What good does a dying God do?

September 9, 2007 at 12:13 am 12 comments

The question at issue in this post: What good does it do us for Jesus to die on our behalf?

shadesofgrace.jpgTo clarify the question, let me first quote a paragraph on the relationship between sin and death from Ty Gibson’s book Shades of Grace:

The problem with sin is that it is wrong, actually, essentially, inherently wrong. And it is wrong for good reason, not just because the One in charge doesn’t like it. To be sure, God does not like sin, but He doesn’t like it because of what it does to its victims, not because He is a picky control freak who decided to come up with a list of arbitrary rules to keep us under His thumb. Sin, by its very nature, is anti-life. It is intrinsically destructive. Hence the Bible calls it “the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2). It is a law because it is a cause whose effect is death.

As Gibson notes, there is a strong sowing and reaping principle associated with sin and death in the Bible. Consider these verses:

  • A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life (Gal. 6:7-8).
  • Sin . . . leads to death. . . . What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:16, 21-23).
  • Sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death (James 1:15; cf. Romans 8:6, 13; Proverbs 8:36).

cross.jpgAs Gibson notes, “All these Scriptures portray an organic relationship between sin and death.”

In other words, the connection between sin and death is inherent. It is not simply that God imposes an extrinsic punishment on human sin; rather, sin itself kills us from within, like a cancer.

But if sin is like a cancer, the trouble is that no amount of substitutionary dying for a cancer patient will save that patient, for the death comes from within the patient’s own body. It does not make sense to suppose someone could die the cancer patient’s death in his stead.

So, if our sin is indeed like a cancer, what good does it do us to have a good man–or even a God-man–die in our stead?

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Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

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12 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Matthew  |  September 9, 2007 at 2:01 pm

    You and I both admit that we scarcely understand the dynamics of sin. We are limited to pathetic analogies and vague comparisons to dumb down the truth to our level. Sin is so massive and involved in every mental and biological process that it is impossible to define even a corner of it through one analogy. I agree with everything you’ve written above, but I hasten to err on the side of our own ignorance.

    God obviously sees sin as a thing he is both able and willing to cure. How sin is curable I do not know. We do know that the origin of sin is in heaven with Lucifer and that, while it did not previously exist, the option of sin always existed. Rest assured, only God sees sin as a disease. I am sure Satan would label it as the seeds of freedom or whatever.

    Because sin is rebellion against God (and that rebellion is a disease?), God has made a way to restore repentant rebels to Him. But his law had been broken and his authority questioned. This is where the moral influence theory comes in, I think, that Abelard championed. God died to show us that the charges were untrue. Point taken.

    But still it must be more? Proving to all that the Law could be kept only refuted Satan’s charges; it did nothing to restore the rebels. Here we see in the OT that in some way it was possible for sin to be put on one who would bear the punishment of breaking the law. I don’t know how or why it works that way; it just does. Presidents here can give pardons for any offense. But true justice does not work that way. Mercy can only be given if the Law is satisfied.

    The act of dying in our place is not the hard thing to understand. The hard thing to understand is how he managed to transfer sin to Himself. The Bible says that “He became sin for us.” He literally took all our sin and became us…so in that sense he wasn’t just some innocent bystander who happened to be noble enough to take our place on the gallows. He WAS us, everything we had done, etc.

    Now, the next question is: Why did it have to be God that died for us?

    Reply
  • 2. Jamie  |  September 10, 2007 at 8:56 pm

    Matthew: Here we see in the OT that in some way it was possible for sin to be put on one who would bear the punishment of breaking the law.

    The NT says that sin is the transgression of the law, and this is consistent with the usage of the term in the rest of the Bible. So sin is an action, not an object. Apparently, then, when the Bible speaks of sin as if it is transferable, the statements are meant metaphorically, because it doesn’t exactly make sense to say that sin (an action) could actually be transferred.

    So my question remains: If sin is a cancer, and if it isn’t transferable, what good does a dying God do? I’m not doubting that Jesus’ death is salvific; I’m just interested in why–and how–it is salvific.

    Presidents here can give pardons for any offense. But true justice does not work that way. Mercy can only be given if the Law is satisfied.

    What do you think of Ty Gibson’s statement that “[sin] is a law because it is a cause whose effect is death”? If understood in this sense, it is true that God’s “law” has been broken, but it’s not a legal problem. If the law of sin is a natural law like gravity rather than a juridical issue like speed limits, then it is unintelligible to say that one could “satisfy” this law of sin that has been broken. One cannot “satisfy” this law anymore than one can “satisfy” cancer: sin, like cancer, is only “satisfied once the patient is dead.

    Anyway, I have no point to prove at the moment. I raise these questions simply for the purpose of provoking more thought (not least in myself) on exactly what Christ’s death accomplishes and why it is significant.

    Reply
  • 3. Stephen  |  September 11, 2007 at 8:01 am

    You are perhaps aware that no Church council ever provided an “official” ruling on the question you’re raising: how Jesus’ death rescues us from the consequences of our sins.

    There are three main atonement theories: they are neatly outlined in John Stott’s book, The Cross of Christ. You allude to one of them above, that Christ’s death provided a “satisfaction” for sin.

    I have a few thoughts. First, there is a very ancient view (superstition?) that sin disrupts the harmony of the cosmos. An unavenged murder or a hidden sin (like Achan’s) leaves the invisible universe roiled somehow in a way that brings about destructive consequences. The way to set things right is to execute justice.

    Here justice is understood as ensuring that the perpetrator of the sin receives the punishment that is due to him or her. Then the spirit world will be set back in harmony, and the potential destructive consequences will be averted.

    That view may sound unbiblical, but in any event it continues to inform our notions of crime and punishment today. We are made vaguely uneasy if a crime is allowed to go unpunished, or it is punished too leniently. From this perspective, punishment has nothing to do with rehabilitation. It’s just a matter of seeing that “justice” is done. We have a deep-seated psychological need for it.

    From that perspective, Jesus might have died to somehow restore harmony to the cosmos. This approach may fit your notion of death as an organic consequence of sin: i.e., a consequence which follows as a kind of natural law built into the fibre of the cosmos.

    Second thought: you skew the question by arguing first that sin is organic. Is there no sense in which God wills the punishment of sinners? Think of Romans 1, for example, where Paul asserts that sin elicits a wrathful response from God.

    I don’t think these options are mutually exclusive: they could both be true. Christ’s death could therefore be (at least in part) a propitiation of God’s wrath. The danger here is that we might describe this transaction in ways which depict God as savage or bloodthirsty. I believe Stott cautions us against making that mistake, but I may be thinking of one of his other books.

    Third: you and I have spoken before about the idea of salvation through a mystical union with Christ. On this analysis, Christ died in order to share death with us mortals. The believer’s death is somehow, mystically identified with the death of Christ, and thereby we also share in his resurrection to new life.

    On that analysis, Jesus didn’t die to propitiate God’s wrath, or to restore the harmony of the cosmos (i.e. fulfill the demands of justice); he died in order to blaze a trail through death to resurrection.

    It isn’t entirely satisfactory, however, because he could just as well have died of old age. There is surely some significance to the fact that Jesus died as a condemned criminal.

    My three options don’t correspond to the three main atonement theories, btw — it’s just my musings. I only mentioned Stott’s book as a resource you might want to explore, though I don’t think it will resolve the question to your satisfaction.
    😉

    Reply
  • 4. Jamie  |  September 12, 2007 at 9:48 pm

    Stephen: We are made vaguely uneasy if a crime is allowed to go unpunished, or it is punished too leniently. From this perspective, punishment has nothing to do with rehabilitation. It’s just a matter of seeing that “justice” is done.

    What you’ve said here is precisely my problem with the idea of satisfaction or propitiation, etc.: those views do nothing to connect punishment with rehabilitation. The punishment is just some sort of vengeance. That is not very consistent with the fact that the Bible elsewhere seems very interested in rehabilitation of the sinner.

    From that perspective, Jesus might have died to somehow restore harmony to the cosmos. This approach may fit your notion of death as an organic consequence of sin: i.e., a consequence which follows as a kind of natural law built into the fibre of the cosmos.

    I think there is some truth to this, but why would Jesus’ death restore order? And more importantly, how would it solve the problem that we are fallen?

    Second thought: you skew the question by arguing first that sin is organic. Is there no sense in which God wills the punishment of sinners?

    Yes, but I think it’s probably in the same sense God wills the “punishment” of the person who jumps off a 10-story building. The punishment itself comes from gravity, but does God will gravity to work? Sure.

    Since you mentioned Romans 1, note vs. 24, 26, and 28, which all say that God “gave them [sinners] up” to the consequences of their deeds. Romans 1 is a little problematic for me because it does, as you point out, discuss God’s wrath, but the language in all three of these verses is somewhat passive: God didn’t punish, per se, but simply “gave people up” to their own choices.

    Christ’s death could therefore be (at least in part) a propitiation of God’s wrath.

    In a sense, perhaps. But it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to say that God undertook to propitiate his own wrath. The obvious question is why?

    Third: you and I have spoken before about the idea of salvation through a mystical union with Christ. On this analysis, Christ died in order to share death with us mortals. The believer’s death is somehow, mystically identified with the death of Christ, and thereby we also share in his resurrection to new life.

    Of the three you mentioned, this one is the idea that is most interesting to me. As soon as I can get around to it, I’m posting more on that topic.

    Reply
  • 5. Stephen (aka Q)  |  September 13, 2007 at 3:28 pm

    An additional thought: you might give some consideration to Adam christology. The idea is, Jesus recapitulated Adam’s history; except, where Adam was disobedient (resulting in death — not for Adam alone, but for also Adam’s descendants), Jesus was obedient (resulting in life — not for Jesus alone, but also for Jesus’ disciples).

    On that view, Jesus died, in part, because he had to share in fallen Adam’s fate. As if he were a sinner — though he himself was without sin.

    And he died, in part, in order to test his obedience to the max. He humbled himself (submitted to God’s will) unto death, even death on a cross.

    Both the “why” and the “how” are thus answered, no? Someone had to reverse the history of Adam’s disobedience (this is the how) in order to set the cosmos right again (this is the why).

    Reply
  • 6. Charles Churchill  |  September 14, 2007 at 11:39 am

    There is also the greater question, namely was Adam’s just like Christ, born to die? I find it hard to believe that he wasn’t. If Jesus Christ’s earthly existence could be so determined, why is it any less insulting to think that Adam’s could be?

    Looking at Christ’s death as if it was a thought-up solution to the problem of Adam’s sin is like suggesting that a man who designs a battery-operated toy did so without understanding before the fact it’s need for a battery.

    If that makes sense.

    Reply
  • 7. doclucio  |  September 15, 2007 at 8:43 pm

    doclucio.wordpress.com

    Yeah, I caved 🙂

    Reply
  • 8. Jamie  |  September 15, 2007 at 9:11 pm

    Stephen: Someone had to reverse the history of Adam’s disobedience (this is the how) in order to set the cosmos right again (this is the why).

    I agree. But it is still a little less than obvious why someone reversing Adam’s disobedience sets the cosmos right again. I mean, how does that act reverse all the effects of sin in this world? It’s the details that I’m curious about.

    Charles: There is also the greater question, namely was Adam’s just like Christ, born to die? I find it hard to believe that he wasn’t.

    I guess this comes down to our presuppositions, and we kind of know how those fall. 😉 My basic reason for thinking that Christ was born to die while Adam was not is that Adam’s sin and subsequent death contradicted the plan for which God created him, whereas Christ’s death did not. Thus it makes sense that Christ was born to die, whereas it does not make sense to say the same of Adam.

    Doc Lucio: Looks promising. 🙂

    Reply
  • 9. Melanie Stefin  |  October 1, 2007 at 8:07 pm

    Holy Moly Macroni, I think most of you are confused about sin. This is how sin kills. Say you hate people and in life you kill 12 innocent people. Your a sinner. The cops never catch you. You die, God passes judgment on you, this is where sin kills. You die a second time. Your just gone. Or your in Hell. This is how sin kills. Jamie above, Yes Jesus loves you but, I have never seen anyone so confused as you.

    Reply
  • 10. Melanie Stefin  |  October 1, 2007 at 8:15 pm

    Charles above is also confused. batteries? First life on earth is not the show. You are here just long enought to learn what you need to learn. You haven’t been born yet. Your still a child in Gods eyes. Life on Earth gets borning to a point. You then move on to the next life. First your born, you go to school, graduate, get married, have children, people around you die, shit happens, your chidren leave home, you retire, along the way you figured a few things out, you get sick, you recover, death. Heck you were just about ready to die anyway. Did you life have meaning, you bet sa, you learned a lot. Now it is Judgment Day. Lets see how well you did.

    Reply
  • 11. Melanie Stefin  |  October 1, 2007 at 8:27 pm

    Stephen, Jesus did not die for Adams sin. Adam had an apple. I have a apple a day. Do I sin daily or am I taking care of my health. Really , why would Jesus have to die for anyones sin. Jesus died because the Romans were cruel. Extremely cruel. The lesson is that people became so cruel that they killed the lord Jesus Christ on the Cross. The Romans were the most dispicable cruel arogant race ever. Jesus didn’t die for Adams sin, he died because the Romans thought they were better than any one else. That is the lesson. Don’t ever think that your better or smarter than God. When you think and do that , that is when you die on Judgment Day.

    Reply
  • 12. Melanie Stefin  |  October 1, 2007 at 8:33 pm

    When Jesus died, he is the first to be born. He didn’t die for anyones sin. That does not make sense. Jesus is just an example to all of us that we also will be born again. Jesus was ressurected. Jesus is first. God would not make his son suffer for the sins of Adam. That is nonsense. Some times I get so mad at the Church for saying things like that. Idiots.

    Reply

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profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

Email me: jamie.kiley@gmail.com

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