Wednesday, June 13, 2012


In Response to “Why Christianity is Far More Sensible”

I appreciate Marc Barnes’ post, “Why Christianity is Far More Sensible than Whatever You’re Doing Right Now,” on Patheos.com. I share his view that Christianity offers the best explanation for suffering, but differ on the substance of that explanation. When we discuss ideas that affect the direction of people’s faith, and in turn their fate, we are treading on serious ground indeed. I’d like to fairly, but firmly challenge a couple of Marc’s points.

Note that man was given an intelligent mind, but the Fall brought damage to our psyche as well as our physiology. Our natural thinking is not only suspect, but actually bent toward error. “There is a way that seemeth right to a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death,” Prov. 14:12 (also Jer. 17:9, Rom 3:10-12, I Cor. 2:14).  Just to say, we do well to check and correct our thinking with God’s corrective and directive authority, Scripture. “All scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness,” II Tim. 3:16. BTW, this need for correction and instruction goes for both individuals and institutions.

Marc states, “sin is what went wrong.” Correct (Rom. 5:12)!  He states, “it [the cross] is not an example of suffering, it is suffering.” Also correct, indicating that the suffering of Christ on the cross is effective--it accomplishes something. What accomplishment? I think Marc would agree, it accomplishes payment for people’s sins. But the Bible carries it further, saying that it is 1) the only acceptable payment (Heb. 10:4-14, I Pet. 1:18-19), and 2) the fully effective payment for sin (Isa. 53:11, Rom. 5:18, Heb. 10:14, etc.).

Marc builds the following case: 1) Christ is infinite, therefore 2) His suffering is infinite, and 3) thereby His suffering encompasses all other suffering. I’d like to contest this line of reasoning because, of the three assertions, I only see scriptural evidence for the first, that Christ is infinite. He’s infinite, that is, in certain ways. As God, He’s all powerful, all-knowing, omnipresent, and eternal. Though it defies imagination that such a being could, or would, suffer and die for sinful mortals, He did, and His suffering is absolutely sufficient, as per the verses cited above. That his suffering is infinite does not necessarily follow. Look, Christ is “meek and lowly.” Does that mean infinitely meek and lowly? Then how shall He “rule the nations with a rod of iron”? Christ came to “seek and to save that which was lost.” Does that mean His seeking is infinite? Will He therefore seek forever, endlessly traversing the lake of fire--the destination of all the lost (Rev. 20:10, 15; 21:8)?

I would ask Marc, in what way is Christ’s suffering infinite? In time? Does it go on throughout eternity? That would contradict clear statements that His sacrifice was specific, timely, and final. Hebrews 10:12 contains one such towering statement: “But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down on the right hand of God.” Complete. Finite. Finished!

Is Christ’s suffering infinite in quality? I can’t presume a competent answer, but it does seem to ring true. However, Marc seems to be saying more--that Christ’s suffering is infinite in quantity. He offers the analogy of Bob owning all the blocks, therefore any block you have ultimately belongs to Bob. But how do we know that Christ possesses all suffering? A heartwarming thought, but does it have a real basis? Not a sparrow falls to the ground without the Father’s notice, true. “Lo, I am with you alway,” true. Jesus, the “man of sorrows,” having sampled every variety of testing,  became a “high priest… touched with the feeling of our infirmities” Hebrews 4:15. But notice these statements are directed toward His followers, His children. He doesn’t promise to bear the burdens of those who reject Him. His words to religious-but-lost Pharisees were not so heartwarming. “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?” Matthew 23:33. 

Here’s a serious question. Revelation 20 says the devil will be cast into the lake of fire and “shall be tormented day and night forever.” Does that suffering also belong to Jesus? Did Jesus suffer for Satan, or will He suffer with Satan? Throughout eternity? Where’s the “joy that was set before Him (Heb. 12:2)” as He looked beyond the cross? 

Another question, if all suffering belongs to Jesus, how can anyone go to hell (as Jesus taught)? Will He be there with them? Maybe their suffering flows backward to the time when Jesus was on the cross and is absorbed into His. Pardon the bit of sarcasm. We know there are myriad things spiritual and metaphysical that go beyond our comprehension, but I believe the concepts we’re intended to accept by faith are clearly presented and established in Scripture. “So then, faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” Romans 10:17. That is wonderful and exciting to me! For those who have “ears to hear,” God provides a clear explanation of the truth, not from fallible men or organizations (which all are), but from His inspired and preserved Word!

In contrast to its silence on the presumed infinity of Christ’s suffering, there is something that Scripture does indeed emphasize--strongly and repeatedly. Not infinity, but righteousness. Righteousness is the standard for acceptability before God. Nothing else will do (Isa. 64:6, Mt 5:20). So, our being unrighteous, God’s perfect plan of redemption required a perfect, righteous sacrifice for us (I Pet. 1:19, Heb. 9:14). This concept is offensive to some, and represents the “foolishness of preaching” (I Cor. 1:21). Foolishness, that is,  to the lost; but the “power of God and wisdom of God” to those who believe (I Cor. 1:24).

God has provided only one way. The just must die for the unjust (I Pet 3:18), the sinless for the sinner (II Cor. 5:21), and the righteous for the unrighteous (Rom. 5:8,18). The “Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29) must be a “lamb without blemish and without spot” (I Pet. 1:19). In our weakness and utter inability to keep God’s law, we needed a Savior who actually fulfilled the Law (Rom. 5:19; 8:2-3). Why is this significant? Because it reveals that Christ Himself is the only way, the absolute way of salvation.

A further syllogism used by Marc is this: a) the cross is “an action of an infinite God;” b) “thus it is infinite in nature;” c) therefore “saving those in the past, present, and future.” Again, we’re dealing with infinity. The link between God’s being infinite and His actions being necessarily infinite is not supported. If true, then every act of God is infinite. How are the creation of man, the flood of Noah, and the parting of the Red Sea infinite? Yet all are clearly acts of God. The conclusion that the work of the cross saves those in the past, present and future is correct to a degree, but not to infinity. The problem here is that further, more spurious, conclusions might be inferred, such as this: individuals in any age of the future might be saved out of hell or “purgatory,” because, after all, “the cross is not bound by time.”

A more accurate, safer conclusion rests solidly on the following scriptures. Romans 4:3: “For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him for righteousness;”  thus, 1) individuals in times past were justified (saved) through faith. Romans 4:23-25: [Abraham is] “the father of all them that believe,” and [an example of “imputed” righteousness] “for us also, to whom it shall be imputed, if we believe on him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead.”  Thus, 2) individuals in this present age are also saved through faith. (The definition of impute is “to attribute or ascribe,” and Biblically signifies a legal transference to one’s account.)  Romans 3:24-25: “Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood…” So, 3) Christ‘s blood sacrifice is the price of redemption.
Based on these verses (and truly many more), the conclusion I suggest is: faith is the means of access, and Christ’s sacrifice the actual basis of salvation for people of all (earthly) times.

So the cross can indeed save souls today as in times past. In that sense it’s timeless. Point well taken. The rest of the story, however, is that the clock is ticking. That’s why I specify “all times” as “all (earthly) times.” On one particular day, judgment fell on Sodom. One day the door of the ark was shut. One day death strikes an individual. One day this age of God’s grace will suddenly end. If this arouses a feeling of fear in a person without assurance of salvation, that’s good! Fear is an effective and legitimate motivator. While Jesus’ ministry was to positively seek and to save the lost, part of that was negatively warning them to “flee from the wrath to come.” If you recognize yourself to be outside the shelter of God’s mercy, consider this statement: “Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation” II Cor. 6:2.

I realize the post by Marc Barnes was just that--a blog post, written informally to provoke thought. He wasn’t writing a dissertation. My response here may seem overdone, but my point is not to try to outwit or insult Marc. I find him intelligent and thoughtful. I applaud his posts defending truths now under full-scale assault by our wayward society. I only caution anyone, Marc included, not to misunderstand or misrepresent, even by implication, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, “the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth” (Rom 1:16). The Gospel is so simple, and requires such humility, that it’s understandable we’d tend to add to it, either by effort or intellect.

That leads to a final point. Again, not to insult Marc, but consider his following statement: “It [the cross] is the motion of humanity towards the Good.” If I’m not misreading this, it seems to imply that fallen man, epitomized by a murderous clan of religious leaders, a self-serving Pilate, brutal Roman soldiers, a blasphemous mob, and some runaway disciples--this fallen, corrupt train wreck of mankind--is voluntarily moving toward “the Good.” His statement seems to imply that. The truth: if humanity is moving anywhere, it is moving voluntarily and inexorably in the other direction!

Whatever the intent of Marc’s statement, it seems to miss the real point of the cross--certainly nothing about man’s merits or good intentions. Hey, rather than humanity moving toward the Good, isn’t it more like God moving toward the Bad? He moved toward us! And it’s not adequate to think mankind sort of lingers under a shadow of sin. Sin is not a disconnected influence causing us annoyance. It’s a deadly virus found in every cell of our fallen nature! “…ye will revolt more and more: the whole heart is sick and the whole head faint. From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it; but wounds, and bruises and putrifying sores” (Isa. 1:5-6). “There is none righteous, no, not one. There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God” (Rom. 3:10-13).

What, then, is the point of the cross? Though Jesus never sinned, nor was divested of holiness, He did take the position of sinner. He accepted the legal imputation and the judicial burden of sin. Though incomprehensible, this is clearly stated for us in Scripture. “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” II Corinthians 5:21. In one act, God graphically demonstrated 1) man’s great wickedness, 2) God’s righteous wrath, and 3) God’s amazing love. But it wasn’t a demonstration only. It was a sufficient, efficient, and once-for-all work of redemption. Praise to the wonderful grace, wisdom and power of God!!

So is there any positive value in our suffering? Yes, I do agree there is. I’d love to delve into it, maybe later. The short answer is this. Among other things, suffering is a prompting toward redemption. Not itself an actual “motion toward the Good,” it’s a motivation to cry out for God’s help. The blind man’s suffering did not itself help cure his blindness, but it did prompt him to cry out, “Jesus, thou son of David, have mercy on me!” In the work of grace, our suffering is instrumental but not efficacious; a motivation, not a method; it has meaning but not merit. In the words of  Toplady, “Could my tears forever flow, could my zeal no respite know, all for sin could not atone; thou must save and thou alone, rock of ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee.”








2 comments:

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  2. I became a Christian in 1971 which is just about the time "Imagine" exploded on the music scene. Evangelical Christianity had been in a decades long retreat from involvement in culture so it is not surprising that we failed to take John Lennon seriously as the formidable counter theologian that he was. We seemed at best amused over the fact that the rock music we warned each other to stay away from was, in many cases a full frontal assault on Christianity. Sadly, our very civilization was hanging in the balance.

    Rather than engaging Lennon and others like him as you have done here and seeking to provide better answers to the problems of society he raised, we continued a policy of strict separation and leaving the world's problems to the world. After all, Jesus was coming soon so all the injustice in society,the war in Viet Nam, racism and every thing else people were in such an uproar about would no longer matter. All we needed to do was preach the gospel and everything would be fine.

    Obviously, things are not so fine after all. Lennon got much of what he imagined for us by sheer default and now there is no place to hide. When we pull into a parking lot at the mall, there is every possibility that our wives and children will be assaulted by boom boxes from nearby cars where Lennon's heirs rub our faces in their victory with the vilest of obscene lyrics. There is a steep price to pay for being on the losing end of a sexual revolution.

    I have long since renounced the policy of retreat from culture and thankfully I am not alone. But it does bother me that so many well meaning people who have begun to get involved seem to do little more than ridicule the other side. Sure, there is plenty about their message that is illogical and even absurd but we should give credit where credit is due. Unlike us they showed up for battle. And did I mention they beat the snot out of us? All in spite of the fact that we have an infinitely superior view. While we are down like this we need to be long on respect for our opponents and short on ridicule because there is a whole new generation of artist-evangelists seeking to cement the victory of humanism ever deeper with their songs and movies. Again the minds of millions are in the balance.

    Take "The Hunger Games",for example. There can be no question it is having an impact on a slue of people. Do we trash it or worse still, ignore it because Jesus is coming soon? Or do we take it seriously enough to watch it with our minds engaged and try to give a persuasive Christian perspective on it when it is being talked about around the water cooler? As a matter of fact I would love to read your take on it or any other current popular song or movie right here.

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