Leveraging the Attributes *for* Salvation (Edwards on the Glory of God in Salvation–Again)

chess 2Yes, this is another post on salvation, the attributes, and Jonathan Edwards in The Wisdom of God, Displayed in the Way of Salvation. He’s already demonstrated the way that each, or at least a good many, of the attributes are glorified and displayed the work of redemption, as well as the particular persons of the Trinity. But Edwards doesn’t stop there. From another angle, Edwards makes the argument that it is the wisdom of God in salvation to act in such a way that the very attributes which would seem to most make us his enemy, put us in peril of damnation, separation, and the annihilation, are actually the foundation of our redemption and hope. In this way, “God’s greatest dishonor is made an occasion of his greatest glory.”

What do I mean by that? Well, Edwards reminds us of the basic reality of sin: it is a denial of God, a rebellious refusal to give God glory and honor, and set ourselves up as his enemies. We attempt to dethrone the God of the universe in our vanity. In light of this reality, all of God’s attributes seem to demand vindication. His truth demands the public demonstration that he keeps his word to curse disobedience. His holiness demands the eradication of impurity. His justice seems to demand the punishment of sin, lest God be an unjust judge. And yet, “so has God contrived, that those very attributes not only allow of man’s redemption, and are not inconsistent with it, but they are glorified in it.”

Indeed, the Triune one has so arranged the work of salvation such that his attributes now demand the salvation of sinners: “it is so ordered now that the glory of these attributes requires the salvation of those that believe.”

This argument taps into the logic of the apostle, John. John writes to the church in Ephesus that, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). God is faithful and just to forgive sins? Why is it a matter of justice to forgive sins? Well, because in verses 2:1-2, John continues on: “But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”

In this section, Edwards explains:

The justice of God that required man’s damnation, and seemed inconsistent with his salvation, now as much requires the salvation of those that believe in Christ, as ever before it required their damnation. Salvation is an absolute debt to the believer from God, so that he may in justice demand it, on account of what his surety has done. For Christ has satisfied justice fully for his sin. It is but a piece of justice, that the creditor should release the debtor, when he has fully paid the debt. And again, the believer may demand eternal life, because it has been merited by Christ, by a merit of condignity. So is it contrived, that justice that seemed to require man’s destruction, now requires his salvation.

He then moves on to show how the same movement is at work in God’s attributes of truth and holiness. Where it seemed they demand our total rejection, God orders things so that, upon faith in Christ, these things “require” our acceptance.

Not only that, it’s not just that redemption displays God’s attributes better than any other act. Nor is it only that God wisely arranges things so that his attributes require man’s salvation. In this way, we see God’s attributes more magnificently displayed in a way than we ever could have otherwise. “Those very attributes which seemed to require man’s destruction are more glorious in his salvation than they would have been in his destruction.”

How so? Simply damning sinners for eternity cannot compare to the utter vindication of God’s justice seen in his taking the consequences of sin upon himself in the Son all at once, in public, on the cross. The public trial in history of God’s unchangeable justice reveals God’s willingness to do justice in a way that simply leaving sinners to their fate ever could.

This is one more reason to marvel at the wisdom of God:

Such is the wisdom of salvation, that the more any of the elect have dishonored God, the more is God glorified in this redemption. Such wonders as these are accomplished by the wisdom of this way of salvation.

Not only does this give us reason to praise and glorify God, but it also is the foundation of unspeakable comfort. Many of us might look to God’s goodness, his holiness, his righteous justice, or purity, and only see reasons for guilt, rejection, shame, and despair. Edwards will not have. To think in such a way underestimated the glorious wisdom of God:

So sufficient is this way of salvation, that it is not inconsistent with any of God’s attributes to save the chief of sinners. However great a sinner any one has been, yet God can, if he pleased, save without any injury to the glory of any one attribute. And not only so, but the more sinful any one has been, the more does God glorify himself in his salvation. The more does he glorify his power, that he can redeem one in whom sin so abounds, and of whom Satan has such strong possession. — The greater triumph has Christ over his grand adversary, in redeeming and setting at liberty from his bondage those that were his greatest vassals. The more does the sufficiency of Christ appear, in that it is sufficient for such vile wretches.

This is not an excuse to sin that grace might abound, but an invitation to worship the wise grace of God, the sufficiency of Christ, which alone can give us the love for God that drives out all desire to sin.

Such is the wisdom of God. All things work for his glory and for our ultimate good.

Now think on his works, his attributes, worship, and sin no more.

Soli Deo Gloria

How Does God’s Wisdom in Salvation Display the Glory of All of God’s Attributes and Each of The Persons?

edwards2Good theology texts usually point you to other good theology texts. Recently, Adam Johnson’s little book Atonement: A Guide to the Perplexedtipped me off to Jonathan Edwards’ fascinating collection of sermons The Wisdom of God, Displayed in the Way Salvation. The title basically says it all. Taking his cue from Ephesian 3:10 (“To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places, might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God“), Edwards sets himself investigate in just what way the multifaceted wisdom of God is displayed before the angels and heavenly authorities in the way of salvation.

This is a particularly creative work because, as Johnson notes, the emphasis on the display of wisdom presses Edwards to look at the work of God in salvation in a holistic way extending beyond the narrow focus on sin, guilt, wrath, satisfaction, and forgiveness (important as that is). In one section, for instance, Edwards expounds the wisdom of God in everything, including his choice of the person of Christ, and the way he is particularly suited as the Godman to be our Redeemer. Not only that, he examines the necessity and wisdom of the various dimensions of Christ including his birth, his life, his teaching, his death, his resurrection, and even his exaltation. Each of these facets is shown to be an important component for our reconciliation, growth in holiness, and restoration to God.

Commenting on the exaltation, he writes:

As it is wonderful, that a person who is truly divine should be humbled so as to become a servant, and to suffer as a malefactor, so it is in like manner wonderful that he who is God-man, not exclusive of the manhood, should be exalted to the power and honor of the great God of heaven and earth. But such wonders as these has infinite wisdom contrived, and accomplished in order to our salvation (emphasis added).

Attributes and Glory. The section that most caught my attention so far is the second in which he discusses the way God’s wise procurement of our of salvation in Christ points us to the glory of God’s being and attributes with particular force:

God has greatly glorified himself in the work of creation and providence. All his works praise him, and his glory shines brightly from them all. But as some stars differ from others in glory, so the glory of God shines brighter in some of his works than in others. And amongst all these, the work of redemption is like the sun in his strength. The glory of the author is abundantly the most resplendent in this work.

How does salvation highlight the being and nature of God so well? Far too often, we think of God’s salvation involving only one or two of his attributes. Well, it turns out that if we pay requisite attention to the shape of reconciliation, we would see that “Each attribute of God is glorified in the work or redemption.” Edwards backs his claim in this stunning section by examining the way the salvation wrought in Jesus displays or glorifies five of God’s attributes, with the understanding that he could just keep going down the line.

1. Power. First, it clearly displays God’s power (Edwards dwells on this more than any other attribute). I mean, how powerful do you have to be to unite both God and man in one person? “This is a greater and more marvelous work than creation.” Not only that, for God to save humanity in this way shows a greater power involved than in creation for two reasons. Creating a glorified creature is better than a mere creature. Also, creation involved bringing something into being out of nothing, but redemption means making something beautiful out of something already spoiled. Beyond that, God did all this in the face of the opposition of Satan and his minions, whom Christ the mighty triumphed over (Col. 2:14-15).

2. Justice. Second, it’s a beautiful work of justice. In salvation, we see God’s unfailing will that, “Justice should take place, though it cost his infinitely dear Son his precious blood, and his enduring such extraordinary reproach, and pain, and death in its most dreadful form.”

3. Holiness. Third, God’s holiness is displayed in the salvation of sinners. He is too pure to make peace with sin and so wills to save us in a way that makes clear “his hatred of sin” in the cross and suffering of his own Son.

4. Truth. Fourth, his truth is glorified and displayed, “both in his threatenings and his promisings.” The life, death, and resurrection of the Son prove God’s commitment to the curses and the blessings of his covenant in the Garden. “God showed hereby, that not only heaven and earth should pass away, but, which is more, that the blood of him who is the eternal Jehovah should be spilt, rather than one jot or tittle of his word should fail, till all be fulfilled.”

5. Mercy. Finally, his mercy is most gloriously manifested in the redemption. Here Edwards points out something interesting. Before the work of redemption, yes, we’d seen God’s goodness, his power, his truth, and yet no one had seen him exercise mercy until the coming of sin and our liability to judgment:

But now God has shown that he can find in his heart to love sinners, who deserve his infinite hatred. And not only has he shown that he can love them, but love them so as to give them more and do greater things for them than ever he did for the holy angels, that never sinned nor offended their Creator. He loved sinful men so as to give them a greater gift than ever he gave the angels; so as to give his own Son, and not only to give him to be their possession and enjoyment, but to give him to be their sacrifice. And herein he has done more for them than if he had given them all the visible world; yea, more than if he had given them all the angels, and all heaven besides. God has loved them so, that hereby he purchased for them deliverance from eternal misery, and the possession of immortal glory.

Persons and Glory. Obviously, Edwards could go on through attribute after attribute. Instead, he turns his attention to the glory that the work of salvations brings by displaying the particular work of the persons of the Trinity. In fact, it’s not just that he thinks the persons are shown to be glorious in redemption, but that they are specifically shown as glorious in a way that they are not in other works:

The attributes of God are glorious in his other works. But the three persons of the Trinity are distinctly glorified in no work as in this of redemption. In this work every distinct person has his distinct parts and offices assigned him.

In the work of salvation, Edwards thinks the works of the Trinity in the economy–the historical outward work of salvation–display in a fitting way the “distinct, personal properties, relations, and economical offices” in a way that just isn’t as clear in, say, creation. And this brings them particular glory and us a greater sense of worship each particular person.

So what does that look like? Well, it’s hard to communicate this any more elegantly or tightly than Edwards himself, so I’ll just quote him at length:

The Father appoints and provides the Redeemer, and accepts the price of redemption. The Son is the Redeemer and the price. He redeems by offering up himself. The Holy Ghost immediately communicates to us the thing purchased. Yea, and he is the good purchased. The sum of what Christ purchased for us is holiness and happiness. But the Holy Ghost is the great principle both of all holiness and happiness. The Holy Ghost is the sum of all that Christ purchased for men. Gal. 3:13, 14, “He was made a curse for us, that we might receive the promise of The Spirit, through faith.”

For Edwards, then, we have a distinct reason to depend on, praise and glorify each of the Persons: “the Father, as he provides the Redeemer, and the person of whom the purchase is made, — the Son as the purchaser, and the price, — the Holy Ghost, as the good purchased.”

Of course, we may want to be careful to run this through the recent posts by Fred Sanders and Scott Swain on the unity of divine actions of the Trinity. Nonetheless, Edwards’ careful attention to the shape of salvation and desire to explore its beauty in light of the nature and character of God in his triunity does two helpful things. First, he gives us very specific reasons to praise and worship our God. I don’t know how anybody could read that text and not simply marvel at the wisdom of our God. Second, Edwards serves as a role model for our own study of the Scriptures. In every work of God, we ought to be diligent to stop, meditate, and seek out the multi-faceted wisdom of God, and the multi-dimensional glory that pours forth from all of his mighty works.

Soli Deo Gloria

In What Ways Is God our God in the Covenant of Grace?

Opening his lengthy treatment of the covenant of grace in the Institutes, Francis Turretin notes that getting this right is of central importance to theology because it is “the center and bond of all religion, consisting in the communion of God with man and embracing in its compass all the benefits of God towards man and his duties towards God” (Top. 12, Qu. 1, par. I). That certainly doesn’t leave much out does it? But that’s not surprising, is it? Turretin is right. Looking at the biblical storyline, it’s a matter of covenants made, broken, renewed, enforced, and ultimately fulfilled in Christ.

Of course, the central covenant promise in the Scriptures is that “you will be my people, and I will be your God” (Jer, 30:22′ cf. Exod. 6:7; Lev. 26:12). God’s gift to us, in the covenant, is quite simply himself. We will be his and he will be ours. But that raises the question, “How is God our God in the covenant of grace?” not in the sense of, “How is this accomplished?”, but “What is the result?” What goes into God becoming our God? What are the “benefits” of God being our God, so to speak?

In the next section (Top. 12, Qu. 2), among other things, Turretin goes ahead and tries to outline four ways in which God becomes our God in the promise of the covenant. God becomes ours: (1) according to his nature & attributes and persons; (2) according to the communication of goods; (3) according to our conformity to God; and (4) according eternity of good things. The section is rather stunning (and lengthy). While I can barely scratch the surface, in what follows, I’ll try sketch what a blessings Turretin outlines in our possession of God according to these four categories. And when I do, we’ll hopefully begin to see how he can say that the covenant encompasses “all the benefits of God towards man.”

1. According to Nature and Persons. For all Turretin’s strengths as a theologian, he rarely waxes poetic, but this next section is beautiful, so I’ll end up quoting him at length a couple of times. Turretin notes that in reconciliation, we are brought into communion with God. We move from a relationship of opposition to love, we relate to God no longer as an angry judge to us but a Father. In the covenant, we are betrothed to him as a husband and brought under his protection as a King protects his people. Because of this, we receive him as our God according to his attributes. But what does that mean?

God so gives himself to us as to be ours as to all the attributes (conducing to our advantage and salvation). They are well said to be ours by fruition and use because their salutary effects flow unto us. Ours is the wisdom of God for direction; the power of God for protection; the mercy of God for the remission of sins; the grace of God for sanctification and consolation; the justice of God for the punishment of enemies; the faithfulness of God for the execution of promises; the sufficiency of God for the communication of all manner of happiness. And as sin brought innumerable evils upon us, we find a remedy for all in the divine properties: wisdom heals our ignorance and blindness, grace our guilt, power our weakness, mercy our misery, goodness our wickedness, justice our iniquity, the sufficiency and fulness of God our poverty and indigence, fidelity our inconstancy and fickleness, holiness our impurity and life our death.

Okay, so that’s the attributes. But what does it mean for God to be given to us “personally”, or according to the persons of the Trinity? Again, Turretin, at length:

God is ours personally, inasmuch as the individual persons are ours and give themselves to us for accomplishing the work of redemption: the Father electing, the Son redeeming, the Holy Spirit sanctifying. He becomes our Father by adoption when he receives us into his own family and regards, cherishes and loves us as sons (1 Jn. 3:1). The Son becomes ours by suretyship when he offers himself as the surety to make satisfaction for us and as the head, to rule over and quicken us. He becomes ours as a Prophet, revealing salvation by the light of his doctrine; our Priest, who purchases it by his merit; and our King, who applies it (when acquired) by the efficacy of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit becomes ours when he is sent to us and gives himself to us as sanctifier and consoler that he may dwell in us as his temples and enrich us with his blessings, light, strength, joy, liberty, holiness and happiness. Thus our communion is with the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit (1 Jn. 1:3; 2 Cor. 13:14). Hence, baptism, which is a seal of the covenant, is administered in their name so that we may be consecrated as sons of God, the Father, as members of the Son and as temples of the Holy Spirit and enjoy the blessings flowing from each person–the mercy of the Father, the grace of the Son and the power of the Holy Spirit.*

Already, it becomes apparent what Turretin means when he says that all of the benefits and blessings of God towards humanity are seen in the benefits of the covenant in communion with God. But wait, there’s more!

2. In the Communication of Goods. I won’t do the lengthy quote thing here. Still, Turretin moves on to point out that “He cannot be our God without all things belonging to him becoming ours.” As Paul tells us, all things are ours because we are Christ’s and Christ is God’s and so we have all things in him (1 Cor. 3:21-23). Piling up verse after verse, Turretin shows us how God’s creatures serve us, God’s angels protect us, God’s earth is our inheritance, and God’s promises (for this life and the next) are ours. Every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies is ours because God is our God through the covenant in Christ (Eph. 1:3).

3. In Conformity to God. It would be absurd, though, to believe that God could become ours without our own transformation. Turretin teaches us that God “is not satisfied with pouring upon us the salutary effects of his properties, but wishes further to impress upon us their mark and likeness (as far as a finite creature can bear it) that we may be ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Pet. 1:4) and be like to it (which is the most perfect form of communion).” Here is the beginning of what we might loosely call Turretin’s doctrine of “theosis“, only with a very careful attention to the Creator/creature distinction. Turretin says here that just as the sun shining into a diamond irradiates it with its glory, so does God’s shining splendor fill his children and “makes us shine like many suns” (Matt. 13:43). True communion through the covenant requires conformity to his holy character, as well as happiness, immortality, and glory in body as well as as the soul, which means that our conformity will include our resurrection so that “we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn. 3:2).

4. For An Eternity of Good Things. Finally, Turretin tells us that none of these things could make us perfectly happy “unless perpetuity was added to them.” In other words, could you imagine being perfectly satisfied in having all of these things while knowing they that were only for a little while? Because God is unfailingly good, his promise to be our God extends into eternity. “So that as long as God will be God (and he will be so forever), he will also be our god that we may forever enjoy his communion and happiness”, as the Psalmist declares “This God is our God for ever and ever” (Ps. 48:14). And we can be confident of this, not only because of the nature of the promise, but with all the other blessings of the covenant like justification, deliverance from death, adoption, the gift of the Spirit, a new heart, and the resurrection of the body, who can imagine this continuing for only a short time?

I think there’s more than enough to meditate on here for while–actually, for an eternity–so I’ll wrap it up. The underlying point I hope you’ll come away with is this: blessing of the covenant is God. We don’t go to God for anything else because anything else we might want is already given to us with the gift of the Triune God who is the overflowing source of all good things. You will never receive a greater promise than this: “I will be your God.”

Soli Deo Gloria 

*I also found a post where Scott Swain comments on the two lengthy Turretin quotes after I decided to write this post. Not only did he save me the time of typing them out, the comments are worth your time.

Trinity and Organism in Bavinck (Or, Why Bother With Historical Theology?)

trinity and organismI’ve recently begun reading a fascinating work on the theology of Herman Bavinck by James Eglinton entitled Trinity and Organism: Towards a New Reading of Herman Bavinck Organic MotifIn his theology, Bavinck frequently appeals to the motif or theme of “organism” in relation to a number of theological issues like creation, Scripture, the church, and so forth. Regularly you’ll see Bavinck put forward some modern, mechanical conception of an issue and then suggest that, instead, one ought to think of these things in a far more “organic” manner, or something like that. Up until recently, many Bavinck scholars have chalked it up to the prevalence of the idea of “organism” in the 19th-century post-Hegelian, German Idealist climate that Bavinck was working in.

This idea goes hand in hand with a very popular understanding of Bavinck forwarded by Jan Veenhof that suggested that instead of one, there were “two Bavincks” that you could trace in his works. One was the orthodox Reformed theologian with roots in the conservative secessionist churches of his youth, and the second is the modern, scientific thinker trained in the modernist academy. Apparently, if you’re really smart, you can split Bavinck’s work up into bits according to that thesis because they’re clearly incompatible, and, Bavinck just never managed to reconcile them. The fun starts when theologians then take the thesis and use it to play Bavinck against himself and pick and choose the bits you like depending on which half you find more appealing. Now, obviously, on this reading, the “organic” motif is part of the modernist Bavinck’s bag of tricks, that sits uneasily with his Reformed orthodoxy.

Eglinton sets himself to correct the historical record by drawing on recent work done by Brian Mattson, John Bolt, and others that scuttles the “two Bavincks” thesis. Instead of assuming Bavinck’s theology was a bundle of contrarieties that the great man sadly never managed to properly compose, Eglinton sets Bavinck back in his historical and intellectual context, compares and contrasts him with other movements and influences in Dutch theology at the time, rereads Bavinck carefully, and manages to present us with one Bavinck whose “organicism” has less to do with his dependence on the post-Hegelian theology, and far more to do with his thoroughgoing, Reformed, trinitarian theology. Bavinck’s “organicism” is drawn more from Calvin and Reformed Orthodoxy than German idealism.

According to Eglinton, Bavinck’s “organism” metaphor is a way of speaking of the unity-in-diversity in creation that flows from the reality that the Creator is not a mere monad, but Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In other words, the diversity and unity within the divine being finds a correspondence in the unity-in-diversity of creation designed to body forth the glory of the Triune God. Organism is Bavinck’s way of picking up and retooling the patristic idea of vestigia trinitatis, or “traces of the Trinity” found in creation. The Fathers and the medievals loved finding triads in creation that pointed towards the Trinity that created it. Bavinck takes up the same idea, but instead of focusing on numerical triads, he sees traces of the Trinity in the more generalized unified pluriformity and diversity of creation.

Of course, this is just scratching the surface. Eglinton makes his case by testing his thesis across the wide range of Bavinck’s theology, examining the organic motif in Bavinck’s doctrine of God, revelation, Scripture, ecclesiology, and so forth. In each section, he continues to do careful historical work, setting Bavinck in his own context, as well as paying close attention to Bavinck’s own usage of key terms and concepts, and not simply assuming he’s cribbing his work from his Idealist neighbors. At the end of the work, if you hadn’t before, you begin to get a beautiful vision of the trinitarian shape and aim of all of Bavinck’s talk of organism.

Why Historical Theology?

Now aside from my inherent interest in everything Bavinck, why pay attention to this kind of specialized historical work? In fact, some of us might wonder, why get so heavily invested in historical theology in general? Why worry about the nuances in the theology such and such 3rd Century bishop, or which motif does what in the thought of a 19th Century Dutch dogmatician? How does that matter to theology today, or the church today? Why not just focus on the material issues of theology according to Scripture instead of worrying about the problems of historical theology?

Because there’s a danger there, right? I mean, as I’ve started to study theology more and more, you begin to see weird, internecine academic fights about the ins and outs of Barth’s doctrine of whatever, and when you stop and consider for a moment, you begin to question, “Why does this matter?” As Phillip Cary put it in one recent article, “In most places outside Princeton, judging who gets Barth right is vastly less interesting than judging what Barth gets right—a work of discernment which belongs to the ongoing life of the tradition of Christian orthodoxy.” When you put it like that, I can’t help but agree.

Why, then, should historical theology matter to (at least some of) us? I can think of at least four reasons that I’ll attempt run through briefly.

1. Truth Matters.  The first is the basic reality that truth in all its forms matters because all truth is God’s. Indeed, we serve a God who is himself the Truth. The truth of nature tells us God’s creative work. The truth of history tells us the story of God’s providential work. This reality, not to mention various others, is sufficient enough reason for us to be concerned about the truth of any issue. I mean, this is the basic assumption that funds our conviction that the sciences and the humanities matter as subjects of study beyond their immediate, practical use.

2. Bearing false testimony. Historical theology matters as an issue of Christian truth-telling about the community of saints. The fact of the matter is that theology is taught within the Christian community, and certainly in the seminaries, as the story of teachers, preachers, saints, and professors, struggling to expound the truth of God to the men and women of their time. When we get that story wrong, when we get the theology of our forebears wrong, when we present them as less competent, fair, biblical, or orthodox (or more) than they actually were, we do them a disservice by bearing false witness against them. This is especially the case when we engage in the unfair caricature of whipping-boy theologians (Augustine and Anselm come to mind) as foils against which we can then forward our own pet theories. Christian love requires truth in speaking of our theological ancestors and often-times it means rehabilitating them.

3. Avoiding Error. It’s not just that theology happens to be taught as a story in seminaries, it’s that theology is an inherently historical enterprise. Christian theology exists only as the particular methods of reading Scripture, Creeds and Confessions drawn up around it, are passed on from generation to generation within the Church. Without historical theology, we keep ourselves from the wisdom accumulated over 2,000 years of trying, failing, and succeeding in preserving the truth of the Gospel from error and perversion. Those who ignore historical theology will almost inevitably be doomed to repeat errors the church has already discarded for some good, biblical reason or another.

4. Mining Riches. Beyond avoiding error, studies in historical theology prove that our Fathers and Mothers in the faith may still have something to new to say to us. Corrective studies like Eglinton’s have the possibility of opening up theological vistas or impasses in current theological and churchly debate because it comes from another time that’s not caught up in the assumptions we share. This is true whether it’s simply reminding ourselves of older sources we merely forgot or by gaining an understanding of their answers that weren’t properly heard the first time around. In this way, historical theology can become a timely word from another time. (Insert bit about ‘chronological snobbery’ here).

After all this, it’s wise to hear Cary’s warning stands as a valid one. Our priority as preachers, teachers, and lay (or professional) theologians is the truth about what Bavinck got right more than the truth about who got Bavinck right. Still, it would be foolish to think that our pursuit of the former won’t include an understanding of the latter.

Soli Deo Gloria

5 Questions To Ask Of Any Atonement Theory

atonementI’m something of a student of atonement theology. The funny thing about atonement theology is that, no matter how many books you read on the subject, there’s always one more angle (or multiple) to consider when trying to understand and explicate the saving significance of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Which is why I was delighted to get my hands on an advanced copy of Biola Professor and atonement expert Adam Johnson’s elegant little work Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed last week. There are a number of features that separate this work from a number of the recent entries into the field, but the biggest that comes to mind is that it’s not just a book on atonement theology, but a book about how to do atonement theology. It’s a “guide for the perplexed” not only as to the content of the atonement, but how to approach the problem of atonement theology in general.

All too often theology finds itself falling into familiar grooves because classic dichotomies are set up somewhere along the line, battle lines are drawn, and doing theology becomes a matter of picking between better and worse options without questioning whether they should accept the given categories in the first place. Johnson aims to shift up the conversation in atonement theology by pushing past the familiar terms of the debate between penal substitution, moral exemplar, and Christus Victor “theories” of atonement by encouraging us to turn and mine the many-splendored riches of Scripture and history for describing the unfathomable fullness of Christ’s work on our behalf.  Why settle for one when you can have all and more? Notions of victory, sacrifice, recapitulation, penalty, theosis, governmental, and so on down the line have a role to play here.

Johnson plays the role of guide in a number of ways. He clears the ground by critiquing some of the earlier conversations on the topic, less by way of negative polemic, and more by way of a dazzling invitation into a theological world unencumbered by the narrower discussions of the last century and half. He also tries to help us think through the trinitarian grounding of all atonement accounts, as well draw our attention to the importance to of attending the role the various attributes of God play a role in all of our theologizing about atonement. In these, and various other ways, Johnson aims to help us understand just how important it is for us to avoid doing our atonement theology without paying attention to the various other doctrines (God, Christology, anthropology, etc.) it depends, or impinges on.

Beyond that, Johnson actually does a ton of helpful constructive work to display to us the various facets or aspects of Christ’s reconciling life, death, and resurrection, drawing on Scripture as well as such diverse figure as Irenaeus, Von Balthasar, Calvin, Edwards, Aquinas, and, of course, Barth. While there’s plenty in Johnson’s that even the enthusiastic reader will be left chewing on (the nature of God’s suffering, the nature of atonement for the angels, the non-priority of penal substitution), the good thing is that it’s not intended to be the final word on the subject. It’s constructive as well as being suggestive for further work down the line.

Five Key Questions

While there are a number of fascinating and helpful sections in the work, one section that is particularly helpful is Johnson’s outline of five questions we should ask of any theory, dimension, or model of the atonement (pp. 47-50).

1. What is the key cast assembled in this work on the atonement? Every atonement account has a cast of players. God, humanity, demons, or angels, and so forth. Asking the question about the cast helps us understand, not only who is involved, but also what role the characters play and what emphasis a theory places on the players. Is it mostly about God? Or the human problem? Or are the demons center stage? Does it exclude those it should include, or focus too tightly on one to the exclusion of others.

2. What divine attribute, or set thereof, does this particular theory of the atonement emphasize? One of Johnson’s main theses is that every account depends on a focus on one or a couple of key attributes of God. Penal accounts might emphasize the need to satisfy justice as well as the apparent tension it causes with his love. Others such as victory accounts might focus on God’s faithfulness to his creation or his sovereignty. We need to be able to identify these, and even more, we need to ask careful questions about the way they are emphasized. Are attributes pitted against each other? Are some sidelined in favor of others? Are the ones highlighted treated according to the full witness of Scripture or is a muted picture presented?

3. What aspect of our sin does this particular theory focus on? Atonement deals with sin and different atonement accounts deal with different dimensions of sin. We need to ask which dimension this particular theory tackles. Is it focused on sin’s essence, or its effects? Is it personal, social, political, or cosmic? Is sin treated as sickness, rebellion, or bondage? Is the main problem guilt, or shame or even death? More importantly, are these set up in a way that only one is treated as the “real” problem? This is where I’ve seen problems show up in the various, reductive accounts on offer. Yes, shame needs answer, but so does bondage. Yes, we need new life, but does God grant that to those still bearing their guilt?

4. How does this particular theory develop Christ saving us from our sin? Obviously, this one follows off of the last. If atonement deals with different dimensions of sin, then there are correspondingly different methods. Does Christ pay a penalty and do away with our guilt? Unmask the powers of evil? Conquer the power of death? Heal the corrupting effects of sin in our souls and our bodies? Liberate the oppressed from unjust political systems? Hopefully, you answered yes to all of them. Still, each theory tends to focus on one or a couple of these. Asking these questions helps us identify areas of critique or needed expansion and addition to fill out our view of Christ’s full work. If your theory doesn’t admit of that, if it rules out further dimensions, then that might be a problem.

5. How does this theory develop Christ saving us for life with God and others? Finally, we need to remember that atonement is aimed, not only at saving us from sin, but for life with God. Every theory or aspect under consideration should point forward towards the resurrected life, just as atonement does not stop with the cross but continues on through the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. How is that result described? Is it union with God? Is it a new life of righteousness? Is it warm, reconciled family relations? Is it physical wholeness in the New Creation? Does it have implications for our life now, between the comings of Christ? Each aspect or theory of atonement ought to have something to say here. Now, note, not each dimension has to say everything–I’ve seen criticism of penal substitution that fault it for dealing with problems that other complementary dimensions deal with well (social, political, etc) and simply written off because people are under the impression you can’t have more than one aspect doing work at a time. That’s akin to faulting a hammer for not being wrench because you’re too silly to realize you can use both.

In any case, these five questions (and I’ve only scratched the surface of Johnson’s development of them) are a good place to start considering the various proposals, historic and contemporary, for understanding the grand, comprehensive work of Christ’s atonement. I know the book doesn’t release for a couple of months, but for serious students looking to dig deep into the manifold wisdom of God’s saving work in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, I highly commend preordering or wish-listing this book.

 Soli Deo Gloria

Do We Need Jesus To Be A Lawyer Or A Doctor? Why Not Both?

Judge’s Gavel and stethoscopeJesus, in case you didn’t know, was a doctor. One of the primary things he spent his time doing during his earthly ministry was healing the sick and the lame. Restoring sight to the blind. Making the crippled walk. Indeed, even bringing the dead back to life. But it wasn’t only physical healing that he offered, but spiritual as well. Indeed, it was his mission to make the spiritually diseased whole that brought reproach upon him:

And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:29-31)

Although it seems to be often missed in popular Evangelical preaching, the Bible says Jesus’ saves by healing us. Indeed, the word salvation takes its roots in the concept of wholeness and health. Though some may think otherwise, the older Reformed did not forget this theme. Calvin commonly used the image of Christ as a physician, a doctor who heals us. When speaking of the life of the disciple carrying the cross, he spoke of it God’s medicine, used to heal the soul of its sin (Institutes, 3.8.5). Or again, in speaking of the Lord’s Supper, he referred to it as “medicine for the sick” (ibid, 4.17.42), that nourishes and renews us, because through it we partake of Christ’s benefits, his nature that he assumed, healed, and through which, he gives us life. This is unsurprising as he was a student of the Fathers and the theme of salvation is ubiquitous with them. Simply consult Athanasius, almost at random, and you’ll run across the idea.

This is an immensely important theme that should not be ignored in Christian preaching and teaching. It is a great comfort to know that we will not always be sick with sin, but are being healed by Christ, and will one day stand whole and complete before our Maker.

But once again, we need to be careful not to over-react. The other day I saw a friend share a quote to the effect that what we need is Jesus who is a doctor who can heal us, not a lawyer to defend us, as if admitting the one rules out the other. Or again, some people, allegedly looking to the Church Fathers or the East, think that looking to Jesus for “ontological” healing of our nature, rules out any kind of “forensic” or legal approaches to salvation that characterize “Western” theology. But is that true? Is that what Scripture says? Is that what Jesus says?

Well, as it turns out, no it’s not. In John 14:16, Jesus tells his disciples he “will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever”, and again in 14:26 he speaks of when “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” While the term is often translated “helper”, “comforter”, or “counselor”, A.T. Lincoln has shown that it belongs most properly in the legal setting of John’s Gospel. Jesus speaks of the Spirit as a legal advocate, a lawyer, and calls him “another” one, the implication being that he himself is our first advocate. This is confirmed by Jesus’ teaching about the work of the Spirit who is the other Advocate:

And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. (John 16:8-11)

Sounds like a lawyer to me.

If that wasn’t enough, 1 John 2:1 clearly declares, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” In this case, we clearly see Jesus identified as our advocate before the Father, who as the Righteous One, can plead our case on the basis of his own work, because he is the “propitiation for our sins” (2:2). Through the Cross, Jesus has done away with our guilt, which is precisely why if we “confess our sins” before God “he is faithful and just” to forgive them (1:9). Because we are united with Christ, the Righteous One who stands before the Father as our Advocate, we have a new status as righteous in him. Jesus is our great Lawyer.

Just as we need to cling to all of the names God gives us in order to understand the fullness of his character, let us not fall into the silly trap of denying or denigrating any of  the titles by which the Scripture describes Christ’s multifaceted work on our behalf. In Jesus, we have a mighty doctor who heals us. We also have a powerful advocate, who defends and vindicates us. We need him to be both of these things and more.

Soli Deo Gloria

15 Doctrines That Ought to Bring Comfort In Suffering

Pedro_Fernández_-_Christ_Suffering_-_WGA07807One of my fundamental convictions is that theology, while possessing theoretical aspects, is eminently practical. It’s the “doctrine of living unto God” as some of the older theologians used to put it. One of the greatest tests of that “practicality” is understanding the various ways that the doctrines of the Christian faith can serve as a comfort to us in the manifold sufferings and tragedies we encounter in this life this side of Eden and before the Second Coming.

In what follows, I’d like to simply (and briefly) point out some of the many ways the main doctrines of the Christian faith provide a comfort to the believer in times of struggle, suffering, and pain.

  1. Trinity.  Before moving to realities more directly oriented towards God’s actions on our behalf, it’s important to stop and remember the comfort of the fact that before all things, God has eternally been perfectly existent as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This God is holy, perfect, beautiful, righteous, loving, faithful, eternal, unchanging, impassible, all-powerful, all-present, blessed, and supremely good. In the midst of our suffering, it’s often crucial that we remember that there is a reality deeper and truer that grounds, funds, and surpasses the finite and fallen world we encounter. In that sense, God being God without me holds its own comfort for me.
  2. Creation. God created the world and blessed it by declaring it to be “very good.” In a very important sense, the world is something to be taken, received with gratitude, and enjoyed. Each and every breath in our lungs is a gift of the Creator who has provided us with every good thing, every tree in the Garden, so to speak, for our benefit. We are not souls trapped in prisons, alienated from and anxiously awaiting our natural home in the stars, but humans placed in the midst of beautiful habitat with deep purpose by a good God. Every blade of grass, tulip in the field, bright ray of sunshine, speaks of his power and goodness.
  3. Sin. Connected to this is the doctrine of sin. It’s a bit counterintuitive to think of the doctrine of sin as a comfort, but there is deep reassurance in knowing that the unease, the pain, the opposition we encounter in the world is not natural to it. The world is not meant to be this way and it is sin, not divine malevolence or weakness, that has resulted in the brokenness we experience in our bones and our souls. God hates the fractures in his handiwork and stands opposed to them as we do–indeed, even more than we do.
  4. Providence. God is not a hands-off deity who fell asleep at the wheel. Contrary to what we’re tempted to believe in our darkest moments, the world is not governed by a cold and cruel fate.  The doctrine of providence teaches us that the Triune God sovereignly causes, permits, and guides all things for the ultimate good of his creation and his children. Even the dark schemes of the Evil One will be turned on their head and used for the glorious blessing of creation.
  5. Christ. There are multiple comforts to be derived from meditating on the doctrine of Christ. John Owen gave us a few here. Still, at base, in whatever situation we find ourselves in, looking at Jesus we are given deep consolation in remembering that out of his unfathomable love, God has assumed my nature, experienced what I’ve experienced, suffered all that I have suffered, in order to redeem me, bring into proper relationship, and make me like himself.
  6. Cross. Meditating on the Cross yields comforts to carry us through a lifetime. Here are a few: First, God has damned all that opposes him. Evil cannot stand against him. Looking at the Cross reminds me of God’s utter righteous, holiness. Second, that damnation included my sin which has been punished, buried it, sent to hell. Beyond that, Christ has secured the ultimate victory against the Destructor who is ultimately behind all evil. Satan may still prowl about, but he is mortally-wounded and on the run. Because of this, I can look to the Cross and see my Crucified Savior, take up my own cross and follow him in this life.
  7. Resurrection. Christ’s resurrection teaches me many things. First, the truth is eventually vindicated. One of the great torments of life in this world is the falsification of reality, the lies we tell about each others, and God’s truth. The Resurrection is the great demonstration and unveiling of the Truth of the Son, teaching me that everything, every injustice will one day come to light. Second, death is not the end of the story because the Creator who declared the world to be very good decided to be its Redeemer who will not leave it to decay forever. Whatever threat comes against me, the worst it can do is kill me, and God can take care of that. Finally, nothing can separate me from the love of Christ. He’s already been killed once. What else could come against him?
  8. Ascension. The doctrine of the Ascension means that even now Christ on the throne of heaven, interceding for us. We have the king of the World as our advocate and High Priest. The ruler of the Universe knows what it is like to have walked through the dark vale of the world. He rules with compassion and mediates with sympathy, understanding our weakness.
  9. Holy Spirit. In the person of the Holy Spirit, God himself has come to indwell the believer. This is great comfort to us because we can know that wherever we are we are not alone in the world; not in the darkest dungeon of some authoritarian tyrant, nor the darkest recesses of our own despair. God is with us in all that we suffer and will give us whatever strength we need to face the trouble we encounter in the world.
  10. Union. By faith him, through the mysterious activity of the Holy Spirit, we are united to Christ. This means all of his benefits, all of his accomplishments are mine and secure. Every heavenly gift, all of his rights and privileges, are mine because I am his.
  11. Justification by Faith. Because of this union, I am justified entirely by faith. Christ’s death for sin on the Cross was my death, and his vindication through the resurrection as “righteous” is now mine. Because of that, I can know that none of the pain, or suffering I encounter in this life is God’s judgment or wrath against me, because that has been fully satisfied on the Cross and I’m righteous in Christ. I don’t have to fall into a pit of guilt or self-condemnation when pain or misfortune befalls me.
  12. Adoption. Also, we have been adopted in Christ. This means that God is our Father despite our sins, failures, and outward appearances. We have been fully and irrevocably been brought into the kind of relationship with God which allows me the privilege of bursting into the courtroom of the King, calling him “Abba” and making known my deepest needs, hurts, and pains with utter security and freedom.
  13. Sanctification.  Sanctification is comforting in a number of ways. I was listening to John Piper the other day talking about the joy of heaven and the end of earthly frustrations. He pointed out that the thing he’s most sick of in this life is his own sin. Sanctification is comforting in reminding us that we are not forever trapped in the sin that easily the greatest source of the daily suffering most of us face. Beyond that, the doctrine of sanctification teaches me that I have been set apart in such a way that I know that in all that befalls me, God is at work to make me holy, pure, and more like his Son.
  14. Church. The doctrine of the Church is a comfort, in that I don’t have to suffer alone in this life. The reality is that I am now part of a family, a body upon whom I can depend full of brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, mothers and fathers. Many of these have gone before me down this path and stand ready to counsel, support, uphold, encourage, and rescue in times of need.
  15. Last Things.  Finally, of course, there is an ultimate day when God will make himself all in all. He will do this through the Return of Christ who comes to judge the quick and the dead, punishing oppression, ending it, redeeming the world, rewarding the righteous, and ushering in a day of everlasting glory. Upon that day, we will behold our God and he will wipe away every tear from our eyes. This is the blessed hope and a vision to sustain us in the darkest of hours. The light shines just over the ridge, promising a weight of glory that overwhelms these light and momentary afflictions.

I could continue at length with each of these doctrines. Indeed, in the section on the doctrine of God, each of his attributes provides a particular comfort of its own, for those of us willing to stop and meditate on them. For now, there is enough to see that what we need in times of torment, is not bland platitudes handed to us from spiritual gurus, or pinterest memes, but a soul that has marinated the deep truths of God’s Word. I’ll end by simply quoting one of the most comforting paragraphs in the history of theology, Heidelberg Q & A 1:

Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.

He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.

Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

Soli Deo Gloria