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.

Who is YHWH?

Normally when we read the Old Testament (which doesn’t happen too often for most of us), we are moving too quickly to notice details that make sentences sound weird. We tend to allow sentences like Exodus 15:3 (“The Lord is a warrior; // the Lord is his name”) or Amos 9:6 (“He summons the water of the sea and pours it out on the earth’s surface. // The Lord is his name”) to wash over us. But, when we read these verses together, it is hopefully surprising to hear that his name is “the Lord.”

There’s a long history as to why but in both of these verses, “the Lord” is actually a translation of the name of God in Hebrew (YHWH – probably vocalised as “Yahweh”). Because this is probably familiar ground for many readers, I will simply note that the Greek Old Testament uses “Lord” like the English does and most English translations use small capital letters to mark out the divine name in the OT. The name “YHWH” only occurs in the OT because it’s a Hebrew word and the NT authors, writing in Greek, use “Lord” (that’s probably, at least in part, because they were concerned about keeping the commandment against taking the Lord’s (YHWH’s) name in vain. In the rest of the post I will use Lord and YHWH interchangeably.

So the name of the “Lord” in the OT is actually YHWH, but this raises an interesting question:

To whom does “YHWH” refer?

The answer to the question is not immediately obvious. If it seems obvious, pause and recall that Christianity affirms a Triune God. Now try to answer the question again. In my experience, most people read as though YHWH refers to the Father. After all, Jesus only comes in the NT and, for the most part, the Holy Spirit only seems to do stuff in the NT as well. What’s more, in the OT they didn’t know about the Trinity, they only knew that there was only one God.

But why should YHWH refer to the Father in particular?

The challenge and point of this post is to have you read YHWH as a reference to the Triune Godhead—Father, Son and Spirit, all at once!

Three Reasons to Read LORD as a Reference to the Trinity

First, because the Son and the Spirit are active in the OT. Often we hear that both Son and Spirit are active in creation but this is true through all of history because one of the things we know theologically is that if Father, Son and Spirit are truly one God, their activity is inseparable. Theologians refer to this as “inseparable operations” and explain it by saying that the Father acts in history by the Son and through the Spirit—what those prepositions mean in reality, I do not know, but they tell me that the Father does not act independently of the Son or of the Spirit. Reading “YHWH” as a reference to the Trinity acknowledges that the Godhead is active in the OT.

Second, the OT gives no reason to assume that the name of God should refer to only one member of the Trinity. Of course, OT believers didn’t understand the Trinity but this only reinforces the point: OT believers believed in one God who we now know to be Triune. If they thought the one God’s name was YHWH, surely that name would refer to the One Triune God?

Third, there are times in the NT where an OT passage that uses the name YHWH is quoted and the NT applies it to Jesus. For example, in Romans 10:13 Paul tellingly quotes Joel 2:32 saying “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved”. In Joel “the Lord” is YHWH but just a few verses earlier Paul was pretty clear that “If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom 10:9). The point here is that it’s correct to say “Jesus is God” but not “God is Jesus” because God is Triune and Jesus is one member of that Trinity.

Let me repeat that I don’t think OT believers would have understood this. But I do think that reading those capitalised references to “the LORD” as a reference to the Trinity will help us remember that Jesus and the Father are not the loving/angry independent, contradictory sides of God. It will remind us that God is fundamentally relational because he exists in Trinity.

This post has a bonus point though. One of the core convictions of Christianity is that we know God (the Triune God) through Jesus who reveals him to us. Think of what Jesus says of himself in John 1:18, “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” Those are confusing words but Jesus says similar things throughout John’s gospel. He is the one who reveals God to the world. So maybe, just maybe, if YHWH is the revelation of God in the OT, we should consider reading YHWH as a reference to the second person of the Trinity: the Son, rather than the Father or even the Godhead as a whole! Right now I prefer the Trinitarian option, but this alternative certainly seems possible.

P. S. If you’re interested in thinking about why the Trinity is important – I wrote about that a while ago here.

Doodle: Did Jesus Decriminalise Sex Work?

Decriminalise sex workJust over a year ago, Central Methodist Mission (CMM), in partnership with a local organisation for sex workers, printed and hung a large yellow banner that read: ‘Jesus was the first person to decriminalise sex work (John 8:7)’. In case you are wondering, the verse goes, “As they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, ‘Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.’” As a student of theology I have encountered a fair share of embarrassingly specious proof texts yet this is arguably one of the best—and by “best” I trust you know I mean worst, not to mention one of the most laughable. Yes, I am aware that a church that officially offers outspoken support of prostitution is almost certainly unconcerned about what the Bible actually says. Yet I worry that their misreading of the biblical text and misappropriation of Jesus in support of something unequivocally unbiblical has resulted in some confusion. Briefly below I intend to offer some clarity to an issue where ideology and virtue signalling has eclipsed the truth about Jesus Christ. This will be done by thinking a little more about John 8:7.

Firstly, John 7:53-8:11 is a canonically disputed text. In other words, many of the earliest and most reliable manuscripts either do not include it or place it elsewhere, in both John and Luke. I know that issues surrounding manuscripts are prickly for those in the know and bemusing for those who are not. Basically, there are questions around the authority and place of this text. This should immediately cause us to raise questions over its use. But we might ignore these textual critical squabbles. If we treat the text as not only historical – which it might be – as well as inspired can we argue from it that Jesus decriminalised prostitution? When we look at the text and read it as a whole we arrive at a second important point. In John 8:3 we are told that this woman was “caught in adultery” explaining why this text has traditionally been called the pericope adulterae. We might infer from the text that she was a prostitute but the argument is weak because the New Testament has another word for prostitute (see Matthew 21:31-32; 1 Corinthians 6:16). That word is not used here. Thirdly, and the reason I used the word “laughable” earlier, in the last verse of this section Jesus says, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more” (8:11). Yes, Jesus does not condemn the woman. However, even if she was a prostitute – which is unlikely – Jesus does not condone her lifestyle; he calls it sinful. One of my favourite authors often refers to “delicious irony,” and I am sure that citing John 8:7 to support the decriminalisation of sex work qualifies for that honour. By loading the text with very improbable details the end result is Jesus calling sex work or prostitution a sin that must be stopped. Remarkable.

This post is longer than I initially set out to make it. For that I apologise. Please allow me to make one final point, in conclusion. Writing in the 20th century, German theologian Karl Barth referred to God’s action as “disruptive grace.” It is an arresting phrase. Today grace seems to be treated by many as something God sprinkles over our lives, however we choose to live them. We think of it as a dismissive wave of the hand, granting permission while expressing love. But that could not be further from the biblical doctrine of grace or the effects of God’s love. If we hold that John 7:53-8:11 belongs in Scripture then we should not miss the narrative’s climax. Jesus disbands the mob, bent on justice against a known sexual sinner. Whether she was a prostitute or simply promiscuous Jesus wants something better for her. But this is no mere escape from narrow-minded moralists; it is a story depicting the love of Christ that disrupts both the crowd and this woman’s life. As much as God’s love is not indifferent to how people are treated neither is he unconcerned with how you live. Jesus demonstrated an incomparable compassion and love, throughout the Gospels and ultimately at the cross. It is a sickening sleight of hand to reduce that love to unconditional affirmation . God loves us too much to let us go our own way, living in destructive sin. His grace is disruptive. His love is directive. “From now on sin no more.”

Pastor, Sit Lightly on the Wisdom of the World

Israel departs EgyptThe phrase, “Plunder the Egyptians” is commonly heard amongst church leaders today, especially at conferences on church leadership and growth strategy. Usually the phrase is used to validate secular wisdom. So if I am teaching at a conference about church growth and I make extensive (or exclusive) use of a trending book on corporate leadership, I need only remind my audience that God’s people plundered the Egyptians. Let me offer two important observations about this language with an eye on its original context, before we think about what God does say about worldly wisdom: (a) as Israel leave Egypt in Exodus 12 we read that God gave them favour in the sight of the people resulting in permission to plunder silver, gold jewellery and clothing; and (b) in Exodus 32 it is fairly safe to conclude that the plundered gold was used to form a physical idol. One might make a tenuous link between what was plundered and idolatry, but let us rather note that Israel plundered material things from Egypt and later those same things were worshipped instead of Yahweh. Plundering the Egyptians, at least in the book of Exodus, has nothing to do with secular principles and worldly wisdom.

A simple word search of the New Testament reveals that we should probably be far less enamoured with and influenced by the wisdom of the world, leadership gurus and corporate strategy than many regrettably are. The book of Colossians has a lot to say about wisdom and Christ but due to the limited space I have in this short post I want us to consider just a couple of themes briefly. God is often described as wise in the New Testament (Romans 11:33; Ephesians 3:10), which would explain why prayer regularly takes the shape of asking him for wisdom (James 1:5; Ephesians 1:17; Colossians 1:9-12). Following on from that observation, wisdom is linked with Christian living (1 Corinthians 6; Ephesians 5). The only time the word comes up in the pastoral epistles is in 2 Timothy 3:15, where Paul is urging Timothy to grasp tightly the inspired truth of Scripture which is able to make people wise for salvation and training them in godliness. I realise that that is far too brief a survey but I think that it would be hard to argue against this tentative conclusion: wisdom in the New Testament comes from God by prayer, can be found in Scripture and empowers Christians for faithful service. Most of that conclusion can be read in 2 Peter 3:15, where Paul’s writings (New Testament epistles) are described as wisdom that comes from God.

Moving on from the conclusion above, I would like to highlight how the New Testament often contrasts the wisdom of the world with God’s. The passage most likely to be familiar to most is 1 Corinthians 1-2, most noticeably: “I…did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom” (2:1). The most vivid and emphatic language used to make this contrast is undoubtedly in James 3-4, see particularly 3:13-18 for the apostle’s searing distinction between God’s wisdom and earthly acumen. Within James 3-4 these find their respective expressions in prayerful humility and presumptuous arrogance.

Finally, we come to 2 Corinthians 1 where Paul wrote, “Our boast is this…we behaved in the world with simplicity and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God, and supremely so toward you” (1:12). In its historical context, Paul was addressing a church that were entranced by powerful men, “super apostles”. Because of the impressive figures they cut, these church leaders towered above everyone else. We can imagine that they were highly thought of even by non-Christians because of their powerful influence, wide learning and versatility. But that is conjecture. What we do know from 2 Corinthians is that it was necessary for Paul to devote much of his epistle to calling the church back from worldly power, leadership and wisdom. That, I am convinced, is something many of us need to be reminded of today. Though Paul threatens stern discipline upon his arrival he reminds the Christians at Corinth that he was a sincere, vulnerable and weak man fully dependant on God. It does not seem to me – from this quick look at the New Testament – that worldly wisdom, secular strategies, and corporate leadership principles are prized in God’s eyes nor do they result in humility or prayerfulness—in fact, the opposite seems to be true.

A few words from D. A. Carson in The Gagging of God suffice as a near perfect conclusion to this post. I say this because the attitude he cautions against concerning the social sciences (polling and surveys) is the same attitude I see many adopting towards secular wisdom. “More frightening is the impression that the social sciences hold the key for church renewal and growth. The assumption seems to be that we are basically okay theologically, spiritually, morally, in our prayers and passion and understanding, and that if we just add this component we are bound to see fruit. The solid core of this outlook is that we do need to understand the people to whom we minister. The falseness is that such understanding and the adaptive change that springs from it guarantees spiritual growth. It may be something God uses, and in that case God is to be thanked, for he is the Author of all good gifts, not least knowledge, including knowledge of demographic profiles. But he may withhold his blessings: he has certainly done so before. Blessings are not guaranteed by reading Gallup reports.” Likewise, blessings do not flow from the world’s wisdom but God himself, who is our wisdom and the one who generously offers wisdom to those who seek it.

If you enjoyed this post there are a few more in this series:

Pastor, Why Do You Want a Big Church?

Does that strike you as a strange question? Of course we want big churches because that will mean more people know and love the Lord Jesus Christ. That may be true, but not in all cases. Let us not forget Jesus’ warning that Satan can grow the church or fall into that trap that equates attendance with faith. I have written other posts exploring whether pastors should be passionate about numerical growth, and I have offered a few cautions about the role of metrics in ministry. In this post I hope to explore the pastor’s desire for a big church. This desire is surely in many cases a healthy and prayerful longing for evangelism and conversions. However I think that we are deceiving ourselves if we deny that mixed motives may lie behind it. Pastors are, after all, sinful, limited and self-seeking human beings. It is this darker side of the pursuit for big ministries that I hope to address below.

Idolatry

Church growthAs with many of the things we make into idols the thing desired may be morally neutral, and in many cases positive. A large as well as healthy church is undoubtedly an honourable aim and God-honouring ambition. But this means that it easily becomes a noble idol, similar to a happy family or success in the workplace. Pastors can very easily slip into desiring something good over and above God, which is a decent but limited definition of idolatry. Surely if I can make something as ostensibly God-given and wonderfully satisfying as marriage into an idol I can do the same with growing and pastoring a large church. In many ways this point will underpin the rest, which are struggles that I believe show we are bowing to the idol of a big, successful ministry instead of the God who grants us the privilege and task of ministry.

Desiring recognition

Linked with the above, Iain Duguid describes idols as things we demand from God in order to give us significance. It is not hard to see how being at the helm of a big church could lead to locating your meaning and even your identity in that, instead of Christ. I imagine this temptation develops the longer one is in ministry. After years of faithfully teaching the Bible, caring for God’s flock and making the many sacrifices involved in full-time ministry the hunger for recognition must cry out. Other pastors less gifted than yourself are enjoying success and growth. As you compare your own work to others you become racked with insecurity that insists you deserve recognition. This will only happen if your significance has shifted from Christ to being the leader of a big and successful church. 

Discontentment

Similarly to the point above, perseverance in ministry can quickly give way to discontentment with the church God has given you. Make no mistake: the church you pastor is God’s treasured possession bought with the blood of his Son and entrusted to undeserving men and women to lead. In his Institutes, commenting on sin in Genesis 3, John Calvin writes, “Ambition and pride, together with ungratefulness, arose, because Adam [was] seeking more than was granted him” (2.1.4). Adam spurned God’s great bounty. Like our first parents who were far too easily persuaded that God was holding something back from them, pastors grow discontent when their churches remain small. Ingratitude causes many pastors to overlook the glorious gift of God’s church – and their responsibility to it – in their longing for a bigger one.

Failing to accept your limitations

MinistryIt is ironic how proud those in service of the crucified Christ can become. Pastors speak about growing churches, assuming that they will be able to cope with its compounded pressures and demands. The proud pastor forecasts numerical growth as if he is in control and without accepting that he may not be gifted and godly enough to manage that growth. There are two problems here: the first is that it is God alone who gives the growth, who begins and finishes his work in people while using weak and often unwitting humans in the process. Secondly, being aware of his own failings and limitations, his very humanity, the pastor should recognise that the reason his church has not broken the 1000 barrier is simply because God in his perfect wisdom knows he will not be able to lead a church that size. God can grow a church despite its pastor in the same way he can keep growth from those who seem to have all the gifts necessary in leading a megachurch. The point is we do not determine that. However grand our vision for church growth we must face reality: God grows his church and we do not. Furthermore, our limitations do not limit God’s action, though in his kindness he may prevent your church from growing to a size that will crush you.

Seeking comfortable ministry

When I was heading up a youth ministry a few years back one of the teens told me that his aim was to become filthy rich, so thathe could be really generous to gospel ministry. Despite not knowing the hearts of men – much less teenagers – I asked him if his desire was not simply to be rich and comfortable. Recently I have wondered if the desire to pastor a big church, the goose that lays the golden egg, is little more than wanting to be comfortable in ministry, the pastor of an affluent church. IX Marks recently published an excellent book that highlights an uncomfortable pattern: churches are typically concentrated in middle to upper-class areas. Obviously I am not suggesting we swing the pendulum but merely that we recognise the self-preserving tendency we all wrestle with. The desire to pastor a big church can be the veil for desiring a plush position in a wealthy church, just like my teen’s intention to be generous towards gospel work was most likely a mask for his desire to be rich. 

If you have enjoyed any of the points made in this post and would like to think more about church size I highly recommend Karl Vaters’ blog, Pivot. If you are going to read just one of his posts then I would urge you to make it this one: 11 Advantages Of Having 50 Churches Of 100 Instead Of 1 Church Of 5,000.

Should We Still Say The Apostles’ Creed?

I grew up in a confessional church, but that is not to say that we were familiar with our confessions. They were those documents that were only made available on request. In such cases, I have little faith in the inquiry of adults, much less children. I left my childhood not being able to express with clarity what it was that I truly believed. But perhaps even worse than poor articulation, was not knowing the indispensable truths about the gospel. My confession then was simple: I am a Christian. And while that was true, it was self-centered and scant.

Compared to my immature confession, we find one far superior in Romans 10:9, “Jesus is Lord”. It was perhaps the simplest and earliest creed used in the early church and is one which does not merely point away from self to the only true savior, but it pierces beyond religion into culture, politics and every area of life. This was not a cheap phrase indicating denominational preference. On the contrary, this creed could cost you your life.

There is another creed which has been universally accepted as a declaration of Christian belief — the Apostles’ Creed. Before the New Testament writings were readily accessible, such a concise presentation of Christian beliefs would have been a useful servant to evangelism and was used as a confessional interrogation at baptism. But should we still be using it today?

Indisputably True

 

When you recite a creed you are setting yourself apart from those who do not. However, across the broad spectrum of churches and denominations, the Apostles’ Creed has always united. While I have used the terms freely up until now, a creed is in fact distinct from a confession. A ‘confession’ dives deeper into the specific doctrines that divide groups while a ‘creed’ expresses precisely what all the associated groups have in common. When we say the Apostles’ Creed we are speaking with one voice across all Christian groups, throughout time, declaring the irrefutable truth of Scripture. As believers we must, with confidence, be able to say it.

But what about the virgin birth? Is it really such an essential doctrine? Is Jesus coming back in judgement, or will just love win? Do I need to believe in the church as well or is Jesus enough?

These are not minor open-handed issues. The virgin birth, the death, resurrection and return of Christ, even the holy universal Church, are essential to the faith and have been throughout the ages. Let’s not be foolish to think that our latest church experience, some new trendy philosophy or societies fluctuating tolerance levels could ever shake that.

Indiscriminately Authentic

While we declare these beautiful truths found in the Apostles’ Creed, we might not always feel very passionately about them. In fact, we may not even be reflecting on the truth we are saying at all. Unfortunately, our culture has pressed us to value sincerity and authenticity above all things. In fact, it unashamedly denies truth every day for the sake of ‘feelings’, and not only as it combats religion but has even turned to deny the science it has so long sponged off. Science and religion must now make way for authentic feelings. What rubbish! I digress.

In response to this I want to first say how much I do value feelings. Feelings are a blessing and a grace, especially when they prompt us to align ourselves with God’s Word. They are a reminder that God is concerned with all of man and not just our minds. In fact, I have found that when information has been accompanied by the appropriate feelings, together they have been a far greater teacher than had the truth come alone. But our feelings are not always faithful. Truth however is always true and the inauthenticity of our delivery cannot touch the authenticity of the truth we declare. We believe the Gospel because it is true, and we declare the Creed because it expresses that truth.While we should always challenge ourselves to be thinking deeply on the words we say, we do not stop saying them if we feel otherwise today, because our feelings do not determine whether the words are worth saying or not.

Indispensably Vocal 

My final point is brief. The Gospel must be said. Truth must be said. The Creed must be said. “Jesus is Lord” is not something just to be believed in the secret places of your heart. You must also confess with your mouth. “For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved” (Romans 10:10). Words are not the things we only ‘use when necessary’. Spoken words are indispensable both in salvation and evangelism. Just four verses on in Romans we read “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?” (10:14). You see, audible words of truth being declared individually or together with the congregation is a tradition we have not just received from church history, but from God’s Word itself – “proclaim it from the rooftops” (Matthew 10:27).