Christus Victor: Victory without Deceit

Last week I reviewed The Forgotten Cross. Lee Gatiss’ book is a welcome addition to the innumerable works we have on the cross, for while he affirms penal substitutionary atonement his biblical expositions develop the many other effects of Christ’s work. Since the early church fathers, and perhaps peaking at the Reformation, Christ’s work on the cross has been understood as the moment when God’s justice was satisfied. So it is of paramount importance that Christians understand what Christ’s death achieves for us. While we must affirm what is central to the atonement – Christ suffering the penalty for sin – we cannot overlook or forget the far reaching outcomes of Christ’s work. That is what Gatiss’ book sets out to do and you can read more about it in my review. But in this post I want to challenge Gatiss’ thinking on one point.

Lee GatissIn his chapter on Colossians 2, Gatiss touches on what has been dubbed the Christus Victor view of atonement. This view was popularised last century by Gustaf Aulén, in which he opposed what he calls the ‘Latin’ or ‘objective’ view of atonement, mentioned above. He argues that central to Christ’s work was dramatic conflict, biblical dualism, and victory over evil powers. “Christ fights against and triumphs over the evil powers of the world, the ‘tyrants’ under which mankind is in bondage and suffering, and in Him reconciles the world to Himself” (Aulén). Indeed, Christ disarmed the rulers and authorities, shaming them in triumphing over them (Colossians 2:15). Earlier in the same letter Paul wrote, “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness” (1:13). In isolation these texts clearly speak of Jesus’ victory, but we must be mindful of their context: ‘God cancelled the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands, nailing it to the cross’ (2:14); ‘In Christ we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins’ (1:14). Though the New Testament ties the cross to victory it is not, as Aulén argues, the centre of Christ’s work.

The issue I want to take up with Gatiss chapter is not his treatment of Christ’s supremacy and victory, but with how he says it was accomplished. One of the tenets of the Christus Victor theory is the deception of Satan. This view was adopted by Martin Luther and very prominent amongst the early church fathers. Essentially the idea is that Christ was a sort of bait to Satan. Closely tied to Origen’s ransom theory, Jesus is offered to Satan, but when the latter kills the former he overreaches, and his dominion is shattered. But this analogy made Aulén uncomfortable, “With regard to the deception of the devil. It scarcely needs to be said that the application of any such thought to God is at least dangerous.” However, Gatiss seems to hold to this idea in The Forgotten Cross, “The devil thought this was his finest hour. God’s very own Son surrounded and cut off and done for. But the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the evil one. He came to conquer death and to steal the keys of Hell right out of the devil’s hand at the very moment when it seemed that all was lost. He got right up close, and it appeared that Satan had beaten him and secured the victory. Then Jesus snatched it all away, the very second he died” (p95-96).

Gustav Aulén

As Aulén said, to make God into the deceiver is dangerous, not to mention a counterintuitive since that is one of Satan’s titles. But I want to raise a further critique of the view that says Satan thought Jesus’ death spelt victory: in Christ’s temptation, Satan seeks to lure Christ away from the cross, and his messianic task. “We could say that Satan’s power was aimed at breaking Jesus’ faith, and it proved powerless. Jesus’ power was aimed at doing God’s will, and it overpowered Satan and won back the lost dominion of man” (Seccombe, The Gospel and the Kingdom). Jesus mission drove him to the cross, while Satan sought to drive him away from it. This fits Jesus’ stern rebuke of Peter, who refuses to accept that Jesus must die, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me” (Matthew 16:21-23). “The crucifixion marked [the Devil’s] final failure. Having run the gauntlet of every temptation, Jesus refused to disqualify himself and so proved himself worthy” (Seccombe). There was no deceit as Christ went to the cross. Though the gathered crowds may have been confused about what was taking place, the principalities and powers were certain that this was the beginning of their end.

Book Review: The Forgotten Cross

Lee GatissIn this short but stirring work, Lee Gatiss calls Christians back to “the poetry of the gospel, and the multifaceted beauty of the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (p108). As Gatiss states in his preface, such a work is necessary because the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) has become embattled. Gatiss notes how this has drawn much of our attention away from the wonder of the cross. However the motif behind this book is not to enter into that debate. Thus Gatiss writes, “I want to affirm with all my heart that God the Son’s punishment-taking, in-my-place death is the magnificent centrepiece for all Christian theology” (p9-10), but, “The Bible explores and applies what Jesus did on the cross in a multitude of different ways. Penal substitution is one of them—indeed, it’s the most important one…because without it other ways of looking at the cross end up being inadequate for my salvation. But that’s not to say that penal substitution alone is fully adequate to meet my needs” (p11). Therefore as the book’s title suggests, Gatiss seeks to draw out “some forgotten or at least neglected dimensions to Christ’s death that we would to well to recover.”

To claim that PSA is not comprehensive in and of itself may raise some heckles, but that only reveals how narrow our understanding of the cross has become amidst recent theological debates. Gatiss repeatedly identifies Christ’s substitutionary death for sinners as the glorious focal point and source of salvation. But his very appropriate concern is that our focus has become myopic, meaning we are failing in our preaching and teaching to explore the spectacular depths and glory of Christ’s self-giving love, not to mention the broader implications of salvation for all of life. “This is what I often neglect,” Gatiss writes, “I think of the cross as having done something in the past…But I so often forget that it has implications in this present age” (p83). That is one of the resounding points of this book, as well as one that Gatiss models. He allows us to rest in the clear and undeniable biblical teaching of PSA, but shows how that truth is inseparable from others. For example, in his exposition of Ephesians, “We are saved by his precious blood. But there is also a corporate dimension to what the cross achieved. Jesus didn’t just come to save me personally so I can go to heaven when I die” (p62).

If I may interpose something C. S. Lewis wrote in his Reflections on the Psalms, “A man can’t always be defending the truth; there must be a time to feed on it.” One of the greatest strengths of Gatiss’ book is the application, which is both practical and offers some invaluable development of truths too often ignored. There are too many examples of this pointed and expansive application, so I will highlight just three.

Firstly, a repeated theme of The Forgotten Cross is how glory is promised after suffering and service, as we emulate our Lord. “The question we’re left with here is very simple: would you give up everything you have, and everything you’d like to have, to follow Jesus to the cross? It may not be glamorous. But in the end, even for Jesus, it’s the only way to true and lasting glory” (p40). Towards the close of the book, Gatiss baldly states, “Defeat and obscurity in the eyes of the powerful is utterly unimportant. Only the eyes of faith can perceive where true victory lies” (p107).

The forgotten crossSecondly, and tied to the aforementioned theme, Gatiss challenges the worldly desire for impressive ministry. In his first chapter we read, “When we see that the church in Corinth could boast of strong, well-educated, wealthy, successful people and leaders—that it was a strategic and important church…we’re not a million miles away from the culture of many evangelical churches today” (p17). In the chapter on Mark 10, Gatiss puts his finger on the temptation faced by many ministers: we have the nagging sense that we are made for something greater, to be more influential and successful. Concluding that chapter he writes, “It’s noble to want to make the biggest impact we can for the gospel. But it’s probably better for most of us, especially for the health of our souls, if that’s in a place that nobody’s ever heard of” (p40). Thus Gatiss reassures us, “[Jesus] knows our weakness. So we don’t have to collapse under the strain of having to appear together, to having to compete in the game of who’s the best and keenest Christian. Our saviour was crucified, crushed to death by the weight of our sin and God’s wrath against it, so that we can be free of that pressure to perform” (p26).

Thirdly, chapter 5 (on Titus 2) draws out the intractable link between the cross and our sanctification. The glorious point Gatiss reminded me of is this, “What we see going on at Calvary, the place where Jesus died, is of monumental significance. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit acting together in concert and perfect harmony to achieve their purpose in our salvation. And part of that salvation is…our holiness, godliness, purity, and goodness” (p80). The work of Jesus on the cross is in fact the joint work of the Triune God to make us his, therefore that work extends far beyond the atonement. “[The cross] saves us from a life of going with the flow of the world. Jesus died to save us, but he also died to make us different. That was the plan. So if we’re not different we’ve missed something in our doctrine, and are not adoring the gospel in the eyes of the world—however good we are at talking about” (p89).

This review is already too long, so I will offer just one short criticism, before concluding: Gatiss’ treatment of 1 Peter (chapter 3). On the whole this is one of the best chapters in the book. But I think that merely suffering with the same resolve and faith that Christ did fails to do justice to Peter’s epistle. Jesus stood before his enemies without sin, any harsh words or retaliation, and with full confidence in his Father who judges justly. But I am unconvinced that we are called to simply do the same. Suffering like Christ has the express purpose of vividly presenting the gospel to others, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honourable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see you good deeds and glory God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:12). Added to that, a little later, “Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for that hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:14-15). Christ undoubtedly set an example for us in the way that we are to suffer, but how we suffer can present us with opportunities to declare the gospel of Christ, as we share in his sufferings.

I read The Forgotten Cross in preparation for Easter and my heart was warmed, welcomingly challenged, and joyously reminded of the multifaceted glory of the cross. And I was convinced, most of all, because in the end Gatiss teaches the plain sense of Scripture, unpacking what God has revealed, and applying it with the caring but incisive sharpness of a pastor.

I received this book for free from Evangelical Press in exchange for this honest review. I was not required to write a positive review of the book. Previously I reviewed Stuart Olyott’s short work on the Trinity, also published by Evangelical Press, and offered a slightly nuanced critique of it.

Good Friday: The Cry of Dereliction

The day had turned to dark, long before the sun set, as Jesus Christ hung on the cross. His enduring faith in his Father in heaven had brought him to this end; obedience to his Father had culminated in the cross. But as he struggled to take his last few breathes, while his arms grew too tired to relieve the pressure on his chest, and the darkness enveloped and gripped him tightly he cried out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). What are we to make of these final excruciating words? Michael Wilkins calls them “some of the most profoundly mysterious words in the entire Bible.” Derek Tidball writes that they uncover the awfulness of Calvary, which we prefer to forget. Alister McGrath goes further, arguing that Jesus’ cry shatters the moulds of our thinking and reveals the fundamental uncontrollability of God. The cross presents us with an unnerving and mysterious question: in what sense does God the Father forsake his Son at the cross?

“If it is possible, let his cup pass from me”

Icon Jesus prayingBefore attempting an answer, let us start with Jesus’ familiar, though often domesticated, prayer in Gethsemane; when the man of sorrows, despised and rejected, well acquianted with grief who had experienced the many hurts and hardships of human life balked at Calvary (Matthew 26:39). The prospect of the cross brought Jesus into tormented fear and dread. In his short life he had known suffering but his agonised prayer suggests a greater significance and uniqueness of what loomed ahead. Before he was stretched out on that cruel tree, Jesus could say, “I am not alone, the Father is with me” (John 16:32). And throughout his fraught life Jesus would have enjoyed assuring fellowship with the Father. But Jesus’ pleas and prayers in Gethsemane force us to ponder what Jesus was to endure. We must conclude that it was not merely physical suffering that Jesus feared, but the death that he was to die.

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

In addition to the above, to answer our question we must consider Jesus’ use of Psalm 22. Some have called it total despair or claimed that Jesus is utterly disorientated, even confused about why he was dying. But when we consider the content of the Psalm, we can say that the cry is not entirely desparing because the psalmist anticipated divine intervention. Furthermore, Jesus was aware that he was dying for sins. In fact, something that is often glanced over, the Psalm expresses faith in Yahweh to vindicate. Even though Jesus’ suffering threw him into the darkest of places, he trusted his Father to the bitter end. Significantly, Psalm 22 moves from lament and despair, to prayer, and climaxes in Yahweh being entroned over the nations. Jesus’ faith was unremitting as he cried out to his Father, whom he knew would establish his kingdom, even when it seemed the gates of hell were prevailing against it. Jesus knew his death would not be the end of his story. So onlookers at his crucifixion, familiar with the Psalter, would have heard an affirmation of Jesus’ faith, clinging with certain hope to the will of his Father.

Was the Son truly forsaken or the Father fully absent?

Crucifixion IconAs Jesus hung dying, being publically mocked and humiliated, it appears that God is absent from Golgotha. As Wayne Grudem comments, Jesus’ sweet fellowship with the Father, his source of unfailing strength and the element of greatest joy in a life full of sorrow, appears dashed. But as Alister McGrath writes, instead of understanding Jesus’ God-forsakeness as total privation we should see God’s presence in the most remarkably paradoxical way. Martin Luther called this the hiddeness of God at Calvary. As the sky is literally tarred, figurative darkness descends on the Son and God’s familiar protective presence and love was withdrawn from Jesus. In biblical symbolism, darkness is separation from God who is light. Jesus’ experience extends beyond deep spiritual darkness to enduring God’s wrath. Darkness is stressed by each Gospel writer, emphasising that God had not only turned away from the Son and their close communion but towards his Son in judging sin. Alone Jesus hangs, being made sin and fully identified with sinful humanity. And it this – the penalty of sin, not the Roman punishment – that weighed most heavily on the suffering servant. Calvin wrote that it was Jesus’ soul that bore the worst torment, the terror of God’s condemnation. As John Stott said, Jesus was plunged into that engulfing darkness for us; our sins blotted out the sunshine of the Father’s face.

Conclusion

When we ask in what sense the Father turned his face away from the Son on the cross we must agree with the authors of Pierced for Our Transgressions that the language of ‘abandonment’ or ‘forsakenness’ is a metaphorical way of referring to divine judgment. But it is not that simple, as we have seen, for the God who abandons his Son is fully present at the cross resolving the problem of sin. This great paradox prevents us from giving a glib answer to our question. Luther viewed the cross as a great mystery. Calvary should both humble and move us to adoration; while we cannot fully explain the enigma of Jesus’ cross or even grasp the anguished horror, suffering and abandonment that Jesus went through, let us not forget that he endured it on our behalf, so that we do not have to. If we understand none of the cross and Christ’s experience, praise God that it will never be ours.

Why We Don’t Do Sacrifices

alreadyI’ve finally reached the point in my Bible Education curriculum (part of my ministry is teaching Bible Ed. at a Christian school) where I get to draw all the threads of the Old Testament up and tie them to Jesus. One of the most powerful threads is obviously that of the sacrificial system. The sacrificial system not only explains the necessity of Jesus’ death but makes sense of it. Interestingly the sacrificial system is one of those opaque areas of the Old Testament that lots of Christians get confused by.

A while ago I posted on the point of the sacrificial system saying that it had three functions: to remind, to teach and to promise. It reminded God’s people that death came as a result of sin, it taught them that payment for sin was costly and it promised them Jesus. The annoying thing about being a teacher is that half the time kids come up with questions you never imagined. The question that was posed to me as I tied Old Testament sacrifices to Jesus’ death was “why don’t we still do sacrifices?”

Fortunately I could quickly explain that those three points change with the death of Christ. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, death has come as a result of sin. After Jesus’ death, we know how costly it is to pay for sin. After Jesus’ death, we no longer await the fulfillment of the promise. It turned out that this was an adequate answer for the class but one question hung on my mind (which was actually raised in class but fell away for the child as I explained the above).

Surely the reminder is still relevant? Surely the instruction is still important? Even if those aspects of the sacrificial system have been fulfilled, isn’t it still important to remember and teach those things?

Lords-Supper2Enter Mark’s gospel. I was reading it again this morning tracing an entirely different thread when all of a sudden the Mark 14:22-25 leaped out at my face, narrowly hitting actual cognitive function. The Lord’s supper!

This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly, I say to you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.

Now it seems almost too obvious to be posting but it’s still exciting enough to me. Jesus’ death completes the sacrificial system and communion commemorates Jesus’ death. Communion reminds and teaches what happened on history’s first day of Easter! We don’t do sacrifices any more because the system is fulfilled. The instructional element of sacrifices continues though in the form of the Lord’s supper.

What’s the deal with Sacrifices?

offeringI had the opportunity to present an assembly at Grace College. Given the lead up to Easter, I was asked to talk about sacrifices. I decided to tackle the distance we feel from a world in which God demands sacrifices by asking what’s changed between then and now that makes them make no sense. The way I answered the question was to distill Israel’s sacrificial system to three purposes: To remind them something, to teach them something and to promise them something. What follows is roughly what I said.

To Remind Them Something

reminder  Sacrifices functioned a bit like scars. Imagine one of your friends always wears long sleeves. Rain, sunshine, hot, cold: long sleeves… It’s a bit peculiar right? But who’s to judge. But it gets hot and you see she’s feeling the heat but rather than pulling her sleeves up, she pulls them down and grips them in her hands. You don’t really know her that well and as you think about it you realise you’ve never actually seen her arms? But you probably never will either nor will you find out why because she’s not going to tell you that down her arms are the scars of a suicide attempt. And every time she or anyone sees them, she remembers with shame what happened and those scars are indelible reminders of that. They’re vivid, unchanging reminders that communicate clearly to everyone who sees them, what she’s done.

In Israel, sacrifices were reminders of what they had done. Actually not just them but everyone. In the account of the Garden of Eden we read how death came as a direct consequence to sin. When Israel did a sin offering, they sacrificed an animal because death came as a result of sin. That’s why blood was sprinkled over the altar: this is what sin produces, it produces death and not only produces death but demands it. Sacrifices reminded Israel that death was the consequence of sin and where there was sin, blood would be spilled.

To Teach Them Something

teachNelson Mandela once said, “Real leaders are people who are willing to sacrifice everything for the freedom of their people”. In other words, real leaders are people who are willing to give up everything they value in order to achieve what they value most. If you went to Nelson Mandela today and asked him, “Would you do it all over again, would you sit in prison for years and give up the prime of your life?” He wouldn’t hesitate to respond “Absolutely, I would sacrifice the prime of my life because I treasure freedom and equality, even if it’s not fully achieved today, I would have freedom and equality achieved however costly.”

Now picture it, you grow up on a farm, you’re the shepherd, you look after the sheep and the goats. You make sure they get food, you make sure they get water, you take care of them. When lions and wolves and dragons see your flock as a tasty snack, you fight them – you put your life on the line to defend your animals. Look you basically don’t have a life other than with your animals which become like pets, you know how to tell when they’re grumpy or upset or about to puke in your face – you love them.

Then, one day, your dad comes to you and he says “I need a sheep”.
“what for,” you ask.
“I need to make a sacrifice.”
“heh?” – “for a sin offering,”
“okay,” you say – you’re a switched on sort of lad, “this one keeps getting into fights so he has a few bite marks and his back leg is not great now so you’re welcome to sacrifice him…”
“bite marks? Back leg not great? Mmmm – no that’s not going to do. It has to be unblemished.”

What do you learn about what it takes to be right with God when your dad takes the best of the flock which, apart from being your favourite, if nothing else now means it can’t breed, it can’t provide wool (or milk if it’s a goat) or even meat (it gets burnt up). You realise that sacrifice is costly, that becoming right with God, having a relationship with God is not something you can make the second priority. It is costly to be right with him and you need to be willing to give up everything you value.

To Promise Them Something

engagementringA few of days ago  I received an email from a friend at college with the subject line “… and I said YES!!!”. Now imagine if I read that and looked at the email, if I inferred her excitement from undue use of smiley faces, enormous photos of rings and more exclamation marks than is ever grammatically appropriate and then I said, “I don’t know what she’s so excited about, she’s not married yet.” You would say, “You gigantic clot. She’s engaged. It’s happening. It’s on the horizon, he’s promised her that he is going to marry her and as she now wears that ring, she wears the promise of marriage.”

In the same way, when the Israelites carried out these costly sacrifices they were enacting a promise that they didn’t even fully grasp. A promise that affirmed everything else about sacrifices. A promise that looked back to creation, to Adam and Eve sinning and to death; a promise that said, all that will come to an end. Yes, where there is sin, blood will be spilled. Yes, it will cost everything to be right with God. But, it will cost far more than you ever imagined. The blood spilled as a result of sin will not be that of an animal: Hebrews 10:4, “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” What then does the promise mean?

The Deal

crossHebrews 9:26 “But now, Jesus Christ has appeared once and for all … to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” That’s why sacrifices don’t make sense any more, that’s what’s changed between then and now that makes sacrifices no longer make any sense. Christ has already been sacrificed. Sacrifices reminded God’s people that death came as a result of sin but now for God’s people death has had its day and sin’s consequences were unleashed in full so, for God’s people, they are over. Sacrifices reminded God’s people that being right with God was costly but now, God’s people look back and know it cost Jesus everything and that the price has now been paid: the promise that sacrifices made to God’s people have come true. So Easter becomes the centre-point of history because, as a result of Easter it’s now possible for you to know God as though sin had never separated you from him to begin with.

At Easter the sacrificial system was fulfilled. Sacrifices reminded God’s people that death was the result of sin, at Easter death was quenched. Sacrifices taught God’s people that a relationship with God was costly, at Easter we see what it cost God to have a relationship with us. Sacrifices promised God’s people that one day the system would change and at Easter it did. So again, Easter becomes the centre-point of history because as a result of Easter, it’s now possible for you to know God as though sin had never separated you from him to begin with.