The Biblical Doctrine of Atonement,
contrasted with the Abelardian (Moral Influence) View
The issue of the punishment of the lost is NOT the problem with Dr. Maxwell's view of soteriology. Again let me repeat that I have great respect for him as a person. The issue before us is a matter of what is the meaning of the cross of our Lord from the perspective of the New Testament writers. They clearly believed that Christ bore the guilt and punishment for our sins. The apostles did not believe in the eternal pains of hell fire either but they DID believe that God holds all mankind accountable for their sins and that there will be a just day of reckoning for all sin. Christ clearly taught this in all of His parables. He clearly taught that God will justly require punishment for every sin and every act of evil that men commit. Judgment is real in the Bible.
The real terrible evil of the views of Dr. Maxwell is that in his effort to present a gracious loving God, he has removed the very foundation of God's government, justice and judgment and moral accountably on the Last Day.
Dr. Maxwell's view of forgiveness is amnesty for sinners. The biblical Christian view of forgiveness for sinners is propitiation and atonement. The bible teaches that our debts were not merely canceled by God. The bible teaches that our debts were "paid in full" by Christ's propitiatory offering of Himself on the cross of Calvary. God did not merely waive the punishment we deserve. He, in His own person, bore the just punishment for our sins. He became a sinner in the eyes of the Law for all mankind. He was treated as we deserve that we might be treated as He deserved. The full penalty of the Law of God was satisfied by Christ. This is the meaning of atonement in the old and new testament. The terms of the everlasting covenant MUST be met in order for fellowship to be established with God. God cannot fellowship with sinful man outside of His covenant. This is the meaning of Christ as our Mediator between God and Man. Our mediator, presents His sinless life as the new corporate Head of the race before the holy Law of God. And not only that, He presents His substitutionary death upon the cross as payment in full for all the sins of the world. He has borne our stripes and carried our sorrows. God has laid upon Him the iniquity of us all.
Dr. Maxwell believes that the only consequences of sin are its nature results of violation of Law. He goes to great lengths to try to show that God does NOT ACTIVELY act to punish sin and sinners and that all the suffering of sinners is the merely the natural result of their bad choices. Sort of like a man jumping out of a window (a bad choice) will suffer the natural result of the pull of gravity upon his body and end with a sudden death-inducing splat when he hits the pavement below the window.
This very passive view of the justice of God is not the biblical view. God actively and in judgment supernaturally stepped in to punish Ananias and Sapphira and take their lives. God actively stepped into history and, in judgment upon sin and high-handed sinners, caused the flood to destroy the antediluvian world. The God of the Bible is the dynamic God who acts in history to save and to destroy.
Man in the bible is the fallen head of the created order and yet he is held to moral accountability for his actions. Thus God as JUDGE of the world meets out His verdicts. His decisions are made known in the lives of those whom He blesses and upon those whom He punishes with curses. This is an active, dynamic God who rules and who acts. In Christ, God is the mighty ADVOCATE for His people. He is NOT a mere benign inactive ruler "who neither does good nor ill". He is the vital, dynamic, jealous, mighty to save, redeemer of His people and defender of the innocent. He is a terror to the wrong-doer and all the wicked will tremble at His wrath against those who hurt and destroy in all His holy mountain.
This Biblical description of God is not mere allegory, parable, "anthropomorphism", or what Dr. Maxwell prefers to call "dark speech". This God who acts to punish the wicked is the real God of the Bible. And yet this same God who punishes the wicked is the SAME God who loves the sinner so much that He has stepped down from His throne to take upon Himself the punishment that we deserve and allowed the sword of justice to fall upon His own person at Calvary. His love for the lost sinner is greater than sin. Where sin did abound, His grace did much more abound. Where His own justice demands the life of the sinner, He laid down His own life to cancel and satisfy the just demands of His own Law. Herein is love. Not that we loved God, but that He loved us and gave Himself as a propitiation for our sins. And not for our sins only but the sins of the whole world. Who shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus?
"But now apart from the law a righteousness of God hath been manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ unto all them that believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God; being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: whom God set forth to be a propitiation, through faith in His blood, to show His righteousness because of the passing over of the sins done aforetime, in the forbearance of God; for the showing, I say, of His righteousness at this present season: that He might Himself be just, and the justifier of him that hath faith in Jesus."
This is the gospel of the Bible. Any attempt to mollify or downplay the righteous wrath of God against sin will in the same attempt so weaken the character of God so as to make Him into a passive unmoving God who merely winks at sin and forgives without rending a faithful verdict.
"And Jehovah passed by before him, and proclaimed, Jehovah, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abundant in loving-kindness and truth, keeping loving-kindness for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin; and that will by no means CLEAR THE GUILTY, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, upon the third and upon the fourth generation."
God does not waive the guilty verdict for His people. In Christ, He has taken the guilt and the punishment upon Himself. The sentence of the Judge has been carried out in Christ who has for sin atonement made. What a wonderful Savior. This is the true God of the bible.
The testimony of the bible from Genesis to Revelation is not merely that Man is mistrustful and ignorant of the goodness of God. The problem is much greater than this.
Before God can have fellowship with Man, God's holy law must have its broadest demands met. Before God can indwell us with His Holy Spirit, our debt to the Law must be satisfied. This God has accomplished for us in the sinless life and atoning death of our Lord Jesus Christ upon the cross. Without having accomplished our redemption from the curse of the Law, we would be without God and without hope in the world. The gospel is the message that all that the law has demanded has been met in Christ. Thus Paul could say:
"But all things are of God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ, and gave unto us the ministry of reconciliation; to wit, that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself, not reckoning unto them their trespasses, and having committed unto us the word of reconciliation. We are ambassadors therefore on behalf of Christ, as though God were entreating by us: we beseech you on behalf of Christ, be ye reconciled to God. Him who knew no sin He made to be sin on our behalf; that we might become the righteousness of God in Him."
The "reconciliation" of which Paul speaks is a two way street. Before Man can be reconciled to God, God had to be reconciled unto Man. The just demands of God's Law, which Man could never meet, were met in Christ as the new head of the human family.
For Man to merely "trust" God is not enough. A "gospel" which rejects the forensic propitiation which the sinless life and atoning death of our Lord provided becomes a theology of salvation by works of Man's trust. The fact is that no matter how much sinners are urged to "trust" God, without Christ's having met the just demands of God's Law in our behalf, we could never fellowship with God and have access to His Holy Spirit.
It is only through Christ's mediation of His perfect righteousness for us as our High Priest and Advocate in heaven that we can have our sins forgiven and receive the Holy Spirit as the indwelling presence of God in us to begin to write the Law of God in our hearts and sanctify us. Unselfish love for God and our fellow man is the fruit of the indwelling Holy Spirit which is a gift which flows directly from the throne of God by virtue of Christ's mediation of His righteousness for us before the Law of God. Thus it can be said that after Christ had won victory over sin and the Devil for us, he ascended into heaven and gave gifts unto men in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
The weakness of your view of salvation is that it fails to see the far-reaching depths to which Man has fallen. You fail to see that without the satisfaction that Christ has rendered to God's Law, Man could never have been set right with the holiness of God. Man could never be justified by mere "trust" in the goodness of God no matter how much God revealed His goodness unto us. In fact the more of God's goodness that is revealed to us, the more we recognize our alienation from God and our inability to fellowship with Him.
The demands of the Law had to be met so that "peace" could be declared between God and Man, both Jew and Gentile.
"Wherefore remember, that once ye, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called Circumcision, in the flesh, made by hands; that ye were at that time separate from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of the promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus ye that once were far off are made nigh in the blood of Christ. For He is our peace, who made both one, and brake down the middle wall of partition, having abolished in the flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; that He might create in Himself of the two one new man, so making peace; and might reconcile them both in one body unto God through the cross, having slain the enmity thereby: and He came and preached peace to you that were far off, and peace to them that were nigh: for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit unto the Father."
What are the demands of the Law? The Law says, "Obey and Live". This is the only way that we can live in the presence of God. But the more that we attempt to obey to live, the more we see that our case is hopeless to meet the just requirements of God. And so God, recognizing the weakness and impossibility of our situation, came into the world in the person of His Son and fulfilled the righteousness of the Law for us. Thus under the everlasting covenant all sinners are put right with God through faith in the sinless life and atoning death of Christ our Lord on the cross. It is only by virtue of Christ's cross that the enmity could be taken out of the way so that peace could be proclaimed to both the Jew and the Gentile. Without the satisfaction which the cross paid to the Law, we would have no access to the grace of God. Thus it is that we offer our prayers in the worthy name of Jesus Christ our Lord.
There is no virtue or merit in faith itself. Faith is merely the death deserving repentant sinner looking to Jesus Christ as his sinless substitute and representative in heaven for him. All virtue is in the object of our faith, even the sinless life and substitutionary death of Christ on the cross. Only Christ can present us faultless before the throne of grace by His imputed righteousness.
It is not without good cause that all of the Protestant reformers which you mention confessed their faith in the forensic nature of the atonement as a prerequisite to justifying a sinner and then sanctifying him by the indwelling of the Spirit. This you attribute to an immature understanding of the full truth of the entire Bible. I think that just the opposite is true. The fact that you wish to see this as immature indicates that you fail to see the vastness of the gulf between heaven and earth.
This gulf is not merely a problem of moral and character alienation in the heart of Man. This is the error of the Papacy which sees salvation as a mere need to perfect man's character and heart. The gulf is one of LEGAL separation as well as moral separation. The fact that you ignore or down play the legal separation of the fallen human family indicates that you fail to understand the language of the covenantal means whereby God has redeemed humanity in Christ. Without Christ's having met the demands of the everlasting covenant for us as our "kinsman redeemer" we would be without God and without hope in the world. The Law demands a sinless life before fellowship with God can be effected. This Christ has rendered to the Law for us.
To some these differences seem petty and nit picking. But, as the Protestant reformers recognized, the difference is between Christ and Antichrist. The true gospel focuses on imputed righteousness while all false "gospels" focus on imparted righteousness in the heart of man. Imparted righteousness is never perfect in this life. Only the imputed righteousness of Christ is without spot and able to allow sinners to fellowship with a holy God and receive the infilling with the true Holy Spirit.
Even though we may fail to agree in this matter, I hope that I have been able to lay out those area of Biblical interpretation where we are in disagreement.