Sunday, December 14, 2008

How Should We Do Missions? (Insights from the First Millennium of Christian History)

(This post is my final paper for an independent study I did this semester. It focuses on how the missiology and missionary strategy of the early and medieval church can inform our present engagement of the Great Commission, and I think it ends up with some decent insights and ideas. If you'd like to see my full historical research paper on the subject, let me know and I'll send you a copy).

When we begin to study the missionary enterprise of the early Church (from the 2nd century on), we are immediately confronted by the fact that it does not at all resemble missions as we know it. Though we know from the plain facts of history that Christianity grew rapidly in the Roman Empire over the first few centuries, we have little more than suppositions as to how it grew. There is seldom any reference to evangelistic preaching after the apostolic period, and only a very few recorded instances of person-to-person evangelistic witnessing. Rather, we find that the means of evangelism which received the greatest emphasis within the Roman Empire were martyrdoms, exorcisms, healings, and the like. While we should not discount the presence of individual witnessing and other, more passive forms of evangelism (like the display of charity and the attractive moral sense of Christianity), it is remarkable that the missionary methods highlighted by early Christian writers are far removed from the methods we now embrace.
When we pry a little deeper and attempt to reconstruct the early Christian perception of the missionary mandate—in other words, what motivated them to evangelistic or missionary activity—we find still more differences. Where our primary motivations would probably fall along the lines of concern for the eternal state of the unreached, as well as obedience to Scripture, these motivations are almost nowhere to be found until the rise of the early medieval missionaries (some five hundred years after Christ). Rather, their motivations seem to have sprung from theologies of spiritual warfare, competition between different Christian sects, and a rather different conception of what the ideal Christian life should look like than the one we now hold.
There are two extreme responses to this discrepancy between the early Church and our own idea of missions. The first is to accept wholeheartedly the early Church’s understandings and methods, simply because they were nearer to the fountainhead of our faith than we are, temporally speaking. The other extreme is to utterly disregard the work of the early Church and to assume that the Holy Spirit took an extended vacation until the Protestant Reformation. Of course, neither of these reactions is acceptable.
Against the first position, we would say that the “earliness” of the early Church is not in itself a convincing argument for the authority of their faith and practice. It may be the case that they retained certain themes and emphases of the apostles’ preaching that were not ultimately included in the canon of Scripture, and that is worthy of consideration as a possibility. However, we also believe that the Bible contains the complete message of God for his people, and thus we need not worry that we may have missed some pieces of the early apostolic faith. What the early Church does offer us, however, is the possibility that our interpretation of Scripture may have gotten off track at some point, and that their own perceptions of the meaning of certain passages may be closer to the truth than our own. Sometimes the presuppositions of our culture blind us to certain facets of Scripture, just as the culture of the Roman Empire did for the early Church—but their blindnesses will not be the same as ours, so we can expect that the records they left behind may help us to perceive the weak spots in our own understanding of the faith.
Against the second position, we would say that it is our belief that the Holy Spirit has never abandoned the Church, but rather, throughout her history, has protected, instructed, and guided her. To ignore the history of the early and medieval church is to turn our backs on a thousand years of the Holy Spirit’s ministry in the world. However, we also believe that the Church is a human institution, and therefore fallible on both the individual level and the communal level. Though the Holy Spirit is working in the Church, Christians don’t always get everything right as a result. So, as we would do with the varying expressions of Christian faith and practice in our own time, we must use a discerning eye towards the early and medieval churches, seeking to separate the wheat from the chaff. This is no easy task, since our assumptions often lead us to favor our own position where we disagree with our spiritual forefathers. But along the way, we may find something of value, something that we in our ignorance have overlooked or forgotten.
With that in mind, the applications of this paper take the form of tentative suggestions. I will point out several areas of faith and practice that the early Church employed in missions, but which we evangelicals do not. The suggestion here is that these methods are simply worth considering, and perhaps, in some cases, trying.

Applications in Theology
Much of our motivation for doing missionary work has its basis in our soteriology. We evangelicals traditionally hold that Jesus died to save us from our sins, so that we, as individuals, can be forgiven by God and welcomed into eternal life. Thus, our missionary endeavors focus on transmitting this message of personal salvation to others, who then can also be saved. The early Church would not have disagreed with this soteriological paradigm; however, they did not hold it to the exclusion of all other interpretations of the meaning of Christ’s work.
One of the dominant conceptions they had of soteriology was represented by the paradigm that has come to be known as Christus Victor. In short, Christus Victor theology considers the work of Christ not merely as an act of sacrificial atonement that leads to the forgiveness of sins, but as the triumph of God over the powers of sin, death, and the devil. Our problem, in our natural condition without Christ, is that we are captives. Everyone who sins cedes power to Satan and his dominion over the earth. There’s a broad stream of Scripture that speaks about Satan’s present dominion over the world, and about the Christian life as an external battle against the powers of evil. Paul seems to refer to Satan as “the god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4) and “the ruler of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2). Jesus calls Satan “the prince” of this present age (John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11). The early Church Fathers also saw death as more than just a physical eventuality—it was an evil spiritual power, wielded by Satan, to which all human beings were subject as a result of sin. It included not merely physical death, but the loss of all spiritual life. To these three complementary spheres of evil power—Satan, sin, and death—all human beings were enslaved as a result of Adam’s first sin.
In this view, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus all have significance for our salvation (rather than just his death, which is what evangelical atonement theology usually highlights). Jesus prepared for his ministry by going into the desert and ended up having a faceoff with Satan, which Jesus won by refusing to sin. A large part of Jesus’ subsequent ministry consisted of the confrontation of demonic powers and of freeing people from their grasp. Finally, Jesus died on the Cross “so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Heb. 2:14-15). “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Col. 2:15). 1 John 3:8 puts it plainly: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.” And as the final stroke of his victory, Jesus rose from the dead. The power of death, which was in Satan’s hands, could not hold Jesus.
This was one of the dominant ways that the early Church understood the Gospel, and, as demonstrated above, it is a thoroughly biblical understanding. And just like our soteriology informs our sense of the missionary mandate, so their soteriology affected theirs. Since Christianity was a triumphal war against Satan and the powers of evil, the early Church employed spiritual warfare as the front-line tactics of its mission. Exorcisms, healings, and displays of supernatural power went side-by-side with the Gospel message (much as they did in the Gospels and Acts). Not only was the salvation of individuals a wonderful thing for the individuals themselves, it was a blow against the Enemy, whose kingdom of darkness was shrinking with every new convert that was transferred into the kingdom of “marvelous light.”
In the baptismal liturgy, when the convert is asked to “renounce Satan and all his works,” the early Church was not speaking of personal spirituality and individual sin. It was a declaration of war—a renunciation of the old king and an acceptance of the colors of the Militia Christi. In the eastern Christianity of Mesopotamia, vast throngs of people consecrated themselves as “Sons and Daughters of the Covenant,” pledged to do spiritual battle through preaching, healing, charity, and prayer. And when the desert fathers in Egypt withdrew to the wilderness to give themselves to a life of prayer, it wasn’t simply for the sake of eccentricity or austere personal devotion—it was to confront the demons head-on (in the culture of the day, demonic spirits were thought to reside especially in the deserts). The mission of the church was not so much concerned with “reaching the unreached people,” but of making Christ’s triumph over Satan an experienced reality in the world around them.
However, just as our soteriology and missiology may be weakened by our ignorance of the Christus Victor tradition, so the early Church’s conception of mission was unbalanced by a lack of connection between it and the clearly loving, personal, outreaching dimension of God’s salvation. The militant nature of early missional activity took a violent turn when it finally gained the power to pursue its aims, with the succession of Constantine to the Imperial throne in the 4th century. With the Empire’s strength now behind them, the early Church attacked pagan temples and shrines, razing them to the ground and sometimes torturing and killing the priests. They carried out bloody pogroms against other sects within Christianity, determined to stamp out heresy with force. More Christians died at one another’s hands in the fourth century than had perished in all the previous persecutions under the Romans. This Christian use of force against the enemies of faith was sporadic and not well-organized, but even so it should give us pause. An incomplete and unbalanced theology can be a dangerous thing. However, I don’t think that we face the same danger in accepting some elements of Christus Victor theology, since our understanding is already heavily weighted toward the loving, people-oriented aspects of the Gospel.
So what can the early Church suggest for our present theology of missions? It would be unwise to abandon the clearly biblical passion for the salvation of individuals, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t buttress that theology with the addition of a Christus Victor perspective. Consider, for instance, one of the drawbacks of holding a missiology that focuses exclusively on the salvation of souls: if a missionary enterprise does not ultimately gain any converts, it is regarded as a failure. When I was serving in North Africa, I heard numerous stories about difficult mission-fields across the Muslim world, where missionaries would spend ten or fifteen or twenty years before making a single convert. The implication was that this was a tragic state of affairs. In some sense it is, but to leave the matter there would be to abandon these missionaries to a sense of failure, and there would be little motivation for future missionaries to consider such places for their own work.
If we add a Christus Victor element, however, the picture changes. In this light, missionary work in the most difficult places is the most important, most daring, and possibly the most fruitful work of all, since it stands on the front lines of the great spiritual war. Missionaries in those places are claiming the first beachhead in hostile territory, and simply by being there and taking their attack to very doorstep of the demons’ strongholds, they weaken the power of Satan’s kingdom. Who knows what fruit in personal salvation might grow there fifty or a hundred years from now, because of those first brave missionaries who began the invasion? In Christus Victor theology, no missionary endeavor carried out in the spirit of Christ can be a complete failure, simply because every such effort, regardless of the visible results, is a blow against Satan’s kingdom. Obedience to the call of Christ is never in vain. Any effort that says “yes” to God’s mission in the world is inherently valuable, regardless of the results. Christus Victor theology reminds us that it is Christ who is the warrior, and Christ who is the victor—not us. Our part is to obey; his part is to bring forth whatever fruit may grow in those barren fields.
What practical changes might this Christus Victor addition include? Some of the practices of the early Church, such as temple-smashing raids, are obviously inadvisable except in very extreme circumstances. But other practices, such as exorcisms and healings, might well be added to our regular missionary practice. Both practices were clearly evident in the ministry of Jesus and the apostles, so there is no reason why only “Charismatic” groups should have a corner on that market now. Obviously, we would have to guard against sensationalism and all the other dangers that come with displays of spiritual power, but the dangers themselves are not a strong enough argument to prevent us from employing what proved to be some of the most effective means of ministry-work for the first five hundred years of Christianity. When approached with significant training and discernment, these active means of spiritual warfare directly lay claim to the freedom that Christ won for us, and thus they make a powerful soteriological statement in and of themselves.
Further, it might be advisable to allow the rhetoric of spiritual warfare to return to our preaching and teaching. Speaking of Satan and demons has fallen out of vogue in the West, but if our Enemy truly is still prowling about, “seeking whom he may devour,” then we cannot afford to ignore him. Christians should be trained to think of themselves, at least in part, as soldiers in the great, triumphal war of God.

Applications in Personal Devotion
Much of the early and medieval Church also operated on a very different conception of what “the ideal Christian life” should look like. While we American Christians might point to a life characterized by daily quiet times, personal witnessing, and a healthy family life, some traditions in the early Church pointed to something that looked quite a bit like the pattern of ministry Jesus laid out for his seventy-two disciples in Luke 10. This was especially true in the eastern Christianity of Syria, Mesopotamia, and Persia from the 2nd through the 7th centuries, and in Irish and Anglo-Saxon Christianity from the 6th through the 9th centuries. Their ideal was of the wandering pilgrim, wholly consecrated to Christ in every facet of his life. This was “the imitation of Christ” considered not merely as a path of spiritual devotion, but as a whole way of living. These imitators of Christ—usually monks of some sort—were considered set apart from the world, and they patterned their lives after Christ’s own: walking from village to village, preaching the Gospel, praying, voluntarily accepting the poverty of not having a home, doing acts of charity, and so on.
We Protestants shy away from that sort of model, mainly because we take some of the correctives of the Reformation too far. The Reformation sought to set right the erroneous medieval-Catholic belief in two different levels of Christianity, one for the laypeople (who really only had to attend Mass and otherwise try to be good), and another for those pursuing “the way of perfection”—a life of total consecration to God, usually as a monk or priest. Luther and the other Reformers rebelled against this, saying that the Bible taught that all believers were equal in God’s sight and all were called to uphold the moral and spiritual imperatives of the New Testament. The Reformers were right in this, but their heavy emphasis on the matter led to an unfortunate consequence: there is now virtually no one who dares to live the life of a monk or a pilgrim-preacher in Protestant Christianity, because that model is regarded with such scorn. But it is one thing to say that all Christians are equal; it is quite another to say that no one should live such a life of radical personal consecration to God, and I fear we have fallen into the error of the latter.
It was just such pilgrim-preachers who carried the Gospel all the way into Persia, and then to China and the steppes of central Asia in the first millennium, and it was just such pilgrim-preachers who set out from Britain to convert the barbarian tribes of Germany to the faith. These men, in large part, were the missionary force for the first thousand years of Christianity. Since it is a biblical model, why not present this kind of life as a spiritual ideal worthy of embrace? Most evangelical Christians in America, having grown up in the luxury of comfortable middle-class homes, will never even consider such a radical lifestyle as a genuine and honorable possibility unless it is presented to them as such. We have no models for this kind of ministry any more, which is unfortunate. But this model is not bound by culture. In any culture in the world, men and women who voluntarily choose to live with the poor and homeless, who travel about doing good deeds and spreading the hope of the Gospel, will be effective in the work of Christian missions. The old practice of spiritual pilgrimage to holy sites is undergoing a modest reawakening in some evangelical circles, so why not present the even older practice of the imitatio Christi pilgrimage as a possible ideal for the Christian life?
This idea of the imitation of Christ as a way of life does not merely encompass life, though—it also informs our perspective on death. Throughout the history of the early and medieval Church, martyrdom—dying for the sake of Christ and his work—was a laudable thing. Many early missionaries went out with the almost certain knowledge that they would be killed for their work. And yet they went. Some, like Anskar, even desired the glory of martyrdom. Why was martyrdom such a great glory? Because it was the fullest possible extent of the imitation of Christ. It was an act of sharing in Christ’s sufferings and death, and thus visibly presenting the message of a willingly-executed Savior to the world. It was a living drama of the message of a love so great that even death for the sake of that love is a welcome and wonderful thing.
Contrast this attitude with our present views on martyrdom. We work to serve the persecuted church, and well we should—they are our brothers and sisters. But we work out of a sense that persecution and martyrdom are tragedies, when all that Scripture asks us to do is offer comfort to the hurting. When Western missionaries die on the field, we regard it as a terrible tragedy. In some sense it is, especially for the family and friends left behind. But death is simply a part of life, and there is no better place to die than in the service of God. A life cut short in his service is better than a long life of comfortable apathy. In my opinion, being martyred in the work of the Kingdom of God is a far better way to perish than in spending the last twenty years of my life watching television and playing golf in a retirement resort. The plain fact of the matter is that unless we begin to change the perception of American Christians that martyrdom is a tragedy, then American Christians will never answer to call to be missionaries to the places that need the Gospel the most. Rather, it will fall to those believers who know both the cost and the glory of suffering and martyrdom—those in persecuting countries like China—who will have the honor of finishing the task.

Applications for the Life of the Church
Another application arises largely out of the unconscious circumstances of early Christianity—that of being clearly and obviously a distinct people, set apart from the world. In their earliest days they were an odd and therefore easily recognizable sect, and this played somewhat to their advantage. There was a sense of mystery about the church because it was so very different from the rest of the world. It is worth asking whether that same sense of wonderful mystery surrounds the church in America. Are we so different from the way the world lives that outsiders sit up and take notice? We need to find ways to live out the Christian message anew, because the message itself is so radically different from the ways of the world that it will, by itself, draw those who are looking for something beyond their normal experience.
A similar application comes from the story of the conversion of the Rus to Christianity in the late 10th century. Vladimir, the reigning prince of Kiev, considered all the various religious options around him (Islam, Judaism, Carolingian Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy), and he chose Eastern Orthodox Christianity because it was so beautiful. We would do well to consider how to make Christianity beautiful again—beautiful in art, architecture, literature, music, and liturgy, but most of all, beautiful in the presentation of its message and in its manner of living.
The early medieval Church also gives us an intriguing institutional paradigm to consider: missional monasticism. Protestants have always shied away from monasticism, largely for the reasons already described above. There is a common stereotype, not wholly undeserved, that the secluded lifestyle of monks ignores the Christian mandate of outreach, of being “in the world but not of it.” However, the early Irish monasticism of Columba and Columbanus gives us a different picture. Rather than being a community of seclusion, these monasteries were communities of outreach. The brothers lived together in poverty and under mutual spiritual vows, but they also went out into the surrounding areas, teaching and preaching to the local residents. Eventually a new monastery would be planted on the frontiers of an unreached territory, and the monks would go about preaching and teaching there as well, until a new set of missionary-monks were trained and ready to go even further into the barbarian hinterland.
Monasticism is a peculiar enough institution that it will not be missionally effective in every cultural context, but it might be worth considering whether it could be effective in the evangelical church in America. If a group of Christians—either singles or families—elected to live together in a common community, holding resources in common and strengthening one another’s spiritual lives by their constant contact, all while going out into their jobs in the world and intentionally spreading the Gospel there, what would the effects be? It could indeed be a way to spark that sense of mystery which the church in our day seems to have lost. And it should be noted that this is not merely a historical model; it’s also a biblical model—it is very similar to the Jerusalem church as portrayed in Acts. Already there are a few such evangelical communities growing in the movement called “the new monasticism,” and it will be interesting to see how they fare over the course of time.

Applications for Missionary Methods
Some of the missionary methods we glean from the early Church we learn from their successes; others from their mistakes. To take the latter category first, one missionary method that is now almost universally accepted, but which was slow to catch on in the early Church, was the use of the native vernacular in developing liturgy. The Persian church probably collapsed in large part because it never adopted the native language of Persia, but stubbornly kept to Syriac as its liturgical language. If Persian missionaries, who were extremely active for hundreds of years, had adopted the use of vernaculars rather than Syriac, Christianity probably would have penetrated deeper into Arabia and, quite possibly, this would have prevented the rise of Islam. Similarly, a use of the vernacular in the North African provinces might have allowed the ancient church in that region to survive the Muslim conquests of the 7th century. Only a very few missionaries in the early and medieval Church made use of vernaculars, and their efforts proved massively successful: Ulfila translated the Bible into Gothic, and within the span of a few decades the majority of German Goths were Arian Christians. Cyril and Methodius likewise translated the liturgy into Old Slavonic, which opened the gates for the conversion of much of Eastern Europe. The message is simple: whenever possible, use the language of the people to whom you minister.
Another instance of failure on the part of the early church is in this principle: acceptance of Christianity should not go hand-in-hand with the imposition of Imperial rule or culture. Much of Persia long remained Zoroastrian because to be a Christian was perceived as being a Roman. The German Goths who invaded the Roman Empire quite probably clung to Arian Christianity rather than the orthodox form because it gave them the freedom to be different, and so to preserve their own culture. Likewise, much later on, the Scandinavians were extremely slow in accepting the faith because they believed that to do so implied that they would have to accept subjugation to the Carolingian Empire and to the papal office. While most missionaries nowadays accept that native peoples should be able to retain their own culture and autonomy when receiving the Gospel, it is still worth asking the question: Do people around the world perceive the act of becoming Christian as an act of bowing to America (or at least, to the West)? And if so, what can be done to change that perception?
One possible answer, though certainly not the only answer, is to partner with native missionaries in the work of cross-cultural missions. Ulfila, the great apostle to the Goths, was himself a Goth by birth. Frumentius, who brought the Gospel to Ethiopia, had lived there for a number of years beforehand; as had Patrick with the Irish. The Anglo-Saxon missionaries who went out from Britain in the 8th and 9th centuries probably met with such success because they were of a related race and language to the Germans who received their message. People will more readily accept one of their own than an outsider; it’s a simple rule of human society. That doesn’t mean that cross-cultural missionaries are obsolete, but rather that a native missionary can be a great asset and ally.
Another application comes from one of the great successes of the early missions to Britain: where possible, target your work toward the leaders of society. Both the Roman and Irish missionaries to England went primarily to the various kings of the land, and with great success. In that culture, when the king accepted a new faith, his whole coterie of war-leaders would accept it, too, along with many of the common people. Thus, the conversion of the king often led to mass conversions of thousands upon thousands of people. Mass conversions are now looked upon suspiciously, and in Anglo-Saxon England they certainly did not signal a permanent change of life in the individuals who were baptized. However, many cultures think in more communal terms than we individualist Americans do, and for them, religion is a matter of community life, not merely of personal decision. Thus, mass conversions can be quite appropriate. And, generally speaking, the second or third generation after a mass conversion is usually thoroughly Christianized (this was the case with the Saxons, who were forced into mass baptism at the point of Charlemagne’s sword, but who soon became the leading lights of Christian Europe). Even if there are no mass conversions, however, the leaders in society usually engender great respect from their people, and the community as a whole will entertain the notion of a new faith more seriously if their leader converts.
Another application, which perhaps should be used sparingly, is to speak about the reality of final Judgment in our preaching and teaching. This was the model of the evangelistic-preaching of the early Church, wherever the sparse records of it remain. We, however, have inherited a fierce distaste toward the guilt-provoking, fire-and-brimstone sermons of our forefathers, and for good reason. But the fact of final Judgment remains prominent in our doctrine. If it is true, and if it is useful in the work of missions, why not use it? There is a difference between making people feel guilty merely for the sake of feeling guilty (which we should probably avoid), and of warning them about something that they need to know. It need not be done in a browbeating fashion. One could easily get the message across in a manner of gentleness and genuine concern. It will cause some offense, to be sure, but the Gospel is naturally offensive to many people.
And finally, we can learn from the message that the Venerable Bede tried to convey to his audience: take the Gospel to your enemies. In reflecting on the history of England, he chastised the Welsh Christians for not sending missionaries to the invading pagan tribes of Angles and Saxons. A few of Bede’s successors heard his message, and men like Willibrord and Boniface gave up their lives to go to the hostile Frisians. But on the whole, the message does not appear to have sunk in. Other than Anskar, we have virtually no record of missionaries going from Britain or central Europe to convert the Vikings. It is a difficult thing to minister to one’s enemies, but it is, I think, the highest expression of what Jesus commanded us to do: love our enemies. We in the American church ought to consider the degree to which we are praying for the salvation of radical Muslim fundamentalists and the degree to which we are traveling to the Middle East to live with them and share the message of Christ’s hope.

Applications for Culture
The final set of applications that I believe we can take from the history of the early and medieval church is on the matter of how to build a missionary culture. There were two great instances of “missionary cultures” during this period—the Edessan/Persian church, and the Irish/Anglo-Saxon church. For Christian clerics in those cultures, missionary service was regarded as one of the highest ideals, one of the greatest honors of the life of faith. They sent out missionaries in all directions at a rate unsurpassed until the Jesuits and the Moravians of the post-Reformation world (with the possible exception of the Franciscans).
How were they able to motivate their people so readily for missionary service? There seem to have been two main reasons: (1) the heroes of whom they were told while growing up were all missionaries, and (2) the finest churchmen and scholars of the day were involved in missionary service. The legacy of Patrick and Columbanus, along with a host of other 7th-century missionary-wanderers, fueled the Anglo-Saxon missions-wave that was spearheaded by Willibrord and Boniface. Their heroes were all missionaries, and so they too aspired to be missionaries. In the same way that ministry students in contemporary America might aspire to become like Billy Graham or Rick Warren or Rob Bell, they aspired to become like Patrick. Bede himself continued this legacy, because his missions-minded Ecclesiastical History of the English People became common reading in England and France and served to spark the Carolingian missions movement. So what application can be drawn for us? Simply this: in teaching and preaching, we can tell our people the stories of the great missionaries of the past—from Patrick and Boniface to J. Hudson Taylor and Samuel Zwemer. Unless they hear the stories, they will never even begin to dream of the possibilities of a world awakened by the mission of the Church.
The second reason for these missionary cultures was that the finest minds of the day were involved in missions. Egbert, Willibrord, and Boniface represented the cream of the crop of Anglo-Saxon clerics, and rather than spend their lives gaining large followings in England, they decided to spend themselves on the mission field. Similarly, Cyril and Methodius were among the leading lights of the Byzantine Empire when they agreed to go out in missionary service to the Khazars, Moravians, and Slavs. Cyril was perhaps one of the greatest intellects in history, and Methodius was a brilliant administrator with connections to the Imperial court; yet they decided to leave all that in order to present the Gospel to those who had not yet heard. To apply this to our own culture is something that we cannot compel: it is something that the best and brightest must themselves choose to do. But if the leaders of our church and culture do make the public and visible sacrifice of serving in cross-cultural missions for the sake of the Kingdom, it would undoubtedly have far-reaching effects in raising up admirers to join the cause.

In all these things, then, we can learn from the early Church. They speak to us from a different time and culture, and so they open up for us ideas that we may have never thought of before. Their ideas, if implemented here in America, would seem radical in nature, but Christianity is a faith that thrives on radical measures. Not all of these suggestions will work; probably not all of them are even advisable in the long run. But at the very least, they are worthy of consideration. We are heirs of the mission that these ancient saints began, and there is great potential that in our day we may see, at least in part, the fulfillment of the promise made 4,000 years ago to Abraham: all nations will be blessed. With that goal in mind, and the great mandate of our Lord himself, we ought to examine and employ every useful measure in the task of carrying out the Great Commission.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Questing to a Better Shore

A few months ago I happily chanced across a copy of Pseudo-Macarius' Fifty Spiritual Homilies on a bargain bookshelf. I had never heard of the author, but, having a strong affection for the spiritual writings of the early church, I bought it. In the past week I've sat down and begun reading it, to find it one of the most beautiful and praise-inspiring collections of early Christian spirituality I've ever encountered. It turns out that Pseudo-Macarius, of whom we know almost nothing other than that he was probably a monk in 4th-century Syria (we don't even know his real name), was one of the early fountainheads of Eastern Orthodox spirituality, and he also had a major impact on the Protestant Pietists (forerunners of us evangelicals).

My spirit has been dry of poetry for several months now, but Pseudo-Macarius brought it back. In the words of John Wesley (from his journal): "I read Macarius and sang." This is a poem I wrote today, inspired by his writings. It speaks of the fight of the human will against the power of sin, which has infested our nature, and of God's help in bringing us back to our original nature, and then beyond it through the gift of the Spirit.

(Those of you interested in the mechanics of poetry will probably note that although this poem aspires to a set meter, and sometimes even a rhyme, it isn't all the way there. That's somewhat intentional--the form of the poem itself is meant to portray the constant aspiration toward the perfection of virtue, but, because of the limitations of sin and human nature, not its full accomplishment.)

Christ, alive this day in me,
In us--
Awaken Thou my soul to love.

I, caught against the flow of sin
That casts me up on twisted nature's shore--
I take my barque and paddle hard
Against the draw of pull and tide;
And as I strike the angry wave
With portioned blow and calm,
The wind of Thy sweet breath makes rise
To aid me to a better shore.

There peace and valor both alight
And greet the wild wind with praise--
There I, true-hearted and alive,
Find my soul in Eden's ways.

This is my nature as it was--
Unspoiled, bright with joy.
Again, again, You call me back,
Back to what we were before.
Pure and undefiled we,
And now with Spirit's raptured grace,
Our hearts are mirrors of Thy love,
Our hearts are mirrors of Thy face.

Thou to us are God
In person and in truth;
And we to the world are as You:
God in virtue and in love.

This voyage is my endless quest,
This fight against dark nature's tide.
Questing I come forth to fight,
And questing I lay down to die.

Make Thou my journey full and fierce,
And recklessly sublime,
Till I find myself at nature's end
When love shall triumph over time.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Can Politics Save the World?

The answer, of course, is "No." But in a presidential election where hype is at an all-time high, driven by mantras of "hope" and "change we can believe in," it's worth re-stating the simple truth: politics can achieve a great deal of good, but politics has never been the answer to the world's problems, and it never will be.

I've outlined my position on voting in presidential elections in the posts below, and I have great hopes for the good that politics can achieve in the future of our country. But if our hope is only in politics, our hope is severely misplaced. Biblically speaking, the Christian hope for the world only marginally intersects with the regular course of political affairs. There is some overlap, but certainly not a total overlap. For instance, the church is called to seek justice, as is the state. But the church seeks justice not for itself, but for others, and it seeks it by way of love, while the state seeks justice by means of the sword, and first and foremost for its own citizens. And there are significant areas where the agendas of church and state do not point in the same direction. For example, capitalist nation-states see it as their duty to support an economy that flourishes in prosperity for its citizens, while the church flourishes by giving its prosperity away for the good of others. The state exists, in large part, for the safety and security of its people, while the church mobilizes its people into the unsafe, insecure areas of life where the mission of God is being carried out.

In short, then, the church and state have different aims, and even in those aims they do share, their methods are significantly different. But it's not enough to note that the two institutions are merely different. We need to press further and ask, "Which institution has more potential to change the world for good?" Certainly politics can (but historically, its track record hasn't been great on that mark), but the church is where the power for transforming society truly rests. Why? Simply because the transformation of society begins with people's hearts, and that is beyond the reach of politics.

The God-given mandate of politics--the power of the sword to do good--is usually defined in terms of ensuring peace and justice. And those ends, of course, are indispensable. There are some things that the state can do which the church can't, and as good citizens of a democratic state, we ought to uphold those purposes. However, my first exhortation for my fellow Christians is simply this: We ought not to cede too much of our mission to the state. We can't allow political action on issues that are also responsibilities of the church to give us an excuse for our complacency. To put it simply: the mere fact that the government in our society takes upon itself the task of looking after the poor and the elderly is not a good reason for the church to ignore its own mandate to care for the weakest members of society.

Politics can't save the world, but Jesus can and will. And the body of Christ--his living presence in this world--is the church. The church has more power--immeasurably more--to effect lasting change for good in the world than politics ever will.

Take the abortion issue. Though the political means of fighting abortion are valuable--and hopefully will prove effective--lasting change on this issue, in a democratic society like ours, will only come through a basic change in people's hearts. A self-centered, sex-crazed culture will never consent to do away with abortion. Even if anti-abortion legislation is effectively passed, it will always be in danger of being reversed as long as the majority of the culture is ambivalent about the morality of this issue. Only a culture being inwardly renewed through a revival of Christian faith and morality will be able to stand up and affirm lasting change. Politics can change laws, but not hearts; and it is hearts that need changing before some of the issues that face us, like abortion, can ever be fully addressed. (Note, however, that this is not an argument against anti-abortion legislation, since I argued strongly in my earlier posts for using politics to fight abortion. This is merely an observation that the root of the problem goes deeper than bad laws--it goes back to the hearts of the citizens who make the laws).

Perhaps it's good to consider not so much what Obama or McCain can do for the causes of peace, education, poverty, and social justice, but rather to consider what we, the church, can do. It is our responsibility to look after the poor, the widows, and the orphans. We cannot allow ourselves to slide into complacency on these issues with the excuse that it's the government's problem now. If we really want to effect lasting change toward a life-affirming culture, we need to model that life by caring for the poor, comforting the sick, and adopting parentless children. If we really want to move our nation toward peacemaking rather than violent international policing, then we need to model the sort of honest, loving, confrontational peacemaking that Jesus displayed. If we honestly want to see lasting change in this country, we ought to be spending a great deal more time on our knees.

Politics can't save the world. But God can, and God works through the church. Let's remember, when election day rolls around, that putting too much of our hope in politics can lead us into an idolatrous cult of misplaced hope. Politics can do great good, but our hope truly rests only in one place:

"Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God." (Ps. 20:7)

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The Leopard

Dear readers, you have my apologies for it having been so long since my last post. Here's a poem I just wrote, inspired by Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy. It's called "The Leopard":

“And see! not far from where the mountain-side
First rose, a Leopard, nimble and light and fleet,
Clothed in a fine furred pelt all dapple-dyed,
Came gamboling out, and skipped before my feet,
Hindering me so, that from the forthright line
Time and again I turned to beat retreat.”
Dante’s Inferno, Canto I (translated by Dorothy Sayers)

The wood is dark; the path is lost;
And I, half-blinded in the haze—
I turn my heart in reckless round,
To follow after better ways.
But then it comes, the shadow bright,
The beast that haunts my every breath.
It lurks, it laughs, it waits for me,
To drag me to an endless death.
As bright as gold, I yearn for it
When weakness drowns my better sense,
But black as night it is to me—
The lash, the grave, and my offense.
I know my foe, and he knows me,
For long and bitter is our fight.
Sometimes I rout him from the path,
Sometimes he chases me to flight.
We’ve wrestled long, the two of us—
Bloodied am I, but never dead,
Nor shall I now give up the path
To this, my desire and my dread.
Blessed Heaven, if thou can hear,
Oh, send a guide to guard my ways,
To lead me past this threshold black
And raise my steps to higher planes.
There is but one escape for me,
I know it well, but fear the path—
To journey down purgation’s vale
And taste of my appointed wrath.
Then down, then up, the other side,
O blessed mountain of my hope!
Then grace will be my very strength,
The pow’r that pulls me up that slope.
And then, O bright and swift ascent!
Beyond the hill, and far above,
To that which grace assigned for me,
A place within the Maker’s love.
I know the journey well enough,
But still this step awaits me now—
Beyond the leopard’s deadly lair
And to the keeping of my vow.
A breath for strength, a prayer for grace,
Now Heaven’s pow’r my heart revives;
I step into the joy of God,
And I will flay this beast alive.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

A Relationship with God

In popular evangelical circles, there's a saying that goes something like this: "Christianity isn't a religion; it's a relationship."

I understand the sentiment here. There's more to Christianity than rites and readings. It's a genuine, personal connection with a very real, very personal God. But if we leave it at merely the level of "Christianity is a relationship," then we run the risk of hindering our own spiritual growth and the growth of those around us. The truth is, Christianity is a relationship, but it's like no other relationship you've ever had. The interactions that constitute this personal relationship with God are so unlike any human relationship that the terminology of "relationship" can lead us to some false assumptions.

For instance, many people assume that they should always have an awareness of the presence of God with them. As with any dear friend, they yearn for closeness, for an emotional attachment that will bring them consolation in their empty moments. They want a safe refuge to run to, a place to feel accepted and secure.

But that's not always the way it is with God. Because pride and self-centeredness has its roots all the way down into the depths of our hearts, sometimes we want to be close to God for our own sake. We seek him out not for the sake of his glory, but for our own consolation. But to enjoy someone's presence only for the way they make you feel is the most basic of relationships--that of a young child with its parents. And God is a Father to us, but he is so much more. He has called us to be his friends. And he beckons us toward maturity, toward a relationship that seeks and shares and rejoices together. A real relationship involves significant give-and-take, and our relationship with God is more "real" than any other.

Sometimes the only way we can actually learn to know God more intimately--to seek him out for his own sake and to appreciate him for who he is--is by the removal of the consolations of his presence from us. Sometimes, God is very hard to find. He can feel a universe away from us, and there is no sign that he either hears or cares about our prayers and devotions. To someone who has only ever been told that "Christianity is a relationship," this can be a bewildering time. How do you have a relationship with someone who simply isn't there? But the truth is, that's often how the Christian life feels. Very few believers enjoy the constant consolations of God's presence. More often there are the quiet emptinesses, the desolations of yearning. More often than not, our prayers seem like a one-way conversation. We try to listen, but all we hear is silence. For those believers who have been taught that prayer ought to be a genuine dialogue between them and God, there is no explanation for these long treks through the desert of God's silence.

So what do we do? I don't think we need to throw away the language of relationship, because our union with God certainly is that. But we need to teach people how to understand that relationship. It involves more than a sense of God's presence and the joyful expectation of interior peace. Sometimes it involves just the opposite--the desolations of God's silence. But tradition tells us that the latter experiences are more fruitful than the former. Those desolations and silences are the experiences that grow us toward maturity. We begin to understand that God is more than our intimate counselor, ready to soothe us at a moment's notice. He is king and friend, father and warrior, shepherd and judge. He is all this and infinitely more. He is the Endless All before which creation trembles. And he does not submit to our expectations. Rather, he weans us away from ourselves, making us able to see who he is in himself. It is a vision that we can't handle as beginners; we have no capacity to drink in the full wonder of the Godhead. But through the long, painful road of dying to self, which includes these droughts of God's emotional consolation, we are made, in the end, able to understand and experience (at least in part) the breathless, ineffable Person of God. This relationship is a journey, and because it is a relationship with God, it is like no other relationship. God is always near, and he does not abandon us, but he wants to lead us on the long road of knowing him. Only on that road does our relationship mature. Only on that road do we find open the possibility of resting in the presence of God like Moses did in the Tent of Meeting, as one friend with another.

And when we use the language of relationship, we should use it with caution, not only because it's an utterly unique relationship, but also because that idea, taken as the pattern of Christian life, is only sparsely found in the New Testament. That's not to say it isn't present. Certainly the NT speaks of us being "reconciled to God," and Jesus gives a long and intimate speech to his friends before his death. Because of the Spirit living in us, we can cry "Abba!" to God. But when the NT writers come down to talking about the true nature of Christianity in its practical form, they seldom use the idea of a personal relationship with God. Part of the reason, I suspect, is because they didn't conceive of the Christian life as a purely individual affair. Christianity, for them, was not the experience of "me and God." It was the experience of "God and us." We are all united together to the true vine. As a community of saints, we are together called and chosen and set apart to be a kingdom of priests. And there are many times when, in our journey with God, we see him most clearly in the lives and words of our brothers and sisters in Christ. When God seems distant in our prayers, he is near to us in one another. We need to understand that this "relationship with God" is not simply "my relationship with God." It's our relationship. What we do affects one another, even (perhaps especially) on the spiritual level. As a community of faith, we all have a stake in one another's walk with the Lord. That's why so much of the NT is not about prayer or one's personal devotional life (topics we might expect to find if we were trying to reconstruct the NT from the currently bestselling books on the Christian life), but rather, it's overwhelmingly about how we live in relationship with one another.

True religion--this relationship with God--does not find its clearest manifestation in the secret practices of individual devotion, but in care for widows, orphans, and the poor, in forgiveness and mutual submission, and in the practices of building one another up. God is not pleased with the man who spends hours in prayer and yet still deals harshly with his brother. An act of mercy is worth an hour of prayer.

In what is perhaps the most intimate, personally relational passage in the Bible, John 15, Jesus describes his love and friendship for the disciples. And he concludes the thought with his summation of what ought to characterize their lives, in light of his love:

"Love one another."

Monday, September 01, 2008

Publishing Update

For those of you who might be looking for my new book to come out, I should let you know that it will be a few more months. My publisher, Capstone Fiction, was a very new (and small) entry into the publishing world, and they ran into some legal trouble with their name. Long story short, they've had to change their name, and will now be called OakTara. Their new website will be As a result of the work generated by the changeover, all newly-contracted books (including mine) will be pushed back about 6 months. But as soon as I find out a firm timetable as to the publishing, I'll let everyone know.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Mysteries

Why did Jesus have to die?

Most of us can come up with a good answer right off the top of our heads: Jesus had to die in order to forgive our sins. But with that answer in mind, consider the question again: Why did Jesus have to die? In other words, why can’t God simply forgive people, without demanding the death of anyone at all?

I started asking that question about a month ago, and the last few weeks have led me on a journey of study into the mysteries of the atonement. This is a controversial issue—more than one would suspect if all one listened to was the week-by-week sermons from evangelical pulpits. But along the way I’ve discovered a rich depth of new understandings, and I would like to share them here. For those of you who aren’t theologically-minded by nature, I’d still encourage you to read this post. It’s long, but (I hope) not overly long for the depth of the material covered. (If you only have time to glance at one section, take a look at the final summation of my understanding of the Incarnation, since it might well be different from what you’ve heard before.) I hope to submit a bit of critique to the normal way that evangelicals understand the meaning of Jesus’ death on the Cross, and then to add an overview of some of the rich ways that Christians throughout history have understood the atonement. To those not used to reading theology, some of this might seem a bit nitpicky at first. But I believe it’s important. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, each one of us has a personal theology. That theology, especially if we’re unconscious of its presuppositions, colors the way we read Scripture. It also shapes the way we think about God and the Christian life. And, in the end, the way we think shapes the way we live. So I’d like to invite you to join me in an exploration of some different ways of thinking about the wonder of the Cross.

By way of a brief acknowledgement, I need to tip my hat to my brother Josh, who helped point out my initial direction for this study (though whether he agrees with its final form will be for him to decide). Much of my work leans on the early Church Fathers’ interpretation of Scripture, particularly Irenaeus of Lyons and Athanasius of Alexandria. (Irenaeus was one of the earliest of the great Church Fathers, and most of his work was done in combating Gnostic heresies. There’s an ancient tradition that says he studied at the feet of Bishop Polycarp, who studied at the feet of the Apostle John. Athanasius came later, but he represents the “gold standard” of ancient orthodoxy. His influence that was formative in shaping the great creeds of the church.) In particular, I made use of Athanasius’ On the Incarnation and Hans Boersma’s exposition of Irenaeus (Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross). I was also aided by J. I. Packer’s masterfully sane defense of the penal substitution model (What Did the Cross Achieve?) and C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity.

Metaphors and Models The first thing that needs to be said is that the classic orthodox creeds of the faith leave the question of the atonement open. While the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation are defined for us, there is wide flexibility for study into the meaning of the atonement. Scripture uses a wide variety of metaphors and models to explain what Christ accomplished in his life, death, and resurrection. The New Testament speaks about the atonement as redemption and ransom, which point toward the exchange of a price; as sacrifice and propitiation, using the context of Old Testament sacrifices; as healing, cleansing, justifying, victory, triumph, demonstration, reconciliation, and a host of others. And as Augustine says in his Enchiridion: “If there are other advantages accruing from so great a mystery of the Mediator—even if they cannot be described—let them be added to the list.” Unfortunately, most of the Protestant tradition has had a tendency to focus on the sacrifice/propitiation/justification family of themes (“penal substitution”), to the detriment of other understandings.

The important thing to keep in mind at this point, though, is that these are metaphors for redemption. They are there to illuminate the meaning of the atonement rather than the mechanics of the process. Metaphors can’t be pushed too far, or they will break down. Scripture does not illuminate the mechanics of the atonement for us (that is, it doesn’t explain exactly how Jesus’ life and death was efficacious for change), and we should not expect that we can fully understand the acts of an infinite God. For this reason, it’s my belief that we need a kaleidoscopic view of the main Scriptural metaphors in order to gain a full picture of the atonement. None is complete in and of itself, and they are all intended to be an aid to our understanding.

For the purpose of this study, I’ll examine five “families” of atonement models that come from Scripture: Penal Substitution, Moral Governance, Christus Victor, Healing, and Relational. The first three categories are often viewed as the classic models of the atonement, but I think the Scriptural range is a bit broader than those three alone. I’ll conclude by offering a holistic understanding of the Incarnation that can make use of all five sets of atonement models.

Model #1: Penal Substitution This is the model that has become the mainstream “big idea” of the atonement in most evangelical churches. It was pioneered in its current form by the great Reformers of the 16th century—Martin Luther and John Calvin. Like all models of the atonement, it begins with a view of the problem of humanity: the main issue facing mankind is its sinfulness. Because our individual sins are an infinite offense before an all-holy God, we are justly condemned to die for our crimes. The classical source for this belief is the first few chapters of Romans (although it also appears elsewhere in Scripture). There we find that the wrath of God is being revealed against mankind because of their sin (Rom. 1:18). Every man and woman stands under this same guilt and condemnation. What Jesus did, then, was to take the guilt of all these sins upon himself. He presented himself as a sacrifice, just as a spotless lamb would have been offered as a sacrifice for sin in the Old Testament. God the Father poured out his wrath against sin on Jesus, who accepted the punishment of death. Because of that transfer, our guilt has been taken away, and God now sees us as righteous in Christ.

Most of us will be fairly familiar with the argument. But there are some troubling tendencies in this model if taken too far. Depending on how it’s presented, we can come away with a very skewed view of God. Anger becomes one of the primary characteristics of God in his relation with human beings. We lose sight of the golden Old Testament theme that God is “slow to anger and abounding in love.” Rather, we see that he is constrained by his unswerving moral rectitude to punish every infraction of his law, no matter how minor—and punish with death! It might legitimately be asked, why does God demand “a kill” before he can forgive? Isn’t forgiveness the idea that one asks for nothing in compensation—not even punishment? Why is God unable to offer a type of forgiveness that even I am able to give to others, a forgiveness that looks for nothing in return? Further, what sort of justice is it that punishes an innocent person for the sins of others? And how can this view be reconciled with the idea of a loving God? Even if we accept that God’s character is infinitely more complex than a human’s, it strains the imagination to assume that God can feel love for a human person—a love that genuinely desires to save—and, at the same time, a wrath that demands death.

These are some of the common objections raised against the penal substitution model. And, at face value, they appear compelling. But they miss the big picture. Penal substitution isn’t only about God’s wrath against sin. It’s much more about God’s love in taking that wrath on himself. That’s the piece of the puzzle that most of the objections overlook—they try to use this model to examine the character of God without actually taking the atonement into account. The truth is, Jesus Christ is God-in-the-flesh. And rather than demanding the punishment for sins from those who sinned, God, in his great love, took that punishment on himself. We need not picture this as the Father punishing the Son. To avoid the heresy of a vengeful, death-seeking God who commits child abuse against his Son, we need to remember the unity of the Trinity. It wasn’t only that the Son placated the Father’s wrath through his substitution in our place—it was also that God himself so loved the world that he accepted death for us. Mercy and justice are both part of the nature of God. But while God expresses anger, God is love. God is angry at our sins, and has every right to destroy us. But he doesn’t. In his unimaginable love, he substitutes himself under the judgment that should have fallen on us. In the Cross of Christ, we can exclaim with James, “Mercy triumphs over judgment!”

To get at the real thrust of penal substitution—self-sacrificial love that takes the place of condemnation—let me offer this quote from the early Christian Epistle to Diognetus (9:2b-5): “He did not hate us, or reject us, or bear a grudge against us; instead he was patient and forbearing; in mercy he took upon himself our sins; he himself gave up his own Son as a ransom for us, the holy one for the lawless, the guiltless for the guilty, the just for the unjust, the incorruptible for the corruptible, the immortal for the mortal. For what else but his righteousness could have covered our sins?...O the sweet exchange, O the incomprehensible work of God, O the unexpected blessings, that the sinfulness of many should be hidden in one righteous person, while the righteousness of one should justify many sinners!”

Now that a corrective has been given, we can still affirm that not everything in the objections above is misplaced. It’s still difficult to posit that God must punish sin. My personal view is that God has the freedom to forgive without condition if he so chooses, but his justice and his anger at sin means that he will never treat sin as a small thing. In a practical sense, we can say that God will punish sin (not necessarily that he must, and not necessarily “sins” in the sense of each individual sin ever committed). We can also say that he already has punished sin in the person of Christ. God has every right to punish our sins in holy retribution. But instead, he has decided to take the punishment that we deserve upon himself, and so to set us free.

There are still a few problems, though. The penal substitution model has its place in Scripture. Both the Old and New Testaments are clear that God is angry at sin, and that he has every right to pour out punishment—even punishment to the death—on everyone who sins. But the Protestant tradition has stumbled in making this model its primary understanding of the Cross. First of all, it focuses almost exclusively on the negative. That is, it focuses on solving of the problem of sin. It answers the question, “What are we saved from?” but not “What are we saved to?” (Some of the other models do a much better job of answering the second question.) Second, it also fails to explain why Jesus’ life, ministry, and resurrection are important. If Jesus’ death alone is what accomplishes his mission and gains our salvation, why did he spend so much time teaching? Why not just get to the Cross? And why did he need to rise again? It’s nice that he did come back to life, but if this model is our only understanding of the atonement, then he really didn’t need to. The job was already completely done, and we could still have believed in the future resurrection of the body anyway, as the Pharisees of that time did. Third, it ignores the stream of Scriptural teaching that views salvation as a process over the whole course of one’s life, in which one needs to persevere and endure till the end. Other than a response of gratitude, this model gives us little reason to live in holiness. Finally, this model is limited in two main ways: it’s highly individualistic, and its focus is only on legal exchange. It doesn’t tell me much about my relationship with God except that God hates my sin, is angry at me when I sin, but that, despite his anger, he loves me and has made it possible for me not to be an object of his wrath. This model, when considered on its own, leads us to a picture of the Christian life that is obsessed with personal sins and personal forgiveness. And don’t get me wrong: that’s part of the picture. But it’s not the whole picture. Not by a long shot.

Model #2: Moral Governance This model also has its grounding in Scripture, but in the Protestant tradition it came about largely as a reaction against penal substitution. It is suspicious of the claim (as I am) that God is constrained by his character to punish every sin ever committed, and that he is unable to forgive by any means other than exacting punishment. On the other hand, it still affirms the wrath of God against sin. Scripture is clear: God is angry at sin. But this model defines the problem of mankind differently. Whereas penal substitution holds that each sin is an infinite crime against an all-holy God, the moral governance model claims that the problem is our lack of understanding. We just don’t get it. In our natural condition, we don’t understand God’s hatred of sin. And thus, we don’t understand God himself, which makes it impossible for us either to live in relationship with him or to live holy lives.

So Jesus came as an example. He taught us how to live holy lives, and then he died to display the wrath of God against sin. In this sense, the Cross is not about appeasing God’s anger, but rather about illustrating it. Moral governance proponents point to Romans 3:25 (also a favorite verse of the penal atonement camp, though with a differing interpretation): God had Jesus crucified “to show righteousness.” By seeing Jesus’ example, we turn from our own sins and embrace him. And God accepts our repentance, as we look on Christ crucified, and wipes clean any offense or debt of sin that was previously held against us. He doesn’t demand punishment as a prerequisite—he simply forgives. But our salvation is not merely the absence of sin. Our salvation is a matter of a whole life lived (and there are numerous Scriptures to support this). In effect, salvation is a process of following the example of Jesus and progressively reflecting his holiness.

In his Enchiridion (29:108), Augustine made a list of various aspects that he saw in Christ’s mediatorial work, and moral governance ideas figured prominently. Augustine described Jesus’ death as an act that exposed the pride of mankind, which was then healed by the humility of God. It was also “to show how far man had departed from God.” Christ, he said, was given to us as “an example of obedience.”

But this model, when taken alone, runs into problems. It doesn’t sufficiently account for Scriptures which teach quite plainly that Christ bore our sins (1Pet. 2:24, 1 John 2:2). It limits the work of the Cross to a demonstration of God’s wrath against sin. But it fails to account for the fact that Christian tradition has always viewed Jesus’ passion as an event that actually did away with our sins, either by sacrificial cleansing or by appeasing God’s anger. It’s hard to escape the feeling that this model trivializes the Cross. If the main problem is our lack of understanding of God’s wrath against sin, did Jesus really need to die? It’s an awfully persuasive demonstration, but maybe not a necessary one. Humans were given a rational capacity for understanding, and Jesus surely could have just taught us about God’s wrath against sin.

At the same time, I think the moral governance model, at least in part, is a necessary piece of the Scriptural picture of salvation. It’s clear through the New Testament that salvation cannot be reduced to merely having one’s sins expunged. Jesus said, “he who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Matt. 24:13). There’s a broad stream of Scriptural teaching that sees salvation not only as the moment of conversion, but also as the moment of final declaration of righteousness at the end of one’s life. The Epistle to the Hebrews is full of exhortations to endure, to press on, not to fall away. Moral governance rightly recognizes the “whole life picture” of salvation. It also rightly notes that Jesus’ life has salvific significance for us, as our teacher and model. As Christians, we are not merely rescued from our sins. We are also called to be imitators of Christ. And God, through his power that works in and through us, empowers us to walk in obedience. The moral governance theory, then, doesn’t focus as much on what we are saved from (ignorance?) as what we are saved to (a life of obedient holiness and transformation into the likeness of Christ).

It is thus a necessary corrective to the penal substitution model, and I think the two need to be held as complementary. We can affirm with penal substitution that Jesus actually did bear away our sin on the Cross (even if the mechanics of the process are beyond our understanding), and with moral governance that we are called, as a result of his life and teaching, to become his disciples in the here and now.

Model #3: Christus Victor This is one of the most ancient understandings of the Cross, and almost every one of the Church Fathers makes reference to it when discussing Jesus’ death. Our problem, in our natural condition without Christ, is that we are captives—we are bound by the power of Satan, by sin, and by death. (It’s important to note here that “sin” is not thought of as everyone’s individual sins, but rather as a personification of evil that prevents us from doing good.) Everyone who sins cedes power to Satan and his dominion over the earth. This argument feels a little strange for most evangelicals, since we don’t spend a lot of time actually thinking about Satan. Driven by a penal substitution understanding of the Cross, we generally consider the Christian life to be an internal battle against sin. But there’s a broad stream of Scripture that speaks about Satan’s present dominion over the world, and about the Christian life as an external battle against the powers of evil. Paul seems to refer to Satan as “the god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4) and “the ruler of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2). Jesus calls Satan “the prince” of this present age (John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11). The early Church Fathers also saw death as more than just a physical eventuality—it was an evil spiritual power, wielded by Satan, to which all human beings were subject as a result of sin. It included not merely physical death, but the loss of all spiritual life. To these three complementary spheres of evil power—Satan, sin, and death—all human beings were enslaved as a result of Adam’s first sin.

In this view, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus all have significance for our salvation. Jesus prepares for his ministry by going into the desert and ends up having a faceoff with Satan (in which Satan implies that he (Satan) has authority over all the kingdoms of the world). Jesus wins that preliminary contest by refusing to sin, and thus refusing to submit himself to the devil’s power. A large part of Jesus’ subsequent ministry consisted of the confrontation of demonic powers and of freeing people from their grasp. Finally, Jesus died on the Cross “so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Heb. 2:14-15). “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Col. 2:15). 1 John 3:8 puts it plainly: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.” And as the final stroke of his victory, Jesus rose from the dead. The power of death, which was in Satan’s hands, could not hold Jesus.

As a result, we Christians have victory over sin, death, and Satan through Jesus Christ. We have been “rescued…from the power of darkness and transferred…into the kingdom of the beloved Son” (Col. 1:13). In his death and resurrection, Jesus broke Satan’s power, and the church is now endued with the power of God for the final rout of the forces of evil. Paul speaks about the church age by saying that the end will come “when [Jesus] hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet” (1 Cor. 15:24-25). Ephesians 6:11-12 famously presents the Christian life as a battle against the powers of evil: “Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” The New Testament clearly expects us to be watchful against the influence of Satan, but it never loses its note of triumphalism. The battle is already won, and we are free. Now we can resist the devil, and he will flee from us (Jas. 4:7). Now we can be assured that nothing—not even angels or demons or any other powers—can separate us from the love of God (Rom. 8:38-39).

Athanasius, writing in the 4th century, has this same triumphalism. In his Life of Antony and On the Incarnation, he boasts that wherever the Gospel is preached, the demons flee, pagan religion crumbles, and men and women have power to embrace the freedom of God. The Gospel had spread even to the barbarians, those tribes that had always before been under the dominion of Satan. He notes that Christians have no fear of the power of death anymore, standing boldly for Christ in the midst of persecution and martyrdom. Because Satan has been defeated, the church is on the move, routing the enemy from every last stronghold in this world.

It might be of interest to note that this was one of C. S. Lewis’ favorite models of the atonement. It is the dominant model in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and it has a significant place in Mere Christianity.

But how, exactly, did Jesus break Satan’s power? What was it about his life, death, and resurrection that won the victory? Here we run the risk of pushing the metaphor too far, seeking mechanics rather than meaning. Some of the suggestions made by the early Church Fathers are evidence of this danger (for instance, one popular assertion was that God tricked Satan by making Jesus a human being, and when Satan swallowed the bait, he was hooked by Jesus’ godhood, which he couldn’t swallow). But there are better solutions available. Jesus triumphed by virtue of his obedience (again, note the salvific significance of Jesus’ life, not just his death). Because it was disobedience by one representative man (Adam) that set all humanity in bondage, the obedience of the “second Adam” (Christ) broke those bonds. Jesus also accepted death—which Heb. 2:14 ascribes to the devil—but, being sinless, was not worthy of death, and so undid its power. There’s also the idea of a “ransom” here (think The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe again—Aslan offers himself to the White Witch in Edmund’s place). God had given Satan the power of death. And Christ paid the ransom-price of death in exchange for humanity. But because Satan had put to death an innocent man, he had transgressed the authority which God had given him, and so God took it back. Satan is thus justly dispossessed of his power. This is the notion of many of the Eastern Church Fathers, but the Christus Victor model itself does not depend on any such speculation about the mechanics of the process.

So sin is the problem of humanity in this model, but not primarily as a crime against God. Sin is the problem because it has enslaved us to Satan and to death. Again, we should recognize that the models we’ve seen are not mutually exclusive. There’s no reason why we can’t view the problem of sin as both guilt and enslavement. Christ died to take away the guilt of our sins, but he also died to take away our enslavement to the power of sin.

As with the others, this model runs into some problems if it’s taken as our sole understanding of the atonement. Like penal substitution, it answers the question of what we’re saved from, but doesn’t focus a great deal on what we’re saved to (other than a role in God’s conquest of evil). But the greatest danger is that, when taken alone, it gives far too much credit to Satan. We would come to see all evil and temptation as a result of Satan’s influence. But tradition has long affirmed that there are three sources of evil and temptation—the world (the sinful ordering of society), the flesh (our sinful human nature), and the devil. On the positive side, however, we can affirm that the Christus Victor model is clearly present in Scripture. It also makes sense of the entirety of Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and current heavenly reign. And it provides a view of the Christian life that is not merely internal. Rather, as Christians, we are a part of God’s cosmic salvation. The Christian life is not merely one of struggling with individual sin, but of spiritual warfare—the external battlefield that leads us to stand against the sources and effects of evil in the world around us.

Model #4: Healing Now we move from the three classic, better-attested models to two groups that I also find in Scripture, but with slightly different emphases than those already described. The first of these two interprets the atonement as healing. Again, sin is seen as the problem, but in a different way. This view takes sin not as a crime or an enslavement, but as a disease. In the great messianic “Servant Song” of Isaiah 53, we find healing metaphors alongside penal substitution: “he took up our infirmities…and by his wounds we are healed” (v.4). The doctrine of “original sin” is important here. In Romans 5, where Paul expounds the doctrine, we find him speaking of sin as a whole, rather than as individual actions: “Sin entered the world through one man” (v.12). Theology, following Paul’s argument, has long held that through that first sin of Adam, all human beings were forever affected. As the representative of our race, he sinned, and we all share the effects of that sin. (This idea of humanity as a unity is important. We are all connected together in one organic unity through natural generation and spiritual affinity. As C. S. Lewis describes it, “If you could see humanity spread out in time, as God sees it, it would not look like a lot of separate things dotted about. It would look like one single growing thing—rather like a very complicated tree.”) Because of our union with Adam and his sin, we are all now born with an inherent proclivity toward sin, a twisting of our desires and will. Rather than desiring good, we now “naturally” desire evil. We were originally created “in the image of God.” According to Eastern theology, that image has been defaced through the disease of original sin. Our wills have been changed by sin to the point that we have, in a great measure, lost our likeness to God. It is this condition—this disease—of which all individual sins are symptoms. In the opinion of the early Church Fathers, this is what made Jesus’ death a necessity. According to Athanasius, God is fully able to forgive individual sins merely by virtue of repentance. But individual sin isn’t the whole problem. Humanity stands in need of holistic healing in the depths of its nature. Only by death—the original penalty for the first sin—can the effects of that first sin be undone.

In his death, then, Jesus did more than merely atone for all the little individual sins that each of us has done. He has begun the healing of the human family tree. He has instilled in us the cure that is undoing our sinful nature (what C. S. Lewis referred to as “the good infection”). As Paul goes on to say in Romans 5, “Just as through the disobedience of the one man [Adam] the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man [Christ] the many will be made righteous” (v.19). Through his redemption, along with the empowering presence of the Spirit, we now have the power to desire and do what is good, and to despise and refuse evil. Our wills are being healed. The image of God is being re-painted in us, so that through Christ we begin to regain our resemblance to the One who made us.

Here it might be beneficial to pursue a question related to the models we’ve examined so far: Why is God so angry at sin? We live in a culture where most sins are seen as “no big deal.” As long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else, it’s okay, right? But the Bible is clear that God hates sin. Those who hold exclusively to penal substitution suggest that God hates sin because it is an infinite affront to his holiness. And that is undoubtedly part of the reason. But taken alone, it leaves us with a caricature of a God who is infinitely uptight, whose holiness seems to depend as much on his interaction with others as it does on the sufficiency of his own being. It doesn’t detract at all from God’s holiness to say that mankind is sinful, and I can’t honestly see how it would detract from his holiness if he mercifully chose to forgive sin without demanding punishment. Penal substitutionists would also say that sin is an affront to his sovereignty, an unwillingness to recognize his lordship. And again, that’s part of the answer. But taken alone, it would lead us to think of God as a tyrant who is enraged by the fact that he doesn’t constantly get the proper homage from his subjects. I think there’s a deeper answer to the question of why God hates sin, one that overlaps with the two given above and makes them a bit more sensible. God hates sin because he loves us. He hates sin because of what it does to us. It twists us, holds us captive, and turns us into something wretched. It prevents us from becoming what we were always meant to be. Imagine a loving father whose grown-up son becomes an alcoholic. The son’s life completely falls apart because of his addiction to drinking. Wouldn’t the father hate that addiction? He would hate it because of what it did to his son, whom he loves. And that’s the same way that God hates sin. He hates it because of what it does to us, whom he loves beyond all measure.

The great benefit of the healing model is that it adds something crucial to the previous models. Rather than just telling us how we’re freed from sin, it shows us that we now have the power to do right. It gives us not only an understanding of the solution to the problem of sin, but also a glimpse of the one grand goal of the atonement: that we would become like Christ. The atonement is the act of Jesus Christ—in his life, death, and resurrection—that makes us what we were always meant to be.

Model #5: Relational This one is actually more of a theme than a model. It moves us closer to what I believe is the heart of the atonement. The bottom line, which all of the other four models move us toward, is this: we have been separated from God. The problems of legal guilt, ignorance, enslavement, and disease all point toward that one somber fact. The intimate communion that Adam and Eve had with God in the Garden of Eden—that intimate communion that each one of us was made for—has been broken. And the great message of the Gospel is that God himself has come to earth in the person of Jesus Christ to seek us out and restore that communion. He entered a world riddled with sin and ruled by Satan in order to draw us to himself. More than the condemnation of sin, the atonement is about our relationship with God. The other four models show the various ways that God overcame the problem of sin. But the goal of that overcoming was so that we might be in a restored relationship with him—in Paul’s terminology, that we would have reconciliation and peace with God. This is the point of the great parables of Luke 15. Jesus came to seek and save the lost. God’s reaction to us in the atonement is the reaction of the father, welcoming home his prodigal son.

There’s a strand of thought in biblical studies that redefines even the legal categories of penal substitution in relational terms. Too often we think of justice in terms of crime and punishment, balancing wrongs with retribution. But justice—in the biblical sense—is a covenant-attribute of God (it’s actually the exact same word as “righteousness”). It doesn’t always mean that God is balancing out sin by means of punishment. It means that he faithfully acts according to the terms of his covenant-relationship with us. “Righteousness” often carries the sense of “doing right vis-à-vis the covenant-relationship.” So when Paul speaks of the justice and righteousness of God, and of his justifying work on our behalf, perhaps he is actually talking about the ways that God brings us back into relationship with him, rather than simply the way that he punishes sin. As Boersma, quoting Marshall, says: “Punishment may be necessary…but it is not the pain of punishment that achieves justice, as though justice resides in creating equity of suffering, the pain of offenders’ punishments compensating for the pain inflicted on victims. True justice resides in the restoring of relationships and the recreation of shalom” (175). Shalom is the Hebrew idea of peace—a holistic idea of well-being for humans, for society, and for all creation in relationship with God. At its root, justice is neither more nor less than this—all things properly ordered unto God.

In light of the relational theme, we can also venture a reconsideration of the meaning of death. This is entirely speculative, and perhaps dead wrong, but I think it’s worth considering. The penal substitution model assumes that death is the penalty that God always demands because of sin. But there may be another way of interpreting it. Jesus said, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3). This is not unfamiliar language in evangelical thought—to be really alive is to be in relationship with God, and to be cut off from relationship with God is to be dead. In the words of Irenaeus: "Communion with God is life, and separation from God is death." Perhaps when God warned Adam and Eve in the Garden, “If you eat it, you will surely die,” he was not decreeing a penalty. Perhaps he was saying that the natural result of sin would be separation from him, which is, in a very real way, death. And perhaps when Paul says that “the wages of sin is death,” what he means is not that death is the proper punishment of sin, but that death is sin’s natural result. Death is simply what sin earns by nature of sin being sin. It cuts us off from God, who is the only True Life. If this train of thought is right (and at this point it’s only a suggestion), then Jesus accepted death as the penalty for our sins—not necessarily as the punishment of God, but as the natural result of our sins. By the grace of God, he “tasted death for everyone” (Heb. 2:9). He underwent separation from the Father so that we could be brought back to the Father.

One of the other great images of atonement in Scripture, especially in the Old Testament, is that of exile and return. Though Israel was the covenant-community in relationship with God, he would allow the Israelites to be taken into exile as a restorative punishment for their sins. But there was always the promise and the hope that one day—just as he had done for the Israelites in Egypt—he would lead them out again, back into relationship with him. The intriguing thing here is that many of the Jews in Jesus’ day still felt themselves to be in a time of exile. Foreigners ruled Israel, and the power of God was not evident among them as it had been in days gone by. They were waiting for God to lead them out of their spiritual exile. And Jesus did just that. I’m not a fan of all of N. T. Wright’s work, but his contribution in tracing this theme of exile and return in Jesus’ story is brilliant. For our sakes, Jesus suffered “the curse of the Law,” which was not only death, but exile from the presence of God (Deut. 29:24-28). On the Cross, he experienced the forsakenness of exile from the covenant-relationship, and symbolized the return from exile with his resurrection. The sacrificial blood he shed in undergoing exile proved to be the seal of the New Covenant. And what was the promise of the new covenant? It was entirely relational: “No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest” (Heb. 8:11; Jer. 31:34).

The Mystery of the Incarnation I’ll now try to sum up the message of the atonement by exploring the purpose of Jesus’ coming. My hope is that it will provide a wider, more holistic basis from which to understand the meaning of the atonement. The direction in which this goes takes us into an area where words begin to fail. Here we plunge into the ineffable wonder of all that Jesus Christ is. Some of this may sound unfamiliar—perhaps even strange—because it’s more a part of Eastern Orthodox theology than it is of the Western tradition (of which we are a part). Some of the ideas here are necessarily speculative and imprecise. Most of them are the ideas of the Eastern Fathers (as I understand them) rather than my own, and they’re open to debate. In any case, I hope this will be more illuminating than confusing.

We began by asking the question, “Why did Jesus have to die?” Let’s now back up a step and ask, “Why did Jesus have to come at all?” The early Church Fathers had some very good answers to this question, answers which, unfortunately, are seldom heard from evangelical pulpits in our day.

We’ve already touched on part of the answer in our exploration of the healing that the atonement wrought. Just as Adam was the original representative of our race, through whom we inherited our sinful nature, so Jesus was the second Adam—our representative for the New Covenant—and through him our sinful nature is being healed. Hebrews 2:17 tells us that in order for Jesus to be a high priest before God for us, “he had to be made like his brothers [that is, human beings] in every way.” This idea of representation is at the heart of Irenaeus’ theology of the Incarnation. It might better be put as “recapitulation.” In short, Jesus came to re-trace in his own person the entire journey of humanity as a whole. Just as Adam was supernaturally born from the dust by the work of God, so Jesus was supernaturally born from a virgin. Just as Adam and Eve faced temptation from Satan and failed, Jesus faced temptation from Satan and won. Where Adam disobeyed, Jesus obeyed. Where Adam sealed our death through a sin at a tree, Jesus sealed our life through an act of righteousness on another tree. And where Adam was cast out from relationship with God, Jesus was brought back from the exile of death by God’s power.

Not only did Jesus recapitulate Adam’s story, he also recapitulated the story of the people of Israel. This is part of the implicit background of Matthew’s arrangement of the Gospel. Just as God brought forth his chosen people by the miraculous promise of a child to Abraham, God brought forth Jesus by the miraculous promise to Joseph and Mary. Just as the people of Israel sojourned in Egypt as slaves, Jesus and his family were forced to sojourn in Egypt. Just as the people of Israel were tested in the desert by God, Jesus began his ministry by going out into the desert to be tested. Just as the people of Israel underwent their “baptism” in the crossing of the Red Sea and the Jordan River, Jesus underwent his baptism in the Jordan. Just as the Law was delivered to Israel from the mountain, so Jesus expounds his new law from a mountain. And so on. (N. T. Wright also does some nice work on the theme of Jesus reconstituting Israel).

The purpose of this recapitulation was to sum up in his own person the totality of humanity’s story and identity. In a very real way, Jesus was the actual representation of humanity.
But this extends not only to a re-tracing of humanity’s story. The doctrine of the Incarnation tells us that in Jesus, the divine person of the Son of God united himself with human nature. We evangelicals tend to think this simply means that Jesus was “fully human and fully divine.” It does mean that, but it could mean more. To say that God united himself with human nature in the person of Jesus does not just leave us with implications for our understanding of Jesus. If you’ll remember, we touched on the idea of humanity as an organic unity, naturally and spiritually. In a very real way, we are all one thing. So to say that God was united to human nature in Jesus means that not just one individual human nature was united to him, but all of human nature, in which we all share. That’s what a “nature” means. It’s not the same thing as a “person.” We are all fully individuals, but as humans we all share “human nature”—everything that makes us authentically human. This unity of nature is what allows Paul to argue that all humanity is affected by Jesus’ redemption, just like all humanity was affected by Adam’s sin. In short, when God joined himself to human nature in Jesus, humanity was caught up into the very life of God. This view is summed up neatly in the saying of the great Cappadocian Father Gregory of Nyssa: “God united Himself to our nature in order that our nature might be made divine through union with God.”

This is mystical language, and as such it defies precise definition. But a large majority of the early Church Fathers (especially in the Greek tradition) are unanimous on this point. A word of warning is appropriate at this point: it may sound like this understanding of the Incarnation would lead us naturally to a doctrine of universalism (every human being will be saved). Obviously, it does lend itself to that. But it’s not a necessary leap, and Scripture doesn’t warrant it. Jesus is the head of a new humanity, into which the old human nature—as represented in any individual—can join at any time. But there is no obligation. People can refuse the healing of their nature and choose to remain in the old humanity.

Though we’re not used to thinking about our relationship to God in this mystical way, it does have Scriptural backing. 2 Pet. 1:4 talks about Christians as being able to “participate in the divine nature.” In Jesus’ great prayer, he says this: “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John. 17:20-21). In Eph. 5:31, Paul talks about the union of Christ and the church in the analogy of a man and his wife becoming “one flesh.” This is, he says, “a profound mystery.” And in John 15, there is the famous example of the vine and the branches—a vivid example of our lives in intimate connection with the life of God. Further, Paul talks countless times about Christians being “in Christ.” It is the consensus of the Eastern Fathers that this isn’t just pretty rhetoric—it actually means something. It’s not merely a nice analogy to say that we are “the Body of Christ.” It implies that we are deeply connected to the life and person of God in a way that defies explanation. And it’s a two-way communion—we participate in the divine nature because Christ has caught up humanity within himself, and because the Father has sent the Holy Spirit to be the constant and intimate presence of his life within the church.

The language of the Church Fathers about this is breathtaking. From a Western mindset, it almost sounds blasphemous. But Irenaeus and Athanasius (the same Athanasius that shaped the Nicene Creed that we all hold to) speak in almost the exact same words: “God became man so that men might become gods”—a thought echoed by the entire Eastern tradition of the church. This is what they call the doctrine of “deification” (or “theosis”)—that we so share in the life of God that we are gradually transformed, little by little, into the true likeness of God himself. We retain our own identities and personalities, but we are drawn into the all-consuming, all-redeeming, all-fulfilling life of God. This seems to be what C. S. Lewis has in mind when he talks about the transformation of individual personalities into “little Christs” in his conclusion to Mere Christianity. It is not that we will become separate little divinities in our own right, but that we will come to reflect, in brilliant array, the life and power of the One True God.

This gives a whole new sense to the biblical idea of our adoption as sons. In a very real and mystical way, we are in the family of God, sharing his life. God so loved us that he not only saved us from our sins, he united us to his very being—like a man with his wife.

So again, why did Jesus have to come at all? If the problem of humanity was only sin or Satan or ignorance or corruption, couldn’t God have solved those problems another way? Of course he could. He can forgive sin, crush Satan, enlighten the ignorant, and heal corruption with a single word. But those things don’t constitute the whole story of his purpose for redemption. He so loved humanity that he wanted us to be united with him—intimately, mystically, sharing the same life—and that’s why Jesus had to come. In the person of Jesus, we have the fullest picture of our salvation—humanity and God, bound together in an eternal, personal act of unimaginable love. And having gathered humanity to himself, he made a way for that mystical union to become an interpersonal reality. He removed the obstacles of guilt, ignorance, corruption, and the power of Satan, enabling us to answer “yes,” to his eternal “Yes!” to us.

We are the beginning of his new work of reconciling all things to himself. As Paul so famously said, “If anyone is in Christ—new creation!” (This is a better translation of the Greek than the NIV, “he is a new creation”). In us, the renewed humanity, God has set at work the mystery of redemption that will one day set all things under the glorious dominion of Christ. And we are not merely saved as individuals, but as a redeemed community—the Body of Christ—all together participating in the divine nature. This is one of the outworkings of the mystery of the Incarnation from the Eastern perspective, and it provides a good answer to why Jesus came at all. Understanding his purpose for us—that we would be joined in intimate, eternal communion with him, the various ways of looking at the atonement now take on a new brightness.

I could find no better conclusion than this excerpt from C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity: “If you want joy, power, peace, eternal life, you must get close to, or even into, the thing that has them. They are not a sort of prize which God could, if He chose, just hand out to anyone. They are a great fountain of energy and beauty spurting up at the very center of reality….Now the whole offer which Christianity makes is this: that we can, if we let God have His way, come to share in the life of Christ. If we do, we shall then be sharing a life which was begotten, not made, which always has existed and will always exist….Every Christian is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else.”