He Died for His People, Not the Elect

The classical Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement is problematic in several ways, even if it does contain a nugget of truth. One of these problems is simply bad exegesis, which in turn results from an unbiblical hermeneutic. A key place where this problem manifests itself is in limited atonement prooftexts like this one:

She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.
Matthew 1:21

The argument for limited atonement tends to read “his people” here as a reference to the unconditionally elect, a timeless mass of individuals chosen for salvation. Moreover, proponents frequently take this for granted, not seriously considering the possibility that the people to whom the verse refers might be a different group. (Indeed, this could be true even if limited atonement were correct.)

There is very little, if any, evidence that the Bible ever directly refes to a transtemporal elect consisting of all the redeemed in all ages (though of course some statements indirectly apply to this whole group). This doesn’t in itself prove that no such group can be defined, of course, but it does create a problem for the limited atonement reading of verses like Matthew 1:21. For there is a more natural referrent for the term “his people” when the context is the Messiah. This is simply Israel.

There is intertextual support for this reading. Take the following verses, for example:

In [the Messiah’s] days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’
Jeremiah 23:6

God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.
Acts 5:31

Of this man’s offspring God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised.
Acts 13:23

The identity of the Messiah was bound up with being the representative of the people of Israel. This was a primary function of the monarchy. When Israel fell into a repeated pattern of sin during her quasi-anarchist theocracy in Judges, God raised up a king upon whom fell the corporate responsibility of keeping the covenant. David was the exemplary king who remained basically faithful to Yahweh and thus typified Christ. Jesus came as the Greater David, taking up the mantle of Israel’s corporate representative so that He could act on her behalf and bring her salvation. Jesus was Israel when He died on the cross, and He died for the sins of His people, His subjects as the King of the Jews. This is still the context of Matthew 1:21, where Jesus identified specifically as the Son of David and His ancestry is traced back to Abraham.

Of course, some will likely respond that “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel.”1 Jesus died for Israel, sure, but this Israel is the true Israel, which is the elect. This response, however, has two flaws. First, and more controversially, it fails to recognize that Paul’s argument hinged on a new development in the constitution of Israel. Formerly, Israel was defined by flesh in the form of Torah observance and ancestry.2 Now, with the accomplishment of justification in Christ’s death and resurrection, Israel is defined by the Spirit around union with the Messiah. This point I have argued elsewhere and will not elaborate on here. Second, this is simply not an identification which is supported in the relevant contexts. As I mentioned above, Matthew 1:21 comes in the context of Jesus as the Son of David and heir to the Messianic throne, a role which is definitely representative of Israel corporately.

This applies to a handful of other texts, as well. Isaiah 53 speaks of the Servant dying for “my [God’s] people,” which there is no contextual warrant to read as referring to anyone but Israel. Many verses which speak of Jesus dying as an atonement for “many” may well also have Israel corporately in mind, although I think it is marginally more likely that the word has no specific meaning except the vastness of the number of people included. When Colossians 2:14 speaks of Jesus “erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands”3, Paul is talking about charges accumulated under the Torah, which was given to and only directly condemned Israel. When the Bible says, then, that Jesus died for the sins of His people, the first and foremost referent is Israel corporately.

However, there are two qualifications which must be made to this. For one, Israel is never just Israel. Election is by nature a representative status. The elect represents others to God and God to others.4 When God condemned in Christ the sins of Israel under Torah, He also condemned the sins of the whole world which Israel had summed up in herself. Israel was not any different from the other nations,5 and in their constant rebellion against God they epitomized and intensified the rebellion of all, so atoning for Israel meant atoning for the world. This reality, however, is not necessarily in view in texts which speak of Christ’s death for His people.

The other qualification is that sense still remains in which some texts certainly do speak more specifically of Jesus dying for the Church (though even this usually refers to the temporal, historical Church rather than the group of the eternally elect, at least directly). John 10 and several parts of Revelation emphasize this. Jesus died for His sheep, and these sheep were, at least to begin with, believing Israelites in direct contrast to unbelieving ones, though it also included believers far off. This operates on a couple of levels which do not necessarily correspond to what limited atonement says about the matter. Specifically, it involves the facts that Jesus died for Israel, but Israel was transformed in the process to consist of believing Jews and Gentiles rather than those who are Jewish by flesh, that the formation of this redeemed new form of Israel was an essential goal of the atonement, and that the Church is therefore the one people in whom forgiveness and justification actually take root and effect in their real lives. Thus it is right to speak of this new people reborn from Israel through Christ’s atoning work as the proper object of the atonement, even if it is not true that the atonement was in some sense “limited” to the sins of a timeless company of elect individuals. For more on this point, I refer you to a closely related post I made some time ago.

In all of this, there remains no particular reason to see any text as referring specifically to Jesus dying exclusively to pay the precise penalty for the sins of a particular company of elected individuals. That’s just not how the Bible thinks, or how the Bible talks about the people of God.

He Died for His People, Not the Elect

The Backward Hermeneutic of Limited Atonement

Honestly, as much as I strenuously oppose the doctrine of limited atonement on logical and theological grounds, my most confident and compelling reasons are simply Biblical. I don’t think Scripture supports the doctrine in any way, shape, or form, but in fact entirely and completely contradicts it. I think T. F. Torrance was altogether correct in his response to a student prompting the doctrine:

That Christ did not die for all is the worst possible argument for those who claim to believe in verbal inspiration!

And this quote gets at the big problem I have with the way people use Scripture to support limited atonement. It requires a terrible, backward, inverted hermeneutic that does serious violence to the text. Specifically, this is the problem: the doctrine of limited atonement requires that we use human inferences from non-explicit texts to overturn or limit the meaning of explicit, clear texts.

Simple example: Hebrews 2:9, 1 John 2:2, 2 Corinthians 5:5, 19, 1 Timothy 4:10 are all very, very explicit about Christ dying for all men. I mean, in realistic terms, there is no way that the Spirit could have been more clear if He wanted to say that Christ died for all. These verses add up to the strongest possible terms save the rather extreme possibility, “Now beware those who will one day try to tell you that Jesus died only for the elect, because He actually died for every single human who ever lived.”

Nonetheless, apologists for limited atonement always feel the need to find convoluted ways to explain away the explicit meaning of these passages because of its overly rationalized readings of texts like John 6, John 10, or Ephesians 5. They draw out inferences from these texts which are at best tenuous, often don’t even logically follow, and in most cases try to force the atonement into a rigorous system of merely human logic. These inferences go something along the lines of “Jesus died for Christians, therefore Jesus did not die for anyone else,” something which (of course) does not necessarily follow. Other times they will make more complex inferences based on the nature of the atonement, pressing the legal metaphors of Scripture way beyond their bounds to create a double-jeopardy scenario for anyone who denies limited atonement. This again tries to overly rationalize God’s revelation in human limits, and in particular often fails to grasp the analogical and metaphorical nature of New Testament descriptions of the atonement, which in itself is a holy and transcendent mystery.

These human rationalizations and inferences, then, are permitted and in fact forced to overrule and twist the plain meaning of the other atonement texts, the ones which explain very straightforwardly that Jesus has died fully and truly for all people everywhere. This is a backward hermeneutical method. It is the opposite of how we rightly ought to understand Scripture. The clear and explicit testimony about Christ’s death for all men should lead us to hold back on our human inferences from other texts, not the other way around.

In this case, the classical Calvinists fall prey to the same trap they frequently find in others. The hermeneutic behind limited atonement is in principle no more legitimate or less legitimate than that of an Arminian who, applying human reason to the doctrine of God’s justice or love, rules out the possibility that the favorite Calvinist proof-texts could mean unconditional election or irresistible grace.

Basic moral of the story: don’t use human inferences from less explicit texts to block the explicit statements of others. So no limited atonement.

The Backward Hermeneutic of Limited Atonement

The Bible, Limited Atonement, the Church, and the World

When I originally ran into Calvinism, limited atonement was the most frightening doctrine to me, and it almost sounded heretical. Even when I was a Calvinist, I originally and in the end found it awfully stretchy in relation to what Scripture actually says, and for that reason I was quite happy to abandon it when the time came. But for Calvinists I know, this repudiation seems strange. They can hardly see how a logical approach to the Bible can go without limited atonement. Yet I am convinced that to let Scripture say what it says entirely rules out the doctrine.

For this post, then, I would simply like to propose the basic outline of my approach to texts in Scripture which relate to the extent of the atonement. I believe that this approach is more faithful to what the Bible actually says and means than the Calvinistic one. I will try to present each in a strong and credible form for comparison, and I will then present a few verses which I think can serve as decent test cases for your own evaluation as readers.

First, the basic Calvinistic approach to atonement texts. In the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement, Christ only died to atone for the sins of the elect, at least in any full and strict sense. Jesus hung from the Cross as the penal substitute and representative of the elect alone. He paid the full legal price for their sins alone. Some Calvinists will also say that Jesus’ death at least brought some kinds of benefits to the rest of humanity, though this is a limited blessing (one which I tend to think is actually a curse, as I will explain in a later post someday).

Obviously, this view of the atonement creates tension with texts like 2 Corinthians 5:14-15 or Hebrews 2:9. So how do Calvinists address them? It depends both on the specific context and the particular interpreter, but there are usually three main approaches. The first looks for clues in the context that show the “all” should be understood as referring to all of the Church/elect/redeemed rather than every member of humanity. Another method is to view the “all” as a reference essentially to the universal generality and diversity involved rather than the total number of people, i.e. “all” means “all kinds of people” (cf. Rev. 5:9) or specifically “Jews and Gentiles together” (cf. 1 John 2:2) rather than “every person.” And a final method, historically not very common until recently, is to take it as a reference to the supposed general, non-saving benefits of Jesus’ death for all people, such as common grace.

On the other hand, Calvinists seem to have a prima facie stronger grasp of certain texts which specify Christ as dying for His Church or His people. They take these as straightforwardly saying that, when it comes to actual atonement for redemption, Jesus died simply and exclusively for the elect, His own people. These are the only people that Jesus was crucified in order to save.

So how is my own approach (one which, of course, has plenty of parallels outside of Calvinism) different? First, I take the “all” passages at face value. When 2 Corinthians 5:14 says, “one died for all,” I accept that as meaning Jesus died for all people indiscriminately. Same goes for a host of other passages. The “all” passages seem to be clear and explicit. Unlike in the Calvinistic reading, these mean exactly what you would think and exactly what they say. When Jesus suffered on Calvary, He suffered on behalf of the entire human race as a whole, on behalf of humanity as one race. This is because He, as the divine Word in whom all humanity is created, represents them all in His own human flesh. He organically stepped into the place and guilt of all people through His stance in several layers of covenant ultimately encompassing the whole race.

So what about the passages which speak of Christ’s death as specifically for His Church or His people, the many? I believe we should also fully affirm them, without diluting their force. I mean, on one hand, obviously “all people” includes the Church. But that’s not a convincing way to understand verses as strong as Eph. 5:25. In what way did Christ die specifically and especially for His Church? For this, I look to the way that the Church is not merely meant to be individuals who don’t have to go to Hell, but is instead a renewed Israel and through Israel also a renewed humanity. The Church is the humanity of the new creation. In Christ’s death the old humanity dies, and in His resurrection the new humanity is born. In this way we can say that Jesus died specifically to create His Church as a redeemed people for a redeemed world. This isn’t saying that Jesus only paid the penalty for the sins of people who actually end up saved, but says that the atonement was especially designed to form a new humanity, a new image-bearing people of God, out of the old one by union with Christ in His death and resurrection. So it truly makes sense to speak of Jesus giving Himself for His Church to save and sanctify Her, even while at the same time affirming that He died for the sins of the world unequivocally.

So, with these two approaches, a classical one and a more Evangelical Calvinist-style one, in mind, I offer a handful of texts related to the extent of the atonement, and you can judge which view makes more sense on your own:

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired man, since he is not the shepherd and doesn’t own the sheep, leaves them and runs away when he sees a wolf coming. The wolf then snatches and scatters them. This happens because he is a hired man and doesn’t care about the sheep.

“I am the good shepherd. I know My own sheep, and they know Me, as the Father knows Me, and I know the Father. I lay down My life for the sheep. But I have other sheep that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will listen to My voice. Then there will be one flock, one shepherd. This is why the Father loves Me, because I am laying down My life so I may take it up again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down on My own. I have the right to lay it down, and I have the right to take it up again. I have received this command from My Father.” 

John 10:11-18

For Christ’s love compels us, since we have reached this conclusion: If One died for all, then all died. And He died for all so that those who live should no longer live for themselves, but for the One who died for them and was raised. 

2 Corinthians 2:14-15

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her to make her holy, cleansing her with the washing of water by the word. He did this to present the church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or anything like that, but holy and blameless. In the same way, husbands are to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own flesh but provides and cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, since we are members of His body.

Ephesians 5:25-30

For He has not subjected to angels the world to come that we are talking about. But one has somewhere testified:

What is man that You remember him, or the son of man that You care for him? You made him lower than the angels for a short time; You crowned him with glory and honor and subjected everything under his feet.

For in subjecting everything to him, He left nothing that is not subject to him. As it is, we do not yet see everything subjected to him. But we do see Jesus — made lower than the angels for a short time so that by God’s grace He might taste death for everyone — crowned with glory and honor because of His suffering in death. For in bringing many sons to glory, it was entirely appropriate that God — all things exist for Him and through Him — should make the source of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the One who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. That is why Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying:

I will proclaim Your name to My brothers; I will sing hymns to You in the congregation.

Again, I will trust in Him. And again, Here I am with the children God gave Me.

Now since the children have flesh and blood in common, Jesus also shared in these, so that through His death He might destroy the one holding the power of death — that is, the Devil — and free those who were held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death. For it is clear that He does not reach out to help angels, but to help Abraham’s offspring. Therefore, He had to be like His brothers in every way, so that He could become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For since He Himself was tested and has suffered, He is able to help those who are tested. 

Hebrews 2:5-18

He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for those of the whole world.

1 John 2:2

The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life — a ransom for many.

Matthew 20:28

This is good, and it pleases God our Savior, who wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and humanity, Christ Jesus, Himself human, who gave Himself — a ransom for all, a testimony at the proper time.

1 Timothy 2:3-6

The Bible, Limited Atonement, the Church, and the World

All Things for Good: A Technical Look at God’s Sovereignty via the Cross

This post was not written for here. I wrote it as part of a forum debate. Yet I am fairly happy with how it turned out, so I’m going to quote it here for the benefit of anyone who might be interested.


The universe was created ex nihilo, out of nothing at all, and therefore is not intrinsically tied to anything in the inner life, processes, or determinations of God. It is its own, though radically contingent, thing, which in and of itself is simply an ordered system which has no inherent meaning. It is nonetheless an open system, one in which God is freely able to introduce His own acts and purposes.

At the same time, God is utterly free and sovereign. While the nature of the cosmos is not meaningful or spiritual in and of itself, God is able to invest otherwise normal events with a purpose and direction, a telos, which flows from His eternal purposes of grace.

The point of contact whereby God grips the meaningless world and subjects it to His will is the Cross. On the natural surface, the crucifixion of Christ was arbitrary and senseless. A rising prophet, doing wonderful things all around, falls prey to the violence of selfishness, political games, and religious corruption and is unjustly murdered in a horrific way. What could be more vain?

Yet in this very event, God’s gracious purposes are being accomplished. God Himself is present in Jesus’ dying body, sovereignly submitting to weakness, suffering, and death because He has a particular plan. In this nonsense He somehow accomplished the expiation of sins, freeing of the entire world from guilt. Even this meaning, however, is quickened by the Resurrection, which overturned the death, suffering, and humiliation He experienced, infusing them all with their meaning and purpose. God took the climactic depths of human sin and meaninglessness, and then imbued the very same event with gracious saving power and significance.

On a wider scope, though, by this event, and by the Ascension of Christ to the heavens and the outpouring of His Spirit, Jesus has filled all of space and time with this same conquering power, so that in the end every square inch in every second of the universe is brought under His authority and love. No matter what meaningless and nonsensical events this universe throws before us, their inherent vanity is undermined and replaced with an eschatological arrow pointing to the summing up of all things in Christ.

I should add, though, that there is no analogy in nature or human experience for how this works. Our created cause-and-effect systems have nothing in common with the way the uncreated God implements His gracious plans in the world.

All Things for Good: A Technical Look at God’s Sovereignty via the Cross

Calvinism’s Closet Heresy? Torrance on Limited Atonement

My name is Caleb, and I used to be a Calvinist. To be honest, I’m still kind of like one, but I’m definitely not a 5-point, TULIP believer. In fact, the center of TULIP theology, the L, is my primary problem, the problem which epitomizes what is wrong with the entire system. If by any chance you don’t know, the L in TULIP stands for “Limited Atonement.” According to the uniquely Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement, Jesus did not die for all people, at least in a saving way. For the Calvinist, Jesus only died to save the elect, the limited group of people God unconditionally chose to save from before time.

Limited atonement is the weakest link in the TULIP chain, and in my opinion this doctrine is entirely unbiblical. TULIP’s L cannot be found in Scripture, nor does Scripture allow that possibility. If you want to dispute that, I’d simply say that texts like Lk. 23:34, John 1:29, 2 Cor. 5:14-15, Col. 1:20, 1 Tim. 2:6, Heb. 2:9, 1 Jn. 2:2 are too explicit and drastically outweigh the flimsy proofs that Jesus death was intended only for some people’s salvation.

Of course, as the title says, this post is not about my own arguments against limited atonement but about one by T. F. Torrance. Torrance, a truly brilliant, 20th century Scottish Reformed theologian, writes in his book Atonement on the hidden Nestorianism hidden within this doctrine. If you’re not familiar, Nestorianism was a Christological heresy which said Jesus was basically two Christs, a divine Christ and a human Christ, united in one body with one mind. Instead of a single Jesus who is fully God and fully man as one person, there was a God-Jesus and a human-Jesus stuck together with “duct tape” flesh.

According to Torrance, limited atonement only makes sense if we look at Jesus the way Nestorians do. I’ll quote what he said:

Three basic questions are raised by this [limited atonement].

(i) Whom did Christ represent in his incarnation and in his death? Did he represent all humanity, or only a chosen few?

(ii) What is the relation between the death of Jesus and the Father in heaven? Did God himself condescend to take upon himself man’s judgment, or did he send someone to represent him and do a work which was rewarded with forgiveness as he saw fit?

(iii) What is the nature of the efficacy of the atoning death of Christ?

After asking about what relation, if any, the incarnation has to the atonement, Torrance writes this:

Atonement and incarnation, however, cannot be separated from one another and therefore the range of representation is the same in both. In both, all people are involved. In the incarnation Christ, the eternal Son, took upon himself the nature of man and all who belong to human nature are involved and are represented, all men and women without exception, so that for all and each, Jesus Christ stood in as substitute and advocate in his life and in his death. Because he is the eternal Word or Logos in whom all humanity is assumed by his incarnation; all humanity is bound up with him, he died for all humanity and all humanity died in him.

Moving on to what he says about the relation between the Son’s death and the Father:

The hyper-Calvinist, however, argues in this way, that in Christ’s life and especially in his death on the cross, the deity of Christ was in repose. He suffered only in his humanity. On the cross, Christ merited forgiveness sufficient for all mankind…but it held efficaciously only for those whom the Father had given him…Here we must look at the relation posed here between Christ in his human nature on the cross and God in heaven. If Christ acted only in his human nature on the cross and God remained utterly apart and utterly transcendent, except that he agreed in will with Christ whom he sent to die, then all that Christ does is not necessarily what God does or accepts. In that case the sacrifice of Christ may be accepted as satisfaction only for the number of the elect that God has previously chosen or determined. But if God himself came among us in Christ his beloved Son, and assumed upon himself our whole burden of guilt and judgment, then such an arbitrary view would be impossible. And we must hold the view that it is indeed God himself who bears our sins, God become man and taking man’s place, standing with humanity under the divine judgment, God the judge becoming himself the man judged and bearing his own judgment upon the sin of humanity, so that we cannot divorce the action of Christ from the action of God. The concept of a limited atonement thus rests upon a basic Nestorian heresy.

Besides how can we think of the judgment on the cross as only a partial judgment upon sin, or of a judgment only upon some sinners, for that is what it is if only some sinners are died for and only some are implicated in Christ and the cross? But what would that mean but a destruction of the whole concept of atonement, for it would mean a partial judgment and not a final No of God against sin; it would mean a partial substitution and thus a repudiation of the concept of radical substitution which the atonement involves…Or to put it another way: it would mean that outside of Christ there is still a God of wrath who will judge humanity apart from the cross and who apart from the cross is a wrathful God. But that is to divide God from Christ in the most impossible way and to eliminate the whole teaching of the ‘wrath of the lamb’, namely that God has committed all judgment to the Son.

All above from T. F. Torrance, Atonement, pp. 181-185 (some emphasis mine)

If I were to summarize what Torrance is saying here, the point is that limited atonement can only work if there is a very wrong degree of separation between what Jesus Christ did in his human life and what God Himself does. For the divine Word of God is the image of God in whom all people are created; God is the one in whom we all live and move and have our being. So if God is the one who was acting on the cross, taking His own judgment on sinners, then He would necessarily include all humanity in that action. Only if Jesus died as one mere, although perfect, human among other mere humans could His death be used to save only some humans. This implies Nestorianism, because this only works if Jesus as a human can be separated from Jesus as God.

So limited atonement has a closet heresy. Just when you think a doctrine couldn’t be more unbiblical…

I suppose I’ll close with a passage from Hebrews, one which when given serious thought leaves no room for a limited atonement, because Jesus is God (which the author pounds on in the chapter before this quote) and human.

It is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking. But there is a place where someone has testified:

“What is mankind that you are mindful of them, a son of man that you care for him? You made them a little lower than the angels; you crowned them with glory and honor and put everything under their feet.”

In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything under them. But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters. He says:

“I will declare your name to my brothers and sisters; in the assembly I will sing your praises.” And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again he says, “Here am I, and the children God has given me.”

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil…For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.

Hebrews 2:10-14,17

Calvinism’s Closet Heresy? Torrance on Limited Atonement

How God is Simple, and Why That is Good News (Divine Simplicity and the Cross)

So I had this thought while I was taking a walk yesterday. I had been thinking about the term “holy love” which is occasionally used in theology. This brought me to the doctrine of divine simplicity. A few of you here probably already know that that means, but for those of you who don’t, divine simplicity takes “God is one” down to a very deep level. According to divine simplicity, God is not separately love, and holiness, and justice, and kindness. Instead, all of these so-called attributes are in fact analogies of a single reality, so that God simply is who He is. God has no parts, so to speak, but all His attributes are unified. He is not complex like a machine, but simple like a single ray of light.

With this in mind, I was thinking of how what we see as God’s attributes all appear to move in different directions. But, I thought, all lines which are not parallel intersect at some point. Sooner or later any two lines at different angles will converge. In application to God’s simplicity, I thought that if we had the capacity to trace all of God’s dealing with people back, all the apparent attributes would intersect at a single point.

Of course, when I realized there could be a single point at which every apparent attribute of God converged and became one, I quickly saw two implications:

  1. If these lines all connect in any single historical point, that point would have to be the Cross. There every different line we can trace out of God’s differing ways all seem to come together in one event. Justice, mercy, sovereignty, human accountability, love, wrath, grace, and condemnation all became one actual event at Calvary.
  2. Yet if divine simplicity is actually right about God, and all of His attributes are only one real thing in this way, then where these lines converge would also have to be where you find who God truly is. Where all these apparent attributes meet as one is where you find God as the I AM.

So confronted with these two implications, I saw the beautiful truth, not a new truth which I had never known, but one which came from the beginning: God is seen for who He really is at the Cross. When Jesus suffered and died, all the lines of all God’s apparent attributes converge and shine as the one glorious reality of the I AM. If we want to know who and what God really is, the Cross is the historical moment where He shows us. To Moses on Sinai’s mountain God revealed merely His back, but to us all on Calvary’s mountain God revealed all that He is.

Isn’t this wonderful to know? The Cross is where we see God for who God is, and of course that means Jesus Himself is the One in whom we see God for who God is! All this seems to me very exciting, and I hope it will also lead you to devotion. Amen.

How God is Simple, and Why That is Good News (Divine Simplicity and the Cross)

When God Doesn’t Seem Good: Living with Tough Texts in the Bible

God isn’t always easy to trust. I don’t just mean in the daily lives of living out of faith. I mean even based on what we know of Him, it can be tough to trust Him to be good. Prime example:

This is what the LORD of Hosts says: ‘I witnessed what the Amalekites did to the Israelites when they opposed them along the way as they were coming out of Egypt. Now go and attack the Amalekites and completely destroy everything they have. Do not spare them. Kill men and women, children and infants, oxen and sheep, camels and donkeys.’ “

1 Samuel 15:2-3

Think about that for a moment. Here God, our God revealed in Jesus Christ, says to kill all of the Amalekites without mercy. Even the children and infants. This is not, either, the only time in the Bible that God gives such commands to Israel. There are many tough texts in the Bible, especially in the early Old Testament.. What do we make of that when Jesus said, “Let the little children come to Me,” and John said, “God is love?” Can these things possibly even mesh at all?

According to a growing number of people, the answer is an obvious “no.” Popular thinkers and writers like Peter Enns and Rachel Held Evans are willing to relegate these instructions to the projections of the Israelites onto their God. The character of Yahweh in the Old Testament, as many will now tell you, is a picture of God distorted by the cultural sins and prejudices of ancient Israel.

On one hand, this sounds good. It would be nice to say, as Enns does, that “God lets His children tell the story,” and leave all the uncomfortable bits in the trash bin of Israel’s sin. But is this really viable? Is this a truly Christian way of reading Scripture? I don’t think so. We have to be willing, as far as I can tell, to let God tell His story through His method, namely the Bible, gore and all.

How can we understand these difficult texts, then? How do we reconcile in our minds the God who died for all the Amalekite children and the God who had them executed? Some people don’t try and just live in denial of the tension. Some people divide God’s will into two, with God’s house divided against itself as He pursues both His love for people and His love for His glory. But a truly Christian way of handling these difficult parts of the Bible requires Christ, namely seeing all of Scripture through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. Jesus Himself said that all Scriptures point to Him, and that He fulfills their meaning and purpose.

How does this relate to these hard verses? According to people like Enns, the love of the Cross undermines them. If Jesus is love to such an extent, then Yahweh the Warrior must not be pure revelation but human corruption. Yet this seems dangerous to me, mainly because I believe Jesus and the Apostles treated the entire Old Testament revelation of God as an infallible authority and assumed that portrait in their theology. This even includes His holy wars.

If that “solution” doesn’t work, what does? How do we reconcile these two different views of God? Well, I still point us to the Cross, but in a different way. Instead of undermining the Old Testament violence, I believe the Cross gives us reason to trust God in spite of such things. Yes, God seems to have ordered the wholesale extermination of the Amalekite people, but we should let the Cross teach us that God’s love is even at work here, not that it didn’t happen by God’s plan. Whatever judgment He was willing to inflict on the Amalekite people and children, He willingly suffered Himself for their salvation. If God can perform the ultimate act of love within the horror of His own Son’s unjust crucifixion, surely He can love in anything else.

Ultimately, this all calls for faith. Do you trust that God is good? I do, honestly. I don’t always understand Him, but I trust that He is good. Moreover, I trust that He is good in the revelation He gave us. I trust that He gave us a reliable picture of Himself, even in the tough texts in the Bible, and that this somehow flows with His all-consuming love. How can this be? I don’t have a clue, but like Mary I trust His promise and wait patiently to see what He will do. And even in that I do struggle with this. This is one of the questions that can keep me up at nights, forcing me to surf the web for smart believers with fresh insights. But even then, I wait patiently for God to answer, even if that will not happen before Jesus returns. I can trust Him in the wait, because Jesus proved His love. My prayer is that you can, too.

When God Doesn’t Seem Good: Living with Tough Texts in the Bible