Friday, January 28, 2005

When Does Our Union With Christ’s Death Occur? The Ongoing Dialogue on Limited Atonement (Part 1)

I have prepared a four-part response to James White's latest series on limited atonement. I will be distributing these over the course of the next four business days (read, no weekend posts), which will take us into next Wednesday.

Dr. White writes:
Regarding Galatians 2:16-20, I do not see the application made by Dr. Svendsen. Paul's sustauro,omai ("to be crucified together with") is very difficult to understand if, in fact, it is referring to an event years after Christ's death;
I want to make it clear that my prior point regarding the exact point at which the elect are united with Christ in his death is really only incidental to my larger point that only the elect are united with Christ in his death. I do not think holding to the fact that only the elect experience union with Christ in his death necessitates a specific view of just when that union took place. Having said that, I do think the New Testament is demonstrably in favor of experiencing union with Christ at the point of belief, not in eternity past (except perhaps in a predestinarian sense).

Having said that, I’m not sure why viewing union with Christ as something that occurs at the point of belief would be any more difficult to understand than other similar statements Paul makes. Paul asserts that we were “buried with him” at the point of baptism (Col 2:12), that we were “raised up with him through faith” (v. 12). Our being “made alive with him” (our spiritual resurrection) occurred only after we were “dead in our transgression” (v. 13). While it is true that the certificate of debt consisting of the decrees that were hostile to us was nailed to the cross (v. 14), the cancellation of that debt in terms of the forgiveness that is applied to us does not occur until he “made us alive with him” (v. 13).

Hence, when we get to v. 20: “If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world,” we understand Paul to be recapping what he has already explained in vv. 12-14; namely, that all the things we are said to have done “with Christ” are personal applications to us in time and at the point of belief, even though it happened historically to Christ at an earlier point in time. Paul insists that our death “with Christ” was also a death “to the elementary principles of the world”; that is, the “decrees that were against us and that were hostile to us” (v. 14), suggesting there was a period of time when we were subject to these things (i.e., when we were under the law). In other words, our “death with Christ” occurs only after our enslavement to the “elementary principle of the world,” because that death is not only “with” someone (viz., Christ) but “to” something (i.e., decrees that were hostile to us; namely, the law and any supplemental human legalism). That indicates that our union with Christ’s death occurs at the point of belief, not in eternity past.

Paul expands this point in 3:1: “If then you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God,” and he connects this point of “being raised” (which “resurrection,” as we have already seen, occurs at the point of belief, 2:13) with his next point: “For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (3:3).

Paul makes very similar points in his letter to the Ephesians (which is no surprise since he wrote those letters nearly back to back). In Ephesians 2 we are told that our former state was one of sin and hostility toward God. We were “dead” in sin (2:1), we “formerly walked according to the course of this world” (v. 2), we “formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh” (v. 3), and we were “by nature children of wrath” (v. 3), just as the rest of the world. But God, because of his eternal love and mercy toward us, “made us alive together with Christ” (v. 5), and he “raised us up with him” (v. 6).

The question becomes, When did the “making alive with Christ” and the “raising up with him” occur? We know from the context that it was after our “former way of life” (vv. 1-3). We also know that Paul connects these actions with the point of belief: “For by grace you have been saved through faith.” In other words, our being “made alive” with him and our being “raised up” with him are both inextricably linked to the point of belief. Hence, there should be no difficulty at all with viewing our “dying” with him as part and parcel of that event, occurring in time and at the point of belief. That, I believe, is the language of the New Testament.

Dr. White writes:
and note that while Paul is indeed speaking of his life at that time, he has no problem pointing back once again to the clearly substitutionary death of Christ in the words "who loved me and gave Himself up for me."
No, of course he doesn’t; just as Paul, in his insistence that we were “raised with him” through faith, has no problem pointing to the historical reality of the Resurrection of Christ (Eph 1:20). The historical events serve as the basis of our union with him in his “burial,” his “resurrection,” his “ascension,” and yes his “death” (which is presupposed by all the others); and this union occurs through faith.

Along these same lines, it is clear that the non-elect are going to be condemned for their rejection of Christ and his gospel. For instance, 2 Thess 1:8-9 says that Christ will “deal out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. And these will pay the penalty of eternal destruction.” Jesus himself says: “He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:18). In other words, those who reject, disobey and refuse to believe the gospel are judged for that rejection, disobedience and refusal to believe. But if the offer of the gospel does not properly extend to them in the first place, how can they rightly be judged for rejecting it? One cannot “reject” something that isn’t offered to him.

Indeed, what else explains why the non-elect who reject the gospel only after strongly considering it are said to be under a greater condemnation? Peter puts it this way:

“For if after they have escaped the defilements of the world by the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and are overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would be better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn away from the holy commandment delivered to them” (2 Pet 2:20-21).

With this, the writer of Hebrews concurs:

“For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God, and put Him to open shame” (Heb 6:4-16).

As well as . . .

“Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace?” (Heb 10:28-29).

In each case, the person in question embraced Christianity if only for a short while. In each case, the person is non-elect and falls away afterwards. As a result, in each case the condemnation is said to be more severe (“it would be better for them not to have known the way of righteousness,” “How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve . . . ?”). The question remains, Why is the punishment (and by extension the offense) more severe than that of the typical unbeliever? We are told why: The apostates in question have “come to a knowledge of the truth” and then “turned from the holy commandment delivered to them.” That “holy commandment,” of course, is the gospel itself; and that gospel was “delivered to them.” What makes the offense so great here is that they initially embraced the gospel but then rejected it. But that necessarily implies that they were obligated to believe it and to continue in it. As it is, their rejection of the gospel is tantamount to “again crucifying to themselves the Son of God,” “putting Him to open shame,” “trampling underfoot the Son of God,” “insulting the spirit of Grace,” and “regarding as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified”; and, as a result, their “last state has become worse for them than the first.”

But how can they be obligated to believe the gospel if the gospel isn’t extended to them and doesn’t apply to them? Why would they be guilty of a greater crime than others of the non-elect who merely reject the gospel out of hand with no consideration of it? All unbelievers (all non-elect) will be judged for refusing the gospel (2 Thess 1:8-9; John 3:18); but these particular men will undergo a more severe judgment because they actually embraced the truth before rejecting it. None of this makes sense (in the case of either category of the non-elect) if the command to believe the gospel does not apply to them. But if the command to believe the gospel does indeed apply to them, then there has to be a basis for that command in the atonement of Christ.

On Monday I will post part 2 of this series.