Thursday, August 24, 2006

An Open Letter to the Evangelical Alliance

I originally published this letter to great acclaim (believe that and you'll believe anything) in the BapChat Forum. Other members of the forum got rather uppity about it: apparently if we throw out penal substitution we throw out the entire Christian message. Bizarre, to say the least: one forum member said he was "at a loss to know where this argument has come from" — I find myself more at a loss to understand where such a twisted doctrine as penal substitution came from in the first place: punishing the innocent in place of the guilty? What strange concept of God or of justice ever gave rise to this idea??

Dear Friends at the EA,

I was saddened and disappointed by the stance taken by the EA over penal substitution in your article Atonement & Unity in the March/April issue of IDEA.

I endorse wholeheartedly the belief that Christ died in my place, that he paid the price for my sin. I disagree intensely with the insistence that the concept of penal substitution is essential to our understanding of what that means.

In making the concept of penal substitution a cornerstone of its belief the Evangelical Alliance is doing precisely what the Pharisees did of old: planting a hedge around the law. To take this route is to take an isolationist stance and the EA ceases to be an alliance of evangelicals: it becomes an exclusivist body representing but one sector of evangelicalism. Rather than leaving "scope for diversity", the Board of the EA is essentially closing the door on dialogue and giving a green light to witch hunters. It is a sad day indeed for the EA.

Penal substitution is a model for interpreting our understanding of what Christ achieved on the cross. It is not an absolute. The absolute is far simpler: God was in Christ reconciling us to himself.

Precisely how he did that remains an open question: but we know that Christ died outside the city wall, not within the artificial confines of any human constructions, dogmas or doctrines. I find myself standing as a leper outside the community but I know that at the foot of the cross Christ accepts me and cleanses me -- and continues to welcome sinners irrespective of any so-called "core truths". Did Jesus ask that thief crucified alongside him about his core beliefs? Were any of the early disciples asked to sign statements of faith?

I urge the EA: don't go down this isolationist route, don't put up barriers to belief. Fling wide the doors and proclaim the evangel, the outrageous good news of God's grace that brings us all together, grace great enough and generous enough to tear down every barrier: grace that emerges not from our belief in God but his belief in us, his reaching out to us in mercy rather than in wrath.

Let us ask the questions and hold the debates about the mechanics of the Cross, but let us not pretend to have arrived at any absolute understanding of the mystery of God's love. It's the same arrogance that nailed Christ to the Cross in the first place which seeks to nail down our understanding of how the Cross works: once again Christ is crucified by his own people.

May God have mercy on us all.

Yours in Christ,


Over the next few posts I'll be taking a close look at what the Bible says about the Cross and the atonement...

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