Legalism and Sanctification

Recently I read an essay comparing the “Satisfaction Doctrine” and the “Christus Victor” doctrine, and I had a shocking insight into my attitude toward law.

I had come to Christ through a very rationalistic preacher who focused on extracting doctrines from specific biblical texts. This was very important for me, since I am very systematic and I tend to analyze language closely. Before hearing this guy, I had always assumed that Christians were really stupid because it seemed like they just did what they were told and milled around looking kind of like cows on dope. However, he showed me that reading the Bible carefully was actually useful and insightful.

While still an atheist, I read the New Testament for myself and I was delighted to find all the places where Jesus insults religious people and Paul’s doctrine contradicts “church dogma.” I put two and two together and decided that the New Testament was historically accurate, psychologically valid, and a rich source of important spiritual truth, with a rational system of doctrine to back it up (which of course entailed accepting the whole Bible). I accepted at face value the elements of biblical doctrine that I first learned, including the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement.

Over the years I heard and read many atheists and Christians complaining about this doctrine. Basically it sounded like a lot of whining to me. I mean, why are atheists so upset about God condemning them to hell for their sin if they don’t believe in God, sin, or hell?  And the Christians who complained about it seemed like they just wanted to avoid the whole idea of sin, and maybe they had unwisely fallen in with a bunch of judgmental legalistic Christians who made them feel bad as a method of manipulation.

I never really thought of there being two different biblical views of the meaning of the cross (I already knew about the humanist view that is typified by Thomas Jefferson). After reading the explanation of “Christus Victor,” however, I could see where legalism was inherent in the Satisfaction view of the cross. It inherently privileges Old Testament Law and Temple Judaism, as if either of those are supposed to matter to non-Jewish Christians. This parody of Satisfaction doctrine, intended to show how atheists see it, was striking:

You have broken the law because it is impossible to keep it, and so you must have broken it. And because you cannot keep this impossible to keep law you will be charged with death because “the penalty for sin is death” and those are just the rules. God must have blood because the law requires it; there must be a penalty paid. The only payment that would have been enough is sacrificing someone who was the “perfect law-keeper”, someone who could live a perfect life without sin. So God decided to kill his own Son on the cross to appease his legal need for blood. Now that Jesus has been sacrificed God is no longer mad at us for not doing what we can’t do anyway, so we can now come and live with him forever — as long as we are grateful to him for his “mercy” to us.

After reading that, my reaction would be, “Who cares about God’s Law? Let me suffer the consequences, since if God’s Law really determines reward and punishment in this world, I’ll be able to figure it out without the Bible.”

And that is precisely the point. With a legalistic relationship to God, you don’t need the Bible; you just need to know the reinforcement scheme and you need someone to tell when you’ve done enough penance.

Socrates says in The Republic that laws are useless for bad people because they will disobey them anyway, and useless for good people because they will do good without the laws. This is echoed in Paul’s writings, in which he makes clear that the Law was given only to the Jews and only places obligations on the Jews. The heathens will suffer because of not knowing right from wrong, unless they have the Law written on their hearts, in which case they will be blessed. Christians don’t need the Law because they have Christ.

That is why I never really cared about penal substitutionary atonement:  it has nothing to do with sanctification, or life in Christ. However, now I can see that it presents a stumbling block for Christians and non-Christians because they get hung up on questions of guilt and penance, instead of focusing on sanctification.


4 thoughts on “Legalism and Sanctification

  1. I have read the first 2 parts of the essay. He has some good things to say. I agree that the intention was always faith (trust) and the sacrifices of the old testament were a tangible aspect of faith which leads to salvation (as obeying the law couldn’t save them).

    I disagree with his comment about Jesus breaking the Law. The examples may have contradicted the Pharisaical interpretation of the Law, but this is not identical with the Mosaic Law.

    I will have to think about the alternatives when reading Scripture, but I am unwilling to give up the “penal substitutionary” interpretation just yet.

    The problem with the parody you quoted is that it neglects the Fall. When we realise that man is responsible for the Fall it changes the perspective. Yes we may be unable to obey the Law, but we choose that path. And we were warned beforehand that the same path would lead to death.

    A further consideration for the view of the cross is the prediction that Christ would triumph over Satan in Genesis 3. The conditions that lead to the prophecy need to be taken into consideration.

    One of the problems I have with those who deny “penalism” is a lack of reason for Christ’s death. Yes we can talk about Christ suffering and us identifying with the same (all of which I agree with). There is much we can identify with in his life. And further, even if he did die, why must he be killed by men? Penalism makes sense of this.

    One could argue that Christ intended restitution of our relationship via sanctification and that such sanctification can only come via his blood. Blood is symbolic of life and thus his life (blood) gives us life. In which case he needs to die (release blood). This does seem somewhat similar to penalism; and it still does not give a reason why the releasing of blood needs to come at the hands of men in the position of judge.

  2. I think Jesus had to be judged by men to show that the world’s righteousness is not the same as God’s righteousness; but also that the princes of this world are serving God’s purposes even when they do evil.

    I think Jesus did not break the Mosaic Law, but showed that it was not what people thought it was. The Law given to Moses was formulated for the Israelites specifically because of the hardness of their hearts. It was a civic code for an Israelite theocracy, not a path to salvation. The Pharisees thought they were righteous because they followed the Law, but following it only gave them an excuse to ignore their deeper sins.

    So, that is one problem with law: it basically gives bad people a loophole to pretend their hearts are righteous, at least for anyone who believes that lawfulness equals morality.

    The problem with the Satisfaction view is that it only makes sense for a Christian if God’s Law is more than the text of the Mosaic Law. For the Christian, the Law must exist in an “extratextual” or Platonic form that was implicitly communicated to mankind before Moses. It is this form of the Law that we cannot keep, and this form that was satisfied by Jesus’ death on the cross. (Jesus still has a special meaning for Jews as the Messiah, quite apart from His meaning for non-Jews.)

    The Law cannot be explicit and concrete for non-Jews, because then they would not need a redeemer or the New Testament as an account of His life and an interpretation of its meaning. They could live by “natural law” and would not need special revelation at all. Again, a desire to trust in law leads away from God.

  3. The problem with the Satisfaction view is that it only makes sense for a Christian if God’s Law is more than the text of the Mosaic Law.

    But there is God’s Law, of which the Mosiac Law is a partial reflection. Anything contrary to God’s will is breaking his Higher Law.

    It is not the existence of such Law which it problematic to salvation, if we fail with Moses we will fail with any Law (natural or otherwise).

    The gospel is that obedience to any Law is not what is specified by God, rather a trust/faith in the Lawgiver.

    (An aside, Timothy says that the law is given for law-breakers)

  4. I think we are on the same page. I am not saying that the existence of God’s transcendental Law is problematic for salvation, but rather that its transcendental nature is a stumbling block for the literal-minded atheist and the worldly Christian.

    I don’t think there is anything problematic about salvation. Any problems people have with it are entirely psychological and rooted in their denial of existential reality. The problems I see with law, and with the Law, are related to sanctification.

Instigate some pointless rambling

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