Leading Question: Are human beings wretched wrecks in need of salvaging? Or are they jewels in the rough just waiting to be polished?
When the topic of “Redeemer” comes up, two alternative views of human nature find their roots in Scripture. One view, more typical of Paul sees God reaching down to save “a wretch like me,” to adopt the line from John Newman’s famous hymn, “Amazing Grace.” The other view, seeing human beings more as jewels just waiting to be polished, is suggested by John 14-17. Both views are present in Scripture, and both are likely to be present in your church – unless one side gets the upper hand and drives out the other view, which would be a great tragedy. Here are some key passages to consider:
1. Ruth. Those who are inclined to place a higher value on humankind, are more likely to look at the book of Ruth in its historical context, noting that the word traditionally translated as “Redeemer” in the KJV is the Hebrew word Goel, who is the near-kinsman who comes to the rescue of the family’s name, honor, and property. In Ruth, Boaz is the Goel, who restores the family’s name and property. But the “honor” aspect is reflected more fully in the role of the Goel as avenger of blood, a custom lying behind the establishment of the cities of refuge. Ellen White’s comment on God’s use of the cities of refuge as a half-way house is the one clear passage where she recognizes a radical accommodation to violent human custom:
The appointment of these cities had been commanded by Moses, “that the slayer may flee thither, which killeth any person at unawares. And they shall be unto you cities for refuge,” he said, “that the manslayer die not, until he stand before the congregation in judgment.” [Num. 35:11-12] This merciful provision was rendered necessary by the ancient custom of private vengeance, by which the punishment of the murderer devolved on the nearest relative or the next heir of the deceased. In cases where guilt was clearly evident, it was not necessary to wait for a trial by the magistrates. The avenger might pursue the criminal anywhere, and put him to death wherever he should be found. The Lord did not see fit to abolish this custom at that time; but he made provision to insure the safety of those who should take life unintentionally. (Patriarchs and Prophets, 515).
This more violent image of the “Redeemer” is also seen in the violent death of God, viewed by some as a means of satisfying the divine demand for justice. Those who see human beings as sinners in need of redemption may be tempted to overlook the original context and simply focus on Jesus as savior and redeemer. A strong emphasis on substitutionary atonement is generally linked with Ruth when the Goel is seem as an image of Christ.
2. John 14-17. If one seeks to characterize the Father, the Son, and humankind on the basis of what is presented in John 14-17, a picture emerges of a God who is Teacher, more than Savior. Thus sin is seen as something that can be addressed through knowledge, more than sacrifice. Traditional “atonement” language and courtroom language simply does not appear in John 14-17. The story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. There is no requirement of a “sacrifice” in the story, though the robe provided by the father is a powerful portrayal of grace. Sometimes called the “moral influence” theory of the atonement, it emphasizes family imagery, rather than courtroom imagery.
3. Romans 5-8. Paul is the most influential biblical voice in support of the substitutionary atonement. Human beings are presented as helpless wretches inRomans 7, but chapter 8 brings relief. Romans 8:1 is particularly powerful: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
Question: How is it possible for both views of the cross are present in Scripture? Why do some believers find both views helpful, but others one or the other? Unless one has a clear view of the diversity in Scripture, the church family will inevitably divide over questions like this. But Ellen White argues that the different Bible writers reflect the different needs of human beings and she concludes that students need more than just one teacher if they are to thrive. Here is the key quotation:
In our schools the work of teaching the Scriptures to the youth is not to be left wholly with one teacher for a long series of years. The Bible teacher may be well able to present the truth, and yet it is not the best experience for the students that their study of the word of God should be directed by one man only, term after term and year after year. Different teachers should have a part in the work, even though they may not all have so full an understanding of the Scriptures. If several in our larger schools unite in the work of teaching the Scriptures, the students may thus have the benefit of the talents of several.
Why do we need a Matthew, a Mark, a Luke, a John, a Paul, and all the writers who have borne testimony in regard to the life and ministry of the Saviour? Why could not one of the disciples have written a complete record, and thus have given us a connected account of Christ’s earthly life? Why does one writer bring in points that another does not mention? Why, if these points are essential, did not all these writers mention them? It is because the minds of men differ. Not all comprehend things in exactly the same way. Certain truths appeal much more strongly to the minds of some than of others.
The same principle applies to speakers. One dwells at considerable length on points that others would pass by quickly or not mention at all. The whole truth is presented more clearly by several than by one. The Gospels differ, but the records of all blend in one harmonious whole.
So today the Lord does not impress all minds in the same way. Often through unusual experiences, [432/433] under special circumstances, He gives to some Bible students views of truth that others do not grasp. It is possible for the most learned teacher to fall far short of teaching all that should be taught.
It would greatly benefit our schools if regular meetings were held frequently in which all the teachers could unite in the study of the word of God. They should search the Scriptures as did the noble Bereans. They should subordinate all preconceived opinions, and taking the Bible as their lesson Book, comparing Scripture with Scripture, they should learn what to teach their students, and how to train them for acceptable service.
The teachers’ success will depend largely upon the spirit which is brought into the work. . . . Let not the spirit of controversy come in, but let each seek earnestly for the light and knowledge that he needs. (Counsels to Parents and Teachers, 432-433)
Chapter 22, in Alden Thompson, Beyond Common Ground: Why Liberals and Conservatives Need Each Other (PPPA, 2009) describes the status of the “debate” within Adventism. Here is that chapter.
A Work in Progress: Cross and Atonement
The Bible says: “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” – 1 Corinthians 2:1-2
The Bible says: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” – 2 Corinthians 5:21
The Bible says: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” – Romans 8:1
The Bible says: “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” – John 14:9
She says: “God’s people are tempted and tried because they cannot see the spirit of consecration and self-sacrifice to God in all who manage important interests, and many act as though Jesus were buried in Joseph’s new tomb, and a great stone rolled before the door. I wish to proclaim with voice and pen, Jesus has risen! he has risen!” – Special Testimonies A, p. 29, August 10, 1890.
They say: “The earliest converts were converted by a single historical fact (the Resurrection) and a single theological doctrine (the Redemption) operating on a sense of sin which they already had – and sin, not against some new fancy-dress law produced as a novelty by a ‘great man,’ but against the old, platitudinous, universal moral law which they had been taught by their nurses and mothers. The ‘Gospels’ come later, and were written, not to make Christians, but to edify Christians already made.” – C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (1961), 23.3.
This will be another brief chapter. But it might be the most important one in the book. Because the discussion is “a work in progress,” however, I am intentionally brief.
The chapter is crucial because Adventists differ in their understanding of what the cross means. But we can’t just dump the cross or even avoid it. Without the cross there would be no resurrection; without the cross there could be no crown. If we live in hope, it is only because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
So why did Jesus have to die? The question is crucial but yields two dramatically different, but complementary answers. And those who are gripped by one answer are easily alarmed by those who are gripped by the other. And it works both ways. Most Christians find both answers meaningful and will no doubt be puzzled by the intensity of the debate engendered by those who are intense. But this is another case where we do not choose our battles. So we have to take all sides seriously.
What are the answers? Both declare that Jesus died to save us, but then the difference emerges. One answer points the cross heavenward and sees the death of Jesus as a sacrifice that satisfies the demands of divine justice: sin requires death. This view can be called the “objective” atonement, indicating that Jesus’ death satisfies some kind of “objective” demand apart from the experience of the believer. It can be the demands of the law; it can also be seen as satisfying divine wrath. Thus the words “substitution” and/or “satisfaction” are also linked with this view. Those who hold this view are strongly attracted by Paul’s writings, especially Romans and Galatians.
The other answer points the cross earthward and sees the death of Jesus as a powerful revelation of God and his love for fallen creatures. This view is called the “subjective” atonement because it focuses on human experience. Thus it is part of Jesus’ answer to Philip: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Those who hold this view are strongly attracted by John’s Gospel, especially John 14-17.
But then the battle begins. Those who are gripped by the “objective” atonement are inclined to argue that the other view is weak on the doctrines of sin and salvation. Without a real “sacrifice” pointed heavenward, they argue, the sin problem hasn’t really been solved.
On the other side, those who are gripped by the “subjective” atonement argue that the other view gives the impression that God demands a pound of flesh before he will save humankind. The more extreme rhetoric is likely to call the substitutionary atonement an immature view which should be outgrown.
Outside of Adventism and from Christian history both views bring along unwanted baggage. The subjective view has been called the “moral influence” theory because the cross is sometimes seen as “only” influencing the moral nature of humankind. As sometimes held by the more liberal Protestant churches, the subjective atonement can indeed undervalue the power of sin and the need for salvation.
The objective view also carries baggage. As held by Christians outside of Adventism, the objective atonement can be linked with a narrow view of salvation that excludes those who do not explicitly accept the sacrifice of Jesus. Thus the good heathen, the good Buddhist, the good Muslim cannot be part of God’s kingdom. The strong language, especially among Calvinists, can also be problematic. The phrase “penal substitution,” for example, tends to trigger the “pound-of-flesh” objection noted above. The rhetoric of “satisfying” divine wrath has a similar effect.
In Adventism, two developments that can be documented in the experience and writings of Ellen White are worth noting. First, in her later writings, she stepped back from her earlier emphasis on satisfying the “wrath of an offended deity,” speaking rather of satisfying the “demands of the law.” Second, chapter 70 in The Desire of Ages has bequeathed to Adventism the conviction that the ignorant but honest heathen can be saved. A commentary on the parable of the sheep and goats inMatthew 25, that Desire of Ages chapter speaks persuasively of “heathen…who worship God ignorantly, those to whom the light is never brought by human instrumentality, yet they will not perish.”
Drawing on the previous two chapters in this book, I would like to note a couple of crucial points, affirming, first of all, that the subjective or revelatory view of the cross, the one presented in John 14-17, is thoroughly biblical and is very much appreciated by many Adventists. But my second point is that this perspective is often viewed with alarm or at best treated as a kind of second-class citizen in Adventism. The Johannine or subjective atonement perspective has not been part of the Questions on Doctrine debate. That discussion is mostly between the perfectionist theology of Peter and the substitutionary theology of Paul, to borrow the labels I suggested in chapter 19.
I believe it is time to address the atonement issue honestly and in good faith. My own experience has been immeasurably enriched by my discovery of Jesus as presented in John 14-17. As I have frequently noted, however, I did not “discover” that wonderful news until I was in my second year at seminary. For all kinds of reason, discovering that Jesus was God on earth and continues to be God in the present may always be a late discovery in a Christian’s life. But it is central to Scripture and crucial for Adventist theology.
If the two sides are going to work together, however, we must recognize that not all the Bible writers give the same emphasis. If both sides can recognize the other’s position as being fully Christian and fully Adventist, it would greatly enhance the work of the church. But the demeaning rhetoric will have to stop. It is not appropriate, in my view, to characterize the Johannine perspective as a non-Christian deviation that is destructive of the Gospel. Nor is it appropriate to describe the Pauline perspective view of an immature theology in which God is seen to be demanding a pound of flesh.
But changing our views of the “other side” cannot simply happen by flipping a switch. Our impressions of the “other side” are often deeply rooted and inflamed by inappropriate rhetoric from the “other side.”
I do, however, have two suggestions that I have found helpful personally. If others, on both sides, would be willing to explore them with me, I suspect we could make good progress. I will spell them out rather pointedly.
1. Memorizing Bible passages that the “other side” finds meaningful. Here it is crucial to try and hear Scripture from the other person’s perspective, not simply to underscore our own. That does not happen easily or immediately. In my case I elected to memorize Romans 8 and 2 Corinthians 5:14-21. In that connection I should mention that a general “truth” or “rule” about memorization that I had already found applicable elsewhere proved to be true here, too. In brief, because it takes me a long time to memorize a passage of Scripture, about the 97th time through I begin to see truths that I hadn’t seen before and to be blessed by them.
And that has certainly been the case with the “substitutionary” passages in Scripture that I have set out to memorize. My understanding of the cross has been deepened and enriched. I no longer feel that I have to “re-interpret” every passage of Scripture to meet my “favorite” perspective. I can let Paul be Paul, James be James, Peter be Peter. And I think that means that I can also let God be God.
Now, when I go to The Desire of Ages and read the chapter “It Is Finished” (Chapter 78, DA 758-64 ), for example, I can honestly admit that it is almost entirely “substitutionary” in its view of the cross. I am grateful that I don’t have to re-interpret it or avoid it. I am grateful that I can be blessed instead of troubled. My solution won’t work for everyone; indeed, probably no one else will be blessed in just the same way I have been. But by sharing our various perspectives honestly with each other, we can walk together toward the kingdom.
In this connection I note the observation of a colleague, one for whom Paul’s theology is especially precious, a colleague who has helped nurture my appreciation for substitutionary theology. He observed that the trajectory of my experience appeared to be quite different from his. His deepening appreciation for the things of God began with a keen awareness of human sinfulness, his own sinfulness; now he is gaining a deepening appreciation the goodness of God.
By contrast, he observed, my experience seems to have started with a deep appreciation for the goodness of God and I am now gaining a deeper understanding of human sinfulness. I think he is right. Our experiences will never be exactly alike. But it has been an enriching experience for us both as we have joined our minds and hearts together in the search for the good things of God.
2. Recognizing that God did not demand a sacrifice for his benefit, but gave a sacrifice for our benefit. In my case, discovering that Jesus was God in the flesh banished forever the haunting specter of a reluctant deity. If God himself took human flesh and came to earth to save me, he really must want me in his kingdom after all! God wasn’t just letting Jesus sneak me in the side door as some kind of concession. No! My salvation was no concession. God came to earth because he really wanted me in his kingdom.
I decided that one of the mental pictures suggested by certain biblical passages had led me astray. In particular the picture of Jesus pleading his blood to the father had given me the impression that Jesus was my friend, but that the Father still needed to be convinced. Admittedly, protection from a holy deity can be a terrifying necessity. In his early years, for example, Martin Luther was just as frightened of the Son as he was of the Father. For him, the only safe approach to God was through the gentle virgin Mary!
In that connection John 16:26-27 has played a crucial role in my thinking. Not only has that passage enabled me to transform from a threat into a promise that scary Adventist line that we “are to stand in the sight of a holy God without a mediator” (GC 425 [1888, 1911]). It has also helped me see that as long as I need a mediator I have one. If the passage is truly a promise, then God is not about the pull the rug out from under us. He cares for our needs.
That same verse may also be helpful in addressing what I consider to be an erroneous impression that it is God who demands a sacrifice. Is it not possible that the “need” for an atoning sacrifice is driven by perceptions engendered by our twisted minds? As I see it, the belief in a “pound-of-flesh God” is the deadly result of sin. As the effects of sin and guilt gnawed away at the human mind, the “gods” became more and more demanding, more and more violent. The end result of that kind of thinking was the conviction that the gods demanded every first-born among humans. God recognized that devastating logic and commanded Israel to provide an animal substitute: “Every firstborn male among your children you shall redeem,” says Scripture (Exodus 13:13; see verss 11-16). That same psychology is reflected in Micah 6:6-8. Moving up the ladder of potential gifts, the prophet ends with, “Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
The prophet’s response implies that God is demanding no such thing. Indeed, the Good News Bible makes the “no” explicit at the beginning of the climactic verse 8. But the story of Jesus, indeed the death of Jesus, brings to an end, once and for all, any human thought of earning God’s favor through a sacrifice. Jesus really did pay it all.
With such an approach, one could speak of a “psychological” and “governmental” necessity of the death of Christ. Such language would have distinct advantages over the “absolute” necessity implied by more extreme forms of Calvinist theology. Such an approach would also put to an end any thought that God was “demanding a pound of flesh,” but it would recognize that God gave a “pound of flesh,” so to speak, because diseased human minds thought it was the only way to find peace. We do not serve a vindictive or vengeful God. But we do serve a God who is willing to pay whatever price our twisted minds might demand. And that’s what we see on the cross.
So let’s put our heads and hearts together, seek God’s presence and study his Word so that gift of God can be the kind of good news he intends it to be. By God’s grace, whether we find John or Paul more helpful, we can all rejoice when any of God’s children discovers that God has made it possible for them to be in his kingdom. That should be wonderful news for us all.