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A searching look at ‘the gospel’

What exactly is the ‘gospel’ we preach? This book argues that the Calvinistic version, based on penal substitution, in which Jesus suffers to appease God’s wrath against sin, is not what it’s about. He reckons that this ‘gospel’ needs healing. His book is: Healing The Gospel: A Radical Vision for Grace, Justice and the Cross by Derek Flood (Cascade Books, 2012).   

The author reckons we have become so wedded to the idea of ‘justice’ as punitive that we overlook the teaching of the NT that God’s justice is in fact restorative. It mends and heals; it puts things and people right. He makes a strong case for the Christus Victor view of the atonement and shows how this slant on divine justice fits it perfectly.

His treatment is anything but superficial. But while he looks closely at Hebrew and Greek terms in dealing with key Bible passages, he is always anxious to keep the bigger picture of biblical teaching in view. He looks in detail, for example, at Isaiah 53 and Paul’s arguments about justice in Romans, but is all the time referring back to the broader canvas on which these are just some of the brush-strokes.

He draws on the insights of several other writers, including Walter Wink and René Girard and ends up making a case for a ‘gospel’ that is far more warm and appealing than the Calvinistic variety, emphasising God’s kenotic love and his purpose to put everything right rather than just to forgive an individual’s personal sins.

If you are among the many evangelicals today who are taking a fresh look at what the essential gospel is all about, this is one book you should not miss.

[Note: the numbers are not page numbers but Kindle location numbers]

For centuries, the assumption of punitive justice has saturated nearly every segment of our Western society—shaping how we approached child rearing, education, mental health, and of course our criminal justice system.  (192)

God wants to be lenient, but justice requires punishment. So Jesus is punished in our place, fulfilling the demands of justice and appeasing God’s anger. What I want to propose is that the above is not at all what the Bible teaches, and instead is the result of people projecting their worldly understanding of punitive justice onto the biblical text. The New Testament, in contrast, is actually a critique of punitive justice. It presents it as a problem to be solved, not as the means to the solution.  (224)

Paul’s religious audience believed that if God was just, God would punish. Paul instead says that God is “just and the one who justifies sinners” (v. 26). In other words, God is indeed just and demonstrates this by making sinners whole again. Justice does not come through punishment and violence, but through restoration.  (322)

One does indeed find the idea of retributive justice in the Bible. In fact, this was precisely how Paul had read his Bible before he encountered Christ. Before his conversion, Paul had read his Bible and concluded that he should commit violence in God’s name. He was convinced that justice comes through punishment, and saw himself as an agent of that. After his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul completely reassessed how to understand scripture, leading him to a radically different understanding focused on God’s way of restorative justice in Christ. Now Paul is trying to get his readers to see that, too.  (374)

What we see throughout the Gospels is a confrontation between faith that works to bring life [Jesus], and faith that crushes life [the Pharisees]. As we saw in the last chapter, this same type of toxic religion is alive and well today in our own churches. And it is crushing people today just as it did then.  (402)

Our problem is not only the bad things we do, but also the bad things we suffer from others, and from our broken world full of sickness and tragedy. We need to have a model of salvation that can speak to all of these issues, rather than one that is limited to an understanding of our human problem solely focused on transgression.  (467)

The guiding metaphor we need to adopt in order to understand the depths of our human brokenness and the scope of salvation in Christ is therefore one of sin as sickness, rather than sin as crime. That is, sin (hurtful behaviors) are merely a symptom of a much larger problem which requires healing rather than punishment…  this deeper understanding of sin as sickness rather than as crime is not in conflict with a biblical understanding. On the contrary, it is precisely what the New Testament teaches.  (485)

Because the legal framework of penal substitution has so saturated our understanding of atonement, there is a tendency to “map” a punitive legal framework onto everything we read in the Bible. When we first begin to see that the New Testament model of salvation is one of restorative justice it can take some time to re-think how we understand concepts like sacrifice, ransom, being saved, Christ dying for sinners, and so on in that light.  (641)

“I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.” This statement is crucial for us to hear because of the popular misconception that the saying “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” in Hebrews 9:22 means that God needs blood in order to be able to forgive, as if it were some sort of legal requirement.  (683)

Propitiation comes through expiation. That is, wrath is turned away (propitiation) because God cleanses and removes our sin (expiation), thus removing the cause of wrath. We are healed of our sin-sickness, and consequently given a clean bill of health. This sequence is reversed in penal substitution: There the sacrifice first makes God favorable to us (propitiation) because it satisfies God’s anger to have someone punished. Once we are in good standing with God, we can then be cleansed (expiation) because God is now willing to act favorably towards us.  (695)

It is God in Christ who both provides and is the sacrifice. God in Christ becomes the sacrifice through the cross. So even if any of the Gentile converts in the early days of the church were to understand the sacrifice of Christ based on their own pagan understandings of appeasing or placating the anger of the gods, that idea of appeasement is turned on its head since you can no more appease or bribe yourself than you can steal from yourself.  (765)

The Christus Victor theology fell out of favor, not because of intrinsic inadequacies, but because it was subversive to the church’s role as a state religion. The church no longer saw the demonic as lodged in the empire, but in the empire’s enemies. Atonement became a highly individualized transaction between the believer and God; society was assumed to be Christian, so the idea that the work of Christ entails the radical critique of society was largely abandoned.  (810)

In the Latin punitive model the reason the Messiah came was to pay a penalty. In the restorative model the reason the Messiah came was to liberate and restore. In the punitive model the reason the Messiah needed to be sinless is to present a perfect offering. In the restorative model the reason the Messiah needed to be sinless is to present a model of God’s heart (Christ’s nature) and values (Christ’s Kingdom). In the punitive model the reason the Messiah had to suffer is to appease authority. In the restorative model the reason the Messiah had to suffer is to free us from the grip of false authority—to liberate us from sin, death, and the devil.  (834)

All too often, the ministry and teaching of Jesus have been seen by proponents of penal substitution as something to fast-forward through so we can get to the cross.  (932)

The dramatic struggle described by the Christus Victor view address very real things—the reality of radical evil, the debilitating effects of oppression on the human heart, abusive authority’s crippling impact on our self-image, and structural evil which holds people in cycles of poverty, racism, abuse, and injustice.  (1037)

The problem with Packer’s view (which is typical of conservative Reformed theology in general) is that the New Testament concepts of fallenness, bondage, and the satanic are all left out of his understanding of sin. The sole players are reduced to man and God, and sin is conceptualized solely in terms of individual transgression. As a result, he is compelled to conclude that feelings of self-loathing must be God’s will.  (1092)

This tension between culpability and bondage found in scripture is often missed—conservatives emphasizing one side and liberals the other.  (1189)

While penal substitution focuses almost exclusively on our individual salvation, Christus Victor understands our salvation within the larger picture of a cosmic victory over evil. It is about our healing, and the healing of our world.  (1199)

I prefer to use the term “vicarious suffering,” which has come to imply that Christ died “for us,” as opposed to “substitution,” which in contrast is associated with penal substitution and thus taken to mean that Christ died “instead of us.”  (1291)

The context of Isaiah 53 makes it quite clear that the punishment—the painful consequence that the Servant endures—is undeserved and unjust. It is a miscarriage of justice, not its fulfillment. Again, this mirrors what we find in the Gospels, where the death of Jesus is likewise portrayed as a miscarriage of justice.  (1517)

While in a legal context it is simply unheard of for the innocent to be punished in the place of the guilty, in a relational context it is often the case that the innocent bear the weight of the sins of the guilty out of love.  (1583)

Commenting on Philippians 2:5–11, Morna Hooker writes, Christ did not cease to be “in the form of God” when he took the form of a slave. On the contrary, it is in his self-emptying and humiliation that he reveals what God is like, and it is through his taking the form of a slave that we see “the form of God.”  (1698)

Jesus does not call us to love suffering, but rather to love those who suffer, and consequently to live vulnerably in solidarity with them, in order to alleviate and end suffering by overcoming evil with grace. Sharing in the sufferings of Christ means joining him in radically loving others, especially the least.  (1931)

It is not the appeasement of God’s wrath that allows God to forgive; it is the healing of our sin-stained hearts that removes the cause of God’s righteous anger.  (2400)

[I have reviewed another book by Derek Flood, Disarming Scripture, here]

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