“To put it bluntly and plainly, if Christ is not my Substitute, I still occupy the place of a condemned sinner. If my sins and my guilt are not transferred to Him, if He did not take them upon Himself, then surely they remain with me. If He did not deal with my sins, I must face their consequences. If my penalty was not borne by Him, it still hangs over me. There is no other possibility. To say that substitution is immoral is to say that redemption is impossible. We must beware of taking up such a disastrous position.…

In the process of salvation God is not transferring penalty from one man (guilty) to another man (innocent). He is bearing it Himself. The absolute oneness between the Father and the Son in the work of atonement must not for a moment be lost sight of.  When Christ substitutes for sinful man in His death that is God Himself bearing the consequences of our sin, God saving man at cost to Himself, not at cost to someone else.  As Leonard Hodgson puts it, ‘He wills that sin shall be punished, but He does not will that sin shall be punished without also willing that the punishment shall fall on Himself.’  In part the atonement is to be understood as a process whereby God absorbs in Himself the consequences of man’s sin.”

(Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, p410, 1955)

Leon Morris on the Atonement

Few Christian doctrines cause more ire than the view known as either the penal substitutionary atonement or the vicarious atonement of Christ.  Over the last couple of decades, it has elicited sharp invective from those who believe it to be a barrier to preaching and teaching the gospel.  Those expressing opposition to the vicarious atonement view seem to fit the description of those referenced in the late, Princeton Theologian, B. B. Warfield’s work.  There really is nothing new under the sun.  Enjoy the excerpt from Mr. Warfield:

“The ultimate result has been that the revolt from the conceptions of satisfaction, propitiation, expiation, sacrifice, reinforced continually by tendencies adverse to evangelical doctrine peculiar to our times, has grown steadily more and more widespread, and in some quarters more and more extreme, until it has issued in an immense confusion on this central doctrine of the gospel.  Voices are raised all about us proclaiming a ‘theory’ of the atonement impossible, while many of those that essay a theory seem to be feeling their tortuous way very much in the dark.  That, if I mistake not, is the real state of affairs in the modern Church.  

I am not meaning to imply that the doctrine of substitutive atonement – which is, after all, the very heart of the gospel – has been lost from the consciousness of the Church. It has not been lost from the hearts of the Christian community.  It is in its terms that the humble Christian everywhere still expresses the grounds of his hope of salvation.  It is in its terms that the earnest evangelist everywhere still presses the claims of Christ upon the awakened hearer.  It has not even been lost from the forum of theological discussion.  It still commands powerful advocates wherever a vital Christianity enters academical circles: and, as a rule, the more profound the thinker, the more clear is the note he strikes in its proclamation and defense.  

But if we were to judge only by the popular literature of the day – a procedure happily not possible – the doctrine of a substitutive atonement has retired well into the background.  Probably the majority of those who hold the public ear, whether as academical or as popular religious guides, have definitely broken with it, and are commending to their audiences something other and, as they no doubt believe, something very much better.  A tone of speech has even grown up regarding it which is not only scornful but positively abusive.  There are no epithets too harsh to be applied to it, no invectives too intense to be poured out on it.”

(The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield IX, rpt. Baker, 1981, p. 297)

 

The Climate Re: Christ’s Vicarious Atonement

Jars of Clay, West Africa, and the Mission Field

The world wide web is one of those fascinating conundrums in life.  There is so much available at the mouse click, but how much of it is truly meaningful?  On one level, the internet is a sea of information and media and blogs and photos and videos and on and on and on and on it goes.  I think my readers get the picture.  Over the last hour, I unearthed some old music from about ten to fifteen years ago. I decided to listen to some of it again.  There are songs by Jars of Clay, Jeremy Camp, and Passion.  Listening to those artists flooded my mind with memories of those days.  It was a like traveling via a time machine.  I could picture where I was, what I was doing, and how I felt.

Much of Christian music past and present fails to move me in any genuine way.  There are a handful of artists, who transcend the “Christian” label because they are actually recording excellent music to moving lyrics.  When I listened to “The Valley Song” by Jars of Clay, I remember being in Ghana in West Africa back in the summer of 2003.  Somehow I mustered up the courage after completing graduate school to head across the Atlantic Ocean on a forty day, mission trip.  I traveled with eight other Americans from the East Coast, specifically Brooklyn, Long Island, and Jersey City.  Everywhere we went I carried my journal and a pen.  West Africa galvanized me.  It had many of the same fruits and vegetables like my mom’s home country of Honduras.

Both West Africa and Central America are rain forests with hot and humid climates.  When it rains in those countries, it rains.  It does not mist like it does sometimes in Southern California.  I ate plantains, cassava, sugar cane, coconuts, mangoes, and more in Ghana. Like I said, it reminded me of Honduras without the beans, rice, and tortillas.  Let me just mention another thing about Ghanaian food. It is very spicy, which surprised me.  I made sure to order dishes that were either mild or medium as did my missionary teammates. In my pouch, I carried Pepto Bismol tablets just in case an emergency made itself known.  Back to the Christian music…

Jars of Clay was huge back in 2003, and “The Valley Song” continued their string of hits.  They were one of the few bands, which crossed over into the secular scene.  Of course, this did not last long as soon as folks learned about Jars of Clay’s faith in Jesus.  I still enjoy listening to “The Valley Song.”  It does not sound like anything from the contemporary Christian music scene even though comes from that ilk.  The song lyrics explore the believer’s journey in the midst of suffering.  There is praise to be lifted up even in a valley of sorrow.  At one point, there is hope as lyrics tell of the path of suffering ending at rivers of joy.  So, the song is hopeful.  The suffering is intense, but short-lived as it gives way to joy.

In my journal that I carried around with me in Ghana, I had the entire lyrics to “The Valley Song” written out by memory.  Some days I sang the lyrics to myself and lifted my hands in praise.  I saw a few of my teammates doing that during breaks in the action while on our mission trip.  One of the guys asked me what I was singing.  I read him the lyrics, and he stood there taking in the words.  Another guy stumbled upon my reading halfway through, and asked me to reread them because he liked what he had heard.  I remember this really impacting me at the time.  It made me realize that I belonged.  These brothers from Brooklyn, Long Island, and Jersey City resonated with the power of the lyrics to one of my favorite songs.  Cultural boundaries had been crossed, and this took place across the Atlantic in a foreign nation.

This was an unusual first step into living life together with others who professed Christ as I did.  Instead of hiding my heart, I shared it in a vulnerable way with those guys from the East Coast.  One white guy and three African-American men bonded over “The Valley Song” by the Jars of Clay.  I think what strikes me with this vignette is that human beings understand what it means to suffer.  It is an universal experience, which traverses cultures and languages and ethnicities.  Jesus experienced suffering, and then the ultimate in joy know that he has been exalted to the right hand of the Father.  He went from humiliation to exaltation.  If I am becoming like Christ, then this means that I will undergo a similar pattern of humiliation to exaltation.  May the Lord give the grace, courage, faith, and strength to face it and live it.

Lone Ranger Christians

Over the last five years, there has been an increase of men and women removing themselves from the local church in order to pursue either a deeper relationship with the Lord or to witness about Christ to the surrounding culture.  I recall in my own life specific moments where I lacked the motivation to attend a Sunday morning, worship service.  Something inside of me refused to participate in a show or an event in place of a community of Christ followers.  I dodged a service or two, but somehow I still showed up on Sundays.  Everything inside of me kicked and screamed against the notion of attending a Sunday morning worship service while pretending all is well.  During those seasons, I wanted something real about my worship experience.  The songs, the music, and the whole shebang needed to come from the heart.

What brought me through those desert times?  The ironic answer is the church, or I should say, the community of believers that I worshiped alongside during my ugliness.  For whatever the reason, I remember the battle to get up on Sundays, to get ready for church, and to arrive on time for the full experience.  Each Sunday served as a battle that related to a larger war going on within and without.  I had my list of reasons, excuses, and grievances for opting out of Sunday, church services.  Time and time again, the Holy Spirit touched my heart through his word and his people.  No one told me to leave and never come back because of my bad attitude.  In fact, the Spirit of God was not driving me away.  Instead, he kept wooing me to him through his people, the church.

I share this because I dabbled with being a Lone Ranger, Christian.  One week I skipped a Sunday service, but I attended mid-week bible study.  The next week I would flip it.  Honestly, I never really shook off church for an extended season.  I know some friends and family members who have gone down this path.  When I read Proverbs eighteen earlier this week, I did a double take over the very first verse.  Here it is in two different translations:

“Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment” (Proverbs 18:1, ESV).

“A man who isolates himself seeks his own desire; He rages against all wise judgment” ( Prov. 18:1, NKJV).

Even though I dabbled with isolation, I remember experiencing the truth of this passage in my life.  I desired certain patterns of living to change for the better; however, I kept isolating myself from the Spirit of God and his church.  A wise person once said that the best hiding place is in plain sight.  I mastered that principle to the letter.  I “hid” inside and outside of church by being visible, by putting on airs to those around me.  Because I had been alternating between Sunday services and mid-week bible studies, some in my life mustered the courage and boldness to ask, “What’s going on Matthew?  One week you show up on Sunday, the next you attend a mid-week bible study.” It was interactions like those, which brought healing and restoration to my heart.  What I heard during those times was that I am wanted in this community.  These people noticed my behavior and my absence.

Until those interactions with friends, I sought my own desires and raged against sound judgment.  No one could break through the force field around me.  Words bounced off of me like racquetballs.  Friends and family members resorted to ducking and hiding.  When I reflect on those days, I really wanted to receive their love and acceptance in a deep and profound way.  For whatever the reason, I could not receive.  The Lord used his word, his Spirit, and his people to bring me back around to wholeness in relating.  I praise and thank the Lord every day for the transformation that has taken place in my life.  For some, the struggle to experience transformation and healing takes longer and seems more elusive.  Going at it alone like a Lone Ranger is not the answer, but those individuals do not know any better.

Is it true that all those who disengage from the local church carry pain on the inside?  Because I used the word all, the answer is no; however, some or even a majority do carry around pain with them.  In my personal experience, locked up pain on the inside prevents me from being with God and his people.  Heck, it even prevents me from being who I am.  How do churches and leaders and the laity reach out to these hurting ones inside and outside the walls of Christendom?  One tactic to employ requires meeting people where they are at in the moment.  In fact, being with hurting ones in their pain says more than a sermon.  Another thing to do is to listen.  Every person has a story to tell, so listening to someone share about his or her pain affirms his or her dignity or worth as a person.  Lastly, I think walking alongside them provides the support to stick to the path etched out for them by Christ.

The thing to remember in of all this is that Jesus sees us as sheep (John 10:2-4, ESV).  In the wild, sheep are prey to wolves, bears, lions and so forth.  Sheep survive longer with the herd than without it.  The apostle Peter warns the first century Christians that the evil one prowls around like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour (1 Peter 5:8, ESV).  When professing followers of Christ remove themselves from the local church, it is similar to a herd animal wandering from the group.  At that point, the Christian like the prey animal becomes a perfect target for predators.  There is an immense need in today’s church to be safe places for people work through their stuff.  Call it the ministry of reconciliation, which means the ministry of the word and the Spirit.  Hurting people need God’s love and truth to restore them rather than half truth or lies about sin and its effects.

New and Old Treasure

Today’s post concludes the series exploring the kingdom parables of Matthew thirteen.  I want to share some final thoughts in relation to the following parable (number eight?) that ends Jesus’ teaching.  Depending upon the translation, this one is either referred to as the householder, the owner of a house or the master of a house.  Normally, this parable rarely finds its way into the overall tally with the others in the thirteenth chapter of Matthew.   I think this brief one bumps the number of parables to eight.  By way of context, this one follows immediately after the Lord finishes the parable of the dragnet:

“Have you understood all these things?” They said to him, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:51-52, ESV).

My off-the-cuff observation may sound a little snarky, but the disciples’ affirmative response to Jesus’ question surprises me.  These men asked him earlier to explain to them the meaning of the parable of the weeds (Matt. 13:36, ESV).  It seems to be a little bit of a stretch to take the disciples at their word.  Now, I do not want to draw too much from this point.  After all, it probably reveals more about me rather than the disciples.   In no way do I want to read into the text what it does not say.  If I place myself in their shoes, would I behave any differently?  I think no is the honest response.  After all, if Jesus does not question or rebuke them for their answer, then it might behoove me to keep moving forward instead of making a mountain out of a molehill.

Now then, what does Jesus intend to teach his disciples with this parable about a master of a house?  Based on the context, it seems to me that the Lord expresses the view to the twelve that they are possessors of both old and new treasure.  He has entrusted to them the secrets of the kingdom, which they are to steward (Matt. 13:11-12, ESV).  I see this final parable as anticipating the great commission that the Lord commands his disciples before his ascension to the right hand of the Father (Matt. 28:19-20, ESV).  In this parable, he does not instruct them to venture out among the nations.  Instead Jesus lays the foundation for their future missionary efforts. According to his’ own words, he has trained the apostles for the kingdom of heaven in order to share the old and new treasures (Matt. 13:52, ESV).

Did the sharing of the kingdom’s old and new treasures end with the death of the apostles in the 1st century?  The answer is a resounding no.  Every person who came to faith in Christ under the original apostles inherited their same calling to bring out of their storehouse both the new and old treasure.  The Lord inaugurated this pattern during his earthly ministry, and established it with the Great Commission before his ascension.  All those who profess Jesus as Lord and Savior throughout church history had a responsibility to share the new and old treasures of the kingdom of heaven.  They are not to be hoarded nor buried deep within the earth.  The expectation of Jesus was that his followers would come alongside men and women in order to tell them about the good news of the kingdom.  Today, this remains the mission of each believer and the church.

The End of the Age

Forgive me for using such a dramatic title, but I could not think of anything else better.  This series on the kingdom parables of Matthew thirteen nears its conclusion.  There is one more post after this one, and then I head back to the mainland.  I have been navigating the deep, lexical waters of Matthew thirteen for quite sometime.   Let me say that the ocean is really deep and the sun is really hot.  There is a weight to acquiring even a partial understanding of the Messiah’s truths contained in these parables.  I remember hearing someone say on the radio years ago that once you see truth, you can’t unsee it.  Each new layer of knowledge, understanding and wisdom into God and his word brings with it more responsibility.  The truths conveyed in these kingdom parables have eternal significance, and today’s is a perfect example.  Here is the passage:

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind.  When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad.  So it will be at the end of the age.  The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace.  In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:47-50, ESV).

For starters, I want to express one observation, but I will go the long way around the barn to make my point.  In my previous post, I covered the immensely encouraging twin parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price.  Those illustrate the central truth that the Messiah knows those who are his.  He seeks them out and redeems them with his own blood.  The redeemed constitute the people in his kingdom.  They will be with him where he is for eternity (John 14:3, ESV).  It is wonderful news that sustains the redeemed throughout the course of this age.  On the heels of this good news, Jesus interjects the above parable of the net or dragnet. The truth contained in it is quite sobering.  He brings up the issue of eschatology once again by invoking the phrase, the end of the age, and by referencing the final judgment as the fiery furnace.

In the parable of the weeds, Jesus uses those same phrases and metaphors to depict the eschatological consequences for the just and the unjust (Matt. 13:40-42, ESV).  Even though the symbols are different in the parable of the dragnet, the same event is in view: the final judgment.  The sea represents the world while the dragnet is the gospel witness of the church being extended throughout the nations.  This net gathers into it all kinds of fish much like the church: a diversity of tribes, peoples, tongues, and languages.  From each of those groups, there will be good and bad fish.  The angels do the separating at the command of the Son of Man (Matt. 13:49-50, ESV).  This is the same truth depicted in the parable of the weeds (Matt. 13:41, ESV).  There is a future day coming when a final separation takes place for eternity.  I call it the point of no return.

Throughout the course of this age, there is common grace extended toward the just and the unjust.  The sun rises and sets, the rains come and go, and the breath of life enters those to live another day.  On and on it will go until the coming of the Messiah.  This means that there is still an opportunity to accept Christ as Lord and Savior.  It also means that ministry and evangelism and discipleship all have value until the end of the age.  In fact, I believe that Jesus closes out his teaching with the parable of the dragnet in order to emphasize the certainty and severity of the final judgment.  Two realities bring this ever closer for all human beings throughout the world: one’s death and the Lord’s coming.  Some believe erroneously that there is still hope of redemption after death.  Jesus never teaches this and neither did any of the Old Testament prophets or the writers of the New Testament.

During this present age, it will be difficult to tell the difference between those who are in the kingdom and those who are outside of it.  Thankfully, the Lord exhorts his people to focus on sowing the seed and making disciples rather than figuring out who is on the inside or the outside (Matt. 28:18-20, ESV).  There is a sense of urgency on the Lord’s part about the mission that he gave his people and the church (Luke 10:1-2, ESV).  It fuels his teaching on these kingdom parables, and it explains why two of the seven focus on the final judgment.  One day Jesus will make a sharp distinction between the just and the unjust.  All will witness this in its fullest manifestation at the end of the age.  Until then, the redeemed of the Lord must be stewarding his resources for the kingdom.

 

A wise person said that one is either entering difficulty, going through it, or coming out of it.  Personally, I think that this has some application in my own life; however, I would not claim it as truth set in stone.  Difficult times do come and go like the ocean’s tide. Suffering is the biblical term and it has external and internal aspects.  Much has been written and spoken on this topic.  The internal aspect of suffering really demands patience and maturity, especially during times of uncertainty.  There are specific points along the journey when the way forward is unclear and by extension the future, too.  It is hard to discern my heart, and the heart of the one who promises to guide me along this path.  The quotation below is a masterful one that expresses this inner turmoil of following, seeking, and pursuing the Lord:

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

(Thomas Merton, Thoughts on Solitude, 1956)

Thomas Merton on Living in Uncertainty