Thursday, April 12, 2007

On Lists, the Atonement, and Worship

I like lists. They are are helpful in that they are able to boil down concepts and ideas into manageable propositions that serve as pegs on which to hang thoughts.

I do not like lists. They tend to simplify and sometimes trivialize ideas that cannot really be contained in a single sentence.

In other words, a simple phrase or sentence can help to summarize, but it can also oversimplify. My post of last week on ten reasons why Jesus had to die is an example of my like and dislike. Each point served to summarize the Bible's teaching in a concise way. At the same time, each point could have a book written about it, or at least a chapter.

So lists can be helpful, if we recognize their benefits and limitations.

I say all that to say this: I found a blogger who likes lists. A few titles caught my eye. So I read them.

There was a list of Ten Propositions on Penal Substitution. It seems to me to be a distillation of emergent objections to the penal substitutionary model of the atonement (most of which seem to be repackaged liberalism or neo-orthodoxy of past eras).

In this list he says (emphasis his),
If the doctrine of penal substitution is to have any place in contemporary soteriology, there are certain elements of its demotic form that have to be eliminated: especially the notion that Jesus died to placate or appease God, or to secure a change in God’s attitude, or to settle a score or balance the books – and, indeed, the notion that the cross is itself a divine punishment." ...

I repeat: God does not punish Jesus, or even will the death of Jesus tout court.
If my understanding of Scripture is correct, both of these propositions contain explicit denials of Christian truth. They are radically unChristian. From the OT to the NT, it is clear that God "predetermined" the death of Jesus and it was precisely to satisfy his just and holy wrath against sin. Jesus bore the wrath that our sin brought. He bore our curse by hanging on a tree so that we, through faith, would not have to bear the curse, but could instead bear his righteousness.

While the atonement may be more than penal substitution, it is most certainly not less. And redefining penal substitution (as this list attempts to do) will hardly satisfy the biblical data, or the person committed to a truly biblical theology.

To say that the suffering of Jesus was not to satisfy God's just wrath is, to my way of thinking, divine child abuse (as some had claimed about penal substitution). Dying a brutal death is a high-priced example. If God the Father subjected Jesus to death (and he most certainly did as Isaiah 53 tells us) simply to give an example (or some other of the multitude avoidances of penal substitution), he is a very cruel God, capricious and inconsiderate. If, however, he did it to satisfy his wrath on sin, he shows himself to be immeasurably just, loving, and worthy of worship. I think I would find it hard to worship God if penal substitution is not true. The more I meditate on the cross, the more worth of worship God appears.

In response to this, the Boar's Head Tavern says,
Something that occasionally bothers me about the way the atonement is often spoken of in Reformed circles is the way it tends to reduce the Incarnation to something God has to do to forgive sinners, as if it were on the divine to-do list or operating procedures, and forgiveness and salvation occur only when God ticks off the right boxes in order.
Is not this statement a denial of the idea of the consequent absolute necessity of the atonement (and incarnation)? Can we really entertain the notion that God could have forgiven sinners without the incarnation? Or that the incarnation was a "post Genesis 3" reaction? Who was going to be a sufficient sacrifice without the Incarnate Word?

Even the testimony of Hebrews that "the blood of bulls and goats could never take away sin" (Hebrews 10:4; Hebrews 10:11) testifies to the wrongheadedness of BHT's reaction. God did have to incarnate to forgive sin. Only through someone who could "touch us both" (in the words of Job) could sin be forgiven. That is why Paul testifies that "There is one God and one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus" (1 Timothy 2:5).

Which leads me to conclude: Perhaps people's problems with the atonement is a fundamental misunderstanding of God's holiness. If God is not really holy, then there is no need for a penal substitution. If God is like we are, who can simply choose to ignore sin, then indeed penal substitution is objectionable. If, however, we understand the radical and total holiness of God, is not penal substitution the only just avenue of forgiveness and grace?

Back to the lists. In another post, he does have a more interesting statement. In 9.5 Theses on Listening to Preaching, he states,
Every act of worship is a funeral. In the sermon the preacher hereby notifies the congregation that it is dead and buried – an ex-people. This is not a metaphor, this is our reality coram Deo. Listen to the sermon as if it were your own obituary: it is. Judgement is now.
Perhaps a key thought of preaching should be the constant reminder that we are dead—dead to sin and self. Worship is not about us and fulfilling our desires. It is not primarily about meeting our needs (though biblical worship will certainly do that since one of our innate needs is a need to worship; it is most often directed at the wrong object). If we remember that we are dead, we can be free to worship biblically rather than humanistically.


Kent McCune said...

Great article, Larry. Your point about misunderstanding the holiness of God is spot on. I think in our humanistic, post-modern age people have elevated their minds and their worldviews above (or at least equal to) God and thus have, wittingly or unwittingly, "humanized" God in their thinking. I've been reading in the OT lately and, to me, it's amazing how someone could miss God's absolute holiness and His judgment of sin from the OT narratives.

Anyway, good stuff. I'm a regular reader. Keep up the good work.

Leo said...

Hi Larry,

I realize you wrote this post a few years back. However, I wanted to pass these links on to you for further research.

The aversion to the penal substitution theory of the atonement goes way back. Here are some links of articles written by Paul Peter Waldenstrom, one of the founders (if not the founder) of the Evangelical Free Church movement. I don't think these views are 'perfect' but I do think they provide an insight into the character of God and his ways that in no way minimizes God's holiness.öm

- Leo