Day 46! And I always thought Lent was 40 days long.
We are finally finishing our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).
It has been a challenge to read and post each day through Lent but personally a hugely beneficial one – and from comments by email, conversations and texts, others have found it helpful too which is a bonus.
In our church, a group of us met for four consecutive Sunday evenings discussing specific chapters of the book (the gravity of Sin; justification; apocalyptic war; and substitution). They were really good evenings; wonderful to have space to talk and think together about the richness, power and wonder of the cross.
I have also just finished preaching a series of 4 sermons this Holy week (Monday – Thursday evenings) on the cross and love at a joint church event in south Dublin where 5 churches come together every year (Dun Laoghaire Evangelical Church, Crinken C of I, Kill O the Grange C of I, Dun Laoghaire Presbyterian, and Dun Laoghaire Methodist). It was an honour to be part of a wonderful event. Thanks to Dougie McCormack, David Nixon, Trevor Stevenson, Alan Breen and Chris Kennedy for the invitation, hospitality, good craic and commitment to prepare for Easter together.
Reading this book alongside the sermon prep was profoundly helpful. Rutledge’s chapter on the ‘Gravity of Sin’ was important – again and again it was apparent in thinking and preaching about the cross that we need a robust theology of Sin and evil if we are to make sense of the cross of Christ and how it demonstrates the love and justice of God.
After this spurt of (for me) intense blogging (totalling c. 39,000 words I think, admittedly a chunk of that a mixture of descriptions and quotes) the pace may go back to a more leisurely one!
OK, back to Rutledge’s concluding pages and the questions we left off yesterday …
“What does it mean to believe in Christ as the Saviour of the world, the One whose birth, life, crucifixion, and resurrection inaugurated the age to come? What of those who reject him?” (601)
While Rutledge has been moving towards some form of universal reconciliation, she candidly acknowledges that,
“There is ample evidence in the New Testament that Jesus himself requires personal commitment from all who would be saved by him … and that salvation is from Christ alone. The most obvious extrapolation from this is to declare that human beings must come to faith in Christ if they are to be saved. If the wonder and miracle of faith in Christ is dismissed as unnecessary and unimportant, then the dynamic, outgoing, evangelistic pulse of the gospel is negated and Christianity becomes a feeble shadow of itself.” (601)
This is precisely why universalism has been a marginal voice in the church history and theology – it sits uneasily (at least) with the testimony of the Bible itself, and raises all sorts of questions about mission and the uniqueness of the person and work of Jesus the crucified and risen Lord.
So how does Rutledge navigate these seemingly insurmountable problems to a theology of universal acceptance?
Her overall theological framework here, is that God’s judgement is always in service of his salvation. She gives numerous examples from the OT of how God’s judgement on his people is consistently tempered or shaped around is absolute covenant commitment to Israel. God does not simply ‘forgive and forget’ Israel’s sin.
Taking this forward to the day of final judgement, Rutledge ‘applies’ this principle to all of humanity. God’s judgement is in service to salvation.
[My comment]: It is this ‘shift’ from focus on God’s covenant people (OT and NT) to humanity in general that will be seen as the most contentious part of her argument
“God in his righteousness will make right all that has been wrong. This is the very promise of God that the ‘former things’ will be obliterated and no memory of them will remain. And here is the staggering irony: all this is accomplished in the death of Jesus Christ by crucifixion, the method that was especially designed to erase the memory of its victims as though they had never existed.” (603)
This victory includes the eradication of Sin and evil.
And she includes mention of specific ‘unrepentant monsters of history’ like Pol Pot. They will
“… be either utterly transfigured or annihilated altogether, for no one is beyond the reach of God’s power.” (603)
[My Comment] Despite Rutledge’s extensive treatment (which is much broader than I have had space to summarise) I struggle here to see how the argument coheres here. On what basis are some ‘unrepentant’ sinners transfigured (presumably a huge chunk of humanity?) and some others annihilated (the really bad ones like Pol Pot?). How does this square with her paragraph above about the necessity of personal faith in Christ? Is it ‘necessary’ or not?
It seems to me that her assent to the requirement of personal faith and her parallel argument for God’s rectification of all sit in unresolved tension in this closing chapter.
She comes at these issues again in a final few important pages on Romans 9-11.
In sum, Paul is wrestling with the grievous fact of Israel’s rejection of her Messiah. But Paul has a radical perspective on their unbelief. In God’s wisdom, through Israel’s unbelief the Gentiles have been brought in, but this does not mean Israel is rejected…
11 I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. 2 God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew. (Romans 9:1-2)
Somehow Israel’s unbelief plays a part in God’s bigger purposes.
“Strange and contradictory as it may seem, unbelief apparently plays a part in the plan of redemption.” (606)
This sheds, she argues, much needed light on the fate of the ungodly. The ‘godly’ would have originally the Jews as God’s people and the Gentiles the ‘ungodly’. Now, she sees Paul’s train of thought unfolding to a point where “the term ‘ungodly’ comes to embrace all humanity.” (607, my emphasis).
The whole ethos of Romans 9-11 is one of God’s glory and human limitation. (Read Romans 9:6 and following for example).
Rutledge argues with passion that these chapters be restored as a climax of the apostle’s theological argument in Romans. The key idea is God’s sovereign plan of redemption that embraces all and to which the apostle anticipates objections and even outrage at God’s ways of acting in history, that are far beyond human comprehension.
“Salvation (soteria) in Paul’s letters is not to be understood simply in the way that we so often hear it used in American Christianity, as the rescue of first one person, then another, individual by individual, as those persons put their faith in Christ. When the individual is exclusively emphasized, serious theological, ecclesiological, and – not least – geopolitical errors ensue. As Paul develops his message in Romans, the individual Christian does not lose his individual preciousness, but is taken up into the new family of believers and ultimately into the cosmic plan of God. Verse 11:32 is as radically ‘inclusive’ a statement as the Bible contains: ‘For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all.’
Yet, magnificent and ‘broad’ as this vision is, Rutledge closes reiterating the necessity for the faith and confidence of the individual believer – in which she includes herself within this closing poem by Christopher Smart:
Awake, arise, lift up your voice,
Let Easter music swell;
Rejoice in Christ, again rejoice
And on his praises dwell.
Oh, with what gladness and surprise
the saints their Savior greet;
nor will they trust their ears and eyes
but by his hands and feet,
those hands of liberal love indeed
in infinite degree,
those fee still free to move and bleed
and for me