Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Penal Substitution: the central model of the atonement

Don Carson has written an excellent article examining why Penal substitution is under constant attack. The whole article is well worth reading.

In the light of recent debate that would displace Penal Substitution from the centre of our understanding of the atonement, this paragraph is particularly useful: I hope the paragraph becomes a chapter:

One recent work that loves to emphasize the Christus Victor “model”--Christ by his death is victor over sin and death--somewhat begrudgingly concedes that penal substitution is found in a few texts, not least Romans 8:3. But this work expends no effort to show how these two views of the atonement should be integrated. In other words, the work in question denigrates penal substitution as a sort of minor voice, puffs the preferred “model” of Christus Victor, and attempts no integration. But I think it can be shown (though it would take a very long chapter to do it) that if one begins with the centrality of penal substitution, which is, as we have seen, grounded on a deep understanding of how sin is an offense against God, it is very easy to see how all the other so-called “models” of the atonement are related to it. The way Christ triumphs over sin and death is by becoming a curse for us, by satisfying the just demands of his heavenly Father, thereby silencing the accuser, and rising in triumph in resurrection splendor because sin has done its worst and been defeated by the One who bore its penalty. Moreover, in the light of such immeasurable love,
there are inevitably exemplary moral commitments that Christ's followers must undertake. In other words, it is easy to show how various biblical emphases regarding the atonement cohere if one begins with penal substitution. It is very
difficult to establish the coherence if one begins anywhere else.

Monday, July 9, 2007

"Choose Life" from UCCF

"Choose life" has been a great resource that UCCF has used for several years now. Alongside a massive project to attempt to distribute John's gospel to every College Student in the UK there is a website with a very simple presentation of the gospel.

1) Faithfulness of the gospel &
2) Clarity

I've lumped these two categories together for this review, for the problems I have with the site lie on the line between faithfulness and clarity:

The presentation of the gospel comes on four short webpages each with a key statement.

i. God loves the world and wants people to have eternal life
ii. People show by their lives that they have rejected God
iii. God still loves people and has sent Jesus to die so that they might be forgiven rather than condemned
iv. There will always be one of two responses to this news

As a four sentence summary of the gospel this is excellent. (You'll notice it fits pretty well into the categories that I said I'd be looking for: God, man, Christ, response)

There were, however, pieces of the picture that were at least unclear , if not missing altogether.

God is certainly described as being a loving creator. "This sums up God’s attitude to our world. He loves it. He created this world and the human race as an expression of his love". But there seems to be little about his holiness, or about the authority he has associated with him being the creator.

I like the fact that 'eternal life' is used as the way to describe what we are created for: but the description of that life is true but inadequate: "We can know God personally and be known by him." Note that this is described in symmetrical terms. We know him, he knows us. We love him, he loves us. For the gospel to make sense there needs to be greater clarity about the Sovereignty of God: he made us - we belong to him.

This would serve the purpose of the second page also making more sense: sin is well described as"rejecting God" and "our moral rebellion against God". This is a good description of sin. It would make more sense if God's rule had already been explained. Why does it matter if we rebel against God if our relationship with him is basically symmetrical?

Judgement is only hinted at at this point: "So people naturally continue to live in a way that excludes God and invites condemnation and death." It is laid out more clearly in the next page, with a good illustration.

God’s response to our rejection of him is not what you might expect!
He has, of course, every right to reject us. For the way we live in his world with
complete disregard for him is nothing short of scandalous. Imagine arriving home to find that intruders have helped themselves to the contents of your fridge, and are living as if they owned the place. How would you react? I’d guess that your response would reflect your moral outrage. This is not their property; they have no right to treat it as if it were theirs; and you will make sure that justice is done.

Yet, you'll notice that the presentation of judgement is what God might have done, but has decided not to in the gospel. This may be misunderstood as suggesting that the punishment of sin is something that is somehow contrary to God's nature.

There is at this point a good explanation of the cross.

On the cross Jesus, the God-man, willingly took upon himself the judgment and condemnation that should have been ours for our rebellion against God, so that we might be spared.

The section on response is good in what it says: we cannot sit on the fence, we are not morally neutral, we must believe in Jesus. But I was disappointed to see that there was not a clear call to repentance.

So, the gospel is there: but there are some crucial things that are not clear. And when you put the pieces of this gospel presentation together, I cannot but conclude that, though good in places, it is largely fearful of presenting God in any way that will not be appealling to someone in their natural state. Precisely the issues that the world hates about God are absent: his right to rule us; his determination to punish sin; the need for repentance.

3) & 4) Applicability & Responsibility
Elsewhere on the site there are some good places to deal with questions related to the gospel.

You can read John's gospel online, request a free hard copy of John's gospel, explore three follow up questions: Who is Jesus? Why did Jesus come? What does it mean to follow Jesus?
These questions are given good brief answers. The answer to the second question includes a good explanation of the necessity and sufficiency of Jesus' death for sinners. The third question, however, talks about receiving forgiveness but not about repenting or believing.

There is also a section for Questions, answering 15 of the most common objections to the gospel. I looked at a couple of these:

How can there be a God with so much suffering in the world?
How can a loving God judge people?

Both of these were exemplary short answers to extremely difficult questions: neither gave common false answers that tend to deny God's sovereignty. Both upheld the goodness of God. And most importantly for any apologetic questions, both took the questions back to the gospel. Fantastic!

Another means of follow up is the public forum.

It is a brave thing to have a completely open forum. I think that it is a good idea to have it: BUT, if you are going to have a forum, you need people whose responsibility it is to answer people's questions on that forum. Having browsed around a little, there seem to be some great questions from Non-Christians with no coherent response from Christians. So, one post asks two questions: a question about the Trinity is answered by a response that is modalistic. A question about the extent of the atonement goes effectively unanswered.

Opening up the site for questions that do not have a clear biblical response will give the impression that there is no clear biblical response available... So, I'm going to write a quick response to the questions asked now...

Any of you UCCF guys reading this: please get onto your site and interact with unbelievers who are asking serious questions about the gospel!

On the community life page the site does a good job of pointing people towards a local church.

5) Usability
The site looks great. It also has the advantage of the right-sized amount of text per page: about 200-300 words. Something I have totally failed on in this post! I should conclude...

This site is a great resource: well designed, clear, accessible, interactive. Greater clarity on God's holiness and our need to repent, and greater resourcing of the forum by those apt to teach would take it on a step from a very good site to an absolutely excellent site.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Ultimate Questions

John Blanchard, Author of Does God Believe in Atheists? wrote a little tract called Ultimate Questions back in 1987. the tract has always been good, though the graphics now look a little tired.

Well, now the excellent text of the tract is available without the tired look graphics online.
Ultimate Questions presents the gospel through a series of twelve questions.

These really are Ultimate Questions, and provide a good framework for exploring the gospel.
So, going through the criteria of assessment for evangelistic sites:
1) Faithfulness to the gospel.
The gospel is presented fully and well. One key truth that is dealt with well here is the need for revelation if we are going to know God.
"God is beyond our understanding and we need him to reveal himself to us."
This is an important truth to communicate and useful to do so up front when
then presenting the gospel that we find in Scripture.
Another useful inclusion is a brief outline of the attributes of God. This is really useful for being able to talk about the fact that God deserves our worship, and how terrible thing our sin is that we would rob worship from the unique, personal, eternal, independent, spiritual, holy, just, perfect, sovereign, omnipotent God and take it for ourselves: tiny, sinful creatures.
However, having laid up so well the character of God and therefore talk about the personal offensiveness of sin, I feel the tract could have done a better job talking about what sin is.
Sin is described primarily as disobedience to God (a perfectly good biblical category) and lawbreaking. I wonder if exploring the categories of rebellion and idolatry would have helped to demonstrate the horror of sin more clearly.
The site is also very clear about the reality of hell, giving important warnings. Yet I felt that in 7 paragraphs about hell, perhaps more than one should have been spent focusing on the rightness of Hell, it being such an important apologetic question:
Hell is fair. The Bible tells us that God will judge the world with justice,
(Acts 17:31) and he is perfectly just in sending sinners to hell. After all, he
is giving them what they have chosen. They reject God here; he rejects them
there. They choose to live ungodly lives; he confirms their choice — forever. God can hardly be accused of injustice or unfairness!
Both the person and work of Christ are well presented, as are the need for repentance and faith.
2) Clarity
The site could certainly not be more clear, almost to the point of bluntness at times!
3) Applicability
I felt that the gospel could have been fleshed out a little more throughout. It is very clearly stated, but I didn't feel that it was 'reasoning with us'.
4) Responsibility
There is an excellent call to join a bible preaching church for everyone who repents and believes.
5) Usability
It's not particularly pretty, but a very plain text. It's all on one page. Some of the other things on the www.the-highway.com site where it is posted may be less helpful to Non-Christians.

Ultimate Questions is a very clear, straightforward presentation of the gospel. It would be a great thing for Christians to read to check that they are covering the basics when trying to communicate the gospel to Non-Christians. It would also be a really useful thing for someone to read who had showed some interest in the gospel and wanted to look into the gospel in more depth. Perhaps someone has looked at Two ways to Live, and wants more detail.
However, the lack of 'reasoning with us' presumes a great deal of interest on behalf of the reader. It might not be the first thing that I would give to someone who has shown only a passing interest in the gospel.

A more serious look at reasonable faith.

William Lane Craig is Research Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, California.
His apologetics website, Reasonable Faith sets out to provide "an articulate, intelligent voice in defense of biblical Christianity in the public square."

Craig's apologetics seems to major upon what has been called classical apologetics. Using classical arguments for the existence of God such as the cosmological argument (the very existence of the universe displays the existence of its creator) the telelogical argument (the order in the universe displays the existence of a rational God) the ontological argument (the very definition of God as the greatest of all possible beings implies his necessary existence).

The other two major schools of apologetics, evidentialism and presuppositionalism are not unrepresented, but made subservient to the classical approach. So, for example, the anthropic principle is shown to be a subset of the teleological argument.

The site is comprised of debates, scholarly and popular articles, an open forum, a opportunity for Q&A with Dr. Craig, podcasts and, under construction, a page particularly for children.

If I can take my five criteria in reverse,

5) Usability
The site is very well organised, as you can see from the categories above.

4) Responsibility
My guess is that Craig expects this site to be used more in equipping Christians for apologetic conversations with Non-Christians than expecting Non-Christians themselves from reading the site.
The Q & A and forum gives an opportunity for people to interact with the ideas that on the site.
This having been said, I'd love to have seen more direction given to those who want to look more seriously and deeply into the significance of the existence of God.

3) Applicability

2) Clarity
The site is certainly clear in what it affirms.

1) Faithfulness

There are certainly many ways in which this is a faithful site. There are some of the best classical apologetic arguments for the existence of God that you will find.

There are however, some serious reservations that I have with the site.

a) There are times at which I think that his atheistic objectors have read the bible better than he. This is particularly evident in his debate with Edwin Curley. There Curley raises some good questions that are brought up by the bible's presentation of God:

God predestines only some for salvation. God sends the rest to hell. We inherit sin and guilt from Adam. God sovereignly permitted evil in his world.

These biblical truths do raise serious questions that the apologist must answer in a way that preserves these truths, but shows that they are consistent with a holy, loving God.

Criag's response:

I want to thank Dr. Curley for his very personal and sensitive remarks. In this speech, I hope to show, however, that most of his objections are aimed at a false target, at a conception of God which I, as a Christian, reject. What Dr. Curley offers is really seven deadly objections to the Calvinistic God, not the Christian God. It is only by equating Calvinism with Christianity that his objections have any force. And I just deny that equation. I am not a Calvinist.

As a Calvinist who believes that the bible presents a God who has not abdicated responsibility or sovereignty in favour of some kind of freedom of indifference among humans, I find this response devistating. Craig sides with the atheist when it comes to a reaction against the biblical portrayal of God.

Yet, readily admitting that Arminians can be Christians, this is not my biggest problem with the site. My biggest problem with the site is that it doesn't take every opportunity to draw lines to the gospel. Aplogetics is, as far as I can see, a helpful exercise in clearing away people's objections so that the gospel might be able to be heard. This means that I would love to see the gospel in every article.

The gospel is present in some of the interviews, but not nearly as prominent as I would like.
What good would it do anyone if they became theists through this site, yet never found the gospel?

So, in summary, Christians, go to this site to have some serious reflection on classical apologetics. But don't copy its preoccupation with apologetics to the exclusion of evangelism.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Not so seriously

In looking at William Lane Craig's apologetics site, I couldn't help noticing that he bears a remarkable resemblance to Face of the A-Team.

Well, here goes....! Reviewing 2 ways to Live.

Delaying the reviews of these websites can't wait for ever if I am to be true to my word. So I thought I'd start with the site built around my favorite gospel outline, Two Ways to Live.

This is a gospel outline based around 6 pictures with stick men and crowns.
I. We are created to live under the rule of the holy God.

II. We rebel against God's rule

III. God will judge and punish our rebellion

IV. In his love God sent his Son Jesus who lived under his rule but received the punishment sinners deserved when he died as a substitute for sinners on the cross

V. God raised Jesus from the dead to rule. He gives life and will return to judge.

VI. We all face a choice. Will we continue to live for ourselves and face God's judgment, or will we trust in Jesus' death on our behalf, and turn from our rebellion to live under his rule?

I first came across the Two Ways to live gospel outline as a teenager when one of the leaders at a Christian holiday that I was attending taught it to me to help me with my evangelism. I found it personally very challenging at the time, for though I knew all about Jesus dying for sinners, and assumed that I was a Christian, I hadn't been struck so clearly before that salvation is given to those who repent and believe.

This isn't however only my favorite gospel outline because it has been significant in my own life, but also because I think it does such a great job of presenting the gospel. (Only today as I was having a conversation with someone over lunch about how to share the gospel more faithfully, it was this outline I had in mind)

But, these posts are not merely to evaluate the gospel outline, but the website. So let's put www.matthiasmedia.com.au/2wtl/ to the test...

1) Faithfulness of the gospel.

God, man, Christ, response all there, all explained well. All not only talked about, but backed up by Scripture.

2) Clarity
This is another reason that I love 2 ways to Live. It is so clear! the six pictures are straightforward enough that an artistic Philistine like me can draw them, but give great clarity to what is being talked about. The gospel is about the rule of God being rebelled against, yet, restored in those who trust in Jesus' sacrificial death.
Only in light of God's perfect rule does the seriousness of sin, the rightness of judgment, the need for a Saviour and the call to repentance and faith make sense.

3) Applicability
Though there is a clear call to repentance, I wish that there could have been a little more about what repentance looks like. A little more on the cost of discipleship would have helped with this.
Another question that I have about the site is that there is little about the fact that to follow Jesus is not merely an individual pursuit, but we are called to follow Jesus in fellowship with others. The only mention of the need for fellowship is about how to continue living for Jesus if someone has already come to faith "and he’ll provide brothers and sisters to encourage you along the way (as you meet with other Christians)."
This seems a little weaker than "Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness." 1 John 2:9

4) Responsibility
There is a contact page at the end where people can get in touch with people, whom I trust will follow up. Those who are not ready to repent & Believe are encouraged to investigate thoroughly.

all the things on the investigate thoroughly links are great things to do.
a) Read a gospel
b) attend a course such as Introducing God
c) Read a book such as John Chapman's A Fresh Start
d) speak with a Christian.

But strange, again, that attending a church is not mentioned.

5) Usability
The site is very simple, which is to its advantage. Each of the six pictures has it's own page, and each links to the next page, so that the gospel is well presented in bitesize chunks.
It's not too flashy, which again I like, as it is clear that the message is far more significant than the graphics.

So, 2 ways to live remains my favorite gospel outline.
The webiste presents that outline well.
I'd love to have sites present the gospel well, but also to point people to the community where that gospel is going to be displayed not merely in transformed individuals, but in the body of Christ.

So, if you are looking for a link to put on your church's website then this would work extremely well. 2 Ways to live would point them to the gospel. The church website would point them to the gospel community. What a great partnership!