Sunday, August 12, 2012


Triune Deity enjoys perpetual fellowship. Other concepts of God are lonely ones. The Trinity has no essential need for personal relationship beyond Their eternal Society of Three. Yet Scripture reveals that God desires to interact with the world He created, especially with faith decisions made by the world of humanity (John 3:16).

The Bible never bothers explaining any theological problems raised by its descriptions of this divine desire or by its expectation of true responsiveness between divine and human wills that make this desire genuine. Some forms of theology actually reduce the freedom of human choice—and God’s interaction with it—to an illusion. God’s Word, they reason, reports these mutually free dealings as authentic only to accommodate our limited understanding of His omniscience and sovereignty.

Such theological reasoning about God is human-unfriendly. The Bible, on the other hand, is not. In fact, Scripture often depicts God legitimately interested in how we respond to His directives, to His Presence, to His Person. If the biblical revelation is accurate, then God has sovereignly chosen to let human decisions inform His omniscience, and human actions in time move His will in eternity. Otherwise, biblical narratives of God’s activity seem as fictitious as fables or as illusory as the maya of Hinduism.

For instance, was God merely play-acting when, after having “formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky,” He “brought them to the man to see what he would name them”? Genesis 2:19 says that “whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.” God made but did not name any creatures. He let man name them. This verse literally shows God desiring to learn those names. Later, not only does He use them Himself whenever talking about animals, but He also adopted at least two for His own incarnate identity: “Lamb of God” (John 1:29) and “Lion of the tribe of Judah” (Revelation 5:5). Man invented those names. God responded to their invention in time by incorporating them into His own eternal vocabulary and by later naming Himself with a couple of them. That thought is something to chew on.

There’s an even greater biblical example of God identifying Himself with a human response to Him. Coming to Jacob in a dream, God announced, “I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and where you made a vow to me.” (Genesis 31:13a). He was referring back to the time when Jacob did those things in response to His self-revelation (Genesis 28:10-22). Jacob renamed the location where it happened from “Luz” to “Bethel,” he performed a ritual anointing to consecrate a stone, and he made a solemn vow to the Lord. God told him to do none of these things. They were all Jacob’s own ideas. Yet God adopted Jacob’s creative responses to Him, making them into part of His own identity. The Lord, the Maker of Heaven and Earth, will forever be “the God of Bethel.” He sovereignly chose it as one of His titles for eternity, because of his interaction with human faith in time. He may have done exactly the same thing with many of your own faith encounters with Him. How human-friendly that is!

Another report of God’s reaction to our response to Him is given in Malachi 3:16 (ESV), “Then those who feared the LORD spoke with one another. The LORD paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the LORD and esteemed his name.” This verse is amazing! It shows that an eternally omniscient God is listening in on our conversations in time, because He’s concerned about what we have to say to each other about Him. He’s so excited about our discussion that he makes sure it gets it eternally recorded!

God certainly needs no notebook to jot down our devotional conversations to jog His memory. They probably were not written to remind Him, but to educate us. Some of us have a stubborn theology that undermines the authenticity of His open-ended interactions with humans. He wants it known in eternity that He did not determine our responses—He danced with them. His earthly interactions with us were all real, not just contrived accommodations for the frailty of our fallen and depraved human minds.

During His heavenly review of our lives and of the many unworthy trusts we held sacred, God may have to point out to many this human-unfriendly belief adamantly held and taught about His dealings with humans. This “book of remembrance” mentioned by Malachi will forever condemn the shame of such a theological allegiance.

When we live in a world where its Creator treats our decisions and actions with as much integrity as He expects us to treat His own, we live in a human-friendly world. In the midst of the trials and troubles brought about by human sin, faith in such a God makes the journey not just tolerable but joyous.

Monday, August 6, 2012


It may interest, anger, befuddle or flabbergast you, but there’s no one specific view of Christ’s atonement that fully explains the spiritual transaction in history and in eternity that transpired at the Cross of Calvary. It remains as mysterious as the doctrines of the Trinity or the Incarnation.

Those interested can survey the various theories of the Atonement on the Web. My purpose here is not to recount them, but to decry how so many Bible teachers haughtily assume theirs to be the right one: “How dare anyone question the legal-penal substitution theory? Doesn’t it undergird all our evangelical preaching?” A better question is, “How could the church even use the word atonement to describe what happened on the Cross?” Most theologians readily admit that it’s a major misappropriation of terminology in Christian thinking, but also that it's a term we're stuck with.

In the Old Testament usage of the Hebrew word atonement (kaphar, “to cover over”) is a concept of hiding sin’s guilt by covering it with the blood of animal sacrifices. Ecclesiastic prudery insists that God clothed the first sinners with animal skins to approve or accommodate the very first independent idea and action of their sin nature: a felt need to hide their bodies. A view more in keeping with His gracious character is that God was providing His delinquent image-bearers either physically—with warmth and protection in a fallen world—or spiritually—with the first recorded kaphar, an atonement or covering for their sin.

Not only is the concept of atonement etymologically absent from the New Testament, but a new idea is introduced. We first hear it from the lips of John the Baptist upon seeing Jesus at the Jordan: “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Jesus came to take away sins, not to cover over them, which was all that animal sacrifices could do. These sacrificial repetitions, year after year, only reminded sinners that personal guilt was put away from sight not taken away (Hebrews 10:4-5). Jesus accomplished the latter.

But how did the transaction at the Cross work? Was it a debt repayment, a redemptive trade-off, a substituted punishment, an absorption of divine wrath? A narrow focus on the Cross alone, in conjunction with certain Scriptures, might elevate any of these motifs to the exclusion of others. But there is a larger picture, one that weaves the Cross and the Resurrection into one solid and inseparable tapestry of redemption. That is the ransom or restoration theory of the Atonement.

In Gustaf AulĂ©n’s book, Christus Victor, I learned that this understanding of the Atonement dominated Christian thought for the first millennium of Church history. C. S. Lewis employed it as the basis for his allegorical representation of the death of Christ in Aslan’s death for “the traitor” and subsequent resurrection in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. When I first read Christus Victor, I was inspired to write the following poem with the same title, as an attempt to capture this idea of strategic ransom:


Drawn into a web of darkness,
Duped and drugged with sin's seduction,
Down we drank the Devil's lie
And were lost within the starkness
Of a wasteland of destruction,
Damned and doomed, condemned to die.

Love Almighty, Love Creator,
Love, Who breathed His image in us,
Love, the awesome Trinity,
Planned to foil the Fabricator,
Planned to plunder hell and win us
By strategic mystery.

God descended and invaded
Human flesh and limitation,
Preaching Heaven's Reign begun,
Waging war where sin pervaded,
Buying reconciliation,
Tasting death for everyone.

Had they known the power hidden
In the Lion's crucifixion,
Hell would not have killed the Son.
Now the human race is bidden
To depart from self-addiction
Through the victory Jesus won.

Christus Victor!  God descended
To fulfil the Law's postponement.
Slain, He slew the death we died!
Christ is risen!  God ascended!
Sinners, purchased by atonement,
Rise with Christ, the Crucified!

Christ Triumphant!  Christus Victor!
Captives freed by hell's disruption
Soar like eagles taking wing!
Ransomed by the Liberator,
Slaves to sin and death's corruption
Gain new life in Christ the King!
            -- David L. Hatton, 11/21/95

Because of its heavy dependence on a realistic view of the Incarnation, this atonement theory has quietly influenced the development of my theological thinking. Yet, in general, I forgot my initial excitement in discovering it . . . until recently, when I saw the video clip of Brian Zahnd giving, “The Gospel in Chairs.” I encourage you to watch it, maybe more than one time. If it doesn’t immediately blow your mind, then ask yourself, “Does how I view and preach the Cross accurately represent the heart of the Heavenly Father who ‘so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son’?” You may find yourself reaching back to the minds and helpful illustrations of our early Christian ancestors for a balanced view of this mystery.

It’s important to approach unfathomable mysteries in the Christian faith with deep reverence and godly humility. Glib confidence and sometimes outright cockiness in Christians mouthing their beliefs may not only be a turn-off for the prospective convert, but a point of great future embarrassment, or even tears of regret, in the presence of our risen, conquering King, Christus Victor.