Mark 1:40-45 tells of Jesus' healing of a man with a skin condition (scholars are all agreed now that the symptoms of what was traditionally translated as leprosy in the Torah is not what we now call leprosy but a general term for skin conditions). The man comes to him, begs on his knees, and tells Jesus that if he's willing, he can make him clean. There's a textual debate over what happens next. Most translations say that Jesus is filled with compassion and heals him. Most scholars favor the alternate textual reading that Jesus was angry and healed him, and I think they're right. I also think this reveals something about Jesus's character that's worth reflecting on for a little bit, something that reminds me of another powerful display of emotion on Jesus' part in the gospel of John.
Jesus' first words in the gospel of Mark are "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel." (Mark 1:15, ESV) Paul summarizes the ministry of John the Baptizer: "John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus." (Acts 19:4, ESV) The nouns for repentance and faith/belief appear together again in Acts 20:21. I'm wondering if there's a connection between the two concepts and that they're not just two indepedent commands, as I think this sort of statement is often taken, but one command put two ways.
Paul's statement about John in Acts 19 seems to be saying that John's message was to repent, i.e. to believe in the one who was to come after him, Jesus. In the next chapter, Paul tells the Ephesian elders in his farewell address to them that the message he preached was of "repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ" (the same Greek word is used for faith here and belief in the other two passages). One further passage makes the connection. The author of Hebrews says his recipients don't need to keep laying the basic foundation but need to move on to deeper things. That basic foundation is " of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God". The same one foundation is those two things. So maybe they're not really two things at all. We might read the statement in Mark a little differently in light of all this.
And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age." (Matt 28:18-20, ESV)
I realized something at a baptism last year about Matthew 28's Trinitarian formula. It doesn't just use a Trinitiarian formula that assumes enough of a parity between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to put them in the same sentence in parallel. I've seen commentators mention this, but it's not a strong enough argument that all three persons of the Trinity are fully God. After all, you could list God, the church, and the world in parallel like that, although here there's a sense of commonality and joint authority in addition. One thing occurred to me that I had to go check the Greek to be sure of. Jesus talks about the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This 'name' is singular, one name for the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The name of the Father is 'YHWH' (Hebrew at the time didn't have written vowels), also called the tetragrammaton and covenant name of God. I can't think of another name that these three persons could share. Anyway, that's not the sort of thing those who deny the Trinity but want to affirm the scriptures will be able to deal with easily. Even the fact that there's one name they fall under is some threat to that view.
I think the clearest statement at least of the divinity of Jesus is in Philippians 2:1-11, but it will take some work to draw it out. Some common misreadings of what Paul says there (due to the infelicities of English renderings) hinder what I think would have been an obvious implication of the text to its original readers.
John Owen argues for the view Reformed thinkers call limited atonement, basically the view that Christ's death was only for the sake of those who would be saved. Since those who never become saved never take advantage of the atonement, in what sense is it for them? Their sin is never atoned for. His argument is slightly for a more detailed, though it's very short and worth looking at.
I think Owen gives a good argument for limited atonement (or what more recent theologians have preferred to call particular atonement, which I think is just as obscure a term). But what about I Timothy 2:5, which says that Christ Jesus gave himself as a ransom for all? What about John 3:16, which says that God's love is for the world that anyone who believe in him will have eternal life? Reformed thought has an easy answer to the second part. Those who do end up believing, i.e. those chosen by God to believe, will have eternal life. But what about God's love for the whole world? What about God's desire that no one die in Ezekiel 18:23 and Ezekiel 33:10? This essay is intended to sort out such issues.
Many Reformed thinkers will reduce what seems to me to be the obvious intent of these passages. They take them to include a much smaller group than they seem to include at face value. Thus the "all" in I Timothy 2:5 is merely all the elect. The "world" in John 3:16 is only those in the world who will be saved. The "none" in Ezekiel whom God doesn't want to die doesn't include those who persist in their rebellion against God, who are some whose death God delights in. This goes on for far more passages than these, but these are some of the most obvious examples. This approach seems to me to be too reductionistic. These passages seem to be saying something deeper about God's heart, and I hope what I have to say shows that. So I want to say that Christ on one level did die for those who aren't elect. I want to say that God's love does include those who will never repent. These statements aren't true on the same level as the statement that Christ's death is only for the elect. Both are true. Both may not be equally fundamental, but both are true. Scripture says both, and anyone who trusts what it says should affirm both whole-heartedly.
At the most fundamental level, Christ died on behalf of those who would respond to him in faith, namely those chosen from before the foundations of the world. That's what Owen has argued for, and that's what I agree with him on. However, it's also true that in some less fundamental but equally true and still important sense Christ died for the sake of all who would turn from sin and to him, and this is the message we must proclaim. If we go around telling people to repent if they're elect, they won't understand what we're talking about. If we tell them God loves them if they're elect, they won't see the beauty of God's love for those who don't deserve it, since he loved us in our unrighteousness and accomplished all that he did for us while we deserved nothing. The way to see that point is to proclaim that Christ died for sinners, that he died for those who would not be able to earn or deserve anything. So from a human level, the important message is: Believe, and you will be saved. Turn from your sin and follow Jesus, and you will be a child of God.
The emphasis in the gospel message is not on unconditional election, irresistible grace, or limited atonement, though these are true doctrines. It's on God's love in the face of it total depravity and Jesus' willingness to express his divine Sonly character of eternal submission to the Father by becoming a man and dying a shameful death, becoming sin so that we can become righteous. The five points of Calvinism are not the gospel. They're a human systematization of some of the truths in scripture, and they are correct when rightly understood (and you know how easy it is to misunderstand or misinterpret their wording), but they're not a balanced gospel presentation. They don't even get at the heart of the gospel anywhere near as well as Philippians 2:6-11 does, not that that's a complete picture either, since it has little about our response to it; it's just closer to the heart of it. So our context will affect which truths to stress.
In the context of evangelism, it's important to stress, as the apostles did, that anyone who truly repents will be saved. Look at the formulations in Peter and Stephen's sermons in Acts. They're not theologically profound, they're not extremely careful as if to ward off possible heretical misinterpretations, and they're not pastorally balanced, as if they consider all the points you would use to instruct a believer in their growing faith, which you do get in more developed theological reflections about the nature of salvation, as in Ephesians, Romans, or I John. (There are more extreme examples. Consider such ones as "believe and be baptized, and you'll be saved".)
This uncarefulness, imbalance, and lack of theological depth doesn't mean these are inappropriate statements. What they do is focus on the need to repent and the promise that anyone who does will be saved. This is a hypothetical statement -- a conditional. If you repent, you will be saved. So there's a potentiality -- anyone who turns out to fulfill the first part will have the second part true of them. This is how our language works for creatures in time who do not know the future and don't know people's hearts.
It's perfectly appropriate to use such conditional language, as long as we know that it's conditional, and as long as we're honest with people about its conditionality when the subject arises.
So when I say that Christ died in one important sense (though not the most fundamental sense) for the whole world, I mean that everyone in the world has the following conditional true of them: "If I turn from my sins and follow Jesus, I will be saved". That may be true only vacuously for lots of people, since the first part will never be true of them. On a fundamental level, God determines which people the sentence is true of. On the other hand, it's also true that their response to the gospel is something they do, and their rejection of the gospel is something they're responsible for.
That's why I stress things like the potentiality of the gospel for all. For one thing, I don't know who is elect, but even moreso it's clear in scripture that God doesn't delight in the death of the wicked. God has a desire that the wicked will turn and live (Ezekiel 33:10-11). This is accompanied by an urgent plea from God to these wicked that they turn and live. The language harks back to Ezekiel 18:23, where the same statement is made about what God takes pleasure in. This follows a conditional statement about those who repent not dying. But the crucial thing for me is how the chapter ends. "Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone ... so turn, and live." If God has no pleasure in the death of anyone, then that's making a strong claim about God's attitude toward those destined for hell. He asks why they will die, with urging speech. It can't be dismissed as merely rhetorical flourishes and that he's merely speaking to those who will end up repenting. They will die. He's pleading with them about why they refuse to turn and why they insist on ending up dying. The last statement shows that his desire on this matter extends to those who aren't elect, in Calvinist terms.
Of course, this needs to be balanced with the end of Revelation 19, where at the marriage supper of the Lamb we will eat the flesh of all who opposed God, meaning that we will end up rejoicing with God over the end of all evil, which happens to include the end of all evil beings, at least for the purposes of those in the eternal community with God (whether it implies annihilation or eternal exile in a conscious separation from God). Jonathan Edwards has been labeled a moral monster for agreeing with the author of Revelation that we will one day rejoice that evildoers are in hell, but what he's rejoicing at is the end of all opposition against God's good purposes, the final vindication of those who have persevered in following God (especially at the rough end), and the carrying out of justice with true finality and full severity on all those who haven't responded in trust to the one who was willing to take all injustice on himself and pay the penalty.
So rejoicing over the destruction of the evil is consistent with God's pleading that the evil repent. It's not as if God is rejoicing over the same exact thing as he is grieving. It's just that the same human action requires both. I don't know how this all works, but both seem to be affirmed in scripture. I hope I've suggested some key ways to begin thinking about this.
So how does this reconcile limited atonement with the idea that Jesus in some way did die for everyone? On a fundamental level, Jesus died for those who would end up believing in him. He didn't die for those whom he knew would not take advantage of the offer given to them. He didn't die for those who would end up rebelling to the end against the perfect restoration of all things that began with Jesus' coming. Yet in some way God intended his warnings to turn to apply to all people. His desire in some way applies to all sinners, since he has no desire that anyone die.
We should have no trouble, therefore, saying that his love extends to all people in some way, reading John 3:16 to include all the world as it seems at face value to intend. We should have no trouble saying that Jesus was given as a ransom for all, as I Tim 2:5 says, and mean it at its full face value. It was in some sense intended for all, and it was in some other sense intended only for the elect. I don't see a contradiction, as long as you realize that these are at two different levels.
The analytic philosopher in me wants to systematize this, and there is a helpful analytic philosophical way to show that there's no contradiction here, but I wouldn't want to insist that this is the right way to look at this. I think God's desire that no one perish is deeper than this model shows. However, it demonstrates the consistency of saying both things, which is my primary goal here.
Suppose I tell you that I wish for you to do really well on your exam. Do I wish that you do well even if you didn't do any of the work for the class? No! I wish that you do the work and then do well. But that's not what I said. Did I speak incorrectly? Perhaps not extremely carefully with strict language, but what I said was fine. It was conversationally appropriate, because my intended message was received. Ideally, I would want you to do well because I'd want you to do your work.
Now consider the case of God and the sinner. God wishes for each person that that person not die. Does that mean he wishes that they will be saved no matter what else is true? No! Ezekiel's message from God is that God wishes that they would turn and not die. It's specifically stated what the wish really is at the most fundamental level. Then when it's abbreviated in the passages like I Timothy 2:5, the most fundamental level is that Christ Jesus did give himself for a ransom for all -- but really the only ones of the "all" that he intended to be ransomed are those who would end up being saved and coming to knowledge of the truth (v.4). That doesn't mean he doesn't in some way desire for all to be saved and come to knowledge of the truth. It just means that at a fundamental level God has hand-picked which people would be saved and come to knowledge of the truth. On a fundamental level of speaking, these are the people covered by the Jesus' death.
Somehow God's desires are that the others would be saved. I don't know how that works with God's selecting the others and not them. I suspect it has something to do with certain priorities of desires in God's mind and heart. God's love is one of them. This is as fundamental as anything else about God, since John tells us God is love (I John 4:16). Somehow other things come into the picture and prevent this desire of God's from being actualized. Does it mean God's desire is frustrated? I wouldn't presume to put it in those terms. Is it better to describe it as God's desire being outweighed by a more important desire?
This is becoming the realm of speculation at this point, and it's dangerous to speculate on what God hasn't specifically revealed, especially when such speculations can easily lead to heresy. The point should be clear here, however. If there's a contradiction, it's not in affirming limited atonement while saying that in another sense Christ's death, God's love, etc. apply to all. There's no contradiction between saying God desires all to be saved but only chose some to be saved. Both are affirmed by the scriptures, and anyone with a high view of the scriptures should believe both.
In a previous post, I considered whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God. My answer was sort of a yes and a no. Literally speaking, I think the answer is yes. It's just that Christians and Muslims believe very different things about the one God that exists. As a Christian, I think Muslims believe radically false things about God, and I think Christians believe generally true things about God. There would be no meaning to calling myself a Christian if I didn't think something like that. In that sense, what some people really mean when they say Christians and Muslims worship different gods is true. Their sentence is false, but what they were trying to convey is true. The different things the two believe about God are very different.
I had another instance of happening upon a gem of a discussion this morning, when I was following a reference in a footnote on an entirely different topic. After looking up a reference in N.T. Wright's The New Testament and the People of God, I decided that it might be worth looking through his introduction, since I've had the book for a while but barely looked at it. In the introduction, he explains his use of 'god' rather than 'God' consistently throughout the book (which I won't bother to go into here), and in the process he gets into the very issue of my aforementioned post, focusing mostly on the differences between first-century Christianity and first-century post-Christian Judaism (though mentioning Islam in the process). I thought enough of the issues were parallel that it was worth summing up Wright's thoughts and looking at their significance for the discussion about Islam from my previous post.
Not too long ago my wife and I finished reading through Matthew's gospel, and my own reading of the gospel strikes me as so far removed from the direction of a lot of scholarship. There seems to be a sense among some scholars that Matthew had a loose view of history and just sort of made things up about Jesus, not caring if many of it really happened. There's also this contrary sense from the same people that Matthew looked long and hard to find passages in the Hebrew scriptures that were vaguely similar to events in Jesus' life, usually resulting in huge stretches of the imagination to try to connect the two as if the first had been a prophecy of the second.
This combination creates a strong tension. How can it be both that Matthew twists OT passages way out of context and that he invents stories that never happened to fulfill those same OT passages? If he was in the business of inventing stories that never happened, he could have made it so that they were closer to the events as described in the OT passages he's referencing. That suggests that he's not simply inventing stories and finding OT passages to fit them. I think it's absolutely obvious and not even an open question that there are many levels of what it might mean to fulfill something, and Matthew is well aware of that.
The view I'm questioning assumes only the kind of fulfillment that simplistic apologists assume when they say that a reference to an OT passage is about Jesus simply because the NT references it, then listing countless passages and giving the sum of all this as an argument that Jesus must have been who he said he was because he fulfilled so many prophecies. Not all the fulfillment in the NT is that kind of fulfillment, as if some prophet said something and it was about Jesus and not about anything else.
Some people say something like the following:
"You can't quote the Bible to prove the Bible because it's circular reasoning."
There's something about what they're saying that's right. The following is a bad argument:
1. The Bible says it's the word of God.
2. I can trust what it says, since it's the word of God.
3. Therefore, I can trust it when it says it's the word of God, so I should believe that it's the word of God.
However, that's not the only thing someone can mean when saying that the Bible can count as evidence for Christianity. I have in mind a very different kind of argument. What Christians call the Old Testament (and what scholars today call the Hebrew Bible) could have taken something like 1500 years to produce, perhaps shorter but certainly well over 1000 years even by liberal estimates (though how much of it one says is early depends on one's presuppositions). Adding in the New Testament (or Greek Bible, if you prefer that name) brings it to 1500-2000 years. Think about what's happened in the last 2000 years.
Two related arguments come to mind. One has to do with prophecy. The other is from the unity of the Bible.
There are three sort-of-mainstream views about the authorship of the pastoral epistles. Some see them as a total forgery. This view generally takes them to be at the beginning of the second century or the end of the first. It has been proposed that the forgery was by Luke as volume three of Luke-Acts, and this must have been the end of the first century. Some see them as fragments of Paul supplemented by lots of other material and put into coherent wholes. Then the authentic pieces would be from Paul's lifetime. The third view is that Paul had someone else write the letters (an ammanuensis), probably because he was in a bad way at the end of his life and in prison. The most likely candidate for the ammanuensis is Luke, who would have been given more freedom than such a scribe might have had in the earlier Pauline letters. This would likely have been in the mid-60s.
Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.