Guilt Has Staying Power

hands-in-bloodHere is a long but fascinating essay on how despite the loss of God in our culture we are still guilty and how that guilt leads us to identify with victims and in many cases become victims.  Throughout the author discusses forgiveness as therapy, the idea of war reparations, the loss of the concept of sin, and the rash of fabricated memoirs and what those indicate about our world. My take away is that without the substitutionary atonement of Christ there is no remission of guilt. Without Christ men will try to alleviate their guilt, but without success. Here are a couple of paragraphs to get you started.

In the new therapeutic dispensation, however, forgiveness is all about the forgiver, and his or her power and well-being. We have come a long way from Shakespeare’s Portia, who spoke so memorably in The Merchant of Venice about the unstrained “quality of mercy,” which “droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven” and blesses both “him that gives and him that takes.” And an even longer way from Christ’s anguished cry from the cross, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”And perhaps even further yet from the most basic sense of forgiveness, the canceling of a monetary debt or the pardoning of a criminal offense, in either case a very conscious suspension of the entirely rightful demands of justice.

We still claim to think well of forgiveness, but it has in fact very nearly lost its moral weight by having been translated into an act of random kindness whose chief value lies in the sense of personal release it gives us. “Forgiveness,” proclaimed the journalist Gregg Easterbrook writing at Beliefnet, “is good for your health.” Like the similar acts of confession or apology, and other transactions in the moral economy of sin and guilt, forgiveness is in danger of being debased into a kind of cheap grace, a waiving of standards entirely, standards without which such transactions have little or no moral significance. Forgiveness only makes sense in the presence of a robust conception of justice. Without that, it is in real danger of being reduced to something passive and automatic and flimsy—a sanctimonious way of saying that nothing really matters very much at all…

Victimhood at its most potent promises not only release from responsibility, but an ability to displace that responsibility onto others. As a victim, one can project onto another person, the victimizer or oppressor, any feelings of guilt he might harbor, and in projecting that guilt lift it from his own shoulders. The result is an astonishing reversal, in which the designated victimizer plays the role of the scapegoat, upon whose head the sin comes to rest, and who pays the price for it. By contrast, in appropriating the status of victim, or identifying oneself with victims, the victimized can experience a profound sense of moral release, of recovered innocence. It is no wonder that this has become so common a gambit in our time, so effectively does it deal with the problem of guilt—at least individually, and in the short run, though at the price of social pathologies in the larger society that will likely prove unsustainable…

For all its achievements, modern science has left us with at least two overwhelmingly important, and seemingly insoluble, problems for the conduct of human life. First, modern science cannot instruct us in how to live, since it cannot provide us with the ordering ends according to which our human strivings should be oriented. In a word, it cannot tell us what we should live for, let alone what we should be willing to sacrifice for, or die for.

And second, science cannot do anything to relieve the guilt weighing down our souls, a weight to which it has added appreciably, precisely by rendering us able to be in control of, and therefore accountable for, more and more elements in our lives—responsibility being the fertile seedbed of guilt. That growing weight seeks opportunities for release, seeks transactional outlets, but finds no obvious or straightforward ones in the secular dispensation. Instead, more often than not we are left to flail about, seeking some semblance of absolution in an incoherent post-Christian moral economy that has not entirely abandoned the concept of sin but lacks the transactional power of absolution or expiation without which no moral system can be bearable.

Nothing but the Blood: Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 5

 

Blood 4

There is a hymn that says, “What can wash away my sin, nothing but the blood of Jesus.” Why is that? Why can only Jesus’ blood satisfy the demands of God’s justice and and at the same time show us mercy. There are three options for the removal of our sins. First, we could satisfy for our own sins. Second, another creature could satisfy for our sins. Finally, Jesus could satisfy.  Why can I not atone for my own sins? Why could the bulls and goats in the Old Testament not take away my sins? Why is Jesus the only option?

The Heidelberg Catechism gives an answer to this in questions 12-15.

Q: 12. Since then, by the righteous judgment of God, we deserve temporal and eternal punishment, is there no way by which we may escape that punishment, and be again received into favor? A: God will have his justice satisfied and therefore we must make this full satisfaction, either by ourselves, or by another.

Q: 13. Can we ourselves then make this satisfaction?A: By no means; but on the contrary we daily increase our debt.

Q: 14. Can there be found anywhere, one, who is a mere creature, able to satisfy for us?A: None; for, first, God will not punish any other creature for the sin which man has committed;  and further, no mere creature can sustain the burden of God’s eternal wrath against sin, so as to deliver others from it.

Q: 15. What sort of a mediator and deliverer then must we seek for?A: For one who is very man, and perfectly  righteous;  and yet more powerful than all creatures; that is, one who is also very God.

Question 12 follows up on question 11, which says that God’s mercy does not trump his justice. His justice will be satisfied. Since God’s justice must be satisfied, how can we escape punishment?

Question 13 asks can we atone for ourselves. Is it possible that we can take away our own sin? The answer is no. G.I. Williamson gives a good illustration of why this is the case.

Suppose, for example, that you owed an infinite sum of money-so much money that even the fastest computer could never add it all up. Suppose, too, that you repaid that money at the rate of one thousand dollars a day for one million years. Do you realize that you would still be at the beginning of repayment? The reason is that an infinite sum of money cannot be repaid by any number of finite payments…We have sinned against an infinite God, and there is no way that we can fully repay him by suffering as finite creatures.

Our sins pile up day by day, week by week, month by month, and year by year. But not only do they pile up, but we have sinned against God, not against a creature. The amount of sins and the one we have sinned against mean we cannot now or ever atone for our own sins. This is also why Hell is eternal. We cannot ever atone for our own sins.Having more time does not help when the sins are infinite.

But what about another creature, such as an animal. That is addressed in question 14. There are two reasons why an animal cannot atone. First, a human must atone for the sins of the human race. Second, an animal cannot bear the weight of God’s wrath. Hebrews says, “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). Animals kept dying day after day, which meant their blood did not atone.

What do we need in order for atonement to happen? We need a true man. Someone who takes on our flesh and blood, a human who will atone for the sins of the human race. But he also must be God because no creature can bear God’s wrath.  That leads directly to question 15. If true atonement is going to happen we need Jesus.

A couple of thoughts follow from this. First, in order for Jesus to atone for our sins, he must be fully God, to bear God’s wrath, and fully man, to take the sins of man upon himself. Without Jesus being fully God and fully man we are still in our sins.

Second, because God’s justice must be satisfied the only options are trusting in Christ or an eternal Hell. There is no third option of our sins be slowly atoned by ourselves in Hell or of God’s justice overlooking sins and annihilating people. Sin must be dealt with. God’s holiness demands justice. Since our sins are against an infinite God only the infinite can bear his wrath. That means Jesus or an infinite time in Hell.

Finally, the glory of Jesus is on full display here. Jesus became the true man (Hebrews 2:14, 17) in order that he might bear the full wrath of God so that those of us who have sinned against God might be delivered from eternal damnation. What a Savior!

Book Review: Fifty Reasons Why Jesus Came to Die

Fifty Reasons Why Jesus Came to DieFifty Reasons Why Jesus Came to Die by John Piper
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was looking for a short book about the atonement to put on a book rack. Piper’s book will fit that need. However, it is not perfect. As one reviewer said, there is a lot of overlap between the chapters. He is repetitive. Second and more glaring, though typical for Piper, he does not really bring the Old Testament into it. There is no big picture of Jesus as fulfilling the covenant or Jesus as Israel. This might be because he was trying to get at what the atonement achieved instead of what caused it. But at the least one of the reasons Christ came to die was to fulfill Scripture. This is not mentioned explicitly. His failure to incorporate OT themes and the covenant makes this book weaker. He could have taken ten of his reasons out added more OT themes and made the book a lot more robust. Still as a basic lay introduction to Christ’s work it is good.

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No Recompense Outside of Christ

Here is a section from John Calvin’s sermon on Ephesians 1:6-10. 

St. Paul [in Ephesians 1:7] uses two words to express how we are reconciled to God. First he sets down the ransom or redemption, which amounts to the same thing, and afterwards he sets down the forgiveness of sins. How then does it come about that God’s wrath is pacified, that we are made at one with him, and that he even accepts and acknowledges us as his children? It is by the pardoning of our sins, says St. Paul.  And furthermore, because pardon necessitates redemption he yokes the two together. The truth is that, in respect of us, God blotted out our sins of his own free goodness and shows himself altogether bountiful, and does not look for any payment for it at our hands. And, in fact what man is able to make satisfaction for the least fault that he has committed? If every one of us, therefore, should employ his whole life in making satisfaction for any one fault alone, and by that means seek to win favor at God’s hand, it is certain that such a thing far surpasses all our abilities. And therefore God must necessarily receive us to mercy without looking  for any recompense or satisfaction at our hands. 

But, for all this, the atonement, which is freely bestowed in respect of us, cost the Son of God very dear (I Peter 1:19).  For he found not other payment than the shedding of his own blood, so that he made himself our surety in both body and soul, and answered for us before God’s judgment to win absolution for us. Our Lord Jesus Christ entered into the work, both body and soul. For it would not have been enough for him to have suffered so cruel and ignominious a death in the sight of men, but it was necessary for him also to bear such horrible anguish in himself, as if God had become his judge, for he gave himself up in the behalf of sinners to make full satisfaction.  

Find Assurance in Jesus, Not Your Conversion

Donald Macleod on how repentance and conversion do not atone for our sins.

Yet it is never the cross, in and of itself, which evokes repentance, and this highlights another weakness of the rectoral [governmental] theory. It bypasses the ministry of the Holy Spirit. He alone can produce repentance, and the repentance he produces is not the cause of the atonement, but its consequence. The cross, resurrection and ascension of Jesus secure the ministry of the Spirit, with all the gifts and blessings which that brings with it. Foremost among these is the gift of repentance; never a human achievement, but a divine given (Acts 5:31), produced not by mere demonstration, but by the intimate touch of grace in the depths of the human heart.

This touch, of course, produces its own psychological narrative as the sinner faces the truth about himself, accepts that his life is indefensible and acquiesces unquestioningly the judgment of God (Psalm 51:1-4). The cross may be one of the cognitive elements in this journey. It may highlight the ugliness of sin. It may bespeak God’s abhorrence of it. It may make us ashamed of our past attitudes to Christ. It may fill us with wondering appreciation of the love of God. But none of these is what constitutes atonement or purchases redemption. Instead, in the language of the older evangelical piety, repentance is itself a ‘blood-bought’ grace, created in our hearts by the mysterious agency of the Holy Spirit. The psychological journey which marks a sinner’s recovery is but the outward expression of the inner touch of the supernatural. Yet the real foundation of assurance and joy is the knowledge that whatever the shortcomings of our repentance (or of our conversion-narrative) God accepts us for Jesus’ sake. 

This may seem like an obvious point, but we often look at the sincerity of our repentance as the ground for our salvation. Did I repent enough? Was my conversion really real? Did my heart really change? And so on. There is a place for self-examination, but assurance must be found in Christ, not in how awesome our conversion was, how much we hated our sins, or how sincere our repentance was.

Ten Quotes: Christ Crucified by Donald Macleod

I have now read two books by Donald Macleod, Shared Life and Christ Crucified.  Both of them were very good. He brings the clarity of John Stott with a little bit more edge.  Christ Crucified was a great book on the atonement of Jesus. Macleod argues for the classic substitutionary view of the atonement using terms like propitiation, expiation, substitution, and redemption. Here are ten of my favorite quotes from Macleod’s book.

Here he is quoting Martin Luther. All the rest of the quotes are his.

He [Jesus] bore the person of a sinner and of a thief-and not of one but of all sinners and thieves…And all the prophets saw this, that Christ was to become the greatest thief, murderer, adulterer, robber, desecrator, blasphemer, etc., that has ever  been anywhere in the world. 

For a moment [in the Garden of Gethsemane] he stands with millions of his people who have found God’s will almost unendurable, shrunk from the work given them to do, shuddered at the prospect of the race set before them and prayed that God would change his mind. But solidarity is not the main thing here. This is not a road less trodden. It is a road never trodden, before or since: the cup of the one man, the Son of God.

Yet such criticisms [of the cross], whether from the twelfth or the twenty-first centuries, perform one invaluable service: they remind us that there is a real problem at the heart of the story of the cross. We cannot walk blithely by it as if there were nothing disturbing here. There is; and if we are not initially shocked and repelled by it, we shall never understand it. It has to be a ‘scandal’ before it can become good news.  

 We need to be clear where the scandal of the cross lies: not primarily in such concepts as expiation and propitiation, but in the prima facie absurdity that a crucified first-century Jewish criminal is the Savior of the world, and that his cross was the actual instrument of that salvation. Side by side with that lies another scandal: the assumption that all human beings, from Francis of Assisi to Joseph Stalin, are sinners in need of salvation in the first place. And, as if this were not enough, the further scandalous idea that God is not all-indulgent love, but is dreadfully provoked by sin and needs to be pacified. 

When Pompey and his soldiers entered the Holy of Holies in AD 63 they were scandalized to find no image there: not a ‘god’ in sight. The scandal of Christianity is even greater. Its holy of holies is a cross where its Savior hangs, bloodied and beaten, between two thieves.

It was because God is righteous that sin required expiation; it was because he is love that he provided it.

In a very real sense, then, the proof of the doctrine of propitiation stands or falls with the doctrine of the anger of God. Any Biblical view of salvation must take this anger seriously; and propitiation must be a central moment in the work of the Redeemer.

Mankind lives in a state of chronic revolt against their Maker. Any meaningful concept of reconciliation must, therefore, include the removal of this enmity, replacing hatred with love and blasphemy with doxology.

Reconciliation, as Paul sees it, means the non-imputation of our sins to us (II Cor. 5:19); conversely, Christ’s being made sin means the imputation of our sins to him.

 He was not cursed because he was hanged. He was hanged because he was cursed: under a divine imprecation as the one who was carrying the sin of the world. Indeed, he was the sin of the world. 

And One:

They [the rulers of this world] thought that if they could bring about his death neither he nor his movement would ever be heard from again. In reality, by crucifying him they disgraced themselves and released forces which neither the Jewish leaders nor the imperial might of Rome would ever be able to control. But deeper still was the disgrace of the devil himself, destroyed by what he thought was his masterstroke. Confident that the cross would secure his victory, he was outwitted by the wisdom of God: neutralized and conquered by divine weakness.  

Book Review: Christ Crucified

Christ Crucified: Understanding the AtonementChrist Crucified: Understanding the Atonement by Donald MacLeod
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A great book on the atonement, covering the historical account of the crucifixion and then going into substitution, expiation, propitiation, reconciliation, satisfaction, redemption, and victory. Well written with a passion for the subject. He is not afraid to speak strongly against certain people and ideas. His chapter on “No Other Way” was excellent as he refuted various objections to the substitutionary atonement.

The only drawback was the occasional cheap shot at patriarchy, which naturally goes undefined. Luckily it was a book on the atonement not on patriarchy.

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