Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Atonement Thoughts - Part 5

The Bible does seem to use language of commerce sometimes when talking about the death of Christ on our behalf.  And probably the most common, simple way many of us communicate the significance of the death of Christ to others, today, is by talking about our "debt" of sin and how Jesus "paid" our debt on the cross.  The debt-payment motif is indeed popular, and it is simple.  It is so commonplace that I can scarcely try to explain the Gospel to someone without using it.

In other posts in this series, I have alluded to the fact that there are some problems with taking the commercial understanding too far, which is easy to do given the formulation handed down to us by Anselm (whose formulation, I should add, is by no means completely without merit).  One such problem is that I don't see how it really does a full and accurate treatment of the resurrection of Christ.  If our understanding of the significance of the death of Christ does not meld with the resurrection of Christ, there is something wrong or something missing.

Here is what I mean.  If Christ's death was merely some kind of payment of a "debt" on our behalf then why did He have to rise from the dead?  After all, our salvation was accomplished with His death, period.  All done.  (In fact, what is the significance of faith in this model?  If our debt is paid, it is paid.)  In this regard, many explain the resurrection of Christ essentially as the proof that His payment "took" and our Creditor in the sky was appeased.  But proof to who?  To God or to us?

In other words, given this view of the death of Christ, there is no functional purpose to our salvation in the resurrection of Christ.  It serves merely as a public sign of salvation already completely accomplished in his death.  That may be fine.  But couldn't there have been other means of doing this?  Was it merely one more miracle to prove to us who He is?  You could essentially take the resurrection away, and our salvation would still be accomplished.  All we might lack was some kind of divine expression telling us that everything "worked."  But couldn't he have just appeared in a vision?  Or, as the Jehovah's Witnesses believe, couldn't He have just come back as a "spirit creature" to tell us "Hey, my death was enough.  Everything is good, now?"  Why this whole business of bodily resurrection?  Is it really just visible proof?  Again, if that is what Scripture says I will not argue with it.  The problem is that I don't see it saying this.  I see it giving more to the resurrection than merely this.

But if we understand the death of Christ as Jesus dying for us, ahead of us, so that this age, the curse of this age with its death, alienation from God, and our sin would not be the end of us, then the resurrection means something more.  If Jesus merely died, it would not ultimately have accomplished anything new.  The curse of the law would have claimed yet another victim, even the most precious of victims.  For sure, the curse would have been brought to its fulfillment in his death ("tetelestai," as Jesus said), but this age, the curse, and sin would have remained unaffected.  But when Jesus rose from the dead, there was now something new.  The power of death and the curse was broken.  No longer do the curse and our sin mean the end of humanity.  No longer does separation from God ending in death and judgment define the collective life and destiny of the human race.  Jesus walked through that death, ahead of us, and made a new path by rising from the dead -a new beginning, a new life, a new creation, a new reality with God, a new kingdom.  And we, through rebirth and faith (identification with his death and resurrection), become partakers of it, to one day physically experience His same resurrection when He returns for us.

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor 15)

You might say, "But there are many views of the death of Christ.  There are many motifs and metaphors used to describe His death in the Bible.  You can't just home in on just one.  You would be guilty of the same thing you accuse those with the more 'commercial' view of."  Perhaps.  I am not trying to pigeonhole the entire thing.  The death of Christ, I agree, has as many facets as a brilliant diamond.  I am merely positing that there may be a framework large enough to encapsulate all of them while generally avoiding empty theologizing to make it fit. I am not the first to think so -I'm not putting forth something new.  And, to my original point, I believe we must confess we are missing something significant about the death of Christ if our view does not Biblically connect to His resurrection.

The death and resurrection of Christ has both personal and cosmic significance.  It is both about our personal now and about the end of this age.  It is personally soteriological and universally eschatological at the same time.  And the death of Christ cannot be seen as divorced from His resurrection.  If our understanding is not big enough to contain a Scriptural explanation of what the resurrection means in light of His death, we are missing something.

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