“Behold, the Lamb of God”

There are a lot of ways to look at the atonement and how it works. In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis speaks of different “theories” of the atonement and sort of brushes the differences under the rug– the point, he says, is that we are saved by Jesus’ death, not how we are saved by his death.

Many of the ways people speak about the atonement are absolutely true. Jesus did die as an example of self-sacrificing love. His death did disarm the powers of darkness. His suffering does show that he can identify with all all those who suffer unjustly in this world. But at the heart of the atonement is the idea of substitution: Jesus stands in our place, receiving the punishment we deserve from God for our sin. (This is actually what makes all the other views make sense, but that’s for another day.)

As an illustration of this point, take John the Baptist’s first words when Jesus first appears on the scene:

Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! John 1:29

The phrase “Lamb of God,” to all John’s Jewish hearers, would have brought to mind a very specific set of ideas: The lambs offered in the sacrificial system were a substitute offering. The priest would lay his hands on the animal, symbolically transferring guilt from God’s people to the lamb. Then the lamb was slaughtered, its blood poured out, to demonstrate God’s wrath against sin. The people were then counted innocent, because blood had been shed on their behalf. Substitution. Imputation of guilt, and therefore innocence. Propitiation (the removal of wrath). All these ideas are wrapped up in that little phrase.

Penal substitution is not the only thing there is to say about the atonement. But if it’s not central to what Jesus accomplished on the cross, then the title “Lamb of God” is meaningless.

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Believing and confessing

If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. Romans 10:9-10

If you read this verse as rigidly as possible, Paul seems to say that 2 things are necessary for salvation: Believing in the Resurrection and confessing verbally that Jesus is Lord. I’ve heard some unfortunate application based on that: that if you don’t say out loud that you believe in Jesus, you can’t be saved.

This is problematic for at least two reasons. First, you can easily think of situations where someone wouldn’t be able to “confess with their mouth.” Say you’re in a bad car wreck, and you wake up in a hospital bed, tubes running all over the place to feed you and help you breathe. A friend comes and shares the Gospel with you. You believe, but you can’t speak. Are you out of luck?

Secondly, and more seriously, that view would turn verbal confession into a work that you must perform in order to be saved. That would contradict the many times Paul and other Scripture authors emphasize that we’re justified by faith, over against any idea of conditions we must meet, works we must perform.

Nonetheless, Paul is emphasizing the importance of confession. So what’s he saying?

I think he’s looking at belief and confession as two distinct aspects of one response to God. What happens in our hearts and what happens with our mouths are related.

Believing in the heart is an inward action; confessing with the mouth is outward. Heart-level belief is the necessary ground of outward confession; outward confession is the vital fruit of heart-level belief. If we’re not willing to confess, it calls our belief into question. If we don’t really believe, it calls our confession into question. Genuine faith, genuine salvation, will involve both.

Preaching on this passage last week, I made two applications from this point.

First, we shouldn’t confess without believing. Especially if you grew up in the church, as I did, you might feel pressure to act like a Christian whether or not you really are. And even if you are a Christian, you might feel pressure to act more certain, more faithful than you really feel. We shouldn’t be shy about talking about our struggles and doubts– in fact, talking through these questions with others is often a way God strengthens our faith.

Secondly, we shouldn’t believe without confessing. It’s not a way to earn our salvation, but God is still very keen on our confessing that Jesus is Lord. We shouldn’t be ashamed to be Christians, or feel the need to apologize for Jesus. Certainly we shouldn’t be obnoxious, rude, or condescending, but we should feel eager to talk about who Jesus is and what he means to us. That will look different for each of us, and different from day to day, but we should have a base-level desire to talk about Jesus, to confess him as our Lord.

I don’t feel this like I want to. Maybe you don’t either. May God strengthen our trust in him and our love for him, so that we’re eager to speak his name and tell what he’s done for us.

Triumph before battle

In Acts 1, just before Jesus ascends into heaven, he gathers the disciples together on a mountain. Apparently they sense that something is about to happen, so they grasp at the first straw that occurs to them: “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”

There are theological things wrong with this question, but in his commentary on Acts,  Calvin points out that it also tells us something about the disciples’ hearts: “They desire to triumph before the battle.” They want the kingdom without all that suffering and unpleasantness Jesus always seems to focus on.

That’s an indictment of many of us in ministry. We want to see victory and success before we put in the hard work. Conversions without evangelism. Authority without relationship. Holiness without struggle. Language acquisition without sounding like an idiot. Growth without work.

It didn’t work that way for the disciples. Chances are it won’t work that way for us either.

Why was Jesus so hard on the Pharisees?

Not because they were religious. Kevin DeYoung has done a great job of pointing out that Jesus himself was very religious.

Not because they loved to study Scripture. “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39-40). In other words, they didn’t study hard enough.

Not because their theology was wrong. “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice” (Matthew 23:2-3).

Not even because they tried to obey the Law down to small details. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23:23). Notice he doesn’t say “God doesn’t care about you tithing out of your spice rack.”

Jesus’ problem with the Pharisees wasn’t primarily with their actions, but their heart. They studied the Scriptures, but missed the point, even when the Point was standing right in front of them. Their doctrine was good in theory, but it only went skin deep– they believed the Law’s verdict about others, but not about themselves. They were hypocrites: eager to point out others’ sin but unwilling to acknowledge their own; patting themselves on the back for little details while missing the point entirely. It wasn’t that they took theology too seriously; they didn’t take it seriously enough!

It’s common to hear things like “Jesus got along fine with tax collectors and prostitutes; it was the religious people he had trouble with.” Actually that’s half true. Jesus got along fine with sinners— religious ones and irreligious ones. He still does. He had trouble with those– religious and irreligious– who couldn’t manage to see themselves in that category. He still does.

Two points of application:

  • No fair calling everyone to your right a Pharisee. Jesus never said they were too conservative!
  • Read through Matthew 23 and see how much of it hits home. Ouch.

How to read the Psalms when you don’t feel like the psalmist

About a third of the psalms in the Bible are laments– psalms in which the author lays a complaint before God and asks for his help. If you read Psalms regularly, which is a good idea, you’ll come across lots of heavy content. More than we’re accustomed to expressing in worship, but that’s another post.

A lot of this language can seem foreign to us. I don’t usually feel like all my bones are out of joint. I don’t often flood my bed with tears, and I don’t currently feel like I have more enemies than I can count. But we shouldn’t just read or think on happy things– if we did we’d ignore a lot of the Bible.

Here are a few tips for reading and learning from the psalms when our own situation doesn’t line up with the author’s.

 

Learn not to put on a happy face.

The psalms are an absolute smackdown of the idea that we have to be happy to worship God, or pretend to be. Every day with Jesus isn’t sweeter than the day before; some days with Jesus are really lousy. Psalm 88 (“darkness is my only companion”) was not written to get the people pepped up, but it was written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and it was written for public worship.

God is big enough to handle our lament. He wants us to bring our sorrows to him; he wants us to worship him through tears when that’s all we can do. Reading the psalms will remind us of that.

 

Think of others.

Even if you’re not feeling so sad you forget to eat your food, chances are someone around you is. Let the language of the psalms help you understand how your grieving friends feel. Let it open your eyes and remind you that there are hurting people in your life who need your words, prayers, and tears to bear them up.

 

Remember Jesus went through this for you.

Jesus “fulfilled” the psalms, and the rest of Scripture, by taking on himself everything it means to be human, and to be one of God’s people. He knows what it means to feel forsaken by God, because he actually was– so that he could guarantee we never would be.

Every lament we read in the psalms is something that happened to our Savior. He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. Reading Psalms with that in mind should drive us to a greater appreciation of what he’s done for us.

 

Wait.

I started reading a psalm a day in my first year of seminary, and it’s generally been part of my routine since then. At the time I was 24, and had enjoyed by God’s grace a generally happy life. It was hard to identify with the psalms of lament, or with the idea of longing for heaven: life on earth was pretty great.

Life on earth is still pretty great. But deaths of friends and family, infertility, bouts of depression, the vulnerability (and tiredness!) that comes with kids, watching friends hurt, and seeing more of life in general have meant that at 30 it’s a lot easier to see what David was talking about than it was at 24. And I’m still young, with more joy and more suffering to come.

An older friend told me once, “When I was young it was hard to want heaven. The older I get– yeah, it’s not so hard anymore.”

If you’re in a happy season, thank God for it, and stay in the Word– the happy parts and the heavy parts. The day will come when you’ll need the language of lament, and it’s good to have it in your heart ahead of time.

Our “covering” and God’s

Psalm 32:1:

Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.

Psalm 32:5:

I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity.

Our sin must be dealt with– either we must be punished for it ourselves or it must be “covered.” Who does the covering is crucial.

If we try to cover our sin– to conceal it, to keep it hidden– we fail. Only God can cover– effectively and permanently deal with– our sin. The rest of verse 5 tells us how:

I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.

Trying to cover sin ourselves leads to death. Confession leads to forgiveness. Covering. Life.

Jesus: “I’ve bound the strong man.”

Upon being accused of having a demon, and using demonic power to cast out other demons, Jesus’ response in Mark 3 is familiar but confusing:

22 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.”  23 And he called them to him and said to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan?  24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.  25 And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.  26 And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end.  27 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.

I’ve heard this verse used as a tactic in spiritual warfare: You speak to the “strong man” in a demonized person, binding him in Jesus’ name, so that you can get past the demonic influence and deal with the person directly.

I do believe there are people today who are oppressed by demons, just as there were in Jesus’ day, and that at times believers should cast out demons in Jesus’ name. But I don’t think Jesus is giving us tips here on how to do that. He’s telling us something bigger and better.

Let’s look at his argument. Remember, he’s answering an accusation: that his power to cast out demons comes from Satan. He gives two statements as a response:

  1. Satan can’t cast out Satan; if he were divided against himself his house could not stand (vv. 23-26). In other words, the accusation that Jesus uses Satan’s power to fight Satan is absurd on its face.
  2. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and take his property without first binding the strong man (v. 27).

Notice his use of house in both points. What’s clear is that Satan’s house is in trouble: he’s losing his kingdom, his influence. Jesus says the house isn’t crumbling because of an attack from the inside (point 1); instead, someone is coming in from the outside, binding the owner of the house, and taking his stuff (point 2). Jesus is saying, “I’ve bound the strong man.”

This interpretation makes the best sense of the situation: Jesus isn’t being asked how to cast out a demon; he’s being challenged on the authority by which he casts out demons. In response, he says in effect, “My power most assuredly doesn’t come from Satan. In fact, I’ve overpowered Satan, defeated him, and I’m bringing his whole house down.”

It also fits well with how Jesus describes his mission elsewhere:

  • In the parallel passage in Matthew, he says that his casting out of demons by the Spirit proves that “the Kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matt 12:28).
  • In Luke 10, when the disciples return rejoicing that the demons submit to the name of Jesus, he replies “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10:18). In other words, the demons submitting to Jesus’ name proves that Satan has been dethroned.
  • In John 12, as Jesus realizes that his death and resurrection are imminent, he says, “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out” (John 12:31).

In his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus has defeated Satan. Yes, he still “prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour,” but that’s because “he knows his time is short.” Our King’s victory– and therefore ours– is already accomplished. The strong man is bound, and very soon he will trouble us no longer.

Patting Jesus on the head

In Mark 3:21, Jesus’ family thinks he’s mentally ill. They come to take custody of him, which is the right thing for your family to do if you’re mentally ill.

In Mark 3:22, some of the scribes think Jesus is demon-possessed, and they let everybody know it: “He is possessed by Beelzebul, and by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.”

That Mark places these two reactions together is no accident. His gospel is brief and highly selective; he’s not trying to write an exhaustive account. What’s his point?

Whether you reject Jesus with sympathy (perhaps as a good moral teacher who was tragically misunderstood) or with anger (perhaps as a demon or an outright fabrication) doesn’t matter. What matters is whether you accept him or reject him. As Doug Wilson puts it, “We don’t get to pat Jesus on the head.”

Sinlessness and blamelessness

Recently I pointed out a number of places in Psalm 26 where the psalmist refers to his own integrity. Once you start looking for it, it’s surprising how often statements like that come up in the psalms. They’re jarring because we so seldom speak this way. We’re trained, at least in the circles I run in, to think of ourselves as sinners before God (which we most certainly are). So referring to our own righteousness, and especially making an argument in prayer from our own righteousness, seems absurd.

One problem with this is that we’re mistaking the claim of righteousness for a claim of sinlessness. That’s never what the psalmist means, and often there’s proof of that in the very same psalm. For example, in Psalm 41:12 David says to God, “You have upheld me because of my integrity, and set me in your presence forever.” But in verse 4, he’s repenting: “As for me, I said, “O Lord, be gracious to me; heal be, for I have sinned against you!”

When the psalmist refers to his integrity or righteousness, he’s not claiming absolute freedom from sin. He’s often saying that with regard to the present situation, he is the innocent party. Sometimes he’s referring to the general course of his life; that he walks according to God’s commandments—commandments that include provision for repentance and forgiveness.

This is a reminder that we need to apply to ourselves. We should confess that we’re sinners. We should confess it in general and admit it with regard to specific sins. Our whole life should be one of repentance. At the same time, what God wants from us in this life is not sinlessness—too late!—but what Scripture calls “blamelessness.” He wants us to be above the board, not open to serious accusation of deliberate, unrepentant sin. He wants us to be able to say, despite our present and lifelong struggle with sin, “This blessing has fallen to me, that I have kept your precepts” (Psalm 119:56).

This is true especially for pastors, who are to be not only blameless but exemplary—again, not perfect, but able to serve as an example to others of a godly life. For more surprising statements we’d never make today, we can look to Paul, who says things like “Imitate me, as I imitate Christ” (1 Cor 4:16, 11:1), and “What you have seen in me, put into practice” (Phil 4:9). A pastor should have the credibility (and boldness) to say this to his people—and be so obviously humble and repentant that it doesn’t make him sound like a jerk.

We need to take our own sin seriously. But the fact that we’re sinners, and will remain so until heaven, does not excuse us from God’s requirement that we walk blamelessly. By his grace, we really can become more and more holy, our lives more and more pleasing to him. The fact that he gives us his Spirit, that our holiness is ultimately his doing, should make us eager to pursue righteousness, and bold to encourage others to follow us.

 

Psalm 26 and the psalmist’s integrity

Look how many times Psalm 26 refers to the author’s own integrity.

Vindicate me, O LORD,
for I have walked in my integrity,
and I have trusted in the LORD without wavering.
Prove me, O LORD, and try me;
test my heart and my mind.
For your steadfast love is before my eyes,
and I walk in your faithfulness.
I do not sit with men of falsehood,
nor do I consort with hypocrites.
I hate the assembly of evildoers,
and I will not sit with the wicked.
I wash my hands in innocence
and go around your altar, O LORD,
proclaiming thanksgiving aloud,
and telling all your wondrous deeds.
O LORD, I love the habitation of your house
and the place where your glory dwells.
Do not sweep my soul away with sinners,
nor my life with bloodthirsty men,
in whose hands are evil devices,
and whose right hands are full of bribes.
But as for me, I shall walk in my integrity;
redeem me, and be gracious to me.
My foot stands on level ground;
in the great assembly I will bless the LORD.

There are lots of things to say about this, but perhaps the first and simplest is that God wants us to live so that we can say this.