Penal Substitution is the heart of the Gospel

“In Christ alone, Who took on flesh,

Fullness of God in helpless babe!

This gift of love and righteousness,

Scorned by the ones He came to save.

Till on that cross as Jesus died,

The wrath of God was satisfied;

For ev’ry sin on Him was laid—

Here in the death of Christ I live.”

As we approach Easter there is always someone stirring the theological pot, and throwing doubts over Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead. On this occasion, the thesis isn’t penned by an atheist, agnostic, or nominal Christian, but a pastor of a church.

Over the last few days an article has been appearing on Facebook feeds, and one concerned colleague brought it to my attention.

Chuck Queen is Senior Pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church, Frankfort, Kentucky, and he has written an piece denouncing the ‘heretical’ doctrine of penal substitution, It’s time to end the hands-off attitude to substitutionary atonement.

He is not the first person to cast aspersions over penal substitution and he will not be the last. In every generation there are ‘Christian’ leaders who explain away core teachings of the faith.

In what is one of the most important volumes on the atonement written in our generation, Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey, and Andrew Sach open Pierced for our Transgressions with this summary of penal substitutionary atonement,

“The doctrine of penal substitution states that God gave himself in the person of his Son to suffer instead of us the death, punishment and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for sin.

This understanding of the cross of Christ stands at the very heart of the gospel. There is a captivating beauty in the sacrificial love of a God who gave himself for his people. It is this that first draws many believers to the Lord Jesus Christ, and this that will draw us to him when he returns on the last day to vindicate his name and welcome his people into his eternal kingdom. That the Lord Jesus Christ died for us – a shameful death, bearing our curse, enduring our pain, suffering the wrath of his own Father in our place – has been the wellspring of the hope of countless Christians throughout the ages.”

It is this doctrine that Chuck Queen wants repudiated and removed from Christian pulpits. This will take some doing, for PSA is deeply held by hundreds of millions of Christians world-wide, and one can’t ignore the fact that many of history’s most notable Christian thinkers affirmed PSA with love and wonder, including Justin Martyr, Athanasius, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, John Bunyan, John Owen, John Stott, John Piper, Tim Keller, and on and on. Ultimately though, truth is not a popularity contest, but it is determined by God who reveals truth in his word.

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I don’t intend to speak to every argument in It’s time to end the hands-off attitude to substitutionary atonement, for many words can be written, however something needs saying given the popularity of his piece.

Queens comments,

“In the church I pastor we omit certain verses of hymns because of allusions and references to Jesus’ death as a substitution.”

“Bad Christian theology leads to bad Christian living. If one has any doubt about that just consider the voting record of evangelicals in the last election. Eighty percent voted for Trump.”

“Perhaps the first step in dethroning such a terrible doctrine”

We are left in no doubt that Chuck Queen believes penal substitution is heretical, immoral and to be expunged from Christian Churches. Notice also, Queen’s not so subtle slight of hand in associating Donald Trump with the Evangelical teaching on PSA! Such ad hominem attacks are plainly silly and achieve nothing to help us understand the atonement.

Does Jesus believe in penal substitution?

Queen claims that the presence of substitutionary atonement as deriving from ‘an ancient, primitive view of God than the view taught and embodied by Jesus of Nazareth.’

This revisionism is simply appalling. While he does not explicitly equate this ‘primitive view of God’ with the God of the Old Testament, it is difficult to see who else he is directing this remark. The Bible, however does not make such a distinction between Jesus and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The God of the Old Testament is the same as the God of the New Testament, having the same being, character and purpose. Jesus Christ is the fulfilment of all the Old promises, he is word incarnate, he is the I Am, he is the paschal lamb.

PSA is a central concept to the atonement in both OT and NT. To cite 3 examples:

First, the temple was central in Israel’s life and key to ministry of the temple was the sacrificial system, and at the heart of the sacrificial system was the blood of an animal taking the place of the sinner to avert the wrath of God. Indeed, the most sacred day in the calendar was Yom Kippur. Kippur (or atonement), carries connotations of forgiveness, ransom, cleansing and averting God’s wrath, and this final aspect is clearly on view in the teaching about the day of atonement in Leviticus 16.

A second example is the Servant Song of Isaiah 53; it may only constitute a small part of this prophetic book and an even tinier part of the OT, but its significance is rarely overestimated. The Servant Song delivers more than a penal substitutionary view of the atonement, but PSA lays at the heart of its presentation of the work of God’s servant.

The four Gospels either explicitly quote or implicitly reference the Servant Song more often than any other OT passage. R.T France is correct when he talks about Jesus‘ repeated self-identification with the servant of Isaiah 53. Thus, the entire trajectory of Jesus’ earthly ministry as recorded in Scripture is an embodiment of the suffering servant who’s life culminated in a cross and death, before climaxing in a resurrection:

“But he was pierced for our transgressions,

he was crushed for our iniquities;

the punishment that brought us peace was on him,

and by his wounds we are healed.

We all, like sheep, have gone astray,

each of us has turned to our own way;

and the Lord has laid on him

the iniquity of us all.”

A third example is Paul’s tome, the letter to the Romans. Paul explains that the primary human condition is sinful rebellion against a righteous God who is now revealing his wrath against us. No human effort can save us from this judgment, only the substitutionary death of Christ. The great turning point of Romans is that masterful exegesis of the gospel in 3:21-26, which spells out God’s gift of righteousness that comes through faith in Jesus Christ and by his propitiatory death on the cross. Throughout Romans Paul explores the full gamut of the atonement, in all its facets and with many of its wonderful implications, but laying at its heart is PSA.

“With the other New Testament writers, Paul always points to the death of Jesus as the atoning event, and explains the atonement in terms of representative substitution – the innocent taking the place of the guilty, in the name and for the sake of the guilty, under the axe of God’s judicial retribution” (J.I Packer, Knowing God)

God didn’t need a sacrifice?

In contrast to Queen who believes, ‘Jesus didn’t die because God needed a sacrifice. Jesus died because the powers that be had him killed,’ Scripture offers a different testimony.

Both prior to and following the events of Easter, Jesus himself said, he had to die.

‘The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life’ (Luke 9:22).

The verb, ‘must’, functions as a Divine imperative, reinforcing the notion that in God’s wisdom he ordained for his Son to enter the world and to die on the cross.

On the day Pentecost Peter explained that while human beings plotted Jesus’ death, it was also of God’s design and plan. Not only this, Peter makes explicit links between Jesus’ death and resurrection with Old Testament promises.

“Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him…Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”

To an audience in Jerusalem who had only weeks earlier witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus, Peter both affirms human culpability and Divine intent.

Is Penal Substitution language merely metaphoric?

In another attempt to explain away PSA, Queen asserts that it is being used in a non literal way, “Perhaps the first step in dethroning such a terrible doctrine is to help Christians realize that the  sacrificial language utilized in the New Testament are symbols and metaphor, not to be taken in any literal sense.”

In one of the rare examples where he uses the Bible, Queen cites Matthew 20:28  in order to prove his case, “Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

It is important to understand how Queen is arguing his point. He begins by asking us to doubt that these words were ever spoken by Jesus. But just in case they are genuine (although now we’re told to believe they’re probably not), he then adds another layer of doubt by suggesting scholars no longer believe ransom means ‘ransom’. (However, see Leon Morris’ seminal work, The Apostolic preaching of the Cross, for a clear explanation of ransom).

I agree with Queen, in that Jesus is presenting his with a model of servanthood, but there is more at stake here.

For Queen, the phrase, ‘ransom for many’ is metaphoric, but the accompanying infinitive phrase, ‘to serve’ is not a metaphor. Grammatically, it is implausible that of two co-joining infinitival phrases, one is literal and the other metaphoric. Jesus is not speaking of himself as metaphorically serving, but actual serving, and he is not speaking of dying as a ransom metaphorically, but literally.

Queen carefully chooses a Scriptural example that can be used in part to highlight the examplar model of the atonement, but what of the multitude of other references to penal substitution that are scattered throughout the entire Bible? How does he exegete Roman 3:21-16, Romans 4:25, Galatians 3:10-13, 1 Peter 2:21-25 and 3:18, and many other passages?

Is atonement language merely metaphorical? The answer is, no. “Facet” or “aspect” are better ways to describe such language, for in speaking of the atonement we are dealing with historical events which are given Divine interpretation in Scripture. The cross carries more than symbolism, but effects actual judicious judgment, brought upon the Son in the place of sinful human beings. We can no more speak of the cross as metaphor and symbol, as we would of the Federal Court of Australia sentencing a guilty person to prison. There may be symbolism and metaphor to be found, but the atonement cannot be reduced to those categories; it is an actuality.

Did Constantine change the Christian message?

Queen offers a strange rewrite of history when suggesting that PSA was given prominence post-Constantine, while other and more important idea such as Jesus’ life and teaching, found a diminished role in Churches catechisms. While it is possible to site examples on both sides Constantine’s rule where Christians play various doctrines over others, the historical record demonstrates the penal substitution was treated as foundational prior to Constantine, not only by the New Testament authors, but among the Early Church Fathers.

For example, Justin Martyr who lived almost two centuries before Constantine wrote,

“If, the, the Father of all wished His Christ for the whole human family to take upon Him the curses of all, knowing that, after He has been crucified and was dead, He would raise him up, why do you argue about Him, who submitted to suffer these things according to the Father’s will, as if he were accursed, and do not rather bewail yourselves?”

Penal Substitution and Christian living

Another contention for Chuck Queen is over the apparent powerlessness of PSA to cultivate Christian living.He says,

“Another problem with substitutionary atonement is that it reduces salvation to a legal transaction that has nothing to do with the actual transformation of the individual…In such a Christian system the actual life and teachings of Jesus have little bearing on what it means to be a Christian.”

To bushwhack both history and contemporary Christianity in this way is simply disgraceful.

Flowing from the preaching of Charles Spurgeon, who taught  the centrality of penal substitution, were many organisations caring for the poorest of Londoners, including orphanages.

Tim Keller has been used of God to plant and grow Churches across New York City, and accompanying Redeemer Presbyterian Church is Hope for New York, a mercy and justice outreach to the city providing volunteer and financial resources to more than 40 nonprofit organizations serving poor or marginalized populations in New York City.

The man who wrote perhaps the most famous defence of penal substitution in the 20th Century was John Stott. Stott was responsible for the global Lausanne movement and was known for calling Christians to engage in social justice ministries. John Stott famously did not serve in the armed forces during the Second World War, largely due to his convictions about violence, and yet he defended and articulated the case for penal substitutionary atonement. Belief in a righteous God who is angry against sinful people and who judges rightly does not lead to angry judgemental Christians (well, it ought not) but rather it produces men and women who are loving and passionate and keen to see their neighbours also know this righteous God who saves.

In short, it appears as though any time Queen doesn’t approve of way the Bible speaks of God, sin, and humanity, he explains it away by arguing, “this isn’t the god I believe in”, or “it’s a metaphor”, or “we can explain it away because culture of Rome isn’t ours”.

We are left wondering, how does Chuck Queen view the significance of Jesus’ death on the cross? He suggests,

Jesus bore our sins on the cross in the sense that he, as the Son of Man, as the representative human being, bore the hate and animosity of the world in his service to God. He became a scapegoat to end scapegoating, to expose the folly and evil of scapegoating any human being. He became the lightning rod where the pent up oppositional energy of the powers that be (the world) became focused. In bearing the sin — the hate, evil and animosity of the world — he exposed it and exhausted it, thus overcoming it. The resurrection served as God’s vindication, God’s “yes” to Jesus’ sacrificial life and death.

No need for a sacrificial victim.”

Does Chuck Queen realise that the scape goat of Leviticus ch.16 was in fact a substitute for the sins of Israel?

According to Queen’s view, God absorbs the world’s hate, like a lightning rod. There is no punishment for sin, no one will account for their own sins before a righteous God for he simply sucked it all in. For clergy who rape children, for totalitarian regimes who oppress and murder their own people, for the 10,000s of victims of Islamic State, there is no day of reckoning, no God who is angry and punishes with hell.

The biggest problem with Queen’s thesis

At the end of the day, as Queen admits, penal substitution doesn’t reflect his view of God, and that is precisely his problem.

“The major problem with substitutionary atonement is the way it imagines God. This interpretation of Jesus’ death makes God the source of redemptive violence. God required/demanded a violent death for atonement to be made. God required the death of an innocent victim in order to satisfy God’s offended sense of honor or pay off a penalty that God imposed. What kind of justice or God is this? Would a loving parent make forgiveness for the child conditioned upon a violent act?”

The nonviolent God of Jesus, however, is incompatible with a God who makes a horrendous act of violence a divinely required act of atonement.

Queen doesn’t begin with Scripture and allow God’s self-revelation to inform, shape, correct our own understanding of God; he begins with a pre-conceived view of God, that (s)he is a non-violent god, and from that belief he then attempts to bend, re-shape and even remove any part of the Bible that doesn’t conform to his portrait. In the end Queen is left with an image of his own making whom he worships and calls God. His nonviolent god does not account for Jesus’ actions in the temple where he physically drove out local businessmen and bankers. His nonviolent god ignores the God of war in the Old Testament. His nonviolent god does not permit Paul to write to Christians, ‘Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.’

The world needs a powerful and good God who punishes wrong and who can show mercy to wrongdoers.

4 basic positions on Penal Substitution

Two years ago I wrote a post in which I outlined 4 basic positions on the penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). I appreciate that these are generalisations, and the accusation of straw men might be apt, apart from the fact that I know people who fit into each of these groups. For all the dangers when making generalisations, they nonetheless have warrant and therefore they offer some clarity to the discourse.

First, those who deny PSA. There are two basic groups of people who fall under this category: those who reject the idea that PSA is affirmed in the New Testament, and those who believe it is taught but have decided to reject that part of the Bible. There are of course further subgroups, those who have issue with concept of substitution and those who only discredit the adjective penal.

Second, Those who accept the Bible’s teaching on PSA, and believe it is necessary but not the centre. They understand it to be one aspect of the atonement they dismiss the notion that it is the necessary central concept of the atonement.

Third, those who accept the Bible’s teaching on PSA and who believe it is central, but who believe that other aspects of the atonement have been downplayed and need to rediscovered and given proper emphasis. To explore other dimensions of the atonement at length is not too deny PSA, but it is restoring the beauty of these facets that are sometimes hidden. Of course, there is also more to the ministry of Christ than the atonement: there is his pre-incarnate work, his incarnation, life, resurrection, ascension, reign, intercession, return and Kingly judgement.

Fourth, those who accept the Bible’s teaching on PSA but downplay other aspects of the atonement.

It is difficult to see how the first position is tenable within Christian orthodoxy, for PSA is intricately tied to too many Christian doctrines. Chuck Queen is an example in point, his view of the god whom he worships would not and cannot permit penal substitution. Rejection PSA follows adherence to an imaged God who is not that God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The second position is problematic because the Bible does view PSA as critical and foundational. There are many Gospel presentations found in Scripture that do not explicitly speak of either substitution or penal, but of course no Gospel outline ever says everything. And yet, there is a clear weightedness given to substitutionary nature of Jesus’ death which appeases the righteous wrath of a righteous God.

When it comes to things like apologetics and evangelism, we would rarely begin with PSA, although there may be conversations where this is possible. When eating an apple you don’t begin with the core, but with the skin and flesh, and eventually you reach the core. Depending on ones’ context different aspects of the Gospel will connect with our engagers more readily than others. For example, reconciliation may make more sense to people in our community than ransom or Christus Victor, and yet, regardless of where we begin, we will need at some stage to unpack this thunderous doctrine of PSA.

I wonder whether the problem lies not with PSA but with Christian thinkers not working hard enough to demonstrate how it connects to all the facets of life and society and the world (I’m thinking of my own ministry as much as anything).

The fourth position is understandable when ministering in a context where PSA is being attacked, however in defending the truth of one doctrine we must be careful not to neglect other important biblical notions of the cross.

The fourth position can end up becoming a reduced gospel. If we only ever preach on the penal aspect of the cross, we will be missing out on the full wonder of the atonement, and we will also be guilty of executing Scripture poorly. If we never speak about PSA then we are guilty of misrepresenting God’s message, and if we neglect those other facets then we are starving our churches and cutting bridges with people where we should be building them. If Chuck Queen’s criticism was of those who represent this fourth view, there would be some validity to his concerns, however he is reaching well beyond, and steadfastly places himself in the first category.

The third position is where we ought to find ourselves. Penal Substitution is at the heart of the atonement, and therefore the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and yet there are other aspects that are beautifully and powerfully affirmed in Scripture and need to be presented at length so that we can properly engage with people and encourage our churches. I want to argue that preaching all the aspects of the atonement, as they arise in Scripture, we will make us better preachers. This requires substantive thinking, both in the text and in our culture, and while some parts of our theology are more easily communicable to our culture than others, we will begin where we begin and we will endeavour to take people into the wonders of God in Christ who died for us, in our place, that we might have our sins forgiven, reconciled to God, and adopted as his children.

Conclusion

The question is quite simple, does the Bible teach and affirm penal substitutionary atonement? The answer, in both Old Testament and New Testament is, yes. Penal substitution language, imagery, and actions are found at key junctions in both Testaments, and especially in the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. The second question is also simple, do we believe and trust God’s explanation of salvation?

Chuck Queen’s  theological cut-and-paste job characterises the stench of death that is theological liberalism, which continues to plague and destroy churches across the Western world. He is committing violence on the word of God and stripping the good news of Jesus Christ of its power. It is unsurprising to learn that elsewhere Queen describes himself a ‘universalist’. Those who reject penal substitutionary atonement do so against the face of the Biblical testimony, and so it is inevitable that other Christian teachings are also thrown into the bin.

At the end, Christianity becomes another moralist religion, where we must do. Rather, the good news that is Christ’s death for us is that, God has done.

This Easter at Mentone Baptist Church, we will be singing all the verses of ‘In Christ Alone’, and with joy we’ll be thanking God for the incarnation, life, atoning death, resurrection, and the promised return of the Lord Jesus.

“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” (1 Peter 3:18)

Why I value expository preaching

Yesterday while enjoying a final day of annual leave, as a family we visited another church in Melbourne, which we enjoyed. The preacher took us to Colossians 1:15-29, exhorting us from Scripture to avoid domesticating Jesus and instead capturing a vision of this Lord of creation and Lord of the Church. It was a hot day and the building didn’t have any air conditioning. Did I mention, it was hot?! The poor kids did well, although they let out the occasional groan, as a reminder to Dad and Mum that they were feeling the heat. That aside, it was a joy to hear the Bible being opened, and the truth of Jesus Christ being affirmed and expounded.

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One of the highest and most humbling opportunities I have as a Christian minister is to preach God’s word. Preaching is an exciting yet fearful task. It brings immense pleasure and yet requires great earnestness.

Paul writes in 2 Corinthians,

“We have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.”

According to Paul, the aim of preaching is not to mystify people or to promote a personality or to gain profit, rather it is to ‘set forth the truth plainly’.

In one of the most famous charges ever given to a pastor, Paul says to his apprentice, Timothy,

“Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.  For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” (2 Timothy 4:2-3)

This is such a helpful passage for understanding the work of the preacher:

  • We’re told what to do: preach.
  • We are told what to preach: the word.
  • We are given a context for preaching: all the time is the season for preaching. 
  • We are given a set of aims in preaching: to correct, rebuke and encourage those listening.
  • We are given instruction as to the manner in which we preach: with great patience and careful instruction.
  • We are not however given a method. Having said this, I believe the Bible comes closer to methodology than we at first realise, for the content and aim of the sermon must surely drive the method. Not for a moment am I suggesting that there is only one way to preach. There are several valid styles of preaching including topical, doctrinal and narrative. Even among expository preachers we discover slightly different approaches: Dick Lucas, Don Carson, Tim Keller and Phillip Jensen are all well known for their expository preaching and yet no two are alike in their preaching. 

Broadly speaking, all preaching ought to be expository preaching, in the sense that the content of our sermons must come from the Bible. The authoritative, true and sufficient word that God has given to us is the Bible, and as 2 Timothy 4:2 reminds us, it is a God given mandate that our message be this word.

Evangelistic, topical and doctrinal sermons all can and ought to be exposition of Scripture. By this I don’t mean the verse by verse exegesis and application of consecutive passages, but that the point of the sermon must be grounded in and shaped by the word of God. In fact, a sermon may pool together several different Bible passages and yet teach them in such a way that they are being explained and applied correctly.

More specifically, expository preaching is an approach where the preacher takes a self-contained portion of the Bible (usually a book, which is subsequently divided into its constituent sections and then systematically preached over a number of weeks or months). He then explains and applies that passage according to the natural parameters set by the text, which includes genre of writing, the original audience, place in salvation history, its theme and tone. This may take the form of a careful verse by verse exposition, or it may cover several chapters in a single sermon with the preacher teaching and applying the main points that are contained within it.

While this method for preaching is not dictated in Scripture, it is the approach to preaching that I have found most helpful as I seek to be faithful to 2 Corinthians 4:2 and 2 Timothy 4:2.  Here are 8 reasons:

  1. Expository preaching shows that the authority lies in the word not in the preacher
  2. It helps ensure that it is God through his word who is setting the agenda, and not the preacher or the congregation or issues around us.
  3. Expository preaching helps me to be clear in my preaching. There is a structure and message in the text. My role isn’t to create a message, but rather the passage gives me the parameters.
  4. I want to be faithful to the whole counsel of God. All Scripture is God-breathed and is for our benefit, so we should aim to eventually preach through the entire Bible (one very long term project!).
  5. I want the church to value the whole Bible. Scripture is an incredibly rich book and I want people to explore all of it.
  6. Far from creating dull or irrelevant preaching, expository preaching keeps me interested and challenged in my preaching, and it pushes my congregation There are 66 different books in the Bible written at different times in history by different authors, in more than 12 different genres, exploring hundreds of themes. The literary diversity of the Bible also helps the congregation to sustain interest in the preaching.
  7. It helps the church to follow the preaching from week to week as they can read ahead.
  8. It is harder for the preacher to ignore difficult and unpopular topics.

In a season where confidence in God’s word is diminishing as people read the Bible less, and the Bible is less frequently read and preached in Church, expository preaching offers a significant antidote.

There is more to preaching than method, and admittedly, there are potential dangers in preaching expositorily, but they have more to do with the preacher than the method: i.e. a lack of training, limited experience, or a preacher who takes short-cuts in their preparation. If I am aiming for my preaching to be faithful, clear, interesting, and compelling to the hearer, then expository preaching will serve me well.

The preacher’s task is immense: heaven and hell are the outcomes, life or death are on offer. Surely it is wise to pursue an approach that will help our preaching to be as faithful and clear as can be.

Redeeming social justice from liberals (and conservatives)

Behind this post are two conversations that I’m having with myself today: One, Mike Frost wrote a piece titled, It’s Not a Liberal Agenda, it’s the Gospel!. Second, this Sunday I’m preaching on Matthew 7:15-23, and so I’m spending time grappling with these words from the Lord Jesus.

As you read these ponderings you shouldn’t read them as a critique of Mike Frost, unless I refer to him explicitly. Mike’s meanderings serve as a jumping point for some ideas rather than the framing of what I want to say.

Also, as you read this article I understand that some people may burst a boil as you spot caveats, ‘what ifs’, and buts. In light of these medical emergencies may I offer this prefatory remark: this is a blog post not a 15,000 word essay, and so don’t be disappointed if I don’t fill in every gap or close every alleged theological aperture.

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i. Social selectivism

The Bible is certainly not short of individuals who lived a ‘form of godliness’, but ‘denied its power’, meaning they were bereft of Christ’s Gospel.

In my experience, both cultural conservatives and progressives have a propensity to fail in this way.

First of all, they are almost always selective in the kind of issues they promote. When was the last time you heard social and theological progressives defending the rights of unborn children and fighting to retain a classical view of marriage? Of course, the question could be asked of many issues across the socio-political spectrum.

It shouldn’t need to be said, but we know it needs to be said, Jesus never voted Green, Labor, or Liberal. Trying to squeeze Jesus under under any socio-political umbrella is wrong;  maybe he would prefer to stand out in the rain!

There are historical reasons why evangelicals have dropped the ball on many social concerns. These include the World Council of Churches’, Missio Dei, Second Vatican, and Lausanne 1974, each which have negatively impacted confidence in and need for verbal proclamation of the Gospel. Before this century long trajectory, Evangelicals immersed themselves in caring for the poor and suffering in society; some of the greatest evangelists were also intimately involved in creating orphanages and charities for the poor (John Wesley and Charles Spurgeon, for example).

Perhaps Mike’s critics smell some WCC residue in his social concerns; I don’t know.

But I love the fact that Mike Frost (and others) is seizing these issues from those who think they belong to a ‘leftist agenda.’ Concerns for Refugees and Indigenous people doesn’t belong to theological liberals, any more than other issues belong to the ‘right’. Rather, he’s rightly placing all things in the scope of God’s cosmic rule in Christ. While none of us can be active across all that troubles this fallen world, there is no opting out of loving our neighbour, including further examples that Frost cites,  people caught up in gambling and in the sex industry.

ii. Missing the Evangelical heart.

“Our job, as his followers, is to both announce and demonstrate what the rule of King Jesus is like and invite others to join us, to recognize that Jesus’ sacrificial death atoned for the sins of all, and that his resurrection establishes him as the Son whom God has appointed judge of the world and Lord of the coming kingdom.” (Mike Frost)

It’s a great statement, but the question is, in practice what is this looking like? Four questions/concerns come to mind. I don’t know Mike well enough to know what he’d think of these points, but they are certainly true of some of my friends who readily identify with some social justice issues. With the view of loving the poor:

1. Verbal proclamation of the Gospel is often relegated, if not dispensed with altogether.

I remember sitting in a seminar a few years back, addressing the topic of local mission. The presenter spoke of ‘doing mission’ by creating programs to help the poor and marginalised. I asked a question about evangelism, to which he answered, one might explain the Gospel but it is not necessary.

I did find this comment of Mike’s about evangelism a little boorish,

‘Is the gospel really just a set of magic words, like an incantation, I have to blurt out to appear to be true to Jesus?’

I certainly don’t know anyone who thinks this way, and it’s a bit mischievous to portray folk this way. We would do well to remind ourselves of Jesus’ earthly ministry where he prioritised the public preaching of God’s Word, a model adopted by the Apostles and passed on to future generations of pastors. At the same time, they didn’t ignore the very real social needs around them, and Jesus gives us the example par excellence of loving society’s most disadvantaged.

2. Aspects of the atonement such as Christus exemplar and Christus victor take centre stage while penal substitution is squeezed out, often becoming little more than an awkward ‘theory’.

3. The Gospel of ‘forgiveness of sins’ drops from the centre of  the Christian message, and we fall danger of converting people into a Gospel of works.

4. I want to be careful about confusing Gospel fruit with the Gospel, although we want to say the Gospel will inevitably and necessarily produce fruit (cf. Matt 7:15-23).

If any of these points are representative of the bald man of Manly, then there may be warrant for criticism, but fighting for refugees is no indicator of belittling evangelism or compromising the Gospel. And of the social concerns he has written, how can we not want to speak up and to defend and love?

iii. Redeeming social justice.

None of the above points are inevitable. Serving the hurting, lonely, and unwanted, are beautiful and necessary examples of loving our neighbours. These actions are fruit of the Gospel.

Does not the good news of Jesus Christ change everything? When we have experienced God’s forgiveness, and by grace been brought into his family, this love changes the way we view other people. Therefore, we mustn’t leave these issues to the left or right, for the love of Christ compels us.

In light of the Scripture I think it is fair to say that a Church who promotes social justice but doesn’t practice evangelism has failed to understand the Gospel and is disobeying God. And Christians who believe in evangelism and who think it unChristian to fight for the most oppressed, they too are yet to grasp the Gospel. As Jesus says, a good tree will produce good fruit. And in the Sermon on the Mount, fruit is almost a synonym for righteousness, and righteousness here includes purity, humility, sacrifice, and generosity. Is it not applicable to live out these things for the good of society’s most vulnerable people?

From what I can see, Evangelicals are returning to social justice ministries, and many respected evangelical leaders are increasingly speaking to these issues, including Tim Keller, Russell Moore, Al Mohler, and the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Glenn Davies. Why? The Gospel changes everything.

We don’t have to choose between helping the poor and doing evangelism. We ought to do both for both express love for others, and we commit to both without de-centralising the place of Gospel telling.

A sling, an arrow, and the Gospel

“Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And, by opposing, end them?”

Cleisthenes

From the Delphic hamlet that is The Australian, Greg Sheridan has given Australian Churches an oracle.

According to Sheridan,

Australia’s Christian churches are in crisis, on the brink of complete strategic irrelevance. It’s not clear they recognise the mortal depth of their problems.

The churches need a new approach to their interaction with politics and the public debate, and to keeping themselves relevant in a post-Christian Australian society.

The churches cannot recognise and come to grips with their strategic circumstances. They behave as though they still represent a living social consensus.

The Christian churches now need to reconceive of themselves as representing a distinct and not all that big minority (of practising Christians). They should conduct themselves as a self-confident minority, seeking to win conversion through example and persuasion and not to defend endlessly legal protections and enforcements that are increasingly untenable or meaningless.

In my opinion Greg Sheridan offers a lucid critique of many Churches who are failing to grapple with the rise of secularism, although I wonder if he adequately understands the nature of the Church’s mission and therefore how success and relevance are defined.

Sheridan is right to point out the gross sins of abuse within the Catholic Church (and other denominations as well), and the way this has greatly damaged community perceptions of Churches.

There is urgent need for Churches to practice repentance. Dressed in clerical collars and reciting liturgy, great evil has been perpetrated, especially in the area of sexual abuse. Joe Smith and Lisa Jones can see it, but there remain clergy in some institutions that still don’t get it. The fact that their deeds expose them to be frauds of faith does not diminish the impact on the community. Real, transparent, and deep repentance is required.

Sheridan is also spot on in observing the naivety of some Christians who believe they still belong to the centre of Australian life. We defer to census figures that prove the majority of Aussies believe in God and who identify as Christian, but surely we know better. The reality is, Churches have never belonged comfortably at the centre of Australian society; they have played a significant role in shaping culture, alongside many other voices, but it is more a case of Churches being tolerated rather than celebrated and embraced.

This tolerance is eroding, rapidly so. This year alone we have seen various groups slamming the foot on the accelerator, such that we are fast approaching an intersection called ‘free speech’, and the direction Australians will take remains unclear.

Several political groups have declared their hand:

The Greens have decided their way forward by calling for religious organisations to lose their exemptions for discrimination laws.

Federal Labor have made clear: “Labor believes that no faith, no religion, no set of beliefs should ever be used as an instrument of division or exclusion, and condemning anyone, discriminating against anyone, vilifying anyone is a violation of the values we all share, a violation which can never be justified by anyone’s faith or belief. Accordingly, Labor will review national anti-discrimination laws to ensure that exemptions do not place Australians in a position where they cannot access essential social services.”

Bill Shorten has since stepped back from this position, but there are no guarantees he won’t step forward again.

And the Victorian Government, singing from their autocratic hymnal, has determined to insult and silence anyone who challenges their hermeneutic of life.

Should churches fight to keep a voice in the public arena?

We must concede that Churches no longer occupy a position in the middle, but we don’t want to evacuate the public space altogether. I want to argue that it is worth fighting for a voice in public discourse, but we do so with the belief that the Gospel does not depend upon it. So why should we defend notions of ‘freedom of speech’.

First of all, we have something to say. We have good news to speak and show our neighbours, and so why would we walk away from secular principles that give us freedom for speaking and contributing?

Secondly, we should defend the right to speak for the sake of those who speak against us. Is this not a way in which we love our neighbour?  Is it also not a sign of a mature society, one that is big enough to allow a plurality of voices, and to say ‘I disagree with you, but let’s hear you out and then talk it through’.

A great example of this happened last week when Christians came to the support of Roz Ward, a professing Marxist and co-founder of the controversial curriculum, Safe Schools. Ward was forced to resign from a Government role and was suspended from La Trobe University after a comment she made in regard to the Australian flag. While her views may be disagreeable to many, she has the right to express them, and to find herself being ousted from an academic institution on account them was extreme. Subsequently, a number of Christian leaders noted this hypocrisy and sided with those who called for her reinstatement.

Thirdly, we are members of a democratic society, which in principle gives permission for Christians and atheists alike to speak and offer their opinion.

As a liberal democracy, Australia is governed by these 4 principles:

“A belief in the individual: since the individual is believed to be both moral and rational;

A belief in reason and progress: based on the belief that growth and development is the natural condition of mankind and politics the art of compromise;

A belief in a society that is consensual: based on a desire for order and co-operation not disorder and conflict;

A belief in shared power: based on a suspicion of concentrated power (whether by individuals, groups or governments).”

If we accept these principles, surely Christians have freedom to articulate their views in public discourse? This doesn’t mean people have to like or affirm these beliefs (nor those of any worldview), but it does mean there is freedom to speak. Unfortunately though, it seems as though these values are becoming museum pieces, relics from a golden age of democracy when the Cleisthenes’ of Australia stood tall. After all, no fair democracy has ever endured the ages. And yet, while Australia formally holds to these democratic convictions, there is a place for Christians to speak without fear of law or litigation.

Our democratic liberties give Christians a platform and context for doing public ministry, and we are thankful for this, but the Gospel is not curtailed by the limitations or freedoms of liberal democracy. Indeed, history demonstrates that Churches have often flourished where they have been most resented. More importantly, Jesus Christ taught a theology of the world which lives in opposition to God and which hates those who follow Jesus. Why should we assume Australia is any different?

How should Churches view ‘success’?

Are, as Greg Sheridan suggests, ‘churches in crisis now on all fronts’? It depends on how one defines the mission and role of the church.

Our aim is to love others, whether our convictions are affirmed by others or not.

Our goal is not relevance, for the Gospel we believe is not defined by a popularist epistemological current, but by the word of the cross, which is foolishness to the wise and powerful of this world. Instead, our purpose is to preach this foolishness for through it God works to redeem and heal.

Our mission is not to set up power structures at the centre of society, but to speak the Gospel and to love others no matter where we find ourselves situated in relation to broader society.

Freedom of speech has become the gordian knot of our day. Politicians, lawyers, and academics will ponder and debate and try to find a way to navigate through the many layers of twisted and knotted rope, and while their answers will have implications for Christian speech and life in public, our hope does not lay with them, but in the Gospel, a word that is sharper than a two edged sword. Our hope rests in the Christ who has promised that he will build his church and not even Hades can stand against it.

Sadly many Christians have sold their soul in order to buy a place at the centre of public life, and they are now being marshalled into following the lead of the social progressives, and others are instead holding tight to their conservative neuroses. There are however exceptions; across the land there are churches growing and people are becoming Christians, and there are Bible colleges in Australian cites who are training more men and women than in the previous generation. There are Christians serving in Parliament, teaching in universities, and working in a thousand different jobs. And to these men and women, keep preaching and living the Gospel, loudly from the centre or whispering it from the edge, and through it God will keep working his grace and growing his Kingdom.

Stan Grant’s Speech on Racism, and why we must respond

Over the past week I have been listening to people comment on the speech given by journalist, Stan Grant, on the issue of Indigenous reconciliation and racism.

I watched it today and found Mr Grant’s words compelling, sad, difficult and necessary. I would urge all Australians to take the 8 minutes it requires to listen to the speech in full.

In Mr Grant’s voice there was heart-felt honesty but no self-pity, anger but not rage, truth-telling but not condescension.

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As a preacher I am aware of the tenure of peoples’s reactions to words; forgetfulness often quickly follows acknowledgement.  A problem with speeches like Mr Grant’s is that we are moved by them, and for a few days we agree with them and believe that action needs to follow, but soon enough we have forgotten those beliefs and emotions, and words, and nothing changes.

For example, in 2009 Rev Dr Peter Adam gave the John Saunders Lecture. He spoke on the issue of indigenous peoples in Australia, and in particular he addressed the issue of land ownership and recompense:

“No recompense could ever be satisfactory because what was done was so vile, so immense, so universal, so pervasive, so destructive, so devastating and so irreparable.’’

‘We European Australians often claim that one of the strengths of the Australian character is ‘caring for the underdog’. That claim is hypocrisy – we do not act with justice, let alone care.”

At the time, Adam’s lecture gained attention in the media, with it being reported in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald. I remember it well because it was the first time I was convicted to think seriously about reconciliation issues with Indigenous Australians.

Will this be another speech remembered for its oratory or for the change it brought to this country?

The God whom I know and worship is the God who made the heavens and earth, and who made all humanity in his image.

It was out of this theological conviction that Martin Luther King cried,

‘I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.’

This God sent his only Son, Jesus Christ, into the world because humanity was bent on throwing away the dignity of the imago dei. Humanity’s actions have resulted in the belittling of human life in a thousand different ways, including the abhorrent belief of racial inferiority

We cannot live in the past, but living in the present can remain most hard when our history remains unresolved. To this, I am looking forward to the Day when God will put away forever all that is wrong and evil, but in the present we remain responsible for our words and actions, and to ignore the call for reconciliation when it is given us, is simply iniquitous.

At this time, let us re-issue calls to include in our national constitution a statement recognising the first Australians. Of course, the wording of such an inclusion is incredibly important, and so instead of deferring it because the task is complex, let’s move forward.

Also, January 26th is our national holiday, and on this day I will give thanks for the many blessings we enjoy in our country. It  does seem as though the date has evolved beyond the tall ships in Botany Bay, as it is now cherished by many thousands of immigrants who have no connection to 1788, but who have made their home here from all corners on the globe and who celebrate becoming citizens on this date. But I am still  conscious of the fact that for many Indigenous people, ‘Australia Day’ is not so celebratory.

Are we so tied to this date that we cannot move to another?

I have heard it suggested that  we should make Federation Day our national day. It’s not a bad idea, except that it’s January 1st!

These two changes may be symbolic, but they are also tangible expressions to our fellow Australians that we recognise their pain, we acknowledge past sins, and we are eager to pursue reconciliation.

Sermon on the Mount

sermonontheMount

In this tumultuous world where following Jesus Christ means growing opposition and cost, what better words to meditate on than Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

In 2016, at Mentone Baptist,  I will be preaching on Matthew chs. 5-7, starting January 31.

Check out our promo

 

New Sermon Series on Romans 9-11

JoiningGodsMission

What is God’s mission into the world?

What is our role in God’s work?

What is the relationship between God’s Gospel at the people of Melbourne?

At Mentone Baptist we will be working through Romans 9-11 (Sept 28-Dec 13). It will be exciting. It will be challenging. It will be hard. It will life changing.