Christ & His Propitiation for Cosmic Liberty

Christ & His Propitiation for Cosmic Liberty

Ralph Blair

The Christ hymn that Paul passed on to Colossians affirms that, in Christ, everything in the heavens and on earth was brought into being. Then, there’s this striking parallel: in Christ, everything on earth and in the heavens was brought into reconciliation with God. From heaven to earth, Christ brought forth what’s needed for life; from earth to heaven, Christ brought forth what’s needed for liberty from sin and death, what’s needed for new birth, new life.

According to the Talmud, “All beginnings are arduous.” And, as in the chaos of the Big Bang’s birth pangs, indeed, as in all births, the new birth, too, began in a bloody mess, for this new birth into liberty was brought forth in the bloodshed at Christ’s cross. (Col 1:19-20)

The blood of Christ is at the crux of the Good News. And so is his bodily resurrection. Without his blood poured out on the cross and without God’s raising him to resurrection life over death, there’s no Good News.

Says the Torah, it’s blood that’s required for atonement (Lev 17:11) and the book of Hebrews acknowledges: Without the shedding of blood there’s no forgiveness. (Heb 9:22) Bloodshed shows how very serious a matter sin is.

So, the night before his bloody crucifixion, Jesus took a cup of wine, gave thanks, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, shed for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matt 26:27f) These words were, no doubt, distracting, distressing and disgusting to his disciples, and for more reasons than one. Jesus was inviting these men who, all their lives, had avoided any ingesting of blood, to drink what he was calling his “blood” and, in that, was alerting them to his imminent death.

Well, for people today, too, mention of Jesus’ blood can still be distracting, distressing and, yes, even disgusting – although for very different reasons. In proudly “progressive” congregations there’s little if any mention of his blood. Liberal Protestants boast that they’re not into all that “outdated bloody stuff.” They say they’re just following Jesus’ example of non-judgmentalism. But our desperate need is for a Savior from sin, not a sample to simulate.

Still, there are everyday reminders of that blood: in Methodists’ grape juice and in Anglicans’ wine, red streaks on a crucifix and that old hymn’s pride, “There’s pow’r, pow’r, wonder-working pow’r in the precious blood of the Lamb.” Oh, wait, that song was torn out of most “mainline” hymnals long ago.

The blood of the Lamb! His shed blood was what it cost God to reconcile us to Himself. And God, in Christ, paid that price. As Paul told Corinthians: God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not counting their sin against them. (II Cor 5:19) That’s quite a statement! In fact, even to try to begin to come to grips with what that can mean, should knock us to our knees in awe.

Yet, how many people really give a damn for the Lamb who bled through damnation for them? How much do our daily priorities evidence that we give a damn that God’s Lamb laid down his life for us? Who, today, knows the relief from fear, and the joy, the unspeakable gratitude over God’s being “pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [Christ], and through him, to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, making peace through his blood shed on the cross”? (Col 1:20)

Self-avowed “progressive” clerics pretend that Jesus was merely a martyr to be admired while they disdain and denounce as “divine child abuse” the biblical message of the cross. Their postmodernist rants refuse to recognize that Jesus was, himself, God in flesh and blood. They fail to see the plain, biblical truth expressed succinctly by Leonard Hodgson, Oxford Regius Professor of Divinity: “In Jesus Christ the punisher and the punished are one.”

Paul stated: “We are convinced that one died for all, therefore all died.” (II Cor 5:14) Seems straightforward, doesn’t it? Yet it’s been hard for some conservative Christians to take Paul’s statement at face value. And, indeed, there is a tension between what Paul says here and elsewhere, and what we find, say, in Matthew 25 on sheep and goats. Nonetheless, Paul’s Greek tense in “died,” indeed points to that awful day on Christ’s cross and “for,” means “instead of,” “in place of” and “on behalf of.” Paul tells Galatians: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for or instead of us. (Gal 3:13) So, since Christ died instead of “all,” the reasonable conclusion is that “all” can be said to have died right there. He’s, of course, not talking about the physical deaths of “all.” But his logic is that, as Christ paid the debt of deepest death that we all owed for our sin – in Christ’s taking our place, dying in our stead – indeed, we did die in him. The point is that there can be no double jeopardy – universally recognized as an injustice in ancient Greek and Roman law, Hebrew scripture (Deut 25:2), the Talmud, the canons of the early church, English common law and enshrined in our own 5th Amendment, not to mention any little kid’s sense of what’s fair.

An old spiritual asks: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” We dutifully, even piously, reply: Yes, I was there with the mockers and those who drove the nails. We sure were. And yet, we were there, not only around his cross, mocking him, but we were up there on his cross, in his crushed heart and on his anguished mind. And our blood was mingled with his blood, for he was dying our death in our place. But we were oblivious to where we were, because up there, in him, we felt nothing.

Sociologist Christian Smith summarizes a common creed among even self-identified evangelical teens these days: “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” – a self-centered worldview where one’s personal happiness is the goal and God is taken for granted as somewhere out there in the background. But this is no more than mere mainstream American culture. It’s not basic Christianity.

An evangelical theologian at Baylor astutely observes: “The best expression of New Testament Christianity always has been and is and always will be resistant to mainstream culture. It will always swim against the cultural stream—until the Kingdom of God arrives in its fullness.” He adds, for example: “The idea that true, New Testament, authentic Christianity ever was ‘at the center’ of American society and cultural life is part of the problem.” (Roger E. Olson) Whether “dead orthodoxy,” “the social gospel,” “works righteousness,” “feel-good” and “prosperity gospels,” obsessively antigay preaching or the postured tolerance of politically correct “interfaith” religion, none of these perversions is New Testament Christianity.

So, clearly, always, we must work our way back from our distractingly contemporary obsessions with “spirituality” fads to biblical basics. Only by doing so, will we get anywhere close to being the serious followers of Christ we’re called to be. We must pay close attention to what Paul told the Colossians. We must do what Jesus’ brother Jude so urgently challenged the earliest Christians to do: “Contend earnestly for the faith that was once and for all entrusted” to Christ’s disciples. (Jude 1:3)

Now, the only reason for Jude’s having to urge such a fight, so very early on, is that, so very early on, God’s free grace at a bloody cross was offensive and resisted by self-righteousness. And it’s still the case.

God’s grace calls for dependence on God alone whereas self– righteousness postures independence from God. We’d rather put God in our debt so as to take credit and control by ourselves. But our credit is bankrupt and our control is nonexistent.

The year before he died, Romaine wrote to a man he addressed as, “My dear friend.” We saw that letter last night. His counsel is as true today, as it was 220 years ago. He said: “I have weighed your case and thought it better to put it down in writing than only to converse with you upon it. – The answer to the question, How shall I know that I am saved – The answer of God is – Whosoever believeth shall be saved. Believing takes in the undertaking of the Saviour & his saving work: you do not doubt of his person, of his ability to save, nor of his willingness, nor of your being a sinner in need of his salvation, nor of your feeling you want it. The Lord Christ shall determine the case Himself – Whosoever cometh unto me shall never perish but shall have everlasting life. You do come to him, if ever sinner did, with the desire & wishes of your heart. And yet you dare not take comfort of his most gracious promise. What hinders? Nothing on God’s part. For he says – ALL things are ready – Come: And he has disposed your heart also to come – yet you stay away – you want something besides Christ, something to carry to him, instead of receiving ALL from him. He must save you freely by grace, just as you are now, with all your complaints: And from his promises & by his Spirit enabling you to rely upon his faithfulness to fulfill them to you, merely to the praise of the glory of his own grace, then you will see, as I do, that you are a saved sinner: And such as you are, you are not only warranted, but commanded expressly to trust and not be afraid. You have as good a title to heaven, as any believer upon earth ever had: And the strongest believer feels just as you do, only he is more delivered from a legal spirit, & brought into the liberty wherewith Jesus Christ alone makes his people free. If you remember I told you – & now repeat it – that I feel in me the very same things. I have attended to all the excuses you make – And every one of them in my view is an encouragement to come, and trust your salvation in the hands of Jesus. You say that you are discouraged by the little advance you have made in the divine life – By your remaining corruptions, by your frequent temptations – by your distractions in prayer – by your little profiting in the scriptures: You think all these things make against you, & many such like workings of your own mind. Now as I am consulted as your physician, I declare that these are true marks of spiritual health. And such as always bring Christ & the sinner together & keep them together. You must come to him for salvation & for everything that accompanies it. Your objections against yourself only show an unwillingness to be saved in God’s way. The only difference is, That he has made me content to be saved thro’ his mercy, and you are not yet quite willing to be beholden to him for grace & glory. May he be pleased to bless my advice – That his promise, his faithfulness, his love, his peace, may be more honored by you everyday: And you may be kept willing to live, or to die, just as he pleases. I send, enclosed with my constant prayers, a little tract which I published many years ago. And it has been blest to several in your case, may it be so to you. I am, with true love, your friend & servant in our common Lord. William Romaine.”

Three years ago, Billy Graham was asked: “What are the most important issues facing evangelicals today?” He replied: “The most important issue we face today is the same the church has faced in every century: Will we give priority to Christ’s command to go into all the world and preach the gospel? Or, will we turn increasingly inward, caught up in our own internal affairs or controversies.” Graham’s reply is about the Good News, without which, we’re dead – not merely flat-lined – we’re deeply dead with no hope of recovery.

Preaching the Good News must be far better than arguing over Calvinism or Arminianism. The Good News is neither gay spirituality nor gay bashing. It’s neither the politics of the Left nor the Right. It’s the truly Good News that gave the Gospel its meaning and power from the very beginning.

Unfortunately, and contrary to Graham’s advisory, his own son and ministry heir gets himself caught up in the Religious Right’s agenda. But Graham’s son-in-law, Tullian Tchividjian, now senior pastor at the PCA congregation founded by the Religious Right’s D. James Kennedy, states perceptively: “For the last 40 years we’ve talked more about what’s going on in our culture than we have preached Christ and him crucified.” Tchividjian faults evangelicals who’ve gotten, as he puts it, “so closely aligned with political ideologies and culture warring issues, [that] what’s been lost is the core good news message of the Christian faith.”

National polls confirm what he fears about the damage that’s been done by the Religious Right and others in misunderstanding and misrepresenting the Gospel and in the self-servingly false image that’s been picked up by secular media as the essence of Christianity. The self-righteous spiritual abuse that’s common in Fundamentalism and in even allegedly more sensitive evangelical circles causes Christian youth – not to mention their secular peers – to turn away in disgust and cynicism from Good News they’ve never yet even heard.

In his 19th-century tome, The Temple, Hebrew Christian Alfred Edersheim saw Christ’s atoning blood sacrifice, as the end of humanity’s long history of blood sacrifices. He wrote: “To sacrifice seems as natural to man as to pray; the one indicates what he feels about himself and the other what he feels about God. The one means a felt need of propitiation, the other a felt sense of dependence.”

Propitiation? That’s a strange word in our world. But it points to something as old as humanity’s sense of sin and guilt. All religious systems of sacrifice set up to appease offended gods are examples of propitiation. They’re bribes to win favor with the gods – everything from do-gooder legalism to suicide bombings. But, biblically, it’s not a bribe. And, biblically, it’s not offered by the offenders. God, the sinned-against, reaches out to sinners and, at the cost of his own deepest sacrifice, reconciles them to himself.

People have always tried to bribe their deities and put them in their debt. But, as these so-called gods have been taken to be capricious, even vicious, trying to sweeten one’s pie with them has always been a nerve-wracking business. And it’s always been self-righteous nonsense.

But YHWH did not need to be cajoled into mercy. He repeatedly took the initiative to overcome the estrangement that our sin sets up between him and us. He prescribed a system of sacrifice to instruct his people in a knowledge of their sin and in thanksgiving for His provision of mercy. All of this was in anticipation of the coming of Christ, God’s own gift of Sacrifice Incarnate. It is explained that, “Atonement in the Old Testament was not the placating of God’s anger, but the sacrament of God’s grace. The sacrifices were in themselves prime acts of obedience.” (P. T. Forsyth)

“Propitiation” comes from “covering,” the mercy seat of the ancient Ark of the Covenant. Until sundown today, it’s Yom Kippur, when, in ancient Israel, the high priest sprinkled blood of an unblemished animal, a substitute for those whose sins were thus covered by that blood. (Rom 3:25; Ex 25:17) It was not a cover-up but God’s prescribed way for dealing with sin and the foreshadowing of the all-sufficient covering to come at Calvary.

The Christ hymn brought to mind – the Lamb of God at Calvary: “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [Christ] and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood shed on the cross.”

Google, “propitiation,” and, even today, you get 800,000 results. Google, “substitutionary atonement,” the term commonly linked with Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, and you’ll get only 171,000. Spell-check doesn’t even recognize the term “substitutionary” – though, ironically, it underlines that word in blood red.

Google, “I’m OK, you’re OK.” 400 million results! Question: Who in an “I’m OK”-world needs a substitutionary atonement? Answer: Everyone who buys into such a pseudo substitute for the substitutionary atonement. It can’t succeed. “I’m OK” is an enemy. Being merely
OK cannot save us from our sin and deepest death.

See, it’s not that we escape a graciously God-given sense of our sin and guilt. We can call our self-righteous posturing whatever we like, but our bragging about being OK is no suitable substitute for Christ’s righteousness. Our false claim can’t fool us and it certainly can’t fool God. In any mere cover-up, we’re all too uncomfortably aware of what we’re doing. A mere cover-up isn’t God’s covering of sin so there’s no clean relief from guilt. Yet, that very sense of our guilt is God’s graciously given clue to us in our need.

Signs of sin and guilt are all around us and inside us. They’re found in thin-skinned accusations such as, “I’m offended!” and defensive mantras such as, “Don’t judge me!” People who think they’re fine “as is” don’t resort to vapid declarations of innocence or wage angry counter offenses. People who think they’re fine “as is” don’t brag, name-drop, name-call, envy, cheat, lie, gossip nor do they obsessively search for affirmation. How much more evidence do we need that there’s a sense of something really wrong with us and we really do believe that there is?

And don’t call it “low self-esteem.” That’s as delusional a diagnosis as was ever conjured or conned. So-called low self-esteem esteems itself totally worth obsessing over. It never esteems others’ low self-esteem worth its obsession. It doesn’t even notice their low self-esteem. And if it does, it revels in it. And, therein, is more evidence of the selfish sinfulness we can’t escape on our own.

But God, in Christ, came to make things right by reconciling us to himself. And, in that supreme act of love and justice on one historic day at Calvary, God did set us free from our sin, our guilt and the punishment of deep death.

After Robin Williams killed himself, his fans flooded social media with sorrow. The most frequent and tear-jerking tweets had to do with the final scene in “Aladdin” where Genie, voiced by Williams, was set free. Earlier in the film, Genie had said: “To be free. Such a thing would be greater than all the magic and all the treasures in all the world.” When, at last, he’s freed, Genie cries out: “I’m history! No, I’m mythology! Nah, I don’t care what I am; I’m free!”

Fans tweeted that Williams, himself, was now free. But, they were criticized for doing so, since it was feared that, even inadvertently, their tweets would encourage copycat suicides.

What I found so sad was that a sappy cartoon fantasy functions as a substitute for those who’re unaware or predisposed against the infinitely more powerful Good News that, in real history and in a real place, in their place on the cross, God was in Christ, liberating the whole human race from the bonds and anguish of sin, guilt, despair and death itself and giving us a whole new life with God.

When Genie burlesques “the Genie gig” to Aladdin, he puffs himself up as “Phenomenal Cosmic Powers!” and then quickly shrinks back into the “itty bitty living space” of an allegedly magic lamp.

The true Story of Phenomenal Cosmic Powers is that they were lovingly laid aside for sacrifice for us in the “itty bitty living space” of the incarnation unto death on a cross. And, unlike Genie’s admitted inability to grant any wish for revival from death, God raised Jesus from the dead and gives to us his eternal life. This is cosmic propitiation for liberty and it’s all in the sacrifice of Christ alone.

Here’s Francis Scott Key’s praise for that truly cosmic liberty that waves far “o’er [this present] land of the free”: “Praise thy Savior God that drew thee to that cross, new life to give, held a blood sealed pardon to thee, bade thee look to Him and live.” Amen!

 

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