Where is True Peace Found?

I’ve begun my second attempt through John Bunyan’s spiritual classic, Pilgrim’s Progress this week in my attempt to find more theologically-rich devotional literature. (The first was an unfortunately broken off in college due to my immaturity.) I’m pleased to say that I have been thoroughly blessed by it. It’s easy to see why Charles Spurgeon confessed that, “Next to the Bible, the book I value most is John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.” The allegory is riddled with biblical quotations and wisdom designed to illustrate the pilgrimage of the Christina through the current world on to glory.

Bunyan does this by telling a dream-vision he has of the pilgrimage of Christian, an everyman character, who is on a journey from his home-town “the City of Destruction” to the “Celestial City.” His journey is provoked by his reading of a book that causes him great distress and anguish about his spiritual state.  On the way he is met by various characters such as Worldly-Wise Man and Evangelist who give him varied instructions as to ease his turmoil. Eventually after a foolish detour in the direction of the village of Morality on the advice of Worldly-Wise Man that lands him in great peril, he takes Evangelist’s advice and heads down the narrow road that leads to life and his true journey begins.

Burdens Released

Christian is committed and so he makes great headway for a while, but from the very start of his journey he is weighed down by a burden, a pack that hinders his progress. The pack symbolizes the spiritual weight of his sins, the anxiety and fear of judgment, the encumberance of great guilt and shame. He suffers with it despite his best efforts as well as the godly counsel of those good characters such as Evangelist and Interpreter who open the truth to him and he receives no respite until he catches a vision of something glorious:

Now I saw in my dream, that the highway up which Christian was to go, was fenced on either side with a wall, and that wall was called Salvation. Isaiah 26:1. Up this way, therefore, did burdened Christian run, but not without great difficulty, because of the load on his back. He ran thus till he came at a place somewhat ascending; and upon that place stood a cross, and a little below, in the bottom, a sepulchre. So I saw in my dream, that just as Christian came up with the cross, his burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell from off his back, and began to tumble, and so continued to do till it came to the mouth of the sepulchre, where it fell in, and I saw it no more. 

Then was Christian glad and lightsome, and said with a merry heart, “He hath given me rest by his sorrow, and life by his death.” Then he stood still a while, to look and wonder; for it was very surprising to him that the sight of the cross should thus ease him of his burden. He looked, therefore, and looked again, even till the springs that were in his head sent the waters down his cheeks. Zech. 12:10. Now as he stood looking and weeping, behold, three Shining Ones came to him, and saluted him with, “Peace be to thee.” So the first said to him, “Thy sins be forgiven thee,” Mark 2:5; the second stripped him of his rags, and clothed him with change of raiment, Zech. 3:4; the third also set a mark on his forehead, Eph. 1:13, and gave him a roll with a seal upon it, which he bid him look on as he ran, and that he should give it in at the celestial gate: so they went their way. Then Christian gave three leaps for joy, and went on singing,

“Thus far did I come laden with my sin,
Nor could aught ease the grief that I was in,
Till I came hither. What a place is this!
Must here be the beginning of my bliss?
Must here the burden fall from off my back?
Must here the strings that bound it to me crack?
Blest cross! blest sepulchre! blest rather be
The Man that there was put to shame for me!”

So many of us suffer the burdens of guilt and shame. We walk day in and day out bearing a great burden, an inexpressible anxiety and grief that doesn’t seem to dissipate no matter how many self-help books we read, mantras we chant, or health-goals we set and meet.

Christian found the true source of peace: “Blest cross! blest sepulchre! blest rather be/The Man that there was put to shame for me!” In Christ all of our sins, our shames, our hurts are taken, destroyed on the cross with him, buried in the sepulchre with him, and in him we rise again to new life, freedom, joy and hope. In him we find true peace.

Soli Deo Gloria

I’m an Unbeliever

Atheist biologist Richard Dawkins is fond of pointing out that Christians are all atheists of sorts. We are atheists with respect to Zeus, Thor, Marduk, and a whole host of other gods. At that point he likes to quote Stephen Roberts to the effect that he just believes in one less god than we do. One of the main points of this observation is that once you realize how silly believing in Zeus is, you’ll realize the silliness of believing in Jesus. Cute.

The other point I see being made is that the atheism/theism debate is about belief in a certain proposition: does God exist. The theist does and the atheist just doesn’t. There’s just a proposition’s difference between them and the theist is the one who has to justify his acceptance of said proposition. The problem is that this picture is too simple. Rarely do we simply “disbelieve” in something. Atheist’s minds do not have a blank space where the “theism” belief supposedly resides in the mind of the believer. No, it is filled–with something else. It’s not just believing in Christianity or disbelieving it. It’s believing something else instead.

See, in a sense, we all live by creeds.  A creed is a summary statement that encapsulates our deepest-held, foundational beliefs about reality and the world. We all have them, even if we’ve never made them explicit. Put another way, sociologists tell us that we tell ourselves stories, understand ourselves at very deep levels as actors in some drama, starting with the small, personal ones like “I am Derek, son of Arliett and Tino, born such and such, grew up in so and so, now married, living in Orange, and working towards future X”.  This is a short narrative understanding of myself. We usually fit these into broader narrative understandings such as Buddhism, Islam, Marxism, or Christianity that tell us big-picture stories about who we are, how we got here, and where were going. It’s inevitable.

Because of this, we are all living according to alternative creeds. The Christian recites the Apostles’ Creed, but she doesn’t do so in a vacuum. Rather, she does so in contrast with the other creeds on offer. It is those creeds which I find incredible and in particular, the dominant, competing creed that has been offered up as a substitute–that of the Enlightenment.

A Unbelievable Creed

Philosopher Peter Van Inwagen’s delightful essay outlining his journey from atheism to Christianity, Quam Dilecta has a very helpful description of the creed of the Enlightenment.

There is, I believe, an identifiable and cohesive historical phenomenon that named itself the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, and which, although it long ago abandoned the name, still exists. Like the Church, it does not speak with one voice. Like the Church, it has no central government. Like the Church, it is made up of many groups some of which heartily detest many of the others–some of which, indeed, regard themselves as its sole true representatives and all others who claim to be its representatives as wolves in sheep’s clothing. Like the Church, it has a creed, although, unlike the Church’s creeds, its creed has never received an official formulation. But that is a minor point. Its creed can be written down, and here it is:

There is no God. There is, in fact, nothing besides the physical cosmos that science investigates. Human beings, since they are a part of this cosmos, are physical things and therefore do not survive death. Human beings are, in fact, animals among other animals, and differ from other animals only in being more complex. Like other animals, they are a product of uncaring and unconscious physical processes that did not have them, or anything else, in mind. There is, therefore, nothing external to humanity that is capable of conferring meaning or purpose on human existence. In the end, the only evil is pain and the only good is pleasure. The only purpose of morality and politics is the minimization of pain and the maximization of pleasure. Human beings, however, have an unfortunate tendency to wish to deny these facts and to believe comforting myths according to which they have an eternal purpose. This irrational component in the psyches of most human beings–it is the great good fortune of the species that there are a few strong-minded progressives who can see through the comforting myths–encourages the confidence-game called religion. Religions invent complicated and arbitrary moral codes and fantastic future rewards and punishments in order to consolidate their own power. Fortunately, they are gradually but steadily being exposed as frauds by the progress of science (which was invented by strong-minded progressives), and they will gradually disappear through the agency of scientific education and enlightened journalism.”

Van Inwagen goes on to concede that there are various Enlightenment denominations (Marxist, Positivist, New Atheist) who would object that he’s left something crucial out. At its core though, this complex is central to all of them.

It is this creed that I find myself unable to subscribe to for a number of reasons too large to expound here. I will simply point out that any sort of optimism about the human condition in light of the history of the 20th Century has always struck me as farcical. The idea that science and reason (whatever that last term actually means) can actually deliver anything close to a utopia, or even a decent place to live is a fairy tale. Studying almost entirely secular moral philosophy in college had the interesting effect of convincing me that prospects of finding any sort of viable, normative moral system connected with naturalism, (ie. absent the divine, or a transcendent order), is similarly risible. Once again, I commend Van Inwagen’s essay, the second half of which is devoted to showing why he finds this creed untenable.

Where am I going with this? 

I’d be lying if I were to tell you that I never find Christianity difficult and hard to accept. It has moral codes that are uncomfortable, both because they are personally hard to follow, as well as because they are socially unacceptable. Reading the Bible is weird sometimes. I mean, really? Bears? (2 Kings 2:23-25) I look out at the world filled with evil and horror, and even though I’ve read a lot of good answers on the subject, it’s still hard to stomach that God is good while he allows these things. I could go on for a while listing the difficulties. I’m sure you have a number of your own.

Still, when I look to the alternatives I find that while Christianity is tough sometimes, the competing options on offer are just impossible to swallow. At those times, I feel like Winston Churchill when speaking of democracy in the House of Commons:

“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Please don’t misunderstand me–I think there are good, positive reasons to believe in Jesus. I have to admit though, one of the main ones is the fact I find the other options simply unbelievable.

Update and clarification: There apparently has been some confusion as to the point of his post. Please do not take this as a denigration of either reason or science. As a Christian I believe as humans made in the Image of the Creator God have been endowed with reason and given an impulse towards the exploration and study of nature. Rather, it is a rejection of a rationalism and scientism. Those are two different things. I have a healthy respect for and appreciation of the deliverances of reason and the advances of science while recognizing their limits and the dangers of misunderstanding their role and function in human life.

N.T. Wright on Penal Substitution

I’ll come clean and say that I’m a huge N.T. Wright fan. I have been for years.

Wright and I are BFFs.

For those of you wondering, Wright is a British New Testament scholar who ranks among the top 2 or 3 most prolific, somewhat controversial, and influential churchmen on either side of the pond in a wide variety of theological circles.  I attribute my love for Biblical studies, and the New Testament in particular, to my early encounters with his lectures, essays, and books. I generally pre-order his books, both popular and scholarly, and have read all of his big pieces with the exception of a couple of difficult-to-acquire texts.  (I knew my wife McKenna was a keeper when she bought me his tome The Resurrection of the Son of God for my first birthday when we were dating. Later she took me to go see him speak on our anniversary.) Which is to say, I think I’ve got a decent idea of what Wright teaches on various subjects in New Testament studies and theology. Which brings me to the subject at hand.

As I mentioned, Wright is a bit controversial in some circles due to some of his, admittedly unclear/difficult to understand, teaching on Paul’s doctrine of justification.  Wright’s an adherent of the New Perspective on Paul and a unique one at that. What’s more, his sentences can get really long. (For those of you interested, here’s his most recent, clearest piece on the subject delivered at the Evangelical Theological Society a couple years ago. Note: I am not endorsing it. Just sharing for clarity’s sake.) One of the things that’s consistently surprised me, however, is the way that both friends and foes have misunderstood his teaching on the atonement, particularly penal substitutionary atonement (the idea that Christ’s death is in some way a representative one in which he suffers the judgment/wrath of God on behalf of deserving sinners thereby releasing them from guilt and obtaining forgiveness for them). Interestingly enough, you can find both conservative Reformed types being joined by emergenty Anabaptist types saying he denies it, the former accusatorially, the latter joyfully.

I just want to take a moment to clarify, with Wright’s own words, that Wright does affirm penal substitutionary atonement. He has been clear on this over the years, but somehow that’s been lost on many due in some cases to their willingness to read all sorts of faults into him because of his position on justification, or because to some people, affirming Christus Victor components to Christ’s atonement, the idea that in his life, death, and resurrection Jesus defeated the principalities and powers of satan, sin, and death,  means a necessary denial of PSA. It doesn’t. The Reformers all affirmed both themes because both are in Scripture. Wright isn’t any different. So, without further ado here is Wright himself.

Wright Speaks

First, a short little video where Wright says it clear-out, 1:19 onward:

Next, here’s a big long quote from an easily-accessed online article in which he is critiquing a lecture by Dr. Jeffrey Johns as well as a recent book on the subject. He is dealing with what he calls “caricatures of the cross”, correcting so many bad arguments against penal substitutionary atonement by pointing out that they are based on misunderstandings of the doctrine as well as misreadings of certain biblical texts which point to it. Don’t be scared by the length. It is absolutely worth your time, specialist or not:

Quoting 2 Corinthians 5.21 and Galatians 3.13 (‘God made him to be sin for us who knew no sin,’ and ‘Christ became a curse for us’), he [Dr. Johns] tells us the explanation of these verses he was given as a child and declares that, because that explanation is repulsive and nonsensical, we must reject it. His summary starts quite mildly: God was very angry with us, and had to punish us, but instead he sent his Son as a substitute to die for us, so that God stopped being angry with us . . . But then, inserting into this account the things Dr John realised he disliked at the age of ten, and which he wants to attack to bring down the whole edifice, he goes on: ‘What sort of God was this, getting so angry with the world and the people he created, and then, to calm himself down, demanding the blood of this own Son? And anyway, why should God forgive us through punishing somebody else? It was worse than illogical, it was insane. It made God sound like a psychopath. If any human being behaved like this we’d say they were a monster . . . It just doesn’t make sense to talk about a nice Jesus down here, placating the wrath of a nasty, angry Father God in heaven. . . sending a substitute to vent his punishment on.’

Well, yes. We must of course grant that many Christians have spoken, in effect, of the angry God upstairs and the suffering Jesus placating him. Spoken? They’ve painted it: many a mediaeval altarpiece, many a devotional artwork, have sketched exactly that. And of course for some late mediaeval theologians this was the point of the Mass: God was angry, but by performing this propitiatory sacrifice once more, the priest could make it all right. And it was at least in part in reaction against this understanding of the Eucharist that the Reformers rightly insisted that what happened on the cross happened once for all. They did not invent, they merely adapted and relocated, the idea of the propitiation of God’s wrath through the death of Jesus. We must of course acknowledge that many, alas, have since then offered more caricatures of the biblical doctrine. It is all too possible to take elements from the biblical witness and present them within a controlling narrative gleaned from somewhere else, like a child doing a follow-the-dots puzzle without paying attention to the numbers and producing a dog instead of a rabbit.

This is what happens when people present over-simple stories with an angry God and a loving Jesus, with a God who demands blood and doesn’t much mind whose it is as long as it’s innocent. You’d have thought people would notice that this flies in the face of John’s and Paul’s deep-rooted theology of the love of the triune God: not ‘God was so angry with the world that he gave us his son’ but ‘God so loved the world that he gave us his son’. That’s why, when I sing that interesting recent song ‘In Christ alone my hope is found’, and we come to the line, ‘And on the cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied’, I believe it’s more deeply true to sing ‘the love of God was satisfied’. I commend that alteration to those who sing that song, which is in other respects one of the very few really solid recent additions to our repertoire. So we must readily acknowledge that of course there are caricatures of the biblical doctrine all around, within easy reach – just as there are of other doctrines, of course, such as that of God’s grace.

But how does the caricature relate to what we find in the New Testament? Actually, how does it relate to Dr John’s initial summary? There he states, as we saw, that God sent Jesus to do this: yes, and that’s what the New Testament says too, at all the key points; and if we ask why, the answer is always, in Paul, John and everywhere else, the wonderful greatness of God’s merciful love. You can’t play off the juridical account of atonement, so called, against an account which stresses God’s love. As those Doctrine Reports rightly saw, they belong together. If God is love, he must utterly reject, and ultimately deal with, all that pollutes, distorts and destroys his world and his image-bearing creatures.

So what should we make of Paul at this point? Dr John never says. Is he content simply to say that the key Pauline statements must be left out of consideration as we construct an atonement theology we can believe today? If so, how can he later quote 2 Corinthians 5.19 (‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’), which, a mere two verses before the one he seems to reject, might be thought to be part of the same argument? What does he make of the explicit statement – this, I think, is as clear as it gets in Paul – in Romans 8.3, where Paul says explicitly that God condemned sin in the flesh of Jesus Christ? Paul does not say that God condemned Jesus; rather, that he condemned sin; but the place where sin was condemned was precisely in the flesh of Jesus, and of Jesus precisely as the Son sent from the Father. And this, we remind ourselves, is the heart of the reason why there is now ‘no condemnation’ for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8.1).

Or what account does Dr John give of Romans 3.24-26? Here, whatever we may think about the notorious hilasterion (‘propitiation’? ‘expiation’? ‘mercy-seat’?), in the preceding section of the letter (1.18-3.20) God’s wrath is revealed against all ungodliness and wickedness, and by the end of the passage, in accordance with the ‘justice’ of God, those who were formerly sinners and under God’s wrath are now justified freely by grace through faith. To put it somewhat crudely, the logic of the whole passage makes it look as though something has happened in the death of Jesus through which the wrath of God has been turned away. It is on this passage that Charles E. B. Cranfield, one of the greatest English commentators of the last generation, wrote a memorable sentence which shows already that the caricature Dr John has offered was exactly that:

We take it that what Paul’s statement that God purposed Christ as a propitiatory victim means is that God, because in His mercy He willed to forgive sinful men and, being truly merciful, willed to forgive them righteously, that is, without in any way condoning their sin, purposed to direct against His own very Self in the person of His Son the full weight of that righteous wrath which they deserved. (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans. 2 vols. Edinburgh: T & T Clark; vol. 1, 1975, p. 217.)

Now I do not ask that Dr John, or anyone else, necessarily accept this as the correct interpretation of Romans 3:24-26; nor that, whether or not they accept this exegesis, they believe that this is a true statement of God’s intention in the death of Jesus. All I ask is that Dr John admit that this very careful statement, in which the propitiatory effect of Jesus’ death is seen as the result of God’s overarching and overwhelming mercy and love, and in which the persons of the Trinity are held in extremely close union, is not subject to the critique he has levelled against what increasingly looks like a bizarre (if sadly still well known) caricature.

Not everyone likes Paul, of course – especially some Anglicans. But what about Jesus? Unless we are to go the route of the ‘Jesus Seminar’, and say that Jesus’ death was simply an accident which he never intended and for which, therefore, he offered no theological grid of interpretation, we must give some account of the self-understanding of Jesus in relation to the death which, as at least one substantial stream of scholarship has agreed, he must have known was just round the corner. There were ancient Jewish grids of interpretation available to him, and all the signs are that he made his own creative construal of them, understanding his vocation as the point of convergence of several rich strands of scriptural narrative, heavily freighted with the sense of Israel’s long destiny coming to a dark and decisive climax. In particular, the early Christians were clear that Jesus’ death was to be understood in terms of Isaiah 53, and they were equally clear that this was not a new idea they were wishing back on Jesus. ‘The Son of Man,’ he said, ‘came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Mark 10:45). These words – which many have of course been unwilling to credit to Jesus precisely because of the frantic attempt to prevent him alluding to Isaiah 53 – capture the very heart of that great chapter, and as I and others have argued elsewhere it is extremely likely, historically, that he made that entire section of the book of Isaiah thematic for his self-understanding.

Ironically, Dr John himself alludes to Isaiah 53 at the end of his talk, suggesting that Jesus ‘bears our griefs and shares our sorrows’, without realising that if you get one part of Isaiah 53 you probably get the whole thing, and with it not only a substitutionary death but a penal substitutionary death, yet without any of the problems that the caricature would carry:

He was wounded for our transgressions
and bruised for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that brought us peace
and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
We have turned every one to his own way;
And YHWH has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
(Isaiah 53:5-6.)

It is with the Servant, and the theology of the whole of Isaiah 40-55, that we find the explanation for the otherwise bizarre idea of one person standing in for the many (which, as Dr John says, we might otherwise find incomprehensible and deeply offensive). The sense which penal substitution makes it does not make, in the last analysis, within the narrative of feudal systems of honour and shame. It certainly does not make the sense it makes within the world of some arbitrary lawcourt. It makes the sense it makes within the biblical world, the Old Testament world, within which the creator God, faced with a world in rebellion, chose Israel – Abraham and his family – as the means of putting everything right, and, when Israel itself had rebelled, promised to set that right as well and so to complete the purpose of putting humans right and thus setting the whole created order back the right way up. And the long-promised way by which this purpose would be achieved was, as hints and guesses in the Psalms and prophets indicate, that Israel’s representative, the anointed king, would be the one through whom this would be accomplished. Like David facing Goliath, he would stand alone to do for his people what they could not do for themselves. It is because Jesus, as Israel’s representative Messiah, was therefore the representative of the whole human race, that he could appropriately become its substitute. That is how Paul’s logic works. ‘One died for all, therefore all died,’ he wrote in 2 Corinthians 5.14; and thus, seven verses later, ‘God made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin,’ he concluded seven verses later, ‘so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (5.21). And it is within that argument that we find the still deeper truth, which is again rooted in the dark hints and guesses of the Old Testament: that the Messiah through whom all this would be accomplished would be the very embodiment of YHWH himself. ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Corinthians 5.19).

Underneath all this discussion is a deep concern which has emerged again in our own day, notably in the writings of the Yale theologian Miroslav Volf. In his magisterial Exclusion and Embrace (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994), he demonstrates, with sharp examples from his native Balkans, that it simply won’t do, when faced with radical evil, to say, ‘Oh well, don’t worry, I will love you and forgive you anyway.’ That (as the 1938 Doctrine Report already saw) is not forgiveness; it is belittling the evil that has been done. Genuine forgiveness must first ‘exclude’, argues Volf, before it can ’embrace’; it must name and shame the evil, and find an appropriate way of dealing with it, before reconciliation can happen. Otherwise we are just papering over the cracks. As I said early on, if God does not hate the wickedness that happens in his beautiful world, he is neither a good nor a just God, and chaos is come again. Somehow I sense that Dr John knows this, since he writes movingly of Jesus Christ as God coming down into the midst of the mess and the muddle to be with us and . . . to rescue us – though he never says how this rescue is effected. But again and again I sense in Dr John’s writing the problem which Anselm already identified: you have not yet considered how serious sin is. It isn’t that God happens to have a petulant thing about petty rules. He is the wise and loving creator who cannot abide his creation being despoiled. On the cross he drew the full force not only of that despoiling, but of his own proper, judicial, punitive rejection of it, on to himself. That is what the New Testament says. That is what Jesus himself, I have argued elsewhere, believed what was going on. That is what the classic Anglican formularies and liturgy say.

Recently, looking for something else, I came upon this:

God is love, say [some], and therefore he does not require a propitiation. God is love, say the Apostles, and therefore he provides a propitiation. Which of these doctrines appeals best to the conscience? Which of them gives reality, and contents, and substance, to the love of God? Is it not the apostolic doctrine? Does not the other cut out and cast away that very thing which made the soul of God’s love to Paul and John? . . . Nobody has any right to borrow the words ‘God is love’ from an apostle, and then to put them in circulation after carefully emptying them of their apostolic import. . . . But this is what they do who appeal to love against propitiation. To take the condemnation out of the Cross is to take the nerve out of the Gospel . . . Its whole virtue, its consistency with God’s character, its aptness to man’s need, its real dimensions as a revelation of love, depend ultimately on this, that mercy comes to us in it through judgment. (James Denney, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, Expositor’s Bible, Hodder, 1894, p. 221f.)

When I read that, it sounded as though Denney were addressing Dr John directly. And I was put in mind of a characteristically gentle remark of Henry Chadwick, in his introductory lectures on doctrine which I attended my first year in Oxford. After carefully discussing all the various theories of atonement, Dr Chadwick allowed that there were of course some problems with the idea of penal substitution. But he said, ‘until something like this has been said, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the full story has not yet been told.’ For myself, I prefer to go with Henry Chadwick, and James Denney – and Wesley and Watts, and Cranmer and Hooker, and Athanasius and Augustine and Aquinas – and Paul, Peter, Mark, Luke, John – and, I believe Jesus himself. To throw away the reality because you don’t like the caricature is like cutting out the patient’s heart to stop a nosebleed. Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and all because of the unstoppable love of the one creator God. There is ‘no condemnation’ for those who are in Christ, because on the cross God condemned sin in the flesh of the Son who, as the expression of his own self-giving love, had been sent for that very purpose. ‘He did not spare his very own Son, but gave him up for us all.’ That’s what Good Friday was, and is, all about.

Finally, from the same article, Wright explains his confusion that someone could describe a work that had based its understanding of Jesus on Wright’s own scholarship as denying penal substitutionary atonement:

After all, the climax of my book Jesus and the Victory of God…is the longest ever demonstration, in modern times at least, that Jesus’ self-understanding as he went to the cross was rooted in, among other Old Testament passages, Isaiah 53, the clearest and most uncompromising statement of penal substitution you could find.

You can also find various statements elsewhere, including his big commentary on Romans.

The moral of the story is that N.T. Wright affirms penal substitutionary atonement. Sorry uber-conservative Reformed guys, he actually does get the Cross. Sorry, lefty, anti-PSA types, your Kingdom-minded hero says some really old-school Evangelical stuff about the atonement.

For everybody else, you’re welcome.

Soli Deo Gloria

Small Update: For more vindication of this point, John Piper has a statement in his critical book The Future of Justification (pp. 46-53) affirming the Wright, indeed, does affirm PSA.

You’re a Holy Mess (Or, Surprised by Sanctification)

I was teaching through 1 Corinthians last year around this time when I was first struck by something very odd in that letter. It’s something that can sneak past you unless you go through the thing a few times. Right at the outset of Paul’s letters he usually broadcasts what he’s going to be writing about in a kind of intro-prayer or in the greeting.

Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes,
To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
(1 Cor 1:1-3)

Did you catch those words in verse 2 that I helpfully bolded for you to notice? Good. In the space of a few words, Paul calls the believers at Corinth “sanctified” and “saints”; he calls them holy.

Surprised by Sanctification

For those of us who have read the letter through, this is surprising to say the least.  This is easily the most jacked-up church we know of in the New Testament. Scholars think that Paul probably wrote more letters to the church than 1 and 2 Corinthians because of the issues with it. To give you a picture, the problems include: factions being formed dividing the church due to people buying into cultural notions of wisdom and power (chapters 1-4), Christians suing each other (5), one dude sleeping with his step-mom and everybody just acting like nothing was going on as well as people visiting prostitutes (5-6), screwy views about sex and marriage (7),  people eating food offered up to idols and demons at pagan temples (8-10), groups treating the poor like crud at church (11), getting drunk at communion (11), freaky pride connected to spiritual gifts (12-14), and, to top it off, false teaching about the resurrection (15).

Now, how in the world is Paul go and call this church “holy”? If you look up the word “saints” in a thesaurus, the antonym would probably be “Corinthians”. There is nothing that you could term righteous, moral, or upright about their character. In fact, in some ways Paul says they’re worse than the surrounding pagan culture. And yet, time and again Paul does call them just that. What’s more, in chapter six after listing off a number of practices they were supposed to avoid, he says “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Cor 6:11 )

Did you see that? “You were sanctified” is talking about a past tense action that makes the believer holy starting at a particular point resulting in a continuous state of holiness in much the same way that in the text he speaks of justification as occurring at a specific point in time resulting in you now being “justified.”

For those of us raised in general evangelicalism this is not typically the way we think or speak. Generally we think of justification as the once and for all legal declaration by God that we are vindicated, pardoned, no longer held as guilty against the covenant because of Jesus’ death and resurrection and now part of the people of the Messiah. It’s what happens at the beginning of our experience that we look back at. Sanctification is then the process that begins afterwards and is the increasing growth in holiness that makes us look more and more like Jesus. It’s the life-long process of becoming righteous in our character.

This is not a bad way of looking at things. Still, it’s also not the most accurate way of thinking about sanctification biblically. Historically Reformed theologians have talked about the difference between “progressive sanctification” and “definitive sanctification.” The first process is the one we’ve been describing that a lot of us understand. Definitive sanctification is that “once and for all act of claiming us as saints.” (Michael Horton, The Christian Faith, pg. 650)

Rethinking Holiness

See, the original idea of holiness or sanctification in the Old Testament was to “separate” something away from their ordinary or common use to a special use for God. The Temple, the sabbath, the tithe, the utensils and furniture for the temple were all normal things, taken and set aside, consecrated for use by God. God even does this with a people, Israel, (Exod. 19) He takes one people and sets them apart to be a light to the nations and show the world what life with God is like. They were to be “holy, for I the LORD am holy.” (Lev. 20:26) Paul and the rest of the New Testament picks up on this by seeing God’s act of saving us in Christ as a setting apart, a making holy totally independent of our own righteous acts. Jesus tells us that we are clean because of the word that he has spoken to us. (John 15:3) Indeed, Jesus says that he will be the one who sanctifies us by sanctifying himself, setting us apart through setting himself apart in his death. (John 17:19) The author of Hebrews follows Jesus by telling us that “by God’s will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” (10:29)

In Christ, by the Spirit, God definitively sanctifies us, sets us apart to be his own in a once and for all way. When we place our faith in Christ, we’re united with him so that what is true of him, becomes true of us. We are holy because Christ is holy. “All that is found in Christ is holy, because it is in Christ.” (Horton, pg. 651) This is why before we’ve done anything good, righteous, holy, cleaned up our act, made good on our promises or done anything but trust Jesus’ work for us, we are declared saints. Before we clean up, God declares us clean in Christ. This is the holiness, the saintliness that Paul is often speaking of in his letters.

Motivating his instructions to the Corinthian congregation is the reality that, in Christ, they are clean. In essence, “You’re holy! Now act like it. Become what you already are in Christ.” Over and over again in the New Testament we are told that we have been made righteous in Christ or holy in Christ and so now we should live like that’s true.

But I’m Still A Mess

“So, I’m already holy, so now I should live like it? Is that what you’re saying? Okay, here’s my problem: I don’t feel holy. In fact, most of the time I feel angry, lustful, annoyed, proud, downcast and anything but holy. Where does that leave me? It’s fine that God legally sets me apart as holy, declares me righteous, etc., but I still feel like me. What does God saying something out there have anything to do with me in here?” Everything, for at least two reasons.

First, as Michael Horton points out, for an orphan to enjoy the love and care of a new family, they must first by legally adopted. Or, for two nations who have been at war with each other to begin peaceful relations, they must first declare a legal peace. (Pg. 652-653) The definitive declaration of God “out there” is the legal basis of that secures our relationship to the sanctifier. God’s declaration is your hope of sanctification.

Second, God’s declaration isn’t really something that happens “out there.” When God sets us apart, he sets us apart in Christ, in the power of the Spirit. This act actually connects us to Christ like branches being inserted into a vine from which it then begins to draw strength. (John 15) We are connected to Christ like members of a body to the head. (1 Cor 6; 12; Eph. 4) We are given the Spirit, the Holy Spirit, who is a new power at work in us to progressively conform us to reflect the image of Christ. We receive strength and righteousness from the source of all goodness, Christ. God’s definitive sanctification of us is the source of God’s progressive sanctification in us.

You don’t feel holy, but honestly, your feelings are not the ultimate reality you need to be focusing on. Instead, you should be focusing on who you are in Christ. You’re a mess, but in Christ you’re a holy mess who’s getting cleaned up because you’re in the one who is clean. In fact, forget even focusing on who you are at all. Focus on Christ. “Abide in my and I will abide in you.” (John 15:4) When you do that, that’s when things start coming together.

Maybe this is why what Paul writes to his wayward saints the way he does. In the first 9 verses of 1 Corinthians he mentions “Jesus”, or “Jesus Christ”, or “our Lord Jesus Christ” 9 times. Apparently he believes that if his people are going to become holy, start living into the holiness that they’ve been brought into, they need to focus their eyes on Christ, the Holy One.

May we do the same.

Soli Deo Gloria

Kierkegaard on Interpreting the Text to Death

It is a truism today to say that the Bible needs to be interpreted. In fact, it was a truism back when the Bible was being written that it’s not simply a matter of just “reading” the thing all the time. Even the Bible says that it’s hard to understand. (2 Pet. 3:16) Or, as the Westminster Confession comments:

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. (2.7)

We’ve known for a long time then that even though the basics are clearly laid out, there are at least some parts that are not obvious or plain. For thousands of years now, Christians have wrestled with, commented on, and interpreted the text of the Bible. Today we have seminaries with classes in hermeneutics, study of the original languages and ancient cultures that form the setting and background of the text, dictionaries, commentaries that are thousands of pages long, and journals where scholars devote dozens of pages to analyzing the nuances of a single word in the context of a single verse. (No joke, I wrote 30 pages on 2 verses in Colossians in my MA program and just barely scratched the surface of the literature on the subject.) Without a doubt, our knowledge of the text has expanded and been deepened by the faithful work of scholars and interpreters over the last few generations and this is a good thing.

The people of God need preachers and pastors who will roll up their sleeves and get to work on the task of discerning what the Lord has spoken and is even now speaking in the text. Poor interpretation is at the root of so much bad preaching and teaching in the church, which leads to bad living by the church. Preachers, teachers, and even lay-people who have come to rely on them, still need to work at the task of interpretation.

Now, to some this might seem troublesome and daunting. As someone who has devoted my life to wrestling with the text in order to teach and preach it faithfully, I absolutely love this stuff. Digging into the interpretive issues and the complexity of the Scriptures is what I live for. “What’s that you say about an ingenious new understanding of that obscure verse in Leviticus? Brilliant! Let me read it.”  “Is that a new commentary on a book I finished studying last month? I must have it!” Anybody who’s seen my desk at home or at work knows that I live knee-deep in this stuff. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Now why do I bring this up? To alert us to a deadly risk we run when engaging in the interpretive task.

Kierkegaard tells a cautionary parable about the danger that can come with an unbridled focus on interpretation:

Imagine a country. A royal command is issued to all the office-bearers and subjects, in short, to the whole population. A remarkable change comes over them all: they all become interpreters, the office-bearers become authors, every blessed day there comes out an interpretation more learned than the last, more acute, more elegant, more profound, more ingenious, more wonderful, more charming, and more wonderfully charming. Criticism which out to survey the whole can hardly attain survey of this prodigious literature, indeed criticism itself has become a literature so prolix that it is impossible to attain a survey of the criticism. Everything became interpretation—but no one read the royal command with a view to acting in accordance with it. And it was not only that everything became interpretation, but at the same time the point of view for determining what seriousness is was altered, and to be busy about interpretation became real seriousness. Suppose that this king was not a human king—for thought a human king would understand well enough that they were making a fool of him by giving the affair this turn, yet as a human king he is dependent, especially when he encounters the united front of office-bearers and subjects and so would be compelled to put the best face on a bad game, to let it seem as if all this were a matter of course, so that they most elegant interpreter would be rewarded by elevation to the peerage, the most acute would be knighted, etc.—Suppose that this kind was almighty, one therefore who is not put to embarrassment though all the office-bearers and all the subjects play him false. What do you supposed this almighty king would think about such a thing? Surely he would say, “ The fact that they do not comply with my commandment, even that I might forgive; moreover, if they united in a petition that I might have patience with them, or perhaps relieve them entirely of this commandment which seemed to them too hard—that I could forgive them. But this I cannot forgive, that they entirely alter the point of view for determining what seriousness is.” -For Self-Examination, pp. 58-59

With this little parable Kierkegaard throws up a large, flashing, red warning sign for those of us enamored with the endless study of the text. The danger comes when interpretation becomes an excuse for disobedience. Kevin Vanhoozer has pointed out that the proper interpretation of the text of Scripture requires performance. Ingenious readings are not the point–hearing and rendering a fitting response to the voice of God is. When the task of interpretation eclipses our actual response to God speaking to us out of the silence, calling us to repentance, commanding us in righteousness, convicting us of sin, consoling us in pain, and drawing us to communion with Himself, things have gone awry. At that point you have sentenced the text to a slow and agonizing death by commentary.

Do not mistake this for an anti-intellectual call to “just read the Bible” without trying to engage with it at that deeper level. Study the Bible. Wrestle with it. Don’t be satisfied with simplistic readings of difficult passages. Go read big books on the subject. At the end of the day though, we must never forget that when the “Word of the Lord” came to the prophets it didn’t come as a word to be inspected, dissected, and thereby domesticated, but as the mighty command of the King who intends for his subjects to hear and obey his voice. We study in order to hear–we interpret in order to obey.

Soli Deo Gloria