How is Sin Taken Away?

The best one sentence summary of the theology of the Gospel of John may be John the Baptist’s introduction and summation of the work of Christ, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). This short sentence contains reference to both Passover and the Day of Atonement, blending the two in a uniquely Christian manner, so as to simultaneously sum up the efficacy and result of the work of Christ, while indicating the scope of salvation (the world) and the nature of sin and evil. The Passover lamb, which is thematic in John and is tied to the “hour” of crucifixion, is referenced in the next chapter: “The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem” (John 2:13). The Passover lamb is not a sin bearer, and yet this result (specifically tied to the Day of Atonement) is pictured as resulting from Christ’s Passover work. In brief, John is identifying the life God provides in Christ (the work of the Lamb in Egypt celebrated in Passover) as the means of “taking away the sin of the world.” The life of God as the rescue from sin and death is the means, with one result (among many) being sins are taken away. This cannot be read as punishment and payment but, as with the Gospel of John as a whole, the picture is of a real-world resolution to the problem of sin and death (life displacing death, light breaking into darkness, the bread of heaven provided in the wilderness, the storm calming voice of “I am” in the midst of the storm).

The goat of Leviticus who “bears away sin,” the Azazel Goat, has the singular function of symbolically carrying away sin and dumping it into the abyss. The way sin is gathered up to be loaded onto this goat is not found in this goat, but in the other goat, the Goat of Yahweh, which does all of the work and provides the explanation. The Yahweh Goat is the one whose blood is taken into the temple as representative of the cleansing life God provides. God had provided Abraham the life of Isaac, he had provided life in the face of death in Egypt with lamb’s blood applied to the door post, and the same symbolism is at work in the Yahweh Goat. On the other hand, the Azazel Goat sums up the negative result of the positive work of the Tabernacle, the priests, the Goat of Yahweh, the story of Abraham and the lamb of Passover. That is, John is explaining or summing up the primary work of Christ in terms of the Passover lamb, which is not part of the Day of Atonement. There is no mistaking the Passover lamb for the Azazel Goat and there is no danger of blending their work (or there should not be), as these are never brought together in Yom Kippur. The work foreshadowed in the story of Abraham, the story of the Exodus, and the Tabernacle and Temple is the positive part of the story.  Life and love through the Lamb, bears primary weight in this sentence and in the theology of John, while the taking away of sin is a result and not a means. The lamb is not a sin bearer and is not involved in Yom Kippur, but by linking the Lamb with atonement, John is tying the weight of the entire Jewish tradition to the singular “lifting up” of Christ. Cross, resurrection, and ascension are the singular cure to John’s depiction of the death centered darkness definitive of sin.

There are several dangers looming in misunderstanding how the sacrifice of atonement is taken up by Christ. We might assign the primary weight to the Azazel Goat and thus see Jesus’ death primarily in terms of the scapegoat. But of course, the Azazel Goat could never serve as a sacrifice or offering as it was unclean. The primary work of the Temple and Tabernacle was connected with the Yahweh Goat, or the notion that God provides life that cleanses the Temple of death (in my previous blog, here, I debunked the notion that God desires death), and with this cleansing, the scouring of sin can be put upon the head of the Azazel Goat and led off into the wilderness.

The action is not with the Azazel Goat, who is led passively off into the wilderness, but is with the Yahweh Goat which echoes the original sacrifice which Abraham did not make on Moriah, but which God will make on Golgotha. It is God who originally brings life from out of the dust or from those as good as dead. When Abraham offered Isaac, it was his own possibility for life, for making his name great, for survival, that is being offered. It was not Abraham’s life per se as he was as good as dead. It was not Sarah’s life; her womb was dead (Romans 4:19-20). Isaac represented their possibility for life in the face of death. This same provision from God is reflected in the cleansing from death through life blood in the Tabernacle and Temple. What is taking place with the offering of Isaac, is what is always ritually taking place in the Jewish sacrifices. When the priest ritually applies blood to the temple furnishings, he is applying the blood of Isaac as the antidote to death. All of which points to the true provision of life in the midst of death: “But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood” (Hebrews 9:11-12).  Here is God providing his own life – the symbol of sacrifice. He does not provide life through death but in spite of death and he overcomes the orientation to death definitive of sin through his life.

To confuse the result and means of John’s declaration (and of the Jewish sacrificial system and the work of Christ) is not simply a technical mistake but an ontological error, in that it lends a determinate substance to death sin and evil. It is the equivalent of letting the devil call the shots or of picturing God having to negotiate with death. It puts what amounts to nothing (sin, death and evil) in ontological competition with God. Certainly, Christ was treated like a scapegoat by sinners but describing the work of the sinners and their sin, as if that explains the work of Christ, is like explaining the work of the Tabernacle, priests, and sacrifices only in terms of its scourings. It would be the equivalent of describing my gardening activity in terms of weeding and weeds. Heaping up a wheel barrow of weeds and burning them says nothing about what is being grown. Burning weeds does not produce carrots and peas.[1] Carrying away a goat load of sin and death says nothing about the main activity. And while dead weeds may be the primary fruit of my gardening, to confuse the Azazel Goat with the Goat of the Lord is quite literally to confuse the demonic with the divine. The wilderness of Azazel was connected with a demon (it may have meant “fierce god”) and this demon goat bearing all of the sins of Israel is taken to miḏbār, the polar opposite of holiness or to ’ereṣ gezêrāh – “a land of separation” “a land cut off” (Lev. 16:22) which came to be associated with the pit (sheol).[2]

Strangely though, in the notion of penal substitution, the work of both goats and the work of Christ is described in terms of the Azazel Goat, as if this goat does the work of the Yahweh Goat. John Stott, for example, describes all of the work of Christ as sin bearing and punishment and specifically links it to the Azazel Goat. He warns that some “make the mistake of driving a wedge between the two goats, the sacrificed goat and the scapegoat.”[3] What Stott seems to miss is that there was originally to be an absolute separation, as described in the place the goat is taken (literally to the “land of separation”). Stott concludes, “In this case the public proclamation of the Day of Atonement was plain, namely that reconciliation was possible only through substitutionary sin bearing.”[4] The Azazel goat does all the work and the entire institution of Tabernacle, priesthood and sacrifice (all that is done within the Tabernacle) is summed up in what was done outside the Tabernacle and Israel.

Stott is following John Calvin, who acknowledges that the resurrection of Christ might be the sign intimated as a carrying off sin, but he rejects this conclusion: “I embrace, however, what is more simple and certain, and am satisfied with that; i.e., that the goat which departed alive and free, was an atonement, that by its departure and flight the people might be assured that their sins were put away and vanished.” Calvin reduces the work of the atonement to the goat that bears the “offscouring,” calling it “the only expiatory sacrifice in the Law without blood.”[5] He understands this is a direct contradiction of Hebrews 9:22 (“without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness”), and yet he presumes to carry over the work of the Yahweh Goat to the Azazel Goat, going so far as to sum up atonement in the second goat and even calling it a sacrifice (again, this unclean goat could not be sacrificed and could never serve as an offering to God). But this makes room for his notion that Christ suffered in Hell on the cross: “In order to interpose between us and God’s anger, and satisfy his righteous judgment, it was necessary that he should feel the weight of divine vengeance. Whence also it was necessary that he should engage, as it were, at close quarters with the powers of hell and the horrors of eternal death.”[6] The point in penal substitution is to reduce the work of Christ to sin bearing punishment, which puts all the meaning on the wrong goat and in doing away with the significance of the Yahweh Goat, it misconstrues the meaning of both goats.

Stott misses how the writer of Hebrews marks this point of separation (between the goats) in the work of Christ. “The author of the letter to the Hebrews has no inhibitions about seeing Jesus both as ‘a merciful and faithful high priest’ (2: 17) and as the two victims, the sacrificed goat whose blood was taken into the inner sanctuary (9:7, 12) and the scapegoat which carried away the people’s sins (9:28).”[7] What Stott and Calvin miss in Hebrews, they miss in the original depiction of atonement, and that is the Yahweh Goat (the singular sacrifice, or in John the Lamb) does all of the active cleansing. This is clear in John the Baptist’s phrase, as the Passover lamb is not associated with bearing sin, and yet this Lamb accomplishes what the Yahweh Goat also accomplishes.

So too in Hebrews, the sin bearing is a consequence of the sacrifice. In the writer’s sequence, “Christ was sacrificed once”, like the Yahweh goat, and this accomplished the work “to take away the sins of many” (9:28). Jesus might be identified with the Yahweh Goat, and the work he accomplishes might be identified with the Azazel Goat, but Jesus is not subject to, but conqueror over Sheol (the pit, the wilderness, the point of separation). He empties out the category entirely (once and for all) and does not suffer eternally, as in Calvin’s depiction but empties out the category by providing life where it was formerly absent.

In John, Jesus compares the pain of his death to that of a woman in labor – the pain is resolved with the birth: “Whenever a woman is in labor she has pain, because her hour has come; but when she gives birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy that a child has been born into the world. Therefore you too have grief now; but I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you” (John 16:21-22). This fits with the overall theology of John, which is not focused on the weight of the negative power of sin, but on the overcoming of sin with life.

From the beginning of John, the Logos is not a preincarnate abstraction but is the “I am” (the name of God, as described in the Targums) that is light, that is sustenance, that is assurance, that is life. This light shines in the darkness of death most clearly from the cross. Here, the substance of two worlds collides. The world built on the immanent frame of Israel (“the Jews,” Nicodemus, Judas, etc.), the immanent frame of Rome (Pilate and Caesar), or simply the absolute nature of death, would close off the world and possibility of the “I am.” But John lends no ontological weight to the power of evil and sin. It can be gotten rid of through washing (13:1-7) or in taking up the servant attitude it can be counteracted in belief and love. The ontological weight of the “I am” is enough to provide living water in the midst of the desert, to provide manna from heaven, to calm the storm, to bring healing. Jesus does not lay down his life as a payment for sin but “for the life of the world” (6:51) and for the life of the sheep (10:11). He does not pay up with death but through his life given to all, he provides heavenly bread, his life, for sustenance (John 6).

As John Behr notes, “Christ’s life-giving death on the cross, is not understood by John as a response to sin but rather as principally deriving from the love that God himself is (cf. 1 John 4:8) and has for the world (3:14–16).” It is this love “that has liberated human beings from the condition of being slaves to that of being friends (15:15), members of the household of God, enthroned in the Temple as sons alongside the Son, and the commandment that Jesus gives as his own is simply ‘that you love one another as I have loved you’ (15:12).”[8] In this power of love, life defeats death and this is what rids the world of sin. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).


[1] The garden analogy fails slightly, in that the Lamb accomplishes the work described in the clean-up activity, as if planting carrots and peas were enough to push out the weeds.

[2] “גְּזֵרָה (gĕzērâ). Separation, not inhabited. Used in Lev 16:22 of the “land of separation” (ASV and RSV “solitary land”) into which a live goat was taken and abandoned on the day of atonement. It was so called because the area was cut off from water (KB) or from habitation. Later Jewish teachers interpreted gĕzērâ to mean a precipice from which the goat was to be hurled down.”Smith, J. E. (1999). 340 גָּזַר. R. L. Harris, G. L. Archer Jr., & B. K. Waltke (Eds.), Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (electronic ed., p. 158). Chicago: Moody Press.

[3] John Stott, The Cross of Christ (Westmont, IL: IVP Books, 2006), 143.

[4] Ibid.

[5] John Calvin, Commentary on Leviticus, 16:7.

[6] John Calvin, Institutes, 2:16,10.

[7] Ibid, Stott.

[8] John Behr, John the Theologian and his Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology (Oxford University Press, 2019), 192.

The Lost Gospel of Ignatius of Antioch

There is a New Testament and patristic understanding, sometimes lost to modern theology, which organically connects Christ’s death and resurrection to salvation. That is, the predicament of death, with its corruption, inherent deception, and loss, is directly addressed in the life giving truth of the work of Christ. In the modern equation, in which resurrection is a seal of sacrifice accepted, resurrection is not intrinsically connected to either forgiveness or purification and Christ’s death is simply the payment of a penalty. For example, in Calvin’s explanation: “We have in his death the complete fulfillment of salvation, for through it we are reconciled to God, his righteous judgment is satisfied, the curse is removed, and the penalty paid in full.”[1] Once Christ’s death is set in a legal framework, his death addresses a problem in the mind of God rather than a reality inherent in death. Yet, this organic connection of Christ’s death and resurrection to the predicament of death is an understanding repeated and developed in the earliest theological writing of the post-New Testament age. Ignatius of Antioch is working with categories presumed in the New Testament and early church, linking death with corruption and which makes of resurrection, as well as the life and death of Jesus, purification, release from bondage, and forgiveness. The danger is that this understanding is obscured by theological developments from Augustine to Calvin which shift the theological focus to issues of sovereignty, determinism, law, and total depravity.  

When he writes his series of letters to various churches, Ignatius is headed to Rome where he knows he will be martyred. This march toward death informs his comparatively simple theology describing the necessity to embrace death with Christ. For Ignatius, fear of death is the corruption or disease which Satan wields so as to give death the final word. His journey and his letters are a demonstration of how one can put off the corrupting power of death by reversing the instinct and orientation to flee, rather than take up the cross.

 As he explains to the Ephesians, the death and resurrection of Christ are the medicine that provides the cure for the corruption and sickness of sin in its death denying orientation. Death is corrupting precisely in that the sinful, like the false teachers, would deny its reality and would consider the fleshly embodied world as unreal. They would assign prime reality to the soul and spirit and pass over the flesh and the reality of death, and in denying this reality they transmit the original disease. For these false teachers, “He only seemed to suffer, as they themselves only seem to be [Christians].” Ignatius grants that it may happen exactly as they believe: “as they believe, so shall it happen unto them, when they shall be divested of their bodies, and be mere evil spirits.”[2] To lose the body and to become a spirit is an evil and damnable state. The docetists, who deny the reality of the flesh of Christ, “labor under an incurable disease” in that they deny the reality of the cure of the “Physician” who “is the only true God.”[3]

Ignatius explains the cure straightforwardly: “For ‘the Word was made flesh’ [John 1:14]. Being incorporeal, He was in the body; being impassible, He was in a passible body; being immortal, He was in a mortal body; being life, He became subject to corruption, that He might free our souls from death and corruption, and heal them, and might restore them to health, when they were diseased with ungodliness and wicked lusts.”[4] Life and immortality are not innate to man, but come from God. “For were He to regard us according to our works we should cease to be.”[5] God was manifested in Christ “for the renewal of eternal life.”[6] Christ is “the constant source of our life, and of faith and love.”[7] He “breathes immortality into the Church”[8] and “apart from whom we do not possess the true life.”[9]

Ignatius is reflecting the teaching of Hebrews: the defeat of death equals the seizure of the kingdom of Satan, as the devil reigns over a captive humanity through death (Heb. 2:14-15). He is following Paul’s notion that “sin reigned in death” (Rom. 5:21) and “the sting of death is sin” (I Cor. 15:56).

According to John Romanides’ explanation and expansion upon the theology of Ignatius, “Because of the tyrant death man is unable to live according to his original destiny of selfless love. He now has the instinct of self-preservation firmly rooted within him from birth.” Romanides builds upon this to say, “Because he lives constantly under the fear of death he continuously seeks bodily and psychological security, and thus becomes individualistically inclined and utilitarian in attitude.”[10] Though this may put a modern twist on Ignatius, it gets at his understanding of why the “abolition of death” is an undoing of sin and a defeat of the devil.[11]

For Ignatius, death and life are two fates: “Seeing, then, all things have an end, these two things are simultaneously set before us — death and life; and every one shall go unto his own place.” There are two kinds of coin, and each coin has stamped upon it either the character of the world or the character of God, and the sole difference is that “the believing have, in love, the character of God the Father.”[12] Those who deny Him have become the “advocates of death rather than of the truth.”[13] There is life and truth or death and a lie, but there is no means to life apart from the truth of Christ.

It is by Christ alone that man has life. He is the door to life “by which enter in Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and the prophets, and the apostles, and the Church. All these have for their object the attaining to the unity of God.” These too “proclaimed the Gospel, and placed their hope in Him, and waited for Him; in whom also believing, they were saved, through union to Jesus Christ.” [14] They pointed to this one in whom “is the perfection of immortality.”[15]

Ignatius tells Polycarp, his friend, to strive as an athlete for the prize of “immortality and eternal life” and he tells the Trallians that “by believing in His death you may escape death.”[16] He warns the Smyrnaeans that those who deny Jesus had a natural body simply succumb to death, and he equates belief in his suffering in the body as the equivalent of resurrection: “But he who does not acknowledge this, has in fact altogether denied Him, being enveloped in death. . . . Yea, far be it from me to make any mention of them, until they repent and return to [a true belief in] Christ’s passion, which is our resurrection.”[17]

Death is corrupting in that it poses a moral orientation which unleashes the fleshly passions, as the mortality of the flesh reigns unchallenged. In this sense, there is no division between the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Christ, in that in each he is combating the same foe. The corruption of death is overcome in his life, in his passion and taking up of death, and in his resurrection. On the other hand, the false teachers are “dumb dogs,” “raving mad,” and their bite is poisonous as they inflict the original lie, which would obscure how it is that Satan and death ensnare and enslave.[18] The truth of life in Christ exposes the lie of Satan positing a death dealing lie.

What is remarkable in this understanding are all of the things that are not only missing but if they are added, will obscure Ignatius’ understanding. There is no consideration of a legal framework or of future punishment. Rather, sin is a disease which Christ cures by uniting his immortality with his mortal body. Christ became subject to corruption which is simultaneously a physical and moral state, as is evidenced in those who are spiritually corrupt. Their corruption is not only that they are subject to death, but in denying this reality they make themselves completely corrupt, as evidenced in their foolishness and vanity, leaving them subject to death.  (Ignatius puts heavy emphasis on the importance of meekness, “by which the prince of this world is brought to nought.”[19])

 As he puts it in the letter to the Trallians, “Abstain from the poison of heretics.” Partaking of heresy is like eating poisonous herbage. So he says, “use Christian nourishment only.” Ignatius claims you can either turn to the nourishment of Christ or to poison, with the result that you will die. Or more fatally, one can ingest the poison of heresy, imagining it is the word of Christ: “For those [that are given to this] mix up Jesus Christ with their own poison, speaking things which are unworthy of credit, like those who administer a deadly drug in sweet wine, which he who is ignorant of does greedily take, with a fatal pleasure leading to his own death.”[20] The result of sin is that one becomes completely subject to death, physically and morally.

Ignatius does not speak of future punishment, and he knows nothing of limited atonement or individual election. One either entrusts herself to the love of Christ or attempts to take in “herbage of a different kind.” These “unbelieving, say, that He only seemed to suffer” and it can be said of them “they themselves only seeming to exist.”[21] They have given themselves completely over to unreality through the delusion of death.

The docetic claim, that Christ did not come in human flesh, is directly from Satan, according to Ignatius, and is equivalent in its effects to the original lie of the serpent. “Flee, therefore, those evil offshoots [of Satan], which produce death-bearing fruit, whereof if any one tastes, he instantly dies.” It is evident that such men are not planting good fruit, “For if they were, they would appear as branches of the cross, and their fruit would be incorruptible.” In denying the embodiment of Christ they deny the reality of the passion, and thus they leave themselves subject to the deadly passions (death resistance) which Christ defeated. “By it (the cross) He calls you through His passion, as being His members. The head, therefore, cannot be born by itself, without its members; God, who is [the Savior] Himself, having promised their union.”[22] The true branches springing from the cross, enflesh themselves with the clothing of Christ, such as meekness and love, in which they “become the imitators of His sufferings.” These are the salvific fruit stemming from faith; specifically, faith “that is the flesh of the Lord” and “love, that is the blood of Jesus Christ.”[23] Living in faith is, by definition, to live by the flesh and blood of Christ.

There is no room here for a disembodied, in the head alone, sort of faith. Living by faith and love connects one to the incarnate, fleshly, humanity of Christ by means of which he can “continue in intimate union with Jesus Christ our Lord.” This union can be disrupted through the heretical tendency, which is a type of the sinful tendency, of denying the reality of Christ’s enfleshment. The alternative is to trust in his works in the body which bring about life in the face of death. The ‘flesh and blood’ of Jesus directly counters the “deadly disease” of “depravity,” “foolishness,” “evil,” and “vanity.”

I arm you beforehand by my admonitions, as my beloved and faithful children in Christ, furnishing you with the means of protection [literally, ‘making you drink beforehand what will preserve you’] against the deadly disease of unruly men, by which do ye flee from the disease by the good-will of Christ our Lord.[24]

As Mako Nagasawa notes, Ignatius links ransom language to cleansing: “When He gave Himself a ransom for us, that He might cleanse us by His blood from our old ungodliness, and bestow life on us.” Life is purification and cleanliness, just as death is corruption. For Ignatius the ransom, while addressing the work of Satan, also “concerns ridding human nature of ‘the depravity that was in us.’ Jesus did for us what we could not do for ourselves: heal his human nature, and rid it of sin, by uniting it perfectly with God. He can therefore do in us what we cannot do by ourselves.”[25]

 Ignatius, according to Nagasawa, reflects (and quotes) the participatory thought of 2 Peter: “He (Peter) reminds them of the power and promises of Jesus, that ‘you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust’ (2 Pet.1:4). The term ‘corruption’ occurs two more times in Peter in connection with false teachers (2 Pet.2:10, 19), who ‘indulge the flesh’ (2 Pet.2:10) and ‘entice by fleshly desires’ (2 Pet.2:18).” One can either follow the dogs and pigs (2 Pet.2:22) or overcome this corruption through “purification” and healing by participation in ‘the divine nature’ in and through Jesus Christ (2 Pet.1:9).[26]

This divine nature, the cure to the predicament of death, is imparted throughout his incarnation and is made available through the fact that his flesh and blood are shared. Church historian Philip Schaff writes of Ignatius’ theology, “The central idea is the renovation of man (Eph.20), now under the power of Satan and Death (ib. 3, 19), which are undone in Christ, the risen Savior (Smyrn.3), who ‘is our true life,’ and endows us with immortality (Smyrn. 4, Magn. 6, Eph. 17).’27 Jesus’ new humanity is the ‘cure’ for our corrupted humanity. It is what the eucharist points to: the ‘cleansing remedy to drive away evil.”[27]

Again, what is missing, is the notion of wrath as a legal category (removed from death), the notion of a limited atonement, or any hint of a monophysite or monthelite will or any discussion of will. Augustine’s notion of original sin, focus on God’s sovereignty, focus on human free will or total depravity, and individual predestination, change the landscape of theology to such a degree that by the time of Calvin, even those Arminians who would oppose him were caught up in the same web. They are seemingly unable to extract themselves from the world put into place by Augustine and Calvin. Thus, they pose the innovation of prevenient grace to combat total depravity, and are left with a focus on voluntarism in which the issue of human will and God’s will is the dominant factor in the universe. What they did not have access to was the world of Ignatius and the New Testament.

 In the description of Romanides, for Ignatius death and its corruption are the condition God would destroy through the incarnation, and next to the will of God and the good, there is only the temporary kingdom of Satan, who exercises his power through death and corruption. Man is oppressed by the devil but is still free, at least in regard to will, to follow one or the other. “The world and God has each his own character – the world death, and God life (Ign. Mag. 5.) . . . It exists now under the power of corruption (Rom. 8:20-22), but in Christ is being cleansed.”[28]


[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, II.xvi.13

[2] Ignatius, The Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 2.

[3] Ignatius, Epistle to the Ephesians 7.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ignatius, Epistle to the Magnesians 10.

[6] Ignatius, Ephesians 19.

[7] Epistle to the Magnesians 1.

[8] Ephesians  17.

[9] Epistle to the Trallians 9.

[10] John S. Romanides, The Ecclesiology of St. Ignatius of Antioch, http://www.romanity.org/htm/rom.11.en.the_ecclesiology_of_st._ignatius_of_antioch.01.htm

[11] Ephesians 19.

[12] Magnesians 5.

[13] Smyrnaeans 5.

[14] Philadelphians 5.

[15] Ibid. 9.

[16] Epistle to Polycarp 2

[17] Smyrnaeans 5.

[18] Ephesians 7.

[19] Trallians 4.

[20] Ibid, 6.

[21] Ibid 10.

[22] Ibid 11.

[23] Ibid 8.

[24] Ibid, 8. Comments on the translation are those of Mako A. Nagasawa, “Penal Substitution vs. Medical-Ontological Substitution: A Historical Comparison” Documents/atonement/article-penal-substitution-vs-ontological-substitution-historical-comparison.pdfignatius.pdf

[25] Nagasawa, Ibid.

[26] Nagasawa, Ibid.

[27] Philip Schaff, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Series 2, Volume 4 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1867), p.37. Quoted in Nagasawa.

[28] Ibid. Romanides.

“This is My Beloved Son Whom I Hate”: How Modern Evangelicals Have Come to Preach a Different Gospel

There is a compelling logic that unfolds from John Calvin’s penal substitution that goes beyond even where Calvin would take it. As I have argued (here), it is Calvin that creates the full formulation of the doctrine known as penal substitution, bringing together the notion of Jesus bearing eternal punishment in hell, innovating on the Apostles Creed and I Peter 3:18-22, tying the punishment of Gehenna to the chastisement of Isaiah 53, and then moving both of these passages to the context of the trial and punishment of Jesus. Calvin may not have felt the full weight or compelling nature of his innovation, as he will continue to provide orthodox readings of passages such as Psalm 22, quoted by Jesus on the cross and describing being forsaken by God and being reduced to a worm. But among his followers there are those who are willing to apply Calvin’s doctrine more consistently than their master.

In some Calvinist extrapolations, Jesus is pictured as being not only forsaken by God but the object of God’s hatred. As Dr. Abner Chou describes the significance of Jesus’ death: “In that death the wrath of God was poured out on Christ, and the darkness exploded. In that instant God cursed Jesus, putting Him in a position of absolute, perfect hatred. God hated Him and desired to make Him nothing.”[1] Dan Allender and Tremper Longman propose that, “God chose to violate His Son in our place. The Son stared into the mocking eyes of God; He heard the laugher of the Father’s derision and felt Him depart in disgust. . . . In a mysterious instant, the Father who loved the Son from all eternity turned from Him in hatred. The Son became odious to the Father.”[2] As Tim Keller put it on Facebook (and quickly revised, due to subsequent criticism), “If you see Jesus losing the infinite love of the Father, out of his infinite love for you, it will melt your hardness.”[3]

Even devout believers in penal substitution such as Joshua Farris and Mark Hamilton (from whom I have gleaned these quotes), realize there is an unfolding logic to the doctrine in modern evangelicalism that amounts to a different version of the Gospel:

From the academy, to the pulpit, to the pew, for those who affirm that the Son made atonement by being hated by the Father— albeit temporarily—Christianity has a new message, the simple logic of which goes like this. “The Son became sin; the Father cannot look upon sin without hatred; The Son willingly took our place of condemnation—and for an instant the Son bore the fury of God.”[4]

They raise the question and answer in the affirmative, “Is this the new logical deposit of an all-new dogmatic inheritance for American evangelicals? Some seem poised to accept it as such.”

While Farris and Hamilton want to extract penal substitution from the unfolding logic of the time, perhaps they have not realized the full weight of the logic of Calvin’s doctrine. Eternal wrath in hell as the focus of Christ’s saving work, with Christ becoming the object of wrath, seems to entail “the new logical deposit.” Those who are teaching what Farris and Hamilton dub the “Christus Odium” version of penal substitution, are drawing out the logic of Calvin’s original notion. That is, Calvin (certainly influenced by and extrapolating from Luther) created the context for a fully odious gospel that has been unfolding since he formulated it.[5]

With each innovation in atonement theory there seems to be an accompanying sociological shift. Just as Anselm works out his notion that it is God’s honor that is offended in a feudal society (very much concerned with honor), so too the reformers stressed the juridical, evident in their focus on Christ bearing the punishment of the law. Luther is concerned to point out “how horribly blind and wicked the papists were” in teaching that “sin, death, and the curse” could be conquered by “the righteousness of human works, such as fasts, pilgrimages, rosaries, vows, etc.” rather than “by the righteousness of the divine Law.”[6] Though Luther recognizes the Law has no power to save, he sees the Law of Moses as regulating the necessity of salvation: “a magistrate regards someone as a criminal and punishes him if he catches him among sinners and thieves” and “Christ was not only found among sinners” but due to the will of the Father and his own free will he “assumed the flesh and blood of those who were sinners” and “when the Law found Him among thieves, it condemned and executed Him as a thief.”

Luther becomes woodenly literal in understanding how Christ became sin (2 Cor. 5:21) and a curse (Galatians 3:13) which accords with the notion that God momentarily hated him. He says Christ is, “the greatest robber of all, the greatest murderer, adulterer and thief; the greatest desecrator of temples and blasphemer; the world has seen none greater than this.” He describes Christ taking on eternal punishment in his commentary, but he first describes the nature of this punishment as flowing from human evil: “He took upon Himself and abolished all our evils, which were supposed to oppress and torment us eternally.” He draws back from the sort of split he finds in Calvin’s explanation of the two natures of Christ, and depicts a more coherent unified fulness of deity in Christ:

the curse clashes with the blessing and wants to damn it and annihilate it. But it cannot. For the blessing is divine and eternal, and therefore the curse must yield to it. For if the blessing in Christ could be conquered, then God Himself would be conquered. But this is impossible. Therefore Christ, who is the divine Power, Righteousness, Blessing, Grace, and Life, conquers and destroys these monsters—sin, death, and the curse—without weapons or battle, in His own body and in Himself, as Paul enjoys saying (Col. 2:15): “He disarmed the principalities and powers, triumphing over them in Him.” Therefore they can no longer harm the believers.

Calvin and his followers would disagree with Luther, claiming Christ was damned and that he bore the full weight of the curse which is also eternal. Though both Calvin and Luther subscribe to several images and theories of atonement, both rely heavily on Anselm’s satisfaction theory and both translate satisfaction of debt into payment of punishment under the law. They share reliance on the metaphor of the criminal justice system in their theology (the apprehension and punishment of the guilty) and the presumption is that Christ became the sin that God hates (though Luther’s failing and grace may have been his inconsistency).[7] But it is Calvin’s innovation, his notion of penal substitution, that wipes away the relative significance of any other theory.

There is nothing more logically weighty than substitution for eternal torturous punishment, in which God’s wrath takes on the singular hue of eternal white-hot destruction (how can this not be hatred?). Thus, mere finite imagery and categories, such as those found in ransom theory and Christus Victor (still to be found in Calvin), will be gradually displaced in his most influential followers for focus on penal substitution. John McArthur, for example, concludes that any theory other than penal substitution is false (listing theories such as ransom theory and Christus Victor).[8]

There is a gradual and logical whittling down of other theories as penal substitution takes center stage through George Whitefield,[9] Jonathan Edwards,[10] Charles Hodge, and into modern times with J. I. Packer, John Piper,[11] D. A. Carson, and John McArthur. What evolves in these thinkers is the central weight that must be given to penal substitution, even when there is acknowledgement of other theories. It is inevitable that penal substitution be given central focus, more than Calvin gave it, as it bears a logical eternal weight that diminishes all finitudes (death, the devil, sin, evil). For Packer, this doctrine is the distinguishing mark of evangelicals, “namely the belief that the cross had the character of penal substitution, and that it was in virtue of this fact that it brought salvation to mankind.” He believes penal substitution “takes us to the very heart of the Christian gospel.”[12] For McArthur, “The doctrine of penal substitution is the only view that incorporates the full range of biblical principles regarding atonement for sin.”[13] As Carson puts it, “if one begins with the centrality of penal substitution, which is . . .  grounded on a deep understanding of how sin is an offense against God, it is very easy to see how all the other so-called “models” of the atonement are related to it.”[14] For Carson, penal substitution provides internal coherence to the gospel, bringing all the theories together. “In other words, it is easy to show how various biblical emphases regarding the atonement cohere if one begins with penal substitution. It is very difficult to establish the coherence if one begins anywhere else.”[15] Of course he is correct (assuming penal substitution is the case), as all other theories pale into insignificance next to penal substitution. In light of being saved from eternal torturous wrath, mere finitudes such as death, the devil, sin, and evil, (the actual focus of the New Testament) must take second place.

What Farris and Hamilton miss is that the “Christus Odium,” the new gospel of divine wrath and hatred, is simply the final step entailed in Calvin’s innovation.[16]

(If you are interested in pursuing this topic further sign up for our class on the atonement with PBI starting at the end of January.)


[1] https://www.adamsetser.com/blog/2015/7/25/the-big-picture-of-gods-mission-a-concise-over[1]view-of-the-entire-bible-by-dr-abner-chou. [June 19, 2018] Quoted from Joshua R. Farris & S. Mark Hamilton, “This is My Beloved Son, Whom I hate? A Critique of the Christus Odium Variant of Penal Substitution” (Journal of Biblical and Theological Studies, Volume 3, Issue 2).

[2] Dan B. Allender and Tremper Longman, In the Cry of the Soul: How Our Emotions Reveal Our Deepest Questions About God (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, [1999] 2015), pp. 184-85. Quoted from Farris and Hamilton.

[3] https://calvinistinternational.com/2017/07/27/tim-keller-the-cross-and-the-love-of-god/ From Farris and Hamilton

[4] Ibid, Farris and Hamilton

[5] Farris and Hamilton almost acknowledge that the origins of penal substitution are with Calvin: “Despite some recent and rather awkward attempts to forge a genetic link between contemporary evangelical articulations of this doctrine and the Fathers and Medieval Schoolmen, proponents of the penal substitution theory ought to be cautious when looking for the origin of this theory not to look much beyond the Reformation, particularly John Calvin.”

[6] This quote and the following from Luther are from Martin Luther, On Galatians 3:13 (Luther’s Works 27.276-291). The commentary on Galatians 3:13 is quoted in full on the website https://wolfmueller.co/did-martin-luther-claim-that-jesus-was-an-adulterer/

[7] This is the way Joel B. Green and Mark Baker characterize it in Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts, (Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000) 142.

[8] John McArthur, “The Offense of the Cross,” From his website,  Grace to You,  (Wednesday, February 10, 2021), https://www.gty.org/library/blog/B210210/the-offense-of-the-cross

[9] George Whitefield for example, probably the most famous religious figure of the eighteenth century, with newspapers referring to him as the “marvel of the age,” and who is estimated to have reached an audience of some 10 million hearers, would focus on penal substitution. (From Christian History, published by Christianity Today https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/evangelistsandapologists/george-whitefield.html)  In his Sermon entitled “Of Justification by Christ” (1771-1772a), Whitefield emphasizes the need for penal substitution. 

 “he [God] hath also given us both a natural and a written law, whereby we are to be judged and that each of us hath broken these laws, is too evident from our sad and frequent experience. And if we are thus offenders against God, it follows, that we stand in need of forgiveness for thus offending Him; he demands our obedience to that law, and has obliged us universally and perseveringly to obey it, under no less a penalty than incurring his curse and eternal death for every breach of it unless some means can be found to satisfy God’s justice, we must perish eternally.”

George Whitefield, 1771-1772a. Sermon 46: Of Justification by Christ. In The Works of the Reverend George Whitefield, Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics Website, http://www.reformed.org/documents/index.html?mainframe= Quoted from WOOD, MAXWELL,THOMAS (2011) Penal Substitution in the Construction of British Evangelical Identity: Controversies in the Doctrine of the Atonement in the Mid-2000s, 76, Durham theses, Durham University. Available at Durham E-Theses Online: http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/3260/

[10] It was Jonathan Edwards who may have most colorfully and successfully spread Calvin’s version of penal substitution, with his focus on being saved from the torments of hell as in his sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Where even Whitefield refers to eternal death, Edwards makes death and the grave a refuge from the eternal torturous hell of divine punishment. “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire.”

[11] Prior to the atonement he says, “God was not my Father. He was my judge and executioner.”

[12] J.I. Packer, “What Did the Cross Achieve? The Logic of Penal Substitution” The Tyndale Biblical Theology Lecture, 1973. https://www.the-highway.com/cross_Packer.html     

[13] McArthur, Ibid.

[14] D. A. Carson, The SBJT Forum: The Atonement under Fire, https://s3.amazonaws.com/tgc-documents/carson/2007_forum_penal_substitution.pdf

[15] Carson, Ibid.

[16] Which in no way denies the lineage of missteps that can be traced from Augustine, Anselm, Scotus, and Luther, which lead to Calvin.

10 Contrasts Between Romans 7 & 8 Proving 7:14-25 Cannot Be Describing the Redeemed

Part of the value in rehearsing failed theories of atonement is that the failure will follow a universal pattern, the same pattern that Paul is demonstrating in Romans 7 as it contrasts with chapter 8. I would argue, Paul is setting up a contrast between the non-Christian and the Christian Subject, with chapter 7 from verse 7 focused on the experience of Adam, or every man. The fact that Anselm, Augustine, John Calvin, John Piper and company read 7:14-25 as part of the normal Christian life is not an insight into Paul but an insight into a theology which could mistake non-Christian experience (that of the “wretched man” of v. 24) for Christian experience. I do not mean this as a dig against the spirituality of these men, but simply to say that their mistake (spelled out in my previous blog here) is the universal mistake which Paul is explicating.

To miss Paul’s point about the nature of sin is not simply an Augustinian or Anselmian error, it is the human error. It points not only to the blunder of Augustine in his reading of Romans 5:12 (described here), but the universal repression of the way in which sin is propagated. To miss that sin reigns through death is not simply a theological error but the human error (the work of the deception) that Paul is tracing throughout Romans. From 7:7-24 he is describing life under the lie (inclusive of vv. 14ff) at which point he introduces the deliverance of Christ, which he will explain in chapter 8.

As I put it in the above blog, it is the reign of death which accounts for the spread of sin and not vice versa. Interwoven throughout chapter 5 is the universally observable truth that death reigns (“death spread to all men” v. 12; “death reigned” v. 14; “the many died” v. 15; “death reigned through the one” v. 17; “as sin reigned in death” v. 21). As Paul concludes in verse 21, “sin reigned in death” and not the other way around and it is this explanation for the propagation and work of sin (to say nothing of salvation) that he will build on for the next three chapters. But there is a sense that human experience mitigates against a correct reading of Paul, as sin’s deception in the law of sin and death reigns.

If we have missed Paul’s point in chapter 5, we are likely to miss his point in the contrast between the orientation to death and the law (the “law of sin and death”) described in chapter 7 and how this contrasts with life in the Spirit in chapter 8. If we have understood 5 correctly (sin reigns through death), then we can see that he is drawing out his point about two forms of human life – in the first Adam (7:7ff) and in the 2nd Adam (chapter 8).

1. The Cosmic and Corporate versus the Alienated “I”

Chapter 8 marks the transition in Paul’s argument to the description of an alternative understanding of the human Subject. Where 7:7ff is focused primarily on the isolated individual before the law (with its repeated reference to “I” with its clear reference to Genesis 3:10 and Adam’s self-description), ch. 8 speaks of a corporate identity in the Holy Spirit which has cosmic implications (“those in Christ Jesus” (8:1); “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed” (8.19)). Paul is still working in the universal categories he set out in chapter 5 in contrasting the two Adams, but now the cosmic implications are spelled out.

2. Living Death Versus Life in the Spirit

The Holy Spirit does not appear in ch. 7 but is the theme of ch. 8 (mentioned nineteen times explicitly and the main subject of each section of the chapter). Where ch. 7 focused on describing the dynamics of the body of death (7:24) and agonistic struggle, ch. 8 counters each of the Pauline categories constituting the Subject addressed in ch. 7 with the work of the Spirit, which constitutes a life characterized by peace (8:6). This is perhaps the key contrast; that between the living death of chapter 7 and new life in the Spirit. The Spirit can be equated with life (8:2, 10-11), and with the introduction of the Spirit in 8:2, Paul’s question of 7:24 is definitively answered: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” The fear and slavery under the law of sin and death, with its work through deceptive desire aroused by the law, became “another law,” but this law is now voided along with all of its various machinations.

3. The Ego of Desire or What is Seen Versus a Life of Hope

Paul’s depiction of desire, as with the first couple, is focused on the register of sight. In chapter 7 Paul describes a law of sight (βλέπω v. 23), which as with Adam is connected to the rise of shame and the repeated “I” (I heard, I was afraid, I was naked, I hid, 3:10). Paul’s “I” (ἐgὼ) is exchanged for a life of hope, focused not on the seen but on the unseen (v. 24), which brings about a conformity to the image of the Son (v. 29) (who is not an image or object for the eyes but occupies the Subject position in place of the ego) and a reconstitution of the Subject. As a result, the “I” does not appear in chapter 8 but as in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives within me.”

4. Suffering Under the Law Versus Suffering as a Co-Heir with Christ

Paul describes two forms of suffering in chapters 7 & 8. The work of the law (the law of sin and death) is displaced by the law of the Spirit of life (v. 2) which results in freedom from slavery to fear due to relationship to God as “Abba, Father” (v. 15), reconstituting the Subject a child of God. Paul ties this new relationship to God directly to a different experience of suffering. An implicit element of Paul’s agonistic struggle (in ch. 7) is a depth of suffering which he cannot endure. “Who will rescue me,” he cries, as this suffering is deadly, arising as it does from within. In contrast, the suffering of chapter 8 (the source of which is outside the self), is a sharing in the suffering of Christ which marks one out as a co-heir with Christ of glory (8:17).

5. The Body of Sin and Death Versus Resurrection Life Now

The “body of sin” (6:6) or “body of death” (7.24) is displaced in the resurrection life of the Spirit (8:10-11) which is not a departure from the material body or material reality but the beginning of cosmic redemption (“the redemption of our bodies” (8:23) and the redemption of the cosmos (8:21)). The only resolution to life in the flesh, in the brand of Christianity that reads chapter 7 as the normal Christian life, is future. But in chapter 8, Paul is describing an enacted resurrection life which has defeated this sinful flesh principle in the follower of Christ.

6. Through the Work of Christ People are Made Righteous Versus a Failed Righteousness

There is no work of Christ in Paul’s description of his sinful predicament but only the work of sin and the law (in chapter 7:7ff), but chapter 8 describes how the work of Christ changes up this damnable sort of existence. The punishing effects of the law of sin and death can no longer condemn, as God has condemned the law of sin through the death of Christ (8:1-3) ushering in the law of life in the Spirit. Where 7:7ff described the characteristics of this living death (marked by incapacity), ch. 8 describes life in the Spirit, which sums up the difference God’s righteousness makes. The body is dead due to unrighteousness but the Spirit is life and this is God’s righteousness imparted (8:10). This then results in the capacity to “walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (8:4). This walk is characterized in all of its phases by the power of life which enables the mindset and hope of the Subject in Christ.

7. Living in the Lie Versus the Truth of Christ which Exposes the Lie

Paul is describing sin in terms of a deception on the order of the deception foisted on the first couple by the serpent in the Garden. In the opening verses of chapter 8 (countering the opening of 7:7-11), Paul explains how Christ defeats and exposes the lie of sin in the particular death he died. The punishing effects of the law of sin and death (the condemnation he has described in chapter 7) are finished so that there is no condemnation in Christ (8:1). God has “condemned sin in the flesh of Christ” (8:3) so that it can no longer deal out death (an active taking up of death) by deception.

Paul adds to his description in 8:3 by saying “and as a sin-offering.” The sin offering was for the ignorant or unwilling sin, which answers the problem of sin of the “I” (7:15) who does not “know” and does not “will” what he does.[1] Christ does not die for a general wrongdoing but to address the particular work of sin as it appears in ch. 7. This sin which works through deception and ignorance brings about disobedience unto death, and the one who was obedient even unto death makes obedience possible (5:18-20). The disobedience unto death describes an orientation founded in deception (it cannot obey God – it is hostile to God, 8:7) and obedience unto death recognizes death but obeys in light of the resurrection life by which it is empowered (8:11-12). Living according to the lie is to actively die (in death resistance) while to live, in spite of death, is the death acceptance of living in the truth.

8. Life in the Flesh Versus New Life in the Body of Christ

In ch. 7 Paul locates the law of sin “in my members” (7:23), in the flesh (7:25), or as “sin that dwells within me, that is, in my flesh” (7:18). The place from which sin works death is the flesh. As N. T.  Wright explains, the reason there is now no condemnation is “because God has dealt with sin in the flesh, and provided new life for the body.”[2] Those in Christ experience the death to sin and the new life which he provides. The sentence of death is passed on sin in the one who was in the true “likeness of sinful flesh” (8.3), so those who are found in his likeness through baptism (6:5) will also experience this death to sin rather than death by sin.

9. Life in the Split “I” Versus Participation in the Unity of the Trinity

The key difference between the living death of 7:7ff and life in the Spirit of ch. 8, or another way of describing the difference between life and death, is that the death of the “I” divides and alienates, while life in the Spirit is a communion founded by the Father who has sent his Son (8:3) who leads by his Spirit (8:14). The Father is the primary agent who subjected creation in hope (8:20), who makes all things work to the good for those who love him (8:28), who has foreknown and predestined those he called (8:29) and these he has justified and glorified (8:31). This communion is “in Christ Jesus” who was sent to free from the law of sin and death (8:2, 3) by condemning sin in the flesh (8:3), who gives his Spirit of life (8:9) so that those who suffer with him will be glorified together with him (8:17) and who died and was raised and intercedes so that nothing can separate from the love of God (8:34-35). The Spirit is the source of life (8:2) who empowers the walk and mindset of those in whom the He dwells (8:9). The Spirit is God’s righteousness (8:10) whose resurrection power will “give life to your mortal bodies” (8:11) as by his life “you put to death the deeds of the body” (8:13). Through the Spirit adoption as sons enables his sons to cry “Abba” (8:15) and He helps the saints in their weakness and through prayer by interceding for them (8:26-27). The Trinity is a communion in which and through which the new humanity walks (8:4), has their mindset (8:5-8), sonship (8:15), endurance of suffering (8:17) and saving hope (8:20, 24).

10. Shame Versus Glory and Love

Paul, from 7:7ff, is providing a commentary on Genesis 3 which describes the shame of the first couple. He is giving us an interior view of that shame, which is marked by an incapacity for being present for the other (love). Shame marks not only the loss of God’s presence but the possibility of interpersonal love – being there for the other. The anatomy of jealousy, anger, and violence are to be traced in this genealogy of shame. Those who are hiding cannot be present for others or even for themselves but are set in an antagonistic relation with God, self, and others. Paul, in chapter 8, is describing a love that is indestructible and indivisible – nothing can separate us from the love of God found in Christ (8:28).

To miss this contrast between Romans 7:7ff and chapter 8, (which I have only partially filled out) would seem to be on the order of missing the reality of Christianity. There is no prayer, no hope, no Spirit, no Abba, no love, no work of Christ, and no other but only law, desire, deception, unendurable suffering, alienation, and death, in 7:7ff. Compounded with this, to mistake Paul’s description of the damnable (κατάκριμα) life of sin as if it is salvation, would seem to leave one stranded in a punishing life from which there is no deliverance.


[1] Wright, Romans , 579.

[2] Wright, Romans, 575.

(Recent critiques of my blogs on John Calvin, Augustine, and penal substitution have mainly focused on what was not said in a particular blog, when I have usually covered the topic in an accompanying blog. To answer some of these critiques here is a guide to what I have written:

Critique One: “Axton does not reference Calvin directly.” My article on his development of penal substitution is an engagement with the Institutes, “Did John Calvin Invent Penal Substitution?” to be found here and my depiction of his purported confusion of sin and salvation is an engagement with his commentary on Romans, “Has John Calvin Confused the Lie of Sin with Salvation?” is to be found here. My depiction of his work on predestination also deals with the Institutes, “The Gospel as the Mystery Revealed Versus Calvin’s ‘Incomprehensible’ Anti-Gospel” is here. I reference the Institutes in this article dealing with Calvinist assurance of salvation, “Are Calvinists Saved?” which is here . In this piece on Calvin’s view of the necessity of evil, “Acknowledgement of the Problem of Evil as a Test of Authentic Christianity” here I deal with his depiction of evil in the Institutes.

Critique Two: “Axton does no history,” (or something on this order). I have dealt with the Constantinian shift and its impact, “The Shift from Love to Freedom is the Turn to the Law that Kills” here and “The Gospel Versus Constantinian Commonsense” here and here “A Different Form of the Faith: The Constantinian Shift” deals with the history and references a series of primary works. I have dealt with the Augustinian misreading of Romans 5 here in “The Real Tragedy of Augustinian Original Sin.”

Critique Three: “Axton does not recognize Calvin is following Anselm.” Some have objected to my notion that Calvin “invented” Penal Substitution, with reference to Anselm, suggesting he is the true culprit. I have probably written more on Anselm than any other figure and what is not to be missed is that he does set the context in which Calvin is working (along with a host of other factors), nonetheless Calvin is also innovating. I discuss the relationship between the two theories here in “Beyond Divine Satisfaction, Penal Substitution, and Christus Victor to a Healing Atonement” here in “Christ Defeated Sin, Death, and the Devil – Not God’s Wrath,” here in “The Lie Behind Penal Substitution and Divine Satisfaction” and touch upon it here in “Deconstructing ‘Absolute Truth’ to Arrive at the Truth of Christ.”)

Has John Calvin Confused the Lie of Sin with Salvation?

John Calvin may be typical of, or his view comes to typify, those who read Romans 7 as primarily a description of the regenerate, so that Paul’s description of his struggle with sin, his incapacity to carry out what he knows to be right, his alienation within himself, and his existence and identity in the body of death or the body of sin, this “wretched man that I am” (7:24), is as good as it gets on earth. As Calvin explains, “this conflict, of which the Apostle speaks, does not exist in man before he is renewed by the Spirit of God.” The Christian is one who is made aware of his sin condition, and he mainly hopes for a future rescue (when the flesh is gotten rid of) but meanwhile he is made to agonize over his sin and to feel, precisely in his redemption, the acuteness of sin’s effect. Final rescue is focused on deliverance from the wrath of God, provoked by the breaking of the law which contains his righteous decree. In this understanding, Christ died to meet the requirements of the law, and his death is not directly connected to explanation or necessity of an immediate reconstituting of the human Subject, such that he is rid of the sin principle. My argument is that (as depicted in Romans and elsewhere in the New Testament) Christ did not die, primarily, to meet a requirement of the law but to displace a deception which involved the law and in exposing this deception, the Subject described in Romans 8 is born: a Subject no longer controlled by sin and its deception. This means that it is not the law which explains Christ’s death, but sin as it is oriented to the law, and the point of his death is not to save from a future wrath (working according to the law) but from the present tense sin problem (which will certainly pertain to the future).

Is Sin’s Deception Resolved Through the Law or is it Confounded with the Law?

The two readings revolve around the concept of deception in Romans 7:11. I believe Paul depicts sin’s deception in regard to the law as key to understanding the human predicament. Calvin, in his Commentary on Romans, passes over sin’s deception in regard to the law and presumes that the law exposes the deception. It is, according to Calvin, “through the light which the law throws on the turpitude of sin” that sin is revealed. This does not explain why there is the possibility, as Paul presents it, of confusing sin and the law or why or how the law is the means of death and deception. Paul says explicitly (vs. 10), “The very commandment that promised life proved death to me.” Paul is describing how sin distorts the law in its relation to the sinful self. The “command which promised life” serves as an explanation for the content of the deception connected with sin.

James Dunn maintains that life is not to be had in the law (due to sin), while Günther Bornkamm thinks this positing of life directly in the law is the deception which sin always works.[1] Calvin maintains a separation between the deception and the law, and seems to miss what commentators like Dunn and Bornkamm are pointing to – sin distorts the law, such that we imagine that it contains life and righteousness in itself. As Calvin puts it (without reference to the deception), “the commandment shows to us a way of life in the righteousness of God.”

 The obstacle contained within sin, according to Calvin, is “corruption.” But Calvin presumes this corruption pertains to the breaking of the law (which results in death) and not to an attempt to gain life through the law (where avoiding death is the motivating factor). He says, “it is incidental that the law inflicts on us a deadly wound, as when an incurable disease is more exasperated by a healing remedy.” The law then, in Calvin’s explanation, is part of the cure and not intertwined with sin and death in the human imagination. This leaves corruption something of a mystery, while Paul’s point seems to be to explain how sin works through the law by means of a deception.

Calvin renders deception as that which “led me out of the way” of the law. Rather than the law being the occasion for sin, which is Paul’s point, Calvin explains the verse as saying, “as we begin then only to perceive our erroneous course, when the Lord loudly reproves us . . .” That is, he is separating the “erroneous course” and the law, preserving the law from its entanglement with the deception. He renders the verse as making precisely the opposite of Paul’s point: “Paul says rightly, that we are led out of the way, when sin is made evident by the law.” Paul is not saying sin is made evident by the law, he is saying sin uses the law to obscure its sinfulness (holding out the promise of life in the face of death). Calvin’s explanation makes nonsense of Paul’s explanation, as why would sin being made evident by the law be the occasion for sin? Calvin seems to mean that sin was already present prior to the law but the giving of the law exposed what was already present. This is a perfectly logical thing to say, but it is not Paul’s point and does not accord with Paul’s overall argument. Paul is not explaining an easy thing or a thing that comes naturally, but the opposite; he is explaining how sin’s deception works through the law.

Set in the context of Genesis, the majority consensus as to understanding what law Paul is referencing and who the “I” is, there is not a time prior to the prohibition. The logical sequence of vv. 10-11 is that of Genesis 3: the prohibition posed the possibility of life; sin or the serpent deceived me; and “I” died. The prohibition or law is itself the indicator (the opportunity – ἀφορμὴν– the base of operations) that something more (life beyond God) is available – it points out the opportunity for life and knowledge. “You shall not die” (Gen. 3.4) indicates God is the liar and the prohibition a cover warding man away from enjoying the privileges of God. The serpent’s lie (3.4) negates death but then the negation is negated under a supposed truth (3.5) of life in the broken law (what Paul calls “the law of sin and death”). The serpent, which Paul simply calls sin, deceives in regard to the prohibition (“You won’t die, you will be like God”).  Breaking the law or manipulating the law or making the law one’s own, in the depiction of the serpent/sin, will provide access to life without resort to God or to the tree of life.

The prohibition was only life-giving in the sense that it kept open access to God’s life, but the law per se is not life giving. The perception that ἐντολὴ ὴ εἰς ζωήν is the promise of life in the law is skewed by sin so as to remove the necessity of God as the giver of life. According to Dunn, to still imagine, after sin, that life is in the law, reflects a common Jewish misconception (is it also Calvin’s misconception?). Dunn raises the possibility that the law contains life: “Does Paul mean that the commandment was intended to bring about life, to lead to life (NEB, NJB), that is, a life not yet possessed?” Such a reading, he maintains, does not fit with Paul’s understanding of the law as stated elsewhere but reflects a misreading which Paul is repudiating. What is not to be missed, he concludes, “is the implied sharp reverse to and rebuttal of the traditional Jewish assumption that the law/commandment promoted life.” The correct nuance is to understand that the law keeps one in a life-giving relationship with God, but it is this relationship to God (and not with the law or the negative prohibition of Genesis) that is the true source of life.[2]

 Calvin concludes that “we do nothing but wander from the right course, until the law shows to us the way of living rightly.” Paul’s depiction of how the law is distorted through sin, seeming to hold out life and in its deception producing death, is passed over by Calvin. He works with a blunt notion of sin that simply contrasts flesh and spirit, and equates being in the flesh or body as an incapacity to keep the law. In his explanation, all of human life stands outside of the spirit in its transgressive relationship to the law. In Paul’s version, according to Ernst Käsemann, the lie is embraced under the presumption that life is to be had in the law (7.10) through spiritual achievement – yet it is not clear how Calvin’s depiction of spiritual achievement (through Christ) is a departure from this lie.[3]

At a minimum, Calvin misses Paul’s explanation of the specific function of sin through the law and how this gives rise to a world of deception. The lie of sin is not simply a problem of the heart (though it is that); it poses itself as an alternative epistemology or means of gaining life and truth through knowing (the knowledge of good and evil). The lie of sin undermines truth: even God’s truth as given in the oracles of the law (Rom. 3.3) is subject to the deceit of sin. What truth can stand the distortion of the lie? This distortion is inclusive of the truth of the “I” or ἐγὼ; the most intimate truth, that of human identity. The human project is set upon saving the self, but the deception obscures access even to what a self might be. The notion that I have immediate access to myself or the law cannot stand in light of Paul’s picture of the delusion.

Does Christ Save from Sin and Death or from God?

If I am correct in my understanding of Paul, this also means that Calvin sets aside the work of Christ in defeating the lie of sin. By imagining a transparent access to God through the law and picturing the wretched man of chapter 7 as regenerate man, Calvin seems to be conflating Paul’s depiction of the problem with the solution. If the majority of commentators are correct, in seeing chapter 7 in connection to the portrayal of Adam, then Calvin is confusing the self-torturing sinful mind with a depiction of salvation. This fits with his notion of penal substitution, which reduces the work of the cross to a function within the economy of the law, which goes all the way with the lie that there is life in the law. This seems to miss that the biblical focus is upon salvation from sin and death, not deliverance from the wrath of the Father.

Taking into account that the original lie of the serpent was that the law could be manipulated so as to produce life and that God was perceived to be the obstacle to life, Calvin, in passing over the deception, seems to have reproduced it. By confusing the problem with the solution, is it possible that Calvinism is (at least at this point of confusion) a manifestation of the problem from which Christ saves?  


[1] Dunn, Romans, 383. Bornkamm, Early Christian Experience, 90. Thanks to Matt Welch for editing and discussing this article.

[2] Dunn, Romans, 384.

[3] Käsemann, Commentary on Romans, 198

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 rap 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 to 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.

Acknowledgement of the Problem of Evil as a Test of Authentic Christianity

John Piper apparently (I am quoting someone quoting – I do not have the willpower to look myself and hopefully it is all a lie) has a best-selling book explaining that the coronavirus is directly caused by God: “It is a bitter season. And God ordained it. God governs it.”[1] Piper maintains (according to my informant, who in a perfect universe would be pulling my leg), God is teaching a series of lessons (the horror of sin, divine judgment is coming, prepare for the second coming, no more self-pity, have joy, become a missionary, and I presume – vote for Trump) but of course as with all such lessons, God is having to kill off those who are paying the price for this somewhat confused lesson.  This sort of blasphemy has a specific genealogy, through John Calvin, that makes it plausible that there is such a book and such an author (to say nothing of his unfortunate readers).  

According to Calvin, what we would call evil, originates in the secret council of God: “The first man fell because the Lord deemed it meet that he should.”[2] “I freely acknowledge my doctrine to be this: that Adam fell, not only by the permission of God, but by His very secret, the council and decree …”[3] “God not only foresaw the fall of the first man, and in him the ruin of his posterity; but also at his own pleasure arranged it.”[4] In this view, one must learn to delight in the evil caused by God and ultimately to spend an eternity rejoicing at the sight of the damned roasting in hell. There is a majority Christian tradition in which such notions were not open to consideration and if proposed would have been dismissed as sub-Christian or simply pagan. What Calvinism shares with most forms of paganism, is that evil (though it may exist as a word or a concept) is not really a problem but just part of reality (the reality of God in Calvin, or a necessary part of the cycles of karma in Hinduism).

Of course, at the existential level all humans are confronted by real world evil, but it is the Christian religion that has the most acute problem in explaining evil (unless we are counting Calvinism as Christian on this point, which I would not). As Hume states it, the problem Christians have lies in their peculiar understanding of God: “God is omnipotent and yet animals prey on each other and humans suffer all sorts of ailments. If God is willing to prevent evil but does not, then he is not God. If he is able but not willing, God is not good. If he is both willing and able, then why is there evil?” Hume’s argument may not bring the full acuity of the problem of evil to bear, as one might simply conclude there is no God (which may have been his point – though it is not clear that he was an atheist), but of course if there is no God there really is no “problem of evil,” there are just events which might be good or bad but which do not call for explanation.  

One test of whether we still have to do with the Judeo-Christian religion might, in fact, pertain to the willingness to give full voice to the problem of evil. The earliest book of the Old Testament (according to some), the book of Job, goes Hume one better. There is God, there is evil, and the impetus to provide satisfactory explanation in human free will or human evil are pointedly dismissed by God. Job’s friends have a full explanation of evil (which more or less captures every subsequent attempt at theodicy, though even they do not stoop as low as Calvin and assign evil directly to God).

 As Philippe Nemo has put it, “There is an excess of evil – it exceeds the law of the world, it exceeds the scene of the world as a technical world.” Theory and explanation are refused in Job, but what is put in place of theory is the full existential realization of the human plight. As Nemo brilliantly describes, in Job we pass from “speculative aloofness” (the friends of Job – the makers of theodicies) to “anguished situatedness.” It is the difference between the simple judgment – life passes, death comes – to a judgment of value: life passes too quickly death comes too soon. “They were borne off before their time” (22:16). Swifter than a weaver’s shuttle my days have passed” (7:6). There is a maximum amount of anxiety (“While I am speaking, my suffering remains; and when I am not, do I suffer any less” (16:6).  “If I say, ‘My bed will comfort me, my couch will soothe my pain’, you frighten me with dreams and terrify me with visions” (7:13)) – “the personage of Job suddenly appears as eternal, truer than the world.”

The vision of Job is nothing less than the Christian hope vaguely imagined: “This I know: that my Defender lives, and he, the Last, will take his stand on earth. After my awakening, he will set me close to him, and from my flesh I shall look on God. He whom I shall see will take my part: he whom my eyes will gaze on will no longer be a stranger” (19:25-27). This is not an explanation but a vision, which means it is not within the horizon of technical understanding or theory but is more of an existential comfort. But the quandary of Job or his vision more concretely recognized in Christianity does not relieve the problem of evil, in fact the problem of evil is accentuated.

Augustine’s depiction of evil as a privation, that is it has no ontological ground (as in his former faith of Manichaeism), is a step closer to the truth and set in the right context properly accentuates the problem. Yet, I would suggest, Augustine’s theory of privation has given rise to two major problems: a false notion of the real world power of evil and a multiplication of theodicies. If something is presumed to be simultaneously removed from potency and from the good, this seems to be precisely contrary, according to David Roberts, to our experience: “the more evil something is, the more powerful its acts of destruction, the more we feel its actuality . . . and the more we realize the power before which we tremble is not nothing.”

Sin as a nothing, an incapacity, located in the will might be taken as an explanatory unreality – a ground of departure for a variety of theodicies, all of which will maintain either that evil is less real than the good or that evil is the pathway to a greater good. While, as John Milbank claims, this may be doing violence to Augustine, there is certainly a long history of imagining that under Augustinian terms the good makes sense of evil. This entails, as has been demonstrated in Western thought, adherence to the doctrine of progress and the idea that good ultimately triumphs over evil in and through the outworking of their interaction. Thus, someone like John Hick holds that each person progresses through evil to the good in his own life-time and the fall was a necessary inevitability in this journey. Many will assume that free will requires evil (as an alternative, as a result, or as implicit to freedom) – all of which seems to depend on a weak (post-Augustinian (?)) notion of evil. It is not too far off to see this as resulting in Hegelian notions of idealism (the good arises from out of its interaction with evil).

Assigning evil either to privation of the will or to the necessity endured in order to have a free will, as has been done in classical theodicies, seems to ignore the diabolical (Satan inspired) nature of evil in the Bible. The basic premise of Christianity, perhaps affirmed nowhere else but fundamental to this faith, is that the world is fallen, things are not as they should be, death is unnatural, and this evil is not needed as part of a theory of the good or an impetus to progress. Working backward from Christ, we can presume evil requires supernatural intervention, precisely because it is itself unnatural or sub-natural. As David Bentley Hart has put it, “that the universe languishes in bondage to the ‘powers’ and ‘principalities’ of this age, which never cease in their enmity toward the Kingdom of God . . . is not a claim that Christians are free to surrender.”[5]

The problem with theodicies is that in explaining evil they imagine the world is somehow ok the way it is, the cross is not really necessary, evil and Satan are not so serious, and we lose the real presence of God in his defeat of evil and our participation in that defeat. Topics I will take up next week.


[1] Thanks Justin.

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, Ch. 23, Sect. 8.                           

[3] John Calvin, On the Secret Providence of God, 267.

[4] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, Ch. 23, Sect. 7.

[5] David Bentley Hart, Theological Territories (Kindle Locations 1570-1577). University of Notre Dame Press. Kindle Edition.

Are Calvinists Saved?

The question of the title (above) is, in the first instance, a Calvinist question which Calvinists have about themselves. While some have assurance of salvation, where this assurance fails or is lacking, the results can be torturous or deadly. When Jonathan Edwards’ uncle slit his own throat in the absence of this assurance, this demonstrated to Edwards himself that the “devil took the advantage, and drove him into despairing thoughts.” Soon after, many in the community of Northampton were reporting suicidal ideations. The existential realization that one is predestined for eternal damnation, selected as a vessel of wrath, the object of sovereign hatred bound for an eternity of torture, has proven unbearable for many. To imagine that the all-powerful, omnipresent, power of heaven hates you, must be several times worse than a simple, atheistic nihilism which holds that the universe is indifferent toward you. In fact, to be able to rid oneself of belief in this monstrous God and achieve a more harmless atheism would seem to be a positive moral and mental achievement.  A good friend, who concluded that he was one of the objects of wrath, a vessel of destruction, describes his descent into drug addiction and two overdoses and near-death experiences, not as a departure from God or a descent into unbelief, but due to his belief in God. It was his belief that God hated him, the living proof of which was his poverty of spirit, his condition of feeling hated and not loved, which drove him deeper into self-destructive behavior.  If salvation is entry into the benefits of the love and goodness of God, the assurance that the true, the good and the beautiful, are determinative of ultimate reality and the determinative factor in human life and destiny then Calvinism, in the second instance, is indeed an obstruction to salvation. It specifically opposes this understanding and is an obstruction to the practical realization of this reality, as God’s decisions are rendered arbitrary and unpredictable. So, my question is not polemical or sectarian but a question evoked by Calvinists and a true concern that this may be one form of the Christian faith which most effectively obstructs the core teaching of the New Testament. Far from good news, this is the worst news possible.

Calvinism is not an assurance of love, a defeat of death or the destructive drive toward death, but it inscribes death and destruction into the eternal fabric of creation and into the very nature of God. Instead of Christ defeating death and undoing death’s fatal hold upon us, Calvinism would turn the creator into the eternal source of an everlasting living death in eternal hell, made a necessity so that his glory might shine forth. In his commentary on I John, Calvin states that God is not love in his essence. Love is an anthropomorphism while wrath is an attribute flowing from God’s definitive justice.  In book 3 of The Institutes, Calvin explains that even the Fall was predestined by God – so that the fate of both the saved and the damned are preordained by God. The implication is that God is beyond our comprehension to such a degree that he might be said to be both good and evil or merely a sovereign force that makes nonsense of such categories, and anyone who experiences God as love cannot be said to have entered into a realization of the true divine essence but it is simply descriptive (in Calvin’s explanation) of human experience. If one were to make Satan into one’s God, this might be an improvement over Calvinism, as we can at least read a singular intent and goal into evil personified in the devil. Satan is not arbitrary, unpredictable, all-powerful. God in Calvinism becomes an overwhelming and unavoidable malignancy, undefeatable, imperturbable and immovable in his wrath and hatred.

The logic and mechanical like structure reflected in TULIP, even in Calvin’s own estimate, is not so much a reflection on Scripture as it is a turn inward. The presumption is that “knowledge of God and of ourselves” are “connected together by many ties,” such that to examine the self is to arrive at God: “because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; nay, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone.”  Good lawyer that he was, and being largely innocent of the countervailing tradition of the church in its reading of the New Testament, Calvin gives us the doctrine of sin as if it is the means to salvation. Sin is an orientation to the law, captured in Paul’s phrase “the law of sin and death,” in which life is presumed to be in the law which is presumed to be determinative of God and humans. Calvin turns to himself to find the logic of the law; the incontrovertible logic needing violence and blood, made up of vengeance and wrath. The predestined damnation of the derelict needs both the derelict and the damnation to prove the power of God. Just as Napoleon once called upon one of his officers to shoot himself in the head to demonstrate his power to a visiting dignitary, God depends upon damned derelicts to demonstrate his sovereignty. Calvin explains, in Book III of the Institutes, that this is why God predestined the Fall of man so that his greatness would show forth in both arbitrary salvation and damnation. Like death itself, this arbitrary divine power cannot allow for any competing liberty or freedom. God is the power behind all that happens to people, blessed be the name of God, the great unadulterated power.

Calvinism does not speak of the undoing of death but succumbs to a worship like that of Mot, Thanatos, Santa Muerte, or the worship of death itself in that in defending the absolute sovereignty of God, transcendence collapses into identity with the realities of the world (clearly ruled by death). Tsunamis, viruses, accidents, homicides, suicides, or the inevitable march to the grave are all the will of God. The world does not possess its own liberty, people have no freedom, but everything is a product of divine power and divine power most superbly expresses itself in death, destruction, and wrath, with love reduced to a human fabrication. As David Bentley Hart notes, “God is simply the totality of all that is and all that happens; there is no creation, but only an oddly pantheistic expression of God’s unadulterated power.”

The law of sin and death taken as God’s law, results in a religion which takes on a resemblance to various cults of the dead but also to a Lacanian psychoanalytic orientation which presumes the real or death drive is the unchangeable reality of the human condition. The infinite struggle with sin posed by Calvinism is precisely the Lacanian picture of the symbolic order of the law pitted against the imaginary or egoistic order. As in Paul’s explanation, law is felt as the inexorable controlling power in life so that all of one’s desires, all of one’s mental and bodily effort, might be described as a working out (an agonistic fight with oneself) of this seemingly sovereign power in one’s life. God is mistaken for the law in Paul’s definition of sin, and this means that one must reinforce the good through the evil. Paul gives some four formulas for this perverse understanding each of which might be mistaken for Calvinist doctrine: evil establishes the good, sin makes grace abound, or the law is sin itself. This dualism is read into God and is lived out in the struggle for salvation – a continual grasping after an ultimately unattainable object – which Paul describes as being subject to the “body of death.”

A mind conditioned to imagine this wickedness is Christianity is in a worse estate than a sincere pagan who has never heard but may still hear of the good news. The good news of God’s love falls on deaf ears as this Calvinist mind has been twisted to believe that a moral hideousness is a paradox that one must swallow so as to be saved. Only the blessed have this insight, and I suppose as with the satisfaction of belonging to the most elite club, part of the satisfaction (as Calvin testifies) is to delight in the suffering of the masses. This translates into the health and wealth notion that the blessing of possessing wealth is made clear by those who are dispossessed – after-all money only works in a zero-sum game. So too Calvinist salvation, the few, the elect, possess at the expense and through contrast with the damned.  

The price of admission to this elite club is to believe in the contradiction that this morally hideous God is good and then to submit to the notion that ultimate injustice is justice. This was demonstrated on Sunday to Faith and I in a documentary, I will not name, for fear someone may watch it. In this portrayal there are two options: one can either accept the basic tenets of Calvinism or one can give up on the true Christian faith. As John MacArthur puts it, if a person does not hold to penal substitution he cannot be saved. He acknowledges that one might not understand penal substitution and still make it in, but a clear sign that one is damned is if they reject this damnable doctrine. The focus of the documentary is to suggest that there are those (e.g. Rob Bell, Richard Rohr) who do not accept the Calvinist version of God’s justice and wrath, but they apparently do so on the basis of their own willfulness. No mention is made of the large majority of Christians in the world who are not Calvinist and who do not accept penal substitution. In place of this, one Calvinist after another gives us a “universal” opinion gained by sheer repetition and multiplied singular opinion.

The result was a feeling that these people were either dishonest or profoundly ignorant of world Christianity and Christian tradition. What the documentary succeeded in demonstrating to me, is the large population that imagines that their moral idiocy might only be appreciated by those who might mistake contradiction and incoherence for profundity. For the first time I appreciated how Richard Rohr, Rob Bell, or Bart Campolo (who is an honest atheist), might be taken as a breath of fresh air or a positive relief from the stifling religious nihilism being passed off as a more nuanced faith. Any voice, any counter narrative, any note of objection, came to be a relief from the noxious smugness and presumed moral superiority of the heretical proselytizing. Given the options posed by the film, I understood how happy flakiness is certainly preferable to moral and spiritual insipidness. If this is the actual option posed to most people, I think I better understand this cultural and political moment. But of course, this is a false choice.

The primary doctrine of biblical Christianity is that the law of sin and death and all that it includes – evil, suffering, violence, the orientation to death marking human moral failing – are not the tools of God but precisely that which Christ came to destroy and that which God opposes. The person of God made manifest in Christ reveals the life, love, beauty, and goodness of God, without admixture of evil. Where Calvin does not allow for any clear distinction between what God wills and what he permits (though he speaks of God’s permissive will it is still the will of God), the New Testament pictures a world in which human choice has profound consequences for both good and evil. God in Christ did not come into the world to condemn the world but to deliver it from willful evil, sin and death. In the words of Hart, “For, after all, if it is from Christ that we are to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil, and death, it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless, and miraculous enmity: sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are part of the eternal work or purposes of God.”[1]

Be assured the choice is not that maybe Jesus died for you or maybe he didn’t. In this understanding, statistically your chances are poor and experientially you may one day realize you are damned – or maybe you already have this confirmation. The good news is that God loves you, and there is no question, no qualification, no obstacle that can obstruct this love (Romans 8:38-39).


[1] The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?

Forging an Alternative Imagination: Setting Aside Evangelical Artifice for the Art of New Creation

The Forging part of Forging Ploughshares presented itself due to my work on a forge as a teenager. My academic career in high school indicated to everyone involved, but especially to my father, that heavy thinking might not suit my abilities. He contacted Kansas State Farriers College, a rather inflated title attached to a barn, farmhouse, and a mobile home/dormitory which had been started by the last full-time Army farrier upon his retirement (or so he told us). Bob Bechdolt, a larger than life character in many senses (he must have been approaching about 400 pounds and was at that point involved in a battle with the State of Kansas to have his school officially recognized) came to visit us on our small farm in Kansas and my father was convinced I should learn horse shoeing.  This would include learning to forge horse shoes (using hammer, anvil, and forge, to make approximate half circles out of strips of metal) as well as all that is involved in getting shoes on horses. So, between my junior and senior year of high school I spent many hours using a forge attempting to craft horse foot wear. The use of the forge, I came to learn, is an art unto itself[1] and so too the art of living which would produce ploughshares – representative of the peaceable Kingdom. Continue reading “Forging an Alternative Imagination: Setting Aside Evangelical Artifice for the Art of New Creation”

The Lie Behind Penal Substitution and Divine Satisfaction

A way of illustrating how sin functions through a lie is to use the theories of divine satisfaction and penal substitution as a case in point (a singular illustration) of the lie.  That is, these theories of atonement, I would argue, simply offer up the universal deception of sin under the guise of salvation.  Penal substitution and divine satisfaction do what Paul depicts sin as always doing – presume there is life in the law, that suffering and death are redemptive, and that death is an absolute.  Paul’s picture of the fallen Subject is one in which the law (the law of the mind) is presumed to provide life, and death and suffering, under the guise of law, are continually taken up as the law of sin and death.  Three things come together in this understanding: the law as the will to power (to obtain life and being); desire and suffering of and for the ego or “I” (the idol or image); and the production of death confused with life.  In Paul’s picture this is the dynamic within every fallen Subject.  Likewise, the logic of every form of false religion is built upon these three pillars; the immutability of the law setting up the absolute nature of death which makes suffering and death a form of redemption. The gods of paganism require penalty and payment so that law and order are maintained. The good Buddhist or Hindu recognizes that there is a cosmic law at work (karma or destiny) which must be obeyed, that asceticism or relinquishing of life and self is the means of salvation, and that death is the doorway into this salvation.  Both Anselm of Canterbury and John Calvin presume that law is the economy determining the nature of salvation and this salvation requires eternal payment – the death of Christ. If penal substitution and divine satisfaction are a repetition of the problem it is a peculiarly blasphemous repetition as it is at the same time a displacement of the orthodox Christian answer. Continue reading “The Lie Behind Penal Substitution and Divine Satisfaction”