Sunday, February 13, 2011

A Biblical View of Christ's Death

The central tenet of Orthodox sotieriology is the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ. Every other part of Orthodoxy stems from it. Clark Carlton, noted Orthodox theologian, writes, “In becoming man, Christ assumed human nature in its entirety. Because man is created in the image of the Holy Trinity, each human being sums up within himself the totality of human nature. Thus, Christ as man is united essentially to every man. He is one with the Father and the Holy Spirit according to His divinity, and one with each of us according to His humanity.” (Carlton, 105) The Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon says likewise, “We all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhood, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood…”

Hence, because of the incarnation, a path is open for union with God through Jesus Christ. Union with Christ’s life is the essence of salvation. In order to make this union possible, the Lord went to the Cross for our sins. Protestants believe that Christ, in going to the Cross, took upon the full wrath of God the Father for the sins of humanity, and provided a perfect righteousness to be imputed to those who place trust in His work on the Cross. Because of this righteousness, those who have placed faith in Him are allowed access into Heaven.

Orthodox Christians, by contrast, believe that Christ’s death had nothing to do with satisfying the wrath of God. Rather, Christ’s death served two main purposes. First, Jesus Christ united Himself with humanity in all of its sufferings, sorrows, and pains. He took upon Himself the natural consequence of man’s sin, that is, suffering, rather than the wrath of God the Father for our sins. Second, through His death, Christ annihilated the bonds of death, and in doing so, destroyed the kingdom of Satan.

Protestants appeal to a variety of texts in attempting to prove penal substitution and imputed righteousness. Perhaps foremost among this texts is St. Paul’s argument in Romans 3:25. He writes, “…God put forward [Christ] as an (hilasterion) by his blood, to be received by faith.” In most Protestant translations, hilasterion is rendered “propitiation.” Propitiation would imply that Christ satisfied the wrath of God the Father on the Cross. However, New Testament scholar Stephen Finlan writes concerning this passage, “The hilasterion is the place where the impurity resulting from the sins of Israel is ritually cleansed once a year…what Paul is saying is that God has put forward Christ as a ‘mercy seat of faith’, not ‘an expiation’ [or] a ‘sacrifice of atonement’” [Finlan, 40] That is to say, Jesus Christ has been made the mercy seat for our sins. He is where Christians are purified. He is the place of our union with God, not the means of satisfying an angry Father.

When St. Paul writes, “In his divine forbearance He passed over former sins”, he is not saying that God withheld punishment until Christ’s sacrifice. He is simply saying that He withheld the true purification until the “fullness of time had come”, as it is written in Galatians 4:4.

Another key text used by Protestants to demonstrate the propitiatory nature of Christ’s sacrifice is 2 Corinthians 5:21. St. Paul writes, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” According to the Protestant interpretation, this passage references the double imputation. The sins of humanity (or the elect) are imputed to Christ, and Christ’s righteousness is imputed back. There are significant problems with this interpretation. According to the imputation view, Christ merely had sins imputed to Him, and imputed back righteousness. That is, this is a process extrinsic to us, not something that intrinsically changes us. However, St. Paul appeals in 2 Corinthians 5:20 to “be reconciled to God.” The Corinthians were recognized Christians. St. Paul tells them to be reconciled to God, and then declares that Christ was made sin so that we might become righteousness in Him. That is, by attaining close union with Christ, we actually become righteous over time. Because this is a command to already converted Christians, this reconciliation in Christ must be a process of transformation, not an event. Robert Sungenis, a Roman Catholic scholar, writes “The grammatical construction of 2 Cor. 5:21 does not necessarily treat the subordinate clause (‘in order that we might become the righteousness of God in Him’) as an actual or definite result of the main clause (‘He made the one not knowing sins to be sins on our behalf’). [The passage shows] a potential result in process rather than a punctiliar event.” [Sungenis, 322-3]

Finlan notes that St. Paul is making reference to a scapegoat ritual in this passage. A scapegoat ritual is where the disease of a community is placed on the scapegoat, and it is destroyed, hence destroying the disease of the community. Seeing sin as a disease, St. Paul teaches that Christ has partaken of our disease on the Cross, and by His death has destroyed the disease. By participating in our pure scapegoat, we may actually become righteous in Him. [Finlan, 42-4] Related to this passage is Romans 8:3, which says that God “condemned sin in the flesh” in the person of Christ. This, like 2 Corinthians 5:21, has nothing to do with penal substitution. The passage says in full that “God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh.” Thus, God the Father sends God the Son, in the likeness of men, to partake of our own diseased flesh, so that He may destroy the disease and heal us.

It is written in Romans 5:9 that “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” The question is first, what is the wrath of God? Second, in what sense are we saved from God’s wrath by Christ’s death. First, the wrath of God is not a wrath of passion, where the Lord has to let off steam against His enemies. When Scripture speaks of God’s wrath, it speaks of it in three ways. St. John Chrysostom spoke of the death of a man, saying “If he was a wicked man, do not mourn but rejoice, for he is no longer able to sin.” That is, God destroys certain men so that they do not fall even further out of communion with Him. Second, God’s wrath is a corrective wrath. God uses certain things as a demonstration so that other men may repent and come into communion with God. Third, God’s wrath is lack of communion with God. It is being in the presence of God while being out of communion with Him.

The Prophet Daniel writes in Daniel 12:2, “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” There is one general resurrection of the dead, and some arise in communion with God, eternal life. The others arise out of communion with God, eternal shame and contempt. When Christ speaks of the fires of hell, this is not in a literal sense. Rather, it is representative of the shame one experiences being out of communion with God. Protestant scholars Habermas and Moreland concur, writing “Mental and physical anguish result from the sorrow and shame of the judgment of being forever relationally excluded from God, heaven, and so forth.” [Habermas, Moreland, 169-70] Clark Carlton explains Hell this way: “God’s immediate presence will be to those who love Him the very bliss of heaven, and to those who hate Him the very fire of hell.” [Carlton, 261]

Understanding that the wrath of God is not an active hatred, but a term representing lack of communion with God, we can understand Romans 5:9. As seen in 2 Corinthians 5:20-21, we become righteous by being reconciled to God through union with Jesus Christ. Reconciliation to God is communion with God, the opposite of hell. Thus, Christ saves us from the wrath of God by bringing us into communion with God through His incarnation. St. Paul confirms this interpretation by bringing reconciliation in view in Romans 5:10, writing, “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” Confirming this, St. Paul writes in Colossians 1:21-22 that, “You, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him.” God is reconciling Christians to Him constantly, purifying them.

Another related function of Christ’s death is the destruction of the kingdom of death, ruled by the Evil One. Carlton writes, “By pouring out His most pure Blood upon the Cross, Christ not only blotted out the record of man’s sin, but overcame the power by which sin holds mankind captive.” [Carlton, 142] It is written in Hebrews 2:14 that “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil.”

David DeSilva, noted New Testament scholar, writes concerning this passage, “Since the many children were subject to mortality, the Son also became subject to mortality in order to confront and defeat, through His own death, the devil who had used death as a tool for enslaving the human race.” [DeSilva, 118]

In his first sermon, St. Peter preaches the essence of Christianity. He does not preach about imputed righteousness, Sola Fide, or penal substitution. Rather, speaking of Christ’s Cross, He cogently identifies the reason for the Lord’s death. He says in Acts 2:23-24 that “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.” Death cannot hold the very author of life. Because of this, when it attempted to hold God, God took it and destroyed it, bringing about His own resurrection. St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:21-23, “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.”

Christ, through His death, has broken death itself. Because He has destroyed death, the kingdom of Satan has fallen and the Church is advancing. The purpose of the Lord’s death has nothing to do with satisfying the wrath of God or shuffling righteousness files in a legal file cabinet. Christ, through His incarnation, death, and resurrection, crushes death, swings open the gates of eternal life, and provides us a means of accessing this life.


GeekParallax said...

"Christ, through His death, has broken death itself. Because He has destroyed death, the kingdom of Satan has fallen and the Church is advancing. The purpose of the Lord’s death has nothing to do with satisfying the wrath of God or shuffling righteousness files in a legal file cabinet. Christ, through His incarnation, death, and resurrection, crushes death, swings open the gates of eternal life, and provides us a means of accessing this life."

AMEN!!!! Beautiful imagery!

Ikonophile said...

Regarding wrath, St. Paul states definitively that God's wrath is nothing more than God giving them up to their own passions (Romans 1:24,26). St. Paul does not speak of wrath in a context of punitive justice. Instead, we see that wrath is the act of God giving up on those who have chosen to reject Him consistently. This is the context that must be used when interpreting all of the book of Romans. I might also suggest that since Paul (to my knowledge) does not give any clearer example of wrath in any of his other epistles that this definition can be an interpretive norm for the rest of his epistles. We have no other reason from any other definition of wrath given by St. Paul to do otherwise.


John said...


I agree. Often when the Bible speaks of God's wrath it is God allowing evil men or Satan to have their way the objects of His wrath.

Another example is suffering. When God allows Satan to destroy Job's family, Job responds by saying:

The Lord has given and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord. In all this Job didn't sin with his lips.

The Blogger Formerly Known As Lvka said...

Job was not the object of God's wrath, nor was he punished for the sins of another, but rather envied by the evil one, who quite unsuccessfully tried to separate him from the Lord, by testing the sincerity of his faith and love of God.

John said...

I never said Job was the object of God's wrath as you can see above.





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