Book Review: Change Us, Not God: Biblical Meditations on the Death of Jesus

John Launchbury’s Change Us, Not God: Biblical Meditations on the Death of Jesus (Charleston: WCF Publishing, 2009) presents a fresh analysis of the atoning work of Christ. Although directed to a readership of “active Christians” it is obviously a Christadelphian work and contains clear assumptions about the nature of the Godhead, the non-divinity of Jesus, rejection of a personal devil, scant and impersonal reference to the Holy Spirit, annihilationism, baptism as essential for salvation and even God Manifestation, a background which arguably should have been made more explicit. But it is by no means an “other churches”-bashing exercise, and is written graciously and humbly with obvious reverence for the subject. Nevertheless, the book’s main weakness is that Launchbury’s argument for his refutation of substitutionary atonement rests on his inexplicit non-trinitarian assumptions of the Godhead. He fails to give due credence to the essential connection between a Trinitarian view of the Godhead and substitutionary atonement and has surreptitiously pulled the two apart and attacked a one-legged straw man for an inability to walk properly.

Nevertheless, as a treatise for Christadelphians who already accept those Christadelphian non-trinitarian and God manifestation doctrines, it is a laudable attempt to liberate their thinking from a rule- and works-bound approach to salvation and to present salvation wholly as a gracious work of God toward the undeserving, in which lies the Christian’s assurance. This is a radical and necessary change from the stance of the Christadelphia of my youth, and the more “right-wing,” Pioneer-focused end of the Christadelphian spectrum today. Nevertheless, it does not accurately present the atonement doctrines it critiques and by presenting substitution without its essential link to the divinity of Christ, he critiques and refutes an incomplete and erroneous version of the doctrine.

Whilst appreciating that Launchbury has not attempted to write “an academic treatise in comparative or systematic theology,” he provides little concrete supporting evidence for his assertions on contemporary doctrinal understandings, which is problematic given that what he says about them is not the whole story nor necessarily correct. As a former Christadelphian, now of evangelical persuasion, I have attempted to read the book from both perspectives. I welcome his emphasis on assurance of salvation as a result of the initiative, love and grace of God. I fully agree that atonement is centred on God’s love for us in Christ, that salvation has always been about grace, never works, that Christ is primary and central in everything, supreme and sufficient and that the Law has always been secondary to him. I think Launchbury’s “Constraint triangle” is one of the simplest, yet most profound and helpful theodicies I have read.

Nevertheless, there are a number of specific points of concern with this book. In his introduction, the author states that he wants to study the atonement “away from the metaphors, allegories and symbolisms,” focusing on just the “basic principles.” This is problematic, because the Bible itself presents the atonement using an array of metaphors, allegories and symbols, including ransom, reconciliation, propitiation, justification and adoption. God has chosen these to convey the truths about the saving work of Christ and the atonement cannot be understood without them. Few mainstream Christians with a reasonable grasp of the doctrine of the atonement would disagree that the death of Jesus was intended to change us, not God. That Launchbury sees the need for a whole book to drive home this message is either because he sees it as a novel concept for Christadelphians, or that he thinks this is what mainstream Christian theology teaches. But the idea of a dichotomy between the wrathful, judgemental “Old Testament God” and the loving, merciful, “New Testament God” originated with heretics, not mainstream Christians. An appreciation of the whole corpus of Scripture reveals that the “difference” is not with God, but whether we are viewing God as unreconciled outsiders or as part of his redeemed family. Yet Launchbury evidently believes that the doctrine of substitutionary atonement rests on such a concept of a God who had to be “changed” and that this somehow detracts from his lovingkindness. Nothing could be further from the truth. God’s love was the cause, not the result of the atonement (John 3:16; Rom 5:8; 1 John 4:10). To suggest that Christian theology teaches otherwise is to misrepresent it.

Throughout the book, Launchbury demonstrates an aversion to speaking of the Holy Spirit in the context of salvation. This classical Christadelphian position, along with a number of others, has been smuggled in. This is despite a statement that “we just have to be careful to leave our personal biases at the door” when interpreting the Scriptures. He suggests that “some of the theories about the death of Christ are so widespread that they may be unconsciously taken as fact unless we take the time to notice them, and then re-examine them in the light of Bible teaching.” But many nuances, complexities and doctrinal developments have been swept aside with his premise. I have written a detailed engagement with each chapter of Launchbury’s work, which I am happy to provide to interested parties, but for the purpose of this (longer than usual) blog I will just highlight some specifics and refer the reader to my other blog entries on aspects of the person and work of Christ, as well as the comprehensive works by John Stott, The Cross of Christ (Nottingham: IVP, 1989) and

Launchbury’s brief, dismissive description of the “ransom theory” of the atonement skirts Jesus’ own teaching, saying “whatever Jesus had in mind [by speaking of his death as a ransom] he probably meant his words metaphorically, rather than as a literal description of a transaction that bought our salvation.” He cites as a “proof” verse Psalm 49:7, although that is precisely what Jesus achieved, and underscores the biblical interpretation of his redemptive work. Launchbury’s casual dismissal of Jesus’ self-described “ransom” presents two problems. Firstly, he equates all concepts of “ransom” with one particular view, that of Origen (3rd century) whereas there have been numerous “ransom theories” since. Secondly, he ignores the fact that the Bible unequivocally presents Christ’s saving work as an act of ransoming/ redemption. Not everything Origen wrote is mainstream Christian orthodoxy and the issue with the ancient version of the “ransom” theory is that it suggests that mankind owed a debt to Satan, which is not a scriptural idea. Irrespective of whether one holds to the doctrine of a personal devil, it is clear that humans are captive to sin, not to Satan, and God himself is the one who required propitiation. This is why the ancient ransom theory is not “the” ransom theory, and is not how contemporary Christians uniformly understand redemption.

Launchbury next briefly presents “the” satisfaction theory, as if there has only ever been one “satisfaction theory.” In a sense, the ancient “ransom theory” was a form of satisfaction theory. Another perspective has been the idea of satisfying the Law. Sin is lawlessness (1 John 3:4) and disobedience to God’s laws. But Christ redeemed us from “the curse of the law” (Gal 3:10, 13) because no one can save themselves by their works. Christ fulfilled the law in his complete obedience. In that sense he satisfied the requirements of the law and redeemed us from its curse. Anselm did indeed, in his Cur Deus Homo? exposit the cross as a satisfaction of God’s offended honour, and although he was a man of his feudal times, there is Scriptural testimony to the idea that humans had not rendered to God what is his due (1 Chron 16:29; Psa 29:2; Mic 6:6–8; Mal 1:6–8; Rev 4;11) and the sacrifice which God requires from us is nothing less than our whole selves (Matt 10:37–39; Rom 12:1). As John Stott says, “The greatest merits of Anselm’s exposition are that he perceived clearly the extreme gravity of sin (as a wilful rebellion against God in which the creature affronts the majesty of his Creator), the unchanging holiness of God (as unable to condone any violation of his honour) and the unique perfections of Christ…” There is a lot more to “satisfaction theory” than Launchbury suggests.

Another medieval theologian, Peter Abelard, proposed some similar ideas to Launchbury’s in terms of the subjective influence which Christ’s death has on believers. The subsequent traditions of both the Thomists and Scotists further developed the idea of the demands of God’s justice being satisfied by the cross. Aquinas, writing in the thirteenth century, was enormously influential on later medieval and Reformation Catholics and Protestants, but his ideas are not uniformly followed today. Penal substitution theology certainly has a basis in satisfaction of God’s justice, but to say it simply substitutes a “legal theory” for an “honour aspect” is hardly sufficient. Unfortunately, Launchbury’s brief treatment blurs any distinction between Thomist ideas of substitution, which are linked with Roman Catholic ideas of penitence and the treasury of merit, and Calvinist and other Protestant interpretations of substitution.

Launchbury’s book is largely a refutation of substitutionary atonement, which he defines as follows:.

Substitution is the theory that God had established the law as a Legal Requirement, that sin legally requires death. Under this legal requirement, once we sin we are automatically destined for death as a legal imperative, one that not even God can simply move aside. Christ then died in our place (as a substitute for us) so that God’s legal requirement could be met, without us having to die for our own sin.”

He contrasts the satisfaction theory (Christ obeying were we should have obeyed) with substitution (Christ was punished where we should have been punished). The legal aspect of substitutionary atonement is clearly a biblical principle, however it is an oversimplification to present satisfaction and substitution as a dichotomy. Also, he oversimplifies and fails to do justice to the spectrum of metaphors and explanations of the atonement we find in Scripture. It is not “either/or” but “both/and.” Christ’s obedience and the imputation of his righteousness to those united with him go hand in hand with his bearing our sins and bringing about our justification, but Launchbury’s brief treatment is not nuanced enough to allow for this

Launchbury presents a story, which he calls the parable of the circus, to “explain” substitutionary atonement. In it one brother, who is to be rewarded with a trip to the circus, gives his place over to his naughty younger brother who was to be punished by staying home. Launchbury asserts that this is how many mainstream Evangelicals view the atonement; Jesus steps in and makes an offer to the Father that he will die instead of us. This will satisfy God’s justice and let sinners go free. Jesus has paid the price. In once sense Launchbury is right; this is a highly simplified, in-a-nutshell, evangelical-in-the-street understanding of the atonement. But in terms of theological depth and breadth it is on a par with “We must have faith and trust in God,” or, “God wants us to be kind to each other.” Absolutely true and vital to remember, but hardly all there is to know about the Christian life.

More worryingly, Launchbury omits what is implicit in the evangelical understanding, which is crucial to seeing substitutionary atonement as a powerful and loving work of God and not a mere shifting of blame in a parody of justice. The missing and critical aspect is, evangelical Christians believe Christ to be the incarnation of God himself; Christadelphians do not. When Christadelphians think of Jesus substituting for us and taking our punishment, they see a gifted man (albeit the Son of God) who was fully human but not divine, being unfairly (although willingly) punished for other people’s sins, just like the brother in the circus story. This does not seem at all just, and it certainly isn’t, and this is not what substitutionary atonement means. This is not like Judah offering himself in Benjamin’s place (Gen 44:33). This is God himself becoming incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, taking on full humanity and doing for us what NO mere human being, however Spirit-filled, could ever have done. The Saviour had to be human so that he could fully represent us, conquer sin by his obedience, in the very flesh in which sin normally reigned (Rom 8:3), and so that he could physically die. But the Saviour also had to be God, because only God could carry the sins of the world and destroy the power of sin. Only God could be fully righteous. This is the love of God for us in all its awesome glory. God did not delegate the salvation of the world, his own arm wrought it (Isa 59:16). As John Stott explains,

It is God himself who in holy wrath needs to be propitiated, God himself in holy love who undertook to do the propitiating and God himself in the person of his Son died for the propitiation of our sins. Thus God took his own loving initiative to appease his own righteous anger by bearing it in his own self in his own Son when he took our place and died for us. There is no crudity here to evoke our ridicule, only the profundity of holy love to evoke our worship.”

The Christadelphian view of Christ is never really made explicit for someone who is not already familiar with Christadelphian teaching to identify in Launchbury’s book. This is a fatal flaw, because he critiques the mainstream view of substitutionary atonement from the Christadelphian perspective on Christ, not from the mainstream, Trinitarian concept of Christ. This is just as invalid as critiquing a Christadelphian doctrine of, say, eternal life, by assuming they had an Origenist conception of the immortality of the soul (which they don’t!) When Christ is presented as a mere man in the way Christadelphians understand him to be, of course substitutionary atonement appears unjust and seems to make little sense. One’s view of Christ necessarily informs one’s view of the atonement and vice versa, but this is never clarified by Launchbury. For mainstream Christians, substitutionary atonement is a work of the Triune God, and correspondingly,  the Triune God is revealed in his work of redeeming his fallen creation. You don’t have to agree with a person’s theological position to make the effort to understand them on their own terms and from their own perspective, but it is an ignorant discourtesy to disagree with and publicly critique something that you misrepresent. It is difficult to accept that Launchbury does not realise that most “active Christians” for whom he supposedly writes would be Trinitarian, and yet gloss over this essential difference throughout his book. Alternatively, if he assumes that his readers are  mainly Christadelphians, or have at least some sympathy with the biblical monotheist position, then he is perpetuating a state of ignorance in his presentation of what the proponents of substitutionary atonement actually believe, which is either highly naive or deceptive. Launchbury’s assertion is that substitution is unjust, because it punishes the wrong person. But God is not being unjust in so substituting himself; he is displaying love at its most magnificent extent.

The second assertion is that the penalty is wrong; the penalty of sin is death itself, separation from God, not the mere process of dying. The problem here is Launchbury’s assumption that Christ experienced no separation from God. That is not what most Christians understand. As Christ suffered on the cross, bearing the sins of humanity in all their disgusting, evil foreignness to him, he cried to his Father who had for a time forsaken him (Matt 27:45–46; Psalm 22; Isaiah 53). That was the horrific suffering that Christ endured, above and beyond the unspeakable physical pain which was common to sufferers of crucifixion. This was the cup he dreaded as he prayed in the garden. The Christadelphian understanding of eternal life also underlies Launchbury’s assumptions that Christ’s penalty was not the “true” penalty for sin and that the Giver of Life himself has imparted a different sort of life to his followers, one that is discontinuous (contra John 11:23–26; Luke 23:43).

Launchbury’s third assertion is that substitution leaves no room for forgiveness. Not so; God has chosen to provide forgiveness to all who call on the name of the Lord Jesus and become united with him. It is inaccurate to say that because the debt has been paid there is no need for forgiveness. This assumes that the debt is paid by someone other than the one to whom the debt is owed; a third party. Rather, forgiveness is possible because God himself, the one who is owed the debt, has paid it, which IS the process of forgiveness. God himself wears our debt to him. A third party is not involved. How is that not forgiveness?

The fourth assertion is that substitutionary atonement equates with universalism. Scripture is quite clear that it is only “in Christ” that we receive the benefits of his dying on our behalf, even though the offer is made to all (Luke 24:47). Calvinists and Arminians alike agree that there is no salvation other than through the saving name of Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12). Christ’s sacrifice is not efficacious for those who reject him, who are not “in Christ.” Launchbury himself equates substitution with universalism by assuming that Christ has earned salvation on behalf of all sinners. But just because Christ’s sacrifice is big enough and efficacious enough to cover the sins of the whole world (John 1:29), does not mean that all accept the offer (Matt 7:13–14, 21; Luke 10:16). If a sinner is not united with Christ by accepting him as Lord and Saviour, he or she does not receive the benefits of Christ’s work (Acts 2:21, 38; Eph 1:7; Col 2:13; 1 John 2:12). It is incorrect to equate substitutionary atonement with universalism, just as it would be incorrect to assert that Launchbury’s claim that God “just forgives” means he forgives everyone universally.

Launchbury’s fifth assertion is that substitution blames God for the problem, not sinners. Incorrect again; substitution does not put the problem on God, but on us, in our helplessness. However, it does attribute the solution to God, not to humans. While we were weak and helpless, unable to save ourselves, Christ died for us (Rom 5:8). Once again, an inadequate view of Christ makes him a third party, stepping in to help God out of a dilemma, as Launchbury incorrectly claims. Instead, with substitution, the solution lies completely with the grace of God. “The real purpose of the death of Christ was not to change God, but to change us,” says Launchbury, and that is EXACTLY what substitutionary atonement provides. God is not changed in the process; the atonement was the result of his love, not its cause. God always intended to intervene in his fallen creation and redeem it. God has always been fully in control of the situation. John Stott does use “problem” language in the sense of how a holy God can justly pardon sinners. But the answer that “he just does,” is inadequate; this would be unjust, out of keeping with God’s righteousness. But this “problem” was never a dilemma for God; in his eternal purpose the Lamb was slain from the foundation of the world. The answer lay not with a third party, but with God himself, “that he might be just (righteous) AND the justifier (one who makes righteous) of those who have faith in Jesus” (Rom 3:26). John Stott identifies this crux of the matter:

Was [the substitute] just a man? If so, how could one human being possibly — or justly — stand in for other human beings? … [we are] to think of Christ neither as man alone, nor God alone, but rather as the one and only God-man who because of his uniquely constituted person was uniquely qualified to mediate between God and man. Whether the concept of substitutionary atonement is rational, moral, plausible, acceptable, and above all biblical, depends on our answer to these questions. The possibility of substitution rests on the identity of the substitute… We must not, then, speak of God punishing Jesus or of Jesus persuading God, for to do so is to set them over against each other as if they acted independently of each other or were even in conflict with each other… The Father did not lay on the Son an ordeal he was reluctant to bear, nor did the Son extract from the Father a salvation he was reluctant to bestow.”

Salvation is multifacted, wholly a work of God, with a common substitutionary thread linking all aspects. Christ took our sins upon himself, as Isaiah 53 makes explicit; he is the fulfilment of the Old Testament sacrifices and of the scapegoat.  “Substitution is not a ‘theory of the atonement,’” explains John Stott. “Nor is it even an additional image to take its place as an option alongside the others [i.e. justification, redemption, etc]. It is rather the essence of each image and the heart of the atonement itself.”

Launchbury proposes two reasons for Christ’s death; to change us, and to perfect Jesus himself. The first of these is true, but incomplete, for there so much rich and detailed teaching in the Bible about sacrifice, covering for sins, Passover, ransom (redemption) reconciliation, propitiation, justification and adoption. Why so much emphasis on the blood of Christ as the means of accomplishing each of these? Of course the sacrifice of Christ is meant to change us; that is the essence of the New Covenant in his blood, shed for the remission of sins (Jer 31:31–34; Luke 22:20).

The second reason Launchbury proposes comes from the Christadelphian perspective; the idea that Christ needed to die to redeem himself. If Christ is viewed as merely a man, that makes some sense, but it cannot be grafted on to an accurate understanding of the substitutionary atonement, for it is fully at odds with it, and with the Scriptural presentation of Christ. Launchbury then moves on to the startling conclusion that “the actual physical death of Christ released no metaphysical principle of salvation,” in other words, “no abstract principle of legality, honour or payment, or anything else, was a barrier to God being able to forgive us.” He sees the death of Jesus as a result of “natural cause and effect.” But Scripture uses quite powerful language to attribute a great deal to Christ’s death (Rom 5:9; Eph 1:7; Col 1:20; Heb 9:12; 10:19; 13:12) and that the cross was nothing short of the central defining act in God’s purpose with creation. Launchbury concludes that Christ died “to inspire us, to encourage us to be different, and to show us the path in which we need to walk,” and “he died to give up his flesh.” The first is a watery and incomplete shadow of the profound descriptions of the atonement we find in the Bible and does not do justice to all Christ underwent for us. The second is simply untrue. Yes, of course we need to be changed by the death and resurrection of the Lord. Of course it is meant to bring about a change in us, not in the completely consistent, righteous, holy and loving God who is the same yesterday, today and forever. But in his concern to be both radical and conservative, to appeal to a mixed readership and supply a much-needed corrective to a traditionally negatively-focused and works-based view of salvation, it is clear to me that despite some extremely helpful insights, overall Change Us, Not God has missed the point.

 

References from John Stott’s The Cross of Christ taken from pages 157-192 and 236. see also pages 131-156 for more detail on the historical views.

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