Monday, June 8, 2009

A Covenant of Identity

Yesterday, as we kicked off our study of the 10 Commandments, we faced the difficult question for Christians studying the Law: "Why do I care?" Some positions, critically referred to as "cheap grace" or "free grace," leave little reason to study such statutes in view of the unconditional love of Christ. While still others, even the most staunch of reformers, can't quite affirm that a failure to adhere would equate in damnation or loss of salvation. So, what are we to get from the Old Testament, the old covenant, and the Law that will benefit us as Christians?

The underlying issue with both positions which I (admittedly caricatured slightly) introduced above is that they both fail to see the covenants as anything more than justifying measures. The former covenant justified by repeated sacrifice. The latter did so by Christ's death. Nonetheless, emphasis in the debate falls firmly on the matter of our justification. But was that the premise of the old covenant? Is it the premise of the new?

In Exodus 19:5-6, God introduces the covenant to Moses saying, "If you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then..." What? You'll be saved from Hell? You'll enter Heaven? No. God's covenant was to make Israel His "treasured possession... a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." His covenant was to turn a people who were nothing but helpless slaves into a nation with their own land and borders. His purpose was for them to be His priests on earth, holy for His service.

Did that all change when Christ instituted the new covenant on the cross? Did He die for anything different? No. Christ died, fulfilling the justification requirements to make us righteous, holy, and blameless--ready for service unto God. He redeemed us from bondage to sin, wherein we were helpless slaves, and turned us into something not dissimilar to the recipients of the first covenant: "a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light" (1 Peter 2:9).

God's holy standard--that which would make His treasured people stand apart from the world--has not changed. In the 10 commandments we find the standard of how a holy people behave. The convicting thought, then, is that we as the Church are indeed God's holy people. So, hey you holy people: be holy!

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Friday, April 10, 2009

Good Friday Reflections

When I was growing up, Easter (and Christmas) was always a big holiday for our family, but Good Friday tended to be less of a concern. I suppose it stemmed from the fact that we saved religion for Sundays, or perhaps it was because we were Quaker and Good Friday is what those "other" sacrament-based religions did. For whatever reason, it wasn't until recently that Good Friday became a serious occasion for me.

Now, I'm not hear to discuss the deviations from the Jewish calendar and the Roman calendar, the variants on the day passover was observed according to the synoptics vs. John, or any other discussion on whether or not today, Good Friday, is exactly the day of the year Christ was crucified. It's not really about that. It's about setting aside a minimum of one day out of the year on which to commemorate what Christ did for us on the cross. We celebrate this occasion publicly so that others may see, and perhaps learn about this strange tradition, and hopefully ask us, "what's so special about today?"

God intends for us to use such commemorated events as a witness to His glory. "In the future, when your son asks you, 'What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees and laws the LORD our God has commanded you?' tell him: 'We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand'" (Deut. 6:20-21). The practices that seemed odd to foreigners in Israel opened the door for God's people to tell about His mighty deliverance, His mercy, and His love.

Likewise, I pray that someone asks me today, "What's so 'good' about Good Friday?" There's quite a story to tell. It's a story of God's deliverance from slavery we didn't even know we were in. His mercy to withdraw wrath we still can't even comprehend. And His love to do so while we were far from deserving it, or even desiring it.

So, as Christians, I urge you to not dismiss the significance and the holiness of a holiday such as this. There is a growing sentiment that the holiday itself is unimportant, and we should instead commemorate Christ's death every day, not just one. Well, there is honest intentions, I believe, in this teaching. Yet, it does defy what God decreed should be an effective and honoring method for sharing His truth with those who might not know Him yet.

Have a blessed Good Friday.

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Friday, January 30, 2009

The Religion and Relationship of the Atonement

As I think about the people I've talked to, heard speak, or read their writings on Christ's atoning works, I realize that there are distinctly two approaches to the cross, and most of us are dominated in our thinking by one or the other. Even when we hear one perspective dripping all over a message, we may filter it through our lens on the cross and apply totally different points. Neither perspective is wrong, and neither is fully right, but they're two sides to the same coin.

First, there is the religious thinker. Theologically minded and committed to analyzing doctrinal nuances, the religious thinker is quick to identify the liturgical beauty of Christ's death. Typically this is flows from a modern mindset, very scientific and ordered. We see definite links being built between the sacrificial requirements and Christ's death. We find significance in the semantics of God's holiness, righteousness, justification, imputation, propitiation, etc. The religious thinker is able to explain the unquestionable validity of our justification by faith according to the religious codes that God Himself has established. And he's right.

Next, however, is the relational thinker. Emotionally guided and driven by the reality and impact of God's love, the emotional thinker finds solace in the wonderful act of mercy and grace that God bestowed on us in order to adopt us as His children. Typically this flows from a post-modern mindset, very compassionate and socially minded. We see emphasis placed on the suffering of Christ, the magnificent sacrifice of God to send His only son, and the heart-melting love story that the Gospel narrative unfolds. The relational thinker finds it impossible to contain his passionate response of love to the Father who first loved us. And he's right.

I've heard it said that "Christianity is not about religion." That's a relational (post-modern) fallacy. As our society swings more and more toward an outright hatred of religion and absolutes, I want to emphasize that Christ died to satisfy the very absolute realities that God had set up in His religious Law delivered through Moses. The substitutionary and sacrificial aspects of the atonement are meaningless without the context of the Law.

Yet, the power of the Gospel doesn't end there. In fact, we must remember why the Law itself was ever bestowed upon Israel, "it was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers" (Deut. 7:8, emphasis mine). God is not bashful of the fact that He wants to relate to men and women at the deepest level of emotion. He shares His emotions with us in His word—love, joy, anger, and sadness. There is deep emotion and desire for relationship (note, His desire is not a need born out of weakness as the human desire often is) that surrounds Christ's atoning death. Without the expiation and reconciliation that comes through the cross, the religious context of the atonement is also meaningless.

Doctrine is nothing without grace, and grace is nothing without doctrine.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Cosmic Child Abuse: The Atonement Under Attack

In his book, The Story We Find Ourselves In, Brian McLaren introduces a not-so-new concern about the atonement as his fictional character observes the atonement calling it "divine child abuse." McLaren, however, is not necessarily the front runner of this position. Steve Chalke has openly defended the atonement as "cosmic child abuse" in his papers and the book The Atonement Debate. The fact is, this line of logic does not stop with abandoning merely the idea that God intended to inflict His wrath of Christ, but leads many thinkers on the path toward total denial that God would have wrath in the first place.

I would submit to you that not only is this logic unbiblical and heretical, but it leaves one with a host of unanswered questions. Why do we commemorate and revere Christ for His death after all? How can one adopt the Christian faith in a true sense and deny the very reason for Christ's death? Can you really "follow Christ" with merely a set of moral imperatives and "love thy neighbor" ideologies? Is it true, as the world has tried so desperately to affirm, that Christ was merely a good man whose death bears no theological ramifications that would dare to impose a set of propositional truths on our convenient world of relative reality? Will we profit the human race if we can but succeed in defining God according to our ideals—with no wrath, discriminatory judgments, or sovereignty over this world?

In my last post, I posed the rhetorical question "Who Needs an Atonement Anyway?" The answer, if Mclaren and Chalke are to believed, would be nobody at all. But, praise God that we can see plainly His plan in scripture to redeem His people by the very intentional means of substituting His son in our place to expiate the Father's wrath.
"God made him who had no sin to be sin for us." — 2 Corinthians 5:21

Not only that, but the plan was not a mystery to the Son. This cannot be considered child abuse as the Son fully understoods the will of the Father when he emptied Himself in order to carry out His purpose.
"The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." — Matthew 20:28
Substitution is at the heart of what the atonement means. It is the very reason that Christ can now be king over an everlasting kingdom (Heb. 1:3). It is the perfect fulfillment of God's plan, not the ugly mark of some disgraceful temperament that we should be ashamed to proclaim. God is rightfully wrathful. He is just and righteous in His judgment. I find it rather laughable that the flawed, sinful human would render judgment on the legitimacy and fairness of God's own judgment.
"For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God... Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age?" — 1 Corinthians 1:18,20

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Who Needs an Atonement Anyway?

As we reach the mid-way point in our series on The Person and Work of Christ, we are at the pinnacle of Christ's past work: Atonement. Sadly, however, the very need for an atonement has been abandoned by some in exchange for a much less offensive picture of God. Without a proper understanding of Why the atonement was required, we can never fully appreciate What the atonement was and is. The seemingly "unfriendly" attributes of God—His wrath and justice—cannot be denied without also defaming His glorious love and mercy.

There are four bases on which the full beauty and praiseworthiness of Christ's work of atonement rests. Ironically, the first two are anything but beautiful. The first basis for an atonement is the existence of sin itself. Even this core principal of the Christian faith has been dismissed of recent by pastors who desire to preach a less offensive gospel. But, my friends, we cannot preach a gospel that is altogether unoffensive to a people who offend God most severely. Without an understanding of sin, who needs an atonement anyway?

Second, I'm afraid, is even far less popular than the first: God's wrath. The Biblical truth that God is wrathful toward sinners is a fundamental basis for the atonement and crucial in understanding the splendor of what Christ did for us. As far back as Genesis 2:17, "when you eat of it you will surely die," we see God's ordained retribution for disobedience. Nahum 1:3 assures us that, "the LORD will not leave the guilty unpunished." Elsewhere we read, "the wages of sin is death," (Rom. 6:23) and a host of other verses that I couldn't even begin to count or cite. The fact is, as surely as you and I have sinned, we deserve to have God's wrath executed upon us, causing eternal death and torment in total separation from Him. If there were no wrath—no imminent punishment for sin—then who needs an atonement anyway?

Third, and often overlooked, is God's righteousness. Not only does God possess wrath, but He possesses wrath in tandem with a perfect righteousness that requires His justice be fulfilled. He cannot dismiss the verdict, death. He cannot merely brush off and forget the wrongs we have done. I refer to this as "grandpa in the sky" theology, or GITS, as I've come to call it, somewhat tongue in cheek. God's wrath and His righteousness (i.e. justice, see BSL - Righteous) together exclude any option of an acquittal. He will not simply lighten up in order to help some failing students pass. He will not write pardons just to boost his popularity. God will prove Himself to be a righteous Judge. If He were to abandon strict justice, then who needs an atonement anyway?

But finally, just as it seems all hope is lost, the fourth basis for an atonement is equally as certain as the first three: God's mercy. In His mercy, God determined a plan by which our sin, His wrath, and His righteousness could converge in one act of mercy on His children and provide a means for our salvation. "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (Rom. 5:21). After all, without God's mercy, who could be atoned for anyway?

Over the next two weeks, I'll be diving deeper and deeper into the aspects of the atonement. I pray that through a greater appreciation for what Christ did, we may develop a deeper sense of worship for who He is.

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