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The Price Jesus Paid
F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
Lent V - 04/10/11 Lam. 3:19-33; Ps. 71; Heb: 9:11-15; Jn. 8:46-59
There was a price, it was demanded, and it was paid.
But what was that price paid by Jesus? Why was the price demanded? And, to whom did He pay it?
There has been more than one answer over Christian history to that question, but probably the answer most given, at least since the Reformation, has been that Jesus paid the price for the Father in order to reconcile our disobedience with the mercy of the Father.
In that explanation, the payment was a sacrifice by Jesus equal to the debt we could not pay. Justice was demanding the payment. And the payment was made, one might say, to the Father so that He could exercise His mercy. The transaction takes place in heaven in the ledger books of Justice.
This is what we mean by "imputed" righteousness. We were not ourselves involved in the transaction at all. We did nothing to earn this credit to our justice account. It was "imputed" to us as an objective fact, without our personal intervention. Jesus died and rose again, all without our participation, other than to be participants in sin, and thus in His death on the cross, and then accepting Him as savior.
This explanation of the grace of God was formulated partly to counter the notion raised in the centuries old discussion concerning the claims of an English monk name, Pelagius, about the time of Augustine about 400 AD. Pelagius said that because we have freewill, we are able to obey the law of God, and can therefore get into heaven by our obedience.
That seemed to threaten the central doctrine of Christians, that we are saved by Jesus, and by Jesus alone, that we cannot, on our own, merit heaven. We cannot earn our way in by our good deeds.
Problems developed soon with that explanation, when some Christians reasoned (and still do) that since our righteousness is imputed quite apart from our works, then we do not have to worry about doing good works. We can behave as we please, and our salvation is secured because Jesus has paid the price.
Also, the transaction in heaven was objective, but, in a sense, almost too objective. It did nothing to change the moral attitudes or behavior of those subjects being saved. That deficit was thought to be covered by the work of the Holy Spirit and what we call sanctification.
The drift of Christian spirituality, over the centuries leading up through the high middle ages and into the Reformation, was toward a greater and greater distancing of God from our life here on earth, largely because the Pelagian problem was not resolved.
That distance was portrayed in the film, Brother Son, Sister Moon, on the life of St. Francis. Francis broke with his rich and noble past at a service in the local church. He was sitting with his family as the camera panned to the figure of Christ on the cross high over the altar. It was subtle, but the figure of Christ gave the impression of glaring with anger, even contempt, down on the people. Francis stared at the figure of Christ with a distraught look. He got up slowly, walked to the aisle, said "No! No!" and turned and walked out.
The figure of God, including Jesus, had become distant, hyper-masculine, and judgemental. The very meaning of the Incarnation had been compromised, so that persons who longed for sainthood sometimes went around flagellating themselves with whips, carrying heavy crosses. They were trying to do penance for their sins by causing themselves great pain. Francis was not a theologian, but his spirit told him that something was terribly wrong. So he embarked on the simple life of the friar, hoping to restore genuine love and the nobility of honest poverty back into the Church.
I suspect that much of the growing Middle Ages' focus on the Blessed Virgin Mary came from a desperate longing for the natural closeness and softness of mothering side of God.
The God of the Bible, as revealed in Jesus, has a perfect balance between masculine and feminine characteristics. He could be firm, leading, challenging, and He could be warm, close, receiving. There is no hint of the conflict which arose out of the debate between Augustine and Pelagius and became so divisive over the centuries.
When God takes on a hyper-masculine image, we find religions like Islam, some aspects of Pharisaism, or some aspects of Calvinism. When God takes on a hyper-feminine image, we find ourselves back in paganism and the Great Mother who swallows us all up in her embrace of death. The ambiguous deity of Hinduism -- the merging of good and evil into the Great One.
Only in the Bible does God reveal Himself as the perfect marriage between masculine and feminine, a union which we are to emulate in our human marriages, made in the Image of God, male and female.
What was the price Jesus paid? How could the murder of the only innocent person in the world make things better -- rather than infinitely worse? The solution to that question is at the very heart of many of the problems which Christianity faces today, and our failure to connect with persons raised in our disintegrating culture.
The picture given, and certainly the picture I picked up in my youth, was of a Father God who was angry and judgemental, who wanted His pound of flesh from us before He would show mercy. But the Jesus who showed up in my life as a child, totally out of the blue, was not that way at all. He was more like the Jesus of the Gospels, especially John, full of light, truth, love, and glory.
St. Paul reflects (2 Cor. 5:21) that,
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
That is often taken literally, as though Jesus Himself had become sinful so that He could die for us. But Jesus did not (indeed, could not) Himself be sin. God logically cannot become sinful.
That notion came to us as the Pelagian-Augustinian debate on atonement and freewill gradually grew more defensive and "position-defending" than truth-seeking, from which grew the mistaken idea that Jesus was substituting for us by paying our moral debt on the heavenly ledger books. Sin was imputed to Jesus so that righteousness could be imputed to us.
But such a view requires that God was Himself subject to a moral law higher than His own will. That, however, is not the Biblical understanding of things. The will of God is the highest law, not a yet higher set of principles to which God is obligated.
The debt being paid was not of that ledger book sort. The offense was to the will of God, not to a standard above God to which God was obligated (which does not exist). And God had decided on the law of love as that highest standard -- which seeks the good of the creature as the highest obligation. God obligates Himself to that standard, no one and nothing else does or can, which means that He is not bound by a tit-for-tat sin-punishment regime. Therefore God is satifying justice, but by His own standard, namely love.
And, in all of that, God is not pampering the sinner by letting him "get away with" his sin, God is requiring the sinner to go through all the repentance, relationship restoration and building required by Kingdom reality. That process is helpful, restorative, and disciplinary in a way that substitutionary debt paying cannot be. God is interested in changed hearts, not in the paying of supposed debts.
Jesus "became sin" in the sense that He assumed, not the guilt of our sin, but the consequences of our sin, the consequences of rebuilding the relationship between God and the sinner, the consequences of drawing us out of our sinful behavior, patterns, and addictions -- so that we could repent, change our behavior, and thus become indeed obedient and righteous before God. In this process, our broken wills are not only forgiven, they are healed and redirected so that they can repent and be obedient. Freedom of will is restored to our wills in bondage.
Our free will is no threat to God, it is drawn by the process of salvation to being a ally of God, indeed, as Paul says, the righteousness of God. The glory of God is expressed most fully in the free response of His creatures. As one early Christian said, "The glory of God is man fully alive."
An explanation of atonement can be too objective if it fails to draw me, the subject, the sinner, into oneness with God. The idea of imputed righteousness seems to do that.
The explanation can fail if it pictures the Father as angry and in need of something other than His own love for us to bring us into salvation.
John 3:16, "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son..."
Or John 16:26, Jesus tells the disciples that He will not pray to the Father for them, "for the Father Himself loves you...."
Or Ezekiel 18:21, that God does not desire the death of a sinner, but rather that he may turn from his sin and live. God hates the sin, because it destroys His creatures whom He loves.
There is no split between justice and mercy portrayed in the Bible, only in the wrongful pharisaic interpretations of the word of God.
On the other hand, an interpretation would be too subjective if it were feeling oriented, losing a sense of real sin, a real fall.
To whom might the price have been paid?
Some have suggested that it was paid to Satan because (it is said) he owns the sinners who have put themselves into his kingdom of darkness. But Satan does not own anything at all. He, like any creature, is a steward, not an owner. And His deliberate rebellion has removed all claim to even stewardship.
Some (as above) have suggested that the price was paid to the Father to satisfy Justice and set Mercy free to operate. But if the Father already loves us, then there is no need to change anything in the Father to produce mercy.
And the highest standard of justice is the pinnacle of the law, which is a law of love. That means that mercy is commanded, that justice and mercy are totally wedded and in agreement. There is no such split. The obedience of the Son in coming to earth was not to change anything in the Father, but rather to reveal the deep and unchangeable love of the Father for His creatures.
What, then, keeps us from that love? Only the bad condition of our souls. Disobedience, rebellion, ignorance, a bent and twisted image of God. We see God as not loving us, and so are afraid to allow Him too close to us. Or we are in rebellion, and have no intention of getting close.
What price was then necessary to pay to restore a healthy relation with such damaged or willful souls? Take the example of two friends: What price would one friend have to pay to restore a relationship which had been badly damaged? He would have to put up with all the troubles, fears, possible rejections of the other party if he were to set himself to restoring that relationship.
But to whom would I be paying that price, if I, like Jesus, were doing the restoring? Who would be demanding the price? The demand would come from the person with whom I wanted to restore my relationship. Especially if he thought I had hurt or demeaned him, he would want to know why he should forgive me, what evidence I could produce that I was sincere, and that I could in fact keep my promises. That might be the price he would demand.
When Jesus was tempted by Satan, Satan made a demand of Jesus, not to restore a relationship, but to try to manipulate Jesus into betraying Himself, appealing to any potential need in Jesus for public approval. His appeal was, "If you are the Son of God.... Turn the stones into bread!..., Jump off the tower of the Temple!, etc. That will prove who you are."
At the crucifixion, Jesus was mocked by those who said, "If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross." They wanted to appear that they were reasonable and wanted proof, when they had had all the proof they needed.
But there are others who make that demand, "Prove yourself! Show me that you are the Son of God! Show me that You can indeed save me! Show me that I should put my trust in You."
We all do that. We want to know that we are going to trust someone who is trustworthy. That is a good and righteous thing to do, if it is done honestly and not to manipulate or pretend at being reasonable.
God tells us, "Test the spirits to see if they are of God." God is asking us to make sure that any supposed word from God is really from Him. That means that God is telling us to test Him -- because we cannot know before the testing whether He or some other is saying it. God wants us to test, even if it is Him. If we are going to test, there is no way around occasionally testing God Himself -- that is, every time it turns out indeed to be God speaking.
In that very asking of God to prove Himself, we are asking God to pay the price for our acceptance of Him. God knows full well that we must ask that price because there are false gods around pretending to be Him. The only way we can make sure of the real God is to inquire, to test, to challenge -- so long as it is done with a good and honest truth-seeking spirit. God wants us to challenge Him that way. And He is willing to pay that price.
When we honestly challenge God to prove Himself, we enter into a relationship of vulnerability with Him. To make that honest and realistic, we must do what the disciples did with Jesus, we must allow ourselves to be drawn closer and closer to Himself so that He can reveal to us His true nature.
A strictly intellectual discussion will not do. Theology only tells us about God. That is important, but we need to know something much deeper than a correct view of God. We need to know God Himself, and that requires the vulnerability to which the disciples submitted with Jesus, the risk that we might be going down the wrong track, that this God we are trying to get to know might be a false god, fooling us, entrapping us, enslaving us.
But that is the risk one takes in any possible personal relationship. The other person has a freewill just like myself, the capacity for openness and honesty and good relationship, and equally the capacity for conniving, manipulation, power struggle. Theology and philosophy cannot tell you what kind of person you are engaging. That can come only with vulnerability and experience.
So, when we ask God to prove Himself to us, we are equally going to be tested. We will, as the disciples, have to follow Jesus on the Way of the Cross, to see whether He can indeed lead us to the Father, to forgiveness, to the Kingdom of truth, righteousness, and love.
Jesus will have to put up with our questions, our ignorance, our bumbling -- as He did with the disciples. Jesus will have to put up with our betrayal, running away as He goes through that final stage of the very proof for which we have asked -- the crucifixion and resurrection. "Come, let us reason together" with God -- always, in a fallen world, leads to the crucifixion, which is why it can lead to the resurrection.
That is the proof which we must demand -- the proof which alone can make any decision to follow Jesus as Lord and Savior a reasonable and compelling choice.
It is those persons who are interested enough, who really want to find out who Jesus is, and who therefore ask for that proof, who will be saved. Those who do not ask for that proof, pretending to be pious and polite, are not really interested enough in Jesus to venture themselves into such a relationship. They do not really want to "reason together" with Jesus. They want some easy way through to the Kingdom. There is none. We will risk our whole selves or we will not get there. If we do not risk our whole selves into this very proving which we have demanded, then our whole selves cannot be healed and forgiven.
Jesus wants us to ask for this proof. It is precisely the giving of His proof into which we ourselves must be drawn -- so that Jesus can show us that He is who He says He is. There is no other way.
This understanding of atonement is both objective -- Jesus is very real, the Son of God presents Himself in all of His power and glory, and in all of His astonishing humility. And it is subjective -- it draws us, the subjects, into a process of learning, cleansing, and deep changing of our own lives. We will not come out the same persons we went in. It is He who comes out the same Person. And we come out looking more and more like Him.
The children in The Lion, the Witch, & the Wardrobe ask the Beavers if the Lion is safe and good. To which they respond, "Oh, yes! The Lion is very good. But safe? No, He is not safe." When you get into relationship with the Lion of Judah, the Son of God, your life will be turned upside down. It will sometimes be painful and very frightening. Not safe. But it will be good, because in the Fall, you have been living your life upside down. So Jesus has to turn you on your head to get you upright.
The price Jesus pays, willingly, is the price we must demand if we are to be saved, "Prove to us who You really are."
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