creator or injured party who can cancel the debt and forgive as well as forget the insult but is himself the giver, protector, and avenger of the law, righteousness in person, and as such he cannot forgive sin without atonement (Heb. 9:22). In that capacity he cannot nullify the just demands of the law, for we are not speaking here about personal or private rights, which one can relinquish, but about the righteousness, that is, the perfections and honor of God himself. Against this idea one could appeal to the prerogative of pardon that an earthly government frequently exercises, but this prerogative of pardon is only given to it because it is fallible and in many cases inflicts a penalty that is too severe or even undeserved. In God something like that cannot happen. He is righteousness in person, does not need to restore justice or nullify it by grace, but lets both justice and grace come to expression in the cross of Christ.

-Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Volume 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ, pp. 372-373

Of course, one can tip the balance in the other direction and only fixate on God’s role as judge or king and forget that he is the Father who is passionately concerned to forgive. God is not begrudging in securing atonement, but gloriously willing to save sinners even as they reject him (Romans 5:6-8). Still, whichever way it happens, both make the mistake of flattening God’s relationship with his creatures by failing to account for each part of the crucial biblical imagery by which he reveals himself to us.

In other words, God gave us more than one beautiful name for himself in the Scriptures. We need to make sure we understand and worship him in light of all of them.

Soli Deo Gloria

For more on the way God’s atonement is not a denial of forgiveness, but rather the method of God’s forgiveness, see my article here.

Diognetus on Christ’s Atonement (Or, a Rather Reformed Father)

christ pantokratorThe Epistle to Diognetus is a brief, but powerful theological treasure from the early Christian Fathers. In one brief chapter the anonymous Disciple answers the question, “Why was the Son sent so late?” with a condensed account of Christ’s work of salvation on our behalf. I present it here without much comment except to say, despite the allegedly vast differences between Patristic and Reformation theologies of salvation, if I didn’t know better you could have told me Calvin or Luther wrote this:

As long then as the former time endured, He permitted us to be borne along by unruly impulses, being drawn away by the desire of pleasure and various lusts. This was not that He at all delighted in our sins, but that He simply endured them; nor that He approved the time of working iniquity which then was, but that He sought to form a mind conscious of righteousness, so that being convinced in that time of our unworthiness of attaining life through our own works, it should now, through the kindness of God, be vouchsafed to us; and having made it manifest that in ourselves we were unable to enter into the kingdom of God, we might through the power of God be made able.

But when our wickedness had reached its height, and it had been clearly shown that its reward, punishment and death, was impending over us; and when the time had come which God had before appointed for manifesting His own kindness and power, how the one love of God, through exceeding regard for men, did not regard us with hatred, nor thrust us away, nor remember our iniquity against us, but showed great long-suffering, and bore with us, He Himself took on Him the burden of our iniquities, He gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for them that are mortal.

For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! that the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors! Having therefore convinced us in the former time that our nature was unable to attain to life, and having now revealed the Saviour who is able to save even those things which it was [formerly] impossible to save, by both these facts He desired to lead us to trust in His kindness, to esteem Him our Nourisher, Father, Teacher, Counsellor, Healer, our Wisdom, Light, Honour, Glory, Power, and Life, so that we should not be anxious concerning clothing and food.

–The Epistle to Diognetes, Chapter IX.—Why the Son was sent so late.

You can read the whole epistle here.

Soli Deo Gloria

“You Forgot Something” A Reformedish Commentary on an Orthodox Commentary on the Sanctification Debates

This is the photo Martini had. I give him credit. Also, I wanted to make sure people could link the two articles. Also, how many people actually read image captions? Show of hands?

This is the photo Martini had. I give him credit. Also, I wanted to make sure people could link the two articles. Also, how many people actually read image captions? Show of hands?

Some of you know there’s been a bit of a brouhaha over the issue of sanctification in online Reformed circles in the last couple of months. It’s what led to the departure of Tullian Tchividjian (henceforth TT, because who can spell that?) from TGC and other unfortunate online ugliness. Basically, the dispute was surrounding a number of issues like, what role the law continues to have in the life of the believer?, or how necessary is obedience after conversion?, should we focus on obeying  or getting used to our justification, and stuff on that order. Kevin DeYoung’s summary article “What We All Agree on, and What We (Probably) Don’t, In This Sanctification Debate” is probably the best orientation to the subject. Also, his follow-up piece “The Grace that Saves Is The Grace That Leads You Home.” Also, the Mere Fidelity boys and I chatted on the subject about a month ago as well.

Well, recently Gabe Martini gave what he called an “Orthodox Commentary“, as in Eastern Orthodox, on the whole debate. He opened up with a lengthy, decently fair-handed summary of the dispute between the two sides, and then offered up a sort of Orthodox alternative. Essentially, Westerners of all stripes, and especially Protestants, have their categories all goofed up because of their fixation on ‘legalistic’ concepts of merit, earning, judgment, and so forth. Because of that, there’s a tendency to swing back and forth between moralism/legalism to the tendency to question whether obedience is required at all. Instead, with the Orthodox, we should see that it is indeed required, but we need to think through the basic form that obedience takes: repentance.

And for Orthodox Christians, that life of obedience is a life of true repentance. One where even the holiest saints end their lives with sorrow: the apostle Paul as the “chief” of sinners, and St. Sisoes the Great who desired yet another day to repent.

Through repentance we cooperate with God in our transforming sanctification leading unto the deification of looking like Christ. I won’t summarize it all. Again, you can go read it here.

I have to say, all in all, I appreciated the article. Martini was remarkably fair, which is not something I see a lot from Eastern criticisms of Protestants/Western theology. What’s more, for reasons that will become clear shortly, his call to repentance was, mostly, something I could get behind. Still, I had a couple of Reformed caveats and clarifications I’d like to offer up, for the sake of mutual up-building and understanding.

Union with Christ and Reformed Salvation

unionThe first comment I’ll make, and it’s really the biggest, is to note the surprising absence of any discussion of the doctrine of ‘union with Christ’ in Martini’s article. Actually, it’s both surprising and not surprising. On the one hand, it’s not surprising because in many popular discussions of Evangelical and Protestant understandings of salvation, it’s been ignored for the last 50+ years. To some degree, when I see a non-Protestant ignore it, well, so many Protestants have that it’s hard to blame them.

That said, the doctrine of union with Christ is arguably the heart of a Reformed doctrine of salvation (including both justification and sanctification) dating back to Calvin himself, through Berkhof (whom Martini quotes), all the way through modern treatments like those of J. Todd Billings, Marcus Johnson, Robert Letham, or Michael Horton (all of whom have released titles on the subject in the last 7 years). You can’t, therefore, talk about the problem with Protestant approaches to salvation without dealing with it. It’d be like talking about omelettes without mentioning eggs. Beyond that, it was explicitly at the heart of so many of the TGC/TT debates, so that if you’re going to comment on them, it seems like a big absence.

Now, for those of you still confused as to what the doctrine of union with Christ actually is, and what it looks like in a Reformed theology of salvation, I’ll quote Robert Letham at length as he discusses Paul’s understanding of the issue:

Union and Justification

According to Paul in Romans 5:12-21, just as Adam plunged the whole race into sin and death because of their relationship of solidarity with him, so the second Adam brings life and righteousness to all who sustain a relationship of solidarity with him

If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of gracee and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. (Rom. 5:17 ESV)

Here Paul reflects on his previous statement of the one way of salvation from sin by the propitiatory death of Christ, which avails for all who believe (Rom. 3:21ff). Justification is received only by faith and is grounded in what Christ did once for all in his death and resurrection (4:25).  Paul’s point is that we are not addressed merely as discrete individuals; instead, we are a team of which we all were members. His sin plunged the whole team into sin, ruin, death, and condemnation. What Christ did for us was also done as the head of a team of which we are a part. He did it on our behalf, for us–and God reckons it to our account as a result of our being united, through faith, with him as the head of the team. Our justification is therefore grounded on union with Christ.

Union and Sanctification

In Romans 6:1ff, in answer to charges that his gospel encourages moral indifference, Paul insists that believers, the justified, live to Christ and do not give themselves over to sin.  This is because they died with Christ to sin and rose again to new life in his resurrection. Not only did Christ die and rise again for them, but they died and rose with him. Union with Christ is the foundational basis for sanctification and the dynamic force that empowers it. As Paul says, “Do you not know that as many were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death; we were buried with him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father so we too should live in newness of life” (6:3-4).

Union and Resurrection

Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 15 that the resurrection of Christ and the future resurrection of his church is one reality (vv. 12-19). Paul argues back and forth from one to the other. If Christ is not raised, there can be no resurrection of believers. If there is no general resurrection, Christ cannot have been raised himself. The two stand together. In fact, Christ has been raised–and so, therefore, will we be. Christ is the firstfruits of the resurrection of believers at his return (vv. 19-23). Not only is his resurrection first in time, but as firstfruits, it is of the same kind as the full harvest. Hence, it is the guarantee not only that the full harvest will be gathered but that both his resurrection and ours are identical. From this it is clear that the resurrection of believers at the parousia is a resurrection in Christ. The resurrections are effectively the same…Christ resurrection and the resurrection of the righteous, separated by indefinite time, are identical because the later occurs in union with the former.

Union with Christ: In Scripture, History, and Theology, pg. 5-7

Union with Christ, then, does a lot of work in the Reformed (and Pauline) view of salvation, and it’s the answer to a number of Martini’s critiques. For one thing, Martini talks about the place that double-imputation plays in the Protestant system (Christ is reckoned as sinner in our place and we are reckoned as righteous because of him), but, because he doesn’t note that union with Christ is the structure underlying traditional formulations of double-imputation, he resorts to the old charge of calling it a ‘legal fiction.’ What he misses is that in Reformed thought Christ takes responsibility for our sin on the cross as our covenant head and representative, and can really do so, because through faith we are united to him in that kind of relationship. What’s more, we can be included in his righteous status because, through union, we really are part of his body, his people. As N.T. Wright says, in biblical thought, what is true of a king is true of his people–therefore, what is true of Messiah (Christ) is true of the people united to him.

There’s more to say there, but I’ll leave it at that.

Also, you can see now how this plays into the sanctification debates. Union with Christ means that I’m organically connected to Christ and have been given the vivifying, sanctifying Spirit. I have been set apart definitively, and now, through the power of the Holy Spirit, I am empowered to chase holiness in obedience to God’s commands so that I might be continually conformed to the Image of the Son. Actually, this is the sort of dynamic that has caused theologians like Billings, Letham, etc. to note possible overlap with Eastern Orthodox conceptions of deification (as long as the proper Creator/creature distinction is maintained.)

So, ya, union with Christ is massively necessary to the discussion.

Repentance

The second point is much shorter. Martini calls for a refocus on the shape of sanctification in this life, which is repentance. Now, aside from the little discussion we could have about the words ‘synergism’ and ‘cooperation’, which have their place in Reformed systems when properly understood, I don’t see a lot there that classic Protestants would disagree with. I mean, he quotes St. Isaac of Syria as saying, “This life was given to you for repentance; do not waste it on vain pursuits.”

Funny enough, St. Martin of Beeria (Martin Luther) opened up his famous 95 Theses with this line: “When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said “Repent”, He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Though Reformed types look mostly to Calvin, Knox, Bucer, & Co. I don’t think any of them would object that statement. In fact, Calvin himself says,

“This renewal, indeed, is not accomplished in a moment, a day, or a year, but by uninterrupted, sometimes even by slow progress God abolishes the remains of carnal corruption in his elect, cleanses them from pollution, and consecrates them as his temples, restoring all their inclinations to real purity, so that during their whole lives they may practice repentance, and know that death is the only termination to this warfare.” (Institutes, III.3.ix)

Passages like that could be multiplied ad nauseum in Calvin. I mean, he was the theologian of the Holy Spirit. That some of his heirs may have forgotten this emphasis, doesn’t change the fact that this sort of thing is deeply-rooted at the heart of Reformed spirituality.

In conclusion, I know I haven’t addressed the ‘legalistic’ charge. I may some time in the future because I think it largely without merit (Eh? See what I did there?). Still, I guess what I’d like to say is, Gabe, while we probably have some major disputes about merit, grace, atonement, and so forth (and that’s okay, I forgive you), when it comes to repentance and sanctification, we’re actually not as far off as you seem to think we are.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. For a few more resources on union with Christ, I’d suggest Todd Billings’ book ‘Union With Christ‘, Robert Letham‘s by the same name, and Marcus Johnson’s new work One with Christ.

Also, I attribute my inspiration for this to Joel Borofsky.

Mere Fidelity Podcast: How Does God Accommodate Himself to Us?

Mere FidelityHow does God accommodate himself to us? How do we know when he has accommodated himself to us, or when we are projecting ourselves back on him? How does this affect our view of  science and scripture? What about OT violence or the sacrificial system? Or what about depictions of God’s emotions and so forth? In this episode, we take up what has traditionally been called the doctrine of ‘divine accommodation,’ and consider its limits and its abuses.

Other details worth noting:  the iTunes feed is here (thanks to everyone who has reviewed us so kindly) and an RSS feed for the show lives here.

Also, here is the lengthy Bavinck quote from the front end along with commentary the subject. Also, this post on the subject of Reformed theological method and grace in our knowledge is quite relevant.

Soli Deo Gloria

Are All Sins Really “Equal in the Eyes of God”?

Scales-of-justice-2One of the most common truisms you’ll hear as a kid growing up in Evangelical churches is that “in the eyes of God, all sins are equal.” If all have fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:20), and breaking one part of the Law means you’ve broken all of it (James 2:10), then there’s a sort of equalizing effect at work here, right? Whether you’re a murderer or a serial jay-walker, you’ve violated the law and so stand accused in the dock on the same charge as anyone else: sin.

Now, there are two main uses to which this doctrine is usually put. First, it’s often used as a way of curbing pride or discouraging judgmentalism. Since everyone is a sinner, including you, there’s no place for feeling better than your neighbor just because they seem to have sinned in a worse way. Second, since all sin is equal in God’s sight, there’s also no use in you thinking you can earn your way into God’s graces, or justify yourself because you haven’t committed any of the “really big” sins.

You may be able to tell, I have a big caveat to add here.

I have to admit, as a kid this idea never sat well with me. I mean, I wouldn’t deny that we’re all sinners in need of salvation, or that no one should feel better than others, or that all sin leads to judgment, but I remember very clearly arguing in Bible study that there’s definitely a distinction between greater and lesser sins. There’s got to be a difference between beating your child and sneaking a peek on a tough answer on your quiz; it seemed to me like utter nihilism to deny any sort of distinction like that.  If a human judge gave the thief 25-life along with the murderer, we’d say there’s something off with her ability to discern right from wrong, and subtle gradations of human justice.

But where does that leave our theology of judgment, sin, and salvation? If there are worse and lesser sins, it seems cruel to punish both with the same ultimate judgment. If treating the thief and the murderer equally seems unjust in this life, then how much more in the life/state to come?

As it turns out, there’s good biblical reasons to affirm both the fundamental equality of sinners before the dock of God, as well as the distinctions between sins that seem intuitive to our basic instincts. Bavinck has an excellent little section that will set the stage for us:

Aside from the difference between diabolical and human sins, there is also a great deal of difference among the latter…Granted, in principle sin and virtue are indivisible: those who have one have them all, and those who lack one lack them all. Between good and evil there is no gradual transition. A person consents or does not consent to the law of God.  The law of God is an organism that, when violated in one of its commandments, is violated in its totality, for God, who have the commandment that was violated, is the author of all the other commandments as well (James 2:10). But not all sins are for that reason equal. The different names for sin already bear this out. In Genesis 4, in connection with the sacrifice of Cain and Abel, we learn that the inner disposition is of greater value than the gift. Though the law given to Israel contains a wide range of ceremonial commandments, the entire Old Testament makes clear that the value of the ethical conduct far surpasses that of cultic and ceremonial acts. Faith is reckoned as righteousness (Gen. 15:6). obedience is better than sacrifice (1 Sam. 15:22; Amos 2:6ff; 5:14, 21f; Hosea 4″1f; 12:6; Mic. 6:6, 8; Isa. 1:11f; 5:8f; Jer. 7:3; 22:3; Ezek. 16:49; 18:5f; 2 Cor. 12:20f; Gal. 5:19; etc.). The law itself moreover, makes a distinction between sins that are committed inadvertently, out of ignorance or weakness, do not break the covenant, and can be expiated within the covenant, and sins that are committed consciously and intentional (…”with a high hand”), place the perpetrator outside the covenant, and make him worthy of death (Lev. 4:5; 22:14; Num. 15:22f; 35:11f; Josh. 20:3, 9). Scripture never abandons the objective position that locates the standard of sin solely in the law of God. Yet the guilt of violation is greater or less to the degree the commandment was violated more or less intentionally.

Reformed Dogmatics Volume 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ, pp. 149-150

The whole section is worth perusing as Bavinck goes on to parse the biblical material even further. Still, we see both truths, that the law of God is one, and that all who violate it stand condemned, but that even so, God makes distinctions between types of sin. Murder really is a bigger deal than theft. Stealing because you’re poor and hungry is not the same thing as cheating your impoverished employees out of fair wages to pay for a lavish vacation. What’s more, those sins that we knowingly commit, thinking to ourselves “I know this is contrary to God’s demands, but I’m going to do it anyways” have a greater weight than the transgressions that we give ourselves over to in a foolish, unthinking moment. Our everyday, human instincts are not entirely wrong here, but are, in fact, confirmed by biblical material.

What then of the equality of sinners before the bar of God’s justice? Biblically, it’s not so much that all sins are flatly equal, but that any sin is a sign of violation of the greatest sin. “A person consents or does not consent to the law of God.” What Bavinck is saying is that even the “small” sins, flow from the deep, great, fundamental stance of lawlessness towards God. From another angle, Martin Luther said of the first commandment “where the heart is rightly disposed toward God and this commandment is observed, all the others follow” (Larger Catechism). In other words, we only ever murder, or lie, or cheat, or steal, or commit any number of piddling little sins, because we are already caught up in the greatest, most flagrant violation of all: idolatry, worshiping something other than the true God as God.

This is the reason that Paul writes we all have fallen short of the glory of God. His indictment of human sin, debauchery and lawlessness begins with idolatry in Romans 1:18-23, and from there we see humanity given over as a consequence to the various sorts of sin listed in 1:24-32. Considered simply as “thief” and “murderer”, the murderer is clearly guilty of a far greater crime. That said, both thief and murderer stand before the bar under the far weightier charge of “idolater” and “cosmic traitor.”

Incidentally, this is part of the answer to the charge that no one has done anything merit the eternal judgment we are warned of in Scripture. I’ve discussed the inherent symmetry of handing the person who has spent a life-time pursuing everything but God, a future without God. Still, that aside, that many of us don’t observe our idolatry with the horror with which it is presented in Scripture is not an indication of the Bible’s over-scrupulosity, but our own comfortable we’ve become with our own sin. As Anselm famously put it, “you have not yet considered how great the weight of sin is.”

To sum up then, are all sins equally vile, condemnable, and is distinguishing between them a merely human way of looking at them? No. To say so is to go beyond Scripture and even to do violence to our righteous moral instincts about everyday human justice. But are all sinners “equally guilty” before God, in no place to merit their salvation, or boast and brag over others? Yes.And one more question: does God’s extend his abundant, overwhelming, and astonishing grace in Christ to all? Thankfully, we can say a bold “Yes, and Amen!”

Soli Deo Gloria

Giving Jesus Credit Where Credit is Due (Or, Soteriological Maximalism & Atonement Accounts)

There’s a principle in theology that some have named have the “principle of perfection”, or what we might term “theological maximalism”, that says our thinking about God should aim to do justice to God’s maximally great being.  In other words, when trying to do construct your doctrine of God, if you have an option between two ways of looking at God, unless you have some very good reason for thinking otherwise, whichever option is greater ought to be preferred. So, for instance, if choosing between the view that God’s omniscience, his all-knowingness, includes a knowledge of the future as well as the present and the past, or only the present and the past, we should probably prefer the former option. Unless we have some very good scriptural evidence to the contrary, theological maximalism will lead us to expect that God’s perfect knowledge will contain perfect knowledge of the future.

Now, to my mind that makes intuitive and even biblical sense. The Scriptures declare God’s greatness and glory is beyond human comprehension, which likely means that if we could come up with attribute that would make him better, stronger, and more glorious, then he probably has it. The big qualification that comes in, though, is that we need to make sure our reasoning and logic about what would make God “great” is itself formed and normed by what God has said about himself in Scripture. Your “great” and the Bible’s “great” might not always match up in all the details.

From Big God to Big Salvation

This might be the most terrible portrait of Jesus I've ever seen.

This might be the most terrible portrait of Jesus I’ve ever seen.

I go into all of this to set up what I think should be a similar principle in our theology of salvation–a “soteriological maximalism”, if you will. What do I mean? And where am I going with this? Well, essentially, whichever position presents us with a greater, more complex, and comprehensive view of salvation wrought through Christ ought to be preferred. In other words, whichever view of salvation gives Father, Son, and Spirit more credit for getting more done through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, all other considerations being equal, we should opt for that one.

For instance, for a long time now I’ve been annoyed at what I see as reductionistic views of the atonement, (ie, how Christ’s death reconciles us to God). Ever since Gustav Aulen’s treatment of the atonement back in the 30s in Christus Victor, theologians have been talking about three different models, types, or “theories” of atonement: moral influence, penal satisfaction, and Christus Victor. J.I. Packer explains the three quite nicely in his classic essay, The Logic of Penal Substitution so I’ll let him expand at length:

1. There is first, the type of account which sees the cross as having its effect entirely on men, whether by revealing God’s love to us, or by bringing home to us how much God hates our sins, or by setting us a supreme example of godliness, or by blazing a trail to God which we may now follow, or by so involving mankind in his redemptive obedience that the life of God now flows into us, or by all these modes together. It is assumed that our basic need is lack of motivation Godward and of openness to the inflow of divine life; all that is needed to set, us in a right relationship with God is a change in us at these two points, and this Christ’s death brings about. The forgiveness of our sins is not a separate problem; as soon as we are changed we become forgivable, and are then forgiven at once. This view has little or no room for any thought of substitution, since it goes so far in equating what Christ did for us with what he does to us.

2. A second type of account sees Christ’s death as having its effect primarily on hostile spiritual forces external to us which are held to be imprisoning us in a captivity of which our inveterate moral twistedness is one sign and symptom. The cross is seen as the work of God going forth to battle as our champion, just as David went forth as Israel’s champion to fight Goliath. Through the cross these hostile forces, however conceived — whether as sin and death, Satan and his hosts, the demonic in society and its structures, the powers of God’s wrath and curse, or anything else — are overcome and nullified, so that Christians are not in bondage to them, but share Christ’s triumph over them. The assumption here is that man’s plight is created entirely by hostile cosmic forces distinct from God; yet, seeing Jesus as our champion, exponents of this view could still properly call him our substitute, just as all the Israelites who declined Goliath’s challenge in 1 Samuel 17:8-11 could properly call David their substitute. Just as a substitute who involves others in the consequences of his action as if they had done it themselves is their representative, so a representative discharging the obligations of those whom he represents is their substitute. What this type of account of the cross affirms (though it is not usually put in these terms) is that the conquering Christ, whose victory secured our release, was our representative substitute.

3. The third type of account denies nothing asserted by the other two views save their assumption that they are complete. It that there is biblical support for all they say, but it goes further. It grounds man’s plight as a victim of sin and Satan in the fact that, for all God’s daily goodness to him, as a sinner he stands under divine judgment, and his bondage to evil is the start of his sentence, and unless God’s rejection of him is turned into acceptance he is lost for ever. On this view, Christ’s death had its effect first on God, who was hereby propitiated (or, better, who hereby propitiated himself), and only because it had this effect did it become an overthrowing of the powers of darkness and a revealing of God’s seeking and saving love. The thought here is that by dying Christ offered to God what the West has called satisfaction for sins, satisfaction which God’s own character dictated as the only means whereby his ‘no’ to us could become a ‘yes’, Whether this Godward satisfaction is understood as the homage of death itself, or death as the perfecting of holy obedience, or an undergoing of the God-forsakenness of hell, which is God’s final judgment on sin, or a perfect confession of man’s sins combined with entry into their bitterness by sympathetic identification, or all these things together (and nothing stops us combining them together), the shape of this view remains the same — that by undergoing the cross Jesus expiated our sins, propitiated our Maker, turned God’s ‘no’ to us into a ‘yes’, and so saved us. All forms of this view see Jesus as our representative substitute in fact, whether or not they call him that, but only certain versions of it represent his substitution as penal.

So here you see the three types. You can probably also see where this is going with respect to “soteriological maximalism.” It has been an lamentable reality that in the West, and especially in contemporary theology, the three forms have been pitted against each other as rival models that we must choose between, because they’re apparently totally incompatible. I think this is an unfortunate, and quite unnecessary move. Indeed, Packer goes on to say as much:

…it should be noted that though the two former views regularly set themselves in antithesis to the third, the third takes up into itself all the positive assertions that they make; which raises the question whether any more is at issue here than the impropriety of treating half-truth as the whole truth, and of rejecting a more comprehensive account on the basis of speculative negations about what God’s holiness requires as a basis for forgiving sins. Were it allowed that the first two views might be misunderstanding and distorting themselves in this way, the much-disputed claim that a broadly substitutionary view of the cross has always been the mainstream Christian opinion might be seen to have substance in it after all. It is a pity that books on the atonement so often take it for granted that accounts of the cross which have appeared as rivals in historical debate must be treated as intrinsically exclusive. This is always arbitrary, and sometimes quite perverse.

In a sense, accepting some form of penal representation allows you to affirm the truth of the other two models, while accounting for more biblical material that can’t be easily folded into those accounts. Indeed, as some theologians like Hans Boersma, Graham Cole, Henri Blocher, and Robert Sherman have pointed out in their different accounts, accepting it actually gives us a coherent grounding for the other two realities. Following a principle of soteriological maximalism, then, we will strive to affirm it because allows us to give Jesus more credit for his work on the cross, not less.

This comes in handy when, for instance, coming to a text like Colossians 2:13-15:

And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.

Here we see very clearly both legal/penal concerns (v. 14), as well as the theme of victory over powers and principalities. Instead of trying to subsume or screen out either theme, instead we can clearly preach both at once, seeing the way they are seamlessly combined in Scripture, and even begin to trace the way they are organically combined together.

A Note on Girard

Incidentally, this should probably be our approach towards newer atonement accounts of a Girardian “scapegoat” type. Basically, innocent Jesus’ obviously unjust death on the cross at the hands of the powers (government, religion, the mob) exposes the violent, scapegoating mechanism at the heart of sinful society, bringing about repentance, or something like that. You can dig through these resources for more details.  I’ll be honest, on its own, it’s an abysmal account of the atonement that can’t really deal with the biblical material, and usually operates with Girard’s own neo-Marcionite reading of the Old Testament. As Scot McKnight has pointed out, it’s basically a new-style Abelarian/moral influence type, only in this set-up, we’re tempted to forget that we’re the ones who put him up on the Cross. (Also, the above works by Boersma, Sherman, and this one by Horton, all ably critique Girardian atonement types.) Still, it is possible to take some of Girard’s insights about the scapegoating process in general and fold them into Christ’s work of exposing the powers of evil on the Cross.

Also, Girardian types remind us of the boundary measure we mentioned with theological maximalism. As I said, Girardian types usually have to screen out, or hold up as false, most of the Old Testament sacrificial system, as well as reject any image of God dealing out judgment upon sin as punishment. And yet the acknowledgement that the Creator God is the just judge who punishes sin stands clearly at the center of the story of Israel’s dealings with him. In putting forward a view of the atonement that’s allegedly consistent with a glorious ‘non-violent’ God, not only do these accounts deny the accomplishments that penal accounts affirm, they have to do so contrary to the witness of Scripture as well.

Objections and Conclusions

I can, at this point, anticipate a couple of objections at this point along the lines of “Well, what about universalism? That seems to make Jesus a more able Savior, wouldn’t it? Saving all is better than saving only some?” Or again, “What about theosis, or Eastern Orthodox forms of deification? Shouldn’t we then try and figure out a way to affirm those? ‘Deifying’ people seems like an extra step up, doesn’t it?” Well, honestly, I don’t have time to address both adequately, but I’d simply say this is where we need to make sure our ideas about what is ‘maximal’ is being normed and formed by Scripture. In the case of universalism, the numeric ‘more’ that seems more maximal must be submitted to the scriptural judgments we have on the subject that apparently imply otherwise.

On deification, actually I’d say that this ought to motivate us to re-examine our hesitancy to reject any notion of deification as entirely out of bounds for a Reformed, or simply biblical, account of Christ’s work for us. J. Todd Billings has done some excellent work to make a case for a Calvinistic doctrine of ‘deification’ through union with Christ that doesn’t violate biblical teaching on the Creator/creature distinction. A number of other Reformed theologians (Michael Horton, Robert Letham) have been affirming something similar as well.

At the end of this (already too long) post, all I’ll say is that our instinct in reading Scripture and preaching Christ should be to give him as much credit as possible for “so great a salvation.”

Soli Deo Gloria