Friday, August 20, 2004

Some Thoughts on the Atonement II 

Once the new covenant has been established, the sacrifice of Christ never needs to be repeated. Even sins committed by those within the new covenant do not require a renewed sacrifice. The new covenant represents a clear disjunction from the old covenant, when the covenant people could be exiled from God’s presence and the covenant could be broken. The new covenant can never be broken because the new covenant humanity is a completely faithful humanity. The new covenant humanity is clearly Jesus Christ Himself. Whilst I believe that there is still clearly the possibility of individual apostasy within the new covenant, I don’t think that this in any way undermines my claim that the new covenant can never be broken. The important thing to appreciate is that the new humanity of the new covenant is not primarily our humanity, but is Christ’s humanity. Christ is ultimately (as James Jordan has observed) the promised Heart of Flesh to replace the Heart of Stone (the tablets on which the Law was written). The history of the old covenant was a history that was determined by disobedience and growing rebellion. However, the sin that was pervasive and determinative under the old covenant order lacks this power in the new covenant. In the new covenant faithfulness is the determinative and growing principle. Jesus is the faithful human being. In Baptism we are engrafted into Him as part of His new humanity and in Him we grow and are transformed by His Holy Spirit. Our faithfulness grows out of, and is shaped by, His faithfulness. The faithfulness of Jesus Christ is the sign of the maturity of the people of God. Through the maturity of the people of God that Christ brings about, all of those baptized into Him can enter into the promised inheritance. When the Church sins in the new covenant there is no question of the new covenant actually being broken and having to be replaced with a newer covenant, or renewed by a new sacrifice. Whilst churches and individuals who are unfaithful to the covenant face the real possibility of their being removed and cut off, the covenant itself remains intact. There is no question of the people of God as a whole being exiled from God’s presence.
In order to replace the rebellious humanity of Adam with a faithful humanity, it was necessary for Christ to deal with the entail of Adam’s rebellion. The world created by Adam’s sin was unraveled by Christ’s death. In the cross Jesus, as Israel’s Messiah, bore the old covenant-breaking humanity in Adam down to death and replaced the old rebellious humanity with a new faithful humanity in Himself. In the new covenant no more sacrifices are needed as Christ has removed the root problem in His death. The root problem was the sin-governed fleshly Adamic humanity. Jesus came in ‘the flesh’, as part of this humanity (albeit not personally guilty of sin) and, in his death as the representative Messiah, sin was finally condemned in the flesh — the place where it had formerly had complete control. Those who are baptized into Christ and abide in Him by faith have Christ’s faithfulness as the animating principle of their new existence as Christ dwells in the Church and her members by the Spirit. As they live out of the life of the One who has borne the judgment that hung over the old world order they are freed from that judgment themselves.
Divine forgiveness within the new covenant is significantly different to divine forgiveness under the old covenant. Under the old covenant God did forgive His people. However, sin was never finally and decisively dealt with. The people of God kept coming under judgment again and a renewed forgiveness was necessary. The sacrifices were continually repeated but they could never deal with the root problems of Sin and the flesh corrupted by it. The sacrifices merely delayed the final and inevitable condemnation of sin that had to take place. The sentence of death had been cast on sin and sooner or later God had to execute this sentence. This sentence had to be executed in the place where sin had its power. The Messiah was the representative of the covenant-breaking people of God and it was in His flesh that the sentence of condemnation against sin was executed (Romans 8:3).
The ‘sin’ that was condemned should not be thought of primarily in terms of the discrete sins of individuals. The ‘sin’ that was condemned in Christ’s death is sin conceived of as a ruling force or power — Sin with a capital ‘s’. This hostile power was introduced to the world by Adam’s original sin and took over the control of the world, bringing death to all men. ‘Sin’, conceived of in this sense, certainly leads to individual acts of sin, but should not be limited to such acts. Sin as a power stood in the way of the fulfillment of God’s purposes for creation. God had made a covenant with Abraham in order to set right the world that had gone wrong in Adam. God had designed that the world would be put to rights by means of the faithfulness of Israel. However, the shocking reality was that the Torah that God gave to Israel resulted in ‘a new lease of life’ for sin (as Wright expresses it). The power of Sin that had laid waste the universe as a result of Adam’s was, as it were, dormant like a sleeping dragon prior to the giving of the Torah (Romans 5:13; 7:9). When the Torah was given, Sin jumped at the opportunity afforded to it and took it over (Romans 7:8). The Torah longed to give life to those to whom it was given. However, Sin employed the Torah as its means of heightening its control over the world. The Torah ended up being Sin’s means of dealing out death to Israel, who had been thoroughly infected by its power. It appeared as if the desire of the Torah had been utterly thwarted. Israel was left in a state of greater bondage to Sin than any of the nations apart from Torah. Little did Sin realize that the giving of the Torah was God’s means of luring it out into the open. By permitting Sin to make Torah its base of operations and utterly infest the nation of Israel, God was bringing the power of Sin to full expression, so that it might finally be decisively dealt with and rendered impotent.
It is unhelpful to think primarily in terms of Christ dying for the sins of the elect throughout history. Christ certainly dies so that the elect can be delivered from Sin’s thrall and its destined judgment. However, talk about Christ ‘dying for the sins of the elect’ is at risk of being misleading. Christ dies so that Sin, which had run rampant in the old humanity and used the Torah as the means by which to intensify its dominion over Israel in particular, might be finally stripped of its power. Once the old humanity has been borne down to death and replaced by a new faithful humanity, Sin’s power is nullified and there is no condemnation left. Sin no longer can stand in the way of all of God’s promises being given to those in Christ. The Torah longed to give true life but found itself condemning those under it as a result of the power of Sin that hijacked it. Christ can give true life because Sin has no dominion or authority in the realm that He has created by His death and life. All of those ‘in Christ’ can receive the Holy Spirit without Sin standing in the way. Now the intention of the Torah is fulfilled for all of those in Christ. The sins for which Christ died are the sins that brought condemnation and the sentence of death upon Israel under the old covenant. Christ died as Israel’s redeeming representative, bearing the full force of the just sentence of death pronounced by the Torah upon Sin and consequently upon the covenant humanity dominated by Sin (‘the curse of the Law’). Jesus, as Israel’s Messiah, bears the destiny of the whole Jewish nation and, by extension, that of the whole world, in His death. It is through His faithfulness that the world can be put to rights. Through Jesus the Messiah, God can put into effect that which He had determined to do when He first called Abraham.
Those who are baptized into Christ are liberated from the dominion of sin. Justification is God’s liberating verdict declared and put into effect in the event of Baptism. In Baptism God declares that there is no condemnation over us. Even though we still sin from day to day God declares in Baptism that ultimately Sin no longer has any claims on us. How is this possible? This is all possible because of the realm that has been created by Christ in His death and resurrection. When we are baptized into Christ that which is true of Christ becomes true of us also. This degree of identification, in turn, is possible because Jesus is the Messiah; the Messiah is the king of the people and that which is true of the king is in principle true of his people. In Baptism we are identified with Christ in His death to the old realm of Sin and are called to live as those whose true (resurrection) life is found in Him. By faith we live our life out of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. As we live our lives out of His faithfulness, that which is true of us in principle in Christ becomes embodied in concrete practice.
Our new life is lived out as a reality-filled promise. The fullness of our new life is yet to be revealed, but is already fully realized in Christ (Colossians 3:3-4; 1 John 3:2). Our new is actually nothing less than Christ Himself. In Christ future hope becomes present reality. As we live in Christ we live out of the future. [It might be added at this point that our new life is essentially an ecclesial life; when we talk about the ‘new man’ it is a corporate and not a mere individual reality (e.g. Colossians 3:9-11).] At the present time the old age has not finally fallen away. Nevertheless, we are those who belong to the new age that has come into existence in Jesus Christ and His death and resurrection. Our true life, in the dying embers of the old age, remains a mystery yet to be revealed in the future, but is no less real for that fact. Even though we might find it hard to believe that we really have a new existence, we should be assured of it as we look to Christ. We have been baptized into Him and He is our new existence.
We should beware of talking as if the Christian had not truly and completely died to sin. The Christian’s death to sin in Baptism is final and complete. However, there is still the possibility of the Christian committing sin. In the present, although our true life is ‘hidden with Christ in God’ we still have ‘members … on the earth’. We are able to present these members (our various faculties and of mind and body) as weapons of wickedness. Consequently we are called to put these members to death (Colossians 3:5). In the present our bodies are dead because of sin (Romans 8:10). Death is the consequence of the reign that sin once exercised in our bodies. Our members on this earth are corrupt and will one day be finally destroyed. We are called to hasten this process by putting them to death in the present. As we put our members to death in the present, our eschatological, Spirit-governed existence will begin to emerge from the chrysalis of our current dead bodies. This, of course, should not be taken as a denigration of bodily existence. The difference between ‘flesh’ and ‘Spirit’ is not the difference between physical and ethereal existence, but is the difference between two types of animating principles. As N.T. Wright expresses it, it is more clearly analogous to the difference between a nuclear-powered ship and a steam-powered ship, rather than to the difference between a steel ship and a wooden ship. The Spirit is now the animating principle of the Christian’s existence and the Christian is called to present his members as instruments to be wielded by Christ through the Spirit.
When we do commit sin we should continually return once again to Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice in order to receive full forgiveness and cleansing. The practice of repentance and confession of sins is an essential part of Christian existence. Sins committed by members of the new covenant after Christ died at Calvary for the sins committed under the old covenant order do not require a new sacrifice. They do not require a new sacrifice because the complete and final judgment on Sin as an entire world reality was borne by Christ at Calvary. The death and resurrection of Christ created a realm in which the condemnation that had hung over the realm of Sin and Torah was removed. There is no chance of condemnation ever falling upon the ‘in Christ’ realm. Repentance and confession of sins are key means by which we continually ensure that we are thoroughly situated in this realm. We abide in the ‘in Christ’ realm — into which we were baptized — by faith. If we apostatize from this realm by rejecting Christ we are once again subject to all the condemnation that still hangs over the old world order to which we once belonged.
As we live in the ‘in Christ’ realm we are called to cease to put our members to service the old condemned realm of Sin and devote all of our resources and faculties to the realm of Christ and the Spirit. As we do this we are assured of a great harvest and reward in the future. If we refuse to do so we will face punishment from God. God punishes His children because there are serious consequences for disobedience. God’s punishments are His means of alerting us to danger of living as if we belonged to the condemned realm of Sin. He punishes us in this manner in order to preserve us from facing the final judgment that awaits the realm of Sin (1 Corinthians 11:31-32). Those who stubbornly insist on living as if they belonged to the realm of Sin face the risk of finally being cut off and will share the final fate of the realm of Sin. By His Fatherly punishments, God seeks to warn us against persisting in such willful disobedience. As Christians we should seek to devote all of our resources and faculties to the service of the realm of the Spirit. There are many ways of speaking about this; ‘laying up treasures in heaven’ and ‘sowing to the Spirit’ are just two of them. In 1 Corinthians 3, the apostle Paul uses the analogy of people engaged in the construction of a great building. It seems clear to me that this building is seen to be the temple of God Himself. As we engage in constructing this new edifice — fulfilling our new vocations in the body of Christ that we given to us in Baptism — we can use materials of differing qualities. Christians who are not that concerned with the establishment of God’s new temple and devote most of their resources to building their own little kingdoms on earth will one day find that fire consumes all that they own. Even though they may well be saved, they will be left singed by the flames and empty-handed. Those who have proved to be diligent and faithful builders will find themselves amply rewarded. Herein we see something of the relationship between present justification by faith and future justification by works.
By now it should be quite clear that the account of the meaning of the death of Christ that I have presented so far differs in a number of important respects from the common evangelical accounts. In particular, the whole idea that God condemned Jesus rather than condemning us is called into question, as is the idea that Christ suffered God’s retributive punishment on our behalf in order to satisfy God’s justice. The biblical position is, I believe, far more subtle than these statements might suggest. Within my next post I will go on to give a more detailed treatment of this whole issue.

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