Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Atonement Series Three: Rethinking PSA

Rethinking PSA
Preached at UKIRK Nashville
March 25, 2014
Romans 3:19-31

There it is.  Verses 25-26 cast a long shadow on the history of Christian theology related to justification and atonement.

“whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.  He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.”

This week we will engage with the theory of Penal Substitutionary Atonement, or PSA.  Some call it Satisfaction Theory, but for tonight, we’re just going to call it PSA.

In summary:
·      Anselm takes issue with Ransom Captive and Christus Victor for some of the same reasons we explored last week, but primarily because those theories elevate Satan or evil.
·      Anselm claims that we are not captives to Satan or evil, but rather to our own sin.
·      Sin, Anselm claimed, places us in debt to God.  God’s eternal laws of justice have been broken, and there’s no way we can possibly overcome that debt of obedience.  This leaves humanity eternally separated from God.
·      Just as the debt of sin began with Adam, so must the debt of sin sin be destroyed by a perfect God-man, Jesus.
·      God sends Jesus, who lives in perfect obedience, and who eventually must be sacrificed, Leviticus style, to atone for the sins of humanity.  You know Leviticus 16, right?
o   Leviticus 16:29-34: This shall be a statute to you for ever: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall deny yourselves, and shall do no work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you. For on this day atonement shall be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins you shall be clean before the Lord. It is a sabbath of complete rest to you, and you shall deny yourselves; it is a statute for ever. The priest who is anointed and consecrated as priest in his father’s place shall make atonement, wearing the linen vestments, the holy vestments. He shall make atonement for the sanctuary, and he shall make atonement for the tent of meeting and for the altar, and he shall make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly. This shall be an everlasting statute for you, to make atonement for the people of Israel once in the year for all their sins. And Moses did as the Lord had commanded him.
·      In his death on the cross, Jesus takes on the sins of the entire world, eliminates the need for the annual day of atonement, and thus pays the debt, reconciles our account with God, and satisfies God’s wrath and need for divine justice.

This theology of justification, PSA, becomes the predominant theology for the second thousand years of Christianity, and still holds a primary place in the hearts and minds of Christians all around the world.

Contemporary proponents/advocates for PSA include John Piper and Marc Driscoll, and they are almost militant in their defense of its truth and primacy.  Both of these men, and those who support them, emphasize the wrath of God and say that it is:
·      Eternal
·      Terrible
·      Deserved
·      Escapable

As you might imagine, it is escapable by simply acknowledging Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, thus only those who make such confessions of faith escape the eternal, terrible wrath of God.

In his book Love Wins, Rob Bell shares some statements from church websites that believe strongly in PSA

·      The unsaved will be separated forever from God in hell.
·      Those who don’t believe in Jesus will be sent to eternal punishment in hell.
·      The unsaved dead will be committed to an eternal conscious punishment.

So, not only will the “unsaved” be separated from God, but they will be punished and be conscious of that punishment, to which Rob Bell writes, “in case we were concerned they might down an Ambien or two when God wasn’t looking.”

I tell you what.  If I’m trying to figure out what I believe about God, I’m sure as shootin’ not going to walk in the door of those churches.

And yet, up until very recently, the churches in our country that have been on the rise, have espoused some version of PSA as the only way to make sense of the cross of Jesus Christ.  In the not so distant past, folks seeking ordination in the Presbyterian Church USA and the denominations that preceded her had to stand up and profess strict allegiance to PSA.  If you go home tonight and Google PSA and click on the video tab, you’ll find some interesting videos of Mark Driscoll and a guy named Todd Friel who lay it out in some pretty strong ways.  They are clearly convinced and convicted that to question PSA is to question the very foundations of Christianity, and possibly to invalidate any salvation you might have previously achieved.

Before we dive headlong into some analysis of our scripture for tonight and the issues with PSA, let’s at least take a look at how it addresses the fourfold brokenness we’re using as a definition for sin.

As a refresher, Scot McKnight, in his book entitled A Community of Atonement defines sin as brokenness in how we relate to:
·      God
·      Our fellow human beings
·      The world around us
·      Ourselves

PSA speaks definitively about mending the broken relationship between humanity and God, although it attaches certain strings.

At some level, PSA speaks to God’s redemption of all things through the cross of Jesus Christ, but not necessarily our relationship with our world.

It does speak to the elimination of sin from our lives, which might allow us to be more fully ourselves.

However, PSA, like all our previous theories, does nothing to really address the brokenness between human beings.  It claims to settle the account with God, but it says nothing about societal sin, and it doesn’t really say anything about the world around us.  In fact, it might promote a certain escapism whereby the injustices of this world don’t matter all that much.

This is the point in the evening that if this were a youth group lesson, we would pull out our Presbyterian hymnals (in this case the blue ones, because we haven’t bought the new ones yet) and look for hymns that promote PSA.  I imagine there would be a ton of them.

For now, I’d like to share the lyrics from a song that seems to be pretty popular in certain circles.  I say that, because I think I’ve sung it every time I’ve been a Belmont chapel service or at what might be considered a neo-evangelical community of faith.  The title of the hymn is How Deep the Father’s Love For Us, and I’m going to put the lyrics up for us to explore, and as we do so, I’ll offer some critiques of PSA.

How deep the Father's love for us,
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure

Would it have killed them to use the word “maker” instead of Father?
One might argue that these opening lyrics set up a subordinate relationship between the 1st and 2nd persons of the trinity.
While I don’t love the wretch language, I do appreciate PSA’s emphasis on our inability to earn God’s love or favor.
Some feminist theologians have asked, “What kind of Parent is God if God sacrifices God’s child?  Are we to worship a divine child abuser?

How great the pain of searing loss,
The Father turns His face away
As wounds which mar the chosen One,
Bring many sons to glory

Umm…seriously?  The Father turns his face away? 
·      First of all, if God is incarnate in Jesus Christ, it’s not as if God isn’t experiencing the excruciating suffering of the cross.
·      Second, if this is the plan for God’s eternal wrath and justice to be fulfilled, God doesn’t need to be looking away. 
·      Chosen one sounds a little too much like the Matrix or something, and borders on adoptionism, a heresy that says Jesus wasn’t really God-with-us, but was adopted as God’s chosen one based on his faithfulness to serve as the sacrifice to end all sacrifices.
·      Many sons?  I mean, seriously?  This is a fairly contemporary hymn.  What about the ladies?

Behold the Man upon a cross,
My sin upon His shoulders
Ashamed I hear my mocking voice,
Call out among the scoffers

·      This verse isn’t the worst.  It does hearken back to Isaiah and Leviticus, and some of what we read from Romans today.  It takes seriously the weight of sin that Jesus carried with him to the cross.
·      I do wonder, though, about universalizing the scoffing.  It seems to imply that sin is a cookie cutter kind of thing.  Maybe I’m not so much a scoffer of Christ as I am an aggressive, angry, oppressive person to my fellow human beings.  Or, maybe I scoff at myself and undervalue the image of God inside me.

It was my sin that held Him there
Until it was accomplished
His dying breath has brought me life
I know that it is finished

·      There it is.  That implication that the same God who created everything that is, must follow some sort of script for appeasing God’s own wrath and justice. 
·      The sin didn’t hold Jesus Christ on the cross.  God’s love and compassion for a broken humanity did! 
·      Our sin does not motivate God or bind God’s hands.  God acts in self-giving love to mend our brokenness and to eliminate sin’s dominion over human beings.
·      Is it really Jesus’ dying breath that has brought us life, or is it the resurrection.  I would argue that the Bible points to resurrection as the assurance of new life.

I will not boast in anything
No gifts, no power, no wisdom
But I will boast in Jesus Christ
His death and resurrection

·      Ah, there’s the resurrection.
·      No boasting.  That’s straight out of Romans 3, and yet I think it misses the point a little bit.  In the context of Romans 3, Paul is probably not thinking about our western American tendency toward legalism, but more about his fellow Jews boasting about their status as the chosen people of God.
·      I would say that in our context, there are plenty of church folk who need to hear a little something about not boasting…maybe not even boasting about how right they are about PSA.

Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer
But this I know with all my heart
His wounds have paid my ransom

·      And, we’re back to Ransom Captive and Christus Victor, and we already parsed those last week.

One of these days, I’m going to write my own hymn lyrics to that tune, because it’s one that gets in your head, and I’d love for different lyrics to be in my head.

In order to really explore this passage of scripture, and to more fully understand justification from Paul’s perspective, we have to take a serious look at the word “faith” and the way it’s used here. 

Verses 21-22, in the NRSV, reads:
But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.

The NIV, and many other translations, make it sound as if righteousness is granted to people who believe in Jesus Christ, thus Marc Driscoll’s claim that God’s wrath is escapable.  If you just believe that you’re an awful sinner, unworthy of God’s love and that  Jesus got in the way on the cross, satisfied God’s seething wrath, and then pleaded your case, you’ll find yourself in heaven for eternity.

The problem with that translation, and all the subsequent interpretations, is that the Greek isn’t quite that clear, and many scholars think it should probably be translated much more like the Common English Bible, which reads:
But now God’s righteousness has been revealed apart from the Law, which is confirmed by the Law and the Prophets.  God’s righteousness comes through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who have faith in him.

So maybe it isn’t necessarily about us having enough faith, or the right kind of faith, but more about Jesus’ faithfulness to God’s plan of salvation.

Somehow the hard-core PSA evangelists skip right over the following verses that read:
For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. 

As I read this passage and ones similar to it later in Romans or from Galatians, I read a strong proclamation of God’s choice to eliminate sin as a determining factor in God’s relationship with humankind.

These are not words of a court of justice, but words of covenantal theology.  As one author writes,
On the cross Jesus accomplished what God has always intended the covenant to achieve.

Not only does the cross rescue sinful humanity from its sin, but it also ushers in a worldwide family of forgiven sinners.  To quote Galatians 3:28
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Or, the end of tonight’s passage:
Or is God the God of Jews only?  Is he not the God of Gentiles also?  Yes, of Gentiles alos, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.

I think it is quite possible that all this language about faith goes back to Jesus’ faithfulness and thus God’s faithfulness.

In his chapter on “atonement” Shirley Guthrie offers what I find to be helpful correctives to PSA, and these correctives will begin to shape our conversation for the rest of the semester.

In summary:
·      Jesus came to express God’s mind and will, not to somehow change it through a grand gesture of self sacrifice.
·      If there is a ransom to be paid, it is paid by God, not purchased from God.
·      If we do speak about God’s wrath, let us do so in the context of God being deeply hurt by the consequences of human brokenness.  God wants what is best for us as human beings…God wants us to achieve our highest potential as human beings bearing the image of God.  When we fall short, this grieves God and causes pain within God’s very self. 
·      If there is a sacrifice to be made on behalf of that “wrath” or “grief”, it is because we need it, not God.  God makes the sacrifice in the person of Jesus Christ because that is how God chooses to satisfy justice and to overthrow sin.

Indeed, the maker’s love for us is deep and wide, and God is willing to go to any length, even suffering death within God’s self, to achieve that which we can not achieve for ourselves.