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‘Healing the Gospel’—A Review


A fresh wind is blowing through evangelical circles. This coming September the Adventist Forum will present their annual conference in Chattanooga, Tennessee, near Southern Adventist University. One of the guest presenters will be Brian McLaren, a leading figure in the emerging church movement. Recently Dr. McLaren wrote the following in a foreward for someone else’s book: “But no book focuses on the question of what’s wrong with conventional penal substitutionary atonement theory better than this one….” That book, Healing The Gospel, by Derek Flood, is the subject of this review. 

“I was taught that the reason Jesus died was because God demanded that someone had to suffer the penalty of sin, someone had to be punished to appease God’s wrath,” Flood writes on page 2. “What I want to propose is that this is not in fact what the New Testament teaches at all.” 

A blogger at the Huffington Post, an artist, and a graduate of the Graduate Theological Union, Flood may not fit your instinctual picture of a Biblical scholar. But his 108 page book will quickly demonstrate his key insights. The two foundational elements that Flood will come back to time and again are that “’God’s justice’ is restorative justice” and “God brings about true justice, Paul tells us, by making sinners into saints.” 

Flood spends one of his ten chapters investigating the meaning of “salvation”. The dominant paradigm of penal substitution purports to take sin very seriously, but ends up being very superficial according to Flood, “offering a mere legal acquittal that is powerless to heal us of the true damage sin does to us.” The legal view of sin, he tells us, was “largely formed in the Middle Ages” and is meaningfully different from the view of the first 1,000 years of Christianity. He quotes Augustine in support: “Of my own so deadly wound I should despair, unless I could find so great a Physician.” He also draws support from the fact that the Greek word in the Gospels translated as “saved” has the double meaning of “healed” as well. (Compare Luke 7:50 and Luke 8:48.) This concept, he argues, is not confined to the New Testament. In fact, “the concepts of healing and sanctification not only go hand in hand, they are virtually synonymous.”

“The gospel is about healing and restoring sinners. It fights the condemnation of the law in the same way that a doctor fights cancer. That is, the way it overcomes the curse is by healing the cancer in us.”

I submit that this insight should sound very familiar to Adventists. “The very essence of the gospel is restoration and the Saviour would have us bid the sick, the hopeless, and the afflicted take hold upon His strength.” (DA 825) “Christ desires to heal us, to set us free.” (SC 43) “God’s forgiveness is not merely a judicial act by which He sets us free from condemnation. It is not only forgiveness for sin, but reclaiming from sin. It is the outflow of redeeming love that transforms the heart.” (MB 114) More recently the late Graham Maxwell, a prominent SDA educator and theologian, is widely known for similar thoughts. “Friends understand salvation as the healing of the damage sin has done. And sin’s damage, if not healed, is nothing less than fatal.” (Servants or Friends, p. 113)

Flood then takes on the issue of the sacrificial system, and specifically Hebrews 9:22: “The law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” Here Flood points out that the verse itself says that blood is used in a cleansing sense. Therefore, the verse is saying that “without being cleansed with blood, there is no forgiveness of sins. … Fail to cleanse the sin, and regardless of how much appeasement is made, we cannot be in good standing with God because God cannot be bribed into participating in a legal fiction.”
The essence of sacrifice according to Flood “means giving something at great cost out of love.” He insists “There is nothing in Hebrews that indicates that the sacrifices serve to appease wrath through punishment. Throughout Hebrews, sacrifices are described in terms of sanctification and the removal of sin.” Then Flood puts his finger on the sore point: “How does Jesus dying make us holy?” His answer is that “it is not the death of Jesus in itself, but rather the obedience of Jesus – his faithfulness to love – that acts to make us holy.” Once again this might sound familiar within the Adventist context. “The work of Christ in cleansing the leper from his terrible disease is an illustration of His work in cleansing the soul from sin.” (DA 266)

The model that Flood seems to think is better than penal substitute is known as Christus Victor. “Christus Victor is a picture of God in Christ liberating humanity out of bondage from sin, death, and the devil.” He quotes Walter Wink as explaining that this model fell out of favor “because it was subversive to the church’s role as a state religion.” The danger that he sees is in restricting it to a “theory” when it must be understood “as a narrative of restoration, rather than as a legal exchange formula.” The very good thing that he perceives is that Christus Victor widens our view to see that the problem of sin is more than just something at the individual level. “[T]he scope of salvation is much larger than this, entailing not only our redemption, but the redemption of our fallen institutions, societies, churches, families, and communities as well.”

Why did Jesus die? Flood answers this question by writing that the “death of Jesus was not God’s act, it was an act of human injustice. Human hatred, sin, condemnation, and injustice killed Jesus.” Moreover, “God did not demand the death of Jesus…. Jesus chose to love, regardless of the cost, and that way of radical love in the midst of human sin inevitably led to him being unjustly condemned and killed by sinful humanity.” Death by crucifixion was calculated to be extremely cruel, barbaric and humiliating for the victim. That God would die on a cross is therefore a shocking scandal. But focusing on the inevitable suffering (which penal substitution might do) misrepresents the core of what we should take away from this picture. We are called to share Christ’s sufferings, but that “means joining him in radically loving others, especially the least.” This is why “we see on that cross the truest picture of who God is.”

In the Appendix, Flood takes a deeper look at Romans 3:21-25. Those with an interest in the actual Greek words will find this fascinating. What I found of particular interest was his approach to understanding “wrath”. This is important because whatever was happening on the cross is opening the way that we escape the wrath of God against sin. If that “wrath” is God’s human-like anger we may find that this “draws the focus away from our sin, and instead places it on God’s feelings, as if the problem was with God rather than us.” His conclusion is that “Paul describes how God’s wrath consists in leaving us to the consequence of our actions, rather than in God actively punishing us. The ‘punishment’ is for God to step away and let us do what we want.”

Once again we hear an echo of prior Adventist thought that may sound familiar. “God’s wrath, as Paul seems to describe it, is revealed by his turning away in loving disappointment from those who do not want him anyway, thus leaving them to the inevitable consequences of their own rebellious choice.” (Can God Be Trusted?, Graham Maxwell, p. 79)

“Healing The Gospel” is a powerful argument for why the penal substitution model is inadequate, and in fact harmful, for understanding the atonement. What I have not discussed above, but represents a significant part of his book, is his argument that Christians need to become more active in pursuit of justice and standing up for the dispossessed here and now. Clearly the current critique of the  penal substitution atonement model is not limited to this one book, but rather seems to be becoming more insistent in many quarters. Still, I felt that Flood’s book was not as strong as it could be since it did not go far enough in painting its “radical vision”.

Let me briefly mention two additional features that would fit nicely in a fully radical presentation. The first is the rejection of the current reigning paradigm of Hell as a place of eternal conscious torture. Evangelicals are currently involved in an animated conversation on this subject. The second is an understanding of salvation as having an even wider scope than simply sinful human beings on this planet. I look forward to our Chattanooga conference to see how these elements can bring something meaningful to our conversation with Brian McLaren and other evangelicals like Derek Flood who are clearly advocating themes of intense relevancy to Adventists.

Healing the Gospel: A Radical Vision for Grace, Justice, and the Cross is available for about $14 from its publisher, Wipf and Stock, and you can hear the first chapter at no charge in a podcast available through iTunes.

—Ken Peterson is the CEO of Columbia Ventures Corporation and a member of the Spectrum | Adventist Forum board. 

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