Departing from the Faith
By Rob Renfroe
“Jesus did not die for your sins.” That is the message a professor at United Methodist Iliff Seminary posted two days before Good Friday earlier this month. Professor Miguel De La Torre titled his article “What if Crucifixion Is Not Salvific?”
It may come as a surprise to some that a professor at a UM seminary would promote such a view, but it is a belief that is not uncommon among UM pastors and professors. Last year on Good Friday a UM pastor posted the same declaration on the UM Clergy Facebook page and received the same complimentary responses as Professor De La Torre did from UM pastors – “thank you for telling the truth,” “thank you for saying what so many of us believe,” “thank you for stating that God would never require a sacrifice to achieve our salvation.”
According to De La Torre, “Jesus’ death neither pays a ransom nor is a substitution for us.” In fact, the idea that the cross secures our salvation, the professor states, is a “eurochristian” invention that disenfranchises the marginalized and threatens women. All this despite what the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” (I Corinthians 15:3). Despite John presenting Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). Despite Peter writing that that Jesus “bore our sins in his body” upon the cross (I Peter 2:24). Despite Jesus himself saying, “This is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28) and “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
One might think De La Torre is an isolated example. In a blog entitled “Hope for Regeneration” posted on Easter Sunday (!), Rev Mark Y.A. Davies bemoaned “the substitutionary atonement theology of Jesus being a human blood sacrifice for our sins to satisfy what could rightly be seen as a sadistic God, and the emphasis on a miraculous supernatural physical resurrection of Jesus.”
Davies goes on, “Members of the Christian tradition who insist on adhering to a theology of substitutionary atonement that requires the shedding of Jesus’s blood to take away the sins of the world would do well to remember that violent shedding of blood by an oppressive empire does not redeem us. … Persons can be followers of Jesus and the way of bringing good news to the poor and liberation to the oppressed without making the crucifixion be the plan of a sadistic God who requires a gruesome human blood sacrifice for our sins to be forgiven.”
Regarding the resurrection, Davies asks, “What if the focus on physical resurrection has actually diminished the core message and meaning of Jesus’s life? What if the physical resurrection has become an idol of the Christian faith that hinders persons from engaging the life and teachings of Jesus in this world?” This despite Paul arguing for the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus and stating, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. … And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (I Corinthians 15:14, 17).
Ironically, Davies is not only an ordained United Methodist elder, but he is also a professor of social and ecological ethics at Oklahoma City University. In addition, he is a member of the UM University Senate, “an elected body of professionals in higher education created … to determine which schools, colleges, universities, and theological schools meet the criteria for listing as institutions affiliated with The United Methodist Church.”
Davies has abandoned United Methodist beliefs, as defined by our doctrinal standards – the Articles of Religion (AoR) and Confession of Faith (CoF). “The offering Christ freely made on the cross is the perfect and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, redeeming man from all sin, so that no other satisfaction is required” (CoF Article VIII). “Christ did truly rise again from the dead, and took again his body, … wherewith he ascended into heaven, and there sitteth until he return to judge all men at the last day” (AoR Article III).
Yet, Davies is deemed qualified to judge whether colleges and seminaries are sufficiently United Methodist to be affiliated with our denomination! In fact, he writes, “You can be a follower of Jesus’ way … without believing that Jesus miraculously came back to life after the Roman authorities in Jerusalem executed him for sedition.” You can be a Christian without believing that Christ died for your sins and rose bodily from the grave as the first fruits of eternal life.
Not only is Davies wrong about what it means to be a Christian and a United Methodist, he is allowed to teach and preach these mistaken beliefs and even hold a position of authority within the UM Church in deciding which colleges and seminaries promote UM doctrine. No one is holding him accountable for departing from the faith.
We are told by centrists in the UM Church that they will not let the UM Church drift from its historical, biblical roots. But they already have. No one is holding professors or pastors who deny the central claims of the Gospel accountable. Not centrist leaders or bishops. It’s time to be honest. The chief shepherds of the UM Church, elected or self-appointed, are unwilling to defend our doctrines or protect their flocks from false teaching – even a doctrine that is as foundational to the Christian faith as “Jesus died for our sins and rose again on the third day.”
A close friend of mine accepted Jesus shortly before I did when we were both teenagers. It was at the same time as the “Jesus Revolution” depicted in the recent movie. My friend became a beautiful witness of a Christ-centered life. In college, though, he drifted from the faith and studied all the world’s religions. Eventually, he renounced his commitment to Christ and chided me for my simplistic faith. As an adult, he lived a promiscuous life and became very successful professionally. Years later, praise God, he came back to his first love and rededicated his life to Christ. When I asked him what brought him back to Jesus, he said, “I studied all the religions of the world and every one of them has some important truth to share. But as I looked at my life, I realized I didn’t need more truth to live up to – I couldn’t live up to the truth I already had. What I needed was a Savior who could save me from my sins. And there is no other Savior than Jesus.”
De La Torre, Davies, and other UM professors and pastors may not feel the need for a Savior. But my friend did. I do. And if you do – his name is Jesus. He died for your sins, he paid a ransom for your soul, he was buried and on the third day he rose from the dead. Because of his shed blood, you can be made right with God and live an abundant life in this world and eternally with the God who made you to be in relationship with himself.
De La Torre, Davies, and other professors at UM colleges and seminaries will continue to teach future UM pastors and leaders that Jesus did not die for our salvation and that he did not rise again from the grave. Those charged with protecting our doctrines and promoting our faith will continue to be silent. Many in our pews will continue to be oblivious or unconcerned because they love their local church or they feel a need to defend an institution. But our Lord Jesus will continue to be the Lamb of God whose death reconciles our sinful souls to a holy God and whose resurrection is the hope of the world.
Rob Renfroe is a United Methodist clergyperson and the president and publisher of Good News.