So to give everyone, including myself, a chance to collect our breath after a flurry of rather long posts, I thought that I would offer a shorter one with a few clarifications on my last entry in the series on Reforming Calvinism. The reason for this is because I have been interacting with someone on Facebook who is struggling to understand the basic point that I am trying to communicate with regard to an ‘incarnational’ or ‘ontological’ and not merely ‘forensic’ or ‘transactional’ view of the atonement. When I explained why the latter view results in an atonement that is unable to actually deal with the inherent corruption in human nature, this person questioned me as to whether I believed in regeneration and the Spirit’s transformation of the heart. I responded that this question confuses the issue, because it relocates the ontological aspect of the atonement accomplished by Christ exclusively to a later work of regeneration wrought by the Spirit.
In my view, this move is problematic for two reasons. First, it violates a central principle of orthodox trinitarian theology, namely, that the persons of the Trinity are indivisible not only in their being ad intra but also in all their works ad extra. Crudely put, if we conceive of Christ as merely the ‘Reconciler’ (i.e. the one who pays our debt and satisfies God’s justice so that we can be forgiven and peace can be established) and the Spirit merely as the ‘Redeemer’ (i.e. the one who purifies our hearts from sin and overcomes our inherent corruption), then we have effectively divided the work of the Son from the Spirit and also that of Spirit from the Son, not to mention the fact that we have left out the Father completely! This is not in line with orthodox trinitarian theology.
Second, this move also reduces the efficacy of the atonement, which was my main point in the last post. If the atonement’s effect only extends to the payment of a penalty and the satisfaction of justice, then it actually leaves our full redemption incomplete, for it would have done nothing to change our sinful hearts. It would then be made to depend on a later work in order to fulfill and actualize its ultimate end. To use an example, a legal acquittal will absolve someone from the punishment demanded by the law, but it will not actually change that person’s heart. Likewise, a view of the atonement that is merely judicial or transactional cannot account for the way in which, according to Hebrews 10:1-14, Christ’s death actually purified and sanctified us entirely from sin:
1 For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. 2 Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins?…
8 When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), 9 then he added, “Behold, I have come to do your will.” He does away with the first in order to establish the second. 10 And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
11 And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.
Notice the language here. The difference between Christ’s death and the Old Testament sacrifices was that the latter could not actually take away sin and cleanse the sinner. Christ’s death, on the other hand, has “sanctified” us “once for all”. Not through repeated offerings, but by a single self-offering Christ “has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified”. This is not an atonement that merely acquits us from the legal condemnation that we deserve; it is an atonement that actually takes away our sin and perfects us for all time! This can only be true if Christ through his death not only paid the penalty for our sin but also penetrated into the ontological depths of our humanity to destroy our sin and purify us from our corruption.
This is a beautiful and glorious truth of the gospel, and we should make sure that we do not lose sight of it by relegating redemption from our inherent corruption exclusively to the domain of the Spirit and thus making Christ’s once-for-all work of atoning purification incomplete and contingent. Let us rather affirm, with Hebrews, that Christ has not only paid the penalty of our sin but has truly done away with it once and for all.
(Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring this post.)