Growing in Christ: atonement and Christus Victor
The Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists constitute the church’s understanding and expression of the teaching of Scripture. Any revisions are done by the church in General Conference session. During the 2005 session, the fundamental belief “Growing in Christ,” was accepted by the delegates. This article is a theological reflection on the following belief: “By His death on the cross Jesus triumphed over the forces of evil. He who subjugated the demonic spirits during His earthly ministry has broken their power and made certain their ultimate doom. Jesus’ victory gives us victory over the evil forces that still seek to control us, as we walk with Him in peace, joy, and assurance of His love. Now the Holy Spirit dwells within us and empowers us. Continually committed to Jesus as our Saviour and Lord, we are set free from the burden of our past deeds. No longer do we live in the darkness, fear of evil powers, ignorance, and meaninglessness of our former way of life. In this new freedom in Jesus, we are called to grow into the likeness of His character, communing with Him daily in prayer, feeding on His Word, meditating on it and on His providence, singing His praises, gathering together for worship, and participating in the mission of the church. As we give ourselves in loving service to those around us and in witnessing to His salvation, His constant presence with us through the Spirit transforms every moment and every task into a spiritual experience. (Ps. 1:1, 2; 23:4; 77:11, 12; Col. 1:13, 14; 2:6, 14, 15; Luke 10:17-20; Eph. 5:19, 20; 6:12-18; 1 Thess. 5:23; 2 Peter 2:9; 3:18; 2 Cor. 3:17, 18; Phil. 3:7-14; 1 Thess. 5:16-18; Matt. 20:25-28; John 20:21; Gal. 5:22-25; Rom. 8:38, 39; 1 John 4:4; Heb 10:25).”
The study of the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross is possibly the most enriching and challenging one in Christian theology. The history of Christian thought indicates that the theological depth of that historical event on the cross has stimulated a constant exploration of its content. A variety of theories of atonement have been formulated attempting to uncover the meaning of Christ’s death,1 but none of them has been able to integrate the fullness of its depth. Most of them emphasize how the Cross saves sinners, but they say little about its cosmic significance. Christian theology should never ignore or overlook the fact that on the cross Christ defeated once and for all the cosmic evil powers.2
Christ’s victory over evil powers
As the cosmic conflict began, God granted space and time for the expression of the intent of those creatures that, in misusing their freedom, corrupted themselves.3 This anomaly of sin and evil was allowed in the cosmos in order for evil powers to reveal their true nature and the results of their choices, and to preserve the freedom of God’s creatures and the integrity of His kingdom. The decisive confrontation in that conflict took place on a planet that aligned itself with the forces of evil. The rescue mission became at the same time the deliverance of the cosmos from the presence and influence of evil powers.
Christ as Victor during His ministry.Christ’s victory over the cosmic powers developed along two interrelated confrontations. The first one was through His ministry on earth. Christ became the object of constant attack by the enemy, but He never broke the deep bond of unity that existed between Him and the Father. He overcame every temptation and, by remaining loyal to the Father, overcame in His own life the powers of evil (e.g., Matt. 4:1–11). He was by nature and by personal election sinless (Heb. 4:15; 1 John 3:5). During His ministry on earth, He also liberated those who were possessed by the power of Satan (e.g., Matt. 17:14–18; Mark 1:23–26; 5:1–13). The narratives of demon possessions in the Gospels testify to the fact that the kingdom of Satan was being shaken to its very core by Christ and that it was about to collapse under the powerful presence of the Son of God.4
Christ as Victor through the Cross and Resurrection. The second confrontation was the final and absolute victory of Christ over evil powers on the cross. He was doing this on behalf of sinful human beings who are enslaved to the powers of darkness. Jesus faced the hour of the dominion of darkness and in the process “rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:13, 14).5 Christ went into the realm of chaos and experienced what humans should have experienced in order to deliver them from the power of Satan (Acts 26:18). How was He able to bring deliverance? He battled and “disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Col. 2:15).6 He overcame the cosmic powers!
The phrase principalities and powers7and other similar expressions primarily designate powers created by God through Christ (Col. 1:15, 16) that unexplainably became hostile to God, i.e., Satan and his angels (Rev. 12:7, 8). The language of Colossians 2:15 appears to be referring to the celebration of a Roman military victory. In such occasions there was a triumphal procession during which the defeated enemies were publicly displayed before being executed.8 This image is used by Paul to describe the utter defeat of evil powers through Christ. He came to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8), and through His death He rendered him powerless (Heb. 4:14), casting him out in defeat and humiliation (John 12:31).
Through His death, Christ fixed the ultimate fate of evil powers, and at the Resurrection He triumphantly proclaimed His victory. We now look forward to the end, when He will destroy “all dominion, authority and power” (1 Cor. 15:24). His victory assures believers that they are no longer under their dominion and that therefore they do not need to submit to them. He did not annihilate the evil forces, but He broke their power over the human race, making it possible for anyone to participate in His victory.
Participating in Christ’s victory
Since evil powers are not yet totally divested of their power, they are active in the world tormenting humans9 and seeking to reign again over those who have found freedom in Christ (e.g., Rom. 6:12). The world is still under their power (1 John 5:19), Satan is the god of this world (2 Cor. 4:4), and humans in rebellion against God are still doing his will (2 Tim. 2:26). But those who by faith have been united to Christ are no longer under the control of the evil one. They will continue to be tempted by him, oppressed by him through suffering, and even harassed by him through natural and supernatural means, but believers belong to Christ. Sometimes God in His wisdom allows these things to happen to them, but He strengthens them to remain committed to Him (e.g., 2 Cor. 12:7–9). Perhaps that is why Jesus commanded His followers to pray for protection “ ‘ “from the evil one” ’ ” (Matt. 6:13). The fundamental truth is that the ruling power of evil has been substituted in the lives of His people by the ruling power of Christ, who through the Spirit enables them to appropriate His victory. Instead of being under the power of evil spirits they are now under the guidance and protection of the Spirit of God (Rom. 8:14–17).
Freedom from the burden of the past.The recalling of the past is often characterized by feelings of guilt that tend to diminish the self-worth of a person and that deeply oppress them. Human imperfections are used by evil powers to motivate people to seek peace through submission to them in the form of self justification or simply by walking away from the Lord. Humans have become slaves of their own schemes aimed at gaining acceptance before God. The Hindu and Buddhist concept of karma imprisons humans within a circle that is impossible to break. According to this belief system, reincarnation—as a cycle of birth, suffering, and death—is the process by which human perfection is achieved and entrance into nirvana (i.e., a state of unchanging being) is assured. The memory of the past haunts humans as they in their guilt desperately seek to deal with it while at the same time they feel impotent. Christ’s victory over the powers frees individuals from that burden by offering them fellowship with God through Christ on the basis of His past work of redemption and not of their sinful past. Thus the grip that evil powers had over humans on account of that heavy burden is broken through unmerited forgiveness.
Freedom from fear and meaninglessness. The victory of Christ over evil powers manifests itself in the lives of believers as freedom from fear and from a meaningless life. Christ overcame the one who had the power of death, Satan, in order to “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Heb. 2:15). The search for freedom from fear and from a groundless life characterized by boredom has led individuals to a life of sin and, therefore, to servitude to evil powers. The powers manifest their influence and control over humans through improper ethical and moral behavior. Those who place their lives at the service of sin and rebellion, rejecting the loving lordship of Christ, exist in willing submission to the powers that Christ already defeated. Those who participate in that victory have overcome fear because they, having been justified by faith in Christ, have peace with God (Rom. 5:1) and find their greatest joy in a life of selfless service of love to the Savior and to others.
Freedom from spiritualism. The presence of the Spirit of God in the life of Christ’s followers makes it totally unnecessary to seek the spiritual guides promoted by the New Age movement, or guidance from modern or ancient divination practices, or the protection of the spirits of dead ancestors. The Bible describes those spirits, not as seeking our good, not as the spirits of dead relatives and friends, but as demonic spirits seeking to deceive, oppress, and destroy humans (cf. Rev. 16:13, 14). The reality of those evil spirits is often denied in the Western world, but that does not make them less dangerous. Spiritualism is rapidly spreading throughout the globe, finding in secularism a fertile soil. The influence of those powers will continue to increase as we approach the consummation of Christ’s victory over them. Believers can joyfully live the Christian life resting in the assurance of His love under all circumstances.
Freedom from demonic possessions. Christ’s victory over principalities and powers enabled His followers to cast out demons in His name, but this was to take place in the context of the proclamation of the gospel. The primary task of the church is to fulfill the gospel commission, not to cast out demons. If supernatural spiritualistic manifestations interfere with the fulfillment of that mission, then believers are called to confront them in the name of Jesus. In other words, Christ has shared with His people His power and victory over the powers of darkness to be used in the context of the gospel commission: “He said to them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons’ ” (Mark 16:15–17). In the New Testament, no one is called to a “deliverance ministry,” but everyone has been called to the gospel ministry. That message of salvation enlightens the dark conscience and through the power of the Spirit enables the person to live a high moral life free from the absurdities of fables, myths, and superstitions.
Growing in Christ
Christ’s victory cannot be discussed in isolation from its significance and implications for the daily life of those who have placed their trust in Him. The glorious freedom found in Christ is fundamentally freedom to be what He intended humans to be, namely, reflectors of His image. Humans are servants either of unrighteousness or of the righteousness of God (Rom. 6:13). No one can be spiritually neutral. Jesus told a story about a person who was liberated from evil powers but did not use that new freedom for the divine purpose. The spirits returned, found the heart of the person available, and made the enslavement of the person worse than before (Luke 11:24–26). There are no spiritual vacuums. A person is either under the influence of evil spirits or under the power of the Spirit of God. Those who participate of Christ’s victory over evil powers are filled by the Spirit and are called to a daily communion with God that will result in constant growing into the likeness of Christ.
The role of the study of the Scriptures and prayer. The life of the believer does not consist at all of attempts to learn the art of self-righteousness or of how to subdue the powers; it rather consists of filling the inner being, the heart, with the thoughts of God. This type of communion is not to be defined in terms of a transcendental meditation that attempts to merge the person with cosmic, impersonal forces. This communion is not to be achieved through rituals that seek to create an emotional trance that supposedly brings the individual in touch with the divine. Such practices are, in fact, a fallback into servitude to the powers. In the Christian life this type of communion is mediated through the study of the Holy Scriptures and prayer.
God speaks to His people through the Scriptures, and consequently, there is no need for humans to try to move Him to speak again through magic or meritorious works. He is beyond human manipulation because He voluntarily chose to speak through His Son as revealed in His Word. The Scriptures, as God’s immediate objective speech, become the way to fi nd His will and plan for the individual. The Word of God, through the Spirit, guides believers during their pilgrimage through a world of sin and death. Prayer testifies to the fact that what God did through Christ was sufficient to open up a permanent way to reach out and talk to the Father. There is no need to summon intermediary spirits of any type to assist anyone to access the divine.
The role of meditation.Biblical meditation is not an escape from the reality of life into an immaterial, mystical world. This type of escapism is offered to humans by the powers already defeated by Christ. In the Scriptures, meditation is not totally silent but was usually accompanied by muttering the thoughts of reflection.10It had an objective content upon which the mind of believers dwelt and reflected. The psalmist described the person who was happy as one who “meditates day and night” on God’s law, or instruction (Ps. 1:2). There is spiritual renewal and growth when the human heart, as the seat of human rationality and will, dwells on God’s loving will for all. The psalmist also meditated on the promises of God and found joy in anticipating them (Ps. 119:148). Another object of meditation was God’s providential acts of salvation on behalf of His people (e.g., Ps. 77:12). When even those who participate in Christ’s victory over evil powers confront serious difficulties, the call is to meditate on the way He has delivered them in the past from similar situations. This makes it unnecessary to seek the assistance of the powers to supplement Christ’s power to save. Through meditation God’s people have communion with the all powerful God from whom they receive strength to face the most serious attacks that evil powers could launch against them as they seek to regain dominion over them.
The role of individual and corporate worship. Biblical faith is also a corporate faith that finds expression in the collective worship of the Lord. Believers belong to the family of those who have been delivered through the sacrificial death of Christ. They joyfully praise Him individually as well as collectively (cf. Mark 2:12; Luke 18:43). They have a new center of life and humbly approach the Lord in gratitude, with requests and singing. In fact, only those who are alive are able to praise the Lord (Ps. 150:6), and this applies in a particular way to those who through Christ are now spiritually alive. Singing praises to the Lord strengthens the Christian life and expels fear from the heart. The psalmist wrote, “How good it is to sing praises to our God, how pleasant and fitting to praise him!” (Ps. 147:1). He is to be praised because there is no other like Him: “Let them praise the name of the LORD, for his name alone is exalted; his splendor is above the earth and the heavens. He has raised up for his people a horn, the praise of all his saints, of Israel, the people close to his heart” (Ps. 148: 13, 14). Christ obtained for us the freedom to praise God. The “horn,” as a symbol of power, is here equated with praises to the Lord, suggesting that in praising Him believers are spiritually strengthened.
The role of Christian service. Those who have been delivered by Christ from the dominion of the powers of the evil one are servants of God. The Christian life is not lived in isolation from others but in the dynamic interaction with the surroundings in which they find themselves. They take their personal commitment to Christ to the streets of the world, the marketplace, the schools, the offices, to every place they go and to every situation they face. The potential for spiritual growth is not limited to the privacy of the homes or to church meetings. The constant expression of the values of the Christian life in a multiplicity of settings will result, through the guidance of the Spirit, into an ever growing relationship with the Lord.
Christ has not called His servants to withdraw from the world but to serve the world by actively inviting humans to find freedom and forgiveness in what Christ has done for them. The former life of submission to evil powers characterized by enmity toward God and others is now replaced and filled by a life of loving service to God and to others. Awareness of the fact that believers live in the constant presence and company of God motivates their service and nurtures their hope in the final eradication of sin and evil powers from the world and from the universe.
Adventist eschatology anticipates an unparalleled upsurge of spiritualistic manifestations as we approach the close of the cosmic conflict. Spiritualism will play a central role in the final polarization of the human race as everyone is confronted with the challenge to choose ultimate loyalty (Rev. 16:13, 14). In preparation for that final confrontation, it is important to understand and appropriate the reality of Christ’s victory over all evil powers. His victory is so absolute that it makes it totally unnecessary for believers to practice dual loyalties. The freedom He obtained for them is to be used to grow, through the power of the Spirit, in His grace and love. Since on the cross He permanently broke the dominion of the principalities and powers, His people can have peace, being “convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38, 39).
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1 See the discussions of those theories in Peter Schmiechen, Saving Power: Theories of Atonement and Forms of the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005); and Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in NT and Contemporary Contexts (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 116–52. For useful discussions of issues related to the atonement, see the collection of essays in, John Goldingay, ed., Atonement Today: A Symposium (London: SPCK, 1995); and Charles E. Hill and Frank A. James III, eds., The Glory of the Atonement: Biblical, Theological and Practical Perspectives (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004).
2 For a historical analysis of this particular theory of the atonement, see Gustaf Aulén, Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement (New York: Macmillan, 1969). He considers this theory to be the Christian classical
one at the exclusion of the others; a questionable conclusion.
3 For a useful discussion of the cosmic battle from a non-Adventist perspective, see Gregory A. Boyd, God at War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997).
4 In the Gospels, the exorcisms performed by Jesus revealed His authority over the spirits, portended “the kingdom’s arrival and Satan’s overthrow,” and enabled those set free from the spirits “to share in the eschatological salvation that has dawned in accordance with the divine plan” (Clinton Wahlen, Jesus and the Impurity of Spirits in the Synoptic Gospels [Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004], 173).
5 All Scripture quotations are from the New International Version of the Bible (NIV).
6 We do not have space to discuss some of the interpretational difficulties of this passage, but we should mention that the last phrase, “by the cross,” reads in Greek “by/through it/him.” In the context the reference could be to the Cross or to Christ and both make excellent sense.
7 The meaning of this phrase is debated, but it mainly designates evil powers; see D. G. Reid, “Principalities and Powers,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne and Ralph P. Martin (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 746–52; and Clinton E. Arnold, “Principalities and Powers,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 5, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 467.
8 For discussions on this military background see, L. Williamson, “Led in Triumph: Paul’s Use of Thriambeuo,” Interpretation 22(1968): 217–332; C. Breytenbach, “Paul’s Proclamation and God’s ‘Thriambos’ (Notes on 2 Corinthians 2:14-16b),” Neotestamentica 24 (1990): 257–71; Clinton E. Arnold, The Colossian Syncretism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996), 281–4. For other opinions, see Markus Barth and Helmut Blanke, Colossians (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 332–6; and G. Dautzenberg, “Thriambeu,” in Exegetical Dictionary of the NT, vol. 2, ed. Horst Balz and Gerhard Schneider (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 155, 6.
9 In the Gospels demons are depicted not so much as tempters but as tormentors; see Wahlen, Impurity of Spirits, 172.
10 Two Hebrew verbs are occasionally translated “to meditate.” The first one is h g h, “to reflect, think, meditate,” which emphasizes the soft murmuring of thoughts (see A. Negoit and Helmer Ringgren, “H g h,” in Theological Dictionary of the OT, vol. 3, ed. G. Johannes Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1978], 322, 3; hereafter TDOT). The second is îa , “to ponder, to reflect, to talk,” and when signifying meditation it emphasizes the reflection itself, the mental activity
(see J. Hausmann, “ îa ,” in TDOT, vol. 14, 86).