Interpreting Jesus and Atonement – Practical Issue #1: Does God Love Your Non-Christian Friend?

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The first major reason why Christians should care about atonement theology is because we may or may not be able to say to our non-Christian friends and family, ‘God loves you.’  When we first glance at Scripture, that question seems easy to answer.  The following verses suggest that we can:

‘He himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for those of the whole world.’ (1 John 2:2).

‘False teachers were…denying the Master who bought them.’ (2 Peter 2:1).

‘The living God… is the Savior of all men, especially of believers.’  (1 Timothy 4:10).

‘For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men.’ (Titus 2:11)

‘God our Savior…desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.’  (1 Timothy 2:3 – 4)

‘The Lord is patient towards you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.’  (2 Peter 3:9)

‘Do I have any pleasure in the death of the wicked…rather than that he should turn from his ways and live?…For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies.  Therefore, repent and live.’  (Ezekiel 18:23, 32 – 33)

However, there are some who have decided that those verses cannot mean what they seem to say at face value.  For whether or not you can say, ‘God loves you’ to a non-Christian actually depends on your theology of the atonement.

Theories of the atonement are trying to answer a few main questions:  From what did Jesus save us?  How?  How does Jesus make us right with God?  In the penal substitution theory, Jesus saves us from God’s wrath.  He does this by sacrificing himself on our behalf, taking the punishment for our sin by dying in our place.  He is our ‘substitute’ who takes our ‘penalty’; hence the name ‘penal substitution.’  Reformed Baptist pastor Mark Dever, for example, says that Jesus took ‘on himself the punishment for the sins of all those who would ever turn from their sin and trust in him… He rose again from the dead, showing that God accepted Christ’s sacrifice and that God’s wrath against us had been exhausted.’[1]  Presbyterian pastor John MacArthur says, ‘Christ died in our place and in our stead – and He received the very same outpouring of divine wrath in all its fury that we deserved for our sin.  It was a punishment so severe that a mortal could spend all eternity in the torments of hell, and still he would not have begun to exhaust the divine wrath that was heaped on Christ at the cross.  This was the true measure of Christ’s sufferings on the cross.  The physical pains of crucifixion – dreadful as they were – were nothing compared to the wrath of the Father against Him.’[2]

An analogy that helps communicate penal substitution is the courtroom analogy.  It says, ‘God is the judge.  We are on trial for sin.  God finds us guilty of the death sentence.  But Jesus steps in to take the punishment in our place.  So God satisfied His own sense of justice by substituting Himself in for us to exhaust His own wrath as judge.’  This made some sense to me, but it left me with nagging questions:  Why didn’t Jesus go to the cross at age five?  Why does Jesus seem significant only as a stand-in, a victim?  What was the significance of his life?  Does Jesus deal with the source of human evil inside my human nature, or only the consequences of God’s anger at my evil actions – the ‘punishment’ part?  Does Jesus want to construct in my heart a motivation for obeying him that sounds like my Asian parents’ reasoning:  ‘Don’t you know how much I sacrificed for you?’  Was Jesus’ resurrection merely proof that God accepted his death?  For this is not why Scripture sees it as being important.  And most importantly, did Jesus exhaust God’s wrath for my parents and friends who don’t know him?  How much of God’s wrath did He exhaust?

In the penal substitution theory, God’s wrath has to be understood in a certain way.  God targets people for hell on legal grounds, because the wrath of God as the offended lawgiver needs to be expressed.  Hell is infinite because the punishment for sinning against a being depends on the majesty of that being.  Since God is infinite, God’s wrath against human sin must be infinite, and therefore hell must be infinite.  Hell must therefore be conceived of as a gigantic, eternal prison system:  People want to get out, but God keeps them in.

Then we must ask the question, ‘What wrath is left over for people in hell?’  If God has some wrath left over for people for hell, that might mean that God poured out only part of His wrath on Jesus at the cross, reserving the rest of His wrath for the unsaved in hell.  This would mean that Jesus did not actually die for all people, but only for those God elected or predestined.  This is the idea of ‘limited atonement,’ which limits God’s love and brings into question verses like those above.

For example, well-respected evangelical scholar J.I. Packer, in his famous introduction to John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, argues that penal substitution necessarily means limited atonement:

‘[John] Owen shows with great cogency that the three classes of texts alleged to prove that Christ died for persons who will not be saved (those saying that he died for ‘the world,’ for ‘all,’ and those thought to envisage the perishing of those for whom he died), cannot on sound principles of exegesis be held to teach any such thing; and, further, that the theological inferences by which universal redemption is supposed to be established are really quite fallacious…So far from magnifying the love and grace of God, this claim dishonors both it and him, for it reduces God’s love to an impotent wish and turns the whole economy of ‘saving’ grace, so-called (‘saving’ is really a misnomer on this view), into a monumental divine failure.  Also, so far from magnifying the merit and worth of Christ’s death, it cheapens it, for it makes Christ die in vain.  Lastly, so far from affording faith additional encouragement, it destroys the scriptural ground of assurance altogether, for it denies that the knowledge that Christ died for me (or did or does anything else for me) is a sufficient ground for inferring my eternal salvation; my salvation, on this view, depends not on what Christ did for me, but on what I subsequently do for myself…You cannot have it both ways:  an atonement of universal extent is a depreciated atonement.’[3]

I agree with Packer’s view that limited atonement is the inseparable – and for some, the unwanted – companion to penal substitution.  One reason for this is to avoid the double accounting problem:  If Jesus took God’s entire wrath against humanity at the cross, and then God poured out more wrath on the unrepentant in hell, would this not be a double accounting problem?  On the other hand, we must also avoid the problem lurking at the other end of the spectrum:  If Jesus took all of God’s wrath at the cross, then perhaps there would be no wrath leftover for unbelievers, so there would be no hell.  Since most evangelicals believe Scripture teaches that there is a hell, and at least the possibility that there will be people in it, Jesus could not have taken all of God’s wrath.

Another reason for the tight link between penal substitution and limited atonement is to assert that Christ’s death was efficacious for procuring the salvation of some, lest Jesus be said to have died for no one in particular and theoretically none.  Hence, advocates of limited atonement like J.I. Packer prefer to call their conviction ‘definite atonement.’  The atonement must be definite in order for it to be effective, although this assertion rests on certain assumptions which I will continue to explore in the next post.  People assume, mostly from reading the Old Testament in a certain way, that God’s wrath is directed at our personhood on judicial grounds, rather than being directed at the ‘cancer’ in our bodies on medical grounds; the Old Testament diagnosis of the human heart is that God needs to circumcise something off from it (Gen.6:5 – 6; 8:21; Dt.30:6; Jer.4:4) and change the heart (Ps.51:10; Jer.17:1 – 10; 31:31 – 34; Ezk.11:19; 36:26 – 36).  Some Lutherans and Calvinists, following an interpretation of Augustine’s later writings over his earlier ones, add that God’s choices cause human choices.  This means that God, before actually loving anyone in particular, decides who He will love and who will love Him back by His raw, arbitrary, and omnicausal will.  It follows that God’s retributive justice-wrath-holiness is opposite His love-mercy-grace such that people receive either one or the other.  But when we try to integrate all of God’s characteristics into statements about Him as one personal being, we must conclude that God is fundamentally two-faced, or arbitrary, at the core.

Some, trying to better honor the Scriptures on the atonement above, say that ‘Christ’s atonement is sufficient for all but efficient for some.’[4]  If, however, the answer ultimately comes down to the selective activity of the Holy Spirit to save some and not others, then we have created a new problem:  Why would Jesus die for all, only to have the Holy Spirit apply his work to only some?  This divides the members of the Trinity one way or another.  Is the Holy Spirit truly joined with Jesus Christ?  Is God the Spirit truly joined with God the Son?  Which reflects the mind of God the Father?  To protect the doctrine of the Trinity – which holds that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not divided in this way – from falling apart like this, many thoughtful Christians come back to limited atonement, along with a highly selective scope of predestination.[5]

Many find it hard to understand how the verses above, which apparently say or imply that the atonement is ‘unlimited’ in some sense, can be understood to mean that Jesus died to save only those pre-selected by God to receive that salvation.  Yet advocates of limited atonement explain these Scriptures precisely in that way.  There are other Scriptures that are affected as well.  Paul says that the preincarnate Son of God created ‘all things’ to be under human dominion, and therefore became incarnate to redeem and regather ‘all things’ under his own human dominion on humanity’s behalf (Rom.11:32; 1 Cor.15:27 – 28; Eph.1:10; Col.1:15 – 20).  Paul also refers to Jesus as a ‘new Adam’ (Rom.5:12 – 21; 1 Cor.15:21 – 27, 45 – 50) which serves the same purpose as his ‘all things’ statements.  John’s well-known statements about God’s love being for ‘the world’ (Jn.3:16) and taking away ‘the sin of the world’ (Jn.1:29) weigh in that direction.  In response, penal substitution advocates, especially those of a Calvinist bent, will cite Scriptures relating to God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart and His hardening of Israel in Romans 9 – 11, and a smattering of other texts on predestination, foreknowledge, God’s choice and initiative in salvation, and so forth, but other interpretations of those texts, going far back to the patristic era, must also be considered and weighed carefully.[6]  Theology is a discipline with pieces that connect and fit together, much like a jigsaw puzzle.  Any movement in one area usually affects others, and the atonement is central to all theology.  It is, perhaps, the most important piece.

For now, I will highlight the practical ministry implications of holding to penal substitution.  If penal substitution were my theology of the atonement, how would I do evangelism?  I would not be able to say to any particular non-Christian, ‘God loves you.’  Fred Butler, a contributor to the website monergism.com, writes that evangelism is ‘a presentation of the gospel message and facts of redemption.  This is when a believer proclaims to the unbeliever what Christ did to make a way for a sinner’s salvation.’[7]  Butler uses language that distances Jesus from the actual listener.  He speaks of ‘a sinner,’ generally, but not ‘you’ in particular.  To account for the perceived failure in evangelism due to others’ lack of faith, penal substitution supporters typically refer to the ‘inward call’ of God or the ‘effectual call’ of God as distinguished from the ‘outward call’ of the Christian presenting the gospel verbally; and since we do not know if God is actually calling the non-Christian to Christ using the words of our verbal invitation, we cannot logically say that God is calling ‘you.’[8]  Taking the next logical step, since I don’t know for certain who is among God’s elect, I would not be able to say that to anyone else, as some Christians recognize.  Depending on how I then interpret other passages, I may not be able to say it to myself.  For example, the early European American missionary to Native Americans, David Brainerd, was tormented by this question.[9]  Penal substitution can legitimately throw open the disposition of God towards people in our particularity.  I will elaborate on medical substitution as my comparison to penal substitution in the next post.

To repeat, the penal substitution theory prevents me from saying, ‘God loves you, in particular, you, and He will always love you.’  Instead, I would have to say, ‘God might love you, but I don’t know.  Arminians say that it depends on you.  Calvinists say that it does not depend on you, but only on God.’  If we limit the work of Christ (limited atonement) or the work of the Spirit (limited application) in any way, then we cannot say, ‘God loves every human being.’  For if God so arranged the mechanics of salvation so that He intends to only save some of humanity (the elect), then this makes it hard for us to say to any particular non-Christian, ‘God loves you,’ because of the uncertainty injected into the theology.  Regarding any particular person, I might want that person’s salvation more than God does, which is startling to imagine but becomes a real logical possibility.

[1] Mark Dever, 9Marks, http://www.9marks.org/what-are-the-9marks/the-gospel, italics mine.

[2] John MacArthur, The Murder of Jesus (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2004), p.220

[3] J.I. Packer, ‘An Introduction to John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ’, reprinted in J.I. Packer and Mark Dever, In My Place Condemned He Stood (Wheaton, IL:  Crossway Books, 2007), p.126.  See also R.C. Sproul, The Holiness of God (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2nd edition, 2000) for another example of a theologian who explains the verses above as referring to ‘limited atonement.’

[4] E.g. Mark Dever and Michael Lawrence, It is Well: Expositions on Substitutionary Atonement (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), p.75.

[5] This problem of the logical discontinuity between Son and Spirit is present in Arminian theology also.  Both classical (e.g. Baptist) and Wesleyan (e.g. Methodist) Arminians hold to penal substitution.  They assert that God’s foreknowledge perceives a person’s freely willed choice to believe in Christ or not, and then God limits the scope of the atonement to those who He knows will believe (James Arminius, The Writings of James Arminius, III, 454; cf. Roger Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006)).  This preserves the logical continuity between the work of the Father in foreknowledge and election and the work of the Son in atonement.  The work of the Spirit, however, is disconnected from the work of the Father and the Son because, in Arminian doctrine, the security of the believer is conditional on the believer’s faith, which can be lost.  In their view, the Spirit can lose persons for whom the Son has atoned via penal substitution.  Thus, the Arminian theological system tries to preserve human free will and penal substitution together, but at the cost of the doctrines of the Holy Spirit and the Trinity.

[6] Interestingly enough, Jewish and later Christian writers of impressive intellectual stature used this metaphor of clay to explain human free will.  My notes can be found here:  http://nagasawafamily.org/paul_romans.09-11.predestination&freewill.pdf.

[7] Fred Butler, Evangelism and Calvinism, http://www.monergism.com/directory/link_category/Evangelism/Evangelism–Calvinism/

[8] Paul Helm, The Call that Brings a Response, says, ‘So while the call of the gospel through preaching is general, without restriction, in accordance with Christ’s command to His servants to proclaim the good news in all the world, yet the inward, effectual call of God which makes the good news intelligible and acceptable, is particular.’ (http://www.the-highway.com/calling1_Helm.html)

[9] A fact covered over by Jonathan Edwards selectively excising those portions from David Brainerd’s journal when he first published it.

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6 Comments Add yours

  1. Tom Zsoka says:

    I will try to address the issues slowly as I am still slogging through the article. First one is that I do not believe Christ died to save us from the wrath of God, but the just sentence of death. God pouring out his wrath is a separate issue from God punishing someone for their unrepentant sin.

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  2. Tom Zsoka says:

    Jesus paid our penalty and all that is required receive the benefit it is to believe that it is true. If any who doesn’t accept that unbelievable gift of atonement will indeed suffer gods wrath and will die (be forever separated from God). As for why didn’t Jesus go to the cross at age five it is because he had the mission of fulfilling the Old Testament prophesies of a savior. In order for his penal substitution to have any validity, he had to be fully human with all the attendant propensities to sin as we have. But he had to live a perfectly unblemished life. The result for those of us who trust in Jesus, is that we are deemed by God to be righteous and our sins are paid for. Yes God loves everyone that has ever lived, is living or will live. God loves a sinner, but gives him free will to refuse to believe.

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    1. makonagasawa says:

      Thanks for the post, Tom. Can you clarify your definitions? In your first post, you said that you did not believe that Jesus died to save us from the wrath of God. If that’s the case, then what punishment or penalty did Jesus take on himself at his death?

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