Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Lesson 8: The Atonement (Part 3)

(This is based, in part, on John Gerstner’s Primer on the Atonement from a compilation of his primers in the book Primitive Theology. I am using Primitive Theology for my Sunday School class. There is a list of links on the left for the posts for this class.

This is the last post from this Sunday School. The links for the first two parts on the Atonement are:

Part 1
Part 2

Was It Fair?

A reasonable question to ask regarding the Atonement is: was it fair for Christ to be judged for our sins? Well, if Christ was judged involuntarily for our sins, then of course that would not be fair and would impugn the character of God. However, if Christ chose be a propitiation for our rebellion, then that changes the equation. Is the bible clear on whether or not Christ went to the cross of his own volition? Yes it is painfully clear. We read, in one of the most gut-wrenching passages of scripture, occurring in the Garden of Gethsemane:
41 And he withdrew from them about a stone's throw, and knelt down and prayed, 42 saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luke 22:41-42)
The passage again drives home the reality of the incarnation, and the relationship of the incarnation to the atonement. First of all, the very prayer, not my will, but yours, be done, speaks of voluntary submission. Which nature of Christ is submitting here? Just like there is only one nature of Christ that can die, there is only one that can submit (in the sense of doing something that, all things being equal, it does not really want to do, all things being equal) to the will of the Father: the human nature. Christ’s divine nature, being sovereign God itself, cannot be “persuaded” into anything, but the human nature, reflected by Christ’s words, is clearly submitting. Its will is, naturally, to avoid the anguish of the cross. While there is no option for Christ's divine nature other than whatever it does, it does voluntarily (it is sovereign), the human nature might require coercion to go to the cross. Jesus’ words teach us that his human nature did not—he voluntarily submitted; he did not merely relent to an irresistible force. This renders the atonement “fair” in the sense we have been discussing. Both natures, the divine and the human, went to the cross voluntarily.

Christ died for Unbelievers

Yes, seemingly contrary to what we have said several times, namely that the atonement achieved (rather than just made theoretically possible) salvation for Christians, we acknowledge that in a certain sense we have put the cart before the horse. In this sense, Christ died for unbelievers: he died so that certain unbelievers would become believers. In other words, he didn’t die so that he could give what he promised to believers—who otherwise would have wasted their sincere belief—by his death his blood provided the power by which sinners are regenerated and come to life. In a sense, the true gospel message is not to believe in the person or even the deity of Christ—scripture has examples of “believers” who are not saved—the gospel message is to believe in the power of Christ’s shed blood. The book of Romans makes this clear:
God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. (Rom 3:25)
We often present the gospel this way: If you repent of your sins and believe in Christ you will be saved. There is, of course, nothing wrong with that. However, it is probably more accurate to say: If you repent of your sins have faith in the power of Christ’s blood pay their cost, you are saved.

In short, Christ didn’t die for Peter and not for Judas because Peter was a believer and Judas wasn’t, he died to make Peter a believer:
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. (Eph 2:13)

The Gospel Call: Universal or Limited?

We have seen that Calvinists and Arminians agree, even if they are sometimes slow to realize it, that the atonement is limited: it is effectual only for believers. What about the gospel call itself? Is it universal or limited? The answer: both.

The offer of the gospel goes forth to all. No Christian should hesitate from offering it to anyone at all. The call is universal, but the intent is particular. In other words, the gospel call would have gone out to Peter and Judas, however, intent would only have been for Peter. Christ death accomplished salvation for Peter. Through faith in Christ’s blood, Peter was saved, but we are not saved in a vacuum, the normative secondary means are by hearing the gospel.

Let us examine how the gospel call is both unlimited and particular. Let’s use a typical rendering of the gospel:
Jesus Christ calls everyone, everywhere to confess his sin and to trust in Him for salvation and deliverance.
Clearly this call is universal: Jesus calls—which should be understood as a command, not a request or a plea, for all men to confess thier sin and place their trust in Him. But in what way is it particular? In a subtle way it is very particular indeed: The gospel call is universally extended to a particular group: those who acknowledge their sin.
On hearing this, Jesus said to them, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners." (Mark 2:17)
The very words of our Lord limit the call as we have described: the call is to sinners, not to the (self) righteous. Though all men are sinners and guilty before God, not all men are aware of their guilt. Men do not universally acknowledge the guilt and need that they universally share. Many are in fact insulted by the mere suggestion that they are in need of a savior. They may even be repulsed by the thought that only the shed blood of Jesus can cleanse them of sins they don’t even acknowledge. Christ’s own words are clear: the call is not intended for “healthy” people such as these.

The Atonement and Mercy

God, we all agree, is a God of mercy. However, the atonement is all about, it would seem, justice. On the surface there is a seemingly absence of mercy. God is receiving the payment for sin. Not from the sinners, to be sure, but nevertheless He is paid in full. Suppose we owe money to the bank. Would the bank not be merciful if it forgave the debt entirely? But if the bank simply receives payment from a benefactor rather than from the debtor, where do we see mercy?

To put it very bluntly, at the risk of being impertinent, if God has been paid in full, not only is mercy out the window, but God in fact owes the sinner that Christ purchased for him. This is actually true: God owes a pardon to a sinner who repents and claims the blood of Christ. No question about it. In that narrow sense, there is not mercy but simple justice.

As always, there seems to be a conflict between mercy and justice. As always, at least with God, that conflict disappears upon closer examination.

And when it comes to the atonement, mercy abounds, in at least three important ways.

First, while it may appear at first glance that the atonement is all about justice when we consider God the Father, it is clearly about mercy when we consider God the Son.

Secondly, it was the Father’s extremely merciful act to send his son to die so that He (God) might end up in this bizarre sounding position of “owing” a pardon:
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)
So we have the ultimately sublime: the atonement, which is the ultimate expression of divine justice, was made possible by the ultimate act of divine mercy.

But the mercy does not end there. It gets more personal. Recall what we noted just a moment earlier: God owes a pardon to a sinner who repents and claims the blood of Christ. Now apart from mercy, who can place himself in a position to be “owed” by God a pardon based on Christ’s payment? Who can, of their own, repent and claimed their just due? Nobody. As we discussed earlier in the course, man’s fall has left him in a position where he is incapable, in his natural state, of accepting the gospel call.
When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.” (Acts 11:18)

correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, (2 Tim 2:14)
As with faith, there is this tension: we are commanded to repent, we are commanded to come to faith, yet we are incapable of doing so. In a sense are three things that must happen:
  1. We must repent
  2. We must come to faith
  3. The penalty for our sins must be paid
We are completely incapable, on our own, to accomplish any of these. Without divine mercy and divine justice, we would be lost.

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