Sunday, November 6, 2011

Worship and atonement theology

Enjoyed the opportunity this morning to worship with my family at Bethlehem Baptist and hear John Piper preach -- a first for me. The worship service was well done, focused, Jesus-centered. The preaching was excellent, on John 12:1-8. Piper used the text to contrast Mary of Bethany and Judas Iscariot -- Mary, who recognized Jesus' true value and gave herself unreservedly to him, and Judas, whose interest in money obscured Jesus' true value and sent him down the road toward suicide, five or six days later.

In many ways I appreciate Piper's Calvinist theology. I think he does a great job of upholding biblical integrity and the Christian tradition. I was struck this morning, though, but an undercurrent I've noticed before in Calvinist circles -- a preoccupation with the wrath of God, a focus on God's wrath almost to the exclusion of all else. Certainly there was a lot of talk and a lot of singing this morning about God's love expressed in Jesus. But that love shows itself in Jesus going to the cross to placate (guess what?) God's wrath.

There is certainly a biblical thread that legitimately emphasizes God's wrath at sin. However, I think this theology overemphasizes that thread beyond the Bible's own emphasis. The exclusive attachment in Calvinist circles to viewing the cross as "propitiation" -- a sacrifice that placates a righteously wrathful God -- forces this teaching to start with the wrath of God and emphasize it all out of proportion to the biblical text.

I certainly do believe that Jesus died in the place of sinners (including me), that he took on himself the punishment of our sin, and that his death is legitimately understood as a "vicarious atonement," to use a technical term. This is one good and legitimate way to understand the cross and resurrection of Jesus. However, my problem with this theology that is so dominant in American Christianity is that it excludes many other legitimate ways of viewing the cross and the resurrection. If we see Jesus' death only as a vicarious atonement, we miss a lot of the Bible's hints at what else it might mean.

Why else is it so hard to piece together texts -- many from the Old Testament -- to support this understanding of the cross? The New Testament itself seems to use five or six different -- but not contradictory -- ways of viewing what Jesus accomplished in his death and resurrection. The emphasis in the New Testament is not on exactly what it means, but rather on the fact that it happened, and somehow (even if we don't quite understand exactly how) Jesus' resurrection -- and thus his death -- changes everything.

We shouldn't be too quick to nail down what the Bible allows to slosh around the deck a bit.

All the same, I was richly blessed by our visit to Bethlehem Baptist this morning. We even got to share in communion, which was all the more meaningful for being handled in a slightly different format than we're used to.


  1. Jeff,
    I too have found it valuable to visit other Christian denominations and look at other ways of doing (and thinking about) what we do as fellow believers. While much of my church history has occurred in denominations tilted toward Calvinism, I find myself agreeing with much of what Jacobus Arminius proposed. No where is this truer than in the concept of free will. Although I still view God as sovereign (and having full knowledge of His creation), I find it difficult to believe that God would preordain some of His creation to hell. Foreknowledge yes. Predestination no.

    Having said that though, the biggest lesson I have learned in these past two years is to not get hung up on the theological edges. Best to leave that realm to God. He has revealed so much of the middle-ground of His Truth, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that I believe He intended for us to concentrate there.

    Sadly, I believe, we Christians get so worked up about the edges that we begin to argue and bicker over concepts that are reserved for God. For whatever reason, He has chosen to keep them (at least somewhat) hidden for the time being. Because of this, the modern Church (including many denominations) struggles with divisions (disunity) much like the church in first century Corinth.

    If Paul were here today I think his message would be quite simply: have faith in Jesus and follow the model of Jesus. Know Jesus, do what Jesus did, be like Jesus. Doubt we'd hear much about Calvin, Arminius; even less about systematic theology or denominations.
    Both Piper and Wright are good and Godly men. Yet for all their knowledge and wisdom, the Gospel can be distilled down to three simple words: Know. Do. Be.

    As always, thank you for your insightful blog. I have gleaned as much from your words as from my professors.


  2. Bruce,

    Well said! And I'm flattered to be included with those who have helped you grow. Thanks.

    I sometimes chuckle to myself (usually when I'm quite frustrated at wanting an answer Scripture doesn't give) that the silences of the Bible are just as inspired as its words. Jesus and his kingdom are enough to keep us quite busy, if we would just learn to focus our energy there.