Why I Got Baptized by Immersion


It was just Easter in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Now, there are two reasons why we observed Easter as a church way back on March 27 and why our Orthodox brothers and sisters just got around to observing Easter last Sunday (May 1) –

The first factor, the calendar, has to do with the fact that the Christian Orthodox Church continues to follow the Julian calendar when calculating the date of Pascha (Easter). The rest of Christianity uses the Gregorian calendar. There is a thirteen-day difference between the two calendars, the Julian calendar being thirteen (13) days behind the Gregorian. The other factor at work is that the Orthodox Church continues to adhere to the rule set forth by the First Ecumenical Council, held in Nicea in 325 AD, that requires that Pascha must take place after the Jewish Passover in order to maintain the Biblical sequence of Christ’s Passion. The rest of Christianity ignores this requirement, which means that on occasion Western Easter takes place either before or during the Jewish Passover. http://usa.greekreporter.com

On the grounds of tradition (This is my SJ “Ignatian” spiritual inclinations coming out – see: Prayer and Temperament – Michael & Norrisey -The Open Door – 1991), I’m much more Eastern Church than I am Western Church on this, but not enough to make a big fuss about it.  In fact, in recent years I have found that this calendar variation between when Eastern Christians and when Western Christians observe Holy Week has actually proven to be spiritually beneficial for me. You see, I’m a little busy during Holy Week when we observe it as a church.  And so getting another chance to walk the way of the cross from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday each year when I’m not the one who is responsible for planning, preparing and presenting the worship services has been a real gift to me.  By lurking at the edges of the Eastern Orthodox community of faith during their observances of the events of our salvation in Christ accomplished during their later Holy Week services, I have found that I have been able to worship myself.

This is what I was doing in a Greek Orthodox Church on a Good Friday afternoon. I was there to hear the Gospel story of Jesus Christ’s saving death read in its entirety in a harmonization of what Mathew, Mark, Luke and John told us, and to witness all of the ritual acts which embody it for those faithful Christians in that spiritual tradition.  I followed along in my copy of the Holy Week Orthodox Service Book that I have, and watched with fascination as the icon of Christ on the cross was venerated and then eventually taken down.  Nails were literally pulled from the wood and the image of Christ that hung there was reverently detached, shrouded and carried through the Sanctuary in a symbolic burial procession.  It eventually wound up on a table in the front that was meant to be symbolic of the tomb, and then a curious thing happened.

prayWorshippers – the young and the old, men and women, the strong and the infirm – began to line up, and when they got to that table in the front that was symbolic of the tomb where the body of Christ had been reverently placed, they got down on their hands and knees and crawled beneath it! Now, I had not anticipated this, but watching it happen, it was clear to me what was going on.

By passing under that table these faithful people were personally identifying themselves with Christ’s death and burial in full anticipation of His resurrection. This was their symbolic way of entering into Christ’s death.  I get this, in fact, this is why I was baptized myself by immersion when I was 17 years old after I had crossed the threshold of “owned” faith after having been baptized as an infant by my parents in their genuine act of “affiliative” faith. My parents brought me to church long before I was even capable of knowing what was happening to me and they had me ritually marked as already being the object of God’s affection and attention in Jesus Christ.  It was a promise that they made then and there, a promise that they would raise me in the faith of the church so that I would one day have the opportunity to make it my own.

To that end they had my sisters and me in church every Sunday morning, and when I was 12, they had me confirmed. I didn’t resist, but this was still more about them and their hopes for me than it was about me and what I actually believed.  But God was faithful in this gradual unfolding process as well, and the moment eventually came when what I had been so carefully taught was true through all those years of going to church became real for me.  I crossed the threshold of personal faith nurtured by the community of faith.  The promise of my baptism as an infant with all of its hope for my faithful future became the defining fact and experience of my life as an adolescent. I finally accepted Jesus Christ for myself as Lord and Savior.  I gave the title of my life over to Him.  I committed myself to trying to be who He wanted me to be and trying to do what He wanted me to do.  And with that decision of faith made, I believed that a fundamental change occurred inside me.  I had been born again.  The person I had been died and the person God in Christ always intended me to be was brought to life, and the more I thought about this, and experienced this, the more what the New Testament said about baptism by immersion began to make sense to both my head and my heart.

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.  For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:3-5)

blueIt was believing this, and experiencing this, that finally led me to be baptized by immersion during my senior year of High School. Now, I wasn’t immersed because I thought that I had to be in order to be truly saved. No, I was immersed because the New Testament said that it was a command, and because the New Testament said that it involved some really important promises. Years and years after my baptism by immersion I read the Radical Reformer Menno Simons’ observation about baptism being the least important thing that Christ commands us to do as our Lord.  The commands of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-6-7), in the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:27-40) and in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) are all so much more important than His command for us to be baptized.  But because the command to be baptized comes first in the Christian life, at its very beginning, on its very threshold, our obedience to it establishes the proper disposition of our hearts to be obedient to all that Christ has commanded.  If we are evasive and resistant about the very first thing that Jesus Christ asks us to do as Lord, what will we do when the things that Christ asks us to do start getting really serious (e.g. – “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me.” – Luke 9:23)?

And then there are the promises.

“Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38)

According to Peter in his sermon on the Day of Pentecost, Christian Baptism has reference to both forgiveness – being saved from our sins; and the gift of the Holy Spirit – being saved to newness of life. Just as water cleanses and refreshes, so water baptism is a symbol of both purification and renewal.  Water baptism points to the forgiveness of our sins as the “washing” or “bath of regeneration” (Titus 3:5).  But water Baptism also points to the Baptism of the Spirit that is often compared in Scripture to a well of life-giving water gushing up and flowing out from somewhere deep inside us (John 4:14; 7:38; Isaiah 44:3; Ezekiel 47:1-12; Revelation 22:1-2).

My decision to be immersed in 1970 when I was 17 was not just a decision that was born of my strongly felt need to be personally obedient to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, but it was just as much a decision that was born of my deep need to be consciously rooted and continuously grounded in the promises of forgiveness and renewal in the Holy Spirit that are instrumentally attached to the act of Baptism in Acts 2:38.

Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, said “there is on earth no greater comfort than baptism” and he proved this in his personal life and experience. Luther admitted that when he was in the distress of affliction and anxiety he comforted himself by repeating, “I am baptized! I am baptized!” In so saying, “I’m baptized!” Luther affirmed, and rightly stated that he belonged to God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. By this we learn that who you are, and whose you are, are important components of baptism. (http://pilgrimindy.org)


And this same desire is what I saw in the act of all those people who were passing under the table of Christ’s tomb on Good Friday afternoon. It was an act motivated by their profound awareness of just how much they desperately needed what it was that Christ had accomplished by dying on the cross and then by being raised from the dead.  I need it too, and that’s why I am so glad that I can say, “I am baptized! I am baptized!” And if this is something you think you want, or need, then let’s talk.  Water Baptism may be something that you really need to consider for your comfort and assurance. DBS +


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Second-hand Spirituality

The vast majority of people on our churches have a second-hand spirituality; they live off the spirituality of others. Because people attend our weekend worship services, participate in our programs, give money and serve, we assume they are in a vital personal relationship of loving union with Jesus.  We assume wrong.  They are not.  Ask the people you serve about their time with Jesus each day: How often do you meet with Him around Scripture and prayer? What do you do, and for how long?  How might silence, solitude, Sabbath, spiritual companionship, and study fit into your life?’  Ask for specifics.  You are in for a shock.

Most people in our churches are living off other people’s spirituality. In fact, many are imitating a spirituality with Jesus for which they have little first-hand experience.  It is easy to live of the life of God in someone else than to have our own direct experience.  Anointed sermons and worship can keep people excited about Jesus and in the pews, but that may still be second-hand.  The question is: Are our people developing and growing in their own personal, immediate relationship with Jesus during the week?

Pete Scazzero


Serving as part of A Walk to Emmaus team like I did last weekend reminds me of the necessity for periodic experiences of spiritual renewal. Paul told the Ephesian Christians to “be filled with the Holy Spirit” (5:18).  This verse is a plural command in the passive voice in the present tense.  It is a command – something that is required of us and not just recommended to us.  It is plural – it is not something addressed to you alone, but to everyone everywhere who knows Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.   You are not in this all by yourself; you are part of a community.  It is passive – not something you do but something that is done for you – it’s a gift of grace and not an achievement of your efforts and work.  And it is in the present tense – which is to say that it is a continuing process – it is literally telling us to “keep on being filled with the Holy Spirit.”  When the Evangelist Dwight L. Moody (1837 – 1899) was asked if he believed that Christians could be filled with the Holy Spirit, he said “yes,” and then quickly added, “But I also believe that Christians leak.”


A Walk to Emmaus is like a stop at the gas station to fill the tank of your car. The minute you turn the key and drive off you are beginning to deplete the supply and you will have to replenish it again when it runs low if you want to keep going.  And this is the real value of an experience like a Walk to Emmaus.  It teaches us where and how to fill our tanks.  Spiritual vitality is not the result of our initiation into some mysterious, magical and mystical secrets of the Faith.  No, spiritual vitality is the result of our cooperation with the work of the Word and the Spirit through the ordinary means of grace – Prayer from our hearts, the regular “intake” Scripture into our heads (informationally) and our hearts (formationally), the Church’s life of regular worship and fellowship, especially around the Lord’s Table, and in routine acts of service and compassion following in the steps of Jesus Christ.

beardSeraphim of Sarov (1754 –1833 im Him), is one of the great Saints of Russian Christianity. He is sometimes called the Russian St. Francis of Assisi, and he said that if you will “acquire the Holy Spirit, a thousand souls will be saved.” What he meant by this was that just one Christian, spiritually alive and growing, is the instrument that God can use to renew His church and transform the world.  In other words, the mission of the church depends on Christians who are spiritually alive and growing.

In a couple of weeks it will be Pentecost (Sunday, May 15), our annual celebration of the initial outpouring of the Holy Spirit which began the dispensation of the Holy Spirit in which the church continues to this very moment. The right question for Pentecost is not do you believe that it happened once long ago and far away, but rather, is it happening in you here and now?  Pentecost is our annual reminder that the fullness of the Holy Spirit is available to all who ask (Luke 11:13), but we’ve got to ask (James 4:2).  This is why 15 times of the Walk to Emmaus we pray this same prayer, a “Prayer to the Holy Spirit” –

fireCome, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and we shall be created. And you shall renew the face of the earth. O God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy your consolations. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

If you are dry, then join me in praying this prayer in the coming weeks as together we move towards Pentecost as a church. Seasons of renewal to refresh us spiritually are part of the package — but they don’t just happen, we’ve got to ask… DBS+


O God, you cause abundant showers to fall on your chosen people.
When they are tired, you sustain them, for you live among them.
You sustain the oppressed with your good blessings, O God.
Psalm 68:9-10

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“Clinging and Held”


“My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.” ~ Psalm 63:8

False dichotomies – they’re everywhere.

In this political season I am already weary of Presidential candidates staking out their positions on the pressing issues of the day in strict either/or sorts of ways.  Why can’t I want our national borders to be secure and for immigrants who have fled oppression and poverty to be treated compassionately and find safe refuge and some real opportunity here?  Why can’t I be concerned about the threat of global terrorism and the plight of Syrian refugees at the same time?   And do I really have to choose between wanting to “Back the Blue” and truly believing that “Black lives matter”?

Theologically I have never been content with a single “system.”  I am captivated by the Bible’s “furious opposites” – God being three in one, Jesus Christ being fully God and fully man, being saved by grace and faith, spiritually knowing that I am secure and that I  must persevere, reading Scripture as a Word from God and the words of men.  I helpfully engage with as many Calvinist thinkers as I do from my own Arminian wing of the Faith.  I want my knowledge of God to be informed by the very best Baptist, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Wesleyan, Pentecostal, Neo-Orthodox and Progressive thinkers available.  I want them all in my head and my heart.

And in my spirituality I find that one of the things that I really need to hold together is both the primacy of the initiative of God and the necessity of my own obedient response. I have long thought that the popular contrast between “monkey religions” – those where the offspring have to actively cling (“synergistic”), and “cat religions” – those where the offspring are passively carried (“monergistic”), both miss half the truth  I am so much more convinced by and comfortable with Richard Foster’s description of the spiritual life as “the path of disciplined grace – it is ‘grace’ because it is free; it is ‘disciplined’ because there is something for us to do.” This came home to me with particular force while I was recently getting ready to preach on Psalm 63.

Psalm 63 has been described as a stream with three bends in it. Each one of those bends gets introduced with the two words: “My soul.”  This is a very specific literary form.  It’s called “soliloquy,” and a “soliloquy” has been described as someone preaching a sermon to themselves.   It’s what happens when you take something that the Bible says and then try to apply it directly and honesty to yourself.  In a soliloquy you ask yourself, “How does what the Bible says here fit in my life?”  “What does this truth tell me about what’s going on in my heart?”  It’s like holding up a mirror to yourself to see what’s really there.  The soliloquies of Psalm 63 allow us to eavesdrop on the three conversations that the Psalmist had with himself about himself.

The first soliloquy is in in verse 1.  That’s where the Psalmist prayed: “My soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” The editorial preface to this prayer tells us that it’s a Psalm of David that he wrote when he was in the wilderness of Judah.  That’s a barren place where it’s real easy to die of thirst. Spiritually, I’ve been there.

plantI’ve read about an unusual plant in a display case at the New York City Botanical Garden. It sits on a shelf without soil or water, and every spring it sends out some little exploratory roots looking for sustenance.  And every year, finding nothing in that display case in which to root itself or with which to nourish itself, that plant pulls its roots back into itself and it shrivels up again into a lifeless ball, resolved to hang on for another year when it will try again.  Spiritually, I have been that plant.  There have been seasons when my soul has been stuck; when I have been stalled; when I have been parched; when I have been barren.  Psalm 63:1 is part of my own spiritual repertoire.

The second “soliloquy” of Psalm 63 shows up in verse 5.  This is where the Psalmist told himself – “My soul is satisfied as with a feast of fat and rich food.” Clearly this is the polar opposite of what the Psalmist said about himself in verse 1.  There he was starving, here he is sated.  There he was parched, here he is quenched.  And spiritually, this is familiar terrain to me as well.  My soul has known seasons of fullness.  My life is rich with days when I have been abundantly blessed, long stretches when I have been extravagantly supplied.  The question that Psalm 63 raises in me is – “how?” How does this dizzying reversal happen?  What moved the Psalmist from his emptiness in verse 1 to his fullness in verse 5?  In my own spiritual experience, I’ve gone looking for what is it that has brought me through the “dry and weary stretches where there is no water” to that “feast of fat and rich food”?

 “My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me,is what the Psalmist said in his third soliloquy in verse 8. This is the destination of the journey that Psalm 63 maps out for us spiritually. The way that we get from the spiritual wasteland of verse 1 to the spiritual banquet of verse 5 is by the experience of simultaneously “clinging” and being “upheld” that gets named in verse 8.  Now, some would argue that these two postures are incompatible opposites.   We’re either cats or monkeys.  We’re either carried or we cling.  But here in Psalm 63 that dichotomy is shown to be false.  Psalm 63 is a hymn from the way of disciplined grace, and the urgency for getting a good handle on this is underscored for us by the research that’s being done on the spiritual well-being of church folks – people like me.  George Barna and his team has found out that –

 Fewer than two out of 10 churchgoers feel close to God on even a monthly basis (20%). Additionally, while almost two-thirds of those who value church attendance go to learn more about God, fewer than one in 10 (6%) who have ever been to church say they learned something about God or Jesus the last time they attended. In fact, the majority of people (61%) say they did not gain any significant or new insights regarding faith when they last attended.

 When Willow Creek Community Church up in Chicago, one of America’s numerically largest and spiritually most dynamic congregations, surveyed 6000 of their members they discovered that 25% of them – a staggering 1 out of every 4 – said that they were “stalled” and spiritually “dissatisfied.” Now, Willow Creek is a church that most of us who are in ministry envy for their creativity and vitality, not to mention for their quantifiable success, and if 1 out of every 4 people who sit on the pews of that church that’s doing everything “right” feels like they are spiritually withering on the vine, then what chance do the rest of us have?


Maybe the most important thing that the Willow Creek survey of the spiritual well-being of its membership found out was that the big mistake that those who said that they were spiritually stuck and dissatisfied were making was looking to the church alone to fuel their spiritual growth. They admitted to thinking that the believed that if they just showed up and got involved in the church’s activities that they would then just automatically and invariably thrive spiritually.  But it doesn’t work like that.  It never has.  As the Reformer Martin Luther once pointed out, Christians are not “gluttonous bellies” who can sit on the church’s pews thinking that God will drop the spiritual equivalent of “roasted geese” into our upturned and open mouths.

And so these days Willow Creek is being very clear with their people that they are going to have to do more than just attend the weekend services a couple of time each month if they expect to have spiritually dynamic lives. They tell their guests and members alike that “much of the responsibility for their spiritual growth belongs to them.”  Willow Creek tells people that the only way to personal spiritual vitality is for them to learn how to “self-feed” through their own personal spiritual practices. In fact, this is the very thing that the Psalmist said moved him from the spiritual desert of verse 1 to the spiritual banquet of verse 5.

The Psalmist said that he was in the habit of mediating on the things of God late at night (63:6-7), and recounting all the help that God had provided for him in this way, his remembrance of how God’s wings had overshadowed him, the Psalmist said that he responded with prayers of trust and songs of praise. He also said that he “looked for God in the sanctuary” where he beheld God’s “power and glory” (63:2), prompting him to bless the Lord and lift his hands in praise (63:4).  What’s being described here is a pattern of spiritual practice, personal and private, corporate and public.  This is the life of “disciplined grace.”


So, where are you? Verse 1 or verse 5?  Are you in the dry and weary wasteland, or at the feast of fat and rich food?  Both are part of the journey of our souls, but one is surely preferable to the other.  And if you agree, then learning how to cling and letting yourself be held is the real key.

clingingEmilie Griffin is a spiritual writer whose books have long helped me grow. In 1983 she wrote a beautiful book on prayer that she called ClingingShe said that she liked that word “clinging” because it was an image of “attachment to God” that conveyed our “dependency on him” (xi).  She said that found the concept of “clinging” in the writings of some of the great Christian Spiritual Masters – Karl Rahner – “Love is a complete pouring out of oneself, a total clinging from the last depths of one’s being,” that results in the discovery that we don’t “grasp” god so much as God “seizes” us (xiii); Thomas Aquinas: “The will of one who sees God’s essence must cling to God” (xiv); and Augustine: “When at last I cling to you with all my being…then I shall be alive with true life, for my life will be wholly filled by you” (xiv).

Emilie’s book Clinging is an invitation for us to “hold on and trust.” She writes: “We must depend on God. We must rely on Him, embrace Him.  We must cling.  We must cling to the one reality that does not crumple, the one rock that will not be washed loose in the tide and onslaught of anything.  We must cling to the one reality that will hold firm, though the earth be destroyed and the mountains are flung into the sea and the sun put out… We must flee into Him, hide in Him…” (83). And when we do, just like Psalm 63:8 tells us, when we “cling” we will find that we have been “upheld” by God all along!  You see, our “clinging” doesn’t cause God to “uphold” us.  No, our “clinging” only allows us to recognize the way that God has been “upholding” all along.

The more we cling, the more we experience strength not as what we do, but as what God does in us…By this clinging we become aware of a closeness to God that can hardly be spoken of… Ours is not a helpless tagging onto a powerful Other, but instead it is an embrace that is completely and unreservedly mutual… Not only do we cling to God, but God clings to us… it is a mutual embrace. We are not flirting with God, trying to gain His attention, trying to win His favor.  He is the One who loved us first.  He began this relationship…. When we cling, then, we are responding, we are returning the embrace in which He holds us. (84-86)

To force a choice between the monkey spirituality of “clinging” and the cat spirituality of being “upheld” is a false dichotomy.  Biblical spirituality is rooted in both the initiative of God (“Grace”) and the necessity of our response (“Faith”).  We would not be asking “what must we do?” (Acts 2:37), if what God has already done for us in Jesus Christ wasn’t absolutely clear and already on the table (Acts 2:22-36). DBS+

“My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.”
~ Psalm 63:8




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On the Mountaintops and in the Valleys

walkI will be the Spiritual Director this week for the Dallas Emmaus community’s Men’s Walk #262. I couldn’t be more excited!  This will be 12th or 13th time that I have been a Spiritual Director for a Walk to Emmaus in the Houston, Amarillo or Dallas Communities over the past 26 years.  This is something that I just love to do because what happens on a Walk to Emmaus puts me in touch with what Paul described as “the power of Gospel for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).   Through the years, it has been on Walks to Emmaus, more than almost anywhere else, that I have seen the difference that Jesus Christ makes in a person’s life.

I took my own Walk to Emmaus in February of 1990. It was Men’s Walk #47 in the Houston Community, and it came at exactly the right time in my life and ministry.  I had tried to get myself invited to a Cursillo weekend with the Episcopalians shortly after I was ordained in the early 1980’s.  But nothing I did could garner me an invitation.  It wasn’t time yet, and so I carried on.  And then, seemingly out of nowhere, ten years later, a friend of mine from my Hospice work in Houston arranged for me to go on my Walk.

Walks to Emmaus do different things for different people.   For me it helped to integrate my head with my heart.  I love God with my mind.  My spiritual temperament puts the premium on believing thinking.  At my first seminary in California, during a spiritual life emphasis week on campus, one of my professors told us about his favorite spiritual discipline.   He said that late at night after his family had all gone to bed, that he would slip into his study, put some classical music on the stereo and settle into a big overstuffed chair with a big volume of theology – maybe some Barth, or some Brunner, or some Hodge – to read. “Theology – thinking God’s thoughts after Him – moves me to prayer,” he told us with real emotion in his voice, “and it makes me want to sing the praises of our God.” Most of the class groaned, thinking that this was just a ploy to get us to read that week’s assignments.  But I nodded my head in agreement.   I “got” him and what He was saying.

What my Walk to Emmaus did for me was to take the Christianity that I believed was true with my head and made it very real to my heart. Those 12 inches between our heads and our hearts can be the longest journey that some of us will ever undertake, and it was on my Walk to Emmaus in 1990 that I found a way to faithfully navigate it for myself. A story that Martyn Lloyd Jones of the Westminster Chapel in London in the middle of the 20th century told describes what happened to me on my Walk to Emmaus perfectly–

 boyA little boy was walking down the road beside his father. He knew that his father loved him.  He knew that this was true and just knowing it was enough for him.  But then his father suddenly reached down and swept his little boy up into his arms.  He hugged him tightly, kissed him on the cheeks and whispered in to his ear, “I love you so much!” And then looking his little boy straight in the eye, that father said to his son with all his heart, “I am so glad that you are mine.” And then the father put his boy down and they continued walking down the road.

 That’s the difference between knowing that something’s true and knowing that it’s real, and this is exactly what happened on my walk to Emmaus 26 years ago. The Christianity that had long been true for me suddenly became very real to me as well.

And so I am very excited about this weekend, but, if the truth be told, I am also a little apprehensive because for all of its spiritual promise and potential, an experience like that which a Walk to Emmaus facilitates in people is not without some spiritual dangers. It’s just so easy to get spiritually manipulated, to get caught up in something before you know it.

paperI remember being in the Hollywood Bowl at a Jesus People Rally back in the early 1970’s, getting real amped-up spiritually by the music and the crowd, when a chant suddenly broke out, a kind of spontaneous call to worship. “Get high on Jesus!” one group yelled, while another group answered back, “Jesus is better than hash!”  And I can distinctly remember thinking to myself that I’d never heard this in church growing up.  It wasn’t in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer – 1945. And I recall wondering, or was it worrying, about whether or not this was really something that we should be saying about Jesus and what He does for us as Christians?  But all of that quickly passed.  I mean, here was this group of really enthusiastic fellow Christians who seemed to be saying that this elevated state of emotional euphoria that we were experiencing was what Christianity was all about, or at least one of its better benefits for us as believers.  And, to be sure, I was feeling it – the rush of that place and that moment, and it felt good.  So much so that it eventually swept me up in the commotion, and it carried me along so that soon I found myself chanting right along with the rest of the crowd –“Get high on Jesus!” and “Jesus is better than hash!” even though I had never been high and I wouldn’t have known what hash was if it had come up and shook my hand!  Looking back on it all now, it all seems so silly.  But it was sure powerful in the moment, and that’s what I worry about on spiritually intense weekend retreats like Emmaus, and in spiritually intense setting like summer camps and conferences, and at spiritually intense events like revivals and evangelistic “crusades.”  We can get caught up in these moments and wind up in places we never intended to go.  That, and we can get addicted to the feelings of spiritual elation that they generate in us. We can become dependent on them.  It’s real easy to become a spiritual experience junkie, having a “moment” once, and then spending the rest of your spiritual life trying to replicate it, thinking that these emotions are the surest sign of the Spirit’s presence and work in your life, rather than the fruit of the Spirit that the Scripture explicitly names (Galatians 5:22-23).

frannyIn J. D. Salinger’s novel Franny and Zooey, one of the main characters takes up a spiritual practice detached from any kind of real faith commitment, constantly saying the “Jesus Prayer” because of the affect that its repetition produced in her.  Eventually the other character in the story names and condemns this practice as a blatant example of “spiritual greed.” He says –

As a matter of simple logic, there’s no difference at all, that I can see, between the man who’s greedy for material treasure—or even intellectual treasure—and the man who’s greedy for spiritual treasure. …(But) treasure’s treasure, …and it seems to me that ninety per cent of all the world-hating saints in history were just as acquisitive and unattractive, basically, as the rest of us are.

This is what I worry about when it comes to intensive spiritual programs like Emmaus that provide their participants with powerful spiritual experiences. As important as my Walk was to me, and as glad as I am to be able to periodically facilitate it now for others as part of a prayerfully formed team, I do so with my eyes open wide. I affirm the spiritual benefit that special spiritual experiences and events can produce in a person’s life, while at the very same time being fully aware of the way that they can actually get in the way of real spiritual growth if they’re allowed to become ends in themselves. The most balanced perspective on these exceptional spiritual “moments” that we are given that I have ever come across is something St. Augustine said – “I do not seek them, and when they are present, I do not reject them, but I am entirely prepared to do entirely without them.”

Now, that sounds to me very much like the same kind of spiritual advice that is given in the last Emmaus talk of the weekend. That’s when the Lay Director gets up and tells the pilgrims not to make Emmaus the object of their devotion or the content of their witness when the weekend is over, but rather to focus on the Christ whom they have come to know better because of the weekend.   The question that needs to be asked as the Fourth Day begins, the Lay Director says, is not how can I get more involved in Emmaus, but rather, how can I get more meaningfully involved in my local church? The best fruit of a Walk to Emmaus that I have ever seen as a local church pastor was the pilgrim who came into my office the week after his Walk with a letter in his hand that was the spiritual equivalent of a blank check. He told me that that letter was his prior acceptance of any task that I might need him to undertake for Christ and His church, right then and there, or at any time in the future. It was a remarkable gesture, the perfect “fruit” of a Walk to Emmaus. And he kept that commitment.   Later when I asked him to chair a task force that was going to require both time and effort to do its work, he accepted the assignment with enthusiasm and guided its work to completion with great wisdom and real grace.

It’s not on the mountaintops of exalted emotion and spiritual euphoria that the measure of what’s going on in our hearts will be taken, but rather in the valleys below where life is “daily” and the demands are unrelenting. The language of “mountaintop” experiences to describe the experiences of spiritual intensity and insight that we are given from time to time as Christians comes from the Gospel accounts of the Transfiguration.

Jesus“Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain” (Mark 9:2) is how the story begins. On that mountaintop those three disciples saw and heard things that are astonishing for us even now to consider. Who could blame Peter for wanting to stay right there on that holy ground? He wanted to build three tents to keep the experience going. But just as quickly and unexpectedly as the whole experience began, it was over. And “as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus charged them to tell no one what they had seen” (Mark 9:9) is how the story ends. They couldn’t stay on the mountaintop. What happened on the mountaintop was to inspire them. What happened on the mountaintop was to inform them. What happened on the mountaintop was to sustain them. But their lives and their work were in the valley below.

I expect that the Walk this week will be a mountaintop experience for me, for my partners on the team, and for the pilgrims who will be participating. I expect that it will remind me of my first love (Revelation 2:4), and that it will restore to me the joy of God’s salvation (Psalm 51:12). But the measure of this weekend will not be what happens this weekend — it will be what happens next Monday, and what happens on the Monday after that, and then what happens on the Monday after that. The spiritual life is not about a burst of enthusiasm and intensity on a mountaintop, as welcome and valuable such an experience may be. No, the spiritual life is about “a long obedience in the same direction” through a valley that can be dark and winding at times, but that finally leads us home. DBS+


When I think of retirement, I don’t think about playing golf, or taking up a hobby, or taking lots of trips. No, I think of my study at home and the time that I’ll finally have to read and ponder Thomas Aquinas’ Summa, Karl Barth’s Dogmatics and Carl F.H. Henry’s God, Revelation and Authority word by word and cover to cover. This is just how I am wired, and because I am, I also know its dark side.  I know that it’s easier for me to read a book of dense theology than to feel an hour of God’s presence.

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“Eager for Unity”

unity“I beg you,” Paul told the Ephesians “…to make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4:1; 3).  I know, I know, there is a scholarly consensus out there that says that Paul is not the author of Ephesians, but that’s not really my concern here today.  I’m not blogging this week about the authorship of Ephesians.  I doubt that I will ever blog about that.  What I am blogging about is something that is in the canonical text of Ephesians. And so, if it will keep you reading, then whenever I write “Paul” interpret that reference to mean whatever satisfies your intellect and imagination, and let’s get on with the more substantial task of trying to make sense of the moral and spiritual instruction that this “received” text authoritatively speaks into our lives and situations.

Paul didn’t beg the Ephesian Christians to create unity – that’s well beyond our capabilities as human beings, in fact, that’s Christ’s work, done on the cross Paul said, where He broke down the dividing wall that separated us from each other (Ephesians 2:14). This is how Christ has become our peace, Paul told the Ephesians (2:14). He came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were nearby” (Ephesians 2:17), reconciling us to each other by His saving work on the cross. In fact, according to Paul in the first chapter of Ephesians, this was the whole point of Christ’s coming – He has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (1:9-10). This is what God is doing in Jesus Christ — He is working to heal the divisions of the world through His reconciling work of love on the cross, and when someone belongs to Him by faith, then our own inner and outer divisions get healed, and the work of healing becomes our primary assignment as Christians. As Paul put in in 2 Corinthians — “God reconciled us to Himself through Christ [our own experience of getting healed], and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” [our assignment to then be about the ministry of healing in the church and the world] (5:18).


Harold Heie was for many years a Christian College Professor and Administrator. Seeing the way that both society at large and the church in particular were becoming increasingly and vociferously fragmented, he began a movement for what he calls “respectful conversations” among Christians (http://www.respectfulconversation.net/). Believing that Jesus Christ – the One in whom “all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17)intends for His church to be a place where people who have different convictions about the hot-button issues of the moment can still sit down together and talk to each other honestly and civilly and still relate to each other lovingly, Harold Heie has been brokering respectful conversations between Christians on all of the difficult topics that are currently tearing churches, families, friends and the electorate apart.  And out of this experience, he has identified what he calls the three “preconditions” to which we must all be committed as Christians if we are to maintain and extend “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”- humility, patience and love.  Interestingly, these three Christian virtues correspond exactly to what Paul told the Ephesians must be cultivated in them if they were to have any chance at maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace – “…humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love” (4:2).

mountThe first precondition is humility.  Paul Tournier, the Swiss Psychiatrist, told a wonderful story on himself. He had taken the train to Italy and there in the station he saw a travel poster on the wall with a picture of the majestic Matterhorn on it.   Being Swiss, Dr. Tournier said that he knew very well what the Matterhorn looked like – it was, after all, something of national symbol. And so he said that he instinctively knew that there was something wrong with this picture on the poster. As he studied it closely, he said that it finally dawned on him that that the distinctive peak of the Matterhorn was pointing the wrong way in the picture. “These stupid Italians,” Dr. Tournier thought to himself, “have reversed the image; they got it backwards.” Feeling all superior and smug, Dr. Tournier said that it only gradually dawned on him later that from the south, from the Italian side of the mountain where he was standing at that moment, the picture in the poster was what the Matterhorn would in fact look like!  He had failed to take the Italian perspective into consideration, and Harold Heie says that “respectful conversations” are only possible when we humbly admit that other people are going to have different points of view that we really need to hear and to try to understand. As a “finite, fallible human being, I do not fully understand the truth as God knows it, and so I can always learn from conversation with others,” and they can learn from me.  There can be no respectful conversation and no maintenance of the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace if I begin by thinking or saying, “I have the truth, you don’t,” so agree with me or go away, or else I will.


The second precondition is patience. Writing about grief, the Christian poet Cecilia Venable observed –

In due season, your heart will be healed…
I know, for God has led me down this long, often confusing path…
[on this] weary but immeasurably worthwhile journey…
And I know that it is well to trust in His seasons,
until they become our seasons…

Trusting that “His seasons” are becoming “our seasons” is not just crucial for the healing process of grief, but also for the stretching process of spiritual maturation.  The bottom line is that we are all works in progress, all the time.  We are men and women who are only gradually being transformed by Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18).  And this means that all of our actions and attitudes, all of our beliefs and behaviors as Christians are at this moment, and at every moment, still very much in the process of being formed. We’re not finished yet, and so we have to learn the delicate art of being able to balance ideas that we are willing to fight for and maybe even die over, with a stance of openness that says I am always willing to learn more and to be taught better.  In my senior yearbook from Glendale High School one of my teachers left me with this parting counsel: “Stand firm in your faith and keep searching for truth; you will one day discover that these two things are in conflict.”

 crossesRecognizing this himself, Harold Heie likes to say that he is “on pilgrimage.”  He says that as he walks through his life, “faithful to his present understanding of how he should think and act as a Christian,” that he also understands and fully appreciates the fact that “the very process of walking is going to lead him to further insights about how it is that he should be walking.” And if this is true, if we are all still being formed spiritually, then we’ve got to be patient with ourselves and with each other as together we continue to grow in conscience and conviction.  And we have got to resist the constant impulse to walk away from each other when we disagree because to do so is to cut short the very process by which we all will continue to grow and change.

The third precondition is love.  Jesus said that people outside the community of faith have every right to look at the way that we are loving each other inside the community of faith to determine both the depth of our commitment to Christ (John 13:34-35), and the validity of the Gospel itself (John 17:20-21) on the basis of what they see.  It’s easy for me to love you and for you to love me when we see eye to eye on things.  It’s much trickier for us to love each other when we disagree on a matter of conscience and conviction, but this fightis exactly the kind of love that the world will sit up and take notice of because it’s just so rare these days.  We’re so much more accustomed to people lining up on opposite sides of the street to hurl insults and throw elbows at each other when we disagree.  When people come down on opposite sides of a question about which they have carefully and prayerfully settled conclusions that involve passionate feelings, and they nevertheless choose to stay in relationship with people who have arrived at the opposite conclusion prayerfully and carefully and with the same deep feelings, even though it’s hard to do so, I believe that they are doing the very thing that Paul told Christians to do in Ephesians 4.  They are maintaining the “unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace.” They are giving concrete and costly expression to their belief in Jesus Christ, the One who “holds all things together,” and who will one day “gather up all things in himself, things in heaven and things on earth.” The church and the world are desperate for the emergence of people like this. And so I beg you, on the basis of your calling in Christ, the One who holds all things together, to become one of them. DBS+


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“Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”

10 commandments

What was God doing on the Cross? (Part 4)

Well, the two things that I’ve come to expect every Easter made their appearance right on time again this year. The slew of articles and essays online that that leave the impression that anyone who “clings” to the church’s traditional teachings about Good Friday (that Christ dies for our sins) and Easter Sunday (that Christ was “bodily” raised from the dead on the third day) is intellectually suspect, and the Easter Eve broadcast of Cecil B. DeMille’s epic “The Ten Commandments,” a programming choice that leaves many scratching their heads and wondering if a more “Christian” choice wouldn’t be timelier?  In my mind these two things are connected.

foodOn Maundy Thursday we gathered to remember and experience the Upper Room where Jesus kept some version of the Passover Meal with His disciples. The unleavened bread that He broke and gave to His disciples while explaining that it was His body given for them, and the cup of wine that He poured and shared with them while saying that it was the “new covenant in His blood” forever lashed the Christ event to Exodus.  Jesus used the Passover story and symbols to interpret the meaning of His death, and the early church “got” it.  When Paul told the Corinthians to “clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened… For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed… let us celebrate the festival…” (I Corinthians 5:7-8), he was clearly appealing to the Passover tradition that the Corinthians certainly understood. I can only conclude that in preaching and teaching “Christ and Him crucified” (I Corinthians 2:2) to them, that Paul used the Exodus narrative just as Christ Himself had to be the interpretive key to the meaning of Good Friday. And it’s not just Paul.

lambThe powerful “Lamb of God” allusions in the writings of John (John 1:29; Revelation 5) are also Exodus and Passover prompted. But when this strand of meaning is jettisoned this connection quickly gets lost and we are left wondering about things like what the movie “The Ten Commandments” has to do with Easter? It’s when the idea that the cross of Christ was not an unexpected outcome to the life of Christ, but was in fact the very purpose of His life (“You shall call His name ‘Jesus’ for He will save His people from their sins” – Matthew 1:21), and when what Christ was doing on the cross is understood as God’s own saving work of atonement rather than just the tragically noble death of an exemplary martyr suffering for his spiritual and moral ideals, that “The Ten Commandments” becomes the perfect Easter movie – theologically. Of course, this all assumes the legitimacy of the Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement as one of the strands of meaning that the New Testament attaches to the cross.

As I wrote about in my blog last week, my spiritual commitment to “speak where the Scriptures speak” prevents me from making the theological traditionalists’ mistake of thinking and talking as if the Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement is all that the New Testament has to say about the meaning of the cross, and from the theological progressives’ mistake of thinking and talking as if the Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement is not one of the ways that the New Testament speaks about the meaning of the cross. In fact, by excluding it from the conversation, one of the ways that the Gospel solves a human problem is removed from the church’s pastoral repertoire.

This was Richard Mouw’s point in his June 4, 2012 Christianity Today essay Getting to the Crux of Calvary.” Eavesdropping on the conversation of two young clergypersons at a Conference about how they never preached or taught the Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement anymore, Dr. Mouw wondered about the pastoral and spiritual limitation that this interpretive decision imposed upon them and their ministries. Later, he said-

nose…I came upon a Christian station airing a recording of a man who was telling the story of his spiritual journey to a group of fellow business folks. The man recounted a time when he was increasingly successful in his business dealings, while increasingly dissolute in his personal lifestyle: drinking heavily, unfaithful to his wife, distant from his children, his marriage headed toward divorce. His wife and daughters were active in church life, but he never attended. One Saturday evening, after he had downed several martinis, his 10-year-old daughter pleaded with him to come to church the next morning. Her singing group was going to participate in the service, and she wanted her father there. He reluctantly agreed, something he greatly regretted the next morning when he woke up with a hangover. But he kept his promise. In that service, he said, he heard for the first time in his life that he was a guilty sinner who needed salvation, and that Jesus had taken his sin and guilt upon himself on the Cross of Calvary. The man wept as he heard the sermon, and he pleaded with God to take away his burden of shame. From that point on, his life took a new direction. I would have loved to have asked the young pastor at the conference what he thought about that testimony. Suppose, for example, the man whose story I heard had gone instead to that young pastor’s church that morning, and heard a sermon about how Christ has on Calvary encountered “the powers” of consumerism, militarism, racism, super-patriotism, and so on. I don’t think that such a message would have affected the life-transforming change that took place.

The Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement remains a club in my theological, spiritual and pastoral golf bag – to use Scot McKnight’s wonderful analogy – because it is one of the strands of meaning that I find that the Scriptures clearly attach to the cross, and those are the categories – the strands of meaning that the Scriptures attach to a revelatory or redemptive event – that I believe that I am obliged to use as a direct consequence of my commitment to “speak where the Scriptures speak.” I am consciously tethered to the text as a pastor and a teacher.  This is not just a principled stand for me.  In my 40 years of ministry in local churches I have found that it has served me often and well.  It has helped me to make sense of those realities to which the Biblical text bears witness, and in turn, to offer spiritual guidance and pastoral support to real people living real lives.

Specifically, retaining the Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement as a viable theological resource for my own life and ministry has helped me by bringing some real clarity to three rather central spiritual issues –

  1. Sin – In 1988 Dr. Karl Menninger wrote his classic volume Whatever Became of Sin? Prophetically accurate and incisive, this book probed the causes and the consequences of the moral relativism that has become our cultural norm. If nothing is right or wrong then we have no need for a Savior. But if some things are right and other things are wrong, then what do we do about the wrong choices that we make and the real damage that they do? The Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement is predicated on the reality and the seriousness of sin. Biblically it is a primary way of explaining what it means when we say that we believe that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (I Corinthians 15:3), and existentially it deals with our human problems with shame and guilt — my human problem with shame and guilt. Because I find that sin is a real problem for me individually and for human being collectively, the Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement is a meaningful way to think and talk about what God in Christ did for us on the cross.
  2. God – Paul told the Corinthians that he did not want to be guilty of “misrepresenting God” (I Corinthians 15:15). Jesus Himself warned that it would be better to have a millstone lashed around our necks and for us to be dropped into the depths of the sea than to lead one of God’s “little ones” astray (Matthew 18:6). Preachers and teachers are going to have to give an account (Hebrews 13:17) and will be subject to a “stricter judgment” (James 3:1). All of which is to say, that we who preach and teach must be careful about what we say, because beliefs have consequences, and what we say about God, as A.W. Tozer observed, is the most important thing about us. “God is love” (I John 4:8) is what most of us will say when we are asked about God, and I have no quarrel with it being the first thing that we say about God. That seems to me to be entirely consonant with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. What is not consonant with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in my judgment, is to make “God is love” the only thing that we say when we are asked about God. Why, even the textual source for our affirmation that “God is love” doesn’t say that love is all that there is to the Biblical God. I John 1:5 tells us that “God is light,” and then immediately frames that affirmation of God’s identity in terms of His aversion to human sin (I John 1:6-2:2). No single characteristic of God exhausts God’s reality as it is revealed in the salvation history that the Scriptures narrate, and keeping the Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement in the conversation about why Christ came and why Christ died keeps me honest about the complexity of who God is.
  3. Christ – Finally, the Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement keeps me from prematurely releasing the tension of the paradoxical affirmation of historic Christianity that Jesus Christ is “fully God” and “fully man.”   So much of the critique that I hear about the Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement stems from the barbaric idea that the cross is something that God did to someone else, namely Jesus. If this is what the Biblical Theory of the Substitutionary Atonement affirmed, then I would side with its critics. But Biblically, I would argue that this critique of the traditional theory of Substitutionary Atonement is rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding that goes all the way back to Athanasius in the fourth century and his struggle with the teaching of Arius. If Jesus Christ is not God incarnate (What we sing and say at Christmas) then what happens on Good Friday cannot possibly be salvific. It can be noble. It can be heroic. It can be exemplary. But if the cross is not the work of God Himself, then it can’t be salvific. Tim Keller helpfully writes –

When I get to the cross, I’ve found there is this caricature of Jesus as the Son whom the Father crucifies – child abuse, etc.   Without the unity of God what you wind up with on the cross is a helpless son and a vindictive father.   But with the unity of God what you wind up with on the cross is God substituting Himself, and not just the Father substituting the Son.

Westminster Seminary professor Robert Strimple rocked my world with something he once said, with tears in his eyes, “Please don’t ever get out there and preach John 3:16 as if you have an angry abusive father who is taking his anger out on his son.   “God was, in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.”

John Stott in The Cross of Christ forever shaped what I see when I look at a cross by what he wrote about the description of the heart of God found in Hosea 11.  What’s happening on the cross is a picture of the costliness of God’s love and the seriousness of God’s holiness struggling with each other at the center of God’s own being.  And this means that the cross is not about what God did to someone else, someone external to Himself.  No, I believe that the cross is the work of God Himself, what God Himself embraced with His decision to forgive. DBS+


“A God on the cross! That is all my theology.” (Jean Lacordaire)

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“…Christ Died for Our Sins in Accordance with the Scriptures…”


What was God Doing on the Cross? [Part 3]

A commitment to “speaking where the Bible speaks” results in both an appreciation for the diverse ways that the Bible speaks about something and in the recognition that the Bible often speaks more frequently and forcefully about something in some ways than it does in other ways.  Take the Lord’s Supper for example.

cupIn their “Word to the Church on the Lord’s Supper” (1991) the Commission on Theology of the Council on Christian Unity of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) identified “five strands of meaning” in our observance of communion as people of Biblical faith: (1) Remembrance; (2) Communion of the Faithful; (3) Sacrifice; (4) Unity; and (5) The Feast of the Reign of God. And Dr. Byron Lambert, a Stone/Campbell Church Historian from a different branch of the family actually identified ten!  A Biblical understanding of the Lord’s Supper has got to reflect a breadth of meaning just as wide and deep as that of Scripture itself.   That’s what a commitment to “speaking where the Bible speaks” demands of those of us who affirm it.

But when you do this, it also becomes apparent pretty quickly that not every “strand of meaning” the Bible introduces is equally weighted.  And this is the other thing that a commitment to “speaking where the Bible speaks” leads to – an honest recognition of Biblical emphases.  Just as it would be Biblically inaccurate to speak of the Lord’s Supper in just one way, so it would be just as Biblically inaccurate not to point out that when the Bible speaks of the Lord’s Supper that the first thing it almost always says is something about remembrance.


“Do this in remembrance of Me” is engraved on so many of the Lord’s Tables in the churches of our tribe because of this fact. Remembrance is certainly not the only thing that the Lord’s Supper means to us Biblically, but it is almost always the first thing.

In recent weeks, as part of my own spiritual preparation for Holy Week, I have been using my weekly blog to think out loud about the meaning of the cross. Two weeks ago I wrote about how it is that what God in Christ did on the cross cinches for me the foundational Gospel claim that God loves us. God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). This “strand of meaning” for the cross has a name, it’s called the “Moral Influence Theory of the Atonement,” and because I seek a faith that is Biblical, I embrace in it.

Last week I wrote about how what God in Christ did on the cross both underscores the Gospel’s claim of “Emmanuel,” that “God is with us” as “Christus Dolor” (the Christ who suffers with us) and establishes the Gospel’s announcement of God’s victory over the principalities and powers through Christ’s resurrection from the dead on the third day.  This “strand of meaning” for the cross has a name too, it’s called the “Christus Victor” or “Classical” Theory of the Atonement, and because I seek a faith that is Biblical, I embrace it as well.

coffeeBeing able to hold onto more than just one thought at a time is a skill necessary for people of Biblical faith because the Bible never says just one thing about any topic. The way the Bible teaches its truths is by putting different ideas into faithful conversation with each other, and it is by eavesdropping on that exchange that we begin to plumb the depths of God’s self-disclosure to which Scripture itself is both a witness and a result.

Coming at Scripture in this way leaves me spiritually frustrated with those who want to artificially restrict the conversation. In my experience, this happens in two very different ways.  It happens when somebody tries to tell me that something in the Bible is cut and dried –  neat and clean – black and white – either/or – when clearly it is not.  I find that it’s most often my theologically conservative friends who are guilty of trying to restrict the conversation in this way.  But this also happens when somebody tries to tell me that something that is in the Bible isn’t really there, or, if it is, that it isn’t spiritually or intellectually legitimate and therefore isn’t deserving of our serious consideration.  I find that it’s most often my theologically progressive friends who are guilty of trying to restrict the conversation in this way.  Both approaches, it seems to me, are failures in speaking where the Scriptures speak. Take the Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement.


Both my conservative and my progressive friends seem to want me to restrict the conversation when it comes to this idea these days. The conservatives want me to think and talk about it exclusively as the only proper way to truly understand the meaning of the cross of Christ, while my progressive friends don’t seem to want me to think or talk about it as having any legitimacy at all as a way of trying to make sense of the meaning of the cross.  When you come down to it, they are both trying to restrict the theological conversation, and the result is that they both make me want to scream!

petersTed Peters, the Professor of Systematic Theology at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, in his essay on the “Models of the Atonement” [http://www.plts.edu] — and what a fine, fair and incredibly reader-friendly essay it is — explained Substitutionary Atonement this way –

When the word ‘atonement’ comes up, we most frequently rely on the model of “Jesus as our satisfaction.” Variants on this model are called “substitutionary atonement”, “penal substitution”, or even “blood atonement.” The work of Christ in atoning for our sins renders us forgiven, or just, or justified. The blood of Christ renders us clean, righteous, ready to stand in God’s presence. Why does Jesus’ death accomplish this? Satisfaction of the need for cosmic justice is one theological answer…

 …Our word ‘satisfaction’ comes from St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), who wrote a book, Cur Deus Homo? asking: why did God become human in Jesus Christ? Anselm began by describing the world as God originally created it. It was a world of order, a world of justice. All things were ordered in harmony for the benefit of God’s creatures. It is God’s will that we creatures enjoy lives of fulfillment, felicity, and blessedness. Human disobedience in the form of sin, however, has disrupted the world order. Like defaulting on a mortgage, humanity cannot pay what it owes to make amends. As a result, justice requires that humans be disqualified from enjoying the blessedness God had originally planned. Does this mean God’s will has been thwarted by human sin?

 God, however, wants to press on. God wants to deliver blessedness despite human sin and still in harmony with the order of justice. God confronts a dilemma. Neither God alone nor humanity alone can pay the debt to satisfy what is required by the order of justice. On the one hand, if God simply forgives humanity for its sinful disobedience, then this would throw the order of justice out of sync. It would introduce disorder into the creation. So, God can’t just write it off and forget the loss. On the other hand, the human race cannot fix what is broken either. The damage is too severe. No human being has the moral capital to repay the debt. Only justice in the form of retribution can repair the broken creation. But this means humanity will get punishment rather than blessedness. What’s a loving God to do?!

 An offering to satisfy justice must be made from the human side; but only God has the capacity for making such satisfaction. Because only God is able to make the offering that we ought to make, it must be made by a combination of the divine and the human. Therefore, concludes Anselm, the incarnation is necessary to accomplish salvation. Now we know why God became human.

 Professor Peters notes that this “idea of satisfaction is a narrow theological concept, which is used to interpret a large collection of verbal symbols in the Bible: blood, lamb, sheep, the Good Shepherd, scapegoat, the “lamb upon the throne,” high priest, and such.” Which is to say that it’s one of the ways that Scripture speaks about the cross, and therefore should be a voice — not the only voice, mind you — but at least one of the voices, and maybe even one of the louder voices in our conversation about what the cross means and what the cross accomplishes.

Scot McKnight’s brilliant analogy of the golf bag full of different clubs explains shows how this works –

golfEach “theory” of the Atonement is, like a particular golf club, better suited to some situations than others. Ministering the gospel is like playing a round of golf. Just as a golfer knows when to use a driver, a wedge, or a putter, the way we proclaim, teach, or share the Good News should be adapted to the situation. You can hit the ball out of a sand trap with your driver, but why would you if you had a wedge available? The strength of the golf-bag metaphor is that it asks us to stop being partisan toward one particular theory of the Atonement and to minister with the best tools at hand. [“Your Atonement Is Too Small” – David Neff – May 20, 2008 – www.christianitytoday.com]

And so when the problem is ignorance – not being sure about how the God who is there really feels about us – the “club” that I go to is the moral influence theory of the atonement. What Christ did on the cross “proves” that God loves us, and shows us just how much.

And when the problem is the evil that holds us and the whole world in its sway, the “club” that I go to is the “Classical” “Christus Victor” theory of the atonement.  On the cross Christ confronted the powers of darkness that enslave us, and by getting up on the third day, He triumphed over them.

And when the problem before me is the very real separation that the rebellion of sin has created in my relationship with God, and my relationship with others, and my relationship with myself, and my relationship with all of creation, the “club” that I go to is the “Substitutionary” theory of the atonement. On the cross God Himself removes the barriers that hinder all of my relationships.

Next week in my final posting in this series on “What Was God Doing on the Cross?” I will name the three essential Biblical truths that I personally find that the Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement preserves for me better than the other theories of the atonement do.  But suffice it for now to simply say that I am glad that it is one of the clubs in my spiritual golf bag.   Because my own need for forgiveness is great, my appreciation for the Substitutionary theory of the Atonement is deep.

Richard Mouw wrote about (“Getting to the Crux of Calvary” – Christianity Today – June 4, 2012) overhearing some young ministers at a conference discussing their conscious distancing of themselves and their ministries from the traditional Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement.  Dr. Mouw said that he thought that it was a terrible mistake.

This is not to say that every sermon preached has to be an invitation to bring our guilt to the Cross of Calvary… The fact is that the Bible presents the work of Christ as a many-faceted event, setting forth a variety of images for the Atonement: self-giving love, the forgiveness of enemies, payment of a debt, the ransom of captives, victory over the demonic principalities and powers, and so on… I would not have worried about the comment that I overheard from those young pastrors if they were simply celebrating having a golf bag full of theological clubs, and resolving to use the victory-over-the-powers club more effectively in appropriate situations. But instead, they said that they “seldom” talked anymore about substitutionary atonement, and to me, that sounded like a basic mistake in theological golfing.

And to me as a big “D” Disciple, it sounds like a fundamental violation of our commitment to “speaking where the Bible speaks.DBS+

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