On Ken Ham and Fundamentalism

On Ken Ham and Fundamentalism

I opened the mail the other day to discover a letter from Answers in Genesis (“A Note from Ken Ham”). This wasn’t unusual. What was unusual was what Ken wanted. A color brochure fell out of the envelope. A new “Statement of Faith” from AiG. What was this about?

Ken had a challenge for me. He asked me to review “our updated statement of faith.” Then, he asked me to compare it to “your church’s/college’s statement of faith.” Ken encouraged me to provoke a discussion with leaders about why the church’s Statement didn’t match AiG’s. To be fair, Ken warned me “this could result in some hostility.” But, he declared, such a sacrifice was necessary to “help uncover compromise.”

My first reaction was purely ecclesiastical. Why does a man who runs two amusement parks believe it’s proper to incite doctrinal strife within local churches? His parachurch organization is not an agent of the Gospel. His organization disciples nobody. It baptizes nobody. It marries nobody. It eulogizes nobody. Ken is not there when a marriage is on the rocks, or when a family has no money and needs a new washing machine. Yet, here his letter sits, inviting Christians to accuse their churches of “compromise.”

My second thought was that I hadn’t realized, until that moment, how fundamentalist AiG really was. The flashpoints are Genesis 1-11, abortion, evolution, and sexual mores. But, especially Genesis. The letter declared, “[t]here are only a few Christian colleges/universities that will stand with Answers in Genesis today.” If you don’t “stand” with Ken on Genesis, you’re a “compromiser.”

AiG’s isn’t “fundamentalist” because it believes what it does about Genesis. It’s fundamentalist because it has no room for generous orthodoxy. It engages in what Michael Bird calls “doctrinal mummification.”1 Its theology is frozen. Set in concrete, just like Reagan’s feet.2 No matter whether you have a different, well-articulated view―there can be no détente. Such would be weakness. These compromisers are “very liberal,” Ken warns. They must be crushed.

Fear sells. Nigh on 22 years ago, Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson wrote a sad book reflecting on their experiences with the Moral Majority. The issue of fund-raising letters came up. Thomas explained these letters always have the same four traits:

First, they identify an enemy: homosexuals, abortionists, Democrats, or ‘liberals’ in general. Second, the enemies are accused of being out to ‘get us’ or impose their morality on the rest of us or destroy the country. Third, the letter assures the read that something will be done: We will oppose these enemies and ensure they do not take over America. Fourth, to get this job done, please send money (and the letter often suggests a specific amount).3

This is precisely what dear Ken does. He suggests a $50 donation and promises a copy of his latest book in return. It’s regrettable to see AiG live up to fundamentalism’s worst impulses of “intellectual rigidity and obscurantism.”4 Scot McKnight laments that people often weaponize “inerrancy,” and “more often than not they are affirming some authority for a specific interpretation that is part of their tribe.”5 Thus, if you disagree with AiG, you’re surely not on God’s side.

Long ago, in 1980, journalist Frances Fitzgerald did a profile of Jerry Falwell and the then-new Liberty College. She observed:

For Thomas Road people, education—in the broad sense of the word—is not a moral and intellectual quest that involves struggle and uncertainty. It is simply the process of learning, or teaching, the right answers. The idea that an individual should collect evidence and decide for himself is anathema.6

That is the approach Ken displays in his letter. It’s also in the new Statement of Faith, which contains this declaration:

The concepts of “social justice,” “intersectionality,” and “critical race theory” are anti-biblical and destructive to human flourishing (Ezekiel 18:1–20; James 2:8–9).7

It provides no definitions for these terms. Ken just says they’re bad. This is troubling, because in his letter Ken assured me the new Statement was carefully worded to “stop people” from using it “to justify compromised positions.” He even declares AiG will “monitor” to see how folks “can get to justify not believing God’s Word.” To disagree with Ken is to disagree with God.

Again, the doctrinal mummification, the feet in concrete, the intellectual rigidity. Of course, one can be against all those things, but what does Ken think they mean?

Emil Brunner wrote about evil as a social phenomenon; an infection that spreads throughout society “and then breeds further evil … the evil which is incorporated in social institutions, and the evil which becomes a mass phenomenon, waxes great and assumes demonic forms.” He declared, “Evil which takes the shape of social wrong, or is incorporated within institutions … is worse than evil in any individual form, in isolation.”8

Surely Brunner has a point? Does not evil lurk in society at large as a force, an impetus, an orientation? Does it not shape-shift depending on context? If, as Carl Henry wrote, every society has its myth, and that myth is the framework in which the society chooses to invest its notions of meaning and value,9 can evil really be an individualized phenomenon?

Wolfhart Pannenberg rejected transmission of sin through a social nexus, but he acknowledged society was a vehicle that produced sin in the individual.10 Surely this is correct?

Donald Bloesch wrote that “sin has social as well as personal dimensions. It can appear in the form of racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, classism, ageism, religious bigotry, ecological pollution and genocide … sin can poison the structures of a society as well as the heart of individuals.”11 Even Millard Erickson has a discussion on “the social dimensions of sin” in the latest edition of his systematic theology.12

Are these men all too woke?

Like many people today, conservative Christians often exist in an information echo-chamber. They’re socialized into it by their particular media, their peers, their schools, their families13 … their churches. Perhaps social justice, intersectionality, and critical trace theory are “anti-biblical” and “destructive.” What the thinking Christian mustn’t do is take Ken’s word for it.

Michael Bird warns about a “naïve biblicism” personified by Wayne Grudem, who doesn’t interact with non-evangelical theologians (like, say, Brunner, Bloesch or Pannenberg) and seemingly has no awareness of the sociocultural factors that have shaped him. The result is a theology that’s “open to being press-ganged to justify political agendas of the far left or far right.”14 The dangers need not be politics masquerading as theology―they can also be an unwitting intellectual and cultural isolation.

This echo-chamber can make a certain kind of Christian smirk when he reads President Obama reflect on the struggle to pass the Affordable Care Act: “I saw no way to sort out people’s motives, especially given that racial attitudes were woven into every aspect of our nation’s history.”15 The assumption is this cannot be true. But … what if it is true?

The legacy of racist and evil Jim Crow laws throughout the South is real. It’s an unfortunate fact that de facto “segregation academies” sprang up across the country, particularly in the South, after the Brown v. Board of Education decision declared “separate but equal” un-Constitutional.16 Bob Jones University didn’t ban interracial dating until 2000, and then only after suffering embarrassing media attention after George W. Bush made a campaign appearance at the school.17

On the very day Brown v. Board of Education was announced, a Senate sub-committee held hearings on yet another proposed “Christian Amendment” to the Constitution.18 The fact that some of the same Christians opposed Brown, whilst simultaneously advocating for a Christian Amendment, and then later supported and established private Christian schools (read “white schools”) to avoid the implications of forced de-segregation … is quite bizarre. It’s almost as if social structures, systems and cultural mores produce individual sin in people’s lives.

Be that as it may. I’m not arguing for the “evils” against which dear Ken is railing. I am arguing against the theological populism and obscurantism that are fundamentalism’s worst impulses. The fear of something new. Something different. Fear of a doctrinal introspection that bursts the bonds of a very narrow orthodoxy. Something that might shake those feet set in concrete or disturb the doctrinal mummy.

One historian has observed that early white fundamentalists spent their time fighting cultural battles, while their black counterparts often focused on racial advancement.19 This mania for the culture wars continues today in Ken Ham’s letter. Fear is the key. Christian historian John Fea observed “it is possible to write an entire history of American evangelicalism as the story of Christians who have failed to overcome fear. Evangelicals have worried about the decline of Christian civilization from the moment they arrived on American shores in the seventeenth century.”20 William Martin has noted the same phenomenon.21 At least one historian has made this “evangelical fear” the subject of an entire book.22 Remember Cal Thomas’ remarks about the prototypical fundraising letter? He recalls one operative admonishing him, “You can’t raise money on a positive!”23 Evangelicalism has always thirsted for the man on horseback to destroy enemies and save society. Therefore, AiG declares “social justice” (whatever that means!) is “destructive.”

People live by stories. “The cultural enterprise rests invariably on a secret or explicit faith.”24 These shared stories are what shape a people and bind a society together. Henry warns us that Christians are foolish to reject other people’s stories “as mere myth-spinning.” They are, all of them, a “quest for a comprehensive overview of reality”25―a reflection of the “I-Thou” relationship we were all made for and want.26

So perhaps, rather than not defining competing “stories” then dismissing them as “destructive,” Christians should start telling our own story?27 Is that not what evangelism is about? Shall we be always on the defensive, sniping from the ramparts while calling for our brothers to bar the gates? If so, our message is simply “We hate you! Believe in Jesus or die a compromiser.” Mark Yarhouse rightly criticizes this approach in the context of evangelism to homosexuals.28 He calls for “alternative scripts” that tell a better story, the Christ story.

Clodovis Boff writes about a friend, a bishop, who cried as he recounted seeing a woman dying from hunger, unable to produce milk for her dying infant child.29 It’s experiences like these that gave rise to Latin American liberation theology―the quest to use the Gospel as impetus to change social conditions … social structures. Such a salvation is mediated by liberations “that dignify the children of God and render credible the coming utopia of the kingdom of freedom, justice, love, and peace, the kingdom of God in the midst of humankind.”30

Social structures, social justice―is this “destructive?” An unthinking Christian may reflexively dismiss this as babble from a “liberal.” He will turn to his trusted gatekeeper and receive assurance that, yes indeed, this is “liberalism” and therefore “bad.” He will look no further.

A thinking Christian will engage, push beyond the echo-chamber. Perhaps you’ll end up agreeing with AiG, but surely we must all raise an eyebrow or two when Ken Ham boldly tells us what truth is … without any evidence he himself understands what he maligns. We must do better.

Or I suppose you could just send Ken the $50 he’s asking for. After all, he’ll send you an autographed copy of his latest book.  


1 Michael Bird, Evangelical Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020), p. 41.  

2 If you appreciate this reference, 50 bonus points for you …  

3 Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson, Blinded by Might: Why the Religious Right Can’t Save America (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), p. 58.

4 William Martin, With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America (New York: Broadway, 1996), p. 16.

5 Scot McKnight, “Inerrancy or Inerrancies?” 01 June 2021. Retrieved from https://scotmcknight.substack.com/p/inerrancy-or-inerrancies.

6 Frances Fitzgerald, “A Disciplined Charging Army.” The New Yorker. 18 May 1981. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1981/05/18/a-disciplined-charging-army.

7 Answers in Genesis, “Statement of Faith,” § “Man.” Retrieved from https://answersingenesis.org/about/faith/.  

8 Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption, in Dogmatics, vol. 2, trans. Olive Wyon (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1952), p. 96.  

9 Carl F. H. Henry, God Revelation and Authority, vol. 1 (Waco: Word, 1976), p. 156.  

10 Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, vol. 2, trans. Geoffrey Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), p. 255f.  

11 Donald Bloesch, Jesus Christ: Savior and Lord (Downers Grove: IVP, 1997), p. 45.  

12 Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), pp. 584-599.

13 Two sociologists label these as “agents of socialization” (Kerry Ferris and Jill Stein, The Real World: An Introduction to Sociology, 6th ed. (New York: Norton, 2018), pp. 109ff).

14 Bird, Evangelical Theology, pp. 88-89.  

15 Barack Obama, A Promised Land (New York: Crown, 2020), p. 405.

16 “After the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954, Southern public schools—sometimes entire school systems—shut down rather than desegregate. Private “segregation academies” sprung up to replace them. In some states, governments provided grants to subsidize tuition. The movement accelerated following passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibited segregation in schools receiving federal assistance and authorized the government to file suit in federal court to enforce Brown,” (Rick Perlstein, Reaganland: America’s Right Turn: 1976-1980 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2020), p. 346). See also Martin, With God on Our Side, pp. 168ff.

17 “Bob Jones University Drops Interracial Dating Ban.” Christianity Today. 01 March 2000. Retrieved from https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2000/marchweb-only/53.0.html.  

18 Kevin Kruse, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (New York: Basic Books, 2015), pp. 95ff.  

19 Daniel Bare, “The Unearthed Conscience of Black Fundamentalism,” in Christianity Today. May/June 2021, p. 64.  

20 John Fea, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), p. 66.   

21 Martin, With God on Our Side, p. 2.  

22 Jason Bivins, Religion of Fear: The Politics of Horror in Conservative Evangelicalism (New York: OUP, 2008).

23 Thomas and Dobson, Blinded by Might, p. 58.  

24 Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, vol. 1, p. 156.  

25 Ibid, p. 155.  

26 Brunner, Creation and Redemption, pp. 55-56, and Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 3.1 (reprint; London: T&T Clark, 2004), pp. 184-185.

27 Joshua Chatraw, Telling a Better Story (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020).  

28 “What the church can help people with—regardless of whether orientation changes—is identity. We can recognize that a gay script is compelling to those who struggle with same-sex attraction, especially when they see few options emerging from their community of faith. Therefore we can help develop alternative scripts that are anchored in biblical truth and centered in the person and work of Christ,” (Mark Yarhouse, Homosexuality and the Christian (Minneapolis: Bethany, 2010), pp. 54-56).

29 Leonardo and Clodovis Boff, Introducing Liberation Theology, trans. Paul Burns (reprint; Maryknoll: Orbis, 2006), pp. 1-2.  

30 Ibid, pp. 8-9.  

What does “only-begotten” even mean?

What does “only-begotten” even mean?

Older English translations used the phrase “only-begotten” at John 1:14, 18; 3:16 and 1 John 4:9. Newer translations don’t use that. Don’t take my word for it; just look at your bible of choice. Newer translations use “unique,” “one and only” or “only,” (etc.) depending on the context.

The phrase “only-begotten” is tied up with the doctrine of eternal generation. Eternal generation is built on a conceptual framework that tries to explain how Father and Son can be distinct from one another, and yet have the very same essence/being. It is perhaps a great misunderstanding of the Nicene-Constantinople Creed to interpret it to mean Jesus and the Father each share the essence of “god like-ness.” That isn’t what it means. It says Jesus is “consubstantial with the Father” or “the same essence as the Father” (ὁμοούσιον τῷ Πατρί).

Eternal generation says that:

  1. the Son was generated by the Father,
  2. in a non-physical way (“begotten, not made”)
  3. and in a timeless way (“begotten of the Father before all worlds”)
  4. in a way we can’t ever understand
  5. but this does not imply subordinationism, temporal priority or that the Son was created

This doctrine is confusing to many non-confessional Christians. It’s likely most of these have never heard of the doctrine. It’s also quite likely few non-confessional seminary professors and even fewer seminary-trained pastors could coherently explain it. For proof, ask your pastor, “what does it mean that Jesus is the only-begotten Son? Does this mean Jesus came into being after the Father?” If your pastor does not reply by describing eternal generation, then he does not understand the doctrine. This doesn’t mean your pastor is a terrible person! It does mean he likely did not receive training in classical theology proper. I certainly did not!

Be that as it may … I say all that to tell you that the translations of John 1:14, 18; 3:16 and 1 John 4:9 are inseparably bound up with this doctrine. It’s a third rail. The past several years have seen extraordinary pushback from certain theologians advocating a return to “Nicene orthodoxy.” Specifically, to the “same essence” doctrine that Nicea taught. Jesus and the Father do not simply share the same essence, like you and I share “humanness.” No, they share the same, identical essence. They are the identical, same being. Part of this pushback is a quest to re-capture “only-begotten” as a valid rendering at John 1:14, 18; 3:16 and 1 John 4:9.

Are they right? How should the passages be rendered? What does μονογενὴς mean? Let’s see …

Lexicons

The lexicons conclude μονογενὴς has a range of meanings that do not require one to posit a timeless, non-physical derivation of divine essence from the Father to the Son.

  • BDAG: (1) “the only one of its kind within a specific relationship, one and only, only” or (2) “the only one of its kind or class, unique[1]
  • Abbott-Smith: only, only-begotten; of sone and daughters and of Christ[2]
  • Moulton and Milligan: “is literally ‘one of a kind,’ ‘only,’ ‘unique,’ not ‘only-begotten’ … the emphasis is on the thought that, as the ‘only’ Son of God, He has no equal and is able fully to reveal the Father.”[3]
  • Louw-Nida: “pertaining to what is unique in the sense of being the only one of the same kind or class—‘unique, only.”[4]
  • LEH LXX: “the only member of a kin, only-begotten, only (of children) Jgs 11,34; id. (of God) Od 14,13; alone in its kind, one only Wis 7,22[5]

Septuagint Usage[6]

Here, I survey every use of the word in the LXX.[7] The basic sense in the LXX is special, unique, one and only. These are very close synonyms for one another, but they convey the same force. The one outlier is Psalm 24:16, which gives the sense of alone or lonely.

Judges 11:34: And Jephthah went to Mizpah to his house; and behold, his daughter was going out to meet him with drums and dancing. She was his only begotten; there was not another son or daughter to him.

The sense here is “unique, one and only.” The girl is Jephthah’s precious daughter, which makes the consequences of his vow more serious.

Psalm 21:21: Rescue my soul from the sword, and my unique one from the hand of a dog.

Again, the sense is “unique, special, one and only.”

Psalm 24:16: Look upon me and have pity on me, because I am alone and poor

The sense here is different; more like monos than monogenes.

Psalm 34:17: O Lord, how long will you observe? Restore my life from their wrongdoing, my unique life from lions.

Unique, one and only, special.

Wisdom 7:22: … for the artisan of all teaches me wisdom. For in her is a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, gentle, movable, clear, undefiled, distinctive, invulnerable, loving goodness, sharp, unhindered, beneficent …

Unique, one of a kind. This is in the midst of Solomon’s recounting of his ordinary origins, and the blessing of wisdom he received because he sought higher things than earthly accolades (Wisdom 7:6-7).

Tobit 3:15: … and neither have I defiled my name nor my father’s name in this land of my captivity. I am an only child to my father, and neither is there to him a young child who will become his heir, nor a close relative.

One and only. Sarah, the woman whom Tobit’s son eventually marries, is lamenting her misfortune. An evil demon has, in turn, killed her seven successive husbands and she is now without any hope.

Tobit 8:17: Blessed are you because you have shown mercy on two only-begotten children! Show them mercy, O Master, fulfill their life in health with gladness and mercy!”

One and only. Sarah’s father gives God praise because Sarah and Tobit’s son, her new husband, have lived through the night. The demon has been defeated!

Psalm of Solomon 18:4: and your love is upon the offspring of Abraham, the children of Israel. Your childhood is upon us like a firstborn unique son

One and only, special, precious.

New Testament Usage

The usage here tracks with the evidence from the Septuagint. There are no surprises.

Luke 7:12: As he drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a considerable crowd from the town was with her

One of a kind, as in “an only child.”

Luke 8:42: And there came a man named Jairus, who was a ruler of the synagogue. And falling at Jesus’ feet, he implored him to come to his house, for he had an only daughter, about twelve years of age, and she was dying.

One of a kind, as in “an only child.”

Luke 9:37-38: On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. And behold, a man from the crowd cried out, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child!

One of a kind, as in “an only child.”

Hebrews 11:17-18: By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.

One of a kind, as in “an only child.”

Usage Related to Jesus

With this foundation in place, from the LXX and every citation in the New Testament, we’re in a good place to determine how to take the word in reference to Jesus. Basically, the usage here fits perfectly with what we’ve seen in the LXX and the remainder of the New Testament.

John 1:14: And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth

The sense is uniqueness, a special “one of a kind-ness.” Jesus has a very special glory, a glory that can only come from someone in the closest possible relationship with the Father (v. 18). They share the same glory. To find implications about an eternal generation here are speculative and depend on an a priori determination to “find” the doctrine in the passage.

John 1:18: No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.

Again, context suggests uniqueness, one of a kind-ness. Jesus, as the one “in the bosum of the Father,” has the closest possible relationship with Him. Thus only Jesus, the very special, one and only God (or “Son,” if you prefer the variant reading) can truly make the Father known to the world.

John 3:14-16: And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes fin him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life

The force of the passage is God’s love. He has so much love that He sent His unique, special, one and only Son to die for His people’s sins. Abraham’s would-be sacrifice (the emotional force of giving your only son’s life) prefigures this event. Again, finding eternal generation here is eisegesis.

1 John 4:9: In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him

See the comments at John 3:16 (above).

Apostolic Father’s Usage[8]

There are no new surprises here.

1 Clement 25:2: For there is a bird which is called the Phoenix. This bird, being the one and only of its kind, lives five hundred years

Self-explanatory

Martyrdom of Polycarp 20:2: And to him who is able to bring us all in his grace and gift, to his heavenly kingdom, by his one and only child, Jesus Christ, be glory, honor, power, and majesty ⌊forever⌋. Greet all the holy ones

One and only. Older translation used “only-begotten” (e.g. Lake), but there is no need for this. A theological presupposition about eternal generation would have to drive this interpretation.

Diognetus 10:2: For God loved humankind, for whom he made the world, to whom he subjected all things, the things in the earth, to whom he gave reason, to whom he gave mind, to whom alone he allowed to look above to him, whom he made in his own image, to whom he sent his one and only son, to whom he promised the kingdom in heaven and will give it to those who love him.

This is an allusion to John’s usage (John 1:14, 18, 3:16; 1 Jn 4:9), and the same comments apply here.

So, What’s It Mean?

Charles Irons argues there is a “directional flow” in the lexical evidence to see the meaning of μονογενὴς expanding in “ever-increasing” figurative ways … ways that allow one to interpret it to imply Jesus’ metaphysical derivation from the Father (“A Lexical Defense of the Johannine ‘Only-Begotten,'” in Retrieving Eternal Generation, ed. Fred Sanders and Scott Swain (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), p. 111). Indeed, Irons contends it is a human metaphor to express an eternal timeless, non-physical derivation from Father to Son (Ibid, p. 115). He states “the importance of the Johannine monogenēs for the construction of the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son cannot be underestimated,” (Ibid, p. 116).

Irons is arguing for interpretation, not pure translation. In fact, if one took his approach to its logical implication for bible translation, the result would be a dynamic equivalent rendering so interpretive it might make even Eugene Peterson blush. Only an a priori commitment to the doctrine of eternal generation would make you render μονογενὴς as “only-begotten. This doesn’t mean eternal generation isn’t real. It just means the word should not be translated as “only-begotten.”

It would be as if I, when encountering Καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο at John 1:14, rendered it as “and the Word kept His divine nature and added a human nature, and thus became fully God and fully man.” I smuggled a whole host of good stuff in there, but it isn’t what John wrote. He actually wrote “and the Word became flesh.”

In the same way, John did not write that Jesus is “only-begotten” in the sense that He derives His essence from the Father in a timeless, eternal manner. “Only-begotten” means nothing, in and of itself, when it comes to Jesus. It only engenders confusion. You may wish to guard the sanctity of eternal generation. Have at it, but support a rendering that communicates more than it confuses. Talk about the doctrine in exposition. Don’t smuggle it crudely into your translations.

The controversy about the meaning of μονογενὴς isn’t as difficult as some would like you to believe. Set aside the lexical essays. Just look at every usage of the word in the literature for yourself. It isn’t difficult. But, like so much else, it’s become difficult because of the freight the various interpretations pull with it.


[1] BDAG, p. 658.

[2] Abbott-Smith, p. 296. 

[3] Moulton and Milligan, pp. 416-417. 

[4] Louw-Nida, §58.52.

[5] Johan Lust, Erik Eynikel, and Katrin Hauspie, A Greek-English Lexicon of the Septuagint : Revised Edition (Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft: Stuttgart, 2003).

[6] The LXX citations here are from Rick Brannan et al., eds., The Lexham English Septuagint (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012).

[7] I do not include Ode 14, because it is clearly a Christian composition of some maturity. It is not properly a citation from before the time of Christ.

[8] My citations here are from Rick Brannan, tran., The Apostolic Fathers in English (Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2012).

What is Pentecost About?

What is Pentecost About?

Pentecost is one of those events in the Christian calendar that hasn’t fared so well―so many people don’t know what to do with it! We know what happened, but the problem is what it means. Like so many discussions involving the Holy Spirit, Pentecost sometimes becomes a list of things that it doesn’t mean:

  1. Whatever else it is, it can’t be a fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy.
  2. The gift of prophecy, the experiences of dreams and visions―it’s all good, but it has nothing to do with us, you see …
  3. The gift of tongues can’t be real foreign languages; they have to be ecstatic, other-worldly sayings that require an interpreter

Presuppositions drive interpretation, shutting out the actual words on the page. Pentecost gets submerged under 50 feet of controversy. Like espresso diluted with sugar, it becomes so much less than it’s meant to be. Its meaning is lost in all the noise of theological disagreement.

What does Pentecost actually mean?

Peter tells us. He stands up, facing a crowd of perhaps thousands in the temple courtyard, and simply says “this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel,” (Acts 2:16). What happened that morning―the Spirit descending visibly, audibly, in deliberately dramatic fashion―was what the prophet Joel said would happen. Whatever the phenomenon of Pentecost means, Joel explains it―what does Joel say?

Peter quotes a long passage from Joel (2:28-32). It’s a mysterious passage―otherworldly. There are great promises, even fantastic ones. The run-up to Peter’s citation shows us Joel urging repentance. God wants us to return to Him. The day of the Lord is illustrated by an army of locusts that devour everything in their path. Judgment is coming.  “Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments,” (Joel 2:12).

And, once God’s people do that, He’ll make everything all right (Joel 2:18-27), and that’ll set the stage for something else. After God rescues and gathers all His people. After God makes us safe. After God destroys our enemies. After God blesses the land and gives us a booming economy. After He returns to dwell with us … then some important stuff is going to happen.

Acts 2:17: And in the last days it shall be, God declares

Peter is interpreting Joel, who said:

  1. after we repent,
  2. and God rescues, gathers, dwells with us,
  3. then something special is going to happen
  4. the Messianic age will be here, in some form,
  5. and it’ll come with some very specific bells, whistles and divine signs

Peter, by quoting Joel as he does, says “this is it―it’s here!”

  1. God has rescued!
  2. God has gathered!
  3. God has made His people safe!
  4. The age of the King is here!
  5. These are the divine signs Joel told us about, right here in front of us―God is striking up the band and shouting, “Here it is, guys!”

Some bible teachers don’t agree. They say “what happened at Pentecost is like what Joel said … it resembles what he said …” But, this is mistaken. Peter said, “but this is what was said by the prophet Joel …”[1] Pentecost is the fulfillment of Joel’s words.

How can this be what Joel said, if all the stuff Joel promised would happen beforehand haven’t fully happened, yet?

  1. We’re not all gathered
  2. We’re not all safe
  3. Christ’s enemies are still around
  4. God hasn’t given us economic peace and stability
  5. God doesn’t physically, visibly dwell with us here

But (and this is the point) it’s started to happen. The dominoes are starting to fall. The ones at the end of the line are still standing, but not for long. Peter says, in effect, that just as the Feast of Pentecost is a celebration of the first fruits of the agricultural harvest, so Pentecost morning is the first-fruits of God’s rescue harvest.

This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing (Acts 2:32-33).

God, to Joel’s audience, says: “Return to me, because the Messianic age is coming, and it’s really gonna be something!”

Peter says to the pilgrims on Pentecost morning: “This is what Joel said would happen! This is the first fruits of the Messianic age, when Jesus is the King!”

God’s message to a modern Christian audience is: “If you’re a Christian, you’re part of this new Messianic age, and what happened at Pentecost proves it!”

What did the Spirit do at Pentecost, that inaugurated the New Covenant? What does all that theater (tongues of fire, the rushing wind) mean? Peter explains, by continuing his Joel quotation.

Acts 2:17: that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh

All means all (young, old, slave, free, high society, low society). Peter says God just poured out His Spirit on all His people. Christians often wonder what the Spirit did that was so unique. Depending on your church tradition, you may have heard the following:

  1. It was salvation! But, surely salvation already existed. This is a mistaken view.
  2. It was indwelling! Some Christians believe the Holy Spirit never indwelt believers before the New Covenant. This is also incorrect;[2] how could you love God and your covenant brothers and sisters without the Spirit?

So, what did this “pouring out” of the Spirit do for them then, and what does it do for us, today? Joel tells us now.

Acts 2:17: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions and your old men shall dream dreams;

People often want to know what “prophesy” means. It can either mean (1) inspired unveiling about future or heretofore unrecognized events, or (2) communicating God’s message for His people and the world; teaching, exhorting. In some contexts it’s a combination of both. Here, the emphasis shades over to the teaching aspect. We know this because, on Pentecost morning, the pilgrims said “we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God,” (Acts 2:11).

The bit about visions and dreams tells us God will now communicate with His people in dramatic and very personal ways. He’ll draw us into His presence in a way so much more intimate, close and personal than when He hid Himself behind the veil in the temple.

Jesus pours out the Spirit on “sons and daughters.” Both men and women. Joel (and Peter) show us no gender hierarchy in God’s family, which is a pretty revolutionary statement in a patriarchal world.

Acts 2:18: even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.

God doubles down. He won’t just pour out His Spirit on men and women, generically. But on men and women who are slaves. In Peter’s context, slavery is a class status, not the race distinction it became in America. Slaves are the lowest class in society. God’s promise to give the Spirit in equal measure to even male and female slaves is quite something. One wonders how the Pharisees would have reacted (cf. Jn 9:34).

What a revolutionary vision of men, women and class in God’s family! Each has gifts to exercise. Each has an equal and honored place in the community. No matter what label the world sticks on us about age, social class or gender, inside the family there is a collaboration, a sharing, a reciprocal exchange and harnessing of gifts. There are implications here for those who wish to pick up what God is putting down.  

What does all this mean?

It means every Christian has the supernatural ability to “prophesy” (i.e. teach) other people about Jesus (sons, daughter, young, old, slave, free). To tell people about the future, about how this story ends, about how and where this merry-go-round that is the world is going to stop. To look at the scripture the same way you peek at the end of a new paperback thriller, to see the end, and tell people about it so they can be sure their end will turn out all right. To teach people about Jesus. It also means that people can know God more personally, intimately, and experientially than ever before.

Do we believe, really believe, that God’s kingdom has broken into this world? The torn veil, the resurrection, the ascension―all of it was leading to this dramatic moment when God does everything but charter a plane to write in the sky, “the Kingdom of heaven is at hand!”

Violent wind, flames of fire, thousands of pilgrims gathering around, and then the realization that all believers (men, women, boys, girls, old, young) have divine empowerment to “prophesy” (i.e. teach) to people about Jesus the King.

He’s empowered you. He’s gifted you. He’s equipped you. He’s put you where you are. He’s given you the words of life to rescue captives from that future of fire, blood, smoke and doom (cf. Joel 2:30-31).

It’s not salvation. It’s not a first indwelling. It’s divine empowerment in service of the Gospel and community.

What would happen if we lived life like Pentecost had happened to us, personally? God wants you to be encouraged, inspired, energized, excited. He wants us to read about this, then go out and live like it’s real, not something in a book. To many of us (including me!) the reality of God’s empowering is atrophied, like a muscle that’s gone weak because it’s never used. The empowering has become abstract, academic, far away, maybe even almost a fable we pay lip-service to―something that’s not “real.”  

It isn’t that―it is real. What Joel said is here, right now. Jesus is in heaven, granting repentance, granting forgiveness (Acts 5:31), pouring out the Spirit on His people. What would happen if Christians exercised their “faith faculty”[3] to live like this empowerment was real, not words on a page or pixels on a screen?  


[1] ἀλλὰ τοῦτό ἐστιν τὸ εἰρημένον διὰ τοῦ προφήτου Ἰωήλ

[2] For an argument for Old Covenant indwelling, see Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, vol. 2 (Detroit: DBTS, 2009), pp. 267-276.

[3] John Phillips, New Testament Christianity (New York: MacMillan, 1956), pp. 23-42.

Review: The Making of Biblical Womanhood

Review: The Making of Biblical Womanhood

Beth Allison Barr’s book The Making of Biblical Womanhood released on 20 April 2021. It provides a historical argument for egalitarianism and it has taken the evangelical world by storm. Many are not pleased. On 30 April 2021, one Twitter user who sports an avatar of John Calvin in a suit asked, “Why do all the anti-patriarchy chicks seem to cut their own hair?” James White liked the tweet.

The same day, Desiring God sallied forth with an article arguing that a man is a prophet, priest and king to his wife.

On Mother’s Day 2021, three Southern Baptist seminary presidents felt compelled to tweet about women preachers by quoting various 19th century theologians who supported slavery. Adam Greenway cited B.H. Carroll, who served in the Confederate Army for two years. Danny Akin replied to Greenway and declared, “He is correct my friend. 100%. The Bible is crystal clear.” Al Mohler quoted John Broadus, who was a Confederate Army chaplain. Beth Moore replied, “Happy Mother’s Day, Al.”

Barr’s book released not long after Kristin Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne, and together they offer a formidable scholarly critique of complementarian theology.

Barr takes a risk by not making her book cold and formal. It is academic, but colored throughout by her very personal story. Early on she declares “my husband was fired after he challenged church leadership over the issue of women in ministry,” (p. 3). She lays her cards in the table and states “Complementarianism is at its root misogynistic … based on a handful of verses read apart from their historical context and used as a lens to interpret the rest of the Bible. The tail wags the dog …” (pp. 5, 6).

She recounts her years of quiet frustration as her own views on women in the church shifted. “I stayed silent when I wasn’t allowed to teach youth Sunday school because the class included teenage boys. I led discussions with special permission when no one else was available,” (p. 5).

Barr is not an angry “feminist” with a “radical agenda.” She is an evangelical Baptist who is a Professor of History and Associate Dean of Graduate Studies at Baylor University. She holds both the MA and PhD in Medieval History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Barr spends little time exegeting biblical texts; there are many resources which fight that battle.[1] But, she is impeccably credentialed to speak to this issue from a historical perspective and that is her unique contribution to the discussion. “It was historical evidence that showed me how biblical womanhood was constructed—brick by brick, century by century,” (p. 10).

Barr uses the term “patriarchy” throughout her book, rather than “complementarianism.” Patriarchy is “a general system that values men and their contributions more than it values women and their contributions,” (p. 16). She observes that Russell Moore claims Christian patriarchy is different, in that women only submit to their own husbands. But, Barr says, this is a distinction without a difference―patriarchy is still patriarchy. “It cannot be peeled off suit coats like a name tag as evangelical men move from denying women’s leadership at church to accepting the authority of women at work or women in the classroom,” (p. 18).

What if, Barr suggests, we ought to flip the narrative? “Instead of assuming that patriarchy is instituted by God, we must ask whether patriarchy is a product of sinful human hands,” (p. 25). This is not a new question. Is female submission an original aspect of creation, or is it result of the Fall?  But how to move this conversation forward? Both sides are well-entrenched. Barr declares, “Historical evidence about the origins of patriarchy can move the conversation forward,” (p. 32). She then spends the rest of her book doing just that.

Patriarchy is not part of God’s good creation. The fact that some flavor of patriarchy has always existed is a clue for the Church. “Isn’t it ironic (not to mention tiresome) that we spend so much time fighting to make Christianity look like the world around us instead of fighting to make it look like Jesus Christ? Shouldn’t it be the other way around,” (p. 37)?

In her second chapter, Barr suggests we misread Paul if we see him upholding patriarchy. Rather, Paul pushes against that construct from within that world. “[W]hat if Paul was teaching Christians to live differently within their Roman context? Rather than New Testament ‘texts of terror’ for women, what if the household codes can be read as resistance narratives to Roman patriarchy,” (p. 46)? She offers numerous quotations from medieval sermons to suggest modern evangelicals read Paul as they do because their ecclesiastical culture blinds them. She especially takes issue with attempts to interpret Ephesians 5:22ff as a separate paragraph from Ephesians 5:21 (p. 50f).

Barr’s third chapter is perhaps her most powerful, because here she is in her element as a medieval historian. She introduces the reader to several women preachers and their “cloud of witnesses.” Her argument is not, “See, women have preached before, so it must be ok!” Rather, she argues, “You’re interpreting the bible wrong. See, look at all the other voices from the Church that have seen it differently. Grudem doesn’t have the last word!” She observed,

I knew the problem wasn’t a lack of women leading in church history. The problem was simply that women’s leadership has been forgotten, because women’s stories throughout history have been covered up, neglected, or retold to recast women as less significant than they really were (p. 84).

Patriarchal tendencies have always led church authorities to push back. “The problem was male clergy who undermined the evidence,” (p. 87). She then follows with a delightful chapter on the Reformation’s impact on women, and how the role of “being a wife” was redefined as the highest ideal. “As the household became more firmly established as a woman’s space, professional work became more firmly identified as a man’s space,” (p. 109).

Her fifth chapter tackles the issue of gender-inclusive bible translations. She notes the ESV had its genesis in a kerfuffle about “changes” to the NIV. “The uproar among evangelicals was instantaneous. Gender-inclusive language was no longer just an argument over proper translation; it was the slippery slope of feminism destroying biblical truth,” (p. 131). Barr writes:

The ESV was a direct response to the gender-inclusive language debate. It was born to secure readings of Scripture that preserved male headship. It was born to fight against liberal feminism and secular culture challenging the Word of God.

As a medieval historian who specializes in English sermons, the debate over gender-inclusive translations amuses me. It amuses me because the accusers depict gender-inclusive Bible translations as a modern, secular trend fueled by the feminist movement. Yet, as a medieval historian, I know that Christians translated Scripture in gender-inclusive ways long before the feminist movement (pp. 132-133).

She then chronicles the rise of the cult of domesticity and its emphasis on saving men from sexual immorality by emphasizing female purity. Barr draws on work by other historians and summarizes this mindset as consisting of piety, purity, submission, and domesticity (pp. 165-166). Women are naturally more religious than men and are thus ideally suited to pass these values on to children. Women are not sexual creatures and must be protected from predators. Real women are not emotionally or temperamentally suited to be leaders and will want to follow a strong man. Women are not meant to work outside the home, so women’s education should focus on domestic skills (e.g. home economics).

“Indeed,” Barr argues, “doesn’t biblical womanhood just seem like an updated version of the cult of domesticity? Instead of biblical womanhood stemming from the Bible, it stems from a gender hierarchy developed in the wake of the Industrial Revolution to deal with the social and economic changes wrought by work moving outside the home,” (p. 166).

Thus,

Instead of just being something that women usually did, domestic prowess in the home (centered on the family) now became something that good Christian women should do because it is what we are designed to do. It is our primary calling in this world. Domesticity, for evangelical women, is sanctified (p. 159).

In that vein, Owen Strachan, a theologian at Mid-Western Baptist Theological Seminary, recently tweeted this:

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

I do not believe Barr would argue domesticity is bad. But, I do believe she would insist it does not have to be the only sphere in which women can meaningfully contribute to Christ’s coming kingdom.

Patriarchy, Barr argues, adapts to changing circumstances. “Like racism, patriarchy is a shapeshifter—conforming to each new era, looking as if it has always belonged,” (p. 186).

She identifies eternal functional subordination as heresy.[2] “Arianism, like inerrancy, proved the perfect weapon against women’s equality, the perfect prop for Christian patriarchy. Except it is still heresy. Arianism repackaged,” (p. 196).

This is an extremely well-researched book. Each chapter is replete with copious footnotes and historical examples. Indeed, perhaps her book’s greatest strength is its role as a tour guide to a world of scholarly historical monographs on gender roles in the West. Populist readers may dismiss Barr out of hand. More careful readers will see her arguments deserve careful consideration.

We all know pre-understanding clouds interpretation. I once had a woman tell me she believed someone who did not believe in the pre-tribulational rapture could be a Christian. This woman did not know other eschatological frameworks existed. Has our cultural heritage blinded our interpretation on the role of women in the Church?

I have two critiques. Barr’s definition of “patriarchy” is abstract, and thus I believe she erred by not using the “Danvers Statement” to better define her target. It would have been helpful if Barr had aligned herself with some mile marker in this debate. Perhaps CBE International’s Men, Women, and Biblical Equality Statement” would have been appropriate. Also, her attempt to tie the fundamentalist-modernist controversy to patriarchy is an unfortunate misstep,[3] and Barr seems out of her element here.[4]

Should you read the book?

If you are a conservative, theological populist, then you will probably not like this book. If you follow and enjoy Tom Buck, Denny Burk, Tom Ascol, Owen Strachan, and self-proclaimed “1689 Baptists” on social media, you will probably not like this book. This is why you ought to read it anyway.

If you want to hear a scholarly, reasoned, and formidable historical argument for egalitarianism, read this book.

If you want to explore a path less traveled than arguments about the grammar of 1 Timothy 2:12-14, read this book.

If you want to read some of the best of what the other side has to offer, read this book.

If you enjoy reading substantive arguments that challenge you, read this book.

If you believe women are called to do more than work in the nursery, teach elementary-age children, and teach younger women in the church, then read this book.

Notes

1 See (1) Ronald Price (ed.), Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove: IVP, 2005) and (2) John Piper and Wayne Grudem (eds.), Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, rev. ed. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2021).

2 For context to this issue, see Millard Erickson, Who’s Tampering With the Trinity? An Assessment of the Subordinationist Debate (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2009).  

3 “… the early twentieth-century emphasis on inerrancy went hand in hand with a wide-ranging attempt to build up the authority of male preachers at the expense of women. As we have seen, preaching women peppered the landscape of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America: they flooded the mission field as evangelists and leaders, and they achieved popular acclaim as preachers among Pentecostal and even fundamentalist denominations. As these women rose in prominence, so too rose inerrancy teachings. And these teachings buttressed male authority by diminishing female authority—transforming a literal reading of Paul’s verses about women into immutable truth,” (p. 189).

4 Barr admits she knew little about the fundamentalist-modernist battles and had to receive a crash course from a colleague at a conference (p. 187).  

Jesus and John Wayne: An Interim Report

Jesus and John Wayne: An Interim Report

Two female scholars have released books in 2021 that have caused a big kerfluffle in the evangelical world. Both books critique the brand that has become American evangelicalism. One of those books is by Kristin Du Mez, a historian at Calvin University, in Grand Rapids, who holds a PhD from Notre Dame. She’s well-credentialed and knows what she’s talking about. The book is Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. You can watch a talk by Du Mez about her book here. The book jacket declares:

In Jesus and John Wayne, a seventy-five-year history of American evangelicalism, Kristin Kobes Du Mez demolishes the myth that white evangelicals “held their noses” in voting for Donald Trump. Revealing the role of popular culture in evangelicalism, Du Mez shows how evangelicals have worked for decades to replace the Jesus of the Gospels with an idol of rugged masculinity and Christian nationalism in the mold of Ronald Reagan, Mel Gibson, and above all, John Wayne. As Du Mez observes, the beliefs at the heart of white evangelicalism today preceded Trump, and will outlast him.

I come to this book as an evangelical who:

  1. Regularly criticizes the American Church when it weds itself to a peculiar brand of American exceptionalism,
  2. Recognizes that some of the positions the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (“CBMW”) takes are less than biblical and heavily influenced by a particular cultural expression of Christianity. I have never recommended any resource from CBMW and never will.
  3. Believes women are called to serve in local congregations in roles beyond nursery and elementary-aged Sunday School.

So … I’m two chapters into this book. So far, I’m disappointed.

Du Mez’s discussion of Theodore Roosevelt as the archetype “manly man” is cursory and selective. She paints Roosevelt as if he set out to fashion a persona for mercenary motives. She doesn’t mention that Roosevelt was an intensely intellectual boy who only overcame crippling physical challenges by aid of exercise and a love affair with the outdoors. Du Mez skips this childhood context, mentions Roosevelt’s time “out West,” then skips right to San Juan Hill and the Rough Riders. She doesn’t mention his scholarly monograph on naval history, his time as NYPD Commissioner, his outdoors writing, or his stint at the Navy Department. It seems as if she strings selective anecdotes together to paint the portrait she wants. Barry Goldwater did try to resurrect Roosevelt’s ghost in a campaign advertisement, but that was hardly Roosevelt’s fault.

Du Mez’ breezy coverage of the evangelical marriage to conservative politics in the 1940s and 1950s is adequate, but very short.

If it doesn’t get more substantive, this book will be a major disappointment that doesn’t live up to the praise it’s received. If you’re looking to be confirmed in your preexisting animus towards evangelicalism, this book is for you. If you’re looking for a persuasive and scholarly critique as an aid to some introspection, it ain’t happening, so far … and I’m actually looking for it.

I hope things improve.

Sad about being fightin’ mad

Sad about being fightin’ mad

I’ve been slowly wending my way through Kenneth Latourette’s wonderful History of Christianity: Beginnings to 1500. I began the book at the year 500 A.D., finished it, and have now circled back to the beginning to fill in the gap. I came across this observation from him just this morning:

Christians know they should be united, but they often are not. Because we are what we are, the quarrels are often about secondary issues―disagreements over how to express Christianity. The disagreements are rarely about the trinity, the Gospel, two-nature Christology, or original sin. It’s a sad disconnect, and it’ll never go away as long as we’re east of Eden.

Recent circumstances in my congregation make me read Latourette’s comments with sadness. We’ve had six people leave our church in the past two months because we had a wedding as the worship service on a Sunday morning.

  • I was told it was blasphemous to “usurp” the “proper” worship service.
  • I was told it was a “poor testimony” to unbelievers to see a wedding on a Sunday morning.
  • I was criticized for allowing decorations to be put up which “covered the cross” behind the pulpit … even though that cross is only two years old, and for 37 years there was nothing on the wall behind the pulpit.
  • I was told it was wrong for me to move our Wednesday evening bible study and prayer meeting to another room inside the building so we could stage wedding decorations in a convenient place.
  • I was told I allowed the building to be made to “look like a bar” because there was subdued lighting.
  • One (now former) member told me she didn’t believe I had made “Godly decisions” and thus no longer trusted me.
  • Another (now former) member suggested that, because the folks who did the lighting had the word “dragon” in the company name, we had somehow colluded with Satan (cf. Rev 12).
  • One (now former) member pointed his finger at me angrily during a public meeting and said I was wrong to remove the American flag from the platform for the wedding. I now plan to never return that flag to the platform.
  • Another (now former) member said I did not preach the Gospel, and suggested I received poor training.
  • Another (now former) member suggested I was wrong to point out during a recent sermon that Bob Jones University has a legacy of evil racism, and that the university didn’t drop its inter-racial dating ban until 2000. He explained Bob Jones University “had reasons for those policies.”
  • I was heavily criticized for allowing the wedding party to hold a private reception inside the church building afterwards, during which time they danced. I was told I allowed the building to be desecrated.

In short, my decision to hold a wedding for two church members as the worship service on a Sunday morning has prompted an exodus of six people. In each case, I interpret the wedding as the “final straw” and the trigger for a decision which was inevitable. I attribute it to three factors; the first two are often intertwined but are not quite the same:

  1. I do not model an “America exceptionalism” brand of Christianity.
  2. I do not hold to a second-stage fundamentalist philosophy of ministry which sees holiness as synonymous with a culturally conditioned and scripturally suspect set of external behaviors.
  3. I believe a church which fails to plan and execute corporate evangelism is derelict in its duties. Results are God’s business, but the responsibility to spread the Gospel is ours. This is non-negotiable. Thus a church which is purely insular is a useless social organization. One (now former) member complained that I spoke about the Gospel too much.

Local churches will always struggle to “make real” Jesus’ heart for unity. For me, this is a particularly sad blow because one of our congregation’s three “platforms” is to build community and love one another. This is a frequent emphasis in my sermons and teachings. Unfortunately, it isn’t yet a reality in our congregation. Like many churches, ours is small. Morale will suffer. It ought not to be this way. It makes me so sad, because I don’t know what these people think Christianity is. What have they been doing all their lives? How many others (in my congregation and yours) think the same way?

On original sin

On original sin

If you want to read about original sin, then this article is for you!

Why it Matters

Every orthodox Christian agrees “we’re born as sinners.” But, there are some important questions left to answer once we get beyond that:

  1. Is original sin a “thing” to be transmitted (a la a virus), or a status?
  2. How does it “get” from our first parents to us?
  3. Are we guilty because of our first parent’s sin, or our own?
  4. Are we born guilty, or are we in some sort of probationary state?
  5. Are we born corrupted, or (again) is this a probationary thing?

Two Generic Options

  • Natural headship: Sin is conceived of as a metaphysical “thing” that’s transmitted by some kind of vehicle from the father (especially in medieval thought), or from both parents. Often analogized as an “infection” that spreads from a host, or the fruit of a tree root, water from a fountain, or a “stain” which spreads like a malevolent inkblot. Medieval theologians (following Augustine, among others) believed sin was transmitted by semen from the male. Not that the semen itself was sinful, but that it was the vehicle for the corrupted human nature which, in turn, contaminated the soul.
  • Representative headship. There is little speculation about the vehicle for transmission, because sin is not a “thing” that travels about. Human beings (as a corporate body) are simply declared both (1) guilty, and (2) corrupt because of our first parent’s sin. It’s a legal declaration; a state of being. We exist, therefore we’re guilty and corrupt. Adam is our representative head in our default state, and Christ is the representative head for our rescue.

You can represent the most critical differences like this:

Summary

The basic essence of “original sin” is that, because of our first parent’s actions, mankind as a corporate body is both (1) guilty, and (2) corrupted. I deliberately do not use terms like “inherit” or “infection.” Representative/federal headship is the means of imputation.[1]

The two passages most clearly at issue are Romans 5:12-20, and 1 Corinthians 15:21-22. Neither passage delves to the level of genes, chromosomes or semen to explain the exact vehicle for sin’s transmission―so neither should we. Paul states the brute fact that Adam’s sin constitutes all people as “sinners.” Adam brought lawlessness, and sin “passes through to all men — because of Adam’s headship everyone ‘committed lawlessness'” (my translation). By way of Adam’s trespass, there is a guilty verdict against all people. Romans 5:18 is the clearest text.

The descriptions of sin as a “disease,” an “infection” or a flow of “water from a fountain” are simply vivid (but mistaken) metaphors Christians have reached for in order to explain how this transmission happens. But, these metaphors go too far. Paul simply says Adam’s sin constitutes us all as sinners with a guilty verdict against us. Transmission is a fait accompli because we exist.

Our first parent’s sin is contracted and not committed―a state and not an act.[2] Thus, “original sin does not have the character of a personal fault … it is a deprivation of original holiness and justice …”[3] In other words, because of our first parent’s sin, we are all born both (1) guilty, and (2) morally corrupted by immediate imputation. Their guilt and corruption is our own, because original sin is a representative imputation, which is precisely how Paul framed the matter.[4]

Because it is a legal status, a verdict which brings both guilt and moral corruption, original sin is not a tangible, physical thing which can be transmitted. Thus, speculations about semen and references to “spreading stains” (etc.) are speculative and unhelpful. The New Hampshire Confession of Faith therefore has the best explanation of original sin, from the four we survey below. It rightly never mentions “inheritance” or any medical or water analogies.  

It is “original sin” in the sense that “from that, as the first guilt of all, there afterwards arose and went forth all its subsequent evils.”[5]

Survey of Selected Creeds

The Reformation era creeds emphasize original sin as a disease; a hereditary trait that’s passed down by generation―federal headship. More modern confessions downplay federal headship, and drop the infection/disease language

2000 Baptist Faith and Message, Art. 3

By his free choice man sinned against God and brought sin into the human race. Through the temptation of Satan man transgressed the command of God, and fell from his original innocence whereby his posterity inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin. Therefore, as soon as they are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation.[6]

This is an implied representative headship that’s a bit deliberately ambiguous about the soteriological implications. Sin entered the world by our first parent’s free choice. Our posterity “inherit” a nature inclined to sin. And, we don’t become “sinners” until we are “capable of moral action.” This is the infamous, Baptist “age of accountability.”

1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith, Art. 3

We believe that man was created in holiness, under the law of his Maker;[7] but by voluntary transgression fell from that holy and happy state;[8] in consequence of which all mankind are now sinners,[9] not by constraint, but choice;[10] being by nature utterly void of that holiness required by the law of God, positively inclined to evil; and therefore under just condemnation to eternal ruin,[11] without defense or excuse.[12]

Our first parents chose to sin (“voluntary transgression”), and so we’re all sinners by choice because our nature is “utterly void” of holiness and we’re “positively inclined” to evil and thus without excuse. This is no discussion of “transmission,” and no “infection” language.

Westminster Confession of Faith, §6.3

They being the root of all mankind,[13] the guilt of this sin was imputed, and the same death in sin and corrupted nature conveyed to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation.[14]

Adam and Eve are the root, and their guilt is assigned to all their posterity. Death in sin and corrupted nature passed along by ordinary generation. There is no attempt to locate the vehicle for this transmission in the male’s sperm, a la Augustine and the medieval theologians.

Belgic Confession, Art. 15

We believe that, through the disobedience of Adam, original sin is extended to all mankind; which is a corruption of the whole nature, and an hereditary disease, wherewith infants themselves are infected even in their mother’s womb, and which produceth in man all sorts of sin, being in him as a root thereof; and therefore is so vile and abominable in the sight of God that it is sufficient to condemn all mankind. Nor is it by any means abolished or done away by baptism; since sin always issues forth from this woeful source, as water from a fountain: notwithstanding it is not imputed to the children of God unto condemnation, but by his grace and mercy is forgiven them …

This confessions tilts to representative headship.[15] Original sin is a corruption of the whole nature. It’s a hereditary disease that extends to everybody. Infants are infected in the womb. Again, there is no attempt to drill down to specify the vehicle for the transmission. Sin issues forth from us like water from a fountain. It comes from Adam’s disobedience, like a root.

Scripture

Creeds are nice. They’re helpful guardrails to make sure you’re not leaving the reservation. But, scripture is the only infallible rule for faith and practice. Let’s look at the two key passages.

Romans 5:12-20

12: Διὰ τοῦτο ὥσπερ διʼ ἑνὸς ἀνθρώπου ἡ ἁμαρτία εἰς τὸν κόσμον εἰσῆλθεν καὶ διὰ τῆς ἁμαρτίας ὁ θάνατος καὶ οὕτως εἰς πάντας ἀνθρώπους ὁ θάνατος διῆλθεν ἐφʼ ᾧ πάντες ἥμαρτον

My translation is thus:

  • Therefore,
    • just as lawlessness entered into the world by way of[16] one man,
      • and death by way of[17] lawlessness,
    • so[18] this is how[19] death passed through to all people―
      • because of Adam’s headship[20] everyone “committed lawlessness.”

Paul says sin entered the world by means of one man. The thought is that:

  1. Adam brought lawlessness,
  2. and lawlessness brought death,
  3. and, this is how death “passes through” to all men―because of Adam’s representative sin

The passage does not say death passes to all men because we each commit individual, volitional sin. The entire sentence is in the aorist tense-form, indicating a perfective aspect. The context shows us a chain of causation that happened entirely in the past, long ago:

  1. sin entered by means of one man (a historical event, in the past),
  2. and so death passed to all men (a historical event, in the past),
  3. because all men sinned (a historical act, in the past)

I wasn’t there, in the Garden. But, I “sinned,” somehow. Either I myself participated directly or indirectly, or my representative Adam did. Given my discussion in the rest of the passage, I believe my representative Adam did. So, I rendered it that way in translation.

It would be odd indeed if Paul broke the chain of historical events to introduce some kind of present action (“all men now sin”). You’d have to render the verb as a culminative aorist, and/or turn the verb into a predicate (“all men began to be sinners”). This does violence to the grammar. Erickson has a helpful, short discussion.[21]

It does not specify the precise means of transmission … because there is no “transmission” per se.  

13: for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law.

Sin existed long before God gave the law at Sinai, but all the specific, individual violations didn’t count before it was given. I take this to mean that, before Sinai, people were guilty in a general way because they didn’t pledge allegiance to the one true God. But, after Sinai, there was a higher, sharper standard in keeping with the more specific revelation.  

14: Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.

But still (ἀλλʼ), despite that, death controlled and ruled (ἐβασίλευσεν) from Adam all the way to Moses―even controlling those who did not sin like Adam did. Adam is a type for Christ, in that he’s analogous to Him in a representative way.

15: But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.

But, Christ’s “free gift” is not like Adam’s sin―why not? Because where Adam’s sin brings death, much more has God’s grace and His free gift abounded for many. They’re both representatives, but the consequences of the “trespass v. free gift” are quite different. That is the contrast, as Paul now explains …

16: And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation [a guilty verdict], but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification [acquittal].

This is self-explanatory.

17: For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.

Paul explains (γὰρ) why he just wrote what he wrote. Because of Adam’s trespass, death controlled and ruled by means of him; that is, because of that guilty verdict. Even though Adam is dead he is the means by which, by extension, death still controls unbelievers. Death is the active agent.

But, turning the tables, those who receive salvation (the acquittal) will now reign with life through the man Jesus Christ! Believers become the controlling, ruling, reigning agents, by way of Jesus.

18: Ἄρα οὖν ὡς διʼ ἑνὸς παραπτώματος εἰς πάντας ἀνθρώπους εἰς κατάκριμα οὕτως καὶ διʼ ἑνὸς δικαιώματος εἰς πάντας ἀνθρώπους εἰς δικαίωσιν ζωῆς 

My rendering is this:

  • Therefore, then,
    • just as by means of[22] one trespass
      • we have a guilty verdict[23] against[24] all people,
  • so too,
    • by way of[25] [Christ’s] one righteous act
      • we have acquittal (that is, life!)[26] for all people. 

Again, Paul does not specify how the transmission happens. He simply says that, by means of one trespass, God renders a guilty verdict against everybody. This strongly implies Federal headship. Our volitional acts are irrelevant. We exist from Adam, therefore we are guilty.

19: ὥσπερ γὰρ διὰ τῆς παρακοῆς τοῦ ἑνὸς ἀνθρώπου ἁμαρτωλοὶ κατεστάθησαν οἱ πολλοί οὕτως καὶ διὰ τῆς ὑπακοῆς τοῦ ἑνὸς δίκαιοι κατασταθήσονται οἱ πολλοί

My translation is:

  • Because, just as
    • through one man’s disobedience
      • many people became lawbreakers,
  • so
    • through the other man’s obedience
      • many people will be made righteous

Again, we have representative headship. Adam’s sin makes us “sinners” and assigns that status to us. Our volitional acts have no bearing because our nature has been corrupted. Still, Paul does not specify the precise means of this imputation.

1 Corinthians 15:21-22

ἐπειδὴ γὰρ διʼ ἀνθρώπου θάνατος καὶ διʼ ἀνθρώπου ἀνάστασις νεκρῶν ὥσπερ γὰρ ἐν τῷ Ἀδὰμ πάντες ἀποθνῄσκουσιν οὕτως καὶ ἐν τῷ Χριστῷ πάντες ζῳοποιηθήσονται.

My translation is thus:

  • Because,
    • since death [came] through[27] man,
    • resurrection from the dead has also come through man.
  • This means that,[28]
    • just as in association with[29] Adam everyone dies,
    • so also in association with Christ everyone will be made alive!

Again, there is no description of the exact means of transmission―just a statement that death came by way of Adam.

Theologian Survey

Of the theologians surveyed below, Emil Brunner is most biblical and helpful. Aquinas gives an assist by noting that original sin is a status or state, not a volitional act. The Catechism of the Catholic Church builds upon this edifice and expresses it better than Aquinas.

Emil Brunner

Unfortunately, at least two theologians seriously misunderstand Brunner or cite him without actually reading him.[30] “Adam” is not the single man Adam, but the “one humanity” represented by him. So, Paul when Paul refers to “Adam,” he means that man who is really all of us.

Before Christ we are one indivisible humanity. The act of rebellion which I see in Christ as my sin, I see there as the identical act of all. All particularization and calculation is impossible.[31]

The very idea of inherited sin makes “sin” a biological, natural fact―“[b]ut this is never the view of the Bible.”[32] The standard theory of “inherited” sin is “completely foreign to the thought of the Bible,” but the motivation behind the “inheritance” motif is quite correct―sin is a dominant force and humanity is bound together in a solidarity of guilt.[33]

The key passages are Psalm 51:5 and Romans 5:12ff, but they do not say what the traditional interpretation says they say. Psalm 51 simply suggests a common experience of sin binds everyone together.[34] Augustine mistranslated Rom 5:12, which actually “says nothing about the way in which this unity in ‘Adam’ came into existence.” It “does not say a word about an ‘inherited’ sin through natural descent, nor about a special connexion between sin and conception.” It simply states Adam and his descendants are involved in death because they commit sin.[35]

There is a corporateness to our sin because of Adam. “In Jesus Christ we stand before God as one ‘Adam’ … we are not dealing with chromosomes and genes … every man is this Self, this sinner …”[36] If a man was “made this way” and “inherited” sin is a trait or quality, then “[m]an cannot help it, and he has nothing to be ashamed of in the fact. God has made him so.”[37]

Brunner sees sin as a relational stance; almost (but not quite) a state of being. Sin is “the very existence of man apart from God―that it means being opposed to God, living in the wrong, perverted relation to God … But sin, like faith, lies beyond the empirical sphere, in the sphere of man’s relation to God.”[38]

Robert Letham

He holds to a hybrid of the natural and federal positions, and sees great value in viewing humanity as a corporate personality. “To my mind, it is not necessarily a case of choosing between these interpretations; each sheds light on the other and thus on the connection with Adam.”[39] He sees a problem with imputing guilt to people before they commit a volitional act; it “is inherently unjust.”[40] So, “it seems clear that both the forensic and the natural relationships are mutually necessary.”[41]

Augustine (354 – 430)

Fallen humans pass their ruined nature on through the male’s sperm:

Therefore the whole human race was in the first man, and it was to pass from him through the woman into his progeny, when the married pair had received the divine sentence of condemnation.[42]

[H]e produced offspring in the same condition to which his fault and its punishment had reduced him, that is, liable to sin and death.[43]

Hugh of Saint Victor (1096 – 1141)

Original sin is “corruption or vice which we take by birth through ignorance in the mind, through concupiscence in the flesh.”[44]

  • Ignorance: “On account of pride the mind was darkened through ignorance …”[45]
  • Concupiscence: “… the natural desire of affection transgressing order and going beyond measure … [f]or the desire transgresses order, when we desire those things which we ought not to desire.”[46]

Original sin spreads to the soul by association with the flesh. Unless the soul is aided by grace, “it can neither receive knowledge of truth nor resist the concupiscence of the flesh. Now this evil is present in it not from the integrity of its foundation but from association with corruptible flesh. And in truth this corruption, since it is transmitted from our first parent to all posterity through propagation of flesh, spreads the stain of original sin among all men in the vice of ignorance and concupiscence.”[47]

Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274)

Original sin is the privation of original justice and the inordinate disposition of the soul[48] and the nature.[49] In its essence, then, original sin is:

  1. privation of original justice in formal terms, and
  2. concupiscence (that is, inordinate lusts in general; “turning inordinately to mutable good”) in material terms[50]

We must view sin corporately. Just as a hand is not responsible for a murder, but the entire man, so Adam is our representative corporate head.[51] Thus, original sin is a sin of nature.

And just as the actual sin that is committed by a member of the body, is not the sin of that member, except inasmuch as that member is a part of the man, for which reason it is called a human sin; so original sin is not the sin of this person, except inasmuch as this person receives his nature from his first parent, for which reason it is called the sin of nature, according to Eph ii. 3 …[52]

Because sin came “by one man” (Rom 5:12), Aquinas declares “original sin is transmitted to the children, not by the mother, but by the father.”[53] Thus “the child pre-exists in its father as the active principle, and in its mother, as in its material and passive principle.”[54]

Therefore the semen is the vehicle which transmits the corrupted nature to the human soul:

… the motion of the semen is a disposition to the transmission of the rational soul: so that the semen by its own power transmits the human nature from parent to child, and with that nature, the stain which infects it: for he that is born is associated with his first parent in his guilt, through the fact that he inherits his nature from him by a kind of movement which is that of generation.[55]

“[G]uilt is not actually in the semen, yet human nature is there virtually, accompanied by that guilt.”[56]

Catechism of the Catholic Church

The Catechism strongly emphasizes the corporate aspect from Romans 5, then cautions “the transmission of original sin is a mystery that we cannot fully understand.” Their sin affected their human nature which they then transmitted in a fallen state, “by propagation.”

Original sin is “the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice.” “And that is why original sin is called ‘sin’ only in an analogical sense: it is a sin ‘contracted’ and not ‘committed’―a state and not an act.”[57] Thus, “original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants. It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice …”[58]

Wayne Grudem

Grudem speaks of “inherited sin,” which consists of “inherited guilt” and “inherited corruption.” Referring to “inherited guilt, Grudem explains “the sin spoken of does not refer to Adam’s first sin, but to the guilt and tendency to sin with which we are born …”[59]. He draws upon Romans 5:12ff and concludes “all members of the human race were represented by Adam in the time of testing in the Garden of Eden. As our representative, Adam sinned, and God counted us guilty as well as Adam … God counted Adam’s guilt as belonging to us …”[60]

His treatment of children dying in infancy is outstanding,[61] and far superior to Erickson’s view.

Millard Erickson

Erickson holds to a natural, seminal headship (a la Augustine). This way he upholds the corporate aspect of Romans 5:12ff, thus “[o]n that basis, we were actually present within Adam, so that we all sinned in his act. There is no injustice, then, to our condemnation and death as a result of original sin.”[62]

There is only a “conditional imputation of guilt” until a person reaches the “age of responsibility.” At that point, “[w]e become responsible and guilty when we accept or approve of our corrupt nature … if we acquiesce in that sinful nature, we are in effect saying it was good.” In this way, Erickson concludes, “[w]e become guilty of that sin without having committed any sin of our own” ―that is, when we “become aware of our own tendency toward sin” and approve of it.[63]


[1] Rolland McCune has an excellent summary of natural v. representative headship, and argues convincingly for representative/federal headship, basically following John Murray (A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, 3 vols. (Detroit: DBTS, 2006-2009), pp. 2:73-83). I didn’t rely on McCune’s arguments here, but instead based my conclusions on an exegesis of Romans 5:12-20 and 1 Corinthians 15:20-22. But still, McCune’s survey of the whole matter is quite useful.

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, §404. 

[3] Catechism, §405.  

[4] “The perspective is corporate rather than individual. All people, Paul teaches, stand in relationship to one of two men, whose actions determine the eternal destiny of all who belong to them,” (Gordon Fee, The Epistle to the Romans, in NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), p. 315).

[5] Hugh of Saint Victor, On the Sacraments of the Christian Faith §1.7.26, trans. Roy DeFerrari (reprint; Ex Fontibus Co., 2016). I added some punctuation to make the point clearer.

[6] Retrieved from https://bfm.sbc.net/bfm2000/#iii-man.

[7] Gen. 1:27; 1:31; Eccles. 7:29; Acts 16:26; Gen. 2:16.

[8] Gen. 3:6–24; Rom. 5:12.

[9] Rom. 5:19; John 3:6; Psa. 51:5; Rom. 5:15–19; 8:7.

[10] Isa. 53:6; Gen. 6:12; Rom. 3:9–18.

[11] Eph. 2:1–3; Rom. 1:18; 1:32; 2:1–16; Gal. 3:10; Matt. 20:15.

[12] Ezek. 18:19, 20; Rom. 1:20; 3:19; Gal. 3:22.

[13] Gen. 1:27, 28; 2:16, 17; Acts 17:26; Rom. 5:12, 15–19; 1 Cor. 15:21, 22, 45, 49.

[14] Psa. 51:5; Gen. 5:3; Job 14:4; 15:14.

[15] Even the Heidelberg Catechism, Q7, does not clarify the issue. We must rely on the Belgic Confession’s wording, here.

[16] The preposition is expressing means. It cannot be reason, because it pairs with an accusative in that instance. 

[17] Means. 

[18] The conjunction expresses the logical conclusion of Paul’s argument. 

[19] An adverb of manner, explaining how something happened. 

[20] The preposition ἐφʼ ᾧ is explanatory. See C.F.D. Moule, An Idiom Book of New Testament Greek, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: CUP, 1959), p. 50), Murray J. Harris, Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), p. 139. A.T. Robertson refers to this usage as “grounds” (A Grammar of the Greek New Testament, 3rd ed. (Nashville: B&H, 1934), p. 604). See also G. Abbott-Smith, A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament, 3rd ed. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1937), pp. 166-167.

The explanation is that, because of Adam’s representative sin, everyone therefore “sinned.” It is not that every single person has committed a volitional sin (the unborn?), but that Adam’s representative sin has constituted us thus. For this argument, see John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, in NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), pp. 182-187). There is no good way to bring this out in translation without inserting half a sentence of interpretation. On balance, I decided I’d take a chance and do it (a la John Phillips).

[21] Erickson, Christian Theology, p. 580.

[22] Means.

[23] This is my rendering, instead of the usual gloss of “condemnation.”

[24] Opposition. 

[25] Means. 

[26] A genitive of apposition. 

[27] Means. 

[28] This is a stylistic alternative to another bland “because.” 

[29] The preposition expresses association, also in the parallel clause.

[30] Bruce Demarest and Gordon Lewis seriously misunderstand Brunner and manage to quote him on everything but his actual discussion of original sin. Their treatment of him is embarrassingly bad (Integrative Theology, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 2:189).

[31] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption, in Dogmatics, vol. 2, trans. Olive Wyon (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1952), p. 97.

[32] Brunner, Creation and Redemption, p. 104.

[33] Brunner, Creation and Redemption, p. 102. 

[34] Brunner, Creation and Redemption, p. 103. 

[35] Brunner, Creation and Redemption, p. 104. 

[36] Brunner, Creation and Redemption, p. 104. 

[37] Brunner, Creation and Redemption, p. 106. 

[38] Brunner, Creation and Redemption, p. 106.  

[39] Letham, Systematic, p. 380. 

[40] Letham, Systematic, p. 396. 

[41] Letham, Systematic, p. 396. 

[42] Augustine, City of God §13.3, in Penguin Classics, trans. Henry Bettenson (New York: Penguin, 2003), p. 512. 

[43] Augustine, City of God §13.3, p. 513. 

[44] Hugh of Saint Victor, Sacraments, §1.7.28.  

[45] Hugh of Saint Victor, Sacraments, §1.7.31.  

[46] Hugh of Saint Victor, Sacraments, §1.7.31.  

[47] Hugh of Saint Victor, Sacraments, §1.7.35.

[48] Aquinas, Summa, I-II, Q. 82, Art. 1, ad. 1.         

[49] Aquinas, Summa, I-II, Q. 82, Art. 1, ad. 2.  

[50] Aquinas, Summa, I-II, Q. 82, Art. 3, corpus.  

[51] Aquinas, Summa, I-II, Q. 81, Art. 1, corpus.  

[52] Aquinas, Summa, I-II, Q. 81, Art. 1, corpus.

[53] Aquinas, Summa, I-II, Q. 81, Art. 5, corpus.

[54] Aquinas, Summa, I-II, Q. 81, Art. 5, ad. 1.

[55] Aquinas, Summa, I-II, Q. 81, Art. 1, ad. 2.

[56] Aquinas, Summa, I-II, Q. 81, Art. 1, ad. 3.

[57] Catechism of the Catholic Church, §404. 

[58] Catechism, §405.  

[59] Grudem, Systematic, p. 495. 

[60] Grudem, Systematic, p. 495. 

[61] Grudem, Systematic, pp. 499-501. 

[62] Erickson, Christian Theology, p. 580. 

[63] Erickson, Christian Theology, pp. 582-583. 

The false “Christianity” of the Religious Right

The false “Christianity” of the Religious Right

I am not a fan of the the politicization of American Christianity. I view the blend of American exceptionalism with Christianity as a very toxic stew that produces nothing but drek. Many American evangelicals would bristle at that observation, but there it is. I have written briefly on this in the past (search the tags for “Christian Nationalism”). For some good context to understand my perspective on this, I’d recommend the following:

Just this past weekend, I received a fundraising letter from a creature of the Religious Right named Ralph Reed. He’s been around for a long time. He was a “whiz kid” of the Conservative movement in the early 1990s who powered the Christian Coalition to amazing success. He is now head of the “Faith & Freedom Coalition.” He personifies the false Christianity of the most fetid corners of the Religious Right’s dank basement. I speak so strongly because I believe this amalgamation of politics + alleged Christianity is nothing more than a witches brew that has sucked many into a cesspool. Just suggest you remove your American flag from the platform or dais inside your church building, and you’ll see what I mean.

Back in 1999, Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson wrote a book titled Blinded by Might (linked above). Both men were “on the ground” with Jerry Falwell during the heyday of the Moral Majority, in the early 1980s. They were key lieutenants in the movement. But, they became disillusioned. They wrote this book to warn evangelicals there was no pot of gold at the end of the political rainbow. All the effort, all the money, all the striving after House seats, Senate seats, Supreme Court seats has achieved … nothing.

In that wonderful book, Cal Thomas makes this observation:

That was in 1999, reminiscing about the good ole’ days from the early 1980s. Here is what I received from Ralph Reed this past weekend:

I used this loathsome correspondence in my sermon from this past Sunday, as I preached from Zechariah 8. Here are my excerpted remarks:

Preaching to the straw man choir?

Preaching to the straw man choir?

Jonathan Cruse’s book What Happens When We Worship has a simple point. Something important happens between us and God when we worship (p. 1). He presents a theology of worship (ch. 2-7), the pieces of a proper worship service (ch. 8-13), and some brief remarks about how to prepare for worship (ch. 14-15).

This is a book written with more zeal than tact.

The author is Very ReformedTM, which is something better experienced than described. He repeatedly impugns the motives and intent of millions of Christians across the world with broad brush accusations of mercenary pragmatism, and straw men caricatures. This is Cruse’s default rhetorical device. It doesn’t work well if you desire to reach and persuade an audience that doesn’t already agree with you. For example:

  • Cruse suggests that, for Christians, “[g]oing to church gets the same checkmark in the to-do list as going to the grocery store or doing homework,” (p. 1). This is unhelpful. Would Cruse really characterize his own congregation this way? Or, is he just talking about “other churches?”
  • He claims some Christians “dutifully suffer through the service while secretly wishing church wasn’t an obligation,” (p. 3). Who are these people? What real Christian would describe his habitual attitude this way?
  • Cruse writes, “Sadly, many Christians think the only way to worship with joy and gladness is through manufactured means,” (p. 3). Note his use of “many.” He then declares most churches either have an (1) entertainment approach, or (2) a mystical approach (pp. 4-8). His descriptions drip with sarcasm and scorn. He declares, but does not prove, that churches that disagree with him are motivated by mercenary pragmatism. “[I]t wins people to worship with something that will tickle their fancies and yet never save their souls,” (p. 5).

If you don’t do worship the way Cruse thinks it ought to be done, you get the impression you have compromised in some fundamental way. The problem is that Cruse never defines “worship,” and because he makes broadbrush characterizations of his targets you don’t really know who he’s talking about. Is he attacking something like Hillsong NYC? Or, my own congregation? Would Cruse accept that the local Calvary Chapel engages in authentic worship? You don’t know, because Cruse doesn’t tell you.

… when we capitulate our worship to the trends of the culture, we have lost something powerful that is meant to be happening in worship: we are meant to be separated from the world.

p. 71

I agree. But, Cruse never defines the aesthetic style that he believes is “holy,” and so we have no idea what this means. I presume the local Calvary Chapel thinks their worship style is holy. According to Cruse, are they wrong? If so, why?

The entire book proceeds in this manner. Cruse’s seems impatient with congregations which are not Very ReformedTM and don’t practice his peculiar form of the Regulative Principle. Unfortunately, this negates his entire message unless you already agree with him.

The author’s historical horizon seems to begin with the Reformation. He locates orthodoxy within a framework that begins at Calvin and ends with the Puritans. He appears to lack a catholic sense of solidarity or familiarity with the global church, past and present, as betrayed by his cursory comments about mysticism (pp. 6-8). He likes to provide quotes from famous theologians from secondary sources (p. 5 (fn #2), p. 19 (fn #4-5), p. 175 (fn #2)), which is sloppy.

Cruse sees evangelism as something that happens through the means of grace during worship. He argues the only imperative verb in Mt 28:19 is “make disciples,” and cites a book in support, but not the Greek text itself (p. 21, fn. 7), which I presume he can read. He admits that, yes, you must make disciples by evangelizing, but you really make disciples by having true worship, so that’s the key thing. The church fulfills the Great Commission when it gathers for worship (pp. 21-22). The “divinely mandated” methods for church growth are the ordinary means of grace―word and sacrament (p. 115). Cruse thus unfortunately embodies the old stereotype of Reformed folks as the “frozen chosen.” His theology of evangelism is therefore unhelpful.

He has a truncated version of God as the celestial policeman. There is little love or grace. God is the stern judge, ready to kill. Cruse writes:

One pastor I know sometimes opens the worship service by saying, ‘If you are not a Christian, we are glad you are with us today. We hope you will be encouraged by your time with us. But I must warn you that we come to meet with God today, and if you are not right with Him, you may not like what He reveals to you about Himself.’ That’s the idea.

pp. 72-73

Cruse appears to lack a category for God as the grieving husband (Hosea 1-3) who seeks His darling child―whose heart yearns and aches to rescue His people (Jer 31:20) and who loves His chosen with an everlasting love (Jer 31:3). His Calvinism swamps his theology proper, and so Cruse topples off the tightrope and presents a God of profound anger. In short, I think John Gill would have liked the author very much.

The otherwise positive contributions the author does make are discussed more substantively in other volumes. I suggest Hughes Old’s Leading in Prayer: A Workbook for Ministers as a guide to incorporate the traditional aspects of Western liturgy into your service, to the extent practicable. I think Cruse would appreciate much of what Olds has to say. In that respect, I’m suggesting an alternative to Cruse that upholds some of his own ideals.

I believe this is a book written for Very ReformedTM people who want to feel those warm tickles inside that tell them that, yes, they are right to be Very ReformedTM. This is fine, but it isn’t a book calculated to persuade. I’m off to listen to an Unspoken song. Unfortunately, I suspect Cruse would not approve.

Christus Victor as atonement

Christus Victor as atonement

This sermon presents a Christus Victor model for the atonement through the Resurrection. While the work is not included here, I’ve done extensive word studies on the “ransom” and “redeem/redemption” word groups and translated excerpts from the relevant passages ― all of which is background to the approach that frames this sermon. In short, I’m convinced that (notwithstanding the valid penal substitution angle) Christ’s death was a ransom to Satan which Jesus then took back after three days.

The analogies of the fishhook and the mousetrap are not mine, but were suggested by great theologians over 1,400 years ago. The Christus Victor model was the dominant view in the Church until the 12th century. Gustaf Aulen’s Christus Victor (ca. 1930) is a paradigm-shifting little book that I suspect many modern theologians cite more than they actually read. If you have questions about this model for the atonement, I suggest Gregory of Nyssa’s discussion in his catechism (ch. 22-26, see the footnotes) along with Aulen’s book. Above all, for pastors who read this, I encourage you to read beyond the narrow and “safe” lanes of your particular ecclesiastical orbit.

Seeing the Resurrection Through New Eyes

God paints reality in shades of black and white. Spiritual life or death.[1] Salvation or damnation. Rescue or prison. Liberation or slavery. Adoption or eternal exile. Cosmic victory or defeat.

This last one is how I invite you to view the Resurrection. It’s one way Jesus viewed it. Not just payment to God for sins. Not just satisfying God’s justice and a cosmic sense of “rightness.” But a divine victory for you over the forces of real darkness.

There is darkness in this world and in our souls, you know. Why do we do bad things? Why did a madman kill a Capitol police officer two days ago? Why did a guy murder six women in Atlanta, last month? Why did Hitler exist? Stalin? Mao?  Why did the U.S. government engineer and carry out forced deportation of Indians to the West in the early 19th century―something even Hitler is on record as drawing inspiration from?[2] Why did some churches in the antebellum South own slaves?[3] Why has there been a military coup in Myanmar? Why is this world so dark? Why is Starbucks espresso so bitter?  

These are existential questions that cry out for answers. Why is there “evil” in this world, and inside me, too?

Well, because we’re sick. This world is sick. This whole creation is sick. We need to be rescued from ourselves, liberated, delivered, bought back and led to safety. Shown the way by the God who made us. Who’s working to reverse what’s gone wrong.

We’re in trouble. We’re lost. We’re without hope. We’re criminals in God’s universe. We have a prison sentence hanging over our heads … But God has given us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ! And, He does it here, on Easter Sunday, through the resurrection.

Jesus of Nazareth, God’s only Son, came here to rescue us. In return, He asks us to change our allegiance. To repent. To turn. To acknowledge our insurgency against God. To apologize and mean it, and to believe He really can rescue us.

That’s what the resurrection is about. Rescue. Liberation. Being ransomed and set free from a kidnapper.   

You’ve put together furniture. You know about those assembly kits. They come with pre-packed screws, Allen wrenches, washers, all that stuff. The bible’s portrait of Christ’s ministry is like that. We’re used to using only the #3 screw and the Allen wrench (penal substitution). We’ve forgotten there a #5 screw, and a different Allen wrench, and a washer or two that we can also pick up. Now, you can use the same screws for everything, and the thing will still “work.” But, it’ll work better if you use all the tools.

And so, we’ll understand Christ better if we look at all the facets of this diamond. We’re stuck on the Cross. We hardly mention the resurrection when we think of the Gospel. It’s time to redeem the empty tomb as Christ’s victory over Satan for us.

The Parable of the Strong Man―Christ as Victor

Jesus paints His interaction with Satan as a battle that He wins. In Luke 11:20-23, in the context of rejecting the accusation that He’s an agent of Satan, Jesus offers this little analogy:

But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are safe; but when one stronger than he attacks him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil. Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.

The blanks aren’t hard to fill in. Satan is the strong man guarding his home. Picture him patrolling his front yard with a shotgun and a scowl. Jesus is the stronger man who attacks Satan, overcomes him, tosses his weapons and armor aside, then takes everything that belongs to him. Mark, in his version of the same parable, records Jesus saying:

But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. Then indeed he may plunder his house (Mark 3:27).

In order to go into the house, Jesus first has to destroy, tie up, overcome, hog-tie, defeat the strong man in single combat. Then, he can plunder, steal, take by force, rob the guy’s goods from his home.

This is a battle, a combat. Jesus will crush Satan, beat him down in his own driveway, then go inside and rob everything he’s got. He’ll back a pickup up to the front door and loot everything Satan has. As Satan lies in the flowerbed moaning, Jesus will kick him in the face once more for good measure.  Then, He’ll hop back in the truck and drive away with Satan’s goods in the back.  

But, how does it happen? What does it look like? Jesus paints an exciting picture, but it’s a metaphor―He doesn’t mean it literally―so we wonder. Will it be a frontal assault (a la Pickett’s charge or Normandy)? Or, will it be more crafty, more sneaky, more delicious and hilarious in its victory?

Winning the Victory―The Great Payoff

I want you to think of two words: “ransom” and “redeem/redemption.” Both these terms appear in your bibles, but we’re so used to seeing them that they’ve lost their force. They’ve become Christianese, not English.

“Ransom” means what you think it means.[4] It’s the payment that rescues someone.[5] In the New Testament era, it usually meant the price paid to free a captive from a captor.

Let me share an example.

On 03 March 1932, someone kidnapped Charles and Anne Lindbergh’s 20-month old baby from their home in New Jersey. The mother was taking a bath and the baby was alone in the crib. When they discovered the child missing, Lindbergh grabbed a gun and searched the house and the grounds. He found a ransom note on the window sill:

Dear Sir! Have 50.000$ redy 25 000$ in 20$ bills 15000$ in 10$ bills and 10000$ in 5$ bills After 2–4 days we will inform you were to deliver the mony. We warn you for making anyding public or for notify the Police the child is in gut care.

The kidnappers eventually raised the ransom to $70,000. Intermediaries met with the kidnappers to negotiate, and they provided articles of the poor baby’s clothing to prove they were for real. Lindbergh paid $50,000 of the ransom. But, the parents never got the child back. People found the baby dead in the woods near the Lindbergh home on 12 May 1932.

“Redeem” or “redemption” means the act of buying back the slave; setting the captive free. These words are two sides of the same coin. Ransom is the price Lindbergh paid, and “redemption” is the rescue Lindbergh hoped to achieve with that ransom. They’re near synonyms―different words with almost the same meanings.

Now, once we get that set in our minds, I want you to think about what these passages mean:

Mark 10:45: For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Ransom means paying money to a kidnapper―who’s the kidnapper?

1 Timothy 2:5-6: For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.

Ransom means the price to buy a hostage back from a captor―who’s the captor?

Titus 2:14: … who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.

Redeem means the act of buying our freedom from a hostile agent―who’s the hostile agent?

1 Peter 1:18: you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.

Christ’s death was the price to buy off someone to let you go―who’d the payment go to?

Romans 3:24: … and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus

How does God make you righteous? By the redemption, the purchase from slavery, that’s because of Christ Jesus―but purchase from whom?

1 Corinthians 1:30: And because of him [God] you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.

Jesus is the Wisdom, the Righteousness, the Sanctifier … the Redeemer,  the Liberator who bought us back from the slavemaster―who’s the slavemaster?

Ephesians 1:7: In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace,

Redemption is the great purchase and rescue from bondage―rescue from whom?

Hosea 13:14: I shall ransom them from the power of Sheol; I shall redeem them from Death. O Death, where are your plagues? O Sheol, where is your sting?

God buys us back from death, who’s kidnapped us. Death is a force that needs to be paid off so it’ll let us go―how does Jesus pay death off for us?

Jeremiah 31:11: For the LORD has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him

God buys us back from our captor; buys him off and rescues us from hands too strong for us to break―how does this ransom drop happen?

Who’s the Payoff To?

As strange as it might seem at first glance, God paints Christ’s death and resurrection as Jesus ransoming us from Satan.[6] My own translation of 1 Timothy 2:5-6, keeping in mind the real meaning of “ransom,” is this:

For there is one God, and one mediator between God[7] and men―the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a payoff[8] for the benefit[9] of all people …”

Why do I say this? Well, a ransom goes to the kidnapper and God isn’t the kidnapper! Satan is the kidnapper. He’s kidnapped unbelievers, he controls them, they naturally “belong” to him―are you still his captive? God made us for Himself in the beginning, but now that’s all reversed. The Apostle Paul says we’re all born as “sons of disobedience” and are “children of wrath,” (Eph 2:1-3). The Apostle John writes “we are from God, [but][10] the whole world lies in the power of the evil one,” (1 John 5:19). This is why the scripture says when we become believers, we’re rescued (that word is not an accident!)[11] from the “domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins,” (Colossians 1:13-14). There’s a transfer of ownership.

So, this “payoff,” this ransom, must go to Satan. It’s what “ransom” means. It’s what “redemption” means. So, it’s what had to have happened. “The Son of Man came … to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many,” (Mark 10:45). This doesn’t displace “paying for my sins, as my substitute,” but augments it―Christ’s ministry is a diamond with different facets.

But, we wonder, didn’t Satan try to stop Jesus from going to the Cross?[12] There’s the temptation in the wilderness (Mt 4:1-11). There’s Peter trying to stop Jesus from going to the Cross. “Get behind me, Satan!” and all that (Mark 8:33). It seems like Satan did try to stop Jesus at first, but he apparently changed his mind.

After the Lazarus miracle, Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin decided Jesus had to die, but quietly, discreetly (Jn 11:45-53). Then, on Palm Sunday, we see the uneasiness among Sanhedrin (Jn 12:9-11, 19). Satan sees this and senses opportunity. We know this, because on Wednesday during Holy Week (cf. Mark 14:1), Satan decides to go all in for force:

Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was of the number of the twelve. He went away and conferred with the chief priests and officers how he might betray him to them (Lk 22:3-4).

Satan changed his tactics―why?

Why Did Satan Switch Tactics?

The scriptures tell us:

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery (Hebrews 2:14-15).

Jesus’ death destroys Satan. Then, Jesus delivers, releases, sets us free. We’re the “goods” and “spoil” that Jesus plunders from Satan’s house, from that analogy from Luke. The resurrection is when He triumphs over Satan. God “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him [Christ],” (Colossians 2:15).

The resurrection is when Jesus points His finger and laughs at Satan, mocking him. If this were a bad movie (that is, one of those movies that are so bad they’re actually good), we might imagine a scene like this:

  • SATAN: “No! It can’t be! It can’t … !”
  • JESUS: “Yep, it’s me! Surprise, sucker!”

But, again, why did Satan accept this “payoff?” Why did he orchestrate it? Isn’t he crafty enough to avoid this mistake? Satan isn’t stupid, so Jesus must have deceived him, and He must have done it by attacking Satan’s great weakness.

How’d he do that? Well, Satan has great pride. He wants to replace God and rule over all. He’s been trying to kill Messiah from the beginning. Revelation 12 gives us a dramatic picture of all that. Then we think about Herod the Great’s slaughter of the children in Bethlehem. The temptation in the wilderness. He attempts to kill Jesus in His hometown synagogue (Luke 4:29-30). Then the machinations with Judas.

Satan originally tried to tempt Jesus away from the Cross. To divert Him, offer a shortcut. Satan’s afraid of the Cross. But, Satan changes his mind sometime between Lazarus and Palm Sunday. He thinks he can handle the Cross.

So, like a gambler, Satan spins the roulette wheel and puts all his chips on the Cross, figuring He can handle it. Because he has great pride

Why would Satan change his tactics and push events towards an outcome he’s tried to avoid for nearly three years? Jesus must have bluffed Satan―tricked him.

How’d He do it? How did he trick Satan?

The Devil’s Mousetrap―”It’s a Trap!!”

During the last week of Jesus’ life, He declared: “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out,” (Jn 12:30-31). It’s as if Jesus said, “By my death this Friday, and my resurrection on Sunday, I’ll defeat Satan and leave him lying broken and beaten on his own front porch!”

The Cross is a deliberate trap―a trojan horse, a subterfuge, a divine false flag operation meant to fool Satan into making a bad bet.[13] Satan thought he’d win―why else would he try it? You think he thought he’d lose, and was just going through the motions? Of course not. Jesus knew He’d win―why do you think He went through with it?

The Cross is actually the greatest double-cross in history. At the end of the last supper, just as they got up from the table to head to the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus declared:

I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no claim on me, but I do as the Father has commanded me (John 14:30-31).

Jesus knows Satan’s got nothing on Him, but goes ahead―and that’s the point! Jesus fooled Satan by cloaking Himself in humanity.[14] “None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory,”[15] (1 Corinthians 2:8).

His new and real humanity made Satan “forget” who He is, to underestimate Him, to think He’s weak (cf. Isa 52:13-53:12). Why else would Satan even try the temptations? He knows who Jesus is, but always thinks he can get him, trick him, tempt him, outwit Him.

And so, Jesus made Satan believe he could actually pull this off―and does it from within this broken system. He uses Satan’s own weaknesses against him and defeats him by craft―not by brute force,[16] but by “fair play,”[17] by playing the game from within the sinful system and winning.

Satan has no claim on Jesus. None. Jesus has no sin, so He’s not under any penalty. He’s out of bounds. It’s against the rules for Satan to take Him. Yet, Satan takes Jesus anyway―he kills him. He thinks he can get away with it. He thinks he can handle it.

But, by taking an innocent man against the rules,[18] Satan loses everything he has. His power is broken. He’s ejected the magazine from his own weapon just as Jesus comes walks up the driveway. He’s defenseless!

If you imagine a scene from that same “so bad its good” TV movie, it might look something like this:

  • Satan (defiant, smirking): “These criminals are mine, and I’m in charge here!”
  • Jesus: “Yeah, well … you just killed me, and I never sinned, so you actually have no power over me at all. You have no claim on me. You had no right to take my life.”
  • Satan (licking lips nervously): “What do you mean?”
  • Jesus: “It means you just fell for it, buddy. I let myself be captured by you. I let myself be killed to pay for everything bad anyone’s ever done. I tricked you into letting me inside your gates, and I’ve broken your power. And now, I’m gonna prove it to everyone by heading back in three days. How do you like them apples?”

And so, to continue the scene, the resurrection is when Jesus punches Satan in the face, beats him down in his own front yard, steps over his body and goes into the house to grab all the folks out of the basement and bring them to safety―do you want to come along? Or, do you want to stay in the bad man’s house?

It isn’t surprising that Jesus paints His victory in violent terms, because “[t]he reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil,” (1 John 3:8).

Exhortation―Victory in Jesus!

Jesus’ death and resurrection is like a fishhook[19] with Christ as the bait. He dangles there, tantalizing, irresistible. Satan gobbles Him down and is poisoned. He vomits up everything he has. Then he perishes; dead because of his own pride.

Or, you could think of it like a mousetrap.[20] Satan goes for the tasty Tillamook sharp cheddar cheese. The trap snaps, breaking his neck. His power over his slaves is gone. He knows about the trap, knows it’s dangerous, but thought he could beat it. And so he dies like a fool.

Jesus pays the ransom with His life, then takes it right back once He locks away the kidnapper. “I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again,” (John 10:17-18).

He picks up the ransom bag from beside the mousetrap where Satan dropped it. “Thanks for watching this for me, I’ll take it back now!” Satan’s legs are still spasming as Jesus walks away, bag in hand.

This is the truth. The hook, barb, or poison dart that death uses to sting every one of us is sin (1 Corinthians 15:56)―which is lawlessness (1 John 3:4). We commit divine crimes by breaking God’s law, and sin’s power is that it brings death. It accuses us, “Look what you’ve done! This means death is coming for you pal, ‘cuz it means you belong to me,” (1 Corinthians 15:56) But, as the Apostle Paul says, “thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” (1 Corinthians 15:57).

The resurrection is Jesus’ battle cry of victory, and it’s supposed to be ours, too. A victory over evil. A victory over the Accuser. A victory over everything that’s so wrong in this world. Satan ain’t dead yet, but he’s that mouse, choking with a broken neck in that trap. Kicking his legs and fading out. He’s the fish caught on the hook, gasping in the bottom of the boat. Growing weak, dying.

And so, in light of this, Jesus says to you and I, “Come with me if you want to live!”[21] Have you done this? Pledged allegiance to Him? His victory is why we have hope! Come to Jesus and take the victory He’s won for you.


[1] See also the Didache 1.1: “There are two ways, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between these two ways,” (The Apostolic Fathers, 2nd ed., trans. J.B. Lightfoot and J.R. Harmer, revised by Michael Holmes (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989), p. 149).

[2] Claudio Saunt, Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory (New York: Norton, 2020), p. xvi.

[3] Duke Kwon and Gregory Thompson, Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2021), pp. 117-118 (esp. fn. 57).

[4] The word group is λύτρον, ἀντίλυτρον, ἀπολύτρωσις, λυτρόω, λύτρωσις, λυτρωτής.

[5] Alistair McGrath summed up three implications that go with “ransom” idea from the New Testament scriptures; (1) liberation or rescue, (2) a payment, and (3) someone to whom the ransom is paid (Christian Theology: An Introduction, 3rd ed. (Malden: Blackwell, 2001), p. 415).

[6] “For being free from debt, He gave Himself up to that most cruel creditor, and suffered the hands of the Jews to be the devil’s agents in torturing his spotless flesh. Which flesh he willed to be subject to death, even up to His speedy resurrection, to this end, that believers in Him might find neither persecution intolerable, nor death terrible, by the remembrance that there was no more doubt about their sharing His glory than there was about His sharing their nature,” (Leo the Great, “Sermon 72,” in NPNF 2.7, pp. 184-185). Emphasis mine.

[7] The genitive in μεσίτης θεοῦ καὶ ἀνθρώπων is a genitive of space.

[8] Lest anyone think I’m being blasphemous, you’ll see “payoff” as a suggested synonym for the noun “ransom” in the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford, 2012), p. 723, and the Oxford definition for the noun “ransom” is in line with the Greek lexicons I’ve cited, above (see New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford, 2011), s.v. “ransom,” n., p. 1445).

[9] I take the preposition ὑπὲρ to be expressing benefaction.

[10] I believe the conjunction καὶ expresses contrast (cf. NEB, REB), but the point is made even with a translation of “and.”

[11] The relevant word here (ὃς ἐρρύσατο ἡμᾶς ἐκ τῆς ἐξουσίας τοῦ σκότους) means “to rescue from danger,” (Louw-Nida, 21.23; cf. BDAG (907)). I’d render it as “… who rescued us from the power of darkness.”

[12] This objection is common. Representative examples are James Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, in PNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), p. 328, and Friedrich Büchsel and Otto Procksch: “It is by no means commensurate with Jesus’ powerful concept of God that the many should have to be rescued from bondage to Satan. This concept demands that they be liberated from indebtedness to God,” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), s.v. “Λύτρον,” B.4, p. 344).

R.C.H. Lenski objects that the offering cannot be to Satan, because Jesus said He committed His spirit into the Father’s hands; Lk 23:46 (Interpretation of Mark’s Gospel (Columbus: Wartburg, 1946), p. 465). However, this citation from Ps 31:5 is simply an expression of absolute trust. As the representative man, Jesus trusts the Father completely. And, Jesus surely knows the whole plan (cf. Jn 10:18). Lenski’s objection does not stand.

[13] On the fairness and justice of this subterfuge, see Gregory of Nyssa, “The Great Catechism,” ch. 26, in NPNF 2.5 (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1893), pp. 495-496.

[14] Gregory of Nyssa (“Catechism,” ch. 24, in NPNF 2.5, p. 494) and John of Damascus, “An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith,” §3.1, in NPNF 2.9 (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1899), p. 45).

[15] This is likely a deliberately vague reference to both human and demonic “rulers.” David Garland blithely dismisses this understanding at 1 Cor 2:6 based on the phrase’s usage in the NT, and remarks it only refers to Satan when it’s in the singular (1 Corinthians, in BECNT (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), pp. 93-94). This is an unpersuasive analysis―the context can suggest either. C.K. Barrett is correct to see spiritual forces (The First Epistle to the Corinthians (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), p. 72).

[16] “He overcomes evil, not by an almighty fiat, but by putting in something of His own, through a Divine self-oblation,” (Gustaf Aulén, Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement, trans. A.G. Herbert (London: SPCK, 1931; reprint, Crossreach, 2016, Kindle ed.), p. 43.

[17] “The background of the Latin theory may truly be called legal; but in the Fathers the essential idea which the legal language is intended to express is that God’s dealings even with the powers of evil have the character of ‘fair play,’” (Aulen, Christus Victor, p. 43).

[18] The Christus Victor model stumbles badly here because it can’t articulate how, exactly, Jesus’ death and resurrection wins victory for His people. It can’t describe the mechanics of this victory. It has no concept of substitution, of satisfaction, of justice. Chrysostom’s attempts to explain fall flat (John Chrysostom, “Homilies on the Gospel of St. John,” Jn 12:31, in NPNF 1.14 (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1889), p. 249). This is where the penal substitution model excels. It’s necessary to cross-pollinate the two models. I realize my brief sketch here has some logical holes, but I think it’s faithful to the best aspects of both models.

[19] This is from Gregory of Nyssa (“Catechism,” ch. 24, NPNF 2.5, p. 494) and John of Damascus (“Orthodox Faith,” §3.27, NPNF 2.9, p. 72).   

[20] Augustine, “Sermon 261.” Excerpt from Alister McGrath, The Christian Theology Reader, §5.10, 3rd ed. (Malden: Blackwell, 2007), pp. 352-353.

[21] I know I’m channeling Reece from “The Terminator,” but if it works, it works …