Isaiah 53: The Gospel According to God

Who believes what we’ve heard and seen? Who would have thought God’s saving power would look like this? (Isaiah 53:1, MSG)

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psych.

THE STORY OF SALVATION begins with a prophesy. One of the most profound predictions concerning Jesus is spelled out in the book of the prophet Isaiah. In fact, Isaiah means “The Lord is salvation.” Could this mighty prophet, or his book, be more appropriately titled? Isaiah 53 is essentially the gospel according to God, or “the fifth gospel.” Charles Spurgeon said, “You have the whole gospel here.” John MacArthur wrote, “Taking all the Old Testament’s messianic prophesies collectively, the side-by-side themes of suffering and glory were understandably mysterious prior to the crucifixion of Christ.” [1]  Despite this prediction, even after Jesus was resurrected His disciples missed the divine truth of which the Old Testament prophets spoke.

Several of the disciples were walking and discussing what it might mean that Jesus was not in his tomb. They failed to recognize Christ when He approached them. Jesus asked what they were talking about, and the men said, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days” (Luke 24:18, RSV). When Jesus asked, “What things? the men responded, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (24:19-21). Jesus replied, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory” (24:25-26).

Isaiah’s predictions concerning Christ are captivating, full of colorful description, and rich in theological meaning. Isaiah 53 contains a capsule of the basic tenets of the gospel—the sin and depravity of mankind; divine grace, justification, and atonement; wholeness and healing. Isaiah was more than a prophet; he is clearly one of the earliest evangelists we know, who succinctly reported on the coming Messiah, providing a rich explanation of the scope of the redemptive works of Christ. Isaiah provides a degree of accuracy that would normally be attributed to having been an eyewitness. To deny the precision of Isaiah’s predictions is to decide he was not given the role of a prophet.

Matthew Henry said, “No where in all the Old Testament is it so plainly and fully prophesied, that Christ ought to suffer, and then to enter into his glory, as in [the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah].” [2] In addition to coming from humble beginnings, the lowly condition Jesus submitted to (and His appearance in the world) did not match with what the Jewish religious leaders expected of their Messiah. They were anticipating a conquering political king, coming in all pomp and ceremony. They believed Christ would once again sit on the throne of David and rule all nations. By contrast, the life of Jesus was common and full of sorrow.

Eugene Peterson provides a great description of the humble beginnings of Jesus. “The servant grew up before God—a scrawny seedling, a scrubby plant in a parched field. There was nothing attractive about him, nothing to cause us to take a second look” (Isaiah 53:2, MSG). The word plant in this instance refers to a “tender” twig. Isaiah 53:1a asks, “Who hath believed our report?” The Hebrew word âman is a primitive root meaning “to build upon or support; to foster; to render (or be) firm or faithful.” This speaks of a complete assurance in something. Metaphorically, the word conveys a sense of faithfulness and trustworthiness. Frankly, there is no other means by which man can be saved except to believe that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophesy.

The Sanhedrin was unable to recognize Jesus as the Christ. Opinion on the streets during the time of Jesus’ ministry was that nothing good could ever come out of Nazareth (John 1:46). This man, Jesus, was the mere son of a carpenter. A laborer. Not a king. Clearly, Jesus could not have come from the Father. There were many petty rivalries between villages during the life of Jesus, but the comment in John 1:46 speaks directly to a basic rejection of Jesus as the anointed one. In the Old Testament, Moses wrote, “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brethren—him you shall heed” (Deut. 18:15). Moses was the greatest prophet of ancient Israel who had received a call from God on his life to lead God’s people out of bondage and speak the very words of God. The Hebrew word for prophet (nâbîy) describes someone who is raised up by God and, accordingly, could only proclaim that which the LORD gave him to say. We was incapable of contradicting the Law or speak from his own mind. What a prophet declared had to come true, or he was a false prophet.

The Sufferings of Christ

MacArthur writes, “No text in the entire Old Testament is more momentous than Isaiah 52:13-53:12. It is a prophesy that begins and ends with the voice of Yahwey himself.” [3] God is speaking of a singular person, whom He identifies as “the righteous one, my servant” (53:11). God is speaking of the “anointed one of Israel,” the Messiah. God mentions this in Isaiah 42:1: “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations.” McArthur calls the passage of Scripture in Isaiah 52:13 through 53:12 “crystal-clear prophesy about the ministry, death, resurrection and coronation of the Messiah, written more than seven centuries before he came.” [4] It is what McArthur calls the gospel according to God.

To further establish that Jesus will not come as a conquering king, God said, “He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice” (42:2-3). We read in Zechariah that God said, “Hear now, O Joshua the high priest, you and your friends who sit before you, for they are men of good omen: behold, I will bring my servant the Branch” (Zech 3:8). God clearly stated the reason for the advent of Jesus: “…I will remove the guilt of this land in a single day” (3:9b). This refers to the day on which Jesus would die to atone for the guilt of sin.

The speaker in Isaiah 52:13 through 53:12 is God—by His knowledge—announcing the future glory of the Servant. Frankly, it is impossible for a Christian who grasps the story of salvation to read this section and not immediately think of its fulfillment in Christ hundreds of years later. Isaiah did not name the Servant, nor did he call this individual “the Messiah.” Isaiah’s intention was to compare abject humility and suffering with subsequent triumph and glory. He also drew attention to the contrast between the attitudes which would be shown toward the Servant before and after his glorification. Ultimately, the Servant would be accorded the highest majesty. His sufferings would give way to glory, which would cause kings and rulers of the time to be dumbfounded. This is crucial to understanding the Servant’s mission, for it was customary during the early centuries to scorn or despise those who were suffering. The Jews saw this as a sign that the individual had fallen out of grace.

Isaiah clearly explained that the Servant’s sufferings were not because of his own grievous sins, as everyone would have concluded, but were suffered exclusively and completely on the behalf of others—for my people (53:8). Isaiah wrote, “Yet it was the will of the LORD to bruise him; he has put him to grief; when he makes himself an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand” (53:10) (italics mine). The very nature of illness changes in verse 7. It is worth noting that Isaiah’s intent was not to portray the Servant as a patient and resigned sick man, merely stoical in his suffering; rather, he was someone who quite deliberately chose not to defend himself from false accusations, condemnation, and execution. He silently accepted his role in providing redemption for others by suffering and dying as a proxy for those who were truly guilty.

I find it fascinating that the Book of Isaiah is divided into two sections: the first containing thirty-nine chapters and the second twenty-seven chapters. The Bible is also divided into two distinct sections: the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament and the twenty-seven books of the New Testament. The second division of Isaiah begins exactly where the New Testament begins and where it ends. It opens with the ministry of John the Baptist (Isa. 40:3-5). It concludes with the new heavens and the new earth (Isa. 65:17; 66:22). Ultimately, as Isaiah wrote, “From new moon to new moon, and from sabbath to sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, says the LORD” (66:23). Most believers relate easily to Isaiah 53, but are not familiar with the extent to which this prophet of the Old Testament foreshadowed the Father’s plan for salvation and the redemptive works of Christ. Isaiah categorized his explanations in a pattern that mirrors the Bible and its division between the the Old and the New Covenants. 

The Relevant Passage Intact

Most Christians understand that biblical scribes and scholars added the delineation of chapters and verses to the Bible in order to make it easier to perform systematic theological and exegetical study. This format is also more convenient for sharing relevant portions of Scripture, and when reading, teaching, or studying the Bible. The following represents how Isaiah 52:13 through 53:12 would have appeared as originally penned:

Behold, my servant shall prosper, he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. As many were astonished at him–his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the sons of men—so shall he startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which has not been told them they shall see, and that which they have not heard they shall understand. Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.

But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the will of the LORD to bruise him; he has put him to grief; when he makes himself an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand; he shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous; and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out his soul to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors (RSV).

Other OT Prophesies About Jesus

Of course, Isaiah 53 is not the only prophesy concerning Jesus in the Old Testament. Some biblical scholars refer to Genesis 3:15 as the “first gospel” as it predicted the arrival of the one who would crush the seed of the serpent, indicating he would be the “Seed of the woman (Gal. 4:4) who will destroy Satan (1 John 3:8). Jesus is referred to in Acts 3:22-23 as the one whom Moses spoke of: “The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet from your brethren as he raised me up. You shall listen to him in whatever he tells you. And it shall be that every soul that does not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from the people.” Daniel writes about Jesus as follows: “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” (Dan. 7:13-14).

Moses told us that Jesus would be from the line of David (Gen. 12:1-3; Gal. 3:16). Isaiah predicted that Jesus would be born of a virgin (Isa. 7:14). Micah said Jesus would be born in Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2). Jeremiah forewarned of a great mourning following Herod’s order for the murders of male children within the vicinity of Christ’s birth (Jer. 31:15).  Psalm 69:8-9 says, “I have become a stranger to my brethren, an alien to my mother’s sons. For zeal for thy house has consumed me, and the insults of those who insult thee have fallen on me.” Kidner writes, “[David’s] prayer enlarges its circle of vision outwards [verse 6] and upwards [verse 7]. The fact that both halves of verse 9 were to find fulfillment in Christ (John 2:17; Rom. 15:3) puts the matter into so new a context that the Christian reader finds it difficult to enter fully into David’s bewilderment.” [5] Kinder says the “weakness of God” now makes sense, for it is redemptive. Also, “to suffer dishonor for the name” (see Acts 5:41) is, despite its cost, a compliment. It speaks of Christ’s willingness to become “less than” and die a physical death in a human body in order to reconcile man to the Father through the Son.

McArthur hopes that through his book (see footnote 1 below) he has shown how the unshakable persistence of human guilt and the impossibly high cost of redemption are truths that have been built into the Old Testament. Indeed, in my theological studies at Colorado Christian University, I have been able to identify many examples of the foreshadowing of Christ and the need for blood to be shed in order to purchase redemption. When Adam and Eve sinned, requiring covering for their “nakedness” (sinfulness?), God killed an animal and formed clothing from the hide. Jonah was swallowed by a giant fish as a result of his refusal to travel to Nineveh as ordered by God. I’m not going to Nineveh! He spent three days and three nights in the belly of the fish (Jonah 1:17). He was regurgitated on the shore as a clear parallel to the resurrection of Jesus after three days.

Jesus referenced the prophesy of Isaiah when He said to the disciples, “For I tell you that this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was reckoned with transgressors’; for what is written about me has its fulfilment” (Luke 22:37). Isaiah 52:13 through 53:12 is quoted six more times by the New Testament writers: Romans 15:21 (quoting 52:15); John 12:38 and Romans 10:16 (quoting 53:1); Matthew 8:17 (quoting 53:4); Acts 8:32-33 (quoting 53:7-8); and 1 Peter 2:22 (quoting 53:9). This should not come as a surprise. Isaiah gives us a succinct summation of the things to come concerning the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. In fact, every aspect of God’s plan to redeem man rests, to one degree or another, on the rock, the cornerstone, the foundation—Ephesians 2:20 calls Jesus the “chief cornerstone” on which the gospel is built. It should come as a blessing to the church that God’s Word cross-references itself over thousands of years, thereby predicting and confirming many wonderful events and establishing a firm foundation for the redemptive work of Christ.

***

I want to start encouraging more feedback so we can open a dialog. Presently, in order to leave a comment you need to scroll back to the header and click on LEAVE A COMMENT, but I’m in the process of figuring out how to move the COMMENT bar to the end of each post. Thanks for reading. God bless.

Footnotes

[1] John McArthur, The Gospel According to God: Rediscovering the Most Remarkable Chapter in the Old Testament (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018), p. 12.

[2] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997), p. 682.

[3] McArthur, p. 21.

[4] McArthur, p. 24.

[5] Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72, Kidner Classic Commentaries (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008), p.265.

 

Repent, Believe, Follow

By Steven Barto, B.S., Psych.

I WANT TO HAVE A CONVERSATION about what it means to truly follow the way of Jesus. There are, unfortunately, nearly as many explanations of this critical theology as there are people who believe in it. Certainly, this is not what Jesus intended to happen in the Body of Christ. We see this in the numerous denominations, dogmas, philosophies, and factions present in the church today. Admittedly, most believers are making an honest attempt at presenting Jesus in a manner that attracts non-believers to Him. There is, however, a percentage of ministers and laypersons whose focus is on culture rather than Jesus.

Some in the ministry believe the best way to attract others to Jesus is to downplay the ugly side of His ministry: the wrath of God, the wages of sin, the nature of a fallen world, the dark side of the human heart. They think that zeroing in on these vitally important doctrines will cause new believers to lose heart, and block non-believers from coming in from the cold to hear the truth. Instead of shouting the truth of the Gospel from the mountaintop, they create “warm and fuzzy” messages, start coffee clatches at church, and ply the common man with “lights and music.” They create an atmosphere of pageantry, of pomp and circumstance, rather than proclaiming critical points of doctrine.

Truly, this is a matter of spirituality—how we go about following Jesus in word and in deed. The way of Jesus is about loving and saving the world. It is personal, not disembodied, abstract, convoluted, fleshly. Many churches in the United States today are glaringly impersonal: programs, organizations, discussion panels, techniques, general guidelines—about information rather than knowledge. For me, accumulation of information is not synonymous with the acquiring of knowledge. Facts don’t lead to change. Knowledge does.

Many who consider themselves “followers” of Jesus today seem to embrace the ways of their surrounding culture as they go about their daily living “in the Name of Jesus.” This is quite dangerous. It is as if they are going along with the world at work, at school, in the marketplace, while espousing the way of Jesus only while at church or in the company of other believers. It is as if they see Christianity as a religion and not a relationship. In other words, many are Christians in name only. They are “fans” of Christ, but not “followers.” Personally, this is a fairly recent change for me that came about through humility and complete honesty. It is a critical prerequisite to becoming a disciple of Christ.

Jesus presents us with a different way; one that is separate from the world, not a supplement to it. It is grounded in a personal relationship that can only grow through true repentance. Ah, but what does the word repentance really mean? If you want to discover an interesting but troubling truth about most mainstream Christians today, ask them to explain what it means to repent. Some will tell you it means reviewing one’s actions and feeling contrition or regret for past wrongs. They believe it simply means saying to God, I am sorry. Please forgive me! But a literal translation of the Greek μετάνοια (“metanoia”) indicates a transformational change of the heart. It involves turning away from a life of sin and not going back. It’s “doing a 180.”

Jeremiah 35:15 says, “I have sent to you all my servants the prophets, sending them persistently, saying, ‘Turn now every one of you from his evil way, and amend your doings, and do not go after other gods to serve them, and then you shall dwell in the land which I gave to you and your fathers.’ But you did not incline your ear or listen to me” (RSV) [Italics mine]. Personally, I did not take this step for decades. Typically, I made a profession of faith, but acted in a manner that was not consistent with my profession. In the vernacular, I “talked the talk but didn’t walk the walk.” And isn’t the way of Jesus in reality a walk?

In essence, failing to walk out our profession of faith is wrong thinking and wrong living. One of the most stinging rebukes I’ve experienced was when my younger brother said, “I can’t stand you and I don’t trust you. You are nothing but a hypocrite!” Ouch! At the time, my reaction was one of anger. But my brother was right. I understood the what of following Jesus, but I had yet to practice the how. I was living a fleshly life like the rest of the world. My behavior was chock full of justification—ruled by anxiety, depression, selfishness, and chronic pain. My defense mechanisms, despite holding an undergraduate degree in psychology, included denial, rationalization, and projection. I justified my behavior because of how others had behaved toward me.

These excuses are ways of the flesh, involving coping strategies common to culture but not a proper part of the way of Jesus. Much of these mechanisms are terribly destructive. They are highly ineffective in promoting lasting interpersonal relationships. I know this because of the impact they’ve had on my life—divorce, loss of numerous jobs, no true close friends, estrangement from my family. Such behaviors are often useful in getting ahead in a secular world (albeit with considerable negative consequences relative to human connection), but not in the community of Jesus. They frustrate any attempt to become part of the Kingdom of God.

The Jesus Way

Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). Take a second look at what you just read. He said He is the way, sure, but He didn’t stop there. He also said He is the truth and the life. This statement is made up of three distinct parts. To ascribe to one of these three concepts is to invite failure in our Christian walk. The Jesus way is predicated upon to the truth He gave us about the life we can have through Him. Follow me for a minute here. Merely having information about Christianity (the way) will not produce truth in our everyday activities. Consequently, we will never achieve the life we can have in Him. Reading about the life we can have in Jesus is useful only in a “quiz bowl” competition on the Bible. We’ll get the question right, but we will miss the means by which we can come to know the truth about the information, and, therefore, live in a manner that is victorious.

In other words, the Gospel gets only partial attention in our churches today. The concept of Jesus as the way is the most frequently evaded metaphor among Christians today. This is because we don’t always hear the entire truth. Jesus, in His statement we read in John 14:6, sets out in plain language that the way comes first. We cannot know the truth, and then appreciate and live the life, without first entering into the way. This crucial step can’t be skipped if we are to become disciples of Christ. The way of Jesus is the only means by which we can obtain the ability to practice and come to understand the truth of Jesus Christ. This involves living Jesus seven days a week—in our homes and workplaces, at school and in the marketplace—not just on Sunday!

This is how the “local” church (our part in the Body of Christ) demonstrates the way, the truth, and the life of Jesus. We are told to leave everything behind, take up our cross (personal sacrifices needed for complete service), and follow Him. But what does it mean to follow Him? What do we need to give up in order to make this commitment real for us? I believe Jesus was stating an imperative: in order to follow Him we must live an authentic, committed life for Him and through Him. The beautiful life Jesus lived—marked by a passionate love for and unwavering obedience to God and a compassion for people—must be learned and practiced. It must not be theoretical (head knowledge); instead, it must be demonstrated through action (heart knowledge). We cannot live like Jesus without following Jesus.

More Than Mere Consumers

It seems the American way is the way of consumerism. I am not casting aspersions on our wonderful system of democracy, nor am I putting down the idea of open markets, free enterprise, and equal opportunity for success. Our country needs to return to the concept of providing equal access for obtaining an education and earning a fair living. These are, without a doubt, opportunities that are unique to the United States. Further, this is completely different from wealth. Equal opportunity leads to a level playing field for the accumulation of wealth. Opportunity begets wealth. It is not proper to take wealth from those who have obtained it and give it (without merit) to those who have not worked for it.

Perhaps this is why many of our churches today seem to be churches of consumerism. It is not appropriate, however, to market our churches in the same way we market and promote goods and services. When we approach “church” in this manner, we risk getting off message. This is typically not an intentional diversion. Rather, it is a symptom of using the wrong message (indeed, the wrong mechanism) for growing our congregations. It puts emphasis on “congregation” (the size of a church’s membership) rather than on the Body of Christ. Congregation is not the same thing as church.

Today’s churches, especially the so-called mega-churches, increase membership through marketing. Leaders of these types of congregations believe the quickest and most effective way to get people to come to services is to identify what they want and give it to them—satisfy their fantasies, promise them the moon, recast the Gospel in consumer terms: entertainment, satisfaction, excitement, adventure, problem-solving, warm feelings, and the like. I see this specifically as a problem with the ministry of Joel Osteen. He promotes “the best life now,” saying, “everyday is Friday” (whatever that means), and tells his followers they need only stop seeing themselves as sinners, losers, damaged goods, hopeless and helpless. It’s not the concept that’s wrong; it’s the approach. This method leaves sin and repentance out of the message. Whenever we water down the Gospel, making it less harsh (in other words, more “palatable”), we step out of the way of Jesus.

The End of Me

“Follow me” is one of the greatest commands spoken by Jesus during his earthly ministry (see Mark 1:17). This statement, however, is preceded by the commands repent and believe (see verse 15). The Kingdom of God is at hand. In other words, He is the Kingdom. It is what Jesus revealed in His ministry. Our access to the Kingdom can only be obtained through repentance—a decision to leave one way of life (one reality) and enter another. It requires a complete change of mind and heart. In my own experience, I was unable to appreciate any victory over sin (especially over active addiction) until I came to believe, completely and entirely, that there is only one way to achieve it: the way of Jesus. My hope is you are able to grasp this sooner rather than later. It will revolutionize your life.

This requires what Kyle Idleman (2015) calls coming to “the end of me.” But what does this mean? In a nutshell, it means “death is life.” The Bible says life’s real prize is hidden. We have to know where to look for it. Paul wrote, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:1-3, RSV). It indicates that to live the life that is hidden in Christ we must first die to ourselves. Jesus made this clear when He said, “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13-14, RSV).

Idleman writes, “Death is nobody’s favorite word. We tiptoe around it with nicer names. Someone passed on. They’ve gone ahead. They crossed the river” (p. 194). He says we tend to do whatever we can to live in denial of our eventual death. Perhaps you’ve heard the lyrics from Joe Diffie: “Well I ain’t afraid of dying, it’s the thought of being dead… prop me up beside the jukebox if I die, Lord I want to go to heaven, but I don’t want to go tonight.”

Jesus said, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?” (Matthew 16:25-26, RSV). Jesus was not speaking of our physical (literal) death, but was speaking of a spiritual reorientation of our focus. To die to self is to set aside what we want and focus instead on loving God with everything we’ve got and valuing others as highly as we value ourselves (see Matthew 22:37-39). This moves us away from self-centeredness and closer to becoming openhearted followers of Christ who care deeply for others. We cannot serve God or others while enamored with ourselves.

Paul said, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21, RSV). Focusing on ourselves is easy. It’s what we all do in the flesh. It’s part of our fallen nature. The moment Adam and Eve chose to disobey God and partake of the forbidden fruit, they put self-knowledge ahead of fellowship with God. As a result, their walk with the Father was forever changed. It is only through adhering to the command of Jesus to follow Him that we can ever hope to put God and our fellow man ahead of ourselves. This concept is, as I stated at the beginning of this article, found only through repenting (turning away from self and our sinful ways), believing that Jesus is the way to the Kingdom of God, and following Him.

True (spiritual) life is found only through the laying down of our physical (carnal) life. We are not wired to turn from our physical world and embrace the metaphysical. Indeed, we cannot grasp spiritual concepts merely by thinking about them. We can begin by taking steps each day to surrender. We cannot hope to comprehend the way of Jesus without denying ourselves. Jesus said, plainly and simply, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23, RSV).

Jesus is our way to God. Moreover, Jesus is God’s way to us. God comes to us in Jesus, speaking the words of salvation. Those words necessarily begin with one simple but crucial step: repentance.

References

Idleman, K. (2015). The End of Me: Where Real Life in the Upside-Down Ways of Jesus Begins. Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook Publications.

Perdew, Baylock, R., and Phillips, K. (1993). Prop Me Up Beside the Jukebox (If I Die) [Joe Diffie]. On Honky Tonk Attitude [CD recording]. New York, NY: Epic Records

Justification

MARTIN LUTHER STRUGGLED a great deal with the idea of justification and righteousness. He was so obsessed with sinning and offending God and worried he would die having failed to confess everything. He spent a great deal of time ruminating about his behavior. He unfortunately focused how he could punish himself  and assure that he would be redeemed and clothed in the righteousness of Christ. Luther often deprived himself of comforts, including blankets and coats during cold weather, and often flagellated himself as punishment.

Luther became fixated on Paul’s letter to the Romans. He could not grasp the manner by which he could ever hope to become “righteous” in God’s eyes. He was especially concerned about Romans 1:17, which says, “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.” Luther, in his Preface to his Commentary on Romans (1552 A.D.), wrote

This Espistle is really the chief part of the New Testament and the very purest Gospel, and is worthy not only that every Christian should know it word for word, by heart, but occupy himself with it every day, as the daily bread of the soul. It can never be read or pondered too much, and the more it is dealt with the more precious it becomes, and the better it tastes.

It seems Luther was quite concerned about the orientation of his heart and about how he might earn salvation. He wrote, “How can a man prepare himself for good by means of works, if he does no good works without displeasure and unwillingness of heart? How shall a work please God, if it proceeds from a reluctant and resisting heart?” This was his personal obsession: Is my heart right with God? Can I possibly be worthy of redemption? How can I put on the righteousness of Christ? No doubt he was tormented with the example of Paul regarding the struggle to do good. Paul wrote, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me… For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:15-17, 19).

In his commentary, Luther wrote, “So also the Apostle says in in 7:15: ‘That which I do, I allow not” (I do not approve). The Apostle means to say: As a spiritual man I recognize only what is good, and yet I do what I do not desire, namely, that which is evil, not indeed willfully and maliciously. But while I choose the good, I do the opposite. The carnal man, however, knows what is evil, and he does it intentionally, willfully and by choice.” Looking again at Romans 1:17, Luther said,

God certainly desires to save us not through our own righteousness, but through the righteousness and wisdom of someone else or by means of a righteousness which does not originate on earth, but comes down from heaven. So, then, we must teach a righteousness which in every way comes from without and is entirely foreign to us.

God’s righteousness is that by which we become worthy of His great salvation, or through which alone we are accounted righteous before Him. Luther struggled to understand how it is we become righteous. Not surprisingly, Romans 1:17 directly affected the course of the Protestant Reformation more than any other. The moment Luther grasped in his heart the process by which we put on the righteousness of Christ a gate opened to heaven. He was able to grasp that it is only through God’s love and grace and justice that we can become righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ.

Of course, it took Luther asking the right questions: What does this mean, that there’s this righteousness that is by faith, and from faith to faith? What does it mean that the righteous shall live by faith? Again, verse 17 contains the theme for the whole exposition of the Gospel that Paul lays out in Romans. Luther could now understand that what Paul was speaking of here was a righteousness that God in His grace was making available. It is to be received passively, not actively. Rather, it is received by faith

From a linguistics standpoint, the Latin word for justification that was used at this time in church history is justificare from the Roman judicial system. The term is made up of the word justus, which translates “justice or righteousness,” and the infinitive verb facare, which means “to make.” But Luther was looking now at the Greek word used in the New Testament: dikaios, or dikaiosune, which does not mean “to make righteous,” but rather to regard as righteous, to count as righteous, to declare as righteous. This allowed Luther to realize that the doctrine of justification is what happens when God sees us clothed in righteousness through our faith in Jesus Christ. Justification does not come through sacraments or priestly absolution or by an edict handed down from the pope. This position shines through in Luther’s 95 Theses that launched the Reformation.

Consider three theses written by Luther:

When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said “Repent,” He called for the entire life of believers to be one of penitence.

The word cannot be properly understood as referring the sacrament of penance, i.e., confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.

Those who preach indulgences are in error when they say that a man is absolved and saved from every penalty by the pope’s indulgences.

So Luther said, “Whoa, you mean the righteousness by which I will be saved, is not mine?” Nope. It’s what he called a justitia alienum, meaning “alien righteousness.” It’s a righteousness that belongs properly to someone else. A righteousness that is extra nos, outside of us. It is the righteousness of Christ. Luther said, “When I discovered that, I was born again of the Holy Ghost. The doors of paradise swung open, and I walked through.” Luther considered justification to be the article by which the church stands or falls.

WHAT IS JUSTIFICATION?

Justification and righteousness are legal terms. Following a trial, a verdict is declared as to how the individual now stands before the court.  In Scripture, to justify does not mean to make righteous in the sense of changing a person’s character. We’re not magically changed into righteousness; instead, we are declared righteous in the eyes of the Lord. When He looks at us, He no longer sees our sins. He has wiped them away and remembers them no more. Rather, when the Father looks at us He sees Jesus.

Here are several key points regarding justification:

  • Justification is the opposite of condemnation. In Deuteronmy 25:1 the judges are to acquit (justify) the innocent and condemn the guilty. Clearly, to condemn does not literally mean “to make them guilty,” but rather to “declare them to be guilty,” and so determine them to be “guilty” by the verdict. In other words, if a man or woman stands accused of a crime and wins an acquittal, the verdict does not render an otherwise guilty person innocent. The verdict does not change the facts. After all, guilty people win acquittal in criminal court. It’s a matter of applying the law to the evidence and making a declaration.
  • The terms with which righteousness is associated have a judicial character—for example, consider the emphasis in Genesis 18:25 on God as the Judge.
  • The expressions used as synonyms or substitutes for justify do not have the sense of “making righteous,” but carry a declarative or constitutive sense.
  • The ultimate proof that justification involves a status changed by public declaration lies in the biblical view that through the resurrection Jesus Himself was “justified” (1 Timothy 3:16). The justification of Christ was not an actual alteration in His character. Rather, it refers to His vindication by the Father through the triumph and victory of the resurrection. Romans 1:4 says, “And who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord” (NIV).

THE POWER OF JUSTIFICATION

The practical impact of this doctrine cannot be overstated. The wonder of the Gospel is that God has declared Christians to be rightly related to Him in spite of their sin. Luther struggled with the same thing I have on many occasions. That is, assuming that we remain justified only so long as there are grounds in our character for justification. Paul’s epistle teaches us that nothing we ever do contributes to our justification. Frankly, there is nothing adequate we could do. Ever.

Justification is more than forgiveness; it involves being cleared of all blame, free from every charge of sin lodged against you. In a secular court, a judge cannot both forgive a man and justify him at the same time. If he forgives the defendant, then the man must be guilty and therefore he cannot be justified. If the judge justifies the defendant, the accused does not need forgiveness. God forgives the sin and justifies the sinner. Plugging this analogy into the Gospel, God forgives the guilty and condemned sinner and literally places him in a new position devoid of any charge against him at all (see Romans 8:1).

IT’S A MATTER OF FAITH, NOT A MATTER OF LAW

No one is justified by his or her own actions. Romans 3:20, 22-23 says, “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin… this righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (NIV).

God justly justifies sinners through the work of Christ. Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for our sins (1 John 2:2). When we confess our sins, we discover that God is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from our own unrighteousness. Of course, this still begs the question How does Christ’s righteousness become ours? Martin Luther was able to settle on faith in Christ. No works of ours, no good resolutions or reformation, can justify us or contribute one little bit to our justification. Such outwardly good works are really our attempt at self-righteousness. For us to be justified, Jesus must pay the penalty for our sins, and we must receive that payment by faith.

At the center of Paul’s teaching is the cross of Jesus and faith in the sacrifice of the crucified Lord. Paul wrote, “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Romans 4:1, NIV).  Certainly, God’s wrath is revealed in His response to sin. Without a valid source of justification, we’d have no choice but to face that wrath. We deserve it. God also demonstrates His righteousness in the salvation of men. His wrath toward the sinner was poured out on Jesus Christ who died an agonizing and horrendous death in our place. God’s anger was appeased in Christ. Accordingly, God is able to save and to bless everyone who believes in Jesus Christ and who receives His salvation by faith.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Justification is of grace, to be received as a gift by faith in order that God may guarantee his promise of salvation. If justification depended on works, it would be unattainable. Let’s say, for the sake of discussion, that justification were attainable. It would be subject to decay unless we were able continue justifying ourselves by works. Thankfully, justification is all about grace. It is based on the work of Christ, not on our works. Accordingly, God is able to guarantee our justification. We have assurance of our salvation and the hope of heaven. Once forgiven, our standing in God’s eyes is that of a “just” or “righteous” person. The empowerment of God’s Spirit enables one to continue in righteousness.

Being justified by God means that once redeemed we can become partakers of His divine nature, and we can aim for perfection. The divine image, with moral and spiritual perfection, which was imparted to us in the Garden of Eden and subsequently marred and distorted by sin, is now our goal. We must not let God’s gift of justification by faith lead to becoming complacent. Like Paul, we should be diligent in our efforts towards spiritual perfection and sensitive to the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.

 

 

Jesus: Portrait of a Messiah

Jesus and the Twelve.jpg

I’VE BEEN THINKING A LOT lately about who Jesus truly is, and how He conducted Himself during his ministry. Just think about how much love He has for us and for the Father. Jesus lived to be the Good News we all need. He was committed to doing the will of the Father. In fact, He was the embodiment of God’s love for us. Jesus was forgiving and accepting of everyone He encountered.

A LOOK AT THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW

I was reading in Matthew recently and found it rich with information. The synoptic Gospel of Matthew is one of the most quoted books of the Bible. It contains the Sermon on the Mount and the Lord’s Prayer. It is in Matthew that Jesus explains the Golden Rule. It famously concludes with the Great Commission: “Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, the worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age'” (Matthew 28:16-20, NIV).

The Gospel of Matthew is especially important, for it is one of the two Gospels originally written by an apostle—John being the other one. It is likely Matthew wrote his gospel in Antioch, which was perhaps an early home of Christianity (85 A.D.). The Book of Acts (essentially a chronicle and exposition on the activities of the early Christian church after Jesus ascended into heaven following His crucifixion) recorded that the followers of Jesus there first called Christians in Antioch (see Acts 11:26).

MY TAKE ON JESUS

I find Jesus to be fascinating, enigmatic, powerful, consistent, straightforward. He was not a diplomat or politician. His agenda was devoid of trying to please everyone. He saw the potential, the good—the redeeming qualities if you will—in everyone He met. He literally oozed unconditional love. He was not tolerating of hypocrites—especially the Pharisees who practiced what I like to call  “conspicuous religious consumption.” They were most concerned with their own public image, and considered themselves to be the only group that understood God. They felt they were holier than others—the word Pharisee is from an Aramaic word meaning “separated.” Jesus saw the heart, not the attire. He clearly saw everyone on the same, equal footing.

Certainly, there were individuals with whom Jesus got angry—like the money changers and the men at the Temple selling animals for sacrifice at an exorbitant profit. I identify quite easily with the types of people Jesus loved, reached out to, ministered to, and healed. Basically, the broken. When moving in the physical realm, God has always had a soft spot for people who are far from perfect. Our weakness is God’s power. He uses the flawed and the troubled to implement His will. He does not look for the perfect; even the not-so-imperfect. God does not call the qualified; rather, He qualifies the called. This is great news! None are perfect. None are without sin.

That was music to my ears. I have often felt I am one of those whom Christ could not save. I have been downtrodden, depressed, resentful, suicidal, mentally ill, and an addict. I am a convicted felon. I’m twice divorced, have had cars repossessed, been evicted, had my children refuse to speak to me. I have a long-standing history of lying, cheating, and stealing. There are so many “failures” in my life that I simply stopped counting. But in the eyes of the Father, I have been made in His image. Jesus loves me and wants me to have an abundant, successful, God-sharing life. Jesus accepts me for who I am, with absolutely no strings attached. He does not play favorites at all, which is miraculous in itself. That fact alone—His undying, unconditional love—may be one of the most supernatural things Jesus did. He didn’t show partiality at all, and neither should we.

BECAUSE HE FIRST LOVED ME

For me, I will love God because He first loved me. I will do my best to obey God because I love God. But if I were unable to accept God’s love, I would be unable to love Him in return, and unlikely to be obedient. The ability to accept God’s unconditional love and unmerited favor is all the fuel we need to obey Him in return. This is what’s at the crux of getting God out of your head and into your heart. Accepting God’s grace and love is something the devil does not want us to do. If we hear, in our “inner ear,” a voice saying we are failures, we are losers, we will never amount to anything. This is the voice of Satan trying to distract us from God’s love. This is not the voice of God. God woos us with kindness and grace and acceptance. We become saints. We partake of sonship through Jesus. Through this, God changes our character with the passion of His love.

Sometimes I wonder if I am doing everything God expects of me. Certainly, I miss the mark. When we look at Matthew 28:16-20, we realize none of us truly measure up. Jesus said to feed the poor, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, heal the sick. John 14:12 tells us, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father” (NIV). He said to love those that persecute me. This involves putting our ego in check. Regardless of who He truly was, Jesus did not let this impact His ego or derail his ministry.

Jesus did not mix His ministry (indeed, his theology) with politics. I grew up doing that, which got in the way of the central message of the Gospel. I know that was wrong, and I know that there are a log of people who will not listen to the message of Christ because of believers carrying their own agendas into the conversation rather than just relaying the message Christ wanted to get across.

THE MEASURE OF OUR FAITH

Love is the measure of our faith, the inspiration for our obedience, and the true altitude of our discipleship. By altitude, I mean how high we can go in God. How deep our relationship can be. Love is a distinguishing mark of Christians and something the Lord commanded us to do. John 13:34-35 tells us, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (NIV). This is what we mean by a God kind of love. It is impossible to have this kind of love without accepting Christ. Love and the cross are indivisible.

Jesus said we should love others as God loves us—selflessly, sacrificially, with understanding, acceptance, and forgiveness. Jesus did not come to our world to condemn, and neither should we. But how can we love others if we’re unsure of His love for us personally? When we refer to God’s love, we’re talking about unselfish giving of Himself to us, which brings about blessings in our lives—no matter how unlovable we might be. I don’t know about you, but that makes me extremely happy. I always felt unlovable growing up. I felt I was too bad, too evil, to be loved. God’s love is not just an emotion, decision, or action. Well, in one sense love is a verb. It is something we do, not something we say. Love, of course, is who God is. It says in 1 John 4:8, “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (NIV).

GOD CHOSE US

John 17:24 says, “Jesus prayed, ‘Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world” (NIV). Let’s compare this verse to Ephesians 1:4-5, which states, “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.” God loved us and foresaw our adoption into His holy family before He created the earth.

We know Jesus died for us. Romans 5:8 says, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (NIV). His death was the ultimate gift to us. What more can a man do than lay down his life for those he loves? On the cross, Jesus emptied Himself for our sake, pouring out His love so that we might be saved. He loved us, then, and He still loves us today—regardless of all our sins, mistakes, or struggles. In fact, He will love us and aid us during all our struggles.

God cares for us. God continually watches over us, providing our needs. He protects and guides us, and answers our prayers. The Lord may not always act within the time frame we expect, but if we’re faithful to wait on Him, He will always come through for us according to His will. The best way to learn about God’s deep concern for His children is to spend time reading the Scriptures and meditating on His Word. If we devote ourselves to the Lord, we will discover that He is always caring for us. What’s unfathomable, God promises to love us unconditionally. No matter what. He will never leave us or forsake us.

Hebrews 13:5b reminds us “…Neither will I leave you, never will I forsake you” (NIV). In verse 6, we’re told, “So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?'” If God loved us only sometimes, but not all the time, that would indicate His character, feelings, and attitude are changeable. But the Lord never changes. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Thankfully, neither is His love contingent upon what we do. Whether or not we go to church, witness, pray enough, and never sin—which we know is impossible—will not impact God’s love for us as His children. God’s affection is always the same. You can’t do anything to deserve God’s love, and you can’t do anything to keep Him from loving you. There is no sin too great. No person too depraved. God loves us all and sent His Son to be our ultimate sacrifice.

Remember, the Apostle John tells us that God is love. This may be a difficult truth for the human mind to comprehend. But love is the Lord’s very essence. He is the source from which all true love flows. There are no limitations, no restrictions, and no exceptions. God’s care for us is absolute and genuine, and through creation He has unmistakably declared that love. But in His most powerful proclamation of all, He sent His Son to die for us, so that we could enjoy His loving presence for all of eternity.

THE GOD KIND OF LOVE

What are the attributes of this agape kind of love? Let’s look at 1 Corinthians 13. Starting at verse 4, “Love is patient. Love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails” (NIV). How important is love? Peterson puts it this way in The Message: If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, ‘Jump,’ and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love” (vv. 1-7).

The love God has for you and me is far beyond human comprehension. Jesus told us that God loves us as much as He loves Jesus. Think of it! What a staggering and overwhelming truth to comprehend. We need have no fear of someone who loves us unconditionally. We never need to be reluctant to trust God with our entire lives, whatever situation we find ourselves in. God does truly love us. And the most unbelievable part is that He loves us even when we’re being disobedient. He disciplines or corrects us because He loves us. We’re told in the Bible not to be angry when the Lord punishes us. We should not be discouraged when He has to show us where we have gone off the rails. For when He punishes us, it proves that He loves us. We need to let God train us.

We are commanded to love. Jesus said we are to love the Lord our God with our our heart, soul, and mind. That means we have to love Him unconditionally. Even when our lives are falling apart and He seems to be ignoring us. Jesus said loving God was the first or greatest commandment of the new covenant. He said the second-most important thing is to love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves. If we keep these two commandments we will find it easier to fulfill the other commandments given to us through Moses.

I’ve learned I cannot love in my own strength. Scripture tells us that just as surely as those who are in the flesh (the worldly, carnal person) cannot please God, so in our own strength was cannot love as we should. We can’t demonstrate agape love, God’s unconditional love, through our own efforts. How many times have you resolved to love someone? How often have you tried to manufacture some kind of positive loving emotion to another person for whom you felt nothing? Such as trying to “love” your neighbor who gives you nothing but grief and heartache. It’s impossible, isn’t it? In your own strength, it is not possible to love as God loves.

Jesus lived out the agape kind of love by being a sacrifice for us. He laid down His life willingly. No man took the life of Jesus. And He did this out of a perfect, undying, unconditional love for us. But one way we can show God we love Him is by keeping His commandments. Jesus said, “The one who loves Me will be loved by the Father.” Of course, the greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself and love the Lord with all your heart, mind, and soul.

And we have the example of Jesus to follow.

 

 

 

 

Following Christ in an Anti-Christian Age

Unfortunately, contemporary American culture is increasingly anti-Christian. How should Christians respond to a rapidly changing American culture? Do we resign ourselves to pessimism, convinced that many of the moral foundations upon which our society once stood have collapsed and are now irrevocable? Or do we reassure ourselves with optimism, confident that we can still win the culture war if we’ll just unite together spiritually, personally, politically, and philosophically? Most likely neither pessimism nor optimism is the answer. Instead, realism is.

An Example

The Supreme Court in United States v. Windsor 570 U.S. (2013) (Docket No. 12-307)[5-4] challenges Section 3 of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA): “In determining the meaning of any Act of Congress, or of any ruling, regulation, or interpretation of the various administrative bureaus and agencies of the United States, the word ‘marriage’ means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word ‘spouse’ refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.”

The majority opinion of the Court held, “DOMA seeks to injure the very class New York seeks to protect. By doing so it violates basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to the Federal Government. The Constitution’s guarantee of equality must at the very least mean that a bare congressional desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot justify disparate treatment of that group. In determining whether a law is motived by an improper animus or purpose, [d]iscriminations of an unusual character especially require careful consideration. DOMA cannot survive under these principles.” The Supreme Court accused Christians who believe the “narrow” teaching of the Bible relative to marriage as bigoted.

Persecution is Worldwide

Of course, such anti-Christian sentiments are obviously not limited to America. Across the world, followers of Christ live in settings that are hostile to Christianity (many of them far more hostile than the United States). After all, Christianity was born into a culture of vehement opposition over two thousand years ago in Jerusalem, and faced tremendous persecution throughout Judea and at the hands of the Romans. The total number of Christians martyred in the early church is unknown. It has been calculated that between the first persecution under Nero in 64 to the Edict of Milan in 313, Christians experienced 129 years of persecution.

Sadly, the plight of Christians is worse today. According to Jeremy Weber of Christianity Today (January 11, 2017), for the third year in a row, the modern persecution of Christians worldwide has hit an all time high. Interestingly, the primary cause—Islamic extremism—is being eclipsed by a brand of ethnic nationalism. Principally, this is a form of nationalism wherein the nation is defined in terms of a shared heritage, which usually includes a shared language, a common religious faith, and a common ethnic ancestry. Weber notes in his article the 2017 World Watch List released by Open Doors. In 25 years of “chronicling and ranking” the political and societal restrictions on religious freedom experienced by Christians worldwide, Open Doors researchers identified 2016 as the “worst year yet.”

How should followers of Christ today live in an America or any other culture that is intentionally and increasingly anti-Christian? It seems that every professing Christian in any such culture has two clear options: retreat or risk persecution. Sure, we can retreat. But we’d be denying Christ. Peter chose this option (Mark 14:66-72). Certainly, most Christians won’t reject Christ outright and not all at once. Instead, our retreat can be slow and subtle. I see this happening in America today through “progressive” faith, “inclusive” belief, “open” minds, and “ecumenical” churches. This involves trading God’s truth for the changing opinions of the world. The signs of such retreat are already apparent here in America.

Christians might not retreat from Christ; however, they may very well retreat from society. In the face of increasing anti-Christian sentiment and social pressure, many Christians who hold a steadfast belief in the Bible may choose to hide in the comfortable confines of privatized faith. We might stand up and speak with strong conviction—but many do so in the privacy of our homes or at church. We remain silent at work or in our university classes or other public settings. When the conversation at the coffee shop switches to the topic of gender dysphoria or same-sex marriage, or the language becomes rather course, Christians often sheepishly, almost apologetically, stumble  through a vague notion of what the Bible teaches, or probably more likely, might say nothing at all.

Worse, when our boss asks what we believe and we realize that our job may be in jeopardy based on how we answer, we might find ourselves masking, or at least minimizing, our faith. On a smaller scale, I recently started a new job in retail. I completed an “availability” form indicating I was not able to work after 5:00 pm on Wednesday or before 1:00 pm on Sunday in order to attend church services. The store general manager insisted that I change my availability to all hours on those days and initial the changes in order to get hired. I gave in.

The Gospel and Culture

Clearly, the Gospel is the lifeblood of Christianity, and it provides the very foundation for countering culture. When we truly believe the Gospel, it goes from mere head knowledge to something that lives in our heart. We begin to realize the Gospel not only compels Christians to confront social issues in the culture around us; the Gospel actually creates confrontation with the culture around and within us. Of course, it is increasingly common for biblical views on social issues to be labeled insulting. Today it’s considered insulting and “backward” to an ever-expanding number of people to say a woman who is emotionally and sexually attracted to another woman should not express love for her in marriage. It doesn’t take long for a Christian to be backed into a theological corner, not wanting to be offensive yet wondering how to respond.

Culture now impacts the church. Ryan Bell, a former Seventh-Day Adventist minister, published an online article on CNN.com titled “Why You Don’t Need God.” You can read the article in its entirely by clicking here. Bell is a writer and speaker on the topic of religion and irreligion in America. In January 2014, Ryan began a year-long journey to explore the limits of theism and the growing landscape of atheism in America. Bell writes, “I had been a Seventh-day Adventist pastor for 19 years. I resigned from my pastoral position the year before, but now I stepped away from my faith altogether. It was gut-wrenching, but I couldn’t see any other way to find peace and clarity. I encountered major theological differences with my denomination and evangelical Christianity in general, including the way it marginalizes women and LGBT people.”

For many, the Gospel’s offense starts with the very first words of the Bible. “In the beginning, God…” (Genesis 1:1). Genesis was written in Hebrew and provided the people a foundation for their faith. Certainly, Genesis was not meant to be an exhaustive blow-by-blow account of how God created the heavens and the earth. Frankly, such an account would have caused the Bible to be far too large a tome.

For many, the initial antagonism of the Gospel is that there is a God—a supreme being by, through, and for whom all things began. “The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 40:28, RSV). Paul clearly stated that natural man does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, “…for they are foolishness to him” (1 Corinthians 2:14). Consider the confrontation created by the reality of God in each of our lives. Because God is our Creator, we belong to him. The one who created us owns us. Honestly, does that not send a jolt through most of us? A tendency of rebellion? Nobody owns me! So we are not the masters of our own fate; the captains of our own souls.

Our Natural Reaction to God

God placed man in the midst of the Garden of Eden and granted him authority over all as keeper of the garden, charging him with naming the animals. The garden was established by God especially for man, planted in a full-grown state. God had just one command. He said, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die” (Genesis 2:16b, 17).

Zodhiates and Baker (1997) notes that there may be purposes for the existence of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that are not clearly explained in Scripture. They do believe, however, that it functioned as a test of obedience. Adam and Eve had to choose whether to obey God or break His commandment. When they actually ate the forbidden fruit, the consequences of their actions became self-evident. They found themselves in a different relationship to God because of sin. Actually, access to such knowledge was to be based solely upon a proper relationship with God. The real questions which faced Adam and Eve are the same ones that face us today: Which path should be chosen? What kind of relationship do we want with God?

The serpent was crafty to say the least. He said to Eve, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden?'” Eve said God allowed consuming anything in the garden except the tree of knowledge of good and evil. She said God warned them, “…or you will surely die.” The serpent said, “You will not surely die… for God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:4-6, NIV). I find the serpent’s ruse to be fascinating given he—as Lucifer—was cast down from heaven because of pride originating from his desire to be God instead of a servant of God. Although he was the highest of all the angels, he wanted more. He literally wanted to rule the universe.

Why do we run from God? John 3:20 says, “Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed” (NIV). The reason most people run from God is because of their love for the flesh; their tendency to live in sin. This is unfortunately not the only reason: Many run from God because of bitterness. This is often due to a tragic event, such as the loss of a loved one. We tend to place God on trial when adversity strikes. The worse the troubles, the deeper our bitterness. But it is sin that is to blame. Nothing is as God planned. From the time of the Fall, all has fallen askew of what God intended.

Nothing New Under the Sun

When we understand this first sin, we realize that the moral relativism of the twenty-first century is nothing new. Whenever we attempt to usurp (or eliminate) God, we lose objectivity for determining what is good and evil, right and wrong, moral and immoral. Today’s militant atheists are noted for claiming  that morality is merely a biological adaptation in the same manner as hands and feet, teeth and hair. Dawkins (1995) writes, “In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, not any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at the bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, and no other good. Nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is, And we dance to its music.”

Of course, the doctrine of the Fall offers an explanation of the imperfection of this world and God Himself, its perfect Creator. This concept does not sit well with many philosophies. Nor does it win any merit with atheists. Launder and Rowlands (2001) are rather vitriolic in their comments in Original Sin: “The term comes from Christianity’s belief that Adam, the first human created by their god, ate an apple from the tree of knowledge, and forever after, all humans have been born guilty of the crime that Adam committed. Original sin refers not just to this particular belief, but to all beliefs that man is born evil.” They argue that this belief is based “on the fallacious view that value is intrinsic.” But we’re not talking about a work of art where the value—the beauty, if you will—is in the beholder. To state that morality or ethics is based solely on interpretation is to suborn moral relativism.

Why is This So?

The Gospel answers that although God created us in His image, we have rebelled against Him in our independence. Though it looks different in each of our lives, we all are just like the man and woman in the Garden. We think, Even if God says not to do something, I’m going to do it anyway. In essence, we’re saying, “God’s not Lord over me, and God doesn’t know best for me. No! I define what’s right and wrong, good and evil.” In other words, morality is relative. This shifts our morality from the objective truth God has given us in His Word to the subjective notions we create in our minds. Even when we don’t realize the implications of our ideas, we inescapably come to one conclusion: whatever seems right to me or feels right to me is what’s right. This amounts to one thing: It’s all about me!

This is why the Bible diagnoses the human condition simply by saying, “All have turned aside, together they have all gone wrong; no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:12, RSV). Eugene Peterson puts it this way: “So where does that put us? Do we Jews get a better break than the others? Not really. Basically, all of us, whether insiders or outsiders, start out in identical conditions, which is to say that we all start out as sinners” (MSG). Some will argue that Christians are placing “ancestral guilt” on each successive generation. It’s not about being held accountable for what others did before us. Look at 2 Corinthians 5:10: “For we must all stand before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (NIV) [Italics mine].

We turn from worshiping God to to worshiping self. We probably would never put it that way. Most people don’t  publicly profess, “I worship myself. I am my own god.” The dictionary does contain hundreds of words that start with self: self-esteem, self-confidence, self-advertisement, self-gratification, self-glorification, self-motivation, self-pity, self-centeredness, self-indulgence, self-righteousness, and the like. Are these concepts bad in their own right? No. That’s not the point. I can tell you this, however: I struggled with active addiction for over forty years. Nothing I did—no self effort of any kind—set me free. When I left rehab, I thought, Oh, now I understand. I got this! Trust me, whenever an addict says, “I got this,” he or she is in denial. No human power can relieve an alcoholic or addict of their addiction. For me, there was only one true higher power, Jesus Christ, who broke the chains of addiction over my life. And even that took me letting go of self and letting God set me free.

Twenty-First Century Ambassadors

Representing the truth of the Gospel in the new millennium requires three basic skills. First, we need to grasp the basics of the message of Jesus Christ. We must fully grasp the central message of God’s kingdom and understand how to respond to the obstacles we’re bound to encounter. This is not simply a matter of memorizing Scripture to through at the “unbelievers.” Second, we need the kind of wisdom that makes our testimony clear, bold, and persuasive. In other words, the tools of a diplomat rather than the weapons of a warrior. Tactics rather than brute force.

Finally, our character can make or break our mission. My pastor once said, “The number one attraction to Christianity is other Christians; unfortunately, the number one detractor to Christianity is other Christians.” Knowledge and wisdom are packaged in a person. If we do not embody the virtues and grace of Christ, we will simply undermine our testimony. We’ll taint the message of the Gospel. It would be better that we kept silent than bring shame or doubt or controversy to the very thing that has the power to deliver us from a life of sin and death.

References

Dawkins, R. (1995). River Out of Eden. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Zodhiates, S., and Baker, W. (1997). Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible. Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers.

 

Has the Gospel Changed?

THE GOSPEL STORY ITSELF has not changed, but culture and society has. As a result, the Gospel is viewed against the backdrop of current culture. Culture typically evolves over time—changes in demographics, attitudes toward moral issues, drastic advancements in technology. Accordingly, the method by which we present the Gospel today needs to be such that we do not offend non-believers or appear to be holier-than-thou. Only then will people be willing to listen. It has been suggested by modern-day evangelists that when sharing the Gospel we start where and when God did—in the beginning.

ENGAGING AN EVER-CHANGING CULTURE

It is imperative that we refrain from being dragged along by culture. One of the greatest problems that has frustrated the church is the relation between knowledge and piety—between culture and Christianity. In other words, we don’t want to share a watered-down message. We must always be concerned with proclaiming the Gospel—the entire Gospel. Given the audacity of today’s militant atheists, we should expect increasing objection to the Gospel and challenges to the authenticity and inerrancy of the Bible. By using apologetics to give solid answers, we can help people listen and learn about the most important historical document of all—the whole Bible.

The Gospel should point us toward a time when we can see others—all others—truly as God sees us: as one blood, one flesh, as brothers and sisters. Remember that God truly is the Father of us all; that in Christ the division and the divisiveness between men and women, between different national groups, between different economic circumstances are done away with; that all are alike unto Him; and that even those who do not know Him are known and loved by Him.

CHRISTIANITY VERSUS CULTURE

It is common for believers and non-believers to see religion in Western society as Christianity versus culture—two opposing forces of influence. The church stands on one side of the line and culture on the other. Americans are taking notice that their country is becoming increasingly post-Christian, if not outright anti-Christian. They realize that their beliefs on certain theological and moral issues will increasingly be rejected and mocked by the political, cultural, and academic elite.

The bubble of legalism can’t keep sin out of the church, and it hides one of God’s most useful tools—us. 

If we take a literal us versus them stance, we risk turning the church into a “safe haven” where people seek refuge from the quagmire of unbelief and pluralism. Believers tend to unwittingly perpetuate this “sanctuary city” concept by trying to find the balance between immersing themselves in the world and isolating themselves in a sterile “bubble.” Christians who support this approach have good intentions—they want to preserve the church’s purity, recognizing that the church is under attack and that believers need to hold fast to their faith. They understand that a great battle is being waged (Ephesians 6:11-18); a battle that plays out both visibly in the cultural realm and invisibly in the spiritual realm.

Here’s the thing: Taking this standoffish approach tends to externalize godlessness and treats it as something that can be kept out by man-made walls. Godlessness, however, is a disease of the soul that can never be walled out. Godlessness causes rotting from within. It is troublesome to realize that this mindset tends toward legalism, and it tries to restrict interactions between believers and society. In the immortal words of Dana Carvey’s SNL character Church Lady, “Who could be responsible for this? Is it… Satan?” While it is true that the Christian life involves war against the powers of darkness, it wrongly tries to wage that war by withdrawing from the world.

You can certainly find biblical support for a view that pits the church against culture. Believers with this mentality are clinging to the biblical principle of waging war against that which is evil. They rightly recognize that we must put on the whole armor of God (Ephesians 6:11), fight the good fight of faith (1 Timothy 6:12), resist the devil (James 4:7), and cast down anything that exalts itself against God (2 Corinthians 10:4-5). Be aware, however, that this mindset still falls short—it’s too easy to see ourselves fighting against people instead of sin. God uses the church in his plan to rescue people, not destroy them. This is only a small part of God’s plan for restoration. Our social and cultural contexts are full of unbelievers—but those unbelievers are not merely enemies of God; they are also drowning people in need of a lifeboat. The church is not only a base for soldiers, but also a hospital for the spiritually sick.

But consider this angle instead. It is actually culture that is beating people up. Left to their own devices without God, people will take blow after blow—perhaps without even realizing that it’s culture delivering the pain. False promises, questionable social norms, distorted morality, and unchecked sin present in cultures across the globe can all appear good to people without God.

CHRISTIANITY OF CULTURE

I must admit that cultural changes occurring outside the scope and influence of the church are not necessarily bad. God has enabled all people—believer and non-believer alike—to make good and valuable contributions to society. The abolition of slavery and the human rights movement brought about monumental positive changes. And a thorough and honest search of the records of history will show there were Christians on both sides of these issues. Some Christians sought to preserve the status quo of “free” labor from slaves, while others fought for complete emancipation of black slaves. It’s appropriate to state that Christians who took up arms against Lincoln and the Union in order to preserve slavery were morally wrong.

I don’t believe that culture alone can set the stage and lead us in the right direction. Granted, not all cultural tenets are wrong. But culture is not always right either. Today, in a postmodern world, especially in America, pluralism is the norm. Behavior is often analyzed through the lens of moral relativism. The relativist believes that moral or ethical propositions do not reflect objective or universal moral truths. Instead, such individuals make moral decisions relative to social, cultural, historical, or personal perspectives. Under this tenet, truth is subjective. Bottom line: moral relativists believe that moral or ethical judgments are true or false only relative to some particular standpoint (e.g., a specific cultural or historical setting), and that no worldview is uniquely privileged over all others. Not even Christianity.

The Body of Christ cannot simply mirror every decision reached at the cultural level in the hope of winning others to Christ. For example, without God in the picture, culture raises up idols in His place—professional sports stars, actors, politicians, the wealthy and powerful. We must ask, Can the church embrace culture without also embracing its idols? Much of Christian doctrine is black-and-white, whereas culture often speaks in “gray” terms. Believers who subscribe to the Christianity of culture mindset rightly recognize that God created and ordered the world in such a way that left room for mankind to make culture, and that said culture exhibits real aspects of truth, generosity, goodness, and beauty. However, this mentality is misguided because it fails to sufficiently see the way in which every culture, indeed every nuance of culture, is corrupted and distorted due to human sin.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “At an early age I came to believe that the life of culture (that is, of intellectual and aesthetic activity) was very good for its own sake, or even that it was the good for man… I was awakened from this confused state of mind by finding that the friends of culture seemed to me to be exaggerating. In my reaction against what seemed exaggerated I was driven to the other extreme, and began, in my own mind, to belittle the claims of culture.” Lewis added, “I naturally turned first to the New Testament. Here I found, in the first place, a demand that whatever is most highly valued on the natural level is to be held, as it were, merely on sufferance, and to be abandoned without mercy the moment it conflicts with the service of God.”

ANTI-CHRISTIAN BIAS IN PUBLIC EDUCATION

Solomon (1996) wrote, “At the close of the twentieth century American evangelicals find themselves in a diverse, pluralistic culture. Many ideas vie for attention and allegiance. These ideas, philosophies, or worldviews are the products of philosophical and cultural changes. Such changes have come to define our culture.” This begs the question, How is a Christian supposed to respond to such conditions?

According to the National Council for Social Studies (NCSS) standards, “[I]t is clear that the dominant social, economic, cultural and scientific trends that have defined the western world for five centuries are rapidly leading in new directions.” The dominant trends that defined Western civilization are of course the Judeo-Christian worldview. So what does this mean for social studies classes in public schools? The NCSS explains, “The United States and its democracy are constantly evolving and in continuous need of citizens who can adapt… to meet changing circumstances. Meeting that need is the mission of social studies.”

Can it be any clearer? Rather than teach America’s true history and founding principles for the preservation of American liberty and Western civilization, the new mission of social studies is to prepare our children to accept the transformation of America. In fact, the NCSS are missionaries of a new religion operating in the field of American education. Unlike Christians, these particular missionaries have government backing, free reign with captive children, and operate under the guise of “education.” This is pluralism at work. It is a systematic tearing down of the “old” in order to make room for the “new.” It is nothing less than indoctrination with one purpose—to convince our children to reject out-of-hand biblical Christianity and to adopt a secular worldview.

Fiorazo (2012) writes, “Christianity is not the thriving , influential power it once was in America. With a majority of people claiming the Christian tradition, why does our godless culture barely reflect the light of Jesus Christ.” We’re living in sad times when professing Christians know less about the Bible than ever before. We live in a country glutted with biblical material, Christian books, radio and television evangelism, but many Christians are not moving on to spiritual maturity. Additionally, there is a degree of biblical illiteracy in America today. Although surveys indicate that a majority of households report having a Bible, not even 50 percent of those who own Bibles read them regularly. Only 1 percent of young Christians read Scriptures on a daily basis.

There are many whose ultimate goal is to completely eliminate Christianity from public life in America. Militant atheists shout from their lecterns that Christian parents are brainwashing their children; teaching them the “so-called truth” of the Judeo-Christian doctrine. The late Christopher Hitchens said Christian parents are committing a form of child abuse by “indoctrinating” their children with biblical principles. He likened belief in the Virgin birth and the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ to believing in Santa Claus or the tooth fairy. God’s Not Dead 2 tells the story of a teacher at a public school who comes under fire for answering a student’s question about Jesus. When the teacher refuses to apologize, the school board votes to suspend her and threatens to revoke her teaching certificate. Forced to stand trial to save her career, she hires a lawyer to defend her in court.

We’re faced with sentiment such as this:

“The battle for mankind’s future must be waged and won in the public school classroom by teachers who correctly perceive their role as proselytizers of a new faith…. The classroom must and will become an arena of conflict between the old and the new – the rotting corpse of Christianity, together with all its adjacent evils and misery, and the new faith of humanism.” (John Dunphy, 1983)

CHRISTIANITY UNDER ATTACK

Traditional American Christians have long been on the losing end of culture-war contests—on school prayer, same-sex marriage and other issues. But recent events, including the Supreme Court decision overruling Texas’ restrictions on abortion clinics and the mandate that employers provide access to contraception, have added to the sense that religious expression is under attack. According to recent Pew Research reports, the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as religiously affiliated has shrunk while the percentage describing themselves as unaffiliated has grown from 2007 to 2014. The percentage who say they are “absolutely certain” God exists fell to 63% from 71% during the same time period.

A new vigorous secularism has catapulted mockery of Christianity and other forms of religious traditionalism into the mainstream and set a new low for what counts as civil criticism of people’s most-cherished beliefs. In some precincts, the “faith of our fathers” is controversial as never before. Some of the faithful have paid unexpected prices for their beliefs lately: the teacher in New Jersey suspended for giving a student a Bible; the football coach in Washington placed on leave for saying a prayer on the field at the end of a game; the fire chief in Atlanta fired for self-publishing a book defending Christian moral teaching; the Marine court-martialed for pasting a Bible verse above her desk; and other examples of the new intolerance. Anti-Christian activists hurl smears like “bigot” and “hater” at Americans who hold traditional beliefs about marriage and accuse anti-abortion Christians of waging a supposed “war on women.”

Ravi Zacharias said, “The Bible is a controversial book that invokes both devotion and derision. It has inspired some of the greatest thinkers this world has ever known and attracted the hostility of others. It takes a central role in any study of Western civilization and touches the most unlikely of souls.” The current challenges to the Bible are for the most part launched from the postmodern worldview. By its very nature the postmodern worldview is difficult to define. It is an eclectic movement, originating in aesthetics, architecture, and philosophy. A postmodern perspective is skeptical of any grounded theoretical perspectives. Ostensibly, a postmodern theorist believes there are no truly truthful truths. Postmodernism rejects most approaches to art, science, literature, philosophy, and religion. This worldview is about discontinuity, suspicion of motive, and an acceptance of logical incoherence. At the root of postmodernism is a strong denial of absolute authority. Ironically, the belief that there is no absolute truth cannot be true unless there is an absoluteness to the absence of absolute truth.

And we wonder why it’s so difficult to fight pluralism, moral relativism, and militant atheism.

References

Fiorazo, D. (2012). Eradicate: Blotting Out God in America. Abbotsford, WI: Life Sentence Publishing, Inc.

Lewis, C.S. (1940). Christianity and Culture. Retrieved from: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0040571X4004023702

Solomon, J. (1992). Christianity and Culture. Retrieved from: http://www.leaderu.com/orgs/probe/docs/culture.html

 

 

Understanding the Concept of Sin

sin banner.gif

WHY WAS THE INCARNATION of Jesus necessary? Did He have to die? Was it necessary for Him to die in such a way as to cause the shedding of His blood? Did atonement require the death of a divine being? Was His resurrection from the dead a necessary aspect of atonement, or was death alone sufficient?  How did His death relate to the sacrificial system of the Old Testament? What is our part in atonement?

The Apostle Paul on the Crucifixion

Paul’s view of atonement is the substructure of his theology. He writes that he knew nothing among the Corinthians except “Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). This, of course, includes Jesus’ burial and resurrection. Paul defines “the Gospel” as the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4. Of course, the central focus of Paul’s ministry was atonement for all nations, Gentiles as well as Jews. As a rabbi, Paul understood the life and death of Jesus in the context of Israel, the Old Testament people of God who had been created and prepared for the purpose of bringing the Messianic Redeemer into the world.

What is Sin in the Old Testament?

Sin necessitates atonement. The Book of Hebrews is based on the concept of the conditional nature of atonement in the Old Testament. The fact that Jesus’ death redeemed people from transgressions committed under the first covenant (Hebrews 8:5) emphasizes the point that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4, NRSV). Of course, the Law made nothing perfect (see Hebrews 7:10). Priests under the old covenant system of sacrifice offered “repeatedly the same sacrifices which can never take away sins” (Hebrews 10:11).

lamb on the altar.jpg

Atonement in the sacrificial system of the Old Testament was primarily for the day-by-day violations of ritual and religious precepts described in Leviticus 1-5 and not for violations of conscience, sins of the heart and mind, as delineated by Jesus and the New Testament. These kinds of sins had no daily sacrificial offering for atonement. The specific purification and expiation sought under the old covenant applied almost solely to cases devoid of intrinsic moral quality. In other words, “sin offering” was not being made by the Old Testament priests for what we know today as sin.

This begs the question, What is sin? In order to address this matter, it is important to note that [and this came as a shock to me] the Old Testament has no general word for sin like the New Testament. Sin in the Old Testament is both a falling away from a relationship of faithfulness toward God and also disobedience to the commandments and the Law. The former is described as unfaithfulness to God’s covenant, the latter is a violation of God’s word and command. In both cases man shuts himself off from fellowship with God and becomes God-less. Although, in the Jewish use of the word, a man may “sin” without meaning to and even without knowing it, the “sinner” in the New Testament sense relates to the man who knowingly and willfully transgresses or ignores the revealed will of God persistently or habitually. Perhaps a good example of such willful sin is choosing to continue a life of theft and deception in order to support living a life of active addiction.

In the Old Testament sacrificial system, intentional sins were not atoned for by the regular sacrifices. Numbers 15:30-31 says, “But anyone who sins defiantly, whether native-born or foreigner, blasphemes the LORD and must be cut off from the people of Israel. Because they have despised the LORD’S word and broken His commands, they must surely be cut off; their guilt remains on them” (NKJV). It would seem that for such sins committed “with a high hand”—willfully and defiantly with arrogance—no expiation is provided. Such sins caused a person to be “utterly cut off, his guilt is upon him.” I think this helps put the wrath of God into perspective.

Consider the two classes of sin that hattath (the Hebrew term for “sin offering”) is prescribed for:

Ignorant or Inadvertent Transgression. Violation of certain prohibitions (“taboos”), including some in which we see a moral character—e.g., incest—but not all moral wrongs. This category does not include the commonest offenses against morals.

Purification of Various Kinds. The special sacrifices called sin offerings have a very limited range of employment. They are prescribed chiefly for unintentional ceremonial faults or as purification; the trespass offering is even more narrowly restricted. The great expiation for the whole people, at least in later times, was the scape-goat; not any usual form of sacrifice.

What is Sin in the New Testament?

When we look at the concept of sin in the New Testament, a different perspective emerges. Paul does not clearly define sin. It is clear, however, that he also does not see sin as primarily an offense against other people; for him sin is primarily an offense against God. The predominant conception of the nature of sin in the Bible is that of personal alienation from God. In Paul’s mind, the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament is that Jesus provides something which the saints of the Old Testament yearned for but could never find: Real and certain victory over sin. C.L. Mitton, in Atonement, writes, “It is sin which has created the need for atonement, because sin, besides corrupting the heart and deadening the conscience and making man increasingly prone to sin again, causes man to be estranged from God, separated from God by an unseen barrier, a dividing wall of hostility” (see Ephesians 2:14) [Emphasis added].

Words for Sin in the New Testament

Sin is a multifaceted concept expressed by many different terms in the New Testament. Leon Morris, in Sin, Guilt, writes, “There are more than thirty words in the New Testament that convey some notion of sin, and Paul employs at least twenty-four of them.”

Formal Terms Indicating Deviation from the Good

  • Miss a mark (Greek, hamartia), miss one’s aim, a mistake; the idea of sin in the abstract (Romans 3:23; 5:12). It is the most frequent word in the New Testament for sin.
  • Results of missing the mark (Greek, hamartêma), referring to individual actions. The word is from the same root as hamartia. Both words appear in a variant reading of 2 Peter 1:9 in Greek manuscripts.
  • Guilty or wicked person (Greek, harmartôlos), as noted in 1 Timothy 1:9, “We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers” (NIV).
  • Transgression (of a line, Greek parabasis), passing the bounds God sets on human action, going beyond the norm. The Jews used this term for violations of the Law, but Gentiles do not transgress the Law because they are not under the Law. Romans 4:14-15 says, “For if those who depend on the Law are heirs, faith means nothing and the promise is worthless, because the Law brings wrath. And if there is no Law there is no transgression” (NIV).
  • Trespass (Greek, paraptôma), “falling away” from the divinely ordered course of duty, a false step. It can also be committed against other humans. In Classical Greek literature, it is a blunder or an error in measurement.
  • Ignorance (Greek, agnoêma) of what one should  have known (see Hebrews 9:7).

Terms With Theological Orientation

  • Lawlessness (Greek, anomia), nonobservance of a law (see 1 John 3:40). It appears opposite of righteousness (Greek, dikaiosynê), and is coupled with scandal (Greek, skandala), with hypocrisy (Greek, hypokrisis), with uncleanness (Greek, akatharsia), and with missing a mark (Greek, hamartia).
  • Breach of Law (Greek, paranomia).
  • Disobedience (Greek, parakoê) to a voice, namely, the voice of God (see Romans 5:10).
  • Ungodliness (Greek, asebeia), impiety, active irreligion, withholding prayer and service that is due God, considered by some the “most profoundly theological word for sin. It indicates offense against God in distinction from akikia, which refers to wrongdoing against mankind. Murray and Milne indicate this is “…perhaps the profoundest New Testament term… it implies active ungodliness or impiety.”

Terms Indicating Spiritual Badness

  • Active evil (Greek, ponêria), qualitative moral evil, wickedness, baseness, maliciousness. In the New Testament and early Christian literature, it is used only in the ethical sense. Satan is the evil one (Greek, ho ponêros).
  • Viciousness (Greek, kakia), qualitative moral evil, malice, evil disposition.
  • Unholy (Greek, anosios), wicked.
  • Defect (Greek, hêttêma), defeat, failure.
  • Scandal (Greek, skandalon). The RSV translates it “causes of sin” in Matthew 13:41, as well as “hindrance,” “temptations to sin,” or “stumbling blocks.”

Ethical and Juridical Terms

  • Unrighteousness (Greek, adikia), injustice, with ungodliness. Anomia is used when delineating wrong done to one’s neighbor. The term is translated variously in different contexts as injustice, unrighteousness, falsehood, wickedness, and iniquity, and us typically associated with sin.
  • Guilty or liable (Greek, enochos), a legal term in courts of law used for a particular wrong (1 Corinthians 11:27; Hebrews 2:15) or to declare one liable to judgment (Matthew 5:21).
  • Debt (Greek, opheilêma), indicating the burden of guilt that the sinner bears in the sight of God.

Atonement Theories

It must be noted that prior to Martin Luther and the Reformation, most Christian writers held that Jesus mediated the righteousness of the cross to mankind by means of the Mass. The church, with its sacramental system, was seen to stand in a position between God and humanity, controlling the access that humans have to God, and consequently the forgiveness that God mediates to humanity through that system. But consider the words in 1 Timothy 2:4-6: “He wants not only us but everyone saved, you know, everyone to get to know the truth we’ve learned, that there is one God and only one, and only one Priest-Mediator between God and us—Jesus, who offered Himself in exchange for everyone held captive by sin, to set them all free” (MSG).

Many in the early church saw Jesus Christ as a martyr. Of course, the basic definition of martyr is a person who willingly suffers death rather than renounce his or her religion. Those who believe Jesus to be merely a martyr conclude that something good happens in our lives only as we follow Jesus. They conclude that Jesus inspires us to be like Him by virtue of what He did during his ministry. Accordingly, if we do nothing or believe nothing —if there’s no response on our part—then nothing actually took place at Calvary. 2 Corinthians 5:17-19 says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them” (NIV).

Clothed-in-the-Righteousness-of-Christ

Henry (1997) notes in Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible that what happens to a new believer is “more than an outward reformation.” Henry indicates that God reconciled us to Himself through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Henry also notes that Christ who knew no sin was made Sin, not a sinner. This seems to indicate that something did indeed occur at the cross, in and of itself, regardless of any response on our part. Something objective happened at Calvary. To me, this is an ontological fact. In other words, the reality of atonement is inseparably bound to the time and place of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection.

Water Color of Crucifixion

To say that salvation is based upon subjective reality—such as our response to Jesus’ sacrifice—is to say we are only redeemed through our works. This would indicate we have to complete that potentiality ourselves. According to this view, a person looks at the life of Jesus, tries to emulate that life, and by His example becomes a better person. There is nothing objectively supernatural (spiritual) in this view, nothing of God’s forgiveness based on an act of Christ’s atonement. From this perspective, forgiveness occurs only after one has become a “better person,” at which time God grants forgiveness and acceptance. This is the epitome of conditional love.

The belief that Christ becomes our Redeemer only when He is preached and accepted is appropriately designated existentialist in nature because it deals with what happens inside a person when that person makes a decision through faith. According to this view, when one takes what eminent theologian Søren Kierkegaard called “a leap of faith” and accepts Christ through faith, then something really happens. If we buy into this school of thought, we’re saying salvation through the sacrifice of Jesus is actually based upon our moral decision rather than the action (the very death, burial, and resurrection) of Jesus on the cross.

Final Thoughts

In attempting an explanation of the Atonement, it is important that we know something of what motivated the death of Christ. The idea that our Lord died a helpless martyr is nowhere taught in the Bible. Those who have no understanding or appreciation of Jesus Christ’s work for us, lack understanding also on the subject of the nature and effect of sin in all men. Many Scriptures teach clearly that the Atonement of Christ is an expiation of human sin. It is that sin which made the Atonement necessary. Christ became incarnate in order that He should die for human sin.

The objective view —which is the biblical view—emphasizes the actuality of atonement as a fact of history. Something objective happened at Calvary, whether anyone responds or not. The death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is all that needed to occur. In the subjective view, by contrast, atonement is purely potential. It never occurs until someone believes and is responsive to the Gospel message. Without atonement, there is no redemption. Without redemption, there is no reconciliation. Without reconciliation, the relationship between God and man remains forever broken.