Is our Salvation a Transaction or a Gift?

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QUESTION

I’ve started reading your book A More Christlike God. I’m fully with you. I do get a bit stuck with some of your theological language though. On Facebook, you used the term “transactional retribution.” Can you tell me what you mean by that?

RESPONSE

Yes, on Facebook, I posted this statement:

  • The great “Father’s Heart” revelation continues to face resistance from many of its own esteemed teachers, where it has not yet penetrated their commitment to transactional retribution in their constructs of God, expressed in dogmatic systems of original sin, penal substitution, and eternal conscious torment.
  • So long as these errors persist, they will continue to hinder complete trust in and intimacy with the Father. The most broken parts of us that most need Abba’s love cannot surrender to the loving-kindness of perfect Love if they are taught to believe the same divine being can only be satisfied through violent wrath or eternal torment.

Yes, that was a bit heady. Here’s where I am coming from:

The idea here is that in the Latin West, theologians (trained as lawyers), such as Anselm and John Calvin and even Martin Luther, conceived the Cross through legal lenses and judicial (courtroom) metaphors. So they imagined salvation as a contractual transaction — a legal mechanism that God himself first needed to satisfy so that he could be free to forgive (or he wouldn’t be just).

How far this is from the revelation (of Hosea or Romans 5, for example) that in Christ, God is and always has been free to forgive. The Cross is not a required payment (transaction) but rather a true pardonactual forgiveness.

But it got worse: in Anselm’s model, at least the transaction required was Christ’s perfect obedience. But beginning with Calvin, the transaction itself can only be paid in the currency of *retribution*—i.e., the need to satisfy God’s infinite wrath through violent (defined as doing harm) punishment. This warps the Cross into an act of eye-for-an-eye justice (i.e., legalized vengeance!), where the offense is infinite and so must be the punishment, which can only be exacted through torture and death, physical and spiritual, of the Infinite Son.

This was the logic of penal substitution made popular through John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, J.I. Packer, R.C. Sproul… an ME in my MA thesis (1988).

The problem is that this just isn’t forgiveness. It’s appeasement, which NT Wright says (in The Day the Revolution Began) “paganizes” the gospel.

Thus, It is both transactional and retributive. Teachers in Neo-Reformed movements, such as the Gospel Coalition, not only admits this—they demand it. It is not one among several historical atonement theories. It became their gospel to the exclusion of all others. To disagree is to “preach another gospel” and call one’s Christianity into question.

But I also see it among many of today’s “grace teachers,” whose insistence on God’s grace is still founded on the “perfect sacrifice” of Christ (transaction complete!) rather than “God in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, [freely forgiving,] NOT counting our sins against us. That is, it is NOT Jesus offering a blood sacrifice to assuage the anger of his Father. The sacrifice is that act of costly love in which God offers himself, in Christ, to the world… then even in our animosity, hostility, and violence, nevertheless extends forgiveness to ALL.

Early Greek theologians, by contrast, recognized that the biblical covenants never were legal contracts. They describe God’s spousal relationship with his Bride. So when the wayward spouse was reconciled, the great Bridegroom himself was redeeming her from exile and reconciling her to the marriage in a New Covenant that revealed his unfailing love and faithfulness. She would return home (similar to the younger son in the parable)to the Husband who needs no appeasement, no payment, no punishment. It’s an act of pure grace that wins her heart and a demonstration of perfect love that she willingly and joyfully reciprocates: “We love him, because he first loved us.”

So instead of salvation by a transaction requiring retribution, we have “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” Believing that, we experience the blessed life of the beloved Bride.

For further reading: https://www.ptm.org/salvation-three-perspectives-brad-jersak

BRAD JERSAK

Brad Jersak (PhD) is the author of ‘Can You Hear Me?’ (on ‘listening prayer’). He teaches NT at WTCtheology.org.uk & is senior editor at PTM.org.

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