Saturday, February 6, 2016

A Significant Visit

Good morning! It's been another very full week, and through it all I've been wanting to find time to get this blogpost ready to publish online. Of all the extraordinary activities God has given me the opportunity to do, I have the sense that getting this personal spiritual reflection "out there" is most important.

Why? What's so important about this? I've come to believe that, quoting something God gave me to put out on social media last Sunday morning: A completely grace centered understanding of God can bring revival and transform politics too. #‎prayerfullyconsider‬.*

I tweeted that out as I was standing in the back of Grace Church of Roseville's** worship gathering, getting ready to head out the door to visit New Life Christian Fellowship, a group that meets in a classroom at Luther Seminary. I had come with Toni to Grace, but then left there for this little church gathering held in a seminary classroom. It was the same classroom that I studied "Systematic Theology" in -- 30 years ago. Significant for me.

About 20 people were gathered. They warmly welcomed me, there were prayers and songs and a message entitled "No Payment Required for Healing" based, in part, on John 3:19-20 -- ... This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.

Here's one a photo from the service -- in it Pastor Doug is leading a little children's story time over by the classroom window. Hard to see them against the light. (So it is with us when we come to the Lord! He shines SO bright. All our failings fade away.)

children's message time at New Life Christian Fellowship on January 31
I had gone over there last Sunday because Doug had asked for my prayers in advance of his message, a message that was going to deal with the Theory of Penal Substitution. I didn't know really why he had asked for my prayers until after worship. More about that below.

What's the "theory of penal substitution"? It's an idea that most Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians consider a basic part of the Christian faith, that is, the idea that God the Father punished God the Son to the death on the cross, taking out his wrath*** on him, instead of on us. Christians who know their Bibles well know many chapters and verses that point to this understanding of God's work in Jesus Christ. Check out "The Gospel in Chairs" and "What's Wrong with This Picture" to learn more.

In his message, Pastor Doug spoke specifically about a historical series of three Christian teachers (Augustine of Hippo, Anselm of Canterbury, John Calvin) whose life stories and teachings brought this "Penal Substitution" idea into an almost unquestioned position of dominance in both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Some "western Christians" have come to understand that there are other views, but this  of "Penal Substitution" view is so dominant that when it's challenged some believers can't help but feel that the bedrock and basis of the faith is under attack.
Penal Substitution article in Wikipedia
After worship on Sunday I enjoyed chatting with a few people who have been a part of this particular local church for various lengths of time. Then I drifted into a conversation that was going on at the table where I had been sitting during worship. Four or five church members were discussing Pastor Doug's message. There wasn't 100% agreement, and I was impressed by the patience and love shown by Doug and others as they talked.

The idea that God the Father was really pouring out his wrath at the crucifixion, that is, on the cross, punishing Jesus for the sins of the world--it is so fixed in many Christian minds that we can be scandalized when someone brings up other options. As I listened in, and then participated a bit in the conversation, I could understand at why Pastor Doug had asked for my prayers in advance of preaching on the topic! Thankfully, the Lord gave patience and prayer, and though there was no real resolution or agreement, there was still a sense of fellowship among those who were sharing their hearts at the table. Praise God for that!

Have you thought about what Jesus really did for us on the cross? Most Roman Catholics and Protestants have a basic background understanding of the faith that would be in line with the "Penal Substitution" model. Did you know that some Christians see it quite differently? Back in a video I highlighted on January 19 and 23, an Eastern Orthodox Christian layman presented an alternate understanding of salvation in a video. It's the best summary I can find at the moment. Take a look at it by clicking here.****

After listening in to the conversation on Sunday after worship, it became clear to me that a key point, both of the conversation and Doug's message, is about what "a good relationship" between people and God is, and what it does in us and for us. This is why, at the beginning of this post, I said that this spiritual reflection is so important.
  • The "penal substitution" theory of the atonement would narrow that "good relationship" down to being pronounced "not guilty" by a judge-like God. If what Jesus did on the cross was to (only or mainly) take our punishment, releasing us from the threat of hell and hell-fire*****, we as human beings can be imagined to have an individual source of life within us that can be either destroyed or enhanced by a good relationship with God.

    I could hear this in our after worship conversation as an advocate of this position down-played the idea of "relationship," seeming to consider "relationship" as a sort of add-on to being saved from God's wrath. Many Christians who have this "penal substitution" understanding of salvation have to discover a more loving and life giving relationship with the Lord after a period of suffering. When you begin by thinking about God as a stern, punishing Father, it takes a miracle to get grace down into your heart! Think about conversions you've heard about, or read the stories of Martin Luther and John Calvin to see what I mean.

    ... On the other hand, what I'm beginning to understand as Trinitarian theology ...
  • "Trinitarian Theology" is all about the life and love giving relationship God made human beings to share in with him from the beginning. None of us, and actually, nothing that exists in all creation, have any independent existence apart from our creator. In the case of human beings, every breath we take, every movement we make, all the interactions of the cells and electro-chemical reactions in our minds and bodies are dependent on God at every moment.

    A "good relationship" with Father, Son and Spirit means being wide open to sharing the life of His creative and energizing love. It's not just about not being punished, and God is always turned toward us in love, whether we know it or not. God's love toward us does not depend upon our reaction to it. We can grieve God, we can turn away from Him, but He will never turn his back on us. As I said to a young man this week who is honestly struggling with addictions, "Nothing you can ever do will make God love you less."

    As it says in the verses Doug Johannsen read on Sunday (John 3:19-20), the judgment comes simply from our unwillingness to turn toward God. God's attitude toward us is always one of love. He doesn't change. That's why "believing" and trusting in Jesus, the one who revealed the Father's heart, means we will not perish (the only option we have if we don't receive life from God!) but have eternal life (John 3:16). And that's why we want to get the good-news gospel message as clear as we can, even though God works through imperfect presentations all the time.
As I've been praying over this during the past few days, the words of Psalm 104 came to mind. In that ancient Hebrew poem, God is pictured in a deep and life sustaining relationship with all of creation, a creation which is dependent to an absolute degree on God for each breath. All creatures, says, "look to you" [God] to give them what they need and, even beyond that, quoting (verse 28) "When you open your hand" (like a parent or spouse gives freely to their beloved) "they [all creatures] are filled with good things."

Trinitarian theology highlights the sweetness of our relationship with God. I think of another Psalm verse in this regard, where David says of the Lord, "I have no good apart from you" (Psalm 16:2).

Much more than being simply declared innocent and free of punishment, this view of salvation means  appreciating and rejoicing in that "good relationship" with God as the source of ever-flowing blessing and constant joy, the same blessing and joy that flows between the persons of the Triune God. And Jesus came to change us so we would believe and appreciate and enjoy the goodness of God.

This blog post is long and probably needs a lot more work to make it understandable. Sorry about that. I've been at this for a couple hours this morning, plus time on and off all week, and I just want to get it published now. Please ask questions or bring up objections. The "equal-sharing" mission is to promote conversation, sharing, among co-equal brothers and sisters in Christ.

On Monday I'll be meeting with Doug and another Christian leader to talk about this some more.



* I'm wanting to get this published because I believe the topic Doug addressed at NLCF on Sunday so that "what Jesus did for us by incarnation" can be proclaimed clearly. As Doug said to me in an email early last week, the "Theory of Penal Substitution" needs to be challenged because it (1) dominates so many of the denominations and Christian movements in the "western church," and (2) could very well be "wrong (and harmful to the faith)." He asked for my prayers and I ask for yours. (BTW - ‪It's called a "theory" because in the worldwide Christian church there are a variety of ideas about the "atonement," that is, what it is that Jesus did to bring at-one-ment between Creator God and our suffering world. Oftentimes Roman Catholic and Protestant believers think of the atonement as what Jesus did to allow God to forgive sin and be merciful instead of being angry or wrath-full against sinners... but that assumes that God's mercy was not fully present before Jesus died on the cross for us. Eastern Orthodox Christians and others have a different view.)

** Grace Church of Roseville where Toni and I have been participating most Sunday mornings since October.

*** I haven't yet finished my homework on the "Wrath of God," something I mentioned in "Time for Prayer and Study."

A © Reuters / Sputnik photo from <here>
**** By the way, I heard on the radio yesterday that an important Orthodox leader and the Roman Catholic Pope will be meeting this month. It's the first time in a thousand years that such a meeting has taken place. There are many reasons for the division between Catholicism and Orthodoxy, but perhaps this meeting will lead to a deeper conversation like the one shared on Sunday after worship at New Life Christian Fellowship.

***** As I commented in 2009, in a post entitled "Because of the Name," it's not clear what the word "hell" means anyway. Commenting the English word "hell" as it is translated from the original Aramaic ("gehenna") in Mark 9:43,45,47 I wrote:  "...As soon as we hear the word "hell" we think we know just what Jesus is talking about... the place where sinners will burn forever… but it's really not that simple. The word "gehenna" refers to a garbage dump outside of Jerusalem--fires and worms were there in that dump... honestly, it’s not that simple in scripture—the idea that sinners will burn forever is taken from analogies, not from clear teachings of Christ."

1 comment:

  1. Hi Pastor Steve!
    We haven't corresponded in quite some time. You popped into my head this evening and I rediscovered your blog. I always enjoyed our deep conversations and I look forward to being a regular reader and occasional commenter.
    Interestingly enough, the Men's Bible study that I lead here in Marshfield has been discussing the very topic of God's wrath/why Jesus went to the cross/what does it mean for us.
    Thank you for sharing and God bless you!!
    Mike L