Have you been impatiently waiting for the monthly poem from my mom? No, we have not forgotten. Here it is, just in time to help you remember the death and life of Christ.
God bless you as you read Mom’s poem and meditate on Christ.
I remember as a young girl, lying on the grass, gazing at the immense blue summer sky above me, and trying to grasp in the “grain of sand” that was my mind, the concept of eternity. As the clouds moved lazily overhead I pondered the puzzle of eternity past and eternity future, tried to envision the vast expanses of “time” implied, and wondered which would be more irrational, that God should have never begun—how could that be!—or that He should have a beginning—but then how and why could He have begun? I would try to stretch my mind across the eons of eternity from past to future until I felt my brain would explode.
G. K. Chesterton said that “poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea… the result is mental exhaustion. To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet desires… a world to stretch himself in… asks only to get his head into the heavens… the logician… seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head which splits.”
The Scriptures tell us it is “by faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God…not…of things which are visible” (Heb. 11:3, NKJV, italics added).
I was nearing fifty years of age when I wrote the following poem about Christ’s time on earth, and my brain felt no more adequate then of grasping the puzzle of Christ’s work of salvation than it was earlier with the concept of eternity.
The puzzle: Did Jesus come to live or to die for us? His death was only efficacious because of His Resurrection and because of His perfect life. His life alone could not have saved us. He needed a body for the very purpose of dying for us. Remission of sin demands blood shed, a death, a sacrifice.
Romans 5:1 says we are “justified by faith” in Him “who was delivered up [to death] because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification” (Rom. 4:25, NKJV, italics added).
Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! (Rom. 11: 33, NASB)
In humble faith I celebrate and trust in the life and death and resurrection of my Risen Lord and Saviour as all-sufficient for my eternal salvation!
—Elaine Gingrich, March 1, 2016
THIRTY-THREE YEARS: A LIFE
He came to die, but first He came to live.
Not as some faceless, flat protagonist
Who dies in a pale story, never missed
By readers. No, our captured minds would give
The world to know this Man. The finest sieve
Can catch no fault in Him. Go down the list
From “healed a leper” to “by traitor kissed,”
Then watch Him die unjustly, yet forgive.
Here was a man to tower above men,
With strength to calm the stormy Galilee,
With touch more tender than a baby’s sigh.
Here was a man deserves to live again,
A man to love! We turn the page to see
The script. He lives! But first He came to die.
—Elaine Gingrich, May 2, 2000
While this was not her intent, Mom’s insight about the need to connect the life and the death of Christ has been the subject of some recent discussion in scholarly circles.
N.T. Wright, for example, wrote a book calledHow God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels. Wright argues that evangelicals and other confessional Christians, influenced by the pattern of the ancient creeds, have tended to emphasize the virgin birth and the cross of atonement while skipping over the life of Christ with his radical kingdom teachings. Liberal theologians, however, influenced by post-Enlightenment critical scholarship and embarrassed by the miraculous elements of Jesus’ birth and death, have emphasized the exemplary power of his human life.
But true Christianity needs both—the kingdom teachings and life of Jesus on the one hand, and also his miraculous, saving death and resurrection. In Wright’s words, we need both kingdom and cross. (While I have not read this book, I have listened about three times to this lecture Wright gave on the same topic. Highly recommended.)
Wright is a scholar of the first rank, but his book above is written for a general audience. Pastors have also written on this subject, such as Tim Chester in his 2015 book Crown of Thorns: Connecting Kingdom and Cross. (I have not read this book, but am familiar enough with Chester to feel confident it will be a useful read.)
I am excited to see scholars and pastors grasp this insight. But understanding exactly how Jesus’ life and death relate together to save us and shape our lives is secondary to simply trusting and following him. So it’s okay if you identify with what Mom said after I shared some of the above with her:
You can develop the deep debates and I will stick to the simpler faith foundation. 🙂
I am deeply grateful to my mother for helping to keep my faith foundation firm, both in my youth and to this day.
For the rest of the poems in this monthly series, see here.
Gathercole, Simon. Defending Substitution: An Essay on Atonement in Paul (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2015). 128pp. Publisher’s description.(Amazon new price: $14.86 paperback, $9.99 Kindle.) Buy on Amazon.
There is a strong tendency in current scholarship on Paul to resist seeing Christ’s death as in our place, instead of us. Rather, scholars prefer a view of Christ’s death with us—where he identifies with us rather than dying a unique death alone for us. Indeed, the point that Christ’s death is representative and therefore not substitutionary can often be made briefly in passing, as if it were understood to be an uncontroversial thought. (Gathercole, 29. Emphasis added.)
It is this “uncontroversial thought” that Gathercole aims to challenge in this brief (128 pp.) book. I think he does so well.
It is important to recognize what this book is not: It is not a systematic discussion of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. It is not a survey of all the texts that may support this doctrine. Nor is it a defense of any particular version of substitutionary atonement, such as penal substitutionary atonement. It is certainly not an attempt to assert substitutionary atonement as the only or even the chief theory of the atonement.
What Gathercole does aim to do is to provide evidence, based primarily on two Pauline passages, that substitution is one biblical and valid way of understanding Christ’s cross-work.
Defending Substitution is based on several lectures given by Gathercole, but it reads very well as a book. Here is the table of contents:
The Importance of Substitution
Defining Substitution: Christ in Our Place
Criticisms of Substitution
1. Exegetical Challenges to Substitution
The Tübingen Understanding of Representative “Place-Taking”
Interchange in Christ
The Omission or Downplaying of “Sins”
2. “Christ Died for Our Sins according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3)
The Importance of 1 Corinthians 15:3-4
“According to the Scriptures”
Substitution in 1 Corinthians 15:3
Excursus: An Objection—Why, Then, Do Christians Still Die?
3. The Vicarious Death of Christ and Classical Parallels (Rom. 5:6-8)
The Translation of Romans 5:6-8
A Sketch of the Exegesis
Vicarious Deaths in Classical Tradition
The Comparison in Romans 5:6-8
Index of Subjects
Index of Authors
Index of Scripture and Other Ancient Sources
In the Introduction, Gathercole defines substitution as “Christ’s death in our place, instead of us… He did something, underwent something, so we did not—and never will—have to” (pp. 15-16). He carefully emphasizes scope and aims of his study:
The matter of what precisely it was that Christ bore in our stead will not be treated here… Substitution is logically distinguishable from related concepts such as penalty, representation, expiation, and propitiation… The investigation here is to be focused not on these other themes but quite narrowly and specifically on substitution… To repeat…, the aim here is not to say that Scripture teaches substitution rather than representation but to say that both are important parts of biblical teaching. (pp. 18-23)
Despite not focusing on penal substitution, Gathercole does provide three helpful responses to those who say that this doctrine makes Jesus the victim of “cosmic child abuse”: “First, such theological criticisms neglect the obvious fact that the death of Christ is not that of a third party but is the ‘self-substitution of God’… Second, …Jesus offers himself as a sacrifice in line with his own will… Third, …a response can also be offered that is more subjective but… certainly no more subjective” than the caricatures of “certain atonement theories as cruel, violent, unjust, and the like”: “this is not how millions of Christians over the centuries have experienced such teaching.” Indeed, criticism of penal substitution seem to come more from academia than from “the world’s lay Christians” (pp. 24-25).
In Chapter One, Gathercole responds to three atonement theories which aim to leave no room for substitution. The “Tübingen understanding of representative ‘place-taking’” (popular in parts of Germany) draws on a particular interpretation of Levitical sacrifices to assert that “when Christ dies, all die with him” (p. 36). A second theory, promoted by Morna Hooker, “considers substitution to be not only un-Pauline but actually something criticized by Paul” (p. 38). “Paul’s understanding of the process is therefore one of participation, not substitution; it is a sharing of experience, not an exchange. Christ is identified with us in order that—in him—we might share in what he is” (Hooker as quoted by Gathercole, pp. 40-41). A third theory, popular particularly in North America, is “apocalyptic deliverance.” This view, associated with scholars such as J. Louis Martyn, asserts that it was Paul’s opponents who emphasized that Christ died to provide forgiveness. For Paul, in contrast, “the human plight consists fundamentally of enslavement to supra-human powers; and God’s redemptive act is his deed of liberation” (Martyn as quoted by Gathercole, p. 44).
Graciously, Gathercole finds much of value in all three theories. (So did I.) But he faults each on several points, and all for downplaying the problem of sins (individual acts of evil), as opposed to Sin (singular, evil personified). He presents abundant evidence to show that sins were a frequent and important focus of Paul’s writings.
Chapter Two takes a refreshingly positive turn, with its constructive exegesis of 1 Corinthians 15:3. “Dying for sins,” Gathercole notes, is not the same thing as “dying for us” (p. 55). “The aim of this chapter, then, is to examine Paul’s theology of the atonement through the lens of the words ‘Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures’” (pp. 56-57). After demonstrating the importance of his chosen text, Gathercole assembles impressive linguistic evidence that Paul is alluding to Isaiah 53 in 1 Corinthians 15:3. This is important because “vicariousness—in the sense of exclusive substitution—is clearly present in the Hebrew text” and Greek versions of Isaiah 53 (p. 68). Multiple OT texts present a norm that forbids substitution (Num. 27:3; Deut. 24:16; Josh. 22:20; 1Kings 16:18-19; Jer. 31:30). “In this sense,” Gathercole observes, “Christ’s death is not according to the Scriptures” (p. 71). But Isaiah 53 turns the OT norm on its head, describing salvation being achieved through an innocent individual bearing the sins of others. “The default Old Testament position would be ‘he died for his sins’ or ‘we died for our sins.’ The miracle of the gospel, however, is that he died for our sins” (p. 73). Paul’s allusion to Isaiah 53 suggests that he understands Christ’s work as being, like the Servant’s, substitutionary.
In a brief excursus Gathercole explains why, if Christ died for us, believers still die. He suggests that Paul writes about death in four ways: (1) the physical death of believers, which he often “undermines” by language like “falling asleep”; (2) “the death to sin and burial in baptism that occurs in Christian initiation”; (3) the death of unbelievers, the penalty for sin and living according to the flesh, which Paul describes without softening, using language like “perish”; (4) the death of Jesus, which Paul never softens with terms like “falling asleep,” nor finalizes with terms like “perishing.” “The main point to conclude is that believers do still go on to die death #1 above but will not ‘perish’ (#3 above)… Christ has undergone a death like death #3 above to save us from death #3; therefore death #1 is not nearly so serious—it is a mere falling asleep” (pp. 80-83).
In Chapter Three, Gathercole asks what examples Paul might have had in mind when he writes that “for a good person someone might perhaps even dare to die” (Rom. 5:6-8). He concludes that “the most natural link in Romans 5 is with examples of vicarious death in classical texts (broadly understood). There are a number of such classical works… where this same substitutionary language is used” (p. 90). The most prominent of such classical examples is Alcestis, who was referenced by writers spanning a time from Euripides (c. 438 B.C.) to the second century A.D. and beyond. The story of Alcestis was part of common culture in Paul’s day: “An exact contemporary of Paul, the philosopher Musonius Rufus, uses Alcestis” as a positive example (p. 96). There are interesting parallels between accounts of Alcestis and Paul’s language in Romans 5 and elsewhere: classical writers said that Alcestis “dared” to die “on behalf of,” “in place of,” or “instead of” her husband, who is described as a “good” man. Other substitutionary deaths are described by classical philosopher and writers, but they are understood to be rare (cf. Paul’s “one will scarcely die… perhaps… one would even dare to die”), occurring only in the contexts of conjugal love, the institution of friendship, and family ties. “Paul sees that there is common ground between these pagan instances and the death of Christ”but “for Paul the differences are more striking than the similarities,” for Jesus dies for “the ungodly… sinners… enemies” (p. 104). Yet the core similarity remains: in these classical examples, “the death ‘for’ another is not merely a death ‘for the benefit of’ another—‘for their sake’ in a general sense. Nor is it death with them. Rather, it is… a death that averts death” (pp. 106-107). Thus Paul’s apparent allusion to these classical examples supports the conclusion that he sees Christ’s death as being substitutionary.
I find little to fault in Gathercole’s book. A few times I wondered if there was a bit of slippage in his logic, with him (a) proving that Paul was interested in our need for forgiveness for individual sins and then (b) using that evidence as proof that Paul believed in a specifically substitutionary atonement. But might not representation also be—at least theoretically—a solution for the problem of sins, with us dying with Christ for our sins (rather than he dying for our sins)? But this tentative critique is peripheral to Gathercole’s main arguments.
This book left me hungry for more. Other texts should be tested for substitutionary theology (Rom. 4:25; Gal. 1:4; 2:20; Heb. 2:9; etc.), and I would like to read an equally careful defense of a specifically penal substitutionary atonement. Butwhat I liked best about this book—besides the excellent exegesis of its two main texts—was Gathercole’s repeated insistence that we allow for the NT’s multiple images of the atonement.
Let me end as Gathercole himself ends:
The choice between salvation as dealing with both ‘trespasses’ or ‘debts’ (plural) and with liberation from the power of (the) evil (one) was a choice apparently not faced by Jesus in his formulations of the Lord’s Prayer. Similarly, we need not be forced to opt either for Jesus’s substitutionary death, in which he deals with sins, or for a representative or liberative death, in which he deals with the power of evil. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder! (pp. 112-13)
Gathercole achieves his goals well in this book. I give it 4.5 out of 5 stars.
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