1. The Way of the Son into the Far Country
The atonement is not a conceptual abstraction but an historical event. It is the history of Jesus Christ and as such takes precedence over all other histories. The first aspect of this history with which we will concern ourselves is God’s grace in Christ. In Christ God graciously goes into the far country, into our world in its perverse rejection of him, in order to take upon himself our situation in all its horror. This extravagant willingness to stoop so low to be with us distinguishes the one true God from all the false gods who only reflect our pride.
While the New Testament witnesses, especially in the first three gospels, plainly affirm the full humanity of Jesus, he is just as clearly acknowledged as God: For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily (Colossians 2:9, English Standard Version, here and following); “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). The biblical witnesses were not led to this conclusion by enthusiasm but by the Holy Spirit.
Yet Jesus Christ did not manifest his lordship by exercising coercive authority. He did it through obedience. And not just any obedience but, in conformity with God’s will, a willingness to live as a suffering servant and apparently to no effective purpose. Indeed he lived as one numbered among sinners and died as one crucified between thieves.
We must also note that the Word became flesh as a Jew. Jesus obediently suffered as the one fulfilling God’s covenant with the people of Israel. It was only as Israel’s Messiah that Jesus came also as Savior of the world. The God who condescended to become flesh in Jesus was the same one who centuries earlier condescended to be known simply as the God of Abraham and the one small people who were his descendants. Moreover, God already began his journey into the far country in the Old Testament by choosing to rule among a people who only rebelled against his authority. So the place of Israel the son in the Old Testament, which was taken by Jesus the Jew in the New Testament, is the place of disobedience. Jesus allows everything said against them and us to be held against him. In Jesus Christ God willed to be reckoned a sinner and to bear the fatal consequences of our rebellion. Even this utterly gracious act of God toward sinners in Jesus Christ stands in direct continuity with God’s gracious acts toward Israel attested throughout the Old Testament.
To understand the meaning of Jesus Christ’s divinity, we begin by affirming that, when God the Son became flesh, this caused no diminishment of his divinity. God the Son remained fully God as a human being. God is love and God as love is Lord. God as love, then, is free in relation to all else. God’s divine nature, then, includes the love that is free to make our form his own without having to undergo any change. For God, it is just as natural to be humble as to be exalted. In fact, the humiliation of the Son on the cross for our sake did not contradict the divine nature but signified its greatest glorification.
We now know that the humiliation of Jesus Christ meant no diminishment of his divinity. But Jesus Christ chose this self-humiliation in obedience to the will of the Father. We must now seek to know in what manner we may have this kind of superior and subordinate relationship in God and still rightly speak, first, of one God and not two and, secondly, of Jesus Christ as truly God as well as truly human.
We still rightly speak of one God and not two even though the Son was obedient to the Father. We begin by affirming that God’s unity is not a static solidity but a dynamic unity of three ways of being: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Also, beginning in God, the subordination of one way of being to another does not imply an inferiority or diminishment of dignity. Instead, the Son is of equal dignity and in perfect unity with the Father and this in the Holy Spirit. With the Holy Spirit, the one God is in the Father in his relationship to the Son; the one God is in the Son in his relationship to the Father; and therefore the one God is God only in the history of this relationship of love between Father and Son and between Son and Father.
We still rightly speak of Jesus Christ as truly God as well as truly human even though he was obedient to the Father. First, Jesus Christ could accomplish God’s judgment of the world and do so by bearing it himself only because he himself was truly God. Secondly, to root out sin where it reigns, in the world and in our flesh, Jesus as truly God also had to become truly human.
2. The Judge Judged in Our Place
We have just concluded that the way of the Son into the far country, his becoming flesh and remaining obedient even unto death, revealed that he was truly God. In this sub-section we will explore the purpose for which the Son freely embraced this self-humiliation.
To begin with, God did so for the sake of his own glory. The first words sung by the angels at Christmas are “Glory to God in the highest…!” (Luke 2;14). God enhances this glory by graciously rescuing us, his sinful creatures, from the power of death. Why did the Word become flesh? Because God freely chose in love as our loyal creator to be our savior as well.
The Word became flesh both for God’s glory and for us and our salvation. But Jesus Christ is for us as our Savior by coming into the world and taking our place as Judge. The Fall began with our desire to judge between good and evil (Genesis 3:5). There we usurped the right to judge ourselves righteous and others as guilty. But Jesus Christ is for us because he wholly displaced us and renders God’s judgment in our place. We see our illusions of grandeur shattered as Jesus Christ stands in our place and overturns our illusory judgments about others and ourselves. Yet this brings with it tremendous relief, for now we need not work so hard convincing ourselves and others of our righteousness.
But Jesus Christ is for us and our salvation not only by rightly standing in our place as Judge, but also by graciously standing in our place as the one judged. When Jesus Christ decided to make our sin his own, he revealed that nothing less would save us from the power of death. This was not lightly decided, with the misgivings of Jesus in Gethsemane (Matthew 14:36) and the questioning of his forsakenness from the cross (Matthew 15:34). Furthermore, the fact that Jesus took our place and, in that place, suffered God’s wrath reveals to us inescapably that we are sinners in need of salvation. Third, the fact that Jesus Christ stood in our place means that he who knew no sin chose freely in love to accept full responsibility for our sin before God. Because he did that with divine authority, we stand forgiven. Now when we look at Jesus Christ in faith, we may see ourselves for the sinners we are, yet we may also see ourselves in joyful confidence as those forgiven and therefore as those freed now to turn from being sinners.
Thirdly, Jesus Christ was for us and our salvation by enduring the judgment against us in our place and for our sake. He actively willed to be and do so. His self-sacrifice occurred at a certain time and place which is unique and unrepeatable. And as the act not only of a man but of God himself, it objectively altered the situation of all people of all times and places whether they know it or not. This is because Jesus Christ met not simply biological extinction but eternal death, the outer darkness, damnation, and dealt not just with sins but with sin itself, and in doing so bore it all away. The world and the flesh died with him on the cross. So Jesus Christ did not simply endure the punishment we deserved. He destroyed that which threatened us with destruction.
Finally, Jesus Christ is not only the one Judge, the one judged, and the one enduring God’s judgment. He is also for us and our salvation as the justice or righteousness of God. He is this as the one who remained right with God by living for God in free obedience.
But Jesus Christ remained righteously free for God and from sin only by identifying with us as sinners to the bitter end. Satan tempted him to reject this identification and so to deny the cross as his goal. According to Luke, Satan first tempts Jesus to end his penitence by using his divine power to feed himself. Jesus refuses, content to wait, as sinners must, upon the gracious Word of God. Satan then tempts Jesus to establish a full-blown kingdom of his own over all the earth—by first discreetly accepting the domination of the world by evil and so again by abandoning the cross. Again Jesus chooses to persist in penitent obedience by worshiping God alone despite the fact that it would culminate, to all appearances, in abject failure. Finally Satan tempts Jesus to prove God’s favor by demanding God’s acknowledgment of a great act of religious fervor. But as with economics and politics, Jesus rejects religion as well as an act of disobedience.
After the temptations, the Devil departs until the decisive moment (Luke 4:13, Barth) in Gethsemane. First, in his agony, Jesus takes with him three apostles. They, the Church, sleep despite his need and theirs, leaving Jesus to pray in their place and for their sake (Luke 22:31f., John 17:15f.). Secondly, Jesus prays in agony that God’s good will should not end up being the same as the evil will of the tempter and the world dominated by him. But Jesus prays, “thy will be done,” and in so doing receives anew the freedom needed to remain obedient to God to the bitter end. In doing so Jesus was for us by taking our place as judge, the one judged, the one enduring the judgment, and the one acting justly.
3. The Verdict of the Father
The first subsection, speaking of the way of the Son into the far country, focused on the person or being of Jesus Christ; specifically, on his divinity. The second subsection focused on his work or action as the Judge judged in our place. On this Christological basis, subsequent sections will speak anthropologically about our corresponding sin of pride, our justification, our gathering into the Church, and our faith. The purpose of this third subsection is to explore the transition established in Christ between the Christological and anthropological, between Jesus Christ being and acting for us and our own recognition that we are among the sinners for whom Christ died.
Peter said to Jesus, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). Isaiah lamented, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips…” (Isaiah 6:5). Both expressed the problem created by God’s commitment to man in the face of man’s rebellion against God. This rebellion was overcome in the crucifixion when, in Christ, our existence as rebels ended. But any move beyond our death as sinners, any affirmation of us as faithful partners in covenant with God, any conversion of us to God, required something more. It required: (1) an act by the same God who judged us in delivering up Christ to death; (2) an act distinct from yet related to the crucifixion; (3) an act related to the crucifixion as a new beginning relates to the end of the old; (4) an act in history like the crucifixion; and (5) an act in the life of Jesus Christ. This gracious act was the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
1. The resurrection of Jesus Christ was an act by the same God who judged man in Jesus Christ. It was an act of grace done with the same seriousness as his previous act of judgment. But unlike the crucifixion, the resurrection was exclusively an act of God by which he alone attested that he indeed had been at work in Christ. Finally it was an act of pure grace by God the Father for Christ the Son.
2. The resurrection of Jesus Christ was not only the revelation of the positive value of the crucifixion. It was an act distinct from it as God’s response to it. The resurrection was an act of justice, the verdict of the Father in which he graciously affirmed the obedience of the Son as right. The resurrection was God’s act of accepting the crucifixion of Jesus Christ as the right means of fulfilling his just wrath on all people in order to express his justifying grace for all people. Finally, the resurrection was the act by which God the Father justified himself, that is, the act in which he revealed his faithfulness as Creator by creating life anew and revealed his love as Father by raising his Son to life.
3. The resurrection of Jesus Christ relates to his crucifixion in that both expressed God’s reconciling will: first, in the Son’s obedience to the Father; secondly, in the Father’s gracious response to the Son. Our conversion to God was accomplished in these two distinct but related acts. Looking back from the resurrection, the crucifixion took place to free us completely from the old so that we could live for God. Looking forward from the crucifixion, our radical turning toward God presupposed a complete freedom from our past. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come (2 Corinthians 5:17).
4. Like his crucifixion, the resurrection of Jesus Christ was a historical event. Unlike the crucifixion, we do not have detailed accounts of how the resurrection took place. Jesus Christ was crucified, dead, and buried; Mary Magdalene finds his tomb empty; he appears to his disciples. Since people participated in the crucifixion, the account of it is strongly historical; since his resurrection was the act of God alone, the account of it—like that of creation—must be in the form of saga or legendary witness. Even so the resurrection itself was a historical event occurring at a particular time (AD 30) and in a particular place (a tomb just outside of Jerusalem).
5. We have spoken of the relationship between the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Now we will speak of their unity. The crucifixion took place once and for all. Even so it eternally transformed our situation before God by reconciling us with God. The resurrected life of Jesus Christ is an eternal life. But his life, resurrected once, continues as he reigns in time and for all time. So we know Jesus Christ only as the one Crucified yet Resurrected. We cannot rightly understand the judgment of the cross without knowing the greater grace proclaimed in the resurrection. “Death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54).
Copyright © 2019 by Steven Farsaci.All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.