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Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Sin and the Need for Radical Surgery

Sep 15, 2010

When one’s sickness is severe, and one’s condition is terminal, then the need for radical measures is clearly called for. Any doctor knows that: the more radical the illness, the more radical is the needed cure. It is the same in the spiritual life. The more severe our spiritual disease, the more radical the remedy will have to be.

The Bible makes this clear from cover to cover. Sin is such a radical spiritual ailment that only the most radical solution will avail. Sin is so malignant, damaging and devastating, that a realistic diagnosis of the problem is the first requirement to achieve spiritual health and well-being.

But sadly many will never appreciate the cure, because they have a deficient understanding of the problem. We fail to see just how serious the sin issue is, so we fail to appreciate the great lengths God had to go to, to make provision for our sin.

Indeed, with physical ailments, if we get the diagnosis wrong, we will not seek out proper treatment. We will think we can get by with superficial remedies and cures which cost us little. But if we have a terminal condition, such as many forms of cancer, only a most profound and often painful treatment will do us any good.

It is the same in the spiritual arena. Until we realise the real nature of our sinful condition, we will never avail ourselves of the necessary measures to bring about wholeness. And the biblical view of sin is ruthless and savagely honest. Consider a few passages which speak about our spiritual condition without Christ:

Is 64:6 All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
Jer 17:9 The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?
John 3:18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son
Rom 3:10-12 As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.”
Eph 2:1 As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins
Eph 2:3 Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath.
Eph 5:8 For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.
Col 1:13 Who has delivered us from the power of darkness, and has translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son

Given such a damning indictment of our spiritual state, we are of course in desperate need of radical measures to get us out of this state. Yet we will always prefer band-aid solutions and superficial remedies. That has always been the case. Consider what Yahweh said about Israel’s leaders through the prophet Jeremiah:

“They have healed also the hurt of the daughter of my people slightly, saying, Peace, peace; when there is no peace” (Jer. 6:14; 8:11, KJV). This is the way the NIV translates the Hebrew in both passages: “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.”

The word translated ‘hurt’ or ‘wound’ can also be rendered ‘breach’. There was a serious breach between God and his people, but the religious leaders wanted to whitewash this, paper it over, and pretend it was no big deal. But it was and is a very big deal indeed, one which is life-threatening.

Unless radical surgery is performed soon, the patient will die. But the false prophets simply want to proclaim peace when there is no peace. They are deceiving God’s people into thinking everything is just fine when in fact things are at a critical stage.

We all tend to be like that with physical injuries. We don’t want to go to the doctor and get a realistic appraisal. We hope that things are not too serious, and that this ‘minor’ injury will simply heal itself. We deceive ourselves, and pretend everything is fine when in reality we may be in a perilous condition.

And if we do trot off to the doctor, we hope that he too will agree with us. We hope he will say what we want to hear, that the injury is only slight, and nothing radical is needed to deal with it. But while we may hope the doctor will go along with our deception, what we really need is a doctor willing to tell us the hard truth.

Indeed, what kind of doctor would lie to a patient and tell them they are just fine when in fact they are facing life-threatening wounds? Such a doctor would be expelled from the profession for gross malpractice. Yet just as in Jeremiah’s day, so too today, we have religious leaders telling their people that all is well and that everything is just fine.

Instead they should be telling their flocks that they must be on guard for spiritual wounds which will get worse, unless radical spiritual surgery is undertaken. But sadly far too many modern preachers would rather tell their people what they want to hear instead of what they need to hear. They are guilty of gross spiritual malpractice.

Just as Israel’s false prophets and shepherds were judged by God for proclaiming a false message, so too religious leaders today will be judged by God when they fail to offer a correct spiritual diagnosis, and instead seek to ‘dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious’.

As the noted missionary to India Amy Carmichael once said, “If I am content to heal a hurt slightly, saying ‘Peace, peace,’ where is no peace; if I forget the poignant word ‘Let love be without dissimulation’ and blunt the edge of truth, speaking not right things but smooth things, then I know nothing of Calvary love.”

Commenting on this passage, Philip Graham Ryken said, “This is the ‘Big Lie’ of liberal theology – that God does not punish sin. Liberal theology tries to reassure people that everything is okay, even if everything isn’t okay. . . . Prophets ought to be surgeons of the soul, correctly diagnosing the spiritual condition of God’s people. In Jeremiah’s day surgery was needed, but the prophets turned out to be quack-doctors; they did no more than apply a tourniquet.”

And as he says on the Jer. 8 text: “More than anything else, failing to take God seriously is the problem with the contemporary church. We trivialize the holiness of God, so we end up with a trivial view of sin. We trivialize the majesty of God, so we end up with trivial worship. We trivialize the truth of God, so we end up with a trivial grasp of his Word. We trivialize the judgment of God, so we end up with a trivial appreciation for the atonement of Jesus Christ.”

George Whitefield said this in a sermon on the Jer. 6 passage, “As God can send a nation of people no greater blessing than to give them faithful, sincere upright ministers, so the greatest curse God can possibly send upon a people in this world is to give them over to blind, unregenerate, carnal, lukewarm, unskilful guides.”

Lord, please send us scrupulous and honest spiritual doctors, not phonies who will lead your people astray.

[1250 words]

18 Responses to Sin and the Need for Radical Surgery

  • An excellent, timely message, Bill. Thank you.
    Samia Sedhom

  • Bill, you are sadly, correct exactly.

    How I wish it were not so.

    My deepest concern is however that far too many “shepherds” are in this category for our own good.

    Enough I suspect to endanger the health of the whole spiritual community, and therefore, the wider nation.

    And the ramifications of this are felt across every social issue. Beyond the immediate details fo the particular issue, these concepts underlie most debates on ethical subjects.

    In Jesus,
    Stuart Reece

  • Bill,
    Unfortunately you are SOOOO right…

    But the BIBLE does say it will go this way no?

    Blessings
    Scott Nailon

  • Thanks Scott

    Well, yes and no. In the case of Jeremiah things were indeed grim, with Yahweh even telling him that the people would not receive his message. Yet he was to go ahead and preach the word anyway. And that he did for at least four decades! That is perseverance!

    Today it may be somewhat different. Sure, there are some warnings about end time apostasy and the like found in the NT. But we are also called to exhort and encourage one another, to fight the good fight, to seek for God’s best, and so on. So we need not be fatalistic here in this regard. Let us work and pray as if we can and will turn things around. (And trust God for the results!)

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thankyou Bill for fighting the good fight,

    I may be wrong, because in my church at least, the message and the sermons are getting tough. It seems the wishy washy and the feel good lies are but a distant memory in my church. Yes things are changing and not a minute too soon.

    Each week i pray for our minister and thank him for his message and each week he looks at me and says your the only one who seems to like this hard line.

    Like you said before Bill, were living in Sodom. This is bad and now the Atheist Gillard. We have had it to easy in this country but as Jesus did say, trouble will come.

    Daniel Kempton

  • Another well-thought, well-written and well-discerned Word Bill.

    Spot on. Thanks

    Paul Evans

  • Thanks again, Bill.
    The scope, wisdom and depth of your comments are what we need to hear in these evil times. It is a pity our church leaders do not speak up more on these matters.
    God bless you, mate.
    Paul de la Garde, Sydney

  • Many thanks Paul and Paul!

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Dear Bill, Malpractice disqualifies a physician or surgeon from medical practice. In the eternal realm, it disentitles him, debarring him, from handling the precious Truth.

    I presented a study on the same awesome subject- SIN – on the Lord’s Day. Preparation was tough, exhausting.
    I trust your appreciative readers pray for you endurance and composure handling heart-wrenching themes.

    Thank God He was made sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in HIM.

    The study is on http://www.biblestories.stellaris.com.au

    Harrold Steward

  • Tears in my eyes say it all to me, there is a truth in your message that calls for tears. What can I do? When we spoke of God’s judgement and death our Asian congregation said we were cursing them, we were only to speak of heaven. The Asian culture will not allow you to speak of hell. One doctor left our church because we taught both good and evil and that the gift God gave us was choice. He did not want his child to know about the devil. Thank you Bill that you do not accept the status quo. Others have said to me we make it too easy for people to become Christians, but thankfully we were able to have a reunion of old Chinese and Taiwanese friends and I see God has a remnant there. Thank you for faithfully bringing us the word in season. It resonates loudly here in Brissy. Even for one we will soldier on!
    Ilona Sturla

  • Hi Bill,
    Its good to see that you have bought this topic up. I have been doing a fair bit of reading around the net, and this seems to be a theme that is being repeated time and time again.
    Clearly God is trying to wake up his Church.
    Even where I go to Church this subject has been brought up.
    Alas many who play church will go to hell believing that they are going to heaven. I can’t think of anything worse.

    ..give diligence to make your calling and election sure… (2 Pet 1:10).
    Jeffrey Carl

  • Good article, Bill.

    We must also remain diligent with the truth that before God could perform radical surgery on us for our sin, He first had to perform radical surgery on Himself because of the effects of our sin on Him; namely, it arouses his holy indignation. The nature of this surgery was that he inflicted his wrath on Himself (in the person of His Son) on the cross so that it would no longer stand against us.

    I appreciate you noting in your previous article D.A. Carson’s critique of N.T. Wright’s theology in Collected Writings on Scripture (2010). Wright is one of the trendy modern theologians who are intent on watering down the Bible’s teaching about the wrath of God and denying the substitutionary atonement. These are core truths of the evangelical faith; it is tragic to see men of Wright’s reputation and influence denying the very heart of the Gospel message. The road to theological liberalism has been trod time and again with disastrous consequences for the Church; truly there is nothing new under the sun.

    Jereth Kok

  • Hi Jereth,

    I do agree to some extent with your post. N.T. Wright has perhaps understated the importance of wrath in his “big picture” exposition of scripture. However, I think that it also overstates the case. For example, you suggest that Wright actually dilutes the Bible’s teachings on divine wrath. He may not focus on it to the degree some others do (and he can be criticised for it), but to go on to say that he has watered it down because he is apparently one of those “trendy” theologians who cannot stomach the notion of a wrathful God does not square with what he as written. In his article, “The Cross and the Caricatures”, he quotes approvingly from the 1938 Anglican Doctrine Commission Report which argues that divine wrath is a necessary presupposition of any proper Christian understanding of forgiveness (of sin, presumably). In that same article, he briefly argues that Jesus’ ministry should be seen in the context of Isaiah 40 and beyond, especially Isaiah 53. He then argues (as he did in “Jesus and Victory of God”) that the cross should be seen in that scriptural context, and that with Isaiah 53, you get “not only a substitutionary death but a penal substitutionary death…” (from the article).

    As I said Jereth, I do agree with you to some extent. But I think your argument does not weigh seriously enough all that Wright has written on the subject.

    Scott Buchanan

  • Scott,

    Thank you for your response.

    My view is that NT Wright poses a danger mainly because he lacks the kind of clarity and straightforwardness that we should expect in a pastor/teacher figure. So, while in some places he might make remarks that sound quite orthodox, in others he will say things that are vague and questionable at best; and all done in such a way that it is frequently very difficult to pin him down.

    One might argue that Wright is a scholar first and a pastor second, and that scholars are typically vague and enigmatic in the way that they communicate; but given Wright’s wide influence as a pastor and teacher of the Church, I do not think that is acceptable.

    In a similar vein I do not think that it is satisfactory that Wright might defend himself by saying “you need to weigh what I have said today against everything I have ever written on the subject”. Pastoral clarity demands that he speaks the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth at every juncture. His views are being received not primarily by the Academy (which has the time and inclination to read everything he has written over the last 30 years before making an assessment of his orthodoxy) but by the Church, which needs a clear and truthful message now, today.

    I cannot claim to have read many of his writings, but based on what I have gleaned, Wright is on very dangerous ground. He clearly sympathises with the views of Steve Chalke and is not comfortable with the traditional penal substitution view of the atonement. He prefers to see the cross as a place where Jesus absorbed upon himself the oppressions and injustices of humanity without suffering under the wrath of his Father.

    Wright has openly and publicly objected to the Reformation understanding of justification. He does not accept the view taught in Scripture and expounded by Luther and Calvin that individual believers are credited with the perfect righteousness of Christ by faith in him. He interprets the doctrine of justification in heavily social justice terms.

    Perhaps none of this would be particularly alarming but for the fact that we can look back to the early days of 20th century theological liberalism and recognise that the kinds of things Wright is saying now are very little different from what they were saying then. Theological liberalism begins with subtle questioning of divine wrath, penal substitution and the “legal fiction” of justification; a decade or two later it matures into outright denial of all of these core Christian doctrines.

    Another important thing to note is that in the early days of liberalism, evangelical terminology is used despite the fact that underlying definitions have changed. So I would be cautious of feeling reassured simply by seeing Wright use the term “penal substitution”. He may not mean what you and I mean by that term; indeed, judging by some of the things he has written, I strongly suspect that he means something quite different.

    Jereth Kok

  • Thanks guys

    I have around two dozen of Wright’s books and am well aware of some concerns about him. Believers in the Reformed camp are especially bothered by some matters, such as his views on justification in general and imputation in particular. For what it is worth, this is what Carson says (in the same book I quoted above):

    I know Tom Wright affirms substitutionary atonement: I have heard him defend it, from Romans 8:3-4. Yet the massive story of Israel is replete with sacrificial references – e.g., to Passover, to the slaughter of bull and goat on yom kippurim – which are then explicitly said to be fulfilled by Jesus in the New Testament. Yet not a word on this from Wright….

    But the debate continues. Back in 1999 Carey Newman edited a collection of articles assessing Wright’s position: Jesus and the Restoration of Israel (IVP). And Wright’s newish book on Justification (IVP, 2009) has certainly not put an end to the debates. Indeed, the larger debate between the Old and New Perspectives on Paul continues to bubble along.

    While I tend to side with folks like Carson and Piper on this, the debate is massive and complex, and trying to hear what each one is saying is important. But I don’t expect the debate to go away anytime soon.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Further to what I said about terminology: I would be wary of assuming that when Wright says “substitutionary atonement” he means precisely what reformed protestant theology would understand by that phrase.

    I have been led to believe that he may mean something more along these lines: Jesus took upon himself all the hurts, victimisation, oppressions and injustices that sinful human beings inflict on each other. He took this great burden upon himself, the consequences of all our sins, in our place; he lifted the burden off our shoulders so that we no longer have to bear it, and can be set free; thus our sins are atoned for.

    If this is indeed what Wright means by “substitutionary atonement” (and I welcome further clarification on whether or not this is the case), it is not the biblical doctrine of substitutionary atonement — that Christ was cursed by the Father instead of us; that he was pierced for our transgressions, and the chastisement that brought us peace was laid upon him.

    It is the old distinction between expiation and propitiation: did Christ’s death deal merely with the stain of our sin on a horizontal level, or did it deal with the consequences of our sin on a vertical level; namely, the wrath of God. It is possible to develop a merely expiatory understanding of atonement from Rom 8:3-4 which might suggest that this is why Wright is comfortable using this text. On the other hand, the sacrificial system emphasises the vertical, propitiatory aspect of atonement. Does Wright’s reluctance to talk about this aspect of atonement reveal something about what he really thinks?

    As you say Bill, the debate is not over. I suspect that in another 5-10 years time it will be clearer where Wright really stands on all of these issues; and judging by the direction that the ship appears to be sailing in at present I would wager that he will end up well and truly outside the evangelical reformed camp.

    Jereth Kok

  • Thanks Jereth and Bill,

    You both make valid points.

    Three things are stopping me right now from responding:

    1. I’d have to sit down and look intently at what Wright has written, which will probably take more time than I have.
    2. If I do manage to do that and write a post, it’ll likely run to several hundred words (far too long for this forum).
    3. It’ll no doubt take the conversation in a direction that is far removed from Bill’s original article.

    Just one thing Jereth. You suggest that when Wright uses the phrase, “substitutionary atonement”, he may not be using it in a Protestant Reformed sense. Now, this well may be true, but the issue is not whether Wright’s views (on this or any other matter) line up with what the Reformers taught. The real issue is whether what he says is faithful to the biblical witness. I think we have to remember that whilst we will forever be in the Reformers’ debt, we should not think of their readings of scripture, or their theological formulations, as infallible.

    And I must confess my own bias towards Wright, partly due to the fact that a few years ago – when I was on the brink of giving up the Christian faith – I stumbled upon Wright’s website. His essays and articles constituted one of the main reasons why I still count myself a passionate follower of Christ. So please forgive me if I sometimes step in to defend him (not that his being wrong on an issue would somehow impair my own faith though!).

    Blessings,
    Scott Buchanan

  • Thanks Scott

    You are right on all three points. And I obviously have a high view of Wright for the most part, given that I have two dozen of his volumes (then again I have three dozen of Carson’s!). But the debate is quite complex, and as you rightly point out, as much as we are indebted to the Reformers, they were not infallible, and Scripture must be our ultimate authority. So there will always be ongoing discussions of some of these key issues.

    As to the NPP, in addition to Sanders, Dunn and others, we must recall that Wright often differs with them. As to critiques of the NPP, a few obvious volumes to pursue would be:

    Kim, Seyoon, Paul and the New Perspective: Second Thoughts on the Origin of Paul’s Gospel. Eerdmans, 2002.
    Piper, John, The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright. Crossway, 2007.
    Stuhlmacher, Peter, Revisiting Paul’s Doctrine of Justification: A Challenge to the New Perspective. IVP, 2002.
    Waters, Guy Prentiss, Justification and the New Perspective on Paul. Presbyterian and Reformed, 2004.

    Also the 2-volume set:
    Carson, D.A., Peter O’Brien and Seifrid, eds., Justification and Variegated Nomism: Vol. 1: The Complexities Of Second Temple Judaism. Baker, 2001.
    Carson, D.A., Peter O’Brien and Seifrid, eds., Justification and Variegated Nomism: Vol. 2: The Paradoxes of Paul. Baker, 2004.

    It is a big discussion with much complexity, and will likely continue for quite some time.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

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