Jeffrey John only does half the story

So Dr John’s BBC Lent Talk has been broadcast. You can listen to it and read it here. Where do I begin? The immediate thing that stood out for me was that Dr John’s quoting of Scripture stopped when he started dealing with the Atonement. His exegesis from this point onwards was human experience, not the Bible. Now there might be a way that seems right for people, but we know the end of that… The key paragraph is this one:

The cross, then, is not about Jesus reconciling an angry God to us; it’s almost the opposite. It’s about a totally loving God, incarnate in Christ, reconciling us to him. On the cross Jesus dies for our sins; the price of our sin is paid; but it is not paid to God but by God. As St Paul says, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. Because he is Love, God does what Love does: He unites himself with the beloved. He enters his own creation and goes to the bottom line for us. Not sending a substitute to vent his punishment on, but going himself to the bitter end, sharing in the worst of suffering and grief that life can throw at us, and finally sharing our death, so that he can bring us through death to life in him.

Now no-one’s saying that Christ doesn’t reconcile the saved to himself on the cross, but this paragraph begs a number of question (even before we start examining the straw man of a vengeful God “venting” punishment on his Son). Here we go:

  • One is left asking “If Jesus did ‘bring us through death to life in him’, what the economy of that is? How does that happen? What are the spiritual dynamics?
  • Does God simply say “They’re forgiven”. If so, when the creed says “for us and for our salvation he came down from heaven”, what bit of the incarnation was actually necessary for our salvation if God can simply forgive?
  • How does Christ’s “sharing our death” in any way deal with our sin? Jeffrey hasn’t even vaguely begun to explain that in his piece.

This is key you see. Dr John finishes with the statement

On the cross God absorbs into himself our falleness and its consequences and offers us a new relationship.

but one wants to scream at him “How?” Dr John claims it’s a mystery. I disagree. If he opened his Bible he might read Romans 3:25 which clearly teaches that Christ was a propitiation. He would have to deal with where the Bible talks about Christ as a “ransom for many” (Mark 10:45) where the Greek lutron is clearly a price paid. He needs to deal with why Jesus cries tetelestai from the cross, “It is finished” but also “It is paid”. What is paid? Who to? Perhaps a cursory reading of Morris‘ brilliant The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross would help him with the subtlety of the language used? There is SO much of what the Bible says to talk about, but Dr John doesn’t seem to want to do that. Instead, he rests his theology in human experience.

Perhaps he needs to understand Substitutionary Atonement better, as he clearly doesn’t have a proper grip on it. Yes, those who preached to him in the Welsh valleys might have over-egged the judgement of sin side, but most of us who believe in Substitution don’t believe in a “If you’re good I’ll be nice, otherwise get worried” God. And clearly one of the oldest books of the Bible, Job, didn’t teach that either. That kind of God is “repulsive” but that’s not the God of classical Substitutionary Atonement. Perhaps a reading of Stott‘s The Cross of Christ might be worth a day of Dr John’s time?

I’m afraid that what Dr John has presented isn’t good theology. He hasn’t engaged with the numerous Biblical texts that suggest substitution. He doesn’t explain HOW Christ deals with a sinful world despite the fact that Scripture plainly does. His criticism is of a strawman deity that most serious Evangelicals don’t believe in. And what was the BBC thinking in asking Dr John to do the Holy Week broadcast? Why him? Were they just trying to wind us all up? And if so, why did Dr John play their game?

I’ve also got a packet of strawmen lying around here somewhere that I could mail to the Abbey in case they run out….

7 Comments on “Jeffrey John only does half the story

  1. Of course the BBC is winding you up – that’s what you pay them their poll tax to do. It’s a smug organization – which YOU pay for! – with a disproportionate number of leftists, liberal Christians, gays, secularists, non-Brits, Jew-baiters etc, as everyone knows (check ‘biased bbc’ website for details). Never understood how Edward Stourton ended up there, but he’s a divorced and remarried Catholic, so that makes him OK.
    & you can’t expect Jeffrey John to agree with the biblical doctrine of atonement when he doesn’t agree with the biblical teaching on sex.
    Of course he has to ignore whole swathes of Scripture on ‘orge tou theou’ – even ‘the wrath of the Lamb’, of which the Book of Revelation is full. If I was marking this from a first year ordinand I’d have to fail it for its highly unbalanced, myopic nature, and lapses into sentimentality. The truth is, if God could just forgive us and absorb our sin ‘out of love’, then the incarnation and cross were not really necessary. Islam understands this better than John. Evidently the little lad didn’t listen all that clearly in the Welsh valleys. Or is he giving us a revisionist memory of his own childhood? My own beliefs have not been unilinear since I was ten!
    BBC talks on religion are basically for people who don’t know the Bible, don’t want to, and won’t be any the wiser afterwards.
    This isn’t your grandfather’s BBC (think: ‘Broadcast Talks’ by C S Lewis, published as ‘Mere Christianity’).
    Anyway, IVP has a major new book out by Mike Ovey et al, ‘Pierced for our transgression’ which is said to deal with objectiosn to penal substitution. Should be worth looking at, since Ovey is an excellent scholar.

  2. it is clear Jeffrey John is in an extremely dangerous place. Death can come at a moment’s notice . How do we pray for him or should we even pray ? Is there a Biblical answer to this ?

  3. While I would class myself as Evangelical I must admit that I remain unconvinced by penal substitution. It appears to me that we construct a legal fiction. Man sins in Genesis, causing us to fall and separating us from God. The problem with penal substitution is that it appears to make the implicit assumption that the only reason that sin separates us from God is because God wishes to punish for these sins. As soon as this punishment is propitiated by Jesus on the cross, this legal demand is met and the way for man to God is once again made open. This appears to me to neglect that sin separates us from God because it makes us unfit for his presence and because he abhors it, punishing us (or Jesus in our place) seems to me to do nothing to alter that.
    Having read Stott’s ‘The Cross of Christ’ and specifically the sixth chapter ‘The self-substitution of God’ I still remain unconvinced but it did bring up an interesting alternative which I do not believe he deals with fully, which is John Mcleod Campbell’s. Stott quotes from his book ‘The Nature of Atonement’ (1856): ‘Christ’s sufferings were not “penal sufferings endured in meeting a demand of divine justice” but “the sufferings of divine love suffering for our sins according to its own nature… in the perfect response he absorbs [sin]”. While I do not know what Mcleod Campbell goes on to say (having not read his book) and he still needs to justify why this demands Christ’s death, it nevertheless offered an alternative which appears to put grace and love (which are of God’s being, as revealed through Jesus Christ) as its principle not punishment.
    For this reason I was thinking why Christ has to die, if as you ask, God could simply forgive man. The reason I think he cannot is that this would be to ignore the just consequences of sin which, as Romans tells us, is death. Therefore God, having judged man as deserving of death and separation from him, in his mercy comes as Jesus to take these sins upon himself, and in doing so the righteous consequence of death, letting them die in him. Thus man is reconciled to God by Jesus bearing our sins. We could not bear them as it keeps us from God, but God, through Jesus can, and all the consequences that go with that. In this way Jesus dies for our sins as the scriptures tell us, and thus averts Gods righteous punishment of us (which scripture is also clear on). However, he does not do this by being a penal substitute, but through a bearing of our sins through love, and in doing so reveals a God who will always act in this world to bear the consequences of our sins so that we may be reconciled to him.
    This idea (though not necessarily what pastor John was getting at) seems to me to be consistent with scripture (eg. Isaiah 53, Romans 3 etc.) which talk of Jesus’s sacrifice preventing us from being punished, while having the advantage of showing how justice can also entail mercy without punishment.
    Of course I am no theologian so this is probably full of holes, but I would be greatly interested into what people think.

    • Stuart, you contradict yourself, for while you assert thaytyou ‘remain unconvinced by penal substitution’, you go on to say that if God simply forgave sins he would ignore ‘the just consequences of sin’ and then that ‘God, having judged man as deserving of death and separation from him, in his mercy comes as Jesus to take these sins upon himself, and in doing so the righteous consequence of death, letting them die in him’, then finally, ‘In this way Jesus dies for our sins as the scriptures tell us, and thus averts Gods righteous punishment of us’. So you affirm:
      1. that divine justice necessarily punishes sin with the death of the sinner;
      2. that God in Christ bears this punishment ‘on our behalf’ (huper humon), so that we live.
      3. God does this freely out of love for his elect, at the same time remaining true to his righteous nature.
      Well, believe it or not, this is actually a statement of the classical doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (‘PSA’).
      Is you problem with the concept (which you seem to affirm) or the name, which is scorned in liberal circles along with a caricature of the teaching?

      • I think you misunderstand what I am saying. I am not saying God in Jesus bears our punishment, but that God in Jesus bears our sin. I may be wrong but I think there’s a subtle difference. For example while you say that I affirm ‘1. That divine justice necessarily punishes the sin with death of the sinner’ I would disagree, I would say that divine justice judges that the sinner could be rightly punished by the death of the sinner, but not that this is necessary, as currently I think that God averts this through atonement.
        The major difference is at ‘2. that God in Christ bears this punishment “on our behalf” so that we live’ for I am arguing that Jesus does not take this punishment, but the sin which makes it deserved. The consequence of taking these sins is death, but not because God punishes Jesus for this sin, but because this sin must die in him. Just as when a man dies so his sin dies with him, when Jesus dies so our sins die with him. The reason he does this is that so that we may be made fit for his presence in heaven, which until the crufixion, is impossible due to the separation of sin. Therefore ‘The wages of sin is death but the gift of Christ is eternal life’ Romans 6:23, in that while we deserved death, Jesus has taken this sin from us, and thus given us eternal life with God. I am hoping that your use of ‘so that we live’ is metaphorical for in heaven with Jesus, as it seems clear to me that people still die following Jesus’ death, therefore his sacrifice does not directly avert death in this way but the separation from God sin entails. The effects are very much the same as PSA but the means of getting there strikes me as far more in keeping with the character of God revealed in Jesus. I have no problem with the name, as it seems to describe exactly what is going on, but the concept as I understand it seems flawed. If what I have stated above is simply a more sophisticated version of PSA then I will be prepared to accept it, but this is certainly not a penal substitution as Jesus is not taking our punishment.

        • Stuart, a few comments.
          1. ‘Atonement’ in the Bible (Heb. kipper, Gk. hilaskesthai) regularly concerns the death of a sacrificial victim in place of a sinner. This is ‘substitution’. The question is, why is the death of the sacrificial victim required? See Leon Morris’s ‘The Atonement’ or ‘The Apostolic Preaching on the Cross’ for exposition of this point, or Rodney Whitcacre’s ‘Biblical Doctrine of Atonement’, an excellent 9000 word essay available online from
          2. It does not follow that ‘when a man dies his siins die with him’, if there is judgment after death. Human law might not do anything more to me, but God can still act. The ‘death’ that Jesus frees us from is not physical death but hell. Further, what is Jesus doing on the Cross if he is not receiving the just verdict on sin? That is what ‘penal’ means. Just how does his death (in your words) ‘make us fit for heaven’ if it doesn’t entail wiping out or ‘covering’ (the basic meaning of kipper) our moral guilt? We are back with the question of moral order and divine justice. So when you talk of ‘the character of God revealed in Jesus’, do you mean that God is ‘above’ requiting evil, overlooking our sins and simply forgiving out of love? This is not the teaching of Rom 3.21-26, Gal. 3.13, 2 Cor 5.20. Why bother with all this incarnation-crucifixion stuff? Islam at its simplest and most robust doesn’t – though it still has the sacrifice of sheep at the end of the hajj in memory of Abraham and God’s provision of a ram.
          Maybe the most curious thing about Jefferey John’s talk is that he appears to have read Stott’s The Cross of Christ, since he recounts Elie Wiesel’s story of the boy hanged in the Nazi camp, which Stott makes a major part of his chapter on ‘The Self-Substitution of God’ – yet John falls back into a caricature of PSA which Stott has always carefully rejected. This is a cheap shot.
          If I were a suspicious man (me genoito!), I would almost think John’s tirade against ‘Calvinists’ was a reply to those nasty evos who scuttled his chance of a mitre.

          Anyway, have a look out for ‘Pierced for our transgressions’ by Ovey et al – I haven’t seen it yet, but it promises to deal with all the common objections at a high level of sophistication – rather better than John’s contradictory and somewhat sentimental talk.

  4. The consequence of sin is death and all that whucg makes life have meaning ; but even if God could wipe away these so -called conseqencies we would still be left with our essentially rebellious natures in tact. Our need is not for peace, security, meaning, hope and joy etc. – all that becoming a Christian entails – but for our guilt before a Holy God to be dealt with. It is not the inconvenient consequences that have to be dealt with but the broken relationship with our Father. Apparantly the only time that Jesus referred to his Father as God was when he was hanging on the cross:” My God , why have you foresaken me.” Hell would be bearable if one knew that God were there with us …even to the boy hanging on the piano wire. But Hell is a total absence of his presence. A prisoner who might spend his entire life inside will still come out a prisoner – to his sinful and gulity nature. For him to be truly free , an exchange has to take place. He gives Jesus his rubbish and Christ gives him in return His righteousness. Sin has to be dealt with ; it has to be punished . Christ takes it from us and takes it to the place of eternal destruction. Only Christ is able to empty himself sufficiently to lower himself to such humiliation, in the same way that only Christ is able to reach the height of such perfection. He does that which we cannot do.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.