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THE SAVING POWER OF GOD
A study of the of Christ
This has been a study of the doctrine of the Atonement. It has not been an attempt to make a full and complete study of so vast a subject. We have been primarily concerned with the way Paul dealt with the subject because of all the New Testament writers he has the most to say about it from many difficult angles. He was specially gifted at this kind of theological writing and gives to his exhortations and moral teaching an interesting logical and theoretical basis. Far from providing much systematic teaching on the subject, it is all part of his devotional and practical writing that was stimulated by questions and problems. Yet through it all, Paul, like his New Testament colleagues, was inspired by God's Holy Spirit to provide foundational teaching for the whole Christian Church.
Paul's thorough Jewish background shines through much of his writing. The basis for the Atonement in the Old Testament is Abraham's faith, the redemption from Egypt and acceptance to God through a relationship with Him that began in the Sinai desert. The covenant concept is vitally important to the understanding of the Atonement concerning both Israel and the Christian Church. Atonement is concerned with the relationship between the Creator and humanity that was ruptured by rebellion. Israel's history offers an interesting example of how the relationship can be rebuilt and maintained, even if rejected after that due once again to disobedience. Obedience is the keynote of the covenant relationship between God and Israel and between the Heavenly Father and His children. Yahweh never asked Israel to do something that she could not do. She was cast off from favour not because she broke a law for there was provision for that inevitability in the terms of the Law. Abraham was not perfect and without sin. Israel's rejection of God by persistent wilful disobedience was the cause of God's rejection of His people. This study has not attempted to fully explore the covenant principle nor to see the correspondence between the Law given through Moses and the Law of Christ.
Paul's writings, like the Hebrew Scriptures, take sin for granted. It is sin that had broken the covenant and separated God from His people. It is the removal of sin and its consequences that constitutes the Atonement. This makes possible the restoration of a positive relationship of mutual love and trust between God and His creatures which was lost in Eden. Although liberal theology a century ago tended to ignore and explain away the entry of sin into the world, British scholarship now treats the Atonement much more from a Bible basis. The doctrine of Atonement stands in opposition to the teaching that man has developed from primitive animal- like behaviour to something akin to God-like behaviour. Man was made in the image of God and that image was defaced by rebellion against Him. Moral 'development' cannot account for any improvement in society or individual behaviour nor will inward moral strivings make any more progress in moral behaviour than did the struggle by 'good' Jews to keep the Law. Salvation for mankind lies in a faith relationship with God in which He alone can provide the means of more reform. This must spring from man's acknowledgement of his inability to help himself and a willingness to accept whatever means God may provide to bring about Salvation. Changes occur in the human condition and moral standards superficially alter according to circumstances. Each generation adapts and adjusts its standards to suit its human whims, comfort and selfishness. This is opposed to the eternal principles based on the character of God that tell us of sacrificial love and the patient pursuit of peace.
It is sometime difficult for mortals to understand Divine Law and Divine judgment. We must beware of law court analogies. Our western way of thinking is not only distant from the wisdom from Heaven it is also very different from Hebrew concepts. The idea conveyed in the 'Body of Christ' is similar to the way in which the people of Israel thought about themselves. In studying the Atonement care is needed in the use of words such as blood and sacrifice, wrath and death. There can be no sense in which God wishes to 'get his own back' or wants to manipulate us like puppets. Sometimes love must wound in order to cleanse and heal. Men of God have suffered much pain because they believed it was the way to restore the image of God in their own lives and characters.
Paul's teaching is firmly based in the Gospels and Old Testament. He, like Jesus and the other Apostles, found meaning for their work and worship in the Hebrew Scriptures. The work of Salvation in the Old and New Testament presents a composite picture with the same principles operating throughout. Although the story develops and becomes clearer with the approach of the Advent of Messiah the underlying principles remain unchanged. The Old Testament points forward to the coming of Christ, to his life and death and resurrection. These are the dominant themes in the atonement of man's sin and the restoration from its consequences. Paul looked back at the Saviour's death on Calvary as the great turning point in man's history. He also looked forward to the complete work of salvation when all things would be in subjection to the work of Christ and to the will of God.
Jesus' sacrifice is unique for it is the only means of removing the results of sin and death. Yet in some ways the people of God are called upon to suffer for the sake of Christ and share His experiences. This was part of the teaching of Jesus and the early Church based upon the history and prophetical teaching of the Old Testament. Paul elaborated this, clearly explaining the need of the faith-union between Christ and the Church. This brings us to the question that puzzled Christian thinkers through the centuries about how Divine justice works and how sacrifice can give mankind freedom from sin and death. In some respects Jesus' sacrifice was a substitution for mankind. The picture of giving a ransom is specific in the words of Jesus and Paul. (Mark 10.45; 1 Timothy 2, 5,6). It is also taught from Isaiah 53, particularly verses 5-6. Yet we are left wondering how it works, if not why it was necessary. Perhaps John the Baptist's exclamation when he saw his cousin coming towards him, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" would have a very strong meaning for those familiar with the Passover sacrifice and Paul refers to Jesus as "Christ our Passover". It is evident that Peter heard John's words and bore his own testimony (1 Peter 1.19). The Book of Revelation is witness that 'The Lamb' is our Lord's eternal name.
Just before His death, speaking after supper in the upper room, Jesus spoke of a doctrine that is the most far reaching of any explanation of Salvation. In those chapters of John, 14-17 the Lord laid the foundation for Paul's constant theme, 'in Christ' When he expounded the teaching of the resurrection, Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians (15.22) wrote "As in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive;" It was like so much more in that chapter, very profound. Earlier in the same letter he had written (1.30) "He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption". In those few words the apostle compresses the whole purpose of God, salvation in Christ. That teaching of the Lord, which impressed itself on Paul on the Damascus road, is the centre of our faith, our life and goal, and he shows this in 2 Corinthians 5.17 when he writes "if any one is in Christ he is a new creation" or to use the expression in the Good New Bible "joined to Christ". That interpretation enables us to see how our sanctification and our suffering for Christ can go hand in hand. God can accept us because we are one with Christ. From the moment that a contrite heart truly repents of sin, the process of being 'in Christ' begins and goes on until at last we are delivered from the body of this death, into the glorious realisation of our hopes in Him and we see Him face to face. To appreciate and participate in this 'abiding in Christ' does not take a complicated intellectual understanding of salvation. All who desire can share this wonderful privilege of being 'in Christ'. He who believes he has been the worst of sinners may share it. He who stumbles seven times may share it. Yet we may never forget or ignore the cost of it all. It is the only way of salvation and we may have it now in the joy of walking and talking with our beloved Lord Jesus. In Him we are cleansed, strengthened and enriched beyond our wildest imagination. But, we cannot let go His hand. We cannot ever forget that He lives in us and we in Him. Oh that we could be conscious of this every second of every day, especially when the old nature rears itself up and confronts our fellow men and women with words and actions which do not reflect the Master. The only thing that stops our fellowship with Him is our own disobedience.
Let the Gospel of Christ through John and Paul have the last word, for they go far beyond doctrine, dogma and theology. "For God so loved world, that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent his son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through him." (John 3.16,17 RSV).
"God who is rich in mercy out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses and sins, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved) and raised us up with him, and made us to sit in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus." (Ephesians 2. 4-6 RSV)
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