Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ – Book Critique

Believer's Baptism

Shawn D. Wright, professor of theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and member of the Evangelical Theological Society[1] teams up with Thomas R. Schreiner, Dean of the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary[2] to co-edit a compilation of scholarly and theological essays on the history and doctrine of baptism. Using exegesis of Scripture, a detailed history of the theology and practices of early church, and with the ultimate goal of restoring baptism to its rightful place as a central liturgical act of Christian worship, the authors set out to advocate credobaptism (the doctrine that Christian baptism should be reserved solely for believers in the Lord,) over the beliefs and practices of Reformed paedobaptists (those who practice infant baptism).[3] This critique will largely agree with the author’s conclusions that credobaptism is biblically supported and will evaluate the strengths and weaknesses behind the authors’ claims, which assert baptism must be reserved strictly for believers and how baptism remains relevant to the church today.

SUMMARY

The main premise of Believer’s Baptism is to clearly articulate the history and practice of baptism and to affirm: who should be baptized, when he or she should be baptized, and what the act of baptism actually accomplishes in the life of the believer. Schreiner and Wright set out, with the aid of an additional eight highly esteemed Baptist theologians and scholars to demonstrate baptism should only be reserved for those who have believed, repented, and maintained his or her faith. Each of the author’s conclusions and findings presented are rooted in rich biblical truth, and offer practical application for the believer today, while also presenting potential reasons for how and why paedobaptists came to believe infant baptism should be linked to the covenant relationship, specifically found in the Old Testament, and early church practices.

Schreiner and Wright further seek to show how paedobaptists associate the covenant of grace with the Abrahamic Covenant, in an attempt to reduce the Abrahamic Covenant to its most basic spiritual components. While this argument presents no middle ground, Schreiner and Wright successfully demonstrate baptism must be reserved for believers who have received Christ as his or her personal Savior, have turned away from a life of sin, and seek to make a public profession of faith, thus fulfilling the command found in Scripture. While the doctrine of baptism has increasingly become a topic of debate in denominational circles, the secondary objective of Schreiner and Wright is to provide pastors and leaders with a practical resource when faced with many of the questions surrounding the practice of baptism e.g., Does baptism save the believer? Does baptism forgive one’s sins? Does baptism have an age requirement? And how should one respond when challenged with any of the above questions?

A tertiary goal of Schreiner and Wright is to cultivate a greater sense of unity within the body of Christ. To many, how, when, or why someone should be baptized may seem like a minor issue but as Timothy George demonstrates, “Baptism is important precisely because it is tied to the gospel, and to the saving work that Christ accomplished in His death and resurrection.”[4] Within Christianity, there are doctrinal hills worth dying on and the practice of baptism is one of those hills, as Paul Jewett demonstrates, “To baptize infants apart from faith threatens the evangelical foundations of evangelicalism.”[5] Believer’s Baptism combines biblical exegesis, history and theology, and practical application to provide a powerful argument for credobaptism.

CRITICAL INTERACTION

Beginning with the Gospel accounts, Andreas Köstenberger provides concise historical context into the practice of credobaptism. While there are not a great deal of passages that deal with baptism, the ones which do clearly establish the rite of baptism: “Is designed for believers who have repented of their sin and have put their faith in God and in His Christ, is an essential part of Christian discipleship, most likely consisted of immersion in water, and presupposes spiritual regeneration as a prevenient and primary work of God in and through the Holy Spirit.”[6] The Gospels each clearly demonstrate the believer’s baptism is the intended teaching and A.T. Robertson further demonstrates, “the Gospels provide no evidence or support for the baptism of infants, the notion of baptismal regeneration, nor does the principle of believer’s baptism enunciated in the Gospels allow for such a practice.”[7]

Robert H. Stein then analyzes Luke and Acts, illustrating God’s intimate role in the process and counters claims of baptismal regeneration and belief that the act of baptism forgave sins. Despite household conversions and baptisms taking place, Stein answers the question, exactly who can be baptized, by asserting “Those baptized… have heard the gospel preached, as responding with repentance and/or faith, and proceeding on their own to the place of baptism.”[8] Robertson further illustrates, “Baptism, as taught in the New Testament, is the picture of death and burial to sin and resurrection to new life, a picture of what has already taken place in the heart, not the means by which spiritual change is wrought. It is a privilege and duty, not a necessity. It is a picture that is lost when something else is substituted in its place.”[9] Stein adequately advances the position for credobaptism, but in a climate where many congregations are seeking to go back to an early church model, some practical and modern-day application of the credobaptism principles would have been a nice companion to this chapter.

Next, Schreiner examines the epistles and reveals how, “Baptism relates to washing, to sealing, to redemptive history, and [answers] whether baptism should be confined to believers.”[10] Schreiner’s main emphasis is on the act of baptism only being for those who have confessed his or her sins and trusted in Christ for salvation. Paul, in Ephesians 4:5 asserts there is one baptism, which unifies all believers. Paul’s emphasis here is to bring balance to the rite of baptism, with his primary focus being on unity within the body of believers, while also making it known baptism is not restricted from any ethnic or social group. Galatians 3:27 is a prime example, illustrating, “Believers who are baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” This verse denotes the close connection between one’s faith and the practice of baptism. Ronald Fung further demonstrates, “Baptism is here regarded as the rite of initiation into Christ, that is, into union with Christ, or, what amounts to the same thing, of incorporation into Christ as the Head of the new humanity.”[11] These passages counter the singular claim of paedobaptists regarding God’s grace and illuminates how God’s grace must be combined with the human response.

Despite there being no record or command of infant baptism in the canon of Scripture, Stephen J. Wellum explains, “At the heart of the doctrine of infant baptism is the argument it is an implication drawn from the comprehensive theological category of the covenant of grace.”[12] To address this claim, Wellum looks at the relationship between the covenants and explains, “[Only] if the interpretation of the covenant of grace, along with its understanding of the continuity between Israel and the church can be maintained do we have a strong case for infant baptism.”[13] Despite paedobaptists’ argument for infant baptism, Wellum verifies the key problem is rooted in a, “Failure to understand correctly the proper relationship between the biblical covenants, [since] a truly covenantal approach to Scripture… demands an affirmation of believer’s baptism.”[14] Another important contribution is Wellum’s response to paedobaptist assertion that, “Circumcision and baptism carry essentially the same spiritual meaning and that in the new covenant era baptism is the replacement of circumcision as a covenant sign.”[15] Ultimately, baptism and circumcision carry two very different meanings and Paul could not be clearer that circumcision was no longer a covenant sign. Wellum rightly concludes, “[Baptism] signifies a believer’s union with Christ, by grace through faith, and all the benefits that result from that union.”[16] Wellum’s contribution for the defense of credobaptism was a key component.

Steven A. McKinion looks to the early church fathers and patristic writings to conclude, “Baptism had less to do with the age of the baptized person than with the role of repentance, profession of faith, and entrance into the full life of the church.”[17] The main issues facing those in the third and fourth century were the high infant mortality rate and debate over whether infants needed forgiveness of sins. Despite these issues, McKinion demonstrates why early church fathers like Tertullian rejected the defense of infant baptism on two counts: “First, infants are innocent, guiltless, and not in need of forgiveness; second, faith alone is sufficient for salvation. [Thus,] baptism should follow faith, and since young children do not need forgiveness and cannot possess faith, baptism is unnecessary.” Despite few supporters, the early centuries of the church are often cited in defense of paedobaptist belief, predominantly since it was the practice of some churches, but it was never universally practiced and those in favor of paedobaptism seemed to have a more refined view on the doctrine of original sin.

With the rise of Anabaptists, Jonathan Rainbow contrasts Ulrich Zwingli and Balthasar Hubmaier’s views explaining, “For Zwingli, baptism was a mere sign, [while] for Hubmaier it was more than a sign. [Ultimately,] Baptists consider, on the basis of an open and personal confession, that the person coming to the water believes in Jesus Christ, and that there is an inner reality to which baptism corresponds… This was the heart of Reformation Anabaptists…”[18] Rainbow offers profound insight between Zwingli and Hubmaier’s viewpoints by illustrating, “There is a fear of allowing water baptism to come too close to the work of grace in the sinner’s heart; there are raised eyebrows and puzzled looks at the New Testament texts that closely associate baptism with salvation; and many would rather not baptize at all than leave room for the impression that baptism is an integral part of the conversion experience.”[19] This assertion is exactly what paedobaptists have done in their departure from biblical doctrine. Making too much or too little of baptism are both dangerous roads to travel, so Rainbow is correct in his word of caution. With this word of warning, Timothy George highlights, “It is important to [remember] and recognize that in the Reformation tradition of believers, baptism was forged in the context of persecution and martyrdom.”[20] Looking back in time at the formation of doctrine and tradition, it can be easy to forget exactly what was going on at that time to warrant the beliefs and practices, which resulted. Rainbow does a great job advancing the credobaptism position in this section.

Shawn D. Wright presents the logic of Reformed paedobaptists in an attempt to examine and understand their logic. Calvin, Murray, and Marcel all hold to the covenant of grace, but as Wright demonstrates, “Their biblical exposition is oriented toward the Old Testament with a lack of attention to the New Testament’s teaching. [Further,] by using the Westminster Confession of Faith as evidence for infant baptism… it is neither ‘good’ nor a ‘necessary’ deduction.”[21] Each of these Reformed paedobaptists seemed to believe God regenerates the infant at baptism, but without faith, this process cannot begin. Another doctrinal error in this vein of theology occurs by paralleling circumcision with baptism, which Wellum has previously covered in depth.

Duane A. Garrett then looks at the Israelite traditions and shows Meredith Kline’s “Error is in taking Old Testament events that are retrospectively and metaphorically called ‘baptism’ and enlisting them as guides to the ritual mode of actual baptism. [Ultimately,] by interpreting baptism under the rubric of a suzerainty treaty means that a Christian must require all persons under his authority to be baptized, [which] validates the Constantinian vision of Christianity.”[22] In Cornelis Bennema’s critique of Believer’s Baptism, he cites, “Kline’s defense of paedobaptism being closely connected with the idiosyncratic theology of the covenant and whenever historic divergences exist within the church, it is best to engage the arguments that have historically been most influential and decisive; this can hardly be said to hold true for Kline’s formulations.”[23]

Baptism was a source of division amongst early Christians, as Ardel B. Caneday explains, by using Paul’s letters to the churches at Corinth and Galatia to show, “All who have put on Christ with all who are baptized into Christ, as though the two are fused into one. To be baptized into Christ by submission to the symbolic foot washing called for by the gospel is to be clothed with Christ Jesus.”[24] Paul seems to be equating those who are baptized into Christ Jesus share in part with the redeeming effects of His death. Caneday further demonstrates, “While Paul warns the Galatians that submission to the ritual act of circumcision would be to sever oneself with Christ (5:2-6), he identifies Christian baptism as the ritual act that marks one as clothed with Christ.”[25] This is a significant contribution to the difference between the ritual acts.

In the context of the local church, Mark E. Dever illustrates, “Only forty percent of baptisms in cooperating churches are ‘first time’ baptisms of converts, [attributing this trend to:] confusion, ignorance, prejudice, and a misplaced and distorting cultural conservatism that besets most churches today in their practice of baptism.”[26] Dever successfully brings together the culmination of previous chapters to answer questions like: Who should baptize? How is baptism to be done? Who is to be baptized? When are baptisms to be done? And should unbaptized individuals be excluded from: the Lord’s Supper, church membership, and should baptisms from other churches be accepted. Bennema adds, “Though it may well be that many Reformed churches have not lived up to their covenant theology, it is hardly the case that this theology diminishes the obligations of faith and repentance in respect to the children of believers. On this point, the claims of several authors in this volume seem to be overstated.”[27] Overall, the predominant Baptist background of the authors limits the scope of this work. Had other denominations of faith been included, the book would become more relevant to a larger number of people, but Schreiner and Wright are quite clear their goal was simply to promote credobaptism over paedobaptism, and this goal was adequately accomplished.

CONCLUSION

Schreiner and Wright have also clearly established baptism requires the public profession of faith, which acknowledges one’s salvation and honors Christ’s atoning sacrificial death, burial, and resurrection. In a time where the world seems to know more what the church is against than what she is for, Believer’s Baptism is a treasure-trove of wisdom and practical application, which has the ability to bridge the gap and produce unity and love within the body of Christ. Baptism plays a pivotal role in the fulfillment of the Great Commission and is vital in advancing the kingdom of God. Ultimately, God wants His followers to live in unity and love, but as Timothy George demonstrates, “Unity in love must also be unity in truth, else it is not genuine unity at all.”[28] Upon this premise, Schreiner and Wright are to be commended for producing a work that brings clarity to the practice of credobaptism over paedobaptism and this work would be well suited for anyone interested in understanding not only the history of baptism but also how this practice should be applied to the church today.

 Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ. Edited by Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright, Series Edited by E. Ray Clendenen, B&H Academic Publishing Group, 2006, 364 pp. $29.99 (Hardcover).

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bennema, Cornelis P. A Review of Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ., by Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright, ed. Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 52, no. 3 (September 2009): 655-61, (accessed June 12, 2017).

Elwell, Walter A. ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Publishing Group, 2001.

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Publishing Group, 2013.

Fung, Ronald Y. K. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Epistle to the Galatians. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998.

George, Timothy. “The Reformed doctrine of believers’ baptism.” Interpretation 47, no. 3 (July 1993): 242+. Academic OneFile (accessed June 12, 2017).

Jewett, Paul K. Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978.

Robertson, A. T. “Baptism, Baptist View,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Edited by James Orr (Chicago: IL, Howard-Severance Co., 1915), 1:416-417.

Schreiner, Thomas R. and Shawn D. Wright, ed. Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ. Series Edited by E. Ray Clendenen. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic Publishing Group, 2006.

[1] The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Website, http://www.sbts.edu/academics/faculty/shawn-d-wright/ (accessed June 8, 2017).

[2] The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Website, http://www.sbts.edu/academics/faculty/thomas-r-schreiner/ (accessed June 8, 2017).

[3] Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright, ed. Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, Series ed. by E. Ray Clendenen (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic Publishing Group, 2006), 6.

[4] Timothy George, Believer’s Baptism, 1.

[5] Paul K. Jewett, Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace, ed. James Orr (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978), 162.

[6] Andreas Köstenberger, Believer’s Baptism, 32-33.

[7] A. T. Robertson, “Baptism, Baptist View,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Chicago: IL, Howard-Severance Co., 1915), 1:416-417.

[8] Robert H. Stein, Believer’s Baptism, 65.

[9] Robertson, “Baptism, Baptist View,” 417.

[10] Thomas R. Schreiner, Believer’s Baptism, 68.

[11] Ronald Y. K. Fung, The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Epistle to the Galatians (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 172.

[12] Stephen J. Wellum, Believer’s Baptism, 68.

[13] Ibid., 124.

[14] Ibid., 160.

[15] Ibid., 153.

[16] Ibid., 159.

[17] Steven A. McKinion, Believer’s Baptism, 186-187.

[18] Jonathan H. Rainbow, Believer’s Baptism, 206.

[19] Ibid., 205.

[20] Timothy George, “The Reformed doctrine of believers’ baptism,” Interpretation 47, no. 3 (July 1993): 242. Academic OneFile (accessed June 12, 2017).

[21] Shawn D. Wright, Believer’s Baptism, 254.

[22] Duane A. Garrett, Believer’s Baptism, 281.

[23] Cornelis P. Bennema, Review of Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, by Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright, ed. Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 52, no. 3 (September 2009): 660, (accessed June 12, 2017).

[24] Ardel B. Caneday, Believer’s Baptism, 285.

[25] Ibid., 286.

[26] Mark E. Dever, Believer’s Baptism, 329.

[27] Bennema, “Believer’s Baptism,” 661.

[28] Timothy George, Believer’s Baptism, XIX.

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Role of Christ and Spirit in Salvation and Security of Believer

salvation_is_found

The distinctive work of the Son of God and the Spirit of God in the procurement of salvation begins with an understanding of the oneness and unity, achieved between Christ and the new believer. Millard Erickson demonstrates, “All that the believer has spiritually is based on Christ’s being within. Our hope of glory is Christ in us [and] our spiritual vitality is drawn from His indwelling presence” (Erickson 2013, 878). Christ Himself came into the world and took on human nature (John 1:1, 1:14). He then paid the ultimate sacrificial price for all of humanity, with His life, and through His vicarious atoning death on the cross. Christ’s sinless life, His suffering, and His death satisfied the demands of God’s divine justice (1 Peter 3:18) and restored the severed relationship between God and His children (Romans 5:10). Humanity’s problem was, “Our sinful acts have alienated us from your God; and our sins have caused Him to reject us and not listen to our prayers” (Isaiah 59:2). However, “God demonstrates His own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Christ’s death ultimately provided salvation and as Erickson shows, “Christ: (1) gave us a perfect example of the type of dedication God desires of us, (2) demonstrated the great extent of God’s love, (3) underscored the seriousness of sin and the severity of God’s righteousness, (4) triumphed over the forces of sin and death, liberating us from their power, and (5) rendered satisfaction to the Father for our sins” (Erickson 2013, 729). The satisfaction theory or atonement as compensation to the Father best encapsulates the role Christ played in procuring humanity’s salvation.

At the moment of salvation, there is a union the new believer attains with Christ, one made up of several parts, and one in which can never fully be comprehended, due to the union being a profound mystery (Ephesians 5:32). Erickson defines the act of salvation as, “The application of the work of Christ to the lives of humans” (Erickson 2013, 826). The first part of this union is of a judicial nature and recognizes believers as being righteous because Christ dwells within. Erickson illustrates, “God does not say, ‘Jesus is righteous but the human is unrighteous.’ [Instead,] He sees the two as one and says in effect, ‘They are righteous’” (Erickson 2013, 881). As the parable of the vine and branches demonstrates, one’s union with Christ is also vital (John 15:4). Leon Morris explains, “The two ‘abidings’ cannot be separated, and ‘abiding’ is the necessary prerequisite of fruitfulness. No branch bears fruit in isolation. Every fruitful branch has vital connection with the vine. So to abide in Christ is the necessary prerequisite of fruitfulness for the Christian” (Morris 1995, 595). In this union, the life of Christ flows into the life of the believer providing both spiritual strength and renewing the believer’s inner nature. The final union is spiritual in nature and in large brought on by the Spirit of God, as Erickson reveals, “Not only is our union with Christ brought about by the Holy Spirit; it is a union of spirits” (Erickson 2013, 881). The union with Christ, as a result of salvation, seems to have the most impact with regards to justification or how God views sinners as now being righteous in His sight. While justification is a single act, occurring at salvation, sanctification and regeneration are an ongoing exercise of faith, with the ultimate goal of becoming more like Christ in one’s thoughts and actions.

The Spirit of God or Holy Spirit plays a major role with conviction of sin, which leads to repentance (John 16:8-11). This divine call or prompting that leads to salvation is an act of God, and is called efficacious grace since it is an effective operation of grace. Charles Hodge explains:

There are three classes into which all events of which we have any knowledge may be arranged. First, those, which are produced by the ordinary operations of second causes as, guided and controlled by the providential agency of God. Secondly, those events in the external world, which are produced by the simple volition, or immediate agency of God, without the cooperation of, second causes. To this class all miracles, properly so called, belong. Thirdly, those effects produced on the mind, heart, and soul, by the volition, or immediate agency of the omnipotence of God. To this class belong, inward revelation, inspiration, miraculous powers, as the gift of tongues, gift of healing, and regeneration” (Hodge 2011, 683).

To this third class belongs the work of efficacious grace, so while the Spirit of God plays a major part in pre-conversion, the Spirit is also the driving force behind regeneration. Erickson describes this process as, “God’s transformation of individual believers, His giving a new spiritual vitality, and direction to their lives when they accept Christ” (Erickson 2013, 872). The Spirit of God facilitates God’s renewing work in the life of the believer and this is a never-ending process. After conversion, the Spirit of God continually works to sanctify the believer (Galatians 5) and Erickson describes this process as, “The Holy Spirit’s applying to the life of the believer the work done by Jesus Christ” (Erickson 2013, 897).

When looking at the assurance, evidence, and security of believers, there are several key components to each of these terms. The assurance of salvation refers to the question, “How do I know I am saved/rescued from my sin.” This is rooted in God’s ability to see the heart of His children and there is no middle ground; He is either Lord of one’s life or He is not. 1 John 5:11 says, “And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in His Son.” This is a propositional truth, meaning we are saved by grace, through faith, based upon on our own beliefs/faith. I. H. Marshall explains, “The question whether we accept God’s testimony or not is not a merely academic one. On our answer too it changes the question whether or not we participate in eternal life. For what God’s testimony means is that he has given us eternal life; but this life is given only in His Son” (Howard 1978, 241). Assurance also is reflected in one’s behavior, meaning, “Do we look like and act like out Father?” One’s faith must be rooted in the blessed assurance of salvation and no amount of good works will ever satisfy.

When referring to evidences of salvation, the key difference between this and the assurance is now the focus is placed on whether someone else is saved. The book of James, specifically 2:17 establishes faith must be expressed and lived, by walking the talk. Frank Gaebelein explains, “James states the proposition he intends to demonstrate in the following verses: ‘Faith… not accompanied by action is dead. Action is the proper fruit of living faith. Because life is dynamic and productive, faith that lives will surely produce the fruit of good deeds. Therefore, if no deeds are forthcoming, it is proof that the professed faith is dead” (Gaebelein 1981, 183). The distinction James is making is not to deny faith; rather, he is indicating it is not the right kind of living faith, which does not possess the power to save. Only by inspecting the fruit in other peoples’ lives can the evidence of salvation be determined, but one must be careful not to solely base the assurance of salvation on what he or she does, but instead on what Christ Jesus has already done in their lives.

The security of the believer answers the question, “How secure is one in his or her salvation?” This is a highly debated subject matter amongst theologians and has become dogma and/or doctrine for many denominations of faith. In this writer’s opinion, an adopted child of God cannot be disowned. Paul, in chapter 5 of his letter to the Romans says, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Douglas Moo explains, “By believing in Jesus Christ, the divine agent in God’s climactic act of deliverance, Paul and the Christians of all ages and places, have been declared innocent of all charges justly brought against those who sin and fall short of God’s glory. Paul presents this declaration of justification as a past act, which brings to the believer a new and permanent status and acquits the sinner” (Moo 1996, 298). A more reformed theology views justification as God’s declaration of one’s righteousness on the merits of Jesus Christ. Proponents of Arminianism warn falling away from Christ is possible citing passages such as: Hebrews 6, 10, Matthew 24, and 1 Corinthians 10. Ultimately, as Erickson illustrates, “It is possible to fall away and by relying on our own strength we surely will. However, if we are secure in Christ it is because of the work of the Holy Spirit, and the work of God in our lives that keeps us from falling” (Erickson 2013, 919-922). Essentially, this means a true follower of Christ we will not fall away despite the warnings that a believer can fall away. The warnings in Scripture serve in many ways like a fence, to keep believers committed to serving the Lord, without removing their free will to choose.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Elwell, Walter A. ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Publishing Group, 2001.

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Publishing Group, 2013.

Gaebelein, Frank E. Gaebelein, ed., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary – Volume 12: Hebrews through Revelation. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981.

Marshall, I. Howard. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Epistles of John. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978.

Moo, Douglas J. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Epistle to the Romans. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Morris, Leon. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995.

Christology, Person and Work of Christ, & Atonement

jesus-paid-it-all-wallpaper-from-sofie-scott

The doctrine of salvation and the study of exactly how Christ’s death secures the salvation of those who believe remains a highly debated topic amongst theologians. Ultimately, one’s view of Christology and biblical understanding of Soteriology sets Christianity apart from any other religion, in that Christianity is the only religion that bases one’s salvation on faith alone, by grace alone, and through Christ alone. Millard Erickson emphasizes, “In the history of the church, the most heated debate in Christology has been over the understanding of the person and work of Jesus Christ” (Erickson 2013, 603). In the early history of the church, the person and work of Christ were viewed as one and the same, but during the medieval period, there arose a shift in scholastic theology, which began to separate the doctrine of the person of Christ: (His divinity, humanity, and the unity of the two) from the offices and work of Christ (Erickson 2013, 617). This quickly led to disputes over the deity of Jesus and ultimately estranged the average Christian from having an impactful or experiential relationship with Christ, because the theological questions caused Christology to no longer be relevant to the average follower of Christ. An opposing view and the second shift in the view of the person and work of Christ would occur during the nineteenth and twentieth century, defined by Philipp Melanchthon’s statement: “To know Christ is to know His benefits” (Pauck 1969, 21-22). Luther further emphasized Christ’s saving activity for the believer, while Friedrich Schleiermacher stressed the importance of the experience of what Christ does in the believer. Paul Tillich would synthesize these views and assert, “Christology is a function of Soteriology. The problem of Soteriology creates the Christological question and gives direction to the Christological answer” (Tillich 1957, 2:150). Erickson illustrates how in this theory, “The theological answer is correlated with the existential question. Accordingly, we should concentrate upon the symbolism of the biblical materials, since it stresses the universal significance of the Christ event” (Erickson 2013, 617). By approaching the person of Christ through the work of Christ, it creates a greater unity between Christology and Soteriology and demonstrates the significance of the doctrine of Christ. Regardless of which view is taken, it is virtually impossible to separate the work and person of Christ and any effort to do so has the potential to lead to heresy. Erickson does demonstrate there is an acceptable way of beginning Christology with Christ’s work. However, he cautions, “While it must not be allowed to set the agenda, it can be used as a point of contact for more elaborate discussions of His nature” (Erickson 2013, 618).

Through a proper understanding of Christ’s work, it aids the believer in understanding exactly how Christ fulfilled the offices of: prophet, priest, and king, which leads to the three major functions of Christ being: revealing, ruling, and reconciling. The life and ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ then provide the framework for the doctrine of atonement, which Erickson explains, “Is the transition point from the objective doctrines of God, humanity, sin, and the person of Christ to the subjective doctrines. This transition point is the key element in balancing Christian theology to make it relevant to the believer” (Erickson 2013, 713). Just as there are multiple views pertaining to the person and work of Christ, the doctrine of atonement is no different and over the years, many inadequate theories have been presented. Ultimately, as Erickson emphasizes, “The example of Christ, the demonstration of the extent of God’s love, the severity of God’s righteousness and the seriousness of sin, the victory over sin and death, and the satisfaction for our sins are all truths, and should all be included in the explanation of the atonement” (Erickson 2013, 713). Thus, when looking at the atonement, there is an immediate shift from Christ’s nature to His work on the behalf of all sinners.

The Socinian Theory and the Moral-Influence Theory both emphasize the primary effect of Christ’s death is on humans. Both theories fail to recognize retributive justice and minimize God’s justice, holiness, and righteousness. The Governmental Theory or atonement as a demonstration of divine justice views that God does not inflict punishment as a matter of strict retribution. Sin is not punished simply because it deserves to be, but because of the demands of moral government. This view theorizes the sufferings of Christ are an atonement for sin. In stark contrast, the Satisfaction Theory, popularized by Anselm, reasoned the death of Christ was an actual penalty inflicted on Him as a substitute for the penalty that should have attached to the breaking of the law by sinners (Erickson 2013, 721). Anselm argued that it was necessary the atonement took place, in order to satisfy the justice of God. This view recognized the atonement was not primarily directed at humans, nor did it involve any sort of payment to Satan (Erickson 2013, 727). The only other theory that maintained a large following was the Ransom Theory, which viewed the atonement as victory over the forces of sin and evil. Origin and Gregory of Nyssa popularized this view, but the main problem arises as Origen viewed Satan, rather than God, being the one who demanded Christ’s blood as atonement. Another major problem with this view is that the direct effects of Christ’s atoning death were neither on God nor on humans; instead, it was directed towards Satan, making Christ’s work in relationship to God secondary (Erickson 2013, 727).

Christ, being both God and sinless human did not deserve death and it seems clear Anselm’s view of atonement, being the compensation to the Father, best encapsulates that Christ’s death: “(1) gave us a perfect example of the type of dedication God desires of us, (2) demonstrated the great extent of God’s love, (3) underscored the seriousness of sin and the severity of God’s righteousness, (4) triumphed over the forces of sin and death, liberating us from their power, and (5) rendered satisfaction to the Father for our sins” (Erickson 2013, 729). Anselm’s view of atonement also grew out of his understanding of the doctrine of sin, which is failing to render God His due. By failing to give God his due, “We take from God what is rightfully His and we dishonor Him. As sinners, we must restore to God what we have taken, but it is not sufficient merely to restore to God what we have taken away. For in taking away from God what is His, we have injured Him; and even after what we have taken has been returned, there must be some additional compensation or reparation for the injury that has been done” (Anselm 1098, 1.7). Only Christ could satisfy these requirements, and only through His atoning sacrifice could reparation be made between God and His children. Paul goes as far as to describe Christ’s work of atonement as propitiation or the appeasement of God’s wrath for the sins of humanity, so as Erickson suggests, “We must understand how the atonement involves sacrifice, propitiation, substitution, and reconciliation in the relationship of God to humanity and why it is the penal substitution theory that best describes this relationship of atonement” (Erickson 2013, 732). To fully understand atonement, one must also understand the nature of God, the status of God’s moral and spiritual law, the fallen nature of humanity, and the Old Testament sacrificial system, which demanded the blood from a sin offering for the remission of sins. The animals to be sacrificed had to spotless, without any imperfection, to atone or to cover one’s sin. Jesus’s humanity and sinless life made His vicarious atoning sacrifice applicable to all people, and as Erickson explains, “The iniquity of sinners is transferred to the suffering servant, just as in the Old Testament rites the sins were transferred to the sacrificial animal. The laying on of hands was an anticipation of the believer’s active acceptance of Christ’s atoning work” (Erickson 2013, 736). Christ’s atoning death was substitutionary, as He took our place, and took the weight of world’s sin and curses on His shoulders.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Anselm of Canterbury. Cur Deus homo, “Why God Became a Man?” 1098.

Elwell, Walter A. ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Publishing Group, 2001.

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Publishing Group, 2013.

Pauck, Wilhelm ed. Melanchthon and Bucer. Library of Christian Classics 19. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1969.

Tillich, Paul. Systematic Theology. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1957.