All posts in “Penal Substitution”

The Book to End Penal Substitutionary Atonement

414ws4nznql-_sy344_bo1204203200_Penal substitutionary atonement is a theory which attempts to explain the meaning and purpose of Christ’s death, how Jesus’ death saves and what it means for the world. It’s a theory which I have argued against openly and often, I’ve written extensively against it in my book We Belong: Trinitarian Good NewsPenal substitution is also the subject of the next two books I plan to publish in the near future, one which places Karl Barth in dialogue with the so-called “atonement debate,” and another to deal directly with penal substitution and argue against it. So it goes without saying: I am passionate about seeing an end of the penal substitutionary atonement theory in the evangelical church today.

I recently finished reading a fantastic book, one of the best I’ve read this year (and I’ve read over 100 books so far!), which I believe may do exactly that: this book, I hope, will be the final nail in the coffin of penal substitutionary atonement. The book I’m referring to is Darrin W. Snyder Belousek’s Atonement, Justice, and PeaceThis book is the most complete argument I have ever read against penal substitution, and it’s written in a clear, accessible manner so that anyone can pick it up and read it without much difficulty. Don’t be daunted by the fact that this is a 700 page book, this is a clearly written, accessible book that just about anyone with a basic understanding of the bible can read.

Today I simply want to recommend this book to you, discuss the main argument in it, and also briefly introduce penal substitution for anyone unfamiliar with it. I’ve never felt so encourage by a book on the atonement, and for that reason I give this book a whole hearted endorsement and I hope you take the time to read it.

What is Penal Substitution?

Penal substitution rest on three basic ideas. First and foremost, the notion of retributive justice, that God requires the death of a perfect sacrifice to forgive our sins. In short, that on the cross Jesus Christ died to pay back God’s justice. Second, that the wrath of God must be appeased, that God is full of wrath towards us and must have that wrath satisfied, or “propitiated” in Christ’s death. And finally, the third notion is that God turned His back on Jesus Christ in His death, that Jesus was forsaken and abandoned because God cannot look upon our sin.

Penal substitution is the most common atonement model within the evangelical church today. It’s often preached with the analogy of a courtroom. God is a holy judge, and we are the guilty sinners. God’s justice demands payment, demands our death, and therefore God’s wrath is against us until payment is made. We deserve punishment, but we are unable to pay back God’s justice or appease His wrath. But Jesus Christ came out of love for us and died in our place; God punished Jesus instead of us, thus paying back the Father’s justice, satisfying His wrath, and saving us from hell.  God turned His back on Jesus Christ, and in forsaking Him, God now accepts us as His children. God’s wrath is appeased, God’s (retributive) justice is satisfied, and God can now accept us as His own. This is penal substitution: Jesus Christ is punished (penal) in our place (substitution).

Belousek’s Argument

There are many problems I have with this theory, many of which are far too time consuming to address here. Like I said, I plan to eventually put together a short book which contains a concise argument against penal substitution. But here I want to discuss the main argument in Belousek’s book against penal substitution.

Belousek brilliantly sees the foundational presupposition behind penal substitution to be the idea that God’s justice is retributive, that is, that God’s justice demands equal payment for an offense. In short, penal substitution rests upon the lex talionis, the “eye for an eye” of the levitical law. God’s justice demands our death as payment for sin, and God is bound by this kind of justice and thus cannot forgive our sins without payment. Thus Jesus suffers God’s punishment in our place, so that God’s wrath can be appease and we can be forgiven. But the question we have to ask is this: do the scriptures understand God’s justice in this way? Is the justice of God, revealed to us in Jesus Christ, a retributive kind of justice or a redemptive kind of justice?

Simply, the underlying presupposition of penal substitution, the foundation upon which the entire theory rests, is that God’s justice is retributive, that God’s justice demands payment for an offense, tit for tat.

Belousek argues, rightly, that God’s justice is not retributive. Jesus Himself argues against any “eye for an eye” sort of justice in the sermon on the mount. (Matthew 5:38-42) But penal substitutionary atonement basis its entire paradigm on this idea. Belousek thus carefully and thoughtfully takes us through the bible and shows us that this idea comes not from the scriptures but from Greek philosophy. Aristotle and Socrates, who in turn influenced Augustine and thus infiltrated the west with this idea, are the originators of this kind of justice. The scriptures actually have no concept of retributive justice (not even the lex talionis, Belousek argues, is God’s will). The only kind of justice we see in the scriptures is the justice of mercy, the justice which heals, the justice of redemption. The scriptures present a kind of justice that looks more like “making right what’s wrong” (redemptive justice) instead balancing the legal scales (retributive justice). Belousek brilliantly takes you through ever problematic scripture, from Isaiah 53, Romans 3, the levitical law, and the prophets, in order to show this point.

The beauty of this argument is in its successful identification and removal of the foundation of penal substitution; what remains for the rest of the book is the joyful and systematic demolition of this theory. There is nothing left standing by the end of this book. There is no scripture which has not been examined, there is no presupposition left hiding, penal substitution is effectively put to death. There is an elegance and a brilliance to Belousek’s argument, and I have not doubt that this book will be the end of penal substitutionary atonement for anyone who reads it—and hopefully for the evangelical church as a whole.

If you have ever doubted penal substitution, but then thought, what about Isaiah 53? What about Romans 3? Then please, read this book. Maybe you are someone who wholeheartedly believes penal substitution is the gospel, then please, read this book.

I cannot stress how highly I recommend Belousek’s book. Perhaps one day the church will look back to it and say, “This was the book that once and for all exposed and demolished the heretical penal substitutionary atonement theory!” You can purchase Atonement, Justice, and Peace here.

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On Eastern Orthodoxy

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I’ll be honest, I’ve been looking for an excuse to use this picture in a post here since I took it. It’s a stunning vertical panorama shot with my iPhone, which I admit is far from professional, but I love it. It was taken inside the Church of the Spilt Blood in St. Petersburg, Russia while I was there on a trip with the church plant I’m a part of here in Tallinn, Estonia. I found this church stunningly beautiful and awe inspiring. (Click on the photo for an enlarged version.)

Recently I’ve been intrigued by Eastern Orthodoxy, and not just their beautiful church buildings, but also their theology. I’ve found that many of the things I have come to learn in my own journey have an echo in much of the theology of the Eastern Orthodox church. For me, that’s encouraging. It means that I’m not just another “heretic” loosing his mind after reading a few books, but that faith is a 2,000 year old conversation that I get to be a part of. Theology is a fluid thing, not a stagnant study.

One of the biggest areas of theological change for me has been in rediscovering the Atonement (the death of Christ). In my denial of the classical theories of atonement that are common in the west, I have found myself working against the norm. But the more my intrigue led me to study Eastern Orthodoxy, the more I’ve begun to see how truly “unorthodox”, in a technical sense, the west really is, especially in regards to Atonement. Our (Protestant) theology is only 500 years old, give or take a few years. That may seem like a lot, but when you compare it to the 2,000 year old legacy of the Eastern Church (with the Roman Catholics) you get a sense that Protestantism is the new player in town. Which in my experience with discussing theology, this seems like the opposite attitude of Protestants. 1

As soon as I began to question the Western understanding of Atonement, I received backlash from Protestants who felt like I was questioning an age old belief that has existed since the early church. I myself thought I had stumbled upon something new, but as I’ve explored Eastern Orthodoxy I’ve realized this is not the case. I had not stumbled upon something new to theology, but something very old. I began to read the Patristic (church fathers) greats like Athanasius, Gregory, Irenaeus, Hilary, and others. 2 As I read their writings, some of which go back as early as the second century, I felt like I was reading my own thoughts back to myself. Someone else has already said what I have felt compelled to say.

That awful westernized doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement? It’s a new idea. Calvin and Luther turned it into what it is today in the west. The Eastern Orthodox won’t even touch that doctrine. PSA did exist in some ways before the reformation, but only subtly in the Catholic church. They adopted Thomas of Aquinas’ satisfaction model along with that of Anselm. Luther and Calvin took these theories and hyper-legalized them into what we know today in the West. But it’s worth noting that the Eastern Orthodox Church has never held to these beliefs. They have always been highly Incarnational and Christus Victor based in their model of Atonement. 3

The point here is that maybe this conversation we’re having about theology, the bible, and the gospel is really much more diverse and intricate than we make it out to be. Denying Penal Substitutionally Atonement is not heresy. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told that. But most days I just smile and think to myself: “I have 2,000 years of the most undivided church in our Christian history on my side.” Which isn’t to imply that that settles the issue, but it is to imply that it should change the way we approach atonement.

We’re all on a journey. History is a conversation. Theology is not a perfect science, it is an art. We must learn from one another and from our history as Christian brothers and sisters. Don’t judge a book by it’s cover, I guess, is all I’m saying here. We should be able to have conversations about theology, the bible, and the Gospel with an open mind. Theology is not a stagnant thing, it is not about strict dogmatics. We’re having a conversation here, not a debate. Tell me what you think, not just what you’ve been told to think.

Of course it goes without saying that there are problems within Eastern Orthodoxy too, just as there are problems within Protestantism and Catholicism. But that is just all the more a reason for us to let down or name calling, closed-minded thinking and just have a conversation with one another. We can learn from each other, and I think we should.

(Oh and by the way: I’m planning on attending a Russian Orthodox church here in town for my last sunday in Estonia. Maybe I’ll write a follow up about my experience later.)

But enough about my thoughts, what are your thoughts? Let me know in a comment.

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Notes:

  1. e.g. we have the right doctrines, the pope is the antichrist, etc. etc. Little of our theology is willing to humbly admit that the 2,000 year old church may be right in some areas where the 500 year old church is not.
  2. Many of which I have made available for download here. (free)
  3. Incarnational is in reference to Christ’s healing assumption of our fallen humanity. Christus Victor is in reference to Christ’s triumph over sin and death.

10 Ways We Should Rethink Easter

10 ways easterTomorrow we celebrate Good Friday, and with it the very heart of the Gospel: the death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. I want to present ten ways that we should think differently about Easter this year. In doing so may you rediscover the beauty of the cross, and the stunning message of the Gospel.

#1 It’s Good Friday, Not Bad Friday

The cross is not a dark event. The cross is the center of our joy and celebration. Far from being a defeat, the cross is a victory!

While from a humanistic perspective, the cross is weakness and failure. But from the Christian perspective, the cross is the greatest moment of triumph in all of history. As Athanasius says, “the death of all was consummated in the Lord’s body; yet, because the Word was in it, death and corruption were in the same act utterly abolished.” 1 That’s good news! Jesus fully defeated death, in His death.

#2 Resurrection Isn’t the End

The story of Jesus doesn’t end at resurrection. While the resurrection is important, it’s not the end. The Scottish theologian T.F. Torrance help me see that the resurrection, while staggering in itself, is not complete apart from the ascension.

Robert Walker, in his introduction to Torrance’s book atonement, says “The ascension is Jesus’ taking of our humanity in His person into the presence of God into the union and communion of the love of the Trinity.” 2 Or as C.S. Lewis says, “In the Christian story God descends to re-ascend.” 3 Jesus ascended, taking us up with Him; seating us in heavenly places! 4

#3 God Didn’t Kill Jesus

crucifixionWe know for a fact in Christianity that the cross accomplished our salvation. Theories of how this happened however, are vast and wide. One of the worst, in my mind, is that of Penal Substitutionary Atonement 5 which essentially teaches that Jesus saved us from God. Meaning that Jesus was actually killed by His Father.

Did Jesus save us from God? Absolutely not! Here’s a few reasons why. 1) Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5 that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” 2) This notion divides the Trinity and undermines the goodness of God by creating a dark side hidden behind the back of God—which ultimately goes against Jesus’ own words, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.” 6 We aren’t saved from God, we’re saved from sin. 

#4 The Cross Wasn’t a Pagan Ritual

The cross isn’t a form of paganism where Jesus is sacrificed up to an angry god in the hope of appease his terrible wrath. If this is true, then paganism is true. Which would be disastrous to the Gospel: making it not a Christian Gospel, but a pagan gospel.

Jesus didn’t die in order to condition God into being gracious. T.F. Torrance writes that within the Old Testament paradigm of sacrifice and atonement, we must see that the cross is not a pagan offering for the sake of forgiveness, but rather a witness to the merciful will of God. 7 The priestly system was never pagan—in the sense that it was an offering to earn forgiveness or mercy—rather, it was and is a system to manifest and give witness to the mercy of God.

#5 Jesus’ Death Was Real

The death of Jesus is the action of God to meet us in the pit of our human existence. What do we fear more than death? In order for salvation to be complete, God must meet us in the depths of our humanity. I feel like sometimes we pass over Jesus’ death as a real event, as if His being God made Him less human. He was God as a human, and in His humanity He fully felt the bitterness of death.

This is important to remember. The death of Jesus was a very real event. He actually felt the fear and abandonment that we feel. He entered into our Adamic fear and calamity and from that place He brought redemption. In His death, death itself is undone!

#6 Jesus Was Not Forsaken by His Father

The-Holy-Trinity-xx-Nicoletto-Semitecolo“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is not a prayer of Jesus. Every prayer that Jesus ever prayed began with “Abba, Father!” Here Jesus is not saying that the Trinity was deconstructed and destroyed. The Trinitarian relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit remained intact on the cross!

Jesus is quoting the old testament. 8 He is fulfilling prophecy. He quotes Psalms 22, the Messianic Psalm. This Psalm, more than any other, is a clear prophecy foretelling the death of Jesus, the Messiah.

#7 The Cross Wasn’t Pretty

The cross was a horrific and terrifying event. It wasn’t pretty. While it is important to see the celebratory reality of the cross (see #1), it is also important to remember how expensive the party cost God.

God paid a high price for our redemption. We celebrate joyously that sacrifice, but at the same time keeping in mind, with reverence, the enormous price that was paid. Jesus died a real death, feeling the full weigh of our sin and guilt. He suffered in our place, so that we might have life. Celebrate that, but just don’t forget the price.

#8 The Cross Reveals Love, Not Wrath

The cross reveals the love of God, it does not primarily reveal His wrath. When you think of the cross, do you see the wrath of God or His love? If wrath, you need to take another look. The cross is not about wrath, it is about love.

T.F. Torrance writes that, “The cross is a window opened into the very heart of God.” 9 We understand God through Jesus: in His life, and especially in His self-giving death. The cross reveals a God who is madly in love with the world, not a God who is furiously angry at it. “For God so loved the world…” 10

#9 The Life of Jesus > The Death of Jesus

INRIPaul writes that we are “saved by His life.” 11 The life of Jesus, and the work of Jesus should be inseparable. It’s not the cross that saves us, it’s Jesus. He embodies our salvation, and reconciliation back to God.

The cross matters, but the Christ of the cross matters even more. God did not use Jesus as a tool to fix humanity. Jesus Himself is the salvation of the human race. It is in His very person, in His hypostatic union: the joining of God and man in one body that we find salvation, reconciliation, and redemption. The new covenant is a person, not a transaction!

#10 The Cross is a Mystery

We know what the cross accomplished. We know that because of Christ we are forgiven, reconciled, redeemed, freed from sin, in union with Christ, and participants in the eternal life of God. How it all happens is a mystery.

While there are many theories as to how the cross accomplishes all these things, we cannot get to hung up on theories. It’s the person of Jesus that saves us, not our theology. We don’t have to understand the cross to benefit from it’s blessings. The bible doesn’t give us a clear formula for exactly what happened at calvary, but it does inspire us to worship God because of it.

Let’s keep the cross mysterious. We may not understand it fully, but that’s okay. No one is asking us to.

“Trust Jesus, then. After that, theologize all you want.” 12

He has done it! It is finished!

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Notes:

  1. On the Incarnation, section 20.
  2. Editor’s introduction to T.F. Torrance Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ, page lii.
  3. The Grand Miracle, page 111
  4. See Ephesians 2:6 and Colossians 3.
  5. I’ve written much about this view of atonement. You can find these articles here.
  6. John 14:9
  7. See Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ, pages 38-39.
  8. I’ve written more about this here.
  9. The Mediation of Christ
  10. John 3:16
  11. Romans 5:10
  12. Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, and Judgement.

“Jesus Was Forsaken by God” – Disgrace to Grace #3

Jesus Forsaken?Disgrace To Grace is a series of articles written to debunk doctrines that I believe have hijacked the Good News of God’s outrageous grace. Here’s #3, enjoy!

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Last week we talked about Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA), and several of the reasons why I disagree with it. Today I want to debunk another aspect of what PSA teaches.

Growing up I often heard Matthew 27:46 1 quoted in presenting the Gospel. The preacher would say something along these lines:

“God is to holy to look at sin. When Jesus died on the cross, the Father turned His back on Him. He abandoned Jesus, and forsake Him to die…”

But did the Father really forsake His Son on the cross?

Absolutely not!

Let me tell you some good news: Jesus, His Father, and the Holy Spirit remained inseparable on the cross. Jesus was not abandoned by His Father!

But how can I come to such a conclusion? Doesn’t Matthew 27:46 clearly say the opposite?

Here’s the deal. This is exactly why holding the bible in its proper context is extremely important. Yes, this verse does say this, but it should not be taken at face value apart from the right context.

Without the right context  for this verse you could easily (but wrongly) assume that Matthew 27:46 are Jesus’ words. They are not!

Jesus is quoting David from the Psalms.

Psalms 22 to be specific. Psalm 22 is a prophetic Psalm foretelling the death of Jesus. 2 Psalms 22 starts with “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”

Essentially Jesus here is quoting the first line of a famous song that every good Jew would have known by heart. Jesus wasn’t making a statement about how His Father left Him. Jesus is declaring the He is the Messiah.

And this is ultimately how I know that the Father did not forsake Jesus on the cross: Psalms 22 clearly says so!

Check out verse 24: “For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.”

Jesus was not forsaken by God! The perfect union of Father, Son, and Spirit remained unbroken!

God did not forsake His Son on the cross. As Paul writes, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.” 3

Where was God on the cross? He was in Christ. He did not forsake His Son, nor did He abandon Him! He was right there with Him! The cross was the seamless act of an undivided Trinity.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is not a prayer of Jesus. Every single prayer of Jesus starts with “Abba! Father!” The Trinity remains undivided!

What do you think? Leave me a comment below!

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Notes:

  1. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
  2. I encourage you to read all of Psalms 22 in order to fully grasp onto what Jesus really meant to say. Specifically check out the later verses, including verse 27 (a favorite verse of mine).
  3. 2 Corinthians 5:19

“Jesus Saves! …From God?” – Disgrace To Grace #2

Disgrace To Grace is a series of articles written to debunk doctrines that I believe have hijacked the Good News of God’s outrageous grace. Here’s #2, enjoy!

Saves From GOD?Saved.. From God?

I want to talk about Penal Substitutionary Atonement today (PSA for short). Chances are you’ve probably never heard that term, but I’m sure you’ve been influenced by it.

PSA sounds like this: “God is a judge, and you are on trial. You’re guilty. You’ve sinned; God sentences you to death. He’s about to slam down the hammer, sending you off to eternal punishment, when suddenly Jesus steps in and offers his life in your place. He suffers the wrath of the judge, and you are forgiven your debt.”

PSA is Penal (to punish) Substitution (in our place) Atonement (to bring about redemption). It is a theory 1 of atonement, held popularly in Christianity, that claims Jesus died in order to appease the wrath of God.

Now, I have several issues with this theory of atonement. I don’t plan to address every issue I see here, but I hope to show you, at the very least, a few of the fundamental flaws in this theory.

I do plan on writing much more about this (both articles and eventually books), so this is definitely not the full scope of what I wish to say. But this will serve as a good introduction to why I have called Penal Substitutionary Atonement a “Disgrace to Grace.”

Problems With PSA

Undermining the Trinity:

This view of atonement, I believe, undermines the Trinity. PSA is a theory that is fundamentally anti-Trinitarian.

The Trinity should be central to our way of thinking about God. At no other place is this more vital then the cross, because the cross is essential to the Gospel story.

Within this model you get a very dualistic vision of the Trinity. On one side there is a holy judge demanding punishment, while on the other side there is a loving Jesus appeasing him.

Essentially, PSA teaches that one Member of the Trinity comes to save you from another Member of the Trinity.

This is not only an inconceivable flaw in logic, but a slap in the face to the early church who fought hard in defending the doctrine of the Trinity.

You can’t separate the inseparable Trinity!

PSA goes against Jesus’ union with His Father: “I and my Father are One.” 2 This union between Father, Son, and Spirit must remain central. The will of God is undivided. PSA splits the Trinity, making the will, and action of Jesus separate from that of His Father’s. Which I believe, is catastrophic.

The Dark Side of Jesus:

Did the fall of Adam change us, or did it change God?

trinity-knotObviously, the Garden changed us, not God. So who then did the cross seek to fix? Did the cross fix us, or did it fix God?

If PSA is correct, then the cross dealt with God, not us.

PSA flips the Gospel on its head. If Jesus died in order to meet a legal requirement within the heart of God, instead of fixing us, and our sin, the cross becomes about fixing God. 3

In other words, according to PSA, Jesus died in order to deal with the “dark side of God.” Jesus may be loving towards sinners, but His Father is furious and filled with wrath. When Jesus died, He died to appease the wrath of God. (To deal with His “dark side.”)

No wonder so many Christians love Jesus, but fear His Father! We’ve been taught that God has a dark side. Heck, even Martin Luther admitted that, while he loved Jesus, he wasn’t sure about His Father.

Again, Jesus said, “I and my Father are One.” There is no dark side of God for the cross to appease. Jesus came because of His great love for us, not because of His great wrath!

History, and The Church Fathers:

Additionally, this theory of atonement is actually relatively new. Not a single church father held to this belief. 4 It was first attributed to a man named Anselm in the 1100s. A whole century after the life of Christ!

Nicholas-Icon-Meme-2Early church father Athanasius, for example, seemed to have held primarily to the Christus Victor view. 5 Historically, PSA was only taken seriously after the 12th century. Which is not to say that new theories are automatically wrong, and old theories right. Rather, it is to say that there’s something wrong with a theory of atonement that is disconnected from the early church. (Those who witnessed first hand the life of Jesus.)

It’s not just the early church who reject this theory either. Do you like C.S. Lewis? He didn’t align with PSA. 6

Conclusions

Jesus did not come and die in order to appease the wrath of God. He didn’t come to save you from His angry Father.

Remember? Wasn’t it “For God so loved the world that He gave His Son..” not, “For God so hated the world..”?

The Cross is a revelation of love, not wrath! 

Jesus did not come to save you from the Father. He came to save you from sin, and undo the fall of Adam.

The Cross was the act of the whole Trinity: Father, Son, and Spirit. “For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself..” 7

Now I know this may be a big stretch for some of you, and I understand that, it was for me too. But there are just too many errors in this theory of atonement, and it’s gone unchallenged for long enough. 8

Over the next few weeks I plan on coming back to this topic. Until then, please feel free to leave me any question you may have about this, as well as any objections.

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Notes:

  1. While many assert that this is not a theory, but rather a undeniable fact, there is not enough scripture written to adequately support this view. Many of the brightest minds in Theology consider this to be only a theory. Many hold that while it may be possibly what happened, there’s no certain way of knowing. Therefore, I insist that this is theory, not fact.
  2. John 10:30
  3. For more on this argument, check out Dr. C. Baxter Kruger’s book God is For Us.
  4. Some of Augustine’s writing seem to use similar language as PSA does, which has lead some to conclude that he is the origin for this theory of atonement. However, Anselm was the first to say that Jesus saved us from God. Augustine, and many church fathers, did say that we were saved from the guilt, and penalty of death. The distinction is that one believed to be sent from God through wrath, and another as the natural consequence of sin.
  5. In the next post, I will present some more of the alternate views of atonement for you. Specifically within Christus Victor, Athanasius, and other contemporary theories. So if you don’t know what that is, no worries, next week I’ll give you an overview.
  6. For a great video by Greg Boyd, explaining C.S. Lewis’ take on atonement (a more Christus Victor view as well) click here.
  7. 2 Corinthians 5:19
  8. I plan to write more next week on the scriptural refutes against PSA. (Not all of my arguments are just philosophical.)

Sorry, but Jesus Wasn’t a White Guy.

White Guy“The scholarly consensus is actually that Jesus was, like most first-century Jews, probably a dark-skinned man.” (Source)

Sorry Charlie, but Jesus wasn’t a white guy from Utah. He wasn’t an American individualist. He came from the middle eastern country of Israel, as a Jew. He most likely had brown skin, spoke Aramaic , and if you saw Him in the airport, you might take a second look.

Aramaic is a semitic language of Arabic, which means the two languages sound alike. Most Americans would feel slightly anxious if they heard it spoken on an airplane. (Which is not to say there’s anything wrong with Arabic, but that the American perspective of the language has been skewed due to 9/11.)

But does it really matter what color Jesus’ skin was? Not really. It’s irrelevant to be honest.

But it does matter when we westernize Jesus and create Him in our cultural image. When we divorce the person of Jesus from the historical backdrop of ancient Israel, we run the risk of misunderstanding the gospel entirely. Ancient Israel, the Jewish people, and the eastern culture that Jesus comes to is the only context in which we can properly understand the gospel.

As T.F. Torrance writes, “To detach Jesus from Israel or the Incarnation from its deep roots in the covenant partnership of God with Israel would be a fatal mistake.” (The Mediation of Christ, page 23.)

A Gentile Jesus

Gospel_of_Matthew_Chapter_19-10_(Bible_Illustrations_by_Sweet_Media)My fear, and Torrance’s fear, is that we have “gentilized” Jesus, and thus removed Him from the backdrop of Israel’s history with God. The proper context for who Jesus is, is the history of Israel, and the cultural mindset of the people. We can’t separate Jesus from the history and culture of Israel, because Israel is the context in which God’s self-revelation is actualized in the life of Jesus.

Think about it like this. When God decided to come to the earth, and when He decided to revel Himself to humanity as a whole, He didn’t come as a Greek, or a Roman, or as an American. He trusted the self-revelation of His nature in Jesus only to the Jewish people. He actualized His revelation within their mindset, and their culture.

For whatever reason, God chose that Israel would be the backdrop for His self-revelation in Jesus. Israel is the canvas for the gospel. Therefore, to divorce the person of Jesus Christ, and His work on the cross from the backdrop of Israel is to ultimately misunderstand both.

I believe Christianity has been hijacked by Western ways of thinking, and Western perceptions of God. We have interpreted the nature of God on our terms instead of on His. His terms are the culture, and context of Israel, not any other culture or nation.

West vs. East

714px-Icone-jésus_christIsrael is an eastern nation, and Jesus was an eastern thinker. Therefore, Christianity, fundamentally, is an eastern belief. It’s not that there is anything wrong with western culture, but there is something wrong with understanding Jesus through Western ways of thinking instead of Eastern ways of thinking.

There is much that can be said about the differences in western and eastern culture and mindsets. However, here are three areas where I feel we often misunderstand God and the Gospel because of our western lens:

Western mindset: Focused on the individual, on intellect, and on legal structures.

Eastern mindset: Focused on the community, on mystery, and on priestly structures. (Especially in Jewish culture)

These cultural focus differences have, I believe, caused us to misinterpret the gospel.

Due to the influence of western thought, which is rooted in both Roman, and Greek cultures, our theology has been developed by these cultural distinctions. I believe that we have taken Christianity and made it far too individualistic, intellectualistic, and legalized.

Because this is such a massive topic, hardly one that I can fully express in a 1,500 word post, I will focus in on these three areas and on how I feel they have influenced our understanding of the Gospel.

Penal Substitution

One of the most striking effects that our western thinking has had on Christianity is the legalization of the Gospel. Due to Roman ideas of law and order, we have made the Gospel a message of judicial satisfaction instead of properly understanding the Gospel as a priestly and mediatory announcement.

Jesus did not come to fulfill some abstract legal requirement from God. He did not come to die in our place, standing before a justice-driven judge hell bent on punishing us. God the Father is not a blood thirsty deity that needed appeasing.

The Gospel is not a court case, it is a love affair! 

640px-3D_Judges_GavelWe have misunderstood the Apostle Paul, and we have turned the Gospel into a court case where God settles His legal issues with humanity. This idea is often referred to as Penal Substitutionary Atonement. Which is simply a theory of atonement that says Father God has wrath that must be satisfied, and therefore Jesus stands in and takes that wrath for us. Jesus get’s punished (Penal) in our place (Substitution) in order to satisfy a legal requirement of God.

But this is a disastrous error. The cross doesn’t condition God into being gracious towards us. That flips the whole gospel on it’s head! Making the cross change God, instead of changing us. If the Gospel is about satisfying God, then the reason for Jesus’ death was to fix God, not to fix us.

But the Gospel is not the news of how Jesus has fixed God. The Gospel is the announcement of how He has fixed us, and freed us from the slavery of sin! The cross changed us, not God. Jesus didn’t die in order to twist God’s arm, and make Him forgive you.

The cross is about love, not law!

We have failed to see that Jesus was acting not as a legal replacement for humanity, but rather as a priestly and mediatory substitute for humanity! The former is rooted in western law and order, while the later is rooted in the Jewish temple. Jesus came as the high priest, and the mediator between God and man. He did not come to fulfill some legal duty before an angry judge. He came to perform a priestly and mediatory work!

Penal Substitutionary Atonement is a western idea that has hijacked the Gospel. It is rooted in Roman ideas of law and order, instead of the Jewish concept of priest and mediator.

Mystery and Community

Additionally, another way in which the gospel has been hijacked by western thought is through the over-intellectualization of it’s mystery. Simply put, we haves sought to removed all traces of mystery, and unknowing from the Gospel. Due to the western focus on intellectual understanding, any gospel idea that is mystical or supernatural is often intellectualized out of mystery.

For example. The Gospel announces the absolutely beautiful reality and mystery of our union with Christ. Paul calls it “the mystery of the ages” which is “Christ in you.” (Colossians 1:25-27)

Andrej_Rublëv_001Our mystical union with Christ is one of my favorite gospel realities. The utter nearness of God, and oneness of our spirit with His, is what makes the Gospel good news! However, this reality is far to often underemphasized in western Christianity because it intellectually makes little sense. But this reality remains mysterious and supernatural. It can not be solely intellectually understood. Mystery belongs in the Gospel, and our western intellect should be held back from trying to remove it.

The final distinction that remains between western and eastern understandings of the Gospel, is that of community vs individual. In eastern societies, the community, the “we”, is greater than the individual “I.” We have taken our western lone-ranger ideas, and plastered them onto the Gospel. Making the emphasis on our individual decision, or our individual relationships with God. However, the Gospel is a corporate message. It is universal in it’s scope, effecting the whole world. Jesus died for the whole world, not just the individual.

Karl Barth once said that Theology is best worked out within community. We need one another’s perception and ways of thinking to understand God and life. My relationship with God is very personal, but it should also be corporate. We are all on a journey together, and I am on a journey personally. Both ideas are important to remember.

Perception

We need to see that the Gospel is not an eastern message, and God is not an American God. Our lens of perception should change from the American ways of thinking into the Jewish ways of thinking. Jesus came to the Jewish people. The Gospel is rooted in Jewish culture. Our perception needs to change to understand it, and Him, correctly.

798px-Reading_glassesJewish was a Jew, but does this mean that God is Jewish? No. Instead of defining God by our terms, we should see that God is expressing Himself through our terms. When Jesus came as a Jew, it wasn’t because God is a Jewish person. Rather, God chose Israel and entrusted it with His self-revelation. Jewish culture is the language God has chosen to express Himself in.

This is why we need to learn how to speak the language that God is speaking. We need to see that Jesus came within the context, the language so the speak, of the Jewish people. Instead of westernizing Jesus, we should learn how to understand Jesus on His terms by understanding the culture He came to.

Jesus was not a white guy. His culture, and His ways of thinking are foreign to us. In order to understand Him properly we must see Him through a Jewish mindset, not a western one.

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