On ‘Doomism’, Sentimentality and the Cross

The April – June 2021 50th Edition of VOX magazine is out in a nifty new smaller printed format designed to make it easier to read on tablet, phone or computer.

You can read it online or download a PDF for free – can’t getter a better deal than that for what is an excellent magazine.

This edition has a particular focus on Ireland’s past, specifically the legacy of abuse formally made public via recent reports in the Mother and Baby homes. I’ll come back to articles on this in later blog posts. It also continues a series on racism in Ireland as well as an excellent article by Karen Huber on the Ravi Zacharias scandal and how it should

“light a fire under all Christians to hold our teachers, our church, and even our doctrines accountable. We should test the actions of those in authority against the standards set in Scripture, and we must pay heed to the spirit of discernment.”

My musings column had an Easter theme and is below. It raises questions, especially in light of the injustices and evil just mentioned above. Questions like:

  • What does it look like to be people of hope in a broken world?
  • What is our response to injustice and suffering?
  • How is the church to embody a different way – a way of justice and mercy for the oppressed and marginalised?

Doomism, Sentimentality and the Cross

Information Overload

The age of Information Technology has certainly lived up to its name; we have instantaneous access to information about pretty well anything we care to think of. Despite lockdown the world remains at our fingertips – there’s no 5km limit if you have a broadband connection. One thing I’ve discovered over the last few months is joining live safaris in the African bush. It’s been a wonderful way to ‘travel’, immerse yourself in another world and learn lots all at the same time. (I’m watching a leopard hunt impalas as I write this!)

But the net is also the gateway to all sorts of other information. There is little that we can’t read or see for ourselves about what’s going on in the world. Because billions of people now carry smartphones, photographs and videos are being taken daily on a vast scale. Even events that authoritarian governments try to hide tend to hit the news. Two examples as I’m writing are the abduction, imprisonment and now disappearance of Princess Latifa in Dubai (only made known through secret videos she took) and ethnic cleansing being carried out by the Chinese government against the Uighur population in Xinjiang (despite denials satellite pictures and videos are damning). But to these we could add countless others.

And then there’s information hidden away for so long, but now exposed to the light of day. In this edition of VOX are stories about injustices experienced by children in an Irish mother and baby home and revelations about Ravi Zacharias exploiting and using women for his own sexual gratification. And this is even before mentioning social media and billions of individuals sharing their lives and opinions on everything from funny cat videos to #FreeBritney to saving the planet from environmental destruction.

Such a vast amount of information has never been available to any human beings before. I wonder sometimes do we know too much? We’ve always known that the world was broken, but now we can watch it unfold livestreamed.

I’ve been musing about this new world – what it does to us and how are disciples of Jesus best to navigate its unfamiliar terrain. It seems to me that there are at least two dead-ends we can go down.

Two Dead Ends

One is ‘doomism’. All too easily, we can become news junkies, overwhelmed with bad news and in a constant state of fear or depression about our world and where it’s going.

Another is ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ – we literally switch off, close our eyes and ears and pretend the world isn’t like it is. We just retreat into a safe bubble of sentimental optimism. A Christian form of this sort of denial is to celebrate the love, forgiveness and presence of God while rarely, if ever, talking about the reality and power of sin and evil (including our own).

Hopeful Realism

But Easter speaks of a third, deeper, and more mysterious way of understanding our world. The way of the cross is neither ‘doomism’ nor optimistic sentimentality, it is, rather, the way of ‘hopeful realism’.

By ‘realism’ I mean that Christians should be the last people to be surprised by bad news, even the bad news of a Christian leader being unmasked. This is because the Bible has a stark diagnosis of what’s wrong with this world. It is Sin with a capital ‘S’. This is not just your wrong actions and mine (personal sins), though it includes them for sure. But Sin as a malign, destructive power that leads to death. A power that we have no way of overcoming on our own: not through better education, or self-esteem, or economics, or human ingenuity, or scientific progress or more information, or good life choices. Humanly speaking, we have absolutely no grounds for optimism about ourselves or our world.

By ‘hopeful’ I mean that our hope is God alone – and that is a great, big, wondrous sort of hope. This is the mystery of Easter. The stronger our understanding of Sin, the deeper is the good news of the cross. The cross

“is the scene of God’s climatic battle against the power of a malignant and implacable Enemy” (Fleming Rutledge).

No human has the ability to break the power of Sin and death – only God can. And, out of love, he has done just that.

Lent 2021: Fleming Rutledge. The accursed death of Christ

We continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

This post relates to chapter 2 on ‘The Godlessness of the Cross’.

We are into some serious theology here – serious both in terms of depth and also subject matter.

What is so refreshing about Rutledge is this seriousness – Christianity is a serious faith about big issues the answers to which will shape our lives.

Questions arising out of this post for me are these:

How seriously is a theology of the cross taught, talked about and understood in the church today do you think? Especially during Lent and climaxing at Easter? How seriously is theology taken in general do you think?

The final section of chapter 2 focuses on Galatians 3:10-14 along with two or three other texts which, take together, Rutledge argues represent ‘the accursed death of Christ’.

Galatians 3:10-14

  • Everyone is living under the power of God’s curse, because the Law (Torah) pronounces that curse on all lawbreakers
  • Rectification (which is Rutledge’s rendering of ‘justification’ – to be ‘set right’) by the Law is impossible since the Law does not give life, only faith can.
  • Only God can do the rectifying and has done so through his Son who took the full curse of the Law onto himself at the cross.
  • A Christian’s identity is not found in the observance of the Law but from the gift of the Spirit through faith in Christ. (99-100)

Rutledge comments on popular caricatures and misunderstandings here. To the objection that it would be a monstrous sort of Father who allows his Son to be abandoned and cursed on the cross, she rightly shapes a reply around the Trinity – Jesus takes the accursedness that is ours on himself by his own decree.

2 Corinthians 5:21

A second text Rutledge turns to is a famous one – probably the strongest text in the NT for some sort of imputation (exchange) of Christ’s righteousness to believers and our sin to him.

For our sake he [God] made him [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Much ink has been spilt over this verse. [N T Wright famously and controversially rejects imputation here and elsewhere in the NT, as if we are ‘given’ the righteousness of Christ].

Rutledge says no-one can say for sure what it means that Jesus is ‘made sin’. Wisely, things are framed around Sin with a capital ‘S’ – in Paul sin is a power that is in league with death, opposed to the good work of God. It is much more than merely ‘missing the mark’, but a hostile spiritual force that, in effect, uses the Law to condemn us to death.

Coming back to Galatians 3, Paul’s quotation of Deuteronomy 21:23 is in effect saying Jesus is condemned by the curse of the Law.

In his death, Paul declares, Jesus was giving himself over to the enemy – to Sin, to its ally the Law, and to its wage, Death (Rom. 6:23; 7:8-11). This was his warfare. That is one of the most important reasons – perhaps the most important – that Jesus was crucified, for no other mode of execution would have been commensurate with the extremity of humanity’s condition under Sin.  (102)

This is where Rutledge is so good, she gets beyond one-dimensional theologies of the cross to how, in Paul, it is a rich kaleidoscope of images and themes converging to form a complex, powerful and beautiful portrait of the love of God in Christ.

By one-dimensional, I mean reducing the cross down to a mere individual transaction – ‘my sin problem resolved’. Yes, the atonement includes this, but there is much more going on, particularly in terms of who the enemy is and the scope of the victory won.

Rutledge draws a creative and memorable parallel here: Jesus’ treatment under Rome is similar to humanity’s condition under Sin. Jesus is:

  • Condemned
  • Rendered helpless and powerless
  • Stripped of his humanity
  • Reduced to the status of a slave
  • Declared unfit to live and deserving of death

So, at one level Jesus takes the literal form of a slave on the cross, but ‘behind the scenes’ the cross is ‘an apocalyptic battlefield where the Lord of Hosts goes to war with the forces of the Enemy’. (103).  [Rutledge returns to the atonement as a battlefield in chapter 9 – Christus Victor].

This is what happened at the cross. The Son of God gave himself up to be enslaved by Sin, condemned by the Law, and subject to Death … Linking all these passages together then, we see that Jesus exchanged God for Godlessness …

… What we see happening on the cross is that Jesus, who dies the death of a slave, “was made to be sin”. Does this mean that Jesus become his own Enemy? It would seem so. Just as his own human body turned against him on the cross, smothering and killing him, so his human nature absorbed the curse of the Law, the sentence that deals death to the human being (Rom. 7:11). By making himself “to be sin”, he allied himself with us in our farthest extremity … Thus he entered our desperate condition. No wonder he cried on the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (103)

[Note: This is a re-post from a daily series I ran during Lent a couple of years ago on Rutledge’s book. This Lent I will do some re-posts from that series].

Some Reflections on the Killing of George Floyd, Racism, Sin and Christian Witness

[This article is also on the Jesus Creed blog on Christianity Today]

The death of George Floyd, killed by Minneapolis police responding to an alleged minor breach of the law, has revealed, once again, the deep racial fractures that divide America. Cities are under curfew and the police, equipped like an army, look like they are prepared for war with their fellow citizens.

Sin tends to be trivialised and individualised in ‘advanced’ Western culture. It’s a naughty desire that you secretly deserve to have fulfilled; it’s the self-indulgence of having too much cream with your strawberries; or, getting more serious, it’s using privilege and power to shame opponents on Twitter.

Christian theology has a lot to say about sin and its seriousness – and that’s why Christian theology also has a lot to say about racism and violence.

What follows are some theological reflections on what has been happening over the last week. I’m talking about America not because the US somehow has a corner on sin (we are all pretty good at being ‘original sinners’) or out of some crude anti-Americanism, but because of the events unfolding there raise theological questions for Christians everywhere. I’ve travelled quite extensively in the US, have many American friends and keep up to date with American politics – but I don’t naively claim that I, an outsider from Ireland, can arrogantly pronounce judgments (or solutions) from a distance.

1. Sin is a virus that God will eradicate

If you’ve seen previous posts you will have noticed I’m reading Douglas Campbell’s Pauline Dogmatics. Chapter 5 is ‘Resurrection and Death’, and in it he says some remarkably relevant things to what is unfolding in the States – on both systemic racism and coronavirus.

From Genesis 3 on, death is inextricably connected to sin. One way of looking at this is death as ‘God’s solution to sin’ (102). In other words, sin is so toxic that God will not allow it to survive. It has a death-by date. Sin has no future, it will be destroyed for good and the new creation is virtually unimaginable to us because it is pretty well impossible to imagine a world without sin and death.

God is a trinity of love and justice, the author of love and peace and joy. Sin – hatred, violence, injustice, exploitation, selfishness, greed and so on – is antithetical to God’s being and good purposes. The two co-exist in the present, but only on a temporary basis. This is the fundamental shape of Christian eschatological hope.

In Galatians 5, this antithesis is pictured as the conflict between the flesh (see ‘the present evil age’ 1:4) and the age of the Spirit. They are utterly opposed to one another. Those who belong to the realm of the flesh will not inherit the kingdom of God.

So Campbell says this

“God absolutely refuses to give life to a cosmos that is contaminated with sin. Its existence must end. Death is God’s judgment on things that have been contaminated by sin. It is the refusal to give life to those things that have turned from life to evil …” 103.

Paul’s Jewish understanding of sin took seriously its deadly effects. Sin contaminates and much temple ritual is about purity and cleansing offending pollution. It is not to be allowed to spread. It must be atoned for and repented from.

We moderns who laugh at the outdated notion of sin should take pause. The Covid-19 crisis is a graphic picture of how sin works. God’s response to sin is like human response to a deadly virus (Campbell wrote this before Covid-19 – talk about a prescient illustration). Drastic measures are needed to contain it – and one day eradicate it from the world.

And in just this sense, God is implacably committed to the containment of sin within this world and this age, and to its ultimate termination, in death. The crippling and deadly virus of sin cannot be allowed to spread. Indeed, we are fortunate that God is so resolute in this opposition to something that we tend to treat rather too lightly. (103)

2. We are all under the power of sin – and all of us face death

One of the many myths of modern capitalism is that individuals can exist in a nice consumer bubble, having their dreams and wishes fulfilled with no cost to the planet and in complete detachment from the anonymous and distant people who made those designer jeans somewhere far away and who may, or may not, be working in a sweatshop.

Likewise, some myths about sin insulate us from its reality in a comforting cocoon of private piety.

(i) it does not exist

(ii) if it does exist, it is little more than a euphemism for a poor personal choice that we will regret

(iii) or perhaps if you are a Christian, sin is a wrong action or attitude for which we need confess to God and repent from.   

While (iii) is partially true, it fails to take seriously the power and systemic reach of sin. Every one of us is implicated in it. Every one of us is under its power. Every one of us faces death as a result.

What is happening in America shows that sin is real, powerful, destructive and deadly. It is not a myth or a primitive outdated idea. People who experience systemic injustice on an everyday basis know this first-hand.

And those who don’t have this everyday experience (generally those with White privilege) tend to resist systemic analysis of sin – they tend to limit sin to the individual sphere.

In contrast to this, listen to what Campbell says about sin – and I agree with him completely

Sin extends all the way across and all the way down. We are saturated with it – soaked in it. (104)

3. Racism is one form of sin: it has a long history in America and has spread for generations, deeply contaminating American public life

The diagnosis of sin as a virus reminds us that it’s highly infectious; it spreads death and once unleashed, it can’t easily be reined-in again.

Racism is inextricably connected to slavery; it is in other words a sin with a long history. It’s one of the great sins of the modern era, perpetrated by White colonial powers to prop up their expanding global economies.

You don’t need to be an expert on the history of slavery and race relations in the US (and I make no claim to be) to know that this original ‘great sin’ has shaped American history in all sorts of destructive ways and poisoned public life. (Again, this is not limited to America but takes a very particular form in the US).

4. The calling of the church of Jesus Christ is to bear witness to ‘death of sin’ in the present

The only ‘solution’ to the problem of sin for each one of us is to die – and somehow come out the other side of death, free of the power of sin. This is precisely what the good news of the gospel announces has happened. In the death and resurrection of Jesus, God has atoned for sin and defeated death.  In this sense, sin has been quarantined – dealt with for good.

But here is one of the New Testament’s most surprising twists – this quarantining of sin and death is not only in the future. The future has already arrived. Believers are already ‘raised’ to new life through the Spirit; they are already ‘new creations’. This is technically called ‘inaugurated eschatology’ and is everywhere in Paul and the other writers of the NT.

If those ‘in Christ’ share in his resurrection life now, then the mission of the church is to bear witness to this reality. By its life, words and deeds, the church is to embody an alternative politics to that of the world. A politics of peace; justice; love; joy; of a self-giving community, transcending all racial and ethnic distinctions; of sharing burdens and resources; of together being conformed to the image of her Lord.

All while awaiting in hope the ‘Day of the Lord’, God’s final defeat of sin, death and all powers that oppose his good purposes, resurrection and the launch of his new creation.

5. Particular challenges for the church in America

If the above is the case – and I think this is a fair description of what orthodox Christianity believes – then this means at least three things for brothers and sisters in America, particularly predominantly White churches.

Again I offer these as observations, simply as a Christian looking on with grief at the suffering, pain and injustice experienced by so many black men and women – many of them brothers and sisters in Christ.

They are not meant to imply that the sorts of things below aren’t going on – I’m sure there are countless examples of where they are. The same sorts of questions could be asked of any church in its own national context of ethnic or racial division. [And some of this relates back to a book I wrote back in 2003 on how evangelicals in Northern Ireland responded politically and theologically within a violent conflict over national identity].

1. The primary calling for brothers and sisters in America is to embody a different story to the story of racial division, hatred, violence, suspicion and fear that is tearing the country apart. The church is to be a ‘window’ into God’s new creation, not a mirror reflecting back the sins of the world.

2. The first response then is not ‘outward’, locating fault in others, it is inward, involving difficult and searching self-critical reflection:

– How in our own contexts, can we actively seek to be agents of love, hope, peace, forgiveness and reconciliation in a broken and divided world?  

– Where do we need to acknowledge our failures to act – especially where our ‘Whiteness’ has insulated us from the realities of the sin of racism?

– Where have we mirrored the world?

– Where have we failed to be communities where all are one in Christ, of equal worth and standing in God’s kingdom – regardless of skin colour, qualifications, nationality, gender, social status and where you live?

– How can we take steps to become such communities?  

– Where have we mirrored the fears of our culture and its frequent trust in force and violence as a means to ‘solve’ issues of difference?

– How can we build understanding and listen to the experiences of brother and sisters who are suffering daily because of the colour of their skin?

3. Only from such self-reflection, might steps become clear as to what acting for justice might look like locally and nationally. But the primary calling of the church is to be the church, not to be a political lobby group to fix the world.

Lenten Reflection – Lorraine Neill

This week leading up to Easter I am posting with permission a series of Lenten Reflections written by members of our church in Maynooth. Some are written pre-COVID-19.

_______________________

Where are you?

“Adam? Eve? Where are you?”

I wonder what it felt like to hear God ask that?  Probably less like the excited anticipation of being discovered in a game of hide and seek and more like the dreaded anticipation of someone walking in on your thoughts.  They were hiding.  Hiding among the many trees that the Lord had made for them to enjoy.  Trees that were ‘pleasing to the eye and good for food’.  Hiding because even though they were given more than they needed and free to eat of any tree but one, they couldn’t resist the one.

“You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.’

Knowledge here means to experience.  God wanted to protect us from experiencing evil, but then evil stood there and looked so good…
And so she ate.
And so he ate.
And so we ate.

And when they ate their eyes were opened.  They saw. They saw what they wished they hadn’t seen. And that seeing ‘brought loss and a darkness that none of us could hold’. They had unleashed evil into creation.  Hell was set loose.  And they couldn’t put the genie back in the bottle.  And so they do what we all do, when we’ve done as we shouldn’t have done… we hide.  Hoping not to be found, and yet part of us knowing that being found is our only hope.

Even when we are found by God we still squirm trying to justify and defend ourselves “…he made me, she made me, it’s my enneagram number…!”

But eventually, like Adam and Eve, we are faced with our mistrust, faced with our desire to be our own God.  Reminded that He alone is the source of all life and we are his creations.  We are reminded that ‘we are dust and to dust we will return’. Fleming Rutledge writes

“in a mysterious way, the saying that we are dust points us to the good news, because it re-orients us to our proper relationship with the creator God, who formed us out of the earth.”

Where are you?  He asks us as we hide. How gracious of him to ask, how gracious of Him to come looking for us even after we’ve mistrusted and disobeyed him. How gracious of him to come looking for us when we thought we didn’t want to be found.  How kind.  How loving. How hopeful.

“This is the God who comes to man and woman when we can no longer come to him, when we can only run away and hide.”

God is always searching for us. God’s first response to this catastrophic event is to search for us in our fall, to invite us out of hiding and most astoundingly to clothe and protect us.

“The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them…”

This Lent, as everyday, there is an invitation for us to remember that we are dust so that we may again fall on the knowledge that He made us, that He knows us better than we know ourselves, that He knows what we need and that He desires abundant life for us.

This Lent there is an invitation to hear him calling our name and asking “where are you?”  There is an invitation to come out of hiding and there is an invitation to be clothed by Him.

[Refs: The Undoing of Death by Fleming Rutledge and poem by David Whyte ‘No one told me’.

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (27) The Great Assize

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

This post sees us begin Chapter 8 ‘The Great Assize’. Or, in other words, the relationship of the cross to the last judgement.

A question up front – what do you see broken in the world? In yourself? In human nature? How ‘fixable’ is the brokenness? And how can it be fixed?

This is a long, complex chapter which I found the hardest to read in the book. Rutledge weaves in multiple themes, but, in my opinion, the argument feels like they don’t quite form a coherent whole. A lot of disparate themes ideas are packed in.

The framework is something like this – and this is my take.

  1. Individuals are under a weight of judgement
  2. Human society is also under judgment
  3. ‘For all that is wrong in the world, a cosmic reckoning is required’ (312)
    1. This reaches its climax at the great and final judgement of God
    2. The death of Christ is inextricably connected to the law court and judgement.

      ‘In the judgement upon Christ, all judgements converge.’ (315)

  4. The Bible talks about this judgement in different ways
    1. Forensic (legal) judgement
    2. Apocalyptic judgement of the powers – Sin, death, the Devil
  5. Human unease with judgement – to get rid of judgement
  6. Pastoral implications of how judgement is understood
    1. The problems with a dominant forensic, legal understanding of judgement
    2. The good news of the wrath of God
  7. Justification / rectification – how God deals with sin
    1. The relationship of faith and justification
    2. The power of God to speak transforming words to the believer
  8. Reconciliation – where does it fit in?
    1. Reconciliation as struggle
    2. Reconciliation as eschatological gift
    3. Are we active or passive in reconciliation?

So you can see what I mean by complicated and long! There is overlap in this chapter with earlier themes (chapter 3 on judgement and chapter 4 on ‘Gravity of Sin’ especially). In a big book I think this chapter could have been edited down more.

Having said that, as throughout, there are gems on virtually every page.

In this post, we’re going to go back to points 1 and 2 – Rutledge’s argument that human individuals and human societies are under God’s judgement.

This is not a popular position to hold – especially outside the church but also within it.

Do we live in a ‘post-guilt’ culture? And, if we do, ‘images of Christ’s death addressed to this concern are of little use to us today’ (303). But Rutledge argues that

‘Sin and guilt are real whether we acknowledge it or not, because God is real.’ (304).

In an ‘age of anxiety’ people are

‘afraid that that they “won’t make the cut” or – here it gets more complicated – they worry that they will not be sufficiently inclusive of others … we are driven and riven by anxieties of various sorts.’ (305)

This is the human condition. Rutledge goes to Philip Roth, novelist and secular Jew, who says of his male characters that they are

“bowed by blurred moral vision, real and imaginary culpability, conflicting allegiances, urgent desires, uncontrollable longings, unworkable love, the culprit passion, the erotic trance, rage, self-division, betrayal, drastic loss, vestiges of innocence, fits of bitterness, lunatic engagements, consequential misjudgement, understanding overwhelmed, protracted pain, false accusation, unremitting strife, illness, exhaustion, estrangement, derangement, aging, dying … men stunned by the life one is defenceless against.”

Cheerful fellow that Roth – wonder what he says about women!?

And if we reject that we are guilty or anxious, Rutledge proposes another trait of humanity that brings under judgement, we are obsessed with condemning others – regardless how much liberal societies educate populations about tolerance, society is riven by tribalism and groups protecting their own power.

And so Rutledge argues that such is the pervasive reach of sin in societies as well as in individuals, that

‘… it will help us to understand that the Great Assize is not just an event that transpires on the level of the individual. For the most part the Bible is thinking collectively, communally and, ultimately … cosmologically.’ The Powers that will be unmasked and sentenced by the Judge who is to come are the powers and principalities of this world, and finally Satan himself. (312)

In the next couple of posts on this chapter we will come back to some pastoral and practical implications of judgement and how it is understood today.

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (18) Sin versus Sentimentality

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

In this post, we finish chapter 4 on ‘The Gravity of Sin’

Some questions up front

How much, do you think, preachers and teachers face up to what Rutledge calls the ‘sickening’ character of human nature?

How much do we confront and confess our brokenness and depth of depravity?

How can this be done constructively in corporate church life?

Or do you think the church generally prefers sentimentality and politeness in preaching and worship? And is then shocked when Sin rears its ugly head?

In the last post we traced Rutledge’s argument that Sin is not something we do, it is something we are in (195). It is a power that enslaves, it shapes our personalities, thinking and actions and the human society in general in a billion different ways.

Given the ‘gravity of sin’ and its effects in the world – the Holocaust, continual wars, repeated genocides, fear of violence, injustice, acts of terror, human destruction of our globe, racism, exploitation of the weak by the powerful ad infinitum …  it is ironic – and perhaps understandable – that so much of Western life lapses into sentimentality.

Rutledge is writing in an American context and says this:

It is the lazy person’s way of receiving data about life, without struggle. It is apparently very important for us to believe in innocence. Such a belief is a stratagem for keeping unpleasant truth at bay; it is a form of denial. (196)

The Bible is anything but sentimental. A collection of inspirational stories it is most emphatically not. It is unblinking in its description and analysis of human nature – with every sort of failure recounted, often ‘by men and women of God’s own choosing’ (196).

But in the age of the internet, social media and the 24 hour news cycle, it is becoming harder and harder to live in denial.

The RoadI love film. I think one of the major trends of recent decades is the exploration of the relationship between human nature and hope. What hope is there for the future given the catastrophic mess we are making of the world? Think Cormac McCarthy’s The Road for example.

An Irish digression: Over the last 30 years or so, any concept of ‘innocence’ has been stripped from Irish public life.

The Garda (police), banks, politicians, the Church, schools, sports (drug assisted Irish Olympian gold medalists), the legal system – have all been exposed and laid bare as overflowing in corruption, greed, power and self-serving interest.

The weak, the poor and the powerless have been ruthlessly exploited by the powerful and there has been next to no accountability and justice. The ‘myth’ of Ireland as a model religious nation full of devoted worshippers has evaporated as if it never existed.

To come back to the crucifixion, Rutledge argues that

‘The crucifixion of Jesus is of such magnitude that it must call forth a concept of sin that is large enough to match it … Looking at Jesus on the cross, we see the degradation and Godforsakeness of it, and we see the corresponding gravity, the weight, of sin … we may conclude that the gravity of sin was so great that no correspondence in heaven or on earth was weighty enough except the self-offering of the Son of God – not by the swift guillotine blade, but by submitting to the degradation of crucifixion. (200-201)

However, while we need a weighty and realistic doctrine of Sin, there is good news:

God’s grace comes unsuspected, invading our circumscribed sphere in which we contrive fruitlessly to exonerate ourselves. The knowledge that we are imprisoned by Sin is not a prior condition for restoration. Such knowledge arises out of, and is therefore overcome by, the joyful tidings of redemption and release. In this glad certainty of new life, the people of God go to their knees to acknowledge their need for a deliverance from Sin that they have already received. (204 emphasis original)

In the next post we begin Part 2 on Biblical Motifs of the Atonement.

Chapter 5 is on ‘The Passover and the Exodus’

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (17) The gravity of Sin

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

We are continuing within chapter 4 on ‘The Gravity of Sin’ and, in particular, Rutledge’s discussion of what Sin actually is.

That ‘Christ died for our sins’ (1 Cor. 15:3) is the core of the gospel.

But what is Sin? And why did Jesus have to die to somehow ‘deal’ with Sin?

This is a big chapter. Again, it’s worth repeating that these blogs only give a flavour of the book and do not do justice to Rutledge’s prose and argument. For that you need to go to the book itself – you could do a lot worse, it’s excellent.

Rutledge goes even higher in my estimation by bringing in Calvin and Hobbes:

Calvin and Hobbes Christmas

Rutledge sees 4 issues here: (180)

1) What’s Santa’s definition of good and bad (What’s God’s definition?)

2) How good to you have to be to qualify as good? (And who makes the determination?)

3) Maybe good is more than the absence of bad (which raises the issue of evil as the absence of good)

4) Such philosophical questions lead to worry which only a theological answer can resolve.

Sin is much more than failing to be as good as we might have been. Nor is Sin a comparison game – ‘at least I am not as bad as x’.

Sin is a power under which all of us are enslaved (Rom. 3:9; John 8:34). Only a greater power can liberate us. The Cross is that which liberates from Sin and Death.

Sin is responsible guilt for which atonement must be made. The Cross is sacrifice for sin.

Human solidarity in bondage to the power of Sin is one of the most important concepts for Christians to grasp. But it is not enough to say that we are in bondage to Sin. A result of that bondage is that we have become active, conscripted agents of Sin. (178-79)

So, Rutledge argues,

Unless we are to abandon the New Testament witness altogether, we much acknowledge that the overcoming of sin lies at the very heart of the meaning of the crucifixion’ (185)

A Cosmic Struggle

The story of the Bible then can be seen as

‘a cosmic struggle between the forces of Sin, evil, and Death … and the unconquerable purpose of God. (184-85)

This battle is seen in every book of the New Testament (see examples pp 186-90, with Paul in particular seeing Sin as a power that enslaves). It is framed in light of the story of Sin in the Genesis: the Fall as the story of how all humans are in a vast rebellion against God.

And, just when you think Rutledge can’t get any better, she brings in Bob Dylan – ‘You Gotta Serve Somebody’ – we all live under one dominion or another, the dominion of Sin or the dominion of Christ. (191)

Sin-Lite: Sin as bad deeds

We come back here to how a watery theology that attempts to speak of the gospel only in terms of God’s love or grace, without a robust account of Sin is, biblically and theologically speaking, incoherent.

It arises from a discomfort that to talk of Sin is somehow a ‘negative’ or ‘downbeat’ message. It cuts across American optimism but is far from confined to America.

But the Bible, and the OT in particular, gives serious attention to the ‘great weight’ of Sin. Rutledge comments that

‘Christian attempts to moderate or minimize it are anti-Hebraic.’ (191)

Another way the seriousness of Sin is minimised is by seeing it as some sort of catalogue of ‘bad deeds’. Rutledge comments on a humourous People magazine survey in which various actions were rated on a scale of badness – a ‘Sindex’.

Really bad Sins: murder, rape, child abuse.

Pretty bad: parking in a handicapped space; cutting someone off;

Not so bad: smoking, swearing, masturbation, copyright infringement, unmarried and living together.

Corporate sin was not mentioned.

Most telling for our purposes here, “Overall, readers said they committed about 4.64 sins per month.” We may laugh at this, but clearly, our sense of sin as specific actions is deeply ingrained. (194)

The Good PlaceWhich all brings to mind The Good Place – which is all about Sin and how to get a score good enough to get into heaven. I’ve watched and enjoyed all three series.

But while amusing – and The Good Place is very amusing – this trivializes the Bible’s realistic and weighty diagnosis of Sin.

Here’s scoring of ‘good deeds’ in The Good Place  just so you know what to focus on!

the-good-place-scoring

We will come back in the next post to how the Bible’s view of Sin confronts and contrasts to that of American sentimentality and superficial optimism about human nature.

 

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (16) Sin: where to begin?

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

In this post, and the next couple, we turn to chapter 4 and ‘The Gravity of Sin’

What is your response to the word ‘Sin’? Emotionally? Intellectually?

What is sin?

Would you agree with Rutledge’s argument in this chapter, that the church has largely lost a sense of the gravity of sin? Are God’s love and grace much talked about, but sin little mentioned? Is it just too ‘negative’ and depressing a topic to focus on?

What is the connection between sin and the gospel? In other words, what is the relationship between the ‘good news’ (of Jesus Christ) and the ‘bad news’ (of human sinfulness)?

So, how to talk about sin today? It is hardly a fashionable, attractive or exciting topic.

In a culture of optimistic self-affirmation, sin is simply not taken seriously as an idea. If mentioned, it is a bit of fun, used to sell some form of ‘sinful’ self-indulgence because ‘you are worth it’ – chocolate, cream, a spa, a holiday. The ‘sin’ of making space for ‘me time’.

The idea of ‘sin’ here is purely ironic, a marketing mechanism. The message underneath the ad being that ‘sin’ (of a bit of self-indulgence) is really a good thing. And the sub-text is that the idea of sin itself (that there is something fundamentally wrong with us and the world) is nonsense, to be smiled at as a primitive idea and dismissed.

The reason Rutledge had the chapter on Justice before this one on Sin – and Anselm in the middle – is that we need to understand God’s justice as his good intent to put things right – ‘liberating and restorative, not crippling and retributive’ (169). Then we are in a position to discuss Sin.

Rutledge uses a capital S – Sin singular, in terms of a general term describing human rebellion against God, a brokenness of relationship that impacts all other relationships.

To be in sin, biblically speaking, means something very much more consequential than wrongdoing; it means being catastrophically separated from the eternal love of God. It means to be on the other side of an impassable barrier of exclusion from God’s heavenly banquet. It means to be helplessly trapped inside one’s worst self, miserably aware of the chasm between the way we are and the way God intends us to be. It means the continuation of the reign of greed, cruelty, rapacity, and violence throughout the world. (174)

Plural ‘sins’ follow on from ‘Sin’ singular.

The point here, and throughout this chapter, is that we have an inbuilt tendency to downplay the gravity of Sin.

In the following quote – does what is said seem surprising or puzzling to you? Why?

The church has always been tempted to recast the Christian story in terms of individual fault and guilt that can be overcome by a decision to repent. This undermines the gospel at its heart. (171)

Hang on a minute – is not the Christian story all about overcoming guilt through repentance? How does it undermine the gospel?

What Rutledge is getting at here is the shift from utter dependence on God to confront and overcome sin, to a more optimistic and spiritually naïve anthropocentric emphasis on what we can do – as if Sin is overcome by our action (of repentance). For Rutledge

‘human repentance is not powerful enough, nor thorough enough or dependable enough to deliver the human race from wrong. (172)

This is why Rutledge is critical of evangelical revivalism – it focuses and actually depends on the human response as the overriding determining factor of salvation. The aim in such evangelism is to whip up emotion, primarily guilt, about ‘my’ sinfulness as a precursor to the resolution of ‘my sin problem’ through my repentance.

To be clear – Rutledge is not denying the importance of repentance. What is being criticised is where one ‘begins’ when talking about the gospel.

This takes us right into recent debates within contemporary evangelicalism, specifically for example, Scot McKnight’s book The King Jesus Gospel which was discussed at length on this blog some time back.

To recap, McKnight’s criticism is that evangelical revivalism fostered an individualistic salvation narrative, namely, a ‘gospel’ ‘method of persuasion’ designed to evoke a crisis of guilt and a subsequent decision to repent. Ironically, this took the focus off the announcement of the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ and zoomed attention in on the resolution of the individual’s ‘sin problem’.

This not only reduces the breadth and scope of the good news, it makes ‘the gospel’ all about ‘my salvation’ (individualistic soteriology) rather than the good news of Jesus and what God has done in Christ (Christology and soteriology – with salvation being much broader than individuals ‘being saved’).

So rather than beginning with the bad news of sin, Rutledge is arguing this,

‘If a congregation is led to an understanding of salvation, the sense of sin will come as a consequence – and then the knowledge that the danger is already past will result in a profound and sincere repentance. That is the proper time to start talking about sin. (173)

In other words, coming at things from a very different angle to McKnight and others, Rutledge is agreeing with them by saying the announcement good news (gospel) of what God has done in Christ comes first. This puts focus where it should be – on the grace, love and saving action of God.

Human response follows – including a deepened awareness of sin and subsequent repentance.

Karl BarthRutledge retells a story of Karl Barth about a Swiss legend. A rider unknowingly crossed a frozen Lake Constance by night. When he realised what had happened he broke down horrified at his near death experience. This is like the impact of the announcement of the gospel. We hear retrospectively the news of what God has done. It is only then we understand the fate from which we have been rescued.

The words of Karl Barth

Do we really live in such danger? Yes, we live on the brink of death. But we have been saved. Look at our Savior, and at our salvation! Look at Jesus Christ on the cross … Do you know for whose sake he is hanging there? For our sake – because of our sin – sharing our captivity – burdened with our suffering! He nails our life to the cross. This is how God had to deal with us. From this darkness he has saved us. He who is not shattered after hearing this news may not yet have grasped the word of God: “By grace you have been saved!” (Barth, Deliverance to the Captives, emphasis in the original in italics. Rutledge, 172-73)

So when it comes to Sin, there is a deep personal response – but it is to the gospel of good news of God’s love and saving action. Salvation does not depend on ‘me’, but on God.

Gospel first, then joy, gratitude, thanksgiving, repentance (a turning to God and from ourselves) and subsequent obedience.

 

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (9) the accursed death of Christ

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

In this post we finish chapter 2 on ‘The Godlessness of the Cross’.

We are into some serious theology here – serious both in terms of depth and also subject matter.

What is so refreshing about Rutledge is this seriousness – Christianity is a serious faith about big issues the answers to which will shape our lives.

Questions arising out of this post for me are these:

How seriously is a theology of the cross taught, talked about and understood in the church today do you think? Especially during Lent and climaxing at Easter? How seriously is theology taken in general do you think?

The final section of chapter 2 focuses on Galatians 3:10-14 along with two or three other texts which, take together, Rutledge argues represent ‘the accursed death of Christ’.

Galatians 3:10-14

  • Everyone is living under the power of God’s curse, because the Law (Torah) pronounces that curse on all lawbreakers
  • Rectification (which is Rutledge’s rendering of ‘justification’ – to be ‘set right’) by the Law is impossible since the Law does not give life, only faith can.
  • Only God can do the rectifying and has done so through his Son who took the full curse of the Law onto himself at the cross.
  • A Christian’s identity is not found in the observance of the Law but from the gift of the Spirit through faith in Christ. (99-100)

Rutledge comments on popular caricatures and misunderstandings here. To the objection that it would be a monstrous sort of Father who allows his Son to be abandoned and cursed on the cross, she rightly shapes a reply around the Trinity – Jesus takes the accursedness that is ours on himself by his own decree.

2 Corinthians 5:21

A second text Rutledge turns to is a famous one – probably the strongest text in the NT for some sort of imputation (exchange) of Christ’s righteousness to believers and our sin to him.

For our sake he [God] made him [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Much ink has been spilt over this verse. [N T Wright famously and controversially rejects imputation here and elsewhere in the NT, as if we are ‘given’ the righteousness of Christ].

Rutledge says no-one can say for sure what it means that Jesus is ‘made sin’. Wisely, things are framed around Sin with a capital ‘S’ – in Paul sin is a power that is in league with death, opposed to the good work of God. It is much more than merely ‘missing the mark’, but a hostile spiritual force that, in effect, uses the Law to condemn us to death.

Coming back to Galatians 3, Paul’s quotation of Deuteronomy 21:23 is in effect saying Jesus is condemned by the curse of the Law.

In his death, Paul declares, Jesus was giving himself over to the enemy – to Sin, to its ally the Law, and to its wage, Death (Rom. 6:23; 7:8-11). This was his warfare. That is one of the most important reasons – perhaps the most important – that Jesus was crucified, for no other mode of execution would have been commensurate with the extremity of humanity’s condition under Sin.  (102)

This is where Rutledge is so good, she gets beyond one-dimensional theologies of the cross to how, in Paul, it is a rich kaleidoscope of images and themes converging to form a complex, powerful and beautiful portrait of the love of God in Christ.

By one-dimensional, I mean reducing the cross down to a mere individual transaction – ‘my sin problem resolved’. Yes, the atonement includes this, but there is much more going on, particularly in terms of who the enemy is and the scope of the victory won.

Rutledge draws a creative and memorable parallel here: Jesus’ treatment under Rome is similar to humanity’s condition under Sin. Jesus is:

  • Condemned
  • Rendered helpless and powerless
  • Stripped of his humanity
  • Reduced to the status of a slave
  • Declared unfit to live and deserving of death

So, at one level Jesus takes the literal form of a slave on the cross, but ‘behind the scenes’ the cross is ‘an apocalyptic battlefield where the Lord of Hosts goes to war with the forces of the Enemy’. (103).  [Rutledge returns to the atonement as a battlefield in chapter 9 – Christus Victor].

This is what happened at the cross. The Son of God gave himself up to be enslaved by Sin, condemned by the Law, and subject to Death … Linking all these passages together then, we see that Jesus exchanged God for Godlessness …

… What we see happening on the cross is that Jesus, who dies the death of a slave, “was made to be sin”. Does this mean that Jesus become his own Enemy? It would seem so. Just as his own human body turned against him on the cross, smothering and killing him, so his human nature absorbed the curse of the Law, the sentence that deals death to the human being (Rom. 7:11). By making himself “to be sin”, he allied himself with us in our farthest extremity … Thus he entered our desperate condition. No wonder he cried on the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (103)

In the next series of posts, we turn to chapter 3 and ‘The Question of Justice’.

 

 

An Easter Reflection: 1 John 4, love, life, wrath and the cross

In 1 John 4: 7-10, the apostle writes this:

7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9. This is how God showed his love among us: he sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

That is 9 occurences of the noun or verb for love of [agapē (love) and agapaō (to love)] in 4 verses. I John is easily the most ‘love saturated’ book in the Bible and these verses represent the most ‘love saturated’ section of the epistle.

Famously – and uniquely in Scripture – John states that ‘God is love’. Love ‘comes from God’ because God, in himself, in his essential being, is love. This means everything that he does is loving – whether creating, sustaining, redeeming or judging.

For John, love is never abstract; it is always concrete and practical. God’s love takes the visible and tangible form of sending his one and only Son into the world – in John a realm of sin, death, rebellion and hate. If love is the motive, the result is that we might have life through him.

John thinks in big picture theology rather than systematic details. The ‘sending’ of the Son is shorthand for the whole story of Jesus – his incarnation, life, ministry, death and resurrection. His focus here is on the cross as verse 10 makes clear.

The Son is sent in love to give us life. But how does this work?

1. Somehow the death of the beloved Son is an ‘atoning sacrifice’ (hilasmos) for our sins – yours and mine. Despite some attempts to evade this, hilasmos has the sense of propitiation – turning away divine wrath against sin and sinners via an acceptable sacrifice. The love of God sits right alongside his anger and judgement against sin. It is at the cross that the love and judgement of God meet. To see Easter and the cross only as a supreme example of divine love and to airbrush atonement for sin out of the picture is to depart from the apostolic gospel.

2. In atoning for our sins, the death of the Son gives believers life. This implies a doctrine of regeneration. To be in the world is to be in a realm of death. Through God’s loving initiative, we are given the gift of eternal life. We no longer are to belong to the realm of the world.

3. Easter is solely dependent on God’s love and is God’s initiative alone – we are utterly unable to deal with our sin or be reborn into new life. It is only God who can  atone for sin and give us life. He does so at supreme cost to himself.

4. If the whole point of Easter is to give us life – what does this life look like? Quite simply it is a life of love. John’s focus is our love for each other. If we do not love, it reveals that we do not actually know the God who is love. Love is the ‘proof’ that we have received new life and our sins have been atoned for in the death of the Son. As we enter this Easter weekend, let’s first and foremost remember that both the motive and the ultimate purpose of the cross is love.

Easter is therefore a good time to reflect on our ‘love lives’ – how well are we loving?

Easter is an appropriate time to pray, repent and ask God to help us love – to be the people that the atoning death of Christ is designed to make us be. Perhaps there is someone we need to act to be reconciled with this Easter.

Easter is most of all a time to rejoice and worship the God who is love and who acts in love so that we might have the privilege and joy to know him.

Comments, as ever, welcome.