God the Redeemer

Bible study for CEEC Residential  11 January 2017

In Luke 1:68 St. Luke records some words spoken by Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, which sum up concisely the message of Scripture as a whole. These words are: ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people.’

Who is God? He is the Lord God of Israel, Yahweh, the one true triune creator God. Why is he blessed?  Because he has visited and redeemed his people.

If we ask when and how God has visited and redeemed his people the Bible gives us two answers. First, God visited and redeemed his people when they were in captivity in Egypt, delivering them from Egypt and bringing them through the sea and the wilderness and back to the land promised to Abraham. Secondly, God then executed a further and more comprehensive act of redemption to which Zechariah refers in which he fulfilled the promise of universal blessing made to Abraham (Genesis 12:3) by delivering people from all nations from sin and death and bringing them safely through the wilderness of this world to the destination which life in the land of promise prefigured, namely a right relationship with God and citizenship in the new Jerusalem as described in Revelation 21-22.

Scripture tells us that the reason why God needed to execute this second act of redemption is because something went horribly wrong with the human race after God’s act of creation.

According to Genesis 1 and 2 God created human beings to live as his people in the good place he had given to them and in obedience to his good will for them. As the homily on ‘The Nativity and Birth of our Saviour Jesus Christ’ in the Second Book of Homilies comments ‘Was not this a full, perfect, and blessed estate? Could anything else be well added hereunto or greater felicity desired in this world?’  However, as the homily goes on to say, according to Genesis 3 this ‘blessed estate’ did not last:

‘But, as the common nature of all men is in time of prosperity and wealth to forget not only themselves but also God, even so did this first man Adam: who, having but one commandment at God’s hand, namely, that he should not eat of the fruit of knowledge of good and ill, did notwithstanding most unmindfully, or rather most willfully, break it, in forgetting the strait charge of his Maker, and giving ear to the crafty suggestion of that wicked serpent the devil. Whereby it came to pass, that, as before he was blessed, so now he was accursed; as before he was loved, so now he was abhorred; as before he was most beautiful and precious, so now he was most vile and wretched, in the sight of his Lord and Maker. Instead of the image of God, he was become now the image of the devil; instead of the citizen of heaven, he was become the bond slave of hell; having in himself no one part of his former purity and cleanness, but being altogether spotted and defiled; insomuch that now he seemed to be nothing else but a lump of sin, and therefore by the just judgment of God was condemned to everlasting death.’

Furthermore, Scripture declares that the fall of Adam did not affect Adam alone, but all subsequent human beings as well. As St. Paul tells us in Romans 5:12 ‘sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned.’ If we ask what the death is to which St. Paul refers, the answer is it is what St. Augustine in The City of God calls ‘total death’ the alienation of the soul from God, the death of the body, and the ‘second death’ referred to in Revelation 20:14 in which soul and body suffer together for ever in eternal damnation.

That is the bad news. The good news, the gospel, is that in God’s second act of redemption Jesus Christ came as the second Adam and undid the harm that the first Adam brought into the world. To quote St. Paul again:

‘…as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous. Law came in, to increase the trespass; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.’ (Romans 5:18-21)

As St. Paul goes on to say, the way in which the redemption achieved by Christ becomes effective for our salvation is through our dying and rising with him as baptised believers. Listen to what he says in Romans 6:3-11:

‘Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.’

What these verses tell us is that our fallen nature was slain in the death of Christ in order that we might have liberation from the domination by sin which our old nature necessarily entails.  Christ’s death thus brings together God’s judgement and God’s love. The cross is an act of God’s judgement in that on the cross the penalty for sin, namely death (Genesis 3:3, Romans 6:23), is carried out on us as sinners in the death of Jesus Christ, our representative and substitute. Our sinful existence has no right to exist before a holy God and is therefore brought to an end. It is at the same time an act of love since the purpose of this judgement is to destroy our enslavement to sin in order that we might become free to be the people God intends us to be.

This is a point made forcefully by Martin Luther in his Lectures on Romans. Commenting on Romans 6:3, Luther builds on the teaching of St. Augustine by noting that in Scripture there is alongside the eternal death suffered by the damned another form of eternal death that is a ‘very great good’. This is the form of death that took place in Christ:

‘It is the death of sin and the death of death, by which the soul is freed and separated from sin and the body from corruption, and the soul is united by grace and glory with the living God. This is death in the strict and proper sense of the word (for in every other death some mixture of life remains, but not in this one, in which there is nothing but life itself: eternal life). It is only this death that the conditions of death fit absolutely and perfectly; whatever dies in it, and in it alone, vanishes entirely into everlasting nothingness, and nothing ever returns from it (indeed it inflicts death also upon eternal death). Thus sin dies, and also the sinner when he is justified, for sin does not ever return, as the apostle says here: ‘Christ dies no more,’ etc. (Romans 6:9). This is the principle theme of the Scripture. For God arranged to take away through Christ whatever the devil brought in through Adam. And the devil brought in sin and death. Therefore, God brought about the death of death and the sin of sin, the prison of prison and the captivity of captivity. As he says through Hosea: ‘O death, I will be thy death; O hell, I will be thy bite’ (Hosea 13:14).

It was this death – the death of death and the death of sin – that was undertaken on our behalf by Christ through His death on the cross. Our sins are no longer a barrier between us and God, because in Christ our sinful existence has been brought to an end. It is a closed chapter. That is why in St. Matthew’s account of the death of Christ the curtain of the Temple is torn in two and the tombs of the saints are cracked open (Matthew 27:51-53). Sin and death, which barred access to God and kept the saints in their graves, have been done away with by the death of Christ.

Because we have been liberated from sin through the death and resurrection of Christ it follows that we have an obligation to no longer live a sinful life. To quote Romans 6 once more ‘Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. Do not yield your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but yield yourselves to God as men who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.’ (Romans 6:12-14).

If we move on from Romans 6 to Romans 7 and 8, we are then taught that living out the freedom from sin which Christ has won for us is not something that we can achieve in our own strength, but is something that is made possible by presence of the Spirit of the risen Christ within us. At our baptism we are not only given a new life, but the Spirit as the power to live that new life. It follows, according to St. Paul, that we are called to live not according to the ‘flesh,’ that is the fallen nature we inherited from Adam, but rather according to the Spirit. This is because ‘to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace’ (Romans 8:6).

All this is relevant to the overarching issue which we are considering at this residential because according to Scripture one of the works of the flesh is sexual immorality in both its heterosexual and homosexual forms (Galatians 5:19). Conversely, living in accordance with the mind of the Spirit in obedience to the will of the God who created us involves either sexual fidelity within marriage or sexual abstinence (1 Corinthians 6:9-7:40).

It is for this reason that, as Guarding the Deposit argues, the current debate about sexual ethics within the Church of England is a matter of fundamental importance.

The Church of England is faced with what is at heart a very simple binary choice.

Is it going to go in for what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called ‘cheap grace’ and teach that same-sex sexual relationships and even same-sex ‘marriages’ are acceptable in the sight of God and by so doing encourage people to live in ways that are according to the flesh and which will result in eternal death? Or will it teach, as the Christian Church has always traditionally done, that living the risen life given to us by Christ in the power of the Spirit means that we need to ‘put to death’ (Colossians 3:5) all forms of sexual immorality, however fundamental these may appear to be to our happiness in this world?

As Guarding the Deposit notes, Evangelicals in the Church of England also face a further choice. If the Church of England as a whole does decide to go the wrong way on this issue and does begin to teach people that it is OK to engage in sexual immorality than how should they respond?  Should they leave the Church of England or should they seek some way of maintaining a faithful witness within the Church of England in order to have the opportunity to continue to try to convince people that they need to live by the Spirit and therefore put to death the deeds of the flesh?  If the latter option is a legitimate one then what structural form is required in order for a faithful witness to continue?

It is these issues, which arise directly out of the witness of Scripture to the truth that God has visited and redeemed his people,  that we need to wrestle with at this residential and to continue to wrestle with in the month and years ahead.