Justified by Faith: What Does it Mean?

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Robert W. Jenson, in the third chapter of his small booklet Lutheran Slogans: Use and Abuse, talks about the misconception and confusion brought about by the slogan “faith alone”. Just how are we saved by faith alone? Or to put another way, what is it about faith that is so effective in saving man?

Jenson explains that faith, according to the classical Protestant accounts, justifies “because God credits the fruits of Jesus’ atoning work to those in whom he finds faith. Despite what God sees when he looks at us sinners, he for Christ’s sake judicially declares us righteous” (p 17). At the end of his chapter, Jenson ultimately finds this conception of justification lacking. In fact he calls it an “arbitrary” decree (p 21)!

In any case, he expounds on Luther’s own understanding of just how faith saves from his classic work The Freedom of the Christian. Jenson expounds two ways in which Luther understood that faith makes the sinner just, righteous, “saved”:

The first. Luther observes that believing in someone is the highest honor we can bring him. Therefore believing in God just is fulfillment of the first table of the commandments. And as ecumenical theology has always supposed, obeying the second table is the natural result of obeying the first, however slowly or with however many setbacks this may take place. If we trust God, we will seek to fulfill his stated will (p 18)

As Luther says in his Small Catechism, fulfilling the first commandment is very simply “trusting…God above all other things”. That, according to Luther, is the essence of faith: trusting God, placing your security in him, finding your ultimate source in him. In this way, to have faith in Christ is itself a righteous act, presumably brought about by the Spirit. And thus we are righteous by faith.

Second, Luther expounds upon an Aristotelian principle: “for Aristotle, seeing was the chief channel of openness to reality; therefore, so far as my subjectivity is concerned, I become what I see” (p 19). Luther took this concept, but applied it to the hearing of the gospel. Jenson explains:

[Luther] regarded hearing rather than seeing as the dominating way by which in this life we are opened to an other. According to Luther… I become what is addressed to me, what I must hearken to.

Therefore, if what we attend to is the word of God, we are merely thereby shaped by the Word’s content. Hearkening to the Word, we are constituted as persons by the good things the Word communicates, peace and love and righteousness and so on…[Thus], when Jones is grasped by the gospel, “Jones is righteous” is straightforwardly true… (p 19)

The adage “you become what you eat” might well be termed “you become what you hear” in Luther’s understanding. If we hear the word of the gospel, that gospel makes its way into us and thereby transforms us. Jenson takes one last step however. Because, according to John and other biblical writers, the ultimate word of God is the Word of God. Put another way, the fullest form of the gospel is the person of Christ himself. To grasp the gospel is to grasp Christ himself. Therefore, hearing and being grasped by the gospel is, for Luther, to be grasped by Christ himself, to be in vital union with his person. “Thus Luther made it a principle of his theology: ‘In such faith Christ is present’. Faith makes us personally and actually righteous because faith is a transforming and ruling presence in us of the righteous one himself” (p 20).

Just as an aside, this is why Luther was quite emphatic about the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The sacrament of the Supper is nothing else than a verbal word of promise, and where the promise of the gospel is, there also, is Christ. Thus, he is right there on every altar wherever the Eucharist is practiced; and he’s there whether we realize it or not.

In any case, Luther understood that by grasping the promise of the gospel in faith, one was grasping none other than Christ, and this personal union of Christ and the believer was thus real and transformative: it made the believer really and truly righteous.

Jenson closes this chapter, as I have already noted, by stating that justification by faith as a bare declaration is simply not enough to get to the heart of this doctrine:

The alternative theory of justification, as sheer decree by the divine Judge “in the forum of heaven”, for all the genius that has been devoted to its plausible defense, cannot finally be rescued from making God’s justifying seem arbitrary” (p 21)

While I’m not sure I would go that far, I do agree with him that Luther’s own understanding of faith as involving a transformative union with the person of Christ is central to his teaching. We are justified not simply by divine decree, but by grasping Christ himself. We find our righteousness in none other than the righteousness of Christ himself!

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Luther on Prayer

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In his book Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation, Oswald Bayers argues that prayer is “constitutive…for Luther’s theology” (p 346). Bayer lays out Luther’s theology of prayer from his sermon May 13, 1520, Rogate Sunday:

As nowhere else, this text documents in a pregnant way Luther’s reformational understanding of prayer; it shows very clearly not only how Luther explained the Trinity is such a way that its theological character of as promise was central, but also how his understanding of prayer itself had a trinitarian character. Whenever Luther preached in subsequent years on Rogate Sunday, he came back to the basic structure of what he articulated in this sermon (346)

Bayers quotes this sermon, which follows 5 steps that, as he says, are centered around God’s promise and his triunity. Luther says:

Every prayer consists of five [identifying characteristics]; otherwise the prayer is offered in vain.

The first is the promise of God, which is the foundation on which the entire prayer relies: if there were no promise, our prayer would be worthless; it would be unworthy of a favorable hearing, since it would rely on its own merit.

The second is that one states the specifics…so that the scattered thoughts can be focused on the godly promise, because I hope to acquire help; this is what one calls gathering one’s thoughts. Based on this, [self]-selected little prayers… are not priestly prayers, since they do not gather one’s thoughts, nor do they summarize the matter on the heart that seeks resolution

Third: faith is necessary, by means of which I believe in the God who makes promises, that I can expect that what I pray for is possible without having doubt. To be sure, God ensures that all things are guaranteed not because of you and your prayer, but because of his trustworthiness, by means of which he has promise that he will give it…

Fourth, [the prayer] is uttered with earnestness, not with a vacillating spirit and not as if one does not urgently desire the thing for which one prays… This would be a mockery to God, as if he were not willing to guarantee what he had promised… (347)

Before we move to the fifth mark, which transitions to the trinitarian structure: notice here that all of prayer is dependent not on the one who prays, but on the God who promises. God is the one who gives the riches of himself in his Son, and promises to hear and answer because of his benevolence, not because of our worthiness or lack thereof. This is why Luther says in step two not repeat selected little prayers. He has in mind not liturgical prayers (Jesus gave us a prayer to memorize!!), but rather mindless praying. Prayer must be thoughtful, filled with the content of God’s benevolence. Prayer this is not a passive enterprise; it is one that remembers and claims God’s covenant promises in Christ.  

Next, Luther ventures into the trinitarian structure of prayer in his fifth mark:

Fifth, such prayer takes place in the name of Jesus, by whose command and by whose authority we can come confidently before the Father of all things. Thus it cannot happen that the prayer goes without being heard: the Father has promised an answer through the Son, as through an instrument. And our sins hurt Christ; he prays concerning them in heaven, as if they were his own. Tell me now: what could cause a rejection here? The Son prays in heaven in my name; I pray on earth in his name. Thus the righteousness of Christ is my own, my sins are Christ’s: this is admittedly an unequal exchange. And both come to purity together: my sins vanish in Christ and his holiness washes me clean, so that I become worthy of eternal life (347-8)

Notice here that prayer is located in the Son before the Father. This is what Bayer means that Luther’s theology of prayer is trinitarian. In prayer, sinners are unequally yoked to Christ, and being in him, they come worthily before the Father. And thus it is because of that union with Christ that their prayers are heard. We may speak to the Father because Christ has latched himself to us and us to himself, and thus we are one mystical person in conversation with the Father.

Bayer expounds on this principle:

The final section [of Luther’s sermon, number 5,] answers the decisive question: How can I have any right to address the one who has power over all things, and furthermore, how can I be confident I will be heard?

Freedom from such uncertainty and from our sins comes to us only in connection with that event in which God himself comes to us and brings us to himself: in the way God comes as the triune one. For only in the differentiation and yet mutual connection between Father, Son and Spirit can we be certain concerning the speech in action of God, as those who believe and as those who pray… (348)

Bayer means to say that our prayer is heard because in salvation, we come to inhabit the “mutual connection between the Father, Son and Spirit”. We become one person with the Son in the power of the Spirit, and thus the Father hears us because we are in his Son. Put more simply, we come to the Father not in and of ourselves, but in the Son. We are, to put it sacramentally, in vital union with Christ through baptism: we die and rise with him, and ascend with and in him to the Father. We are seated with him in the heavenly places (Eph 2:6).

Just as an aside as we end, it is worthy noting here that Luther did not have a merely extrinsic understanding of salvation, as many accuse. Christ is not “out there” representing us to the Father. Christ is in us, we are in him, and thus we are taken up with him to the Father. Luther famously says that “in faith itself Christ is present”. By this he means that to have faith means principally to be vitally united to Christ.

What all of this means is that prayer is effective because God donates the very person of his Son to us, and we become one person with him. We come in Christ by the Spirit to the Father. And thus our prayer is heard!

 

Athanasius, Atonement and the Image of God

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At the beginning of his supreme work, On the Incarnation, Athanasius explains that mankind was made according to the image of God. This theme of image, for Athanasius, is the starting and ending point for a proper theology of the incarnation and atonement. The inner logic of the incarnation and the death of Christ is, for Athanasius, connected to God’s creation of man in his own image. I want to survey Athanasius’ logic in this article.

First, Athanasius explains what is means to be made in God’s image: for Athanasius, to be created in God’s image means simply to share in God’s own life which allows man to become “like God”. Athanasius explains:

Upon them, …upon men who, as animals, were essentially impermanent, [God] bestowed a grace which other creatures lacked — namely the impress of His own image (p 3)

Athanasius calls the image of God “a grace” or gift above natural creaturely life, for mankind is “essentially impermanent”. Athanasius, along with all the early Fathers, understood that because mankind was created out of nothing (ex nihilo), they did not in and of themselves contain eternal life. Thus, God breathed into mankind a share in his own life, giving them a supernatural grace to share in his own eternal life and to be conformed to His image.

Athanasius continues by explaining just what sharing in God’s image entails, namely,

a share in the reasonable being of the very Word Himself, so that, reflecting Him and themselves becoming reasonable and expressing the Mind of God even as He does, though in limited degree they might continue forever in the blessed and only true life of the saints in paradise (p 3)

This is an incredible insight: Athanasius explains that because the Son is the express image of God — the very Word and revelation of the Father — the supernatural grace given to man upon creation was union and a share in the life of God the Son. This share int he Son allows man to have the mind of God (1 Cor 2, Phil 2), and to “continue forever” in God’s life. Put another way, Athanasius understands the supernatural gift of “the image” to be union with the Image of God, thus being formed into His image. The end goal of mankind then was to be conformed into Christlikeness!

But man sinned, and fell. And what were the effects of that fall? Athanasius understands sin not simply as a breaking of God’s law, but as a falling away or separation from union with the Son into corruption and “non-being”. Athanasius explains:

The transgression of the [first] commandment made them turn back again according to their own nature; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence. the presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good… (p 4)

This then, was the plight of men. God had not only made them out of nothing, but had graciously bestowed on them his own life by the grace of the Word. Then, turning from eternal things to things corruptible, by counsel of the devil, they had become the cause of their own corruption and death (p 5)

Sin for Athanasius is turning toward one’s own nature into corruption and eventually non-existence. Thus, man is born dying and decaying, and eventually “disappearing, and the work of God [is]… undone” (p 6).

But, as Athanasius explains, God did not want his work to simply “disappear”. What could He do? Athanasius concedes that God could simply offer repentance, but this would not be enough. And why? Because simple sorrow does not

recall men from what is according to their nature; all that it does is to make them cease from sinning. Had it been a case of trespass only, and not of a subsequent corruption, repentance would have been well enough (p 8).

In other words, if the problem were just about an outward transgression, repentance and sorrow for sin would have been enough. But the transgression preceded a separation of man from participation in the Son, and thus toward corruption and decay. Put more simply, the problem wasn’t merely external, but internal. Something became fundamentally wrong with man’s own nature after Adam had sinned. God therefore had to renew mankind from the inside out, and conform him once again to His own Image. 

But how would God do that? How would he renew man to the image of the Son? Here we come to Athanasius’ supreme insight concerning the incarnation:

What else could [God] possibly do, being God, but renew His Image in mankind, so that through it men might once more come to know him? And how could this be done save by the very Image Himself, our Savior Jesus Christ? Men could not have done it, for they are only made after the Image; nor could angels have done it, for they are not the images of the God. The Word of God came in His own Person, because it was He alone, the Image of the Father Who could recreate man made after the Image. (p 15)

Athanasius says that it is only the One true Image of God that could renew mankind after His own likeness. This is the impetus in Athanasius’ mind for incarnation: the Son comes into the broken down and corrupted image of man to renew it after his own likeness and sanctify it so that mankind can participate in God once again. 

Athanasius continues his line of logic:

In order to effect this re-creation, however, [Christ] had first to do away with death and corruption. Therefore He assumed a body, in order that in it death might once for all be destroyed, and that men might be renewed according to the Image. The Image of the Father only was sufficient for this need (p 16)

In order for death itself to be undone, the Image assumed a human body (nature) and took into himself death and disease and defeated it from the inside out. Christ took the broken image and recrafted it according to Himself. Here we come to the genius of Athanasius’ atonement theology: The Image took our broken image and re-imaged it according to His own Image! The cross was principally an assumption of the deepest brokenness of mankind. The resurrection then is a defeat of death and a re-creation of mankind. What joy!

A New Temple, Priest, and Sacrifice

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One of the more famous stories from the life of Jesus is his cleansing of the temple. It is famous, of course, because it highlights Christ’s anger against the money-changers who were selling animals for sacrifice at a hefty price.

They were in essence using the temple sacrificial system for their own benefit. And not just that, the money-changers were hindering worshippers. The temple was a place of communion of YHWH with his people. And not just His people, but with the watching world. The outer most court of the temple — called the court of the Gentiles — was open to any and all who would want to come and see the temple. And yet, as soon as they walked through the door, any who entered would be halted by the swindling money-changers. It is certain that any righteous Israelite would be scandalized by it. It makes total sense that Jesus himself was infuriated.

Matthew’s account tells us that Jesus, upon entering, “overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold the pigeons. He said to them, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer, but you make it a den of robbers'” (21:12-13). Jesus says in essence that the money-changers had perverted the purpose of the temple as a place of prayer and fellowship into a place of profit.

While Luke ends his version of the story there, Matthew includes an additional part. He tells us that after Jesus overturned the tables, that the “blind and lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them” (vv. 14).

Now why would Matthew include this little addition? It certainly isn’t random. Matthew doesn’t waste space in his gospel. What is the connection?

The connection is this: the blind and the lame were seen as unclean according to the law of Moses. And should they desire to enter the temple beyond the outer courts, they would need to be cleansed by a sacrifice. And yet, Matthew tells here that when they entered they not only had no sacrifice (presumably they wouldn’t have been able to afford the animals the money-changers were offering!), but they were also immediately cleansed by Christ himself without a sacrifice. What I want to suggest is that within the context, Matthew means to picture Christ as a new temple and sacrificial system, one better than the old; one that supersedes and fulfills the old.

Matthew is presenting Christ as replacing the old cultic temple system. The old way of the Mosaic system had been perverted by the money-changers, and thus Christ becomes the new way into the presence of God. He is in himself a temple, housing God’s glory. And, he is in himself a new priest presenting himself as a cleansing sacrifice, thus enabling us to enter “through the veil of his flesh” (Heb 10:19-22). Matthew is, in his own brilliant way, presenting a rich atonement theology!

Trinitarian Atonement

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The cross is usually thought of as a work of the Son. And of course it is a work of the Son: a selfless giving-up — a priestly sacrifice — through which the sin of the world is forgiven.

But the cross is not just a work of the Son. Actually, the Bible presents the cross as a work of the entire Godhead done together. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:19 that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself”. What Paul means to communicate is that the whole God, not just the Son, was actively involved in the work of the cross to reconcile fallen humanity to himself. 

But in what way?

Donald Macleod, in his chapter on the atonement from Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic, explains that “as in every outgoing act of the Trinity, all three persons are involved” (p 255). Macleod explains firstly, that though the Father was not on the cross,

yet it is to him that the New Testament characteristically traces back the cost of Calvary, as if it were of his love that the cross speaks above all. But how, if he felt it not at all? If he has compassion for us, his children (Ps. 103), had he no pity for his Son? Did he not long to intervene as he did in the case of Abraham, and cry, “Don’t lay a hand on the boy!”?

The greatest indictment of sin is that even the divine love and wisdom could save the world only at the cost of God sacrificing his own Son. It was, indeed, a free and loving initiative, yet once it was embarked on, the sacrifice became a necessity. There was no other way. The cup could not pass (Mark 14: 35), and it was a sacrifice for both the Father and the Son. (p 255)

The Father gives up his Son, and he does not intervene in his sufferings. This is properly in what manner Jesus experiences the wrath of the Father. God lets him go; he abandons him. And on this account the curses of the law are said to be satisfied before the Father.

In this manner, the Father can be said to have offered Christ for the sins of the world. Macleod explains that while it is Christ who is priest of the New Covenant — and while Christ freely, lovingly, offers himself as the pure lamb for the covering of the sins of the world —

[there are also verses such] as John 3: 16; Romans 8: 32; and 1 John 4: 10 [that] speak of another priesthood: the priesthood of God the Father. Here is the heavenly archetype of the story of Abraham and Isaac, where the Father delivers up his jachid, his beloved Son, and where Father and Son together proclaim that there is no length to which they will not go to save the world. This is what “theories” of the atonement have to wrestle with: the cross not only as a demonstration of the love of Jesus but also as a demonstration of the love of God the Father. His, ultimately, was the cost, and his the loss. It is his Son who bleeds and dies. It is from his own Son that he must hide his face, to his cry he must turn a deaf ear, to him whom he can extend no comfort and offer no hint of recognition. (p 247)

All throughout this chapter, Macleod rightly compares Abraham and Isaac to the Father’s giving up of the Son. The Bible makes this comparison as well: “God so loved the world that He gave up his only Son” (John 3:16); Jesus is said to have carried wood on his back to the top of the mount, with no sacrifice but himself! Macleod concludes that just as Abraham and Isaac went up together to the place of sacrifice, “they [also] went up, ‘both of them together’ (Gen 22:6, 8), not as helpless victims of an unavoidable destiny but as divine persons who had covenanted together to share the cost of saving the world and were now walking together toward the pain” (p 255).

But it was not just the Father giving the Son up. The Spirit was also involved in the cross. But what did he do? Macleod says that the Spirit empowered the Son to (1) be the pure Lamb, having obeyed the entire law from the beginning of his life, and (2) “upheld the Son through all the challenges of his self-offering” (p 251).

Christ, in all humility, as Paul says, did not utilize his divine attributes during his time on earth “but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phil 2:7). Rather than his own divine power, it was instead the anointing of the Spirit which enabled Christ to obey the covenant, and it was the same Spirit which empowered him to pain of the cross. It was by the Spirit that Christ refused to revile his enemies, but rather to ask the Father to forgive them. The Spirit was the power behind it all.

But one last thing must be said of the Father and Spirit at work in the cross: it was because Christ offered himself as the innocent victim, and suffered the violence of wicked men, that the Father, through the Spirit, infinitely pleased with Christ, raised Him up to glory. Macleod explains:

The loving, adoring Father, struck with the glory of his Son’s obedience, brings him back to life, raises him up, and seats him in the heavenlies (Eph. 2: 5– 6). He places that humanity, so abused by men, in the glory the Son had with the Father before the world was (John 17: 5). (p 255)

It is the Father, through the Spirit, who raises Christ to glory. Even the resurrection takes a Trinitarian shape! 

Thus the work of the cross is entirely Triune. In it, the Father gives up his Son, and the Spirit upholds the Son; and because of this Triune empowered obedience, the same Triune God lifts the Son to glory. What joy!

 

 

 

 

The Death of Death: A Theology of Atonement

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What I want to do in this post is argue for the Christus Victor model of atonement. This view is complex and is connected with other atonement models, but simply put, Christus Victor proposes that the reason for which Christ died and rose was to rescue humanity and to defeat sin, Satan and death. Put another way, the primarily threat toward humanity is enslavement to the evil powers and to sin and death, from which we must be freed.

I will argue this in two ways: I will first look at the earliest understanding of sin, death, and atonement from the church fathers. Second, I will look at the earliest apostolic preaching from Acts as proof of the victor model. What I hope will become evident is that the cross and resurrection are God’s great rescue and liberation of mankind from bondage and slavery.

First, the fathers.  What I came to realize from reading the Fathers was that the common Reformed penal substitution model is a relatively new model of atonement in church history. Frederica Mathewes-Green explains:

The earliest understanding [of the atonement] was that [in his death] Christ went into the depths of Hades, following the path of all human life; but once there he destroyed its power and set us free. Sin is a corruption of the soul, an illness that feeds on itself and leads ultimately to death…

Salvation means that we are being healed in soul and restored to God’s image and likeness; for the departed it also means being rescued from the realm of death, just as the children of Israel were freed in the Red Sea.

But a shift of thinking took place later on in Western European Christianity. It was St. Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury (AD 1033-1109) who first clearly formulated a line of thought that had been present in seed form in Western theology for centuries. God cannot simply forgive sin uncorrected; nothing in God’s kingdom could be left uncorrected. Furthermore, it would mean that God treats sinful and sinless people alike. That would be unjust.

St. Anselm reasoned that some restitution had to be made to God in return for the great offense that our sin presents to his honor… Since God’s honor was infintely greater than that of any [person], it would be impossible for humans to render the satisfaction required. By dying on the cross, Christ offered to the Father a gift he did not owe… (Welcome to the Orthodox Church, pp 86-87)

Thus, Anselm came to view Christ’s death as a means to satisfy God’s wounded honor. Mind you, this doesn’t sound like modern satisfaction models. This is because Anselm understood Christ’s death to be a form of ultra-penance to God the Father on behalf of humanity. In modern penal models, however, it isn’t that Christ offered something to the Father; rather, God spent his wrath on the Son and thus satisfied his just wrath.

The point here is that the earliest Christian understanding of Christ’s work, as Mathewes-Green says, “was aimed at death; [Christ] defeats it and sets us free… But now Christ’s work is seen as being aimed… at the Father… he is paying our debt so we could be forgiven” (ibid, p 88). This shift in theology made salvation a legal payment rather than an ontological defeat of sin, corruption, and death. Under this schema, sin is seen primarily as a legal offense toward God.

However, this is in stark contrast to the early church fathers who understood sin in medical terms. Put another way, they understood original sin not so much as legal culpability but as an inherited disease. When Adam and Eve were created, they were filled with the Holy Spirit who energized their nature with God’s eternal life. When they sinned, they forfeited the life of God and thus fell into corruption and death. They were like a branch that broke away from the tree. Individual sins should thus be seen as the fruits of this inherited nature. The incarnation, according to the fathers, was a reverse-invasion of the life of God into our corrupted nature. God entered into our broken nature in order to heal it from the inside out. Mathewes-Green explains:

Sin isn’t a string of bad deeds. It’s an inward-spreading condition, a sickness of the soul. God could not bear to see his beloved, whom he created and destined for glory, sick and in chains. Seeing us afflicted and in pain, in his great compassion, Christ came to deliver us… And he began that process in an elegantly simple way, by stepping into the flow of human life. With his incarnation, his healing power began to stream into the life that we all share (ibid, 143)

The incarnation was thus the beginning of God’s salvation of the fallen human reality!

But what of Christ’s death? What did it accomplish? The early church understood Christ’s death to be his willing, sacrificial, loving descent into death in order to destroy it from the inside out. God, who is immutable and unable to die, took onto himself a nature able to die, so that through his death he could descend into the reality of death (what the Jews and early church called “Hades”) and destroy it from the inside out. The church called this the “harrowing of hell”, or the “descent into hades” (Apostles’ Creed). What did he do there? He “broke” death and freed all the righteous dead who were held in chains. Death is thus deprived of its power. I am pressed for space here, but I want to give at least one quote from the fathers to exemplify this. I refer you to the book Christ the Conqueror of Hell by Hilarion Alfeyev for a complete history on the historical teaching of Christ’s descent into death; I also refer you to a presentation by Ben Meyers who summarizes the theology quite well.

Here is what Origen says of Christ’s descent:

Christ emptied himself… and took upon himself the form of a servant, suffered the dominance of the tyrant and became obedient unto death. By this death he destroyed him who possessed the power of death, that is the devil, in order to liberate those held by death. For, having been bound by the strong man and having conquered him by the cross, he entered into his house, which is the house of death, or Hades, and spoiled his goods, that is, liberated the souls which death held (Christ the Conqueror of Hell, Hilarion Alfeyev, 51)

Thus the early church fathers understood sin as a corruption that needed to be healed, and death as an ontological reality that needed to be defeated. In love, Christ identified himself with our infirmities in order to heal us and to have victory over death. He “bore our sins in his body” is how Peter puts it (1 Pet 2:24).

Second, the teaching of the apostles. In line with the early church teaching on sin and death, I just want to shortly argue that the early preaching of the apostles was centered o resurrection, and thus on Christ’s defeat of death and corruption. If you pay attention to the early preaching of Acts, there is a common theme running through each sermon: Christ is Israel’s true Messiah; you killed him; but God raised him never to taste death again; therefore repent!

Here is Peter’s Pentecost sermon:

Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. (Acts 2:22–24)

 …Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them,“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (vv. 37-38)

Just in the next chapter, Peter says to the Jews “you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses… Repent therefore” (Acts 3:15, 19). Here is Peter’s presentation of the gospel from Acts 10:

And we are witnesses of all that [Christ] did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. (Acts 10:39-42)

As I said in my last post, Paul’s first sermon in Acts 13 centers on Christ as the resurrected one who overcame corruption:

And though they (the Jews) found in him no guilt worthy of death, they asked Pilate to have him executed. And when they had carried out all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead…

For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers and saw corruption, but he whom God raised up did not see corruption. Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses (Acts 13:28-30, 36-39)

The pattern becomes clear: Christ was delivered over to death by his enemies, yet God raised him up never to die again. Notice in these sermons that the death of Christ is never attributed to the Father, nor is wrath the concentration. Rather, Christ’s enemies killed him, yet the Father raised him, and therefore he is victorious King of Kings, and to whom we must therefore submit.

I want to clarify here that it is not that I don’t see any legal or covenantal elements to salvation. The point I want to make in this post is that the resurrection is the good news of the apostolic gospel. For a more comprehensive view of the atonement and human salvation, continue reading THIS post on God’s wrath, and then THIS post on man’s final end.