The Work of Christ: Not Merely Substitution

Jesus Christ iconLast year the church I was part of worked through Paul’s letter to the Philippians. On one occasion at a leaders’ meeting an argument broke out over Philippians 1:27-2:11. The line of application we were pressing was that Christ’s death is an example of sacrificial service, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus” (2:4-5). Paul then goes on to recount Christ’s incomparable humility in serving others (2:6-8). Some present felt that emphasising Christ’s death as an example might weaken our grip on Christ’s death as substitutionary, when he satisfied God’s justice at the cross by suffering the penalty for sin we deserved. However I do not think that we are forced to choose one of these over the other.

After his lengthy section presenting and critiquing what are called ‘the theories of atonement’ in The Work of Christ, Robert Letham writes, “No one theory has ever commanded universal support. Moreover, no one viewpoint appears to answer all the questions that surface when we reflect on what Christ came to do on the cross” (p174). Reformed Christians typically have a mature understanding of justification by faith alone. This strong emphasis however often completely overshadows the manifold blessings and benefits of Christ’s work. The result is Christians who see the work of Christ in purely legal and transactional terms, a deficient view I argued against in my previous post. Letham does an excellent job of presenting the different atonement theories, pointing his readers to their respective biblical foundations, potential pitfalls and obvious errors. I attempted to do something like this, thinking about what is called the Christus Victor theory of atonement. Returning to the post at hand, if the extent of your appreciation for Christ’s work is merely substitution it is likely you have an underdeveloped scope of humanity’s plight and God’s powerful salvation. 

The argument about Philippians I mentioned pertains to the Christus Exemplar theory of atonement, also called moral influence. Remember, neither Letham nor myself are presenting this as an exclusive, or even capping, approach to understanding Christ’s work. But we would have to exclude vast swathes of the New Testament in claiming that we are not called to imitate Christ. Furthermore, I am not presenting the moral influence theory of atonement as historically without fault. Letham shows that the unbiblical tendency of those who advocate for a pure Christus Exemplar reduce the atonement to human effort. The subjective change resulting from our imitation of Christ is what brings us back into relationship with God, or atones for sin. However, he also writes, “Christ’s death does produce a subjective moral change in those who contemplate it in faith by the power of the Holy Spirit” (p167).

Robert LethamIt is perhaps this lost emphasis that has lead to us practising a purely memorial or Zwinglian Lord’s Supper. But that is a topic for another post. Christ’s self-giving sacrifice is both the effective power and powerful example for transformed lives. If we always retreat into preaching Christ’s death as substitution why are we surprised that churches are full of rudimentary faith and nominalism? Many churchgoers today will gladly profess the name of Christ as long as they never need to put on his character.

Similar language of ‘subjective change’ through participation in Christ’s death can be argued from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Paul yearns for the Philippians with the affection of Christ (1:8). He prays that they will be filled with fruit of righteousness through Christ (1:11). Suffering together and supporting each other in hardship is said to be for the sake of Christ whilst merely believing is inadequate (1:29). The encouragement to be shared is in Christ (2:1). Paul can even say that believers must have the same mind as Christ (2:5). Even the section of the letter that comes closest to a fully orbed idea of justification by faith in Christ, most often exclusively tied to the substitution view of atonement, in 3:2-11 concludes with striking language of participation and subjective change: “That I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (3:10-11). Go and read the book in its entirety and tell me if I am missing something.

Let me wrap this post up. The gospel teaches that Christ gives himself over to death and judgment, in the place of sinners so that those who place their faith in him can be declared righteous. But the gospel also teaches us how to live. To put it another way, at the cross we see God’s self-giving love. But when we experience that love, or participate in Christ by faith, his death and all that it embodies begins to shape our hearts. We might think of faith in Christ’s substitutionary death like the air pumped into the lungs of someone who has stopped breathing. The process is incomplete until that person has started breathing again for themselves, when the air has given life to their dead body. The atonement brings about new life, a life fixed on Christ our example.

Galatians: Faith in Christ or the Faithfulness of Christ

Nestled in the tightly argued and exegetically demanding section of Galatians 2:15-21 we read this: “A person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (2:16, ESV; similarly NIV). But if you use another translation, such as the NET, you would have read this: “No one is justified by the works of the law but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.”

Codex Sinaiticus - Comma JohanneumThe first translates the Greek to mean that we are made right with God through placing our faith in Jesus Christ. However the latter renders the verse to mean that we are justified, declared righteous, by the faithfulness of Christ. There is a technical linguistic term for each of these, respectively: the objective genitive and the subjective genitive. For example, the phase ‘the love of God’ can mean: our love for God (objective genitive) or God’s love (subjective genitive). Usually context would inform our reading of the phrase. The same is true in Greek. Only in this instance translators are divided, with most admitting that the Greek cannot be argued definitively in favour of one or the other. So which is it?

I would be foolhardy to harbour any notions of settling a debate in which both sides boast the support of formidable scholars. But we must do business with the text and its context. Before offering my trifling opinion, it is worth stating that we would lose nothing theologically if we translated every instance solely one way or the other. For there are passages that unambiguously develop the significance of Christ’s obedience (Romans 5:19; Philippians 2:8) and that emphasise our faith in Christ (Galatians 3:1-5; Ephesians 2:8-9). I would also add, a point made by Carson, in his superb essay Approaching the Bible, we misconstrue how language works if we attempt to read a text while entertaining the whole semantic range of words or phrases (which is what the Amplified Bible sets out to do). In our reading of Galatians we must settle on a translation.

Mihaly MunkacsyWorking through the first half of Galatians I have became convinced that the subjective genitive fits more naturally with its surrounds. At first I thought it was simply a matter of avoiding repetition, since the next phrase in 2:16 straightforwardly reads: “We also have believed in Christ Jesus.” But as Schreiner rightly responds, ‘Instead of thinking these verses are redundant, we can read them as emphatic, stressing the necessity of faith.’ The reason I am more in favour of reading 2:16 as “the faithfulness of Christ” is tied to my understanding of an issue central to the letter: the works of the law. Paul is tackling readers who were confusing faith alone with a faith augmented by obedience. As I have written elsewhere, 1st century Jews did not view religion as either grace or works; so it follows that the Jewish believers at Galatia struggled to distinguish between sola fidei and faithful obedience. Therefore it is not unlikely that Paul’s emphasis extends beyond faith in Christ alone to the faithfulness of Christ alone.

These posts are meant to be short, so let me conclude. The wonder of the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone is that the quality of my faith depends less on my grip and far more on the object: Christ. This challenges us to shift confidence away from ourselves and solely onto Jesus Christ, the one with whom the Father was pleased. I need that reminder, as the Galatians did, because my own faithfulness, obedience, and even my faith in Christ can subtly become the reason for my confidence, when it should never be anything other than his obedience and death on my behalf.

In Defence of the Pharisees

Mihaly MunkacsyRegardless of which Christian tradition you belong to, I would wager that when a Pharisee is encountered in the Bible reading your expectation is overwhelmingly negative. After all, literary critics would label them flat characters, for in the Gospel narratives they are fairly consistent and predictable. But I do not think I am alone in growing weary of pre-packaged and predictable explanations of 1st century Pharisaism, which is an unhelpful and inaccurate generalisation. Though beguiling legalism threatened Israel’s faith throughout the nation’s history, “There was certainly a more humane and spiritual tendency within [the Pharisees]. It produced men of lofty character and genuine piety who did lasting service to religion” (C. H. Dodd, The Meaning of Paul for Today). So in this post I want to challenge the oversimplified view of the Pharisees and how they understood the relationship between their works and justification.

Apart from the lazy reproduction of what we have heard from the pulpit or read in popular-level Christian literature, I think one of the reasons for our misapprehension of the Pharisees is owed to the Reformation. In the introduction to The Justice of God, James Dunn critiques the Protestant understanding of justification by faith. And while I disagree with Dunn on a host of issues, I think he makes an excellent point worth reflecting on: the Reformers’ imagined that 1st century Judaism was identical to the Catholic medievalism of the 16th century; in other words, they were guilty of eisegesis, reading the stifling legalism of the established church they knew into the Gospels. Today, in our interpretation of the Gospels, I wonder if we make the same mistake.

Rembrandt But how should we view, interpret, and teach about the Pharisees in the Gospels? Firstly, in Basics for Believers, D. A. Carson argues that Philippians 3:6-9 should encourage more nuance than lawful obedience leading to self-righteousness: “Paul does not mean he had attained sinless perfection. Far from it: the law provided the remedies for sin, prescribing certain sacrifices, teaching earnest young Jews to look to the God who was addressed each ‘day of atonement’ by the high priest who sprinkled the blood of animals in the Most Holy Place, to atone both for his sins and for the sins of the people. Paul followed the entire pattern of religious life carefully.” Though misunderstandings of the law undoubtedly crept in, central to the old covenant was God’s forgiveness appropriated through faith. Since Yahweh prescribed obedience to his law, works were not irreconcilable with grace. Thus the Pharisees’ emphasis on religious duty cannot be oversimplified to works righteousness.

Secondly, developing the above point, Calvin (Institutes, 3.11.3) writes, “When Christ upbraids the Pharisees for justifying themselves, he does not mean that they acquire righteousness by well doing but that they ambitiously seize upon a reputation for righteousness of which they are devoid.” The difference between this and our view inherited from the Reformation is subtle, but significant. Calvin argues in 3.11.2 that justification by faith was not a novelty of the New Testament, but clear throughout the Old Testament. Right standing with God has always been an imputed status and not an attribute, a gift rather than achieved merit. As Calvin says, Jesus’ searching criticisms of the Pharisees were not merely an indictment on law keeping and dutiful faith. His issue with the Pharisees was the pride that accompanied their supposed righteousness, which the sacrificial system should have emphasised none of them possessed. The Pharisees’ exaggerated self-righteousness was not the means by which they thought they were justified before God but rather it became their identity, providing them with self-image and worth, in place of God’s gracious acceptance.

HoffmanI have briefly touched on major ideas in this post, which presently fuel massive theological debates, so in closing let me restate my purpose in writing and summarise my points. Biblical studies and hermeneutics has always been a richly diverse gathering of disciplines, therefore we should be weary of reductionistic handling of the biblical texts, both in private study and from the pulpit. To think of the Pharisees we meet in the Gospels as advocates of an entirely self-righteous and solely works-based religion is a historical – and, in many places, an exegetical – fallacy. We must work hard to understand the historical and textual nuances when Jesus encounters Pharisees. And we must stop smoothing over those details in order to preach works versus grace. These things should not be so.