Wednesday, April 29, 2009

On Atonement

Last week someone asked me for a brief statement of my view of atonement. “Sure,” I said, “How about one word—Jesus.” Of course, I was being slightly cheeky, but in the end I was also dead serious. Jesus is atonement. While I knew the man wanted a little more, just not a whole tome, I expanded a little. For me, atonement is not so much a thing that Jesus did as it is Jesus himself. For Jesus Christ is the Father’s eternal Son incarnate, and the One anointed in the Holy Spirit, and the One in and through and by and for whom all things were created and are sustained. Through his incarnate life, death, resurrection and ascension he has brought his Father, the Holy Spirit and all creation together in real relationship. This real relationship is atonement, and it is inseparable from Jesus. So for me atonement, adoption, the baptism of the Holy Spirit, reconciliation, the kingdom, eternal life, new covenant and salvation are all of a piece. They are all different ways of describing who Jesus is and what has happened to the Triune God, the human race and all creation in his very incarnate existence.

Adoption speaks to the fact that we have been included in Jesus’ own relationship with his Father. The baptism of the Spirit speaks to the way he has included us in his own anointing in the Holy Spirit. Salvation speaks to the fact that in his life, death and resurrection our sin was overcome and we were placed in a new relationship (covenant) with the Father. Eternal life speaks to our inclusion in Jesus’ own knowledge and communion and fellowship with his Father. And the kingdom of God speaks to the fact that Jesus has included us in his relationship with his Father, and in his relationship with the Holy Spirit, and in his relationship with the whole human race, and in his relationship with all creation. When we pray for ‘the kingdom to come’ we are asking for Jesus’ own life in this four-fold relationship to come to personal and abiding, corporate and international, environmental and cosmic expression in and through us.

The ideas of atonement and reconciliation speak to the way Jesus, in his own experience as the incarnate Son, through life and relationship, through death at our hands and resurrection in the power of the Spirit, brought everything in the cosmos together. Whatever else we say about the nature and means of atonement, it must never be separated from Jesus himself, and must never lose sight of the stunning fact that right now and forever the incarnate, crucified and resurrected Son of the Father sits at his right hand—as a human being. Our great hope is the fact that he has us with him and the Holy Spirit is determined that the breathtaking at-oneness established in Jesus would come to real and personal expression in us, and in our relationship with Jesus’ Father, with one another and with all creation.

In Jesus Christ a new cosmic order of real togetherness has been established forever. We all included, and we all stand called to a radical change of mind, called to rethink everything we thought we knew about God, about ourselves and others, about our planet, our future and life itself. Because of Jesus and of what he has made of the cosmos, we are all called to give ourselves to participate in his world. We are called to let his Father love us. We are called to walk in his Spirit. We are called to love one another with his love for each person. And we are called to participate in his relationship with all creation. And we are promised abounding life in the process. We are free, in a manner of speaking, to live in our own worlds, and free to try to impose them upon Jesus and his world, but such will only produce ever increasing pain. For it is a violation of atonement, of the way things really are in Jesus, of the togetherness that he has established between the Triune God, the human race, and all creation in himself. And such violation necessarily hurts like hell.

In an age when the idea of truth seems anachronistic, the togetherness and at-onement that Jesus Christ made real in himself is and remains the truth—reality—God’s reality, our reality, cosmic reality, reality that sets us free for life in his world.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


The great Irenaeus said that our ‘beloved Lord Jesus Christ became what we are that he might bring us to be what he is in himself.’ Athanasius said much the same, ‘the Son of God became son of man to make us sons of God.’ For both of these early Church theologians the incarnation was a staggering fact, which shouted to the world that the Father, Son and Spirit wanted real relationship with us, fellowship, communion, shared life. As Karl Barth said, God has no intention of being God without us. The gift given to us is Jesus himself, and all that he is and has with his Father and the Holy Spirit—adoption. As astonishing as it is, the eternal purpose of the Triune God was to give the human race a real place and share in the very Trinitarian life itself.

But how do you reach the human race in its terrible blindness and wrongheaded resistance and rebellion? How do you include people who want nothing of you, and indeed want you dead? And what good is the incarnation if Jesus does not penetrate Adam’s fall? Such would not be a real incarnation, and neither Jesus nor his life would actually reach us in our brokenness.

In the shocking love of the Triune God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit deliberately embraced us in our sin and darkness, willfully submitting themselves to our bizarre anger and judgment. The incarnation proclaims that the Triune God is passionate about sharing the Trinitarian life itself with us, and nothing less. The submission of Jesus, and in him the Father and the Holy Spirit, to our brutality, rejection and murder shouts a determined, astonishing love larger than the cosmos. And the resurrection declares that he did it, that in Jesus, and in his suffering from our hands the Trinitarian life itself has set up shop inside death and darkness and evil forever. Dying in the arms of our scorn, the Father’s Son made contact with Adam, recreating relationship with him and all his wayward sons and daughters from inside the fall—resurrection.

Father, Son and Holy Spirit forgive us for the way we have twisted your amazing, determined love, and tried to force your passion and character into our blind legalities. Father, forgive us for what we have thought of you. Jesus, forgive us for the way we have denied your oneness with your Father. And Holy Spirit forgive us for minimizing your constant witness to the truth.

Thank you Jesus that though we rejected you, you did not reject us, but embraced us in our foul blindness, bowing to our rage that you might reach the real us—and bring your Father and the Holy Spirit with you. Hallelujah. Blessed be the Holy Trinity.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Good Friday

“Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of Man will be delivered up to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn Him to death, and will deliver Him up to the Gentiles to mock and scourge and crucify Him, and on the third day He will be raised up” (Matthew 20-18-19).

Many years ago I studied the four gospels very carefully with one question in mind. Why did Jesus die? What do the gospel writers actually say about the reason for his dying? Being from a conservative background, I had always been taught that Jesus died as a sacrifice for our sins, and that on the cross he suffered the wrath of God in our place. Although most of the Western world has been taught a variation on this theme, it is utter nonsense, if not blasphemy against the sheer oneness and love of the Father, Son and Spirit. The clear teaching of the gospels is that it was the human race, not the Father, who cursed Jesus. It was the Jews and the Gentiles, not the Holy Spirit, who abandoned him. We rejected Jesus. We condemned him. We poured our wrath upon him and made him a scapegoat. The astonishing fact is that instead of retaliating, which he could have easily done, Jesus deliberately submitted himself to our profoundly broken judgment. He, the Father’s Son and the anointed One, willfully bowed to suffer our disdain and contempt. We ridiculed him, mocked him and murdered him.

Either our bitter rejection and condemnation of Jesus caught the Father, Son and Spirit by surprise, or it was part of the reconciling plan all along. Jesus did not come to balance a legal ledger, but to reconcile us. He came to establish a real relationship with the human race in all of its sin and terrible brokenness. And how did Jesus establish a real relationship with us in our sin? First, he became one of us, a human being, bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. Second, he accepted and bore our darkened, abominable condemnation. Jesus did not die to suffer from his Father. Jesus died to meet us at our absolute worst, and dying in the arms of our scorn he did just that. Jesus bore our sin, not figuratively, but literally. We despised him, as Isaiah prophesied. We hated him and crucified him. As he accepted our derision and hatred, as he suffered our sin personally, as we beat him, spit upon him, cursed him and crucified him, he was meeting sinners in their dark, gnarled and twisted world—and he brought his Father and the Holy Spirit with him. This is real reconciliation.

Hallelujah. What astonishing and determined love.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Identity and Experience

In the plethora of responses to my last blog I could not help but notice that one of you cited a few verses, but did not explicitly counter the Christological affirmations. In citing these verses are you suggesting that Jesus is not the Father’s eternal Son incarnate, and not the only one anointed in the Holy Spirit without measure, and not the Creator in and through and by and for whom all things were created and are constantly sustained, and not the reconciler of his creation? Do these verses disprove the central affirmations of the Christian faith? As far as I am concerned these affirmations were non-negotiable for the early Church, and functioned as the heart of the apostolic and patristic hermeneutic, or mind. The Christian community was and is called to take ‘every thought captive to the obedience of Christ’ (See 2Corintians 10:5) and to “see to it that no one takes us captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. For in Him all the fulness of Deity dwells in bodily form, and in Him you have been made full…” (Colossians 2:8ff).

The first order of business in taking these commands seriously is to answer the question, who is Jesus Christ? The second is to rethink everything we thought we knew about God, about creation, about ourselves and history, the past, present and future in the light of Jesus. He is the truth. The ministry of Perichoresis is committed to these two callings, faltering as we may be.

Or, in citing these verses are you wrestling with the biblical witness? Are you asking, given who Jesus is—the Father’s Son, the anointed One, and the Creator, sustainer and reconciler of all things, and as such the One who has included the human race in his own life—what are ‘we’ to make of verses which, as they are translated in certain translations, seem to contradict the fundamental affirmations? This, I take, to be what you were asking, and rightly so. It is a biblical issue. Any self-respecting bible scholar has to wrestle with how the meaning of a specific verse fits into the larger meaning or ‘scope,’ as Athanasius called it, of holy scripture. First, we ask the Holy Spirit to give us the eyes and perspective of Jesus himself. Second, we need to go back to the early Church fathers, for I suspect they have already answered all of these issues, as the Arians in particular were not shy about highlighting ‘problematic’ verses. Third, it is always a good idea to study the original languages, and then read several different translations.

For example, 1Corinthians 2:14 in the NASB reads, “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them because they are spiritually appraised.” This happens to be a verse that I use all the time. Your quoted translation says, “the man without the Spirit.” This is a great example of how the translator’s own theology figures into the translation, and an affirmation of the need to read different translations. Another example is Ephesians 4:17ff. “This is say therefore and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart.” I think this is a great translation, with the exception of the word ‘excluded,’ which should be ‘alienated.’ Paul is saying, because of the futility of their minds and because of their darkened understanding, they are alienated from the life of God, which is shared with them in Jesus. Bringing their confusion into Jesus’ relationship with them poisons their participation in the life of God. So don’t be like the pagans, give up your own vision, and let Jesus teach you about his Father, receive His love and live.

Luke 11:13, “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven "give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" The context here is about the goodness of the Father, and thus the admonition to ask and seek and knock, and not just once, but as an ongoing relationship rooted in Jesus’ Father’s goodwill toward us. If we, being evil, know how to give good gifts to our children, how much more does my Father (the fountain of all goodness,) know how to give the Holy Spirit himself, to those who ask Him? Apparently, in citing this verse, you are troubled by the word ‘ask,’ as if to assume that unless we ask Jesus’ Father we will not have the Holy Spirit. Yet without Jesus sharing himself and particularly his parrhesia (freedom, courage, boldness, assurance) with us, and without the Holy Spirit bearing witness in our innermost beings that we are children of the Father in Jesus, we would never come out of the bushes and asks the Father for anything. This is about relationship. Pentecost is first. In and through Jesus, the Father has poured out the Holy Spirit upon all flesh. As my friend Ken Blue says, our response to the Holy Spirit is to say, ‘thank you Holy Spirit, we will have more please.’ This is also our ongoing response to the Father and all his gifts in Jesus, and to Jesus and all that he is sharing with us. How thrilled the Father is when we takes sides with Jesus and the Spirit against our own darkened notions, and thus dare to say ‘thank you’ and ask for more.

Romans 8. The argument in the first part of Romans 8 parallels Galatians 3 and revolves around the question as to which way are we going to live, according to the flesh (kata sarka), or according to the Spirit (kata pneuma). The way of the flesh leads to death and misery. The way of the Spirit leads to life and peace. Paul is assuming that the Spirit is at work through Jesus in the Romans, and in us. The question is not who has the Spirit of Christ or who doesn’t, but which way are we going to live. Eugene Peterson, in The Message, has a take that is worth pursuing. “But if God himself has taken up residence in your life, you can hardly be thinking more of yourself than of him. Anyone, of course, who has not welcomed this invisible but clearly present God, the Spirit of Christ, won’t know what we are talking about. But for you who welcome him, in whom he dwells—even though you still experience all the limitations of sin—you yourself experience life on God’s terms.”

Likewise Peterson’s translation of Jude 17-19 is worth careful reflection. “But remember, dear friends, that the apostles of our Master, Jesus Christ, told us this would happen: ‘In the last days there will be people who don’t take these things seriously anymore. They’ll treat them like a joke, and make a religion of their own whims and lusts.’ These are the ones who split churches, thinking only of themselves. There’s nothing to them, no sign of the Spirit!”

Acts 2:38 Peter replied, "Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will "receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." When Jesus was baptized in the Spirit at the river Jordan did that mean that he did not have the Spirit prior to that moment? The coming of the Holy Spirit to Jesus at Jordan was not a movement from absence to presence, but from presence to another kind of presence. It is relational, not spatial. I think we are safe to begin here and see where this leads in wrestling with this verse.

Here are a few other thoughts about the Holy Spirit. First, it strikes me that we need to think about the Holy Spirit’s relationship in and with us relationally. He accustomed himself to dwell in us through Jesus, and that means through Jesus’ suffering from our bizarre blindness. So the Spirit knows how to relate to us, the real us, the broken us, but being so profoundly blind we cannot cope with the sheer weight of his goodness and beauty. So he walks with us relationally, giving us space to make fools of ourselves, all the while addressing us in ways that reach us, and thus calling us to relate to Him as a person, and to give ourselves to participate in Jesus’ life—step by step, moment by moment. Second, most of what I hear or read about the Holy Spirit is all but completely devoid of real relation to Jesus himself. It is as if Jesus died and did his part, and then went back to heaven. Then, on the basis of Jesus’ death, the Holy Spirit comes to do his. But apparently they don’t talk much, so the Holy Spirit has his own thing happening with us, instead of taking of the things of Jesus and relating them to us. There seems to be a remarkable devaluing of the fact that Jesus is the anointed one. He and he alone is anointed with the Holy Spirit, and without measure. Because we seem to have missed this, many seem to crave an anointing in the Spirit independent of Jesus’ relationship with them, and seem to be craving something from the Spirit altogether different from Jesus’ own life. As if it would ever cross the Holy Spirit’s mind to operate independently of Jesus or to give us a gift other than Jesus himself. The gift given is Jesus—and all is and has in his relationship with his Father and the Holy Spirit. When you see this Jesus and see yourself included, you don’t stop at a second or third blessing. Be bold. Live with expectation. Ask for more.

For serious study of the Bible, I recommend the New American Standard Bible, the Jerusalem Bible, the King James, the New English Bible, The Message, and J. B. Phillips’ translation.

One person said, “He will not have an answer for those verses as most Perichoresis messages are taken from passages in the books of John, Ephesians, Colossians and a handful of other books. It seems the whole perichoresis message is built on a select few passages and many other 'difficult' passages are just never mentioned or ignored.”

You speak as an authority on my references, but what you said I take as a high compliment. John, Ephesians and Colossians are reliable references. But you forgot Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Hebrews and 1John and Romans, and Irenaeus, Athanasius, Hilary and the Cappadocian fathers, Calvin, Luther, Thomas Erskine, John MacLeod Campbell, George MacDonald, Karl Barth, C. S. Lewis, J. B. Torrance and T. F. Torrance. If these brothers have an issue with me then I should be hanged. Either way, it is always wise, as Proffessor James Torrance used to say, to read widely.

Another response, “However, the question I hear behind the original post regarding "the Holy Spirit is in the little girl" was NOT addressed.

Here is the question I hear: What about those who do NOT take "small steps of faith"? What is the eternal destiny (and present state) of those who reject the light?

Please do not use all caps. And it would be better, in my opinion, if you would have said, however it did not ‘appear to me’ that the original question was addressed. I have addressed this question ad nausem, including in my blogs, so part of me wants to say read the blogs and the books and then we will talk. The other part of me never tires at answering one more time.

If one understands the distinction between ontology and soteriology a great many quibbles go away.

I have said repeatedly and in all of my lectures that the whole human race is included in Jesus Christ—and in his relationship with his Father, and in his anointing in the Spirit, and in his relationship with each person, and in his relationship with all creation. Jesus accomplished this inclusion in the power of the Holy Spirit in his incarnate life, death, resurrection and ascension as the fulfillment of his Father’s dreams for the human race. This is our ontology. It is our identity. It is who we are. It is what Jesus calls truth or reality. Our ontology or identity is distinct from our experience, because our experience is shaped by what we believe in our darkness (see Ephesians 4:17ff). We do not know the truth. We are in the great darkness. “I have come as light into the world, that everyone who believes in Me man not remain in darkness (John 12:46). So we bring into Jesus’ relationship with us, into his sharing life with us, profoundly broken notions of God, of Jesus, of his work, of others and of ourselves, and of the Holy Spirit and the future. Like trying to drive backwards in Los Angeles, these broken notions create brokenness in our relationships, in our attitudes, in our outlook, forming pain and chaos in our ‘experience.’ Such that we are a long way from ‘experiencing’ the abounding life that Jesus shares with us all. We are not being true to ourselves. It is our bizarre, wrongheaded beliefs, and our acting out of those bizarre notions that keep us of from ‘experiencing’ Jesus’ anointing in the Holy Spirit, which is constantly shared with us. So in terms of our identity (our ontology) we belong to the Father, Son and Spirit. Jesus has made this a reality forever. In terms of our experience, we live out the Trinitarian life shared with us, through our own beliefs, which are rooted in the darkness, and thus are profoundly at odds with reality. There is truth, reality, ontology. Then there is what we believe, and thus impose upon the truth, experiencing the consequences of such violation.

When Jesus says, “you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free,” (John 8:31-32) he is saying first that there is something real whether we believe it or not—the truth—the real world that he and his Father and the Holy Spirit have established. And second, that by our not knowing (in the biblical sense) the truth, we are in bondage.

The Father, Son and Spirit have embraced us forever in Jesus. They walk with us relationally, not spatially, always treating us as persons, never as distant objects. Jesus has included us in his own life. The Holy Spirit works to give us eyes to see the real world in Christ. As we see ourselves love and embraced, as we take baby steps in saying our ‘Amen, to the glory of the Father,’ more relational room is opened in our darkness for the light to operate, and for us things get richer, deeper, more beautiful. John 14:20.

If one is really interested in my thoughts on these matters read my book, Across All Worlds: Jesus Inside Our Darkness.

As to what happens to people when they die, my answer is that they meet Jesus (see previous blog on judgment), and in meeting Jesus they will see themselves in his light. What they do with the revelation of Jesus Christ and of themselves in him, I cannot say, and neither can anyone else. Hopefully they will all say hallelujah. But it is entirely possible, as I have said repeatedly, that they may continue in their darkness and obstinate wrong belief, thus continuing to suffer the miserable brokenness of believing in themselves and their own marred vision, and continuing to suffer the non-peace and terrible self-centered sadness and anxiety that arise from not knowing (biblically speaking) Jesus so as to be set free from themselves and the darkness.

So, ontologically we are all in Christ and Christ is sharing himself and all he is and has with us, including and especially the Holy Spirit. Because of Jesus Christ our ontology never changes. Our identity is as strong and stable as his own relationship with his Father and the Holy Spirit. Thus we have something to believe in that is solid, not dependent upon what we make true, or create by our faith. It is this reality, this ontological truth in Jesus Christ that the Holy Spirit reveals in us, thereby creating the crisis of faith. Soteriologically (or experientially) we are all caught between our ontology and our blindness.

It strikes me that because many ‘modern’ evangelicals cannot see this distinction between our identity and our experience, they come across sounding like existentialists, whose faith and decision, actually create ultimate meaning in the universe.

Who is Jesus Christ? This is the question. I have put my answer on the table and tried to think clearly in his light about every jot and tittle of theology. Granted I am blind, and thus inevitably bring my own darkness into this life-long process. The premise, however, that Jesus is the light of the cosmos and thus we are to bring every thought captive to him, seeing to it that no one takes us captive…. stands. It is painful when the revelation of Jesus exposes cherished notions that are not faithful to him. He calls us to repentance, to a radical recasting and renewing of our fallen minds that we may live.

When we finally meet Jesus face to face we will not say to him, ‘Jesus, I overestimated your place and prominence in the whole scheme of things. I gave you too much credit.’ As we see him we will know how embarrassingly blind and obstinate we have been. We will understand that our greatest sin has been our insisting that Jesus repent and believe in us. That is what sin is at its heart, it is declaring ourselves to be right and Jesus to be wrong, wrong about his Father, wrong about himself, wrong about the Holy Spirit, wrong about life and history, and it is the unrelenting determination to impose upon Jesus and his world our own vision, and insisting that he join us in our darkness. And guess what? He did.