FROM FAITH TO FAITH –In Quest of the Gospel, by John Samsvick
It was Holy Week 1938. I found myself sitting in the balcony of the Second Congregational Church of Waterbury, enthralled by the spectacle being spread before me. The annual Passion Play, produced by the inspired leadership of the Rev. Dr. John Walker, the quintessential modern liberal pastor of Second Church, tall, strikingly handsome, intelligently articulate, was making an unforgettable and inspiring impression upon this young 12 year old born-again believer in Jesus. However, he couldn’t put out of his mind the admonition his parents offered when he told them of his desire to attend the Passion Play: “They don’t believe that the Lord Jesus died for their sins”.
Totally absorbed by the passion of Jesus and his wonderful and awful words from the Cross, I began to hear the choir lift up what was to me the most beautiful song I had ever heard: Stainer’s “God So Loved the World”. Overwhelmed with tears of grateful and perplexing emotion, I found rising within my heart the questioning protest: “How can they do all this, see all this, hear and sing these wonderful words….. And not believe that Christ died for their sins?”
Nineteen years later, I found myself heading for Yale Divinity School, ready to do battle for the Gospel and the orthodox doctrine of the Atonement, armed with the inspired insights and persuasive arguments of my mentors: C. S. Lewis and Professor James Denney, (contributor to Robertson Nicoll’s Expositors Bible). I had no doubt about the Lord’s leading, reassured and enabled by the encouragement and financial assistance provided by Second Church and her pastors, Browne Barr and Bob Dodds. Nor is there any doubt in my heart that divine providence led to the particular purchase of my first book on the Atonement. I had just completed three years of Bible school in Minneapolis and was attending a Bible conference in Philadelphia with my brother who was also considering the ministry. Browsing through a small old-book store, the very first book I took up was a slim red-bound volume by Denney, “The Atonement and the Modern Mind”, which happened to be a sequel to his classic “The Death of Christ”. Reading that book, and trying to absorb its truth by reading and meditating upon it again and again, led to what has been the most important decision of my life: to seek to understand the gospel of “Christ died for our sins” in all its depth and mystery so that I might preach it boldly, passionately, and effectively in the spirit of the apostle Paul who was not ashamed to preach the gospel even in Rome because he had come to experience it as the life-transforming “Power of God unto Salvation” to all who believe. (Strangely enough: Denney himself gives testimony –in a letter to Nicoll– to a similar decision prompted by his wife’s suggestion that he could benefit by reading Spurgeon’s sermons. Nicoll includes a confirming witness by James Moffat: The decision to preach the atoning death of the Lord Jesus Christ “was all in all to him. He spent and was spent in making it everything to the church….. His mind was fully made up, his future was foreseen, he was to preach the Cross of Christ – on the one hand its power to save, and on the other it’s sharpness and its sternness, it’s imperious calls to duty and self-denial. From this preaching of the Cross he was never moved.”)
In reading Denney, I became aware almost immediately that I was being introduced to an approach to the Atonement radically different from what I had been taught. The terms were familiar, because biblical, but here was a scholar writing with self-command, a majestic sense of simplicity and precision , and a serious clearness in the grasp of his own thoughts on the one hand, and with a tone of deep evangelical warmth and passion on the other. Here was a man who was writing out of a palpable and life transforming experience of the awful and glorious truths about the ultimate character of the living God as revealed in the gospel which he was preaching . He was making you feel what he himself had found to be true, that in treating of the gospel “we are dealing with things too great to be simply told. If they are ever to be known in their reality, they must be revealed by God, they must rise upon the mind of man experimentally in ways more wonderful than words”. This passion and precision are clearly demonstrated when Denney comes to tell us what the heart of the gospel is in the New Testament.
“What then is the Atonement as it is presented to us in the Scriptures? The simplest expression that can be given to it words is: Christ died for our sins. Taken by itself, this is too brief to be intelligible; it implies many things which need to be made explicit both about Christ’s relation to us and about the relation of sin and death. But the important thing, to begin with, is not to define these relations, but to look through the words to the broad reality which is interpreted in them. What they tell us, and tell us on the basis of an incontrovertible experience, is that the forgiveness of sins is for the Christian mediated through the death of Christ. In one respect therefore, there is nothing singular in the forgiveness of sins: it is in the same position as every other blessing of which the New Testament speaks. It is the presence of a Mediator which makes the Christian religion what it is; and the forgiveness of sins is mediated to us through Christ, just as the knowledge of God as the Father is mediated, or the assurance of life beyond death. But there is something specific about the mediation of forgiveness; the gift and the certainty of it comes to us, not simply through Christ, but through the blood of his cross. The sum of his relation to sin is that he died for it. God forgives, but this is the way in which His forgiveness comes. He forgives us freely, but it is at this cost to Himself and to the Son of his love.”
Denney admits that there are many who argue that the teaching of Jesus on the subject of forgiveness is at variance with what we find in the Epistles, and which is implied in this description of the Atonement. But he counters with the admonition that to follow them would be to forget the place Jesus has in his own teaching. “Even if we grant that the main subject of his teaching is the kingdom of God, it is as clear as anything can be that the kingdom depends for its establishment on Jesus, and that all participation in its blessings depends on some kind of relation to him. All things have been delivered to him by the Father, and it is by coming under obligation to him, and by that alone, that men know the Father and the Father’s pardoning love”. The objection here in view is made by reference to the parable of the prodigal son. There is no Atonement here, we are told, no mediation of forgiveness at all. There is love on the one side and penitence on the other. Denny’s trenchant response reveals the superficiality and injustice of such thought: “One can hardly help wondering whether those who tell us so confidently that there is no Atonement in the parable have ever noticed that there is no Christ in it either- no elder brother who goes out to seek and to save the lost son, and to give his life a ransom for him. Surely we are not to put the Good Shepherd out of the Christian religion”.
Denny wrote this small red bound volume as an alternative to those presentations of the Atonement which, as he put it, “provoke antagonism and challenge by an ostentation of unreason, or by a defiance of morality, the reason and conscience of man”. So he is very careful to make the distinctions which would be necessary to “excite the least prejudice and find unimpeded access” to the mind of his generation. The Atonement cannot be understood except as it is seen to be related to a given situation. It is determined by certain relations consisting between man and God, as those relations have been affected by sin. First of all, they are personal relations. In the only sense in which we can be concerned with it, religion is an experience of the personality of God and of our own personality in relation to it. “Oh Lord, Thou hast searched me and known me”. It is only in such personal relations that the kind of situation can emerge, and the kind of experience be had, with which the Atonement deals. “But to say that the relations of God and man are personal is not enough. They are not only personal, but universal. “Personal” is habitually used in a certain contrast with legal, and it is very easy to lapse into the idea that personal relations, because distinct from legal ones, are independent of law; but to say the least of it, that is an ambiguous and misleading way of describing the facts. The relations of God and man are not lawless, they are not capricious and incapable of moral meaning; they are personal, but determined by something of universal import; in other words they are not merely personal but ethical. That is ethical which is at once personal and universal. Perhaps the simplest way to make this evident in to notice that the relations of man to God are not the relations to God of atoms, or of self – contained individuals, each of which is a world in itself, but individuals which are essentially related to each other, and bound up in the unity of a race. The relations of God to man, therefore, are reflected or expressed in a moral constitution to which all personal beings are equally bound, a moral constitution of eternal and universal validity, which neither God nor man can ultimately treat as anything else than what it is”.
Trying to grasp the meaning of this “moral constitution of eternal and universal validity” binding God and the human race was an important step for me in understanding Denney’s “radical approach” to the Atonement. At this point in his treatment, he pauses to express a poignant protest of astonishment that the critics of his classic, “The Death of Christ”, have charged him “with teaching a forensic or legal or judicial doctrine of atonement, resting as such a doctrine must do, on a forensic or legal or judicial conception of man’s relation to God. There is nothing which I should wish to reprobate more wholeheartedly than the conception which is expressed by these words. To say that the relations of God and man are forensic is to say that they are regulated by statute – that sin is a breach of statute – that the sinner is a criminal – and that God adjudicates on him by interpreting the statute in its application to his case. Everybody knows this is a travesty of the truth, and it is surprising that anyone should be charged with teaching it”. Denney struggles here with a passionate appeal to “the modern mind” to reconsider its rejection of any idea suggesting a “judgmental God”. “The relations of God and man are not those of the magistrate on the bench pronouncing according to the act on the criminal at the bar. To say this, however, does not make these relations more intelligible. If they are to be rational, if they are to be moral, if they are to be relations in which an ethical life can be lived, and ethical responsibilities realized, they must be not only personal but universal; they must be relations that in some sense are determined by law. Even to say that they are relations, not of judge and criminal, but of Father and child, does not get us past this point. The relations of Father and child are undoubtedly more adequate to the truth than those of judge and criminal, but they are not equal to it. If the sinner is not a criminal before his judge, neither is he a naughty child before a parent whose weakness or affinity to evil introduces an incalculable element in his dealing with his child’s fault. (I should not think of saying that it is the desire to escape from the inexorableness of law to a God capable of indulgent human tenderness that inspires the violent protests so often heard against forensic and legal ideas: but that is the impression which one sometimes receives from them). It ought to be apparent to everyone that even the relation of parent and child, if it is to be a moral relation, must be determined in a way which has universal and final validity. It must be a relation in which – ethically speaking – some things are forever obligatory, and some things forever impossible; in other words it must be a relation determined by law, and law which cannot deny itself. But law in this sense is not legal, judicial, or forensic. Nonetheless it is real and vital, and the whole moral value of the relation depends upon it. When a man says, ‘There are many to whom the conception of forgiveness resting on a judicial transaction does not appeal at all’, I entirely agree with him. But what would be the value of a forgiveness which did not recognize in its eternal truth and worth that universal law in which the relations of God and man are constituted? Without the recognition of that law – that moral order or constitution in which we have our life in relation to God and each other – righteousness and sin, atonement and forgiveness, would all alike be words without meaning”.
Denney’s protest and appeal reminded me of a similar protest I made while reading C.S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity”. He had already given me a great deal of help in forming what I believed to be a rational and respectable apologetic for the Christian faith. His arguments for natural law and “right and wrong as a clue to the meaning of the universe” seemed to be in support of Denney’s views on a “moral constitution” binding upon God and man. But when I came to the second book and his chapter on the “Perfect Penitent”, I was stunned by what he said. “The first thing Christians had to believe was… the theory that God was angry with us for going over to the enemy and wanted to punish us, but Christ volunteered to be punished instead, and so God let us off. Now on the face of it that is a very silly theory… And what possible point could there be in punishing an innocent person instead?” I, a very young fundamentalist-evangelical felt this like a blow to my plexus. Here was a prominent, popular and professing Christian attacking the heart of the Faith. I was hurt, disappointed, perplexed, and angry. On the one hand I found myself agreeing with him in rejecting his representation of the “theory” Christians were supposed to believe. It was an example of Denney’s lament concerning presentations of the Atonement “which provoked antagonism by challenging the reason and conscience man”. (An angry God… wanting to punish us… an innocent person punished… letting us off, having been appeased.) On the other hand, I couldn’t help feeling that he was in danger of throwing out the baby (the Gospel) with the bathwater of offensive and misleading expressions. But a question kept rising within me: “What are we evangelicals saying about the Atonement, how are we preaching the gospel in our churches which could have led such a sincere Christian to think this way?” I did recall hearing one common mantra: “Believe that Jesus paid the penalty for your sins and you will be saved”.
But again Denney comes to my rescue by his masterful exposition of Romans 3: 21 -26, and in particular verse 25 (Greek Expositors Bible-ed. Nicoll). This verse “makes explicit the whole intention of God in dealing with sin by means of a propitiation”. Because of God‘s forbearance in dealing seriously with sin, his righteous character lay under the imputation of being indifferent to it. But the time had now come to vindicate the Divine character. He could have vindicated it by executing judgment upon sin, but part of God’s purpose was to “justify the ungodly” upon certain conditions; and “this could not be obtained by the execution of judgment. To combine both objects, and at once vindicate His own righteousness, and put righteousness within reach of the sinful, it was necessary that God should provide a propitiation. This He did when He set forth Jesus in hIs blood for the acceptance of faith.” But it was when Denney began to deal with the verse in detail that the next step in my breakthrough to light occurred.
“It is misleading to render ‘that He might be just and yet the justifier’ of believers; the Apostle only means that the two ends have equally to be secured, not that there is necessarily an antagonism between them.” And yet it was just that ”antagonism” that I was defending in my confrontation with Paul Minear during his class on Romans. I cannot recall his take of the passage, but I responded with my own interpretation: “Isn’t Paul saying that because of the propitiation set forth in Jesus blood that God is just even though He justifies sinners who believe?” Dr. Minear’s response was a thunderous NO!! I can’t remember what else he said, but I surely felt rebuked and silenced. And now much later, reading Denney, I was being rebuked and silenced again. But after all, I did have a point to make. Denney himself states: “The whole Pauline gospel could be summed up in this one word: ‘God who justifies the ungodly’”. But on the face of it, the phrase is a contradiction in terms. His own comments on the “righteousness of God” revealed in the gospel (Romans 1:16-17) tend to confirm this view. He denies that the phrase here should be understood as referring to God’s attribute of righteousness. “That the Gospel is the supreme revelation of the character of God, no one can question. But whether Paul would have said that God justifies the ungodly because He is himself righteous is another matter. The righteousness of God, conceived as a divine attribute, may have appeared to Paul the great difficulty in the way of the justification of sinful man. God’s righteousness in this sense is the sinner’s condemnation, and no one will succeed in making him find in it the ground of his hope.”
But let us return to his interpretation of verse 25. “But it is more than misleading to render ‘that He might be just and therefore the justifier’…. There is no conception of righteousness, capable of being clearly carried out, and connected with the Cross, which makes such language intelligible. It is the love of God, according to the consistent teaching of the New Testament, which provides the propitiation, by which God’s righteousness is vindicated and the justification of the ungodly made possible.” It was only when I came in possession of a commentary on the First Epistle of John by Robert Law that I came to understand what Denney was getting at here. In a lengthy footnote Law discusses the relation of love and righteousness in God. Both appear to be equally fundamental. We can say Love is that essential quality of the Divine Nature in which all God’s purposes and actions have their origin; and that Righteousness determines all his purposes and ways. How then are we to think of the moral nature of God? Is it a unity, or is it a duality? Law states that “the latter solution has been most widely and authoritatively maintained. Righteousness and Love, it is held, are essentially different and mutually independent. They are not coterminous, Righteousness occupying the whole area of moral character and obligation, while Love covers only a part of it. God is righteous in all his ways; in some only is he loving. Righteousness is a necessity with him; Love is secondary, and can be exercised only when it does not conflict with Righteousness.” I had never been taught this even in Bible school or seminary; certainly I had never heard it explained or preached with such clarity. But apparently I had come to believe it somehow, and to think and feel and speak that way. And I do not doubt that this explains to a great degree how and why evangelicals tend to speak of the Atonement “in forensic, legal, and judicial terms.” But Law demonstrates, to my satisfaction, that such views are on untenable.
A couple of excerpts should suffice: “it is a strong point in the Calvinistic tradition to maintain that punitive justice cannot be derived from Love. Yet it is not only consistent with, it is a necessity of God’s changeless purpose of Love that wrong be punished. And I fail to see the nature of a Justice that has no connection with this purpose. If there could exist a being of whose moral consciousness Justice were the sole content, for whom Love existed only as a secondary attribute, of whom it could be said that ‘Love is an attribute which he may exercise or not as he will’, that “Mercy” is optional with him’, that ‘he is bound to be just, he is not bound to be generous’, such a being would be vastly remote in character from the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ… This is the righteousness of God – that He asserts Love, the law of His own Life, as the law of all life that is derived from him. This assertion necessarily acts in two directions, in the communication of love, the highest good; and in antagonism to all that is opposed to it. If the eternal purpose of God is to produce beings capable of the highest good and to impart it to them, then by his very character as Love He is also constrained so to order the universe that whatever tends to the defeat of that purpose shall meet his unceasing antagonism. This will take the form of what we call punitive Justice. And what makes the punitive Justice of God so terrible is that it is the Justice of one who is Love, and that even infinite Love can find no alternative.”
Convinced as I was, I was not yet ready to give up my reservations, wondering whether Law was really a modernist/liberal, considering his emphasis on God as Love. James Denney faced similar problems in his day. In a series of lectures (delivered posthumously) at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1920, he returned to his favorite subject, the gospel of the Atonement. “The need of reconciliation lies in man, and in his relation to God as affected by sin. The source of it, as Scripture and experience combine to teach, is to be found purely in the love of God. Christ is doing the work the Father gave him to do. He is not wringing favor or forgiveness for men from a God who is reluctant to bestow it. He is manifesting the love which God eternally is and eternally bears to his creatures.
“These universally accepted truths, however, are sometimes made to support questionable inferences. Thus it is argued that on the basis of them we must admit that the reconciling work of Christ has reference to men only, and that its meaning and virtue are exhausted in the effect it is designed to produce upon sinners. We must give up all that is meant by an objective Atonement – that is, a work of Christ as Reconciler which tells upon God as well as upon the sinful. We must abandon as misleading the use of such terms as propitiation, expiation: they are all tainted incurably with the idea that the Son represents mercy and the Father judgment, and that forgiveness has to be extorted, so to speak, from one to whom it is not natural to forgive.”
Denney believes that such arguments betray a profound lack of understanding about the deepest truth of Christ’s work. His Atoning death is intended to produce in sinners “God’s mind about sin”. “It cannot do this simply as an exhibition of unconditional love.” The modern mind views the love of God as acting only in the communication of good, while the judicial and punitive energies of God evoked by evil are assigned exclusively to his righteousness. But we have learned from Robert Law that this is an inadequate and one-sided conception of love. “Love, as seeking the highest good of its objects, is constrained to oppose, and to oppose passionately, all that works for the defeat of its purpose. Love has in it the sharpness of the sword and the fierceness of flame. Love hates – hates evil, which is opposed to love.” The holy and righteous “Love of God must assert itself in infinitely intense antagonism” against all that works in opposition to the moral Constitution of a universe created and ruled by love, and clearly demonstrate in history “that right shall be rewarded and wrong punished.” It is this kind of Love which is revealed when “God set forth Christ Jesus as a propitiation in his blood”, “a love which owns the reality of sin by submitting humbly and without rebellion to the divine reaction against it; it is love doing homage to the divine ethical necessities which pervade the nature of things and the whole order in which men live.” It is in this radical sense that the Lord Jesus “repents for us”. (C.S. Lewis’ theory of Atonement). It is Jesus’ redeeming affirmation of God’s righteousness: “Thou art righteous, O Lord, who judges us”. And it is this profound experience of repentance which is reproduced in us who believe in Jesus; “and unless we are caught up into it, and made participant of it somehow, we cannot be reconciled to God”. (Denney) “When Christians are forgiven, it is proper Christum, because of Christ, as well as gratuito, of grace: it is not by unconditional love—an expression to which no meaning can be attached which does not obliterate the distinction between right and wrong— but by a love the very nature of which is that it does absolute homage to the whole being and self revelation of God and especially to the inexorable reactions of the divine nature against sin.”
Denney has more to say on the subject of “Propitiation” which touches the deepest level of human experience, the experience of “being forgiven”. It appears that some time during his pastoral ministry he discovered that many of his people had no idea “what forgiveness means in the New Testament”. They seemed to feel that the only thing required of them as sinners was to repent, to say to God, “I’m sorry”, and that settled matters. In an early sermon on “Propitiation”, Denney objects by saying that “sins’ reality is not exhausted” by confession even if repentance is adequate to the offense. “Sin is real in the universe, beyond the sinner’s control. It is real to God; and before it can be forgiven by Him– or rather in the very act in which it is forgiven, as part of the very process of forgiving—HIS sense of its reality must be declared. This is what is done in the propitiation, and it is in proportion as we appreciate this that the Divine forgiveness appears an unspeakable gift.”
Denny’s appeal to those of his own generation who opposed any concept of propitiation (understood too often as appeasement) is touching: “I have wondered whether they had ever had the experience of being truly forgiven for a real wrong by a fellow creature.” He then proposes a “thought- experiment” leading us to imagine how a man might sin against his wife’s love in a way that wounds her nature and her heart at a depth he cannot comprehend. After a while, if there is no reconciliation, he begins to forgive himself, seeing no point in continuing his humiliation, his wife being a reasonable person who would let bygones be bygones and go on as if nothing had happened. But what if something quite different, more wonderful takes place. “There is such an experience as a real reconciliation, in which the offender does not forgive himself but is forgiven”. Denney raises the provoking question: What is the peculiar difference between this experience and the other? “The center of the passion by which sin is overcome is seen to be not in the sinner, however deep his repentance may be, but in the purer and diviner spirit which has borne his sin and is forgiving it.” (Judging by the way Denney concludes his reflections, one may be forgiven for thinking he is speaking out of personal experience: my own heart has been thus transformed.) “If this is a true analogy, can anyone think forgiveness is easy, a thing that needs no explanation, and to which the idea of propitiation is irrelevant? I can believe that it is possible for the love of a wife to pardon things in her husband that broke her heart, but I cannot but believe that just in proportion to the purity and the divineness of her nature must forgiveness come out of an agony in which it is would not be amazing if she suddenly fell down dead.”
Have we not touched here the deepest secret of the Atonement, and found a clue as to how the Gospel is to be preached in our time so as to recover its heart-changing and life-transforming power? “Real forgiveness– forgiveness by another whom we have wronged, and in whom there is a love which forgiveness reveals, able at once to bear the wrong and to inspire the penitence through which we can rise above it– is always tragic; and it is tragic on both sides-to him who has borne the sin which he forgives, and to him who stoops with a penitent heart to be forgiven. What the propitiation stands for is the divine side of this tragedy. It is tragic for God to forgive – a solemn and awful experience for Him; just as to be forgiven is tragic- a solemn and awful experience for us. This is the truth which underlies all the New Testament teaching about propitiation. To evade it, or let it fall into the background, is to pluck the heart out of the Christian religion. It is to stifle praise in the birth, and cut devotion at the root.”
I have written this lengthy essay out of a double-edged concern: Concern on the one hand for my fundamentalist/evangelical brethren in their apparent apathy, superficiality and complacency, compounded by their unwillingness or inability to think seriously about the relative impotence of the gospel being heard in their churches; concern on the other hand for my modernist – liberal friends among whom I have worked for the last 50 years, in their rejection of “the gospel of the epistles” in favor of the moralisms and sentimentalism of a “non-judgmental God” which demonstrate little power to produce “repentance toward God and faith in Jesus Christ”. I have hoped that my own journey “from faith to faith” would enable me to be a mediator of sorts between these two branches of the Church so radically alienated throughout the “Christian Century”. With respect to the Gospel, the evangelical churches need to give serious consideration to whether the apparent powerlessness of our gospel may be due in large part to its being in thrall to “forensic, legal, and judicial’ conceptions of the Atonement; while the liberal churches, if they are to thrive again, must recognize that the God and gospel of “unconditional love” is unable to produce in men and women today “the mind of God about sin” which alone leads to the repentance and faith of a transformed life arising out of a radical experience of “being forgiven by God in Christ.”
A final word from James Denny: “Paul’s gospel summed up in one word: God who justifies the ungodly”. Under that revelation, what room is there for any pretensions or claims of man? If it be argued that God can only pronounce just, or treat as just, those who actually are just, what gospel would there be for sinful man? “This “ethical”gospel is identical with the Pharisaism in which Paul lived before he knew what Christ and faith were, and it led him to despair, and not the temper of the Gospel. The paradoxical phrase, Him that justifieth the ungodly, does not suggest that justification is a fiction, whether legal or of any other sort, but that it is a miracle! It is a thing that only God can achieve, and it calls into act and manifestation all the resources of the Divine nature. It is achieved through an unparalleled revelation of the judgment and the mercy of God. The miracle of the Gospel is that God comes to the ungodly, with a mercy which is righteous altogether, and enables them through faith, in spite of what they are, to enter into a new relationship to Himself, in which goodness becomes possible for them. There can be no spiritual life at all for a sinful man unless he can get an initial assurance of an unchanging love of God deeper than sin, and he gets this at the Cross. He gets it by believing in Jesus, and it is justification by faith. The whole secret of New Testament Christianity, and of every revival of religion and reformation of the Church is in that paradoxical phrase: God Who Justifies the Ungodly.”