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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Original Sin? ( Re-thinking the doctrine of 'Limited Atonement' )

Would it be correct to use the word 'limited' in pertaining to any characteristic of God? I think that most of us, when it comes right down to it, would answer that question with a resounding 'No'! Why then, do some of us ( I was one ) choose to limit God's power of atonement, the extent to which His Son's blood covers sin? I believe Jesus shed His blood to cover the sins of His people, but that begs the question, 'who are His people?' We can say, for Scripture says that we will know them by their 'fruits' ( Matthew 7:16 ), that since certain people do, while others do not, exhibit that 'fruit' in a life of loving, trusting obedience, and communion with God and His people, that the former group is His family, and the latter group is not. Most Christians, I believe, feel fairly comfortable in, if not precisely saying this, at least living this way.

In the sense then, that Jesus died for the sins of His people; you could say ( almost ) that this atonement was limited, but can we really, with our finite knowledge and understanding, limit Jesus' atoning power by applying it only to a certain group, and even defining that group?

A good friend called me late last night with a question that apparently had been bothering him for quite some time. That question was, in other words, maybe, 'why does God choose some for faith ( to believe ), and not others?' That is a good question, as I told him, but is it really that simple? Man has the ability to choose for himself, whether to obey God or to disobey God, to serve his own selfish lusts ( wants, desires ), or to serve God and His Kingdom; as Jesus put it in Matthew 6:33, to 'seek first the Kingdom of God'. The language of Scripture, especially as we read it in our own language, and with our particular Western understanding, seems to say that God has appointed certain individuals to believe, and certain others not to believe, and, as Paul put it, in Romans 9:22, to be 'vessels of wrath, prepared for destruction'. We have been taught for years, especially as Calvinists ( which I used to be ) just that, that God has chosen some for 'heaven' and others for 'hell'. Without going into a long explanation here of the realities, or should I say, the truths, about each of these; I will suffice to say that, for many Christians, these words have a different meaning than I believe they do!

I hold the position, as I told my friend, that God is Sovereign, over all, but that man is also responsible, and not only responsible; he is able to respond to God's Covenant. He is entirely responsible for the choice that he makes, and bears the consequences, for there are consequences, either way, of the choice he makes. If, through the wisdom and understanding given him by God ( Genesis 2:7 ), he chooses to obey God, and keep His Covenant, His Word; he will reap the blessings of that Covenant ( Deuteronomy 28:1-14 ), but if he chooses, through his own wisdom and understanding, to disobey God, and to disregard His Covenant, he will reap the curses involved ( Deuteronomy 28:15-68 ). Many believe that this covenant is not confining unless one verbally agrees to, and enters into it, but I believe that Scripture teaches, and this may be a subject for a different article, that all created beings, into whom God 'breathed.........the breath of life' ( it is not recorded that God did this to any other animal ) are in Covenant with their Creator, whether they want to admit it or not, whether they realize it or not!

Of the many doctrines that have been called 'orthodox' for the past few millenia, or maybe just centuries, the doctrine of 'Original Sin' has been possibly one of the most basic, most taken for granted, and largely misunderstood. For this reason alone; it is also one of the most needful doctrines for re-examination, especially in light of the ( re ) emerging truths of Fulfilled Eschatology and Covenant Creation. Covenant Creation is based, quite simply, upon the idea that Adam and Eve were not the first humans ever to inhabit planet earth, but were merely the first human beings with whom God chose to establish His Covenant. If this is true; it should be to us a worthy cause for re-examination of this troublesome, and much questioned, doctrine. Admittedly, Scripture does seem to say, in more than one place that Adam's progeny did inherit the penalty of his sin, which Paul, again, says is 'death' ( Romans 6:23 ), but, besides the fact that it ( 'Original Sin' ) is a man-made doctrine, and should be therefore considered questionable, this is also where Fulfilled Eschatology comes in. Since Jesus returned how and when He promised His disciples He would, and referring again to Paul's statements, such as, 'For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive' ( I Corinthians 15:22 ), it is clear that, as the progeny of God in Christ, rather than the children of Adam; we are not born under the curse that Adam incurred upon himself and his spiritual descendants, but are born into the spiritual blessing of relationship with God. It is now, as always, up to us how we respond to those blessings and cursings!

When Adam sinned, in the Garden, according to orthodoxy, he unwittingly unleashed a curse upon his entire progeny, a curse, which according to most, has not yet been lifted because, according to many Christians, Jesus did not return when He said He would. Much of the fault here lies in physicality, the idea that the primary focus of the curse was a physical one. 'Yes', they will say, 'the spiritual effects of the curse have been reversed, but that physically speaking, the creation itself has not yet been redeemed. This is gnostic to the core, and is itself, a reversal of how it should be understood! Ephesians 1:3, 'Blessed [ be ] the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly [ places ] in Christ', cannot be refuted, and to my knowledge, has never been tried. This is the reversal of the curse; when Christ paid the penalty for the sin of His people ( Matthew 1:21 ) through His death on the cross, and subsequent resurrection; He reversed the spiritual effects of the curse upon Adam and his progeny, redeeming them from the death of Adam, which most will, however grudgingly admit, was not of a physical nature. Sadly, many of these will still tell you, or at least act as if physical death was a part of the curse. Again; it is gnostic to purport this, as any biology major, even common sense, will tell you that biological death is merely a part of biological life. Man was not made to live ( biologically ) forever; man was born to die!

( I am not a biology major, nor even really a student! )

Was the sinful, rebellious nature an effect of the curse, that everyone is now born with, until such time as one accepts Christ? Having already, in essence, partially answered this question; suffice to say that our sinful, rebellious nature was not an effect of the curse! 'But', you might argue, 'Paul wrote that 'through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned'! Yes, he did, but he also wrote that 'death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam'. Paul made a parenthetical statement between these two statements, reminding them, and us, that 'until the law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law'. If their sin was not imputed to them, why were they still consigned to death? Obviously, the penalty for Adam's sin had nothing to do with physical death! The sin of Adam, which God promised would bring death 'in the day that you eat', unarguably did not bring physical death in that day, but in that very day, Adam, who was used to 'walking in the garden' with His Creator, was ousted from the Garden, and cut off from access to the Tree of Life, or the Presence of God. This was a symbolic separation from the blessings of the covenant, and so was, in essence, covenant death.

Does this whole idea of 'Original Sin', that has been passed down from father to son ever since Adam passed it on to Cain ( how did Abel escape? ), have any merit, then? I believe if we look at it honestly; we must answer that question with a resounding 'NO'! When Cain's sacrifice was refused, back in Genesis 4, and he became angry; God's response ( note well, that God, even though they had sinned, was still with them ) was, 'Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire [ is ] for you, but you should rule over it'. Several things to note here; God expected Cain to do right, because He knew that Cain could make the right choice if he wanted to. God knew very well why Cain was angry, and it was not because he had inherited his father's sin nature! ( Okay, in a sense he had, but it was more like he had inherited his father's fiery temper, if anything ) He did not offer the wrong sacrifice, or offer a right sacrifice wrongly ( with a wrong attitude ) because of some sin nature that he had inherited from Adam. His sacrifice was not accepted because he chose not to offer the acceptable sacrifice, as did his brother. Abel was obviously able to make the right choice, so why him and not Cain?

The whole idea that Adam was created perfect, and that he was perfect until the day he sinned is ridiculous! If Adam was created perfect; how could he sin? Why did he make the wrong choice, if he was perfect? 'Well' you might say, 'Satan tempted him, and he fell'? That's what the Bible says, right? Well, sorta, but James told his readers that 'each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed'. Eve did not eat the fruit because Satan told her to; Eve bit into the fruit because she chose to, because 'she saw that the tree [ was ] good for food, that it [ was ] pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make [ one ] wise'. It is true that we can be influenced ( tempted? ) by outside influence ( 'here, try this' ), but if we do not actively make the choice to do whatever we are tempted to do, we will not do it; it's that simple!

 Going back into the history of Israel ( I AM speaking primarily of Israel according to the flesh, although as typical of, and related to the Israel of God, this may affect us as well ), it can easily be seen how the choice of Adam, and the subsequent bad choices of his progeny, steered their course, going through many trials and tribulations, and eventually ending with their total and complete destruction. There are numerous different passages, Romans 9:22 among them, that seem to point plainly to the fact that those who disobeyed God, under the old covenant were 'fated' to do so, even predestined by God. ( don't get me wrong, here: I am not denying the fact of predestination ) I do believe that the wicked were and are predestined by God to suffer the eternal consequences of their thoughts and actions, and that the righteous are predestined to enjoy the fruits of theirs, but is it right, or fair, to say that God has individually chosen certain people to be disobedient to the heavenly vision, while others have been chosen to receive the Gift of eternal Life? Taking into account what we've studied so far, would it not be more correct to say that God has chosen to eternally bless those who have chosen to live in covenant with Him, while those who continually refuse to do so are damned to a lifetime of suffering and pain ( again; please don't get me wrong, I'm not speaking of physical pain and suffering here ), after which, if they continue in their hard-hearted rebelliousness, they are finally and forever separated from God?

Adam had a choice, Cain had a choice, Ishmael had a choice, Esau had a choice, etc., etc., and we can go on and on! Aside from Cain, who I'm sure was obedient at some point in his life; all those listed above were blessed by God at some point in their lives: when they were obedient! Is it not the same for us today? Although maybe not to the same extent, for there is no doubt that Christ fulfilled the requirements of the law written in stone ( the letter ):  if we are obedient to the Covenant, and remain in fellowship with Him; we reap what we sow, the blessings He has ordained for those who love Him, but those who continually blaspheme, and refuse the sacrifice He made, will reap what they sow as well, the curses that He has stored up for  those who hate Him! Even as followers of Jesus, we often fail in our high calling, and we usually suffer the consequences when we do ( physically speaking ), but like Paul told Timothy, 'If we are faithless, He remains faithful; He cannot deny Himself.' ( II Timothy 2:13 ) If we do not continue in our unfaithfulness, and repent of our misdeeds, our transgression, we know that He has been 'faithful and just to forgive us [ our ] sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness'.

Obviously, a certain group of people were predestined for either the blessing or cursings of God's Covenant, but I believe that it is as clear ( obvious ) that individuals were not predestined in this way. Yes, God knew from the beginning, for He IS omniscient, that certain individuals would choose their separate ways, but was it because of this foreknowledge that He predestined them? Did God not rather predestine the corporate Body of believers, those who kept His Covenant, to receive the blessings of that Covenant, and the corporate Body of Adam, or Moses, those who did not keep His Covenant, who in fact refused it, and sentenced themselves to death ( 'Let His blood be upon ourselves and our children' ), to inherit the curses of that Covenant?!

The atonement that Christ made almost 2,000 years ago, is, in the corporate sense then, limited to those who do make the choice to follow Christ, but in the individualistic sense in which the adherents of the doctrine of 'Limited Atonement' look at it; we cannot say, I believe, that God's atoning work through Jesus our Savior was limited.

With the admonishment to be a Berean, and to prayerfully study these things for yourself, I am;

Your's in the love of God,
and in the Kingdom of Christ,
Charles Haddon Shank

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