The Gravity of Sin: Some Thoughts on Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion

the crucifixionIn chapter four of The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, Fleming Rutledge sets out a theology of sin that is focused primarily on Sin as a power, rather than sin(s) as misdeeds. This is not to say that sin(s) as misdeeds is irrelevant or unimportant, rather Rutledge argues that there is a specific relationship between the two, in which Sin as a power is the cause and sins as misdeeds are the consequences.[1] In other words, Sin is “an active malevolent agency bent upon…the utter undoing of God’s purposes” and sins are “signs of that agency at work; they are not the thing itself.”[2] Sin has two aspects: it is a “responsible guilt” and an “alien power.”[3] These two aspects require atonement and liberation, respectively. These two aspects of Sin parallel Rutledge’s overall thesis of the book, in which she proposes a two-part approach to understanding the crucifixion: the death of Christ is both “God’s definitive action in making vicarious atonement for sin” and “God’s decisive victory over the alien Powers of Sin and Death.”[4]

According to Rutledge, any discussion of Sin (and sins) can be done only in the light of an awareness of God’s prevenient grace. This grace “precedes our consciousness of sin, so that we perceive the depth of our own participation in Sin’s bondage simultaneously with the recognition of the unconditional love of Christ, which is perfect freedom.”[5] Rutledge demonstrates this by analysing Psalm 51. In this penitential Psalm, she notes that there is a definitive “relationship between understanding sin and knowing God.”[6] In other words, “sin can be understood only from the vantage point provided by God.”[7] The Psalmist’s confession of sin and cry for forgiveness stems from a relationship and knowledge of God and his laws.[8]

Next, Rutledge surveys the New Testament and lays out the biblical texts that speak of the relationship between Christ’s death and Sin. She sees several prominent themes. First, there is an emphasis on the forgiveness of sins and the overcoming of Sin. Second, there is an emphasis on Sin as a Power, particularly in Paul where Sin is both a verb and a dominion.[9] This then has implications for a robust doctrine (and practice) of repentance; so much so, that repentance functions significantly differently in the Christian tradition than in the 2nd Temple Jewish tradition that Paul inhabited.[10] According to Rutledge’s reading of the Pauline texts, repentance is not the first action to secure forgiveness of sins. Instead repentance is the response to God’s first action. In other words, “for Paul, the sequence is not sin-repentance-grace-forgiveness, but grace-sin-deliverance-repentance-grace.”[11]

Rutledge emphasizes that there is nothing inherent in the human condition that can make the reality of Sin disappear; not sentimental approaches to the atonement,[12] and not overly optimistic understandings of human progress.[13] Nothing that humans do can overcome the gravity of Sin[14] because it is more than just misdeeds; it is a Power that rules over all of humanity. It is from this Power that God has liberated humanity, through the atonement by Christ on the cross, and it is in light of this first act of grace that the gravity of Sin is realized, and that “the people of God go to their knees to acknowledge their need for a deliverance from Sin that they have already received.”[15]

There are two practical applications for the life of the church that we can extrapolate from Rutledge’s understanding of the gravity of Sin in light of God’s prevenient grace. First, attempts to tell society that it is sinful, or to preach a ‘sinners in the hands of an angry God’ type of message is not necessarily going to work in a post-Christian society that has either a poor concept or no concept of sin. Rutledge argues that the predominant North American model of convincing people of their sins so that they will come to Jesus is backwards. It is only in light of the message of salvation that “the sense of sin will come as a consequence” and it is only then that “the knowledge that the danger [of Sin] is already past will result in profound and sincere repentance.”[16] This has implications not only for preaching (preachers are one her key audiences in this volume), but also for evangelism and discipleship. So, adapting and translating Rutledge’s examples into a Canadian context, practices like the evangelical tent/church revival meetings of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the “Heaven’s Gate and Hell’s Flame” [17] dramatic presentations of the late 20th century, for example, only worked because the culture at the time was culturally Christian at least in worldview or culture, though not necessarily in practice. The preacher, then, is to proclaim the Good News of the Gospel, including the forgiveness of sins, and it is from and through that proclamation that the hearer may be convicted, by the Holy Spirit, of both the great mercy of God and then of the grave reality of their sin. In other words, sin is not the starting point; God’s abundant love, mercy and grace is.

Changing the starting point does not mean that the language and theology of sin should be eliminated from Christian discourse, because the second practical application that can be extrapolated from Rutledge’s chapter is the need for a robust practice of confession of sin. This practice is done by Christians who stand in the light of this prevenient grace, and is itself a form not only of discipleship, but also of witness and evangelism. By regularly confessing and acknowledging sin, praying for forgiveness and mercy, and hearing the words of absolution, the Christian community is testifying to the work of Christ, and to the prevenient grace of God’s justice and mercy. As Rutledge notes in her conclusion, confession is the sign, rather than the cause of God’s reconciling work with humanity.[18]

Throughout this book, Rutledge critiques contemporary Episcopalian liturgies which have omitted or glossed over key biblical and theological statements concerning the doctrine of the atonement. In this chapter, Rutledge laments the omission of the classic phrase “there is no health in us” because it was through this form of the General Confession that the Church was able “to teach that sin is not individual transgressions, but a universal malady.”[19] In confessing our corporate sins, Christians are evangelizing and testifying to the world to show how deficient modern North American conceptions of Sin (and sins) can be.[20] This same critique can be applied to the Book of Alternative Services in the Canadian Anglican context. Like the American Book of Common Prayer, the BAS downplays the language of sin. In the service of Morning Prayer, for example, the Penitential Rite is entirely optional, and when it is used, it does not contain the General Confession (including the line “there is no health in us) from the original BCP. Instead, the confession of sin emphasizes sin as misdeeds with no reference to Sin as a universal malady or a Power.[21]

This robust practice of confession of Sin (and sins) can also be strengthened by the observance of Lent. While Lent is an ancient Christian practice, it has only been in the last twenty-five years that low churches (particularly evangelical) have embraced this portion of the church year.[22] The rhythm of forty days set aside prior to Easter, allows the Christian community to not only acknowledge the Power of Sin and Death (starting with Ash Wednesday’s declaration of death’s inevitability), but also to learn more deeply how to pray, how to repent, and to better understand the gravity of Sin. It is in this context, then, as a form of discipleship, that the pastors and leaders of the church can move between proclaiming the Good News of the Gospel and teaching about the pervasive destruction of Sin in such a way that calls the gathered Christians to confess, repent and respond to God’s gracious act of Jesus’ atoning and liberating work on the cross.

This chapter (and the entire book) serves as a good introduction, that pastors, preachers, and teachers can use as a way to frame sermon series, Bible studies, and introductory theology classes on the doctrine of sin and salvation in a way that is both faithful to the biblical and theological witness and accessible and applicable for a church serving and living in a 21st-century post-Christian culture.

Rutledge’s chapter, “The Gravity of Sin” serves as a helpful reminder to the preacher of how and why to preach the Gospel. It serves as a helpful reminder to theologians that any theological and philosophical analysis of the doctrine of sin can only occur in light of the Gospel which illuminates, identifies, and names our sins. Finally, this chapter serves as a reminder to the church that there is no way to escape either the universal human question of justice (the topic of chapter three), nor the centrality of Christ’s death and the myriad of biblical motifs used to explain and describe the atoning and liberating work of the cross (chapters five thru twelve) because Sin rules and defines human existence apart from Jesus Christ.

[1] Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2015), 168.

[2] Ibid., 175.

[3] Ibid., 181.

[4] Ibid., 209.

[5] Ibid., 171.

[6] Ibid., 183. Emphasis in the original.

[7] Ibid.

[8] This emphasis on the necessity of a relationship and revelation of God’s grace prior to understanding sin was a completely new idea for me. But looking back at my conversion experience, it does appear to fit Rutledge’s ordering. It was a full year of encounters with Christians and the Bible before my conversion, and it was only after I had personally encountered Christ in an act of mercy (literally, a miracle), that I could surrender and confess my sins and my utter and complete need for salvation and forgiveness.

[9] Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, 189.

[10] For example, Rutledge discusses the difference between the Jewish Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) and the Christian understanding of atonement that takes place in Christ’s crucifixion. Ibid., 171–172.

[11] Ibid., 192.

[12] Ibid., 195–197.

[13] Ibid., 197–200.

[14] Ibid., 202.

[15] Ibid., 204. Emphasis original.

[16] Ibid., 173.

[17] I am not dismissing the “Heaven’s Gate and Hell’s Flame” drama productions outright. It was through one of these at a Pentecostal church twenty years ago that I came to faith in Christ.

[18] Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, 204.

[19] Ibid., 194.

[20] See for example, Rutledge’s humorous example of the “Sindex.” Ibid., 193.

[21] “We confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.”

[22] This is due in large part to the work of Robert Webber. See, for example, Robert E. Webber, Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1999).

Debating the Atonement — Twitter Style

What would happen if Gustaf Aulen’s classic book, treatment Christus Victor was published in the age of social media? It would look like a Twitter debate! So here it is, viagra a debate on the nature of the atonement between @CVictor (representing the Christus Victor position), and @Satisfaction (representing the Latin or Anselmite position). Note: These characters are completely fictional. Any resemblance to real twitter accounts is completely accidental.


@CVictor: Hey @Satisfaction, can we talk?

@Satisfaction: Sure, what’s up?

@CVictor: I don’t understand how X’s life fits in your atonement theory.

X’s life?

@CVictor: Ya. Did X really need to live & teach & heal & exorcize demons? Seems like your atonement theory is only about X’s death.

@CVictor: So my question, what was the point of the Incarnation?

@Satisfaction: That X became fully human. Only a human can pay the debt owed to God.

@CVictor: What debt?

@Satisfaction: The debt to his honour. It needs to be satisfied. (& yes you can start singing the Rolling Stones song now).

@CVictor: His honour? Dude, what are we lords and ladies?

@Satisfaction: That’s how Anselm framed it. Would you like the Reformed slant via Calvin instead – God’s wrath needs to be satisfied.

@CVictor: Let’s just stick with Anselm for the sake of argument.

@Satisfaction: Ok, so only a human can pay the debt because humans have mocked God’s honour but because humans are sinful we can’t actually repay the debt.

@CVictor: So X came.

@Satisfaction: Right. Jesus is the perfect human. Only he can pay the debt because he is without sin.

@CVictor: It seems like you’re being awfully Antiochean, too much emphasis on his humanity. Where’s his divinity?

@Satisfaction: Hey it’s better than your Christus Victor approach. Y’all place too much emphasis on the devil.

@CVictor: Way to avoid my question. But I’ll bite. There’s not too much emphasis on the devil.

@Satisfaction: O rly?

@CVictor: The Christus Victor theory is about victory over sin and death…

@Satisfaction: AND the devil.

@CVictor: Yes, & the devil. But not JUST the devil.

@Satisfaction: Exhibit A – Origen. He said the devil had ‘rights’ over humanity.

@CVictor: So? Gregory of Nazianzus disagreed with him. Said that the devil had no rights.

@CVictor: Just because 1 Church Father emphasized the devil doesn’t mean that’s rep. of C.V.

@Satisfaction: Exhibit B – Gregory of Nyssa.

@CVictor: Okay, 2 Church Fathers. My point is that X broke the power of evil, sin, death and the devil. That’s the victory part of Christus Victor.

@Satisfaction: At least in the satisfaction model Satan doesn’t have authority over us.

@Satisfaction: Satan is the lead rabble rouser calling us to join in his rebellion against God. #NowThatsBiblical

@CVictor: Where’s the victory in your theory? The debt of sin is paid, but is sin gone?

@Satisfaction: So what you’re saying is we have to become followers of Neil Anderson’s Bondage Breaker books?

@CVictor: No. I’m not saying that. I’m saying, what happens to sin? The debt of sin is paid, but what about the sin itself?

@Satisfaction: Well we are just sinners saved by grace.

@CVictor: Oh how I hate that song. It’s insipid.

@Satisfaction: Let’s get back to the devil. Show me in Scripture where a ransom is owed to Satan.

@Satisfaction: Or how about the idea that Jesus deceived Satan. That he hid his divinity & tricked him.

@Satisfaction: Doesn’t the Gospel of Mark sort of disprove your theory?

@Satisfaction: In Mark the demons know exactly who Jesus is, it’s the disciples who don’t know who he really is.

@CVictor: Agreed. The idea of tricking Satan isn’t biblical. That doesn’t invalidate C.V. though.

Of course it does, because look at all the people who said Satan was tricked…

@Satisfaction: …Irenaeus, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa. Even Augustine!

@CVictor: You’re missing the point.

@CVictor: The point, even if they got it wrong, what they got right was evil overreached itself, it thought it could win, and it couldn’t.

@CVictor: Just at the moment that Satan thinks he’s victorious because X died, Satan has actually lost.

@Satisfaction: So it is about Satan! #ToldYaSo.

@CVictor: No. Let’s use the phrase ‘power of death’. Death wins. That’s the power of sin.

@CVictor: X died. X defeated death by giving himself up to it, & then being resurrected.

@CVictor: If X hadn’t died, death wouldn’t have been defeated.

@Satisfaction: And for me, if X hadn’t died debt of sin wouldn’t have been paid.

@CVictor: So we both agree that the death of X is important.

@Satisfaction: Yes.

@CVictor: But you still haven’t told me how X’s life fits in all this.

@Satisfaction: yes I have!

@CVictor: Okay, how about this – what do you do with the fact that C.V. was THE atonement theory for over 1,000 years?

@Satisfaction: Meh. It was just a temporary thing. A blip!

@Satisfaction: BTW, we can see satisfaction theory in the Patristics. Look at Tertullian & Cyprian.

@CVictor: But if Aulen is right, and Luther reintroduced C.V., then C.V. isn’t the blip, satisfaction is!

@Satisfaction: But did Luther actually revive C.V.? You need to read some critiques of Aulen. #HeGetsItSoWrong.

@Satisfaction: The problem with C.V. is that it is the product of a patristic culture that was too influenced by platonic thought.

@CVictor: As opposed to the Satisfaction theory that is based on the feudal system of Western Europe. #IJS

@CVictor: Besides the idea that it was too platonic isn’t accurate, that’s just von Harnack’s 19th century subjective analysis of the Church Fathers.

@Satisfaction: Meh, whatever. You know what the problem with C.V. is? It downplays sin.

@CVictor: How do you figure? #confused

@Satisfaction: It’s all about death. Sin doesn’t seem to be an issue.

@CVictor: Of course sin is an issue. Sin is death. Death is sin. #SoSaysIrenaeus

@CVictor: The tight relationship between sin & death is a benefit of the C.V. model because it avoids a moralistic understanding of salvation.

@Satisfaction: “moralistic understanding of salvation”?! What does that even mean?

@CVictor: If you need me to explain that? #NoExplanationNecessary

@Satisfaction: Way to avoid the topic.

@CVictor: Okay, well here’s what I want to know. Does Satisfaction model work in the modern culture?

@CVictor: We are now a culture that has no concept of penance. Penance is at the heart of
Satisfaction model.

@Satisfaction: Well, Emil Brunner would be an example of an Anselmite.

@Satisfaction: Can we at least both agree that the moral example theory is bogus?

@CVictor: Agree!

@Abelardsminion: HEY!

With this, @Abelardsminion reports both @Satisfaction and @CVictor to the Twitter moderators who throw them both into Twitter jail for two hours to cool off.

Being “Cautious” of Mere Christianity

Kevin DeYoung over at TGC has a post up about why we should be cautious of C.S. Lewis. The reason: Lewis wasn’t an evangelical (the shock! the horror!) The reason he wasn’t an evangelical: he didn’t hold to penal substitution as THE model for the atonement; and he might have been an inclusivist. The reason for the post is that several days ago, seek DeYoung collated a list of the most influential books for Reformed evangelicals (based on submissions from comments). Mere Christianity made the list, sickness and he said that that was okay, but only with several “cautions”. So today’s post was the cautions.

A few observations:

1. No book is perfect. It is fine to offer cautions, concerns, dislikes and disagreements with a book. But to single out one and not have cautions for the others simply because they are part of the “acceptable” literature (i.e., reformed, evangelical, calvinist) is unfair. One of the books on his list was Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology (It came in at number 2!). There are several (okay, more than several) cautions that could and should be offered for that book. But it gets a free pass.

2. Being evangelical does not mean holding penal substitution as THE only model for the atonement. Kevin DeYoung suggests that Lewis’ model of the atonement is more like the Christus Victor model, as if that is a bad thing. Evangelicals hold to a wide-ranging understanding of the atonement. To be evangelical does not mean having to embrace only one. (For the record: I tend to a more Kaleidoscope view of the atonement and if I had to choose a close second it would be a Christus Victor view).

3. We need to be careful with throwing around a charge of inclusivism. The term Inclusivism is like the term semi-Pelagianism: people like to use the term as a weapon, but most of the time they don’t understand the term, and they don’t fully understand the argument that the supposed “inclusivist” is making. That being said, evangelicals affirm two Scripture verses that would seem to point to an inclusivist theology: John 3:16 — Jesus died for the WHOLE world; and Roman 14:11 (see also Philippians 2:10) — one day EVERY knee will bow and tongue confess Jesus as Lord. What that looks like and how that will play out is beyond our understanding (and should be).

Anyway, check out the post. Add your voice to the conversation going on over there.