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Monday, August 7, 2017

No Shadows at Calvary

The atoning death of Jesus Christ is a theologically rich and complex subject. While a humble child can receive Christ and all His benefits through a simple faith in the gospel, a thousand lifetimes of reflection could not exhaust the mystery of the cross. How could it be otherwise in the case of this "foolishness of God" which is "wiser than men" (1 Cor. 1:25)? Throughout the last two millennia, the Church has grown in fits and starts in its understanding and articulation of the divine meaning of Calvary, which is to be expected (Eph. 4:13). In the West, especially since Anselm and his development of the "satisfaction theory" of the atonement, the sharpest debates about the atonement have centered around whether and how the cross represented a "penal substitution" whereby Christ substituted Himself for sinners and paid the just penalty for their sins with His own blood.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, there were a number of dramatic caricatures of penal substitutionary atonement theory criticizing it as "cosmic child abuse" and the like, which drew sharp criticism from orthodox Protestant theologians in response. In more recent times certain prominent Protestant theologians have revived an interest in other "theories" or models, (maybe better, "aspects") of the atonement--models which have been more central in Eastern Christianity and even in earlier Catholic theology. They do not reject wholesale every notion of penal substitution as a legitimate component of the biblical picture of the atonement of Christ, but, impressed by certain features of some of the criticisms launched against it in the 20th century especially, have tried to "clean it up" to evade those criticisms. In my opinion, the results have been mixed.

On one hand, there has been an admirable effort to correct unnecessary and confusing abstraction in some of our customary articulations of the cross as a penal substitution. The cross is rightly situated in the concrete context of the story of Israel, historically, and the biblical covenants, theologically (not to separate or even too sharply distinguish the two). Further, the meaning of the cross is necessarily shaped and informed by the earthly ministry of Jesus more than has often been understood or appreciated in Protestant orthodoxy. The cross is not something disconnected from or merely tacked onto the end of Jesus' kingdom-establishing teaching and healing activities. Still further, the cross is not the end of the story; the resurrection of Jesus (and His ascension, and the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost) is just as constitutive of our salvation (even the forensic aspect of it in our justification) as the cross is. In the book of Acts the resurrection is the central apostolic declaration, as the proof of Jesus' universal Lordship. Still further, the cosmic spiritual achievement of the cross as a defeat of death and Satan and all the dark powers (the Christus Victor model or aspect of the atonement) has gained renewed attention in recent works. This is commendable, for the biblical narrative of redemption begins with this theme (Gen. 3:15), and it is directly connected to--rather than pitted against--penal substitution in the New Testament (Col. 2:13-15).

On the other hand, some of the renewed attention to the wider biblical narrative as informing the atonement of Christ has ironically led to some abstractions about the person of Christ Himself as contemplated on the cross. To unpack what I mean, let me first explain what some theologians are saying about the nature of Christ's "penal substitution" for His people.

There are differences between the theologians I have in mind, but there is one common thread that is concerning. Partially in their zeal to avoid some of the harsh criticisms against penal substitution (which paint it as a pagan picture of an unjustly wrathful and bloodthirsty Father toward His innocent Son), and partially in their zeal to re-establish the resurrection as an essential component of the gospel of the Lordship of Christ, they deny that the Father ever in any sense reckoned Jesus as sinful or "condemned" Him on the cross. They affirm that the Father sovereignly directed the events such that Jesus would be delivered over (Acts 2:23; 4:27, 28) for the sake of His people. They affirm that God condemned Sin (construed as a quasi-personal, reigning power in Romans 5-8) in the flesh of Jesus (Rom. 8:3). But as for Jesus Himself, far from ever being condemned by His well-pleased Father--like He was by the mobs of sinful humanity--He was justified, i.e. vindicated by His Father, by virtue of His resurrection. God did not participate in the "legal fiction" of the chief priests in charging Jesus with sin (Mk. 15:3, 4).

On the surface, it sounds promising. Jesus never sinned, so how could a just God ever impute sin to Him? And Jesus certainly was vindicated by God in His resurrection (1 Tim. 3:16), the exact opposite verdict of condemnation. Jesus willingly gave His life as a ransom for sinners, silent before His accusers according to the Father's plan and command, and subjected Himself to the violence of the powers of darkness embodied in the Babylonian aristocracy of Jerusalem and the Beastly tyranny of Rome. He was "abandoned" by the Father (Matt. 27:46; Ps. 22:1) for the sake of redemption, but perhaps we can never say He was "accused" by the Father. Maybe we have been off track after all even speaking of the Father "condemning" Jesus.

However, this nuancing of penal substitution contains a number of implicit theological shortcomings. It implies a near-denial of the Incarnation in its fullest, orthodox significance. It ironically casts a shadow on the justice of God with regard to the death of Christ. And it neglects a sufficiently robust baptismal theology (ironically given other writings of one theologian in particular I have in mind). Let's consider each of these charges in turn.

To appeal to the wording of Romans 8:3, "He condemned sin in the flesh" to justify the denial of the divine imputation of sin to Christ is to miss the point of the verse, but more alarmingly, it borders on denying the Christological doctrine of enyhypostasis as it bears on atonement theology (I will unpack this in a moment). It is of course true that "Sin" in the cosmic sense (Rom. 5:12, 13, 20, 21; 6:7, 10-12, 14, 16-18, 20, 22, 23; 7:8-13) was the target of God's condemnation at the cross (Rom. 8:3). But it is utterly impossible to abstract this verdict of condemnation from the person of Jesus. After all, it wasn't some abstraction of "Sin" that (note the impersonal relative pronoun) was scourged, was crowned with thorns, was crucified, bled, and died for the salvation of the world. It was the (God-)man, Christ Jesus Who (note the personal relative pronoun) suffered and died in the place of sinners. Nor can the revisionist presentation be rescued by highlighting the phrase "in the flesh" in Romans 8:3 as if Jesus' body could be broken as a sacrifice for sin in abstraction from the personal Logos united with a true human nature. The doctrine of enhypostasis states that Jesus' human nature gained true personal subsistence in (only in, per the twin doctrine of anhypostasis) union with the divine Logos. So when the man Jesus of Nazareth physically died on the cross under the weight of sin, the Person of the Son of God died ("improperly" speaking, as we inadequately but necessarily put it), "according to" His human nature ("properly" speaking).

Notice from the Athanasian Creed, in the second half about the Incarnation of Christ:

"Perfect God and perfect man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting (Perfectus Deus, perfectus homo: ex anima rationali et humana carne subsistens)..."

"One altogether, not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person..." (Unus omnino, non confusione substantiae, sed unitate personae)

"Who suffered for our salvation... (Qui passus est pro salute nostra...)" (The qui is itself an ambiguous pronoun but in this context is obviously personal).

So it is absolutely true that on the cross God condemned the tyrannical power that is "Sin," but the way He did this is by seeing to it (Is. 53:10) that the Person of His Son died on a tree (which signifies divine accursedness according to Deut. 21:23). "Sin" and "Flesh" were definitively judged on Calvary when the man Jesus gave His last breath, and that means when the Son of God--He, the God-man--was put to death. This leads into the next point of critique.

Now that we have reminded ourselves that it was the Person of Jesus who endured the suffering and death of the cross at the hands of violent men, under the sovereign direction of the Father, we need to ask ourselves whether the Father would have ever been just to bring about the cursed death of Christ apart from a divine imputation of sin to Him. God is a just and impartial Judge, as the Scriptures make abundantly clear. In fact, the justice and vindication of God in all of His judgments is an even more prominent theme in the book of Romans than the justification of sinners! He does and can do no wrong. This implies that according to His just (image-covenantal, not "arbitrary" in a nominalistic sense) standards, no righteous man will ever perish under ultimate divine curse, and no wicked man will ever attain blessed eternal life. But of course we believe that God does justify the ungodly by faith in Christ (Rom. 4:5a). And the reason this doesn't violate the principle of Proverbs 17:15 (that the justification of the wicked and condemnation of the righteous are alike an "abomination" to Yahweh) is that God bases the verdict of justification on the imputation of righteousness (Rom. 4:5b). To avoid the Roman Catholic charge of "legal fiction" at this level of reckoning we need to go deeper toward the ultimate foundation, but we will do so under the final point of critique. For now it is enough to see that, on the side of the justification of sinful human beings, God is righteous to justify them only insofar as He first reckons them righteous, or "imputes" righteousness to them.

Conversely, then, it is evident that God was only righteous or just to direct redemptive history to the end of the death of His Son, which was a death under ultimate, eschatological divine cursing (cf. Rom. 1:16-18 as background to Rom. 3:21ff), insofar as He reckoned Him a sinner. For the Father to justly "crush" the Son (Is. 53:10), He had to "[cause] the iniquity of us all to fall on Him" (Is. 53:6), not simply in the sense of laying the consequences of our iniquity on Him, but by imputing our iniquity to Him. As with the justification of sinners, we need to discuss further the deep sacramental and covenantal basis for this dynamic, or it will not be clear how the Father is any more just to impute sin to a sinless man than He would be to condemn a man apart from the imputation of sin. We also need to be careful to say that the Father was in fact intensely pleased with His Son's obedient going to the cross in the very same moment as divine wrath was poured out upon the Him in the place of His people. And the Father did impute perfect obedience to Him as well, and publicly vindicated ("justified") Him in His resurrection. This is because Christ had to bear the dual sanctions of the covenant in order to complete His mission as the Last Adam.

Therefore in the attempt to vindicate God by denying that He in any sense "condemned" Jesus, the actual death of Jesus according to the "hand" and "purpose" of God (Acts 4:28) ends up casting an even darker shadow on the justice of the Father. I say "darker" because while it is possible, as we will discuss below, for God to justly impute righteousness to the wicked or to impute sin to the Righteous One, it is in every way impossible for Him to justly sentence a righteous person to eschatological death apart from the imputation of sin. So how can it be? How could the Father have justly imputed sin to the Righteous One, His holy Son?

To answer this question is to aim the third point of critique at the revisionists I have in mind: their baptismal theology, at least as it applies to Christ, is functionally deficient. Within the mainline Protestant tradition, whether Lutheran, Reformed, or Anglican (if they will indulge my designation of them as "Protestant"), the sacrament of baptism is viewed--with differences in the details--as a true means of grace bound up with union with Christ. Union with Christ is the foundation of most (and Reformed would say all) the saving benefits of Christ. Therefore baptism is in at least some sense "saving" (cf. 1 Pet. 3:21) in that it involves (Reformed say "signifies" and "seals" but our confessions themselves go further than that, as well) our identification with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection life. The penal substitution revisionists I have in mind agree with a traditional high sacramentology of Protestant orthodoxy, and have in some works, ironically, even pressed the idea of baptismal efficacy beyond what many confessional Protestants would be comfortable with. Keeping the devil unbound in the details for now, it is certainly hard to deny that the New Testament speaks of water baptism as one ordinary instrument (cf. Rom. 6:4) whereby God unites a person to Jesus Christ--a union which involves (I'm being purposely vague about the precise relationship) that person's being reckoned righteous and justified in Christ (cf. also 1 Cor. 6:11). But what about Jesus' baptism?

What was signified, sealed, and dare I say, accomplished, in the baptism of Jesus? If I say, as a good Reformed theologian, that baptism is an effectual means of salvation by the working of the Spirit, together with a divine Word, for such as to whom salvation belongs, through faith...what was it that Jesus' baptism effected for Him as the Spirit came upon Him, the Father's voice was heard from heaven, and He trusted in His Father's plan for Him? The answer is that it was nothing less than sacramental (i.e. covenantal) identification with sinners. After all, the baptism of John was unto repentance. Of what did Jesus of Nazareth need to repent? For whose trespasses did He pray for forgiveness when He prayed the "Lord's prayer" (which He almost certainly did pray)? First, it was for the trespasses of Israel, His kinsmen according to the flesh. And through His identification with Israel, it was also for the trespasses of the world, according to the priestly-nation principle of Exodus 19:6 latent in Romans 3:19.

In willingly identifying Himself, baptismally, with the sinful (and indeed apostate and exiled) nation of Israel, Jesus identified with the whole of Adamic humanity in the "flesh" (cf. Hos. 6:7). In Reformed federal theology there is a sense in which He identified in a particular way with the elect of God for the sake of atonement (Rom. 8:31-34). But the main point here is that just as we (ordinarily) identify with Christ and His righteousness through baptism (and faith), and are on that basis, i.e. the basis of Christ-for-us, accounted righteous and therefore justified; so Jesus was identified with sinners through His own baptism in the Jordan, and was on that basis reckoned a sinner and condemned on Calvary, without the smallest shadow being cast on the justice of God. "...Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness..." (Mt. 3:15, my emphasis).

In conclusion, while we must indeed be careful to keep the atonement of Christ in the proper contexts of Israel's history, the covenantal dynamics between God and His people (and between the members of the Trinity, for that matter), the cosmic war of Yahweh against "Sin," the flesh, and the powers of darkness, and a holistic narration of the historia salutis that gives due credit to the resurrection, we must also take into account the full implications of the Incarnation, the uncompromising justice of God in all His judgments, and Jesus' baptism, for the meaning of the cross. When we do so, we will find that while there are certain "shorthand" expressions and slogans about penal substitution that are unhelpful and may skew biblical truth, there is ultimately no escaping the glorious, divine scandal that is the cross--the scandal that just is the "demonstration of [God's] righteousness" (Rom. 3:26).

At the wonderful, tragic, mysterious tree
On that beautiful, scandalous night you and me
Were atoned by His blood and forever washed white
On that beautiful, scandalous night