Predicament #1: The Lack of Shalom

The Good News that Conquers Our Predicament, part 2

In this series, I am exploring the Gospel or “Good News.” In the current “Atonement Wars” among evangelical Christians, some are insisting that the Gospel must be defined primarily as the story of Christ’s dying to pay for the sins of guilty human beings. While I affirm this doctrine, I am convinced that the Gospel is larger, more cosmic, than simply the story of Jesus dying on the cross to forgive sins. While that is a major part of the story, it is not the whole story. That story answers the predicament of our breaking God’s holy Laws. But is that what the Gospel is ultimately about? Isn’t there more to the story than just the legal, forensic part?

To answer this question, we need to go back to the beginning. And we all know that the story begins with Creation. God spoke everything into existence. He created the earth out of the tohu vabohu (the confusion and emptiness). But we should not make the mistake in believing that the Creation is only about humanity and that the non-human creation was only created for our benefit. “The earth is the LORD’S, and everything in it” (Ps 24:1). Humanity is certainly the pinnacle of Creation, the very "Image of God" in Creation (and therefore, when humanity fails in that calling to be the Imago Dei there are cosmic consequences). However, the entire Creation is God’s, and we are a part of the Creation. Another example of God’s love for all of Creation is when he made the covenant marked by the rainbow. It was not just between God and Noah, it was “between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth” (Gen 9:16). God is in relationship with his entire Creation. God created out of confusion and emptiness a world that was then marked by peace and wholeness.

The Hebrew word for this is “Shalom.” Nicholas Wolterstorff says that a society characterized by shalom combines peace, justice, and enjoyment of all relationships so that all peoples can flourish in their lives, and that they can also delight in their relationship with God (Wolterstorff, Until Justice and Peace Embrace). Writing on shalom, Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. (President of Calvin College, a leading evangelical institution in the USA) embraces and expands Wolterstorff's definition:
“We call it peace, but it means far more than mere peace of mind or a cease-fire between enemies. In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight…the webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.” (Plantinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: The Breviary of Sin, p. 10)

So the predicament that the Gospel solves is this: the LACK OF SHALOM. Plantinga has it right: Things are NOT the way they are supposed to be, not only for us humans, but for all of the created cosmos. The predicament is bigger than sin; it is that there is evil where Shalom is supposed to be. I like the way Plantinga describes it:
“We might define evil as any spoiling of shalom, any deviation from the way God wants things to be. Thinking along these lines, we can see that sin is a subset of evil; it's any evil for which somebody is to blame – sin is culpable evil... Sin grieves God, offends God, betrays God, and not just because God is touchy. God hates sin against himself, against neighbors, against the good creation, because sin breaks the peace... God is for shalom and therefore against sin." (Plantinga, Engaging God’s World, p. 51)

So, here we have a predicament of cosmic proportions: the Shalom that God intended for His Creation has been lost.

And therefore, here we have a gospel of cosmic proportions as well: God, in Christ, brings Shalom Peace to His Creation again.

The prophets foretold us that Shalom Peace would come when God will make all things right again:

  • “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6)
  • “Therefore my people will know my name; therefore in that day they will know that it is I who foretold it. Yes, it is I. How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” (Isaiah 52:6-7)
  • “I will heal my people and will let them enjoy abundant peace and security. I will bring Judah and Israel back from captivity and will rebuild them as they were before. I will cleanse them from all the sin they have committed against me and will forgive all their sins of rebellion against me” (Jeremiah 33:6-8)

Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, is prophetic as well when his son is born.

  • “And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace” (Luke 1:76-79)

The heavenly host proclaims the purpose of Jesus’ arrival:

  • “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14)

Jesus’ purpose was to lead his people in the Way of Peace. However, they rejected his way. They wanted to follow other means of retaliation against Rome (the violent way of the zealots, or the compromising way of the Herodians, the separation ways of Qumran--more on this in my next post), while Jesus offered the Way of Peace, the way of sacrifice, the way of the cross. The result, according to Jesus, would be the utter destruction of the city of Jerusalem. Jesus says of the city,

  • “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes” (Luke 19:42).

The Way of Shalom Peace both brings together humanity with God, and humanity with each other. Peter learns this through his experiences:

  • “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all” (Acts 10:34-36).

Our duty of discipleship, then, as Christ’s followers, is to live in peace with God and with others:

  • “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Rom 12:17-18).
  • “God has called us to live in peace” (1 Cor 7:15).
“At their best, Reformed Christians take a very big view of redemption because they take a very big view of falleness. If all has been created good and all has been corrupted, then all must be redeemed. God isn’t content to save souls; God wants to save bodies too. God isn’t content to save human beings in their individual activities; God wants to save social systems and economic systems too…Everything corrupt needs to be redeemed, and that includes the whole natural world, which both sings and groans. The whole natural world, in all its glory and pain, needs the redemption that will bring shalom. The world isn't divided into a sacred realm and a secular realm, with redemptive activity confined to the sacred zone. The whole world belongs to God, the whole world has fallen, and so the whole world needs to be redeemed--every last person, place, organization, and program; all 'rocks and trees and skies and seas'; in fact, ‘every square inch,' as Abraham Kuyper said. The whole creation is a 'theater for the mighty works of God,' first in creation and then in re-creation." (Plantinga, Engaging God’s World, p. 95-96)

Redemption in Christ is the re-establishment of Shalom Peace. This is a huge Gospel, a cosmic “Good News” — God is Peace, and he offers peace to all his Creation.

“The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you” (Romans 16:20).


Next: I explain how I think the Cross of Christ is the Way of Shalom Peace.

Links to the entire series:
1: Define the Predicament, and You Understand another Facet of the Gospel
2: Predicament #1: The Lack of Shalom
3: Evil Bondage in the Place of Shalom
4: EXODUS and the GOOD NEWS of FREEDOM in Paul
6: Another of Humanity’s Predicaments: Broken Relationships
7: The Prophesied Kingdom of God
8: The Kingdom of God Restoring Israel from Exile
9: The Kingdom of God Healing Broken Relationships
10: The Kingdom of God and the Atonement
11: The Kingdom and the Mission of God’s People
12: What is my view of the Kingdom of God?

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Define the Predicament, and You Understand another Facet of the Gospel

The Good News that Conquers Our Predicament, part 1

In my recent posts on the Atonement, I have stated that the single image of Atonement offered by the Reformation and held tightly by those in Calvinist circles (that is, Penal Substitution) is just one single rose in a bouquet of Atonement Stories. I did not seek to denigrate the one rose, but I did intend to say that the Gospel is bigger than the one rose.

That’s the point of this next series of posts. I want to explore the vastness of the answer to this question: What is the Gospel?

I had been trained by my church and even my seminary that the Gospel is Penal Substitution. In my preaching and in my evangelistic interactions with people, the Gospel that I was proclaiming to individuals was this:
  • You have a predicament; you are a sinner.
  • Therefore, you are guilty and condemned before God for your iniquity.
  • You must be punished for breaking God’s holy Law.
  • However, Jesus died on the cross as your substitute, taking the penalty for you.

When you place your faith in this act on the cross, two things occur:

  • Your guilt is removed through Christ’s payment of the penalty (this is called “Expiation”); and
  • God’s wrath toward you is averted (this is called “Propitiation”).

This is the Gospel I have believed and that I have shared with many, many people. This is certainly biblical. God has indeed sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world (1 John 2:2, 4:10). Jesus’ death vindicates God’s righteousness (Rom. 1:17; 3:21-26). Christ’s blood “blots out” our sins, his sacrifice turns aside God’s anger, and God can now forgive our sins and declare us righteous. God’s verdict of condemnation no longer applies to those who place their faith in Christ (Romans 8:1-2).

But, is that all there is to the Gospel? Isn’t there more? My answer is yes.

It all starts with how we define the predicament in which humanity finds itself. Penal Substitution defines the predicament in legal terms—you are guilty of breaking God’s laws. God demands perfection, and you fall short of the glory of God.

Now, I am not saying this is not how many passages in the Bible define the predicament.

What I am saying is that this is not the only way the Bible defines the predicament.

In the following posts, we will look at other biblical ways to define the predicament.

The Good News that Conquers Our Predicament (An Emerging and Neo-Calvinist Gospel)
Links to the entire series:
1: Define the Predicament, and You Understand another Facet of the Gospel
2: Predicament #1: The Lack of Shalom
3: Evil Bondage in the Place of Shalom
4: EXODUS and the GOOD NEWS of FREEDOM in Paul
6: Another of Humanity’s Predicaments: Broken Relationships
7: The Prophesied Kingdom of God
8: The Kingdom of God Restoring Israel from Exile
9: The Kingdom of God Healing Broken Relationships
10: The Kingdom of God and the Atonement
11: The Kingdom and the Mission of God’s People
12: What is my view of the Kingdom of God?

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Four Years in a Row--The "Best Christian Workplace"

I have to brag a little.

I am very blessed to be with an absolutely wonderful ministry called the CCO (Coalition for Christian Outreach). For the fourth year in a row, we have won our category in Christianity Today’s “Best Christian Workplaces” survey.

With my serious heart surgery and the complications afterward, we have been fully supported by the CCO. They have allowed my workload to be extremely cut back, they have seen to it that I will be financially supported, and the medical insurance coverage that they supply us is the very best I’ve ever had! (This helps when your bills are approaching $300,000!).

Never resting on its laurels, each year the CCO seeks to improve itself as a great place for its employees to work. I am grateful to God that I am blessed to be a part of such a great ministry organization.


Stan Grenz and How I Understand the Atonement

A few years ago, I spent two days studying the person of Jesus Christ under Stanley Grenz. It was the time that I was immersing myself in emerging church and postmodern thought and seeking to understand the good news of Jesus Christ in deeper ways. Up until that time, I had been a pretty conservative evangelical – though I had moved out from dispensationalism into a more classically Reformed theology. I was still convinced, however, that the gospel had to be articulated the way Luther and Calvin did it – as penal substitution (that Christ died to pay a legal debt that I owed to God for my sin, and that I am saved from punishment when I place my trust in that fact).

Stan Grenz, in this seminar, offered us some historical analysis on how doctrine develops.

The question that Atonement Theories try to answer is, How does Jesus’ death affect us? Theologians throughout the years have offered the following theories. Grenz contended that Atonement Theories are cultural things. They are ways of explaining the death of Jesus in ways that people could understand it in different cultures. When we are honest about it, theology is a product of both biblical exegetical work and culture. The question, “Where are we?” must be connected with the Scriptures—and that is why we have so many theologians throughout the years giving different ideas about what the Bible says. Theology is the art and science of trying to understand our faith in a way that will speak into the situation in which we find ourselves. Atonement Theories are illustrative of this—throughout history, Christians have developed different ways to articulate the Atonement so that it connects with the culture in which we have found ourselves.

Some believe that Theology is a once-and-for-all thing; that all you need to do is once get it right and then we can quit. But the history of theology shows a different pattern. If you believe that theology can be once-and-for-all, you need not read the Bible anymore. You just need to read the theologian who got it right, because that is what God would have said had he been more systematic about it!

Anyway, here is Stan Grenz's brief history of Atonement Theories:

Ransom Theory: the Patristic Church. This said that Jesus’ death is a part of an interchange between God and the Devil (either as a triumph over the devil or as a payment to the devil, depending on which church father you read). The Church Fathers thought of this as a metaphor, that this is not something that actually happened in history, but is metaphorical language. When humans sinned, they came under the sway of the devil, and therefore Jesus came to ransom us out of our enslavement to the devil. This theory finds its roots in the most important story of the Old Testament—the liberation of God’s people from enslavement to Egypt in the Exodus. This theory had a few manifestations: (1) When Jesus was killed by Satan, Satan had to release the humans because of innocence of Christ. (2) The devil was tricked—when Satan put Jesus to death, humanity escaped from enslavement. When Jesus was resurrected, it broke Satan’s enslavemnt of humanity. This theory shows the power of God liberating humans from sin, suffering and systemic evil. This theory was predominant until the Middle Ages (though many still hold it today).

Satisfaction Theory: Anselm (Bishop of Canterbury). Why did Anslem feel that a new articulation of the Atonement was needed? Because the Ransom Theory no longer worked in a Feudal Culture. Feudal Culture says that if you find yourself in a domain that is ruled by a usurper (someone who does not have rightful claim to rule), you must nevertheless honorably serve. Honor is the a priority. You must honor the person in charge, that is, until the rightful claimant returns and claims sovereignty. Think of the Robin Hood story…The Sheriff of Nottingham and all of King Richard’s vassals must honorably serve Prince John until Richard comes back and reasserts his sovereignty. So Robin Hood really is an outlaw in that culture.
So the Atonement theory that Anselm expressed reflected that culture: Anselm stated that the spiritual realm is like the Feudal realm: We owe honor to God. But in our sinful actions, we have dishonored God. For God’s honor to be restored, humans must offer to God a satisfaction for what we have done. As finite beings, we cannot possibly do this, for God’s honor is too great. Therefore, we need someone to come and restore God’s honor for us. Jesus came and lived a perfect human life (fulfilling his human duty to honor God), and when he died (which is honor above and beyond the call of human duty—the work of his divinity), he restored the honor of God for humanity. Satan was the usurper to the throne of God, and as he was in power, we had to serve him. However, when the Son of God came and overthrew the devil, we are now to follow the rightful sovereign. The combination of honor and sovereignty fits a feudal culture well.

Moral Influence Theory: Abelard (also in the Middle Ages). In his critique of Anselm, Abelard asked, What kind of a God would find merit in the death of an innocent person? That’s doesn’t seem like the God of the Bible. So, in response to Anselm’s theory, he developed the “Moral Influence Theory.” The death of Christ, according to Abelard, is the grand display of the depth of God’s love for us. When we see that grand display, our response should be humility, repentance, faith, and the desire to obey God. Christ’s death influences us into becoming obedient to God. This became very influential in the Modern era, especially among liberal Christians who favored a Social Gospel.

Penal Substitution: Proposed in the Reformation, but became the standard theory in the Puritan Movement. This theory states that God is a law-giver and a law-enforcer. The question this theory answers is this: What do we owe God? The answer: Obedience to Divine Law. Sin is disobedience to divine law and all of us, as sinners, are criminals. Disobedience to divine law must be punished. Therefore, Jesus came to take our punishment so that we do not need to be punished.
Why did this theory come into being? Because the Satisfaction Theory that was predominant to this point no longer worked. The Feudal System began to break down and was being replaced by Nation-States. The Nation was a new concept in Europe, and the primary purpose of a modern Nation-State government is to make laws, interpret laws, and enforce laws. Our modern conception of government lifts up as of ultimate importance the keeping of Law. This is drastically different from the Feudal System, in which the highest priority was to uphold honor to our superior. In modern Nation-States, to be a good citizen, you must keep the law. If you do not keep the law, you are punished. In that context, then, what does Jesus do? He is the one who takes the punishment for our law-breaking.

Many of these theories remain alive and well in contemporary evangelical circles. They are biblical and, as I've said before, make up the full bouquet of what Christ accomplished on the Cross.

The questions, then, that I am asking myself are these:

  • As a leader in a Christian organization seeking to reach a new generation with the gospel of Jesus Christ, how can we best articulate the Atonement so that a postmodern culture can best understand it?
  • Are we past the age in which penal substitution (though a wonderful and true articulation of Atonement) may not be the best primary articulation of the Gospel?
  • Is there yet another biblical way to explain the Gospel that meets people where they are in our current culture?

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Penal Substitution Revisited

In my last post, there began a good debate about penal substitution. I've stressed that I am not denying penal substitution, but that I believe it is a single rose in the bouquet of Atonement Stories. This will not due for many who are steeped in the Reformation and follow Reformer's view on the Atonement. I am Reformational as well, but I find it difficult to deny the biblical evidence and the thoughts of other Christians through the centuries.

Anyway, I found the following quote from Scot McKnight to be helpful. Scot was one of my profs in seminary (I studied the Synoptic Gospels under him). He offers this insight (from this post at Jesus Creed):

What is it about these two terms “penal” and “substitution”?

Here is what one is saying by using those terms: the atonement takes place at the cross; the cross is the place where God vented his wrath against sin; the cross is the place where God in Christ assumed the punishment for sin; the cross is the place where Christ substituted for my sins; the cross is the place where Christ was punished for the sins of the world (or, if you so think, the elect). The use of these terms suggests that it is stating atonement takes place on the cross (no resurrection, no Pentecost) and that is fundamentally about propitiating the wrath of God against sin. To clarify — I’m not suggesting for one second that those who believe in penal substitution do not think there is saving significance in the resurrection or in Pentecost; I’m suggesting the terms being used do not naturally convey those events as well. I’ve rarely heard anyone speak of a “vicarious” or “substitutionary” resurrection — though I think orthodoxy believes in such.

It is, in other words, this set of terms deals with not just substitution, but a restricted kind of substitution: a penal kind of substitution. This is too narrow, I am suggesting, to carry the load of what we (who are orthodox) believe occurs in the atonement ...

Let's admit that our churches are filled with folks who have embraced the gospel that Jesus died for my sins (understood in terms of guilt) and that in so believing or accepting that gospel the problem has been taken care of — and they need not get any further than that. I am suggesting that a reduced gospel emerges from a reduced atonement theory.

What I want to say is not that this theory is wrong, dead-wrong, or anything like that for any theory of the atonement must deal with the issue of God’s just justice with respect to sin; what I want to say is that the atonement is so much more than this. And, if it is so much more than this, then it follows that using “penal substitution” as our guiding term is inadequate and misleads others. At the least, it does not provide enough information to explain what one really believes occurs in the atonement.

But, I’ll say more so it is clear how I think about these terms as a defining instrument for our theory of atonement: because this is the category used by so many, it defines atonement into its category and actually damages the other biblical images for what God does in his atoning work. Using this category leads us to think of atonement in just these terms, and before long we have no room for the other theories. In other words, we need to give some value to what is called the "linguistic turn." If we use this category, we turn atonement into this theory.

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Atonement War of the Roses

The Gospel of "Placing My Faith in a Proposition"

This month’s cover of Christianity Today reads, “No Substitute for the Substitute.” The article ("Nothing But the Blood," CT, May 2006, Vol. 50, no. 5, pp. 28-33) makes the case that the central essence of Christianity is the atoning death of Christ understood in terms of penal substitution. Mark Dever, senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., is an outspoken advocate for a very strict Reformed (Calvinist) interpretation of the Bible.

Dever believes that the “Good News” is that Jesus died to pay the legal debt for the sins of individuals like you and me. We are saved only when we understand this fact and place our faith in this fact. He says so in the opening lines of his article in CT: He tells the story of a woman he knows that was accused of being “too Atonement-centered.” “A Christian friend told her that she talked too much about Christ’s death, which dealt with our guilt due to sin. I responded that knowing and accepting this truth was the only way to a relationship with God, and that I didn’t think it was possible to be ‘too Atonement-centered’.”

Did you catch that? Dever’s gospel is this: There is a particular proposition about what Christ accomplished on the cross—Jesus died to pay for your guilt due to your sin. You must place your faith in this truth as the only way to have a relationship with God.

I have some questions: Is this biblical? Where does the Bible tell us to place our faith? Does it tell us to place our faith in particular statements of facts or to place our faith in the person of Jesus Christ? This may seem like nit-picking, but this troubles me a lot. Please hear me out on this one.

I have been sharing the gospel with people for many years. For the longest time, it looked pretty much like how Mark Dever states it. When we believe that God sent his Son to die for each of us in our place, as our substitute and atoning sacrifice to fully satisfy God’s righteous standard, the guilty verdict that hangs over our heads is shifted to Christ—we are forgiven of the legal guilt for our sins and can be guaranteed our place in heaven.

So, you can see where this gospel presentation led me: To a place in our conversation where I am trying to convince my hearer that they must believe in these facts in order to save themselves from Hell and gain the benefits of a relationship with God. The focus of our conversation subtly transferred from faith in Jesus to faith in a set of propositions. Instead of asking the person to have faith in Jesus, I was asking the person to have faith in my particular understanding of what happened on the cross.

Now, I’m not saying that propositions are completely illegitimate. To tell the story of Christ’s incarnation and sacrifice, I often pause and offer statements that spell out what I believe to be true about that. But this is not the end; it is the means to the end. What Dever (and myself, in my earlier attempts to explain the gospel to people) is guilty of doing is making a specific understanding of the Atonement the end-point. For Dever (and, as I understand it, many of my fellow modern evangelicals), one must believe that Christ died as our legal substitute on the cross in order to be saved. Dever insists, “At stake is nothing less than the essence of Christianity.”

But why is that the ONLY way to explain the love of God in Christ for us? If the actual end-point is to usher people into a real relationship with God through Christ, then why are other means demeaned by Dever?

  • If I explain to people that Christ died for them in order to free them from the systemic evils that are destroying lives and culture (the “ransom” or “classical” theory of the atonement), am I not preaching the gospel?
  • If I explain to people that Christ died for them so that the image of God that is wonderfully in them can blossom and flourish so that we can become the kind of humanity that we are meant to become (the “recapitulation” theory of the atonement), am I not preaching the gospel?
  • If I explain to people that when we place our faith in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, it gives us the ultimate example of how life is meant to be lived—that we are to also sacrifice in order to advance the cause of righteousness (the Abelardian “example” theory), am I not preaching the gospel?

Each of these varying stories (and more, including the Reformational view of Penal Substitution) of the Atonement is found in the Bible, and each leads to faith in Jesus Christ. Each is a beautiful rose in the bouquet that encompasses the multi-faceted aspects of what Christ accomplished on the cross.

For Dever, or any other Calvinist (including myself—I consider myself a neo-Calvinist as well), to insist that ONE of these stories of the Atonement is essential to Christianity is simply unbiblical.

The Bible offers a full bouquet of Atonement stories, with differing colors, differing fragrances, differing textures, so that we can embrace the fullness of what Christ accomplished for us. The Atonement is so big and spectacular that it takes all these stories to capture its beauty. People are so different in the various cultures in this world and in their assorted life-situations that these diverse stories speak to them wherever they are and whatever they believe and however they need the grace of God.

Dever pulls one rose from the bouquet and sets it alone as the single most significant story of the Atonement. It certainly is a beautiful rose, but we are missing so much more!

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