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Deliverance!

“In Him we have deliverance through His blood — liberation from trespasses — according to the riches of His grace, which abounds to us in all wisdom and understanding,”

(Ephesians 1:7-8)

To start with, let’s talk about the idea of deliverance. In context, Paul parallels the idea with the phrase, “liberation from trespasses,” giving us a degree of additional clarity as to specifically the kind of deliverance that the Apostle has in mind. The word in question is ἀπολύτρωσις (apolutrosis), which most commonly refers to paying a ransom to free someone from slavery or bondage. The next logical answer to ask, then, is “what kind of bondage are believers delivered from?” The answer is found in Paul’s clarification — from our bondage to sin. 

One of the errors that crept into medieval theology was the notion that the ransom payment for believers was paid to the devil. Yet, we are not bound by the devil, we are bound by our sin. Further, the devil has no rightful or legitimate claim upon us as if he were some sort of equal power with God (that would be Manicheanism). No, we are bound by our sin and it is the Law that reveals our sin (Romans 7:7) and thus, any ransom that is made is ransom to the Law. In turn, then, given that the remission of sin requires the shedding of blood (Hebrews 9:22), then the ransom paid is not one of gold or silver or other forms of wealth, the ransom was made in blood…namely the blood of the one who has ransomed us from the bondage of sin before the Law.

The real issue that Christians too often struggle with today is that they do not see their sin as a form of bondage. Worse, some even see grace as a license to sin! Paul is very clear that such is not the view of the believer (Romans 6:1-2). Sin, all too sadly, is soft-pedaled in churches. It is seen as “not that bad” because there are others who are far more sinful than they. Thus, church discipline, too, has been put to the side. If sin is not that big of a deal, why take it so seriously as that? And the circle of cause and effect spirals downward.

Sin, even the smallest and most “insignificant” of sins, is bondage to us according to the Biblical text. Even the most minor “little white lie” would have cost Jesus his life upon that cross on Golgotha. Woe to those who will not treat it as such. Woe to the ones who excuse and justify their pet sins and an abundance of woes to the ones who look upon sin and call it by any other name. When one justifies sin, one justifies remaining in bondage and even celebrates the bondage of others. 

Loved ones, do you not see that your sin binds you? Do you not recognize the toll it takes on your life? Do you not realize that obedience to the Law in Christ is a blessed freedom, not something that robs us of all our fun. You must realize that in heaven we will be unable to sin — unable! Yet, shall we be any more free than when we are in glory? Most certainly not! How sin has so muddled our brains that we would think of bondage as good and of freedom as unstimulating and tedious. 

In Christ we have been redeemed from our bondage to sin just as the Israelites who followed Moses were redeemed from their bondage to the toil of Pharaoh’s work details. Sadly, just as there were complainers under Moses, people constantly nostalgic for the stewpots of Egypt, there are Christians in the body of Christ who likewise pine for their pet chains and shackles of sin. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free from our slavery (Galatians 5:1), shall we not enjoy and rejoice in the freedom that Christ has sacrificed to provide for us?

On Christ’s One Sacrifice

I’ve not posted here of late as I have been finishing two books, one, on pastoral theology that is now out, and the other on the Atonement. Here is an excerpt on Hebrews 10:11-15.

“And every priest stands daily serving and over and over again he brings sacrifices to offer which can never have the potential to take away sins. But this one, offering a sacrifice for sins, sits down without interruption at the right hand of God, from that time on waiting until his enemies are made a footstool for his feet. For by one offering he perfected, always, the ones who have been consecrated.”

Note the contrast we find here between the ongoing ritual of the temple priesthood and the once and for all time sacrifice of the Son of God. The first is neither efficacious nor has the potential to be efficacious for the people. It is simply an ordinance that is practiced that has no power to atone. They are lifeless acts of the walking dead; zombies who claim to live, but are lifeless. Their works, rather than being a pleasing aroma to God, are rancid and foul before the Lord. Yet, like maggots, many are drawn to the dead forms, finding comfort in the decay, because they fear the demands of the Lord of Life.

Jael’s Covering

“And Jael went out to call to Sisera, and she said to him, ‘Turn aside, my lord, turn aside to me! Do not be afraid.’ And he turned aside toward her tent and she covered him with a curtain.”

(Judges 4:18)

It is clear from the context that Jael is seeking Sisera out. God has ordained his defeat at the hands of a woman and here we begin to see it unfold. One may be tempted to ask, how is she justified in murdering Sisera in cold blood? Doesn’t the Sixth Commandment prohibit such action? Indeed, the Sixth Commandment does prohibit murder, but here we are in a time of war and Jael is simply acting as a combatant, bringing the escaped enemy commander to justice.

Sisera, of course, assumes that Jael’s invitation is friendly…his master does indeed have a pact with her husband…yet, Jael lives up to her name (which means, “Yahweh is On High” — note that “jael” can also refer to an ibex or a mountain goat, which may seem odd at first, but when you recognize the stubborn determination of a mountain goat, again, you see how significant her name is to what she has been called to do) and what follows is her plan to put this wicked man to death.

There is some discussion as to exactly what the term, hDkyImVv (semiykah), means. Some suggest that it refers to a mat or a carpet that might have covered the floor of the tent, others refer to it as a curtain that would have separated the male and female quarters in the tent, which indeed, would be an ironic use of the curtain, which would then have maintained the separation between Jael and Sisera. In modern Hebrew, the term refers to a blanket, which again fits the context, we just do not know for sure. What we do know is that Jael covered him up in a way that would not have been overtly obvious to a casual passerby and went forward with her plan to capture and kill this evil man.

The notion of covering, in the Old Testament, is also often tied to that of atonement. This, I believe, becomes more prominent in Deborah’s song in the next chapter, so we will leave it for then, apart from stating that there is symbolism in recognizing that atonement comes through the shedding of blood (Hebrews 9:22). The problem is that none of us can atone for our own sins as we are wicked and rebellious to the core (Romans 3:10; Micah 6:7; Isaiah 47:11). The wicked do not understand that, but we to whom the revelation of God has come not only know, but know the one who can and did make atonement for the sins of his people: Jesus Christ.

Blankets as a Sign of God’s Grace

One of the ways in that my wife and I are different has to do with blankets. My wife is almost always warm when she sleeps, so typically a comforter is all she wants to sleep with. I, on the other hand, am perpetually cold when I sleep, so to me, the more blankets the better. This makes for a rather funny appearance, particularly in the wintertime, as I have stacks of blankets on my side of the bed and she has at most a single blanket on top of her side. We have a picture from when we lived back in Maryland of me with either 19 or 22 layers of blankets on my side of the bed. Some people may consider that a bit excessive; I suppose that they have a right to their opinion. In my opinion, blankets are not only there to keep you snug, but they are also a sign of God’s grace.

One of the Hebrew words that is translated as “atonement” is the term rDpA;k (caphar—ironically, it even sounds a little like the word “cover”), which means to cover over. Atonement, of course, is a gift of God’s grace whereby our sins are covered over by the blood sacrifice of Jesus Christ and thus we have been restored to a right relationship with God and with his Law. The idea of covering also reflects a picture of the righteousness of Christ being draped across us as new garments, not the filthy garments of our own labors.

As Christians, we do more than simply affirm the atonement as a doctrine, it is the source of our hope! The very fact that when we stand before an almighty God and he asks us why he should allow us to enter his heaven, we do not need to appeal to our own messed up works, be can cry out— “It is because of the blood of Christ! He has saved me and brought me to you! He is my righteousness and I am trusting in his promise alone!” It is because of Jesus’ work of atonement that we can find joy in this life because without it, all we would have to look forward to is judgment and eternal destruction.

Now, granted, we may not find hope and joy in the blankets we use on the bed on a cold night (okay, I even put blankets on the bed on a warm night…), but we do draw comfort from out blankets. I imagine Linus, from the Peanuts cartoon, walking along, dragging that blanket and clinging to it for dear life. For Linus, the blanket represents safety from the terrifying things of this world. Ironically, Snoopy (aren’t dogs supposed to be man’s best friend) is always trying to swipe the blanket from him. Isn’t it interesting how our modern, liberal, Bible-doubting, politically-correct society is always trying to reject or fictionalize doctrines like the atonement, thus trying to rob the church of its security blanket.

Oftentimes, in our modern society, we speak of security blankets as things that provide a kind of false comfort. Linus’ blanket can protect him from no real harm. At the same time, that is not the kind of security that a blanket is supposed to bring. It brings security from being left alone and a security from the cold; it is Linus’ assurance that he will find comfort even in the midst of his failures. The blanket of covering from the Atonement does much the same thing for us today. It cannot protect us from someone who will try and take our money or our job, but it is something that reminds us that we will never be abandoned by Christ (he paid too great a price for us than that!) and that will bring us comfort from that cold and calculating world in which we have been called to live and suffer in faith.

When I curl up under my 20 layers of covers on a cold winter night (okay, yes, I live in Florida), I confess to you that my first thought is not always of the Atonement. At the same time, when I think of the atonement, I do think about my covers and how nice it is that I am held by a God who will never leave nor forsake me and no matter what trials I may need to face, I am held secure and in eternal safety. Such is a blanket that can never be taken away.

 

First Importance (1 Corinthians 15:3)

 “For I delivered to you of first importance that which I also received—that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures;”  (1 Corinthians 15:3)

 

Paul now is about to lay out for the Corinthians once again the essentials of the faith.  Please note, these things that he lays down are what he calls things of “first importance.”  As you read through the writings of Paul, you will find other doctrines that are of high importance for a Christian to hold to, but the doctrine of Christ’s death and resurrection is the first and most important of all doctrines.  Regardless of what other things you may or may not hold to, if you do not hold to this doctrine you cannot call yourself a Christian.  It is of first importance.

Through the history of the church, there have been those who have tried to deny this doctrine.  Even in our own day, there are those who would teach that there was no historical Jesus.  Friends, these people are heretics and blasphemers and we should never allow ourselves to be swayed by their arguments; rather, we need to call them to repentance.

Why is this doctrine so important?  To understand the doctrine’s importance you need to unpackage what Paul is saying.  In this verse, Paul lays before us one half of the doctrine; namely, that Christ died for our sins.  There are three elements that come out of this statement.

The first element is that Christ died.  To die, Christ had to be fully human.  Were Christ some kind of legendary Greek god-man or demi-god, being part human and part God, there would have been no real death, for an immortal God cannot die.  Christ did die, and that means he had to be fully human by definition.  Were Christ not fully human he could not have identified with us, he could not have suffered like we do, and no sacrifice would have been made.  For atonement to be made, blood needed to be shed; this is the purpose of all of the Old Testament sacrifices.  Jesus offered himself up as the sacrificial lamb, which means his blood needed to be shed for our sins.

The Apostle John would later write that Christ is our propitiation (1 John 2:2).  Though sometimes this word is translated as “atonement,” there is a difference between atonement and propitiation.  Atonement is the bringing of two parties back into harmony after they have been separated.  Christ certainly did just that, becoming a bridge to cross the gap between a sinful mankind and a Holy God.  But, propitiation is the act which brings atonement.  Jesus’ act of propitiation was his death on the cross, where he took the just punishment for the sins of the elect upon his own head.  This required his sacrifice, which required his death, which requires that he be fully human.

Secondly, the sacrifice is for our sins.  The only one who had the ability to make a perfect sacrifice for sinful man was God himself.  Because of the fall, sin tainted all that we are and all that we do.  We are not capable of satisfying God’s righteous judgment.  This is why God sent his son, that those who believe in as their Lord and Savior would be saved.  That means that Jesus, by definition, was also fully divine.  He had to be fully human to make the sacrifice, but he had to be fully divine for that sacrifice to be effective.  Oh, the heresies of the church that would have been avoided had people listened to the Apostle Paul’s words!

Thirdly, all this happened in accordance with the scriptures.  God had proclaimed in his word the promise of a coming redeemer.  He did so as far back as the fall (see Genesis 3:15).  And, throughout the scriptures, particularly as you read the prophetic writings, there is a clear hand that is always pointing to Christ.  And Christ fulfilled all of the prophesies that point toward him.  This is an amazing fact.  This means two things for us.  First, it means that God is in complete control of all of human history.  Were God just influencing things as they went along (making good guesses as the “Open Theists” would say) then some of the prophetic statements would have necessarily fallen through the cracks—none did.  The only way that hundreds of statements about Christ could have been fulfilled in Christ was if God had intimately controlled history, and indeed, he wrote the book.  Second, it also tells us that the entirety of the Old Testament is about Jesus.  Jesus is directly or indirectly the subject of all of scripture!  What an amazing statement that is, dear friend.

And these things only represent one half of the doctrine of first importance.  Paul is essentially telling the Corinthians that until they get this doctrine right, they will never make any sense of the other doctrines of the church.  As I said earlier, this is not the only essential doctrine of the Christian faith, but this is the doctrine that will provide the foundation for the other doctrines clearly taught in scripture.  Friends, grasp a hold of this doctrine and cling to it.  It is the foundation of your hope.  Without Christ’s shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins, and as we will soon see, without his resurrection, there is no hope of life beyond the grave.  Be encouraged by all God offers to you in Christ.

Cessation: Hebrews 1:1-4 (part 14)

after making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.

 

Jesus “sat down…”  The imagery of this is of a victorious king who has returned home after the defeat of his enemies.  The sitting symbolizes that the victory is final and decisive.  And indeed, we who have received the benefits of that victory can and do rejoice in the wonderful victory of our King!  Oh, the peace and confidence that come from knowing that our Lord reigns unopposed.

Yet, with this in mind, there are several observations that must be made from this clause.  The first observation is that this victory took place at the cross.  “After making purifications for sins,” this passage begins, Jesus sits down in victory.  Beloved, Jesus’ victory over the devil and sin is not something that has yet to take place, but it has already taken place at the cross.  Indeed, the devil still rages against believers.  Indeed, sin still haunts our lives and the effects of sin still surround us.  But these things are the death throes of a defeated enemy and we can rejoice in knowing that the attacks we endure have lost their sting (1 Corinthians 15:55-56) for the law has been satisfied by the work of Christ (satisfaction is another aspect of the atonement—see above).  The devil is dead and he knows it, he is simply thrashing about to do as much damage as he can to God’s people for as long as he is able.  Indeed, there is a time when our Lord will once again leave his throne and enter into our world in final judgment, casting the devil and his servants into the eternal lake of fire, but for now, our Lord reigns victorious while he brings the entirety of his elect church to himself.

The second thing that we must note about this passage is where our Lord takes his seat.  It is at the right hand of God the Father in all of his glory.  Now, we know that this is metaphoric imagery.  We know that God the father does not have hands and we know that God the Father and God the Son (as well as God the Holy Spirit), while three persons, are one God, so to make too much about designation and location is inappropriate—there is no real subordination, for example, within the Godhead (though, we can argue that there was an economic subordination in the sense that certain members of the Godhead primarily focused on certain tasks in redemptive history, but all-the-while knowing that God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are present when God the Father is working, etc…).  All of this having been said, we must note that the right hand was symbolic in ancient cultures of the hand of power and authority.  In other words, sitting at the right hand communicates that all of the power and authority of God are at the disposal of the one to that side.  It is the side given to the honored guest, brought into the fellowship of one in authority (note that we retain some of this imagery in our modern culture when we extend the right hand of fellowship to another in a handshake).  The symbolism of the right hand is seen as a confirmation that Jesus’ completed work of atonement has met the full satisfaction of God the Father and nothing more needs to be added.  Jesus’ work is complete; his sacrifice never needs repeating.  God’s justice and honor has been satisfied and his wrath has been meted out in terms of the elect—there is no more work to be done for the redemption of God’s people.

Loved ones, let that sink in a bit.  Jesus’ redemptive work is complete.  We neither need to nor are even able to add to it on a saving level.  Jesus successfully accomplished what we could not accomplish for ourselves.  Jesus’ merit was sufficient to satisfy the righteous law and his sacrifice was sufficient to satisfy the justice of his Father—what more is there left but for us to adore him!  Oh, loved ones, when we speak of the “Cessation” of the Son’s work, we are not suggesting that he puts his feet up on a celestial ottoman and sips divine lemonade for all eternity, no, he lives to make intercession for his people (Hebrews 7:25)!  Yet, in terms of the work necessary to redeem his people, that work was fully completed on the cross—we are just going through history while that redemptive work is slowly realized in the lives of the elect (2 Peter 3:9).  Believer, rejoice in the knowledge that your Lord and Savior sits in such  a place of honor and privilege in the grand scheme of God’s great plan, yet, for those who may not believe and have a relationship with Jesus Christ, be afraid, for the one you reject is the one who has the Father’s ear and who promises that none will come to the Father save through the Son (John 14:6).

To God be the glory, great things He has done;

So loved He the world that He gave us His Son,

Who yielded His life an atonement for sin,

And opened the life gate that all may go in.

Praise the Lord, praise the Lord,

Let the earth hear His voice!

Praise the Lord, praise the Lord,

Let the people rejoice!

O come to the Father, through Jesus the Son,

And give Him the glory, great things He has done.

-Fanny Crosby

Purification for Sins: Hebrews 1:1-4 (part 13)

after making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.

 

There are many theories that have been put forth in the history of theology to try and articulate all of the ramifications of Jesus’ atoning work on the cross.  Yet, the scriptures affirm so many different aspects of Jesus’ work on the cross that it is difficult to encapsulate all of them within one theory.  And here is one of those passages in scripture that gives us a glimpse into one aspect of Jesus’ redeeming work—that of making purification for sins.  This idea of making purification ties in closely with the Old Testament concept of the high priest offering a sacrifice to make atonement for his people.  Indeed, this very language is found in the Greek translation of passages like Exodus 29:6 and Exodus 30:10, which speaks specifically of this atoning work.

In light of the Old Testament passages of atonement for sin, one thing that we must recognize is that sin is an offense to God, it is ugly and wicked, and it warps us wholly.  The physical disease of Leprosy in the Old Testament is a visual description of the effect that sin has upon us in life.  It makes us wretched and separates us from that which is holy and of God.  Yet, God offers a means by which we may be made clean.  In the Old Testament age, this cleansing revolved around the illustration of slaughtering animals.   Though the blood of animals has no intrinsic value of its own, the promise of the work of Christ would impart value to it (Hebrews 9:15).  And ultimately, the work of Christ in laying down his life as an offering of atonement, would offer a cleansing for those who flee to him in faith.  Just as Jesus physically healed the lepers and others who were being consumed by disease and the other effects of the fall, Jesus heals us as well through faith in his finished work. 

Does this idea of cleansing encapsulate the entirety of what Jesus’ atoning work does, certainly not!  There are legal aspects where we need to talk about Jesus in terms of penal substitution.  Scripture speaks of Jesus as having provided a ransom (to God, not the devil) for believers.  There is the language of his being a model for us to follow and one who imputes his righteousness.  We could go on, but that misses the point.  The atonement is quite complex and we will likely never plumb the depths fully of this remarkable doctrine; this passage gives us just one glance at what Christ does for us:  he cleanses us from our sins so that we might stand as clean in the presence of a righteous and a holy God who cannot tolerate sin in his presence.  And this task, the writer of Hebrews affirms, Christ has gloriously completed, taking his seat at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.  Blessed be the name of our Lord!

Extol the Lamb of God,


The sin atoning Lamb;


Redemption by His blood


Throughout the lands proclaim:

The year of jubilee is come!


The year of jubilee is come!


Return, ye ransomed sinners, home.

-Charles Wesley

The Scope of the Atonement! (New Song, part 7)

“The Limited Scope of the Atonement”

 

            At the same time that Jesus’ ransom was for people from every tribe and nation, do note that it is not performed for all people or tribes without exception; rather, it is for all people and tribes without distinction.  Christ’s atoning work was fully effective for the people he came to save, often referred to as the elect.  The names written on the Lamb’s Book of Life were written before the foundation of the earth, nothing could ever erase them, and Jesus died to atone for the sins of those whose names are written within.

            This does not mean that others, who will eventually and eternally reject the work of Christ, do not benefit from the blood that was shed by Jesus.  Yet, the benefit they enjoy is secondary and it is not salvific.  The world benefits from the good work of those who are saved.  Hospitals, schools, relief agencies, and homeless shelters almost always have their roots in the work of Christian believers.  Missionaries have been willing to take the gospel of Jesus Christ to every corner of the earth, where others would never dream of going, in the hopes of taking the gospel to some.  Missionaries have often had to create a written language based on the spoken language that a culture used so that they can translate the Bible for them, this allows the tribes to communicate and learn, preserving their thoughts in written form for future generations.

            God also gives some general blessings to all people.  He gives rain to the crops without distinction; he gives air that is breathable, and new life in the womb.  It is through Jesus that God the Father created and it is through Jesus that all things are held together, thus, without Jesus, the fabric of the universe would have torn itself asunder.

            Were the scope of Jesus’ work to have been universal, there would be no people in Hell.  Yet, Jesus talks more about the reality of Hell and those who will be sent there than any other New Testament writer or person.  He ought to know, I think.  Thus, if Jesus’ work is effective and unable to be frustrated, and if there is a Hell and it is populated, then by definition, Jesus’ atoning work was only for those he came to save.

            Can you have any assurance that you are elect?  Sure.  If you have a genuine faith in Jesus Christ, if your life was drastically changed by him, if you are holding to him, clinging to him as your Lord and Savior, if you have served him by serving others, if you hunger and thirst for the things of God, and especially if you have remained faithful even through many difficult valleys, then you are one of the elect.  These things mentioned above are works done within you by the Holy Spirit; they were not things you did on your own strength.  And if Christ has begun a good work in you, he will bring that work to completion (Philippians 1:6).

Come, thou fount of every blessing,

Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;

Streams of mercy, never ceasing,

Call for songs of loudest praise.

Teach me some melodious sonnet,

Sung by flaming tongues above.

Praise the mount!  I’m fixed upon it,

Mount of Thy redeeming love.

-Robert Robinson

The Ransom is Paid

We must be careful when we talk about the ransom to be paid, or the debit owed, because we must be absolutely clear as to whom that ransom was paid to.  Through the history of the church, some have argued that Jesus’ death was a ransom paid to the Devil for sin, to redeem his people from the clutches of the enemy.  Loved ones, this theology is wrong, for God owes no one, especially not the devil, anything at all.  Scripture tells us that God chose the elect even before he began creating, which means that he chose the elect before there was sin in the world and before there was any need for a ransom.

Yet, there is a debit that is owed, and that is a debit that we owe to God.  In ancient days, when countries were at war with each other, if one country was loosing badly and wanted to bring an end to the warfare, they would sue for peace.  They would pay a large sum of money to the other nation, and the war would be considered over.

In a way, that is the same with us.  We, in our sin, have been rebels against God for hundreds of generations.  Our sin is an affront to a Holy and Righteous God, and there is a just penalty—a price—that is owed to God as a result.  The promise is that no matter what we do, and no matter how good we are, we can never hope to repay that debit.  Not even someone like Mother Theresa or William Carey could do it.  Yet, Jesus chose to do it on behalf of those who put their faith in him as Lord and Savior—the elect.  And, oh how grateful we should be!

John tells us that Jesus is the propitiation for our sin (1 John 2:2).  Propitiation is different from atonement.  Atonement is the making of peace between two parties.  Propitiation is the act that brings atonement.  We stand convicted and guilty of sin.  Jesus acknowledges that and he acknowledges the price we owe as a result.  And Jesus paid the price, beloved; he paid it all.

For nothing good have I

whereby your grace to claim—

I’ll wash my garments white

in the blood of Calvary’s Lamb.

Jesus paid it all, all to him I owe;

sin had left a crimson stain,

he washed me white as snow.

-Elvina Hall