Steve McVey, The Father Gets a Bad Rap
Steve McVey (D.Min., Luther Rice Seminary), is founder of GraceWalk Ministries.
It’s important to understand the cross, and how it affects our view of the whole being of God, Father, Son and Spirit.
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MM: Earlier, you commented that many people view the sacrifice of Jesus as God punishing Jesus. You objected strongly to that notion. Could you tell us why you think it’s important for people to have an accurate understanding of what was going on in the crucifixion of Jesus?
SM: It is important because how we understand what happened at the cross will affect our view of the Father and who he is. Growing up for a long time in my tradition, I didn’t have any problem connecting to the idea of being intimate with Jesus because of what Jesus did for me. But when it came to the Father, I had a different understanding, because of what my view was (and I think it’s a common view): that Jesus took the punishment from the Father so that the Father wouldn’t punish me. If that’s our view, we’re going to think that Jesus is like the loving one and the Father is the stern harsh one who is exacting, and who insists on the books being balanced. It’s almost like an angry father, and a mother who’s trying to keep the dad from getting onto the children. That’s how I saw it, like Jesus was the loving one and the Father was the angry one.
When we look at the cross through the lens of penal substitution — that Jesus was the substitute who took our punishment from God the Father so the Father wouldn’t punish us, how will we ever experience a sense of intimacy with the Father? That’s out of line with what Jesus came for. Paul the apostle told us about Jesus, that he is the exact representation of the Father. So, just as Jesus the Son is loving, so is God the Father and God the Spirit are equally as loving. I’m not saying that there wasn’t a substitution there. Jesus did die on the cross in our place. He was our substitute. But he drew the penalty of sin into himself. The wages of sin is death.
Let me back up to the Garden of Eden. God didn’t say to Adam and Eve, “If you eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, I’ll kill you.” He said, “If you eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you’ll die.” He didn’t say “I’ll kill you” – he said “you’ll die.” In the same way, coming to the New Testament, it wasn’t God that punished Jesus, it was sin that punished Jesus. Another word for punishment is the word penalty. It’s the same Greek word. It’s punishment, it’s penalty. The penalty for sin was death.
But what did Jesus do at the cross? God the Father was in the Son empowered by the Spirit, and our Triune God drew the penalty, the payment, the wages, the punishment that sin brings, into himself and away from us so that we wouldn’t have to be punished by sin but that we would be delivered from sin’s punishment. He took it into himself and died for us so that we could be free.
Why is it important to see it that way? It’s important because if we think God the Father is angry, then Jesus didn’t do a very good job of letting us know what he was like, because when Jesus came here he said, “If you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father.” Study the Gospels — you don’t find Jesus portraying for us a God who’s angry with us about our sin. To the contrary! Every time you see Jesus encountering people in sin, he extends grace, and mercy, and love, and forgiveness, because that’s the Father.
Even in the story of the prodigal, the story that Jesus told… It’s really not the story of the prodigal – it’s a story of the father. That story wasn’t told to show us something about sinning people, or for that matter, even self-righteous people (the older brother). That story was told to teach us something about our Father. What Jesus told us in that story is this: He told us through the illustration of the younger brother, the prodigal who came back with his decision to rededicate himself and promised his father that if he’d forgive him, he’d do better, he’d serve him more, he’d be a better…but the father didn’t even let him give his speech. I spent my life rededicating myself to God the Father, promising him I’d do better, I’d try harder… In that story of the prodigal, the boy tries to give the speech, but the father interrupts him and doesn’t let him give it.
Then you’ve got the older brother, who’s self-righteous. You’ve got the unrighteous on the one hand and the self-righteous on the other hand who says, “Look, all these many years I’ve served you and I’ve never violated and transgressed your commandments.” The father says, “Son, what do you mean, I won’t give you a party? All I have is yours.” Both of those boys missed the point, because the younger boy, the prodigal, thought that he would be rejected because of his misbehavior. The other thought he should be accepted and honored because of his good behavior. The father was trying to say to them both, “You don’t get it. It’s not about you and your behavior, it’s about me and how much I love you, independent of anything you do or don’t do. It’s about me.”
So it is with our heavenly Father. He wants to see (and that’s what Jesus came to reveal) that he loves us unconditionally, unilaterally, if need be. Those of us who are believers love him, but why do we love him? We love because he first loved us. That is a reciprocal response to his love for us. It’s all about our concept of God the Father. He’s got a bad rap because of the religious world. In spite of all Jesus did to give us clarity on it, the religious world his clouded it.
MM: For a long time my concept of God the Father was like Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial, sitting in this huge throne, stone, impassive, stern, and it wasn’t the sort of God that I wanted to spend eternity with.
SM: Exactly. Back to the story of the father in Luke 15. You don’t see some austere dignified father there. You see a father who sees his son in the distance and he’s wearing these long flowing dignified garments (that they wear still in that part of the world), and he pulls those garments up high so he can run, because he can’t run with them down at his feet. He pulls them up high above his knees so he can run, and he takes off running.
Nobody in that part of the world sees their dad’s naked legs. That’s a shame, it’s a disgrace. That father didn’t care. He pulled the robes up and he ran, acting in an undignified way, but he was acting out of passionate love, even willing for those who were witnessing that scene to cause them to look away from the boy covered in the filth of the pigpen and look to the father and say, “What is he doing? He’s running naked down the street,” because he had pulled his robes up above his legs and they’d never seen that.
The kind of love that father had for the boy — he was willing to take the shame off of the boy and bring it onto himself if need be, because he wasn’t interested in protecting his reputation — he was interested in embracing and receiving his son back. That, Jesus wanted us to see, is the kind of Father you have. He’s passionate, he’ll run down the street with his robe pulled up above his knees. He’ll take the shame on himself to rescue you from your shame — a different picture than the God sitting in the judge’s chair that we imagined, huh? Totally different picture.
The beauty of it is, about this younger and older son in Luke 15 — and I didn’t plan to say so much about this chapter, but another point comes to mind. The older boy, there’s your religious church-going boy. There’s your believer. The father says, “I love you, but I love this one the same.” The privileges were extended to both equally. Both were missing out on experiencing the abundant life their father provided for them, one because of his unrighteousness, the other because of his self-righteousness. The story illustrates that sometimes it’s easier for an unrighteous person to enter in and experience grace than it is a self-righteous person. Notice that self-righteous brother in Luke 15 — when the unbelieving son began to believe and accepted his father’s acceptance and came into the party, the older boy got all bent out of shape about it. He didn’t like that at all.
MM: The younger son had reached the bottom. He knew where his works had ended up.
SM: That’s right. The religious son didn’t want the younger one to be included, but he was. The church world today doesn’t want everybody to be included, we just want us to be included. After all, we go to church. We read our Bible every day.
MM: We’re the ones that have been “cleaned up.”
SM: That’s right. To quote that older brother, “Look, I’ve served you all these many years, I’ve never violated or transgressed your commandments in any way. What gives with you bringing this guy and telling me that he’s as accepted as I am? I’ve behaved a lot better than he…”
The father is saying, “Are you beginning to get it? It’s not about your behavior. I don’t love because of how good you are. I love because of how good I am.” We’re all included. You can live in a pigpen, in the penitentiary of the pigpen, or like that older boy you can live in the penitentiary of your performance, but both live outside the pleasure of the grace of God.
We talked earlier about this shift in my own mind. It’s what you guys here at Grace Communion are all about, and it’s what this program is all about…one thing that’s shifted in my own mind is the understanding that we are all included, that what Jesus did, he didn’t do just for “good” boys, so to speak. (I say that tongue in cheek, because that’s how a lot of folks would see church-going leaders.) He did that for everybody.
We all stand on equal ground at the foot of the cross, and we all need his grace the same, and thank God it’s been poured out on all of us the same. Those of us who believe it enjoy it — we’re in the party dancing and eating barbeque. Those who don’t are standing out in the dark, in the hell of their own choice. But don’t act like they’re out there in a hell because there’s something left for God to do — he’s done everything. They’re out there because of their own pride and stubbornness.
MM: So you would say an atheist, even some of these militant atheists, their sins are already forgiven?
SM: Absolutely. That’s the gospel. Let me tell you a story. I’ve told this story for 20 years, but I’ve used a different application. I want to tell it for the sake of those who are familiar with my ministry and for those who aren’t. Those who have heard my ministry are going to go “woah…now he’s telling that story differently now. He’s making a different application.”
This story started, I think, with Bill Bright — the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, the largest mission-sending agency in the world. Bill Bright used to tell about a guy named Mr. Yates out in Texas that had a farm. Mr. Yates was trying to eke out a living and the Depression struck and he fell behind on his farm payments. One day a representative from the mortgage company came to him and said, “You’re behind on your payments. You’ve got to make your payment on the farm or we’ll foreclose and evict you.” Yates said, “I can’t make my payment.” The guy said, “You’re going to have to pay, or you’re going to be evicted.” Yates said, “Well, I don’t know what to do.” The guy said, “In 30 days we’re going to file a dispossessory notice and get you off the property.”
The day started winding down and Yates didn’t know what he was going to do. One day he heard a knock at the door and when he opened the door, it was a man from an oil company. The guy said, “We’re doing some wildcat drilling out here and we wanted to see if you’d let us drill on your property. We have reason to think there may be oil here.” Yates said, “Go ahead.” He’s thinking in his mind, “I’ve lost it all anyway, I don’t have a penny.” They come onto his property the next day and they sink a drill into the ground and bang, they hit a gusher, 80,000 barrels, 85,000 barrels of oil a day come gushing up out of that well. Bang! Instantly Mr. Yates has millions of dollars in cash accessible to him.
Here’s the question: At what point did Mr. Yates become a millionaire? The answer is, he became a millionaire on the day he bought the farm. Why was he living like a pauper? Because he didn’t know what he had.
The way I used to make that application is, I would say, “You have had riches in Jesus since the day you’ve been saved, since the day you trusted Christ, since the day you prayed and believed on him, but it’s by believing it now that you experience it.” But here’s where that falls short, and here’s where I’ve changed my story. I don’t say anymore that we became millionaires on the day we trusted Christ. That was the day we struck oil. Rather, we became millionaires on the day Jesus died.
For whom did Jesus die? The Bible teaches he died for everybody. We’re all included. So if everybody’s included, then the benefits of the finished work of Christ at the cross belong to everybody. Then why is everybody not living out of that spiritual wealth? It’s one of two reasons — either they don’t know it, or they don’t believe it, but it doesn’t change the reality. The day they struck oil on Yate’s property and he began to make withdraws, cash the checks so to speak, he began to live like a millionaire. But objectively, he’d been a millionaire all along. It only became a subjective experience when he cashed the check.
There you go — the objective work of Jesus for everybody. If he died for everybody, then what he did for everybody is true of everybody. Does it matter whether we believe or not believe? Of course! It makes all the difference in the world because it’s by believing that we cash the check and live out of the wealth that’s ours in him. But it doesn’t change the reality of what he did, even if we don’t believe. We’re living like paupers if we don’t believe, but we’re not paupers, we just don’t know.
MM: It could have been a story about the acres of diamonds. People had diamonds in their field and didn’t know it. It was theirs, they just didn’t know the value.
SM: That’s right. I remember that book from years ago. What Jesus did he didn’t do for just a few of us — he did it for everybody. So I don’t say to an unbeliever, “If you will just pray and ask Jesus into your heart, he’ll forgive your sin.” That implies there’s something left undone. That implies that what Jesus should have said at the cross was, “Okay, your move. I’ve done my part, now it’s your move. What are you going to do? The game comes to a standstill until you make your move.” No, no, no. Jesus said, “Game over. It’s finished. You’re in. Game over. Fold the board up, put it up. Now it’s finished.” If you don’t want to believe it (and I don’t mean you), okay, live like a pauper then.
MM: We’re telling a story of something that’s already been done.
SM: That’s the gospel. That’s why it’s good news. As I said in a previous program, it’s not a potential gospel like God’s done something and now he’s waiting for you do something — he’s done it and it’s finished. There’s nothing left. Now you can live in that reality or you can live under the lie, again back to the garden. You can live under the lie that befell Adam and Eve and hold on to all this distorted skewed thinking about your Father and who he is and what he’s going to be like. You can get all this messed-up thinking in your head and live outside the pleasure of it, you can go into hell clinging to your lies if you want to, but there’s nothing left for the Father to do — he’s done it all.
MM: A hell of your own making.
SM: A hell of your own making and a hell of your own choosing. People said God’s sending people to hell. You’re already in hell if you’re not believing this good news. Hell is not the absence of God…let’s throw that snake on the table. Hell is not the absence of God, ask anybody in the Eastern Church. We in the Western world have the idea that hell means God’s checked out and going home. No. Do we understand and believe where the Bible tells us that all things that exist consist by him? Everything that holds together holds together because he’s there holding it together. So if hell was the absence of God, then hell would implode or explode, and would cease to exist. Hell itself is not the absence of God. This is another discussion and it may open a can of worms, but I believe hell is the inescapable presence of the love of God. Those who loathe and detest his love find it to be hellacious, but those of us who receive it find it to be heavenly. What did James say? He said if you love your enemy it seems to them like you’re doing what? You’re heaping coals of fire on their head.
MM: So it’s the same reality, but a different perception.
SM: Absolutely. I’m not making this stuff up as I go. I’m not smart enough to do that. I’ve studied it and read it, and I can tell you outside our Western world, the Greek Church right now, the church in the Eastern part of the world, they get this. We, you and I, and the people watching us in this part of the world, we’ve been so influenced by Augustinian theology (and not just theologians, but even people like Dante and others) about what hell is and is not, that we’ve got it all scrambled in our brains.
I think the Eastern Church has a beat on this thing that God is love. So if I can say it this way — any and everything that can be understood about God must come to love as its resting place, or we haven’t gone far enough, because God is love. Everything and anything that we’re going to connect to him has to be an expression of that love, or we’re not going far enough in our understanding to get to the root of it.
MM: To get back to the crucifixion of Jesus. What was its role? What changed for all humanity? Was it just a forgiveness of sins or was there something deeper than that?
SM: Oh, so much changed. Forgiveness of sins wasn’t even the main thing. Forgiveness of sins was the B Team. That was the secondary issue. There had to be forgiveness of sins so that the main event could take place. The main event that took place was we received life.
I’ll give you an example, two verses. John 3:16, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shouldn’t perish but should have everlasting forgiveness [no, no – life].” John 10:10, “I’ve come so that you might have forgiveness and have it more abundantly [no, life!].” All the verses are about life. He’s come so that we can have life — life, not forgiveness. That’s what happened at the cross. I’m going to be succinct and people watching will have to dig this out for themselves …look at all the other programs on You’re Included. I learned a lot watching the archived programs right here. There’s a lot of good stuff on here.
Here’s what happened. What the first Adam did was wrap us all up into himself as the federal head and brought humanity down into this place of sin. We were doomed and damned. We were condemned — not by God, but by sin, as humanity. Jesus comes along — the Father, Son, and Spirit say, “That’s not going to stand. We’re not going to let Adam get the final say on all this.” So here’s the Incarnation — Jesus comes, the last Adam, and he did (in a sense like the first Adam did), he was our federal head, and he wrapped us all up in himself, all of us, everybody that had been in Adam.
Paul said that what Jesus did was much more than what Adam did. He uses that phrase more than once – “much more.” He wrapped us all up into himself and then Adam’s race went to the cross with Jesus, died with Jesus, was buried with Jesus, and then, and this is pivotal, this is the good news, when Jesus came up out of the grave a new species was raised up with him. Those in Christ, if anyone is in Christ he is a new creature, a new species.
Who do you think died with Jesus? As a Calvinist I used to say, only the elect, only those who were chosen. But listen to this, 2 Corinthians 5:14, this is out of the Bible. Let me hold it up where people can see I’m reading. “The love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died.” Who’s the one that died for all? Jesus. Therefore, who did he die for? Everybody. He tasted death for every human. Therefore, all died. We all died with Jesus. We were all buried with Jesus.
But when Jesus came up out of the grave, a new species came into existence, something new. The gospel is…here’s what the cross did: The cross provided forgiveness of sin. We don’t have to tell people he’ll forgive your sin. He has. Jesus is the elect man, the elect one. He is a man. There’s a God-man in heaven today. He’s the elect man in whom we all reside. Therefore we were all elect. We were all chosen. We were all made holy.
What does holy mean? The word means “set apart.” In the evangelical church we think, if I say so and so over here is holy, people think that means he lives a squeaky clean life. No, no, no. They don’t mind calling this book a Holy Bible. That Bible doesn’t live any way. They don’t mind calling God’s temple the Holy Temple — it just means set apart. In that sense he’s called us all, set us all apart. He made us holy.
Righteous — that’s another one. You use the word righteous, and one understanding of the word has to do with living a certain lifestyle. But wait — if you look up, in Strong’s dictionary for instance, the Greek word righteous, one definition is living your life based on a certain religious or moral code. That’s not what the New Testament tells us our righteousness is. The other definition of righteousness is being made in a right standing with God. Ding ding ding ding! There’s the one! There it is. It might be number 2 on the list, but it’s the one we better go to.
We better go to that one because we know it’s not about living a moral code. We’ve all been made right with God. We’ve been reconciled. So much happened on the cross. We’ve been joined in the union. There’s the big one — we’ve been joined into union with him again. The question then people ask me sometimes is, “You sound like a universalist. Are you saying everybody drops dead and wakes up in heaven?” No. I’m not saying that.
MM: You’ve already talked about hell.
SM: That’s right, I did. I’ve already talked about hell. If I can paraphrase him — and I hate to try to paraphrase someone as eloquent as he is, but Robert Capon the theologian and author said, on the last day nobody goes to hell because of sin, because the sin issue has been dealt with. He said if you get to judgment day and face God and say “I won’t accept your acceptance,” then you can go to hell, he says, but don’t act like it’s because of sin, because sin has been dealt with in totality by the finished work of Jesus. I’m not saying everybody’s instantly in, whether they believe or not. I think that faith in Christ is essential — otherwise, back for the umpteenth time to the older brother, we’ll stand in the outer darkness if we don’t believe, but it’s not because God’s locked us outside or won’t let us in – it’s because of our own stubbornness and pride.
MM: You’ve described how Jesus dying on the cross…God was in Jesus reconciling us. But the scriptures say that Jesus on the cross said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
SM: I’m glad you asked that, because that’s one of the biggest misunderstandings in the modern church. You said Jesus asked the question. What did God answer in that Gospel, in the Gospels? What was the answer God gave? He didn’t give an answer. So people looking at God through the wrong lens assume God the Father forsook his Son Jesus.
The answer is, he didn’t forsake his Son. That was the cry of Jesus when he became sin for us. If he had heard the answer right then and there, God would have said, “I haven’t forsaken you.”
How do I know? I’ll prove it. Psalm 22 is the Messianic Psalm from which that cry of Jesus came. Psalm 22:1 of the Messianic Psalm, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” You can read that Psalm, and bit by bit you see it’s talking about the cross right down to them casting lots for his garments — everything. It’s describing the cross. If you go to verse 24, you get the answer to the question. It’s not recorded in the Gospels, but it is in Psalms. Psalm 22:1, “Why have you forsaken me?” Verse 24, “He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted nor has he hidden his face for him. But when he cried to him for help, he heard.”
Now here’s the neat thing. All the Jews knew these Psalms. If I say to you, “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz,” you know the rest — what is it?
MM: Oh, is that Alka-Seltzer?
SM: Alka-Seltzer! Okay, what’s the rest of the jingle? “Oh what a…”
MM: “Relief it is.”
SM: All right, let’s try another one: “Winston tastes good like a….”
MM: “Cigarette should.”
SM: All right. It was the same way with the Psalms. When people standing around the cross heard the first line of that Psalm, they knew the rest of it. When Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” every self-respecting Jew there knew the rest of it, and the answer was he has not forsaken him or turned his face on him. But here we are 20 centuries later saying, he asked the question why did God forsake him — God must have forsook him. We’ve missed the point. No, he did not forsake him. He was right there in him and with him the whole time.
MM: We see in the resurrection that he didn’t forsake him.
SM: That’s right. The Father never forsook the Son. People say they were fragmented. Are you kidding? Deity being fragmented? The Godhead would have ceased to exist. Father, Son, and Spirit have always been in that perichoresis, in that circle of love. It’s never wavered for one moment, even at the cross, which is encouraging to us, because like Jesus, when we cry out, why have you forsaken me, we can know God says, “I haven’t. I’m with you.” He’ll never forsake us.