Paul's Gospel: Part 4, Power and Atonement

What is revealed to Paul on the road to Damascus is that salvation through mere human effort--zeal for God's law--is impossible. Human nature, being mere sarx, is weakened by sin and death making us unable to obey God's commandments. Consequently, we break God's commandments and come under condemnation. 

Christ died and was raised to save us from this predicament. And this salvation has both ontological and forensic aspects.

When I say salvation has ontological aspects, I mean that our reality is changed. The furniture of our existence is rearranged. The cosmos is fundamentally altered. 

In Paul's gospel, the world changed because of Easter and Pentecost, Christ's defeat of death and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. These are intimately linked in Paul's gospel:

If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. (Rom. 8.11)
Through the Spirit we are able to overcome death. Relatedly, the Spirit strengthens sarx, making us responsive to the will of God:
For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. (Rom. 8.13)
In short, the empowerment given through the Spirit is central to Paul's gospel, for it is the Spirit that saves us from the sarx/sin/death catastrophe. We were stuck in ontological quicksand, and the Spirit pulls us out. Salvation comes by an infusion of God's very life. No longer merely sarx, our very nature and reality is changed. 

That salvation is ontological, that we are rescued via the Spirit from the powers of sin and death, goes to Christus Victor aspects of salvation. And yet, salvation also has forensic aspects. Again, our moral incapacity brings us under the condemnation of the law. We stand under a curse. Consequently, Christ not only rescues us from our ontological predicament, he also takes upon himself the curse that stood over us. As Paul describes in Galatians:
For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them...” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree." (Gal. 3.11, 13) 
Relatedly, since the blessings of God come to those who obey God's law, and we were unable to do so, Christ came to satisfy the requirements of the law on our behalf:
For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Rom. 8.3-4)
Since we could not follow the law, weakened as we were by the flesh, Christ accomplished on our behalf "in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us." 

The point, again, is that salvation also has forensic aspects. The curse of the law needed to be dealt with, along with fulfilling the righteous requirements of the law. Christ deals with both of these, becoming a curse for us and fulfilling the law when we could not. We accept Christ's work on our behalf through faith. Christ accomplishes what we could not accomplish on our own.

I have one more post to say a few more things about Paul's gospel, but I want to suggest that this is the core of it. And what I think is important to note, in reflecting on Paul's gospel, is how both Christus Victor and forensic dynamics are at work. Typically, in the atonement debates Christus Victor and forensic visions of salvation are pitted against each other as an either/or. But for Paul's gospel, it's not an either/or, it is a both/and. 

Salvation is both ontological and forensic. Ontologically, the Spirit rescues us from the sarx/sin/death catastrophe. Forensically, Christ deals with the curse of the law and satisfies the requirements of the law. The gospel is both power and atonement

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