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.

We Are Not Ourselves

I am sinless. 

I am sinful. 

I am holy.

I am profane. 

I am righteous. 

I am guilty. 

What is all this babbling about? I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the Christian identity. People talk about how our identity is in Christ, but they rarely talk explain what that means practically. A lot could be said about it, really. But I’ve been thinking about one aspect in particular. 

In one way, we have two selves as Christians. There is the old man and the new. Often these are treated as simply two sides to your mind or heart, one good and one evil, but it’s really so much deeper than that.

The truth is that Jesus has actually and entirely remade us. We were one kind of person, one kind of human being, before, but He has broken that down into tiny pieces and rebuilt it from the ground up. He did this in His death and resurrection. When He died on the Cross, the humanity of our old, fallen, natural selves was crucified—brutally executed under the wrath of God—with Him. And then we were raised with Him to a new humanity, perfectly purified from sin and filled with the life and glory of God.

So where does that leave us now? In Christ, we are already perfected. I’m not talking sentimentally. I’m not talking about our legal status before God. I’m saying that the human life of Jesus in heaven right now is our life. He is literally our perfection, our sanctification, our regeneration, our glorification. Our redeemed selves are hidden with Christ in God 

But this hiding is, for now, essential to grasp. We can’t see our new selves but in glimpses, shadows, and holy moments by faith. Our new selves are in Christ alone, hidden in heaven, and the only way to see them in the present on earth is by union with Christ.

Because, the thing is, right now we are not ourselves. In a certain way we are, but in a more important way we’re not. The selves we experience right now—the ones deeply scarred by sin, guilt, confusion, insufficiency, fear, doubt, weakness, and death—are expired. We were crucified. Our flesh was mortally wounded on Calvary in the flesh of Jesus. Our existence as sinners is passing away, fading like a time traveler who has murdered his young grandfather.

So right now we are walking paradoxes. We are still our natural and decaying selves, but by grace the Holy Spirit has united us to Jesus, in whom our true selves are hidden. Although our new selves will have to remain essentially hidden with Christ until He comes, because of our present union with Him by the Spirit we can begin to live, inasmuch as we depend on Jesus in faith, as new creatures even today. As we draw nearer to Jesus, we become in this mixed present more like who we really are in the Savior. Yet because Jesus still remains hidden in heaven, we cannot yet fully escape who we have been, our old and dead selves. 

This, then, thrusts us back onto the practices that take us to Jesus. Our only way to be who we really are is to know Him, which means we are bound to pray, to read the Scriptures which testify of Christ, to take our place within His Body, the Church, to serve the least of these with whom He so deeply identifies, and to feast upon His new creation nourishment weekly in the Supper, to recall the promise and identity of our baptisms, and to suffer for the Gospel. These things deepen our union with Christ. Self-denial and cross-bearing connect us to His death, which killed our old selves. Likewise, the active life of believing, knowing, and loving Jesus connects us to His resurrection by the Spirit. And by this resurrection we experience in advance our new creation selves as pure gift in the person of Jesus.

So for now, we march on in tension. Our old, corrupted selves remain alive in this age but dead in Christ. Our redeemed and holy selves remain hidden in this age (they belong to the age to come) but present in Christ. Yet out of these two realities, this age and the age to come in Jesus, one is superior. Jesus is victorious, and all reality opposed to His is already defeated. This means that we, in our darkness and pain and struggling, are not ourselves. Our true selves are hidden in Christ to be revealed on the last day. That is hope and comfort, for the selves we see now obviously have no place in glory or eternal life. But if this isn’t who we are, if in Jesus we are something far better, then we know that there is real hope for us all.

To adapt something T. F. Torrance once said:

This Caleb Smith you see is full of corruption, but the real Caleb Smith is hid with Christ in God and will be revealed  only when Jesus Christ comes again.

Amen.

Who Acts in Our Salvation? Jesus!

When we’re initially saved, who makes it happen? If you’re not familiar with many aspects of the traditional Calvinist/Arminian debate, you may be wondering what quite this question is getting at. If you are, you may recognize the doctrinal point involved. The question at hand is the debate of monergism vs. synergism. If you don’t know what those mean, they are actually fairly simple to understand.

When we are first saved, how does it happen? Who does what? Obviously there are at minimum two persons in involved: God and you. But how do your roles relate? In the traditional forms of Calvinism and Arminianism, the answers are like this:

Calvinism affirms monergism, which means “one working.” In Calvinism, the only person who actually acts in bringing about your salvation (usually specified as regeneration) is God Himself. Your repentance and faith are altogether secondary and only happen because God first gives you a new birth which enables (and guarantees) your response to Him. God alone acts by the Holy Spirit to save you, and from this saved ground you can repent and believe in the Gospel. R. C. Sproul put it this way:

We also believe that regeneration is monergistic. Now that’s a three-dollar word. It means essentially that the divine operation called rebirth or regeneration is the work of God alone. An erg is a unit of labor, a unit of work. The word energy comes from that idea. The prefix mono– means “one.” So monergism means “one working.” It means that the work of regeneration in the human heart is something that God does by His power alone—not by 50 percent His power and 50 percent man’s power, or even 99 percent His power and 1 percent man’s power. It is 100 percent the work of God.

Arminianism, along with many Catholic view and Eastern Orthodoxy, counter with synergism, which essentially means “working together.” In synergism, God initiates and offers grace, and man must cooperate with his free will. Salvation essentiallly occurs by the acts of both parties, God in giving and man in receiving, with the idea of man’s reception being conceived of as an act of a human free will. In this view, repentance and faith are integral to the beginning of salvation, rather than a result of a beginning accomplished simpy by God alone. Some would characterize synergism as being a 50-50 view, although most synergists would disagree. In any case, synergism relies on man cooperating with God’s grace, so that God does part (certainly the superior part) and man does part (an inferior, receptive part). Eric Landstrom of the Society of Evangelical Arminians gives this explanation:

So important is it that God monergistically works that Calvinists have effectively written out and forgotten that all relationships are in point of fact synergistic. If any “relationship” isn’t synergistic, then it is said to be one-sided, and one-sided relationships are both sad and unhealthy.

But God is personable and so too are we also personable. As such, we should expect that, as a person, God interacts with us on a personal level and in a personal way…[W]hen God reaches out to us, we can respond—but just like any healthy relationship, we needn’t respond to God by necessity. But if we respond to God’s reconciling ministry of grace, and our response is theocentric and sustained by continuously drawing upon the strength of grace received by God, then God continues to augment the process with more grace; and by augmenting the process the relationship between the creature and God grows.

Now, if you don’t already have a settled opinion on this matter, which view will ring true to you probably largely depends on the preaching you’ve heard and the reading you’ve done. But before you consider making any conclusions, I would like to present an alternative.

See, my problems with both monergism and syngerism in their traditional forms are two: (1) they assume a competitive relationship between divine and human agency, and (2) they don’t take Jesus into account.

What do I mean by these? For (1), the problem is that Scripture does not assume any view of the relationship between God’s will and man’s will which must simply add up to 100%. Traditional monergism and synergism do. For monergism, the 100% of action must belong entirely to God, leaving man with 0%. In synergism, the numbers must be divided up some way, perhaps 50-50 or 90-10, or even 99-1. But there is no Biblical evidence for this kind of zero-sum game. All of God does not mean none of man, and neither does God and man mean only some of each.

But to make my (1) make sense, I have to explain (2). Neither traditional monergism nor traditional synergism make any explicit use of Christology, the doctrine of Jesus, instead either talking of God generally or specifiying the Father or the Holy Spirit. And yet, if we are trying to understand the relationship between God and man, we can’t bypass the one place in all reality where God and man are truly and fully one, hypostatically united as a single person named Jesus.

I follow, then, the Evangelical Calvinist tradition in focusing on what is called the vicarious humanity of Christ (posts related to this can be found here, and Martin M. Davis has a good series on it beginning here). Jesus did not simply die in our place; He was and is human in our place. Our true humanity is based in Him. Everything that needed to be done for our salvation, both on God’s part and on man’s part, has already been done in His own Person and work.

So how does this affect monergism and synergism? I look at it through Christ. Contrary to synergism, the only true cooperation between free human will and divine grace is found in Jesus, where He lived a whole human life in obedience to the Father, even unto death. If we are to respond to God at all, our reponse will have to begin with the human response of Jesus to His Father, not with our free will. Contrary to monergism, though, this does not somehow remove our response from the equation. On the contrary, our response plays a decisive role in our receiving salvation precisely because it is not our own response but rather the response of Jesus in which we participate by the Holy Spirit.

If you’re lost a bit, I’ll step back. For humanity to have a saving relationship to God, we need faithfulness and holiness. For sinful humanity to return to God, we need faith and repentance. We fallen men, however, could never offer God any of this. So Jesus offered it in our place. He gave God on our behalf perfect faithfulness, perfect holiness, perfect faith, and even perfect repentance.1 This perfect human response to God could only be given by Jesus who was Himself God. Jesus is both the Word of God who calls for repentance and faith as well as the true Human who responds to God’s word in repentance and faith.

With this in mind, perhaps I could call my view Christological monergism. In one sense, it is God alone who acts to bring us to salvation. The Father sent the Son, the Son gave the Father the necessary human response for salvaiton, and by the Holy Spirit we are brought into saving union with Jesus. The true actor in our salvation is Jesus for us, and He is God. But on the other hand, we are also involved. By our union with Christ through the Holy Spirit, we do truly and really repent and believe to be saved. I respond to God, yet it is not I but Christ in me, and the response I offer to the Father, I offer by the response of the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.2 And God accepts this response, and me, because what He is really accepting in Jesus, who is in me, and I in Him, and His response.

So it is not simply 100% God and 0% man, nor is it part God and part man. In Jesus salvation comes as 100% God and, albeit in a secondary sense, 100% man. Yet even man’s part is not just man in and of himself, not any natural human free will, but the part of Jesus as a man for us. It is only through, in, and by Him—us united to Him by the Holy Spirit—that we can be free for God, and in this freedom choose life by choosing what Jesus has already chosen for us and in our place.

I’ll conclude, then, with an editor’s summary of T. F. Torrance’s view in his book Incarnation:

[F]or Torrance, the Christian life is one of union with Christ in which in faith we live out of his faith and his righteousness. Having no righteousness in ourselves, we arc united to him so that we may live out of his. Our faith is the knowledge, given to us in the Spirit, that he has accomplished our salvation in his person and work and that we are saved purely by his unconditional grace.

This does not mean that we do nothing although it does mean that we do nothing for our salvation. For Torrance, there is an analogy here with the person of Christ. The fart that the humanity of Christ owes its being entirely to the action of God in the incarnation, does not mean It is not real. The fact that Christ is all of God, or that all of God is in Christ, does not mean that there is nothing of man in him, but the opposite, that all of man is in him. Torrance used to explain that in the logic of grace, ‘All of grace does not mean nothing of man. All of grace means all of man.’ The knowledge that forgiveness and salvation is all of grace liberates us out of ourselves into union with Christ, freeing on to live fully and freely out of him. All of grace means all of man, just as the action of God in Christ means all of man in Christ.

Theosis: Does Christmas Make Men Gods?

Sometimes you’re reading an old Church Father or something along those lines when you suddenly feel the need to stop in your tracks because you hit a quote like this one from St. Athanasius:

For the Son of God became man so that we might become god.

If you’re not from an Eastern tradition of Christianity, you might think that sounds heretical.Then there are other statements like of Irenaeus: “If the Word became a man, It was so men may become gods,” or of Augustine: “But he himself that justifies also deifies, for by justifying he makes sons of God. ‘For he has given them power to become the sons of God.’ If then we have been made sons of god, we have also been made gods.” 

So what does this all mean? Were the Church Fathers just raving heretics who missed important doctrines like monotheism and the Creator/creature distinction? Were they basically the predeccessors of New Age charlatans? I’m going to say “No,” and if that seems indefensible I will go on to explain why, and what the line of thought they’re talking about has to offer us today, specifically from a more Reformed perspective.

The doctrine we are specifically dealing with here is called theosis (also deification or divinization). Broadly speaking, the term just refers to a creature somehow becoming more like a god. For Christian theology in particular it is about a way of looking at salvation focused on our union with God. So what exactly does theosis mean in that context?

First, I should point out that despite the strong language in those quotes I just provided, none of these people thought that humans were somehow going to become equal to God, members of the Trinity, secondary deities, or anything along those lines. What they actually meant is more nuanced. They all believed that there is and can be only one true God, and that humans can’t just become another one, or something just like Him. So we can ignore the initial fear and try to find the reality that the writers were pointing toward by using deification language. Specifically, I will look at this from a Reformed perspective, through the lens of union with Christ.

In Reformed and Lutheran circles, doctrines of theosis are sometimes called Christification to emphasize that we are not dealing with some generic turing of men into gods but that what is happening in theosis is the transformation of humanity into the pure image of Christ, who is the image of God. Theosis means that through Jesus we participate in the life and glory of God, and that is where we find salvation.

What does this mean more specifically? I’ll break it down a little more clearly. Man by his mere flesh, his nature without God, has no true life or glory. He is little more than a smart and emotionally complex monkey. He will pass away after a brief, absurd, and often miserable existence filled with sin. His life and glory can come only from God, only from His ability and call to display the image of God. The glory of God is the true life of man. But because of sin, man is separated from the glory of God. This leaves him with only death and misery.

Jesus came in to resolve this problem. Being Himself God, He took upon human nature so that in His person there could be a humanity who is truly the image of the invisible God. Jesus, being that image unstained, lived a human life which was completely filled with the glory of God both in His power and in His holy character. Unlike Adam, He carried out that union of man’s life and God’s glory all the way to the grave and even back. Upon returning in a victorious resurrection, He was glorified as a renovated human being. His resurrected humanity far surpassed the old, mortal kind. It was and remains filled to the brim with God’s life and glory. Jesus is therefore what God looks like as a man. Jesus’ glory as the resurrected Lord is the human version of the glory of God. He is the image of the invisible God, and the only person in whom human nature has been able to align perfectly with divine nature (though without the two being mixed up together). To reiterate in one more way, in Jesus God’s glory has been translated into a human glory, a glory owned by the risen Christ.

The result with Jesus, then, is this: in Him there exists a form of humanity that far surpasses our fallen, sinful state, and even surpasses Adam’s state in Eden. It is filled with more life, glory, and power than man has ever known because of His union with God the Father through the Holy Spirit.This is humanity grown up, perfected, and exalted as God’s partner in love. This is not by any power inherent in mere humanity, but by grace alone, the free grace of the Son in choosing to become man, the free grace of the Father in resurrecting and glorifying His Son, and the grace of the Holy Spirit in binding this all together by His sovereign power. And by this grace Jesus has formed a kind of humanity which, compared to us in our current state, is so exalted and like-God to possibly justify calling it deified humanity, man become god.

Now, because of this new kind of human existence which Jesus alone possesses by nature, a special union between God and man, the rest of us are invited to join in. But we are called by grace alone through a union of faith with Jesus in the Spirit. And in this union we are transformed. We get to participate in the new, glorious humanity of Christ. We are conformed to the image of Christ (thus Christification), who is the image of God. So by the Spirit we become like the Son who is the exact expression of the Father. In this way we also come to be filled with and to express God’s life and glory. The glory of God became the glory of the man Jesus, and by our union with Him it becomes our glory as well. This is, in the end, our salvation. By our union with Christ through the Holy Spirit, we commune with God so much as to become like Him in a supernatural way which transcends the natural possibilities of anything else in creation. As Peter put it, we “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4), not to become literal equals to God or sub-gods but to become in our human existence what Jesus is in His human existence, an existence which is created and animated by His divine nature.

The focus, then, is all about union with Christ. Theosis, in a Reformed key, is a way of saying, on the basis of Scripture alone, that by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone we are radically transformed and exalted from our totally depraved human existence to a state which lives by and expresses the glory of God alone. By the Spirit and word we know Christ, by Christ we know God, and by knowing God in Christ we are conformed to His image to His glory unto eternal life (2 Cor. 3:18, 1 Jn. 3:2, John 17:3).

This naturally makes for a great Christmas meditation. In theosis, everything has to go back to Christmas. If Jesus did not incarnate, if He did not enter our human existence as an infant in Bethlehem, then there would be no union between God and man, no restoration of human nature by the glory of God. It all began with the Son of God becoming a Son of Man, so that we might become sons of God. On Christmas, we find that by Jesus’ grace He partook in our nature, so that by the same grace we could partake in His.

Or, perhaps as Clement of Alexandria put it, “The Word of God became man, that thou mayest learn from man how man may become god.” Merry Christmas, children of God!

Evangelical Calvinism: I Suggest Four New Solas

One of the primary goals of Evangelical Calvinism is to further reform the Reformed tradition. As I mentioned the other day, the Reformation will never be truly over, and EC focuses on what work still needs to be done. And if we’re going to try to keep reforming the Reformation, we might find it useful to extend the iconic Five Solas, the defining marks of Protestant theology. Here, then, is my proposal for four additional, Evangelical Calvinist solas.

Sola Incarnatio: The Incarnation Alone

The Incarnation alone is the meeting point between God and man, the only possible connection between the Creator and His human creatures. Jesus of Nazareth isn’t just in fact the only way to God, but He is in principle the only way to God. No other way could exist for God and man to have a relationship. There can only be communion between God and man because of the hypostatic union between God and man in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. This all is meant to apply even to sinless man. Had Adam never sinned, his destiny would still have been found only in Jesus taking on flesh. Had man never chosen death, his life would still only be fulfilled by coming of Life Himself in human nature. Why? Because God is above, we are below, God is Creator, we are creature, God is infinite, we are finite, God is transcendent, and we are dust. There is an infinite qualitative difference between God and man, a gap that could only be bridged by God’s omnipotent power in becoming one of us.

Sola Apocalypsi: By Revelation Alone

God can be known by revelation alone, His personal self-revelation. The idea of general revelation is a mixed bag: surely the whole creation testifies to its Creator, but among fallen, fleshly men this means little or nothing. There are no ears to hear. If we are to find God at all, if we are to reliably know anything true and certain about Him, we need to be directly confronted by His personal Word. This happens in Christ, the Old Testament preparations which were bound up with His Coming, and the Apostolic witness to Him in the New Testament, by the Spirit.

Sola apocalypsi means that we can’t trust things like natural theology, general revelation, or philosophical arguments to know anything about God except in retrospect. We can see light in these ways through Christ, but apart from Christ it is all darkness. 

Solius Benevolentia: Of Goodwill Alone

All things, particularly all men, have been created by God of goodwill alone. There is no malice, no darkness, and no deviousness in God’s plans for His creation. This is meant specifically in contrast to the doctrine that many people have been created not out of God’s kindness per se, but instead were created specifically for God’s wrath or (in a more positive framing) to glorify God by highlighting His justice in punishing their sins. God’s eternal design and desire for no man is doom. He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked.

This may seem like a polemic especially against classical Calvinism, but it is not unique to Calvinism. It also applies to the theology of election (actually, for him it was more about providence) in Thomas Aquinas and Augustine. As Evangelical Calvinists, we deny that God’s will for any man terminates in their eternal destruction, regardless of who says otherwise.

Sola Vita: Life Alone

Closely related to the last suggested sola, we affirm that life alone is the end to which God has predestined all people. There is only one singular destiny God has created for His creation, and that is eternal life by the glory of God. No one is predetermined apart from their actual rejection of God to anything else. As Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is living man.” Thus this follows from the traditional soli Deo gloria. God’s glory is the end of all things, and He has sovereignly chosen to manifest His glory precisely in giving His eternal, imperishable life to human creatures.

This destiny, of course, has been proved in Jesus Christ, the archetypal human and new Adam. In raising Jesus from the dead, God has displayed before the world His singular plan for the world. The resurrection and restoration of all things, but particularly humanity, is His design. Anyone who is damned and lost (and there will be many such people) are not so because of God’s will but their own.

Arms Open, Altars Closed: Thoughts on Conversion

[This is a post I wrote quite some time ago but which has not been published here.]

I just finished reading the behemoth that is The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul by Douglas Campbell. The book is quite interesting, even if some of its major ideas are rather unconvincing in the final analysis. In this case, it seems to me that the redemption is in the details, while the devil is in the big picture.

All of that is rather tangential to the point of this post, though. I mainly want to address something that came to mind for me while reading a section in TDOG about conversion. Campbell was pointing out the characteristics of conversion experiences as studied by sociologists. He explained that, contrary to ideal evangelical imagination, but rather like the actual experiences of evangelicals if we thought about it, conversions usually take place as the result of gradual shift from one community to another. The basic progression, according to research on people who convert between religions, seems to be something like this:

  1. Person introduced to (or has attention brought to) new religion by friends, family, or other persistent relationships.
  2. Person interacts more and more with new group, developing new relationships and connections.
  3. Gradually, the connections to this new group begin to outweigh connections to the old, and loyalties begin to shift.
  4. Person, according to the manner learned from the new group, makes a decisive change of association and identifies with the new group. Conversion is complete.

As far as I can tell, this appears to be about right. Certainly, I’ve watched it happen myself within Christianity, with denominations and individual churches. While of course there are exceptions, these do not seem to be particularly normative, and many (though by no means all!) of the people who make less progressive and more instantaneous “conversions” tend to be like the rocky soil, and they wither in no time. If we only count conversions that “stick,” this would seem to be an even more accurate account.

So reading this about conversion got me to thinking just how useful it really can be to invite people into our churches and welcome them with love and kindness. If someone is brought into a community of people worshipping Jesus Christ in faith, hope, and love, and those people actually do treat them in a radically gracious and genuinely invested way, this display of the Spirit through love really can do wonders, and can fill people’s natural social interactions with God’s power unto salvation. Nothing can make people want to follow Christ more than to see Christ’s life being truly embodied before their eyes by a community of His people proclaiming His Word.

Yet there is, it seems to me, a danger latent in this strategy. Welcoming the unbeliever into our association and love is certainly good, but appears to carry with it the danger of mere assimilation instead of conversion on its own. When we simply fellowship with and love and befriend the visiting unbeliever, we might run the risk of them eventually just thinking as though they are one of us, a true Christian and member of the Body, despite having never repented of their sins, responded to Christ in faith, or submitted to accountability within the Church as legitimate member. We might lose them one day to realize that we have lost a friend, but that this friend fell through the cracks of our love and acceptance without ever joining in the new and eternal life found in Christ.

So what can we do about this? How do we leverage the power of Spirit-filled community to draw people to Christ while simultaneously ensuring that people aren’t just silently absorbed without any defining encounter with Christ resulting in a conversion to faith and repentance? I think the proper answer to this potential difficulty lies in the proper use of the sacraments. I am a firm believer in weekly Communion, despite being immersed in a Baptist world where such practice is rare. One day I hope to remedy that. But that is rather beside the point.

Setting up baptism and Communion as strict distinguishing marks, I believe, provides the necessary protection against mere assimilation. Weekly Communion where only those who have been baptized may participate provides a constant and, depending on how Communion is performed, potentially quite conspicuous reminder of the difference between being in Christ, part of His Body, and outside Christ, still part of the world. Even when the unbeliever is loved and welcomed and finds himself deeply wanting to be one of these people and share in their (Spirit-filled) life, the dividing line of Eucharistic separation is bound to create a tension which will have to be resolved at some point, either by abandoning the community he has grown attached to or by converting and joining that community. Arms wide open and altars narrowly restricted, a powerful love and a burning awareness of distinction, should act as the opposite pressures driving the potential convert in one of two directions: join the Body and its Christ or flee from both.

As another thought, I suspect the impact of this could be further enhanced by weekly fellowship meals, with Communion taking place immediately prior to the general eating. If you want to stay and eat with all of the people you are growing to love but must first watch only those committed to union with one Christ participate in a celebration of Him, I expect the decision-driving tension would only grow more powerful. In the end, the idea is to create a fellowship so attractive, virtuous, welcoming, and gracious that all want to become a part, but to make a public commitment to Christ in baptism the only path to truly do so. I suspect this will weed out many who are not truly concerned, but will provide opportunity for strengthening for those who might find themselves being drawn. May this be what happens, no matter what we actually do.

The Apostles’ Creed: I Believe in Jesus Humiliated

My series on the Apostles’ Creed must now move on to perhaps what might be regarded as the central section, the section on Christ’s humiliation. This part is gold:

who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into hell.

The life of the Jesus described so well in the previous line, the Son of God and one Lord, is now described up to the point of His death. So what does the Creed teach on this?

Conceived by the Holy Spirit – Before even the article on the Holy Spirit, He is mentioned as the one by whom Jesus was conceived. This shows that Jesus’ entrance into human life is a miracle, not just any miracle but a miracle performed by the same Spirit who originally created the world. This signifies that the power which brought Jesus into the world is in fact the power of divine creation itself. Jesus is the beginning of the new creation. In Jesus God has acted to begin creation over again with His only-begotten Son in place of Adam, the old son (Luke 3:38). With Jesus the human race is to be reborn.

Born of the Virgin Mary – We also see that Jesus, though conceived by the Spirit, was born of a human woman, the Virgin Mary. Jesus was not purely an interruption and replacement for the existing humanity, but in fact He was the beginning of the new creation in the midst of the old and broken one. Through Mary Jesus was born still a part of the natural human race. If it were not for this He would be some kind of alternate kind of human unrelated to us, one who could be of no use in saving our kind. Through Mary Jesus is the kinsman-redeemer, the one who shares the actual flesh and blood of His people that He may redeem their flesh and blood. This in fact makes the Catholic notion of Mary’s immaculate conception (remember this means that she was born graciously saved from original sin) entirely unnecessary. Jesus from Mary received His original contact with human corruption and sin, and like in all of His other dealings began from that very point His work in healing and sanctifying it. In this line we fine that Jesus entered humanity even in its deadness in order to raise it to new life.

Suffered under Pontius Pilate – We see that the Creed moves immediately from His birth to His sufferings of His trial. This should not be taken as an indication that nothing in between these events mattered or that Jesus’ ministry is ultimately secondary to His death. Instead, we should recognize that Jesus’ entire life before His death was bound up with His impending death, and His death was the climax of the entire life that led to it. Thus the Creed does not simply leave out Jesus’ life, but rather makes its significance inseparable from His passion. In truth, Jesus’ death belonged to His life and His life belonged to His death.

Also important is that we find Jesus’ chief accomplishment, the defining act of which the Creed is compelled to speak, to be His suffering. Suffering is to be understood as essential to what Jesus did. This is startling given the identity the Creed assigns to Jesus. He is the quite divine Son of God. Yet how can God, the eternal Creator who stands above all puny things, suffer? Who can afflict the one who is greater than all? But there is a great mystery and glory in the statement agreed on by the early church fathers that in Christ, “the Impassible suffered.” This is also startling given that Jesus is identified as Messiah. What Jew would have believed that their Messiah would be forced to suffer at the hands of a pagan ruler? These seemingly blasphemous paradoxes are at the heart of the Gospel.

We should also note that this is the second and last time any human besides Jesus is mentioned in the Creed. There are only three humans at all in the Creed: Jesus, Mary, and Pilate. Jesus is the one affirmed as the true subject, God Himself. Mary connects Jesus with the history of humanity and of Israel. And Pilate can be seen to have two major uses. On the one hand, Pilate shows that Jesus, the Jew born of Mary, suffered under pagan rules. God’s Messiah raised up to save His people died under the same hands which they had expected Him to crush. This tells us already that Jesus was suffering as a substitute and representative for Israel, for whom this punishment was outlined in the Torah. God’s covenant with Israel dictated that if they were unfaithful, they would suffer many judgments, climaxing in destruction by pagan nations and exile. This we see that Jesus suffered for them. He suffered under a pagan ruler while cut off from the people of God, accursed on a tree outside the city. In this act Jesus was truly standing in for Israel, and as a good theology of Israel’s election would then add, through Israel He stood in for the world.

The other note about Pilate is that tying Jesus’ death to this particular ruler, Jesus’ death is set in real world history. Jesus suffered at a specific time in a specific place under specific historical and political conditions. In addition to the basic apologetic thrust (which is important; we can iInvestigate the history, for this really happened), it also testifies to how God always deals with man. He deals with us in real history, using historical events. God does not work for us in the abstract or the “spiritual” (if by that we mean non-physical) realm. Time and space and matter are not irrelevant to God’s purposes but are made the context for them by grace. God comes to us in our history to bring redemption to it, and He has done this most fully and climactically in first century Palestine with one single instance of Jewish flesh.

Was crucified – Now the mode of Jesus’ execution is specified. It is crucifixion. This reinforces what was just said regarding the judgment Jesus suffered vicariously for His people. Crucifixion is the ultimate symbol of what Israel was condemned to under the Torah. Crucifixion was a Roman device and represented pagan oppression. It took place outside the city gates, symbolically cut off from the people of Israel and the presence of God. It was associated with the statement in the Torah, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.” And of course it was brutal and painful in every way. Nothing would better summarize the curses of the Torah than crucifixion, and this is what Jesus suffered as the true representative of Israel, as their Messiah.

Died – The most impossible statement in all of human history. Jesus, the only-begotten Son of the Father who has life within Himself, died. The immortal God perished as a mortal man. This is at the center of the Creed, both theologically and nearly visually. Jesus died, and on this everything else hinges. Yet the meaning of this death is fleshed out by all of the other statements in the Creed. Death appears not as the significant part in and of itself, but what matters was this particular death filled to the brim with meaning and placed in rich context. Had Jesus died by tripped into a river, none of this would matter. But this death, the one described in the four Gospels in detail, is uniquely redemptive as a one-of-a-kind sacrifice.

Was buried – Finally, the death completed, Jesus was buried. This is significant for many reasons, but l will highlight one of them. In this burial we find that there is a lapse between suffering and vindication. We know that Jesus will be raised before this little story is over. But He did have to wait in the grave, and this corresponds to an ongoing theme of Scripture. God makes promises, but His people must suffer for some time before experiencing the redemption. There is a limbo period where it seems as though God is unfaithful. Jesus by all accounts seemed to be the Messiah, so why did God leave Him in the grave? Why did God let Him die at all? This questions would have been teeming in the minds of the disciples. There seemed to be a paradox, a problem involving the faithfulness of God and His salvation. Israel spent many years in such periods, so did Jesus, and so do we. We have the promise of redemption, and in fact for us even Easter has already happened, but we still live in a limbo period in which God’s salvation is not revealed and the world keeps on going in apparent meaninglessness and death. We wait for God to deliver us. But the burial of Jesus reminds us that there must be such times, and that God will not be unfaithful but in His own time will fulfill all He has promised.

He descended into hell – This statement has been a source of much confusion and debate within the Church, especially in Protestantism. Alas, in this post I have no time or room to address it. I personally read “hell” here as meaning something akin to Sheol in the Old Testament, basically “the realm of the dead.” But I will have to wait to cover this statement in another post, one which will actually be separate from this series. In the meantime, I will simply suggest that this shows the depths to which Jesus penetrated in saving us. He experienced all the deepest pains and suffering, death and alienation included, which plague humanity so that He might redeem us. Whatever “hell” means here, Jesus submitted to it for our sake, out of love, to save us from it.

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

6 Theses on Election

  1. Election begins and ends with Jesus Christ. As Barth has said, Jesus is both the electing God (Col. 2:9) and elected Man (Luke 9:35). He is the origin of creation (John 1:1-3) and its goal (Eph. 1:9-10). Anything else we say about election must trace back to this source, to the election of Jesus Christ as the one predestined to be revealed as God for us (1 Pet. 1:2).
  2. All other “elections” are grounded in relation to Christ. Of course, in Scripture Jesus is not the only one called “elect” or “chosen” by God. The terminology is applied to Israel (Deut. 7:6, 1 Chr. 16:13, Ps. 105:6), David (Ps. 78:70, 89:3), Moses (Ps. 106:23), the followers of Christ during the coming suffering (Matt. 24:22), Christians in general (Rom. 8:33, Col. 3:12, Titus 1:1),  and particular churches (2 Jn. 1:1, 13). Each of these is defined in relation to Christ, who is the goal of Israel’s election, the fulfillment of David’s dynasty, the greater prophet than Moses, the Rabbi to the apostles, and the one in whom believers find their own election (Eph. 1:4). No one could ever be elect except by relation to Christ.
  3. The election of God’s people in history is corporate-relational. Contra classical Calvinism and certain forms of Arminianism, election is not fundamentally an individual reality but one pertaining to groups. Yet this is not simply groups defined generically or abstractly, but the particular peoples are defined by relationships to particular individuals. Thus individuals share in the blessings of a specific election by virtue of their relation to its chosen covenantal head (Gen. 26:24, 1 Kgs. 11:12-13, Rom. 6:4). Israel was defined by a biological/covenantal relationship to Abraham (Gen. 12:1-2, 17:1-14). Noah’s family was chosen to by saved through the Flood by their marital and biological relationships to Noah (Gen. 6:9, 18, 7:1). David’s descendants became a chosen dynasty through their father (2 Sam. 7:12-16, Ps. 89:3-4). Finally, Christians make up a chosen people, the Church, because of their Spirit-grounded faith-relationship to Christ the elected Man (Eph. 1:4, cf. Rom. 8:1, 1 Cor. 1:30). This is essentially the opposite of the Calvinistic view: for Calvinists, we are incorporated into Christ because we have been elected, but I submit that we are elected because we have been incorporated into Christ.
  4. Election in its historical form is primarily vocational and not immediately soteriological. To be elect is not the same as being promised salvation, though the two are associated. The primary purpose of election in human history is for elect men to become witnesses of God and examples of His salvation to other men (Gen. 12:3, Matt. 28:19-20, John 15:16, Rom. 1:5, Gal. 1:15-16). Election is a calling, not a mere present. God’s salvation does not necessarily come to all people who are part of an elect community (Heb. 10:29, 2 Pet. 2:1, 1 Jn. 2:19). This is not a question about “losing salvation” but a statement that election is not automatically salvation. Members of the elect community who disobey their calling and, in doing so, deny their relationship with their covenantal head are removed and face judgment (Gen. 17:14, Exod. 31:14, 1 Kgs. 14:14, Ps. 37:9, John 15:2, 6, Rom. 11:22). Only those who participate in the obedience of their elected heads will finally be blessed, just as their heads obeyed God and were blessed (Gen. 26:2-6, Matt. 7:21-23, Heb. 5:7-8).
  5. The elect community is inherently self-expanding. The limit of the elect community is not a fixed number. Rather, election is meant to expand ever outwards as more people are blessed by the witness of the elect. Those who are not already elect find themselves blessed by the elect (Gen. 12:3, 30:27-30, 39:5, Josh. 6:25, Mic. 4:1-2, Zech. 2:11, Rom. 11:11-12). In this way those who are not a people become a people, and those who were unloved become loved (Rom. 9:25-26). Election therefore has an inherent outward pressure which works like leaven (Matt. 13:33) until through the witness of the elect the whole world is covered with the knowledge of God as water covers the seas (Isa. 11:9).
  6. There exists an outer ring of election which ultimately encompasses all people. If election begins and ends in Christ, then in some way it affects all of the human race. This is because, on the one hand, Jesus is the image of God (2 Cor. 4:4, Col. 1:15) in whose image humanity was originally created (Gen. 1:26-27). This image defines humanity, and with it comes a calling which parallels the callings seen in other Biblical elections (Gen. 1:28-30), a calling which is finally bound up with Christ. So human nature and existence are not finally separable from the glory of Jesus Christ. On the other hand, Jesus in His Incarnation identified Himself with and lived for all who share the same human flesh and blood (Heb. 2:5-17). The atonement implicates all humanity (2 Cor. 5:14-15, 1 Tim. 2:6, Heb. 2:9). This ultimately means that Christ has chosen all people for Himself, and the Father has chosen all humanity in Christ. This, per thesis 4, is not a guarantee that all people will be saved, but promise that no one lies outside the salvific will and choice of God.

How Pentecost Saves Us

Today is Pentecost Sunday, a day which often does not receive much attention in evangelical churches. That’s a bit of a shame, so for this Pentecost Sunday I want to peek into the role that Pentecost plays in our salvation through Christ. We all know that Good Friday matters, and I have written before on how Easter and the Ascension matter, but how does Pentecost save us?

After Jesus ascended, His followers were left waiting for the power to go out and become His witnesses.1 It was an awkward moment in which Jesus was no longer there, and the disciples had nothing to launch them forward. Yet before long, Pentecost arrived, and suddenly the Holy Spirit appeared and filled them all.2 Immediately the Church came to life in power. In the course of a day, 3000 people were converted. Something marvelous had just changed in the life of the Apostles. What exactly happened, though, and what is its significance?

What we are seeing here is the completion of Christ’s work of salvation. Jesus dealt with the sin problem, rose victorious to new life, and ascended to the throne of creation at the Father’s right hand. Still, one thing was left. Paul tells us that without the Spirit of Christ, there is no union with Christ.3 Without union with Christ, salvation in Him is still distant. The Apostles were waiting, not merely for power, but for the fullness of salvation itself. At Pentecost, the ascended Lord of the world poured out His own Spirit on His people so that, through this Spirit, they could receive the life He won for them and brought into heaven in God’s presence.

Yet this is where I will introduce a belief I have acquired from studying Scripture which I have not often heard, and which I know some people will not accept. I only add it because I believe it is core to what happened at Pentecost. On that day, the Church was baptized into the Spirit and born again. The new life they received through the Spirit isn’t just any new life, but the life of the new birth. For the first time in history, lost humans were regenerated.

The Biblical support for this view is, I believe, solid. It is clear enough that at Pentecost the Church received the Holy Spirit. Specifically, in receiving the Holy Spirit I propose that they received the new resurrection life of Christ which is the new birth. Some of the first Biblical evidence for this is found in John, where there is a constant connection between the new birth, water, the Spirit, and eternal life.4 In John Jesus teaches that the washing of the new birth will come with the gift of the Holy Spirit, which of course took place at Pentecost. John also specifically highlights that the Spirit was not given in this way before Jesus’ glorification.5

More evidence for this is found in the Old Testament prophecies about the New Covenant. In the prophets, it was foretold that God would restore His people from their exile, give them a new and better covenant, create in them a new heart of flesh rather than stone, and put His Spirit within them.6 This “heart transplant” is certainly to be identified with regeneration, and yet it is bound up with the giving of the New Covenant and the Holy Spirit. These were not Old Covenant realities, but new gifts brought to Israel through Jesus, the living Flesh of the New Covenant who replaces the Torah written on stone as the heart of God’s people.

We see, then, full Biblical reason to identify the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost as the giving of new birth to Israel, producing the Church who lives through Christ’s resurrection life. Pentecost is therefore the time of a truly new beginning, the day that salvation fully entered the lives of Christ’s followers. Even today, we who are alive in Christ have been born again because we have been given the same Spirit who was first given nearly 2000 years ago during the Feast of Weeks.

In this way, then, we see that even Pentecost, an event which occurred almost two months after the Crucifixion, plays a major role in salvation. It was at Pentecost that the Spirit was given, and with Him new life. We are united with the risen and ascended Lord who paid the penalty for our sins because He gave us His Holy Spirit. By this union we experience new life. By this union we are saved. Even Pentecost saves us.