Be Holy (whatever that means).

Today marks the beginning of Holy Week.

“Holy” is such a churchy word and, as a result, carries a lot of baggage.  So, let’s start by lightening the load.  Holy means somewhat peculiar, somehow different, something unique, or someone set apart for a special purpose.  This week, then, is different, unique, even peculiar.  And yes, of course, we think that God is in and through all of it.  But we believe that God is in and through every week.  So, there is something special about this week that makes it different.  For Christians, what sets this week apart is what happens at the end and what we learn through that event.

A man named Jesus died on the cross and through that death (and what comes next!) we have come to believe that he is God’s Son.

Jesus’ death is always a hot topic of conversation this time of year as Christians debate what was really happening on and through the cross.  The Reformed tradition has described Jesus’ death with two words:

Penal substitution.

The long and short of it is that God’s justice demands punishment for the sins of humanity (penal).  But, out of God’s great love for us, sent his Son to receive that punishment and satisfy that justice in our place (substitution).  In this view, Jesus had to die so that we could receive God’s mercy.  Honestly, this has never sat very well with me and I know it doesn’t sit well with many people who have left the church. In the extreme, people charge God with divine child abuse.  For me, it offers a narrow view of justice and gives the impression that God requires a sacrifice of death in order to show mercy.  The words themselves sound gross and weird and maybe even sadistic.  But, rather than argue whether it’s right or wrong, let’s look at an alternative view.

We’ve spent the last six weeks at our church talking about what it means to be “washed in his blood” (also gross and weird, but hang with me).  The biggest shift in thinking has been to think about blood as a sign of life and not death (Lev. 17:14).  The difficulty in that shift is that we only see blood when it is coming out of us and that is never a good thing.  If we lose too much blood, we also lose our life.  But that only proves that point.  Blood is life.  For most of our lives blood does amazing, unnoticed things to strengthen and sustain and heal us.  So, I take this to mean that when blood is given to God, what’s being given is a life and not a death.  When we talk about being washed in Jesus’ blood, we’ve talked about being washed in his life, not in his death.

Two books of the Bible lay this out pretty well: I Peter and I John.

I Peter is addressed to those who are “sprinkled with His blood.” (1:1).  Along the way you find words like these:

“For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in his steps.” 2:21

“Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because those who suffer in the flesh have ceased with sin.” 4:1

I John says that the “blood of Jesus, God’s Son, cleanses us from all sin.”  Along the way you find words like these:

“The one who says they abide in Jesus ought to walk in the same manner as he walked.” 2:6

“We know love by this, that Jesus laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” 3:16

The point of all of this is to say that Jesus was a “living sacrifice.”  He lived his life to the point of death.  In other words, he lived a certain kind of life even though it killed him.  That life was devoted to God and rooted in love and sealed on the cross as he shed his blood.  It’s a peculiar thing for someone to endure such misery and pain for others, even his enemies.  I would undoubtedly lay down my life for my wife and kids.  I love them that much.  But how far does that love extend?  Where that love ends, sin begins.  It’s a different kind of person who is willing to die for anyone and everyone.  Unique even.  I’d say it’s holy.  Jesus was set apart by God for a special purpose.  Jesus lived to show us what a holy love looks like and calls us to do the same.  God won’t despise those who are humble enough to admit that Jesus got life right and broken enough to admit they have it wrong (see Psalm 51:17; Isaiah 57:15-16) and God even enjoys helping them to work life out in their own lives (Phil. 2:13).

It’s at this point that someone would say: Well, then Jesus didn’t have to die did he?  Only live.

Except that he did.  He did have to die.

“Through death Jesus rendered him powerless who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and freed those who through their fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.” Hebrews 2:14-15

Someday we’re all going to die and that can be a scary thing.  If this life is all we’ve got then it’s best to make the most of it.  “Eat. Drink. Be merry. Tomorrow we die.”  Death makes us do all kinds of miserable and selfish and short-sighted things.  Even if we don’t acknowledge death daily, it’s out there.  It plays out in all the ways we sacrifice others for the sake of our own comfort and privilege (aka sin).  The devil (insert “evil” if you prefer) uses death to toy with us and bind us up with grief and sadness and pain.  So, Jesus had to die.  Jesus had to die to show us that there was a kind of life that death could not defeat; a kind of life not bound by grief and sadness and pain; a kind of life that was eternal.  He lived that kind of life and God raised him from the dead to prove his power of every enemy of life.  Death is defeated and there is a life the d/evil cannot touch.  Now, try as he might, the d/evil has no hold on me.  I can resist the d/evil and he will flee from me because he has no power to hold over my head.

I’ve seen it in Jesus and the good news is that he’s willing to share.  So I’m grateful for a Savior that would give up all of his comfort and privilege and come into this world and endure all of the pain and hostility in this world and still never give up on this world, so that there could be life in this world; and grateful that he set me free from the d/evil and death and sin and all the things the prevent me from enjoying a life that really is life.

That’s why I eat his body and drink his blood (I know, still gross and weird).  Because blood is life.  I’m tired of death and all of the misery it causes.  But, I’m not afraid of death.  So, I’m going to die a little bit to myself so that Jesus can become a little more alive in me.  I want a taste of life.  Jesus’ abundant life.  His eternal life.  You can taste it too.  There is plenty to go around.

During this holy week, I’m going to try to do something peculiar, something different, something unique.  I’m going to try to be a little more holy like Jesus was holy, loosen my grip on my own life, and give it to God by giving it to others.  I’m not sure what it means for me exactly.  I certainly can’t tell you what it means for you (except that it has nothing to do with chocolate or facebook).  All I know is that Jesus got it right, I’m still working on it (with the help of his Spirit), it entails suffering some discomfort and sacrificing privilege and sharing life with everyone, even enemies.  And, it’s definitely worth it.


18 thoughts on “Be Holy (whatever that means).

  1. And all God’s people said, “Amen!”

    I’ve always struggled with the Penal Substitution theory of atonement. I think maybe it is because it is only one component of it, but it IS a component of it. We can’t get away from it or around it completely, but it isn’t all there is to it. Truthfully, I’m thankful I don’t have to have it all figured out this side of the New Jerusalem!

    I’m going to come back to your post again tomorrow and let the words sink deeper in and guide my into Holy Week. Thank you!

  2. I don’t know that penal substitution does have to be a component of it. I do think that there are a lot of components to what God is doing to reconcile us to himself, but I don’t know that satisfaction and substitution have to be included.

    For example, if Jesus really is the lamb of God, the Passover lamb, then Egypt is the reference. The blood there is not a sign of punishment, but a sign of trust in God’s power to save. Jesus’ blood could be seen in the same way, as a sign of his trust in God’s power to save him even from death. All who “wash themselves in the blood of the Lamb” will be saved in the same way that he was.

    I do think it’s important to acknowledge God’s wrath. Just as it was poured out on a hard-hearted pharaoh when he refused to let God’s people go, I think it will be poured out on those who choose to side with the enemies of life when Jesus returns. But, I don’t think we have to see God’s wrath at the cross.

    At no point in the story does God take pleasure in death, not even the death of the wicked (Ezek. 33:11?). The devil, like pharaoh, does. That’s why God is setting us free.

  3. Peter,

    I’ve wondered myself about “what to do” with penal substitution. I speak as someone who had to completely reform her image of God from an angry, judgmental, impatient, sadistic old guy with a white beard to this “someone” I can’t exactly define, but I do know this: (he) loves me more than I could ever imagine.

    I learned the first image of God from penal substitution because I was taught that God was angry at sin, and so that is why God had to send Jesus to die. Since Jesus was dying for my sin, it followed that God was angry at me and my sin as well.

    I still think that God’s holiness demands some type of payment for sin, and that there isn’t anything wrong with God feeling righteous anger over sin, but at the same time, you can see why I would struggle with the image of God that penal substitution presents.

    I still don’t know quite how to combine the God I NOW know with my acknowledgement that any anger God had at the crucifixion was justified.

  4. Jill, I had to completely reform my image of God, too, and I find myself constantly having to reform it. That’s part of what drew me to the reformed tradition. There is an acknowledgment that we always have to reform ourselves, an acknowledgement that we mess up sometimes and have to re-learn what it all means.

    Peter, thanks for the push back. I want to add that I don’t think the “penal” part of it is necessary at all. The substitution part is somewhat necessary (in my mind, anyway). If you read Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 39-40 (“he took upon himself the curse which lay upon me” and “nothing else could make reparation for our sins except the death of the Son of God), we see a substitutionary atonement theory clearly at play. If Jesus died on the cross as a salvific act, who was that act salvific for? Whose sin was being atoned for? It was not his own, and he was not the one who should’ve been condemned to death, right? If the wages of sin is death, and we deserve death on account of our sin, does Christ not die in our place? That’s the substitution part. I think at least part of that is necessary unless you go more towards a theory of atonement that claims that by living a perfect and sinless life, Jesus acted as the perfect foil to the sinful beginning of Adam and Eve, and was thereby saving the world through his life.

    The tricky part (for me, anyway) with atonement theory is that no one theory really encompasses the totality of what took place. It isn’t just his death, nor is it just his life that save. It is the entirety. Without his sinless life, his death would have been incomplete. And his death is incomplete apart from his resurrection.

    Uh oh…I better be careful. I might start spouting heresy. 😉 Matt vanMaastricht once told me he doesn’t have the spiritual gift of shutting up. I don’t either! *blush*

  5. I really think that who God is and what God does is at stake here. It also seems to me that a punitive view of God has led to very punitive people of God. Rather than try to set people free from their slavery to sin, we are satisfied when they are punished. I don’t think that God is satisfied that way. As a result, I don’t think we should be that way other. But since I see them as related, I don’t think one will change without the other.

    I don’t accept that “nothing else could make reparation for our sins except the death of the Son of God” in the way that it is usually understood. I do believe that we could not be free from sin apart from the death of the Son of God, but I believe that because the Bible says that it’s our fear of death that keeps us enslaved. I think what makes reparation for our sins is true repentance which, in the new covenant, is accepting that true life is found in the life of Jesus, who is God’s Son.

    In the cross,we see the work of a reconciling God, not a punishing God. If we accept that, we’ll be a reconciling people and not a punishing one. Again, a day will come when God will abandon this world and establish a new one free of sin and death. No one who is aligned with them and their misery will get in. But I don’t think we see God doing that in the cross. I think we see God exposing the deadliness of sin and the weakness of death.

    By the love of God and through the grace of Jesus I learn two things. Sin pays with death. God gives a free gift of eternal life. I choose God.

    1. I absolutely agree that our doctrine of God is at stake here. But, we have to remember that if Jesus is God, God suffered for us. God didn’t delight in violence or take some sadistic pleasure in sacrificing a sinless human being. I don’t believe in that kind of a God. I believe in the God who suffered with and for broken humanity. And, I do believe that God could have made another way for our salvation. But, the way that was made was in the form of a cross, and that’s hard for us to accept. I think it is meant to shock us and horrify us, while also humbling us as we realize the lengths our God would go to in order to communicate love to the world.

      1. Peter,

        Could you expound a little bit on what you mean when you say “[it is] our fear of death that keeps us enslaved”? Because while I do agree that Jesus’ death and resurrection freed us from the power of sin, there is a very real sense in which we are STILL under the power of sin, i.e. sin itself keeps us enslaved, which brings death. It is not fear of death only that enslaves us.

        I have always struggled with how Jesus could overcome the power and sting of death, and yet we still live under it, so if you can help me out here, by all means… 🙂

        Also, it’s clear in the Old Testament that animals were sacrificed as a payment for sin, so substitution finds its zenith in Christ, although there was no penal substitution in the animal sacrifices. In a around-about way I’m just trying to say that the people of Israel understood why Jesus had to die when they understood who he was because they had seen sacrifices for sin before.

        I know you believe Jesus died for sin, and was our substitute for it, I’m just throwing another proof into the ring. The cross is meant to shock and horrify us precisely because sin does have a price. And it’s a heavy one.

      2. That (meaning “God suffered for us”) sounds like patripassianism, but I don’t want to get hung up on ancient debates. Suffice it to say that we agree that God goes to great lengths to communicate love to the world.

      3. Jill, I would continue to follow the narrative of God’s people. Once they were set free from Egypt and the power of pharaoh, they had to learn how to live as free people. God gave them a law. Included in that law were prescriptions for sacrifices, the main ones coming once a year on the Day of Atonement. The high priest would present a humbled people before God ready to rededicate themselves to God’s ways. The question for me is, what purpose did the blood serve?

        Long and short, the blood of the animals was a dedication of life (“blood is life”). I think it was a seal of the broken and humble hearts of the people. If it was really about payment, the prophets would never have condemned sacrifices so frequently. As you know, the prophets found true humility in a LIFE of kindness and justice, not in offering the death of animals to God.

        In the same way, once free from our fear of death and the power of the devil, we have to learn to live as free people. The problem is we don’t even know where to start. That’s where Jesus comes in. Unlike high priests of the past he didn’t offer a merely symbolic life, but his own life. His is a life devoted to kindness and justice. His blood on the cross is a seal of that devotion.

        We come to the table (rather than the altar) admitting that we have not left the life of slavery fully behind. But we trust that the life we see in Jesus is a truly free life. We come to the table humble and broken asking for Christ to come alive in us. Unlike the blood of bulls and goats, the blood of Jesus can actually remove sin and give us new life.

        We might never be perfect while we wander around in the wilderness, but we should see less of the old and more of the new as we take in the blood (i.e. life of Jesus) along the way. That said, we don’t believe it requires a certain amount of achievement, but a “broken and contrite heart” seeking God through Jesus Christ (i.e. faith) that God will not despise.

  6. First, thank you Peter for this fantastic post and conversation starter! There may be New Testament passages that have been used to uphold the notion of substitionary atonement. But I think at least in it’s penal/legal/forensic/Anselmian form it is very problematic. For many of the reasons you all have been pointing out: the distorted, abusive image of God it leads to and what peter has laid out about of the images of life in Jesus’ blood. Yet we have become obsessed with death, Jesus’ death and our own and preoccupied with what one means for the other.

    However, I don’t want to throw substitution out with the penal. What I want to do examine and call into question our obsession with the individual: with individual sins, with the death of the individual and me, me, me and my “soul” and where I,I, I, I will go when I die.

    It seems to me, as I think Peter’s post points to, individual “sins” are a result of the power of Sin and Death and creation’s bondage to decay. I think there is a sense in which Jesus sets us free from the powers by being our substitution or at least by doing things on our behalf. Not to appease an angry father figure but out of the abundant love of the triune God’s heart. Matthew’s gospel it seems to me envisions Jesus as a new and better Moses, indeed as the constitution of a new Israel: fleeing to Egypt at birth to escape the corrupt powers that be, surviving and persevering in the desert, ascending up the mountain to give the Law. For Luke Jesus’ roots are traced back to the figureheads for all humanity. And in Pauline tradition all of humanity – indeed all of creation – is being reconstituted in Christ as it died in Adam.

    I know in the Reformed tradition we tend to talk about “union with Christ” as opposed to deification or theosis. But whatever we want to call it, I think when the Church Fathers said Christ indeed assumed humanity that we might become (like) God, it closely echoes the trajectory of the great hymn to Christ in Philippians 2 “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” The passage moves from the incarnation to Christ as the ultimate sacrifice, connecting the incarnation and the crucifixion in a way that shows their inseparable nature.

    I think Reformed soteriology at it’s very best has also done this. It has kept in mind the communal aspects, the new humanity and kept the salvific nature of the incarnation, death and resurrection held tightly together. And at its very best it has also been deeply sacramental, remembering it is by participating in the rights of this new community that we recieve assuring signs and seals that we have died and been made alive with Christ in baptism and made to feast on his spiritual presence in the Supper. These are the chief ways God makes known to us the mystery of the divine will to gather up all things in Christ. This is the way we know we are a part of what is being gathered up and made new!

    Peter’s comment, “That’s why I eat his body and drink his blood… because blood is life” reminds me that it is in Calvin’s discussion of the Eucharist that we get this beautiful image: “This is the wonderful exchange which, out of his measureless benevolence, he has made with us; that, becoming Son of man with us, he has made us sons of God with him; that by his descent to earth, he has prepared an ascent to heaven for us; that by taking on our mortality, he has conferred his immortality upon us; that accepting our weakness, he has strengthened us by his power; that receiving our poverty unto himself, he has transformed his wealth to us; that taking the weight of our iniquity upon himself (which oppressed us), he has clothed us with his righteousness” (Institutes IV, xvii, 2–3). Of course Calvin had his penal/legal/forensic/Anselmian trappings. I say we give him our best historic sympathies, dispose of that part of his soteriology but cling tight to the communal and deeply sacramental aspects with all we’ve got. That’s my long winded $.02 😉

    1. Wayne,

      Thank you for including Calvin’s “wonderful exchange” in this. I actually have “Mirifica Commutatio” (with communion/baptismal art) tattooed on my shoulder as a reminder of the exchange Jesus made for me.

      I remember reading this for Billings’ class, and as soon as I did, I have a visceral, violent reaction. I wanted to throw my Institutes across the room. “NO! I don’t want this! I’m not worthy of it! It’s one thing Jesus, to forgive my sins through your death. It’s quite another for me to think of you exchanging your perfection for my sin”

      Of course, this IS what Jesus did, and union with Christ just deepens that reality. However, I’d never heard it put in those words before, and it took some getting used to. Then, I heard the same thing at my graduation from our commencement speaker, and I knew that I had to find a way to remember this reality, however uncomfortable it may make me at times.

      And I think I’m going to digest your idea of “cling[ing] tight to the communal and deeply sacramental aspects with all we’ve got, while forgetting some of the historical/penal things that trip me up. That may help. But like I said, I gotta think…

  7. I once heard (and I cannot remember where at the moment) penal substitution described similar to the following: God is angry with us, so God sends God’s son, whom God loves so much. We kill him, and that makes us right with God.

    My concern with relying so heavily on any particular theory of the atonement, in this case penal substitution, is that we lose sight of the whole. So if Jesus was born only to die, then why didn’t Jesus just get executed when Herod called for the slaughter of the innocents? Wouldn’t that have served the same purpose? When we focus solely on Jesus’ death as such, I think that we lose sight of Jesus’ ministry. I mean, he did live and teach and minister. It is to our detriment if we discount Jesus’ teachings in favor of a rather simplistic (in my view) penal substitution.

    I have a similar problem with the language of “accepting Jesus as personal Lord and savior.” Despite the fact that it is not biblical, I think that it confuses what is going on. Do I only have to say, “I accept Jesus”? Do I just have to pray the ‘sinner’s prayer’? Is “accepting Jesus” a cognitive move, or a life move, or what? The Christian life is one of discipleship, one of following Christ, and I am concerned by the “accepting” and “personal” language, but I digress.

    1. Completely agree, Matt. Accepting Christ involves more than just saying words. And you make a good point about the essential connection between Jesus’ life and death too.

    2. I do feel like the traditional view of the atonement has left us with the impression that Jesus took care of all of the hard stuff so that we could have an easy road to heaven. Jesus died so that we don’t have too. But we do.

      For me, accepting Jesus means acknowledging that his life is most true and that I am not living that life. I have to die to myself so that he can come alive in me so that I become as he was in this world: willing to lay down my life for everyone. There is nothing easy about that. So, I might push it one step further and say that it’s about becoming Christ rather than following him (but I know that you mean the same thing).

      I also want to emphasize that this is not about force of will, but allowing the blood of Jesus and the Spirit/breath of God to create new life in me.

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