Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The self-movement of God

Prozac doesn't work. So said yesterday's headlines. They lead a story that didn't say that. The story was that most people don't need Prozac, because a placebo is at least as helpful to combat their depresssion. Depression, on some scale, is certainly widespread.

Which is peculiar because the evolutionary biologists who killed god, pride themselves on telling us how we're the most advanced generation to have ever lived - seems being advanced isn't a very happy thing. For all our progress we still want to look for meaning. And when they tell us there is no god, we're left to look inside ourselves - to search for the hero within. Except most of us don't have a hero within. Some look outside themselves for discovery and triumph - but most of us can't attain that so we're left to enter the X-Factor and have our mediocrity exposed.

And then along comes the Reformed/Conservative/Evangelical saying 'God not only exists but he's angry with his world'. Hardly comforting! We'd rather hear that god would come and suffer with us or just give us a hug. We're biased by being 21st Century people. This post isn't really about depression, though I'm fascinated by how revealing this week's prozac revelations are. Gear change to how the gospel of Jesus meets this world. It comes offering comfort but get's misunderstood.

The person who wants the hugging god has a problem with a greek word - hilasmos / hilasterion a word that appears in The Bible to describe what the death of Jesus achieved. From the allegations made against the translation 'propitiation' you might imagine no-one has ever thought or wrestled with it, that it was just a careless translation that some wise newcomers have exposed an apparent problem with. John Stott wrote on p113-115 of his BST Romans:

"Many Christian people are embarrassed and even shocked by this word, however, because to 'propitiate' somebody means to placate his or her anger, and it seems to them an unworthy concept of God (more heathen than Christian) to suppose that he gets angry and needs to be appeased. Two other posible ways of understanding hilasterion are therefore proposed. The first is to translate it 'mercy-seat' referring to the golden lid of the ark within the temple's inner sanctuary... Since sacrificial blood was springled on the mercy-seat on the Day of Atonement, it is suggested that Jesus is himself now the mercy-seat where God and sinners are reconciled...
But the contrary arguments seem conclusive. First, if Paul meant 'mercy-seat' by hilasterion, he would inevitably have added the definite article. Secondly, the concept is incongrous in Romans which, unlike Hebrews, does not move 'in the sphere of Levitical symbolism'. Thirdly, the metaphor would be confusing and even contradictory, since it would represent Jesus as being simultaneously the victim whose blood was shed and sprinkled and the place where the sprinling took place.."
Stott observes that to go with propitiation over mercy-seat means departing from Calvin and Luther in this specific translation but no-one said they got everything right. Having considered the mercy-seat translation, and CH Dodd's suggestion of expiation Stott goes on to write:

The main reason [mercy-seat and expiation] are not satisfactory, and a reference to propitiation seems necesarry, is the context... Paul is describing God's solution to the human predicament, which is not only sin but God's wrath upon sin. And where there is divine wrath, there is the need to avert it. We should not be shy of using the word 'propitiation' in relation to the cross, any more than we should drop the word 'wrath' in relation to God. Instead, we should struggle to reclaim and reinstate this language.
Some still object to such a bloody remedy for sin but the necessity of the cross as God's way of propitiating himself towards us shows us quite how serious sin is. We don't need a hug, we need God to deal with the problem of his anger at us, because we can't deal with it ourselves.

When we front up to God and handle his word and the life he has given us lightly we're fronting up to a roaring lion who is rightly wrathful towards us. We imagine we can approach without the blood. We join in 'climbing up to the majesty on high' (Luther) at our peril. By great contrast with all human religion and philosophy God comes to us. He does it all. He acts to justly make himself favourable towards us. And so we may approach, sin-convicted and joining Andrew Bonar in crying not how horrible, but "How Amiable!".

My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

We don't need to look inside, but outside of ourselves. To see God moving toward us, rather than us seeking god inside or to climb toward him. The propitiatory death of Jesus isn't the remedy we think we need for our situation, but that's not least because we're misdiagnosing ourselves.
The Christian doesn't just come saying - God is angry with you, but rather 'You and I alike deserve death from God but he has taken the action so that we can enjoy his favour'. That's taken as granted by most people, but why? On what basis can we presume God would be favourable to us? Only because The Bible says so - and the same book says he's both loving and angry, and that he does all that's required to bring us life. Most people don't need prozac. We all need the gospel.

Mike Reeves on Psalm 42, leaning on Martyn Lloyd-Jones 'Spiritual Depression'

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