Atonement: P.T. Forsyth on the Finished Work of Christ

 

Among all the historic disagreements and discussions on the meaning of Jesus Christ’s atoning death, a pivotal issue is whether the “work of Christ” is a finished work, or whether some level of human participation is necessary to complete it.  One of the theological sins of certain brands of evangelicalism is more of an emphasis on what we do (a conversion, a decision, being born again, etc.) than on what God has already done for us (and for all.)

I ran across this passage in P.T. Forsyth’s Work of Christ in which he parses the issue quite clearly and cleverly, making no mistake that the “work” is finished, but also referencing the role of the Holy Spirit in the church.

“You are afraid of God,” you hear easy people say; “it is a great mistake to be afraid of God. There is nothing to be afraid of. God is love.” But there is everything in the love of God to be afraid of. Love is not holy without judgment. It is the love of holy God that is the consuming fire. It was not simply a case of changing our method, or thought, our prejudices, or the moral direction of our soul. It was not a case of giving us courage when we were cast down, showing us how groundless our depression was. It was not that. If that were all it would be a comparatively light matter.

If that were all, Paul could only have spoken about the reconciliation of single souls, not about reconciliation of the whole world as a unity. He could not have spoken about a finished reconciliation to which every age of the future was to look back as its glorious and fontal past. In the words of that verse which I am constantly pressing, “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself.” Observe, first, “the world” is the unity which corresponds to the reconciled unity of “Himself”; and second, that He was not trying, not taking steps to provide means of reconciliation, not opening doors of reconciliation if we would only walk in at them, not labouring toward reconciliation, not (according to the unhappy phrase) waiting to be gracious, but “God was in Christ reconciling,” actually reconciling, finishing the work. It was not a tentative, preliminary affair (Romans xi. 15).

Reconciliation was finished in Christ’s death. Paul did not preach a gradual reconciliation. He preached what the old divines used to call the finished work. He did not preach a gradual reconciliation which was to become the reconciliation of the world only piecemeal, as men were induced to accept it, or were affected by the gospel. He preached something done once for all–a reconciliation which is the base of every souls reconcilement, not an invitation only. What the Church has to do is to appropriate the thing that has been finally and universally done. We have to enter upon the reconciled position, on the new creation. Individual men have to enter upon that reconciled position, that new covenant, that new relation, which already, in virtue of Christ’s Cross, belonged to the race as a whole . . . The first thing reconciliation does is to change man’s corporate relation to God. Then when it is taken home individually it changes our present attitude. Christ, as it were, put us into the eternal Church; the Holy Spirit teaches us how to behave properly in the Church.  (P.T. Forsyth, The Work of Christ, p 86-87.)

I am struck by the last line.  Would that more people would learn how to behave properly in the Church! I always thought it was a behavioral issue, but apparently it is a theological one as well.

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