Did John Calvin Invent A New Religion?

I concluded in my previous blog (here) that John Calvin, by tying the place of the dead (hades) to eternal punishment (Gehenna) and then linking this with the punishment inflicted on Christ on the Cross so as to achieve forgiveness, invented the doctrine of penal substitution. In this blog, I indicate how this shift changes the meaning of Christianity. By changing the meaning of the death of Christ, making punishment of an innocent man the payment for the guilty and calling this justice, tying it to future eternal suffering or eternal death and making this suffering a legal requirement of God, and by then equating this with mercy, forgiveness and salvation, there is almost nothing left of New Testament salvation. The biblical focus on a practical deliverance from a real-world problem, the ordinary understanding of justice, punishment, forgiveness, and the understanding of Christ and God as united, loving and good, are obscured. More troubling is the depiction of a God who requires and delights in suffering, and who, by any normal standard, would be judged positively evil. Where this God is called good and the methods he deploys considered merciful, all standards of meaning and value are turned on their head.

Suffering does not right a wrong.

The gold standard for Calvin, the line that he moves and which even non or anti-Calvinists have acceded to, is his notion that punishment, as suffering, is tied to justice. The two terms, punishment and justice, abstracted from their biblical context and tied together in his depiction of pure suffering (in Gehenna), completely misses the biblical depiction of justice or righteousness (δικαιοσύνη), which is not simply a legal abstraction but a description of the personhood of God shared with humans in Christ so as to make things right. It misses the biblical depiction of punishment as a loving correction geared toward achieving rectitude. Both terms are obscured in being tied to suffering, as if suffering is equal to punishment enacted and justice achieved. While these are equated in pagan religion and Roman law, and have been preserved in modern notions of legal retribution (a maze of confusion between rehabilitation, revenge, and deterrence), it is Calvin’s fusion of the suffering of the Cross with the suffering of Gehenna which paganizes biblical justice.

The suffering of a thief or a murderer, or the eternal suffering say, of Adolph Hitler, does not restore what has been lost. If my precious android phone is stolen, having the thief imprisoned does not make it right, as far as I am concerned. No matter what suffering the thief may be put through, I am still out one phone. Maybe I derive a certain pleasure, as Calvin depicted it, in seeing the thief suffer but this points to my human perversity. We may have the tendency of delighting in seeing those who have wronged us suffer, but in the biblical framework, this is counted as evil not good (let alone as God-like).

In our human perversity we may link our sadistic sense of seeing our enemies suffer (having their teeth broken, as in David’s prayer) with justice, but this is completely removed from the biblical concept of restoration (restoration of relationship, restoration of the kingdom, restoration of fullness). The way of this restorative justice necessarily involves the one who has done the wrong and the wrong committed. It involves not only their reform, but the setting right of all that they have made wrong. God does not impute honesty where there is none. He does not presume the possibility of theoretical or legal reform apart from the person. The slaves are not theoretically set free and the healing is not a future legalistic reordering of the books.

Where in Calvin, punishment and suffering accomplish atonement, this is a non sequitur.  It does not follow that the punishment of the wrong-doer makes atonement for the wrong done. It does not restore the lost phone or the lost lives if the thief or the murderer is punished. Maybe he should be punished or jailed but this has nothing to do with atonement. It does not help the situation that the man suffers or that he volunteers to suffer or even that he, Luther-like, takes a whip to himself to induce suffering. Suffering per se does not address the problem.  Should the man’s innocent brother volunteer to serve his time or suffer the lash (maybe for a more expensive phone than I own), and I say this is very satisfying to me, this would not reflect well on my character.

Does it help the situation if it is God that finds satisfaction in suffering – the eternal suffering of a completely innocent man? Calvin argues from the incomprehension and mystery of things eternal, but shifting this sort of behavior onto God projects onto God the image of evil humans.

Demanding retribution is not forgiveness.

Calvin pictures forgiveness as enabled by Christ bearing the equivalent of eternal suffering in hell on the Cross. The demand of the law, according to Calvin, is that the offense against an infinite God receive the due payment of an infinite penalty. Only when the penalty is paid can the offense be forgiven. Only when God’s wrath is completely satiated (and it never is for Calvin) can he find it in himself to forgive. This is an odd notion of forgiveness and mercy, subsequent as it is to infinite wrath being propitiated.

The biblical depiction is the opposite of that of Calvin, as God’s love and mercy endure forever but his wrath quickly passes.[1] Mercy is a key attribute of God, but Calvin subsumes mercy under the attribute of wrath, as if wrath is an attribute – the prime attribute of God. Most of us would not consider it merciful to demand that those who have wronged us be executed first, and it would be considered diabolical should we desire that those who have transgressed against us be tortured forever prior to our offer of mercy. Is it that we are too merciful, too forgiving, and once we learn the ways of God, we too will demand our pound of flesh before the debt is forgiven?

We expect tyrants to punish every wrong and to revenge every transgression but we do not call it forgiveness should they grant pardon to an already slaughtered enemy. Again, it is presumed by Calvin that locating this evil in the mysteries of God somehow makes it good. The presumption is that humans are more able to be merciful than their maker due to their less strict code of justice (but this has nothing to do with biblical justice).

God’s punishment does not buy mercy, it is his mercy.

Punishment gets a bum wrap in Calvin as it is equated with eternal suffering which in no way restores, rectifies, or reforms. In the Bible God disciplines those he loves (Prov 3:12; Heb 12:6) and this is the point of the punishment that comes with sin. The presumed split between mercy and wrath, a necessity brought about by Calvin’s insistent misreading of the Bible, so eternalizes God’s wrath as to make it of no earthly good. The question is not simply, how could God be just and not punish sin, but how could God be loving, merciful, restorative, and kind, without punishing sin. His is a cleansing, purifying punishment which is synonymous with his mercy and love.

God is not split between anger and love, but his anger flows from his love. We all “were by nature children of wrath,” but this does not stand opposed to the love of God but explains how his “being rich in mercy” extends the love of God so as to solve the real problem (Eph 2:2-5). “Being dead in trespasses and sins, walking according to the course of this world’s prince, being disobedient sons, following the lusts of the flesh,” is the problem – being children of wrath is a consequence of the problem.  The wrath is not the problem, but sin is the problem, and God is concerned with the problem not the consequence. God does not hate us in his wrath but like the much loved children of the Father being described, his wrath is an element of his love.

If the solution (being made alive) tells us what the problem is, clearly our problem is not simply that God is angry with us, as this verse tells us that his wrath or anger is no obstacle to his life-giving love, but indeed seems to be subservient to his love. Where in Calvin, wrath describes the prime destiny which Christ is dealing with, for Paul wrath is not describing a destiny or an end point. Paul does not mean that people were destined for wrath, since he is talking about himself and in this case other Jewish Christians. He means that they were acting in a fallen way like those who deserved God’s wrath. In fact, wrath is part of the solution.

The phrase “children of wrath” or “sons of death” is a Hebrew expression which occurs in several places in the Old Testament. As in Psalms 102, these children seemingly consigned to death are to be set free so as to constitute “kingdoms to serve the Lord” and to “tell of the name of the Lord in Zion” (Ps 102:20-21). Ephesians seems to be echoing this tradition of building a kingdom by its citizens purifying passage through the love/wrath of God. The “sons of wrath” are those very ones who will be shown mercy and who “are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit” (2:22). The way to enter this dwelling is not, as in penal substitution, through by-passing or foregoing the divine wrath (directed somewhere else).

Where Calvin absolutizes wrath, he splits God the Father and Son between wrath and love. But the passage from wrath to love is not a change in God (from wrath to love) but a passage through a purifying love. God is one, and God is love; he is not sometimes a God of wrath and other times a God of love. As George MacDonald puts it, “For Love loves unto purity, and is oft experienced as wrath, as the consuming fire that will not be content until our sinful nature, everything that separates us from God, is burned away.”

Calvin’s Religion?

The notion that infinite wrath can be equated with God’s justice (the first perversion), and then that this justice demands suffering as punishment to achieve forgiveness (the second perversion), as God’s wrath stands over and against God’s mercy, and God is split between his love and wrath (the third perversion), all of which perverts justice and mercy and God (the ultimate perversion). This God that demands infinite suffering as justice would cause us take refuge from the Father in the Son. As MacDonald describes it, this is “to take refuge with his work instead of with the Son himself; to take refuge with a theory of that work instead of the work itself; to shelter behind a false quirk of law instead of nestling in the eternal heart of the unchangeable and righteous Father.”[2] Is it possible that Calvin’s interpretation of Christianity might cause some to miss the revelation of Jesus?

Perhaps the question is itself a perversion, imagining that knowing the Son is dependent upon proper theology, but we all know those who are much better than their theology (hopefully myself included). As each of us follow Jesus, we make progress in recognizing evil and extracting ourselves from falsehood. That certainly describes my understanding of my own journey. But as MacDonald points out, there must come a point where those who have believed a lie must abandon it as they come to a fuller knowledge of the truth. Otherwise, “They yield the idea of the Ancient of Days, ‘the glad creator,’ and put in its stead a miserable, puritanical martinet of a God, caring not for righteousness, but for his rights; not for the eternal purities, but the goody proprieties.” Surely, knowing and following Jesus is a faith that will not and cannot be thwarted, no matter what obstacle should be thrown in the way. On the other hand, false prophets such as Calvin “take all the glow, all the hope, all the colour, all the worth, out of life on earth, and offer you instead what they call eternal bliss–a pale, tearless hell.”[3]  


[1] Psalm 30:5 For His anger is but for a moment, His favor is for a lifetime; Weeping may last for the night, But a shout of joy comes in the morning. Psalm 106:1 “Praise the LORD. Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever”; Psalm 118:1 “Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; For His lovingkindness is everlasting”; Isaiah 12:1 “Then you will say on that day, “I will give thanks to You, O LORD; For although You were angry with me, Your anger is turned away, And You comfort me.”

[2] George McDonald, “Justice,” in Unspoken Sermons. I am loosely following MacDonald in the sections and concepts “Suffering does not right a wrong” and “Demanding retribution is not forgiveness.”

[3] McDonald, surrounded by Scottish Calvinism, makes the point.

The Wrath of God Proceeds from His Love

Christ came to address the problem of sin and not the various consequences of sin, such as the wrath of God, guilt, shame, or the list of consequences spelled out in Romans 1 (degrading passions, greed, unrighteousness, envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice, gossiping, slander, hatred of God, arrogance, boastfulness, etc.). To miss the root problem underlying these consequences is to miss why Christ came and the role of God (he “turns them over to their desires” (Ro 1:24)), in these consequences. Christ did not come to turn away the wrath of God, which would mean he would be turning away God’s love as well. Christ came to do away with what gives rise to wrath. Likewise, he did not come to resolve the problem of guilt but to do away with what causes guilt – and so on down the list. These consequences flow from the root problem of shutting ourselves off from God, and of course in addressing the root problem these consequences are addressed up to and including, particularly, God’s wrath.

To imagine the wrath of God is the primary problem is to miss the way in which it is also a necessary part of the cure. Paul describes sin (the root cause and not the results) as the exchange of the truth for a lie in which the creature displaces the creator as the object of service and worship (Ro 1:25). He seems to be referencing the early chapters of Genesis, but the same prognosis is repeated in each contemporaneous setting Paul addresses. The progression outlined in Ephesians introduces the same sequence of events. People have given themselves over to the “Archon of this world order” (2:2) and as a result they are “godless in the cosmos” (2:12). In other words, they have exchanged creation for the creator, becoming children of wrath (2:3), and this then results in their “being given over to their desire.” The wrath of God is unleashed in sins consequences in both passages, and this results in “walking in darkness” and being “dead in trespasses and sins.” God’s wrath or his vehemence against sin reveals itself in the fact that sin is a despoiling, dying, passing, circumstance.

Romans 1 specifies where the wrath of God is specifically directed: “against all the impiety and injustice of human beings” (Ro 1:18). Paul speaks of an immediate revelation of this wrath from heaven in its unfolding consequences oriented to and deserving of death (Ro 1:32). In Ephesians, walking according to the course of the Prince of this world, and thus being dead in sin, are synonymous with being “children of wrath.” Where love is an enduring state and God’s love endures forever, the experience of his wrath is a passing state (death being, by definition, unenduring) as the dross of sin is burnt away by the wrath which works in sin.

 The wrath is interwoven with being dead in sin but it is also immediately conjoined to the love of God: “because of His great love with which He loved us even when we were dead in our transgressions” (Eph. 2:4-5). The children of wrath are still children and are not simply consigned to wrath as an end point but are destined to pass through wrath to love. Paul is talking about himself and other Christians, who have passed into full experience of the love of God by way of wrath.

 As George McDonald has described it, the passage from wrath to love is not a change in God (from wrath to love) but a passage through a purifying love: “For love loves unto purity,” and this is often experienced as wrath, “as the consuming fire that will not be content until our sinful nature, everything that separates us from God, is burned away.” According to McDonald, “God’s anger is at one with his love.” Mercy and punishment, love and justice, are not opposed, “for punishment—the consuming fire—is a means to an end, that we might be the creatures he intended us to be. God’s punishment, his justice, can be his most merciful act.”[1]

The Hebraism “sons of death” (“sons of wrath” or “sons of stripes”) occurs in several places in the Old Testament, and as in Psalms 102, these children seemingly consigned to death are to be set free so as to constitute “kingdoms to serve the Lord” and to “tell of the name of the Lord in Zion” (Ps. 102:20-21). Ephesians seems to be echoing this tradition of building a kingdom by its purifying passage through the love/wrath of God. The “sons of wrath” are those very ones who will be shown mercy and who “are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit” (2:22). As Hebrews puts it, “Wherefore, we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28-29). This unshakeable kingdom is established in and through this purifying fire. In each instance, the point is to pass from walking in darkness and works of death so as to walk in the “good works, which God prepared beforehand” (Eph 2:10).

If salvation is a harmoniously functioning kingdom united under Christ (the thematic picture in the New Testament is of being “in Christ” as part of his body), then the image would seem to also account for the entire movement from damnation to salvation. That is, the disparate elements of the divided kingdom (split in two by the dividing wall of hostility) will come to constitute the stuff of the united kingdom. “He himself is our peace” and this means that hostility, enmity, hatred, and violence will be burned out to make way for this enduring peace among the objects of his wrath. He “abolished in his flesh the enmity,” which means we might speak of his having passed through the fire of wrath but he has turned it into purified love: “because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, [he] made us alive together with Christ” (Eph 2:4-5). The making alive due to love redirects from within the orientation to death definitive of experience of God’s wrath (i.e. wrath is a passage to love enacted by Christ).

 As David Bentley Hart has written, “The wrath of God in Scripture is a metaphor, suitable to our feeble understanding, one which describes not the action of God toward us, but what happens when the inextinguishable fervency of God’s love toward us is rejected.”[2] As Hart notes, this is the understanding passed down from the Church fathers. Origen writes, “If you hear of God’s anger and wrath, do not think of wrath and anger as emotions experienced by God. Accommodations of the use of language like that are designed for the correction and improvement of the little child. We too put on a severe face for children.”[3] In Gregory of Nyssa, and Maximus the Confessor, the wrath of God proceeds from his love, so that “even hell itself is not a divine work, but the reality we have wrought within ourselves by our perverse refusal to open out — as God himself eternally has done — in love, for God and others.” Sin is a shutting ourselves off from God, being lost in the cosmos (in a paraphrase of Paul), or being lost within ourselves such that “the fire of divine love cannot transform or enliven us, but only assail us as an external chastisement” as a hell of our own making. [4]  But what is sinful cannot endure the flame of God’s love. As McDonald puts it, “There is nothing eternal but that which loves and can be loved, and love is ever climbing towards the consummation when such shall be the universe, imperishable, divine.”[5] Or in Harts phrase, “Our God is a consuming fire, and the pathos of our rage cannot interrupt the apatheia of his love.”[6]


[1] George McDonald, “The Consuming Fire,” from Unspoken Sermonshttp://www.online-literature.com/george-macdonald/unspoken-sermons/2/

[2] David Bentley Hart, “The Hidden and the Manifest: Essays in Theology and Metaphysics” p. 62

[3] 1. Maurice Wiles and Mark Santer, eds., Documents in Early Christian Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge Press, 1975), 7–10

[4] Hart Ibid.

[5] McDonald Ibid.

[6] Hart Ibid.

What’s Love Got to Do with It?

The extraneous nonsense becomes starkly clear in life when you find love where it was formerly absent.  As missionaries in Japan we had attempted, haltingly, stupidly, blindly, to bring a little light and love into a place where it was sometimes achingly absent. Eventually the effort, constant work, and for me the hard effort of navigating in a language in which I had very little facility (to put it mildly), wore on us. People live in certain registers of experience and emotion, and while there was much that one could admire in the gentleness and sometimes inherent kindness of Japanese, there was also the isolation of being foreigners and living in a muted or at least differently timbred emotional range. One example of the quiet desperation prevailing among many Japanese: when I would survey my university classes on issues like suicide, it was common that for more than half suicide was a continually open option.  The school secretary at our Bible college found her son hanging in his room. I performed the funeral for a family in our church (a very small church) in which the grandfather had killed himself. All of this to illustrate, joy was often in short supply. We had put our effort into building up a church and working to build a Bible college in Tokyo and we felt the former work was complete and the latter had come to a halt. We decided to return to teach in a Bible college in the States, thinking we would find a network of friends and fellowship – and of course the unarticulated thought: to find a bit of the love and joy we had been missing.

The rest of the story (below) follows the pattern Jesus laid out in the story of the Good Samaritan – we were robbed and left for dead, betrayed by brothers. The point is not the injustices suffered, or the fact the thieves arose from among those we counted on most, but the vulnerable condition in which this sort of betrayal leaves you. One way of understanding love is to eliminate what it is not or, worse, to experience what it is not, and then as we did with the Forging Ploughshares community, find that absence filled.

The experience can be summed up in the following biblical syllogisms which, in delineating love from what it is not or from that with which it may be confused, gets at its all-encompassing nature. (1.) The purpose of the gifts of the Spirit are fulfilled in love but love is not fulfilled in the gifts. (2.) The purpose of the law is fulfilled in love but love is not fulfilled by the law. (3.) The purpose of salvation is fulfilled in love in that love, in its most precise definition, is the undoing of shame, overcoming of pride, and defeat of death.

(1.) In Paul’s explanation (I Cor. 13), love serves the other and this service is through the gifts of the Holy Spirit but one must not confuse this giftedness with the thing itself. Knowledge, wisdom, prophecy, or any of the gifts of the Spirit without love, Paul explains, are a pointless nothing. The inverse of this is that all of these gifts have their point only as they serve the purpose of love. The gifts are not inherently attached to love, as exercise of the gifts may provoke burning envy, inflated importance, or pride and arrogance, in the face of which love is absent. The contrast between love, on one side, and the gifts of prophecy, knowledge, and faith, each without love, on the other side, points to Paul’s earlier contrast and warning that knowledge inflates but love builds up. Prophecy or supposed knowledge received or exercised without love ministers to a false self-importance as “without love, I am nothing” (13:2).

Pride and selfishness can apparently be fed by gifts of the Spirit, so that even our spirituality may feed our self-protective, sinful experience, over and against love. Our power, our self-promotional interests, our thirsty pursuit of life, in a zero-sum sort of economy cannot afford love. Love, in contrast, rejoices in the truth, it never tires of support, never loses faith, never exhausts hope, never gives up (I Cor. 13:4-7). This is not a zero-sum economy but one in which there is an infinite supply of life and resources. As Paul says at the conclusion of the chapter, love never ends. It is enduring; it is spreading; it is inclusive; it is not seeking to horde the glory or the resources of life and the light.

(2.) Jesus quotes Leviticus 19:18 (“You shall love your neighbor as yourself”) when he sums up the law and his own purpose in Mt 22:39. Jesus is not the origin of this idea but he is the fulfillment of its possibility. Love, per se, is not an impossibility before Jesus or without Jesus but neighbor love, which Jesus will define in his story of the good Samaritan broadens the scope of neighbor to include, as Jesus explains elsewhere, enemies.  Such an idea was not considered, let alone put into practice, prior to Jesus.

Kenotic love, or giving up life (“he who loses his life”) to find life and love (restated in all four Gospels as Jesus summation of the salvation he is inaugurating) fulfills the law and neighbor love in that it meets and moves beyond mere justice. This love means giving up on securing the self against the neighbor, preserving the self by means of the law, or sustaining the self through the supposed life in the law. Kenotic service of the neighbor, in which one finds life, is the movement of love. It is modeled in Jesus forsaking power and position (“legal rights” of one with equality with divinity) so as to take the role of a servant (Philippians 2:7ff).

Paul, along with Jesus, says love is fulfilling the law (Romans 13:8-13) but what becomes clear in Paul’s explanation, while love will fulfill the law, the law will not fulfil love. In George McDonalds description, if a man keeps the law, he loves his neighbor but he is not a lover because he keeps the law but he keeps the law because he loves. The law cannot fulfill itself apart from love any more than gifts of the Spirit, in themselves, fulfill love. We are made for love, not law, and love fulfills and keeps the law only because it is infinitely more than law.

(3.) Love is the very point of the Christian faith in Paul’s explanation, but how or why this is the case can best be understood with a shift of focus from guilt to shame as the underlying problem. God is love and salvation is being restored to divine fellowship in love while sin obstructs this fellowship, but the problem is not merely a guilt which requires a price be paid, but shame which requires a remaking of human identity. While Western theology focuses on guilt (as if the obstruction is ultimately with God), what became clear in my reading the Bible in the Japanese context, is the role of shame as the primary descriptor of the loss of self. The self, in Japan, is depicted as consisting of an outward self (tatemae) that serves as a mask to protect an inward self (honne), the exposure of which will provoke the worst sort of shame (equated with death in popular literature). As James McClendon describes it, “In genuine presence I am with another and she or he with me, and there is a Wholeness in shared act or fact of our being there. But shame is a failed Wholeness. Thus, face to face with one another, but ashamed, we sense a loss of presence.” Where one cannot be present for the other, love is an impossibility. The primal emotion of the fallen self is shame (as depicted in Genesis, reiterated in the wisdom literature, and taken up by Paul). Shame compels us not merely to hide from others, to hide the body, but involves hiding the true self behind a mask in the attempt to be invulnerable – creating the incapacity for love.

Pride is directly connected to shame as pride is the identity, the structure (individual, national, tribal, etc.) behind which we would ward off shame. Our greatest gifts and abilities may feed into the cover up. We may organize our entire religion, the Christian religion, as a kind of façade behind which we might remain invulnerable, protected, unexposed. Isolation, invulnerability, self-protection, is not simply a mask we wear, but is descriptive of human experience outside of love.

Romans 7 focuses on this universal incapacity (the dynamics of the body of death (7:24)) in a counter series to what Paul proposes in Corinthians. The “I” covets – burns with envy – but love does not envy. The “I” is deceived about the law due to sin but love rejoices with the truth. Sin is caught up in fear of death; a zero-sum game in which the self cannot establish itself (arrive, find unity, obtain life). The problem of the “I” is precisely that it is isolated in the struggle to constitute itself. “I am I,” not only describes human experience but describes a self-consumptive desire (“I do what I do not want. . . who will rescue me from this body of death”).

In I Cor 13 and Ro 6-8 Paul’s “I” is undone in a corporate identity – “baptized into Christ.” Envy, desire, and conflict are displaced by love, described as making a unity of a plurality, ultimately unifying and drawing in all creation (Ro 8:38-39; I Cor 13:13). If sin involves a dividing and alienating orientation to death (a cover up in pride that kills), then the death of Christ as a confrontation with death denial and slavery to fear of death, removes the obstacle to loving sacrifice. The love of Christ enables entry into love as we can lay down our lives in agape love as Paul, and Jesus before him, defined and modeled it.

In Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan, perhaps the key story illustrating neighbor love, it is clear the religious leaders who pass by on the other side do not qualify as good neighbors. What is also notable is that the thieves are identifiable in their creating the need for a neighbor – putting the poor man in the ditch, beaten, robbed, and half dead. It is enough to note that the thieves who robbed us, though “Christian leaders,” were identifiable in that they played this role for us. “Bad neighbor” would be a promotion for those who put us in desperate need of the love of a neighbor.  In Paul’s description, the proud, arrogant, rude, those burning with envy, longing for power and position (in Corinth or the pitiful conditions of a little Bible college), may only be identified with the absence or “nothing” they generate as if it is an absolute something (Paul’s definition of idolatry).

I would name the loving Samaritans who found us, but as with all great lovers, I know they prefer anonymity. I believe though, that love has to be narrated, as one must either be the neighbor pouring the healing oil, curing thirst with precious wine, binding up wounds, or one must experience having his burden lifted, and the price paid at the inn, so as to know love. It does not matter what the original intent might be or whether it is mixed with duty or reluctance. Love is such that the performance of it is unmistakable and the truth of it requires nothing in addition, just as its opposite is unmistakable.

All gifts find their purpose in love; love fulfills the law; love is the purpose of salvation; love is the substance of life. Without love there is nothing but where it is present one experiences the summing up of the meaning of all things.[1]


[1] I dedicate this piece to the members of our little community sharing love and forging peace.

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Beyond Divine Satisfaction, Penal Substitution, and Christus Victor to a Healing Atonement

If salvation is a harmoniously functioning body (a body “at one” with itself) in which we are united under the head, who is Christ (the thematic picture in the New Testament is of being “in Christ” as part of his body), then the image would seem to also account for the entire movement from damnation to salvation. Sin as discord, disharmony, sickness, or the cancer to be rooted out rules out not only the predominant notions of salvation (salvation from the effects of sin), but the prevailing understanding of punishment, wrath, suffering and damnation.  A good doctor wants to get to the root cause of the problem and so too the Great Physician does not simply address our symptoms but the disease disrupting and destroying the body. Our root problem is not the result of sin. Our root problem is sin itself and yet the prevailing understanding is that sin has caused a series of unfortunate events (God’s honor impugned, the wrath of God unleashed, the law broken, the prospect of hell, suffering, etc.) toward which salvation is directed. Yet, none of these are themselves the cancer of sin which Christ destroys and a Christianity solely focused on dealing with symptoms is inadequate and devastating to the Gospel message (the great insight of George MacDonald). A doctor who only treated symptoms and not the disease would be no doctor at all, so too the primary New Testament picture of Christ as the Great Physician is lost in an understanding focused on the effects of sin rather than the problem itself.

The shift of focus onto sin itself explains how suffering, punishment, anger, and damnation are part of salvation as part of the same process. The destruction of sin, something on the order of radiation treatment destroying cancer, might give rise to suffering but to confuse the suffering with the cure would be the worst sort of doctoring.  A doctor who insisted on making his patients suffer would be a sadist or psychopath and such a notion is certainly not worthy of God. Suffering is not curative, nor is it a means of meting out justice. It is an odd sort of justice or righteousness which imagines suffering “makes right,” the very point of God’s rightness or righteousness given to humans. Suffering is a symptom of sin and increasing it does not address sin nor satisfy anyone but the sadist. Every sort of suffering is a futility (Ro 8:20), even that suffering to which the creation is subjected in redemption. Suffering does not satisfy God nor justice, any more than suffering figures into the cure for any disease.  Suffering may play a part in the destruction of the cancerous sin and one might speak of a doctor punishing a disease or of God destroying sin, but only the worst sort of doctor or judge imagines that punishment or suffering is inherently restorative.

To say God’s honor is restored by extracting a pound of fleshly suffering is already odd, but then to say he punishes someone unconnected to the crime and finds this satisfying, falls short of the goodness of God and in no way addresses sin. Evil is precisely the pursuit of this sort of satisfaction – the pursuit of a human sense of justice. The way we would make things right and what we project onto God is the notion of getting our pound of flesh.

If a theft occurs, punishing the thief does not restore what was stolen, even if it is the honor of God that has been taken (as in Anselm’s picture of atonement).  Neither would a good doctor imagine that receiving radiation for his patient will help the cure. A good judge would not presume that punishing someone other than the criminal is justice. Where God is presumed to be satisfied and penalties meted out in his anger, punishment, and inducement of suffering (whatever one makes of it) this has nothing to do with the work of Christ in making people right by incorporating them into his body.

Part of the issue is to specify how and why sin disunites, alienates, and separates (from the self, others, and God). If salvation is a body united, sin is the resistant core, the alienating power, which as Paul depicts is the turning of self against itself. In the corporate body the foot might refuse to be a part of the body because it is not a hand, or the ear might refuse its place as it wants to be an eye (I Cor. 12:15-26), or as in Ro. 7, it may be that the individual experiences this turning against the self as the mind pitted against the body. This violent turn is a taking up of death as if it is life, as the darkened mind is deceived, given over to “lusts of deceit” (Eph. 4:22) so that humans violently turn on one another and themselves (James 4:1-2). The deceit, to which the self-deceived do not have access, is to imagine theirs is a pursuit of life or a lusting after life (being, power, gratification) when the desire itself is death dealing (“sin deceived me and I died” Ro 7:11) as it is alienating and isolating (it is “I” alone in Paul’s description). Sin is interwoven with death as it is always violence against life together; it is always a sin against the body. What would have us be lone rangers, Marlboro men, individualists in the worst sense, is simply that which causes us to take up death into ourselves. Sin is death because it is a turning from life together (in Christ) and life together is the only kind of life there is.

In Christus Victor, Christ defeated sin, evil, and the devil, by resisting the lie in his manner of life (he resists the temptations as a grab for life through material gain or powerful status) and undoing or defeating the lie in his death (death and the devil are made powerful in death resistance or the grab for life), and in exposing the lie in his resurrection (death is not absolute, the grave is empty and emptied of its power). The fruit of this defeat, though, is the emergence of a new form of humanity which puts on Christ (in his life, death, and resurrection). In this way, the law of sin and death is displaced by the law of life in the Spirit. The defeat of evil and the overcoming of death must be combined with all of the positive atoning (at one-ing) or incorporation into his body through the Spirit.

The gift of the Spirit is life, shared life, and all of the gifts of the Spirit are aimed at promoting this communal reality. These gifts are not bottled separately so that we have the Spirit apart from being in community. The Spirit indwells us communally. There is no such thing as a private gift of the Spirit. The entire point of exercising a gift is for the community, whether that of the body of Christ or participation in the intra-Trinitarian community. God’s grace is channeled to us in community or not at all.

The whole point of grace, gifts, indwelling Spirit is to bind us together. God does not care about individual souls drifting in isolated units up to heaven any more than God cares about torturing individual souls forever so that he might delight and find satisfaction in their suffering. The entire problem of sin is that we are cut off from God and others and the whole point of salvation is to bring about incorporation into the body of Christ.