Interpreting Jesus and Atonement – Practical Issue #9: Is God an Asian Parent? What Language of Motivation Does God Use?


‘Don’t you know how much I sacrificed for you???’

Those words shaped my sense of self, my feelings of duty, and my perception of how others experienced me.

Who said that?  My parents.  Hearing it made me feel mixed.  On the one hand, I was grateful for their sacrifices.  I certainly benefited.  On the other hand, I had my doubts about their motivations being self-sacrifice pure and simple. (If they came to the U.S. for more money, didn’t that benefit them, too?)  And it sounded like I was mostly (or only) a burden to them.  A caveat:  That wasn’t the only motivational language they used, as they were not as one-dimensional as that (!).  I’m not sure if that was their most frequently used language; my memory is not perfect on that point.  Regardless, it seemed to have the biggest effect on me.  And I think it’s a commonly heard motivation coming from Confucian-influenced East Asian cultures.

Then, when I gave my life to Jesus when I was 17, I felt like God was saying that too.  Some Asian-American Christians would say:

‘Don’t you know how much God sacrificed for you?’  

The words coursed through a well-worn groove in my heart.  They worked, but they produced a joyless obedience in me.  I felt psychologically and spiritually maneuvered into ‘being grateful,’ and implicitly owing an unpayable debt.  And just as I quietly doubted the purity of my parents’ motivations, I doubted God’s.  He sounded awfully narcissistic:  ‘For His own glory’ – that’s why He did things?

Well, I reasoned, if God used that language of motivation, then I certainly could, too.  I, too, could play on people’s sense of guilt and obligation.  So I did, both lightly and heavily, in conversations and in preached messages.  At the same time, I told others that Jesus’ sacrifice made God’s grace ‘free’ for us.  It was a paradoxical combination of statements that I knew didn’t really hold together.

But when things didn’t go well, and sometimes even when they did, I felt like a burden to God.  My sense of shame about who I was actually deepened.

In this blog post, I will explore the impact of penal substitution vs. medical (ontological) substitution atonement theology on our emotional lives.  Along with citing others’ experiences, I’ll share out of my own, including my cultural background as a Japanese-American male, sandwiched between two cultures while I grew up.  I’ve defined and explored implications of both atonement theories in previous posts.  As a brief reminder, I’ll define them this way:  If Jesus is the innocent stand-in who was punished by God in my place, then how should I and others respond to him?  But if Jesus is the healer who becomes the sick one to fight the disease in my place, and conquer it for me, to share his victory with me, then my response will be fairly different, and necessarily so, but how?

I will explore:

  1. Personal motivations to follow Jesus in penal substitution
  2. The image of God as Father in penal substitution
  3. The image of God as Father in medical substitution
  4. Personal motivations to follow Jesus in medical substitution

One:  Personal Motivations to Follow Jesus in Penal Substitution

Advocates of penal substitution frequently say that if Jesus absorbed the infinite torment in hell which was directed at me by God’s infinite retributive justice, and if that is the starting point for reflecting on who God is and who we are, then Christian ministry should unfold like this:

‘[In] articulating that message the Reformed have characteristically focused upon some of its most mysterious, wonderful and “awful” aspects: the utterly “unconditioned” but also “invincible” character of the divine “election” to salvation; the terrible “judgment” of God upon those who will not trust that gracious election; “sin” as not merely a misuse of a freedom still available but as a kind of hereditary defect, a “pre-volitional malady” of the will inclining it to evil incurable by any humanly devised therapy; the blood of the pure victim “appeasing” the holy anger of God, or juridically interpreted, the suffering of the just “penalty” by the substitute victim making it possible for God “legally” to acquit guilty sinners; the life of a Christian as one of utter “self-abandonment” grounded in overwhelming gratitude for God’s forgiveness in Christ, striving to be “totally” at the disposal of God—these are among the most salient themes that have given Reformed theology, in all its varieties, its characteristic shape.’[1]

Let me be quick to add that this author does not include in his definition of ‘Reformed’ the likes of Karl Barth, T. F. Torrance, and ‘evangelical Calvinists’ as distinct from ‘high federal Calvinists.’[2]  Their approaches are very different.  But in general, I’ve found that this is a fair description of both the Lutheran and high federal Calvinist traditions.[3]  They believe that the portrayal of the majesty of God, the holiness of God, and the wrath of God should be positioned toward us in such a way that we are made to feel small, unholy, and terrified of God’s impending punishment.  Then, after explaining the penal substitutionary atonement theory, that should translate, in theory, into sheer amazement and gratitude that God poured out His wrath on Jesus, instead of tormenting us forever.

But why would the knowledge of God’s forgiveness in Christ lead to ‘overwhelming gratitude’?  Why wouldn’t it lead to feeling increased shame and guilt?  After all, I believed I was bad before.  But then, I learned that the greatest of all human beings, Jesus, had to suffer and give his life for me.  I thought the movie Saving Private Ryan captured that feeling well.  Army Rangers Captain John Miller (played by Tom Hanks) and his squad rescued Private James Ryan (played by Matt Damon), who was trapped behind enemy lines in the invasion of Normandy during World War II.  They succeeded in rescuing him, but they all died, down to the last man.  The last scene of the movie is an elderly James Ryan standing with his wife by the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.  The aged Ryan trembles next to Miller’s grave.  He turns to his wife and asks with deep uncertainty, ‘Tell me I’ve led a good life… Tell me I’ve been a good man…’  While she affirms him, I didn’t necessarily feel like his heavy inner burden was lifted.  Similarly, wouldn’t it be possible for us to feel more guilt about Jesus’ suffering and death?  Did his resurrection take away the sting for me, and others?  Not necessarily.

When I started teaching Nicene theology and the medical substitutionary atonement, one college student described her inner life change in this way:

‘This emphasis on Jesus as God’s new humanity has made him so much more relatable… I never really understood how Jesus undid all the sins and evil within the nature of human beings.  In many ways, Jesus’ death had made me feel guilty, because I found that I was so unworthy to have Jesus suffer on behalf of my sins.  However, understanding how Jesus conquered sin through healing humanity during his life and finally conquering the greatest evil of death, I now see his act on the cross as a moment of triumph.’

Many others did, too.  So I looked for another reason for why some people responded to penal substitution with gratitude and others with more guilt and/or shame.  I believe that culture plays a role.  One reason is that Western people like white Americans are often ‘guilt-based’ people, whereas other people, like second-generation Asian-Americans like me, are more often ‘shame-based.’  Let me define that.

Non-Christian View of the Self


Guilt-based people view themselves as generally good (orange circle in below image), with a few bad actions on the side (the red dot).  Guilt-based people are motivated to be perfect, and feel reasonably confident about who they are.  So they are more optimistic about themselves.  They respond reasonably well to guilt motivation, because they are not easily overwhelmed by it.

Why not?  I suspect that ‘white American exceptionalism,’ the idea of national and often racial superiority, psychologically buoyed people.  Evangelicals may have said they believed in ‘total depravity’ and a profoundly negative view of human beings.  But, paradoxically, they also believed that white American Protestants made up the best nation in the world.  I think the latter conviction, untrue as it is, spared them the emotional effects of penal substitution.  As evidence, consider this:  For most of the twentieth century, white American evangelicals believed in penal substitution without much teaching on the Holy Spirit, which in the New Testament is the basis for experiencing intimacy with God, empowerment from God, and personal assurance of God’s presence (Jn.14:8 – 21; Rom.8:14 – 17; etc.).  ‘Forgiveness’ from penal substitution seemed to be enough for most fundamentalists and evangelicals.  Only in working-class Pentecostal circles did the Holy Spirit receive much attention.  For white American evangelicals, not until the 1970’s, with the Vineyard church and the charismatic movement, did the Holy Spirit become an intentional focus.  In the twentieth century, something else was happening in white America which made penal substitution without the Holy Spirit emotionally sufficient for evangelism and discipleship.

By contrast, a shame-based person (on the right) perceives themselves as essentially bad or evil (large red circle), so works to maintain a façade of goodness (orange layer).  The shame-based person not only feels like she did something wrong.  Rather, she feels like she is something wrong.  It’s not just that you feel like you made a mistake.  It’s that you feel like you are a mistake.  In my observation, and in my reading, this can happen for various reasons.  It might be because dad left the family and the child blames himself, physical abuse that causes a child to internalize an implicit message of her questionable worth, constant criticism about one’s self that the child internalizes, friendship instability where the person feels insecure because her friends come and go, internalized racism and a stigmatized ‘otherness’ which questions the worth of the person, and so on.  Whatever the reason, a shame-based person tends to hide behind masks or layers because he experiences his essential self as negative.  Sometimes, when exposed, he becomes paralyzed, unable to simply confess wrong and empathize with others who might feel hurt or deceived, and help undo the damage.  When a shame-based person feels criticized, even in the context of committed, caring relationships, he feels the further urge to hide or escape.[4]

Two:  The Image of God as Father in Penal Substitution

The feelings of shame and lack of worth, however, didn’t go away when I believed in penal substitution because my image of God as Father was not clear.  Peter J. Leithart, a high federal Calvinist theologian, minister, and author with the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA), described the intersection of my emotional-spiritual life fairly well:

‘But there is here an existential and pastoral difficulty, if not a theological one.  The righteousness that God loves is, after all, an alien righteousness. God loves His righteous Son, but that might leave me wondering, Does God love me?  Since I’m not completely righteous, does God receive me completely?  Calvin wants to say yes, but because the thing that God loves seems somewhat detachable from me, he leaves the question.  This is not a hypothetical problem; assurance has been a long-standing problem in Reformed piety.’[5]

In other words, Leithart observes that penal substitution can and does lead some people into emotional anxiety.  Bruce Wauchope, director of a ministry called Perichoresis Australia, explores the relationship between theology and mental health.  In his introductory lecture ‘The Gospel and Mental Health,’ which is on line, he highlights the same thing, saying, ‘A gospel based on separation does not heal people.’[6]

Why is assurance a problem?  Because within penal substitution, and its companion doctrine of limited atonement, we develop the image of God the Father as a dispassionate Judge or an angrily distant Father.  Advocates of penal substitution say He is both Father and Judge and perhaps equally so.  Now we might try to re-color that image of Father and Judge by suggesting that God’s love sent Jesus to the cross, which is what Leithart offers, rooting the sending of Jesus in God’s pity.

‘One way to address this would be to make more room than Calvin does here for God’s pity. Out of pity, God responds to the groans of His sinful people (Judges 2:18). He has compassion on rebels, and intervenes to deliver them from their own self-destruction. He loves them because they are His creatures; He loves them as His chosen people. Out of His compassion, He completely receives those who are incompletely righteous. The Father’s compassion is founded on Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the sinner’s union with Him. By emphasizing pity, though, it is clear that God loves me even in the midst of my misery.’[7]

Leithart offers the idea that pity happens in God prior to His wrath and retributive justice, which are exhausted by Jesus in atonement to make evident the pity that lies upstream in God.  But that does not answer the question, really.  For in Leithart’s high federal Calvinist sequence, the Father’s compassion only applies to those who God chooses to elect.  Notice Leithart’s fairly careful wording:  The Father’s compassion is not founded on His creation of us.  It is rooted in Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the sinner’s union with him by faith.  In other words, before God sent Jesus, He looked ahead in time to those He would save.  For the Calvinist elect, if you are among the elect, then yes, the Father’s compassion is founded on Jesus’ death and resurrection, and your union with him.  But if you are not emotionally and mentally sure that you are truly among the elect, then Leithart’s doctrine of God’s pity doesn’t help you.  You don’t have assurance because you can’t be sure you’re among the elect.  Period.  Full stop.

Some (though not all) zealous penal substitution preachers have even said that God could have scrapped the whole creation and thrown it into hell, except for God’s love and mercy for some.  Undoubtedly they say this to intensify our impression of God’s majesty, holiness, and wrath.  But that worsens the already frightening image of God and/or God the Father.  If God could have saved no one – if that was indeed a real hypothetical possibility for God – and let all humanity and creation burn in eternal, retributive flames, then this translates into a character assessment about God:  God did not have to love anyone.  In fact, love would be accidental to who God is.  What is more fundamental about God is cold, hard retributive justice.  That means He is a Judge before He is a Father.  He chose to become Father to some by saving some into His family through Jesus.  But He could have chosen not to do so.  That’s why penal substitution makes the image of God as Father emotionally difficult.  Fatherhood towards us becomes an optional activity of God, but not an essential attribute.

David Brainerd (1718 – 1747) was a courageous Euro-American missionary to the Delaware Native Americans in New Jersey.  He probably had tuberculosis, which led to his untimely death at the age of 29.  He was also probably mentally disturbed towards the later part of his life.  Throughout his ministry, he wrestled in mental anguish with the sense that God could rightly cast him off from Christ.  He wrote, many times in his diary, statements like this:

‘Sometime before, I had taken much pains, as I thought, to submit to the sovereignty of God; yet… my soul now so much dreaded and trembled… But the truth was, I could see no safety in owning myself in the hands of a sovereign God, and could lay no claim to any thing better than damnation.’[8]

These were not the statements of someone who knew himself to be in Christ, and was really just reminding himself of his past life before he came to know Jesus in what he thought was a healthy spiritual exercise.  This was his ongoing, present struggle as a man who was trying to trust, love, and follow Jesus.  He was seeking assurance from somewhere in the character of God as he understood it.  Repeatedly, Brainerd penned nervous laments like this:

‘I fear that I am not elected, and therefore must perish.’[9]

So often, Brainerd would come back home from preaching and ministering among the Delaware people, and fear for his own position before God.  We cannot claim to know whether Brainerd’s mental condition was caused by the logical uncertainty embedded in penal substitution itself.  But we can say that penal substitution did nothing to truly assuage his doubts.

As of this writing, I have been in campus ministry for about 15 years.  I have known about far too many young people who have committed suicide.  The majority of them were Asian-American, and a surprising number of those have been Christian.  None were terribly close to me.  So, I can’t say for certain that spiritual anxiety contributed to any of these suicides, although from a distance I rather suspect it.  I believe mental health is its own challenge, independently.  But when I think about trying to minister to young people who are already somewhat fragile, with a doctrinal framework that I believe offers no comfort about God, I remain thankful – so thankful – that I stand in another that does.

Three:  The Image of God as Father in Medical Substitution

In the medical substitutionary atonement, the image of God as Father is that of a Father who can wisely tell the difference between our true selves and the thing in us that needs to be purified away by His wrath, which is expressed by Him drawing nearer to us in love.  As I wrote in an earlier post,[10] there is still a very personal wrath of God.  But in this understanding, God’s wrath is directed not at our personhood, but at the corruption of sin in human nature.  In this model, the appropriate paradigm is medical or even surgical (like circumcision).  A doctor or surgeon hates the cancer in our bodies precisely because he love us.  Therefore, as Father, God’s wrath is an expression of His love, even an activity of His love, aimed at removing the thing in us which harms us and damages our ability to receive His love.

At some point in our earthly experience of human authority figures, even the best of fathers and mothers, we experience some limitation in their love, and especially in their ability to handle our sin.  We experience their commitment to us as conditional (even if only in our fears) and sometimes contractual.  We also experience their rewards and punishments as primarily external to us, and upon our bodies.  Our parents positively use physical affection, desserts, praise, screen time, free time, friend time, car rides, and money.  Negatively, they use sending us to our room, lecturing, spanking, grounding, or even sometimes abandoning.  Outside the home, authority figures use praise, awards, money, favors, or status.  Negatively, they might expel us from school or fire us from the job.  In more extreme cases, they send us to prison.

It’s somewhat natural, on a human level, to use our experience of human authority figures as a model for God as Father.  But both sin and God ultimately work within our bodies, not upon our bodies, and internally to us, not externally.  So we have to shift our understanding of God as Father.

Appropriately, in the medical substitution explanation of Jesus’ atonement, God’s Fatherhood is defined by Jesus’ experience of his Father alone.  Jesus said, ‘No one knows the Father but the Son…’ (Mt.11:27; Lk.10:22).  Only the Son reveals the Father truly.  How did Jesus do that?  On the one hand, Jesus himself experienced the love and delight of the Father at all times, in the bond of the Holy Spirit.  That was demonstrated at Jesus’ baptism, when the Father loudly and publicly announced His delight in Jesus, and the Holy Spirit manifested Jesus’ anointing to be the messianic king of Israel (Mt.3:13 – 17; Lk.3:21 – 22).  On the other hand, Jesus also experienced the will of the Father, in the power of the Spirit, against the corruption of sin in his humanity.  That was also demonstrated of course in the wilderness temptation, but also simultaneously, at Jesus’ baptism itself.  Jesus went through baptism to confess the corruption of sin in his human nature, cleanse his humanity symbolically, and demonstrate his commitment to dying and rising later, which would really and actually cleanse his humanity.  So in response to his Father, and on behalf of the Father’s love for each one of us, Jesus never sinned.  By the Spirit, Jesus made his human nature yield to the loving will of the Father.  God’s goodness and faithfulness to us was revealed, ultimately, by Jesus’ goodness and faithfulness.

But didn’t the Father abandon Jesus at the cross?  Didn’t Jesus cry out the words of Psalm 22:1, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Mt.27:45; Mk.15:34)  Jesus did say that, but I believe ‘separation from the Father’ is a wrong interpretation of that event.  Did the Father abandon him in some way that the heavens were shut to Jesus?  Did Jesus spiritually sense nothing from the Father’s side?  I know this is a core staple of mostly Protestant belief, so I am treading on sacred ground.  In the penal substitution framework, people reason from our human experience that separation and distance from any parent or authority figure is the fitting punishment for wrongdoing.  It’s like being sent to your room, or sent to prison.  You want to get out, and be reunited on good terms with the authority figure, but you can’t.  They are punishing you.  Then they project that meaning onto Jesus’ quotation of Psalm 22:1.

I will engage in more depth with Jesus’ quote of Psalm 22 in a future paper and blog post.  Any serious attempt at explaining what was happening must also explain why Luke and John do not record Jesus’ quotation, and whether they express any hint of a ‘separation’ between Jesus and the Father.  They don’t seem to.  In fact, John records this statement of Jesus, which indicates that while the disciples abandoned Jesus, the Father never did:

‘Behold, an hour is coming, and has already come, for you to be scattered, each to his own home, and to leave Me alone; and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with Me.’ (John 16:32)

That statement alone should suffice as evidence to reject any theory involving Jesus being Father-forsaken or God-forsaken.  For now, I can say a few things briefly.  In Matthew and Mark, Jesus’ quotation of Psalm 22:1 fits into the sustained parallel to David’s pre-enthronement story which Jesus was living out and repeating.[11]

Like David, Jesus, after being anointed king (at his baptism), and defeating a ‘Goliath’ (Satan in the wilderness), had to build a kingdom of his own in the wilderness.  Like David, Jesus was pushed into the hands of the Gentile enemies of Israel.  David did feel extremely vulnerable among the Gentiles, and penned Psalm 22 as part of that experience.  But David did not believe that God had forsaken him in an absolute sense.  What he meant was, ‘Why have You forsaken me to the Gentiles?’  David still experienced God as accessible, which he states in Psalm 22 itself:  ‘You are He who brought me forth…upon You I was cast from birth; You have been my God from my mother’s womb; be not far from me, for trouble is near…’ (Ps.22:9 – 11).  David still experienced God as loving and protecting him, as having His face turned toward him with favor:  ‘For He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; nor has He hidden His face from him’ (Ps.22:24).  Finally, we believe that God’s Spirit spoke through David, even in the season of feeling forsaken to hostile Gentile kings.  Put another way, Psalm 22 is in the canonical Bible which is believed to be inspired, in which David is said to speak prophetically by the Spirit (Acts 2:29 – 30).  So how could God have forsaken David in an absolute sense?  Such a notion defies exegesis.  It is not what David actually said in Psalm 22.

Therefore, Jesus’ quote of Psalm 22:1 is not for himself, but for the criminals crucified on either side of him.  In Matthew and Mark, these two men expressed disbelief that the Messiah could ever be treated this way, least of all crucified by the very Gentile powers holding Israel captive.  Wasn’t the Messiah supposed to be victorious over the Gentiles?  But Jesus was pointing out to them that King David was exposed to great danger in his early life, too, prior to being enthroned.  And if David was forsaken by God to the Gentiles, the much greater heir of David could also be forsaken by God to the Gentiles, and in a much greater way.  Like David, Jesus still lived in the power of the Spirit of God, even while quoting Psalm 22:1.  Jesus is communicating that he will be enthroned and vindicated, just as David was, because like David, he has never lost his anointing to be king.  And Jesus’ anointing is the Holy Spirit, the very bond of love between Father and Son.

Finally, if I am correct in perceiving a literary chiasm running through Matthew’s Gospel as a whole,[12] then the baptism of Jesus (Mt.3:13 – 17) – his symbolic dying and rising – parallels his actual dying and rising in his death and resurrection (Mt.27:52ff.).  And if that is the case, then God’s quotation of Psalm 2:7, ‘You are my Son,’ from the coronation Psalm spoken over the kings of Judah, parallels Jesus’ own use of Psalm 22:1, which is Jesus’ confident claim to the throne of David.  His confidence was based on his consistent, lived parallel to the pre-enthronement life of David, the hunted king in the wilderness.  And since this literary parallel between Psalm 2 and Psalm 22 seems compelling, even without the weight of the chiasm behind it, then I once again propose that the anointing of the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ baptism and blessing of the Father must have been the constant reality in Jesus’ life, without exception.  If David never lost his anointing to be king, then we can say with confidence that Jesus never lost his anointing to be king, either, and his anointing was in fact the Spirit of God.  Therefore, the Trinitarian disclosure of Father, Spirit, and Son revealed in Jesus’ baptism was not momentary.  Quite to the contrary, it was the hidden, spiritual stability throughout Jesus’ entire life.  Ergo, Jesus never faced a closed, silent heaven.  At every moment on the cross, and especially as he was finally putting to death the corruption of sin lodged in his human nature, Jesus heard the blessing of his ever-constant, ever-loving Father, as always:  ‘This is My Son, in whom I am well pleased.’  Jesus’ parallel announcement to others was, ‘Like David was, I am the hunted king in exile, on my way to the throne.’

Stepping back from Jesus’ experience to the character of God the Father, we can therefore say this:  The Father never abandoned Jesus, as penal substitution theory requires.  Instead, we find the very opposite in medical substitutionary atonement, and in the early church where no one believed in the ‘broken Trinity’ view,[13] not to mention when we use the most up-to-date tools of literary exegesis and intertextuality.  As the wilderness temptation and the Garden of Gethsemane stories indicate, at the very moment when Jesus needed the strength and love of the Father the most – at his crucifixion and death – the Father was there with him and for him through the bond of the Spirit.  The Father spoke a word of blessing and identity, gave the Spirit without measure, strengthened Jesus supernaturally, and gave Jesus the conviction to be victorious over sinfulness all the way to the end.  The wrath of God did not pass from the Father upon the Son.  It was not an inner-Trinitarian rupture of their relationship.  No, rather this:  Not upon the Son but within the Son.  Not the Father’s wrath alone but the Son’s and Spirit’s wrath as well.  The Son’s wrath against the corruption of sin within his own humanity was the wrath of his Father empowered by the purifying fire of the Holy Spirit.  Not a divided Trinity but a united Trinity.  The united Trinity poured out divine wrath upon the corruption of sin in the humanity of Jesus, expressed in the will of the Son.

Stepping back further from Jesus’ experience of the Father to ours, we can therefore say this:  What Jesus experienced of his Father in the Spirit, he shares with us by the Spirit.  If the Father never abandoned Jesus, He will never abandon us.  If we feel ‘separated from God,’ then we will have to question our perception rather than take it as reality.  And that shapes our motivations for trusting and following Jesus.

Four:  Personal Motivations to Follow Jesus in Medical Substitution

So what motivations are healthy?  How do we motivate each other?  I’ve been told an anecdote by school teachers which I’d like to see researched.  When a student gets bad grades, what language works best to motivate her or him?  Is it, ‘What are these grades?  Are you stupid?’  No.  Is it, ‘What are these grades?  Don’t you know how much I’m sacrificing for you?’  Perhaps sparingly.  It seems to be, ‘What are these grades?  This isn’t who you are.’  It’s reshaping their identity.  If that’s true on a secular level, how much more might that be true on a spiritual level?

During my senior year of college, I was asked to preach Romans 6:1 – 11.  I fumbled it.  Thank God it was a practice group for preaching!  I expected Paul to say, ‘Shall we sin that grace may abound?  By no means! … Don’t you know how much Jesus/God sacrificed for you?’  But Paul was not cultivating the gratitude or the debt-obligation motivation.  He did not say, ‘Jesus died instead of you, so be grateful.’  Rather, he said, ‘Jesus died, and you died with him; he rose, and you rose with him.’  Jesus didn’t die instead of me.  He died ahead of me.  Paul was cultivating in his audience a sense of identity – ‘identity in Christ’ – out of which true Christian life flowed.

I didn’t know how to preach that text.  But I was inspired to study Paul’s language of motivation, and found that ‘identity in Christ’ was central to him.  I began to wonder how one can integrate penal substitution, with all of its implications, and ‘union with Christ,’ with all of its implications.  The question may be stated this way:  When a pastor, preacher, or friend speaks to another Christian, and tries to exhort and encourage said Christian to grow in Christ and stop resisting the Spirit, what motivational language should they use?  Should they say, ‘Jesus died instead of you to take the wrath of God, therefore you ought to feel grateful, be joyful, and do [X, Y, Z],’ as in penal substitution?  Or should they say, ‘You have died and risen with Christ, therefore you are now different, and now do [X, Y, Z] to be consistent with you are,’ as in union with Christ?  Who died and when?  How important is gratitude as an explicit psychological state?  Is it up to the person doing the encouraging and teaching to decide which logic to use?  And here is the logical and pastoral problem:  Some take penal substitution logic to apply to Christians throughout their whole lives, thinking that only a proper reverence for God’s holiness-justice-wrath will produce fruitful obedience.  In this view, human motivation must be rooted in a sense of debt-forgiveness and/or legal-penal-forgiveness because Christ supposedly died ‘instead of us.’  It is a psychological motivation in response to an event external to the person.

But is this Paul’s motivational language?  It would appear not.  I noticed that ‘give thanks’ was a command in itself (e.g. 1 Th.5:18).  But Paul never used gratitude as a motivation for more obedience.  That was actually liberating.  I no longer felt like God was trying to control my emotions, particularly by telling me about His emotions, and especially that He experienced me as a burden.  Nor did I feel like He was only appealing to the shallow parts of me.  Paul did occasionally appeal to ‘enlightened self-interest,’ for example when he asks, ‘What benefit were you then deriving’ from sinning in Romans 6:21.  But the still more fundamental question was about the true ‘you’ Paul saw in his audience (Rom.6:11).  I could tell what mattered more to Paul in his style of structuring his points:  Romans 6:1 – 11 preceded Romans 6:21, and the latter only made sense in light of the former.  In Romans 6 – 8; 1 Corinthians 5; 2 Corinthians 3 – 5; Galatians 4 – 5; Ephesians 1 – 3; and Colossians 1 – 3, Paul says we have died and risen with Christ, and/or that we have gone from death to life by being joined to Christ by the Spirit.  Therefore, we have a new identity in Christ that undergirds Christian worship, prayer, morality, ethics, and spiritual warfare.  So I began to understand how much God wanted to recover His image in me, clean it off, and shine through me by joining Himself to me in Christ and by the Spirit.  And so God treasured me, not just Jesus.  My motivation began to be one of deep joy.

I wondered, if we follow Paul’s pastoral language for Christians, then is penal substitution to be used only with non-Christians?  Did Paul use that language in Acts?  No.  In Acts, Paul places all his weight on Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 13:13 – 42; 14:14 – 17; 17:22 – 31; 22:1 – 21; 23:1 – 12; 24:10 – 21; 26:1 – 23)!  He sometimes makes an argument from creation or fulfilled prophecy.  But Paul never uses penal substitution with non-Christians in Acts.[14]  What about in his letters?  Penal substitution advocates sometimes claim that Paul preached ‘the cross alone’ based on his letters to the Corinthians (1 Cor.1:17 – 25) and Galatians (Gal.3:1).  But in those letters, Paul shows that he consistently integrated the significance of Jesus’ death in connection with his resurrection and its meaning of ‘new creation, new humanity.’

In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we don’t have enough information from the letter to determine what Paul originally said when he preached to them in person.[15]  But with the Corinthians, we know that he had stressed in his preaching the bodily resurrection of Jesus just as much as, if not more than, his death (1 Cor.15:1 – 11).  So to read chapter 1 without regard for chapter 15 is a mistake.[16]  This agrees with Luke’s portrayal of Paul’s ministry in Athens immediately before Corinth, when Paul spoke so much about the resurrection that the Athenians mistook him for referring to a separate deity from Jesus (Acts 17:18; cf. 17:31 – 32).

Martin Luther, because of his anxiety attacks, sought to find assurance of God’s love in the concept of ‘justification,’ which he anchored in a penal substitutionary interpretation of Jesus’ death.  Since then, the traditional Lutheran and high federal Calvinist traditions have assumed that we can (and should) relate to Luther’s anxiety about God.  They deployed a psychological strategy of saying Jesus was a penal substitute instead of us.  They therefore believe our motivational process ought to follow a pattern of emotions:  guilt, fear, relief for forgiveness, gratitude.  That sequence is thought to result in Christian obedience, or ‘sanctification.’  But not only do I find that this guilt-oriented, debt-oriented motivation for growth to be misguided, the pastoral use of the term ‘justification’ doesn’t even fit that context in the New Testament.

Neither Paul nor James use the language of ‘justification’ in that way.  Were people anxious about God’s love when Paul and James wrote to them?  No.  They were forgetting who their spiritual neighbor (i.e. fellow Christian) was.  In both Paul and James, the term ‘justification’ was deployed as a challenge to accepting and loving Christian neighbors appropriately.  This by itself should have been enough to give biblical interpreters pause.  As N.T. Wright has argued, whenever James or Paul use the term ‘justification,’ they are not providing a psychological motivation for Christian ‘sanctification’ (obedience), as if ‘justification’ simply refers us to benefiting from ‘penal substitution.’  Rather, James and Paul are discussing not ‘how you get in,’ but ‘how you demonstrate that you are already in’ and therefore, ‘who else is in with you.’  Luther and the other Reformers supposed it meant something like ‘becoming individually righteous before God.’  In other words, Luther assumed it meant how a person ‘goes from outside to inside,’ whereas James and Paul were already assuming ‘inside together with.’

In James, you show your place in a community by certain kinds of ‘works.’  Every community has a packaged set of ethical teaching.  James is not referring to the Jewish Law of the Sinai covenant, which would only demonstrate a commitment to the community of Judaism.  Nor is he referring to generic ‘good works’ which aren’t part of a clear ethical package, for which community would that point to?  Rather, he is referring to ‘works’ in the framework of Jesus’ vision for relationships and his community, as James quotes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Mt.5:1 – 7:28) over twenty times, because that demonstrates membership in the community of Christ.  This is what James seems to call ‘the royal law’ (Jas.2:8), as distinct from the Sinaitic law.  James was pointing out to the wealthy believers that they were not caring for the poor believers (Jas.2:1 – 7, cf.1:9 – 10, 27), perhaps in the time of a Judean famine (Jas.1:11; 5:7, 17; cf. 2 Cor.8 – 9) where the rich could migrate confidently to other places but the poor could not (Jas.4:13 – 5:6).  Therefore James reminded them to ‘love their neighbor’ (Jas.2:8).  The ‘works’ proper to faith in Christ were works that demonstrated solidarity with the body of Christ (Jas.2:9 – 20).  No wonder, then, that he used Abraham and Rahab as early examples, or prototypes, of solidarity with the covenant community (Jas.2:21 – 26).  Rahab’s defection from Jericho and joining Israel is a more obvious example of solidarity with the covenant community.  By that point, Rahab already had faith in the God of Israel; she showed it by joining Israel.  It was not a ‘moral’ act per se as measured against commandments in the Sinai covenant.  How is Abraham sacrificing Isaac an example of corporate solidarity?

Abraham, who had already believed that God could bring life out of death in the conceiving and birthing of Isaac despite his and Sarah’s incredibly old age (Gen.15; 17), acted on that faith again by identifying himself with his son Isaac, laying him on the altar (Jas.2:21 – 22; cf. Gen.22:1 – 18).  Now in the narrative of the Pentateuch, which James and his Jewish audience surely knew, Abraham did not do this in response to the ethical demands of the Sinai covenant, since Abraham lived long before Moses.  So the Lutheran and Calvinist emotional framework of guilt and fear is nowhere in sight.  That by itself is problematic for the Lutheran and Calvinist pastoral paradigm.  Nor did Abraham do this as an act of ‘individual piety,’ since sacrificing one’s child on the altar is not a moral act in general!  In the narrative of Genesis, Abraham did this because he apparently saw that this test of his faith was necessary.

Previously, God had resolved a tension between Sarah and Hagar by agreeing with Sarah’s plan to send Hagar and Ishmael into certain death in the wilderness, but sustaining them in life (Gen.21).  But if Abraham had any doubt that God could bring life out of death – and, in particular, in the case of Hagar and Ishmael, sustaining their lives to escape death in the wilderness – then his lack of faith in their case would have been sinful complicity in their death sentence as far as he knew.  Therefore, God had to test Abraham with his other son, Isaac, and Abraham had to agree.  That is exactly the way the narrative describes it:  a test (Gen.22:1), which was resolved when God could say, ‘Now I know’ (Gen.22:12).  Abraham had to give himself wholeheartedly, trusting God’s covenant promise of a future people which was embodied in his son Isaac.  Abraham reasoned that God would have to raise Isaac from the dead to carry out His promise (Heb.11:19), the promise on which Abraham had rooted his very existence.  Thus, Abraham’s ‘work’ of faith was a self-sacrifice which showed his commitment to be part of the eventual community of God’s people.  Those people would, in turn, also trust in God’s ability to bring life out of death:  in Isaac, in Jesus Christ, and in the final resurrection.  In fact, Abraham had to identify himself, by his faith in God’s power to bring life out of death, with God’s love for Hagar and Ishmael, along with Isaac, and all Isaac’s future descendants.  Thus, James says that Abraham’s ‘faith was perfected’ (Jas.2:22) through this test, which not incidentally identified Abraham with a community of others in fairly profound ways.

Both James and his Jewish audience must have understood these things about Abraham (and Rahab), where true faith identifies with the family of faith, and James can refer to Abraham and Rahab in shorthand.  So ‘justification by works’ in James involves demonstrating your solidarity with God’s people.  Faith is ‘perfected… [and even]… fulfilled’ (Jas.2:22 – 23).  Back in James’ context, it meant the rich believers demonstrating their solidarity with their poor brethren by treating them equally, not playing favorites relationally (Jas.2:1 – 4), and giving economic support to the poor (Jas.2:15 – 16).  It may feel like dying to one’s self (Abraham), or embracing another community (Rahab), but it is indeed life.  This is not a question of ‘earning’ membership in that family.  Nor it is a question of ‘being perfect.’  Note that James does not make the rich responsible for completely reversing the plight of the poor, either.  His language is rather modest, ethically.  But it is a question of whether there is any visible participation in that reality at all.  To be ‘justified’ as a member of God’s family means that you recognize the nature of that very family.  It is simply definitional, much like the language of Jesus in the Upper Room Discourse or John’s first epistle.  That is, being in God’s family is ontologically, essentially, connected to loving those in God’s family.

In Paul, justification also involves the challenge to properly recognize and love others in God’s family.  The question of spiritual equality between Christians of Jewish and Gentile background emerges in the context of Paul’s mission in the Greco-Roman world.  In what sense, and on what basis, could Jewish Christians accept Gentile Christians into the family of God (Galatians) and vice versa (Romans)?  Much ink has already been spilled on that question, most notably in the debates between John Piper and N.T. Wright on the meaning of ‘justification’ in Paul.  I find N.T. Wright’s reasoning more compelling than Piper’s,[17] and so I refer readers there for more details.

In Paul, membership in God’s family is shown ‘by faith,’ which is a shorthand at the very least for ‘faith in Christ,’ if not the ‘faith of Christ’ (Gal.2:20; Rom.3:22 KJV) or, better still, ‘faithfulness of Christ’ most explicitly.[18]  But regardless of which position we take on the pistis christou debate, we can say this:  Jesus is the justified one, because he is the resurrected one (Rom.4:25), because he is the internally circumcised one (Rom.2:28 – 29; 10:4; Col.2:12), because healing human nature by condemning the sin in it was the deepest call of the Sinai covenant (Rom.7:14 – 8:4), and the true meaning of ‘doing good,’ which is synonymous with what makes one a ‘doer of the Law’ (Rom.2:7, 13).  ‘Doing good’ means to circumcise one’s own heart by the Spirit (Rom.2:28 – 29; Dt.30:6) and return one’s humanity back to God whole and undamaged.  It means reversing the Adamic corruption which resides in every person.  Jesus is the only one who did that (Rom.8:3; 6:6).  Hence, his new humanity is the one and only ontological-physical ground for our justification, because only his human nature has been fully realigned with the Father (Col.1:21 – 22). So ‘justification’ is not God seeing us through the lens of Jesus, from a distant vantage point. ‘Justification’ is a participatory and relational category.  It is not drawn from a modern Western law court stressing retributive justice, but rather a Hebrew law court stressing restorative justice.  But even there, in my opinion, it seems to refer most precisely and specifically to ‘standing on the fulfilled side of the Sinai covenant.’  ‘Justification’ is anchored in the ontological depths of Jesus’ personal accomplishment in his own humanity, and is expressed by us as we participate in the corporate body of Christ by the Spirit (Rom.8:1).

Hence, it seems to me that Martin Luther made at least four interrelated mistakes.  First, he maintained the guilt-oriented paradigm he inherited from Augustine[19] and deepened it.  Under Luther’s direction, the Lutheran Augsberg Confession was written, saying:

‘It is also taught among us that since the fall of Adam all men who are born according to the course of nature are conceived and born in sin. That is, all men are full of evil lust and inclinations from their mothers’ wombs and are unable by nature to have true fear of God and true faith in God. Moreover, this inborn sickness and hereditary sin is truly sin and condemns to the eternal wrath of God all those who are not born again through Baptism and the Holy Spirit.’[20]

Second, Luther believed in penal substitution as the remedy for inherited guilt, as opposed to only medical substitution as the remedy for inherited corruption.[21]  Whereas in both the Catholic and Orthodox church, God was more or less understood as being wrathful at the corruption of sin, and loving of human persons (what else is Purgatory?), Luther made human personhood the object of God’s wrath.  Third, he made the term ‘justification’ support a ‘me and God’ pietistic individualism.  Fourth, Luther universalized the term ‘law’ as if he was actually in the Jewish covenant himself, and then proceeded to read everyone else into it, too.  Yet Paul says in both Galatians and Romans that only Jews were ‘under the Law’ (Rom.2:12 – 16; 7:1 – 4).  He also says that God only took some kind of ‘legal’ accounting of Israel’s behavior in the Sinai covenant (which resulted in Israel’s exile):  ‘for until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no Law’ (Rom.5:13).  He assumes that there are those in his audience who do not know the Law, since he addresses those who do, in Romans 7:1, who had not had the experience he had had as a non-Christian Jew under the Law (Rom.7:7 – 13), and therefore needed Paul’s explanation.  The psychological and emotional result of Martin Luther’s teaching was the reproduction in other people of his anxiety about bearing one’s legalistic guilt before a punitive God.

Troublingly, Luther launched a strong Protestant tendency to read one’s self back into the Old Testament in an undisciplined manner, especially in the service of nationalism.  Reading ‘justification’ individualistically left Protestants more vulnerable to wrong forms of community since the true biblical referent of ‘justification’ is the global, transnational church.  For example, the early Puritan Americans saw themselves as a ‘new Israel,’ albeit with a Calvinist flavor rather than a Lutheran one.  They saw a similarity between themselves and Israel:  fleeing persecution (England = Egypt), crossing water (Atlantic Ocean = Red Sea), making a covenant with God (John Winthrop’s sermon Model of Christian Charity = Moses’ covenant invitation in Deuteronomy), setting foot on an abundant land (North America = Canaan), claiming it as an inheritance (Manifest Destiny = God’s promise of the land), warring with the inhabitants (Native Americans = Canaanites), and establishing a theocracy with a fairly punitive criminal justice system (civil law portion of Sinai covenant = maintenance of the covenant).[22]  Several key features of Israel’s story were grossly misunderstood in the process, such as construing its criminal justice system as a retributive rather than restorative system.  Nevertheless, the notion of ‘white American exceptionalism,’ perhaps one of the most egregious forms of social injustice and mass self-deception, has its roots in Martin Luther’s error.  This comes back to the rising presence of shame among white Americans.  The 1960’s and 1970’s were traumatic for white evangelicals.  White supremacy was exposed as a lie by the Civil Rights Movement; relationships became unstable in the Sexual Revolution; and American international supremacy was questioned by the Vietnam War.  And as I have suggested above, when the illusion of ‘white American exceptionalism’ wanes, its injustice becomes embarrassingly apparent, shame sets in, and the logical consequence of penal substitution reveals itself in the form of emotional confusion, with no actual relief for spiritual anxiety or mental disturbance.  Because ‘white American exceptionalism’ serves the emotional role of ‘being the elect’ in an Augustinian-Lutheran-Calvinist understanding of how God extends grace to some and not others, challenging some Americans to relinquish this exceptionalism often provokes an intense emotion – akin to someone who feels their salvation, identity, and notion of God is being completely threatened.  Therefore, the pastoral question of which atonement theory and spiritual motivations comes back to us.  As an Asian-American evangelical ministering among white Americans, among others, I think it is more important than ever.

Let me resume with my exploration of personal motivation.  At some point, another puzzle piece fell into place for me:  As our Creator, God loves us and holds on to us even in our rebellion, and He keeps calling out to all of us.  Previously I had thought God was either doing nothing to help people come to Him, or actively keeping some people (the un-elect) from Him.  I had heard too many other people start their sentences with, ‘Humanity apart from God…’ and then finish with phrases like, ‘is completely unable to choose Jesus,’ or ‘cannot do any real good,’ or some such thing.  I pictured God as distant and uninvolved.  Yet, as a pre-Christian Jew, Paul had wanted to cooperate with the law of the Sinai covenant.  He felt like a prisoner to sin within his own body (Rom.7:14 – 25).  In that famous tongue-twisting passage, Paul refers to the ‘I’ as distinct from ‘the sin which indwells me.’  Yes, of course, there is sin in us which influences us to resist God.  But that does not take away from the fact that in Paul’s thought, there is a self, a true self, which God wants to renew.  Paul associates this with the human conscience (Rom.1:20; 2:14 – 16), which is a moral compass of sorts rooted in the fact that God created us.  And although we can certainly sear our consciences, God nevertheless continues to call us and have an influence in us because we are made in His image (Gen.1:26 – 27).

In this sense, I discovered Paul to be a thoroughly Jewish theologian.  Since God created the world and humanity with His ‘wisdom’ (Pr.8:22 – 36), God’s commands are not arbitrary but are rather directing us to the fulfillment of our nature and purpose as God’s creatures.  ‘Wisdom’ in this Hebraic sense seeks to bridge God’s commands with His creation; it asserts that God’s commands are not fundamentally foreign to God’s creatures, but organically and intrinsically linked.  There is a unity in which God’s commands are seen as the means by which God shepherds humanity and creation into more life.  This is part of Paul’s argument in Romans 2:12 – 16 where the internal witness of the conscience within all human beings functions for each in a similar way that the Mosaic commandments functioned for Israel.  Yes, sin has tarnished human nature, but human nature in its origins and in its continued existence, in a limited but persistent way, recognizes the wisdom of God in what God commands.  Therefore, human goodness witnesses to us about the reality of a good God.  The fact that I want to do any good at all, or possess any good motivation, or aspire to good acts or good motives, is a testimony to me from God about His own goodness.  The practical importance of this is immense.  Christians do not have to turn over every stone to find some ulterior sinful motive for someone’s good behavior.  We know sinful motives exist, and we need not be naïve.  But neither must we disparage any and all goodness demonstrated by human beings.  To imagine that all human goodness has been completely lost to sin is simply unnecessary, and only serves to undermine the goodness of God Himself.

In fact, I’ve even found that the New Testament calls me to abandon to the impression that God allows relational ‘distance’ between Himself and us.  That is a human construct.  We get that impression, understandably, from our human experience of disapproving authority figures.  But is it accurate to speak that way about God?  Is it accurate, for example, to speak of ‘separation’ from God and produce anxiety in an audience?  In what sense can we speak that way, when Paul had evangelized Athens by lifting the phrase, ‘In him we live and move and have our being’ from Greek poets (Acts 17:28)?  Perhaps we can be excused for not taking Paul seriously in Acts because we are uncertain of Paul’s full intentions in quoting a pagan source.  But in Colossians, Paul says unequivocally, ‘In him all things hold together’ (Col.1:17).  That really makes us pause.  God the Father upholds us in the Son because He loves us.  And the same idea occurs in Ephesians:  ‘He chose us in him before the foundation of the world’ (Eph.1:4) which is not referring to a choice God made to choose Christians and reject non-Christians, but rather parallels the thought of Colossians:  God’s chose for all humanity to be included in his Son.  As evidence, Paul continues on to say, ‘You were sealed in him when you believed…’ (Eph.1:13).  Paul is saying that every human being is already in the Son by virtue of creation, since it is in the Son and by the Son and for the Son that God created all things.  Paul says this in Colossians 1:16, which is the center of a small but densely poetic chiasm in Colossians 1:15 – 17,[23] and in Romans 11:36, which is the pinnacle of Paul’s letter to the Romans[24] where Paul is led into a worshipful moment.  Believing in the Son who is now revealed to us as Christ Jesus ‘seals’ us in him.  The precise meaning of this ‘seal’ by the Spirit can be debated, but it seems to indicate, at the very least, that believers participate in Jesus’ realigned, healed, and united-with-God humanity.  It does not mean that previously, we existed somewhere outside of the Son.  For where in the universe might that be?

Ephesians and Colossians call into question whether we can even speak of ‘humanity apart from God,’ still less that ‘humanity apart from God’ is this or that bad thing.  We can and must speak of humanity resisting God, alienated in will from God, and hostile to God, certainly (e.g. Col.1:21).  We can and must speak of God giving people over to their own sinful choices (Rom.1:24, 26, 28).  For God makes space in Himself for our will, even the damaging addictions that we can cultivate in our own human nature.  Yet because God loves us, He honors our will, even to the point when we experience God’s repeated demand, that we freely surrender our addictions and let Jesus heal us, as torment.  That is the early church conception of hell.[25]  But is there a ‘humanity apart from God?’  It would appear not.

The fact that these insights rest in Ephesians and Colossians points to a problem in Protestant scholarship.  Ephesians and Colossians are closest to the theological vision of the apostle Paul.  Ephesians seems to be a circular, general letter and was not addressed to any church problem, and Colossians seems to be its accompanying twin.  Sadly, the Protestant tradition tends to start with Galatians and Romans.  Why?  Perhaps because the Reformers so stressed those letters in their arguments with the Roman Catholic Church?  Perhaps because ‘the law’ and ‘justification’ are terms easily but erroneously transported into the context of a modern courtroom of Western individualistic jurisprudence (but not covenantal community)?  Perhaps because of a human psychological need to regain healthy relationship with earthly father figures and other authorities representing contractual ‘law’ (which is not the same as covenant)?

Unfortunately, the translators of the New International Version (NIV) seem intent on re-inserting ‘distance’ between God and us.  The NIV says, ‘And you also were included in Christ when you heard…’ (Eph.1:13).  This gives the strong impression that we were ‘outside’ Christ prior to hearing the gospel message and believing.  However, the word ‘included’ is an inference on their part.  It is not present in Greek.  The New American Standard Bible (NASB) is preferred:  ‘You were sealed in him when you believed.’  You were already in him by virtue of his creation of you.  Believing sealed you there.  In the opinion of N.T. Wright, the NIV has a tangible preference for penal substitution, which often gains emotional power over us through inserting a yawning chasm between us and God.  Wright says:

‘In this context, I must register one strong protest against one particular translation.  When the New International Version was published in 1980, I was one of those who hailed it with delight.  I believed its own claim about itself, that it was determined to translate exactly what was there, and inject no extra paraphrasing or interpretive glosses… Disillusionment set in over the next two years, as I lectured verse by verse through several of Paul’s letters, not least Galatians and Romans.  Again and again, with the Greek text in front of me and the NIV beside it, I discovered that the translators had another principle, considerably higher than the stated one: to make sure that Paul should say what the broadly Protestant and evangelical tradition said he said.’[26]

How different this is from the early Christians, who went the opposite direction and spoke of ‘deification,’ a term for us becoming united to God.  They tried to paint as beautiful a picture of God as they could, so their audience might be motivated to participate more deeply in their ‘oneness’ with God, through Christ, by the Spirit, and live out that union morally and in community.  Those Christians did incredible things, and often died courageous deaths.  How did they maintain their motivation, especially when some of them like Origen of Alexandria and Gregory of Nyssa were erring on the side of universalism?  It might be hard for Protestants raised on penal substitution and ‘hell as God’s infinite retributive prison’ to even fathom how earlier Christians motivated each other, if not with anxiety, fear, guilt, and relief.  If they ever motivated themselves by fear, it was fear of what their human nature could become as a result of sinful choices, a disfiguration of beautiful humanity that the beautiful God originally intended.

‘We should not discard the intended shocking effect their deification statements [i.e. those of the bishop-theologians Athanasius of Alexandria and Gregory of Nazianzus] would produce on the audience, striking their imagination with powerful and uplifting images.  If during the Middle Ages a similar effect was often provoked by references to the burning flames of hell, in patristic writers’ attempt to enhance the devotional zeal for spiritual life and the commitment to Christ was carried out by no less shocking, but significantly more positively oriented, affirmations.  Not eternal punishment as retribution for sinful life was emphasized, but rather eternal life in God, divine therapeutic forgiveness, and the restored harmony of the whole creation.  Emphasis was placed not on what would happen to people if they did not obey the divine commandments, but rather on what awaits them if they reconcile themselves with God.’[27]

Notice how this shapes our image of God the Father.  The Father sends Jesus to us because He loves us.  His love enables our free will, that we might make a free, undetermined choice to love Jesus.  For me, this answered beyond a doubt the question of whether God only loves Jesus, or actually loves me.  Of course the Father loves the Son.  But He also truly loves me.  There is a true self in each of us that is still good, loved by God, receives a moral awareness from God, and desires God.  Not an individualistic ‘spark of goodness’ which stands alone in the universe, but what theologian T.F. Torrance would call our ontological and relational personhood, always connected to God and pursued by God.

This also anchors our assurance of God’s love not in the doctrine of penal substitution but in the doctrine of the Trinity.  God is love, pure and simple.  David Brainerd sought assurance of God’s love and could not find it in a penal substitution framework.  Given its inseparable connection to the idea of limited atonement,[28] how could he? Thankfully, the New Testament authors never place assurance of God’s love on Jesus supposedly ‘exhausting’ God’s wrath for the elect, which would only resolve God’s supposed ‘conflict of attributes’ between His wrath and His love for the elect alone.  That leaves us with the more terrifying question of whether we are among the elect.  Instead, they say that our assurance is most immediately rooted in our own participation by the Spirit in Jesus’ new life and the start of our own purification (2 Pet.1:1 – 11; Rom.8:14 – 17; etc.).  However, assurance is rooted further back in God’s love for all.  In fact, assurance is anchored all the way upstream in God’s very nature as the lovingly Triune Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  If God was love in eternity before creation, and since creation cannot change Him, every activity He undertakes towards creation must be understood as consistent with His nature of love.  God’s activity flows from His nature.  This means, once again, that God’s wrath cannot possibly be directed at our personhood.  God’s love is directed at our personhood; God’s wrath is directed as that which damages our personhood.  So:  Not human total depravity while God does nothing towards the non-elect, but damaged goodness while God keeps calling to all.  That is what makes a critical difference in our understanding of God.  God always keeps calling us because He loves us.

God didn’t shame me one bit.  He honored me – the true me.  In the person of His Son, God accomplished for me what I could not:  cleansed human nature of all that is wrong and broken.  And in the person of His Spirit, God intimately and personally shares with me what He accomplished in Jesus:  cleansing me in particular of all that is wrong and broken.  God gives no sense of being burdened by me.  He does not use relational distance to manipulate my emotions.  God shows no narcissism on His part.  Instead, now I know Jesus died and rose to fix the deepest problem in each and every one of us, and then to join himself intimately to us by his Spirit to restore his image in us.  He shared in our shame, so that we might share in his honor.

What motivations do I think are appropriate in following Jesus?  Here are the top ones I can discern, along with a smattering of occasions where those motivations appear in the New Testament:

  1. Love: I love the one who always loves me, and never lets go of me (Eph.1:3 – 14; Col.1:17, 27)
  2. Union: I admire Jesus, and am joined to him by the Spirit (Rom.6:1 – 11; 2 Cor.4:6 – 7; Gal.2:20)
  3. Hope: I want to become who God always meant me to be (Rom.7:24 – 8:4; Col.3:9 – 11; Eph.4:19 – 24)
  4. Meaning: I want to share and participate in God’s love for every person (Rom.11:33 – 36; 2 Cor.4:5 – 18)
  5. Joy and Intimacy with God: I want to experience the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and the profound love they share (Mt.3:13 – 17; 17:1 – 13; Jn.15:9 – 11; 17:1 – 26)
  6. Goodness: I dislike the human evil I see and have done before (Rom.6:21; Jn.4:1 – 30)
  7. Godly sorrow: I am grieved for what happens when I resist God (2 Cor.7:6 – 12; Mt.5:3 – 4)
  8. Purity: I want to be cleansed; I dislike, and even have a healthy fear of, what my human nature would become if I sinned (Rom.11:27; 1 Cor.5 – 6)

Finally, this diagram shows how I might address the shame-based person:


[1] George H. Kehm, ‘What Is Reformed Theology?’, Panorama [Pittsburgh Theological Seminary] 22, no. 1 (Fall 1981): 22, 7, quoted in Stephen D. Crocco, ‘Whose Calvin?  Which Calvinism?  John Calvin and the Development of Twentieth-Century American Theology’ edited by Thomas J. Davis, John Calvin’s American Legacy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p.168, italics mine

[2] See Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2012).  Understanding the debate about who is the proper heir of John Calvin is very worthwhile.  Bobby Grow also maintains a website called ‘The Evangelical Calvinist,’ at

[3] Gerhard O. Forde, ‘The Lutheran View,’ edited by Donald Alexander, Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), says that a minister should almost never preach on sanctification because it distracts from preaching on justification, and thereby appeals to human will, affect, and initiative.  The Reformed view, as represented by Sinclair Ferguson in this book, and elsewhere, is in my opinion much more balanced, but see below.

[4] Eleonore Stump, in her lecture ‘The Value of Atonement,’ highlights how shame interacts with atonement theories; see and onward

[5] Peter J. Leithart, ‘Loving Sinners’, First Things, April 1, 2013;

[6] Bruce Wauchope, ‘The Gospel and Mental Health,’ Trinity in You, (3:45 min mark); Dr. Wauchope cites as especially helpful the following clinical sources:  On the impact of trauma and stress, Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk, who has served as the president of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies and is the author of the 2014 NY Times bestseller The Body Keeps Score.  In studies of attachment theory, Dr. Donald Winnekot, Madison Ainsworth, and J. Bowlby.

[7] Peter J. Leithart, ‘Loving Sinners’

[8] Memoirs of the Rev. David Brainerd: Missionary to the Indians on the Borders (New Haven: S. Converse, 1822), p.43 – 44

[9] Ibid., p.44


[11] See scholars as diverse as literary scholars Mark Drury, ‘Mark,’ edited by Robert Alter and Frank Kermode, The Literary Guide to the Bible (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), p.414 – 416; N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis, MI: Fortress Press, 1992), ch.13; Jerome H. Neyrey, Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), p.156 – 161; Matthew Skinner, The Trial Narratives: Conflict, Power, and Identity (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p.37 – 39.

Jesus had been making allusions to the early life of King David throughout his ministry, because of the social, political, and theological similarities between David’s early experience and his own.  Jesus saw a more sustained comparison between himself and the early King David.  After being anointed by God as king at his baptism, Jesus was being pursued by hostile opponents:  the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians (Mt.9:3 – 5; 9:11 – 13; 9:34; ‘in the midst of wolves’ in 10:16; 11:16 – 24; 12:2; 12:14 – 15; 12:24; 14:1 – 2; 15:1; 16:1 – 12).  King David, after being anointed by Samuel as king, was pursued by hostile opponents, too:  King Saul and his henchmen, the false leaders who would soon be dethroned by David.  Jesus, while being pursued, is a king-in-exile, avoiding the capital, staying in the wilderness, building up a loyal group of followers.  That is exactly what King David did (1 Sam.21 – 22ff.).  To feed his followers, Jesus allowed them an exception to the standard Sinai laws about the Sabbath.  To feed his followers, David made an exception to the standard Sinai laws about the bread of the tabernacle.  As part of this act, Jesus said that he is greater than the temple-presence of God, and that his disciples are therefore in the presence of God (Mt.12:5 – 6).  When David entered the tabernacle-presence of God (1 Sam.21), he discovered that, in some sense, the rules were different.  Jesus and his disciples eat on a day that is ‘holy,’ which is similar to how David and his men ate bread that is ‘holy’ from the tabernacle.

When the Pharisees challenged Jesus about allowing his disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath, Jesus retorted with that story of David:  ‘Have you not read what David did when he became hungry, he and his companions, how he entered the house of God, and they ate the consecrated bread, which was not lawful for him to eat nor for those with him, but for the priests alone?’ (Mt.12:1 – 4)  Jesus was not just finding a clever textual proof-text for his actions.  By referring to David, Jesus was making a political point to the Pharisees, a point about who was really king and who was not, about who would be vindicated and who would not.

Then, Jesus’ bread multiplication miracles triggered in Jewish minds thoughts of David’s kingship.  They saw in this act Jesus’ claim to David’s throne, and tried to make him king by force (Jn.6:14 – 15).  That is a very specific reaction.  Jesus was gesturing once again towards the incident of David pursued into the tabernacle-presence of God.  But instead of taking five of the twelve loaves of bread (Lev.24:5) and leaving seven behind, as David did, Jesus went in reverse order.  He took five loaves of bread, fed those following him in the wilderness, and made twelve basketfuls of bread (Mt.14:13 – 21).  In other words, he returned and amplified David’s action, to show he was the heir of David, the greater David.  Just to round out the allusion for his disciples, Jesus performed a second miracle with bread soon afterwards.  He took seven loaves of bread, which the disciples must have been sure to note, fed another large crowd in the wilderness, and made seven large basketfuls of bread leftover (Mt.15:29 – 39).  He perfects and elevates what David left remaining, or perhaps undone.  And Jesus did this on a mountain (15:29), to position himself as the new temple-presence of God, not on Mount Zion in the temple in Jerusalem as King David envisioned (2 Sam.7), but in a human body which could make of any mountain a site of the now dynamic presence of God (Mt.17:1 – 13; 28:16 – 20).

[12] Mako Nagasawa, The Chiastic Structure of the Gospel of Matthew,

[13] Thomas H. McCall, Forsaken: The Trinity, the Cross, and Why It Matters (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009)

[14] Luke, interestingly, reports that Paul as evangelist completely stressed the resurrection (Acts 17:18, 31 – 32), without mentioning the cross at all.  Acts 20:28 might be construed to be a penal substitution text, but the phrase ‘purchased with his own blood’ can be understood in a medical substitution framework, where it would refer to Jesus ‘donating’ his blood (i.e. life) to secure a new humanity by his Spirit.  It need not be a penal substitution framework where his life paid a ransom to God by absorbing suffering.  We must explore whether Luke avoided the Matthean and Markan usage of ‘ransom’ because he thought his Greco-Roman audience might miss the fundamentally Hebraic ‘Exodus’ roots of Jesus’ original ‘ransom’ language, which arguably does not lead to penal substitution.  And in any case, Acts 20:28 occurs in a context with Christian elders, not non-Christians.  The evidence that Paul used penal substitution language anywhere tends to be restricted to Romans 3:21 – 26, Galatians 3:13, 1 Corinthians 6:20, 2 Corinthians 5:21, Ephesians 1:6 – 8, and Acts 20:28, but, needless to say, the meaning of those texts is vigorously debated because Paul does not extrapolate from there the conclusions that many penal substitution advocates have made.

[15] The content of the letter demonstrates how Paul held Jesus’ death and resurrection together to address the question of Jewish-Gentile relations.  Anytime Paul discusses Abraham and Sarah’s faith, as he does in the meaty center of the letter (Gal.3:6 – 4:31), the conviction that God brings life out of death is not too far away.  After all, Abraham and Sarah’s faith involved trust that God would bring the new life of a promised child out of biologically dead bodies (Gen.15:1 – 8; Rom.4:18 – 25), and from that child, a promised community of faith including both the circumcised Jewish world and the uncircumcised Gentile world.  So the faith of Abraham and Sarah represent the faithfulness of Jesus (Gal.2:20) in which Paul lives and on which he stands, that Jesus is the ultimate promised child was ‘raised from the dead’ (Gal.1:1) for both Jew and Gentile qua Jew and Gentile, rendering the question of united table fellowship of paramount importance (Gal.2) while circumcision (Gal.2:1 – 11; 5:1 – 12) and Jewish law-keeping in general (Gal.3:10 – 24) can no longer serve as the criterion for our ‘justification.’  So of course Jesus’ death is vitally important, and we do boast in the cross, but what matters ‘is new creation’ (Gal.6:15).

[16] Especially when we see that Paul is using the term ‘body’ as a double-entendre throughout the letter.  He answers each of the four major questions about ‘the body’ in 1 Corinthians by returning to a fitting climax about ‘the resurrection body’ in the fifth section, chapter 15.  That is, questions about the unity of the corporate body of the church (1:10 – 4:17), the holiness of the corporate body and individual body especially regarding sexuality (4:18 – 7:40), the use of the individual body in Christian mission (8:1 – 11:1), and the bodies of men and women in the worship service of the corporate body (11:2 – 14:40) are all answered ultimately by the fact and nature of Jesus’ resurrection body and what our future resurrection bodies with him (15:1 – 58).  If Paul patterned his brilliant ‘funeral hymn’ in 1 Corinthians 1:17 – 2:2 after Greek funeral oration traditions, which typically caused pride to swell up in those for whom Greek warriors died, especially in the speech of Pericles of Athens (see Kenneth E. Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes:  Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 2011), ch.1), then he did so to poke fun at the Corinthians’ cultural expectation of being flattered by a noble man’s death for them, but not to suggest that we can really truncate Jesus’ death from his resurrection.  In fact, Paul indicates that Jesus’ death had a purifying effect on his ‘body,’ (1 Cor.5:7, cf.5:1 – 13), where Paul reasons from the ‘body’ as a double-entendre spanning Jesus’ own individual human body and his corporate body of followers.  Because Jesus cleansed his personal human body as a ‘Passover sacrifice’ so that we could enter into new life through his life, he cleanses his corporate church body, and we must align ourselves accordingly.  This is the medical substitution atonement theory.  And yes, Paul does remind the Corinthians, ‘You were bought with a price’ (1 Cor.6:20).  But was it the price of absorbing a legal penalty, so Paul could construct an emotional response of gratitude in his audience?  Or was it was the price a doctor pays if he were to infect himself with the disease of his patients to conquer it in his own body and become the blood donating source of the antibodies?  Quite firmly the latter.  Jesus paid a price to cleanse his own body and become life-giving Spirit to us all (1 Cor.15:45; cf.Heb.5:7 – 9).  Yes, there was a ‘price’ that Jesus paid to cleanse his body and then claim us as his own, reclaiming us to be his habitation, the temple of his Spirit (1 Cor.6:19 – 20).  Because Jesus offered himself as a ‘Passover sacrifice’ (1 Cor.5:7), where we entered into new life and freedom from sin through the doorway of his sinless life, the only place where human nature is joined to divine nature and the corruption of sin is undone, therefore, we are to glorify (reveal) God in our body (corporate) and bodies (individual).

[17] N.T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009).  I’ll engage in a summary.  In Galatians, the question of Jewish-Gentile relations in the body of Christ was triggered by the question of what ought to be the Gentile Christians’ relationship to the Sinai covenant, including circumcision.  The practical question that resulted was:  Do Gentile Christians need to get circumcised and follow all the practices of the Sinai law which marked Jews off as Jews?  In response, Paul said that justification, or membership in God’s spiritual family, is not marked by the Sinai covenant, which no one did perfectly anyway (Gal.3:10 – 11), but by faith in Jesus the Messiah who, by his faithfulness under the Sinai covenant (‘born under the Law’, Gal.4:4), and his death and resurrection, ‘might redeem those who were under the Law’ (Gal.4:5).  The Sinai covenant, as a tutor of sorts, was meant to lead people to the Messiah anyway (Gal.3:24), and help create the messianic community.  I note the positive function of the Jewish Law, which Paul explores more fully in Romans.

In Romans, the social situation was rather reversed:  Since the Emperor Claudius had kicked Jews out of Rome in 49 AD, the Roman church had some significant time, prior to 57 AD when Paul wrote Romans, as an exclusively Gentile, and then predominantly Gentile, church.  The questions naturally arose:  Do the mostly Gentile Christians in Rome need to keep reaching out to Jews?  Do they need to make space for Jewish Christians’ distinct Judaic practices which were now observed as a cultural, but not a theological, inheritance?  Has God completely abandoned the Jews qua Jews as a hopeless cause?  And if so, did God abandon His covenant altogether?  Paul’s response is that in Jesus, God has not abandoned but fulfilled (or has been righteous with regard to) His covenant (Rom.1:16; 10:4).  While Paul still found it necessary to remind his audience that ‘a man is justified by faith apart from works of the [Jewish] Law’ (Rom.3:28), as in Galatians, he also made many more positive statements about ‘the Law’ (Rom.3:31; 7:7, 12, 16; 9:4) or ‘covenant’ (Rom.11:27).  God, because of His covenant promise to Abraham, still wants a covenant family of Jew and Gentile (Rom.4:11 – 12).  Since all share in Adam’s corrupted human nature (Rom.5:12 – 21), both Gentile (Rom.6:1 – 23) and Jew (Rom.7:1 – 13) need to die and rise with Christ.  But the Jewish Law from the Sinai covenant served a noble function, offering Jews a clear way to diagnose the problem of sin in human nature (Rom.7:14 – 25), leading to the anticipation of Jesus (Rom.8:1 – 4) and his Spirit to renew people (Rom.8:5 – 17) and God’s project for the entire creation (Rom.8:18 – 25) to show His Triune goodness (Rom.8:26 – 39).  Therefore, the Gentile Christians still had a responsibility to love the Jewish community in hope that they would believe, as Paul did as a missionary (Rom.9:1 – 6; 11:28 – 36), to not respond with violence to any violence from the Jewish synagogue (Rom.12:17 – 13:6), and to make space for Jewish Christians’ cultural practices (Rom.14:1 – 15:13).

[18] Michael F. Bird and Preston M. Sprinkle, The Pistis Christou Debate: The Faith of Jesus Christ:  Exegetical, Biblical, and Theological Studies (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2009)

[19] Because he didn’t fully understand Greek, Augustine made interpretive decisions into Latin that have been studiously questioned. Augustine believed that God predestined some people to heaven and others to hell, especially in his misunderstanding of Romans 9 – 11 (see David Bentley Hart, ‘Traditio Deformis,’ First Things, May 2015;; Michael Pomazansky, Orthodox Theology, Part II: God Manifest in the World, 5; footnote on Augustine and Original Sin;; see also, an online resource on Augustine and the Order of Saint Augustine).  Augustine defined original sin as inherited guilt in addition to inherited corruption, and said unbaptized infants went to hell for their sharing in Adam and Eve’s guilt, unlike the Eastern Greek tradition which left the question uncertain.   This created tensions with Ezekiel 18 (which says God will not count the sins of the fathers against the sons, and vice versa) and later theology.  Luther simply shifted the remedy for original sin from baptism (which Augustine held) to penal substitutionary atonement.

[20] Theodore G. Tappert, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1959), p.29

[21] Martin Luther, Sermons, vol.2, p.344, 351; see Luther’s use of the term ‘satisfaction’ as meaning ‘satisfaction of God’s retributive justice’

[22] See my previous post about retributive vs. restorative justice:

[23] The chiastic structure of Colossians 1:15 – 17 is as follows:

15 He is the image of the invisible God,                        United with God

the firstborn of all creation.                                            Pre-eminence

16 For by him                                                                      By him

all things were created, both in                                      All things created

the heavens and on earth,

visible and invisible,                                                        All realms, inhabitants

whether thrones or dominions                                      All rulers, authorities

or rulers or authorities –

all things have been created                                           All things created

through him and for him.                                               Through him, for him

17 He is before all things,                                                Pre-eminence

and in him all things hold together.                             Unifies all things

[24] N.T. Wright, Climax of the Covenant (Minneapolis, MN:  Fortress Press, 1990), ch.13 demonstrates how the widespread Protestant interpretation of Romans is wrong when it which takes Romans 8 as the pinnacle of the letter.


[26] N.T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), p.51 – 52

[27] Vladimir Kharlamov, ‘Rhetorical Application of Theosis,’ edited by Michael J. Christensen and Jeffery A. Wittung, Partakers of the Divine Nature: The History and Development of Deification in the Christian Traditions (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007), p.127 – 128

[28] See my earlier post,

6 Comments Add yours

  1. This is incredible Mako! I need to re-read it again, but it truly spoke so powerfully how one is personally affected by a view of Father God as punitive. Awesome work!


    1. makonagasawa says:

      Thanks Erik!


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