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The Centrality of the Atonement

By R. J. Rushdoony
March 06, 2012
For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: but we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; but unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men. ~ 1 Corinthians 1:22-25

The enemies of Christianity have at times charged that the faith, as we know it, was invented by St. Paul. This is said to undermine its historicity but also as an unwilling compliment to Paul. If Paul is, these critics say, the inventor of Christianity, "We don't know who Jesus was. We have only second and third and fourth-hand accounts of Him and Paul was the real inventor of Christianity." If Paul is right, then no man can escape this faith because it is clearly the revelation of God; therefore, Paul must be wrong. So over the past generations, Paul has been the target of an unceasing attack. One would think everything in the gospel was his invention, that even the writers of the gospel were-I have encountered this opinion-individuals who were influenced by Paul. So Christianity was the invention of this renegade Pharisee. Well, if all this is true Paul was a remarkable man. But, of course, it is nonsense.

Paul, in v. 22 says, "For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom." The word "require" has, in the Greek, the meaning of "demand." So you have two groups: the Jews and the Greeks; and they both make demands of religious faith. They don't come to the faith saying, "Here is God's gift to us." They come with expectations. No matter what Jesus said or did, the Jewish religious leaders demanded more. It was impossible for Jesus to satisfy the scribes, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees because they were totally opposed to Him. They wanted a Messiah who would meet their expectations, whereas Jesus required them to meet God's requirements of them.

The Greeks, i.e., Greek philosophers, for Paul is speaking, on the one hand, of the religious leaders in Judaism and, on the other hand, of the intellectual leaders in Greco-Roman thought. These philosophers, Paul says, "seek after wisdom," but only wisdom as they define it and as it is defined in terms of Greek philosophy. Greek philosophy had already decided on the nature of reality, and the God of Scripture did not fit in with their prescription of reality, nor did Jesus Christ. Their predetermined definition of wisdom excluded everything which was not already acceptable to them. This reminds one of what Job said to his comforters, "No doubt but ye are the people, and wisdom shall die with you" (Job 12:2).  Well, so it was with the Greek thinkers. They knew what reality was. They had defined wisdom and nobody was going to introduce anything into the argument that upset their predetermined definition. Thus, we see in Acts 17:15-33, that as soon as Paul spoke of something which by definition they had ruled out, they turned from hearing him.

As against the expectation of the Jews and the Greeks, or, acceptable religion and philosophy, Paul preached "Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness" (v. 23).

For the Jews a crucified Messiah was a stumbling block because their requirement was that He be a world conqueror and ruler. Their messianic expectation was nationalistic and humanistic, not theological. It was Israel-oriented; it did not see the Kingdom of God as basic and central. It was Israel's, not God's Kingdom, they wanted.

For the Greeks, the God Paul preached was "foolishness." The god of the Greeks was not the living God but a limiting concept. Now this is something we must recognize. When people talk about god in various religions and especially in various philosophies, they do not mean by God what we do.

Paul Tillich, who is regarded by many as one of the greatest philosophers of religion of this century and who taught in universities and seminaries, said God did not have existence. He neither was nor was He not. Now, how can you find something between being and non-being? Well, an idea, a limiting concept.

The god of the Greeks was not the living God but a limiting concept. The idea of god was used by Greek philosophers to avoid an infinite regress seeking a first cause because they believed that an infinite regress is impossible. If you said the universe came from God's fiat word, then where did God come from? And where did whatever brought forth God come from and so on, infinite regress. Because they rejected an infinite regress and believed that a starting point must exist, they used the idea of god as the First Cause, but no more, not a person certainly. For them there had to be a beginning, but they didn't want God as the beginning. So they had the idea of an infinite regress, and they simply said, "God is the first cause. That is how things started." But God was not, nor was He. He was a limiting concept, an idea which avoided a philosophical problem.

Modern philosophy now accepts an infinite regress, and so has dropped the concept of a first cause as unnecessary, and it has the idea of the eternal recurrence of things. Everything begins with some kind of spark. It evolves and finally everything breaks down into nothingness, and then it starts all over again.

That is as pessimistic a philosophy as has ever been devised. Of course, it is the essential philosophy of the Far East, of Orientalism.

But for some moderns, the use of God as a limiting concept continues. He is, for them, not a person, but an idea, or an ideal, or a future point in the evolution of the cosmos, as Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit thinker, suggested. The Greek concept thus still survives in some quarters.

But out of both Jewish and Greek communities, Paul says some are called by God into His Kingdom. Unto all such, Jesus Christ is "the power of God, and the wisdom of God" (v. 24), because they seek their definition not from religion nor philosophy but from God's revelation of Himself. And we can only know God truly if He chooses to make Himself known because sin blinds us. Sin prevents us from seeing the most obvious things. God cannot be defined nor known on man's terms, but only on His own. For man to require God to meet the measures of man's reason is arrogance of the most presumptuous kind. In Matthew 12:38 and 16:1 and John 6:30, among other passages, we are told that the religious leaders demanded a sign from Jesus. When Jesus gave them a sign in the resurrection of Lazarus, they at once decided on His death (John 11:47-53).

To the Jews and the Greeks alike, Paul tells us, the cross was offensive in every way. Instead of an omnipotent God, or a very logical Reason manifested, the cross seemed to present a defeated God and His defeated Messiah, a loser in the battle of history. Instead of a sublime power and wisdom, the cross seemed to reveal God as loser, something offensive to both the thinkers among the Jews and the Greeks. In their religious and philosophical intellectualism, they refused to see man's problem, and history's problem, as original sin, as man's depravity. Because of this unwillingness to recognize the noetic effect of sin, that is, the destructive effect sin has upon our knowledge, or to see the extent of man's sin, their expectation of the Messiah was a false one.

Christ's focus was on the atonement, the cross, not on answering the intellectual problems of the leaders of either Judean or Greco-Roman culture. The religious leaders, more than the disciples, saw very quickly that Jesus was not in line with their view of the Messiah. The signs He gave, and John's gospel centers on some of them, were alien to their view of the Messiah and were, thus, no signs at all for them.

The atonement, "the foolishness of God," centers on man's problem, his fall, his sin, his need of atonement, and his need of a Savior. Men in their sin refuse to see sin as a problem; they reject the idea that sin has warped their mind and falsified their judgment. I saw a very fine Christian thinker once challenge some men on this question: "Are you a sinner and has not sin warped your entire perspective?" And their answers were about the same. They admitted they had done wrong. But at heart they were good guys and who should know better than they? So they expected no problems and, if there was a heaven, they saw no reason why they should be excluded.

But God's "foolishness," the atonement or cross, does manifest more wisdom than all man's religions and philosophies are capable of, "and the weakness of God is stronger than men" (v. 25). Not all men's philosophies have been able to cope with the problem of man's fall, man's sin, man's depravity. Rather, they studiously avoid it. This weakness of God, the cross, the atonement, is stronger than men. The atonement, however much despised and rejected of men together with the Atoner, is the only force in all of history that can truly redirect history morally. R. C. H. Lenski translated, "To the Jews a stumbling block" as "to Jews a death trap."

History without the atonement would be an endless tale of horror, a repetition of Towers of Babel, and a cycle of tyranny and slavery without end. There would then be no way of escape in and from history without death.

Even now, in many churches, because of faulty views of God's law and of the atonement, the only way of escape is by death or by a "rapture." There is no victory for them in history.

It is God's law that declares man to be a sinner, and it is the atonement and Christ's regenerating power that makes us a new creation in Him. A new power is unleashed in history because "the weakness of God is stronger than men." The atonement frees men from the burden of sin and death and guilt to make them more than conquerors in Christ (Rom. 8:37).

Without the centrality of the atonement, Christianity always recedes into impotence. Only God's way leads to victory.


Topics: Biblical Commentary, Epistles, The, Theology

R. J. Rushdoony

Rev. R.J. Rushdoony (1916–2001), was a leading theologian, church/state expert, and author of numerous works on the application of Biblical law to society. He started the Chalcedon Foundation in 1965.  His Institutes of Biblical Law (1973) began the contemporary theonomy movement which posits the validity of Biblical law as God’s standard of obedience for all. He therefore saw God’s law as the basis of the modern Christian response to the cultural decline, one he attributed to the church’s false view of God’s law being opposed to His grace. This broad Christian response he described as “Christian Reconstruction.”  He is credited with igniting the modern Christian school and homeschooling movements in the mid to late 20th century. He also traveled extensively lecturing and serving as an expert witness in numerous court cases regarding religious liberty. Many ministry and educational efforts that continue today, took their philosophical and Biblical roots from his lectures and books.

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