Soteriology is the technical term for the study of the doctrine of salvation. From the Greek soterios, meaning “salvation,” this field of study biblically defines the basis of what is necessary for man to be made right with God and have fellowship with him.
In short order, salvation is that which satisfies the judgment placed by God upon man’s sinful condition. Thus, if man were not a sinner there would be no need for salvation. As such, Soteriology and Harmartiology (the study of the doctrine of sin) are inextricably connected. It is because of man’s sin that he is separated from God and it is because of salvation that man is able to be restored to God. Unconditionally, a valid and biblical presentation of the (true) gospel must emphasize man’s sin, which is the core condition requiring God’s intervention on his behalf. Sin is universal and incurable by man’s own actions. Furthermore, it holds the most serious consequence of any action of eternity past or future; an eternal separation from God in unquenchable punishment. Continue reading
One of the most difficult aspects of evangelism in today’s culture is the communication of the need for such a thing as “salvation.” Indeed, it seems a world view of self adulation has engulfed many in post-modern culture, where ideas of right and wrong are frequently re-cast as personal life choices rather than offenses to a divine creator. To that end, “sin” is in many cases categorically denied as a stringent reality in favor of the idea that right and wrong are relative to one’s own experience.
Added to that confusion are a mass of false preachers and teachers who are more than willing to elevate man’s “lost” status before God to something more akin to a child who has misplaced his father in the mall rather than one who has willfully and combatively lashed out against the authority of almighty God. Trends in neo-Christianity present salvation as something inherently man-inspired; frequently admonishing only that man properly involve himself in God’s work and lift himself up by his bootstraps to meet God’s expectations. Continue reading
The Wrath of God
It is very popular among certain soft-spoken pseudo-theologians today to downplay and “preach away” the existence of God’s wrath toward man’s sin. Placating today’s whiny “I’m okay, you’re okay” cultural sentiments, they express anti-biblical platitudes which decry that “a loving God” would simply not reveal his anger toward mankind whom he loves. Indeed, many are perfectly contented with the idea that God is incapable of genuine wrath; claiming that it is outside of his perfect nature to be prone to jealousy and anger. “Rock star” preachers, such as Rob Bell, gain standing ovations from such gross misrepresentations of biblical theology, such as Bell’s “The God’s Are Not Angry” sermonette tour. Ending with the phrase “God is not angry because God is love” is a certain crowd pleaser at such gigs.
Others, such as popular emergent author, Alan Jones, declare that penal substitution is a “vile doctrine” (Reimagining Christianity, p. 168) and that anger is inconsistent with love as a characteristic of God. The position of this warped understanding of the gospel is based upon the sentimental and philosophical perception that love and anger are somehow mutually exclusive qualities. Noting that “God is love” and that everything God does is “inspired by love,” they contend that God is incapable of exhibiting wrath because wrath is not motivated by love. These men must not have children. Continue reading
(A continuation of the series, A Pastoral Soteriology.)
Understanding that sin carries the penalty of death, separation and God’s extended wrath toward the sinner brings one to the natural yearning to understand the nature of the provision God has made for the restoration of man from this condition. Obviously, this series is concerned with such illumination; God has made atonement available. The details concerning God’s provision of atonement is both something so simple that a child can grasp it, yet so complicated than a man can spend his entire life attempting to systematize it fully. The child can understand that “Jesus died for my sins,” yet the theologian may spend years trying to fully understand how exactly the provision of Christ was applied to the account of the sinner. Continue reading
(A continuation of the series, A Pastoral Soteriology.)
Jesus noted, “wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it (Mat 7:13). To that end, it should be no surprise that there are so many erroneous theological theories in relation to each properly determined and biblical one. Continuing the pursuit of a good and valid atonement theory, today’s post once again yields only a failed attempt which resembles nothing more than man recasting God in his own image.
The Moral-Example Theory
The moral example theory was proposed by Pelagius (354-420 AD), himself an opponent of the concept of original sin, believing that sin was a matter of choice rather than an ingrained and universal affliction. Pelagius further believed that it was possible for man to live a sinless life within himself. His atonement “theory” certainly did not fall far from the tree. Continue reading
(A continuation of the series, A Pastoral Soteriology.)
Continuing the historical foray into the waters of poorly constructed atonement theories leads us to what can only be understood as a truly heretical contribution known as the “Mystical Theory” of atonement. This theory has been contributed to by many philosophers and pseudo-theologians over the years. Central among them was Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), who utterly denied any aspect of a vicarious atoning work of Christ.
Before diving into the nuts and bolts (loose as they are) of this theory, the nature of mysticism should first be defined clearly. By definition, that which is “mystic” is that which is “of the nature of or pertaining to mysteries known only to the initiated.” (“mystic.” Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. 06 Jul. 2009.) Thus, if you are a participant in a mystic encounter can you “hear” from God. Such mysteries transcend ordinary human knowledge, by direct communication with the divine.
To be perfectly clear, a mystical element does indeed exist in the life of legitimate believers in Jesus Christ. Strictly speaking, any direct impartation of information from God to man is mystical by definition. If a man hears from God in his spirit, then he has participated in a legitimate mystical encounter. The Holy Spirit utters truths which are only revealed to the initiated- those who belong to him- through his own impartation.
John 14:26 (NIV)
26 But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.
It must be clearly pointed out, however, that this legitimately mystical aspect of our walk with the Lord is the result of atonement, not the source of it. It must also be pointed out that such genuine mystical practices are taught in scripture to be subject to biblical testing, so that men are not misled.
With this understood, the mystical encounter defined by the Mystical Atonement Theory is not akin to the normal fellowship between the believer and the Holy Spirit. Rather, this theory presupposes a mystical union which is more akin to the panentheistic and demonic doctrines of Zen Buddhism and other predominantly “eastern” originated mystic practices.
The Mystical Theory shares one facet of its substance with the Moral Example Theory in that it presumes that the work of redemption stems from Christ’s influence rather than his substitutionary sacrifice. In this belief system, Christ’s incarnation is of more importance than his death on the cross. The idea is that Christ’s incarnation brought divinity to the human realm. By Christ entering the human sphere at his advent, he elevated man to his own divine plane, making access to God achievable. Salvation is attained through man’s entry into this open portal of access.
Additionally, according to this theory, Christ – being human in nature – possessed all of the inherent corruption and sinful tendencies of man, yet without allowing such predisposition to lead him into actually engaging in sin. He was in effect, one who successfully navigated the inborn sin nature, yet without succumbing to it. At the moment of Christ’s death, then, he officially conquered and eradicated his original sin nature, thus completing his victory over sin.
As this theory has evolved into its modern form, a panentheistic (all is in God) element has been more clearly defined. In essence, it is understood by many today that “God became man so that man could become God.” The redeemed are elevated to the status of “God-men” through participation in the divine nature which Christ opened up to them. Man is no longer subservient to God, but participants with him while sharing his attributes. Those holding to this view today indicate that man’s real issue is not with his sin, but with his inability to connect to his “god-consciousness” and be thus freed from his human limitations.
(Please excuse me while I go throw up and take a shower.)
There are simply too many issues with this theory to take them all to task in a singular post. More is wrong with the theory than is right. In fact, nothing at all is right with it.
To begin with, Christ did not have a propensity to sin. He was not born with a sin nature. Rather, his nature was utterly contrary to sin from his advent by merit of his being the God who defines what sin is. Perhaps oversimplified, one functional definition of sin is “disobedience to God.” How can one be disobedient to his own nature? Christ was God incarnate. To that end, sin was not his propensity, but the exact antithesis of his will.
Indeed, scripture does note that Christ was tempted:
Hebrews 4:15 (NIV)
15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin.
However, to be tempted does not equate with one having a sinful propensity. Jesus himself stated,
John 14:30-31 (NIV)
30 I will not speak with you much longer, for the prince of this world is coming. He has no hold on me, 31 but the world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me.
And, the very same author of Hebrews notes,
Hebrews 7:26 (NIV)
26 Such a high priest meets our need–one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens.
While being tempted on this earth, perhaps for the benefit of man’s recognition of his righteousness, scripture teaches entirely contrary to the idea that Christ had an inclination toward sin.
Secondly, the Bible unwaveringly attests to the work of redemption as having been carried out on the cross rather than through Jesus’ completion of a sinless human life. While the sinless attribute of Christ’s life was essential, redemption came not from the fact that the Son of God never sinned. Redemption came from the fact that He who never sinned offered himself on a cross as payment for those who had sinned. As Paul notes,
2 Corinthians 5:21 (NIV)
21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
And Isaiah prophesied,
Isaiah 53:6 (NIV)
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
Certainly Jesus’ sinless life was a requirement of his ability to atone for the sins of man, but it was not the functional substance of that work. The actual application of his righteousness to sinner’s account came from his death on the cross. Paul notes,
Colossians 1:19-20 (NIV)
19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
Make no mistake, redemption was attained through Jesus’ death on the cross. Had he only lived a righteous life- and had not died for man’s sins- there would be no salvation for man. God’s wrath against sin would remain.
This ultimately leads to the next major failure of this heritical theory, which is the annoying tendency of humanistic philosophies to attempt to relegate the atonement to something which enables man to overcome his sin through properly guided human efforts. According to this theory, sin is not atoned for by Christ at all. Rather, Christ grants man an opportunity to somehow “rise above” his sin by his mystical union with the deity. (How can one purport to define an “atonement theory” for which there is no atonement??) If Christ’s death were not vicarious – in man’s place – how then is man to pay for the sins committed before his magical elevation? Does not the scripture say,
Romans 3:25 (NIV)
25 God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished–
Even if man were enabled (through mystical union with Christ) to utterly conquer his sinful nature from the moment of conversion throughout the remainder of his life, who pays for the sins he committed prior to that magical encounter? If one becomes righteous through a mystical communion with God after a life of sin, does his previous sin no longer count against him? This theory makes no provision for such payment. Yet, even proponents of this seriously flawed theory recognize and admit that man is infected with a sinful nature from birth. How does a mystical elevation eliminate the sins of one’s previous existence if Christ’s death was not substitutionary in nature?
These issues alone identify the Mystical Theory as an utterly unbiblical – and ineffective- remedy for man’s problem of sin. Yet, one cannot possibly give this theory a serious theological once-over without also pointing out the gross error of its message of mystical elevation. The underlying postulate of such will ultimately lead back to a panentheistic view of God. If taken to its logical conclusion, all who are redeemed – according to this theory – become participants in the overarching fellowship that is God. Such false elevation promises in this theory relegate man back to his most base sinful tendency: the desire to be (his own) God.
There was, and will only ever be ONE God-man. He was and is the person of Jesus Christ. The atonement is not a means to elevate man to God’s level of consciousness, insight or authority. it certainly was not the means by which God would share his glory with His creation. Such aspirations, in no uncertain terms, are a demonic pursuit.
Isaiah 14:12-14 (NIV)
12 How you have fallen from heaven, O morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations! 13 You said in your heart, “I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain. 14 I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.”
Most faithful readers of ReturningKing.com would quickly have relegated this flawed theory to the heresy that it is. One may even wonder why time was taken to write against such an obviously erroneous postulate. Sadly, the answer to that question is that it is very necessary in the body of Christ to reveal the error of this particular theory; for it is being reconstituted, rebranded and diligently served before our very eyes as daily table fare of several modern neo-Christian movements.
The Word of Faith movement is seriously committed to the idea that man becomes a “little God” through the atonement. They do not subscribe to the Mystical Theory, per ‘se, but the god-man element of this theory fits perfectly into the theology of Hinn, Hagin, Copeland, Crouch and the rest of the high-roller preachers club. The mystical elevation of man according to their (false) gospel includes man’s full power over the very elements of nature through his properly utilized “word of faith.”
More frightening is the Emergent movement, perhaps the fastest growing subculture in the church today, which seems to have a literal disdain for valid atonement theory. From the outside, Emergent congregations seem merely a post-modern “trendy-church” model by which the next generation may be reached. From the inside, their mentors and un-official leaders are teaching doctrines which are actually defining the cutting edge of Mystical Atonement Theory. They teach that atonement is not substitutional in nature. They whole-heartedly affirm and teach a mysticism which is consistent with the views of the Mystical Theory. As panentheism will tend to lead to, they have furthermore attempted to erase the lines between Christianity and other world religions, claiming that Christ is anything but exclusive in his work of atonement.
The Mystical Theory of Atonement is one which will unconditionally lead to an apostasy which misrepresents God’s character, purpose and glory. As obviously flawed as it is, this theory is being adopted at alarming rates – right from within the church itself.
May the reader be inspired to contend for the faith that was once and for all entrusted to the saints. We have been warned in scripture that apostasy will come. We have been challenged to accurately handle the Word of truth.
2 Timothy 4:3 (NIV)
3 For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.
Continuing our examination of numerous atonement theories which have circulated the church throughout history, it must be observed that thus far in this series there has not been revealed a tremendous amount of success in the packaging of such systems into understandable, yet valid theological thought.
The Recapitulation Theory misses the vicarious nature of Jesus’ death altogether. The Ransom Theory essentially glorifies Satan as the one who was to be appeased for the wages of sin. The Moral Example Theory is little more than a warmed over “good ol’ boys get in” mentality and the Mystical Theory relegates God to one of the plethora of pagan gods of yore; being reached via essential practices rather than his own initiative which is accomplished by grace through faith. Furthermore, most of these theories place robust emphasis on man’s role in salvation; asserting that Christ’s work on the cross provided a means for man to complete the work of redemption rather than Christ completing the work himself. Continue reading
The Penal Substitution Theory
While all atonement theories examined thus far have failed at producing a biblically-based portrayal of the doctrine of salvation, Anselm had at least gotten close with his Necessary-Satisfaction Theory. Building upon some of those very principles, the Penal Substitution Theory, proposed by John Calvin (1509-1564), rightly aligned the missing theological puzzle pieces to present an accurate depiction of the work Christ completed on the cross.
Primarily, atonement theories are intended to illustrate how atonement was produced from Christ’s death on the cross. As such, a sound theory must not only make some valid assertions concerning the nature of Christ’s work, but must illustrate the entire historical revelation of the atonement as defined in scripture. Calvin’s Penal Substitution Theory does that with great skill.
A proper understanding of the Penal Substitution Theory requires a holistic approach to God’s revelation of atonement throughout scripture. Jesus did not merely show up on the playing field and create something new. Rather, he realized and fulfilled what God had already established; a substitutionary system of atonement. As Jesus noted,
Matthew 5:17-18 (NIV)
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.
Clearly, Jesus himself understood his work to be complimentary to what had already been established. His work was to be that which would fulfill the law and the prophets rather something entirely new and unrelated. No system examined in this series thus far has expressed atonement in terms that related it as a fulfillment of the Law and the prophets. The Recapitulation Theory disregards the Law almost entirely. The Ransom Theory has God paying off Satan, which is dramatically opposed to the Old Testament Law in which God himself receives (or rejects) man’s sin offering(s). The Moral Example Theory completely disregards the punitive nature of the Law; attempting to implement a works oriented salvation which disregards the penalty of former sins. The Mystical Theory, in addition to being just plain weird, offers absolutely no hint of vicarious atonement as outlined in the Law. And, the Necessary-Satisfaction Theory, while working off of good principles, still misappropriates certain legal aspects of atonement as depicted in the Law.
A good atonement theory must adequately illustrate how God’s program of redemption in the Law was systematically fulfilled and completed by the work of Christ! Otherwise, Christ cannot be understood as having fulfilled the Law.
Calvin’s theory connected the proper dots.
Details of Christ’s fulfillment of the Law will be examined over the next several posts, yet at this point it should at least be noted that what Jesus “fulfilled” was a substitutionary system of atonement: the sacrificial system of the Old Testament Law.
Overall, the Penal Substitution Theory can be understood as a more comprehensive fleshing-out of Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory. Anselm had the basic idea, but missed key points which Calvin properly illuminated.
The Essence of the Penal Substitution Theory
The Satisfaction Theory rightly articulated that a debt was owed to God by mankind. This debt required that satisfaction be attained by God. Yet, it incorrectly defined man’s offense as the defilement of God’s honor. While surely God’s honor became diminished in man’s eyes because of sin, it is not God’s honor which is in need of satisfaction according to the scriptures. Rather, it is God’s wrath for sin which is in need of satisfaction, as has already been illustrated. Jesus noted,
John 3:36 (NIV)
36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.”
And Paul exclaimed,
Ephesians 2:3 (NIV)
3 All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath.
Understanding the problem of sin properly- that it invokes God’s wrath- is key to understanding the nature of the satisfaction Jesus secured in the atonement. It was God’s wrath over sin which was in need of satisfaction. The atonement is oriented toward the securing of justice rather than honor. God’s law had been broken, invoking his wrath. And, being a just God, he demanded that payment be rendered for the broken Law. Such payment is not a mystery in the biblical narrative. God prescribed his punitive decision prior to the offense, clearly noting in the Garden of Eden that,
Genesis 2:17 (NIV)
17 … you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.”
With justice as a defining attribute of His nature, God cannot simply overlook one’s sin. Sin is an offense to his Law; an illegal (penal) action requiring a just sentence, which God prescribed to be death to the offender. What Jesus did on the cross was to quite literally apply the payment to God for the crimes of humanity.
Romans 6:23 (NIV)
23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
God had always upheld the wages of sin. They have never – nor will they ever change. And, God’s sense of justice demands that wrongdoing be punished and that the offended party (himself) be compensated. Jesus’ death on the cross accomplished both. The sins of man were paid vicariously (more on that in coming posts) and God’s justice was upheld.
2 Corinthians 5:21 (NIV)
21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
The atonement was penal in nature, because it provided the means of payment for the breaking of God’s Law which man had engaged. It was substitutionary in nature, because the payment was obtained vicariously by another: Christ.
Romans 3:22-26 (NIV)
22 This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished– 26 he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
The substitutionary nature of Christ’s death will be examined in more detail in the following weeks. One cannot truly understand how Jesus fulfilled the Law without first understanding the nature of the Law itself. Suffice it to say at this point, however, that the Law provided a means of restitution for man’s sin through vicarious (substitutionary) means. God, in his graciousness, offered a system of atonement by which an acceptable animal could be sacrificed on man’s behalf, thus paying the required death sentence. Such is the nature of the Law; as it details the processes and requirements of such penal substitutions to be made. When Christ fulfilled the Law, he became the final perfect sacrifice for sin; rendering the Law utterly completed. Thus, “not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”
The Penal Substitution Theory of atonement rightly identifies the critical components of redemption by faith in Christ Jesus. God’s wrath was invoked by man’s sin. His justice demanded restitution. In grace, he provided a substitutionary system of atonement, which Christ completed – once and for all.
Isaiah 53:5-6 (NIV)
5 … he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. 6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
Atonement in the Old Testament Law
As noted in the last post, the Penal Substitution Theory of the atonement is by far the best and most accurate understanding of the work Jesus provided on the cross according to the scriptures. While the nature of the atonement has been observed, a true understanding of penal substitution requires a comprehension of the underlying principles which had been put into effect by God prior to Jesus’ work on the cross. Continue reading
(This is a continuation of the series entitled, “A Pastoral Soteriology.” It assumes the reading of eariler posts.)
The culmination of the sacrificial system of atonement in the Old Testament Law was demonstrated and applied in the yearly observation of “Yom Kippur,” or, “The Day of Atonement.” While the sacrificial system tirelessly went about its business of providing blood offerings – literally twenty four hours a day – this special holy day provided the principle application of the sin offering for the entire nation. As such, Yom Kippur demonstrated more articulately the nature of Christ’s later work of redemption than perhaps any other requirement of the sacrificial system. Continue reading