Friday, February 29, 2008

Justice and the Atonement

The topic of Justice is central to Owen’s view of the atonement. Book 3, chapters seven, eight and nine primarily deal with justice.

The general idea with justice and the atonement is that we broke God’s law and therefore are due punishment. Justice gives one what is due him, so our punishment for sin is just. Punishing sinners simultaneously upholds God’s law and gives the sinner what is due him. (Revelation 16:5, Romans 6:23) The controversy is 1) how Christ’s death satisfies God’s justice and 2) how the atonement relates to justification and imputation.

Owen built his model off his idea of the sin-bearer. His view was:

1) God shows mercy to the elect by transferring their sins to Christ
2) God punished Christ for our sins on the cross, which satisfies justice
3) When an individual believes, he realizes what Christ has already done

In contrast, my view is:

1) Christ died on the cross desiring everyone’s salvation
2) An individual believes
3) Christ intercedes for the believer, asking the Father to accept His death in their place
4) The Father mercifully accepts Christ’s death as a substitute for punishing us, which satisfies justice

I would like to highlight the primary point of contrast. When is justice satisfied? Owen says on the cross, before individuals believe. I say it’s based on the cross, but after individuals believe. The problem with Owen’s view is that the elect are born justified. Sure, they might not realize it yet, but God owes them heaven. This contradicts passages which say we were by nature the children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3).

Owen’s view also contradicts the doctrine of justification by faith. Based on Christ’s blood, God counts [or imputes] faith as righteousness and declares us righteous. (Romans 4:5) Christ’s righteousness is ours by imputation. Justification is based on the cross, but does not happen the moment of the cross. (Romans 5:1) Imputation happens when one believes, not before.

So Owen’s view cannot explain how the elect, prior to faith, are the children of wrath, nor can he explain imputation. But I see a third difficulty in Owen’s view. In Owen’s view, God’s mercy is before the cross, not based on the cross. But this point is less than clear, so I will provide two different analogies to draw out the issue.

Owen’s analogy for the atonement was this. If a man owes 100 dollars and someone else pays it for him, he’s free. (Book 3, chapter 7)

My analogy is: If a man murders someone, he must die for his crime. Even if someone offers to die in his place, the judge doesn’t have to accept the offer. He could demand the death of the murderer. But the judge is merciful to the murderer and accepts the substitution.

In Owen’s analogy, the payment is a matter of strict justice. The creditor isn’t merciful in freeing the debtor. He’s been paid. In my example, the “payment” is specific to the individual. Allowing a substitute is an act of mercy to the murderer. The substitute is penalized with the penalty that the murderer would have gotten.

The wages of sin is death, but not just any death. (Romans 6:23, Romans 9:3, Exodus 32:32-33) It has to be the death of the soul that sins. (Ezek 18:4, 20) The Father forgives us by allowing a substitute. But everywhere in scripture we see forgiveness based on Christ’s blood and never as preceding Christ’s blood. God, for Christ’s sake, forgives us. (Ephesians 4:32) In Christ, we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins. (Ephesians 1:7) But Owen has God’s act of mercy preceding the cross. (I.E. mercy is in step 1, but the cross is in step 2)

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Sin-Bearer: Free at Last!

Without question, one of Owen’s favorite themes in the atonement is that of Christ as the Sin-Bearer. Owen quotes 1 Peter 2:24 and Isaiah 53 throughout much of his book. This concept undergirds his whole concept of the atonement, but I think Owen’s understanding of Christ’s bearing sins is mistaken.

Owen organizes his thoughts on Christ’s bearing sins as follows:

1. The elect’s sins transfer to Christ, making Him the Sin-Bearer
2. Christ carries the elect’s sins on the cross
3. God justly punishes the Sin-Bearer in our place

Owen mistakenly conflates the sacrificial aspect of the atonement with the sin-bearer. Thus Owen relates the sin-bearer with punishment, even going so far as even going as far as equating “sin-bearing” with undergoing punishment. But scripture teaches a different concept for sin-bearer: taking away sin.

In opposition to Owen’s concept of sin-bearer, I will offer my own.

1. Christ offers Himself as Sin-bearer
2. Christ intercedes for the believer
3. The Father accepts the offering
4. Christ carries away the sins of the believer

Notice what’s missing from my explanation. Anything about sacrifice, or death or punishment… Fundamentally, the biggest difference between Owen’s view of the sin-bearer and my own is that Owen mixes the concepts of sacrifice and sin-bearing and I keep them separate. I see the sin-bearer as a distinct aspect of the atonement and Owen sees it as an intermediate step in the processes of penal substitution. In my view, the sin-bear represents Christ’s liberating us from sin by carrying our sins away.

What Does Scripture Teach about the Sin-Bearer?

Leviticus 16:5, 20-22: "He shall take from the congregation of the sons of Israel two male goats for a sin offering and one ram for a burnt offering.
20"When he finishes atoning for the holy place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall offer the live goat. 21"Then Aaron shall lay both of his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the sons of Israel and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins; and he shall lay them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who stands in readiness. 22"The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a solitary land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness.

This key passage explains how the sin-bearer worked in the OT atonement system. Aaron took two goats for one offering. Aaron sacrificed one goat and offered it, but this goat didn’t bear sin. Aaron offered the second goat without sacrificing it. He then confessed the sins of the people with his hands on the head of the scapegoat. The sins of the people transferred onto the scapegoat and it carried Israel’s sins way.

The scapegoat wasn’t sacrificed or punished. Its function was to carry sins away. The penal substitution aspect of the atonement can be seen in the sacrificed goat, not the scapegoat. The wages of sin is death, Christ died for us, so His death is a substitute. So the sacrificed goat, who died, represents the penal satisfaction aspect of the atonement and the scapegoat, who lived, represents the removal of sins.

Aaron offered both goats which together constitute one offering. This unity in offering can be seen in Isaiah 53, which talks about both Christ’s sacrifice and sin-bearing, albeit distinctly. Mathew 8:14-17 and 1 Peter 2:24 quote Isaiah 53’s sin-bearing aspect. Mathew tells of how Christ’s touch healed people’s infirmities, which confirms our understanding of a living (not sacrificed) sin-bearer. Peter provides the imagery of Christ, as Priest, carrying His own body onto the altar of the cross, confirming that the sin-bearer is offered. John also speaks of Christ as the sin-bearer, in 1 John 3:5, confirming Christ takes away sins.

The Gospel of John describes Christ as both the Door and the Way. Do we conflate these concepts and say Christ is the way to the door? It might sound nice at first, but no we don’t. These are two distinct metaphors for Christ, and we don’t want to mix metaphors. The two goats in the Old Testament were both symbols for Christ. But they were distinct symbols. Saying the goat carries our sins so he can be punished for them, sounds good, but that’s not what the bible is saying. The sin-bearer symbolizes Christ’s liberating us from sin, and the sacrificed goat represents Christ’s dying for us.

In the process of mixing the sin-bearer with the sacrifice, Owen has to modify the concept of sin-bearer to come to his conclusion. Thus he transforms the biblical concept of “carrying away sin” to “bearing punishment for sin”. Owen exchanges the biblical finality of liberation for the intermediary step of taking on sin for the purpose of punishment. But passages such as 1 John 3:5, are too clear to allow such interpretations.

Problems with Owen’s View

If we understand Owen’s step 1 such that our sins are gone, does it matter if Christ dies in step 2? Are we not already freed? In other words, Owen has two options. 1) deny that Christ’s sin-bearing takes liberates us from sin (which contradicts scripture) or 2) deny that Christ death matters (because He already liberated us by taking away our sin).

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Systematic Theology is Like Connect-the-Dots

Systematic Theology is like connect-the-dots. One takes biblical data points and draws relationships between them to form a complete picture. This process helps people understand scripture, because they see the big picture.

The more biblical data points one has, the higher degree of certainty they can have regarding the accuracy of their picture. Conversely, the less biblical data points, the less certain they can be regarding their picture.

The challenge for systematic theology is that at times the data points are less than clear and could be seen many different ways. This can lead to drastically different pictures. It’s the role of the exegete (not the systematic theologian) to clarify the data points, and the role of the systematic theologian to draw the lines and clarify the big picture.

But exegesis is hard and people make mistakes. The processes of 1) determining which aspects of a context are most relevant and also 2) how to apply an author’s theme to understanding a specific statement are difficult. This difficulty should never push us into the error of using our systematic theology to force an interpretation on a passage. Because of this difficulty, we must never elevate our interpretation of scripture to the level of scripture.

Thankfully, not all aspects of scripture are open for interpretation. The early reformers claimed that the scriptures are perspicuous (clear) in relation to salvation. Statements like: “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” are clear. We either believe them or we don’t. However, not all aspects of the atonement are this clear. Thus systematic theologians come up with “atonement theories” to explain the atonement.

It seems that Owen’s atonement theory led him to make categorical mistakes when interpreting scripture. Instead of using passages that teach Christ died for all to develop his systematic theology, his systematic theology led him to complex and mistaken interpretations of those passages. We have already examined this principle in action, when we looked at Owen’s view of intercession. It was as if Owen was connecting the dots and found a left over dot out of place. He had to move it over so it completed his picture.

But what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. I presented a rough sketch of the atonement in the post I can only imagine. Owen finds two data points that he sees inconsistent with a picture of the atonement in which Christ died for all, namely: the concepts of sin-bearing and also the satisfaction of justice.

Owen’s arguments go beyond the arguments he made against unlimited atonement. He’s going after the whole system. In the next two posts I hope to 1) add additional definition to my view of the atonement 2) defend that view from Owen’s arguments and 3) highlight some of Owen’s additional problems with his atonement theory, by going over the topics of the sin-bearer as well as the satisfaction of justice.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Why Debate Calvinists?

As some may know, I have been on break from blogging while I re-write my analysis on Romans 9-11. I am doing so in preparation for my debate with Turretinfan. I look forward to getting back and finishing up the Owen/Atonement topic, but I realized I couldn't effectively blog and prepare for the debate simultaneously. But I thought I would pop in and mention why I debate Calvinists. I have debated Calvinists either in person or over the web for many years.

It's not to convince Calvinists to switch to Arminianism. If that happens, God be praised, but that's not my goal. I don't debate them to clear up misconceptions about Arminianism. Many hold mistaken notions of Arminianism, which I am happy to correct, but that's not why I debate. It's not because I think Calvinism is dangerous, walking a tight rope over hell with banana peels for shoes. While I would like the reformed to reform a tad bit more, I am happy to say they are dead center in the middle of orthodoxy. It's certainly not that I dislike Calvinists. If these debates can't be done in love, we dishonor the gift Christ gave, and I want none of it. It's not because I think I am smarter than Calvinists, or want to show off my amazing mental powers. The Lord has gifted many Calvinists with abilities and education I couldn't dream of, Turretinfan being a chart topper.

So why do it? My discussions with Calvinists have challenged me to reflect on the many aspects of God's word. What do it get out of debating Calvinists? God's standard gift: rare enlightenment.

Friday, February 1, 2008

I can only imagine

Mercy Me’s wonderful song, I Can Only Imagine, invites us to imagine what it might be like when we meet Christ Jesus our Lord.

Here goes…

One day, after living a long and peaceful life, I find myself laying in my bed. My two sons are looking at me and I look back at them with joy of what they have become. This is my last memory of this world before I died.

Immediately, I was rushed away into a great hall. There are people everywhere, waiting in line. I am given a number and am told by an angel to wait in line. The line is organized alphabetically by first name, so amazingly I am standing right next to Daniel the Prophet. “What was it like in the Lions den? Did you get to pet a lion’s tummy? I always wanted to do that.” Daniel chuckled and we chatted for a while. At length I came to ask a question that I have mulled over often. “Does my name mean God is my Judge in the sense of telling other people off in that they have no right to judge me or does it mean God is my Judge in the sense that I have to give account to God for my actions?” Daniel replied “you are about to find out, your number is up.” I gulped hard and remembered these words. “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27)

I entered a throne room more regal than any I had seen or conceived of in my lifetime. I could barely see the throne because of the brightness and glory emanating from the One seated on it. Then I heard in a booming voice “bring forth the book” and had a sudden urge to look at nothing but my feet.

To my horror, all the things I had done were being read aloud. All my little sins that didn’t matter, all the ones I had gotten away with. All the things that everyone around me had thought were wonderful, but I knew I had been selfish in doing them. “I have been such a fool. Why did I waste my life like this? If I could only go back.”

Then I heard the booming voice say “you know that My judgment rightly falls on those who practice such things” (Romans 2:2) “Is there any reason why you should not be condemned?” I can barely think. I am ruined. There’s no escape. But at my darkest moment, I look just to the left of God’s throne. Hope springs up inside me, but I have no words.

Christ, my Lord, springs into action, addressing His Father. “Father, I accomplished the work that you gave me to do.” (John 17:3) “I was made like Dan in every respect, so that I might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” (Hebrews 2:17) “Recall Father, how after my death on the cross, I entered, once for all, into this holy place, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of My own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. (Hebrews 9:12) After I had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, I sat down at Your right hand (Hebrews 10:12) and here I have remained up until this time.

And now, seated at the right hand of God, I am indeed interceding for Dan. (Romans 8:34) I don’t intercede for everyone. I am praying for Dan, I am not praying for the world (John 17:9) To those that trust in themselves I will say ‘I never knew you; depart from me‘. (Mathew 7:22) But I am not ashamed to call Dan a brother. Dan has put his trust in Me. (Hebrews 2:11-13).
Now I am Dan’s high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man. I have obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant I mediate is better, since it is enacted on better promises. (Hebrews 8:1,6)

My request as Dan’s Advocate is this. Give eternal life to Dan. And this is eternal life, that Dan know you the only true God, and Me whom you have sent. (John 17:2-3) Sanctify Dan in the truth; Your word is truth. (John 17:17)”

All of a sudden I had confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that He opened for me through the curtain, that is, through His flesh, and since I have a great Priest over the house of God, I drew near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with my heart sprinkled clean from an evil conscience. (Hebrews 10:19-22)

Then the Father said in His booming voice, “He is not guilty. His faith is counted as righteousness, His lawless deeds are forgiven, I will not count his sin. (Romans 4:5-8).”

Awe and gratitude eternally filled my heart as Christ came over and wiped my last tear away.