I have just read twice and highlighted The Dragon Slayer: Reflections On the Saving of the World (2004, privately published, 202 pages, paper), the latest book from my eloquent friend Jim McGuiggan of Northern Ireland. As usual, McGuiggan devotes his considerable mind and poignant pen to the profound realities that matter most, this time the atonement for sin which Jesus Christ accomplished once for all. For centuries the Irish have been noted as gifted story-tellers and McGuiggan maintains the Hibernian reputation, as seen in this passage reminiscent of Brennan Manning:
“We built a wall that stretched all the way from Eden to Hell’s gates. We shut God and one another out. But one day he came into our world, in and as Jesus of Nazareth, and got his shoulder against the foundation of that wall. And we watched him, his face streaked with spit and sweat and blood, and listened to him groan with the strain as he pushed until the wall came down and the gates of Milton’s satanic city of Pandemonium fell off their matchless hinges. And when we asked him, our eyes wide with happy disbelief, why he would go to so much trouble for us he said, ‘Why, because I am God and you are my beloved children.’ And when we asked him if all this was not lowering himself he said, ‘Well, yes and no. No, because believe it or not, this holy, happy longing to do good to the world is who I really am'” (p. 51).
However, this book is more than story; it is the fruit of serious theological reflection over many years, expressed in understandable language. McGuiggan, a non-Reformed theologian, here develops many biblical truths that often go overlooked in popular preaching and teaching. He affirms the solidarity of the fallen human race — sin is a “family” problem and not merely an individual circumstance. Sin, judgment and reconciliation are primarily relational rather than legal. God is a loving Father whose past and present wrath against sin serves a redemptive purpose, not an angry and vengeful judge whom Jesus cajoled into loving sinners (“the truth that Jesus is God incarnate buries all theories that speak as if, in his atoning work, Jesus was saving us from a God who was more than eager to damn us without chance of reprieve,” p. 47).
In McGuiggan’s understanding, Jesus came as the Last Adam, a genuine representative of the human race. As that representative, Jesus shares in God’s verdict against sin (in his death) and also in God’s vindication as the Sinless One (in his resurrection). Jesus’ faithful obedience to the Father must always be kept in mind as a backdrop for his death which climaxes and crowns that obedience. Jesus’ death and resurrection have cosmic implications — reconciliation includes more than “souls,” more than whole persons, indeed the entire universe.
Reconciliation is an objective reality, first because the Father is fully satisfied with Jesus’ perfect faithfulness and obedience unto death, and second because God actually changes (in disposition and in life) those who are saved. Salvation is accessed by faith (God’s gift in the gospel — “that personal appropriation of the cross of Christ is God’s work and not ours; it is not self-generated, self-reflective or self-sustaining,” p. 24), and it must be individually received to be personally enjoyed.
Although I am generally Reformed in perspective, I read most of the above with deep and genuine appreciation. However, my own mind hesitates at McGuiggan’s unequivocal rejection of penal substitution as either the literal meaning of Jesus’ death or even a fitting metaphor for explaining its significance. McGuiggan is firm in his conviction that Jesus was not “punished” in our place (although he “bore” our sins and “suffered” for them) and that we are not given Jesus’ personal righteousness. Yet Jesus’ personal obedience and death result in our salvation, McGuiggan says, although representation, not transference, is the way we ought to think about the “how.” The suggestion is as provocative as it is controversial and I intend to keep studying.
Early in this book, McGuiggan correctly notes: “The cross is too vast in its meaning for anyone or all of us together to get to the bottom of it” (p.18). Meanwhile, however we might trace out what we see when we put the cross under a theological microscope, orthodox Christians of all schools can happily proclaim in unison that “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16, NASB). For information on The Dragon Slayer and other McGuiggan books phone (in the USA) 877-792-6408.