I like things to be simple. I like them to be clear. What can I say? I’m a simple guy.
I prefer bullet points to paragraphs, illustrations to explanations, and maps to directions. I prefer monosyllabic Anglo-Saxon words (like “ask,” “come,” and “dog”) to polysyllabic Latin-based words (like “inquire,” “arrive,” and “canine”). Among my favorite expressions are “bottom line,” “cut to the chase,” “it all boils down to,” “the whole thing in a nutshell is,” and “KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid).”
I get irritated when people make things more complicated than they need to be. I become especially annoyed when Christians hide the light of the Gospel under the bushel of sophisticated theological jargon. When I was a new believer such people made me feel what I think Woody Allen might have been trying to express when he said, “If only God would give me some clear sign! Like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss bank.” They use big words to feed their own egos at the expense of the spiritual growth of others.
As I see it, the only purpose for learning complicated things is to make them simpler so I can explain them to others without fear of being made to look foolish. And the only reason for making simple things sound complicated is to hide how foolish we really are. People who complain about having to “dumb down” theology for the masses are simply exposing their own laziness, and perhaps incompetence, in developing effective communication skills.
At the risk of oversimplification…
But, alas, simplicity has its limits. Albert Einstein said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Simplifying the complex may be the soul of effective communication, but oversimplification is the death of real thought. We should be just as suspicious of people who oversimplify things as we are of those who unnecessarily complicate matters.
As a guy from my hometown of Chicago, Sydney J. Harris, once said, “Any philosophy that can be put in a nutshell belongs there.” As much as it goes against my grain, I have to admit that the same holds true for theology.
On the one hand, if you cannot summarize an important idea in a brief, understandable fashion, it is probably not important. On the other hand, if it is important, it will be important enough to require a more detailed explanation at some point, because it will necessarily have wide-ranging ramifications, and inevitably be subject to misunderstanding and misrepresentation.
Something is really important only when it affects the crucial issues of life. And while something really important may be expressed in a nutshell, the nutshell will not be able to contain it for very long.
My point, and I do have one, is…
I play lead guitar for my church worship band. When it’s time to set up I go into our equipment closet and some of the first things I reach for are my amplifier cables. (You thought I was going to get right to the point, didn’t you? I’m sorry; please bear with me…)
Amp cables appear to be the simplest things on Earth, but they’re tricky little guys. If you lay one on top of the other you can have a tough time separating them. The fact that cable jacks come in different colors doesn’t help any; as if they have minds of their own, the black cables quickly tangle themselves around each other. I spend a good few minutes each week separating them and then rewinding them in neat little circles under my music stand. Our equipment closet is small, and we keep talking about making hooks to keep the cables separated, but we never get around to it. So what should be a quick and simple process is regularly complicated by—well, by procrastination and neglect.
The same thing happens with the teachings of Scripture. If we neglect them, over time they become difficult to untangle. It’s not the Bible’s fault. It does not change over time and somehow become more complicated in itself. The problem is with us. In our spiritual laziness, we fail to transform ourselves and our understanding by renewing our minds through regular exposure to the truths contained in God’s word (Rom. 12:2). We fail to allow the Bible to purge our minds from foolish and ignorant speculations (2 Tim. 2:23), from the futile ways we inherited from our forefathers (1 Pet. 1:18), and we fail to take our every thought captive to obey Christ (2 Cor. 10:5). And so even though we may have exposed our minds to some new thoughts that we’ve picked up from Scripture, we have not cleaned out our mental and spiritual closets sufficiently to keep those new thought from becoming tangled up with the old ones.
This is what happened to the most foundational truth within the doctrine of salvation, Christ’s atoning death on the cross. Over time the church neglected it, and it became tangled up with unbiblical ideas. Untangling it became a complicated process that could only be resolved by paying close attention to Scripture. Unfortunately, over time Scripture itself had also become neglected, further complicating the matter. And this gave an opportunity to those who preferred their own sophisticated concepts to the simplicity that is in Christ. But it was not always this way.
From the Beginning It Was Not So
In the first century, the teaching of Christ’s apostles concerning the central meaning of His death was simple and clear. It did not require the ability to grasp technical theological jargon or complex reasoning. Even the most unsophisticated person could understand it because, frankly, it was not a very sophisticated doctrine. In fact, there have been many down through the years (especially more recently) who have found it downright crude. For my money, those folks are closer to the mark than those who would bury the Gospel’s true meaning under a flowerbed of pious platitudes planted in the the manure of rationalism.
From what we can gather by reading the New Testament, the early church had its share of middle class and even relatively affluent people, and many if not most appear to have been literate. But even the poorest and most uneducated could fully grasp this Gospel message. It simply stated that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, the Son of God, Who had suffered and died in the place of sinners in order to pay the penalty for their sins, which was eternal death, and that He rose from the dead as proof of His victory over the power of sin and death. As a message, it is the very soul of simplicity and quintessence of clarity.
And while the New Testament writers did not state the Gospel in those exact words, they came very close. They certainly expressed the same basic idea, but they also expressed the Gospel in various other ways, using common terms and expressions that were easily understood by their readers. When Peter wrote of Jesus that “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24a, ESV), or when Paul wrote, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21a, ESV), the meaning of those statements was obvious to their intended audiences. Christ bore our penalty as our substitute. So to say as Paul does that as a matter “of first importance” the Gospel message is “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:1-4), followed by His resurrection from the dead, is the same as saying that any message that lacks Christ’s penal substitutionary atonement for sins at its core is not the Gospel.
But while they knew the message could be boiled down in this way, they also knew it was bigger than that. They could express it in a nutshell, but once they opened the nutshell so many other good things about this Good News emerged that it required a whole vocabulary of salvation with words such as “redemption,” “reconciliation,” and “propitiation,” to provide the fullest possible picture of what Christ achieved on the cross.
But the core of the message was what made those other things possible. The fact that He suffered our punishment in our place is the propitiation for our sins, accomplishes our redemption, and causes our reconciliation with God.
The Advantage of Being Attacked
In addition to its clarity and simplicity, when it came to the basic content of the Gospel message, the apostles also had another significant advantage that ironically proves to be something of a disadvantage to us today: virtually all their statements of Christ’s penal substitutionary death were non-controversial within the church itself. No group arose within the church to challenge it. It did not cause an uproar among Christians that required the church’s leadership to get into a huddle and sort things out.
The reason this can be considered something of a disadvantage to us today is because controversy has a way of clarifying an issue. It forces people to make comprehensive and precise statements that they might not otherwise make to leave as little room as possible for misunderstanding. Long after the apostles were gone, in the fourth century, controversy would force Christians to carefully articulate the Bible’s teaching about the Trinity and the Deity of Christ. But as Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) wrote:
The history of the doctrine of Christ’s work is markedly different from that of the dogmas of the Trinity and Christ’s person. No particular controversy concerning it has led to a clear-cut formulation.
[Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ, John Vriend, trans., (Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Baker Academic, 2006), 340.]
It might have actually proven helpful to us today had the apostles been forced to defend the doctrine of Christ’s work on the cross in their day, but in God’s wise providence, things happened differently.
In the first century, people accused Paul of denying the truth of God’s law (Rom. 3:31). They charged him with teaching a form of antinomianism that went something like, “Let us do evil that good may come” (cf. Rom. 3:8). Paul had to defend his doctrine of justification by faith from everything from pointed arguments to slanderous caricatures, sometimes even from people who claimed to be Christians (2 Cor. 11), and because of that we have the books of Romans and Galatians. But things like that did not happen with the meaning of Christ’s death itself, and thus in the first century the doctrine of the atonement was not forced to defend itself on its own turf, where it would have had homefield advantage and the opportunity to express itself clearly.
The first big controversy in the early church—and the biggest one recorded in the New Testament—was not over what Christ did on the cross, but whether human works should be added to it or it was to be received by faith alone (Acts 15:1-33). A dispute erupted at the church in Antioch over whether circumcision was required for salvation and thus whether Gentiles needed to be circumcised in addition to putting their faith in Christ. The people who started it had come from Judea, so the church in Antioch appointed Paul and Barnabas to go to Jerusalem and consult with the apostles and elders who were there about the matter. When they arrived, it soon became clear that the Jerusalem church was also infected with this legalistic teaching, so the leaders of the church held a council to deal with it. In the middle of Luke’s account of all this, we read, “And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up…” (Acts 15:7a, ESV)
Debate? Debate about what? Given all that had happened in the first fourteen chapters of Acts, we might be tempted to think that this question should have been a slam-dunk for these guys! Wouldn’t you like to know exactly what went down in that meeting? Wouldn’t you like to know exactly which of the leaders of the Jerusalem church were still a little fuzzy on the whole “faith alone” thing?
Fortunately, the matter was resolved in a way that both preserved the purity of the Gospel and the unity of the apostles who stood behind it. But we do not see anything in the New Testament with respect to Christ’s atonement similar to what happened when the Judaizers tried to confuse people about justification. The meaning of Christ’s death was not attacked the same way justification by faith was. People back then knew what it meant to call Christ’s death a sacrifice for sins (Heb. 10:12), and so they also knew their choice was either to accept it or to reject it.
As a result, although Christ’s death as our penal substitute was clear and simple, we are hard pressed to locate a single text or passage where its core meaning is completely expressed with the kind of comprehensive precision that our minds are so fond of. The apostles did not need to provide such a summary in their day, and besides, they were fighting battles on other fronts. On the other hand, this does not mean that penal substitution was not crucial to everything else that was comprehensively and precisely defined. As someone recently wrote:
There is no conciliar attention to definitions of atonement mounting to something on the level of Nicaea, Chalcedon or the like. Yet one cannot understand these debates without acknowledging how integral concepts of salvation were to the definitions of the great councils.
[Stanley P. Rosenberg, "Interpreting the Atonement in Augustine's Preaching," in Charles E. Hill and Frank A. James, III, eds., The Glory of the Atonement: Biblical, Theological, and Practical Perspectives, Essays in Honor of Roger Nicole, (Downers Grove, IL, USA: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 210. Empahsis mine.]
You could really say this about virtually all of the various attacks on the major doctrines of justification, the nature of God, and Christ’s deity in the early church: each was ultimately an attempt to undermine the value and cloud the meaning of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Everything always came back to that, and still does. Why was Athanasius (c. a.d. 293-373) so consumed with upholding the Trinity and the Deity of Christ that he was willing to become a fugitive, face arrest, and suffer banishment? Because
Christianity was above all else about redemption. Only a Word of God who was fully and uncompromisingly divine could rescue mankind from the corruption and death issuing from the fall.
[David F. Wright, "Councils and Creeds," in Tim Dowley, ed., Eerdman's Handbook to the History of Christianity, (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1977), 165.]
Just because the Trinity and Deity of Christ were not spelled out in the New Testament with the same comprehensiveness and precision that justification by faith was does not mean that our salvation is not on the line with those doctrines. The same holds true for penal subsitution.
Furthermore, just because those doctrines were not articulated in that manner does not mean that they were not stated simply and clearly for anyone who cares to see it. Nothing could be more simple and clear in the New Testament than the fact that Jesus Christ is God. Likewise, nothing could be simpler and clearer that He came to be our penal substitute. At least that’s what the Christian writers who followed the apostles seemed to think.
The Assumption of Truth
As I noted earlier, soon after the New Testament was complete we find references to Christ’s penal substitutionary death for us in the writings of Christian leaders. For example, in the ninth chapter of the Epistle to Diognetus, the second century author tells us that “when our unrighteousness was fulfilled, and it had been made perfectly clear that its wages—punishment and death—were to be expected, then the season arrived during which God had decided to reveal at last his goodness and power…” How did God reveal his goodness and power? He Himself came down from heaven, and “in his mercy he took upon himself our sins; he himself gave up his own Son as a ransom for us, the holy one for the lawless, the guiltless for the guilty, ‘the just for the unjust,’ the incorruptible for the corruptible, the immortal for the mortal.” God the Son, according to the author, was our penal substitute, and he practically breaks out into song in the middle of writing about it, marveling, “O the sweet exchange, O the incomprehensible work of God…!” (Epistle to Diognetus 9:2-5, in Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, updated edition, [Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Baker Books, 1999], 547. Emphasis mine.)
During the same century, in chapter 89 of his Dialogue with Trypho, A Jew, by Justin Martyr (a.d. 100-165), Justin’s debate partner makes reference to Deuteronomy 21:23, which includes the statement, ὃτι κεκατηραμένος ὑπὸ θεοῦ πᾶς κρεμάμενος ἐπὶ ξύλου—”for everyone that is hanged on a tree is cursed by God”—in the Greek translation that Justin and his Jewish friend would have shared in common, the Septuagint (or LXX; cf. The Septuagint Version, Greek and English, [Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Zondervan Publishing House, reprinted 1977], 260). This causes an obvious problem for a Jew who is unaccustomed to thinking of the Messiah as being cursed by God. (Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, [Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers, reprinted 2004], 244).
Justin does not shrink back. In chapters 94 and 95 he assures Trypho that Christ was not cursed for his own sins, but the fallen human race had earned God’s curse by breaking God’s law (ibid., 247). And then he summarized the matter by declaring (in the form of a rhetorical question) that, “…the Father of all wished His Christ for the whole human family to take upon Him the curses of all…” (ibid.). In the context of his dialogue, it is clear that to take our curses upon Himself means that Christ bore our penalty as our substitute. Justin Martyr assumed that Christ’s death was a penal substitutionary atonement.
In the first volume of his Proof of the Gospel, the early church historian, Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 265- c. 339) quoted from the prophecy in Isaiah 53:3-8, and then wrote:
In this he shews that Christ, being apart from all sin, will receive the sins of men on Himself. And therefore He will suffer the penalty of sinners, and will be pained on their behalf; and not on His own.
[Proof of the Gospel, W.J. Ferrar, ed., and trans., Vol. 1, (Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Baker Book House, reprinted 1981), 113.]
In his second volume he wrote:
And the Lamb of God not only did this [i.e., shared the woes and labors of humanity], but was chastised on our behalf, and suffered a penalty He did not owe, but which we owed because of the multitude of our sins; and so He became the cause of the forgiveness of our sins, because He received death for us, and transferred to Himself the scourging, the insults, and the dishonour, which were due to us, and drew on Himself the apportioned curse, being made a curse for us.
[Ibid., Vol. 2, 195.]
Thus, at the beginning of the fourth century, the doctrine of penal substitution was still central to the church’s understanding of Christ’s sacrificial death. And as the great controversy over Christ’s nature sparked by the heresy of Arius (c. 250-336) heated things up in the first quarter of the fourth century, Athanasius wasted no time in picking up the ball. One of the most noticeable things about his famous treatise, On the Incarnation of the Word of God (De incarnatione verbi dei) is how intertwined and interdependent the doctrines of Christ and salvation were in his thinking. You can find a very helpful discussion of his view of the atonement in the recent book, Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution, by Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach (Wheaton, IL, USA: Crossway Books, 2007), on pages 169-173. The authors of that book carefully examine Athanasius’s several statements in chapters 1 through 9 and 21 of Athanasius’s work and also urge their audience to read chapters 27 through 29, all of which make his understanding of penal substitution abundantly clear. But I especially appreciate the way that Athanasius picks up the theme discussed earlier by Justin Martyr, as he does in chapter 25:
But if any of our own people also inquire, not from love of debate, but from love of learning, why He suffered death in none other way save on the Cross, let him also be told that no other way than this was good for us, and that it was well that the Lord suffered this for our sakes. For if He came Himself to bear the curse laid upon us, how else could He have “become a curse,” unless He received the death set for a curse? and that is the Cross. For this is exactly what is written: “Cursed is he that hangeth on a tree.”
[On the Incarnation of the Word of God 25.2, in Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (NPNF), 2nd series, Vol. 4, (Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers, reprinted 2004), 49. Emphasis mine.]
And what was this “curse” that Christ bore all about? It was
…because all were under penalty of the corruption of death He gave it over to death in the stead of all, and offered it to the Father—doing this, moreover, of His loving-kindness, to the end that, firstly, all being held to have died in Him, the law involving the ruin of men might be undone (inasmuch as its power was fully spent in the Lord’s body, and had no longer holding-ground against men, his peers), and that, secondly, whereas men had turned toward corruption, He might turn them again toward incorruption, and quicken them from death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of the Resurrection, banishing death from them like straw from the fire.
[On the Incarnation of the Word of God 8.4, in ibid, 40.]
He died for us. We died “in Him.” And it was all because we had incurred the curse, which was the penalty of God’s law, broken by us. Athanasius’s language here derives unmistakably from Paul’s epistles, and points forward to the comprehensive, precise formulations of penal substitution that would come out of the Protestant Reformation some twelve centuries later.
The resounding affirmations of penal substitution go on and on in the early church. Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 330-c. 390), also called Gregory the Theologian, picks up the theme of the curse and declares that in taking away the sin of the world “Christ is also called disobedient on my account” (“Fourth Theological Oration,” chap. 5, NPNF, 2nd series, Vol. 7, 311). Ambrose of Milan (c. 337-397) speaks of the curse Christ took for us in terms of fulfilling the sentence of death upon us, and satisfying God’s judgment (Pierced for Our Transgressions, 174-175). John Chrysostom (c. 350-407) compares the benefits we receive from Christ’s death to that of a hypothetical “robber and malefactor” for whom a king allows the guilt of his crimes to be transferred to his only son, who is then slain in place of the criminal (“Homilies on Second Corinthians,” 11.6, in Schaff, ed., NPNF, 1st series, Vol. 12, 335). Augustine of Hippo (354-430) repeatedly declares in no uncertain terms that the Son of God died “for our offences,” and “bearing our punishment” (“Against Faustus,” 14.1, in NPNF, 1st series, Vol. 4, 207). Cyril of Alexandria (375-444) assures Christians that “…we have paid in Christ himself the penalties for the charges of sin against us…” (Pierced for Our Transgressions, 180), and Gelasius of Cyzicus (active around 475) declares that “…he, the Saviour of all, came and received the punishments which were due us into his sinless flesh, which was of us, in place of us, and on our behalf” (ibid., 181).
Finally, as Christians in Western Europe had for some time been viewing the glory days of Rome through a rear-view mirror, and the dawn of the medieval period was giving way to its full daylight, Gregory the Great (c. 540-604) wrote of Christ as the One “…Who, being made incarnate, had no sins of His own, and yet being without offence took upon Himslef the punishment of the carnal” (ibid., 183). If anything seemed certain in the early church, it was that Christ bore the penalty for our sins in our place on the cross. If any doctrine seemed so simple and clear that it did not require a comprehensive and precise formulation, along with a detailed response to objections, it was the doctrine of penal substitution.
And then came the Dark Ages.