Terrifying Peace

Michael S. Horton
Thursday, May 3rd 2007
Nov/Dec 2004

In the name of peace, the world brings terror on earth. In the name of justice, the baby in the manger brings peace on earth. It should not be surprising to us that we continue to think in worldly ways about this matter. Eight centuries before Christ, King Ahaz, refusing to trust the prophet's promise that YHWH would protect Judah from Assyria's ominous encroachments, took matters into his own hands and signed an alliance with Assyria. Rather than keep covenant with Judah's only Sovereign, Ahaz turned to Assyria, a nation that God then used to bring about the Babylonian captivity. Yet even in the midst of judgment, as in Eden with our first parents, God announces the gospel: "Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel" (Isa. 7:14 ESV).

We find it so tempting to sign pacts with the world to bring about peace, but appeasement and peace, as the British prime minister Neville Chamberlain learned the hard way, are hardly the same thing.

Ever since the fall, humans have accepted the serpent's lie that we can create a perfect, peaceful, nonviolent and secure world as autonomous creatures. And we have accepted the further deception that we can undo the empirical effects of our so-called freedom by greater effort and collective will. In the modern liberal experiment, that has usually meant the peace, security, and justice for all through the glory of human sentiment, apart from the cross of judgment and justice. Yet even in that experiment there remains the lingering scent of an empty vase. Before rebuilding a bombed-out Europe, pockmarked with the shells of spiritual as well as material devastation, there must be the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi criminals. Before peace can truly come to the Balkan republics or Iraq, war criminals must be brought to justice. The very fact that we ignore national sovereignty to arrest, arraign, and imprison even former heads of state demonstrates that there is some residual sense of a law above our laws and that justice must be served before reconciliation and peace can be established. In South Africa, nearly a decade of justice work by the Truth Commission had to be done before reconciliation could occur and widespread civil war could be averted.

Despite these examples from international politics, contemporary theology is largely tethered to a liberal utopian sentimentalism that demands glory without the cross, justification without judgment, gospel without law. So Jesus' mission cannot be treated as a substitutionary sacrifice satisfying divine justice but as an accident of Jesus' compassionate ministry. His intention was not to die, we are told, but to form a new coalition of humanists to finally bring about a reign of love without violence. To suggest that our salvation required the death of an expiatory sacrifice is to legitimize violence, not dethrone it, at least according to many theologians and pastors today. The significance of Jesus' life is the example that it provides to us to bring about a kingdom of love and nonviolence even if it kills us too in the process. A half century ago, H. Richard Niebuhr captured this sentiment admirably: "A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through a Christ without a cross."

All of this fits comfortably with the sweet consolations of Christmas Muzak, but it corresponds neither to the biblical testimony nor satisfies the aching suspicion that everything is still not right and that for all of its warm sentimentality, the Christmas story is basically irrelevant in the age of terrorism.

The goal of my article, however, is to argue that there can be no peace on earth without justice, no final defeat of violence without divine punishment, no reconciliation between sinners without the propitiation of God's wrath, since ultimately all sins against other creatures is first and foremost a sin against God (see Ps. 51:4). But the good news is that God has done what we could not do, either individually or collectively, and he has done this definitively, once and for all, in Jesus Christ.

We need not rehearse the myriad expressions of confidence in Jesus "meek and mild." Nobody dislikes this Jesus. This is the tolerable and tolerant babe in the manger, who apparently always looks on the bright side and never judges. He proclaimed the best of universal human ideals, but his untimely death reveals how often the flame of love is snuffed out by hatred. If only we would remember again this Christmas to live up to those ideals.

There is, of course, some truth to this business about Jesus being meek and mild: "a bruised reed he will not break and a smoldering candle he will not snuff out" (Isa. 42:3; Matt. 12:20). He is tender to those who break off their covenant with the world and its false security, embracing him as their peace, even if they are outcasts: prostitutes, perpetrators of violence, fraudulent tax-collectors, even Gentiles. These go in, while the self-righteous remain on the outside. But there really is an outside and an inside to this kingdom. There is a covenant people and there is also a rebellious humanity that refuses to enter the safety of the ark, relying on other gods to save them. And anyone who belongs to the latter "is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God" (John 3:18). But this meekness is not opposed to justice. It is not a passive wink at sin and violence, a point that may offend wealthy citizens of developed democracies but is actually a comfort to those enduring tremendous oppression. In Christ, it is an active obedience to God's law and a willing embrace even of its curses in our place. The cross is where justice and peace embrace and God's will at last is done on earth as it is in heaven.

I'm not a fan of any images of our incarnate Lord, but I have sometimes wondered why there are no Good Friday cards at the mall. It would be jarring but intriguing to see Christmas cards with a cross as well as a manger. Without stealing the joy of Christ's birth, the cross casts its shadow over his nativity: "For this purpose I have come into the world" (John 12:27).

The Protestant reformers put to great use an earlier distinction between the state of nature after the fall (sin), the state of grace, and the state of glory. Christmas recalls and celebrates not only Christ's birth but the birthday of the new creation, including our translation from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of God's own Son (1 Pet. 2:9). It is a kingdom of grace, not yet of glory. So when the disciples argue over greatness (power) in this kingdom, Jesus rebukes them. It is about the cross, not glory, at least not yet. When James and John want to call the fire of the last judgment on the heads of the Samaritans who rejected their preaching, Jesus rebuked them sharply. They were simply following the course of the Old Testament prophets, prosecutors of the covenant law-suit. But this was not the time for the last judgment and the restoration of all things. It is the festival of ingathering, not the feast of trumpets. So while the last judgment was anticipated episodically in the Old Testament (the flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, the holy wars of Israel), the theocracy was merely a type of the kingdom that has now come in Christ. And in its current phase it is a kingdom of grace, not glory; weakness, not power; cross, not consummation. This is why in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus announces a new covenant "politics" for his disciples in anticipation of that consummation. Whereas the men-of-war are honored in Israel's history, in Jesus' new covenant constitution, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God" (Matt. 5:9).

So all talk about greatness in the kingdom is out of place for the servants of the Servant. Jesus concludes his rebuke of the disciples with that famous statement, "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many" (Matt. 20:28). Jesus came on his first mission-his Christmas mission, if you will, not to judge the world but to save (John 3:15-16).

Yet even on this mission the kingdom of glory is anticipated in advance. The future glory occasionally breaks through Jesus' meek and mild humanity, as at the Transfiguration, but also in the separation that will become finally realized on the Last Day. This is why, in Matthew 10, Jesus sends the Twelve out with the following instruction that is unlikely to be part of popular Christmas readings: "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but sword" (v. 34). In case we thought he was kidding, Jesus adds more concrete detail:

For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person's enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (vv. 35-39).

This is why Jesus simultaneously rebukes James and John for wanting to inaugurate the last judgment and announces it himself, as here in Matthew 10 but also throughout the Gospels, most notably in the Olivet discourse (see, for example, Mark 13:24-27). Jesus brought with him to the cradle in Bethlehem a sword of judgment and justification, conviction of sin, and the announcement of everlasting reconciliation with God in him. But the next time we see him, he will bring a sword of vengeance and execute once and for all that justice that is necessary for bringing about the complete restoration of all things and the everlasting reign of Sabbath righteousness, glory and peace that even Adam never enjoyed.

This second coming is mentioned in the Epistles as well. In fact, the delay in this judgment is read by the scoffing world as evidence that it is all a sham, while in fact God's purpose in the delay is to allow time for even these scoffers (like us) to be brought into the kingdom of grace. But the apocalyptic imagery returns literally with a vengeance in the book of Revelation, aptly named the Apocalypse. There, the kingdoms of this world-with whom even the church has made its ignoble alliances, are razed and in their rubble the City of God finally descends and the announcement is given that God's dwelling is finally and forever established among us.

After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, crying out, "Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for his judgments are true and just; for he has judged the great prostitute who corrupted the earth with her immorality, and has avenged on her the blood of his servants." Once more they cried out, "Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up forever and ever."

And then they sat down with the twenty-four elders-the heads of the tribes of Israel and the apostles of the new covenant, at the great marriage feast of the Lamb (Rev. 19:1-10).

The false prophets of Jeremiah's day were indicted for preaching a false comfort: "They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, 'Peace, peace,' when there is no peace. Were they ashamed when they committed abomination? No, they were not at all ashamed; they did not know how to blush" (Jer. 6:14-15). The same is true not only of the world, but of much that goes by the name of the church today. We take sin too lightly in our comfortable towers of Babel, thinking that our security lies in the provisions of the benevolent gods of technology, democracy, and ideologies of the left and the right. We assume that there can be Christmas without Good Friday, Sabbath rest without the work of Christ, an easy peace without terrifying justice.

Theologian Miroslav Volf, who was raised in the Balkan conflicts, offers an alternative to this pervasive tendency which actually undermines the hope of justice for which victims cry out:

My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God's refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.

Viewing Christmas in the light of Good Friday means also seeing it in the light of Easter. Jesus' suffering was not something he passively endured, but actively embraced in view of the Resurrection and the hope of glory. Ironically, if Jesus' life were merely an example for us to follow, it could be used to justify, for example, a woman's passive acceptance of violence from her husband. But as Nancy Duff has argued, it is precisely by recognizing the uniqueness of the cross as an unrepeatable sacrifice-something that God did for us, not something designed for our imitation, that we can keep from celebrating passivity:

If faith does not acknowledge God as fully God and fully human, the connection between Christ's death on the cross and our involvement in suffering becomes distorted. When the church confesses the incarnation and the subsequent doctrine of Christ's two natures, the cross cannot rightly be interpreted as something God required of or did to Jesus, but something God did for us. Furthermore, because Christ is the Messiah, fully divine and fully human, the salvific nature of his death has a uniqueness and finality that cannot be repeated. No other person is required-or able-to do what Christ did. Therefore, the logic of the cross is not that we are to become victims consistent with Christ hanging on the cross, but that Christ became a victim to release us from the powers of sin and death. The abused wife does not "represent Christ" through exemplary self-sacrificial love. She is not the incarnate God suffering on behalf of sinful humanity. Rather, Christ on the cross represents her, reveals God's presence with her, and uncovers the sin of those who abuse or neglect her. Christ makes known to her and the world that her suffering represents the opposite of God's will.

What is truly amazing is that we can watch the Twin Towers collapse in a burning heap and call God to account. Talk about changing the subject! Such violence demonstrates our evil, not God's. But nothing demonstrates this darkness of our hearts than the way we treated God when he came to us. We were inhospitable to him from the moment of his birth. It is not the collapsing World Trade Center that presses us to face the depth of human depravity most severely, but the suspension of the God-Man on the scaffold of our greatest scorn.

True, no one who died in those tragic events of September 11, 2001, was in any way worthy of the sin committed against them, but with Jesus Christ we encounter our elder brother who was nevertheless without guilt for any sin and yet was the constant focus of our hatred. Furthermore, this is a victim who keeps walking with outstretched arms toward the very perpetrators of his misery, measuring both the greatness of his mercy as well as our own sinful contempt for it. If we want to talk about justice and peace, then, we have to talk about the cross. If we think that we can bring about peace on earth, then we have forgotten what we did to God when he came to bring it.

The good news is that Christ is coming again, and this time not with a kingdom of weakness, grace, and cross, but of power, judgment, and glory. Those who have cried out, "How long, O Lord!" will be answered. Those who have suffered violence and oppression will be vindicated and the unrepentant perpetrators will be judged.

The goal of the cross is not simply forgiveness, but chesed-covenantal loyalty between God and humans, humans and humans, humans and the non-human creation, in the everlasting sabbath of true righteousness, justice, freedom and love. God is satisfied by the cross not merely as justice is served by the conviction and sentencing of a criminal, but because through the cross God is able to bring about for human beings what human beings, even Christian ones, have never brought about and will never bring about themselves.

1 [ Back ] In writing this article, Dr. Horton has quoted from Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace (Abingdon, 1966), pp. 298, and Nancy J. Duff, "Atonement and the Christian Life: Reformed Doctrine from a Feminist Perspective," Interpretation, vol. 53, no. 1 (January 1999), p. 27.
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Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Thursday, May 3rd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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