Psalm 107 begins with a familiar refrain. “Give thanks to the Lord because He is good, because His faithful love lasts forever (CEB)!” It’s what the redeemed say, Scripture tells us, what those whom God has saved and set apart testify.
And yet as we look further within the Psalter lesson for this Fourth Sunday in Lent we realize that what the redeemed proclaim with their lips is not always practiced with their heart or hands. “Some of the redeemed were fools because of their sinful ways,” verse 17 points out. “They suffered because of their wickedness.” And though “they had arrived at death’s gates (verse 18)” they “cried out to the Lord in their distress, and God saved them from their desperate circumstances (verse 19).” As verse 20 continues, “God gave the order and healed them; He rescued them from their pit.”
Christians proclaim loudly and proudly that “Jesus died for our sins,” and thanks be to God for this gift! But what we mean by that is not always clear. In the first century of the Church many believed Jesus’ death was a payment to the devil. One thousand years later Anselm of Canterbury advanced the notion that Jesus had to pay our sin-debt not to the devil but rather to God. Christ took our place as a satisfaction for the demands of justice so that our sin could be forgiven. This thought was more fully developed into what is commonly understood today particularly in Reformed tradition circles as the penal substitution theory of atonement.
But even early within the life of the Church such a forensic approach was viewed with some skepticism. In arguing against the pagan polemicist Celsus, Origen of Alexandria (writing in the early third century) acknowledged the universal sinfulness of the human race, but equally stressed the universal salvation offered from God to every human being. As he wrote, “All people, therefore, laboring and being heavily burdened on account of the nature of sin, are invited to the rest spoken of in the word of God… [which] healed them and delivered them from their destructions (Contra Celsum 3.63).” And at the end of the 13th century, the Franciscan philosopher and theologian John Duns Scotus furthered the love of God as the theological base for our salvation and redemption, offered freely to all who would believe.
Scotus could not begin with the understanding that God demanded Jesus be a blood sacrifice for our sins, a position which essentially claimed that God needed a payment for sin that even God was forced to pay. To argue that God would not accept fallen women and men unless Jesus died and paid the price for our sins went against everything Scotus understood about love and mercy. God needed payment through a very violent and bloody transaction in order to be able or willing to love and accept His own children? In today’s words we might describe the difference in these understandings of the atonement as the difference between retributive justice and restorative justice.
For Scotus, the incarnation, life, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus was far more than simply a corrective response to human sinfulness. It wasn’t punishment in response to our waywardness. Rather, it was the intent of our loving God from the very beginning of time. It was restoring us to the original plan. As Ephesians 1:4 says, we were “chosen in Christ before the world was made.” God never reacts. God is not passive. God is pure act, and acts only and always from His free and supreme love.
This means that our salvation is not about Jesus changing the mind of God when it comes to us and our sins. It is more about Jesus changing our minds about God and His faithful love that lasts forever.
So when the Psalmist says that “they suffered because of their wickedness” it may be less because of a divine retribution issued from God and more because sin always has consequences and brings about disease and death, sometimes to the body, always to the soul. When God heals us, forgives us, rescues us from the pit, He is demonstrating that His mercy has nothing to do with any economy of merit or sacrifice or reparation on our part. Christ undid “once and for all” (as the letter to the Hebrews so clearly points out) any notions we have of human or animal sacrifice and replaced them with an economy of grace and love.
My Wesleyan theology tells me that the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit saves me from my sins and the consequences of my sins. It is not primarily about saving me from the wrath of God, for God’s wrath is not something I ought to fear because God is love. If I change this starting point, change the understanding of redemption from satisfied wrath to demonstrated love, it changes how I view others and how I live my life. It changes the trajectory of everything! Love is the beginning. Love is the way. Love is the final consummation of it all.
For God does not love us because we are good, because we have done something to warrant being among the redeemed. God includes us among the redeemed because God is love and God is good. He cannot love us more. He will not love us less. And nothing we can ever do will change that. That’s more than reason to “give thanks to the Lord because He is good, because His faithful love lasts forever!”
Pastor, Lansing Central Free Methodist Church
Bruce N. G. Cromwell