Trifling with Jesus
Horace Bushnell, the 19th-century Congregational minister from Hartford, along with Universalist Hosea Ballou, and Unitarian William Ellery Channing altered the way many people thought about Christ’s atonement.
Until that time, the conventional view in the church of Christ was God-centred and objective. That is, the sovereign Triune God who created man requires obedience from mankind. Due to man’s fall into sin all are born with original sin and commit actual sin. Due to the infinite nature of that sin, man, who has resisted the overtures of God’s grace, is under just condemnation for it. Death in this unconverted state means eternity in hell. Christ died to save sinners, his death satisfying the divine justice of God, thus removing man’s just condemnation. This is what theologians call the penal, substitutionary view of the atonement.
Bushnell, Ballou, and Channing all thought this a barbaric, uncivilized view of Christ’s death. They doubted or denied the doctrine of original sin and they equated sin with lack of knowledge. They therefore denied the infinite nature of sin, meaning that God would certainly not punish people infinitely by sending them to hell. Their view was that Christ shows the world God’s love for people, that God longs to have people fellowship with him, that by admiring Christ’s death men can be inspired to live such lives of sacrifice, even ridicule, for the good of others.
This subjective, sentimental view of Christ’s atonement is the prevailing view in liberal, New England churches to this day. This view also is prominent in evangelical churches throughout our nation. Does this shock you? I am not saying that evangelical pastors consciously and knowingly preach this subjective, sentimental atonement, but I am suggesting that many do so in practice. It goes something like this, ‘God loves you and wants you to be part of his family and he wants you to live a prosperous and happy life. Come to Jesus for his death shows you how much God loves you and wants to bless you.’ In practice many therefore say, ‘Come to Jesus. He can help you get a date … He can help you feel better about yourself … He can help you become wealthy and buy a bigger house and a motor home … He can help you lose weight and become physically fit …’
I am not denying that God does not help people in many of these things, and I am not denying the glory of God’s love for us, but a focus on these things misses the very point of Christ’s atoning work. The prevailing view today is sentimental and subjective, man-centred, and it caters to the modern American ethos of rugged individualism and self-actualization. I suggest this drives the theology of many evangelical mega-churches in our country. The old idea of a penal, substitutionary atonement which focuses on the objective truth of man’s condemnation and the satisfaction of it by the blood of Christ, is largely unknown today, much to the detriment of those within and without the church.
Bushnell, Ballou, and Channing have trifled with Jesus, and many following in their train have done the same. In the parable of Matthew 22:1ff Jesus tells the story of a king who sends out his messengers to invite people to his son’s great wedding feast, obviously a picture of the wedding feast of the Lamb in Revelation 19. The messengers go out into the surrounding towns, inviting people to the feast, telling them the fattened livestock have been prepared. But the people paid them no mind, they blew them off, they trifled with the invitation. Later we are told that those who would not come were cast into outer darkness. It is a troubling thing to trifle with Jesus. It is a damning thing to alter the teaching of Scripture on anything, especially something of eternal significance like the atonement.
Clearly Jesus has unbelievers in mind who have rejected the free offer of the gospel, who in their smugness and self-complacency see no need for him; but can we not also make an application to those of us who are in Christ Jesus? Are you trifling with Jesus?
What do I mean? Well, consider this analogy. You were a rebel, fighting against the Great King who finally conquered you and your nation. He gave you the terms of your surrender and you willingly submitted to him. He took you in and gave you a place of prominence in his kingdom. He met your every need and then some. He protected you and provided for you and your family, only asking that you serve him unreservedly. You knew that you owed everything, including your life, to this kind, benevolent King. In that context, you found your heart welling up with joy and gratitude for him. You so enjoyed your times of communication with him. You would wait expectantly for him to come to you, and when he wrote you letters you poured over every word, quickly and willingly obeying his every command. You were motivated to make him known to your friends and family members. You never grew weary of speaking of his kindness to you. There were times when you openly wept at his goodness, and when you disappointed him, you were devastated and could not allow the estrangement to go long. You valued his calling on your life more than anything, willingly and freely giving your time, money, and heart to whatever cause he put before you.
However, after being in his kingdom for a number of years, you found that you were increasingly cold and indifferent to his communication and fellowship. You became careless in your obedience to him, more frequently than not saying and doing things of which he disapproved. You no longer were troubled by your disobedience. And then you found yourself, at times, being outright rebellious toward him, consciously and wilfully disobeying him, convincing yourself that he did not care for you or have your best interests in his heart.
Does this presently describe you? Are you trifling with Jesus? Are you paying no attention to his overtures of grace toward you? Perhaps you do not consciously deny the penal atonement like Bushnell, Ballou, or Channing; but do you practically deny it by failing to give your supreme affections to him, by going long periods of time without praying to him, without reading his Word? Do you trifle with Jesus by placing your supreme affections on making money, your family, your hobbies, your next trip?
What are you to do? Marvel at God’s grace to you. How? Remember what you were. You were dead in your trespasses and sins – see Ephesians 2:1-3. You really were headed for an eternity in hell because you were guilty of flagrant disobedience to the One whose eyes are a flame of fire. But he had mercy. He shed his blood for you.
Rev. Allen M. Baker is Pastor of Christ Community Presbyterian Church in West Hartford, Connecticut.
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