I want you to put on your imagination caps for a minute and imagine this scenario with me: its Sunday of play-off season and your favorite NFL team is about to take the field. Prior to the opening kickoff, the head referee takes the field with a basketball, a full set of hockey sticks and a bucket of paint. He announces that the game of American Football is now to be played on a field one-third the size of the current field, and in order to score points you have to hit the basketball with your stick over the field goal posts. How would you react in this scenario? Would you tell the referee he is completely out of his mind? Would this still be American Football?
This scenario sounds ridiculous, but it is exactly the sort of thing pastors and teachers are doing in the realm of Christianity and theology. We are living in an age where leaders are increasingly creating and encouraging new theologies that completely contradict and undermine the very essence of Christianity and what makes it unique in the first place.
Christianity lives or dies on the substitutionary death and atonement of Jesus Christ. Since I am unable to go into a full excursus here on what substitutionary atonement is, I will attempt to briefly define it. Substitutionary atonement is the doctrine within Christianity that teaches Christ took on the penalty of sin for his people. The Bible teaches that we are all dead in our sins, and that in order for us to be made right with God blood must be shed. It is a theme and idea that is prevalent throughout all of scripture. It shows us that God is a merciful and mighty redeemer who doesn’t abandon us to the consqeuences of our actions. Instead, he comes down from his throne and becomes like us so that he can save us and make all things new. Christ lived the perfect life we couldn’t live, and offered up a perfect sacrifice that we couldn’t offer. He was and is the only one who could and can do it. Christ turns away the wrath of God out of his deep love for us. Without this component, Christianity is no different than any other faith that provides good morals, a way of living, and a way to work ourselves to death (see what I did there?) earning God’s favor. The Apostle Paul himself says that the ACTUAL, HISTORICAL death and resurrection is of “first importance” and without it, our faith is absolutely worthless and we are still dead in our sins (1 Cor. 15:1-18).
Unfortunately, despite the Bible’s clear teaching on Christ’s substitutionary death for sinners, entire denominations are being led away by a different belief. It pains me to write these things about the denomination of my youth, but unfortunately the ELCA denomination is leading the way on this very front. Please understand that I am not picking on any one denomination or person, I am simply citing some of the loudest voices of this movement. They just happen to be localized under one denomination. I also don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water, as I’m sure there are some ELCA churches today that reject these ideas. I desire to point these things out lovingly and graciously, such that people might be warned and see the error of popular teachings today. I don’t just want to be “another one of those bloggers” who picks on small issues; the issue of substitutionary atonement is crucial and necessary to defend.
Nadia Bolz-Weber is an increasingly popular ELCA pastor who likes to use a lot of “F bombs” and describes the 12 Apostles as “a bunch of F* ups” in her new book Pastrix (apparently someone hasn’t read James 3:1-12…). She is one of the leaders on this “new” theology (Which actually means it is an old heresy. In fact, one of the reasons why there are lines in the creeds articulating Christ’s sacrifice for our sin is because it was a public defending of similar heresies at the time.). According to Bolz-Weber,
And just to be clear: The cross is not about God as divine child abuser sadly sending his little boy off to be killed because we were bad and well, somebody had to pay. Because the irony about viewing the cross this way is that the whole thing was about God saying pay attention – don’t avert your eyes from the cross. This this is the logical end of your value system. Here is where it will always end. In the suffering of God.
*To all my credal friends, she would also deny the beloved creeds: “oh my god, nobody believes every line of the creed.”
The sad thing about Bolz-Webers mistaken theology is this: if Christ was not our substitute at the cross because “we were bad” and “somebody had to pay”, then it is THAT god which she has constructed that is merciless, malevolent and unforgiving. If Christ did not willingly and sacrificially lay down his life so that we could be called us friends (John 15:13), then God has officially left us to our own devices. He cannot relate to us (Hebrews 4:15), he does not love us, and he leaves us all to punishment. As much as I would like to say Bolz-Weber is an isolated incident, the fact remains that her teaching is being promoted throughout the entire denomination. Former ELCA Bishop Mark Hanson has this to say about Bolz-Webers teaching:
Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber speaks the truth of our humanity that we too often want to deny.
And, just to emphasize that it is not only coming from leading pastors but also seminary professors, Luther Theological Seminary Professor David Lull says this:
” . . .I can’t get past the idea that God had a thirst for innocent blood that had to be quenched, or that God’s justice required a death-penalty for sinners until Jesus’ death satisfied God’s wrath. Even if Bible passages can be made to support these ideas, I can’t get past the idea that God had been unforgiving before Jesus died. That’s not the God I find in the Bible.”
*I want to note with this above quote that Professor Lull has a severe misunderstanding of the atonement if he believes it teaches that God was unforgiving before Jesus. But that is a subject for another time.
There are numerous errors with these dangerous theologies, too many to discuss in this post. The fact remains, if Christ did not die for the atonement of sinners – then there is no forgiveness of sins. To be clear, if…
…he was not pierced for our transgressions (Isaiah 53:5)
…he did not come to heal sick sinners (Mark 2:17)
…he did not seek and save that which is lost (Luke 19:10)
…he did not die and was not raised from the dead (1 Cor. 15:1-18)
…he did not die for us while we were yet sinners (Rom. 5:8)
…he did not die for the forgiveness of sins (Apostles Creed)
…he did not suffer us men for our salvation (Nicene Creed)
…our sins are not forgiven (Hebrews 9:22)
…we are left to die in our sin (Rom. 6:23)
…we are still whoring after prostitutes and eating from pig troughs (Luke 15:11-16)
…our faith is in vain and we are left in our sins (1 Cor. 15:1-18)
…we have no ability to approach the throne of grace (Hebrews 4:16)
…there is no once-and-for-all sacrifice for sin (Hebrews 7:27)
…we will die to sin and stay dead to it (1 Pet. 2:24)
What do we do with these kinds of statements? What do we do when an entire denomination or popular teachers lead countless hundreds of thousands of people down a path that no longer looks or sounds like Christianity? What does it look like to say that the substitutionary atonement of Christ is nothing more than the evidence of a cosmic child abuser?
It is my conviction that these things need to be exposed and publicized. The Rob Bells, Bolz-Webers, Osteens, and false teachings of entire denominations need to be made public so people know the truth and danger of what they are teaching. We should pray for those who are being led astray, that they might know the great mercy of their Savior. We contend for the faith, as Jude says in his letter:
Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. – Jude 1:3
I leave you with a final plea: please, PLEASE, whenever you hear an idea that sounds new or intriguing about Christianity, PLEASE see if it first-of-all lines up with the Word of God and the history of the faith. PLEASE be careful of what you read and digest. PLEASE ask your pastor if something sounds sketchy. Protect yourself, stand on guard. Stay strong in the faith. Watch out for lions in sheep’s clothing. They are everywhere.