Understanding through Worship

Rob Bell’s book has stirred up a lot of debate and I’ve been conducting a number of debates on facebook with my brother and my niece. You can find their blogs here and here. I feel totally inadequate to face the issues raised. How could a loving God condemn those who reject him to eternity in Hell? It’s a good question worthy of an answer that has been throught through and chewed on.   How do we reconcile God’s wrath – showed most graphically this weekend of all weekends in the horrific death of his only Son Jesus on the cross – with his mercy?

Well of course the answer is found in the cross too.  I know the theory well.  And in many ways I am very happy with the explanation of Jesus’ substitutionary atonement.

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV)

But somehow seeing it all written on the page, in a book, or in the many excellent blogs on the subject, it all seems inadequate as an explanation. That’s partly my human-ness as I reduce God to my level. But perhaps there is something else too?

A quotation cited in a book about Bach’s sacred music I am currently reading really struck me:

The satisfaction theory of the atonement, when it was transposed from devotion to dogmatics, from meditation to systematic theology, created enormous problems: for the doctrine of God, for the portrait of the life of Jesus Christ, for the interpretation of the Bible. With the elimination of its full liturgical and sacramental context, it did not make sense – or, alternately, made entirely too much sense, transforming the mystery of the cross into the transaction of a celestial Shylock who demanded his pound of flesh. Bach’s St Matthew Passion rescued “satisfaction” from itself by restoring it to a liturgical context in which it could give voice to central and fundamental affirmations of the Christian Gospel[1]

I am not sure that I can go along with what Pelikan says here. Although no doubt there are those who would.  But nevertheless the thought struck me forcibly that perhaps it is only in Worship that we can truly understand the fullness of the Atonement. Or to put it another way.

But when I thought how to understand this,
it seemed to me a wearisome task,
until I went into the sanctuary of God;
(Psalm 73:16-17 ESV)

Certainly I was greatly blessed today listening again to two wonderful arias from the St John Passion commenting on Jesus’ final words from the Cross as recorded in John’s Gospel – “It is finished!”

Es ist vollbracht!
It is accomplished !
What comfort for all suffering souls!
The night of sorrow
now reaches its final hours.
The hero from Judah triumphs in his might
and brings the strife to an end.
It is accomplished!

Mein teurer Heiland, laß dich fragen,
My beloved Saviour, let me ask you,
since you have now been nailed to the cross
and you yourself have said : It is accomplished,
have I been set free from death?
Through your pain and death can I
inherit the kingdom of heaven?
Is this the redemption of the whole world?
You can indeed not speak for anguish;
but you bow your head
and silently say : yes!


[1] Pelikan, Jaroslav, Bach Among the Theologians (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), 100-101

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9 thoughts on “Understanding through Worship

  1. The last commentary was confusing to me

    One one hand he speaks of one who loves the Saviour (calling Him beloved.) Yet he asks if he has been set free from death? YES!
    Is this not the basics of the gospel? Can a child of God ask this? (sadly, we frequently do! lost in the wonder of this glorious fact.)

    “Through your pain and death can I inherit the kingdom of heaven”
    Not only CAN you, but it is the ONLY way!

    Do not trust your feelings, conscience or vain efforts of will or your “walk”. Trust His finished work.

    Not only can you inherit, by His merit, but you are commanded to look no other way! Trust Christ alone! Do not seek any other way than THE way THE truth and THE life”.

    “Is this the redemption of the whole world?
    You can indeed not speak for anguish;
    but you bow your head
    and silently say : yes”

    Unfortunate when men add to scripture: clouds things more!

    By “the whole world” does he mean, Jew AND Gentile, “every nation, people, kindred and tongue?” from which the Lord redeems His people?

    Otherwise would imply the universalist or universal heresy, (no doubt to fit in with his Catholic sponsors?).

    • Paul, great to hear from you after so long. This is poetry, meant to be sung. So best not to try and be too literal with it. So I think the idea is that every question, as you rightly assert, invites the answer “Yes!” What this aria says to me is to remind me of the verse “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him [i.e. Jesus]. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory. (2 Corinthians 1:20 ESV)

  2. One question: why use 2 Corinthians 5:21 to support the idea of substitutionary atonement? The first part of the verse says he became something that he wasn’t before. The second part says that we become something ‘in him.’ I can’t see the concept of substitution in either part.

    • Possibly I could have chosen a better one. Isaiah 53 or Romans 3:21-26 for instance. The main point of the blog was not to offer a defence of Penal Substitution (others have done a far better job than I ever could, e.g. the book Pierced for Our Transgressions), but rather to offer a tentative suggestion that systematic theologies or books of doctrine alone are not enough and we need to approach any doctrine through Worship to truly understand it fully. As Wayne Grudem says in his own Systematic Theology: “Systematic Theology at its best will result in praise”

  3. Isaiah 53 – He was numbered with the transgressors – he made intercession for the transgressors. That’s not substitution.
    Can’t see any hint of substitution in Romans 3:21-26 either.

    Methinks that ‘penal substitution’ is the emperor’s new clothes of systematic theology.

    • I’d be interested in your response to the book I referred to above. People I very greatly respect like Jim Packer, Mike Pilavachi, Don Carson, John Piper, Wayne Grudem and others whose writings I have really benefitted from all seem pretty convinced and the scriptures seem pretty clear to me too. What about “The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

  4. The word translated ‘laid’ is the causative form of a verb that means ‘to meet’ or ‘to encounter.’ It can refer to any type of ‘meeting’ from an act of kindness through a negotiation to a violent assault but the idea is always ‘encounter,’ It has nothing to do with substitution.
    I haven’t read the book – maybe I should.

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