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Thinking Out Loud

The Neglected Redemption

by Michael Jinkins | Oct 10, 2017

Neglected RedemptionOne of the great insights of the nineteenth-century Scottish theologian John McLeod Campbell was that the dominant Christianity of his native Scotland had reduced the meaning of redemption merely to a release from the penalties of sin. He called this the retrospective aspect of the atonement in contrast to redemption's prospective aspect.

The distinction he made is crucial. It is one thing to want to be delivered from the consequences of our sin (retrospectively) and quite another to yearn to be delivered from the prevailing power of sin in our lives (prospectively).

This neglect of the full range of redemption is perhaps the besetting sin of the Protestant Reformation (especially as envisioned by Martin Luther). Although John Calvin, a second-generation Reformer, worked valiantly to correct this problem, for centuries his descendants would continue to emphasize the retrospective at the expense of the prospective, especially because of the way this perspective was codified in the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms.

McLeod Campbell, as a young pastor in the town of Rhu, west of Glasgow, even went so far as to question whether it amounted to Christian faith at all just to ask God to save us from hellfire and damnation. If we are only adhering to a set of beliefs in order to save our lives, in the hope that adherence to a creed serves as a kind of everlasting fire insurance, then we are surely missing the core of the teachings of Jesus who taught, "For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it." (Mark 8:35) So said McLeod Campbell.

McLeod Campbell paid dearly for his departure from the Presbyterian orthodoxy of his day. He was tried for heresy and deposed from ministry while in his early thirties, going on to labor for the remainder of his long life, serving the needs of the poorest of the poor in the slums of Glasgow. But he never swerved from his teachings.

According to John McLeod Campbell, God is the ultimate loving parent whose heart's deepest will is for us to share God's own Spirit of love and life. Christ came to earth to empower the children of God to know and to live the love of God, showing us the way of life for which we were intended and sharing with us the Holy Spirit who would make that divine love possible in our own hearts. God does not suffer from a split personality, demanding the satisfaction of his furious anger with a sacrifice of blood to "make" God merciful. Rather, from the heart of the divine parent comes the eternal child of God who lived God's life of love among humanity and was slain by humanity in its fear, ignorance, pride and vanity. In the unjust death of Jesus, we look into the very heart of the triune God. And there we see divine love beyond all measure in God's mercy and refusal to retaliate. In Jesus of Nazareth we also see the life of a human being lived the way God wants us all to live. And we are drawn by the life of Jesus Christ and by the love of the Holy Spirit of God to live the human life for which we were created.

Jesus Christ is not, in McLeod Campbell's view, just a piece of a theological puzzle. Jesus Christ is not just another cog in a theological machine; just another doctrinal ingredient in a vast interlocking system of theological propositions. Jesus Christ is the love and life of God in human flesh. Christ's teachings about the life we are called to live matter as much as the life he lived. And the life Jesus lived matters as much as the divine mission on which he was sent, to unite in himself humanity and God.

The proof, we say, is in the pudding. The life lived by McLeod Campbell argues more eloquently for the faith he held than anything he might have said.

When, at his trial before the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the full force of the most radical interpretation of federal theology within the Westminster Confession of Faith was brought to bear to condemn him, McLeod Campbell appealed to the verse of scripture that many of us learned first as children: "God is love." The point he wanted to make was that God is love, fully and eternally in his being; God does not merely love arbitrarily this person, whom God created to demonstrate his capacity to love, while eternally and arbitrarily God hates that person whom he created for no other purpose than to demonstrate his capacity to punish sin with eternal damnation. But when McLeod Campbell appealed to the Bible, quoting the Epistle of First John, his interlocutors cried foul. It was, they said, out of order to quote scripture at his trial before the General Assembly because the church had previously determined that the Westminster Confession definitively provided the interpretation of what the Bible means.

McLeod Campbell's defense rested in his assurance that God would provide, no matter what his church decided. And when McLeod Campbell was declared a heretic and was deposed from preaching any longer in the Church of Scotland, rather than establish a rival denomination or wage a holy war against those with whom he differed, he simply turned his attention to the needs of others. By living among and serving those in great want, he sought to live the life to which Christ had called him. In those years McLeod Campbell wrote extensively, including what many consider the greatest book on the atonement of his time. And his thought was spread abroad influencing the next several generations of young ministers and theologians in his church, so much so, that before the end of his life, the Church of Scotland officially repented of its action in deposing him as a heretic.

The Protestantism into which many of us were born and which has nurtured us throughout our lives has given us many great gifts. But as we observe this year the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant movement, and as we remember the significance of Martin Luther's great insight that "justification is by grace through faith," often rendered as "justification by faith alone," it is appropriate to remember that this doctrine is not the whole, it is not the entirety, it is not the comprehensive measure of the message of Jesus Christ.

Not only are we released from the consequences of sin (retrospectively) by the grace of God, we also are called (prospectively) to live in the Spirit of Christ as we go forward. The retrospective view of redemption shows us only in part the magnitude of God's grace. To understand the wonder of that grace in full we must look forward, following Christ into the humanity to which he calls us, whatever the consequences may be.

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