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.

Praying for your Church with Joy

writingThe book of Philippians opens with a lovely greeting and prayer for the church, as we see in so many of Paul’s other letters. But there is one word which this letter particularly emphasises. Joy. It is subtly seen in this greeting, not demanding much attention but, considering the overall thrust of Philippians, not to be overlooked. As per usual, Paul’s greeting is filled with many encouraging words making it difficult to notice if there’s any particular point. Here’s the opening…

I [Paul] thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your [church] partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he [God] who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me [Paul] to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me [Paul & church] of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defence and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I [Paul] yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. And it is my [Paul] prayer that your [church] love may abound more and more, with knowledge and discernment, so that you [church] may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, [church] filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.

It’s a busy greeting, which well describes the busyness of church. Paul prays for the church with thanks and joy. The church is encouraged to grow in love. The church must be discerning and wise. Both Paul and the church are working and suffering for the gospel. Paul feels a deep affection and love for the church. Both Paul and the church need grace to face the trials that come with gospel work. Looking ahead they anticipate the day of Christ and so pursue their sanctification.

Reflecting on joy, John Piper writes, “One of the reasons I am the kind of Christian I am, with the theology that I have, is that I know the Bible requires of me things that I cannot myself immediately produce by my own power. I am fallen. I am sinful. And yet I know I should be feeling the emotions the Bible expects me to feel. I know myself guilty.”

The question is, how can we feel this joy? How can we pray with joy for a church so erratically engaged in ministry, meetings and, most volatile of all, people. We know we must pray, we know we must rejoice always. But how?

Here is the answer. It is that among all the happenings there is one most comforting assurance that we see in verse 6. It is God’s guaranteed work. “I am confident of this: That he who has begun a good work in you shall bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ”. As with all matters pertaining to joy, it is and can only be found in Christ.

church2Although Paul & the church are striving for the gospel, thank God that the assurance of that work is God himself. What is progressing and growing, what emotions of affection you feel in your heart, what strivings of bitterness and hardship you endure and what prayers of joy you cherish, they are all the work that is being brought to completion in Christ Jesus. It is the erratic activities of the church functioning within the assured work of the divine.

Joy is such a deep seated emotion, rooted in something far more certain than our own feeble hearts. It is found in the soul, activated by the Spirit, and initiated by Christ and his work. The work that Paul so delights in is that, in the church itself, he can see a work being done for the gospel. But this is not just a church work, it is a Christ work which will continue to progress until completion. That is how we can share in this joy.

But the question that naturally follows is, do we? When we see the church engage in gospel work, do we feel joy? Do we pray for the church always with joy? We can often become over-critical of church, trying to find the perfect blend of fellowship, discipleship and evangelism based on our own meter that we overlook what work Christ is doing. May we never fall into such blindness that we see church as a group of people who do things for Jesus, but always see that Christ is the primary doer making the church joyously worth praying for.

An Exhortation to Emptying

It was Jonathan Edwards in his “Religious Affections” who said that, “holy desire, exercised in longings, hungerings, and thirstings after God and holiness, is often mentioned in Scripture as an important part of true religion.” Perhaps it was Paul’s letter to the Philippians that inspired him to such a notion. For college Greek we were required to write a blog and about something that the Greek was illuminating for us and so I chose to have a look at Philippians 2:1-11. Paul is exhorting the reader to “Let the same kind of thinking dominate you as that which is also in Christ” (v5). He wants his readers to aspire to obedience exemplified by Christ (v12) but before he gets there, he gets side-tracked in ecstasy over Jesus’ incarnation and glorification.

To only see Paul’s imperatives in this passage and gloss over the detail would be to look at the night sky and forget about the stars. In this case, the proverbial star that caught my eye was Paul’s word play on “κενόω” (kenoō) and its derivative “κενοδοξία” (kenodoxia). First, Paul uses the noun “κενοδοξία” which means “empty glory” or “self-conceit” when he tells the Philippians not to do anything motivated by rivalry or “empty glory”. Speaking of Christ a few verses on, Paul uses the verb “κενόω” which means “empty” to describe the incarnation and Christ’s humility. The two words are clearly etymologically related and it is likely that Paul intended this link.

But what is the purpose of what Paul is saying in this passage and how does our knowledge of the Greek help us? Paul seems to be exhorting us to humility. As was alluded to in the first paragraph, Paul desires Christians to have a holy desire. If we think of the broader context of the whole letter to the Philippians, we will realise that in chapter one Paul is writing things like, “to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell”. In chapter three he is still singing the same tune, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” and then he continues later “that I may know him” and, “by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead”. This sort of self-denial only comes from a profound humility in the Christian, a humility that, Paul shows, is exemplified by Christ.

Paul tells the Philippians, and by extension, us. Not to be motivated by empty-glory; not to desire it or be mastered by it. He writes in Philippians 2:3, “nothing according to strife nor according to empty glory, but with humility deeming others better than yourselves.” In typical Pauline fashion, he tells the Philippians to take something off. What do they replace it with though, what are we to look to instead as our motivation and inspiration?

It would be uncharacteristic for Paul to tell us something to take off and not to replace it with something to put on. In verse 5 Paul responds to our nakedness; rather than chasing what is ultimately emptiness, Paul says, “Let the same kind of thinking dominate you that which is also in Christ”. What thinking was that? Paul describes it in verse 6 and 7, “who being in the form of God, did not deem being equal with God [a thing to be taken advantage of], but being himself emptied taking the form of a servant, appearing in the likeness of a man, and having been found in fashion like a man,” where “emptied” is the word “κενόω”.

The Greek illuminates an interesting parallel for us; Paul tells the Philippians not to chase after emptiness (not to be motivated by empty glory) but instead, to have the mind of Christ who emptied Himself. Christ, our model, did not hold on to His divine privileges and enforce His rightful claims to glory, he humbled Himself. “Therefore,” Paul writes in verse 9, “God has highly exalted him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name”. So there is this kind of parabolic curve in which Paul commands to not-seek what the world values which is really emptiness (and he later calls “σκύβαλα” – dung), and instead to esteem Christ’s humility which resulted in His ultimate glorification. In this theological tangent, what Paul really does is that he gives the Philippian church an exhortation to emptying.

What an appropriate call to the church today! We live in an age in which Christians esteem the dung and the emptiness that the world has to offer. The idea of humbling ourselves or ’emptying’ ourselves seems ridiculous and yet that’s Paul’s instruction to us: To humble ourselves and serve. The world would be a different place if the church had the mind of Christ for then, our desires would be holy – not for ourselves but for God – and then, whether in life or in death, we would want Christ – not ourselves – to be glorified.