Rob Morpeth on Penal Substitution

Last Sunday, Rob stood in the front of the nave just before we collected the offering and shared with us his thoughts about “penal substitution,” the concept that the death of Jesus was necessary for our salvation because God’s sense of justice demanded it. From this concept has flowed throughout Christendom (at least during the last 400 years) an entire lexicon of salvation metaphor, speaking of our being “washed in the blood” and speaking of Jesus “paying the ransom (or debt) for our sins.” What follows here is not the text of what Rob said, because he spoke extemporaneously and we have no record of his exact words. However, Rob was kind enough to provide us this exploration of the doctrine in a slightly different form but which covers many of the same concepts.

Jesus did not make possible the forgiveness of God …Jesus did not make it possible for God to begin to forgive …Jesus embodied the forgiveness that has always been within the nature of God / Jesus in his death on the cross did not open a way to God that would otherwise have been closed and unavailable … Jesus in his life and death shows us a way into God that has always been open / Jesus did not come solely to die for our sins purchasing our safety from a wrathful, revengeful God … Jesus came to show us through his life and in his obedience which lead even to the cross – the way to live … to have life and to have it abundantly.

But that example … that wholly consecrated life so threatened our death grip on power and our material seizure that we found it necessary to kill him … to remove any possibility that his example and message might actually catch on … with the cross we responded to his best with our worst … and then to our shock … despite what the prophets and sages had long suspected … to our shock when we had done our worst God did God’s best … God answered our condemnation of His Son with the cosmos transforming power of the resurrection. God showed us an answer to violence and selfishness and scapegoating that in our brokenness, we could not imagine …

That is what I believe … that is the sense that I make of it all. It is in this that I find the hope of which the apostle Paul speaks with such confidence … confidence that could not have arisen from his continually challenging circumstances / Paul was no optimist …looking around at the good times and arrogantly assuming they would surely continue … how well we have been reminded recently of such folly … no … Paul was no optimist … instead Paul peers into the cool stillness of an empty tomb and sees beyond the circumstances of his momentary distress …into the eternal … and there he finds hope.

I say all this and say it, I hope, provocatively because paradigm shifts are tough. Prying loose the interpretive stranglehold that the reformation has on most of our minds…on most of our theologies is tough. Perceiving a different, yet biblically rooted way of understanding the work of Jesus —when so much around us such as the hymns we sing….the preaching we hear, often on television or the radio … or the theology we read on popular books …all of that makes it so easy just to continue to say the same things and to think the same things we have thought and said for at least the last 400 years. That the death of Jesus was necessary because his violent death paid a ransom to free us from the consequences of our own apostasy….his violent death purchased with his blood forgiveness from an angry and unplacated deity.

When we hear certain texts from our scriptures we hear with minds shaped by interpretations placed upon the scriptures by the reformers in the 16th century…interpretations that have spoken with power to multiple generations …interpretations that led Christianity through several centuries of expansion ….interpretations that should not be altered without great care …but which are nonetheless ripe for reconsideration….not in order to deny the transforming power of the life and death of Jesus, but rather to find within those events power for new generations to come and for the continuing conversion of souls grown cold in a world estranged from the God who birthed it.

When most of us hear certain verses from scripture …verses from Colossians and Romans … we slip into an interpretive stance largely defined by the reformation…it is what we know. That Jesus died on the cross to satisfy the justice of God…somebody had to pay for our sins … somebody had to die to preserve God’s honor. It should have been us but Jesus comes along and takes the fall … God…according to this interpretation … God does what Abraham knew was unthinkable …but this time God does not blink as happened back when Abraham lifted the knife over his son Isaac … this time no ram emerges from the thicket … and just like that, we sinners are off the hook. some theologians understand the story of Abraham and the near sacrifice of his son Isaac to be a polemic against child sacrifice … strange isn’t that God is later understood as violating the ban on such a sacrifice.

For several centuries now we have found hope within an interpretation of the life and death of Jesus that sees Jesus as a substitution for us … a stand in for the ones who should have been on that cross. we have understood God to have required death as a penalty or payment for our rebellion … God’s righteousness – it has been said – demands that a price be paid … that God’s honor be restored. We are saved through the violent death of an innocent victim.

I am simply saying that these interpretations … and they are just that … these interpretations of the life and death of Jesus no longer work for me … and I suspect it is the same for many of you but you have been afraid to say so … afraid maybe because an alternative seems unavailable … afraid because you did not know that these interpretations are just that. the time has come once again for a different approach to that core message of old time religion…a different way of understanding the meaning of the life and death of Jesus. we hesitate because we confuse the interpretation with the things itself … the problem for me is not —let me be clear before you put tweet, e-mail and blog your dismay … the problem is not with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus…. the problem is with the ways we have chosen…in our limited ability…to make sense of those events.

The apostle Paul was the first to cast about for some way of understanding the meaning of the light that burned his soul on the road to Damascus. he began to express his apprehension in the only terminology he knew … the sacrificial system of Judaism … over the next few centuries others also tried to find someway to articulate what it is that happens in and through Jesus. Anselm and Abelard are two of the best known but there have been others, who in great faith sought to offer interpretations for their own generations. we are sometimes overwhelmed and under informed recipients of all of this.

Actually one of the earliest to offer an interpretation was the bishop of Lyon…Irenaeus. He was a champion of the fight against the Gnostics and other heresies…he was a champion of the need to settle on an approved list of writings to guide the church and to connect it with the teaching of the earliest apostles thus giving us what we now recognize as the new testament. He is recognized as a father of the church, meaning that he falls well within the mainstream of Christian teaching….and, most impressive to me amongst his considerable credentials is that Irenaeus studied with a man who studied with a man who had actually been amongst the first disciples of Jesus.

Irenaeus offers a fundamentally different interpretation from that which we usually hear of the salvific work of Jesus. Irenaeus understood that it was the resurrection of Jesus …this great transformative and new thing of God ….he believed that it was the resurrection of Jesus – not the crucifixion – but the resurrection that revealed the way of salvation for you and me and for all of creation … he understood crucifixion…in all its violence … as the ultimate rebellion of humans against their God … not the instrument of salvation but rather the climatic – last gasp- of human arrogance, ignorance, and impatience. Irenaeus believed that just when man did his worst in executing God’s son …God responded with God’s best in the resurrection.

Our being made whole … our salvation lies then not in the violence of the crucifixion but, as I love to contemplate …it lies in the still, coolness of an empty tomb. God responds to the violent death of Jesus at the hands of humans with the transformative power of the resurrection. for Irenaeus our redemption rests upon the life-long fidelity of Jesus certainly not in some supernatural exchange between an angry God and a demi-god named Satan. God’s honor need not be appeased by a death .. instead ….instead God’s love …what one theologian characterizes as an abyss of forgiveness …God’s loving mercy floods the cosmos bearing up the one in whom all things shall be made new. The one through whom all things shall be lifted up.

Thus it is that God proves God’s love for us …God’s love is poured into the cosmos which itself breaks forth in praise…laughing as Sarah laughed the second time, celebrating the new and unexpected life within her. Her patience and perseverance rewarded. the body that she thought could bear only death now the bearer of life. in this she models the joy of all creation when finally freed from its own labor of birthing God’s new kingdom.

In a world all too filled with anger and violence is it not time for Christians to speak of redemption in a way that does not add to that violence? Is it not time to recover, within our own ancient teaching, a way of speaking of our redemption that lifts God well above our own limited attempts at justice which sometimes seem to be nothing more than state-sanctioned revenge?

Long before we learned the language of redemption whose lexicon is that of violence …centuries before, in fact, Irenaeus gave us a way of understanding Jesus that depends instead on the vision of an empty tomb and of a new creation founded in the re-creative power of love.

This same Jesus, now risen, still has compassion and still calls his disciples to go forth to announce the good news of God’s kingdom … a kingdom that arises from an abyss of forgiveness…and the still coolness of an empty tomb.

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