Unbounded Love: A Good News Theology for the 21st. Century by Pinnock & Brow, 1994


Doctrine of Salvation (p.99)

Doctrines of Salvation focus on the divine provision for correcting what went wrong with humankind and what can move us forward toward the goal of fellowship with God. There is a clear dividing line between the Christian model and most other religious models because of our emphasis on God's provision of salvation, not on its achievement through human effort. As Paul says, we are saved by grace through faith, and as John says, we love God because of God's prior costly love for us (Ephesians 2:8-9; 1 John 4:19).

In part three we will first consider what God provided by way of the sacrifice of Christ for our salvation. We explore why it was fitting that Christ should die for us (chapter nine). We wish to move our thinking about atonement from legalistic concepts to human and personal terms by seeing Christ's sufferings as God's sufferings for all those under the power of death. Thereupon we consider salvation as freedom and liberation (chapter ten) and baptism as a sacramental door of entry into a lifelong relationship with God (chapter eleven). Finally we take up the doctrine of the church as God's new community and redemptive bridge to the world (chapter twelve).


SACRIFICE : Unconditional Love (pp. 99-110)

How is the relationship with God healed - how is fellowship with God restored? The Bible gives us the narrative of what God did to reconcile the world. The gods of other religions do little to save in any deliberate way. The high god of primitive Animism, for example, lives far away and does not intervene to help humans. In much Eastern thinking the monistic absolute is not a person who cares about us. Even in theistic religions, often God does no more than make demands on people. God may sympathize with our distress from a distance, but it is rare to find God revealed as One who is actually with us in our distress.

This emphasis makes Christianity special. According to the biblical witness, God saves humanity through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God with us. Humanity has been raised from death to life in the person who acts as its representative. In Jesus, death is overcome and life is promised in the new creation. The representation of the one on behalf of the many is a key for understanding the cross and resurrection. Humanity endures death and judgment in the person of Christ, its representative. Through the cross comes a healing of the broken relationship between humans and God, and through the resurrection comes life and hope. As Paul says, having been reconciled by his death, we are saved by his life (Romans 5:10).

The God Who Initiates

The Bible presents a most surprising portrait of God. The gods of world religion tend to sit back and enjoy their status as gods. But God, according to the gospel, does not remain distant, demanding our better performance. Rather, God takes the initiative to save sinners and, as the prophet puts it, bares his holy arm:

The LORD has bared his holy arm
before the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall
see the salvation of our God. (Isaiah 52:10).

God loves us enough to get involved and do something about sin. He enters into human suffering and redeems broken people. This was reflected in the life of Jesus, who did not stay aloof but entered fully into life and all its pain.

"The Word became flesh and lived among us" (John 1:14). In a desire to save humanity, God came among us to suffer and die for us. The heart of the gospel can be put in four words: "God is for us" (Romans 8:31). God's will is that sinners should live and not die. This was why he invaded history, taking the wrongs of humanity on his shoulders, and put things right. God does not stand on the sidelines but acts to heal the relationships we have broken.

God's Wisdom and the Cross

The cross is foolishness to Jews and Greeks, as Paul says, but to us it is the wisdom and power of God (1 Corinthians 1:24). What is this wisdom? Why did God become human? Since God's wisdom is unsearchable, we do not expect to find a completely satisfactory answer to that question. A rational explanation will fall short of being able to do justice to the wisdom of God. But since faith seeks understanding, we try to explore what light can be cast on the subject. [See John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, Ill.: InverVarsity Press, 1986), and Colin E. Gunton, The Actuality of Atonement (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1989).]

A big problem in Western theology has been its preference for an abstract legal theory of how the cross saves us. This has seriously influenced our reading of the Scriptures and resulted in a strange view of God. It also pushed aside the resurrection as a central event, since the theory had no real need of it. The theory sees sin as a violation of justice and the cross as an infinite propitiation and appeasement of God. On this view God easily becomes seen not as the passionate lover of humankind but as an implacable judge and avenger. This theory has burdened countless Christians and resulted in many people becoming atheists. Fresh thinking about the work of Christ is plainly needed.

When it comes to salvation, we must not see God as the problem. God is committed to saving us and does not need to be coaxed - even by Jesus - into loving sinners. The only problem is how to repair the broken relationship with humanity. Obviously, if God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, God does not need to be reconciled to us - it is we who need to be reconciled to him. The problem is how to get sinners to repent and turn from sin, to come back home and follow the new path of love.

According to the New Testament, God in wisdom chose the path of taking birth among us. God decided to become what he was not, to become human, the incarnate representative of all humanity. By doing so God would be in a position as man to surrender his will, resist temptation, suffer and die, rise and reign. And as God and man, he could do that perfectly and vicariously for all of us. God could assume the brokenness in us that needs healing. As man he could go through life, death and resurrection and then enable us to go through them. This is a major theme in early Greek theologians like Irenaeus (c.130 - c. 200) : God took our humanity as its representative and obtained victory for us all.

The New Testament offers a number of images to explain what happened in Christ's death and resurrection, images that have been spun out into theories of atonement. One theory states that Christ was victorious over the powers of evil; another that Christ suffered vicariously as a sin offering for us; a third that the cross makes human transformation possible. The truth about Christ's work is many-faceted, and each of these interpretations has value, both as biblical interpretation and as possible explanations that we can use today. There is no reason to suppose one of them is true to the exclusion of the others and every reason to suspect each is true in some way together with the others. Each of the models says something important. God delivers us from the powers of oppression, God frees us from the burden of our sins, and God strips us of our destructive illusions.

The Healing of Relationships

Creative love theism interprets the Christian message in a family room, not in a courtroom setting. We ask how the cross brings about the healing of relationships. [Fisher Humphreys pursues this question in The Death of Christ (Nashville: Broadman, 1978).] This approach avoids the mistake of interpreting the cross as needed to reconcile God to humanity rather than humanity to God. St. Anselm (c.1033-1109) for example saw humans as serfs of the Lord in a quasi-legal relationship and understood the problem of salvation in basically contractual terms. We have duties and obligations in relation to God, and having dishonored God through sin, we owe God a satisfaction. God cannot resume normal relations with us until this restitution is made. But since we cannot provide it, God sent Jesus to die and make the payment that would restore the Lord's honor. He makes it sound as if Jesus persuaded God to stop being angry and to start forgiving. What a strange idea of God compared with the biblical picture of him as a seeking Father! Besides, Anselm's model creates new problems. What place is there for forgiveness if Christ paid the price? [A helpful analysis of models of the atonement is Gustaf Aulen, Christus Victor (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1962).]

John Calvin (1509-64) also thought in terms of payment and did not help to clarify the situation. For him God is not so much the lord of the manor who has suffered dishonor as a stern judge who is angry with us and must be appeased. Calvin reasoned that Jesus sacrificed himself to appease this anger, make satisfaction and cause God to be favorable toward us. Calvin was a lawyer, and the thinking behind his model is legal through and through. In a way, Jesus addressed a tension in God's nature and resolved it. God was made favorable toward sinners by Christ's dying for them. [John Calvin Institutes of the Christian Religion 2. 15.]

The apostle Paul does not think in such terms. God himself gave Jesus up to death and provided a mercy seat that atoned for our sins (Romans 3:25). There is no thought of God's needing to be appeased before he could be gracious. The Servant of the Lord obediently pursued his mission to the bitter end out of his faithfulness to God. The Father was pleased, not angry, with him and through him was able to overcome the barriers to reconciliation. [Ralph P. Martin, Reconciliation: A Study of Paul's Theology (Atlanta: John Knox, 1981), pp. 87, 103, 151.]

We have to overcome the rational theory of atonement, based on Latin judicial categories, that has dominated Western theology. It demotes the resurrection from its central place and changes the cross from scandal to abstract theory. It makes things sound as if God wanted Jesus to die and predestined Pilate and Caiaphas to make it happen. We counter this by the fact that Jesus is God's beloved Son. The Father and the Son are not divided or in opposition. In the giving of the Son, the Father is giving himself. As Jesus said, "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:0). In the suffering of Jesus we can feel the pain of the Father and the infinite grief of his love. The cross demonstrates the compassion of God. Through the surrender of Jesus, God seeks out lost sinners, enters into their forsakenness and brings them into an unbreakable fellowship. [Jurgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ: Christology in Messianic Dimensions (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990). Pt. 4.] That is why we must set our thinking about atonement in personal, not legatlistic, terms.

The real issue is a broken relationship, not a breach of contract. Long before the cross, God loved sinners and wanted to save them. The cross did not purchase his love for sinners. It is we, not God, who need to be changed in attitude. The problem of salvation is our need to be delivered from the power of evil and become people who love God again. [Thomas Talbott, "What Jesus Did for Us," The Reformed Journal, March 1990, pp. 8-12.]

So we strive for a relational understanding of the cross, in which we frame the problem as broken relationships, not divine anger and honor. God is healing relationships through this action. He is drawing wayward children home and re-creating right family relations. As in the parable, the father is already reconciled to the son and anxious only to welcome him home. The problem is that the prodigal is not yet reconciled to him.

Christ is not appeasing God's wrath. God is not sadistically crucifying his beloved Son. We are not talking retribution or criminal proceedings. The cross is a revelation of a compassionate God. It is his suffering love that is the way of salvation for sinners. Jesus takes the pain of divine love on himself in solidarity with all of us. This tells us that God remains faithful to his creatures, even though they have abandoned him; he desires that they live and not die. This is how God justifies us and brings us back to life. The passion of the Father reaches out in the suffering of the Son, and the Spirit pours the love of God into our hearts.

We must realize that Jesus did not die in order to change God's attitude toward us but to change our attitude to God. God, who took the initiative of reconciling the world, does not need reconciling. It is in us that the decisive change is needed. The cross was not a sacrifice without which God could not love or forgive us; it was a sacrifice without which we would not have been able to accept forgiveness. The problem lies with us, not with God. He requires no sacrifice except a broken and contrite heart (Psalm 51:16-17).

The real challenge for God is how to save us from ourselves, and the solution is incarnational. God elects to defeat his enemies by turning the other cheek, by accepting wounds inflicted upon him and making them the means of redemption. On the cross God absorbs all the hurt our sins have caused. Even as sinners drive nails into his hands, Jesus says, "Father, forgive them." Not lashing out, not retaliating, not holding out for satisfaction, God simply loves. The pain of the cross is the cost to God of restoring the broken relationship. [Vincent Brummer, "Atonement and Reconciliation," Religious Studies 28 (1992): 435-52.]

The love relationship was disrupted because we pursue our own interests. At its deepest level the problem is not corruption or guilt but alienation. We need to be penitent and turn from our wicked ways. God addresses this problem at the cross, absorbing the consequences of wrongs and suffering rejection himself. In the death of Christ, God commends his love toward us (Romans 5:8), and by means of it he breaks the power of evil over us (1 Peter 2:24). God wants the cross to have an impact on us. He wants us to change and live for righteousness.

Costly Forgiveness

The cross has an objective side too. When Christ died once and for all, he did something that made a difference independent of its impact on sinners. What objective status does the cross have in a family model? How does the cross change the situation for humankind?

It is possible to speak of propitiation in non-legal terms. Forgiveness is costly to God. God also suffers as he deals with the feelings that could have led to a rejection of humanity. Something happened in the life of God when he absorbed the pain and the judgment.

We must not forget the anguish and outrage God experiences in the wake of sin. The moral order is disrupted. But God's response to this is to let the consequences fall on him. He accepts them all-there is no need for any more suffering. This is the way God forgives those whose sins caused him to suffer. He forgives us as only an involved participant can forgive us, as One who was rejected on the cross.

God suffers in many ways. First, he experiences the consequences of sin as One who is totally good. Sin disgusts and affronts him. Second, as the lover of humanity God experiences the pathos of betrayal. Third, the Father suffers in the suffering of his Son, who was allowed to become the victim of sinners. The abused offered forgiveness to the abusers in an act of self-sacrifice. This goes far beyond sympathy. The wisdom of God takes the path that at one and the same time expresses disapproval of sin, demonstrates love, experiences the pain of betrayal and calls sinners to repentance.

It is love we confront at the cross, not wrath against us. When sinners put Jesus to death, it looked as though God disapproved of him. But God raised Jesus up and exalted him for the service rendered even unto death (Philippians 2:9-11). This is not the picture of a God who is bound by justice, who demands a retributive penalty to satisfy him. The cross is the victory of love over that kind of retribution, not its vindication. Christ freely and willingly identified with us in our sinful condition, and his death was not an act of punishment but an act of solidarity that frees and transforms. Sin as betrayal is an offense against God's heart, not primarily against his justice or his honor. God is love, and the cross is God at work in healing relationships. It is not a penal offering to reconcile conflicting dimensions of God but a loving sacrifice to bring the alienated home to his love. The cross is God's way of overcoming love's anguish without indulging sin.

Jesus experienced abandonment by God on the cross. He glimpsed this coming abandonment in the Garden of Gethsemane when he asked that the cup might pass (Mark 14:36), and it came to expression on the cross in the mysterious cry of dereliction: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34). The worst part of his torment was to experience alienation from God who loved him so. God did not even spare his own Son but freely gave him up for us all (Romans 8:32). Jesus experienced God-forsakenness and God-abandonment.

This is deepest mystery. It cannot mean that Jesus suffers while God sits back, indifferent and hostile. It can only be that the Father suffers with the Son, each in his own way. Christ is suffering the pain of dying, and the Father is suffering the death of his beloved. There are two experiences of divine passion, the passion of Christ dying and the passion of the Father letting it happen. In the pain of God the sin of the world is taken away. The Father and the Son together suffer the pain of God's love for the world. [See Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit (London: SCM Press, 1977), pp. 93-98.]

The Impact upon God

The cross has universal significance because it changed the human situation in a fundamental way. It has global meaning because it impacted God. In accepting the path of incarnation, God accepted the human experiences that he had not undergone before. He experienced a genuinely human life, life in a body, and even death. At a certain point in human history, then, God suffered to forgive and to reconcile. The work of the cross was objective and has universal significance because it was objective in the very life of God. God immersed himself in the morass of human history to save us, apart from any response of ours. God had loved people, had forgiven sinners and had felt pathos before. But God had not suffered crucifixion until Calvary. [Vernon White, Atonement and Incarnation: An Essay in Universalism and Particularity (New York: Cambridge Press, 1991).]

By experiencing suffering as a human being by incarnation, God gained a moral authority and credibility in regard to overcoming evil which he did not have before. In bearing our sorrows and becoming acquainted with our grief, God became a fellow sufferer and learned to understand us. A suffering God has moral credibility for dealing with our sin. The cross changed God, but not in the way we have thought. It did not change his attitude toward sinners from wrath to love. It did add to the divine experience, however, and qualified God to reconcile and transform sinners. God in Jesus died to sin and came to life to make salvation possible through union with him.

This is hinted at in the book of Hebrews. It confirms that through the incarnation God gained experiences that qualified him to save us (Hebrews 2:10, 17-18; 4:15-16; 5:7-8). By partaking in flesh and blood, he was made perfect through suffering and could overcome the power of death. Having suffered and been tempted, he is now able to help those who are tempted. He can now sympathize with our weaknesses because he allowed himself to be weak. Then, having become perfect as man, he became the source of eternal salvation and can lead us to glory. Hebrews confirms in these expressions that Christ was enabled to save us because of what he went through in life and death.

The point is, we think, that God entered history so profoundly that not only was the world touched and affected by it, but God was touched and affected by it also. God went beyond showing us that he loves us by actually experiencing evil and death in himself. Jesus took the place of the creature and became man in order (as man) to overturn our rebellion against God. He stood in our place, as our representative, and turned things around. He became one with us in his life, death and resurrection to bring about healing and salvation.

This is the heart of the Christian message. God took up the human cause because of his love for us, and he carried it through to the goal. God put us right and fulfilled our calling on our behalf. No other religion claims anything like this. No one else proclaims that God went through human experiences that qualify him alone to be the Redeemer of humanity.

It took a second Adam (1 Corinthians 15:45) to make us what we were meant to be from the beginning - God's covenant partners. The Incarnate One embodied that goal for which we were made, and so in union with the Son we can overcome alienation, submit ourselves to the Father and reenter communion with the triune God.

Jesus did not placate God or persuade God to be merciful. It was God's desire from the first to be gracious to sinners. The only question was how to implement his mercy and bring about our salvation. What would be the most fitting thing to do? Sin would have to be taken seriously; something would have to be done in place of a penalty; something would have to encourage us to stop sinning; something would have to impact God. And God took care of all of this in the cross of Jesus Christ.

A Living Sacrifice

The biblical image of sacrifice addresses these issues. Sacrifice is basically an act of giving. When we think of sin offerings, we tend to forget that most of the sacrifices of the Bible are gifts of gratitude. By the mercies of God we offer ourselves in gratitude as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1). A sacrifice is an act of surrender and commitment to God. In the same way Jesus on the cross offered himself to God as our representative, to actualize in a vicarious way the full surrender that we had failed to offer. Therefore he calls us to die and rise with him to new life, and through him we offer sacrifices of praise to God (Hebrews 13:15). [John V. Dahms, "Dying with Christ,"Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 36 (1993): 15-23.]

God's triune nature is relational and expresses itself in giving and receiving. The world itself was made to reflect that reciprocal process, to provide an echo of the giving and receiving of the triune persons. Sin disabled the creature and spoiled our ability to present true sacrifices to God. It broke the reciprocity of giving and receiving that was intended. It was natural for God to heal the world by means of sacrifice, to manifest in Jesus' suffering a reciprocity in which the Father gives the Son and the Son renders a perfect offering of praise and obedience on our behalf through the Spirit (Hebrew 9:14). Now it is possible for the world, through the sacrifice of Christ, to offer creation back to God as a living sacrifice.

Christians believe that God saves by means of sacrifice, but for many sacrifice is not a very meaningful category today. The idea of animals being killed and presented to God is a difficult, even repulsive, idea. Not that our own customs put us in a position to criticize the ancients. People in biblical times killed many fewer animals than we do and were more conscious of the sacrifice being made so that they might live. We hide all this from ourselves and think ourselves superior to them. Perhaps we should consider the possibility that ancient sacrifices were a symbol of humanness, not of barbarity. At least when the ancients ate meat, they were grateful to the animals from which it came, and to God as well.

At any rate, it helps to bring the category of sacrifice into the context of thankfulness. Sacrifice has much to do with giving gifts. True religion is bringing gifts to God, bringing the best that we have. Sin robs God of the gifts of thankful praise. Because the sacrifices we offer are so inadequate, Christ gave himself as a sacrifice to God. It helps us see that sacrifice in the context of giving and thankfulness, not only propitiation.

Because we neglect this motif, we also tend to miss the dimension of fellowship with the community. We forget that sacrifices were eaten after they were offered. The connection was obvious - the animal died that people might live. Even today Jews and Muslims pray when an animal's blood is shed. Sacrifice involved killing an animal for a family to eat. We have forgotten to think of meat-eating in this way. In our culture animals are just slaughtered out of sight and without prayer. Furthermore, we often just grab food and eat it alone. The sacrificial meaning is retrieved when we sit down and eat together, when we give thanks and remember God at the meal.

The meaning of sacrifice includes communion with God and fellowship with one another in eating. We are reminded of this in the Eucharist, when we participate in the sacrifice of Christ at his own table. The Lord's Supper is a fellowship meal where we eat together as God's family. It is a foretaste of the marriage supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:9) and anticipates life with the triune God. Isaiah even describes salvation as a feast of "rich food" on the mountain of God (Isaiah 25:6-8). Salvation can be depicted as table fellowship for all people, as a festive and joyful meal.

In most cultures people eat together in more than functional ways. In Western cultures, birthdays and anniversary celebrations, testimonial dinners, gatherings of leaders, wedding banquets, funeral wakes and the like retain social and ceremonial functions, and in them deeper meaning is attached to ordinary eating. In the Middle East the symbolic meaning of eating is still recognized as important. This recalls what meals were like in the first century, when Jesus was involved in meals and instituted the Lord's Supper. Recall the celebration when the prodigal came home, how the fatted calf was sacrificed and there was great thanksgiving and reconciliation in the family.

John's Gospel reflects on the theological importance of our eating together, giving what appears to be the longest account of the Last Supper but without actually describing the Eucharist itself (John 6:3-71). And he wants to connect the feeding of the five thousand with the Eucharist (John 13:2-17:26). In both Jesus feeds and nourishes us. The holy meal of the disciples is the food of everlasting life for us.

Again we can see that sacrifice is not best understood in law-court terms. This distorts the biblical meaning. It is not basically a legal transaction intended to satisfy the justice of God. Sacrifice lies deep in the loving heart of God. In creative love theism we recognize that God is a triune unity of love. When God decided to include humans in the family, it involved accepting the pain of our betrayal and ingratitude. One who risks loving runs the danger of getting hurt. We hurt the ones we love: husbands hurt wives and wives hurt husbands, children hurt parents and parents hurt children, friends and lovers hurt each other. Similarly in deciding to create us, God knew he would inevitably be hurt by us.

When we are hurt in loving, we often withdraw. But God's love is unconditional, and nothing diminishes his love for us. Grace is God's willingness to keep on loving in spite of everything. It is God's gift given at tremendous cost to his own heart. Each of the persons of the Trinity allows himself to be hurt by our sin and ungratefulness, but God's boundless grace assures us that we will be loved to the end without limit. Sacrifices were an attempt, then, to express our commitment to God and symbolize God's acceptance.

Sacrifice is a universal category, but meanings vary. A sacrifice has often been thought of as a way to force God to do what the worshiper expects. The prophets denounced those who assumed that sacrifices would be pleasing to God just because they were offered (Isaiah 1:11-30). In creative love theism, sacrifice points to the loving heart of God. It is not a means of earning God's favor or gaining access to God. Sacrifice is about the gifts of God and a reminder of God's willingness to be hurt and still keep on loving us. The Eucharist has nothing to do with forcing God to be gracious to us. The bread and the wine are not a repetition of Jesus' sacrifice. Sacrifice is from the heart of God, and as we accept God's sacrificial love we experience salvation. Communion takes up the essence of sacrifice in the giving and receiving of the bread and wine.

A Eucharistic Spirituality

The sacrifice of Christ has implications for spirituality. We encounter God in these physical signs. Ours is a material spirituality, rooted in the fact that the Word was made flesh. We rejoice in embodied existence and find our humanity not a barrier but a gateway to God. Taking the incarnation seriously also causes us to be gripped by love for the world, seeing in material things God's handiwork and in people the face of Jesus.

We practice a eucharistic spirituality, recognizing Jesus Christ in the bread and wine as well as in the lives of those who gather to partake. The meal signifies the sharing of God's life with the world and speaks of reconciliation as we break bread together, deferring to the neighbor and washing one another's feet (John 13:14). The sharing of bread is a sign of our humanity renewed in Christ. Sharing the food and fellowship, drinking the wine in the atmosphere of loving friendship, we engage in activities that give meaning to human life. We experience a foretaste and an anticipation of the new order symbolized as the banquet of God.

In the Eucharist, disciples share symbolically in the passion and death of Jesus. Holding to Christ crucified, we seek to follow him in the way of his cross. God entered the darkness of human suffering, redeemed it and has given it meaning. God gave up Jesus for us so that we might be free to give ourselves to others. His passionate involvement in the world promises to bring about transformation. We follow the Crucified One and are grafted into his body. We worship a crucified God who was put to death that we might live and share in his passion.

Paul writes: "Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God" (Ephesians 5:2). He did on our behalf what we all should have done, but could not do. That was to present our bodies as a living sacrifice to God. Yet because of his death and resurrection in the power of the Spirit, and because of our dying and rising with him, we may now humbly make our own sacrifice, holy and acceptable, which is our reasonable worship (Romans 12:1).

That is how Jesus endured the worst that sinners could do to him, and God transmuted it into a mighty act of redemption. All the hostility and suffering of the world were upon him for the sake of our salvation.

Chapter 10 .....